It was a humid Monday morning in San Francisco. Indian summer, they call it. I cuffed my jeans to let the air blow up but it made no difference; the heat that day was unforgiving. The city was at their offices, and I was walking through mine: the streets of a city filled with possibilities.
I looked down, if only for a moment . . .
When we're searching for our soul, do we ever reach a point when we throw up our arms and proclaim, "Okay I've found it!" And, if in fact we are lucky enough to find it, does that mean we should ever stop looking?
When in Melbourne
Not unlike most great cities, Melbourne food culture tells stories through flavor, presentation, innovation and ambiance. Across vibrant neighborhoods and down colorful laneways, new restaurants and cafes pop up regularly and catch the attention of stomachs and cameras. Melbourne's dining scene represents an important part of the city's rich and diverse culture; meat eaters and plant eaters alike can find both unique and exceptional food [x good vibes] all throughout the city. Locals and travellers sing the praises of dishes that support local suppliers and simultaneously fuel bodies, minds and souls. Below are the Constant Wanderer's recommended eats to consume, devour, nourish. Not all of these places need descriptions: trust us they're great. Put down your phone & pick up your fork.
When in Melbourne | Brunch
+ Manchester Press. A rustic hole-in-a-laneway serving gourmet bagels & Melbourne's best salad. 8 Rankins Lane, CBD.
+ Hardware Societe. A minimum wait of 20 minutes for a $20 plate of eggs that's worth every minute and every dollar. 120 Hardware Street, CBD.
+ Tall Timber. The tagline says it all: "good coffee, good good, food people." Versatile and well-crafted menu meets minimalist decor. Order the pumpkin bruschetta and head to the outdoor courtyard. 60 Commercial Road, Prahran.
+ Two Birds, One Stone. 12 Claremont Street, South Yarra.
+ COMBI. Raw & Organic Bar. Get your smoothie fix on. Shop 1 140 Ormond Road, Elwood.
+ Barry. A thoughtful menu of health food with blazing natural light that will make you want to stay all day. 85 High Street, Northcote.
+ The Kettle Black. Fine dining meets casual brunch spot, with every post meal sweet treat your heart could desire. 50 Albert Road, South Melbourne.
+ Bluebird Espresso. 134 Johnston Street, Collingwood.
When in Melbourne | Bites & Vibes
+ Journal Cafe. 253 Flinders Lane, CBD.
+ Lentils as Anything. Donation-based vegetarian buffet at the Abbortsford Convent. Kick off your shoes and lay in the grass. 1-3 St Heliers Street, Abbotsford.
+ 1000 lb bend. All about the good vibes. 361 Little Lonsdale Street, CBD.
+ Naked for Satan. 285 Brunswick Street, Fitzroy.
+ Little Mule Cafe. 19 Sommerset Place, CBD.
+ Shebeen. Not your typical cafe: 100% of profits go to the developing world. 36 Manchester Lane, CBD.
+ Auction Rooms. 103-107 Errol Street, North Melbourne.
+ Kinfolk Cafe. 673 Bourke Street, CBD.
+ Messina. Australia's best gelato just hit Melbourne. 237 Smith Street, Fitzroy.
+ N2 Gelato. 329 Brunswick St, Fitzroy.
When in Melbourne |Restaurants
+ Feast of Merit. An initiative by Y-Generation Against Poverty. Locally and ethically sourced produce where all of the proceeds support youth education and leadership projects in Malawi, Ghana, Rwanda, Cambodia &Australia. 117 Swan Street, Richmond.
+ Ike's Rack Shack. Picnic tables line the back of the Beaufort for ribs, cocktails and pool. (+ a vegan rib stack!). 421 Rathdowne Street, Carlton.
+ Colonel Tan's. 229 Chapel Street, Prahran.
+ Smith & Daughters. All vegan Spanish-inspired dining with a badass, rock 'n roll vibe. 175 Brunswick Street, Fitzroy.
+ Coda. 141 Flinders Ln, CBD.
+ Vegie Bar. 380 Brunswick Street, Fitzroy.
+ Chin Chin. A bustling Melbourne institution of upscale Asian fusion of small and large sharing plates. They don't take reservations so line up at 5:30pm to put your name on the waiting list. 125 Flinders Lane, CBD.
The older woman wore a light trench coat and running shorts, her hair pulled back in a pony-tail with a baseball cap half covering her defined brows. She dressed in a half-effort to be seasoned for winter, and the other half for summer. The first time I noticed her the air was crisp, the light was barren, and the grayness of the clouds hid the sun draining any light visibility. She smiled approvingly while mist danced slowly in the backdrop of my view. From her seat on the boat balcony, she should have been freezing - but the gleaming look on her face implied otherwise. It was apparent -- as we rode between the exquisite, lush mountain ranges of Queenstown -- that the darkening weather was no match for the natural beauty that encapsulated the traveler's eyes.
I admired this woman. She demanded no companionship; she needed no proof of the magic before her. She drew mental pictures with her eyes, observing richly, alone and in silence.
She appeared to desire nothing but small pleasures.
Who was she? And how did she become that person?
The portrait of the older woman, beautiful and simple, surfaced a year old memory of someone I remember fondly. His name was Liad, and when we first met I gauged him to be thirty years old, with a tan face that looked wise with age. Fixated by the sand-colored eyes with an unwavering, genuine gaze, I could tell immediately there were no secrets behind their kindness. His hair was burly and mangled, with a beard untrimmed over his defining jaw. When he hugged me, a blanket of warmth enveloped me in a way that invited love. It takes a certain type of person to exhibit unadulterated love with nothing beyond an honest hug, but that was just Liad's way of life.
On the afternoon we met, with the summer heat melting over my bare shoulders, Liad forged a path with his small, shaky car while I rode trustingly into the unknown. He plowed through grassy plains, probably once a prospering wild garden that was reduced to crumbling thickets of weeds and walked us down a hidden trail. A calming trance loomed pleasantly all the way down to the water's edge, where we bathed in the Jordan River. I cusped cold water every so often and splashed it over my eyes, head tilted back staring at the sky. When a cool breeze tickled the air, it felt exhilarating. The weather pierced my skin, but with a gleaming look on my face, my thoughts drifted far beyond the heat of the sun.
Down at the river, I remember the echoing laughter that day in Northern Israel. Together we loved to laugh; some time after that afternoon we met we often exhausted the night sky to sleep with laughter.
When the first day expired, we retired to Liad's family home, where his mother fed us generously as we sat in their family living room, walls filled with stories from around the world. Wooden artifacts and collections of rich history draping from all corners were tokens of their devout love and respect for the local artist.
Out the front door and down the hill, was a passageway leading to a place that felt less like the present and more like the past. It was a fruit orchard that in its earliest incarnation consisted of nothing but barren land, and was now transformed into community space.
The people who passed through the orchard astounded us newcomers with their lives in fine tune with the surrounding nature, all deeply engaged in discovering the meaning of life. They raised animals and collected fruits to eat and share and spent time outdoors and read and dreamed. Amongst the community of people, most all dreamed of self-sufficiency. They were fantastic beings, desiring few things but treasuring small pleasures.
Wealth, status, prestige ceased to exist, living only by the laws of the land. Henry David Thoreau once said, "as you simplify life the laws of the universe will be simpler." There were limited distractions in the minimalist society I had entered, with a radiating energy that I envied.
Before I met Liad I carried a lot of things. Material things. Heavy things. Possessions that weighed down upon my shoulders unforgivingly. But I had been willingly absorbed into Liad's world in search of an arcane idea of utopia, subconsciously trying to figure out who I was and the evolution to that self. Often our own independent thinking is made aware by the independent thinking envisioned by those around us. Our experiences are entwined with numerous thought-processes that directly, or indirectly, alter our mindsets and behavior.
In the fruit orchard, I vowed to observe the modesty of people like Liad, who are less concerned with extraneous things and more concerned with deeper human connections. His very natural, independent thinking made me sharply aware of my own mindset, providing evidence that minimalism is synonymous with a utopian society.
With the vision of the woman gazing out at the serene, blue waters I transported to this reflection on the sense of self, inseminated by human intellect. Was there also a great human in her life whose subtle manipulation of thoughts made her a woman of the land? In my mind she exuded a possessing wonder by ignoring the sounds of the steam engine and the people around her, everywhere. She had that exhilaratingly free look in her eyes like someone who has seen hope turn into reality. I implanted a mental picture of the woman for my time capsule.
There in the mist and the fog, I found clarity.
Travel is enchanting and magical, but the consumed traveler is one who fears all that is constant. The motivator to travel in the first place feels foreign and close to forgotten. The once-hungry appetite for newness is replaced rather by an impulsive fear that static is the only thing lurking over the grassy hill and across oceans.
For a traveler, the sustenance of life relies fully in the unknown. As one reflects on times of divine happiness, the travelers associates it not with years or numbers or candles on the cake, but geographically. Our happiness is defined by destination. Culture. Country. City. Strangers. Getting Lost in Foreign Landscape. Exoticism. Language Barriers. The Temporariness of Intimacy. We remember the times when we were happiest as 'those years on the road,' flickering memories that keep shape, but lose detail the older and wiser our minds grow.
When the first explorers set out on adventure they were young, but also blind and brave and bold. Instinct as a roadmap and vulnerability to create trust. They were the real voyagers. The Greats. Travelers who run straight at the wind without looking back. I imagine the way they would wince at my traveler's life now, for the strangeness of the world that once attracted those early adventurers has been swallowed by the immediacy of technology. Would they chide us for the way we act in our own modern musings?
As they grew older, did they also grow more nomadic or is that insatiable desire to be lost inherently traded when we find reason to stay grounded? An older generation of explorers seems to be more and more arcane - a notion of travel while you're young before the seduction of stability grabs tight and never lets go.
Maybe these older souls know the other riches that life has to offer -- of the wealth caused not by nature's beauty but by the comfort of human touch: of a love waiting for us on the other side of the front door and the children's smiles.
At what age must one trade the traveling self for the realist self? Running far fast suddenly seems the most sensible when both pressing dynamics exist in a versus. The deliberate challenge is to examine how the former and the latter can coexist in harmony when each lie on opposing sides of life's mirror. The reflection of the vagrant self is clear - joyful, comely, and more mysterious while reality stares back, eyes green with envy.
Our realist self knows as we grow with the changing world, being forced to reckon with all of the flaws of overstimulation and loss of bookstores and illiterate countrysides, that the minds of our younger, traveling selves require an entirely new type of attention.
As I grow older, I hope to savor these stories and nurture my children through life with maps and words, with a hidden doorway to their mother's imagination. Along with the stories of their Grandmother, one of the Greats who left home at 17 to fall in love with the world over and over again. At some point in our aging process the two paradoxes of self - traveler against realist - will meet at a crossroad of nomad, stability, our past and future self. Which direction do we run?
It was a sudden windchill in the air that led me to Phuong, down a dirt alleyway tucked in the heart of Hanoi. As clouds danced across the sun, I dodged eager scooter drivers plunging by at frightening speeds into his guesthouse lobby. The space was bland and only mildly- inviting.
Our first interaction was when he guided me with a pen through a historical journey of the city map, with secret tales that could only be provided by the familiarity of a local. I knew immediately that I needed Phoung -- like I later learned he needed me. I didn't yet understand the Western fascination with Vietnam, but I felt compelled to learn why thousands of brave traveling souls before me felt a deep attachment to the country and its people.
So I studied Phuong as I study a new map, getting a little lost in between the creased edges and slowly finding my way. At 27 years old, behind the clear eyesight, was nothing but tired eyes. They cried for a life beyond the draping mosquito net that shielded him on the floor of the lobby in which he slept seven nights a week, every week of the year. Those endless hours accumulating just dollars to send home - if you could call that wallless, waterless building of broken bricks a home. He worked to buy drinks and food for foreign Westerners in hopes that they would stay longer. . .just one day longer. . . . just one hour longer so his life didn't have to feel so viciously cyclical.
But often it's the people who have less than us that can teach us the most. They experience inept gratitude for customs we view as normalities. They see the value in a dollar, or rather don't see the value in a dollar because money is of no concern -- although they have almost none of it. These people prove that possessions serve no factor in the quality of our lives.
Because it wasn't more money he desired. He yearned for simple companionship, a concept almost too opportunistic for his lifestyle. Trapped behind a pair of barren doors, he watched people coming and going, going and coming while time for him repeated itself.
The depth of our conversation heightened; for some reason he let me in. Maybe because I was the first person in a long time who truly listened. Maybe because he just wanted someone to listen -- even knowing that I too would leave, because in actuality we had no foundation for a friendship besides the fact I was a tourist in his country.
So in this strange, conceptual, lost-in-translation relationship Phuong needed me like I needed him.
Thanksgiving rolled around, a holiday lost within days of traveling transitions. Together -- with other International friendships in a timer, rice and spring rolls, we celebrated. We ate and drank in a humbling display of inexpensive food, savoring the laughter and the company. Phuong knew nothing about the fruition of the tradition, nor the meaning of Thanksgiving. He did not know of the typical, extensive and colorful display of the plates. He had no former history to use as a backdrop for the memories we were creating.
But Phuong, more than anyone who followed holiday tradition, expressed sincere gratitude. We gave thanks -- and he gave greater thanks. For him, however much or little we have, we can always value the company we keep. If we offer a reciprocal learning exchange of knowledge, then there is no greater companion.
Phuong may have had less than me in some senses, but he possessed qualities far more powerful than any possession. He had a beautiful mind of curiosity and a genuine soul. He had the capability to connect with any person of a foreign culture. Most importantly, he used his experiences in life to teach.
So together, with those friendships in a timer, we drank until our voices rattled through the lobby and four floors up. We laughed until his tired eyes eventually caught fire - vibrant and alive.
A cool ray of light seeps in through the bedroom as the trees of fall murmur with the wind. Their branches tap, tap, tap on my windowsill, calling to wake up and stretch my mind. Slowly I tiptoe down the corridor of a silent house, a silent house for the first time in a long time. All of my housemates -- the Indonesian, the Japanese, the Chilean, the French, and the Canadian-- are gone. I boil a cup of tea in my anything-but-lonely kitchen and retire back to my familiar pillow, embracing my introverted writer's haven of solitude.
Out the door and four blocks I shuffle past the old Victorians, brick homes with quaint porches and chained bicycles that give life to my North Melbourne suburb. Their charm radiates. At stop 19, Abbotsford St. Interchange, the 57 tram rides into the city with the children, the businessmen, the junkies, the creatives, the tourists who all squeeze on along the way. We're strangers moving in the same direction, breathing the same air. Why is today the day I observe them with a little more curiosity: study their faces and expressions, the lines of their hands, the trends of their clothes.
An encyclopedia-sized book is consumed on the journey: The Writer & the World. I read about India; I read about despair. I read about how developing countries only seem full of despair from an outside, Western pair of eyes. Pages later a woman's voice calls from over the intercom ‘stop number 7: Queen Victoria Market.’ The market is busy - jam packed with people and extensive displays of fresh produce and aboriginal artwork. Foreign-looking traders shout bargain prices to one up the shouts heard at the stall next to them. Their yells are loud and frequent. Sleek women weave through the traffic of people, in among the tired artists and hungry backpackers. A guitarist plays to the sky for mere coins; it's been months since he's been able to shop at the market.
It's only a balmy Tuesday morning so I quickly cycle through people to admire. Out the aisles and four blocks I trudge, past the unromantic sights of Elizabeth Street decorated in budget Malaysian food houses bordered by budget Chinese ones. Noodles and dumplings define the air's strange sensation.
Tucked between construction on Lonsdale Street a pair of heavy, metal doors look like platform 9 and 3/4: unnoticed and yet oddly enticing. I feel invited, so I make myself welcome. Inside is 1000 pound bend - my favorite coffee shop that's not really a coffee shop. It's a cafe, its a bar, its a gallery, its an event space. It's a part of the Melbourne I've fallen in love with. Bob Dylan soothes the soul while every creative person in the city types away on their laptop, plugged into some far away digital world.
I write a note about the sunshine; outside I soon learn it's pouring cold sheets of rain. My laptop sits in front of me, my chai latte to the left, my journal filled with travel memories to my right.
I pause to think about why I am here: I am a writer. My job is to observe, to document, to share, and to inspire.
But my laptop screen is
filled with nothingness.
I try to re-imagine the vivid details as to not let the memories file away into a deep part of my subconscious. I try to type away on my laptop, too. I beat down on the keys but the words keep playing this cruel game of hide and seek. They feel as if they'll be lost forever. I invite them to reveal themselves, first with kindness then with pleas. "I give up!" I yell. I can't keep looking for you.
Instead I decide to make friends with my enemy - the rain - because during this exhausting mind game he has charm and appeal. He gives the brick of the hidden alleyways a glow I never noticed. He trickles down with the colors of my favorite graffiti. His presence makes me feel a bit more fresh and alive.
In the evening, a 57 tram ride away everyone is waiting for me at home. The Indonesian, the Japanese, the Chilean, the French, and the Canadian. They sit around our family table with smiles and warmth while we all share our stories as travelers who've become locals in Melbourne, listening with genuineness. We talk as minutes turn to hours.
I tiptoe away to the sounds of laughter that rings through the corridor of home. My blank laptop is waiting for me at my desk, and suddenly the words come pouring out.
"I’d like to repeat the advice that I gave you before, in that I think you really should make a radical change in your lifestyle and begin to boldly do things which you may previously never have thought of doing, or been too hesitant to attempt. So many people live within unhappy circumstances and yet will not take the initiative to change their situation because they are conditioned to a life of security, conformity, and conservatism, all of which may appear to give one peace of mind, but in reality nothing is more damaging to the adventurous spirit within a man than a secure future. The very basic core of a man’s living spirit is his passion for adventure. The joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences, and hence there is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun."
--Jack Krakauer, Into The Wild
So, you want to be a travel writer, do you? To remember the smells of the trains, the details of the faces, the emotion that sparked from the touch of a beautiful stranger. You want to get intentionally lost and unearth something great. You want to forget time and date and the notion of space.
Do you also want to feel off balance? To question your self-worth and be lost in translation or unsure of your purpose for traversing the world. Do you want to wonder whether what you're doing is right or wrong? Do you want to follow the dirt path to desolation for hours and hours?
At some point you'll find a canyon that is infinitely dark and vast - its shadows haunting as you peer over the ledge. The rocks crumble from the Earth into tiny bits and tumble into emptiness. They cripple in a downwards spiral until not a sight or speck or sound is left. You're alone, paralyzed in fear. It's suicidal -- a dance with devil -- but standing at the edge of the ridge, with the bright stars above, there's an energy that is wildly alive.
Would you jump if you didn't know where you'd land?
Would you still write?
Young and free soul, you want to be a travel writer, do you? Do you also want to pay the bills and enjoy *luxuries in life?
You must find pleasure in simple and organic luxuries, young and naive soul. You must feel gratification from a stranger’s kindness and the knowing that you’re on the cusp of doing something worthwhile. You must love the intrigue of the unknown and unfamiliar. You must be fascinated by the lessons of the imaginative lives before us -- of the Wildes and of the Kerouacs. There is hidden magic in their stories, wouldn’t you agree?
You want your words to change the world, too, do you?
Go to the ledge of the canyon and then walk the foreign perimeter. Study its landscape: down the shaky crevasce and up the unbeaten path. Search and question; be awed and be humbled. You will certainly grow rich with life, young travel writer.
*open to interpretation
Dripping sweat and backpack heavy upon my shoulders, I paced manically looking for any directions in English that would calm my eager nerves. My excitement of stepping off of the plane in Thailand slowly escalated into weak exhaustion as I moved — lost — about the airport. There was no romanticism in the sights around me: long, white walls stretched on for miles and overpriced restaurants were filled with tired conversation.
The travel companion whom was to greet me as a guide to safety in Bangkok was nowhere in sight. Not left nor right nor up nor down, because I checked there. Twice, three times. I was but a jet-lagged backpacker unaware of my present surroundings. It seemed of the hundreds of International passengers and custom attendants no one could lead me to the direction at the end of my treasure map.
The question, “arrival gate?” was greeted with blank stares. “Free wifi?” returned with empty eyes. When people pointed me in one direction, the next pointed me straight back.
“Is this what backpacking is all about?” the question pulsed like a tick of anxiety in my mind. It wasn’t a question of fear or vulnerability that the guidebooks prepare your subconscious for, but it was a desperate confusion which is something quite notably on par.
Charing past sleeping families waiting for their flights and monks grazing through special security, I climbed the escalator stairs determined to reach the highest floor. I knew there wasn’t much waiting for me except an escape from crowds, a calm in the midst of the storm.
The top floor was quiet and sterile, but even there I couldn’t breathe a sigh of relief. I was still lost: a foreigner far removed from the comforts of my own country.
But there was one man, casual in plaid with a sturdy pair of boots, who typed away unnerved at a computer desk. He was faceless, a result of my purely selfish concerns at present. I charged past him, too, straight towards the waiting attendant. My backpack shook the desk as it dropped unforgivingly from my body to the ground.
“I need to check my email. Quickly, please! Just one minute!” My voice in pleas and my eyes sad.
She rattled back about baht, a monopoly currency out of my vocabulary and of which I had none.
I was stranded without money to open the email I could read perfectly in my head, except for the line with our meeting point which was fuzzy and unattainable from my subconscious. I had been so foolish to not write down the coordinates; naivety led me to believe my memory could carry me around the world. My excitement about Thailand was reduced to a barely-audible sliver of hope.
But the faceless man was an English-speaker, and an eavesdropper. Rising from the computer desk he handed a colorful display of paper decorated with a photo of the Thai king and 500s pressed around the corners. He offered me the money; he was leaving the country for home in Melbourne.
“Find your friend,” he shared with a genuine smile and slip of a business card.
Quickly enough as he entered my story he was gone. I glanced down at the information of the nameless knight and tucked it away in my wallet.
The kind stranger’s money unlocked invaluable words on a computer screen, the words that read where to meet to start my backpacking adventure through Southeast Asia.
I starred at my belongings that were strewn across the floor in a frenzy and gathered momentum to strap myself into a bag full of meaningless possessions. I trudged down and down four escalator stairs.
Tucked between foreign taxi drivers and custom passenger arrivals was a pair of recognizable eyes: big, green eyes against dark, tanned skin. There was my travel companion, casual and calm, licking a popsicle with a grin on his face and without a care in the world.
“Hey there!” He smiled. “Where’ve you been? Welcome to Bangkok! This place is crazy!”
(Also published @Medium https://medium.com/p/fd18f23dc82a)
Walk. Keep walking. Get out. Explore. Be alone. Be awed. Take in the sights. Then let the sights pass you by. Eat the food. Try the spice. Make it spicier. Get lost on the streets. Ride the bus. Ride the boats. Let the wind blow through your hair. Look down, but remember to look up. Admire the bridge. Then walk across it - twice, three times. Climb the stairs higher than your legs can carry you. Sit in the gardens and look out at nothing, or out at everything. Engage a stranger. Make a friend. More importantly, make two. Walk.
Keep walking farther.
Where are you now?
I have been to unpublicized villages, semi-developed and undeveloped. And where before I would have sensed only despair, now I feel that the despair lies more with the observer than the people. I have learned to see beyond the dirt and the recumbent figures on string beds, and to look for the signs of improvement and hope, however faint: the brick-topped road, covered though it might be with filth; the rice planted in rows and not scattered broadcast; the degree of ease with which the villager faces the official or the visitor. For such small things I have learned to look: over the months my eye has been adjusted.
Yet always the obvious is overwhelming. One is a traveller and as soon as the dread of a particular district has been lessened by familiarity, it is time to move on again, through vast tracts which will never become familiar, which will sadden; and the urge to escape will return.
No Cameras, the handwritten note that lined the door handle said, scribbled in the ink of a black felt marker. The piece of paper looked ancient - the ones that brown at the edges worn down by years and nothing else. As a photojournalist, I felt weary; as a human, I felt I had unearthed something great. Behind the wooden frame was a treasure collection of poetry, Shakespeare, newspaper clippings, travel literature, quaint chairs, and a white-haired man sitting alone behind the desk. He was older, but not old. If I remember correctly his name was John. Stacks of individual pieces of paper sat unorderly behind John, who smiled at me as I entered into his shop. Grazing about I touched each book carefully, afraid any bit of strength might destroy its fragility. Pause and savor, I thought. The shop felt wholesome - no pollution from the outdoors could infect its charm. No cameras as a shield of security from modernism.
In the real world, outside of John’s shop, a click leaves the subject ingrained in our memories forever. An accentuated photo with two filters and then two more, and then our once organic snapshot resembles some foreign, exotic dream. The memory becomes falsified - an exaggeration - but an even more beautiful portrayal of our already beautiful world. In the real world, we search for confirmation that our lives are extravagent, exciting, worthwhile. We want reminders that we are doing something right. We are products of our generation, bred and consumed by this visual technology. We are more creative from it - but are we better, more well-rounded souls? Does it make us forget our roots: the life skills, the importance of face-to-face, of a pen pal, of leisure and pleasure and simple gratification? Why can we not remain infatuated with our own two eyes to bare witness to the magnificent sights before us: of the golden, empty sand, the long stretch of Australian beach, the turquoise of the ocean, the surfing friends of the ocean. Yet now I take my camera to capture, in essence, my perfect memory.
How many people will like it?
"Monster [Strayed's backpack] was my world, my inanimate extra limb. Though its weight and size still confounded me, I'd come to accept that it was my burden to bear. I didn't feel myself in contradiction to it the way I had a month before, It wasn't me against it. We two were one." -Wild, Cheryl Strayed
It was winter, July ‘13. He was driving, and I was passenger. He knew the right side of the road, and I knew the American side of the road. He knew how to read maps, and I knew how to get lost. He had explored the countryside before, and I had eager, foreign eyes soaking up every inch of new terrain that stretched across the horizon.
He guided us up Australia’s East Coast, the long stretches of highway eased by the simplicity of our plan: no plan. He would point to stars on the treasure map describing beautiful beaches and scenic campsites, waiting for me to confirm or deny. But I never denied so we kept on driving further and further. His intuition was our guidebook, and I trusted it.
It felt organic. It felt honest. It felt like no mystery at all although everything was a perfect mystery to me.
In Cape Cohran, he boiled tea and played guitar beneath the stars while my mind silenced for the first time in a long time. In Mimosa Rocks, he guided me to an empty beach ironically covered in great lengths of fresh footprints. Up the coastline, he stopped at viewpoints that could only be described as heavenly. In Newcastle, he took me to his home and we laughed with his childhood friends. In Bodella, he pulled off to mom and pop shops so we could observe the lives of people far removed from city-life ‘normalcies,’ – if there ever were such a thing.
The company of my travel companion was beautifully comfortable as he often reached over and squeezed my knee, or when he put his arm around my shoulder and tapped the beat of the song humming from the speakers on the crest of my neck. He pulled me in closer, closer - even though we were already close enough. Suddenly, the homesickness that had been haunting me back in Melbourne belonged to another person. I realized, with the windows down and wind in my hair, that I was at home: here on the wide open road in a stranger’s country.
Growing up my mother always told me not to talk to strangers, but I've never been a big fan of rules to begin with. My ability - and potential vulnerability - to instill trust upon first impressions are to her dismay but as it goes strangers are only friends you haven't met yet. That's one reason, if nothing else, I felt dangerously at ease as my train pulled into the Merrylands station to meet Antoine, a man I knew nothing about beyond the brevity of information I skimmed on his couchsurfing profile.
"Is that you, Simone? Look left…no look right…do you see me?" said an unfamiliar voice from the other end of the phone as I descended from the platform.
Regardless of my limited knowledge I recognized Antoine immediately, dressed in the same khaki cargo pants, black windbreaker, and worn-out hiking boots from his picture. His sturdy shoulders, machismo demeanor, and tent built atop the four-runner perfectly emulated his personal description: a self-sufficient outdoors adventurer who leads camping trips throughout New South Wales. His chosen travel companions being strangers for his stable friends can't keep up with such a lifestyle. I had received a generic email the week before asking if I wanted to join on one such excursion and without debate I agreed blind-eyed.
Two other female surfers waited at his warehouse for my arrival, equally unknowing to our upcoming trip. Unfamiliarity of faces aside, everyone was excited to exchange expensive lattes and busy streets for sleeping bags and unbeaten trails in the Blue Mountains. The Blue Mountains are what Yosemite is to California: a National Park playground of canyons and rivers, sandstone plateaus and thickets of trees that extend for miles upon miles. I quickly learned these forests are Antoine's favorite place to explore, our excursion one of 150 trips in the span of a year for him. The area so vast he claims to not have seen everything the World Heritage Site has to offer. For that reason he uses couchsurfing, the world's largest travel network to meet and host International travelers, to invite eclectic personalities to discover unfamiliar sights, drawn to the idea of helping people find treasure at the end of the map.
At first glance our differences were readily apparent. Introductions as we journeyed outside of the metropolis solidified our diversity ran deeper than surface level. I rode shot-gun with Antoine, 38, Lebanese, doubling as his scribe in angry texts to an American who delayed our trip to watch the Superbowl and curious writer asking more questions than reciprocated. When did you first get involved with couch surfing? Why not make this lifestyle a for-profit type of trip? Who are the people that have changed your cultural perceptions along the way? Sometimes my journalist habits precede me, but it didn't take such questioning to see his overpowering personality and distaste for people who change his plan. Liz, 45, Dutch and Andrea, 33, Colombian sat in back with the canned food and sleeping bags as we, four perfect strangers, ventured into the wild.
We arrived late to our first campsite, a hill perched amidst a wave of mountain ranges filled with wild kangaroos. The grassy plains were deserted, quiet and seclude, for us to talk late into the night about relationships, the stars, energies and spirits - topics that intrigue travelers rather than suits. Liz told stories of her telepathic communication with ghosts. Andrea shared stories about scuba diving the Great Barrier Reef. Antoine spoke louder than everyone else and I, Simone, 22, American strived to contribute a certain level of maturity that better suited the decade gaps while remaining true to my youthful self.
The following days' adventures left nothing to be desired as Antoine catered to our outdoor interests and physical capabilities. While I experienced euphoria from the fresh air of the outback and new terrain I couldn't help but wonder if these routinely visited viewpoints for us less experienced campers ever felt mundane. Collectively as a group of women we followed as Antoine led, but to nowhere in particular that would give a new understanding for the landscape. He simply loves to share the beauty of Australia with people curious to discover it, and hopefully learn something in the process.
"When I meet people, they always teach me something, even if they're just telling me a few sentences about the city or country they grew up in. I test myself, push my limits, and when I meet disagreeable people I see what type of personalities I can handle. I can teach others about survival skills and show them the beautiful things I've seen in this country. It's a learning exchange. I have doctors who come out here on these trips with me and tell me I'm lucky I don't know the difference between Sunday, Saturday, or Tuesday. That's why I do this…my home is where my tent is."
Such reflections are the backbone of the couchsurfing community. The not-for-profit experience is a way to build friendships across the globe and learn from shared knowledge of people, destinations, cultural differences. The foundation is built upon a mutual karma exchange for notorious vagabonds.
But after three days venture and two nights sleep underneath the chilly Australian sky we rode back toward the buzzing city in undisputed silence, for we had exhausted the bleak end of hopeful conversations. Liz seemed annoyed, Antoine looked unfulfilled, Andrea talked with sass, and I yearned for a heavy-caffinated latte from a cafe on a busy street. In the end we were still essentially four strangers, with four very different personalities, interests and comfort zones. We exchanged information but from last impressions Antoine likely ripped Andrea's up while Liz buried them away in her memory to resurface later during a premonition. I filed the business cards and emails away in my rolodex of weird encounters of people I'll probably never see again - but I guess that's what happens when you agree to go couchsurf camping with a group of perfect strangers.
One of the greatest rewards of travel is the return home to the reassurance of family and old friends, familiar sights and homely comforts and your own bed.