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August 20, 2013

Summer Musings: Snippets and bits from the land down under

This past May I received a Facebook message from my sister: “Hey, you want to go to Australia for two weeks in July?” “Uh, yeah.”

I’ve been on this train—my second in three days—for something like 29 hours, a duration of time that, when I try to quantify it, only comes out as “too damn long.”

A week earlier, my sister and I, adventurous young travelers with something like 14 years separating us from our last experience with cross-country rail travel, had thought that a train ride from Sydney to Cairns would be an excellent and cost-effective way to see as much of the country as possible. After about an hour of beautiful scenery outside of Sydney, this assumption quickly evaporated when we arrived at the realization (both literally and figuratively) that much of the Australian countryside looks uncannily similar to the Texas countryside, of which we had seen more than enough. What ensued was a good 40 hours of wishing we were on a plane.

During this time of locomotive-bound sufferance, I’ve become acquainted with the ins and outs of train travel: the soft lulling and swaying side to side, the gentle clinkity-clink-clink of the wheels moving from one rail segment to the next, the sudden jerking thump accompanied by the silent questioning of whether or not the vehicle has struck a cow. But these are only the docile features of rail travel. The far more prominent and un-ignorable features come from the people around you. And it’s the people around me that, through little fault of their own, are making this an experience I want over with.

There is an aboriginal lady with six children in our car. There is a very sweet boy, about six years old, who is obviously developmentally delayed in our car as well. What results is clinking, thumping, cacophonous chaos on wheels. There is a baby crying. There are children gliding under seats on their stomachs like there’s a slip and slide down there. The delayed boy is perpetually running up and down the lone aisle, strings of drool perilously swinging from his mouth and threatening to attach to anything within reach. The woman is holding her youngest child as it notifies the entire car of its unhappiness. The boy runs past me again. Thump, thump, thump go his Teva-covered feet. The woman’s third and fourth children attack each other with little mercy, wailing on each other’s arms with the type of restraint young boys typically show when beating on their siblings. The boy runs back the other way now.

Thump, thump, thump.

There stands at the head of the train the woman’s second youngest, who is about two. He holds a Superman action figure in his right hand. He bangs it violently against the armrest of the aisle chair in the first row. I’m surprised by the immense and aggressive power this young boy exhibits. Though he is not yet old enough to have graduated out of a bowl haircut, he is already built like a little rugby player, a bowling ball of fury in a diaper. Each time he pounds the action figure against the armrest, he lets forth a sharp, punctuated blast of noise. His vocal power matches his physical power; it is impressive. The other boy runs past me again.

Thump, thump, thump.

The woman’s baby is still crying. As it cries, she administers what ostensibly would seem to be pats on the back, but look more like aggressive spanks to me. The child is in her lap, facing her. She raises her arm so that it’s level with the top of the child’s head, then brings it swiftly down and toward her, meeting the child’s bottom with frighteningly loud fwump. I wonder silently how this will quiet the child. As the delayed boy runs back past me this time, he somehow bumps into the foot of my chair and hits the deck instantly.

Thump, thump, thump, THUD.

I look at him, assessing whether or not he needs my help. He puts his hands under his chest in a pint-sized push-up position and looks around. He seems to be contemplating whether or not he should cry. After a long moment, he concludes that he is fine, lifts himself up, and continues thumping on to the back of the car.

The menace in the diaper continues to bang poor Superman on the armrest at the front of the train. Out of his mouth come penetratingly fierce war cries. “AAH! AAH! AAH!” he shouts. In spite of his obvious diminutiveness, I am terrified. This child is a warrior; he will destroy me. “AAH! AAH!” This child is my master, above me in the food chain. “AAH! AAH!” He is my ruler, he is the king of this train car, and we, its passengers, are his subordinates. He stands before us, surveying his subjects with far more patriarchal malice than Yertle the Turtle ever did, and he shouts at us, letting us know that he can do what he likes to us, that he is in charge of the purgatorial march to nowhere that is this train ride. And now he’s looking at me, shouting as fiercely as ever, his undersized but steely gaze burrowing into my eyes and beyond. It charges into my brain and down my throat, simultaneously sensing and distributing fear at every turn, poking, prodding, and pinching my vena cavae, sending my heart into fluttering convulsions.

And now, more than ever, I want to be off this train. I don’t care if I’ll be stranded in the Australian bush, if I’ll have to live among the wallabies and perish from eating the wrong kind of potato: I just want out. As I consider leaving my chair and arranging myself on the floor in the fetal position, the train downgrades from its usual insufferably slow roll to a halt.

This is not an account of my feelings about Australia, nor my thoughts on how it differs from the America I know and love/loathe. It is simply a relaying of what my mind retained, which, like with fly paper and glue traps, is almost never what its owner intends.

“Welcome to Cairns,” a voice over the speaker says.

The baby is still screaming, the boy in the Tevas is still thump-thump-thumping, and Superman is still moments away from irreparable damage. But the voice over the speaker, a final piece in this crescendo of noise, has given me hope: I know that my journey is finally, mercifully over.

Liam Leddy is a second-year in the College majoring in economics and psychology. Summer Musings is a new Viewpoints blog that publishes every Tuesday and Friday through September 27.

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