PORT MACQUARIE, AUSTRALIA- Well, today is the first of December, which means I can officially say I’ve spent a full month in Australia. It doesn’t seem possible that I’ve been here for this long already, but indeed I have. I’ve lived in the same hostel for 2+ weeks now, and it’s been an interesting experience. Beachside Backpackers is structured like a large house with a common kitchen, living room & TV, reading room, games all over, which makes for a 30 person communal living space. Anyone familiar with larger hostels can attest to the fact that they can be somewhat impersonal; new people come and go every day and you never even learn their names. Staying in a smaller place, particularly in a smaller town where there are fewer sights to see than activities to participate in, fosters quite the convivial atmosphere among the guests. Needless to say, I’ve met a trove of interesting people from all walks of life over the past few weeks.
First off, I need to make clear to everyone back home how I am NOT alone in taking a trip like this. There are scores of Germans, Italians, Brits, Aussies, Swedes and Canadians, all traveling around Australia (and beyond!), and the majority of them are just like me. One thing I’ve been saying recently is “Where are all of the Americans?”, which has proven to be a damn good question; over the past month I’ve only met four of my fellow countrymen. I don’t ask this question out of a latent yearning for patriotic companionship, rather it’s that I’m curious why long-term travel is generally something Americans shy away from. I could wax philosophical for hours about this (and probably will in subsequent posts), but the point I’m trying to make is that while my adventure as a Backpacker is a singular curiosity by American standards, it’s no such thing to the Western international community.
Thus far, there are two kinds of backpackers I’ve met. There are those in their late teens and early 20’s who are travelling on a gap year after having finished the foreign equivalent of high school, which often graduates them at a later age than the American standard of 17 or 18. They’re not quite sure what they want to do with their lives- should they study at a University, or become tradesmen? Continue to travel, or go home and settle down to a life of predictable contentment? They had an urge to see the world before they make their decision, and are in no rush to do so since they understand the gravitas of their current actions and the effect they will have on their lives down the road. While they are prone to engaging in the silliness in which 20-year-olds are wont to indulge, they are far more likely to engage in conscious thought and conversation about the world around them, what they aspire to accomplish with their lives, and how they may go about doing so than their average peer.
The second kind of backpacker is someone who is a bit older- say, mid-20s, has worked for a few years (some with & some without a University degree), and seized upon a desire to see the world a bit before they really grow up. Needless to say, I get along with these people a bit better, just a bit though. They have a better understanding that travelling is an experience that we all really need to be thankful for, since oftentimes they found themselves on a career path which proved difficult to leave. They didn’t choose to delay entering University for a year in favor of a trip up the East Coast of Australia; they made a conscious decision to leave behind a stable life with reasonable job prospects because they had a desire to see the world. Personally, it’s been refreshing to spend time in the company of others who think and act like me- some of the conversations I’ve had here make me think I’m talking to myself.
While there are differences between these two kinds of backpackers, these mainly have to do with their backgrounds and what kind of lives they left behind. Keep in mind that I’m painting with broad brushstrokes here, but everyone I’ve met is an independent, adventurous personality imbued with a sense of curiosity about the world. They are overly friendly; virtually everyone you come into contact with is a solo traveller who has made their friends on the road. It’s just as easy to find someone with whom to ruminate on the existence of a higher power as it is to find someone to cook $2 Spaghetti Bolognese with. For one reason or another, they were not content with the lives that they were living at home for a host of different reasons- they feel society is pressuring them to go to school or work a job they don’t feel comfortable, they don’t like where they came from, or, most of all, they just wanted to see the world before they really settled down. Of all things, I’ve found this to be the tie that binds…a simple desire to better understand the world and how it works, and the people that make it so. All in all, I’ve found it an incredibly refreshing experience to be surrounded by people who think in the same way that I do.
Last Thursday was a sunny, beautiful day down under…highs around 80 F, not a cloud in the sky, and a surf which was slightly rougher than usual. While here it was a day indistinguishable from any other, at home everyone was celebrating Thanksgiving. I had raised the idea of having a big “Thanksgiving” dinner earlier in the week, and everyone was receptive to the idea; apparently the classical American image of a big family sitting around the dinner table with a 25lb turkey is an appealing one which everyone wants to experience. Unfortunately, butchers down under don’t carry turkeys until December 18th (in anticipation of Christmas), so we decided to put a different spin on things: international Thanksgiving, where everyone makes a dish from their home country.
Jess, an Australian who obtained a degree in Geology before travelling Europe and Asia for 10 months and currently works at the hostel, made Tabbouleh salad- her father is from Lebanon. Alice and Erika, two nineteen-year-old Swedes fresh out of high school made Swedish Meatballs (and what do you know- traditional Swedish Meatballs are NOT prepared in the sauce we are used to seeing them stewing in in the Ikea cafeteria). Frenchy, a former Gendarmie (SWAT Team) officer in France before coming to Australia, made Pizza Aubergine. Ryan, a Canadian from just north of Seattle who has been travelling in Australia for 2 years in his van and just left the country for New Zealand and then Indonesia, made a big Canadian ham. Astrid, an instrument-maker-in-apprenticeship from France made crepes for dessert (side note: if you ever have the opportunity for a native to prepare crepes for you, seize this immediately). Chris & Hans, an electrician and landscaper from Germany, made “crisps”- aka sliced potatoes fried in boiling hot oil. Brom, a local Aussie, made clams with lemon. Stephon, a 27-year-old German physicist and his travelling companion Linda, a young high school graduate made German potato salad. I dined next to Manfred, the captain of a vacation yacht from some indistinguishable vacation lake resort in Italy, who was just staying for the night as he road his motorcycle across Australia. As for myself? I prepared a large dish of the most quintessential of American cuisine- Macaroni & Cheese. See above for a picture of my plate.
These are just a few of the dishes and people I can remember, but the bottom line is that international thanksgiving was a resounding success with a table of 30 people, the majority of whom haven’t known each other for more than a day or two celebrating a holiday they had only seen in movies or on television. While home always will be where the heart is, I had a great experience this Thanksgiving, and I took a moment in the middle of the meal, watching everyone passing around dishes from home they had made themselves, pouring each other wine and sangria, and talking and chatting like old friends, that even though I’m all alone Down Under, I constantly find myself in the presence of great company, and that there’s a lot that I have to be thankful for.