Winner: The Tashmadada/Writer Conversation/Creative Nonfiction Best Essay Prize
The British navy vessel commanded by Lieutenant James Cook on his first voyage around the world was called the HMSEndeavour. She had a broad, flat brow; a square stern; and a boxy body with a deep hold. At 97 feet 8 inches long, 29 feet 2 inches wide, she weighed 366 tons.
The Boeing 747-400 I took was called Qantas Flight 23. She was a wide-body airliner with four Rolls Royce engines. Her wingspan was 213 feet, her length 231.8 feet, and her vertical fin height 62.2 feet. Maximum take-off weight was 875,000 pounds.
It took Cook, sailing from England in 1768, eight months to reach Tahiti and a few more to find New Zealand. He finally located Australia some 20 months later. He and his men would have felt every inch of the ocean they crossed, every wave breaking directly into their sea-weary bodies.
I arrived in Australia from Los Angeles in 2003. The entire trip took 18 hours, and somewhere over the ocean, I lost a day. We hit a bit of turbulence when the credits were rolling on my third in-flight movie, and I instinctively death-gripped the armrests and began counting all the babies and priests and soldiers on board.
The standard meal on the Endeavour was salted pork and a biscuit. It was served for days on end and often had weevils crawling inside.
I like to order the kosher meal on long flights even though I don’t keep kosher. When you order a special meal, they serve you first, and this makes the other passengers jealous.
During his voyage, Cook lost 40 men. Three drowned. Two froze. One deserted, and another was discharged. Most died of malaria and dysentery, caught on their way home through the East Indies.
We lost no men, women or children on my flight to Australia, though some looked mighty pale after the dinner service.
Why am I comparing myself to Cook? I am not British. I am not a man. I am not a discoverer of faraway lands. But, you see, actually I am. Well, not the first two things—mind you, I’m not delusional—but the last one, certainly. Why should it be thought that I discovered Australia any less than Cook? When he arrived, others were already inhabiting the place. Same goes for me. When he disembarked, he was confounded by a foreign tongue. Have you ever heard a thick Aussie accent? Or tried to make your point known in an American one? Ninety percent of the people I met in Sydney still think my name is Rita.
Cook’s mission was to find the unseen Southern Continent haunting the restless minds of kings and explorers or, if he could not, to confirm once and for all that it did not exist.
I was searching for something, too. I was 21 years old and had recently graduated from college. The only savings to my name were $4,000 earned waitressing at an Irish pub in Philadelphia, where I had been having a grand old time performing the type of physical labor my parents wished me to forego now that my degree was in hand. They wanted me to be a professor or lawyer—something financially sound—and I was thoroughly sick of hearing about the importance of embarking on a stable career path. I found it depressing how important money had become all of a sudden, how quickly my friends dropped their Bohemian airs once they encountered the skyscraper-high rent in Manhattan. I had planned to be a musician until my college’s music school disabused me of that notion, leaving me with an artist’s soul and a middle-class Jewish kid’s sense of duty. Were Cook’s parents pleased that their son discovered countries for a living in the service of England? Sure, it sounds impressive now, but it must have been inconsistent work. Maybe his mom comforted herself with the idea that, at least, he had a steady employer, not like that freelancer Columbus, who would sail for any old country that paid his way.
I set off for Australia a poor but privileged backpacker. (There is really no way around describing yourself as “privileged” if you’re able to run away for four months to find yourself.) I chose Oz because a convincing Australian friend I had met as a student invited me there. Carly told me the best way to figure out what you wanted to do with your life was just to live it, and the best way to live it was to do something unconventional, like pick up and move to Australia.
Australia loomed in my imagination as one great expanse of dust, spotted with kangaroos and koalas and lizards, animals I pictured motorists stopping for the same way we brake for deer in upstate New York. Other images I had of Australia: the Sydney Opera House, surfers, shrimp on the barbie. That was pretty much it, but it seemed as good a place as any to escape to.
From Cook’s journal, the day he reached Australia:
[April 1770.] THURSDAY, 19th. In the P.M. had fresh Gales at South-South-West and Cloudy Squally weather, with a large Southerly Sea; at 6 took in the Topsails, and at 1 A.M. brought too and Sounded, but had no ground with 130 fathoms of line. At 5, set the Topsails close reef’d, and 6, saw land extending from North-East to West, distance 5 or 6 Leagues, having 80 fathoms, fine sandy bottom. We continued standing to the Westward with the Wind at South-South-West until 8, at which time we got Topgallant Yards a Cross, made all sail, and bore away along shore North-East for the Eastermost land we had in sight, being at this time in the Latitude of 37 degrees 58 minutes South, and Longitude of 210 degrees 39 minutes West.
It goes and on and on like this. Dreadfully boring stuff, right? It only picks up a little at the end of the entry, when Cook finally describes Australia: “What we have as yet seen of this land appears rather low, and not very hilly, the face of the Country green and Woody, but the Sea shore is all a white Sand.”
From Friedman’s journal, the day I reached Australia.
[Oct. 11, 2003] Day 1: Or should I say—the flight over. Seeing as how I’m a somewhat neurotic flyer these post-911 days, 14 hours straight on a plane—all over water—is pretty much my idea of torture. I somehow made friends with the elderly man sitting next to me, and by the end of the flight, I had heard his family’s entire history. How his ancestors moved from Norway back in the day because the U.S. was advertising cheap land. I took a sleeping pill in the hopes I would be unconscious for the first half of the flight at least, but only passed out for five hours or so. Long flight! Enough said.
I am sorry to tell you it doesn’t pick up any, even at the end.
When Cook arrived in Australia, he soon spotted dark-skinned inhabitants dotting the shoreline; they quickly receded into the woods. I wish I knew what greeted the indigenous Australians when they first came upon the country, but there are no accounts of that expedition, which took place (depending on whom you ask) between 40,000 and 125,000 years ago.
When I arrived in Australia, I went straight to immigration. The agent inquired where I was staying. “Sydney,” I responded. Where in Sydney? I realized I had not written down my friend’s address and had no idea where she lived. “In Bondi Beach?” the beautifully bronzed official offered, citing the typical landing point for young backpackers. I nodded meekly. My friend lived nowhere near Bondi Beach, but I had no sense of geography back then (and not much more of it now). I should have charted my course more carefully, as Cook would have, or, at the very least, brought a pocket map. For remember, friends: My journey took place way back in 2003, before Google Earth discovered Australia.
Cook was a seasoned explorer. If he was scared of anything during his stay on this over-heated continent, no evidence of it exists in his journal.
My first month in Australia I was scared of everything, even though there was no question, as there was for Cook, of whether darts shot at me were poisonous, because there were no darts shot at me. Snakes, I convinced myself, were no threat in the suburbs where I was staying with Carly’s family, but spiders were another story. I took to shaking out my clothing every morning, peeking inside my shoes. I had dreams about redback spiders crawling into my mouth.
Cook could not understand a word the indigenous Australians said. Neither could Tupia, the high priest he had taken aboard in Tahiti, who was able to translate successfully for the crew in New Zealand but whose language did not overlap with this newly encountered one. Cook’s journal includes a list of translated words, among them: Head: “Whageegee.” Hair of the head: “Morye” or “More.” Teeth: “Mulere” or “Moile.” Chin: “Jaeal.” Beard: “Waller.” Scrotum: “Coonal” or “Kunnol.” Sand: “Joo’wal,” “Yowall” or “Joralba.” Sun: “Galan” or “Gallan.” Sky: “Kere” or “Kearre.” Man: “Bamma” or “Ba ma.” Dog: “Cotta” or “Kota.”
Today, Australians shorten any and every word, even if it is already quite brief. A mosquito is a “mozzie,” afternoon is “arvo,” thanks is “ta,” Christmas is “Chrissy,” a cup of tea is a “cuppa,” garbage is “garbo,” good day is “g’day,” sick day is “sickie,” bad guy is “baddie,” football is “footy.” In Sydney, I worked in a downtown coffee shop where “cap” sounded like “flat,” and “flat” I mistook for “mach.” Order after order was royally screwed up until, finally, Joey, the beloved, becurled barista, would stop the line to scold me in front of all the finance hotshots.
“Come on, Rita,” he’d say. “Pull it together.”
No one would dare speak this way to Cook, I thought to myself. No one would dare.
As if discovering an entire continent was not thrilling enough, each day offered Cook new bits of the unfamiliar. He had, for instance, seen canoes before, but not Australian canoes, which were “made of one peice [sic] of the Bark of Trees about 12 or 14 feet long, drawn or Tied together at one end.” Other encounters were so foreign he hadn’t yet the language to describe them. In May, the men came across the “Dung of an Animal,” which they only later realized belonged to the native kangaroo, a marsupial no one in the expedition had ever before laid eyes on.
The most ordinary things became extraordinary in my new land: Carly’s mom cupping the bougainvilleas in her garden, Carly’s dad washing his old car on the grass to conserve water. Even the quotidian task of riding the bus could provide opportunities for anthropological observation. In Sydney, did you know, the friendly bus drivers wear shorts with striped knee socks? Knee socks! Just imagine it.
Cook and his crew spent four long months in Australia. I picture him taking off in the early morning hours to explore at his leisure, compass in hand, perhaps a small snack in case hunger overtook him. Even Cook had to eat, after all.
I stayed four months in Australia, too. I spent entire blissful mornings carefully negotiating with a mango for my breakfast, whereas at home, I eat toast standing up, scrolling through e-mails with one hand while listening to NPR. The mango is occupied by a flat, oblong pit, so you want to slice off the sides first. I took the first half and cut tiny crisscross patterns into the yellow flesh with a paring knife. I held this slice of mango with both hands and used my thumbs to press it inside out. Now, I had my very own mango hedgehog, and sometimes, I set this up on the counter and examined it amusedly for a few luxurious seconds. Then, I bit off the squares, slowly, one cube at a time, working my way through the fruit at a glacial pace.
Some of the wildlife Cook and his crew encountered in Australia:
Bustards, Eagles, Hawks, Crows, Pidgeons, Doves, Quails, and several sorts of smaller birds. Herons, Boobies, Noddies, Guls, Curlews, Ducks, Pelicans, etc., Sharks, Dog-fish, Rockfish, Mullets, Breams, Cavallies, Mack’rel, old wives, Leather Jackets, Five Fingers, Sting rays, Whip rays, etc., Oysters of 3 or 4 sorts, viz., Cockles and Clams of several sorts, many of those that are found upon the Reefs are of a prodigious size, Craw fish, Crabs, Muscles, and a variety of other sorts.
Some of the wildlife I encountered in Australia at the Featherdale Wildlife Park, where I proudly stamped my park-provided “passport” at each stop: koalas lazing on gum trees like portly old men, scruffy kangaroos and wallabies, kookaburras perched like professors, Tasmanian devils running in endless loping circles, goannas (like lizards but uglier), rainbow-colored lorikeets, pugnacious Cape Barren geese and cassowaries, whose nails might easily sever a limb or eviscerate an unlucky abdomen.
Enough of these endless lists, you’re saying to yourself. What about the man behind the lists? Well, in truth, I can’t find Cook’s emotions anywhere on the page, except for some initial disappointment that the locals won’t come close enough for him to get a good look at them. I suppose it wasn’t Cook’s job to record feelings, but, lucky for you, it happens to be mine.
Emotions experienced while staying in Australia: excitement, fear, joy, ecstasy, gratitude, melancholy, curiosity, bliss, comfort, surprise, optimism.
There. Now you’re satisfied, I imagine.
Cook was already an adventurer when he discovered Australia, but I had to wait until I discovered Australia to become one.
I traveled all over the continent on my own—up the east coast and over to Darwin and into the outback. I lived in hostels, among strangers (some stranger than others), finding odd jobs around the place to pay my way. I circled Uluru, the great red rock, in heat so sweltering I thought it would drown me. I swam in croc-inhabited waters up north in Kakadu. Friends: I. Ate. Vegemite. And if that is not bravery, I don’t know what is. Near the end of my trip, I bungee jumped and skydived in the same adrenaline-filled day. Back home, my life was predictable, and I was a skittish, sheltered girl. But in Australia, I discovered I was a wild thing.
None of this would impress the stoic Cook, I’m sure. What would he think of how easy his hard-won voyage has become? Now, Oprah and John Travolta fly entire audiences to Sydney. Now, we have the Outback Steakhouse and can order a Bloomin Onion any time we damn well please. The external dangers of traveling have lessened considerably over the centuries, but the internal ones remain. I nearly disappeared altogether in Australia. I didn’t want to go home. I had no use for this “real world” everyone kept invoking as the place where a reasonable person lives. I tell you, I was a whisper away from letting the place swallow me whole.
There are no more lands left to discover. Even Cook himself, who most call to mind as the first European to set foot in Australia, was merely one of a number of explorers to have sighted and landed on the continent prior to English settlement, and he did so 164 years after the first such documented encounter.
The only truly virgin territory left is within us, and I located a small patch of untapped self in Australia—what I realize, in retrospect, was my nascent traveler self. She was a surprising revelation, this girl who thrived in the unfamiliar and did not let fear rule the day, this lady who moved more slowly through the world: observing, exploring, absorbing. In 1770, Cook planted the Union Jack on Australian soil and declared the land part of the British Empire. In 2003, in Australia, I declared my future life uncolonized. I would make my own way in the world, treacherous though it might be.