By Christine Retschlag
In a parallel universe I am crouched in a parched paddock, contemplating the crepe paper face of the female Jordanian goat farmer I am interviewing. Her crinkled skin is as thirsty as the land on which we are squatting. A calico wrap, part modesty, part heat protection, sashays around my shoulders before completing a final twirl and resting on my head. There’s the briefest whispers of a breeze I barely notice, as I’m too engrossed peeking behind the veil on this trip, attempting to unravel the mystery of my modern Middle Eastern sisters. Who herd goats.
In this alternate universe I have just returned from Thailand, pausing briefly at my Queensland tin and timber cottage to write, unpack, wash and repack. The travel writer waltz. In the Land of Smiles, amidst the cloying humidity of Chiang Rai which puts Brisbane’s summers to shame, I have just slept in the world’s first jungle bubbles. These gargantuan see-through balls of glass, fashioned like Venetian souvenirs into hotel rooms, have afforded me one of life’s ultimate luxuries – to slumber among the elephants of northern Thailand. I surrender to sleep amid the gaze of these gentle giants and the imaginary clang of the Golden Triangle upon which I am perched.
I already recognise this feeling from a month before, where, in this year of sliding doors, I have literally experienced the deepest sleep of my existence. Four metres under the ocean in Australia’s first underwater accommodation, I burrow like a stingray in the Great Barrier Reef’s ReefSuites. The ocean above me gurgles in big, wobbly jelly belly laughs and down below, so do I, squealing at my transformation into a modern-day mermaid. Gills not required.
Of course, these sassy stories and dalliances with daring only occurred in a parallel 2020. That fork in the road that turned left, before someone stole the signpost. Incongruously, that path veered right and in March of this devastatingly defining year, I spent days which erupted into weeks clutching a big black marker, striking off stories, cancelling flights, juggling plans which jiggled and collapsed, and struggling to remain stoic. My life became an editor’s red pen of rejection.
International borders were rapidly closing and like a mountain climber I was grasping for purchase. In the last week of March, when Australian borders were clamping bear trap shut, I made one of the hardest decisions of my 30-year journalism career. I was forced to cancel a trip in which I’d be penning the pain and rebirth of Victoria after Australia’s beastly bushfire summer. Mallacoota, which became the unwitting poster child when thousands flocked to its beach for protection from that burnt orange blaze, had beckoned. On the day I cancelled, I hung up the phone and slumped at my desk, sobbing uncontrollably. Big, guttural wails of the wounded writer. I had failed my fellow Australians and failed myself. Game over.
While anxiety became my constant companion, there was also a quiet catharsis in accepting my career had gone into coma. I spent Easter alone, on my Brisbane back deck, contemplating my future. Had the one true love of my life, my journalism career, finally dearly departed or was it just on life support? I paced the house like a caged lion, tossing up options in my head. The fact I re-read every travel tome I possessed in my home should have given me an indication, had I been willing to listen. But I was tone deaf. Defeated.
Soul searching. Sleepless nights. Financial fears. Isolation. God, the social isolation. Like a Pamplona bull runner, I sprinted the gauntlet in those early dark days. Long, listless nights laying awake, wondering what had happened to the lives of those characters in those stories I was meant to tell. I realised it wasn’t even the travel I missed as much as the stories. That intoxicating world of words.
I walked the Brisbane River in search of light, my mind tracing her Rubenesque curves, an artist sketching a nude model. For the first time in years I had finally come home, but I had no compass. I had lost my true north. Writing.
Despite the darkness, it wasn’t all doom and gloom. Not even a writer like me who romanticises life can convince you of that. There was insanity. Hilarity. Like the night I ordered dinner delivered to my home, and in those perilous pandemic days added a note to simply “leave it on my front porch”. I opened the door to find a confused and handsome Spaniard clasping my food. “I thought you meant your front Porsche,” he explained. I cackled like a kookaburra, at the same time desperately missing those lost-in-translation moments you stumble upon on the crazy and complicated road we call travel writing.
In the winter months I shelved my travel writing career, tucking it into the well-worn creases of my life like a love letter in a treasured tome. A role which would help hoist me back onto my financial feet beckoned and I rose in the dark and stayed after dusk at my desk, dancing the corporate cha cha. My free spirit shackled. We were ill-suited lovers and we parted ways in spring just as Queensland was erupting into bloom and flourishing with possibilities for Queensland writers like me.
Packing for my first trip, that long-forgotten journey to sleep under the ocean on the Great Barrier Reef, I wept with happiness. As the plane soared over Moreton Bay, gasping for altitude, I was genuinely surprised when my ears popped. I’d forgotten about the nuances of travel. But the switch was being flicked back on. That current was running through my veins like the ink in my poised pen. The world and words were waiting for me. And so were my characters.