“It was my good fortune to be wrong; being mistaken is the essence of the traveler’s tale”
~ Paul Theroux, Riding the Iron Rooster
I returned to Darwin from the cattle station disaster feeling both deflated and grateful. I escaped the outback hag, but now I was broke and unemployed. And I was feeling a little sore about my itchy feet leading me astray.
It is commonly the backpacker experience to be treated horribly by our employers – we are taken advantage of, verbally abused, underpaid, etc. Get a group of backpackers together and before long they’ll be regaling and one-upping each other with their terrible tales of employment misadventures, most of them having to do with fruit picking. Fish stories for the young traveler. It seems to be just one of those things when backpacking around Australia, like bedbugs and over priced hostels. At this point, however, I was having a hard time seeing the humor in my situation, perhaps due in part to the fact that I had no one with whom to compare stories. I was alone in Darwin and wondering just what in the hell to do now.
Lucky for me, Darwin is one of the easiest places in Australia to find work. Even in November when the dry/tourist season was wrapping up and the build up to the wet/slow season was mounting. The humidity was off-the-charts disgusting, and there was no reprieve. It was just as sweltering during the night as at high noon. I thought of the instructor at a Bikram’s yoga class I took in Melbourne lecturing on how good it is to sweat; I was in good shape here, then.
It took me only a morning’s work on the internet to find a job – a live in nanny position on a twenty acre property with a pool in a suburb of Darwin. Their house was right next to the Crocodylus Wildlife Park and in the afternoons we could hear the lions roaring and carrying on. And thus began a period in my backpacking tenure that I like to call ‘being normal for a while’. It’s strange to live with a family that isn’t yours, but it’s also comforting, especially following a bad experience.
I stayed long enough to tire of domesticity. While there is a pleasant simplicity in spending afternoons watching The Bachelor and folding laundry while the baby sleeps, I am not ready for prolonged normality just yet.
I installed myself at the, erm, illustrious Frog’s Hollow hostel and went about organizing my next adventure. This particular hostel was the not one of the relatively clean, tourist oriented and package tour offering hostels on the main drag in Darwin, it was, rather, full of cockroaches and transient looking characters. The first night there I was savaged by some bug or other and it looked like I had the Black Plague for the next two weeks. They had a complimentary “continental” breakfast each morning, i.e. white bread and jam crawling with ants, and a sign on the door that read: Do not take more than your fair share of breakfast. When you go to Coles to get your alcohol there is also a food section. Use it.
One night, the hostel’s long term-ers invited me to have a few beers with them. We sat outside in plastic chairs, drinking warm Victoria Bitters (colloquially and affectionately known as “Vomit Bombs”). The center of attention was a bearded and dread locked drifter-looking sort with a great tan and deep laugh lines who followed the fruit harvest around Australia. He was in the middle of explaining that koalas are assholes when the passed out body on the concrete next to us shifted, writhed around and moaned. We all watched while, with considerable effort, he pulled his pants partly down, rolled to one side, relieved himself and passed out again. Dreadlocks covered him with a blanket and we moved the party to the backyard. The next day I decided to try out Couch Surfing for the first time.
Most of what I’ve heard has overwhelmingly been positive experiences with couch surfing. I did not have one of these. The guy I stayed with appeared to have confused the couch surfing website with e-harmony. The worst part was that his overtures were so clumsy and awkward, it was like being hit on by one of the guys from The Big Bang Theory. Needless to say my couch surfing experience was very short lived.
At this point, I finally had some luck with accommodation – and it was about time, too, I was becoming rather disillusioned. I found a bed and breakfast in which I would exchange a couple of hours work for a room. I had my very own room, with cable TV and en suite bathroom. It was heaven. One afternoon a couple of women were asking me questions about my travels and one of them said, as many people do, “wow, you’re brave to travel by yourself”. Her friend countered with, “no, you’ve got to be brave to travel with your friends”. It’s funny, sometimes, the timing of certain conversations. I had been thinking a lot about traveling alone. It’s my preference, by a long mile, even though I get frustrated by the occasional limitations of being a girl traveling alone. Since leaving the farm in Esperance, I’ve felt as though I’ve really gotten into the meat of solo traveling. I’ve been broke and lived on instant noodles, been flush and able to afford the good beer, I’ve gotten myself in and out of all kinds of situations, and I’ve survived. As Martha Gellhorn says, “nothing is better for the self-esteem than survival”. I had a few days of delicious solitude at the bed and breakfast, in which to reflect and recharge before cracking on with it again, and I felt somewhat like I’d been sucked into a cyclone and spat out, all disheveled and disoriented but elated, too.
“And if you gaze for long into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you”
And just like that, I’m in the outback again. The strange and inexplicable pull of all this beautiful empty space has really gotten its hooks into me. This time, I’m around 300 km from Alice Springs working at an everything store in a remote aboriginal community. And loving it. Eventually I got it right.
Merry Christmas from the Outback!