Cairns, QLD – July, 2011
After the trip up the peninsula, much of our time was spent putting together the community plan, meeting with elders, and working from breakfast to dinner, the last part very un-Australian I was told. We mostly deferred to Mary and her strong opinion on all matters, choosing not to ruffle feathers, which was quite Australian, I was told. At night we would go to the beach, play ping pong with Kaleo, or lounge around the common room. We went on several microadventures, like listening to a pop up concert by a didgeri-duo at the Cairns Botanic Garden or sampling tropical fruit and freshly ground sugarcane juice at Rusty’s Market. One weekend afternoon, we met Mike to climb a mountain through a tangled jungle where we saw an echidna and learned what a Drop Bear was.
When the project was finally completed, and had Mary’s stamp of approval, the rest of the group decided to take us out in downtown Cairns to celebrate. It also happened to correspond with our last night before our inevitable farewell. By the next week, Emily would be riding around New Zealand’s south Island with some people from the lodge, Asher would be island hopping in Fiji, Jeff would be flying out of Sydney, while Samantha and I would be back on American soil. Even Kaleo had decided he would leave the following week to give his home island of Hawaii another go.
It was with a bit of poignant pre-nostalgia that I took the bus from university to the downtown stop for the last time, wearing shorts and a loose blue button up as the sun began its quick descent behind the Great Dividers. I shopped by myself for a while, buying an opal necklace for Lauren, plus a few souvenirs for my parents and brother. I almost bought a didgeridoo before realizing the cost of shipping it back to the states would practically require purchasing it a middle seat on the next Qantas 747.
I met the rest of Team America, plus Kelly, Ava, and Alex at a restaurant with a spacious balcony overlooking the Esplanade. It was a modern and somewhat upscale pub and grille with kangaroo burgers on the menu and a ‘My goodness, my Guinness’ sign behind the bar depicting an ostrich with a pint glass stuck in its neck. I split a pizza with Jeff, tempting as the roo burger sounded. The warm evening was a busy one in Cairns, and we talked future plans while people watching the main street, shouting to several of our fellow classmates on their way to a night of celebratory revelry the same as ours. When the food was finished and the beers downed, a light rain began to fall and we moved on to a dance club above a lounge where all the walls were indigo.
Party Rock Anthem, apparently unrivaled in its ubiquity in Australia, played loudly and Jeff continued his tutorial of the Melbourne Shuffle. He had mastered the chorus and was beginning to figure out the more shuffly part of the hook but could only slide to the right. Still, we all line danced as if the club were a Friday wedding reception as the rest of Cairns’ bons vivants either looked on or outperformed. I went to the bar and ordered a dark and stormy – one part Bundaberg dark rum, one part Bundaberg ginger beer – which unfortunately relieved me of sixteen of my last twenty AUD.
Eventually, it was obvious that the night, and by extension my adventure in Australia, was nearing closing time. It was past midnight, and Samantha, Jeff, and I had a 5AM flight out of Cairns. We had mentioned getting a cab, but our Australian friends were having none of it.
“Those prices are absurd. I’ll drive you” Ava said.
“Are you sure? It’ll be around three in the morning”
“No worries!” she said “as long as somebody doesn’t mind getting their feet a bit wet.”
We walked down the stairs as a group and then out to the Esplanade. The off-season rain had already stopped, and the wind had also retreated, leaving the Pacific to hum and sizzle onto the mud flats instead of crashing against the barrier. The crisp air reminded me of late-summer nights back home, the ones where you forget weather exists and every sound is amplified in the still night. I said goodbye to Asher, Emily, and the rest, knowing I would again see some, but very likely not all of them, again. As the group split in two, we did a walking wave, the flat, empty esplanade keeping us all in each other’s sights for a comically long time, until we reached Ava’s car and began the long, multimodal trip home.
I figured out what Ava meant when she said our feet would get wet when I climbed into the passenger’s seat. The floor was nearly gone on that side, just a rusted hole that had succumbed to a couple decades of Queensland rains, and I could stick my feet through and run along the road for extra torque, Flintstone style, if the old engine decided this night would be its last. The water from the evening rain splashed up from the tarmac below as we drove down the Captain Cook toward the lodge for the last time.
We had packed before going out, so we pretty much ran into the lodge to get our stuff, and went back to throw it in the trunk. This being Australia, there were no formal check out procedures – just leave when you’re ready. Jeff and I said goodbye to the wall gecko, who screeched in emotional understanding of the moment, and then we all bid farewell to Kaleo, who was far more subtle, though he did give Samantha an origami flower. Jeff and I tried to plank a palm tree in the courtyard, though really it was a fruitless score in garbage time as we had clearly lost the plank war by several measures. It was a rushed and inauspicious vacating of a place I had become so accustomed to, and as we Tetrised our packs into Ava’s car in the dead of night, I realized then that it was time to go.
The last few weeks had started to feel commonplace. I loved Australia, but for the second half of my trip, I lived Australia. It wasn’t traveling anymore, but something more like a college freshmen year once the novelty wears off, and you spend the evenings staying up late, drinking lager and watching Youtube videos with your roommates. Still, some of it, especially the first weeks, boarded the plane alongside me – the vagabond’s spontaneity, Asher’s will to try anything once, convincing people back home that they really do call the moon ‘mother onion.’ Some of it, I wished had made the flight back, like the trust to leave my bike unlocked or the chipper lack of overthinking. In the following decade, ‘no worries’ crossed the Pacific and became part of the American vernacular, but we never really lived the phrase like the Australians do, instead using it as filler for ‘you’re welcome.’
After a quick nap on the floor of tiny Cairns airport, Jeff went to Sydney, while Samantha and I flew to Brisbane to board our internationals. I’m not sure what the opposite of a red eye would be, but a black eye seems an apt name, as traveling on three different flights for over thirty hours in one perpetual afternoon feels a bit like a punch in the head. By the time we cruised over Hawaii, the goon-dry recycled air had infiltrated my sinuses and, unlike my time seated to the left of Wayne on the way over, my rowmates were less than pleasant. I was surrounded by a family of four who never remained seated for more than twenty minutes at a time, and the father, who had the voice of an Oklahoman oil executive, kept loudly asking his kids to practice phrases like ‘good day mate’ as obnoxiously and stereotypically as possible before getting into an argument with the Australian behind us over the correct pronunciation of Brisbane.
As we approached North American airspace, the flight attendants handed us all an orange half-sheet of paper for customs purposes. Filling out the questionnaire, which asked whether I was bringing home any valuables or other things the government might find interesting, I noticed one section which probed whether I had been to any fruit or vegetable farms while abroad. I thought of Denny’s mango farm, but how on earth would they find out? Best to check no and avoid the hassle. But then the anxious, un-Australian portion of my brain spoke up and reminded me of the How to Pick Mangoes without Going Troppo booklet buried deep in my carry on.
‘Busted’ I thought. I checked Yes, wrote ‘Mango Farm’ in the comments, and went back to sleep. With any luck, the next time I looked out the window, I would see the fog of LA instead of the deep blue of the north Pacific.
Several hours later, we were wheels down in the USA. I deplaned and walked through customs, not yet grasping the fact that my trip was over but thrilled to be standing upright after thirty-some hours of flying. The agent held up a palm and told me to step aside. As other groggy transcontinentals strolled through the x-ray and into the land of the free, I stood by, wondering if I was about to be randomly selected for some bonus airport fun. A stern looking TSA agent set down the orange sheet of paper I had handed his colleague.
“Do you have a mango?” he asked, louder than that question would typically warrant.
“Uhh…no? I just..”
“Then why did you check this box?” He was fully shouting now, pointing to my customs form with an index finger that looked like a thumb.
“It says did you go to a fruit farm while abroad. I did, so I was just being hon…”
“DO YOU HAVE A MANGO!? YES OR NO?” People began to look over and I even thought I saw a flinch from the drug sniffing beagle, normally a beast of Buckingham stoicism.
“No, sir. I do not have a mango.”
The agent huffed and stomped away. It was good to be back in America.
Addendum I: The Take Home List
For much of our time at the lodge, a ripped piece of loose leaf paper sat on the coffee table in our common area, a collection of items and phrases to take back home with us, ranging from the serious to the absurd. Very few have successfully made the transpacific flight but nonetheless, here is an abridged version:
-“Uni” – university
-Talking to fellow travelers
-“How ya going?”
-Memories of Simon
-Aussie peanut butter
-“Lollies” – candy
-“Squiz” – I honestly don’t remember what this meant
-“Brekky Sketti” – I remember this meant ‘breakfast spaghetti’ but don’t remember why it was on the list
-“Mozzies” – mosquitos
-“You’re a legend!”
-Long Black/Flat White
There are so many we could have added, many of which I mentioned in the chapters above, and I hope I did justice to the tiny bits of Australiana that help make the country so special for travelers.
Sometimes, I find it impossible to believe this trip was a decade ago, and other times it seems like a different lifetime. Some details took some serious mental prying and several mind-clearing beverages before manifesting themselves, and a few of the people and events referenced in this long account had not crossed my mind in years, allowing me to enjoy reliving them all over again from a new perspective. It has solidified my resolve that it was not my last trip to Australia, or even to far northern Queensland. I will most certainly be back. But until that happens, no worries…I’ll be ‘right.