Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Goodbye to Oz

On our last morning in Australia, I woke up early to the sound of pounding rain. By the time dawn would normally be breaking, the rain had stopped, but I could see that it was still misty and overcast outside, with red mud puddles everywhere.

Pipi and I were in the hotel lobby before it was fully light because, having had so much fun riding camels in Alice Springs, we’d decided to go for an early morning ride at Uluru. When the tour operator showed up, though, he had bad news: Camels, he said, get “very silly” in the rain, and the ride would have to be cancelled. I said I’d pay good money to see a camel act silly, but he insisted that silly camels are not safe to ride. So we had a free morning before starting our trip home at around lunchtime.

We had one last hot Aussie brekkie at the hotel and took the first shuttle to the Uluru Cultural Center, which had a lot of good exhibits about the Anangu people, including an interesting explanation of how the local people managed to regain some control of their land. The Cultural Center was a few miles away from Uluru, and all morning we were treated to what I think is an unusual sight, which is that of the rock half shrouded in low clouds that made it look perfectly flat-topped.

When we were done with the Cultural Center, we made our way to a shuttle stop. Waiting for the bus, I felt a strong pang of sadness because I knew that at this point, our trip was essentially over. We were still standing on red Australian soil, but we were done having Australian experiences. From this moment on, our very long day would be dedicated to the logistical details of getting out of the country.

This shuttle would take us back to our hotel, where we would pack and catch another shuttle that would take us to the tiny Ayers Rock airport. From there we’d get on a two-and-a-half hour flight to Sydney, where we might catch an aerial glimpse of the Opera House, or Bondi Beach, or one of the neighborhoods we’d explored three weeks earlier. But we’d be stuck in international travel limbo, and they’d be out of reach, on the other side of doors marked “Security,” and “Passport Control.” Soon our Australia would be the size of an airport departure lounge.

There were five or six of us on the bus back to the Ayers Rock Resort, and I noticed that none of us could take our eyes off Uluru, visible in the distance through the back window, and getting smaller by the moment. I wondered if everyone, like me, was trying to savor the last sweet crumbs of what had once been a towering three-week slice of vacation. It certainly seemed that way as we all bounced around the mostly empty bus, constantly changing seats to try to get the best last look possible of the rock formerly known as Ayers.

Still feeling a little melancholy at the airport, I started thinking about how few people live in this part of the world, and realized that hardly anyone on the flight would be leaving home; that the majority of people in the airport were, like us, heading back to where they belong. How many of them would be following Pipi and me all the way, from Uluru to Sydney to Honolulu and finally to San Francisco?

It would be easy enough to tell, if I really wanted to know. I would just have to look at my fellow travelers’ shoes. Mine, I realized just before boarding, were covered in the red dirt of Central Australia. Everyone’s were. Anybody who’d literally set foot outside on this muddy morning had ochre splotches on their footwear.

Normally stained shoes might bother me, but in this case, I liked the idea that my sneakers would always be marked by this trip. (I lack the courage to commit to a tattoo, but if my shoes want to bring back a souvenir of their travels, I have no problem with that.)

Ayers Rock Airport is truly tiny, with only two gates, each of which is a glass door opening directly onto the tarmac. There are no jetways—you just walk out the door and climb the stairs to your plane. I don’t think it would be hard to get on the wrong one. The food court consisted of exactly one restaurant. I bought the last two sandwiches in the whole airport for Pipi and me and ate mine staring at my dirty shoes.

Finally boarding was announced for our flight. I clicked my red heels together, said, “There’s no place like home, mate,” and left Oz behind.

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