“No but seriously, Hilary, are you really from Vegas? I mean, I’ve heard of people going there to visit but who would’ve thought people actually live there?” Laughter exploded throughout the group.
I chuckled and took a sip of Merlot before replying, “Yes, my dear John, I am in fact from Sin City. As hard as that may be to believe.” He shook his head in disbelief and poured himself more wine.
Dahlia leaned over the platter of cheese and touched my arm. “But do you actually live in houses? I mean, like, are there schools and things?” The others nodded and murmured in wonder, waiting expectantly for an answer.
I looked around at my new group of friends dismayed. How had I gone from She-Who-Cries-in-Dorm-Room to being the center of poolside discussion? It was a little unbelievable. I had been convinced I would spend the remainder of my time in Cairns lying in that bunk bed willing the seconds to pass sooner. And now here I was, enjoying one of my last remaining nights in this coastal town with friends from every corner of the globe.
I thought back to a few days prior and how overwhelming my desire for friendship connection had been. At that point, meals were one of the few reasons I left the dorm room. With the condition of my foot still being dire I didn’t have energy to do much else.
To waste time, I counted the steps around the kitchen. Twelve to the refrigerator. Nine to the stove. Seven to the pots and pans, seven back. Finally twenty-two to the nearest table and chairs. I would prop my foot up on an empty chair and admire the meal in front of me. At least I was eating right.
People watching had almost become an art form. I guessed where each individual was from and why they had chosen to come to Cairns. The stories that I envisioned in my head were elaborate and probably all too unrealistic to ever be true, but they helped pass the time. Plus part of the fun was then meeting these strangers and finding out how wrong I could be. I was never bored with the people I met.
And as I would come to find out, the backpackers would find me equally as interesting. I hadn’t really thought about it previously; I mean, who would want to know about a silly lone American traveler? As it turned out, pretty much everyone at the hostel.
Here’s what I could surmise from my sudden popularity:
The Enlightenment of an American Backpacker
1. Most travelers kept to themselves. Because of my injury I wasn’t traipsing around the harbor and therefore had extra energy and time to devote getting to know people. For as friendly and welcoming as all my new mates were, they were shocked to have another traveler initiate conversation. I would learn most people moved around so often they didn’t spend a lot of time developing friendships. And though I made waves by starting this trend, others were happy for the change of pace.
I suddenly had more people wanting to join me for meals than I knew what to do with. Many would inquire about my gimp leg and we’d go from there. At first I tried to put on a face of confidence and composure, but it never held up long. I would tell my tale and find myself uncontrollably discussing my insecurities, fears, and loneliness. I felt extremely vulnerable talking about such things but unable to control what came out of my mouth. What shocked me more than my inability to shut up about my situation was the response I received from my new friends.
Even though none of them were injured, they all felt very similar. My initial conversation with John, the handsome lad from Edinburgh, had gone that way. After telling him my story, I looked up to find him regarding me with a shocked expression. “Oh God,” I stammered, “I’m so sorry. I seem to have diarrhea of the mouth these days… Please forgive me for just dumping that on you.”
He smiled and reached over to hug me. I awkwardly embraced him back, not sure where this was going. “Hilary, you are the first person I’ve met here that has been brave enough to say what they’re really feeling.” He clasped his hands around my shoulders and gave them a squeeze, looking me in the eyes. “You want to know the funny thing? I feel exactly the same way. I think we all do.” He leaned back in his chair and smiled out of the corner of his mouth. “You’re just the only one with balls enough to say it.”
This would be the first of many conversations of this nature. Turns out the world of backpackers is full of people with no idea what they’re doing, how they’re going to do it, or with any real grasp on their emotions. Isn’t that ironic? But what I found so cool was that we were all still doing it. And now, suddenly, there was a collective of support forming. A united front of backpackers… Alone we traveled but together we stood.
2. Apparently backpacking Americans weren’t common in Australia. Because of the working-holiday visas available to Europeans and Canadians in Oz, you were more likely to see travelers from those parts. I would also meet many Australians from the west coast on holiday. So even though I was a minority, I peaked the interests of others because of my rare pedigree.
I remembered back to when I first met Dahlia, the gorgeous brown-eyed Israeli woman with a résumé longer than her raven hair. “You don’t strike me as an American,” she mused. “Most Americans I’ve met are loud and obnoxious with no care or regard for others. Clearly, you do not fit the stereotype.” These preconceived notions made me feel extreme pressure to represent America. It felt like everyone was watching my behavior.
3. Even though everyone had heard of Las Vegas, there was this firm belief that there was no such thing as Las Vegas locals. “I mean, I suppose it makes sense that there would be people living there to run the casinos and all that jazz.” The German girls in my dorm discussed my background amongst themselves, “But it’s not something one thinks about. Everyone just wants to go there to party. To think about someone living a normal life there… Well that’s not going to cross your mind, is it?”
And even though I understood my background was unusual, I wasn’t expecting to grow such a friend base because of it. Now here I sat, with my homesick emotions nothing but a memory, surrounded by twenty fellow travelers. If I only I had known a few weeks ago what awaited me! But I guess life never works that way, does it?
Isak, our resident Swede, brought me out of my thoughts and back to the present. Were they seriously still talking about me? “How lucky we are to have such a rare American traveler with us… Especially one on such an epic adventure!”
“Here, here!” Dahlia agreed, raising her glass, “To Hilary, the unicorn among horses! The strange American, heralding from a city where no-one thought one left. Thank you for bringing us together tonight!” My eyes grew wide as I watched my new friends raise their glasses to toast me.
John raised his glass and clasped my shoulder with his free hand, “May we all be as brave to embark on the mission you have: to live a nomadic and adventurous life. And to find a way to realize our dreams. Even at such a young age, you are so wise.”
“To The Nomad Grad!” The German girls cheered, clinking their glasses. The other backpackers followed suit.
My cheeks flushed as red as my wine. I clinked glasses with my new friends. I certainly didn’t feel I deserved the praise I’d received, but I was ever so grateful to have met such wonderful people.
The conversation turned to rugby and the discussion of my background ended almost as quickly as it had begun. But I still lingered in the moment. I thanked the universe for stepping in to allow me to connect with this group in such a special way.
I sipped on my wine and looked at my foot. Smiling and laughing to myself, I thanked it too.