Cairns, QLD – June, 2011
Continued here: Australia Pt 2 – Cairns at Night: Planks and Legends
“Hey mate, you can switch with me if you want a better view.”
I was looking out the window as we flew up the Queensland coast, transfixed by what was below. The water was a breathtaking mix of swirls and colors that would embarrass even the most dynamic Fauvist painter. I must have inadvertently violated my seat neighbor’s personal airspace, but he wasn’t frustrated, quite the opposite.
“It’s no worries, really, I take this flight all the time.” He spoke again, taking me out of my daze. He was dressed in a fitted suit and looked like he was in economy undercover writing a piece about how the rest of us fly, and had been listening to something on his phone, eyes closed, since we departed Brisbane International an hour beforehand.
“You sure? Thank you.” I said, switching with the man as he plugged his headphones back in.
“Absolutely. And welcome to Oz. Hope you have a blast!” He gave me a fist bump and shut his eyes again.
I started out the window at the Great Barrier Reef ten thousand meters below, the world’s largest living structure crawling its way up Australia’s east coast. It was an impossible mosaic of colors from the inside half of the rainbow dancing beneath the unclouded tropical sky. Circles the shade of Egyptian turquoise surrounded ultramarine lagoons as if they intertubes floating in a sea of pool bottom blue, while boomerang shaped sunken cays resonated outward equidistantly and looked like artificial islands in the shape of the wifi symbol. The reefs themselves formed dark, intricate zigzags and began to take on pareidoliac shapes like those found in wispy summer clouds. Far to the west, the green, rainforested hills of the Great Dividing Range kept watch.
It takes three flights and over thirty hours with layovers to get from Cleveland, Ohio to Cairns, Queensland, and by the last takeoff, I had lost a bit of interest in the scenery below. The jagged barrenness of the American west and the eternal expanse that is traveling diagonally across the Pacific took a bit of stamina out of my traveling high. Plus, it was dark when we took off from Los Angeles and was predawn upon arrival in Brisbane, so the entire flight over the Pacific took place at night. In fact, somewhere over the inky waves, we crossed over the International Date Line, causing it to be two calendar days later upon landing than takeoff, robbing from me forever of June 15th.
I spent the fourteen hours from LAX to Brisbane seated next to a retired Australian named Wayne who pronounced his name “wine” and listened to the airline’s music playlist, elbowing me and told me to plug in my headphones every time an Aussie band was playing.
“Another great band to get you ready” he said, whether it was Men at Work’s 80s classics or new-new wave indietronica by Architecture in Helsinki. He and his wife had spent three months circumnavigating the US and were heading home to do the same thing in their country.
I was just happy, at 22, to be traveling abroad for the first time. The only others I knew on Earth that weren’t currently on the North American continent were four others scattered around the plane, and I had just met them an hour before.
I was traveling to James Cook University with a small group of American students as part of a co-op program planning a sustainable future for rural communities on the Cape York Peninsula, in far northern Queensland. I applied and was accepted during my senior year and packed up my college apartment just days before taking off for a summer down under. I knew a bit about my colleagues from a Facebook group but that was just the basic stuff like where we were from and if we planned on doing any traveling after the program was done, but it wasn’t until just before our flight out of LAX did we actually see each other in person.
An hour before a long redeye is a curious time to meet those with whom you’ll spend the summer, but on the floor in a crowded terminal is exactly where I became acquainted with the other four students who would become known to our classmates as ‘Team America.’
I walked back and forth through the massive international departures terminal, enjoying the cozy anonymity of a crowded airport. I wore a plain teal tee shirt and shorts with a bunch of pockets and carried only a khaki messenger bag with a laptop, a book, and a Los Angeles Dodgers shirt I had bought at a kiosk to change into because the teal one smelled. I realized I had forgotten to change into but it was too late, as a group of three equally sleepy looking twenty somethings with their heads on backpacks called me over. It was a mystery how they recognized me from my Facebook picture when I had cut my hair the week before and wore glasses for easy airplane-dozing removal.
“What’s up, man, I’m Asher” said the lone guy, sticking out his hand for a shake. He was about my height, but muscular, and had studs in his ears that could hold a Christmas ornament. Asher lived just an hour away from where I did in Ohio, and was the only one older than me of the group.
The girl who was awake was Samantha. She was dressed in a kind of Boho-goth hybrid and looked faintly Greek but wasn’t. She was studying biology in Pittsburgh but was originally from the Outer Banks.
Emily briefly woke up, lifting her head up off of her luggage pillow long enough to introduce herself. “I’m so sorry, I’ve already been at this for a day” she said “and I might have taken a sleep aid at the last layover, just saying.”
I said “I get it, believe me this is the only time you all will see me in glasses. Where are you from that it has taken all day just to get to LAX?”
It was the closest in proximity to Los Angeles of any of us. “I had to fly to Atlanta in the middle of last night, then to Dallas, before finally getting a plane here. Coffee is useless at this point.”
We all said some version of yikes or that sucks.
“Wonder where our other dude is at” Asher said, sitting cross-legged and opening a granola bar.
“Yeah, Jeff, I think it said” added Samantha.
“He’ll turn up. If not, I’m using his seat to hold this massive ass bag.” Asher laughed and pointed to his carryon, a behemoth whose ability to board looked like it would rely on the type of day the customs agent was having.
“It’s my buddy’s. He let me use it last minute but it’s pretty much the exact maximum size allowed. I like to travel light, usually. I hate this. I look like a tourist.”
“Aren’t we, kind of?” said Emily, trying to disprove her coffee theory with a paper cup from the generic stand across the terminal.
“Nah, we’re travelers, my friends. There’s a difference.” Asher seemed to say everything as if it were either a brilliant revelation or tongue-in-cheek. His energy was infectious, and he would prove to be a try-anything traveler, the type of companion that gets you into situations that make a good story but gets you out of having to do the things yourself.
A tall, skinny guy in salmon shorts and a Vineyard Vines tee shirt with a chest pocket walked over and said in a moderate southern accent “Y’all the James Cook crew?”
Jeff was an Alabamian in just about every way. He grew up in a small town and then was a kicker for Auburn University for a year before quitting to focus on his increasingly demanding premed degree. He was a devout Christian and didn’t use words worse PBS didn’t.
We sat in our luggage circle and talked about whatever was between introductions and actual conversation before our tickets were called to board and we dispersed through the plane for the hemisphere crosser. I didn’t know at the time, as I sat down next to Wayne the musical Australian, just how well our group would get along. I could tell there would be no obvious personality clashes but I had no immediate inkling at just how good of friends we would become, but in fact, these four would become just about the best travel group I could have chanced upon.
It wasn’t until we touched down at the Brisbane airport that we were able to really hang out for an extended period, and then again on the way to Cairns when our seats were in the same area of the tiny plane. It was Jeff who sat behind me and my dapper rowmate and alerted the rest of us to the enthralling reef below while those on the other half of the plane made their way to mine like deckhands trying to steady a listing ship. It was our first real view of Australia, discounting the foggy early morning hills around Brisbane International, and I couldn’t wait to land.
The last flight seemed sitcom short compared to the epic endlessness of the transcontinental, and my team of five regrouped upon exiting through the chute. The Cairns airport terminal looked to be the size of a gymnasium but was full of people awaiting arrivals. Standing among the crowd was a tanned, athletic man of about thirty, who looked a bit like the grown up version of that kid from Rocket Power. He held up a sign that simply said ‘James Cook’ as if the explorer himself would be descending the escalator into baggage claim. We walked in his direction.
“G’day” he said, fulfilling the Australian trope impossibly soon. “Looks like we got all five of you, which is alright, usually at least somebody gets lost each group.”
His upbeat personality temporarily woke me up from early onset jetlag and he seemed genuinely happy to spend his afternoon waiting on some disheveled Americans to figure out who changed money earlier and who needs to go overpay at the bank kiosk.
“I’m Mike, by the way, I’ll be the grad assistant for the program. I’ll help out Cheryl, that’s the professor, and when we’re in the field, I’ll cook your dinner. I’ll more or less be there to help you all summer. First though, let’s get you to your lodge.”
We followed him to a white van and Mike drove us out of the airport and into actual Australia. I watched jade green hills rise behind strip malls and petrol stations, and it looked like mirror mode America, where everything appeared mostly the same but you drove on the left and there was no litter in the median. Slowly, and I learned that was the only way to drive in Australia, we left the crossroads by the airport, and it became increasingly obvious I was on another country: Palm trees hemmed in the roadside, wavy metal roofs perched atop even the most ordinary of buildings, places called ‘Wangetti’ and ‘Kuranda’ appeared on highway signs with the distances in kilos.
The English to English language barrier wasted no time presenting itself as we chatted with Mike as well. Somehow BBC came up and how the network airs the best documentaries and that the American equivalents are not actually educational, more reality shows about people with weird professions or obsessions. Jeff stuck up for the History Channel and said “At least they have Pawn Stars” referencing the program about a pawn shop in Las Vegas where customers bring in all sorts of historical artifacts and pieces of Americana, like the Antiques Roadshow without the road.
“My dad is obsessed with Pawn Stars.” Emily said. “My mom gets really annoyed.”
“I would imagine so!” Mike chimed in from the driver’s seat. I glanced to the right to see him with an expression somewhere between disgust and genuine confusion so I asked him if they have any programs like that in Australia, or if it was just an American thing.
“I mean, uh, yeah we do, and we’re a pretty open country, but fellas tend to be bit hush about that kind of stuff.”
Now it was all of us shooting him quizzical looks, wondering why the loaning and selling of antiques was such a taboo here. Materialistic American stereotypes, no doubt. Trying to get as much money as we can out of some poor old man who brought in his family’s heirloom, stockpiling unnecessary items in a city that exists due to hedonistic capitalism and….ohh.
“P-A-W-N” Asher clarified. “Pawwwn Stars” really emphasizing the middle two letters. “Not P-O-R-N.” Mike laughed, and the rest of us echoed and simultaneously realized that with an Australian ear, he was overhearing an entirely different conversation than we were having.
Mike dropped us off at the student lodging, which was near the university on the north side of Cairns. Enormous palms that looked like indefinite green fireworks on sticks hid the majority of the buildings while other tropical flora creeped up the sides. There were four dorms which were essentially hostels except that we would have private rooms, and they were named things like Lizard and Orpheus. Additionally the lodge compound had a cafeteria/lounge and a pool with water that looked like green guava juice.
“We kind of let that go in the cool weather” said the woman at the front desk, indicating the murk and providing an insight into what Cairns locals call a crisp day, considering was almost 80 degrees Fahrenheit outside.
Aside from the pit of goo, the lodge grounds were actually quite lovely: spacious, clean, and the window had a view of a bungee jumping line tied high above a pond at the edge of the mountains. The grounds in between buildings were the optimistic green of Easter grass and there was a pair of bicycles leaning up against a pagoda-looking structure in the common area.
“Those are for anyone” said our host. “Just put them back when you’re done using them. Not sure where they came from, but they’ve been here for several weeks.”
I wondered how long unlocked bikes would last near an American campus and I realized that the answer would be measured in minutes instead of weeks. Soon after unpacking, we all met in the cafeteria, which was filled with a half dozen other students and smelled like rosemary.
“How is your room?” Samantha asked. Asher, Jeff, and I shared a mod style room where we each have our own sleeping quarters with a shared kitchen and living area. The girls had single dorms like college freshmen.
“It’s fine, a gecko lives in the air conditioner, and the kitchen is nice” I said.
“So we get to hang out over there, right?”
We promised to let them use the fridge and stove and other things their tiny quarters lacked. As we were not technically students yet, we couldn’t use the cafeteria or the prepaid meal plans so we discussed where to head out for an early lunch. The smiling woman behind the counter overheard our conundrum.
“Oh that’s rubbish, come get some food. You spent how long trying to get here?”
We thanked her profusely and filled plates with just less than what would be impolite and sat down at a table. The chicken wrap I pounced on was filled with candied beets, and when I bit down, nature’s red #3 escaped the tortilla and squirted all over one of my four shirts, thus lowering that number by a quarter until I could use the laundry room. We met a few of the outgoing students, those who had just finished their spring program but were lingering around the lodge because it was one of the cheapest options in tourist-laden Cairns.
Kaleo was from Hawaii and his hair reached his baja sweater clad shoulders. He was in the middle of an intense best of three ping pong match with Sean, a lanky Dutchman with a curly mop and a nose ring. Ellie and Amanda had just graduated high school in Chicago and were sent by their parents on a summer abroad adventure through a company run by Phillip, who didn’t live at the lodge but was responsible for shuttling the two girls around and setting up their accommodations.
“If you’re interested in a proper first night out” Kaleo said “we’re heading to Phillip’s place downtown and then hitting some of the bars.”
Asher said “hell yes” and I agreed contingent on a nap first. The rest of the group conceded as well, even Jeff, who wasn’t much of a drinker.
“I’ll make sure you fools get back to the lodge safely” Jeff said, and it was settled. Phillip gave us his address and we went back to the rooms to snooze away a day and a half on airplanes.
I was awoken suddenly an hour or so later by the most bizarre noise, like a chicken-banshee hybrid screaming to get into my door from the common room. Assuming I was probably dreaming, I lay back down, but just as another round of sweet jetlag relief was about to take over, the thing happened again, louder this time, as if a demented Woody the Woodpecker was haunting Orpheus Hall. I opened the door and saw Asher eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on the couch.
“What in the hell was that?” I asked.
Mouth full, he pointed toward the air conditioner.
“The AC?” I said. It was buzzing at a fast clip despite the front desk clerk calling the day ‘cool’ but I doubted it could erupt with that noise without breaking into multiple pieces
He swallowed. “No, the freaking gecko. That’s apparently the noise it makes. Scared the absolute shit out of me the first time.”
I had no idea that geckos even made noise, let alone that primal bellow, but it sounded once again, proving Asher was right about the source.
“I thought he and I had an understanding” he said “but he’s one or two more shrieks away relocating to the bush out the window.”
“Weird.” I said. “And where did you get that sandwich?”
“Dude, you and Jeff have been sleeping for like four hours. I texted the girls and they didn’t respond so they probably are too. I got bored so I hung out with Kaleo and them for a bit then went shopping.”
I walked into the kitchen. The fridge was stocked and the cupboards were on their way to the same.
“Can I pitch in? Seriously, thanks for doing that.”
“Ehh just give me ten bucks. It’s all good.”
I pulled out my rainbow of Australian dollars and handed him two fives, before thinking better of it and adding a third. The gecko shouted again in appreciation, this time causing Jeff to open his bedroom door.
“What in the heck was that?”
Asher and I laughed. Now that we were all awake, it was time to head downtown.