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Tuesdays with Vernon

22 Jan

My depression was short-lived.  (And alcohol consumption was minimal; thanks for the concern, Jimmy :-).)  And it’s thanks to a few Tuesdays with Vernon in Perth, Australia.

Vernon is like 89, British by birth, and works for a university researching things like “The Rise and Fall of Communism in Sarawak 1940-1990.”

I met his wife Theresa on a plane from Asia to Perth.  It was after midnight when we landed; Vernon picked Theresa up at the airport, and they kindly gave me a ride to my hostel.

Vernon and Theresa drop me off at my hostel.

Vernon and Theresa drop me off at my hostel, around 1:00 a.m.

The next morning the hostel people were like, “Yo, some lady named Theresa called to see how you slept.  Number’s at the desk.” And so began my improbable friendship with Vernon and Theresa.

On days they weren’t working, they picked me up.  Theresa showed me the whole city (even politely pointing out the strip clubs, in case that was my thing), walked me through the park to see the War Memorial and down by the water to see the black swans, and bought me roast pork and veggies.  She told me about escaping China as a small girl when the Communists took over in 1949.  Her family fled to Taiwan, and later, as a young woman, she emigrated to Australia speaking but one word of English: hello.

After several months in Asia, this meal was heaven.

After several months in Asia, this meal was heaven.  Thank you, Theresa!

Theresa and I overlooking the city of Perth.

Theresa and I overlooking the city of Perth.

On our first Tuesday together, Vernon took me — among other places — to my ankle ultrasound appointment, to the cemetery to pay respects at his first wife’s grave, to a retirement home to visit his buddy, to see wild kangaroos, and to the beach.  And he bought me the biggest kebab I’ve ever seen.  [As a side note, driving with Vernon was arguably the most dangerous thing I did on my trip.]  He told me about leaving home at 16 and falling out with his family and being a perpetual loner in the churning sea of life.

Vernon.

Vernon on the beach.

Kangaroo with baby joey in pouch.

Kangaroo with baby joey in pouch.

Baby joey gets turned around in there.

Baby joey gets turned around in there.

Concerned about my diet and my ankle, one morning they dropped off a cooler filled with fresh fruit, fish filets, and an ice pack.  The hostel people were dumbfounded and suspicious.  “How do you know these people?”, they asked.

And finally, 10 days later, when the time came for me to leave Perth for other travels in Australia, they took me out to a dim sum lunch and then to the airport.  They parked the car and walked me to the gate and stood there waving until I was out of sight.  When I protested, Vernon was having none of it.  “You see things through ’til the bitter end,” he retorted.

Vernon was almost a carbon copy of my late grandfather: someone who has lived his own life — imperfectly perhaps — but far better and more interestingly than a perfect imitation of someone else’s could ever be.  And it was Vernon who I thought of when the post-travel-now-back-home-with-no-plans gloominess descended.

“You think too damn much,” he told me as the waves lapped the white sand beach.  “Enough with the reflecting and the finding yourself and this purpose-driven sh*t,” he said.  “It’s an awfully arrogant way to live.  Accept the past for what it is and turn the page on it: the places, the times, the people, the guilt.  And be proud — really proud — of your accomplishments and plan for — and dream about — the future.  But today: just drift.”

He sighed exasperatedly.  All I’m saying is, “Don’t be afraid to drift through life.  In some funny way, it’ll all work out.”

At the time, this was crazy talk to me.  Ironically, I noted the absence of any driftwood on the perfect beach before us.  And I thought, I’ve got the horsepower of a Ferrari; pretty sure I’m not about to “drift through life.”

But now, I get it.  Getting from place A to B, trekking a trail, climbing a mountain, circumnavigating the world: there is something about the challenge — no matter how difficult it may be — that is a relief in its simplicity.

But the complexity in life — in this moment alone in life — is much harder to wrap your head around. Coming home unexpectedly has forced me to stop paddling and just look around, for the first time in… forever.  It’s very disconcerting (I’m drowning!  No, even worse, I’m drifting!).

But it’s beginning to dawn on me: maybe drifting through life Vernon-style is a higher-order happiness, devoid of life-defining, purpose-imbuing mile markers that ultimately become who-gives-a-crap-when-you’re-89.  Maybe drifting through life — or at least this chapter in life — yields something strangely sublime: simple-minded contentment in but a moment in time.

Next year at this time, I’ll be doing the Bataan-Death-March-through-life as an overworked associate at a big DC law firm.  But on Tuesdays, in honor of Vernon, I plan on bringing my inner tube and… just drifting.

Lonely Days and Whiskey Nights

7 Dec

[Dad: Don’t read this one!  For another ten years.]

Two nights ago, I was lying on my bed in my Melbourne hostel room being antisocial — watching a TV show on my laptop with my earbuds in.  When two guys, backpacks in tow, came in and made their beds and tried to say hello.  I gruffled something back and then didn’t cast another eye in their direction.  The fact that my one glimpse hinted they may be attractive annoyed me even more.  Why can’t I be left alone?  Or at least put with weirdos?

I went to Bikram (hot) yoga, showered, and resumed a vertical position on my bed, peacefully watching my TV show.  When they came back!  I refused to look at them and turned up the volume on my laptop to drown out their voices.  Then one of them tapped me on the shoulder and asked if I wanted to have a drink on the balcony with them.  I was pissed.  Ahhhh.  Vegemite your face, I thought.  Because I knew I had to.  Keeping to yourself is one thing.  But refusing offers like that in a hostel means you’re at the point where you might as well be at home on your own couch with your head stuffed in a pillow.

Irritated, I snapped my laptop shut and shimmied through the window onto the balcony.  My hair was wet and uncombed.  I was wearing a purple sports bra, and a green shirt that I hate (Have you ever seen a picture with me in it?  No.).  They were drinking Asbach, a German whiskey you can only get in Germany.  Sebastian was 27, tan from two months in New Zealand, and tall with tousled hair, a prominent though otherwise inoffensive nose, and pale blue eyes.  Mario was 25, fresh off the plane from Germany (and hence the supplier of the Asbach).  His relative youth — both on the road and in years — meant his manner was franker and his words somehow held less intrigue.  His hair was dark and closely-cropped, and while Sebastian casually rested back in his chair, Mario sat straight up and bounced his knee every so often.  Joining us was Marcus, a 20-year-old baby-faced Swede who — restricted either by skill or confidence — spoke English far less expertly.

I’ll make this a short affair, I thought.  Sebastian and Mario were drinking out of coffee mugs.  I couldn’t be bothered to fetch one for myself from the kitchen downstairs so Marcus and I just took shots out of the caps from the two Asbach bottles.  German bankers they were — Sebastian asset management and Mario risk control.  I disclosed I was a lawyer, and Marcus nearly fell out of his chair.  “I’m not educated at all!,” he exclaimed.  I brought my whiskey bottlecap up to his and reassured him that “it matters for shit because we’re all getting bed bugs in this shoddy hostel room together.”  We drank to New Zealand and we drank to Australia and we drank to America and we drank to Germany and we drank to Sweden.  Turns out they had not only interesting lives and experiences but reflections upon them.  Eventually, I fetched Marcus and me coffee mugs, and, after polishing off the Asbach, we moved onto Johnnie Walker Red Label — though I refused to sink to Sebastian’s level and dilute it with Coke.  I licked my lips, numb from the whiskey, looked out over the street below, and let life wash over me.

The only photo of the night, in our hostel room.

The only photo of the night, in our hostel room.

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An Elephant Sat on Me

25 Nov

He is a really big one, and his name is Life.  And he quickly deflated my little bubble of an existence.

It looks as if I’ve triumphantly set off on this one-year trip around the world to figure it all out (hah), only to limp home four months later.

Go ahead, read it again.  And yes, I mean limp home literally.

I am a wimp!  I am a failure!

Remember when I fell off that curb in Thailand and twisted my ankle?

Okay, well it was a big damn curb.  [And I’m making up another story that sounds better… stay tuned.]  I’ve spent the last 7 weeks and 4 countries waking up, wrapping the ankle up, and then… climbing the Great Wall, trekking through rice paddies, biking city walls, and more generally just carting around myself and my 44 pounds of worldly possessions.

But on the plane out of Asia, I met a lady named Theresa, who drug me to the doctor.

Theresa and me — overlooking Perth, Australia.

Who told me, post-ultrasound, that my ankle is a little busted, and I need to get surgery if I want to play sports again.

Since I got the news last week, I have ripped my fingernails off.  Eaten my weight in kebabs and chocolate.  Not brushed my hair.  Stayed up all night.  Slept all day (uncomfortably, in the Australian heat).  Read three horrible books.  And woken my Dad up in the middle of the night twice (speaking of which, he needs to come up with some better lines; his response to the news was “well, flexibility is the key to airpower.”).

It’s really affected my self-conception.  It’s like I woke up with green skin and a hook nose (okay, maybe I’ve been listening to the Wicked soundtrack on repeat).  I’m suddenly inanely self-conscious.  And jealous of anyone with a serviceable left ankle.

I must look like hell (after all let’s not forget the bed bug bites on my face) because last night the lady at the airport cafe gave me a meat pie for free.

Remember in Tiananmen Square when I said I felt so… strong?  Well yesterday on the plane (Perth to Adelaide) I was thinking how I felt so… weak.  Like a reed bending the wind.  And the next gust might emotionally snap me in half.

Then I was like, okay, Luce, really, stuff a Hong Kong BBQ-pork-stuffed pastry puff in it, get a grip, and claw yourself out of this melodramatic abyss of wallowing and self-pity.  Get your MRI (tomorrow) and then hop off (hehe) onto other adventures.

And, more generally, just attempt to pull your head out of your arse long enough to appreciate that this could be your street:

Kathmandu!

This could be the alley to your home:

Kathmandu!

And this could be your job:

Kathmandu!                                                                                                                                                                                      Try with a hurt ankle.

Life is good, even a little gimpy.

E-mails from Last Night

25 Nov

E-mail sent from my iPhone last night at 2351 hours

To: Alex

From: Lucie

Subject: Bed bugs in my pillow

Body:

E-mail sent last night at 2357 hours

To: Alex

From: Lucie

Subject: Also

Body:

Would you think twice about riding an elevator with this sign outside it?

In fairness, I did ride this elevator once. It did not instill confidence.

Sorry, busted ankle, we’re taking the stairs!

E-mail received last night at 2359 hours

To: Lucie

From: Alex

Subject: Re: Also

Body:

um, I think the moral of the previous two emails is that you should switch hostels…