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Memories Of  Australia

By: Williesha Lakin, Columbia, USA
2006 Travel and Transitions travel story contest participant

Sometimes, the most important lessons of life (and travel) are learned long after the journey has ended.

A blurred set of memories make up my adventure in Australia the summer before their Olympics, like tiny snapshots. Not only does the back of my mind serve as a permanent photo album, it also stores the thoughts and lessons one hopes to share someday with future travelers to Oz. Especially ones who look like me - African-American women - and the ones who may wonder what it's like to travel alone as a black woman.

It's amazing how you transform when you step onto foreign soil. Back home, I'm a double minority, hampered by the invisible, double-paned glass ceiling. But in Australia, race doesn't make up who you are. There, I'm simply an American. A stranger with a strange accent. Just a Seppie, short for "septic tank" and rhymes with "bloody Yank."

One particular experience during my three-month study abroad trip there was my solo jaunt to Victoria on the southern tip of the continent. I made plans in a brightly lit STA office on a busy Sidney street one spontaneous day, trying to envision what my adventure would entail. The domestic flight from Sydney to Melbourne was uneventful, albeit brief. Suddenly, the international airport I was fascinated with when I had arrived from Los Angeles reminded me of the small metropolitan airport back home in Columbia. It seemed I had developed an "I'm-just-a-local" attitude, and I had only been there a month.

Strangely enough, I was more concerned about the quality of the accomodations and my activities rather than my own personal safety. Although I was an alien to this country and traveling on my own, my biggest memories are my feelings of curiosity, amazement and sometimes disappointment at my surroundings and the people I encountered.

I had never stayed in a hostel before, so I wasn't exactly sure what to expect. I was rather pleased with the atmosphere of Hotel Bakbak in Melbourne. Even though I can be a terribly irritating germophobe and introvert, the dormitory-style bunk beds and shared bathrooms were clean and the folks I stayed with were friendly. I resisted the urge to get too close to my roommates, because I knew I was only going to stay there one night. I couldn't help but connect with one French girl - we would snap pictures together later. But I settled in early to make sure I got up at 5 a.m.

The next morning I was up bright and early to head over to an inn at Queenscliffe, just southwest of Port Phillip Bay, where my day trip would begin. The ferry ride was comfortable and inviting, much like the ones you'd take in New York or another large city. In fact, the ride was too comfortable, and the early rising caught up with me. I sat down and set my suitcase beside me for what would probably be about a 20-minute ride. A few seconds later, I awoke to see most of the passengers walking off the boat. The ferry ride had long since come to an end. Fortunately, a kind stranger rustled me so that I didn't make an unnecessary round trip.

Lesson No 1.: Australian strangers are as friendly as the ones you might meet in the South (of the States that is).

Once I left the boat, suddenly, I felt stranded and painfully alone. All of the hundreds of people who joined me on the ferry had suddenly disappeared. There (of course) wasn't a limo driver waiting with "Lakin" on a placard to escort me to my lodging. Instead it was just me, a deserted parking lot and my wheeled luggage, which was beginning to feel less and less like a carry-on and more and more like a massively overpacked suitcase.

Lesson No 2: When you're staying at the Hotel BakPak, just bring a backpack!

As it grew dark, fear began to set in. I really wasn't sure where to go or who I was to contact. Finally, I was able to locate the right bus stop to get me to the inn. Instead of the YHA hostel I was expecting to roll up to, I give my weary arms and legs a break on the sidewalk in front of what appeared to be your average, 'round-the-corner Aussie pub. I slowly ventured towards the windows to see a little revelry inside. For what seemed like hours, I stared inside as the older, blue-collar white folks drank and sang and drank some more. The pub was the only well-lit spot on the block, probably the one major hang-out for locals after work was through.

I still can't remember if the doors were locked or if I was simply too gripped with fear to just walk inside. My next memory is the kind face of an older woman who was the owner of the inn. She looked like someone you'd expect to meet at a New England bed and breakfast, not an Australian pub. She led me to the welcome quiet of the upstairs bunk rooms where I only saw one other fellow lodger, sitting alone on the floor outside the rooms. I still wonder if he had locked himself out or got kicked out.

Once I realized I had the entire room of about a half-dozen bunk beds to myself, some of the fear of being this little black American in an all-white pub seemed to leave me. I decided to try my hand at the billiards table downstairs. After I played a game of one-on-one with myself, I was tempted by the unfamiliar glare of a computer screen near the table. Shaped almost like a tiny pay phone, you could drop in a few coins and check your email. Being the irreparable internet addict I was (and still am) I decided to give it a shot.

Suddenly, I felt like I was back at home in my room, surfing with dread. A boy I had a crush on back home was hunted down by a rival and now they were dating -- just as I had feared before I left home. Just then, I couldn't stop the tears from running down my face. My personal adventure in the pub had come to an end -- ruined by a boy. I went upstairs, climbed onto a top bunk and cried myself to sleep.

Lesson #3: Resist the temptation of technology! The internet, cell phones and other such gadgetry can turn a solo trip into one invaded by unwelcome guests.

The next morning, I comforted myself in the sitting room filled with books and games, which seemed completely out-of-place in this bar. The owner took me to my stop where I was introduced to the little green Oz Experience bus, which would take me to the rest of my journey.

The highlight of this day-long excursion was the drive down the Great Ocean Road, 300 kms of winding pavement nestled between the ocean and the Ottway Ranges along the southernmost edge of the state of Victoria. For the first-time in my life, I experienced motion-sickness and as the greys and browns of the ocean and the slightly cloudy sky passed before me, I sank a bit lower and lower into my seat.

Lesson #4: Don't forget the motion-sickness tablets. (Even if you've never had it before.)

Thankfully, I was distracted by the vibrant energy of our driver, a youthful guy about in his 30s who had an affinity for John Cougar Mellencamp. I listened with amazement as he loudly sang along to "Little Pink Houses:" Ain't that America? / You and me / Ain't that America? / Something to see, baby / Ain't that America? / Home of the free, yeah / Little pink houses for you and me

Though the intimacy of our tour was slightly hampered by the smattering of other larger tour buses who seemed to be on the exact same schedule as we were, the journey was well worth the wait (and the queasiness). We made a stop at the Twelve Apostles, a set of rock spires that had been battered and windblown over the years. There were only about a half dozen of them left, their counterparts long since broken and swept out to sea. The rocky terrain of the surrounding beach made the area feel as though we had stepped onto an alien planet. It was one of the first times I didn't mind bothering a fellow tourist (a cute guy at that) to take several pictures of me, posing among the unfamiliar outcroppings.

Lesson #5: You don't need the sun and warm temps to enjoy a day at the beach in Oz.

The rest of my journey is a mishmash of thoughts, like a disorganized photo album. We spent the rest of the day getting up close and personal with emus at a wildlife preserve and facing our fears by hooking up onto a zipline above the green, green hills of Victoria.

Though it was my first major solo trip, even the misadventures I had never spoiled my innate desire to recreate myself from an African-American female tourist into that of a journeywoman


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