Empire Service (Part III)

Transports of Delight

I’ve spent a fair chunk of this trip alone. I’m nineteen years old, and five months ago I booked a round-the-world ticket and jumped a plane out of Perth, Western Australia. I was elated to be leaving my hometown. Trip of a lifetime! I trekked through a few different countries before I got to the US, where I picked up a job as a camp counselor. Working on a New England summer camp is one of the best things I have ever done. I can’t even begin to explain why. I can only recommend you do it and see for yourself. When the summer ended, there was a huge diaspora of camp counselors toward New York City. We descended on the town in busloads, tanned and dirty, singing camp songs and bursting into Hebrew. We tumbled into hostels and cheap hotel rooms and commiserated the end of our golden summer together.

We held huge dinners in downtown Manhattan, saying goodbye as we all dispersed to the next steps on our journeys. Some of us were going home; most, like me, were hitting the road again. Counselors from different camps joined us, and shared stories from their summers. It sounded like our camp was one of the lucky ones; other counselors told horror stories of spoiled brats and boring activities. One girl, a fellow Aussie named Ro, dolefully told me how she spent the whole summer standing in a barn. Apparently none of Ro’s campers had been game to have a go on the horses, so she spent most of her time at camp alone. I winced, and tried to downplay how freaking awesome my summer was.

After the goodbye dinners, everyone started to peel off in different directions. Some of the boys rented a silver convertible and set off for the southern states. The English girls went to California, to top up their tans before going back to Ol’ Blighty. My boyfriend went to visit relatives in Niagara Falls, and I took my pre-booked trip up to Nova Scotia. The gang had split up; I was travelling solo again.

A couple of weeks later, I came back down to New York from Nova Scotia, and began the great train journey west. You already know the story of my inability to follow simple directions to a train station, and you know what happened on the train to Niagara Falls. I’d already collected some pretty weird experiences on my travels. But what happens in Buffalo is something I will never forget.

After visiting the boyfriend at Niagara Falls, I am back in New York State, catching a cab through Buffalo. Buffalo is right near Niagara Falls, and it is from here that I will be catching my train to Chicago. I should be excited to see Chicago, but mostly I’m just cried out. I’ve said goodbye to my boyfriend (again), who has ended his trip and gone home; I don’t know when I’ll see him next. It’s hard being alone again. I miss my camp friends like crazy, and I’m already exhausted from shunting my enormous pack around. (Travelling light is not a trend with me.) I drag my bags into the Buffalo train station, in the pitch darkness of night. My train doesn’t leave until midnight. The station is deserted; everyone else has the good sense to travel at a decent hour. This is going to be a long night.

As I enter the station, I feel miles away from everyone I know. Australia seems like a world away. No one knows I’m here, except my boyfriend, and he just flew back home. I am completely, sadly, anonymous.

“Kaitlyn?” Says a voice, incredulous.

“Ro?” I exclaim.

Sitting on one of the cold, metal benches is Ro, the Australian camp counselor I met in Manhattan. She is staring back at me. We’re both having trouble taking in this situation. A month after camp finished, in a deserted train station, in the middle of the night, in a random town in the United States of America, the only other person catching the train is someone we know. It’s insane. It’s amazing.

We laugh hysterically for a while. Then Ro immediately heads for the restrooms.

See, there are things that I didn’t think about when planning my first solo backpacking trip. Like going to the toilet in a public place. When you’re alone in a train station and you need to pee, do you risk leaving your humungous backpack behind in the terminal? Or do you try to stuff it into the toilet stall with you? This is the dilemma that Ro was faced with before I turned up, and she was getting desperate. But, when there’s two of you, everything is easier. You just take turns.

Unbelievable as I find it, Ro is also heading to Chicago alone. Neither of us knows anybody in Chicago, so our meeting is perfect. Now that we are travelling together, I’m feeling way more hopeful. We chatter about Australia and camp and wait for the train to show up. I’m especially glad to have run into Ro when it is announced that the train will be two hours late. We won’t be departing until 2AM. A long night indeed.

The next morning, Ro and I peel ourselves out of our train seats and wander, zombie-like, in search of breakfast. We find the dining cart, relieved to see tables and tables of happy, eating passengers. The train lurches a little as we curve around a bend. Ro and I stumble towards the tables, but something blocks my path. It is a large, bosomy, grinning kitchen lady. She hollers something at me and points, but I can barely understand her accent. In my bleary haze, her Southern jolliness is too loud, too Southern. I look down at my battered Converse shoes. The red novelty shoelaces that I picked up in Canada are trailing limply behind my feet. I stopped bothering to re-tie them several states ago. I look back up at the kitchen lady. She grins and booms, “YOU GOTTA TUCK ‘EM OR TIE ‘EM, SUGAR!”

She and the other ladies hoot with laughter. They shriek and pound their thighs.

I feel near to tears. Why won’t she let me have breakfast? Please, lady, just let me sit down and have breakfast. I spent the night on a train, not sleeping, while children kicked the back of my seat with the energy and precision of an A-league soccer team. (How did those children stay up all night? Surely children will sleep anywhere? My little brother used to fall asleep in helicopters, rock concerts, heavy machinery … In fact, he still does. Okay, that could be narcolepsy.)

But then, I look across at Ro. We both start to giggle.

It’s good to know I’m not in this alone.

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My Wicked Week

Transports of Delight

This week, I road-tested a form of transport that I’ve been hanging out to try for years – a Wicked campervan. Man, I couldn’t wait. I’ve wanted to hire one of these ever since I first saw one on the highway, trailing the fumes of exhaust and embarrassed parents.

You know, Wicked campers. Backpacking institution. Painted with crazy artwork, break down at the drop of a hat? Anna Bligh called them racist? You know the ones.

Wicked vans are awesome for their cheap price and rebellious paint jobs. But the thing that really struck my fancy was the handwritten graffiti all over the inside of the van. It seemed like every backpacker who’d passed through that van had scribed something. There were at least five quotations signed by a Pouick, and my boyfriend and I seemed to keep finding more. For the whole week, one of us would be firing up the barbecue or doing the dishes, and the other would yell from inside, “I FOUND ANOTHER POUICK!”

Pouick and Pouick-related graffiti.

This Pouick was clearly a backpacking epigrammatist of the highest order, whose wisdom has been immortalised on the ceiling of the van. Sage advice such as: “Rain is not a camper’s friend.” “Slow down camper, you will see that koala.” And perhaps the most enigmatic of Pouick’s quotations: “No, Meaghan, don’t look at me. Look away. Don’t look at me!!!”

The inside of the van was patchworked with doodles and scribbles. It was like the walls of a ladies’ toilet in a university arts building – but less insane (Pouick excepted). Instead of diatribes or weepy confessionals about sexually confused boyfriends, Wicked campers wrote heartfelt messages of love, advice on cool places to visit, and personal jokes from their trip. After a week, it felt like my boyfriend and I were travelling not just with each other, but also with a gang of cool new friends who had shared their memories with us. It was a beautiful and warming thought … Until my boyfriend started wondering aloud if Pouick might actually be living secretly inside the van somewhere. After all, we kept finding new Pouick quotes that we could swear weren’t there before. Then I wondered if those scratching noises we’d heard all night weren’t really possums, but the sounds of Pouick’s ghost trying to get back in. It was hard to sleep after that.

But still, I had a great time in our Wicked van.

Home sweet van.

So, here’s to the ghostly crew that kept us company during our Wicked week. To Major Jiggle, the three English girls, Jeffy + Jilly, Team Boobies, and the prolific Pouick, thank you for your words. The boyf and I have added our own, so that future campers can travel ensconced in our fond memories. And thank you, Wicked, for such a fun camping experience. I don’t care if your vans rattle and the mattresses are so thin that I couldn’t lay on my side for fear of bruising my bony hips. We paid for an experience, and that’s what we got. (We also got to and from our destination without breaking down, so BONUS!)

Since writing that last bit, I’ve found out more about our campervan. Some of the graffiti informed us that it was used in the shooting of an upcoming Brisbane indie film called Dark Are The Woods. Guess we were sleeping inside a former movie prop! It was exciting to think of seeing the van we hired in a movie, but that was before I looked up the movie online. I’m really glad I didn’t see the teaser while I was still spending nights in the van. It turns out Dark Are The Woods is some kind of B-grade torture porn flick, all about backpackers getting killed and eaten by incestuous bush-dwelling cannibals. And there are strippers, for some reason. Uh, yeah. I’m glad I didn’t know I was ensconced in the memories of those minds.

Hmm. Maybe next time I’ll just ignore the graffiti.

Empire Service (Part II)

Transports of Delight

For long-time readers of this blog, you may remember a few weeks ago I told you a story from my travels in New York – the tale of the NYPD cop who helped me find my train when I was lost and deranged. You may also remember that I left a tantalising teaser at the end of that story, suggesting that it was not in fact the end. If you need a refresher, here’s the link to Empire Service (Part I). Don’t worry, I’ll wait.

… Doop dee doop …

Okay you’re back! Hello. You probably noticed that I ended that story with “Little did I know …” Classic cliffhanger. And I’m finally going to stop the dangling and drop you off the cliff. So to speak.

So we’re back in the year 2005, a magical year in history. It’s before Facebook but after Furbies. I have just boarded a train from Manhattan that will take me to Buffalo, New York. I am extremely frazzled and exhausted. But it was worth getting up early and all the dramas trying to find the train station – all of that was worth it because soon I will be reunited with my boyfriend. He’s staying with his relatives in Canada, and my plan is to catch the train to Buffalo, where I will then catch a bus to meet him in Niagara Falls.

As meeting places go, it’s hard to miss.

But, once I’m on the train, I discover something interesting. This train doesn’t terminate in Buffalo. In fact, the very next stop after Buffalo is Niagara Falls! (Why I didn’t figure this out when I was booking the ticket, I don’t know. I am nineteen and generally clueless.) So, I come up with a new plan, a cunning plan. I will simply stay on the train one extra stop, disembark at Niagara Falls, and step into the boyf’s waiting arms. Brilliant!

And it all would have gone perfectly, too, if it wasn’t for that damn fire.

I make it through the eight-hour journey from Manhattan – eight hours! – and when the train pulls into Buffalo I do not disembark. I stay in my seat, thinking about what a clever cookie I am. No messing around with buses in Buffalo – I’m cutting a whole leg out of my journey! As it turns out, I will come to regret this decision.

We pull out of Buffalo, and I get more and more excited. Next stop, boyfriend! But then, a considerable way outside Buffalo, the train suddenly grinds to a halt. Everybody on board is puzzled. From my window, there just seems to be a bunch of trees. I check with a service attendant; no, we haven’t reached Niagara Falls. This is not a scheduled stop. I wriggle in my seat, bitten with impatience. The train is supposed to be pulling into my destination in fifteen minutes!

I get a call from my boyfriend. He’s ringing from the payphone at the Niagara Falls train platform, where he’s waiting for me. I tell him that my train is mysteriously delayed, but I should be there soon. We don’t talk long, because we’ll be seeing each other in a few minutes anyway.

What a view.

Then comes the announcement from the train driver. As it turns out, there is an emergency up ahead. A lumberyard next to the tracks has caught fire, and firefighters are trying to put out the blaze. Everyone mutters with not a little anxiety. But it’s not the fire that stopped us – it’s the fire hoses. Because, apparently, the lumberyard is on one side of the tracks, and the fire hydrant is on the other. So the firefighters have to lay their hoses across the train tracks in order to fight the lumberyard inferno. The train will have to wait until the fire is put out before we can keep moving. I grit my teeth. Obviously we can’t run over the top of fire hoses, no matter how many boyfriends are waiting at the next stop. But I pray that this fire goes out quickly.

It does not.

I try to contact my boyfriend, to let him know what’s happening. But he called me from a payphone, so I can’t call him back. (I can’t remember why he didn’t have a cellphone, but he didn’t. I’ll just say it was because he was being purposefully difficult.) I imagine him waiting on that platform, expectantly looking for my train, becoming more and more concerned. The tension is killing me. Finally, he calls me from the payphone again, and I rush to answer my phone.

“Ohmygod I’msogladyoucalled ItriedcallingyoubutIcouldn’t mytrainisstuckanditmightbehours howareyou?!”

He is curt and obviously annoyed. “So am I meant to wait here for hours?”

“No noooo of course not, just go home and I’ll meet you there whenever I get off this train.”

He is not mollified. “Fine. Well I better go, this is costing me money.” (Spoiler Alert: he’s not ‘the One’.)

We hang up and I slump in my seat. This day is not turning out the way I’d hoped. I’m tired and gross from travelling all day, my boyfriend is irritated, and now my stomach is starting to ache. It’s been hours since I polished off my packed lunch, so I head up to the snack bar in search of food. They tell me that the dining cart is closed, but they can offer me a bag of chips. With a heavy heart, I pay for the exorbitant chips and head back to my seat. Meanwhile, the boyf is probably tucking into a hearty dinner at his aunty’s house. Jesus. Should’ve just gotten off at Buffalo.

After nearly three hours stuck at the lumberyard, the fire is finally put out and the firefighters remove the offending hoses. The train lurches down the tracks; I feel palpable relief in the carriage. We finally pull into the Niagara Falls station, and I yank my bags down from the overhead rack. I can’t get off that train fast enough.

At the station, I hail a taxi and head over the border into Canada. I don’t know where my boyfriend is staying or how to contact him, but after getting lost in Manhattan and spending 11 hours stuck on a train, this is the easy part! Okay so the reunion is going to be later than we thought, and we’re both going to be a lot grumpier than we thought, but this is going to happen. It is.

As the taxi winds through the darkened streets of somewhere in Canada, I’m glad to see the back of bloody Amtrak. Little do I know that it won’t be long before I’m back in the States, having more wacky train adventures. OH WHAT – I did it again! You thought the story was over but it isn’t! My New York train adventure still has another part to it. Guess you’ll just have to keep reading my blog, ‘wink’.

The New York Police Department (Empire Service Part I)

Transports of Delight

Most of my stories so far have been about the drunken and/or mentally ill misfits who approach me on public transport. Well, this story is a bit different. In this one, I’m the crazy person, thrusting my unwelcome presence upon passers-by.

It’s 2005 and I’m in New York City. I’m nineteen years old and I’m all alone. It’s the fifth month of my first solo around-the-world backpacking extravaganza, and by this point I would describe my mental state as “shaky”. I am very, very tired. I miss Australia, where I knew the names of the streets and people thanked the bus drivers. On top of all this, plus the usual teenage angst, I miss my boyfriend horribly. I met him earlier in my travels, but we had to part ways for a couple of weeks while I went on my scheduled trip to Canada and he went to Niagara Falls to visit relatives. I know if I can just be reunited with the boyf, this trip will start to be fun again instead of very, very lonely. On this day, in New York City, I am about to board a train that will take me to Buffalo and subsequently to my boyfriend.

There is just one problem.

I have no freaking idea where the train is.

This is in the days before iPhones; Google Maps was only invented a few months ago. All I have is an old ‘analog’ street map that I’m too scared to take out of my backpack lest I get stabbed. (You might think this is an overreaction to New York’s reputation for ‘mean streets’. I might have agreed with you, if I didn’t know that just a few days earlier a baby was stabbed in broad daylight not three blocks from where I was staying. A baby. Think what they would do to a tourist.) The sidewalk is streaming with surly New Yorkers who push past me and buffet me around. It’s as if there’s some kind of angry salmon migration going on and I’m the lone tuna everyone wishes would just leave.

According to the address I have for the train station, I should be looking at the entrance right now. But all I can see is a solid stone wall. There isn’t anything resembling a door. I walk carefully around the corner, checking for any possible signs of an entrance. Nothing. Maybe this is like Platform Nine and Three Quarters, and I need to take a running start at the wall? (This is before iPhones but after Harry Potter.) I don’t know what to do. My watch says I’ve only got 15 minutes before my train leaves. It’ll take me ages to walk there while juggling my backpack and 25-kilo duffel bag. And I haven’t even found the train station yet! This is too much.

Desperate, I attempt to make contact with the angry salmon.

“Excuse me? Please? Um, help?” I try to ask passing New Yorkers for help, but they move too fast. I only get half a sentence out before they’re already disappearing into the crowd.

“Do you know where–” ZRROOOOM and they’re gone.

In Australia you might, at worst, be delicately ignored. (Excluding central Sydney, where they hate life and everyone who takes part in it.) If people don’t want to help you, they will just pretend that you don’t exist. But New Yorkers are vocal. They do not have the time to give you directions, but they will take the time to tell you to fuck right off. This level of rudeness is still new to me, and I can’t help tearing up a little. Great. Now I’m lost in New York, wearing a backpack with an Anne of Green Gables souvenir patch on it, and starting to cry. Then I spot a policeman standing at a nearby intersection. His dark blue NYPD uniform is a signal of hope. I stumble up to him.

“Excuse me, I — sniff — can’t find the train station — blubber.” I talk to his feet, trying to make out shapes through the tears. The policeman listens stoically, then begins to rattle off a list of directions. I look up in shock. Someone is speaking to me. He must notice that my mouth is hanging open, because he starts to repeat the directions. I stare at his mouth, watching his jaw go up and down. Something about turning left, and a corridor, or something. At some point I notice that he’s stopped talking. The cop is frowning, and looking over his shoulder. Then, something amazing happens.

The cop picks up my heavy duffel bag and says “Follow me”. It takes me a minute to register, and by that point he’s nearly out of sight. I sprint to catch up. He leads me to a previously invisible stairwell set in the side of an alley. It feels like I’m being led into the magical land of Narnia. Push aside some coats and there it is! The secret world of the train station. Mr Cop strides through the labyrinth of underground corridors with ease, and pretty soon we’re approaching a bank of turnstiles. I panic, searching for my subway ticket. The cop, however, simply nods to the woman running the security booth next to the turnstiles, and a giant metal gate swings open for us. The cop strides through, still carrying my bag, and I skitter after him. No tickets validated, no words exchanged. Just a nod, and doors open. I marvel at his power.

We’re booking it down a busy corridor when the policeman suddenly halts in his tracks. I nearly run into the back of him. He puts my bag at my feet and points to a doorway.

“Your train is through there. I can’t take you any further.” He slides a look over the crowd, and I notice a few policemen further down the corridor. Mr Cop looks back at me and gives me the corner of a smile. “I’m not supposed to be helping young women find their train platforms.”

I squeak something that sounds like “Thanks”. I’m unspeakably grateful, and feel like I should take a moment to acknowledge what a kind thing he has done for me. But Mr Cop is already turning on his heel and marching away. I stand there for a moment, dazed. Then my mind jumps into action. THE TRAIN! I pelt down the corridor and through the doorway. I race onto the train platform, where my train is just about to pull away. After flicking a ticket at someone, I fling my bag into the carriage and vault across the gap.

I’m aboard!

I made it!

Ah, the sweet sounds of wheels clicking on the tracks, carrying me closer to Buffalo and my boyfriend. I settle back in my seat and rest my cheek on the cold window, thinking the hardest part of the journey is done.

Little do I know …

Helpful Men

Transports of Delight

Maybe I’m paranoid. But I don’t like sharing all the details of my journey with strange men on the train. And yet they seem to expect it.

I especially don’t feel like talking when I’m fresh off the plane in Melbourne, and I’m struggling along the train platform with my big red Samsonite that weighs two thirds of me. I despise both the suitcase and myself. Why do I always feel like the ‘expandibility’ zipper is a challenge to shove in more crap? Why did I pack two hairdryers? I have a problem.

So I’m pulling along my obese luggage, yanking it up the platform, and then the train arrives. And here’s the thing I never think about when I’m at home, packing my entire personal library (just in case I get the urge to re-read The Obernewtyn Chronicles again over the next two weeks) – I never think about the gap. The goddamn bloody gap between the platform and the train. It stymies me every time! The last time I went travelling with this suitcase, I was in London, heading to Heathrow. I had to change trains at Clapham Junction. Have you ever been to Clapham Junction? DON’T DO IT. It’s a train station that hasn’t been upgraded since the Edwardian era, and there are no elevators. Or escalators, or travelators. Nothing that ends with ‘ator’. Just miles and miles of stairs, and me with my obese suitcase and puny stick-figure arms. I have replayed the same scene many times over, in train stations across the world: me heroically trying to lunge into the train carriage and hoping the momentum will get my case across; my case getting inevitably wedged in the gap; some person reaching a meaty arm forward and hauling both the suitcase and me aboard. It’s humiliating.

But that is what happens to me, again, in Melbourne. Stuck in the gap. Someone hauls me aboard, and we’re away. I trundle into the train carriage, where there are plenty of empty seats. However, access to those seats is being blocked by two middle-aged women who are facing each other and chatting. Their legs are criss-crossing the aisle like they’re lounging at a cafe table by the seaside. I stand there, haggard with my bags, until they notice. They move their legs in a fraction, so I have just enough space to awkwardly lug my suitcase along sideways. As I pass, huffing with effort, one of the ladies remarks, “THAT’S a suitcase.” And they laugh, rawk rawk rawk. I smile and reply, “Yep, it’s a suitcase and a half!” The ladies’ eyes instantly narrow; I wasn’t meant to share in the joke. They turn away, back into their conversation.

I relax for the rest of the train journey, one hand resting on Big Red so it doesn’t wheel away. Using Google on my phone, I try to figure out how I’ll get to the backpackers’ hostel from Southern Cross Station. (I can’t remember a time before I had Google Maps on my phone, even though that time was less than three months ago.)

At Southern Cross, Big Red and I trundle out to the street and find the tram stop. The hostel’s website says “catch the tram line that runs to St Kilda,” so I wait for the tram that says “St Kilda”. The tram pulls up, I repeat my famed performance of Stuck In The Gap, and finally haul my luggage aboard. Once on the tram, I realise that the ticket machine is wedged further down the tram, hidden behind crowds of passengers. I can’t possibly get my suitcase down there. So I think, fuck it, I’ve suffered enough today; I’m riding outside of the law.

The tram skims through the city, and I gaze out the window while trying not to let my suitcase fall and crush anyone. After about twenty minutes, I start to get suspicious. I check my location on Google Maps. Ye gods! I’m miles away from the hostel – I got on the tram going in the wrong direction. Sigh. I thump off the tram at the next stop.

So now I’m standing on a tram platform somewhere in the wrong part of Melbourne, feeling pretty pissed off. All my wrongs are rising up to engulf me. I pedantically crosscheck the tram timetable with Google Maps, making sure the next tram I get on will be the correct one. Aha, I am on the right tram line, just going the wrong way. At last, I feel that I’ve got a handle on the situation. At this very moment, I am approached by a man.

He is not a young man. He is not a clean man. He is not the kind of man by which I would like to be approached at any time. He is, in fact, the kind of man you would see standing at the traffic lights wearing sweatpants and talking to himself. The expression on his face can only be described as a leer, and I am suddenly very aware that I am a young woman travelling alone with unmanageable amounts of luggage. The man walks towards me with a sort of stagger.

“What tram are ya looking for? Where are ya going?”

I straighten up to my very tallest and gently show him the flat palm of my hand, in a gesture that says “everything’s okay” and simultaneously “don’t come any closer”. I tell him with all confidence, “Thanks, but I’m fine.”

There it is, again. A strange man has approached a girl on public transport, trying to establish a rapport, and she has refused his advances. (Similar to my run-in with the Bogan on the Bus.) If he were genuinely an altruistic soul seeking to help, he would understand and back off with aplomb. But Sweatpants Man shows his true colours.

“Fine,” he spits angrily. “Just trying to help.” He stomps off, up the platform, growling under his breath.

Whenever I travel, I frequently second-guess my attitude towards strange men. Am I being unkind? Are they justified in being pissed off when I don’t respond to their advances with rapturous gratitude? But then I ask myself, why does he get so angry? If his motive in approaching me was really concern for my welfare, then he would be relieved to hear that I’m fine. If his motive is something else entirely … then I’m better off staying away from him.

The unknown men who help me haul Big Red onto trains – the meaty-armed saviours – they never need to know anything about my life. They never ask me questions. These men are the genuine altruists, the men who see a person who needs an extra hand, and provide it. Sometimes they offer help when I don’t need it, or when I’m determined to struggle with my bags alone. When I wave these men away, they don’t turn nasty. They don’t get angry, because they had no vested interest in helping me. They were – literally – just trying to help.

So maybe I am paranoid. I don’t like telling strange men where I’m headed, or what my plans are. But hey, at least I’m safe. And I know that if help is genuinely offered, I can accept it without fear.