A world citizen may provide value to society by using knowledge acquired across cultural contexts.
We hit the grocery store and the bottle shop. We assembled tents and sleeping bags and clothes. We woke up dreadfully early on a Saturday morning to load up the car. And then Doug – a compatriot from the Overland Track – and I headed out to meet up with his friends and head three hours west of Sydney for a weekend of camping, hiking, and whatever else it is that one does in nature.
The camping itself was gorgeous. I love getting out of the cities, setting up a tent, and just living out where there isn’t electricity or noise. The specific camp site we found was in Coorongooba National Park and consisted of a large loop of 4×4 tracks around some grass and undergrowth near a river. No plumbing. No facilities. Just whatever we brought, which was seven people, five tents, three 4x4s, and one guitar. The paddock was in a valley, at the foot of some gorgeous sandstone cliffs carved away over countless years of water washing down through the rock. The cliff faces glowed in the sun, even more brilliantly in the first and last hours of light. Given the depth of the valley and the fact that it is winter here, those two hours represented a large portion of the light we had. Sunrise was close to eight. Sunset before five. We were operating in full dark by six, and even by five thirty more stars shone visibly than can be seen on the darkest and clearest of nights back in Reston, thirty minutes outside of DC.
We had a fire. Oh did we have a fire. And I learned more about what is and isn’t safe in regards to burning. The people I was with mostly work in nature conservation and restoration. So when they were fine doing something I thought dangerous I amended my views rather than question it. And after watching two days of fire go exactly as it should, it would be hard to argue the danger of using a log longer than the fire ring could contain.
We had the ruins of Glen Davis – an oil shale mining town – to explore. What used to be a processing and power plant supporting a town of 1800 was now the remains of brick buildings and unsalvageable pipes sixty years on. Everything moveable and valuable had been sold to the highest bidder, leaving cracked concrete tracks sprouting large weeds, vintage vehicles absent of anything but rusting metal and broken glass, and large brick buildings in various states of falling down. Decay of man’s ventures is one of the most striking things for me, and so wandering through was a pleasure. Buildings lacked roofs. The main office building or housing barracks lacked most of the walls. Doorways still stood, and concrete slabs outlining where rooms used to be. The corners of the old bathrooms still outlined where the glazed tiles used to reflect fluorescent light. Now the cracked and chipped tiles reflected the sun. It made them look simultaneously brighter and dirtier than their former selves. And the former silo storage building gave me the best artistic shot I’ve taken since the ashfields on top of Eyjafjallajökull.
We had large 4WD utes. A Toyota Land Cruiser and a similar terrain-eater. And guys who knew their vehicles, how to operate them, and what they could handle. And so we headed out on Sunday for some time tackling large hills of ruts and puddles, slopes of loose shale and branches. We bounced over ground I would walk carefully over, ground that wouldn’t even cross my mind as a drivable surface, to places I wouldn’t see because my car wouldn’t get me near. We bounced as we discussed the problem of wild dogs, of being a social worker, of medical testing and the pharmaceutical industry, of playing the animal game.
And fortunately, the guys I was with also knew vehicle maintenance and repair. Halfway down a 45 degree slope of loose stones an engine overheated. Five minutes, a few liters of water, and a couple adjustments with a wrench later the problem had been reviewed, analyzed, discussed, and remedied. The engine now cooler, the owner still decided not to press on for fear that something more permanent had been damaged. And so we returned to base.
We had an imbalance on desires for physical activity. Most everyone was up for driving down 4×4 tracks to parking areas, exploring around the vehicles a little, and maybe walking up to a kilometer away from the vehicle. There wasn’t really going to be an opportunity to go on a long hike (or anything that I would even call a hike). To even this out Doug was up for trying to make it to the top of the closest mountain / large hill. I was game, but the catch was that there were no trails. On the last day we made the attempt, pushing up a steep slope through thick undergrowth, scrambling over rocks and really forging a path. Given that it was raining intermittently leading up to this, everything was wet and slippery. I lost interest – and we hit a cliff face we couldn’t get up or around – though we had to press on through brambles and brush just to make it back out. We did at least find caves worn away into the rock face, shelters that I would have been quite happy to camp in had I known about them earlier.
We had zen time and less conversation than I’m used to. I’ve been living in hostels with backpackers or in houses with people I get along with and feel like being an entertaining guest for. I’m used to constant noise around unless I’ve consciously tried to get away from it. Here there weren’t copious conversations involving me. There weren’t ample conversations near me that I wasn’t in. This was a friendly group but it was largely a sedate one. They didn’t sing along with Doug on guitar. They didn’t provide lively debate outside of that to drown it out. Doug and I were throwing out conversation topic after question after idea, and only some of them were getting picked up. And while it was getting dark early, it was also feeling much later than it was at any given dark hour. It felt like everything was winding down for bed at eight. And on the first night, everyone pretty much crashed by ten.
Though there were cases of beer and bottles of liquor, and though people drank, no one was rowdy or rambunctious. Though people were drunk, it was only through their admissions directly that this was remotely clear. I don’t like overly loud people screaming drunk until five in the morning when I’m trying to sleep. But it turns out that I’m also not sure what to do with people being quietly drunk alone together.
We tried to get games going, but largely the group inertia prevented it. Though I suggested any game, and Doug suggested cards, the rest responded always with a block on cards in favor of Cranium or Jenga, both of which they had brought. At each mention I fully supported the shift and pushed for the games to be brought out immediately. It never happened.
The first night during a lull in conversation – or rather an extended quiet time that hadn’t yet been interrupted – I finally came out and asked. “Are we just in a lull before conversation, games, and drinking? Or is this a Zen meditative time and I’m just screwing it up by talking?” To their credit on the front of honesty, without a pause, and without a need to sugar coat or diminish concerns, the response came back from one of the women. “Zen.”
Ah well. We did have a fire.