By the time most of you read this, I’ll be on the last leg of my 30-day Australia trip, back over the Pacific Ocean and on my way home to Austin. Overseas when people asked what country I was from, I always replied, “Texas!” There are three U.S. states that everyone in the world recognizes and Texas is one of them so I didn’t want to miss a chance to represent. Of course as soon as I mentioned the Lone Star State, I’d get asked why I didn’t have a southern accent. “Oh, most people don’t have those anymore” I’d say because when you’re in another country, you can make up all sorts of things about your own. I could see the disappointment in their eyes and I was always quick to add, “But we still have our guns.” That seemed to satisfy.
Years ago while traveling London, I’d heard a stand-up comic say, “Never ask an American where they’re from…they’ll give you their whole, bloody life story.” I didn’t tell my story to every soul I met, but I did tell it to the ones I felt a connection with. My travels may have looked a lot like a holiday from the outside, but inside I was struggling not to drown in the shallow waters of memories. Except in Australia, there were no memories to haunt me, and I was able to miss my husband every day in a way I hadn’t able to do in Austin. I found I could still ache with tears for him late at night, yet wake up in the early mornings excited about what I had planned. I practiced whispering, Thank You, ten times more for the experience of knowing Allan than the tragedy of figuring out how to live without him.
Earlier this year and long before this trip, I’d won a raffle prize for a free angel reading. The angel reader knew Hook had died but the question I asked out loud was not the question she answered. Instead she said, “Your souls had agreed on this time long before,” and with that she’d answered for me the plaguing questions of Why only five years, Why didn’t we meet sooner. I mention this because I sat next to an Aborigine woman on a plane from Queensland to Sydney and after a couple of hours of conversation, she laid her hand on my forearm and repeated the exact same thing as the angel reader. She also said that nothing was a coincidence … not my being in Australia or our sitting next to one another on that plane.
About four days after I’d spread Allan’s ashes in the Indian Ocean, I dreamt that he called me on the phone. I could hear and see him clearly in his washed out, burgundy flannel shirt and his beige baseball cap on his head. When he was alive, Allan used to try and calm me down by saying, “I know how you feel.” That wasn’t a saying I was fond of so I was confused as to why this would be the message he would say to me in the dream: I know how you feel.
When I woke up, I thought about the dream the entire day, just sitting in the Perth apartment thinking of nothing else. The longer I thought, the more details of the dream I could recall until finally, I remembered the most important part: He had known I was in Perth.
I know how you feel meant he knew I’d wanted to hop on a plane and run back home after barely being in Australia for a week. I know how you feel meant that even though it was not a trip he would have taken, he knew how important it was for me to see this all the way through. I know how you feel meant he understood that he has been mourned deeply and even though an entire year has passed, the missing hadn’t stopped. In his own way, Allan was freeing me from the inevitable guilt I was feeling that comes from realizing I could have happy days that did not include him in bodily form. And I finally recognized that my bittersweet pilgrimage in search of an emotional salvation would not mean I’d lose him forever.
Traveling the Land Down Under
Australia is the 6th largest country in the world, The United States is the 4th. If someone told you they were visiting the U.S. for a month, where would you recommend they go? What highlights are a must see? Whatever initial plans I’d had, I’d immediately wiped those away and settled on three locations: the Outback via Alice Springs in the Northern Territory and the center of the country, the Great Barrier Reef via Cairns in Queensland on the northeastern coast, and the metropolitan city of Sydney in New South Wales on the southeastern coast.
Unwilling to leave Perth in Western Australia and its perfect spring weather, I ended up staying a full two weeks before flying to the Outback and the arid desert. Once there I joined up with 15 other people for a five-day safari into Australia’s red centre, called this because of the rich red dirt found everywhere. Kangaroos and venomous snakes and dingoes and deadly spiders all received their invitation to come hither and welcome newcomers. Even the oddball camel and wild horses made an appearance throughout our five days. As part of our safari, we hiked in the Aboriginal areas known as Kata Tjuta, and to my immense relief, we learned that the Pitjantjatjara people prefer that tourists not climb the world’s largest monolith of Uluru. This natural icon is under the Aborigines jurisdiction (or at least half so) but instead of telling you not to climb, the Aborigines explain why it’s important to respect nature and the land, something Hook would loved to hear and to respect.
The Aborigines forbid nothing and instead leave it up to individuals whether to oblige their wishes. In my tour group, we represented six different countries and I’m proud to say that not one of us climbed the rock. Instead, many of us hiked the 9.4 kilometers of the circumference. A few hours later as we rested near the base of the rock, we saw fresh climbers on Uluru – what the Aborigines call Minga meaning “ants” because humans climbing such a large structure resembled ants ascending up a hill. I felt a little sad wondering what had made those people disregard the Aborigines in such a public way. Surely someone in their group must have felt indignant enough to announce, “I traveled all this way and I’m going to climb the rock!” to which a few others in their group must have nodded their heads in agreement. Entitlement followed by sheep mentality. Otherwise, how else could an entire group have justified disrespecting the people of the land?
There was one other American woman on my safari and after a brief conversation, I’d agreed to walk around the base of Uluru with her. This was before I realized she liked to walk with a determined urgency and a laser-sharp focus on speed. When I asked her where the fire was she said she had a lot of energy and wanted to get through things quickly. If you google “energy,” a picture of my round face will show up, but I had not traveled all the way from Texas to sprint around the largest rock in the world. I wanted to stop every few steps to touch the surface, to smell its earthy scent, to try and interpret the hieroglyphics on its walls.
There is an odd co-existence of beauty and danger found in every step of the Outback and it takes more than 9.4 kilometers to absorb the 60,000+-year-old history of the Aborigine people. I definitely did not want to sprint around anything. I slowed down that day and all the rest of the days to smell a desert rose, to feed a kangaroo, to pet a domesticated dingo.
After Uluru, we hiked the mammoth, hardened sand mounds of Kings Canyon then camped in the spinifex woods of Glen Helen before ending our hot travels in the luscious green of the Western McDonnell range. On our last night in the desert and when our party had dwindled down to six people, I got up the nerve to sleep in a swag – an Aussie sleeping bag – under a million stars lighting the sky like the diamond studs on a wedding ring. I’ll admit that yes, I was a little worried that wild dingoes would come into our campsite while we were asleep. Certainly, there were a number of them to be seen in the hedges of the rocks watching from only a few hundred feet away. And each time I slowed down to take in a new view at night or during the day, I hesitated longer so Allan could take in the experience with me. I know how you feel.
After a dry week in the Outback, I continued on to Queensland and home to the gateway of one of the seven wet wonders of the natural world. I spent my 50th birthday snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef, trying hard not to suck in ocean water every time the hole in the middle of my face opened even wider at the iridescent beauties swimming in front of me, so close I could almost touch them. It was in Cairns that I finally took a break from taking a break. I was tired of being a tourist, and I was only halfway around the country because as the Australians like to remind folks: It’s a damn, big country.
For those reading who are from the U.S., let’s say you started out traveling in San Diego where it’s clean and clear and the view of the water is everywhere. We’ll call San Diego, Perth. Then you decide you must see the Grand Canyon but let’s pretend this natural wonder is located in the center of the U.S., say in Kansas instead of Arizona, and you’ve decided you must be one with the land which you prove by hiking from dawn till dusk and drinking inordinate quantities of water to keep up with the sweat that keeps leaving your body and so you won’t pass out from the overbearing sun. We’ll call the Grand Canyon the Outback. You have a tour guide who is part astronomer, part entomologist, and part cultural liaison. You wonder if he has met your dead husband because he seems to be channeling him. He convinces you to put leaves up your nose to help relieve congestion from the desert air (you do this three times to test whether it is true).
Your guide shows you how to read the stars but he cannot promise you wild animals will not eat your face while you are asleep. “There’s nothing to worry about with the dingoes,” he says, “They’re not interested in us.”
You ask how many dingoes he has consulted personally, but he ignores you as he is right to do. He explains the ipi-ipi plant and demonstrates how the Aborigines would break the hardened stems and out poured a white goo that was used as a coagulant and a see-through band-aide but also as a tool to temporarily blind a person for three consecutive days. The goo of ipi-ipi was placed on the eyelids of troublemakers when they were asleep. When they woke up, they had to fend for themselves, searching for food and water in one of the most dangerous places in the world — the Outback. No one from the tribe was allowed to help them. Some of us in the modern world were raised by parents who said things like, “shape up or ship out.” Ipi-ipi was the Aboriginal version of that.
Now let’s say after you’ve traveled to the center of the U.S. and sweated through the outdoors that you’ve decided you must be one with the water. Let’s pretend that New York City is actually the Great Barrier Reef, so from the center of the U.S. after dry, dry land you head to the northeast coast where summer is barely beginning. You do all that can be done there (snorkel, snorkel, and more snorkel). You walk through rainforests and take day tours of Aborigine villages, but what you really want is to latch onto some new people like you have done in all the other places you’ve been.
It was the dream from Allan that prompted me to interact more with other travelers, mostly couples, or friends traveling together. In the Outback, I synced up with Kate and Fran who were on holiday from Sydney. In Queensland, I met Chris and Jill, farmers from Adelaide. We’d all opted for a train ride to the village of Kuranda that ended with a Skyrail ride over a rainforest. By the end of our day together, we’d agreed to meet for a late lunch the next day in Palm Cove, one of the many northern beaches sprinkling the Cairns coast. Because I had not rented a car, the only way for me to get from my beach to Chris and Jill’s beach was to walk north along the sand for two miles. I was happy to do this because it meant I could dip my foot in the water along the way oblivious to the repetitive warning signs of crocodiles which Chris pointed out before I began the walk back.
Our late lunch turned into an early dinner as we sat and talked for hours looking out over the water. Together we marveled that we’d all turned 50 in the same year, and we agreed that no matter how much we try and plan, our lives do what they will do and we just have to make the best of it. It had been a perfect day.
Before dusk could approach, we closed out our tab so I’d have time to walk back along the beach in daylight. We said our goodbyes through hugs and promised to stay in touch. As I started walking along the sand with my face towards the water, a swell of gratitude rose up. I had had a joyous day, enjoying a meal and interesting conversation with good people. After I’d been walking almost 150 feet, I turned around for no particular reason and saw Jill jogging towards me calling my name. I stopped to let her catch up and when she did, I noticed her eyes had welled with tears.
“Is everything okay?” I asked wondering what had happened in the 7 minutes since I’d left.
She wrapped her arms around me and held me tight then said, “I think you’re brave to be doing what you’re doing.”
She was the third person I’d met on my pilgrimage to say that to me. I’m not sure if this trip to Australia was brave or stupid … maybe a little bit of both. Certainly, I should have planned more carefully if only to save money while being here. None or slow internet service in Australia made for a struggle trying to coordinate domestic flights and room accommodations on a whim. But I’d wanted the flexibility to stay longer here or leave earlier there based on my emotional compass.
When I was in my non-wireless apartment in Perth, I’d watched two back to back television commercials that explained everything. The first mentioned how Australia’s internet technology was slower than Romania’s. That’s not a joke. The second commercial said that the leading cause of death among Australian women, ages 18-34, was suicide.
“Yeah,” I yelled at the screen, “they’re killing themselves because of the crappy internet!”
I can forgive the Aussies many things, but if you’re going to charge first world prices, then you really need to have first world technology to back it up. (The U.S. dollar is only .87c to the Australian dollar. That’s expensive, mate.)
After Queensland, I began my final trek in Australia to the city of Sydney. Sydney is our New York if New York were located where Florida is except in Sydney there are few homeless people, prostitution is legal, and the city seems exceptionally clean considering there are 5 million inhabitants which are 1/5 of Australia’s total population.
My first night in Sydney, I had dinner and drinks with an Austin contact who was visiting her beau for the month. On one of my last nights there, I was invited by the safari contacts, Kate and Fran, to have dinner at Kate’s house. In between these times, I chose to stay in a bed and breakfast hotel instead of an apartment. I landed at a place called Simpsons of Potts Point and over their daily continental breakfasts, I met Sherry another woman on a pilgrimage who had traveled from the U.S. with her husband’s ashes. Sherry’s husband had only passed away six months ago, but they had pre-planned this trip when they thought he would survive his illness. We exchanged grief stories and comforted one another. Sherry said that the hardest question she continues to face is: So what are you going to do now? We reassured one another that we’d know the answer to that question in due time.
I did take in some of the touristy things in Sydney. I climbed their bridge. I walked the scenic route of Bronte to Coogee. I took the ferry to Manly. I scoured the Opera House and the lovely Botanical Gardens. I did all these things so that when people asked me what I saw every morning at breakfast, I could say, I did ___________. I would have been just as happy with a week sharing dinner with new friends and talking about the cleanliness of the prostitutes.
The Next Step
Last night after looking through all the receipts I’d accumulated in the last 30 days, I said out loud, Why did you even come? I wasn’t sure if I’d had any real conclusions or mass breakthroughs about this trip until I thought about the young married couple I sat next to on the plane from Alice Springs to Cairns. The wife had been in public relations and the husband was a software programmer. They were traveling through multiple countries and eventually would go back to living in Philadelphia when they were all done. After chatting with the wife for the first half of the flight, she admitted that she wasn’t satisfied with her current career, that she was feeling a bit overwhelmed about what she was going to do next.
“That’s okay,” I reassured her. “You don’t have to know exactly what you want to do. You only have to know the next step to take to begin figuring it out. The rest will come to you.”
She let out a sigh of relief and said it was serendipitous that we were sitting next to each other. I thought so too but not for the same reasons as her. I laid my big, Texas hair back on the headrest and contemplated my own advice. I’ve spent the last 12 months looking behind and ahead at the same time, confusing myself into immobility. After that plane ride, I forgot about the conversation with the young couple until my last night in Sydney. I reminded myself that there are no quick answers to any journey for anyone. Sometimes our paths are clear and the roads we need to take obvious but many times they’re not.
C.S. Lewis wrote, No one ever told me that grief felt so much like fear. That’s the perfect description of what I’ve been living for the last two years. Take all the fears you’ve ever felt in your life, roll those up into a big, fat hairy ball, then put that inside your middle. Now imagine carrying that around for an indefinite period of time.
Taking a 30-day journey through Australia was never going to magically make this disappear. My only goals were to spread Hook’s ashes and close the chapter on Australia forever. I did that. Oz is no longer some mystical place Hook and I never made it to. I finished the journey for both of us and learned finally what it means to carry a person in your heart.
I do not have to know what my future holds exactly. I only need to know my next step, and my next step is I’m coming home.