1. The Start
19 September 2009, Bowen, Australia
My one-year stay in Australia has come to an end. At 11:00am I make the final delivery of boxes for the day and return to the Ultrastak box factory, where I fill in the time sheet and quit my job. I have four days to spare before beginning my journey back home to the Netherlands, enough time to see Ardi and Evan, two of my local friends from Bowen, once more.
Ardi is roughly my age and has just returned from celebrating his twenty-second birthday in a town south of Bowen. We became friends early on in my stay and for the last five months we’ve worked together at the box factory. He is Malaysian, always with a smile on his face and always in a cheery mood. We have no plans for the afternoon and, given the pleasant sunny weather, decide to have one last fish out at sea. He picks me up outside the hostel and we drive over to buy some food at the local IGA supermarket.
We buy the regular supplies for a fishing trip: ready-made salads, mint chocolate bars, plenty of water, and maggots for the fish. At the harbour, we untie the boat and place it in the soothing warm water. As we attach the motor, I realise how fast this past year in Bowen has gone by.
It feels like only yesterday that I finished my university studies in Spain and, on a whim, decided to move permanently to Australia. Though half English and half Spanish, I was tired of my life in Spain (and the lack of work there after the 2007 economic crash) and thought that perhaps starting a new life in Australia would be better. Having had a disappointing start due to not feeling that Sydney was the right place for me, I’d spent the rest of my time in Bowen rethinking my life.
‘So,’ says Ardi as he pulls on the cord to start the motor, ‘what’s the plan, Dan?’
‘Not sure yet,’ I reply honestly. ‘I’ve got a flight leaving in three weeks from Perth to Singapore. I’d like to head through South East Asia, China, Korea and Japan. But it could change. I might just head home after Thailand. I’ll take it as it comes.’
‘And how long will that take ya?’ he asks, yanking the motor cord for the fifth time.
‘No idea. I’m guessing between two and three months.’
The engine kicks in and we’re on our way. We arrive at one of the local spots that Ardi knows and we cast our fishing lines far out into the water as we reminisce about times in Bowen.
Bowen is one of the smallest towns I’ve ever encountered. Along the only main road, Herbert Street, is a series of small banks, bars and restaurants. Sea curls around one side of the town and endless farmland surrounds the other. Located in Queensland, north-eastern Australia, it has a tropical climate so the weather is fair nearly all year round, aside from the rainy season.
There isn’t much to do. When I arrived here I decided that I wanted to stay for a while to have some time to think so I searched for a job and ended up in the fruit and vegetable section of the local IGA supermarket. There I met Evan, who has become another great friend. He’s been working in the department for a few years, trying to fight off the boredom of retirement. His skin is slightly wrinkled, and he has grey hair, parted and combed back, and glasses. He’s very much into sailing.
‘Welcome to the team,’ he said when we first met. ‘Now, more importantly, do you know how to sail?’
‘Damn. I’m searching for crew for the races. We need to be a minimum of two on board. Regulations, ya know?’
‘I wouldn’t mind giving it a go.’
‘Righty-oh. You’re on.’
I started sailing with Evan every Saturday while the weather permitted. They were friendly races to give the locals a chance to compete against one another. Each week the course was different.
Midway through my stay in Bowen, I received a phone call from my mother in Europe to say that my grandfather had passed away. She hadn’t told me earlier in case I made plans to return for the funeral, which she knew would be time consuming and expensive. I remember spending that night trying to figure out why I’d wanted to start a life so far away from my family, who are very important to me. It was then that I realised that my idea to live in Australia forever, passionate as it was, wasn’t even close to being practical. I decided that once my visa ran out, I would head home to my parents in the Netherlands. Having no immediate commitments, I thought about taking a longer route back and passing through some countries along the way, but at that point I couldn’t justify a reason for doing it.
One Saturday after my mother’s call, Evan and I were out at sea about to start a race. ‘What course are we doing today?’ I shouted across the boat.
‘Course D!’ Evan shouted back. ‘Out to the lighthouse and back in!’
Once we pulled up the sails and crossed the starting line, we were on our way.
‘By the way,’ Evan said. ‘Next Saturda–y.’ He strained his throat as he tightened up one of the cords on the sail. ‘I’m celebratin’ my sixtieth birthday along with the IGA crowd down at the yacht club.’
‘Sixtieth?’ I hadn’t known his actual age until then.
‘Yeah, time flies. Anyway, should be a good time. Even if it isn’t, you’ll get a free feed, right?’
On Evan’s birthday, I wandered down to the yacht club as the evening crept in. Towards the end of the party, people began to give their speeches. Evan spoke last, summing up his past sixty years in a few seconds. He said that he couldn’t have wished for anything other than he had, and that he was grateful for the friends and family he’d spent time with over the years.
Hearing his speech, I realised that his was just one of billions of lives being lived in the world, each one unique. That night, I realised that I wanted to travel before heading home, to see what other people and cultures were doing and learn a bit more about the world in which I lived.
I snap out of my reminiscences and am back in the present. As usual, by the time the sun sets Ardi and I haven’t caught any fish and have eaten all our food. We call it a day and head back to shore.