The title of this blog refers not just to my current geographic location but also to my present state of mind, although many insist on pointing out to me that I am at the bottom; of society; of the career ladder. As a backpacker, “bumming” around the globe, my life choices are frowned upon.
“Why on earth would you want to do that?”
“Shouldn’t you be thinking about getting married and that sort of thing?”
“Don’t you want to make something of yourself?”
Not by coincidence, all those who ask these questions of me have never ridded themselves of all the meaningless possessions they have worked hard to accrue (and for what?) and set off to learn something about the world; and themselves. When I find one that has I will happily listen to their opinion. And when I find someone for whom settling down and finding a career is their personal legend and which clearly brings them complete satisfaction; they will be happy for me also seeking my own, very different, personal legend. The world in which one is supposed to find a “good” career and settle down, whatever the hell that means, is a small world, based on who knows what. I wouldn’t dream of saying that it does not bring contentment to some (yet I could count these on one hand among the perpetual complainers), nor that I never want to find a partner or have a family or a career, but it is by no means the basis by which everyone should live or the ultimate aim we should all strive for, and be considered eccentric if we choose an alternative. I would hate for anyone to grow old and be deemed a failure for being single and childless; for not having progressed to the top of a company. Instead, you might like to listen to what such a life has been filled with in the absence of these norms.
I have done nothing amazing. I have taken a very easy journey to a very easy country with barely any hurdles to defeat. I have a long way to go, yet since the day I chose not to conform to a life that made me miserable, I have seen drastic changes in myself and my relationships with others. I have barely scratched the surface of this wonderful world and hardly walked a mile of the path ahead of me but I am quietly content.
And in answer to your questions:
“Why on earth wouldn’t I want to do that?”
“I’ve thought about it, thanks.”
“I’m proud of the person that this experience is making me and who I am becoming.”
I am in the tropical Northern Territory at the very top of Australia. Remote, red and rustic. Many a backpacker will tell you they came, saw and left Darwin underwhelmed. The three-street “city” and famed Mitchell Street, where one can enjoy the sweet scent of spew and urine on a Saturday morning would be nothing more than a disappointment. The city is simply an unpretentious collection of all those things a city necessitates. A few shops; a few banks; a few pubs; a post office and a few hotels. Sure, it has its positives; the waterfront is home to many a free evening event under the stars and is a handy swimming spot on those days when you’re feeling a little fragile and don’t fancy gambling with a crocodile. In reality, locals rarely go into the city. The beauty of Darwin lies in its suburbs. Multicultural mingling in luscious, leafy settings; markets oozing with atmosphere; ramshackle “bars” along the foreshore; hidden history around every corner; nightly skies that are never twice the same; festivals in aid of anything and everything, everywhere; makeshift Tai Chi, Yoga and Meditation classes along the foreshore; beautiful, natural rugged reserves, national parks, wildlife and beaches in excess. Backpackers see none of this. They will maybe take a shuttle bus to the weekend markets; perhaps enjoy a pretentious meal at the over-developed Wharf Precinct or at Cullen Bay.
Those living in the city centre will tell you that the indigenous people cause problems. Their resentment is no surprise when plagued with such an unfounded reputation. I live beside an aboriginal community and encounter countless others on a daily basis on my travels from suburb to suburb. They are caring, friendly people with strong morals and traditions. Those who accept them as such, who take an interest in their culture (which let us not forget, preceded any of our modern ways) are rewarded with kindness and generosity.
If a white child falls over, every aboriginal mother in the vicinity will rush over to check that she is okay. Aboriginal children will approach you with a smile, politely introduce themselves and amaze you as they effortlessly duck to the bed of a lake; pop back up with a clam, which becomes lunch; there and then; shell and all. Aboriginals do have a history of alcohol problems but for what they have suffered at the hands of white Australia, one can almost lean towards understanding. In any case, they show themselves up a lot less than your average drunk British tourist on Mitchell Street on a Friday night.
My daily routine up here consists of waking early; normally to a child thrusting whatever oversized Australian creepy-crawly it has just unearthed into my half-asleep face. I then morph into Mary Poppins for around 5 or 6 hours. After washing off a combination of substances I don’t like to think about that become an inevitable part of looking after children, I jump into the driver’s seat of a bashed-up ute, complete with Border Collie in the back, and head off to explore. Afternoons are whiled away with one of Darwin’s many beautiful walks; a run along the foreshore; a swim at one of the outdoor pools, lagoons or even at the local natural springs. Come evening we gather along the foreshore for a sunset BBQ; head to the waterfront or evening markets to sample delicious Asian street foods and take in some free live music. There’s no shortage of things to do; for such a small city, there is so much happening that you have to pick and choose between events. Nor is it a problem finding people to accompany you. I had my hair cut last week (for the first time in 8 months) and emerged with a new friend – admittedly it all hinged on the first wash, it was touch and go for a while. Even if you haven’t arranged company for an outing, you’re likely to bump into somebody you know, or better, meet somebody new.
In a few short weeks, I have built up a better social life than I have ever had before and have already had to bid farewell to good friends moving on. Surrounded by refreshing individuals in such a laid-back place, socialising is easy, without judgement and never short of a laugh. These days, I actively seek out opportunities to meet new people, rather than avoiding such situations. It no longer fazes me and so far has only had positive results. Never again will I turn somebody away on a first judgement or avoid an attempt at conversation without giving it a good try (even if I just want to put my ear phones in and sleep); you just never know what you could be missing out on.
As the weekend arrives, there’ll be some sort of scenario involving three girls, a tent and a ute (not to be compared with three girls and a cup) heading along the Stuart Highway to one of the territory’s many national parks. Once there, we’ll discover that we’re hopelessly unprepared and trust in there being a much more experienced Grey Nomad armed with a can of “Bushman” insect repellent ready and willing to play knight to three young women. You can bet he’ll also have an interesting story to tell – if you don’t automatically assume he’s a pervert and send him packing. Of course, he could also turn out to be a pervert. Just saying. There was talk of pushing our trusty old ute a little further. Almost immediately after this conversation, one of its wheels exploded clean into two. Now I’m willing to consider opting for a hire car, reluctantly.
Every time I go out up here, be it locally or on a road trip, I discover something new that I hadn’t come across the previous time. Despite its city title, there is so much here still untouched; untainted and undiscovered; such primitiveness and a sense of community. And with this, I am once again discovering more about myself. Discovering that my fear of young children was irrational and that I actually slot quite naturally into the role of Supernanny; that in a place where the quality of life for families is so good and where it is clear to see that children can have a fantastic upbringing, having one’s own children no longer seems completely unfeasible. Of course, there’s still the small matter of the ten thousand and one other things I need to do before I could possibly even think about becoming a mother. But it’s nice to know that I’d be a bloody good one if ever the occasion arose.
Admittedly, I’d be lying if I said there was nothing I longed for in life at this moment. On top of the ever-growing list of must-visit places and my increasing need for a proper culture shock, there is a gap that still fills me with nostalgia when my memory catches me off guard (although I am becoming better at allowing this to happen – for hurting is part of being alive and reminds me of something wonderful, although passed). However, I am learning that when life is full of so many other enriching things, this one thing lost, however much you’d like it to be mended, can be just a small tear and not a big fat gaping hole in the middle of your world. Equally, I have to accept that I too am just a very small part of someone else’s life; easily forgotten. I will continue to trust and to hope for what I am not able to change and pray that life has this one in its hands. Whatever the outcome, I know my life can be amazing and fulfilling.
Here’s to not wasting time trying to figure out what it’s all about but to finding what works for you; changing what you can and embracing what you can’t. When what’s happening on the outside is out of my hands, I just have to reach within to find peace again.
“When you get out there, you don’t get away from it all; you get back to it all.
You come home to what’s important, you come home to yourself.”
– Peter Dombrovskis 1979
Today, I have been in Tasmania for seven weeks. Seven short, surreal weeks. Tomorrow I will leave. My vocabulary lacks the adjectives to do justice to my time spent in the South West Wilderness and I am reluctant to write too much about it for there is so much that would need to be experienced to be understood. I have just re-read an old blog that I wrote whilst at the chalet but never posted, for the same reason just mentioned. I simply cannot put it into words. Unfortunately, this does not make for an interesting blog, so for your sake I will try to offer you a vague insight.
In the past month I have found myself; found friends for life; challenged and surprised myself; discovered; explored; loved and left behind. I have found pleasure in simply living; in being; in waking up in the most beautiful place on earth, breathing in my surroundings and feeling at peace with myself (despite getting somewhat noticeably fatter), others and the world.
In my unpublished blog, written a week after my arrival, I wrote of never having felt so at home so quickly in a new place and with new people. I have laughed more in the last month than possibly ever before and still cannot help but smile each time a memory comes to mind, despite missing all of my accomplices terribly. Never before have I felt so entirely at ease; so completely uninhibited; so loved and appreciated; so free and so happy.
I have enjoyed amazing company; amazing walks; amazing views; had the pleasure of conversing with many interesting people from all walks of life (as well as the predictable “Can I take your room number sir, so I can put this onto your account?” “Can I take YOUR room number?” nightly exchange with almost every bikee passing through, each of whom, of course, thought they’d invented the joke), who have taken a genuine interest; inspired and encouraged me along the way. I have learnt new skills (I pulled a mean pint – once) and more importantly, put myself forward to try new things, without a second thought for my pride or shame; without an ounce of embarrassment (despite now being publicly renowned for my appalling coffee-making skills). I have showed resilience and felt confident, proud, strong and determined.
From one extreme to the other, I have just spent the last two weeks living in solitude in a freezing, lonely barn on a flower farm. However, I have been able to carry forward my new strength and resilience and the support of new friends. I have seen the best of a bad situation, stuck it out for the sake of a second year visa and come through the other side unscathed and with a smile on my face.
Now in Launceston, I have been kicking back for a few days recovering from a severe episode of Run-down-itus. A very English city, it has cured my short bout of homesickness (whether that is sickness for my Lake Pedder home, or for a need of a cuddle from my mum when I’m sick; I cannot tell). After spending seven weeks out of reach of anything even slightly resembling a town, I have welcomed having a few city luxuries (like supermarkets and warm showers) for a while. Launceston has the balance right in this respect. All the conveniences of a city in walking distance; only a ten minute walk to untouched wilderness. Beautiful, friendly people; still space to breathe.
Tomorrow, I must bid this beautiful state farewell. It’s with sadness and fond memories that I say goodbye to quite possibly the first place I have seen myself calling home one day. On Wednesday, I arrive in Darwin where I meet my new family for the next three months. In all honesty, I am feeling a little travelled out at the moment and am eager to find somewhere to call home for a little while; to make friends that I don’t have to leave behind a week later; to finally unpack and see what has been living at the bottom of my backpack for the last five months; to have a little routine – just for a while. I am excited to begin this new era and am in the best shape I could be to embrace it head on, thanks to a truly life-changing experience in “the natural state”.
I know that I cannot leave this state behind; I have unfinished business here and I will put my faith in fate that I return in the way I wish, with whom I cannot imagine doing it without.
Packing up and leaving St Arnaud’s, my home away from home, for a second time, I couldn’t put my finger on what I was feeling. Homesick wasn’t the word, as I was in no hurry to hop back on a plane to the UK; Sad wouldn’t sum it up, as I was more excited to be heading to pastures new; perhaps I was just feeling a little lost; a little anxious; a little unsure of what was to come; what I wanted; whether I was in the right place; making the right choices. Maybe I just needed a cuddle from my mum.
I stuffed these uncertainties to the bottom of my backpack and boarded the bus to the airport. I had been unable to check when my flight was, so decided to just head for the airport as early as possible, since I had already spent long enough in Melbourne – twice. Causing some amusement, I greeted the Jetstar staff at the check-in desk: “Erm, I think my flight is booked with you, although I could be with Tiger. I’m going to Hobart, I’m not sure what time I’m booked on but I’m pretty sure it’s today! It is the 7th, right?”. I had laughed off my disorganisation with Zoe the night before and set off the next morning with a smile, as I realised how little it fazed me; it was really quite liberating. It didn’t matter what time my flight was; and really wouldn’t even matter if I missed it (although, considering the battering my bank account has taken recently – even doing nothing is expensive in the city – that wouldn’t have been ideal).
From the moment I stepped off the plane, I realised my restless feelings had been unfounded. Collecting my luggage and making my way out of the modest little airport, I quickly found a shuttle service, where I informed the driver I had no booking and wanted to go to somewhere called ‘The Pickled Frog’, which I believed to be a big, bright green building. “No problem!” he responded, lifting my backpack off of my back and guiding me up the stairs into the minibus. Perhaps he sensed I needed a little looking after today. As usual, I was the last one on the bus when all the other drop offs had been made. For a brief, sceptical moment, I started to wonder if this nice man was actually going to abduct me. Then, he kindly asked if I wanted to walk half a block or whether I’d like door to door service. I wasn’t going to decline such an offer, so opted for the latter and a few minutes later, with great apologies that he was only able to get me as close as two doors down, he pulled up, lifted my backpack back onto my back and walked me the long ten metres to my door, just in case I managed to miss my hostel, which was as big and green and conspicuous as promised. If ever I needed to turn up to a big, homely house of the appropriate colour with a massive soppy excuse for a dog called Balloo, it was today.
Given my very public and long-standing aversion to England, you might find it strange that Hobart’s Englishness has been especially comforting to me over the last couple of days. The ‘city’ has all the attributes of an old, English village, the side of England I cherish, even more so since being in shiny, new Australia. The people have a little of the English reservation; a little less of the Aussie brashness; just enough of the propriety, without being over-serious and with a genuine joy and willingness to help. Everywhere I turned, locals smiled and wished me a good day; asked if I needed directions. Lovers shared their affections publicly in the many green spaces; onlookers did not cringe with bitterness but smiled admiringly, sharing in their happiness.
Hobart is alternative; interesting; free-spirited; creative; accepting; all the quaintness of England, with the romance of Italy. Strolling around Saturday morning’s Salamanca market with Delphine, my French roommate, we stumbled across a hidden, beautifully derelict, Italian-style square, which took me straight back to memories of Piazza Navona, Rome – still one of my favourite spots – where two young girls busked operatically with flutes, guitars and a ukulele – if only I’d had mine on me, which is still hopelessly out of tune! Delphine was on a mission and off to book herself onto a myriad of tours and activities, so I bid her farewell and opted to hang on here, whiling away a couple of hours in the sun before I embarked on my hike up Mt. Wellington later that afternoon.
Despite its city label, simple living is key here. There are op shops on every corner; second-hand book shops; weird, quirky buildings full of storeys of somebody else’s shit for sale; farmer’s markets; buskers. People live humbly; buy local; recycle; enjoy the outdoors and each other’s company. Good ol’ Mt. Welly looms in the background, shrouding the city with a sense of stability and acting as a constant reminder of nature, of which the locals are very proud. Hobart attracted a refreshing bunch of travellers too, ones that actually liked to travel, at a time when I craved a little likeminded conversation and a little company; a companion to join on my ascent up the mountain and to share stories over a beer in the evening.
On my last day in Hobart and on the advice of all five of my roommates, I took a ferry over to MONA – as an art graduate I kind of felt obliged – where I spent a bizarre afternoon. One of the exhibits included an interactive piece where a machine monitors your pulse through a hand-held sensor and records it, and then transfers it to one of many light bulbs on a conveyor belt that beats in time with your heart. I tried this several times before myself and a few other patrons concluded that the bulbs must have run out. To my alarm, everyone else managed to record a heartbeat and sent their glowing bulbs off on the circuit, my three attempts still hanging limp and lifeless. It’s official; I am not alive, all this search of the spiritual has left me just a spirit. I have little else I’m willing to say, other than you must visit, and I’d recommend you probably don’t climb a mountain the day before. Man, there are a lot of stairs.
Now, here I am in Strathgordon, about 2.5 hours west of Hobart in the Tasmanian wilderness, which will be my home for the next month at least. I won’t even try to portray its remoteness to you, as I would have shrugged it off back in England too. It must be experienced. Strathgordon is home to 6 people, 3 of them live and work on the property. My hosts Susan, Neville and Santosh (our Indian-turned-Australian chef, who hates everything about cooking but always has a big smile on his face) are incredibly welcoming. We were not allowed to work on our first day. I have my own room with double bed and en suite, which would cost me $100 per night, full use of the pool and gym facilities at my leisure and time to explore the local beauty; to walk, to read, to paint, to write, to create, to meditate, to think – all for four hours work a day. My shift will be in the evening, since I am the only one whose English is accomplished enough to speak to the guests, although the two Taiwanese girls I am sharing this experience with have booked me for daily English lessons so it won’t be long before they are up to the job! There is no phone signal and this is liberating. There is a post box, which brings me comfort. I am on the edge of Lake Pedder. There are mountains, wildlife, beautiful skies and wonderful people coming in and out daily; I could not feel lonely if I tried.
I came here equipped with a sketchbook, four reading books, a ukulele (which the Taiwanese girls keep requesting I play, I have not yet made myself understood that I am tone death and hopelessly unmusical), a book of travel Pilates and a guide to T’ai Chi and I am on a spiritual journey in the most serene and magical place I could have hoped for.
My guide tells me:
“The therapies are excellent ways of reintroducing our modern hectic selves to the inner ones that may have been neglected. When you become a little skilled at any of them it is possible to reach simple, but wonderful inner states of calm, and you will realize exactly what you have been missing. For many, such a realization is a startling revelation that the most important thing in life is not acquiring more possessions, building extra rooms on to houses, or raising your personal profile, but just quietly “being”, of reaching into yourself and finding that calm, magical privacy.”
Who knew all this could come for free?; I have hit Tassie gold.
Recently, I had all but come to accept that I generally preferred to be alone. Whilst enjoying the company of a small social circle of familiar friends, my aversion to crowds has grown with age; I would find new social encounters somewhat daunting, even making excuses not to go through fear of feeling awkward and out of place and a string of social commitments would leave me exhausted. Independent, I liked to call it. And I am independent; I can make my own decisions and sculpt my own path in life without relying on others. I like to think and to personally challenge myself and I need space to gather and analyse my own thoughts; this does not scare me and I do not need to be constantly surrounded by others as a distraction from my own mind.
However, for the last week and a bit (although the days have dissolved into one, feeling ten times shorter and ten times longer all at once), I have been living communally without a moment to myself in a very small island community and it has been one of the happiest times of my life.
French Island, off the coast of Victoria, two thirds national park and home to less than 100 residents; outside of mainland government, decisions are made by the local council, elected and funded by the local community. There is no police or ambulance service, nor a hospital (although there is a veterinary clinic). There is a fire service, which is pretty vital in Australia and once again served solely by volunteers who care enough to undertake training to protect their community. There is a small one-classroom school where 16 children from reception to age 11 are taught together; those whose parents don’t elect to home-educate. There is one general store, the only shop on the island, stocking a limited range of food, household and hardware items, mostly sourced from the islanders’ own produce and a few imported essentials. Public transport consists of a ferry and a barge service connecting the island to the mainland. There is no bank or ATM; mostly the locals barter with one another, exchanging their own produce for a neighbour’s, and vice versa, as opposed to money changing hands. French Island has no power lines. Rainwater provides enough for drinking and showering if properly conserved and boar water is used everything else. Electricity is generated by means of solar panels with battery operated generators as back-up, although these are barely ever used, and gas and petrol are brought over from the mainland, although it is not uncommon to have to siphon a bit of petrol out of a friend’s car to keep you going until the next delivery; you can always give them some of your free range eggs in return.
Despite this, life on the island was far from short of home comforts. With just a little awareness and sensitivity, and barely any adaptation, there was light, water and fuel whenever required. Days were whiled away simply; watering; gardening; maintaining the livestock; collecting fresh fruit, vegetables and eggs; meditating and realigning with nature; man’s closest, yet all too often estranged, ally. In such a serene setting, it was a privilege, not a hardship, to consider your own impact and make some very small changes to conserve your environment; here you are part of your surroundings and you feel the need to do your bit, you cannot detach yourself as you are able in a concrete jungle.
From my first day on the island, I was very much a part of this diverse community; accepted immediately without judgement. Even after such a short time, I know I will be missed as part of the family. Naturally, you did not make a cup of tea without boiling enough water for everybody (on the gas stove – electric kettles consume an unnecessary amount of power); meals were prepared as a group accompanied by casual conversation; eaten around the table with smiles and thanks; jobs fairly distributed; thoughts, ideas and feelings shared openly. Work was hard, hours were long, yet time flew by and nothing ever felt like a chore. It did not matter if a job took 3 hours longer than expected; there was always tomorrow.
I would be lying if I said that I was equally as non-judgemental. On more than one occasion, I caught a first glimpse of an islander and made preconceptions about them that were totally and utterly disproved on introduction. People-watching is a most interesting sport here. Some of the residents take pride in their appearance; some couldn’t give a s***, and wonderfully, nor could anyone else they meet. Many of the residents are old academics who have retreated to the island for a simpler life; some have grown up there and never left; or left and come back. You could not tell which category any one person fits into by looking at them. Young and old mingle easily; each person valued for the unique ingredients they bring to the mix.
Already saddened to leave new friends behind, when I began my journey from Melbourne I expected my arrival on this remote island to be a culture shock but truthfully I did not feel lonely for a single second. Unusually, nor did I feel stifled or crave for some solitude. Company was pleasant and conversation easy when focused around a communal task. Our varied backgrounds did not even come into play; differences dissolved; stripped down to basic living, we were all just human beings enjoying doing what human beings do in the presence of other human beings, and it couldn’t have felt more natural.
Of course not everything is perfect, there are disagreements on the island; differences of opinion, which unfortunately largely means that nobody ever makes a decision and nothing ever changes, but maybe that’s not such a bad thing. There has been pressure on the islanders to conform to local government but this has been greatly resisted. There are no written rules on French Island; why bother getting your car registered when police rarely make the trip (and you can be sure when they get on the ferry, word gets around pretty fast!)? The teacher takes it for granted that Monday mornings are a write off, considering Sunday is function night and the kids will be up until at least midnight; that’s if they even make it to school the next day. On a Thursday evening, locals attend “cricket training” after cricket training, where they congregate in a barn smoking weed (or not, no one will judge), kids in tow. “Bad parenting!” I hear some of you scream. Yet, the children on French Island are the most polite, well-rounded, intelligent, confident kids I have ever encountered. I did not partake, and am not about to advocate smoking weed around your children but the occasional late night and the odd day off school has not done these kids any harm. Furthermore, communal living; where people go with the flow and helping, sharing and caring comes naturally; where children are brought up enjoying simple pleasures and socialising with both children and adults; where they are listened to and valued, has surely done them a lot of good.
Back in the city, within a population of over 4 million, I am feeling a little maladjusted and find myself wanting to be alone again. Melbourne’s Botanical Gardens do not come close to the clarity of mind that French Island’s untouched landscapes provide and I cannot help but reminisce with a little sadness as I wonder what hurdles the island kids will have to overcome as they grow. They have surely had a solid foundation; are worldly-wise but I know too well that society will not allow their community to continue in the way it strives to and that sooner or later they will need to adjust to mainstream society and probably need the bits of paper to prove it too. It is a sad situation when what seems so obviously to me a purer, sustainable lifestyle has to be altered for the sake of an “advanced” society. Everyone on the island feels it and they all know they will have to strike a balance at some juncture.
But where does this balance lie? Are we really advancing and making our lives easier? Sure, the internet is a wonderful invention and I am not about to bid the cyber world farewell. But are we losing sight of what it is all really about; turning to Google for help before our fellow human beings and thus making life harder for ourselves?
If I was not sure before, French Island has given me my answer.