Scenes from Oz

I am getting on a plane to fly back home in just a few hours, and I still cannot believe it is really over…it just feels so surreal. I sort of thought it would never really end, or that it would feel like a longer time, or just that I would always have more time. As I contemplate leaving this place, very probably forever, scenes from the past 4 months flash through my mind, in no particular order…these are just a few snapshots, a few moments, isolated from the whole of the past semester.

It is around 3 am on a school night. I wake up because I can hear my flatmate’s voice outside in the hallway. He is laughing and squealing, “Get away from me, get away!” I blearily drag myself out of bed; I’m curious. I switch on my light and crack my door; I can see him laughing and hopping about. He is playfully shoving someone away from him, but there’s no one there that I can see. He continues to say it: “No, get away!” still giggling. I shut my door and lock it, put my headphones in, and go back to sleep. In the morning, I don’t mention it. He seems alright.

I am sitting on the edge of a boat in the middle of the Indian Ocean. There is no land in sight. I sit in a row of about 6 other people; we are wearing wetsuits and snorkels and flippers, and we are awaiting the signal to flip into the water. The anticipation is palpable. The signal we are waiting for will come from the men on top of the boat, who will get word from the men in helicopters flying over the water. They are looking for whale sharks for us to swim with. I am partly afraid and wholly exhilarated…everything seems very bright and clear. The minutes pass, and we breathe through our snorkels, shifting anxiously, flippers skimming the water. Finally, we get the signal, and our guide tells us to get in the water “Now!” I jump in without hesitating. Before the shock of the ocean has worn off, I see it: the whale shark, its huge body gliding swiftly through the water. I am literally feet away from this gigantic creature and I can’t quite wrap my head around it, and it feels like I am watching a movie. Then it starts to swim directly towards us, and I remember the instructions to “get out of its way, whatever you do”. They don’t eat people, but they’re none too bright, and if they accidentally swim into you, you could very well break a limb, not to mention injure the whale shark. I am watching it get closer, and the adrenaline rush is intoxicating. I try to swim out of its way as quickly as I can, and then another one swims up, and it’s the craziest thing I’ve ever seen…this huge creature ascending from the depths of the dark ocean shatters the illusion of a flat surface below us. For a second, vertigo overtakes me. Seeing the tiny, far-away shadow grow into something so gargantuan and solid makes the sheer enormity of the ocean into a visceral reality. For a moment, staring down into the depths, I feel like I might fall…it almost looks like another sky, like I am upside down, like there is nothing at all keeping me in place except for my belief that there is something there. My mind has frozen; I am hanging suspended in the sea. Then I see our guide motioning everyone out of the way, and I start to swim frantically towards the rest of the group. Once we get far enough away, we pop up to locate the boat, and we start to swim towards it. We are maybe 10 feet from the boat when our guide says, with far too much urgency for comfort, “Okay, everyone, there’s a third shark coming up, onto the boat, quick, quick!” I turn and I can see the shark swimming towards us…I swim towards the boat as fast as I can, something close to panic constricting my chest. I curse myself for not working out; my arms are shaking as I lift myself from the water. It feels like an age, although I’m sure it was really only a second, and then I am up. Once everyone is safely on the boat, we can look over the edge and see the curious whale shark swimming close underneath the water. It really is beautiful, with its broad speckled back gleaming in the sunlight. Our guide says we should consider ourselves lucky; they hardly ever convene in groups like that.

whale shark

I am on the bus to the supermarket. A man with 3 teardrop tattoos on his face boards, and promptly sits next to a large group of Japanese tourists. Upon attempting to start a conversation with the two girls seated nearest to him, he discovers that they speak only very minimal English. He starts to speak gibberish to them, using an exaggerated Asian accent: “Ching chong ming long ding! Me so sowwy, me eat dogs!” My mouth hangs open; I cannot believe this is actually happening, and my insides shrivel with embarrassment…for my race, for my species? I can only imagine what the two girls felt. I look around to see if other people are hearing this, and I make eye contact with the girl across the aisle from me. We both roll our eyes, and then I get off at my stop. I feel like I should have done something.

It is our last official outing as a CIEE group. We go out to dinner with Paul, our program director. We meet at a restaurant in Fremantle called Little Creatures. Paul says he will order several dishes for us, and then we can all share them around. We agree; it is, after all, “on him”. It is a Wednesday night, and Australians party on Wednesdays. This night, Little Creatures has some odd entertainment: young women in leotards perform acrobatics on the tables. A girl crab-walks slowly past our table. In the distance, another girl can be seen rotating inside of a large metal hoop. Against this abnormal backdrop, we chew on cold octopus and kangaroo skewers; we discuss American politics.

On campus, there are signs up everywhere advertising free pancakes at the pool lounge every Friday morning. Normally, I sleep through it, since I don’t have class on Friday, but on the Friday I left for Bali, I had woken up early to pack, so I decided to check it out. I’m constantly down for free food. So I go, and it seems great—they have chocolate chips in the pancakes and everything. I get talking to this girl who is a part of the group that puts on the pancake breakfasts, and she’s telling me about all these other events they do where they serve free food. I am just thinking this is too good to be true when she says, “Has anyone invited you yet to our bible study on Friday nights? That’s where we sort of organize everything.” And the words of my 10th grade Economics teacher come soaring back to me, like a divine revelation: “There is no such thing as a free lunch.”

Me, my flatmate Jamie, and another girl in our CIEE group, Danielle, all attend a winter shrub planting session. We plant seedlings in the forest near campus. We dig holes in the dirt, and we water baby trees. Afterward, we stand around and shoot the breeze with the other participants. We have a conversation with a boy named Stephen from Switzerland. He says, “I wanted to study abroad in America, but I just couldn’t afford it.” I can’t pass it up; I say, “Yeah, me neither.” We laugh, even though it’s not really all that funny. I don’t say, “Sometimes I want to throw up when I think about how much debt I’m in.” And I don’t say, “I’ve thought about it, and I’ll sell a kidney before I force my parents to repay loans they cannot afford.”

On campus, I am leaving the library. A boy with an Australian accent stops me. He is handing out leaflets for some rally. “Excuse me, Miss, but have you heard about what it happening in Baltimore in the United States right now?”

On my last night in Australia, I hang out with my friends. We throw apples from the balcony into the trash cans below. Why? No reason whatsoever. But it is oddly refreshing, in a juvenile, destructive-for-no-reason kind of way. Cathartic, even. And secretly, I am not even trying to get the apples in the trash can anymore. I am just trying to throw them at the ground as hard as I can. I am watching them splatter on the concrete. (And then we go down and pick up the remnants and throw them away, because we’re all adults here.)



1 thought on “Scenes from Oz”

  1. Beautiful/dangerous/colorful snapshots. I selfishly want more. Don’t you want to return some day to check on the trees you planted?

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