Columns, Opinion

GANS: Fish Down Under flops around on dry land

Growing up, my family spent many summer weekends in Ventnor City, New Jersey, one of many towns that South Jerseyans affectionately refer to as “the shore.”

Each weekend started the same way: my family and I playing the Tetris game called “The Gans Family Tries to Fit Everything They Own in a Car as if They’re Going to a Place Without Civilization Rather Than a Family Member’s (My Grandfather’s) Home.”

Ventnor, a place that in fact does have civilization, sits on an island, sandwiched between the infamous gambling town of Atlantic City and the family-oriented, small shop-driven community of Margate City. In comparison to its neighbors, Ventnor is quiet. It usually attracts an older audience, meaning its shops often close early, and without casinos and boardwalk stores, its beachfront is nearly empty at night.

Compared to my relatively busy life in Voorhees Township, New Jersey, Ventnor was my quiet getaway.

But I hadn’t heard quiet until I traveled to the Northern Territory of Australia, an area more commonly known by tourists and natives alike as “the Outback.”

And like all people who decide to travel to a place that actually is without civilization, I decided to bring just one backpack for my four-day adventure, accidentally leaving a bathing suit, a towel, sunscreen, bug spray and a fourth shirt at home.

Note to Mom: I apologize for lying to you when you asked if I had everything I needed. I was already on my way to the airport, and I didn’t want you to worry.

OK, so I may have gone a little overboard with the minimalist thing. But in a weird way, forgetting the items I thought I needed helped me see that I didn’t really need them after all.

And here’s the good news: Despite my lack of resources, I came home with no sunburn, only four bug bites and a brand new perspective on my life.

When I started planning my Outback trip, I knew it would be out of my comfort zone. My coffee-drinking, Twitter-checking, hand-washing ways would be out the window when I was in the middle of an almost-desert — there’s technically too much vegetation to be classified a desert — with no coffee shop, phone service or soap in sight.

And I’m not even exaggerating. I went a solid 36 hours without finding hand soap at any campsite or public rest stop bathroom. In the same 36 hours, I had no phone reception, let alone Wi-Fi connection. We even stopped at a rest stop with a “Phone Service Petition” at the cash register. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one at a loss. And when it came to caffeine, my options were gas station coffee or instant espresso powder. I tried each and decided neither was worth it.

On the first night, as I set up my swag and sleeping bag for a night sleeping under the stars, I watched hesitantly as a four-legged insect crawled out of my swag.

“There has got to be more where that came from,” I thought.

“Oh, who are you kidding? You’re sleeping on the ground,” a stronger, sassier part of my brain snapped in response. “Bugs are everywhere. Get over it.”

Knowing I had no other choice, I crawled into my sleeping bag and rested my head on a pillow that had been slept on by God-knows-how-many other people. I stared at the sky, just thinking about how gross I felt — hands unwashed, insects flying into my face, sweat dried in my hair.

The campsite had shower stalls, but of course, I forgot my towel. I ultimately gave in the next night and showered using a T-shirt to dry my body, but that first night, I just sat in my sleeping bag, feeling dirty as ever and wondering why and how people enjoy this thing called “camping.”

My thoughts were interrupted when someone in my tour group pointed to an extra-bright star and said, “Wow, that’s Jupiter.” Conversation fizzled out as everyone stared up at the sky in admiration.

And for some reason, that’s when it hit me: I’m in the Outback, and I’m seeing stars that I’ve never even seen before. Who cares if there are a few harmless bugs crawling on my legs?

Despite the culture shock, my adventure to the Outback was a special one. It forced me to be comfortable with the world around me and accept the things I could not change. The emptiness of the Outback roads, though eerie at times, had a peaceful quietness to them, a welcoming presence that said, “I know you’re a stranger to this, but it’s OK. Just relax, and you’ll learn to love it.”

So did I love it? For four days, yes. It was the getaway I needed, a chance to open my mind to a new side of Australia and force myself to let go of the material items in exchange for a life-changing experience.

But let’s face it. Quiet dirt roads are no place for a fish. I’ll always be a city girl — or, in some cases, a New Jersey suburb girl — at heart.

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