It is midnight on Mindil Beach in Darwin, Australia. The air is hot and wet and carries the salt reek of the sea. Backpackers sit scattered on the floor of the parking lot outside their vans rolling cigarettes and giving each other massages.
On this clear but moonless night the surrounding mangroves and palms are barely shadows, but we know them well; many of the backpackers sleep in them every night, as well as in caves or tents or under trees. One French guy, Marco, is so at home he has even started growing his own vegetable garden. The soft yellow lights of the parking lot are weak but allow enough light for a lazy game of hacky sack on the road. I am chatting with friends and watching the players when out of the darkness two Aboriginal fellas approach.
“Hey, hey, you got a light?” the first guy says gruffly, while his friend sways behind him. They wear t-shirts, shorts, and no shoes. I pass him the lighter and he lights his cigarette. “Where are you all from?” he asks.
“South Africa,” I say. The fella’s eyes light up. “Africa? Respect!” I laugh and give him a fist bump.
“Where are you from?” I ask.
“Arnhem Land, ya ya, I come from bush. I’ve come to see my missus. I have a missus here in Darwin and a couple of kids… a white missus.” He smiles knowingly. My friends and I nod silently.
“Ya ya, a white missus. But we got problems you know, we fight a lot. I never stay long, ha ha.” His cigarette goes out and he asks again for the lighter.
“Ya, I just come up from Arnhem Land you know and then I go back.” His friend wants to leave and pulls on his arm but the smoker ignores him.
I look at the two guys. Traveling a year through Australia — from Melbourne through Sydney up to Brisbane — I have barely seen any Aboriginals — until I landed in Darwin. For some reason, I haven’t pursued conversations or prolonged the interactions. Deep down I would like to find out more about them, where they come from exactly and what they do, but I don’t. Instead of reaching out, I surprise myself with how I casually brush them off. Where is that old curious spirit that used to revel in these situations? I seem to have lost interest and I wonder if, after a period of long-term travel, I’ve become jaded.
The two men decide to keep moving. As they wander off, my focus returns to the familiar sight of the backpackers being backpackers. I drift over to them and overhear a chat about finding farm work in Queensland and a story about the full moon party in Thailand. I have heard these recycled conversations before and I begin to feel bored.
Alex Garland wrote about this type of malaise in The Beach. He observed that we might go travelling to find something different, but we always wind up doing the same damn thing. I walk away from the group into the semi-darkness of the tropical night and lean against a palm tree. If travelling is about new experiences, then why do I keep on hanging around with the same people, talking about the same things? Continuously travelling with other backpackers means I only ever really experience that one community. As much as I love it, it sometimes seems all too familiar, a little too easy.
I seem to have fallen into a travel rut and con myself with thinking that I am brave and adventurous purely because I am travelling. The truth, however, is that I have allowed myself to be sucked into a comfortable on-the-road routine and am not really breaking out from the cocoon of backpacker life. It is so easy to aimlessly wander and plod along when you have the right company. That, I inconveniently admit to myself, is not the point. The challenge is to be our own pioneers, for each day to encounter new and changing faces under a new and changing sun.
As I watch the two guys falter along under the dim lights of the parking lot, I think for a second that maybe I should follow them and join them on their mission, whatever that is. I could see and experience something completely novel, a real adventure. I could break out of my safe existence and try something new. I could possibly learn more than what I think I know about Aboriginals and move past my limited ideas. Instead, I retreat back to my friends and to that stale feeling of few surprises, to the very same familiarity I once found so unbearable that it spurred me to travel in the first place.