Like A Road Under Troubled Waters
Now that I’d turned 32, I was beginning to wonder if I would ever leave this God-forsaken land. I don’t hate Australia, I was just tired of it, and the harder I tried to leave, the longer it took. I was getting closer and closer to my destination in terms of physical distance, but events conspired against me getting where I wanted to go. First, I had to stay in Alice Springs two extra days to interview officials with the Royal Flying Doctor Service (a sort of mobile hospital to those in the Outback) and The School of the Air (a short-wave school for kids who live too far away to commute into the country’s widely scattered town schools), but none of the officials wanted to talk to me. Then, I got stuck in Tennant Creek until the wee hours of the morning because rain had delayed the connecting bus.
And then there was Townsville.
It may not be the hub of Australia, or even the largest city in its northeastern province, but it sure seemed like it that evening. Not only did I run into backpackers who left Alice Springs before I did, I also saw folks I hadn’t seen since my first day in Sydney. There was Toshi from Japan, the Scottish couple I met in Ayers Rock, one or two from the Canberra hostel and other stragglers from all over. Just when I thought I had seen everyone I had met during my month here, someone tapped me from behind and said, “Can you tell me what time it is?” It was the woman who had told me it was 10 to half past 11. She and her friend had just returned from Cairns and only had five minutes to get food before their bus left.
I wish I could have said the same for my bus, but it had parked for the night and it wasn’t going anywhere that evening or even the next day because the only road to Cairns, the Bruce Highway, was under several feet of water from the pre-monsoon-season rains. Some of my acquaintances had been stuck there two days and were getting stir-crazy. At the same time, the only thing the bus companies could do was take names and add them to overfull waiting lists of people trying to get the first bus to Cairns.
This must have been what the last days of the American involvement in the Vietnam War were like, I thought to myself, as I saw people wandering around lost, hoping for a chance to get out on one of the last transports. There were even a few enterprising souls who managed to get up early enough to catch the first bus out of town, but their efforts to escape were unsuccessful. The driver turned around and brought them back when they saw the floodwaters were still too high. Understandably, many of the pioneers on the day’s first bus weren’t too keen to join another similar exercise in futility a few hours later. As a result, I ended up being on the first bus to make it to Cairns before the rains started again.
Although my bus made it through, it was easy to see why others hadn’t. The water may have receded, but it wasn’t gone. In fact, most of the land on either side of the highway remained submerged, and a thin sheet of water covered several mile-long stretches of road, reducing traffic to such a grindingly slow pace there were times when it seemed it would have been faster to hike to Cairns.
The bus hit town before 5 p.m., giving me just enough time to book a room and get to the American Express Travel Service office before it closed. I knew there would be letters waiting for me this time because I told my family and all my friends that I expected to be in Cairns around my birthday. It wasn’t a huge haul, but I didn’t have room for much in my backpack. I got the portable electric razor and Sony Walkman I had asked for plus a few cards from friends and family. By the time I got back to the Greyhound station a shuttle bus to my hostel was waiting for me.
The big surprise came the following morning when I stopped at the Garuda Airlines office to find when I could catch a flight to Indonesia. That’s when the ticket agent told me there were only two Garuda flights to Indonesia each week — one on Sunday, the other on Wednesday. I’d planned to stay in Cairns long enough to write some of the stories I had been working on, but I figured it would only be two or three days. Still, it was Friday, I wanted to get on with the scary part of the trip and I didn’t see the point of hanging out in Cairns for three days. On the other hand, I didn’t know if I could get everything together and be ready to go in less than 48 hours. After spending a half-hour waffling, I booked a seat on the Sunday flight and ran back to the hostel so I could empty my backpack and send stuff I didn’t need back to the States.
All I can remember of that Saturday is the orgy of shopping I went through as I rushed from store-to-store trying to pick up the provisions I needed: mosquito repellent, combination locks, tapes for my Walkman and lots and lots of batteries. I even found time to hit an Internet cafe and send farewell e-mails telling people I might be off the Internet and incommunicado for quite a while.
About the only other thing I can recall from the whirlwind of activity was meeting a couple from Seattle who said they had reservations on the same flight. When the airport shuttle pulled up to the hostel a few minutes early on Sunday morning, however, they were nowhere to be found. As the van drove away with me in it I chalked it up to the shock of the shuttle’s early arrival. After all, airport shuttles aren’t known for punctuality and I was so stunned when it showed up that I left a freshly baked loaf of bread in a bag on the kitchen counter. The bag also contained a jar of peanut butter and the Swiss Army knife a friend had given me as a going away present. The knife wasn’t the only thing I lost along the way, but it was the most valuable. I could have used the extra pair of pants I lost in a New Zealand hostel, but the knife was far more versatile and had more sentimental value. I was so embarrassed I never told my friend about it. In fact, this may be the first time she learns of it.
The significance of what I was about to do didn’t hit me until the Garuda Airlines jetliner was airborne and the stewardesses began the “In-the-unlikedly-event-of-a-water-landing-your-seat-acts-as-a-flotation device” speech and it wasn’t in English. Sure, I had heard the lecture in many different languages over the years as I flew out of places like Miami, Los Angeles and San Francisco, but this was the first time English wasn’t the first language used. For the first time, I realized I was going to a country where all the movies and television shows I loved to watch back home were subtitled, and it rattled me.
And then I panicked.
“Oh my god. What am I, nuts? What was I thinking?” I kept repeating under my breath as I tried to remind myself I was boldly going where no Volk had ever gone before. Still, it came as little consolation as I realized that all the extra time spent in Australia hadn’t done much to prepare me for Southeast Asia. Hell, I didn’t even know where to go once I landed. I must have figured I would follow the closest Caucasian who looked like he knew what he was doing. Of course, the last time I tried the strategy I was in a car late at night, didn’t know where I was going and I ran into the car in front of me when the driver stopped suddenly. When I demanded to know why, the person looked at me strangely and said, “I don’t know about you, but I’m in my driveway.”
Realizing the flaw in my follow-the-tourist plan, I did the only other thing that made sense as I flew to Bali. I reached into my backpack, pulled out my Lonely Planet Book so I could do last minute research along the way, which is the backpacker’s equivalent of late-night cramming for an early morning exam. And then I did what any over-stressed, under pressure student would do in the wee hours of the morning before a major final exam.
I fell fast asleep.