17 Apr 07
Where to begin? I guess I should say that I’m writing this after the tour because I didn’t really have time to write properly to you (as you are a treasure deserving of special treatment). I did take some notes but not thorough ones so I may have to fill in place names using maps and the online itinerary. If I wrote this during the trip, the book would be covered in dirt and I would have to declare to customs that I did indeed bring foreign soil. But as you can see I still got some water damage.
Let me begin with a brief re-cap of the beginning of the tour and then extensive biographies of everyone on board (this will be fun!). Ben, the main tour guide, picked me up at 6:30AM. I was the first of 9 total tourists. I loaded my pack into their trailer, attached to a Range Rover Discovery with facing back seats to fit 4 on each side, with 3 in front. The 4×4 was the same as the ones we used in Iraq. We picked up a Brit, 2 Swiss (not together), 3 Dutch, 1 South African, and 1 Canadian.
The Brit, Rich, is from Brighton. A professional backpacker. Lots of advice to dispense. Has an accent like my uncle Bob. Has a small Canon and a bigger zoom camera. Our trip’s chronic photographer. Takes interesting photos including those of people sleeping. Has the quick wit and timing and lilt that makes me bust out laughing no matter what. One of the funniest people I’ve met. For instance, when we arrived at a resort camping ground with lots of shrieking schoolgirls, big campers with TVs, and paved roads, he said quietly to Ben and Geoff (the trainee guide), “Can we go back to the bush please?” Rich used to mine with heavy equipment. Also a sound engineer for a band. We hung out and talked. He eats cheese and jam sandwiches and has a web site of the same name. Really bad farmer’s tan. Wart on his temple. Again, fucking hilarious and quick like a whip. Disarmed everyone that way. 34-ish. Been to Oz 3 times, this time 5 months.
One Swiss, Melanie, is 33. Last name of Meng, which she says confuses people on the phone when she takes international calls at her job. Vegetarian and animal rights type. Has been to Oz thrice. Loves it. We celebrated her birthday in the bush with cake, Lamingtons (an Aussie fave with chocolate and coconut), and a big caterpillar eating a moth’s guts out. Plus a beetle and big spider with babies on it. Melanie is afraid of bugs but loves the Outback and sleeping under the stars in a swag (a canvas bag that’s water-resistant and contains one’s sleeping bag. She and I will trade book lists as we talked about books at length. She speaks Swiss-German. She’s fussy about the windows of the vehicle left open while driving, so we couldn’t cool off from the breeze! Also she gets cold easily and constantly wanted the stereo turned down till itwas inaudible! Kind of annoying after a while but interesting when you appeal to her interests. Kind of weak. Quiet. Frail. Complains a bit to her travel boyfriend, Lennis.
Lennis 57-ish from Johannesburg in South Africa. Seems well-off. Just quit his job as surveyor and liquidated everything. Traveled with Melanie to Costa Rica and New Zealand. before this. Told me about the Bush Wars of South Africa and Zimbabwe. Worried about South Africa’s future since the leader might amend the constitution. Wants to move. Taught us how to eat an orange neatly: cut a hole and squeeze the juice into mouth. Also knife it carefully against the skin to peel open instead of peeling the whole thing first. Likes to go on walks with Melanie. Very flirty with her. Dark-skinned and tall with grey hair. Says “Yaaw” for “yeah”. Distinct accent. Good teacher, fun to talk to.
One of the best things I learned in the Army was how to talk to guys. I still can’t flirt with girls for shit but I fit in with any group of guys now. It’s an important thing for a guy to have, to be able to talk to a bloke, a nerd, a yuppie, a rambunctious teen, a businessman, anyone. Not only that, but to be respected in return as intelligent, fearless, and a person worthy to follow and hang out with. This will assist me greatly professionally. Always sat in the back, Lennis did, so he could stretch his bum knee against the rear door. The rest of us would alternate legs while sitting for long rides. I think Rich got a photo of them.
Ben was the main tour guide. He’s been on the trail for two years. He’s a little pasty, has abit of a gut, and wears glasses. He usually wears a brimmed hat and insists to Geoff, the trainee, that guides always wear the proper outfit: long pants, closed shoes, a hat, long-sleeved shirt, to show tourists the importance of protecting against bugs and the sun. Ben is very nice for a bush man. Very pleasant but not overly talkative. Very instructive to watch. Taught me a couple knots. We talked at length as I asked him questions about the business and the bush. He’s a shooter; used to do it competitively. Has a German girl in Oolandatta who is sort of dorky looking too but just as nice. She waitressed where we stopped for lunch.
My writing looks better when it’s smaller, non? My mom always used to complain about my small handwriting. Of course I write larger than my brother!
Ben knows the route well. He’ll be driving in the dark for an hour and then veer off into the bush to his secret favorite campsite. He knows all the people who man the small outposts in the Outback. It’s a small community of people who keep the roads monitored (closing them if rain makes the dirt roads (of which there are many) impassable (which is often!)) ,stay in radio contact, and keep facilities open for passers-by. I was very surprised how few people were actually out there.
Rosa Wansing is a 19-year-old from Holland. She was probably the focus for most of our trip. Somewhat…okay, a lot…of an attention whore. But in a fun way. She’s loud and sings to the radio and asks a lot of questions. No shame! Let me interject by saying she would mimic Ben’s catchphrases he’d use when we’d stop somewhere; “Alroighty guys, get out and take some piccies!”
Rosa identified with Rolf Harris, a British musician who sang a lot of songs about the bush, including “Waltzing Matilda”, about a bush traveler’s pack accompanying him on a lonely journey. I think you should listen to some of his songs to get a feel for the bush! Anyway, one song goes like: “Mud, mud, glorious mud,/There’s nothing quite like it for cooling the blood./So follow me, follow./Down to the hollow!/And there let me wallow in glorious mud.” We went to a big dried-up salt lake. Did I tell you the Outback is famous for flies? A “Tastes of the Outback” logo for some festival indeed features flies. We walked down to the salt shore with hundreds of fly stow-aways on our backs. The landscape was nothing like I’d ever seen. A salt layer stretched to the horizon, making our photos look as though we wore shorts in Antarctica. The salt formed a hard crust that crunched and gave way to a gooey mud underneath. Rosa was linked to the mud song after she stepped into a particularly muddy patch that submerged her knees almost! Rich said he’d never met a girl who didn’t mind getting dirty like her. She speaks with a tendency to raise a note in her voice at the end of a sentence, like the Aussies do, but it ends up sounding like a bad foreigner stereotype. Rosa is kind of ditzy but she has been in Oz long enough to be a seasoned traveler. She worked a bit as a dive assistant to earn money, a common thing for these backpackers. Rosa reminds me in voice of one of those cheerful matrons who sing boisterously while carrying loads of laundry or something. She is a bit of a tart who wears revealing clothing. She didn’t hesitate wearing a bikini and going into water holes while most others wouldn’t. She’s quite fetching, a little bit of a tummy, but it shows as healthy weight. Very tan for a Dutchy. I think she kept everyone’s spirits up and kept things flowing. Her trick to do gymnastic-like maneuvers with a shovel failed in practice but not in entertaining. Quite tall.
Geoff is in his mid-twenties I think. Lanky I guess. Compact. Dresses like an Irishman, vests and form-fitting button-ups and a walking hat. Second time out on the trail. Ornithologist by studies. Loves birds. Did his presentation at uni on eco-tourism. Very mindful of the issues. Wants to start his own tour. Very capable and will be a good guide. Gets along well with people. Handled being with the seasoned Ben well; Ben even let him run things a lot. Geoff and I talked a lot about school and studies. We get along well. Geoff and Ben always slept in just swags: not in tents when mozzies were out. Geoff kept waiting for the end of the tour when he could have a beer. The last night we went out, he got drunk and was funny. He’s a sad drunk though: he said he got shown up on the dance floor by Mark (bio later). Ben put him in a shopping cart and pushed him down the street. He hit the curb and fell out. Noisy! Then he jumped around on the bed when we were in Ben’s hotel room after leaving the restaurant. I think he had a thing for Rosa.
Eveline is a dark-skinned Dutchy of probably 24 years of age. She graduated with a masters in business administration and is somewhat sour in temperament, or at least claims to be. Her English was far better than the other two Dutchies but she over-enunciates. She reads business books for a reading club with her fellow business students. When we went to Dalhousie Springs, where there were hot springs, she and Mark stayed up late in the hot water (after I’d left — the water was great and very relaxing under the stars!) and got bitten ferociously all over by the mozzies . All over her arms and back. I suspect her and Mark were fooling around, as later when we saw about 20 girls in bikinis get into the water hole we’d just left, Rosa complained, “GEEZ, how dry are you guys?!” and Mark said, “Not very…” under his breath to me. So Eveline took the mozzie bite award for the trip, for sure! She seems to be quite experienced at management and is probably cold-hearted at deal-making. She fell ill later in the tour but luckily nothing too bad.
Mark is also a Dutchy, must be like 24-ish. Is a chef. Went to school for it! Prepared most of our dinner meals. He has superb chopping skills. Also brought a guitar and played it a bit (while Rosa messed with the shovel). He would fall asleep in the truck two minutes after we got in. Him and Eveline slept a lot in the car. One time me and Richard watched and cracked up as their heads narrowly missed clonking together like coconuts as their heads bobbed around on the bumpy road. Rich has one photo of Mark having fallen asleep doing Sudoku. Rich wanted to complete the puzzle so that Mark would wake up and see it completed! Mark dressed totally Euro with stylish tees and white-rimmed one-piece sunglasses. Listens to Justin Timberlake and club music. He plans to earn money as a cook in Australia. Somewhat short, balding blond hair. Very good with a soccer ball but hoarded it when playing with idle Aboriginal kids!
Nicholas is a very quiet 21-year-old Swiss-French. He really didn’t contribute much at all to the trip. I found this puzzling until the last day when I found out his age. He didn’t take initiative to help clean. He would stay quiet and not say much. I think in 10 days he only read like 30 pages of “The Green Mile”. He’s nice enough; studied business at uni. His English is fair. I just sense that he needs to get more life experience as I did. In fact I was probably like him when I was 21. He tends to only say “Cheers” or “No worries” for any situation. He told quite a funny joke on our last night camping out. A dead guy arrives at St. Peter’s Gate. St. Peter asks, “How did you die? Make me laugh and I’ll let you through.” “Okay, well I suspected my wife of cheating on me so I left work early and came home. My wife was completely naked so I got suspicious. Eventually I found a guy hanging off my balcony. So I decided I would push my fridge out the balcony, releasing his grip and crushing him under the fall. But I got a heart attack just as I pushed the fridge off and died.” “Haw! A good story, go ahead and pass.” Another man walks up. “Tell me your story. If you make me laugh, you may pass.” “Well I was cleaning the windows outside my balcony and fell off. I managed to grab a balcony below but this crazy man dislodged me with a fridge! I hit the ground below and got crushed by the fridge! Crazy strange man!” “Heh hah,” said St. Peter, knowing the previous man’s plight. “Go ahead.” Finally a third man approaches and tells his story. “So I was sleeping with this hot married chick and her husband comes back, so I get into a fridge to hide…” Nicholas is scrawny with lots of chest hair. Wears canvas shoes, a DCUSA canvas hat, and big aviator glasses. I think he must’ve listened to “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on repeat through the entire trip. Maybe he’s borderline autistic? I hope he’s not perfecting his English using THAT song! One weird moment came when he got out of the last water hole we visited, also the coldest. He kept rubbing his nipples and said, “These could cut glass.” Hmm…. I tried to get Nicholas to talk on several occasions but no success. No one else really bothered. I was however surprised to learn he’d met another Swiss, a chick named Carmen, while in Australia, and they were going to get together once he got back to Switzerland. How strange relationships can be and of those who find them!
Richard works on heavy equipment in Yellowknife. Yes, a Canuck! Always wore long pants and big shirt. With leather hat. Must’ve been hot. Said he liked being out where few people were. A loner but I think he liked hanging out with me because we both don’t talk needlessly. He also had quite a few tattoos, mainly wolf teeth and Canadian-Indian stuff. Reddish-hair, stocky, efficient, wore glasses. Good-natured and not grumpy. He kept up with me on our hikes. Wanted to climb Ayer’s Rock despite tour guides and Aboriginals begging tourists not to. Spots wildlife as I do. Catches interesting details of things before others slowly notice. In that respect he’s like my brother. Went without shaving the entire time. I think our bearded crew convinced at least Geoff and Rich not tos have also. We looked pretty scraggly by the end! Rich was looking to quite in Canada and come mine in Oz. Mining is huge there right now. Lots of money to suck all the natural resources out of the ground. He said it was the same in Yellowknife. Always bought a souvenir from each town, mainly shirts so, he said, he’d have a clean one to wear. Had a huge ruck and also brought along his own one-man tent. Only he, Ben, and I carried knives.
Finally there is Ben. I think if I had done this tour when I was the younger peoples’ ages, I wouldn’t have gotten as much out of it. Clearly this trip was important to me spiritually. But as I’d said earlier, being in the Army helped me grow up immeasurably. It was my rite of passage into adulthood. Liminality according to my grandfather. My father did not raise me well to be a man, and my mom did too much for me instead of forcing me to grow up. For my children, I promise to carefully progress them so that they will become men and women who believe in themselves.
I don’t think anyone else knew as much about everyone else on the tour besides me. I talked at length with everyone, usually while others slept in the truck. I examined people closely. I followed their tendencies and brought up subjects I knew would get them talking. Mostly I just learned, particularly from the older men. They gladly shared; there was common respect although I felt I laid the military stuff on so thick that it might have stereotyped me. Nicholas was the hardest nut to crack but I tried harder than others.
I’m trying to develop my ability to talk to anyone in any situation. This fails spectacularly in dance clubs where people don’t come to talk.
I missed you very much, Julie, and there is a part of me that felt guilty for going on this trip. While it formally separated me from my Army past, and exposed me to many new things, and got me to camp out in the Outback, it put so starkly the separation between you and me. People would ask if I had a girlfriend. Yes, but she lives in another country. Yes, I only see her every once in a while. No, I still have to go to graduate school and she is raising her daughter. I get frustrated because we have it so much harder than everyone else. I decided to go to grad school but it really feels more like a compulsion. I had to do it. And as you know I second-guess myself constantly which is probably considered as male weakness in the west but is rather common to a Chinese way of thinking under which my mom raised me. Despite my luck and successes I constantly don’t know if I’m doing the right thing for myself. Will grad school vault me ahead to a happy life that I only see glimpses of in my dreams? How much am I capable of? Why not just settle for something more visible? All I have, to be bluntly honest, is an optimism that everything will work out, and that my instincts have never led me astray but instead transformed me for the better.
The major problem in all this is not the uncertainty but our relationship. I worry if my decisions cast our love by the wayside and if it pushes you emotionally away from me. I know how it feels to be near you when your love shines radiantly, such as when you did your charming French accent for hours in Central Park, entertaining me infinitely. Or when you would start to weep far before we would separate again.
I feel that you feel all my decisions do not include you. I hope that what I do now will ensure our future together, providing comfort, security, and interestingness. But how much will you endure? Is it even what you want? Your first priority lies first to El and then to yourself — at what point do you see us as permanently hopeless? This is what I constantly worry about. I know you get frustrated with me often. I know you know my annoying flaws. In many aspects of life you have more poise than me and I often feel inferior to you especially in dealing with feelings.
It is true that I put myself first before the relationship. I was raised that way and am instilled with the belief that I have to follow my dream and the opportunities will open to me. I already fail to explain this properly. It is hard for me to further our relationship without putting the brakes on my whole life. I cannot not like my field of interest, and as far as I know right now, no other field of interest excites me. By its nature it is likely to keep some distance between you and me if you elect to stay in one place for El’s, your family’s, and your sake. I can’t guarantee anything and that hurts. I can only hope that you will join me.
I also can’t see myself working in Quebec. Perhaps I’m wrong and I’m willing to be wrong. I want to learn French and have a good job there. What will I do?
I can also admit to you that I do not love you as much as you deserve and as much as I am ultimately capable. That came out all wrong but what I mean is that there are so many barriers between us, and right now there is included an inability to communicate well based on shortness, impatience, lack of common interests, and severe lack of intimacy. There is little for us to look forward to as our lives continue to diverge instead of converge after almost 2+ years. It’s so unnatural! But I know that once we’re together, you will fall in love with a more palpable version of me instead of the asshole you know. I think you will find me more capable and impressive if we spend our lives daily together. Likewise I will learn your tendencies and habits and the way your silhouette looks in the dark and the way you walk and the small signs of your prior presence. I have so much to learn about you that I cannot claim I love you fully yet. My attempt to write a biography about you would fail miserably. This is like Robin Williams discussing his wife in Good Will Hunting. The little things.
I am stuck in a state of anxiety for our future. I like to believe that when things look their darkest that sunshine will come soon. All these barriers between our futures seem to be getting worse, but I hope for a breakthrough. I hope it will all work out soon!