“My friend Andrew lives in Perth…”
I’m squinting from a hangover and the overly persistent Australian sunlight as I try to hold a coherent conversation with our new friend Andrew, who graciously let Ryan and I roll out our sleeping bags and sleep on his living room floor the night before.
As I stroll slowly along a quiet street in the seaside town of Fremantle, which is lined with brick townhouses reminiscent of a colonial neighborhood in Boston, Massachusetts, I nearly trip over a glass bottle left on the sidewalk. As the bottle clinks and rolls on the concrete, I’m reminded of the whisky I set down in front of Andrew as a gift when we arrived to Perth, an offering to show how grateful we were that he took in two total strangers for the weekend.
It was my friend Tim from home who introduced us by text message, lighting up my phone as soon as I arrived to Western Australia. “My friend Andrew lives in Perth. Go visit him.”
A few seconds later, I got a message from Andrew, saying, “Tim tells me you’re coming to Perth.”
I’d heard plenty of stories about Andrew over the years. And now I was finally meeting him while also dragging 50 kilos of my and Ryan’s sea salt-encrusted luggage into his foyer. But I knew immediately that I was going to like him. His house was filled with dark wood artifacts from his years working as a geologist in Malawi and his walls were covered in contemporary paintings that he’d collected in his travels around Asia and Africa.
“I love living in third-world countries. Life is just so much more chilled out,” Andrew says, as we amble through sleepy Fremantle, talking about Andrew’s decision to take a job in Australia after his contract in Malawi ended. “Australia’s okay too, but it’s too much like the States in some ways.” To which he added, “But, hey, at least I get good health care here.”
We chat like old friends about how I met Ryan, what it was like sailing a boat to Australia, the quirks of being married to an Englishman and what Andrew loves about dating his French girlfriend. It feels like we’ve known each other since college, and yet we’ve only really spent a whisky-fuelled 12 hours together.
As Ryan walks ahead, lost in his own hangover reverie, Andrew says observantly, “Ryan loves asking questions, doesn’t he?”
I laugh and tell Andrew about the time I found him talking to a group of War Reenactment enthusiasts, asking them to explain their costumes and where they got their props. I remember how the guy’s face brightened as he proudly showed off his handkerchief and explained that it wasn’t a reproduction, but a period antique. He had no idea that Ryan was just amusing himself by getting the guy to gush about his obsession with war memorabilia.
“He’ll talk to anyone and everyone,” I say to Andrew. “Speaking of Ryan, where is he?” Looking around, I realize we’ve reached our destination, the Maritime Museum, but I can’t see Ryan anywhere.
Then, in the distance, I hear a familiar English accent asking, “But who do you talk to on this thing?” I look over and see Ryan standing under a tent, surrounded by a group of overweight, older men parked in lawn chairs next to a large van with some kind of metal contraption sticking out the back.
Andrew laughs. “What is he doing? Who is he talking to?”
I squint in an effort to read the crudely painted banner sign by the van. “Huh. Radio operators. He’s talking to some ham radio guys.”
“Your husband cracks me up,” Andrew says.
And just as I hear Ryan start to ask, “But couldn’t you just call them…?” I step in to rescue the ham radio crew from my husband’s incessant probing so we can see some of what Fremantle has to offer.
“So I met this guy in the bar…”
Not every husband would understand if his wife met a stranger in the bar and invited him to stay for the weekend. But Ryan is different. He’s traveled for as many years as I have and he knows I have a soft spot for footloose travelers and interesting company.
This was four years ago, back when we were living in Manhattan, running our schools and looking for a way to pack up and go traveling again. Ryan was out of town for a few days and was driving back to New York to pick me up to head to our cabin in the mountains for a long weekend of skiing. What he got, instead, was me and a random Australian guy I’d picked up.
See, the way it happened was I had dropped into Milano’s, a dive bar on Houston Street, on the way home from a rather late night in the office. With Ryan out of town, I was on my own, a little tired, and just looking for a glass of wine and some weird atmosphere.
If you ever find yourself in SoHo, go park yourself at Milano’s long, mahogany bar surrounded by antique memorabilia and faded photos of Frank Sinatra, Joe DiMaggio and other mafia-related New York celebrities, and you’ll know what I mean when I say this place is a seedy relic of old Manhattan.
I wasn’t seeking conversation. But I looked up when the shaggy red-haired guy next to me politely ordered a beer from the surly, tattooed girl behind the bar, to which she glowered and asked, “Where you from?”
“I’m Australian. From Melbourne,” the guy said, smiling proudly.
I thought I was eavesdropping on a friendly meeting between two Australians abroad until the girl spat back, “I fucking hate Aussies,” and walked off without even attempting to pour a beer.
It was late and I’d just worked a 12-hour day, so I wasn’t much good for a chat. But now I was intrigued. Exhaling a nervous laugh, I stared after the bartender as she walked off with stiff shoulders and a tense jaw. Then I glanced over at the Aussie, who was sitting before an empty glass, looking as though he’d just been slapped across the face.
“Is she kidding?” I asked. “She’s joking right?”
The stranger ran his hands through his long, thinning hair and shook his head slowly. “You know, I don’t think so.”
“But isn’t she Australian?”
“Nah. She’s Kiwi,” he said, throwing up his hands to signal his confusion. “My name’s Damien. What’s yours?”
It turned out Damien had only been in New York for a week. He didn’t know many people and already he’d managed to piss off the only bartender at his local watering hole just by being Australian. I started to ask if there was some rivalry between Aussies and Kiwis I didn’t know about, but the bartender reappeared, standing by the taps with her arms folded across her chest, not making eye contact. So I waved at her.
“Yeah?” she said, not moving.
“Can I get a pint of cider and a Blue Moon for my friend here?” I said.
The girl glared at Damien and, without a word, walked over to the taps, poured a cider and a beer and placed them down in front of me, making it clear the beer was for me, not for Damien.
I looked at Damien who looked back at me, wide-eyed, shaking his head as if to say, “She’s crazy, right?”
That’s how I came to meet Damien, a jazz drummer who’d come to the States for the first time with a dream of diving into the music scene in New York. I don’t know if it was the ciders, the fact that Damien was a genuinely nice guy, or if I just felt sorry for this ostracized Aussie, but even before Damien told me he was a snowboarder, I knew I wanted to invite him to stay with us in our upstate ski lodge.
It seems whenever I meet travelers in the States, I recall the countries and cities I’ve traveled through alone and the lovely people who took me into their homes on a whim, broadening my experience and allowing me to get to know them.
Ryan didn’t even question it when I called him up to tell him I’d invited a stranger to come stay at our house and go skiing with us. He’s lived with me for 10 years, so he’s used to this.
What I didn’t anticipate, however, was that four years later, we’d be knocking on Damien’s door in Melbourne and hugging him like an old friend we’d traveled thousands of miles to see. After all, we only knew him for what amounted to a week.
But that’s what travel does. It accelerates friendships. You don’t know if you’ll ever see each other again, so you don’t hold anything back. Your time together is now. Tomorrow, who knows where you’ll be?
Good ships and friendships
12 days and 5,500 kilometers after leaving Perth, we pull our dust-covered camper van into the Apollo parking lot in Brisbane. We’ve only just unloaded all our bags from the van when Travis pulls up in his car to pick us up. And once more, on this epic trip across Australia, we are swelling with gratitude that we’ve been taken in by friends.
We met Travis and Emily for the first time at a BBQ in Fort Lauderdale, when we sailed in on the way down to the Bahamas. Travis introduced himself as a mega yacht captain from Brisbane and his wife Emily as a lawyer from Iowa who was living abroad when he met her. We talked for hours about boats and travel and, by the time we left, Travis had graciously offered to help us change our engine oil and we had insisted they have cocktails the next day on board our boat.
And now here we are, being generously offered the guest room in Travis and Emily’s newly acquired home in Brisbane for as long as we want it. Which is an offer that could have lent itself to us over-staying our welcome, if only Australia hadn’t done it’s best to strip our bank accounts clean. (The cost of the diesel alone to get from Perth to Brisbane was $1400.)
But it is worth the Ramen noodles we’ve been living on for two weeks to reach Brisbane and be offered the most in-depth low budget tour I could ever have of a city. Travis, being from Brisbane, fills our itinerary for 4 days with cheap eateries, great food, cocktails on their sprawling back porch, visits to Brisbane’s most delightful public parks, mountain hikes and afternoon picnics at scenic viewpoints.
By the time we finally say our good-byes to board our flights to Bali, Indonesia, bound for a new adventure in Asia, we are genuinely sad to leave.
Because that’s the thing about making good friends on the road: every time you say good-bye, you never really know if you’ll see each other again. You promise to stay in touch and you hope your paths will cross again. But it could be years. Maybe decades.
But I know if we ever meet up with Travis, Emily, Damien or Andrew again one day, it will be a reunion full of laughter, good conversation and a genuine appreciation for the moments we have together, here and now. We are truly present in our friendships. And those friendships are a gift.