Update #5 – Part 1: Bali, Baby! ... + Cairns & the Great Barrier Reef

 Bali

 So, I took myself to Bali.

 I flew there, and the overnight flight was beyond cold.

 I’ve been on many cold flights. This was an icebox. I was wearing two sweaters, jeans, and boots, and woke up to find my fingers number and the tip of my nose ice cold. There were more kids on this flight than I think I’ve ever seen on a flight; I kept wondering if they were as cold as I was.

 Thankfully, we’d all be at the beach soon, so that thought comforted me through my suffering.

 We finally landed in Denpasar, the capital city of Bali. I was thrilled to get a new stamp in my passport.

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 I was there a few days before Seclusion Day/Hindi New Year on March 7. It was a good thing I left before then, because there weren’t any flights out of Bali on Seclusion Day and you could not check in or out of hotels on this day. (I should’ve learned my lesson from being in Vietnam on Lunar New Year and most things being closed; I’ve really got to get better about checking if there’s a religious holiday going on before traveling to a locale.)

*

I’ve always wanted to go to Bali. (Well, “always,” since about 2008, when I read the book Eat Pray Love, in which Elizabeth Gilbert goes to Bali. She made it sound so lovely and beautiful there.) On the first half of this trip in Australia, I met a few people who’d recently visited Bali and kept raving about it. My friend Shannon mentioned over lunch in Melbourne that it’s a very easy flight to Bali from northern Australia, where I’d be, in Darwin. I thought: when again will I be that close to Indonesia?

So, I booked myself a flight and that was that.

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 Aussies kept telling me that Bali was comparable to, say, how Americans go to Mexico for vacations, in that it’s an accessible and relatively inexpensive and an easy vacation to take. My Outback tour guide, when I told him I was going, said: “Why would you want to go to Bali?” He explained that he’d been there half a dozen times with friends over the years. Well some of us haven’t, okay? 

*

I'd been staying at hostels since January 31, so I upgraded and splurged on a nice hotel in Bali.

Total oasis.

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There, I found myself saying things like:

“Which way to the sunrise yoga on the beach?” 

“Does the pancake bar have Nutella?”

“Can I please change my order of kale juice to fresh mango juice instead? Oh, and a side of fries. Thank you.”

Everyone who worked there was very nice, and I was treated like a Queen.

 80% of Bali’s economy comes from tourism. While taking a cab from the airport, it was hard not to notice the abject poverty of a few neighborhood we drove through. I realize that in going there, I am part of the problem, in that places like hotels continue to generate high profits, whereas people who more so need the money likely remain in hardship.

This all 100% anecdotal (minus the 80% figure, which I looked it up); it just strikes me whenever I go somewhere how great the economic disparity is almost everywhere (especially in the U.S., where the economic gap between the poor and wealthy continues to grow, and the existence of a middle class has been on a slow decline for decades).

*

 I did extremely little in Bali. No tours taken, no new friends made, no Outback desert flies enthusiastically killed.

 (Speaking of deaths, I was so sad to hear about Luke Perry. I learned of the news in Bali.)

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Mostly, I just hung out on Sanur Beach and enjoyed the hotel, and did cannon balls (okay, just one) into the hotel swimming pool.

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I also read my book and got some work done and worked on my non-existent tan / sun burn.

With me, I brought a book by an English comedienne I really like named Miranda Hart. The book’s called Is It Just Me?

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In Chapter 11, “Holidays,” she writes about taking vacations:

“So, here is the thing, My Dear Reader Chum – I love, love, love a holiday. Holidays are very important to me. Not because I’m some kind of pleasure-scoffing, layabout luxury-hound; I am quite the opposite, in fact. I am a fretter: a fretter and a fixer and a worrier – always have been.

If I wake up in the middle of the night I find it nigh-on impossible not to pop down to the kitchen for a quick peek at the laminated To Do list on the fridge (stuck firmly on the with a novelty magnet – currently a small plastic broccoli floret, thank you) which can then lead to my spending half the night cleaning out the downstairs cupboard, putting DVDs back in their right boxes, checking my insurance policies and doing a spreadsheet for the next eight months of work. In short, I find it very difficult to switch off. The only way to silence my inner fretter is to take it somewhere unarguably on holiday.”

 Save for the lamination, DVDs, and broccoli magnet, I identified with this bit above greatly. That’s not a humble brag about productivity, but rather, an admission of obsession.

I, too, find it very difficult to switch off. (I think this is a very common problem.)

In general, this trip – the trip on the whole, not just the one to Bali – has helped to quiet that obsession, and has helped me to try to be a bit more “present” and relaxed as well.

I have always had a fairly obnoxious attachment to my self-view as someone who is productive, on-the-go, and hard-working. I know these are all good traits in general; but when they tend to consume you, they ain’t so good.

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Viewing oneself as infallible when it comes to not working hard or not being on top of things leads to a lot of stress, crippling perfectionism, harsh self-judgment (which, of course, leads to judging others, usually), and inevitably, burnout.

Cognitively, I know that I’ll be more effective and focused towards things I’m trying for if I’m rested, relaxed, and prioritizing wellness. That said, I’ve often had difficulty putting those things in place.

(There was a great article written about millennial burnout by Helen Ann Peterson for Buzzfeed. My friend Chinwe sent it to me; highly recommend. Article is linked here. Warning: It is very long. Not unlike this update!)

I still remember how, as a kid, my brother and sister would be watching cartoons on Saturday mornings, and I’d decline, thinking of all the “work” I had to do. Man, I have gotta get going on these tasks today or they’ll never get done.

The work, of course, was nominal, amounting to maybe one vocabulary worksheet, a few math problems, and my self-imposed task of cleaning my room.

Sometimes, on Sundays after church, my friends would invite me to come over to their house to play or watch a movie. I can remember on more than one occasion declining because I’d rather get my homework done than play. And when I was in middle school, the old Blues hockey arena was being imploded and it was a big to-do and a bunch of people, including my extended family, went out to watch it. I stayed home to finish a poetry project for English class. 

St. Louis Arena, St. Louis, MO, U.S.A.

St. Louis Arena, St. Louis, MO, U.S.A.

Anyways, you get the picture.

For most of my growing up period, I tended to view doing well in school and having fun/enjoying myself as two mutually exclusive entities. It makes me a bit sad to think about that now; I wish I would’ve just lightened up and enjoyed things more. (All this said, any perceived lack of fun from my school days I've made up for heartily in the past 10 years. At times, too much so.)

This is all to say, I’m trying to do more of that now – relaxing on things a bit (while, of course, still getting my work done too – just obsessing over it a bit less). This trip has helped me to do that, and to put things into perspective.

In Bali, I was able to mostly do that (while still checking my email, because at this point, it is probably a clinical compulsion). Next vacation I take though, I’m going to challenge myself to do absolutely nothing, save for the occasional book read or film watched. I love challenges, so here’s hoping I’ll rise to that one.

 *

 The restaurants at the hotel were fantastic.

I ate most meals at the different restaurants with the Miranda Hart book in tow. It was great. I’ve never fully understood people’s aversion to, or discomfort about, eating alone in restaurants. Of course, I empathize with it; who wants to feel uncomfortable when they eat?

And, I realize I sound like a cyborg trying to understand human emotion is saying this…I’m told by my friends who have eaten alone in restaurants and hated it that they feel uncomfortable and stared at. (“Let ‘em stare!” I say to them. Just kidding, I don’t say that. Instead, I helpfully education them on a psychological term called “the Spotlight Effect” – just kidding, I don’t tell them about that either; that’d be annoying and obnoxious. I just nod and listen and say: “I’m sure it wasn’t THAT bad; eating out alone is fun! But I feel your pain and I am here for you always…” 

Anyways, the Spotlight Effect.

 From Psychology Today“The "spotlight effect" refers to the tendency to think that more people notice something about you than they do. Dozens of studies in social psychology have supported this phenomenon.”

So, if ever you want to go out to eat at a restaurant by yourself and feel hesitancy, just think of the Spotlight Effect, and think of the countless tables I’ve christened with my elbows and my book in hand while eating a giant bowl of pasta in silence. It’s honestly really great. Try it sometime. 

I don't have a picture of me eating alone, so here's one of Angelina Jolie reading at a table alone at a restaurant in Paris to inspire you:

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*

Have you ever seen the movie Daddy’s Home 2, starring Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg? Well, don’t.

NOPE.

NOPE.

I actually didn’t hate the first one, Daddy’s Home, so I decided to watch a bit of the second when it was on HBO at the hotel. It was so bad, and the sight of Mel Gibson (who played Mark Wahlberg’s father) was even worse. I had to switch to something else. I opted for the 2015 Disney live action film of Cinderella starring Lily James, Helena Bonham Carter, and Cate Blanchett. It was a critical and commercial success, and was nominated for an Oscar for costume design. I've seen it like 10 times.

I say all this to spare you from a possible future viewing of Daddy’s Home 2, and in hopes of you getting to see Cinderella.  

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*

 Leaving Bali, there was absolute pandemonium at the airport as the Jet Star computer system was down. I, along with hundreds of others, was meant to be on a Jet Star flight that evening.

 So, when the system was finally up and running again, it was a mad dash for everyone to check in and make their flights (which likely would’ve been held anyways).

One fellow passenger thought I’d asked where gate 6A was (but I asked about 6B), and when I was heading in – what he thought was the wrong direction, he grabbed the handle on the backpack I was wearing, pulled on it, and said with a panic:

“6A is this way! If we run, we can make it!”

Babe, that’s all you. Bon voyage!

I was grateful for the thoughtful help, but not so much for being grabbed and pulled.

Cairns

Having long ago shed any shred of self-consciousness about sleeping in public, I awoke dreamily, in the Cairns International Airport and looked at my watch:

6am.

 I was glad to have caught an hour's rest at the airport when I landed there at 5am. I found a random table by the luggage carousel and buried my head in my neck pillow and didn’t look back (because I was already asleep).

 It was too early to check into my hostel, and this being Australia and not New York City, likely nothing would be open at that hour except the coffee shop in the airport. So, I posted up at the airport for a while, and enjoyed a few lattes and the free wifi and knocked out some work from my growing queue. 

*

 Cairns is where the Great Barrier Reef is. If you have any desire to go, I recommend going soon. The GBR, as a result of climate change, is losing its luster at some spots, and suffering wide-ranging effects of climate change.

As a kid, I remember hearing about the GBR and so I put it on my travel list as a place I wanted to visit one day, not really understanding its appeal or knowing anything about it, just knowing that it was a place that was well-known, and perhaps for good reason.

It was stunning and didn’t disappoint.

As the poster in my hostel said of the GBR:

"They don't call it GREAT for nothin'!"

*

 At my hostel in Cairns, Giligan’s, I bunked with two women from Bristol, England. Margaret, age 50 and a mother of two, works as a nurse for the NHS. Chloe, who was traveling with her, age 25, is her co-worker at the NHS. They’re starting off in Cairns together then each traveling solo for 3 weeks and 2 months, respectively.

 Chloe asked me if I had heard of Brexit. 

I stifled any kind of flippant response (“of course I’ve heard of it; just because I’m American that doesn’t give you license to assume I’m some kind of clueless rube…”) and instead said:

“Yes, I have.”

We talked about it a bit.

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As you may know (and as the UK-based readers will certainly know), the day of reckoning – or, the official exit day – is fast approaching on March 29.

March 29 marks the two-year anniversary of when PM Theresa May triggered Article 50 to formally start the withdrawal promise of the UK from the EU.

The ongoing No Deal and trade and travel mess is “shambolic,” in the words of my friend Scott, who lives in London. It’ll be interesting (and probably quite depressing) to see how everything plays out.

At present, one of the biggest issues has to do with Ireland and Northern Ireland and their borders. (A good article from The Atlantic detailing this issue can be found here.) As most know, the Republic of Ireland is part of the EU, where as Northern Ireland is part of the UK, which is soon to be leaving the EU. (In French news media, it is being reported as a “divorce,” which I find kind of amusing. Those French, am I right? Side note to French readers: You know you are citizens of my favorite country, and I’d never genuinely besmirch your name!)

Back to Brexit:

 There is no hard border there – between Ireland and Northern Ireland – and it has been as such since the ending of the Troubles. A hard, enforced border – which is a potential outcome of Brexit – would mean an end to free trade, transit, and could lead to massive immigration problems.

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*

The next day, I woke up to find Chloe and Margaret gone, and in one of their beds was a woman from Canada. She was already awake and tapping and scrolling on her iPhone. She, I found, is one of those people who finds in necessary to basically scream while talking. (Though perhaps she’s hard of hearing and can’t control it, so I should be more sympathetic to that possibility.)

8am, minutes after I awoke, she said (very loudly):

“SO, I HEARD YOU’RE, LIKE, A FAMOUS WRITER.”

(Chloe and Margaret must’ve mentioned to her that I write, as I’d told them yesterday.)

Definitely not famous,” I said.

I gathered my toothbrush and toiletries for the bathroom. 

“I HEARD YOU’RE FROM THE U.S.?”

“Yes, I’m from Missouri.”

Anne, be polite.

So, I added:

“And…you?”

“CALGARY, CANADA.” 

“Nice, I like Canada.”

Polite, silent exit.

End scene. (Thankfully)

The Great Barrier Reef

 The Great Barrier Reef is one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World. It is also valued by the Australian government at 58 billion dollars (AUD).

To me, these two things seem contradictory: How can one commoditize and assign a numerical value to a “natural” wonder?

Anyways, the government assigned this value to it based on the wildlife there and the tourism dollars the GBR draws.

The day of my scheduled snorkeling tour, thunderstorms were forecasted. Great!

When I awoke for my 9am shuttle pick-up, there was nary a cloud in the sky. “Irish eyes were smiling, sure 'tis like a morn in spring…” as the song goes. It remained clear and sunny all day. For that I was grateful.

The night before the tour, I received an email saying our tour would be provided by a different tour operator than the one I originally booked. Turned out, the new operator’s tour cost was DOUBLE of what I paid, yet there was no upcharge, having previously booked the other one. What a win, right? Steak lunch, baby! Literally – we were served a steak lunch. And morning tea and afternoon wine.

While riding on the shuttle, the realization dawned on me, as I thought of how happy I’d be at the END of the day that I would’ve then have swam in the Great Barrier Reef, I thought: Oh no. I actually have to, like, do it.

 I’ve never been much one for ocean swimming. (Jaws, and all.)

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*

When the shuttle driver dropped us off at the harbor, he asked me:

  “Do you know where you’re going?”

“Yes, thank you,” I said.

 “I wish I knew where I was going,” he said with a sigh and a smile. Oh, how we laughed! (ß Katie M., that one’s for you.)

*

 I was lucky to meet new friends on this tour. I sat at a table with a woman named Jen during morning tea, seeing she was by herself, looked to be my age, and looked like a nice person (yes, you really can tell just by looking at a person sometimes!). 

Jen is from Vancouver and works for a fancy Canadian department store. Last year, her sales numbered 1 million dollars!! What a star. And she works on commission, too – not too shabby. She owns her own home and has a very cute niece who she dutifully spoils, like a good aunt. She has traveled across the Globe and is next going to Japan, I believe. She aims to go one new place every year.

In the a.m., we watched a presentation from a marine biologist, who told us about the reef and the creatures in it.

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 “Don’t worry about sharks out here,” the biologist said. “You won’t see any. Because they’ll always come up from behind you! Hahaha!”

She told us: “The movie Finding Nemo was surprisingly very accurate except for one big thing: When Nemo’s mom got eaten at the beginning, Nemo’s dad would’ve become a female, or would’ve eaten Nemo. And that would’ve made for a very different movie!”

We learned about various types of coral. We learned that it’s often named for how it looks, so if you don’t know what kind it is, you can just assign a name to it and you’re likely right. For instance, what would you call this type of coral? Looks like a brain, right? Answer: It’s brain coral.

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*

The wetsuits we wore to protect ourselves from stingrays and jelly fish (sharks – no deterrent, you’re on your own!) were still wet and smelled like 10-day old mold. Sound appealing? They weren’t! Here’s me in mine:

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I jumped off the ship, fully gear-ed up, and began to swim, with a low level of – but still very prominent amount of – anxiety about swimming in the ocean. 

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As I swam through the uneventful salty waters, I thought:

I can’t believe I paid all this money to come out here and to swim in some murky water in a stinky wetsuit and I haven’t even seen a da–“

Suddenly, below me, a huge reef of coral popped up and there were vibrant purples and blues and greens, and all the colors looked brilliant. Like, they weren’t just your regular old purples or blues or greens, they had like a glowy shine to them, and were as bright as if they’d been colored over with highlighter markers. 

It looked a bit like this:

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 I saw a huge school of big fish – 26, I counted. I swam slowly through them; it was so creepy, and also wonderful, to be so close. Here's what those ones looked like:

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 I saw tiny minnow-sized fish; there must’ve been hundreds. I saw tons of gorgeously colored fishes; I never knew fishes could look so beautiful.

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 A woman nearby popped her head up after free diving to tell me: “I found some ‘Finding Nemo’ fish [aka “clown fish] in that amoeba down below if you want to see!”

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I did not follow her, as our guides recommended we not free dive. And, when it comes to matters of safety, I am an ardent follower of rules. (In other areas of life…not so much.)

I saw lots of “Dory fish” like in Finding Nemo. (The oddly shaped blue ones.)

I was sad to not see any turtles, my favorite animal. But who’s to stop me from lying about it to other people? Well, if it weren’t for my crushing Catholic guilt and how vomitous I feel whenever I tell a lie, I’d just tell everybody up top:

“Oh, yeah, I saw a BOATLOAD of sea turtles swimming together! I know, I couldn’t believe it either! (How, in fact, are you? Believing it, that is. As I gather that, out here, one generally see them by the one’s…)

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One of the turtles even took me for a ride on their back! Then a bunch of mermaids* came up and started chatting with me; we started singing songs from Dear Evan Hansen together… I know. What a story! One might even say a tale tale, as a matter of fact..

Sorry, I think I need to go to the toilet. I might be sick.”

-

*When I moved to NYC in 2015, I was happily roped into attending – and marching in – the famous Coney Island Mermaid Parade by my friend Gabe. My friend Alex makes incredible themed group costumes for us every year. We were even featured in Cosmo magazine one year for our costume! Here’s my favorite one we’ve done; it was from 2017 and the theme was The Wizard of Oz. I was the rainbow: 

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Here’s last year’s (which I also loved). The theme was Tim Burton movies. I was a pink-hair Willy-Wonka:

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*

Pink-be-wigged Willy Wonka – aka me – heard the whistle from ship deck, and I knew that was the signal to return. So, I headed back to the boat. En route, navigating the best way to go, I thought to self:

Let’s see, if I turn left at the piece of purple coral, then hang a sharp right at that rock shaped like Hulk Hogan, then I just…

*

I arrived back on ship. Jen and I recounted to each other what we’d seen as I began to, again, feel seasick. I put my head on the table and raised it when I heard: “Sorry to be annoying, but do you mind if I join you guys?”

A fellow solo traveler, Robert, sat down.

“What’s your name?” he asked us.  

“I’m Anne. And you’re Robert Taylor!”

He was taken aback.

“I remember because they called your name on the microphone this morning when you lost your credit card and went up to get it. Are you impressed I remembered your name?” Prompted compliments – often effective! 

“Yes!” he laughed.

Robert had recently landed in Cairns from Calcutta, where he’d been working for three months doing financial consulting. Next, he’s headed to Capetown. He’s based in LA and originally from Boston. Robert has no social media accounts. It’s like meeting someone from another planet; absolutely fascinating. 

On traveling in India, he said: “I learned to stop questioning everything I saw, because if I did, it’d drive me crazy. So I just took it all in.”

 Great travel ethos.

Robert, who is a third (his father and grandfather are both Robert), is trying to cultivate a nickname for himself of “Third.”

When he told me this, I deadpanned: “I’m not calling you Third. 

We agreed that trying to make your own preferred nickname is an uphill battle. Like when Ross on Friends tried to get people to call him “The Rossatron.”

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*Here we all are are – Robert, Jen, and I – looking like a United Colors of Benetton ad, or the front page of a college brochure.

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(BTW, speaking of college brochures, how about that college admissions scandal, eh? I’m so disappointed about Felicity Huffman. I’ve always liked her.)

 It was before that picture was taken that I felt really seasick. But as they say in the theater, THE SHOW MUST GO ON! Or: Let’s take a picture to show how much fun we’re having to project a desired (and in this case, somewhat falsified, as I felt ill) image to our social media followers! (Minus Robert’s, as he has none.)

 So, I put on a happy face.

In the evening, the three of us ate dinner together at a very shi-shi seafood restaurant at the harbor called Salt. The service was terrible, the food was tremendous. I ordered the salmon.

*

While waiting for a bus to take me from Cairns to Townsville, I was fiddling with my 80-gallon backpacking backpack, looking at all the straps and adjusting them.

I figured out an adjustment which radically improved the comfort level of the backpack; and I was like:

I’VE BEEN GOING 6 WEEKS WITHOUT KNOWING THIS FIX EXISTED?

Then I was like: What other minor adjustments throughout life am I completely oblivious to that would radically improve my life?

Suggestions welcome! (Unless your suggestion is don’t send 20 page emails to your friends, because I really enjoy sending them. No joke, these email updates literally take me hours, roughly 2 – 3 to write and compile and edit, and that’s before the cumulative 2-ish hours of research / noting observations / taking photos. That’s all to say you better appreciate them!! I’m just kidding; thank you so much for reading and for taking time from your busy schedule to do so. I love having the digital company, and I hope these stories and anecdotes entertain you and make you smile.)

As a health and wellness improvement fix, probably drinking less Diet Coke, for one. (Though, I’m not oblivious to that one. And the improvement would not be “radical” in the short term.) 

On the note of Diet Coke… 

For the concerned: you’ll be very happy to know I did eventually find Diet Coke in Australia! The point of discovery was along the east coast of Australia, somewhere between Townsville and Airlie Beach, at a gas station convenience store. There, I found a row of cans of Diet Coke. The heavens opened and a choir of angels sang. I bought three cans.

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I also found this very unique version of a Starbursts candy called “Starburst babies.” The candies are shaped like little babies. They were actually quite good, despite the strange concept. They tasted like Starburst with a gummy bear consistency. 

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Townsville

I took the bus to Townsville. 

The bus ride was quite rainy. I just read a bit, then started to feel sick, then listened to a couple Sam Smith albums. #voiceofanangle

I’ve also been listening to, on repeat, “Slow Hands” by Nial Horan lately. I had mixed feeling about the band One Direction's breakup, but I'm really happy with all the directions in which they've taken their respective solo careers, especially Harry Styles & Zayne. (Niall was a member of that group.) And, as mentioned above, I've also been burning through Sam Smith's entire song catalogue. I've never been much into podcasts, but give me a male British singer with a voice of velvet and I'm all ears for hours. 

 Days. 

Years. 

Then, on the bus, I took a few pics. I call this photo series:

“Boring but beautiful bus ride through eastern Australia, punctuated by accidental picture of chips at gas station”'

You’ve seen it here first, folks. Next stop, the Guggenheim!

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To Be Continued! …

Update #4: Perth & Broome

Greetings from Bali! Where I am killing time until I can check into my accommodations.  As I’m writing this, it is 2am here. (I’ve recently landed. #cheapairfare)

Now, a bit about Perth...

Perth

I spent my birthday last week in Perth.

While taking off on my flight from Alice Springs to Perth, I got my phone at the ready to take a cliched picture of the airplane wing in flight over scenery. 

La-dee-da, get phone ready, wipe off lens with shirt, look to the left, and HOLY SMOKES!

Literally. 

Great, big, ominous billowing plumes of black smoke were pouring from a patch of trees nearby. Goody!

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I'm not sure what the source of the fire was, and I hoped everyone was okay; I also hoped it was not a bad omen for the flight.

*

When I landed and went to the baggage claim to retrieve my beast of a backpack, I was immediately singled out by the bomb-sniffing dog who rushed over to me and began sniffing my carry-on luggage. Visions of me holed up in a Perth prison quickly filled my brain as I began to unnecessarily sweat (knowing nothing illicit was in my bag or had been on my person).

I was asked to empty my bags, and began pouring out its contents:

Many cords, adapters, little bags of dried pre-mixed latte (popular here), granola bars, dog-eared books, and some weird little quiche cake things we’d been given on the Quantas flight from Alice Springs to Perth.

The airport employee asked me if I'd recently had any fruit in my luggage. I hadn't, but this was not a hill I wanted to die/be detained on.

I impulsively said “yes” out of nerves and added, "a banana, I think. Yesterday, maybe." 

"Ah, that must be what she was picking up then,” she smiled.

After the dog incident, I saw two of my friends from the Outback camping trip, Pascale and Tusi, who'd been on my same flight. We waved goodbye to each other in that way that's like: Well, I'll probably never see you again for as long as I live, but have a great trip in Perth!

I checked into my hostel, the Shiralee, which is family-run. The owner was often around, and – unlike every other place I’ve stayed – would say to everyone he saw: “Hey! What’s your name? How’re you going? Where you off to next then?”

As a result, the whole place had a very communal, “adult-orphanage” feel.

*

My first night in Perth, I took a class at the Western Australian Ballet, which was a lot of fun. Here's a pre-class pic from warm-up: 

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One of the cool and interesting things about ballet is that no matter where you are in the world, the vocabulary is the same. Ballet terms are all in French, as it is the dance form’s primary origin country. (Ballet technically began in Italy, in the 15th and 16th centuries, but it gained full steam as an art in France, in the court of King Louis XIV.)

 So, for instance, I could take a ballet class in Brazil, and not knowing Portuguese, I could still understand what was going on and what we were to do.

 I love that about ballet; it is inherently global.

 I remember the first time I watched a ballet; I was around 10, I think, and went to see “The Nutcracker” at the Fox Theater in St. Louis. I remember thinking – (though, in less flowery words than the following) – that all the dancers onstage exuded this very interesting and appealing combination of strength, grit, toughness, and power –simultaneously coupled with beauty, delicacy, and daintiness (and, pretty, pink, poofy, sparkly outfits). My 10 year-old self thought: Yep, that’s gonna be one of my “things”!

(Heather Ogden, The National Ballet of Canada)

(Heather Ogden, The National Ballet of Canada)

Early on in high school, I was a company member in a now-defunct ballet company in St. Louis called Ballet Midwest. I was not high ranking in it by any means, but I lived for it. I was cast as an understudy for the 4 swans in “Swan Lake,” and when I saw that casting on the roster, I thought: Life can get no better than this moment.

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Did you know that NFL football players sometimes take ballet classes for strength training? 

*

Sharna, a fellow dancer (who also served as photographer for the warm-up pic), warned me about crocodiles   when I told her I was next visiting Broome:

“It’s wet season there right now. Very hot and humid. I’d stay away from any water if I were you. And – you probably know this already – “ (I didn’t) “never go in water that’s shaded, and never go in evening or morning, that’s when the crocs are most active.” 

The ballet teacher was from South Africa and has been dancing in Australia for 10 years. At the start of class, Sharna said to the teacher: "We have someone here from the U.S.!"

I gave a weak, shy wave. 

"Where are you from?"

"I live in New York City."

"What a shit hole!" he said with a smile.

The class was tough, and the people in it were great and very welcoming. Sharna even drove me back to my hostel, which was incredibly kind. (It’s true what they say about Aussies: they are a very nice, warm, and hospitable bunch.)

I was waiting outside the Western Australia Ballet Center, looking (futilely) for a cab. She said: "This is Uber country out here. You'll never find one. I can give you a lift home. I'm heading into the city."

As we drove over to Brisbane Street, she told me about her work as a financial planner. She specializes in helping people figure out finances for helping their aging parents. She's writing a book about it too. 

One woman from class, Pia, is coming to NYC in April so we'll hopefully go to a ballet class together when she's in town. Pia works at the university in Perth, and also has a side hustle of her own Etsy shop, UtopiaDancewear. She just got her first order from France the other day and tells me it was very exciting.

Here's her bestselling tee (a wordplay on Star Wars + dance terms):

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PERTH-DAY


I celebrated my birthday in Perth by going on this wine tour boat-cruise thing through Swan Valley. I'd like to say I entered the boat that morning at 9:30 am like this: 

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But, in reality, it was more like this: 

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I took a seat inside the boat and cooled down a bit with an iced coffee, then I had some fast and important decisions to make.

 I first sat at a table across from a stone-faced couple and a family of three beside me. I got a strong we-are-not-especially-fun-and-happy-people vibe from all at the table. I knew I had a very small window of time in which I could ditch Mr. and Mrs. Stone-Faced McMummblesons and co., before I was stuck.

“I’m going to go see if I can find a seat by one of the windows,” I said, giving the apathetic table a little smile and wave. I got up, and looked around. The tables were filling up fast. I saw one at the end, however, which looked promising. Two couples happily chatting with each other and laughing.

My people! I thought.

I walked over t them. “Is this seat free?” I said.

“Yeah, have a seat!” said Christy.

Christy and Mike are Perth natives, and both had the day off work, so decided to take a wine cruise to see the city and be tourists for the day. They each manage separate department stores in the same chain. “They say we’re really laid back here,” said Christy, talking about Perth. “Yeah, some say we’re too laid back, but I don’t think so,” said Mike. “There’s a difference between laid-back and lazy, you know?”

 I nodded.

When we left Perth harbor, Christy pointed out to me several pairs of nearby dolphins which were swimming together. Seeing the beautiful dolphins made me think of Lisa Frank folders from grade school and how much I coveted them:

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Gordon and Jackie, my other tablemates, are from Aberdeen, Scotland. They’re in Perth for 3 weeks visiting friends from Scotland who now live here. Turns out, it was Gordon’s birthday too! Well, on Feb. 29 (a Leap Year baby). He always celebrates on the 28th, though. All five of us delighted in the coincidence of us the two birthday folk being at the same table.

I liked Jackie and Gordon a lot, and enjoyed how self-effacing they were (“Of course we didn’t buy anything–we’re Scottish!" …. “I don’t think many Scots have a preference on red versus white wine; mostly we’re all just alcoholics in Scotland”). I told them both that the Scottish accent – along with Irish – is my favorite.

As we sailed along the water and out of the harbor towards Swan Valley, the captain began his scripted commentary: “Perth is one of the windiest cities in the world, along with Chicago. But I am told Chicago is because of their politics...”

The captain was a one-stop shop: He steered the ship, did commentary, served muffins and coffee, and cracked jokes. He was like the Dick Van Dyke character in the original Mary Poppins – a one-man-band:

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On the ride through Swan Valley, Christy and Mike talked about Perth and WA (Western Australia); “Western Australia wants to be separate and on its own from Australia, until it doesn’t.”

It’s interesting (although, not wholly unsurprising), how when people over here ask where I’m from and I say the U.S., DJT (aka Trump), will always – and I do mean always, without fail, every time – be mentioned by the person I’m speaking with. I can tell that they're broaching the topic gently, unsure of my feelings towards him, and for whom I voted in 2016.

It’s like: Let's see...For the past 5 weeks, I have been living in – what are, basically  –socialist hippie communes [hostels], living out of an 80 gallon* backpack full of always-slightly-dirty clothes, and eating muesli with soy milk for most meals....so, who do YOU think I voted for?

Thus, I’ve learned to head off this whole dance of do-you-or-do-you-not by usually outright stating a qualifier before his name. Often, an unfavorable adjective; varies which I chose.

As I always do, after the Scots brought up DJT, I said something like, “Oh, well, our terrible president…”

And Gordon, to my surprise, said: “I actually like him. I think he’s a good leader.” This was the first time I’d ever encountered support of DJT from a non-American.

I bit my tongue, reminding myself that we’d all be together for the next six hours, and then toasted to our mutual birthdays, with the round of Chardonnay that had just been served at 10:30 am.

The captain of the boat talked about his visits to NYC, after asking where I lived in the U.S.

“When I went there….’06, I think it was?…I felt like Crocodile Dundee!"

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He went on:  "Loved all the diners there, you know? You get your big cheese omelet and coffee – and they keep coming to fill it up. I’d be dead in 6 months if I lived there! All them cheese omelets and Oreos…” 

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He then talked about how much he loved American mafia lore, and any movie with Al Pacino. We sailed onward:

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I enjoyed the Captain’s commentary and one-liners, too. As we passed a small fishing boat, with three people crammed into it, which sat low in the water, he said: “Rub-a-dub-dub they’re about to be sunk!”

The server on the boat was an avid ocean swimmer. Someone asked her if she was afraid of the Great White sharks that pepper the Western coast. “As long as they eat me head first I’m fine,” she said. 

As we wound our way down the river and into the valley, we went under a narrow and exceedingly low bridge.

 The captain told us that it’d been built in the 1930s (“they didn’t have the foresight then about taller boats…”). When the tide is especially high, the boat can’t go through the bridge and, thus, can’t go to the winery (“…we give them the option to book another day, or to just stay on the boat and drink a bunch of free wine,” the captain told me. “I think you can guess what most people choose!”). The boat, however, is equipped with a special thing (<--technical term) at the bottom that allows it to suck in gallons and gallons of water, thus lowering the boat a full 8 inches and then being able to make it through the bridge if the tide isn’t prohibitively high. (I found it all quite interesting.)

As we passed the time, I asked Gordon and Jackie about their travels some more, and they told me how they’d been at Disney World in Florida when 9-11 happened, and how eerie it was. “The whole park shut down and they made everyone leave. We didn’t even know what’d happened until the next day. We went back to the park the next few days and there weren’t any Americans there. It was only foreigners, and it was so quiet…we didn’t have to wait in line for a single ride.”

Here’s a picture of me and the Scots – Gordon and Jackie:

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Another thing that has been popping up a lot in conversations with strangers/new friends on my travels is climate change.

“Gets more humid here every year...” said Christy and Mike of Perth.

Gordon and Jackie commented on the Arctic-level temps they’d read about in Chicago from last month, and said how Scotland has been especially cold this year too.

Good thing climate change isn’t real though, right? Then we’d all really be screwed!

*

We arrived at the beautiful Sandalford Winery and were led on a tour.

It was around this time that I had some lapses in attention, so I can’t tell you much about how the wine there is actually made. But, a picture is worth a thousand words, so here's 3:

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(One thing I do remember from the tour is that Sting once performed at the vineyard. I remember thinking: They must’ve paid him a LOT of money to come out here.)

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The tour was followed by a tasting. I liked the rosé best. (Perhaps mostly because it was my favorite color.) 

On the way back, I chatted with a couple from Essex (which is just outside of London). They were on their honeymoon (a 6-month honeymoon; they saved up, quit their jobs before the wedding, and traveled around Asia and Australia the past 5 months), and they kept talking about how much they hated the TV show “TOWIE.” The woman then told me essentially her entire medical history. I was trapped in the conversation, and there was no polite way out.

Nearly died at 23. (Vein clotting issue. 

Diagnosed with endometriosis at 26.

She got diagnosed with endometriosis right after she’d begun dating her now-husband. They were one month into dating at the time. She told me: “When I got the diagnosis, I figured surely he wouldn’t want to keep dating me if I’m not able to have kids. And we’ve been together six years.”

I am someone who often assumes things about people and situations; hearing her story was a good reminder to not assume (in her case, assuming her burgeoning relationship was soon-to-be-over). You just never know. (Until you know; then, you know. You know?)

Thankfully, we were nearing Perth harbor:

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Back at the hostel, I chatted with my French friends I'd made the night before, Elodie and Baptiste, and settled in on the enormous couch with about 10 other people to watch some Melissa McCarthy movie in which she goes back to college. 

I opened the large bag of salt and vinegar chips I’d purchased at a convenience store down the road, and ate the chips like popcorn at a movie theater: I shoveled them furiously and hurriedly into my mouth like I was preparing for a fasting ritual.

It was one of those half-baked movies with a C-grade plot which was surely greenlit with the idea of: "Melissa McCarthy...she's popular! Let's build a mediocre movie around her and make some money from the mindless masses."

Anyways, I fell asleep during the movie, then woke up FOUR HOURS LATER on the couch. By that time, there was just one other person there, and he was also asleep. The Mark Wahlberg movie "Ted 2" was now playing. I wondered if the original one, “Ted,” had proceeded it.

 I dragged myself to my room and went to bed.

Side note anecdote from the Outback, which I forgot to include in the last update, which not only highlights my kind and helpful nature, as well as how children seem to be drawn to me (perhaps it's because they can sense in me a like-minded overly gullible disposition and a fellow loathing of imposed bedtimes), but also – and is the main reason for sharing it – provides an interesting Australian cultural observation: 

On Day 4 of the Outback trip, we all went swimming in a gorge.

There was a little boy there, Leo, age 5, and we played in the sand for a bit. His mom later yelled to him from her sun tent:

"Leo, wash your hands in the water before lunch!"

He did as he was told, then started to march up the sand towards their tent, and then he fell, stretched out his hands, and landed in the sand, and his hands were no longer "clean" (as "clean" as one's hands can get from swimming in a moss and fish-filled body of stagnant water).

This happened once more – wash hands, fall on hands, sandy hands – and so, after he washed his hands a third time, I said, "Leo, do you want me to give you a piggyback ride to your tent?" He said no, and instead, stretched out his arms for me to pick him up. So I did, and balanced him on my hip like a basket of laundry and walked him up to his mom who said: "tell your new friend thank you!” 

Tour guide Shannon yelled out to me: "THAT'S SOMETHIN' THEY ONLY DO IN THE STATES! You'd never see that in Australia," referring (I think) to making extra concessions to help a kid stay clean then giving them a free ride across the sand. I think Aussie kids are raised to be more "rough and tumble" (based on things Australians have told me). 

And, by the way, you think I’m joking about the Pied Piper-like effect I have on kids? 

Well, THINK AGAIN!...

Broome

 On my flight to Broome, this adorable little girl was sat in front of me, and for nearly the whole duration of the 2 hr 30-minute flight, she wedged her head in between the seats in front of me and stared at me for most of the flight. We made silly faces at each other and she gave me high fives.

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And sometimes, she'd reach back to hold my hand. (Yes, I took a picture.)

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*
When arriving in Broome by air, you basically land on the beach. Or, at least, it looked that way when we prepared for landing:

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*

 A note on Perth Airport security, which I encountered before my flight to Broome.

In short: abysmal.

Not the airport/security personnel, they were all nice and friendly. 

 No, I’m talking about the security screening process itself.

 When I flew from Perth to Broome, I was astounded by how low-level the security was. It’s like the security you'd find at a Greyhound Bus station. Which, having arrived in and departed from many – I can assure you –  is absolutely none. No security. 

Actually, I think I've had more secure bus rides, in the instances when I had to present my ID to retrieve my ticket.

I kid you not, there was zero identification process at the Perth International Airport.

 As I typically do, I had my passport in my back pocket, at the ready. Ok, you don't need to show it at check-in, fine – just punch in your name into the kiosk thing. Walk to go through security. Okay, no one seems to be working here apparently...no one looked at a boarding pass, much less ID. 

I got to my gate and showed them my ticket, but, at this rate, did it even matter?

 I could've been anyone.  

 *

Broome felt like kind of a quiet, sleepy place, but I'm sure I've judged it too quickly, and my impression is based on a mere 48 hours spent here so that's not quite fair to Broome. Also, I was sick while I was there, so my entire experience was colored by my not feeling well.

 As a result, being in Broome was a real exercise in "celebrate the small victories" :

get out of bed, take shower, get a bunch of work done in the hostel kitchen while drinking too much Coke Zero (why don't they have Diet Coke in Australia? Or maybe they do, and I've just never seen it...), walk down to the beach to see the sunset, watch Ruth Bader Ginsberg documentary (so inspiring – highly recommend), pet the local homeless kitten at the hostel named Jackson, go to bed, wake up, go to airport, get on flight.

I saw some dogs playing in the water while the sun set. They looked so happy and free:

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Broome is definitely the most laid-back place I've been thus far. And it had me missing the creature comforts of NYC, like Seamless (a takeout delivery service), for one.

I stayed at a hostel called “Beaches of Broome,” which sounds so idyllic, right? Prior to coming, I wondered if I’d see more brooms in Broome. Like, do the people that live here enjoy (and capitalize on) the wordplay potential? If I lived in Broome, I might build a table made entirely of brooms.

Broome, a small beach town of 16,000 residents, is known for its pearl trade. Like a number of other things in Australia (and this is true of countless other countries as well), the pearl trade has a stained history. In centuries past, Aboriginal women and girls were enslaved and forced to dive for pearls in Broome.

When I read this, I thought: 

A. How the Aboriginals were treated was (and remains, to a different degree) so terrible. 

B. Pearls…beads…funny thing:

I thought of an anecdote from last year; an exchange I had with one of the drivers who drives me to work. (As one of my jobs, I work as a researcher at a corporate PR company, and I begin my workday at 5 am, so the company sends a fancy town car to pick me up to take me to the office, which makes the early start time ever-so-slightly more bearable).

I was working on Columbus Day (as was the driver), and he was talking about how (and I have not researched this, so I don’t know if it’s true): “…when Columbus first came here,” said the driver, “he paid for the land in beads and buttons!”

“I wish I could pay my RENT in bead and buttons!” I said. 

We both had a good chuckle.

I relayed the exchange to my brother Kevin later that week, and every few months or so, “beads and buttons” will pop up in some form.

“Do you have enough beads and buttons to buy me lunch?” I may ask.

*

I had a lot of happy & helpful coincidences in Broome, which has left me with a very good feeling about the town, despite the fact that I didn't get the opportunity to enjoy it as much as I would've like to, as I was sick.

Happy/helpful coincidences:

1. Having a nice and friendly roommate in the hostel. Bronnie, a Kiwi (aka from New Zealand) woman, has spent the last 20 years traveling the world. Bronnie was the best part of Broome. Each of the 2 mornings I was there, she'd say across the room from her bed: "Did you have a good sleep, Anne?"

What a lovely way to begin the day.

2. Surfer Jesus-looking dude giving me some of his chicken curry for dinner. 

3. Airport shuttle pulling up at the time I needed it, sans me requesting one. They were stopping by and I needed a ride, and it saved me the usual travel-day stress of: must find ride/transport to the airport so I'm there for my usual 3+-hours-pre-departure airport arrival time (a steadfast requisite regardless of destination – domestic or international – to the annoyance of all who travel with me or take me to the airport).

The shuttle driver was a 70-something man who had visited to the U.S. last November with his wife. "…But when we got there it was a public holiday! Everything was shut! It was a Thursday. What kind of public holiday is there on a bloody Thursday?!"

"It was probably Thanksgiving," I offered.

"Yeh, could've done."

He asked me what I did in Broome.

"Did you make it to Cable Beach?"

"Yes, I went last night to watch the sunset."

"Good on ya."

I nodded proudly. 

"Did you get into town then? See the main street and the mall?” 

"No, I wasn't feeling very well when I was here."

"That's okay, you can come back."

"Did you at least get to [well-known Broome pub I can’t recall the name of] for a pint?"

"No, I didn't."

"Did you see any of the Mardi Gras celebrations this weekend?"

"No."

"Did you at least see the camels on Cable Beach when you went? It's what Broome is most famous for!"

NO, BECAUSE, LIKE I SAID, I DID NOT FEEL WELL. AND NOW YOU'RE MAKING ME FEEL WORSE ABOUT MY FORTITUDE AS A TRAVELER SO PLEASE, ENOUGH WITH THE THIRD DEGREE!

 But, polite social convention dictates I couldn't say the above. So, instead, I just said this:

 "No, didn't see the camels."

 "Mate!" he said. 

"I know, I know. I was a little under the weather. So, I mostly just stayed at the hostel."

"That's okay. You can come back. Maybe next time with a man; bring a partner! You'll have more fun that way."

LISTEN, I really appreciate the unsolicited advice, and I do believe it is coming from a good-natured and well-meaning place, but it makes me feel less-than, so please, just can it, buddy!

 Instead, I just chirped: "Yeah, maybe!" 

I handed him $15 for the ride and walked into the Broome airport, which has 3 gates, one of which is open-air:

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I flew from Broome, then to Darwin, where I had a 5-hour layover. Next, I was Bali-bound! 

Here’s my route I’ve traveled thus far (since I landed in Oz):

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Among the many reasons I'm going to Bali (okay, mainly one; did you read that book Eat Pray Love? My good buddy Liz G., who I got to interview for Ms. Magazine a few years ago, made Bali sound so beautiful in her book) – is that while I was reflecting on my goals for the next 2** years on my bday, I decided I want to have visited a total of 50 countries in two birthday's time. I'm already at 28 countries, so, not too far off.

And I figured: hey, when else will I be this close to Indonesia? So, as a birthday present to myself, I took myself there. Wasn’t that nice of me to do for me?

 So, Indonesia can now be added to the list of places I’ve visited.

Only 21 countries to go! (I think an efficiently-executed trip to Central and South America, and Africa, will lead to a lot of boxes checked.)

Talk soon!

-Anne

03.06.19


*It's so weird to me that size of backpacking backpacks are sized by how many gallons they can hold. I’m sure there’s a logical reason for it. It just makes me think of ice cream though.

**I prefer to set and tackle goals in 2-year increments, versus the traditional "5 Year Plan." I feel like it gives them a greater sense of urgency, and thus, a greater likelihood of becoming achieved.

Update #3: Alice Springs & Uluru & the Australian Outback

I'd been excited to go to Alice Springs and Uluru since last February, when I met a French woman while I was in Tasmania visiting my friend Erin. The French woman told me: 

"I'm taking a journey to the Alice Springs," in that way that English-second-language-speakers often speak, which I so love. Alice Springs...I thought. Sounds so...mystical...

As I listened to her talk about her trek, which sounded like a pilgrimage of the most epic proportions, I thought: I wanna go to Alice Springs! One year later, here I am. 

*

I've just returned from a 5-day camping trip in the desert. Right now, I'm writing to you from the groovy hostel where I'm staying in Alice Springs, Alice’s Secret Travellers Inn. Far and away the best hostel I've stayed at so far. Swimming pool! Laundry! Nice people who don't look like they're eyeing your shit to steal it! 

I'm penning this from a tiny room in the hostel named "The Jungle Room." 

It's a little sauna of a reading nook beside the pool. It's swelteringly hot (97 degrees outside, and no AC in the Jungle Room), but it's quiet in here, I'm surrounded by books, I have a nice view of the pool, and there's no one here to bother me, so it's perfect. 

I feel like Hemingway in his little treehouse hut in Key West, FL. 

Here's a pic of my set-up in the Jungle Room:

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So, I went on a 5-day camping adventure in the Outback to see Uluru, and shake off the shackles of civilization. 

I've written a bit about each day below, complete with pictures, of course. 

Day 1

Here I am on Day 1: Wide-brimmed hat atop my head, and looking ready to conquer the unknown. (Clearly, it was an unknown, because I wore sandals instead of boots, not thinking about snakes .)

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Don't I look happy, naive of what's to come, and clean?

In the following days...hygiene took a pretty severe dip. 

The following days were very much of the "roughing it” variety. I was perennially covered in my Outback special secret beauty blend: a mixture of red dust, sweat, sunscreen, and insect repellent. Hair – sometimes washed, often not. 

(You'll note there's no picture of me from Day 5.) 

On Day 1, everyone was picked up from their hostels/hotels by the guide and bus driver, Shannon, around 6 am. 

He slightly resembled Joey from the TV show Friends and spoke with a very thick Aussie accent. If there were a soap opera called Outback of Our Lives, Shannon would probably play the dashing and mysterious bachelor who lives on a camel farm. 

Throughout the trip, he had some quips he often used when talking about the heat and the flies (both of which were prominent and trying):

(And imagine these being said in a very thick – sometimes completely incomprehensible– Australian accent: 

"I'm sweatin' like Michael Jackson at a Wiggles concert..."

or

"I'm sweatin' like JFK in the back of a convertible..."

or

"I'm sweatin' like R.Kelly at a Spice Girls concert..."

or

[of the flies swarming him] "I wish I'd gotten this much attention in high school..." 

or

"It'll only take one more of these flies to send me to the mental institution..."

When everyone was on the bus, Shannon welcomed us with the first of what-was-to-be countless spiels on safety: 

“...if youze feel sick or faint when we get to the way Outback, youze need to tell me RIGHT AWAY. The rock, Uluru, will always be there, you’ve only got one life though — don’t risk your life and die of heatstroke just to see a rock....Youze need to have 2 liters of water on you AT ALL TIMES. It’s the end of February which means it’s dead hot. If you don’t tell me you’re feeling  sick and then you faint and you’re on the ground for 30 minutes, that’s 30 minutes we could’ve spent driving to the hospital.”

Yippee! What an auspicious start. 

On our long drive to Uluru (6 hours from Alice), we stopped in Erldunda, which is the most central part of Australia, according to Shannon. "The actual center of Australia is nearby in some guy's backyard," Shannon told me, as he was filling up the bus' gas tank. 

"Are we going there next?" I deadpanned. 

"No, it's private property," he said.

I know, Shannon. I know. 

Note to self: Shannon - sarcasm - no go. 


Tracks was one of three books I packed for the 5-day trip; this was not so much ambitious as it was stupid and space-consuming.

Here I am holding it against the backdrop of the Outback from our bus:

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It's the story of a woman, Robyn Davidson, who went on a solo trip through the Outback with her camels in the 1970s. I saw the movie version of it a few years ago and really loved it. I thought it'd be apt to bring the book into the Outback with me. 

When I wasn't reading on the bus, here's what I looked like. (Pic taken by my Swedish seatmates, who found the look hilarious.) 

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I'd wrap myself up like a burrito in my REI sleeping bag and conk out. 

Throughout the trip, we had long stretches of hours and hours driving around, and with our daily 4 am wake-up calls, I needed little catnaps on the bus.

Our group numbered 17, and I was the only native English speaker of the campers. The majority of the group was from Germany. So, as you can imagine, lunch prep, cleanup, and loading supplies onto the bus was incredibly efficient and quick. I admire how Germans value efficiency. 

I noted this to one German woman, Elena. She smiled and said: “Germans—we like to follow a plan.”

Oh don’t I know it.  #WWII


My two trip best friends were the two other solo travelers, Rebecca and Jorge (pictured below). 

Rebecca lives in Cologne, Germany, where she works as a banker; she's really into SCUBA diving and has completed over 400(!!) dives. She came to Australia after trekking around Vietnam and Cambodia. Jorge – a GoPro enthusiast – is from Bremen, Germany, and after the Outback, he's traveling to Sydney, where he'll pick up a camper van he purchased, and drive around the east coast of Australia for 4 months. 

Both of them were the comic relief of the trip. Whenever we'd be hiking around, Jorge would always ask me, with a big smile on his face, "Do you think we're getting close to the coffee bar?"

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One thing I love about traveling is how it challenges previously held beliefs about people and places. Case and point: I used to have a view of Germans as being a bit serious and buttoned-up and reserved. 

All the Germans I've met while on this trip – and this is particularly true of Rebecca and Jorge, and my friend Birgit from the Great Ocean Road – are absolutely hilarious, light-hearted, fun, and welcoming. 

(Though, it's true what they say about Germans being on time; they were always early and on-schedule.)

That first day, we all walked around the base of Uluru. Here's a brief bit about Uluru from uluru-australia.com:  

"Uluru, as it is known to the indigenous Aboriginal people, is a very sacred place...Uluru is easily one of Australia’s most recognisable landmarks. It rises 348 meters above the ground, but the bulk of this rock, which has a circumference of nearly 10 miles, lies underground. In geological terms, it is known as an island mountain. Such is its rarity and majesty that UNESCO has placed Uluru on its World Heritage sites list."

Uluru was stunning, and it was blazing hot outside; the whole group was pouring sweat. We’d been told — rightly—to drink tons of water. 

Shannon said: “No water — you get heat stroke and you could die. Too much water can never kill you.” 

I decided not to bring up hyponatremia, which is caused by drinking too much water, which lowers your salt levels and can lead to death by "water intoxication," diluting your blood. I read an article about it in a runners magazine a few years ago, and I wish I hadn't. 

We ate kangaroo for dinner that night, and it was delicious. I stayed up late talking to Rebecca and Jorge. I asked them about idiomatic expressions in German. My favorite one: "When it snows black." (Which is equivalent to: "When hell freezes over.") 

Day 2

As noted, 4 am wake-up calls. 

We were awoken by the sounds of our guide Shannon blasting didgeridoo music from his speakers (as he warned us he'd do; "if youze don't get up after three songs," he said, "then youze have to hear me singing. And me singing is just me yelling."). 

Rebecca and I shared a tent and she told me that morning: "You were telling stories in your sleep." 

"Oh, god. I was sleeping talking? I'm so sorry!"

"Do not worry," she said. "I was too hot to sleep anyways."

We got up to see the sunrise over Uluru. When we arrived it looked like this:

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Then, it eventually looked like this (making the early rise worth it): 

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Later that day, we hiked around Kata-Tjuta mountain. 

Over lunch, Shannon gave us a lengthy speech about snakes, how they’re active at night and what to do if you see one, and he then pointed to a flyer on the wall that had the phone numbers listed for the area’s main snake catcher, and also the secondary snake catcher.  

We then got another speech about signs of dehydration and were told we’d hear about water 2-3 times a day because it’s serious business. We were also instructed to dump a bunch of salt on our sandwiches because that’d replenish the salt loss from sweat. 

We were again told to drink lots of water. But bathrooms were very far and few between in the Outback. It was a real “choose your own adventure”: Let’s see, do I choose bladder infection from holding it in?...Or heatstroke and possible death?...I suppose I’ll risk the former.
On tour, no one called me by my actual name. To the Germans, I was "Anna," to the Aussie guide I was "Annie." I corrected them all a couple times, and told Shannon only my family calls me Annie. 

Later: 

“Anna, which tent you have chosen?”

“Annie, I don’t want to see you wearing them open-toed shoes again. Need your boots on out here.”

I thought about continuing to correct them with “Anne,” then decided – in the words (and accent) of Bridget Jones –  “Oh sod it.”

Day 3

At lunch, one of the Germans spotted a snake. “Everybody STAY AWAY!” shouted Shannon. “That’s a brown snake. One of Australia’s deadliest. You'll be dead in 20 minutes.”

The snake catcher was then called. (Think of what you’d imagine an Australian snake catcher living in the Outback to look like; you’re probably right on).


Speaking of animal life, I forgot to tell you about the flies...

 The flies were unbearable every single day we were there. I wished I’d bought a fly net to put over my hat. Vanity kept me from doing it, but I quickly regretted not buying one at the convenience store. I would’ve preferred to sport the below headgear than deal with the swarm of them that surrounded each of our faces at nearly all times. 

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My German friend, Rebecca, said it best: “give me three days of flies and I will confess everything.”

Meaning, they’d be an effective form of torture. 

Candid moment of displeasure captured here, by Rebecca, after I'd swatted away a gang of flies: 

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And you know things were bad when, on our final day, tough, stoic, 400+dives-diver, Rebecca, said: "I'd rather die than be out here with these flies another minute." She paused. Then said: "Well, like a natural death. Not a gun to the head, you know?"

And when things would get really bad, I’d drape a shirt over my head to keep them away. Like this:

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I’d rather die than wear one of them things on me face,” Shannon told Rebecca when she suggested he wear a fly mask on tour (like she did). Shannon said: 

“I’m meant to be this tough Aussie bloke in the Outback!” He said with a smile. 

It later got me thinking about gender pressures, and how when people raise their sons to have a narrow perception of “manhood” and what it is to be a man, it can be to the huge detriment of them. I think the world would be a much better place — and Shannon would enjoy his job a lot more — if men were raised with the notion that it’s a good thing to be vulnerable, and reach out, even if it means looking “weak" (be it in the form of the use of a fly mask or otherwise). Why do you think suicide rates are higher among men worldwide? In part, for some, I believe it's to do with fear of reaching out for help. 

It goes both ways, though. I think girls should be raised with a broader perception of "womanhood;" they should be taught that it’s okay to be the strong one, the tough one, the loud one – the one who speaks up, knows the right answer, and is smart. 

There’s a great TED talk by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Part of it was sampled in Beyonce's song "Flawless." Adichie says:  “...we teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller...”

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In the Outback (and in life in general, but especially here, where the divide feels greater to me, and the opportunity to buck stereotypes is ripe), I’m trying to be — as Gandhi famously said —the (gender) change I want to see in the world. 

So, I speak loudly and clearly, move the heavy crap (our lunch table, for one), be okay with knowing the answers and being right, and be the brave one who leads the way up the mountain. 

I know how self-congratulatory and navel-gaze-y the above sounds. 

That's all. I'm not going to qualify it or apologize for it. I just want you to know that I know. 

Being alone out here, traveling on my own, has me thinking about these kinds of things a lot. Which is a good thing. In NYC, I make my days so crowded and exhaustingly busy, because, in part, “busy” is a weird status symbol of its own. That’s true many places, but it feels especially heightened in NYC. I like not being as busy out here. It gives me time to really think – and also, not have to speed walk all the time.

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(Post edit: Tour guide Shannon—a day after he made the comment about needing to be "a tough Aussie bloke: – told me that one day, a few weeks ago, the flies were so bad that he started to cry. 

I’d judged him– and decided who I thought he was in one fell swoop, based on one thing he said – far too quickly. I was embarrassed when I realized that.)

And now, a pictorial ode to Shannon...

Shannon leading us up a mountain:

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Shannon leading us through some brush in the bush to get to a gorge:

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Shannon showing us a snake:

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Shannon posing for a picture with his most vocal and question-asking camper:

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Day 4

"Devastated" is perhaps too strong a word to use—but I was seriously disappointed with my planning and dates selection when I realized, after booking the tour, that I’d be in the Outback on one of my favorite nights of the year—Oscars Night. 

(Twice in my life, the Oscars have been on my birthday; my two favorite nights combined into one nearly made my head explode with joy.) 

I’d watch the highlights when I got back though. I was especially excited about the nominations received by The Favourite, A Star is Born and The Wife.

It was a good year for women in movies, and for greater representation in general. 

Who knew? Mainstream America will go see movies starring (crazy rich) Asians and films with all black (panther) casts, and films in which the lead is a female. You’d think Hollywood would’ve caught onto all this much sooner; change is a marathon, though, not a sprint. (Probably read that on an inspirational poster in a library somewhere.)

Thankfully, I was able to catch up on the winnings and highlights when I got back. I loved Lady Gaga's acceptance speech for Best Original Song for A Star is Born. 

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It really resonated with me. I don't have ambitions to be an EGOT-bound pop star/singer/actress/fashion icon, but I love Gaga's ethos and outlook about hard work, and feel it can be applied to any goal – not just ones in the arts. 

And I wanted to share because it might resonate for you, too: 
"...And if you are at home, and you're sitting on your couch and you're watching this right now, all I have to say is that this is hard work. I've worked hard for a long time, and it's not about, you know...it's not about winning. 

But what it's about is not giving up. If you have a dream, fight for it. There's a discipline for passion. And it's not about how many times you get rejected or you fall down or you're beaten up. It's about how many times you stand up and are brave and you keep on going..."

The Day of Missing the Oscars, otherwise known as Day 4 of the camping trip, we woke up and drove to a lookout point overlooking Mount Sonder. It was beautiful and quiet. 

Our 4th and final night, we slept in sleeping bags under the stars. The "swags," as they are called, are like sleeping bags and they're covered in canvas too, to protect you from the elements. So it's like a personalized mini tent (pic below). 

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We set them up in a wagon-like circle. 

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Camping under the stars ...sounds so idyllic, right? Remember, though – I'd been hearing all week about the plethora of snakes and scorpions and dingos in our surrounding areas. And unlike the swag pictured above in the first pic, ours were not fully enclosed; so: easy snake access. 

I nervously stayed awake, listening for threatening sounds (I did hear a pack of wild dingos howling, so that didn't help things). I eventually fell asleep, though woke up a few times throughout the night. And each time I did, the clouds that had been there earlier, when I first went to bed, had cleared, and the stars were astounding – the brightest, most beautiful, glittering starry night I'd ever seen.  

The view almost – only almost – made risking my life to deathly snakebite worth it. 

Day 5
Blessedly, Day 5 finally came. 

I'd been eager to get back to civilization for most of the week, but when the end finally came, I was a bit sad for its arrival. It's like when you're reading a book and you don't get into it until the very end. And from the beginning, I was not looking forward to being without wifi for 5 days. It ended up being good, though; it felt like an effective cleanse. 

And as soon as I returned to Alice Springs I chucked my laptop and iPhone into the Todd River while loudly singing "Goodbye Love" from the musical RENT. (Kind of like Andie does in The Devil Wears Prada when she tosses her phone into the fountain at Place de La Concorde in Paris.) 

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The morning of Day 5, we went on a tour with an Aboriginal man named Craig. 

He told us about the history of Aboriginals in Australia, and the history of the treatment of them by white Australians, which was (and continues to be) shocking, terrible, and such a stain on Australia's history, in the much the same way of the history of slavery in the U.S., and the treatment of Native Americans. 

Until 1967, Aboriginals in Australia were not classified as human. They were categorized in census data as "plant life." When Craig's brother and sister were born, they were classified as "fauna" and "flora." Aboriginals had their land taken from them, their children taken from them beginning in 1880 for the purposes of "integration," and a number of other terrible and culturally insensitive things have occurred over the past couple hundred years. 

In Aboriginal culture, one is part of the land – they belong to it. The land does not belong to them. So, to have that land claimed as the possession of white Australians was a special kind of hell and cultural destruction for their community. 

Tour guide Shannon told me that Aboriginal culture and history isn't really taught in Australian primary schools. "If they taught it, they'd have to tell the truth. And the truth is really ugly." As has been noted by other Australians I've spoken with – in general, Australia's acknowledgment of what has happened to Aboriginal people is pathetic at best. Comparable to how some people in the U.S. – as well as some American books and films – perpetuate the false narrative of "the happy slave."

There's not enough room in this email to give you a solid overview (and my blood pressure has been rising steadily in writing the above, so I should put a cap in it), but it's well worth reading up on Aboriginal history. 

Here's Craig showing us some traditional Aboriginal sand drawings: 

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I was happy that I finished the book I'd brought, Tracks, on Day 5. On the last page of the book, Davidson writes this bit, which I loved: 

“The two important things that I did learn were that you are as powerful and strong as you allow yourself to be, and that the most difficult part of any endeavor is taking the first step, making the first decision.”

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In a few hours, I'm heading to the airport to fly to Perth, where I'll be for my birthday (2/28). (Or shall I say...my PERTH-day?)  

I share my bday with my Irish Twin, my older brother Kevin, who is surely reading this – because he reads every inane email I send him, and watches every YouTube video I send, without fail. So, I'll take the opportunity now to sing his praises: 

He's the most kind, wonderful, smart, hilarious, and loyal person. He's the type of person who you can always count on, and I'm so lucky and grateful to have him not only a big brother, but also as a friend. 

Here we are at the opening night of a Star Wars movie in NYC in our matching Tauntaun shirts:

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Talk soon!

- Outback Annie/Anna

02.27.19