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The writer in Sydney. (Tanya Barker)
The writer in Sydney. (Tanya Barker)

Leaping into disaster and learning to embrace my Australian misadventures Add to ...

Dispatch is a series of first-person stories from the road. Readers can share their experiences, from the sublime to the strange.

I was the girl who spent more time checking her credit score than her Facebook feed. I was fresh out of university and recently promoted from an intern position to a full-time job at a firm with great benefits. But I spent my evenings and weekends working overtime and eating doughnuts for dinner. The office cleaners knew me – and my favourite doughnut – by name.

I was due for a major lifestyle change.

Lured by the promise of exotic native wildlife and a natural landscape as beautiful as it is diverse, I boarded the long flight to Sydney, Australia, with my hopes high and my expectations low. What could be worse than the monotony of a despised office job?

Turns out, a lot of things.

During my first week I saw the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge. I kissed a kangaroo. I sped down massive sand dunes in a park outside the city on nothing but a thin plastic board, and I made friends with travellers from all over the world.

It was at the end of this near-perfect week that I decided to eradicate the word “no” from my vocabulary and instead say “yes” to every new adventure that came my way in Australia.

My first “yes” brought me to the charming beach town of Gerringong, where I spent a week surfing myself sick. This was my first time surfing, it was the beginning of winter and I had a nasty cold.

Surely, if there was ever a time for my “play it safe” attitude to come in handy, this would be it. But I was in Australia! Learning to surf was an absolute must. Too bad it came with a hefty medical bill and an inhaler as a parting gift. Apparently the “surf, eat, sleep, repeat” mantra doesn’t take into account impending pneumonia.

Undeterred by my sudden misfortune, I went forward with my plan to spend a month travelling up the East Coast from Sydney to Cairns in Queensland on an open-dated bus ticket that would allow me to find work halfway through to replenish my funds.

By some administrative fluke, my tour booking got irrevocably entwined with the booking of a German traveller I’d met during my first week in Sydney. Without her, I couldn’t access my accommodations or activities. With her, I couldn’t stop for work.

Despite the rapid depletion of my funds and the persistence of my pneumonia, I was not about to give up on the adventurous era of “yes.” I kayaked with dolphins and sea turtles in Byron Bay, New South Wales. I slept in a swag beneath the stars at a cattle station. I sailed the Whitsundays and found Nemo while snorkelling near Whitehaven Beach in Queensland.

I also caught several colds and broke my underwater camera. I vomited four times on the boat ride to the Great Barrier Reef. I was kicked by a goat and peed on by an impressive lineup of iconic Australian wildlife (koalas aren’t so cute when they’re ruining your favourite shirt). By the end of my bus tour, I was desperate for the calm stability of working life.

Within a week of my return to Sydney, I found work in the Northern Beaches, about a half-hour drive away, as a live-in au pair. I cared for three adorable, yet challenging, boys, 6, 9 and 12, through a period in their lives that was the farthest thing from calm stability – their mother was terminally ill.

During my four-month stay in the Northern Beaches, my luck did not improve. I endured bacterial infections, intestinal worms and the poisonous bite of one of Australia’s most dangerous spiders – the whitetail. I was bitten on three separate occasions – the last of which became infected and caused my leg to swell so badly I couldn’t wear pants.

While everything in Australia seemed intent on trying to kill me, my petty sorrows paled in comparison to the tragedy of watching cancer take another life and tear a family apart. None of this was what I’d imagined, planned or hoped for when I dreamed of living Down Under. But I’d made a commitment to myself; a commitment to say “yes” to each new adventure.

Yes, I can take this leap.

Yes, I can make a difference for these kids.

Yes, I can overcome this challenge, too.

Travel is not exempt from trial and disaster. In fact, my six months in Australia brought me more challenges than I saw in two years of ordinary life back home. But the hard lessons my travels taught me enriched my life in ways no desk job could have ever done. Looking back, I wouldn’t trade one “yes” for a “no.”

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