More scenes from Alice Springs

It’s been six years since I was last in Alice Springs.

Back then, I was single and ambitious and hungry for something that I couldn’t name. When a short-term radio gig came up in the Centre, I didn’t just raise my hand my hand to go, I reached with both arms and pulled the opportunity hard into my chest. I wasn’t sure how long I’d be there but I prepared for a new life. I sorted things out with a boy, went back to Canberra to see my family, bought some imitation Ugg boots. I packed up my car and drove 1500 kilometres down the highway.

That new life would last three months, maybe four. “Lost my shit” would be the official wording for what happened in that time. And I haven’t been back since.

Until now.

As I get off the plane with Mr and Baby Tea, I realise I’ve forgotten my sunglasses and I squint into the sunlight. It’s a bright, cold August day in the Alice and the wind whips my wrap around dress open on the tarmac. I’m trying to keep my dignity while holding a baby and an overflowing handbag. And I’m nervous. We’re not here to exorcise my Alice Springs demons per se; Mr Tea has work and we both have friends to catch up with. But as we drive out of the airport in our hire car, being a bit of a basket case in Alice Springs is all I can think about.

The dramatic scenery helps with the naval gazing. Craggy ochre rocks, ghost gums, red dirt. Just before we drive into town, there’s The Gap. It’s like the East and West MacDonnell ranges set out to swallow Alice Springs but ran out of belly room just at the last moment. Appetite sated, the ranges left a space just large enough for the Stuart Highway to snake north through the town. Driving into The Gap, we’re dwarfed by the orange cliffs rising up on either side of the road. I find myself shivering, partly in awe and partly because no matter how bright the sun is, it’s always cooler on that piece of road right in the shadow of the ranges.

The Gap. It’s also where I used to live, in a unit on South Terrace opposite the dry river beds of the Todd.

I tell Mr Tea as he drives our hire car, packed to the brim with a week’s worth of baby paraphernalia.

“You lived in The Gap? Must have got a bit rough around there sometimes.”

It did. Sometimes.

We’ll come back to The Gap, but first a spot of Sunday driving on a Saturday. I want to take Baby Tea through the West Macs, down to Glen Helen and Ormiston Gorge.

**

Our road trip begins with a brief stop at the Larapinta shops to grab some drinks for the road. Just your standard Territory corner store: racks of fluorescent plastic toys, columns of soft drink and tinned steak and kidney pies on a dusty shelf. The opposing wall is coloured with the bright foil of every imaginable flavour of potato chip. The girls behind the counter are gossiping. One of them has a new man and the thrill of it overflows all the way to the drinks fridge.

Girl 1: He was telling me some of the stories from his truck last night, it was so cool. And whenever I said something, he’d say, “Roger that!”
Girl 2: That’s cute. And also, weird.
Girl 1: Yeah, I know. Because his name IS Roger.

**

Driving out of Alice Springs is exhilarating. The road moves you from suburbia to the desert in just a few clicks; the houses make way for yellow and black signs warning of wild horses. I like that some of them have been gently doctored. In one, the horse wears a top hat; in another, she rides a skateboard. Same with the children crossing signs. My favourite has the silhouetted boy and girl holding a bag full of gold fish, as if they’ve just returned from a county fair.

You never expect the desert to be full of colour but it is. Especially this winter, the rains have brought out the wildflowers in force and on the drive out to the West Macs the greens, pinks and purples bounce off the rocks onto an electric blue sky. There are mulla mullas, desert roses and my favourite poached egg daisies. Even the weeds are pretty, with patches of ruby dock dotted along the road.

I remember the flowers from when I was last here. Wildflowers laid out like carpet from Telegraph Station to King’s Canyon.  I spent hours taking macro photographs, trying to capture persistent ants clinging to the inner petals. Other memories surface, too. I remember spinifex pigeons conducting elaborate mating dances and a chatter of budgerigars swarming us near Ormiston Gorge, resplendent in green and gold. I went bushwalking most weekends back then, found relief in the hard rocks pushing into my feet despite my sneakers. I remember learning the word selfie for the first time on my last West Macs road trip with girlfriends. Back then, we had make-shift esky (read: a polystyrene broccoli box from Woolies) keeping the beers cold. Now I’m breastfeeding in the car park, sporting a fiancé and rocking a pram that’s not quite a 4WD, it doesn’t really cut it on the scrabbly paths down to Glen Helen gorge.

At the homestead, there are strongly worded notices dotted everywhere. Beware of the dingoes. Books on this stand are FOR SALE! Rock specimens for your eyes only. DO NOT TOUCH. The last bit is underlined as well as in capitals, so geologically minded thieves must abound in these parts. Even the bathroom dispenses instructions. “Please be economical. One sheet is usually enough,” says the paper towel dispenser in ticker tape.

Tourists wander around with fly nets and deliberate over burger options. I overhear one of the bus drivers imparting toilet door wisdom to whoever will listen:

“Any day you wake up’s a good day. If you don’t wake up, don’t worry about it. That’s what I always say.”

And you know he always does.

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**

Back in Alice, we’re staying in The Gap but away from my old stomping ground, in a slick set of units designed for tourists and FIFOs. We pull in after dark and even Baby Tea falls asleep quickly, so full marks for our working holiday so far.

When we wake up, three of the cars in the downstairs car park have been broken into but not ours. Some would say it’s luck. Others would say it’s because there were no coins visible in the console, glinting under the streetlights. No IPhone sitting on the front seat. No promising looking esky strapped onto the back seat. But I know it’s not luck, not the paucity of parking change or the central locking. It’s Alice Springs, opening up her arms to me again, saying welcome back. Welcome. Back.

**

Mr Tea goes to work and I take Baby Tea on little outings. We visit my old office and beloved former work mates. Walk up and down the Todd Mall. Find a pop up bakery at the old Residency on Hartley Street. Picnic at the Old Telegraph Station and watch the galahs. Well, I do. Baby Tea grabs fistfuls of grass and leaves and gets as many into his mouth as he can before I protest. We marvel at the sand pit at the Olive Pink Botanic Gardens, another first for Baby Tea. We catch up with old buddies; some of them have kids now, too. My friend Nic has two boys who give me a preview of my life to come. We walk around their bush block and the kids proudly show off the rusted Kingswood out the back. They put plastic snakes and spiders in our path, make elaborate battle lines with their plastic soldiers, slam the Totem Tennis around for a bit and then put a series of balls (cricket, soccer, AFL, golf etc) in a meticulous line, ordered from biggest to smallest.

I wonder what might have happened if I had stayed on six years ago, if I hadn’t collapsed in a heap. Would I be bringing up little boys in the wintry Alice sunshine?

**

Later in the week, we decide to order some take away for dinner. I browse restaurant reviews on Trip Advisor. A traveler from Tulsa, Oklahoma recommends the barramundi at one hotel restaurant. Fresh from the Todd River, a local specialty, she says. Delicious. We pass and order pizza, vegetarian, from down the road. It comes with tinned mushrooms. In one bite, I’m back on the south coast of NSW, aged seven or eight, and learning to cook from an old Women’s Weekly Cookbook with my Nana. She was a fierce advocate for microwave cooking and a long-time connoisseur of veggies in a can. We served up our attempts at ‘Modern Italian!’ on her favourite china plates. The pizza tastes like those ‘80s memories.

**

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Saturday rolls around. It’s Territory election day and we go to cast our ballots around lunchtime. The party faithful thrust how to votes into our palms from the edges of the council car park.

“Keep them, we’re from Darwin,” says Mr Tea.

“I wouldn’t tell anyone else that,” quips the ALP volunteer.

In the late afternoon, there’s a stillness. The ballot papers are still being shuffled and counted and troopies start to wind their way out of town, swags strapped to roof racks. I wander through The Gap while I wait for results. Past youth centres and churches, past the Finke River Mission. Best dressed of the day goes to an elderly Aboriginal man in stockman get-out, all gleaming silver belt buckle and pressed jeans, a bright turquoise shirt with tassels and a spotless Akubra. One street is punctuated with purple bougainvillea and cycad palms, a suburban oasis. There are oranges overhanging one fence, so close I can almost pluck one off the tree. And there’s a clutch of kids eating chips in the gutter next to discarded bottles of booze and playing cards.

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I stop in at my old unit complex on South Terrace. The letter boxes are still overstuffed with junk mail, the fence covered in For Lease signs. I poke my nose through the fence and expect it to smell like I remember: fresh paint, wet woollen jumpers, burnt dinners, sandy bricks. Like melancholy. It does and it doesn’t. I cross the road and there’s an old stroller marooned in the middle of the Todd River, wheels caked with sand.

It’s getting colder now. I blow on my hands and spin on my heels, head back down Gap Road. My last stop is Piggly’s, perhaps Alice’s most iconic mini mart. The only other person in there is Robyn Lambley, one of the sitting Territory politicians. We’ve met before. I smile at her and she smiles back, a polite, wide grin of I-don’t-remember-who-you-are-but-yes-this-is-a-very-small-town. She’s buying ice cream. Sara Lee Ultra Chocolate and Blue Ribbon Vanilla.

It’s either victory or commiseration dessert; we’ll know for sure in a few hours.

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**

By Sunday, there’s a new government and our little family is a wreck of illness. Mr Tea has gastro, Baby Tea is fighting off a fever and I’m a mess of snotty cold. My head feels like the next door neighbours are taking it in turns to jack hammer the concrete drive way and then play Matchbox 20 full-bore.

But we take Baby Tea to the Alice Springs Desert Park. The sparse beauty is staggering: the ranges rise above us and there are sprinklings of Sturt Desert Pea at my feet. We walk past the dingoes, through the nocturnal house of malas, bandicoots and thorny devils and go to watch the birds in an outdoor amphitheatre. There’s a curlew and a barn owl and a wedge-tailed eagle. They whistle and swoop and flap through the crowd in a way that is terrifying and fantastic at the same time but my cold is so filthy that I. Can’t. Even. Cope. With. Life. Anymore. Why, Alice Springs? Why? Haven’t I suffered enough? My self pity is palpable.

After the show, we pick up the pace because there’s a hire car to return and a baby to wrangle and a plane to catch, but we pass by the emu enclosure and stop for a second. The emus are not shy. One of them strides confidently to the fence, head jutting towards us, all you want a piece of me? Her feathers shimmer in the wind and with an occasional shake. She suddenly jerks her neck over the fence and I jump back with a squeal.

But Baby Tea is mesmerised. He stares at the emu for a couple of minutes and then lets out a peal of giggles. The emu studies Baby Tea and keeps opening and closing her beak. Baby Tea studies the emu right back and giggles again. It’s the funniest thing he’s ever seen. He waves his hands as if to say, “Just look at this giant, prehistoric bird, would you! Tremendous! Do other people know about this?” We start to giggle, too, just a little at first, and then we laugh properly.

My sinuses are still thumping when we hurry back to the car but my heart is cracked open again. My Alice Springs demons have been properly banished, once and for all. Really, they never had anything to do with Alice Springs, anyway. As the lady with a Namaste number plate told me at the shops that time, wherever you go, there you are. Those old friends, I can count them off on one hand: Anxiety, Loneliness, Depression, Self-Loathing and Insomnia. They still drop by, no matter where I live and work. In many ways, I realise, Alice Springs made me. It was a crossroads of sorts, a time in my life when I had to decide what was important and who I wanted to be. And almost one year to the day after I left, I met Mr Tea.

Alice Springs. Central Australia. Those ochre-coloured MacDonnell ranges. The beauty of this piece of country shoots through me as we drive back out to the airport. Back through The Gap. There might be passive aggressive notes and break ins and sad, forgotten strollers in sandy river beds but there are so many more poached egg daisies and old friends and strangers who could be friends, if you let them. There are elderly cowboys with silver buckles. There’s a truck driver who says “Roger that!” even when his name IS Roger and there are fluorescent skies that go on forever. You can find small town familiarity, ice cream gossip and menus with barramundi that may (not) be from the Todd River. And there are emus.

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Keep on driving

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Stevie Nicks saved my life.

That’s probably not something most people would say about the famous front woman who once mistook an arena stage for an airport. Nor of Fleetwood Mac, a band best known for film clips involving centurions and baton twirlers and tubas, for rumours and love triangles and cocaine. But it’s certainly true of her namesake: a cheeky white hatchback Toyota Corolla, a 2004 model with ABS and incredible fuel efficiency.

That Stevie Nicks was my first true automotive love.

I trucked her up to Darwin from the government car auctions in Canberra, and together we explored the Top End: from barely graded Gunlom roads to the Roper River in Mataranka. We went camping at Litchfield and Edith Falls, Kakadu and Umbrawarra Gorge, drove to bush doofs at East Point and mango farms near Batchelor. Stevie Nicks navigated wet season flash flooding on Ross Smith Avenue and Rapid Creek Road. She took me to parties where I kissed boys and parties where I didn’t.

Later, restless and ambitious, Stevie Nicks and I would travel further: to Larrimah where Fran sells her camel pies, and Daly Waters, where Frank Turton used to perform in the dry season for crowds of adoring grey nomads, capping his performance off each night with a live chicken perched upon his head. We drove to Tennant Creek, the Devil’s Marbles, Wycliffe Wells and Alice Springs. In Stevie, I learned to master the meditative art of long distance driving, to sit on 130 and run my eyes back and forth across the scrubby bushland and black tarmac. I’d play Stuart Highway Cricket to pass the time; as far as car games go, it’s far superior to “I spy” and you can play solo. A white oncoming car is one run, a road train gets you three, a boat south of Tennant Creek is a six. Pass a red car travelling in the opposite direction and you’re bowled out. A solid test series really will take you from one end of the Stuart Highway to the other.

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When I got a job in Broome, I drove Stevie Nicks out of Darwin and across the Great Northern Highway. When I arrived four days later, Stevie was a little out of place in the Broome Boulevard car park; the Kimberley favoured vehicles that drank diesel. The interesting paths were off road and required a 4WD, but still I gripped onto Stevie Nicks like a childhood teddy bear.

Broome was a small grid of streets that could be circumnavigated in the space of a 3 minute 30 second pop song. China Town is flanked by the airport. Old Broome nestles up to Roebuck Bay by way of Town Beach and then the housing estates swing out to Cable Beach and back towards the highway. Unhinged with humidity and loneliness, I did laps of the town so I could keep driving and listening to music.

I inhaled songs from the temperamental car stereo like lines of goey. The same songs, over and over, just trying to get enough of a hit to take me through another day at work, another panic attack, another dodgy date, another evening of being alone in my house. I went in for uppers and downers: Walking on a Dream by Empire of the Sun, Reckless by Australian Crawl. I tried hard to keep my manic moods confined to the driver’s seat, contained in this strange form of musical OCD.

One tear-drenched afternoon, I found myself driving out of town, along the Great Northern Highway. I could just keep going, I thought to myself. Over the bridge, past Willare Road House with its greasy bain marie. I could keep going until I hit Fitzroy Crossing and after that I could keep going some more. Instead, I hit the rural outskirts of town, better known as 12 Mile, and ground to a halt. I was double pumping the tears when a peacock walked across the black tarmac. The bird turned up its blue and green plumage like a middle finger and strutted back into the bush. The sky began to spit; splats of rain fell on my windscreen. Reluctantly, I did a three-point turn and headed back to Broome.

Things got darker for Stevie Nicks and me. Late one night, after a walk on Cable Beach and laps around the new housing developments that sat behind it, I found myself driving up the red dirt road to Gantheaume Point. The one solitary house beyond the cliffs was closed up and dark. I could only see as far as my headlights; the colours from the sunset had well and truly drained from the rocks. I was crying again and I couldn’t stop and I couldn’t see much reason to go on.

I could end it here, I thought. There was a tin of tennis balls in the back of the car, a few old towels. A combination of the two would stuff the exhaust pipe. I could listen to the Evening show on Local Radio and relax into a long, oblivious sleep.

Then I started to think about who would find me. The mysterious occupants of the house beyond Gantheaume Point. Maybe a solitary runner, a couple out for a cliff side pash. The cops. The senior sergeant, maybe. He wasn’t my biggest fan. The sergeant had a weekly slot on my radio show, all the news from the beat. I could have witnessed three domestic violence incidents, seen someone being bludgeoned with a broken wine bottle in the Woollies car park and overheard a riot on Anne St the night before, but he would still come on the airwaves and tell me that there wasn’t much to report. Just if people could make sure they locked their houses before they went out, that might be a good idea. It was important to discourage opportunistic thieves during the school holidays.

I didn’t really want the sergeant to find my body, though it was reassuring to think he wouldn’t mention it on the radio.

That last thought was enough to give me a jolt. I turned the car around, drove back down the pindan and away from Gantheaume Point. I went home and watched the news and cooked some dinner. I went to bed. I got up again the next morning, choked down a bowl of muesli and drove Stevie Nicks to work.

***

It gets better.

That’s what they tell teenagers who are coming out for the first time. It’s what we tell anyone who’s hurting, who’s grieving, who’s scratching loneliness from their eyeballs and lying awake in the dead of night.

This too shall pass.

It’s hard to think back to that night on Gantheaume Point, to other nights in other cars where ending seemed easier than beginning. But I’m still grateful to Stevie Nicks for pulling me through those darker days. For giving me respite on pindan roads and tarmac highways. For providing me with a passport to the North, free-wheeling me from the Kimberley to the desert and Darwin again. For taking me out of the dank corners of my mind, and back into the dirt-speckled light.

My life is certainly different now. These days, Stevie Nicks belongs to a bloke called Qasim who lives in Palmerston. I have Mr Tea, a spare bedroom for guests and a baby boy growing gram by gram in my belly. Broome is 1870 kilometres away. The sun keeps rising and setting, because that is what it does. Because I am just a cog, not the great, spinning machine. It does get better and then it doesn’t and then it does; everything gets better again.

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A dalliance with Alice Springs

A few years ago, I took a contract in Central Australia. Just for three months. I was single (again) and had a hankering to hit the road, start anew. I packed the Corolla full of everything I needed and everything I didn’t and took off down the Stuart Highway.

It wasn’t my first time in the Centre. I’d enjoyed a couple of Beanie Festivals in Alice Springs over the years, recorded a few stories for Triple J, walked some of the Larapinta Trail. But Alice Springs had always left me gulping for breath. I found it difficult to wrap my head around the reality that I was thousands of miles from the sea in any direction. I’d thought it more stark than beautiful.

I was wrong.

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In July 2010, I fell hard for Alice Springs. I discovered the joy of big skies and big country. Sheer cliffs; gorges and swimming holes in the desert. The famous clay pans. I learned to find the peace I associated with the ocean in the East and West MacDonnell Ranges. I’d sit up on the hill near Telegraph Station and watch green and yellow budgerigars play in the white gums and ragged stretches of rock disappear into the folds of the horizon.

I even walked along the Todd River singing In A Big Country, a Scottish one hit wonder that somehow wound up on my playlist:

I’m not expecting to grow flowers in a desert

But I can live and breathe and see the sun in wintertime

In a big country, dreams stay with you

Like a lover’s voice fires the mountain side….

The infatuation got more fully formed the day I walked up Mt Gillen with my friend, Trang. Covered in sandy boulders and a pink flowering weed called Ruby Dock, it looked like another planet. It was a hot day, but on top of Mt Gillen the air was cold and the sky was blue and all was beautiful and right in the world.

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Alice Springs felt like a friendly and colourful place to park myself for a few months; full of characters ordinary and extraordinary. There were road train drivers and ringers, developers and cowboys. Bureaucrats and bird watchers. Traditional owners. Real estate agents in ‘80s era power suits who told me smugly that the rental vacancy rate was less than 1 percent, which was good news for them but pretty shitty for me. Aboriginal mob came into town from places I had to learn to pronounce: Titjilaka, Amperlatwaty, Atitjere. There were tour guides and sculptors, coppers and journos. Legal Aid lawyers pulling suitcases full of briefs along to court. Children rode bikes down the street. Teenagers ruled Billy Goat Hill. And from Eastside to Ilparpa, there were plenty of earnest young (and old) things), all dressed in a uniform of short-brimmed Akubras and beards or dresses with leggings and desert boots.

Racing a boat on a dry river bed. Henley on Todd, another great Territory tradition.

Racing a boat on a dry river bed. Henley on Todd, another great Territory tradition.

People in Alice Springs cared. They joined in. They marched down streets and held town meetings and made parade floats for the Desert Festival. They raced “boats” down the empty Todd River. They showed films, played music, hosted cabaret nights, protested against uranium mining, planted heritage seeds, held Open Gardens. They were members of Rotary or Apex or the Lions Club. They elbowed each other out of the way to get the best pickles at the Old Timers Fete and to buy Aboriginal art at Desert Mob. People waved to each other. In the correct season they played footy or cricket, softball and netball. They danced late into the night at Annie’s Place and drank when it was Happy Hour and drank when it wasn’t. They went to see John Williamson play at the Memo Club. They crocheted blankets and wore beanies and adopted camp dogs.

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In the freezer section of the supermarket, you could find trays of chops next to chunks of kangaroo tail. Sturt’s Desert Pea bloomed on roundabouts and verges. Train tracks for The Ghan ran through the middle of town. There were locally grown dates and Vietnamese market gardens; peanut shells on the floor and saddles on the walls of the local night-spot, Bojangles. Every so often, the Todd River would flow with the rain, and then overflow, flooding causeways and cutting off the golf course. And with the rain came the wildflowers. Pussy Tails and Mulla Mulla flowered on Anzac Hill and right through the Botanic Gardens. There were paddy melons on scrappy bits of walking paths and on the red dust roads leading out of town; the melons looked like tennis balls scattered up and down the Plenty Highway. I never was sure if you could actually eat them. There were more cafes than Darwin, good coffee and more lesbians per capita than any other town in Australia.

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It all felt warm and vibrant and inclusive and yet it also wasn’t. The night I arrived, I turned on the TV in my hotel room to find Four Corners telling the story of Kwementyaye Ryder, an Aboriginal man who had died one year earlier. He was bashed and kicked in the head, attacked by five young white men out on the town and full of grog. Kwementyaye Ryder had died in a river bed five minutes away from my hotel room. The next day, I walked back into Alice Springs sunlight and under those big skies but I couldn’t get his story out of my head.

As a blow-in, it was almost impossible to get a full grip on the complex Alice Springs politics of race and land and history and culture, of alcohol and money and having and not having, but I felt its presence. It was in everything, everywhere. It was in the Kwementyaye Ryder case. I felt it at the Aboriginal town camps, which were tucked into corners around town: Mount Nancy, Hoppy’s Camp, Little Sisters. In heated arguments about council by-laws and over a Freemason sponsored statue of explorer John McDouall Stuart with a rifle in his hand. In the vigilante styled leaflets left in my letter box and in angry missives to the Alice Springs News. It was in the art, on the paper beneath the water colours that followed in the grand tradition of Albert Namatjira, in the number plates and pieces of scrap metal painted over by Tangentyere artists.

And the spectre of alcohol loomed large: on Friday and Saturday nights in town, in the taverns close to where I lived in The Gap, in casual, late afternoon domestic violence and in the empty green cans and wine bladders left behind in the Todd River bed.

Alice Springs was a small town, too. The pharmacist would tell me he’d been listening to me on the radio, as he handed over my prescription medicine. I went to get a massage and my therapist turned out to be the affable Murray Stewart, then Deputy Mayor. I was much taller than he thought I was, listening to my voice on the airwaves. I got that a lot. One lonely afternoon, I burst into tears on a walk around the Olive Pink Botanic Garden and then had to smile and wave at five people I knew. I found myself using the word ‘intense’ a lot, too much, in an effort to describe the people, the heat, the flies, the landscape, the arguments, the politics.

Work was challenging. Romance was hard to come by. I briefly dated a podiatrist, who I pressed for gruesome stories about amputations and gangrenous, diabetic feet and then was sorry that I had. Finding a place to live proved to be difficult and expensive. Petty theft was rife. In my first week, the teddy bear I’d had since I was a kid was stolen from my hotel room, along with a bag of toiletries. I hoped it was just a lonely hotel maid, not a more sinister stuffed-animal kidnapping ring. My apartment complex came under siege by bored teenagers during the school holidays. They’d jump the fence and break into houses, cars, whatever was going. I still have the “A” they scratched onto the back window panel of my car.

A for Alice Springs?

I got insomnia. My old mates Depression and Anxiety decided to unroll swags on my living room floor and settled in for the long haul. I started to become sick. And with that, Alice Springs and I broke up after just three and a half months.

“It’s not you. It’s me,” I told Alice Springs.*

I hoped we could still be friends.

It was time for me to head back North, to re-tread the Berrimah Line. I came home, to humid, sweaty, ocean-hugged Darwin.

Maybe Alice Springs and I will get back together one day. I hope so. Maybe we’ll watch the sunset over the East Macs and laugh about everything that happened in those few strange and surreal months, when I was new and young, brave and afraid, impatient, lonely, hungry and naive all at the same time.

*OK, it was a little bit Alice Springs. But mostly me.