Part 1: Landing in Australia – St. John’s River, weed cookies, kidnaps and torrential dowpours

The first time I stepped foot in Australia was on December 27th at 9:20am.

I had an overnight flight from Guangzhou and hadn’t slept, but was somehow full of energy. I placed my passport and visitor forms on the immigration counter and smiled widely at the border service agent. “Where are you staying while you are visiting Australia?” she asked me unenthusiastically. “I don’t know! I’m just going to figure it out when I get there!” I shrugged and smiled. She stared at me blankly, and flatly responded with, “So… you are coming to Australia, at peak season and you have no hotel booked or car booked?” I suddenly felt a little embarrassed, “um, yes, that’s it” I responded. I’d printed out a bunch of ideas, places to go, hostels and maps that I was going to read on the plane but I had accidentally left it in the seat in front me on the flight from Beijing to Guangzhou. She kindly informed me that in order to enter the country on a tourist visa, you need an address you’re staying at, and if she wanted to she could deny my entrance to the country. I promptly said “oh, okay, well… YHA Hostel that’s where we are staying,” even though we hadn’t booked anything there, it was just our meeting spot. Luckily she was kind enough to let me in. But these are sound words of advice for anyone entering Oz without an address – you must give anything but “I was planning on winging it.” 

I ended up meeting my friend, Ely in the cafe of YHA hostel. I used to work with Ely at a portrait studio in Canada years ago. We became friends instantly; our boyfriends had the same name, we shared many similarities, and we both had a deep-rooted desire to travel the world. She’s a free spirit and absolutely hilarious, a perfect travel companion. We embraced with a hug and she told me she’d rented a camper car. We quickly gobbled down a shared egg on rye breakfast and hopped in the car, heading for Byron Bay.

Turns out driving to Byron Bay isn’t exactly a breeze when it’s Christmas holidays in Sydney. The city was clogged. We ended up waiting in traffic for hours, but it didn’t really bother us as Ely and I had so much to catch up on. A few hours passed and we decided to pull into a tavern in a small town called St. John’s River to grab something to eat. The restaurant/bar only served meat pies. I’m not a fan of meat pies but I was starving. When we ordered, everyone in the bar seemed to take notice of our “accents” and slowly gravitated toward us. Most people in the bar were older. Some were missing teeth, had leathery skin, a little rough in appearance. They were clearly excited to meet Canadians. We ended up playing a game of pool with them. A friendly woman named Susan took an immediate liking toward us. She had shoulder length blonde crimped hair with dyed blue tips, she wore a spaghetti strap dress and twitched when she spoke. She would constantly flip her hair over the shoulder and fiddle with her glasses. She told us she’d never left the little town we were in, she’d never even been to Sydney. This town was all the she knew. She told us about her young 25 year old jealous boyfriend and how her father’s girlfriend accused him of molesting her. Ely and I stood there nodding. She then asked us if we wanted to come by and check out her house, “it’s just 3 minutes down the road” she said in a thick Australian accent. For whatever reason, we decided why not. We were greeted by a couple of dogs barking at our entrance. She gave us a tour of us her house and introduced us to her father, his girlfriend and her friend. She had two huge snakes and she excitedly told me she would feed them rats for me. I told her it wasn’t necessary and we needed to get back on the road but she insisted. I followed her to the kitchen and she had a bunch of white rats frozen in her freezer, along with another snake which had died because it choked in a rat. She pulled out the frozen snake, put it up against her chest and said: “it would make a nice necklace, wouldn’t it?” While she was digging around in the freezer she asked me if I wanted a weed cookie. I agreed, why not. She told me a small chunk was all I needed. I nodded and thanked her for being so generous. We stayed around for a little and chatted with them about their lives, how they’d never seen snow. Eventually, we told them we needed to hit the road to continue on our journey to Byron Bay. They all stood in the driveway and waved to us goodbye.

We drove on, it started to get dark and we were not at all close to Byron Bay. Soon enough it started raining and we were still driving, I sat there feeling a little bored and felt the cookie in my pocket. I decided to take it out and have a small chunk. One chunk turned to two and before I knew it I had consumed the entire cookie. I didn’t intentionally do it, I tried to wait but since I didn’t feel anything I decided to continue eating. This is exactly why I can’t have marijuana-infused cookies. Cookies are good so it’s hard to restrict myself.

We eventually pulled up to a gas station that had a restaurant attached to it to get something to munch on. I could feel the effects of the cookie take hold of me as I entered the gas station. My legs felt like spaghetti and I forgot how to walk. I became extremely self-aware and wondered if I appeared normal. I told Ely, who was waiting in line for food, that I was going to the bathroom and that I’d be right back. When I got out of the bathroom I couldn’t see Ely anywhere. I searched the entire place and she was nowhere to be found. I went into the bathroom stalls and still couldn’t find her. I could feel myself panicking but I told myself to calm down and relax. It was impossible to calm myself and suddenly my mind jumped to the conclusion that she had been kidnapped. I ran out to the parking lot searching for the car. I had left my money, my passport, and all my belongings in the car with her. I saw this young backpacker with dark curly hair standing in front of the gas station. He was looking at me and could tell I was panicked. I told him my friend is gone, I can’t find her. He told me to calm down and reassured me we would find her, she was ok and everything would turn out. Don’t worry. I started crying and I could sense that he started to become panicked too. He stopped me and said, “ok what does she look like, when did you last see her?” I answered him then informed him that I also consumed an entire weed cookie. He gave me a smug look, but still was taking me seriously. After about 20 minutes of searching for her, Ely slowly walks in, looking at the both of us confused.

She told us she had been waiting in the car, eating the meal she’d ordered from the restaurant and had wondered what was taking me so long. I embarrassingly told the guy I was so sorry about the confusion and thanked him profusely for helping me. Ely tried to make light of the situation, but it was so stressful to me I could barely muster a smile. I could feel the tension building in my shoulders. We drove on further, but Byron Bay was still hours away. It was dark, cold and rainy and all I wanted to do was take my contacts out and crawl into a bed. All the motels we’d passed had neon “NO VACANCY” signs lit up. I could feel my heart beating unusually fast and I remember sitting in a parking lot while Ely ran into a motel to inquire about a room and genuinely thought I was going to have a heart attack. I could feel colors. Eventually, we parked in a motel parking lot and Ely got out, took out the backpacks and set the bed up in the back of the camper car for us. I crawled in the back and immediately passed out. I woke up a few times in the night confused about where I was and feeling pain from my dry contacts in my eyes. I also had dreams that were so funny, I woke myself up laughing. None of which I remember.

In the morning the woman at the front desk came out to the parking lot and noticed our car. She was a thin, older woman with blonde hair in a tight ponytail, she seemed irritated by us. Ely explained to her that we’d been driving all night and needed a place to sleep, “we’re not doing so well…” Ely told her, pointing over at me. I stood there pale and weak. She told us she had a spare room for backpackers that had no TV or windows and it would be 60 bucks. We immediately agreed. I took my contacts out and collapsed into the bed. I slept all that day, into the night and was woken up in the morning by Ely who was energetic and ready to seize the day. I most certainly was not but I could tell she was disappointed in me and wanted to get going. I reluctantly pulled myself out of the comfy bed and tried my absolute best to find any bit of energy I could to get the day started.

We packed our stuff and went to the front desk to check out. It turns out we’d made it as far as Coff’s Harbour, 3 hours away from Byron Bay. We asked the woman at the front desk what the tourist spots were in the area. “Well, there’s the big banana”. We drove up to the big banana, took a photo in front of the banana that read, “celebrating 50 years!”, had a milkshake and then drove to a beach. We wandered along the shores and took in the beautiful scenery. I watched as people played fetch with their dogs, children chasing each other along the beach. As we passed by groups of people and listened to bits of conversations, people asking how their Christmas was and their plans for New Years. The Australian accent made me smile. It’s so strange to think that January is summer for Australians, the word January is my mind is written in frozen, ice blue words. When I think of January I can almost hear the sound of scraping ice off the windows of your car.

After the beach, we decided to make our way to a national park and go for a hike. Thankfully the weather started to warm up so I was finally able to take my jacket off. We made our way down the trail, staring at the beautiful big trees with thick roots, watching as clouds passed through the forest. It was bright green and luscious and filled with pure, clean oxygen, I kept taking deep breaths to give my lungs a nice break from the Beijing pollution. We’d stop every once in a while so Ely could take nice photos on her SLR camera. We eventually got about 50 minutes in and stopped at a waterfall. Suddenly, it started to downpour. It was torrential and we’d both, unfortunately, had our camera’s on us with no protection from the rain. She was also carrying her phone on her and a couple of cords for her computer. The only way out was to go back the way we came, so we started marching uphill to get out. I was cold and uncomfortable and just wanted to get out. Eventually, we made it back to the lodge where our car was parked, sopping wet. Just as we came out of the trail, the sun popped out. We literally rung out our clothes and put them on the dashboard to dry. Considering our luck we decided that the best idea was to return to Forster to the family that Ely had been nannying with before I’d arrived. There would be beds for us to sleep in, showers and a place us to do laundry. It sounded so great, I agreed to cancel the drive to Byron Bay.

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