Its been a year since I left Perth in an unmarked white van.
Right now Im in that same van, over 4 thousand kilometers away, on a dirt track in a dusty and rugged National Park. Im feeling very ill, have had bad headaches for days, can’t sleep, and even the smallest of cuts are bleeding out great cups of blood. Im not sure whats wrong, but Im a little worried, and have got to reflecting.
Its been an amazing year, and Im so grateful for my rare and common experiences, for the friends I have made, for the love I have felt, and for the opportunities I have had to grow and to face my most crippling fears. There have also been very sad times, very hard times, and a few close calls with death and the law. But Im still here, and while Im not feeling strong, I know I will again.
It was November of last year that Erin and I left Perth on an epic adventure. I had been working at a University in the most prestigious job I have ever had, or perhaps ever will in a standard career sense, as an Assistant Professor in the Archaeology Department. I had a big office, funds at my disposal, almost total autonomy, and a six figure income. I had worked super hard to get to this point aswell, done lots of volunteering, worked long hours often alone, taken hard and low paying strategic positions, and played the game like a cunning chess player. But I was frustrated, and angry, and confronted every day with inefficiency, futility, and meaninglessness. I spent hours stuck in traffic, to get to work and sit there battling bureaucracy. For example, it took almost 2 weeks for me to be able to get internet access at my own work. All the while I was surrounded by people who were either far too busy and stressed to inspire me about my own future prospects, or self important wankers parading around wasting money that could be better spent on people who need it. Not to mention how careful you have to be to protect your reputation from rumours and bitching. My bank account was stacking up, but I was getting more and more frustrated. And I would go home at the end of the day angry, my only solace was to get out of there, spend some money on some bullshit, and drink a glass of straight Caribbean rum out of the freezer. Then get up and do the same thing again. One day I was so frustrated that I suddenly stood up and walked out of my office leaving the door wide open, walked down to the river, took off all my clothes and dived in and started swimming out. I came back, but I knew from that point I knew something needed to change. During the day Id get these flashes of inspiration for inventions and creative projects, Id quickly jot them down, and then try and not let them distract me from the work that I was was supposed to be doing. I had an idea at the back of my head that following these things might be the answer.
Nothing was NEW anymore. For me spontaneity IS life. My efforts to be spontaneous in Perth were often met with insults, like the time we busked jazz music at a beachside park using my DIY portable power supply only to have middle aged conservative women hurl abuse at us for parking on the grass and actually try to get the police to arrest us (how is that right?!?). Conversations with new people at pubs would more often than not revolve around who do you work for, how much do you earn, how many houses do you own, and when are you renovating your kitchen.
While Erin finished her honours thesis (with incredible results) I got the van ready to hit the road. True to my style I obsessed over small details, the result being a pretty good setup with a few major flaws! We were ready for an epic trip, and I couldn’t wait to get out of such a conservative place and have open eyes again.
We had an incredible trip, apart from our usual fighting. It was pretty good really. (Do I sound like Im trying to convince myself? I feel guilt about dragging her along on my effort to find myself, drinking too much, lost, unbalanced.) But really we had some great times and some beautiful camp spots. Ive written many posts on this epic trip, but just to recap, a few highlights:
It was really beautiful, a really great adventure, and Im so grateful to have had the time to do this. So many people feel they have to work work work, for a measly 2 weeks off a year, and never get the chance to have an extended adventure. And what a gorgeous and intelligent girl I was sharing it with! Unfortunately, for one reason or another, we were fighting a lot, and felt that we were beginning to resent each other more and more rather than grow in love, and decided to have a break. Erin went to her graduation, and then to Sydney for her grandfathers birthday. I flew back to Perth to do some work in the goldfields, a quick cash grab working on a mine. Not too bad an adventure itself if you don’t have to do it all the time. We searched for artefacts, found artefacts, shot slingshots, and ate Goanna meat cooked on coals and covered in flies. Delicious!
I stayed with my Dad at this time, which was really nice. I have never stayed with my parents for more than one night since leaving home at 18, and it has been a long time since I lived with my Dad. It was really nice, I was offered such great hospitality, shared meals, watched TV and the football, drank red wine. I want to give thanks for having parents who will help me when I need it. I did get totally pissed on the night I wanted to take them out to dinner to say thanks though, which was quite a pivotal point and a reminder to watch my drinking.
So I gave up the booze for awhile, took up daily Bikram Yoga, and began training to climb a mountain. My van was still parked in Melbourne at this point, and I didn’t know what would become of Erin and I, so I was in a delicious limbo. My writing around the time really reflects this: I didn’t know what the hell i was doing, and was lapping it up. I finished the mining job, and then did a bunch of office work for 2 different companies. Actually, I was getting offered so much work I couldn’t do it all. So I worked for 6 weeks or so, stacked up the bank account. I did a lot of thinking at this time, with my clear non-alcoholic head, and when Erin and I finally spoke again we decided that it was probably over between us. It was one of the hardest decisions of my life, and Im still not sure whether it was the right one. I suspect that is a question with no answer.
En route back to Melbourne, I flew to Malaysia.
Insert: when I arrived in KL I found my climbing companion who had preceded me by a mere 24 hours had already befriended a local homosexual meth head who was sharing his hotel room unofficially and acting as tour guide. Neither had had any sleep.
Reuben and I had a great time in Malaysia, he proved to be a great traveling companion. We had a hectic few days in Chinatown in KL, then flew to Borneo, which was fricken amazing. Its one of those places Id go back to in a heartbeat if I get the chance and regain my strength. We chased girls, dined on fresh seafood, rode on jerry-rigged speedboats, snorkeled in truly amazing warm water with the most beautiful sea life, drank cheap beer, and ate a myriad of different foods. But in preparation for climbing the mountain, Mount Kinabalu, I sought out the cheapest room in a nice hotel, to have a good rest before our trial. Well, there was a mixup and they ended up giving me the penthouse suite, an amazing room for two nights. Gifts like this cannot be squandered so a decision was made to make the most of it and after a pleasant dinner on the docks completely destroyed it with a lovely Danish girl.
The mountain was amazing, it took us a couple of days to climb up, and one to run down, and I would love to do more climbing (I have just booked a one way ticket to Tanzania to climb Kilimanjaro).
Reuben and I had a good carouse after the mountain, and had a good time in Penang as well, unsuccessfully pursuing a myriad of women. This is where we said our goodbyes. Reuben returned to Australia to be a music teacher which he loves, and myself, who didn’t know what the fuck he was doing, flew to Thailand. I am really grateful for the companionship showed to me by Reuben, at such a difficult time after splitting with Erin it was just the solidarity I needed. It has solidified our friendship into one that will last forever.
My time in Thailand took on a completely different feel without the dynamic of Reuben and I. I met up with a good friend though, one of my best, Mr Craig Waller. He played tour guide and showed us the hedonistic delights of Koh Phangan. It was a bit hectic, fast paced, and unhealthy for me though. I had wanted to go on retreat at this point, but ended up going to raves and drinking mushroom shakes and riding a motorbike around like a bat out of hell. Fun as fuck, but I have a tendency to exhaust myself. But what a tour guide! Craig knew all the best spots, one of which was the best nightclub I have ever experienced, called Eden. To get there we took a rickety long boat over high seas around to an isolated cove on the island, where we ascended from the beach on rocks, and followed the headland around on a rickety scaffold made of driftwood. This was pretty hectic, and Craig fell through only to catch himself at the waist, sharks likely waiting below. We made it to the club, similarly cobbled together out of driftwood, to find it full of the most magical characters, beautiful women dressed as cosmic princesses kissing each other and writhing in front of industrial sized fans as silks billowed, amazing music and a great dance floor, cheap drinks and drugs if you were so inclined, and comfortable places to sleep until the sun came up. It was simply beautiful, a place of profound magic.
After Koh Phangan, we crossed the ocean on a ferry, and crossed the peninsula of Thailand on a bus, to get to a place called Krabi, where we stayed a night before taking a long boat to a place called Railay Beach. This was also beautiful, but too fancy and showy. The kind of place where movie stars go to compare themselves to each other. Thank god for Intrepid Craig, who I followed once again, heavy pack on back and small pack on front, around a rocky headland at low tide. This is the only time this route is traversable, when the water is sucked right out. You climb through blowholes, and over a lattice of knife sharp rocks (in thongs or flip-flops) until you emerge at another beach. What was this place?
This was Tonsai.
Tonsai is pretty much a pirate village, a village of lost souls, happy in their isolation. There are no police. There are few rules. There is reggae, ganja, delicious food, fire twirling, good swimming, and talented people with all kinds of skills from tightrope walking to base jumping. And there are the precipitous limestone cliffs that hide the village away: famous the world over for rock climbing.
My friends stayed for 2 days at Tonsai, on the eve of the second I pointed out that we had not climbed yet, and maybe we should stay another day? I held my position regardless of their departure, and stayed for almost 2 weeks. To rock climb was to face an old fear, something I would (along with frogs) often cite as my biggest fear. What a thing to do! It is so powerful to face a strong fear, that I am tempted to say that that is what life is, nothing else is as powerful, (except for love perhaps). So facing fear and love? That could be a good tattoo…so much more strong in myself since Tonsai.
Now I know that if we really want to, we can do anything.
The craziest moment was on the first day of climbing. It was quite a strange day: now that the fellas had left, I didn’t know anyone there, and consequently felt strangely free. To to be whoever I wanted to be I guess! None of the negative personality traits that I felt had taken a hold over me over the previous few years, not cautious or nervous or anxiety ridden, or unfit or drunk. I think this let me let go of my ego, realise that they may just be perceptions of myself, and instead turn my energy towards the task at hand. On the third climb we climbed a limestone wall up to the height of a big descending stalactite. At this point, I was stoked have made it that far. But turns out it wasn’t over. Dee Narupon, the instructor, shouted up to hang loose from the ropes, put my back against the cliff, and stick my legs out from the cliff to brace against the stalactite. This thing was about 30cm thick. And he wanted me to shimmy up the sheer wall by pushing my entire body weight into it with my legs. I hesitated for minutes, self doubt rising in me like a seemingly unstoppable tide. But I tried something that I learned when I was hurt very badly as a child – if you can observe pain and other emotions from an outside perspective, you can master them. So I saw the fear for what is was – a bodily response for self preservation in an unfamiliar situation, decided that I didn’t care to live if it was to be a life of fear anyway, kicked the stalagatite hard to make sure it would hold, and started pushing myself up centimetre by centimetre. There was at least 30 meters of free fall below me. I shimmied up about a body length , then swung out from the wall suspended by the rope and hugged onto that doubtful solidified drip of lime, my pulse blasting and audible beat inside my head, I climbed up the stalactite itself, and got to the very top where the rope was anchored, shaking and ecstatic and bleeding from the knees.
I want to give thanks for the chance to face that fear, and thanks to those once upon a time strangers for having faith in me.
I stayed in a thatch hut for the rest of my time in the pirate village, started playing in a reggae band at Sunset Bar with some Thai dudes who spoke none of my language, and had a million other adventures including a solo kayak of 16ks over the open ocean out to another island. I just made it back to be honest, probably far more dangerous than climbing a rock.
Tonsai! I will return to you, the giver of my refound courage.
Meanwhile, my friends had gone to Koh Phi Phi, another party island and among other things the location of the movie “The Beach”. By the time I got there the fellas were long gone, and I was not up for partying with a bunch of newly worldly teenagers drinking buckets of cheap whiskey. So I enrolled to do an advanced PADI diving course. I would have finished it too if I hadn’t missed the dive boat on the last day by staying out all night drinking buckets of cheap whiskey.
The course was another series of terrifying challenges – most notably a deep dive, where you will fuck yourself up and likely die if you panic because you’re too deep to ascend quickly without popping your lungs and getting serious nitrogen bubbles in your blood. And a night dive; there is something quite scary about jumping off the back of a rocking boat in a storm into pitch black water with just a little battery powered torch to protect you from sharks.
I want to give thanks for the luck to be born in a rich country, and the concomitant chance to participate in what is really such a luxury pursuit. I suppose 90% of the worlds population could not afford to dive, let alone to go to a beautiful tropical island for a diving holiday, even if it was disguised as ” doing a serious course”.
So I returned to Australia, reinvigorated, but somewhat nervous of the prospect of continuing the van trip alone. Would I lonesomeness and the inevitable depression set in? How much would I miss Erin?
I flew directly to Melbourne from Thailand.
It was quite a feeling, to have all the things necessary for desert fieldwork, office work, mountain climbing, and backpacking, in one pack and to have carried it from Perth to Melbourne via a bunch of islands in south east Asia! I was feeling very minimalist, even though I had lugged an electronic drum machine the whole way without using it once… Anyway, my bank account was stocked up, and while I was in Asia I had formulated a rough plan: get to Byron Bay, what I thought to be a coastal hippy town, study electronic music production, and find some kind of employment that still allowed me time for creativity. I had applied for and been accepted into the course, and had about a week to drive up there.
I can’t really remember much of hitting Melbourne. I was tired I guess. I do remember picking up ‘Nightshift’ the van, trying in vain to erase some of the painful reminders of Erin’s absence, and then feeling and heeding a strong desire to get out of town and hit the open road. I don’t think I even saw any of my Melbourne friends. It was so difficult to come back to the van that I had shared with beautiful Erin (who was once mine!) and be alone, even if things hadn’t worked.
I hit the road out of town, with bugger all plan except to get to Byron Bay in time for the course. After a few hours I saw a sign that said The Great Alpine Road, and took it.
This was a beautiful drive, and led to Mt Kosciusko, Australia’s highest peak. I intended to climb it, but after sleeping one night on the side of the road in that high altitude, I woke up with a heinous cold and frost all over the van. I was a long way from steamy Thailand and the change had hit me hard. So me and Nightshift abandoned Kosciusko and made for Canberra where I had friends. Spent a night with them, dear friends courageous Tim and compassionate Sophie, and continued north. I am so grateful to have friends like these. We see each other rarely, but it never seems that more than a weeks has passed. They help me to remember who I am in hard times. Not everyone is so lucky. In fact, there have been times where I felt I did not deserve this kind of love. Everyone does.
I stopped in to see Erin in Sydney on the way. Ostensibly to give her her things back, but really to resolve things once and for all. It had to be done, but Im sure that it reopened both of our wounds that had just started to heal. I waved goodbye with a cheerful face that day, but drove to the bottom of her street, pulled over and cried for a long time.
Then I drove north, outwardly shattered, but inside grateful to be alive, and full of the breath of the universe.
To Be Continued…