By Erin Donovan
I had been living in Australia for the better part of a year, which seemed – on the front end of the trip – to be more time than I would want, but after enduring the twenty-hour plane ride, it turned out to be the minimum amount of time I would need before I could face it again in reverse.
I had chosen Australia as my place of study on a lark. Seated in my academic advisor’s office, surrounded by glossy magazines with crisp images of the Great Wall, Stonehenge and the Colosseum splashed across the covers, I murmured, “What do you think about Australia?”
He leaned back in his chair, his fingers tapping at his face, as he mentally escaped to a memory Australia had once handed him. A smile played upon his lips before he said, “Well, if you can’t have fun in Australia, you’re not capable.”
That was the word that I needed to hear. Fun. I’d spent the last three years in a ruthless pre-med program, struggling to keep pace with foreign exchange students who possessed more intellect in their earlobe than I did in my frontal lobe. Things crystallized inside of that shabby office, and the loftier concepts of history, art and foreign language felt suddenly shortsighted as compared to the more elemental idea of fun.
Moving somewhere for the pursuit of fun proved complicated for someone who had fallen out of practice with it. What does one pack for a year of fun? How much money do I need to have for fun? What level of SPF is fun? Is living without antiperspirant fun?
It hadn’t taken long for the Aussies and other study abroad students I had made acquaintances with to realize that I was a struggling student of fun. My existence within my new university became startlingly similar to the one I had been living in the United States. I could be counted on to attend class and provide notes to those who had slept through it. I would stay sober and drive the revelers home at the end of the night.
Let’s just say that everyone knew whose to door to knock on when they needed an extra international phone card or some aspirin. They knocked on a different door when the situation demanded condoms or cigarettes.
When the university announced that there would be a weeklong break in classes to allow the students time to prepare for finals, I breathed a sigh of relief, glad to know that I’d have ample time to collaborate with my study groups. That was until I learned that all of my study groups were going to be collaborating with the Great Barrier Reef.
Everyone was heading north to take in the sights and sounds of the famed Gold Coast. Room after room in my apartment complex was evacuating as though the place had caught fire. Hastily packed duffle bags were thrown into the hallways as students frantically called out to no one, “Have you seen my passport?”
I, of course, knew just where my passport was stored. I hadn’t used it since arriving to the country. I pulled open the center drawer of my desk and saw my passport lying across my biology syllabus and my return ticket to the United States. I fingered the small booklet distractedly, mentally tabulating how few weeks remained before I would be exiled home. I flipped open the passport, staring at the imprints collected from trips already taken, the memories of each already yellowed and folding up at the corners in the drawers of my mind.
A voice from the hallway pierced my silent musings. “So I guess we’ll see you in a week then?”
I turned to see a friend paused at my door, bag in tow. I looked down at my passport once more before meeting her gaze.
“Actually,” I stammered. “I’ll see you in Cannes. I’m going to hit Darwin first.”
The landing gear slammed against the pavement and the plane shuddered down the runway just as I had finished thumbing through a guidebook of Darwin. I hadn’t learned anything of import other than that absolutely everything in the Australian city of Darwin will murder you. Be it lightning or spiders or snakes, each one a ubiquitous and lethal foe. The whole trip was feeling far too Indiana Jones for my liking, and I hadn’t traveled with a leather whip.
While the plane taxied toward its jetway, I glanced at the accommodations section of the book once more and scrawled the address of the first hostel listed across the back of my hand. I was fast depleting my bank account, already taxed before I had spontaneously decided to travel to the land where everything kills. A cheap room bursting with bunk beds of Danes and Swedes was the only way to keep my ship sailing.
The taxi deposited me at the mouth of a bustling swath of roadway. I trudged along the sidewalk, passing restaurants and nightclubs I couldn’t indulge in, toward the screaming red building that I knew – by smell alone – had to be my hostel.
I entered the lobby through a doorway strung with wooden beads. The beat of an American dance song – probably one that had failed to become popular in the U.S. – assaulted my eardrums as I peered over the check-in desk at the top of a head that had not yet swung up to notice me. I cleared my throat. She didn’t budge. I reached over the counter and touched her shoulder. She flew back in her chair, startled and stared at me as though I was the first ever tourist to ever check in there.
I smiled meekly as if to say, “Don’t worry! I’m just the under-fun American girl who came here in search of some kind of adventure to tell my friends and family so that they can say, ‘I saw that on the Crocodile Hunter once!’”
Before I could inquire about vacancies, she scurried around the side of the desk and scooped up my bag in her wispy arms before turning heel. I worried momentarily that someone might steal my valuables, which were pitifully limited to a bottle of American antiperspirant and a tube top. She dashed back into the room, arms emptied of my bag, and began scooting me toward the door.
“You’re going to be late for the bonfire on the beach!” she screeched.
“That’s okay. I’m not really a bonfire kind of…”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” she interrupted. “There’s free dinner.”
There is not a more powerful thing to echo inside the ears of a poor traveler than the siren song of free food. With that, I allowed her to push me into the waiting shuttle bus.
The bonfire towered in the distance. A daunting column of orange with flames licking the setting sun. The silhouettes of youthful bodies, toned by hiking and surfing, jerked and swayed, backlit by the glow of the fire. I moved tentatively toward the tribal scene, convinced I was about to be scalped and made into a teepee.
Just as I was about to turn around, someone grabbed my hand and pulled me in the direction of the heat. Before I could protest, I had fallen into the pulsing group of strangers. The girl who had taken my hand earlier yelled above the din, “Take your shirt off, mate!”
I looked around and noticed everyone was in various states of undress. Bathing suits, bras, underwear.
I strained to recall the morning, before I had boarded a plane bound for this unkempt place, to remember what undergarments I had thrown on. If my memory drew beige, I was keeping everything on. I peeked under my neckline and saw I’d worn black. This is fun, I breathed, before slipping my shirt over my head.
The next couple of hours were a blur of dancing in the midst of crackling branches and spiraling smoke. I was introduced to men and women from the ends of the earth, all strangers before this night but united in wanderlust, diminishing bank accounts and underwear. We shared – but mostly I listened to – stories about the quirks of life down under with the kind of easy cadence reserved for intimates. The conversation turned in the inevitable way it does among backpackers to the next stop on the trail. The casual way with which these rootless souls tossed out locations like Bali or Jakarta or Singapore as though they were their grandmother’s house made my skin itch at the thought of returning home.
Going back to the Midwest, back to pre-med, back to the loaded question, “Was it fun?”
Before I had to face the shame of revealing that I would no longer be gallivanting around the world to the swarm of globetrotters, a booming noise rang out over our heads. We swiveled our heads in unison toward the direction of the sound. A man, cloaked by the shadows cast by the fire, called out, “Now it’s time for The Game!”
You could tell by the way he said it that The Game was capitalized. It was a thing that carried lore and probably fallen contenders. He continued on, his words traveling through the smoke and flames like errant embers, to describe a swimming competition. A tradition among the backpackers who traveled to Darwin. The idea was to coerce as many hostel guests as possible into swimming out to a deep point in the sea until we all had to race back to the sand, scramble on to the shore and attempt to first seize a prized t-shirt on the beach. The first to nab the t-shirt won his stay at the hostel for no charge.
I looked around at the faces of my new comrades. Some had a visible glint of excitement in their eyes while others held that I’m-too-drunk-to-even-walk glaze. But every one of us, me included, stared out at the ocean blackened by nightfall. Now I’d seen “Jaws” enough times by this point in my life to know that bad things happen to those who swim at night. Nocturnal swimming was meant for two kinds of entities: predators and prey. And I’d lived long enough to know that I lived sorely on the prey side of the spectrum.
I stood up and started to brush the sand off my still unclothed thighs, expecting my tribe of half-naked travelers to join me. They did not. They were trotting down to the water’s edge.
I turned toward the idle shuttle bus and began to walk toward it when a voice yelled, “C’mon! This is fun!”
I stopped dead in my tracks. The F word again. I pivoted to stare at the person goading me. I threw the clothes that were still in my hand into a heap on the sand.
“Alright, I’ll do it.”
I lined my toes up against the lapping water. Goosebumps staked claim to my body despite the balmy summer air. I looked out across the black sheen of the ocean, my mind drifting to what could lie beneath. The foam swirled around my ankles as I started into the surf. The hooting of the others had ceased, giving way to an eerie quiet as everyone waded into the shallows of an ocean few had ever before touched.
I slid under the water, allowing it to rush over my shoulders and head, before I broke the surface and began swimming to the invisible junction of black sky and blacker sea. With each stroke, I felt as though I was dredging a spoon through pea soup. The water was warmer than that of any ocean I’d ever been immersed in. It felt murky and thick and filled with sediment.
I put my head down and continued to put one arm in front of the other when my torso was bumped by something on my right. I gasped for air and flailed my arms, struggling to regain my bearings in the dark while staring wide-eyed into the abyss beneath me. Laughter rang out, and I realized with enormous relief that I had collided with someone – a human – in the dark.
The swimmers formed an uneven starting line and we awaited our signal, each of us silently treading water and fixing our gaze on the beacon of the bonfire in the distance. When we heard our bell, we all lurched forward, swimming with as much heart and energy as our underfed, under-rested bodies could manage. Every several strokes, I had to raise my head to relocate the bonfire, my lighthouse ablaze and recalibrate my direction. The churn of the water and the kicking of feet propelled me through the water, until I felt the grit of the sand graze my fingertips.
I rose to my feet, water streaming from my hair and body, and began to run. I could feel the presence of other bodies but my fight-or-flight impulse had taken grip and I had lost control of my senses. I could only run. Toward the fire. Toward the t-shirt. Toward fun.
The sand flew under my feet as my eyes scanned in vain for the t-shirt. I saw it at the exact moment I felt someone overtake me. I hurled my body through the dark, arms stretched, through the night air. I hit the ground, fingers encircling the t-shirt, as a heap of other racers landed in a pile around me. We all lay there for awhile in the sand, chests heaving and eyes unblinking, unable to do or say anything.
And then I started to laugh. I laughed until tears sprang out of my eyes. I laughed until everyone else began to laugh also. We laughed with abandon until the mysterious man who had organized the race crouched before me.
“Now that was fun!” he said, staring into my eyes.
“Yes,” I panted. “That was fun.” And it was.
I stayed an extra couple of nights in that hostel because I could and because it was free. And because I needed a couple of nights to recover from a conversation the next morning with a Darwin elder who told me that the ocean teems with crocodiles and that only a crazy person would swim in it. Or a fun person.