Townsville has a robust and bumping nightlife, which I happily took no part in while there.
I passed the overflowing bars and walked down the street to go to the town’s main movie theater to see Captain Marvel. I saw it on International Women’s Day, which felt fitting.
In the theater, the minute the lights went down for the trailers to begin, there was still some idle, quiet chatter among patrons. The guy behind me, very loudly, said: “SHHHHHH!”
Oh good Lord. Lighten up, Francis!
I thought: He’d never last in an American movie-going experience.
Interestingly – although not altogether unsurprising – all of the trailers before the movie were for American films. Not a single Aussie one.
I ate my M&Ms and popcorn and Coke Zero. I like to have the sweet and salty mix, so sometimes I’ll make little sandwiches of M&Ms and popcorn kernels, placing the M&M daintily and precariously on top of the kernel, and then shovel it into my mouth. Would you like to hear more about this technique? No? I’m boring you? Are you bored yet?
Let’s move on.
When we filed out of the theater, I made the 20-minute trek back to my hostel.
At least 10 times while on this trip, people have remarked about my traveling alone. (Just 10 minutes ago, while going through security at the Newcastle airport, the security guy said: “I like your accent! Where you from?... Traveling around Australia, eh? And you’re traveling alone? Wow, you’re game! Keep it up! And stay SAFE.)
The person doing the remarking will often bring up safety (like the security guy did a bit ago), saying something along the lines of – or, verbatim – “Aren’t you nervous to travel alone?”
In short: No.
(Interestingly – save for one older Greek woman – it is always men who comment about my traveling alone, and who ask me this question about safety. It’s not done in a lecherous or creepy way, just a curious way. At least, that’s always been my impression, as well as my hope.)
The (rightful) implication in asking this question (“…nervous to…”) is, of course, there’s a greater risk of “something bad” happening, and that my level of vulnerability is increased by virtue of being alone.
I just say to anyone who asks: “Bad things happen everywhere. Even when you’re with other people, bad things still happen. What’s the alternative? Never do anything or go anywhere?” (Of course, I modify the delivery to be a bit less….direct.)
Having taken a small handful of self-defense classes, especially at my all-girls high school, the thing I most recall – in addition to the key claw thing, avoid ponytails, etc. – is to “walk with purpose.” While traveling alone, and walking around / exploring, I am the most purposeful walker you’ve ever seen in your life – briskly stomping along sidewalks with freakishly upright posture and wearing a facial expression which loudly says:
Do not talk to me.
Do not touch me.
I will END YOU.
It has always proven effective. (Also, I can run fast, so I’ve got that going for me.)
Genuinely, though, if you plan to travel alone – especially if you’re a woman – I recommend taking a self-defense class, and / or reading up on self-defense techniques. Better safe than sorry. And, unfortunately, it’s something we need to consider and always be thinking about. (Not to be all doom and gloom, but I’ve seen one too many episodes of Law & Order SVU.)
Also, to gripe for a moment: It’s literally more expensive to travel solo as a woman than as a man. (Well, if you prioritize safety, that is. Which, hopefully, you do.)
For safety reasons, I’ll always spring for a cab, forgoing public transit, if I land in a city late at night. I always opt for all-female rooms in hostels, which are more expensive than mixed-gender ones. And I’ll make other extra spends here and there in consideration of safety. These are, of course, the smart and prudent things to do, but it bugs me all the same – the unfairness of it. (Particularly because women worldwide are still paid less than men, and yet it typically costs more to be one.)
And, of course, I know bad things happen to men too while traveling; I can’t relate to that experience and the precautions men take when traveling alone, but I know that from my perspective, the threat feels starker as a woman. This both enrages me and makes me feel sad.
And a final – also, happier and sweeter – note on traveling alone, I read this quote the other day and it made me simultaneously roll my eyes and also think, genuinely, Aw.
“Even when you’re traveling alone, you’re never really alone – the world is full of friends waiting to meet you.”
The reason I added Townsville to my itinerary was because it’s where my cousin Chantelle grew up. At my cousin Andrew’s wedding in December, she told me all about it and Magnetic Island, where she and her family would go on sailing trips on weekends.
I was dog-tired the day I arrived; I had planned to do Magnetic Island that afternoon, but forewent it in favor of seeing Captain Marvel. My cousin Chantelle used to live in Hollywood and worked at Disney for many years, so I think she’d be in support of this choice. I told her I would go, though (and I wanted to as well), so, bright and early the next morning, I took the 20-minute ferry to Magnetic Island.
Fun fact: WikiLeaks co-founder, Julian Assange, lived the first years of his life on Magnetic Island in the 1970s.
I took this picture on my hike in Magnetic Island.
As I was doing take 3, 4, and 5 of the photo, something odd happened.
Three Aussies in a white car pulled up alongside me. Each had a cigarette dangling from their lips and the driver was wearing a black cowboy hat. He yelled to me:
“Have you seen a little fluffy white dog called Oscar?”
“No, sorry, I haven’t.”
“Well, if you see him tell him to come home.”
They sped off to continue their search, and I wondered if they thought I looked like some kind of dog whisperer.
Then I thought: Oh no, the secret’s out.
I hiked around Magnetic Island for a couple hours, in my pink Birkenstocks, which on the whole are comfy, but the straps dug into me and left me with blisters and cuts. (Don’t worry – no picture will be provided.)
Like a dummy, I didn’t bring any water with me. It was in the 90s that day.
As I was raining sweat, I passed a hostel on the island. So, I stopped there to ask for some water. The kind bartender gave me a cup of ice water, and a big water jug (an old plastic apple juice container), filled it too up with ice water and sent me on my way. I was pleased as punch with myself for recognizing which region of England his accent was from. Yorkshire, in the north. (The north is easy to peg.)
Hiking around, I felt like Cheryl Strayed in Wild. She hikes for months on the Pacific Crest Trail. I hiked for two hours then returned to the ferry and enjoyed a latte.
Same experience, right?
I saw tons of lizards on Magnetic Island.
During this whole trip, I’ve seen more lizards than I can shake a stick at. A stick, I tell you!
So commonplace many once-unbelievable animals have become to me, that I could walk past a couple koalas and emus playing Black Jack together, being served martinis by lizards, and dealt their cards by bats and snakes, and I wouldn’t bat an eye.
Here’s one little guy I saw at my hostel in Rockhampton in the bathroom:
And zoomed in:
He’s the smallest lizard I’ve seen. Most are way bigger.
Leaving Townsville, boarding my Greyhound bus bound for Airlie Beach:
“ID, please,” said the driver.
I handed it to him. He took a look, then handed it back and looked at his list.
“Amy, was it?”
“Anne. Anne McCarthy.”
“I’m afraid I can’t let you on, Anne.”
My face fell. Up until now I had had zero transportation issues (and have also managed to uphold a reputation which I’m overly proud of: never having missed a mode of transit).
Perhaps this is the day my perfect streak will be shattered, I thought, woefully.
I looked at him. “Why?”
“Because,” he said with a big smile, “Trump said he’s gonna nuke us if we let any Americans ride Greyhounds in Australia!”
We both had a hearty chuckle, and I then tried to will my heart to stop racing.
Later, I had to wonder if this bus driver had a firing wish.
As we pulled into Airlie Beach he said:
"Here we are in Airle BEACH! Not much to see here, really. One day and you're done. Beauuuutiful animals though. Got gorgeous sharks and alligators and stingrays here. Gorgeous creatures."
In the course of three days, I rode three buses (each over 5 hour treks) and I thought: I could never be a rockstar on tour — the bus life is not for me…
You may thinking; “Don’t worry, I don’t foresee that as a career dilemma you will ever face.
The buses were trying. But I sallied forth.
My stay in Airlie Beach was a mere 14 hours. I did little but walk around town, check out the beach and the harbor, and catch a few Z’s.
Along the east coast, I've been moving so rapidly from place to place now, usually only staying 1-2 nights, so as to make the full trek around the circumference, per my original intention / plan.
Here is a map of where I’ve traveled since we last spoke, and where I’m going to next:
(I’ve just left Newcastle, and I’m currently flying to Canberra. Then, onto New Zealand, then to Sydney.
I’ve been so on the go that I'll often wake up and think: Which city am I in again?
The next city was…
I had a rude awakening arriving in Rockhampton, where I’d budgeted an overly generous 4 days for my stay. On my Lonely Planet map, Rockhampton looked to be right on the coast. Beach time city, baby!!
It was an inland town.
Rockhampton is an hour inland, and it’s a very quiet place. (“WHY did you go to ROCKHAMPTON?!” a few Aussies have asked me, laughing. Suffice to say, Rockhampton has a reputation in Australia of which I was blissfully unaware prior to going there.)
I was – to my surprise and delight – greeted at the Rockhampton Greyhound bus stop by a staff member from the hostel where I was staying.
Ozzie works at the hostel and has lived in Rockhampton for 13 years with his family. He has two daughters, age 5 and 7. And he’s one of the hardest-working people I’ve met here in Oz. He arrives at the hostel at 5am for a quick workout / swim in the pool, then cleans the kitchen, preps paperwork, greets guests, and during the day does the yard work maintenance, moves things around, etc., then leaves around 9pm. I am impressed by his hustle.
As Ozzie drove me from the bus stop to the hostel, we chatted. He said: “Rockhampton…it’s nice here, but it’s kind of a bit…country.”
Ozzie is from the Philippines.
I asked Ozzie what’s around the hostel, in terms of fun things to do, and he told me, “Well, there’s a Red Rooster a few blocks away.” (Red Rooster is a fast food restaurant.)
He also told me that Rockhampton is called “Rocky” by the locals. I loved hearing this, because it’s also the name of my roommate’s dog, who I – in a shock to myself and others – took fondly to, having previously had a decades-long apathy / sometimes-disdain for dogs.
Ozzie told me about his visit to NYC in June 2001, when he backpacked across the U.S. with friends.
“We stayed in Harlem.”
“That’s where I live!”
“Really? Well, we off the Tube there with our backpacks and surfboards we looked SO out of place!” He laughed.
“We were there in summer 2001, and you know what? We saw the Twin Towers. Later in the trip, we went to North Dakota. We wanted to go see Mount Rushmore but they wouldn’t let anybody in and we didn’t know why. The army came out when we were waiting to get in, and they said: ‘Haven’t you heard what happened? We’re evacuating. There might be a plane heading this way.’ …
It was on September 11,” said Ozzie. “The next day we heard what happened.”
In Rocky, I mostly read my books, pet the dogs at the hostel (Lucky and the other one, whose name I can’t remember). I did some research work for the PR firm, some writing for the Fat Tire Blog, and worked on my freelance writing projects.
Late into the night, working in the hostel kitchen and researching auto-related things for my researcher work, I was approached by a fellow hostel guest who asked me:
“Are you French?”
(I, of course, loved this assumption.)
“Your shirt!” I looked down.
I was wearing my “J’aime la vie” shirt.
“Oh, yeah. No, U.S. You?”
“What are you working on?”
“Researching auto stuff,” I said vaguely.
“I’ve spent the last 10 years cycling all over the world so I make less of an environmental footprint,” he said in an ever-so-slightly self-righteous way that left no room for doubt as to what he thought about my work, and my tangential corporate alignments.
Well, bully for you!
He went on about his bike, how much he hates cars, and how the world is falling apart.
So, like, are we done here? Some of us have work to do and bills to pay.
Instead, I said something non-committal, affirming, and discussion-closing:
“Yeah, life is crazy.”
There were lots of little creatures around Rocky. Namely, bugs. But non-biting ones. (There are so many BUGS in Australia!!)
While working, I was joined by a few of them. (Note: You know Rocky was slow-going if I took to photographing bugs.)
This little guy was my favorite:
No shade to Rocky, but I was so happy to be leaving. The town was far too small and quiet for my liking. If I were a completely different person, I’m sure I’d love it, and love living there. Different strokes, different folks.
I treated my stay in Rocky like a silent retreat. Apart from Ozzie and the car-hating-bike-nut, I barely said a word to anyone, save for the odd “please,” “thank you,” “do you sell Diet Coke here?” (“No? Okay…” …shuffles away miserably in need of caffeine).
It was really hot in Rocky – 95 degrees most days. I hung out with the dogs. They were hot too:
There was a pool at the hostel so I got to cool off a bit there, enjoy some poolside livin’, and read my book there.
I was told by Ozzie that the Botanical Gardens in Rocky are beautiful. I thought of going. But then I thought: Well, I could enjoy wildlife and plants at the gardens…OR I could sit on the grass under this tree by the pool and have an equally nature-based experience.
I chose the latter.
I’m currently reading a book called City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert. It comes out in June and I was grateful to have an advance copy sent to me for review/potential interview purposes. I’m really enjoying it. It’s a novel set in 1940s Manhattan and centers around showgirls of the era.
When I relayed the book title to my friend Scott, an avid reader, who is currently vacationing in Kenya with his husband, Ryan, Scott joked: “That sounds like my nightmare – a city of girls.” Then he said, while sipping G&Ts on a beach in Kenya and sending me pictures of boats and big fish and trees:
“Fun question: Does the brain of an idiot weigh the same as the brain of a genius? Asking for a friend.”
I also got to FaceTime with my niece a bit from Rocky. She is the cutest, and I miss her greatly. My mom was babysitting her and let Cecilia try on her headlamp.
Yes, my mom travels with a headlamp and sleeping bag at all times, regardless of where she is headed and regardless of length of time. I love this about her. And on this Australian adventure, you know what I packed? A sleeping bag and a headlamp. My headlamp, thoughtfully chosen by her in a pink hue, was a Christmas gift from mom.
Here’s Ceci wearing mom’s headlamp:
Speaking of missing things…I was hit with a bit of homesickness in Rocky. It was a brief bout –only about 36 hours.
When I encounter homesickness on travels, I always just give myself the same pep talk I give myself when I’m running marathons:
Settle in. YOU GOT THIS.
Don’t think too much of what’s ahead or how long you have to go – just focus on this mile.
Or, in this case here, this town.
If you panic and fall victim to emotion, you won’t finish the race!!!
I was chatting with my friend Grace in North Carolina and told her I was a bit homesick. She had some reassuring words, including: “I feel like most people have a lot of regrets when they get older about not doing things, but that you won’t because you make a point to do a lot of stuff.”
Side note: There was a fascinating project undertaken by an Australian palliative nurse, Bronnie Ware, some years back, in which she spoke with people who were dying and asked them about their regrets. (The article about it from The Guardian is linked here.) Here were her findings, the top 5 regrets of the dying (on which Ware also wrote a book):
1. I wish I'd had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
2. I wish I hadn't worked so hard.
3. I wish I'd had the courage to express my feelings.
4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.
Back to the homesickness – I was glad Grace said that. It put things into perspective.
And, I tried to remember it even more so while sweating my butt off in the top bunk of a hostel in Rocky, in a room with a busted air conditioner:
I will have few regrets, I will have few regrets, I will have few regrets…
….except for not checking into the hostel sooner so I could nab a bottom bunk.
Blimey, I pray I do not fall out of this thing.
Next, I’m flying from Rockhampton to Brisbane to see my friend Annie.
I’ll be staying with Annie and her husband, James. Annie and I went to high school together at Nerinx in St. Louis. I have fun memories of our friends hanging out at the park during summer. (We went to the park with a strange level of frequency.) I’m excited to see her. I’m hoping to get to visit the Gallery of Modern Art there as well.
In Brisbane, I'll also be seeing my mom's Australian friend, Angela, who lives there. They met when they both worked at the Catholic Worker house together in Philadelphia. Angela knew me as a wee tike, back when I was really obsessed with the movie Wizard of Oz, and when I had a grotesquely bad skin rash (I was in a medical textbook for it!).
Here, I probably just found out that The Wizard of Oz’s soundtrack was available on cassette:
Here I am at peak medical-grade-rash era. Note the discomfort:
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of the book The Godfather by Mario Puzo. In Rocky, I listened to an interesting NPR interview on Fresh Air with Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola. I loved this bit of it and wanted to share (Imagine Puzo saying it in his New Yorker Italian accent too):
GROSS: Now, what were some of the most difficult parts of adapting the novel into the screenplay - into the first...
PUZO: It was a cinch.
PUZO: Yeah, I mean, it was a cinch because it was the first time I'd ever written a screenplay, so I didn't know what I was doing. You know, it's - and it came out right. And the story I tell is that after I had won two Academy Awards, you know, for the first two "Godfathers," I went out and bought a book on screenwriting because I figured I'd better learn...
PUZO: ...You know, what it's about because it was sort of off the top of my head. And then the first chapter - the book said, study "Godfather I." It's the model of a screenplay. So I was stuck with the book.
Speaking of films….Right before my birthday, I found out I got press accreditation to the Cannes Film Festival for a 3rd year. I'm very excited to head back to la Croissette. Here’s hoping I find myself at a party with Cate Blanchett again. (Whoops, pardon me. Let me pick up that name I just dropped.)
In other career news, an editor at the BBC is interested in one of my story pitches. I just finished up doing some research for it.
It is unconfirmed as to whether or not the BBC wishes to proceed with the story, but the idea of it is exciting. As I kid, I had it on my (vaguely titled) “life list” to “work at/with the BBC.” At the time, I wanted to work in TV production and either be a producer there or maybe write a comedy TV show. This feels like a good – and self-manifested! – step to working with the BBC.
Another (fairly obscure) career-related thing… a lot of my favorite writers have popped up in my dreams over the past month.
Re the dreams:
In Airlie Beach: it was Roxane Gay.
In Bali: Elizabeth Gilbert (fitting).
In Adelaide: J.K. Rowling (probably because of my tour guide’s connection to her, and hearing him talk about her).
In Vietnam, I had a dream that Lin-Manuel Miranda and my brother Kevin both took me to coffee at Panera Bread and told me they were proud of me. It was strange and wonderful.
Neil Gaiman and David Sedaris have yet to make their appearances, but no doubt, they’re around a cloud-filled corner.
I’m proud – probably overly so – to report that I’ve met or seen or interviewed all of the above people (minus J.K. Rowling). Obviously, I’ve met my brother, but I mean the authors and the Hamilton creators. (I lived a few blocks away from Lin-Manuel back when I lived in Washington Heights; it was one of the reasons I stayed living up there so long.)
I remember reading Amy Schumer’s 2016 memoir, The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo, and in it, she writes about seeing her favorite stand-up comics, particularly the lesser-known ones who are not household names, and thinking: “Why don’t they have security? Why aren’t people mobbing them?!”
I think that whenever I see an author I love: Where are the raging mobs of fans?!
P.S. A few of my latest writing clips:
P.P.S. Pop singer Robyn played at MSG (Madison Square Garden) in NYC recently. Seeing this post-concert clip only exacerbated my homesickness when I was in the throws of it in Rocky. There really is no place like NYC. The clip, posted to Twitter, is linked here. It shows a mass of people singing a Robyn song ("Dancing on my Own") on the subway platform waiting for the E train. It's worth a little watch.