Late September 2012: Patrick and I are almost broke, without jobs and flying to Melbourne from my native US.
First we stay with friends in Melbourne, then we crash his parents’ house in Canberra, next comes couchsurfing in Newcastle for This is Not Art Festival (a true highlight), and finally we catch a train to Sydney to catch a flight to Perth, where the Western Australian prices quickly drain our wallets and, worse, our spirits.
After 10 lacklustre days in WA, we return to Newcastle for Patrick’s final interview. His next stop is Melbourne where he has two more interviews with other companies. It becomes clear we both can’t afford to continue traipsing around Oz.
Desperation spikes my motivation. At the Newcastle youth hostel, I hear about a hostel in Port Stephens that’s looking for a cleaner in exchange for accommodation, ASAP.
Where and what is Port Stephens? As the messiest person I know, I ask myself, “Is this a good career move?” I’m not at a financial place to carefully and leisurely consider these questions. Over the phone, I tell my future boss I’ll be up to clean tomorrow.
Thursday October 25 mid-afternoon: I kiss Patrick goodbye when the bus drops him at Newcastle airport, and I continue to ride north towards the enigmatic Port Stephens.
After some adjustment days involving bed sheets, brooms and backpackers, I begin to explore. Tomaree National Park and the dolphin-filled bays are stunning as are the koalas high in the trees.
Patrick arrives a week later, and I trade my twin bed in a common room for a private room in a caravan in the hostel’s car park. We have hose water and a camping fridge. Our every move causes the entire van to wobble. We have a home!
|our messy caravan
| The kookaburras become my alarm clock; their cackling isn’t so funny to me at 6 a.m. I sweep the balconies every morning while humongous spiders lurk in corners, revealing themselves only when I get too close to their web. On one of the windows of the rooms, perches a moth bigger than my hand.
On hot days as I lug my cleaning bucket from bungalow to bungalow, black snakelike lizards cross the path.
I see Goannas, an echidna and overfriendly possums. Peacocks strut around the reception veranda, and I learn to identify their call and the scratching of their feet on the roof even before I see their brilliant plumage.
Often after my shift, I walk to One Mile Beach. Usually I spot only one or two other beach-goers, with a few surfers dotting the big waves.
|me and my toes at One-Mile Beach!
| I welcome the openness, quite different to the crowded beaches of South Carolina that I knew growing up. Watching for washed-up bluebottles, I walk with caution on the shoreline. I study the sideways scuttle of crabs at low tide. How strange my wariness of spiders in crevices when I clean, but my fascination for crabs the size of a Huntsman in the sand.
At night I learn to identify the koalas’ spooky mating calls. The once startling guttural growling becomes as normal as rain on the tin of the caravan.
While the jungle by the sea engulfs me, Patrick is at last offered the job in Newcastle. He begins taking the bus down early weekday mornings. After two months of aimlessness, our futures become bigger than “this time a week from now.” I’ve never felt so excited about trying to find a job. We want our new lives to involve bike rides to the shops and walks to the beaches. We want to live near cafes and to grow a garden wherever our newfound rent money will have us.
So ready to begin my new life, I almost forget to remember the place I’m leaving. On my last day of cleaning, I get to hold a baby Kookaburra who was abandoned in the middle of a road. He squawks in my hands, and I hold him close to my chest. Later on I watch him fly away. We are not so different.
|baby Kookaburra and me