I’m trying to sleep on the floor of Changi Airport, my head on my backpack, my arm draped over my helmet. I have a five hour layover, the beers cost $22, and I’m heading back to the developed world. Australia, here I come.
Five years and a half years ago I rode away from my best friend. I rode away from my career as a lawyer, my profession and my security; away from the place I was born. All those things, I was ready to leave. I was quietly desperate to be gone.Read more: Back to my beginnings: Australia
But my best friend? He was my reason to stay; and he was telling me to go.
‘Aren’t you worried about her riding around the world on her own?’ people asked him. ‘Of course,’ he always said, ‘But I would much rather she was out there happy and living life, than miserable and safe here.’
Years ago, he had been given an autoimmune diagnosis, and a sombre prognosis. His ability to chase his dreams slowly and inexorably faded as the years went by and the disease progressed. And thus he encouraged me to do what he could not. Go out there and do it, he told me. Live. The future is not promised.
Before the pandemic, he used to fly out to meet me every six months. He flew to meet me in Borneo, in Laos; Christmas in Thailand. But while covid kept us separated, his health deteriorated. By the time the time borders reopened, it was the end of an era. He could no longer take long haul flights to exotic places.
I was stricken. Whilst I was out here living my vagrant motorcycling dreams, our time together had been slipping away.
They say you know you’re an Australian when you land at the airport and fully expect to get strip searched for seeds, not drugs. But I know the drill: I’d scrubbed the soles of my shoes before I flew, and AQIS gave me the green light.
“Oh you’re an ANZAC,” said the guy at the scanner machine when he saw my New Zealand passport. “Welcome home.”
I made it through Customs and nearly had a little cry when I saw my best mate standing there, same as always: tattoos, beard, all dressed in black. In the time he’d been waiting for me, he’d already been mistaken for security by several travelers. I put down my helmet and hugged him hard. After nearly three years, everything was right in the world.
I stepped out in the airport into glorious colour. Somehow the light in Australia always seem brighter than other parts of the world – brighter than the muted shades of Europe, brighter than the lush haziness of Asia. The sky seems almost blindingly blue when you step off a plane after years away; the leaves are improbably green; it’s like the vibrancy and saturation have been turned up all around you.
It was a divine spring day in Sydney, apparently turned on just for me: a rare break in the flooding rains which have been lashing New South Wales since El Nino set in. We drove straight to the shores of Botany Bay, and then South to Cronulla Beach to soak it all in.
On the way, I kept marveling at all the empty space available on the roads: no chickens, no scooters, no sidecars loaded with cabbages. I watched open mouthed as clean street after clean street of ordinary homes passed us by, all worth a million dollars each. I felt out of place. There were no village shacks selling cold beer here; no petrol in water bottles; no shady fermented pork in a banana leaf.
But when in Rome: we headed down to a well known restaurant in the south, to get me the beautiful Australian steak of which I’d been dreaming for years. The place was bright, airy; white surfaces, beachy feel; populated by southern beaches ladies who lunch.
I was still disheveled from my long haul flight, from sleeping on the floor in Singapore, but I didn’t care.
We ordered steak, and celebrated.