Stranded in the Outback
Sometimes certain things happen that make you a kinder, humbler person. I’d like to think one of those events happened to me in late August of 2001.
In 2001 I had worked hard and saved my pennies. I had two
room mates and worked a job 12-8, then another job 9-bar close. After many months of this exhausting schedule, I quit both jobs and hit the road.
I visited friends in Portlandia for about a month and from there flew, alone, to Australia. I had always had an interest in visiting Australia, although I’m not quite sure why. I guess the landscape seemed very appealing to me.
After a long flight, my plane touched down in Sydney and I took a cab to my hostel in King’s Cross. I was excited and somewhat nervous–this was the first time I was travelling alone. All of my other travels were with at least one other person and sometimes a car full or even a caravan of other people.
Over the next few weeks I had numerous small adventures exploring as much of Australia as I could. I headed south to Canberra, then Melbourne, over to Adelaide, and spent a few days hiking around Kangaroo Island.
From there I jumped in a car with three hippies, two Italians and an Austrian, and headed north to Alice Springs. I took a hot air balloon ride over the Outback. It was grand, but I realized I was having too much fun– it was time to head back to Sydney and fly back to the States.
I had falsely put myself at ease because I had come up with the plan of jumping onto the famous train of the Outback, the Ghan, to chug across the reddish orange landscape to Sydney. I found the transit center in Alice Springs and told them I wanted a ticket for the Ghan for the next morning.
“Naaaaw, mate.” The man behind the counter said. “Ghan doesn’t run again ’til Tuesday.” It was Wednesday afternoon. My plane flew out Saturday.
After some discussion, we figured I would need to get on a Greyhound early the next morning, transfer in Coober Pedy and would arrive in downtown Sydney just a few hours before my flight was scheduled. This did make me a bit nervous, but I shrugged it off. Worst case, I’d have to immediately jump in a cab and cruise to the airport. I got on the bus the next morning.
* * *
The Outback is a very harsh environment. As such, I later found out, it is not unusual for buses to break down under the strain of the heat and long miles of dusty roads. We had made a pit stop at a small village (I don’t remember the name, it was a long repetitive Aboriginal based word)–there were just a few buildings in town–and the bus refused to start up again.
There were two drivers who took turns driving while the other slept, and they puttered around under the hood of the bus for awhile.
Eventually one of the drivers re-boarded the bus. He held his hands forward, as if begging us not to shoot him.
“Now, it’s no good, folks. We’re going to need them to send a bus to pick us up and I can tell you it will be several hours.”
I felt panic, but didn’t say anything and didn’t display emotion on my face. I tried to think. I tried to be hopeful–maybe the back up bus would arrive sooner than later. The sun was setting.
It was a long night. I had trouble sleeping on the bus. A French tourist sitting behind me was making little orgasm sounds in her sleep. There were a couple times when the village’s juvenile delinquents tried to break into the cargo area on the bottom of the bus to try to steal luggage. The angry bus drivers chased them off. I heard some pretty racist language about this and the Aboriginals in general from a couple of old Australian ladies sitting a few rows in front of me.
In the middle of the night the back up bus arrived. It was a mini bus– the type used to shuttle people from airports to hotels. Bleary eyed, we transferred onto the bus.
It was approaching dawn and I was passing out for a few minutes here and there, but was often jostled awake. Kangaroos tend to heap themselves into a giant pile in the middle of the road. This is how they get cozy at night, the mob finds a place to cuddle up and they are often attracted to the road because the asphalt retains some of the heat of the fierce Outback sun. So the bus ride involved a lot of stopping, swerving, and honking.
When we arrived in Sydney in the late afternoon, I had already missed my flight by two hours. My plane ticket stated clearly, in capitalized, scrolling letters across the bottom of the ticket that I could expect NO REFUNDS, EXCHANGES, or SUBSTIUTIONS. I had some money left in the bank, but not nearly enough for a new ticket back to the States. I had no idea what to do, but decided to head to the Sydney airport to see if I could talk to someone from the airline. By the time I got there, it was early evening.
I found my airline counter. It was completely abandoned and shut down for the day. I got on an escalator. I felt like I might have a public melt down any second.
Then I saw a Help desk. Now, I’m not sure if I am remembering this correctly–it might have been a hallucination. The Help desk had a giant yellow plastic question mark attached to the front of it. Two elderly ladies stood behind the desk, wearing sparkly yellow suit coats with yellow plastic question marks affixed to the lapels of the suit coats. They smiled as I approached. I put my hands on the Help desk counter and caught my breath.
“Hi.” I said. “I need help.”
* * *
One of the women was an elderly white woman who wore bifocals and had chin length grey hair. The other woman was a Pacific Islander, a Fijian I would find out. There were a lot of people I met on the trip and I can’t remember their names at all. Time will do that.
I don’t remember the names of the Italian and Austrian hippies I met in Coober Pedy or the German backpackers I painted the town with in Adelaide, or the Irish gents who taught me how to play snooker. I don’t even remember the name of the Australian lady I talked to at a cafe and developed a micro-crush on.
I will always remember this Fijian grandma at the Help desk’s name, though. Her name was Asena. She had a small round afro and a strong but kind face, with wide features. The Help desk ladies smiled at me politely as I ran through my story, trying to choke back my emotions.
“Please, go over there and sit down.” Asena said, pointing to a section of empty seating. “You look very tired. We must discuss this, and then we will talk to you.”
I went and sat down. I watched the ladies calling unknowns on a plastic beige telephone and talking to each other with concerned looks. I put my elbows on my knees and covered my face with my palms.
About fifteen minutes later Asena came over and stood over me. “There is no one from the airline here. There’s nothing we can do…”
I nodded, weary, getting ready to part ways with the Help desk.
“….so, you’ll have to stay at my house and we’ll come back in the morning and sort it all out.” Asena told me, smiling like an angel.
“What?!” I said, surprised. “Well, thank you but I…” She wasn’t hearing it.
“Come on, let’s go.” She said.
Asena lived in a modest apartment with her grandson, who also worked at the airport in baggage. We talked about my ticket. Asena’s grandson said I might have to go to the American Embassy. It might be several months before they could process my case.
Asena made us dinner and suggested I shower and go to bed in a spare room- we would be heading back to the airport very early.
The shower and crawling into the bed remains one of the best feelings of my life.
The next morning we ate a light breakfast and tea and headed back to the airport. Asena dropped her grandson and then marched with me up to the ticket counters. She looked very determined.
“Hi, Asena.” The woman at the ticket counter said.
“We have a situation here,” Asena said politely, but firmly. “This young man missed his flight yesterday and we need to get him home. I want you to book him on the next flight to Portland, Oregon.”
The woman asked for my ticket and I handed it over. She frowned. She stared at a screen and began tapping away. It went on for a long time, silence except her staring at the ticket, staring at the screen, typing.
Then she looked directly at me. “Ok, I have you booked for an 11AM flight…” I don’t remember what else she said. She began printing tickets. I began walking, dumbfounded, toward the gates. Asena was beside me, smiling widely.
“I better you never thought some old black grandma would save your ass, did you?” She said to me. I laughed and smiled. I cried happy tears.
“Well, one sure did.” I told her. She gave me a hug.
“Thank you.” I said. I wrote down her address so I could send her a gift later on.
And then I walked to my gate to wait to board the plane.