The world awaits

by jexmas on January 3, 2011

I decided to move to Adelaide when I was 22. I am not sure why other than I was offered a job at an advertising agency there. I worked for Young & Rubicam Adelaide for a year and, one night, sitting up at the bar in a restaurant, I met my first husband. He was the owner of the restaurant, recently divorced, father of two children, the oldest of whom is four years younger than me. In a classic repetition of history, this man was 16 years my senior, his last name was Heaven, he wanted to marry me and it seemed like the right thing to do. My mother was dismayed when I told her we were going to get married. She barely knew him, did not like him and could see the mistake I was making from 600 miles away.
Actually, it was fun while it lasted, although we drank a lot, smoked a lot of cigarettes and fought a lot. He is an antique dealer and we travelled around the world just after we married because he wanted to go to London and buy a shipment of antiques at auction there. We flew east from Melbourne and, at that time, I was terrified of flying which was not really about flying but was about the terror of trusting someone else to look after me safely. As soon as it seemed reasonable, I ordered a drink and then another one and proceeded to get drunk and pass out, so I did not need to know how scared I was.
I woke up as we landed in Pago Pago where we spent one night. The next day we flew in a small plane to Western Samoa, which actually felt safer because I could see the pilot. We spent two weeks there and happened to be there at the same time as Queen Elizabeth arrived on a tour of her realm. Our hotel hosted the lunchtime reception for her and, although all the guests were asked to leave for most of the day presumably to allow the really important people to rub shoulders with her, we arrived back in the late afternoon and walked into the lobby just as she and Prince Philip and an entourage of security staff walked towards us from the dining room. She passed us by about three or four feet away and I was shocked at seeing her so close to me. I froze as she looked at me. I suppose I should have curtsied like a good subject but instead, was glued to the spot, gawking at this tiny little woman who, even then, looked frail and vulnerable. It makes me smile now to wonder if she wondered, for just a second, who I was.
Now this incident reminds me of a poem called Ode to Her Majesty written a few years later by one of Australia’s best-loved poets, Michael Leunig:
I did but see her passing by, she passed me by quite fast.
I saw her passing by again when several years had passed.
And then at some much later stage she passed me by once more
And there were further passings by and these I also saw.
I did but see her passing by I don’t know what it means
Perhaps it’s not my problem but a problem of the Queen’s.
Ironically, he wrote this poem in response to a flowery quotation included in a gushing welcome speech by the then-Prime Minister, Sir Robert Menzies, when Queen Elizabeth visited Australia in 1954:  I did but see her passing by, And yet I love her till I die. This was the visit when the Queen did but pass us by through our neighborhood in a specially-decked out train while my parents stood beside the railway line up behind our house, holding my sister and me as we waved small British flags glued onto the end of flimsy sticks.
We left Western Samoa and flew to Hawaii, then San Francisco and New York before landing in London where we stayed for five months while my husband bought a shipment of antiques at various auctions throughout London. He taught me to bid and inspired in me a love of antiques and beautiful, old and simple things. I have no idea now why we fought so much, although there was so much I had already lost and so much I was trying to keep to myself. He was angry when he drank and I let him take it out on me because I still thought there was something wrong with me and I needed to be controlled. There was something wrong with me but that was not it.
Once he had bought enough pieces in London to fill a shipping container, we packed it all up and sent it on its way back to Australia. While it sailed, we traveled overland by bus from London to Nepal. It was 1979 and the shady Australian bus company promised my husband fast, cheap and good trips across Europe into Asia. Of course, he did not know then it is impossible to have all three or, if he did, he was not saying. If it is fast and good, it will not be cheap. If it is good and cheap, it will not be fast, and if it is cheap and fast, it will not be good. In the end, it was expensive, slow and absurdly disorganized. The bus kept breaking down and was exchanged at least twice, once in the searing heat in the Dasht-i-Margo or “Desert of Death” in Afghanistan. At the same time, it was amazing and the experience of being in Turkey, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Nepal when it was still possible to cross all those countries, including driving over the rugged and treacherous Khyber Pass, is still etched in my memory. I am surprised I remember so much, since we fought for almost the entire trip.
The things I remember are the heat and the colors of the landscapes we traversed. We saw ancient crumbling villages that looked as if they had been pushed up out of the dry, sandy earth. We saw turbaned nomads trekking beside the roads, walking with their camels in the searing heat. We spent the nights in dark and dusty hostels and cheap hotels and sometimes slept on the floor on mattresses. We ate delicious slow-cooked lamb and rice in Afghanistan and almost inedible Tandoori chicken in New Delhi.
When we drove through the narrow Khyber Pass, we were not allowed out of the bus and the road was heavily guarded by men wearing dusty turbans and earth-colored clothes. They held rifles and stood vigilantly on either side of the road, looking menacing and dangerous.
When we finally arrived in Lahore, Pakistan, our bus broke down again so we took a train across the border into India, first to Amritsar and then to New Delhi. The train was packed and, when one of our fellow passengers bent down to put his suitcase under the seat, one of the Indian passengers stood on his back using him like a stool to climb up to the luggage rack above.
From New Delhi, we made a short detour to Jaipur and stayed in a grand, rambling old house that was once the residence of a British commander. When India gained independence, the house was converted to a hotel. The rooms were open and spacious and lined with rich wood panels. Large rugs sprawled across the floors of the living rooms and bedrooms and it felt very luxurious to stay there even though it was so cheap.
We visited the center of the city and were surprised and delighted by the huge stone and bronze astronomical instruments built in the seventeenth century by the Maharaja Jai Singh II. Oversized and unbelievably accurate given the technological constraints of the time, there is something brazen, confident, and crazy about the way they were put there.
Then we rode an elephant around the grounds of the palace in Jaipur. Now I am amused to remember I rode an elephant and wonder if riding elephants in India is a bit like catching a bus in other very tourist-driven cities. The elephant took us around the outside of the palace, another incredible and ancient building encrusted with precious stones.
From there, we went to Benares and watched the rituals performed in concert with the cremation of bodies beside the Ganges. Benares is the holy Indian city where many people spend the last chapter of their lives, waiting to die. We left there and drove to Annapurna in Nepal for a few days. I have vivid memories of Nepalese women wearing strikingly bright fabrics and gold jewelry. In Kathmandu, forty percent of the population had tuberculosis at that time and, everywhere we went, people were coughing and spitting in the street.
By then, my husband and I had settled into a relationship that was more like friends, or even acquaintances, traveling together. We stayed away from each other emotionally and, within a few weeks of returning to Adelaide, I left him. Initially, I told him I was going to stay with my parents for two weeks and, at the end of that time, I told him I was not coming back. He did not try very hard to keep me and it felt like the right move for us both.

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