I was sitting in my hotel room at the Gold Coast, discussing the next day's plans with my roomies Emmy and Jo. Jo mentioned trying to avoid rush hour in Brisbane, and I started laughing. Emmy turned to me and said, "I love you! Anything happens here, you say this is nothing, you should come to India and see!" I laughed even more and told her, "When you see rush hour in India, you'll know why I'm laughing at Brisbane traffic!"
Emmy was an highly adventurous young Swedish girl. She'd left her boyfriend behind to travel alone, and despite some stabbing guilt at the fact, she was determined to try everything, which included scuba diving and bungee jumping. Jo, on the other hand, was far more cautious, preferring a smoke and a drink accompanying her loud laughter and group of new British friends. I had found myself with a curious mix of characters as I attempted to see Australia without the comfort of my own friends from back home. I had come on a fellowship at the University of Melbourne, and once done, took almost three weeks off to travel the length of the East Coast of Australia.
Travelling by yourself, even if you are with a group, is a wonderfully lonely and liberating experience. I went camping along the Great Ocean Road, sharing my tent with a 18 year old French hairdresser called Tressy. I spent hours sitting on a bus alongside Andreas, a German who runs a golf club in Nuremburg. I befriended Nina and Puck, two Dutch girls I later caught open air concerts in Melbourne with. I met the wonderful Anne, in her late 60s, not letting the passing of her husband dampen her enthusiasm for life. I met Steve, a Canadian student and history buff, who I drank and talked politics with. The cast of characters kept growing as my experiences kept building, and in part they did because Australia just expects you to go have an adventure. Its that kind of place.
Unlike India, there is no long history of a bloody independent movement in Australia. There is no caste system, no glaring poverty, and no serious problems outside of alcoholism. Australia was established as a British penal colony, after the explorer James Cook declared the island as "terra nullis" (no one's land) despite it having inhabitants -- the Aboriginals. Over time the convicts, many of whom had been arrested for petty crimes, were allowed to remain on the island as free men. Cities like Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, and Perth were established, while a large portion of the country remains uninhabited because of harsh terrain. The relationship between the original inhabitants of the island, the Aboriginals, and the European/British Australians has been complicated. A misguided attempt to mainstream Aboriginals in the 1960s resulted in the horrifying chapter called the "stolen generation" where babies were taken away from Aboriginal families and given to "white" families, with no contact with the biological family. In 2008, the Australian government made an official apology for all the past wrongs by successive governments to the indigenous Aboriginal Australians. But the ordinary (read: white) Australian seems removed from all this. The oldest buildings date only to the 1880s and there isn't a majestic sense of history one experiences in India, or Europe or any of the old civilizations. There is, instead, a deep and fierce appreciation of all things natural, and lifestyles that don't revolve around urban jungles. The country hasn't been hit by a recession and the mining industry has kept it affluent. Beaches, mountains, farms and waves. That is what you can expect from an Australian adventure. The fact that it isn't weighed down by a sense of self importance makes it one of the most fantastic experiences for a traveller. I felt that in Australia, more than any other place I’ve been to, you had to be ready to physicallylet go. Be ready to take that plunge.
I'm a journalist, so I'm rather used to travelling and meeting new people. But this was different. Outside of the holidayers (which would include me), the backpackers I met were so refreshingly different. All were either British or Europeans. Most were in Australia on work-stay visas which means that you can find a city, get a casual job such a bartender, make some money and travel again. And when you're cashed out you rinse, lather and repeat. Many of them young -- between 19-25 -- they were going from city to city deciding where they'd like to set up base first. "I'm staying in Byron Bay for a few months to learn English," said the German Anne. Best friends from England, Becky and Kim, hadn't yet picked a town to call home. Everyone had a story that was a mixed ball of apprehension, adventure, homesickness, and enthusiasm. Kim and Becky both had similar reasons for doing this -- one big adventure before they settle into what they imagine will be a routine life back home. It’s the ultimate "finding yourself" journey. I was marvelling at this complete freedom to just leave your home, come to another country with no job, no plan, not even a degree to fall back on (in some cases). Its helpful to be part of the exclusive "White" club which allows these kids to jump in and out of each others countries -- and I have to say, I felt a little jealous. One evening, while were sailing around the Whitsundays, I told Alan, the resident hottie, that I can't imagine doing the same. Indians -- and only affluent Indians -- often use studying abroad as the excuse to go experience other countries. And while its a rather generous gift from the parents, for the most part, its understood that the grades and resultant job better be worth it. The weight of expectations are heavy on our shoulders, with the entire family invested in your achievements. "My parents are so supportive with everything I do," I was telling Alan, "but I can't imagine them saying, alright, go to Australia for a year and discover yourself. No need to get a real job as long as you have adventures!" It just isn't in our DNA.
This made me wonder if given the choice, would we still be adventurous? (Without the added benefit of alcohol, I might add!) I spent a night at Kroombit Park, a cattle ranch. After an evening of successful clay pigeon shooting and some superbly embarrassing mechanical bull riding, I spent the next morning quad biking around the ranch. It was fantastic! Later, as I lunched with Al, the owner, I asked him if any Indians ever came around. (Keep in mind it is a beef exporting ranch, and he probably had a mini heart attack that an Indian had arrived in the first place!) Some, he said rather carefully, but they don't like to participate. The further way I from my cultural reality, the more keenly aware of it I was. Challenge accepted, I thought to myself, I'm going to do whatever I can possibly do.
So I did. Some camping, trekking, surfing, sailing, snorkelling, quad biking, mustering goats, finding frozen banana stands, bowling…. That’s not all: the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, Australian Open and Andrew Llyod Weber. Add to that walking around Melbourne and Sydney for hours, bobbing my head to 'Empire of the Sun' on my ipod, smiling to myself. But, most of all, add to that a sense of freedom from the complicated histories that keep us in chains. It's enough to make me book my ticket back there.