Americana Island Indulgences

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Almost eight months before today, I embarked on a journey on my own to the other side of the world. I arrived in Australia disoriented and even confused, fighting my natural urge to “freak out” at my unemployed and nearly homeless state.

I have learned on my trip to appreciate what I classify as “reality checks.” Moments where you stop, take in your surroundings whether they be people or nature, and think ‘Wow, I’m not sure how I got here but it ROCKS.’

As I lie in an adorable wooden bungalow surrounded by a koala forest which is situated on an island miles off the coast of Australia, I am experiencing another “reality check” moment.  I can hear the whistle of very loud exotic birds, and there are no windows but only screens on our bungalow so I can listen to the possums searching for food and the koalas munching their gum leaves happily in the trees. As you might imagine it is a bit unnerving for this city girl but I am getting accustomed to the ways of the wild quite rapidly these days.

How the hell did I end up here? Well that is an interesting story. It all started when Max and I decided we would like to relocate out of windy Melbourne to a place where the sun was strong and the beach was rockin’. After much research –  pause as a wallaby hops by loudly haha – we decided to pack up shop and move to Airlie Beach. AB is said to be a haven for beachgoers, and it is situated at the base of The Whitsundays, a collection of nearly 74 remote islands which are home to the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of the state of Queensland in Australia. The countdown was on as soon as we arrived home from New Zealand.

Bethany and her boyfriend Dave were nice enough to let us crash on their couches for a couple of days while we finished up packing and working and prepared to set off. I had decided to go down from the three bags I brought to two, making it easier to travel. Four Salvation Army trips later I was ready for action, and felt so relieved to have given all of my things away for a fresh start.

Late on my last night in Melbourne I walked slowly down Bourke Street in the CBD reflecting on my stay in this amazing city. As I watched two friends walk by chatting about their night I felt a pang of sadness come over me. Melbourne has grown on me and etched its own place in my heart. This city has taught me much about who I am, and more so who I am not – it has brought me closer to the search for the real me.  A city full of people who are happily themselves, regardless of their dress or demeanor. This is the first city which I have felt truly a part of and I know it will be missed.

My melancholy faded away slowly as I boarded a plane to Brisbane in the wee hours of the morning on Saturday, and I fell fast asleep against Max’s shoulder. I awoke to bright rays of sunshine in my eyes, which in my book is always a welcomed occurrence, and I stretched my arms excitedly. Brisbane was exactly halfway to our beautiful new hometown of Airlie Beach! Our second flight was short, yet I still managed to get some shut eye and woke up yet again to a bright sunshine in my eyes. Max was wide awake with a grin from ear to ear.

“That was seriously the most beautiful flight of my life,” he said, “you totally missed it.”

Me thinking he was being dramatic took a quick glance outside to see a string of deserted islands dotted across a fluorescent blue sea. Boats sailed slowly between them, and as we landed on the most narrow strip I’ve ever seen, we welcomed ourselves to a place called Hamilton Island. We were quite in a daze as we grabbed our bags and boarded a ferry to take us to our new pad.

Landing in Hamilton Island on the way to Airlie Beach

Arriving in Airlie just an hour later we dropped our bags off at our hip hostel called Magnums (and not as in Todd Kurland) and ventured out to explore our new home. Two hours later, we found ourselves having a beer in our hostel, which transforms into a nightclub each night. After a day full of forced optimism, I turned to Max reluctantly and blurted out, “There’s no way in hell I can live here I’m so sorry.”

Sorry Airlie Beach, but this clubber paradise is not my scene….: (

I was certainly relieved to find that Max felt exactly the same way. So what the hell were we to do? Did we make a terrible mistake, and where did we go next? We both had all of our belongings with us in our suitcases bursting at the seams. Two young people trying to find a niche in Australia with no clue which direction to go.

Well Max had actually received a job offer about a week prior, which were were leaning towards not taking since it was on a remote island and I would likely not be able to find work. After much talking and researching the next day, we decided to toss our inhibitions aside and dive in head first. Literally 30 minutes later we had booked tickets on a Greyhound bus up to the city of Townsville which is about three hours north of Airlie Beach. We woke up the next morning and after arriving in Townsville bought one way tickets to this mysterious island we knew absolutely nothing about.

Magnetic Island:  discovered by James Cook it received its name when Cook’s compass seemed to go awry when approaching the mass of floating land. We arrived in this land we knew nothing about, which is about 8 kilometres off the coast of Townsville. On our way over we both tapped our sweaty fingers against the table on the ferry as we wondered where this was all going to end up. Just for kicks, Max called a realtor we found on a travel brochure at the ferry station to see what rental prices would be. He hung up and told me how much he loved this place already. The realtor had offered to pick us up from the ferry and show us the places he had for rent for us. Why not??!! We hop in the stranger’s van upon arrival and he drives us up the island’s hilly roads giving us all of the history of the land. As we come to the apartments which are located on what used to be a resort property, Max and I look at each other bewildered. The cost of renting is about half here what it is in Melbs…too good to be true?

The realtor proceeds to give us a tour of the entire island, which only takes about 15 minutes driving to get all the way across. After our tour, he offers to drop us off at our hostel, which is coincidentally where Max got his job offer. First, he picks up his daughter from school and we head off. We discover along the way as we are driving that the island has a very tight-knit community, and each person we pass waves at Guy, our realtor, as he nods his head in acknowledgement. He even knows Max’s boss and all of the staff at the hostel where he would be working.

When we arrive at the hostel we are greeted by Max’s potential coworkers, who toss us a set of keys and send us to the most luxurious bungalow cabin they have. Shortly after venturing around the island area we decide we will do everything in our power to get me a job so that we can stay here and experience this drastically different lifestyle. We have a complimentary stay in the cosy and modern cabin, and wake up in the morning both terrified and ecstatic. Inspired by the warm breeze and beautiful forest around us, we go for a jog down the street to Horseshoe Bay, an amazing beach where many participate in water sports like kayaking, boating, surfing and tubing year-round.

As we come to the end of the beach, we find a sign for a hiking trail and decide to take a trip to one of the islands secluded bays that is listed on the map. Ignoring the information we had found on the several venomous species of snakes and spiders on the island, we went tromping through the forest looking for koalas along the way. We spotted a wallaby just as we were arriving, and were astounded by the views from the bay. Imagine a beach with more animal prints than human footprints. The sand was untouched by human hands and had likely gone unvisited for at least a week. Max and I fell silent in awe and amazement at the possibility of being able to hike here every day.

Horseshoe Bay at sunset – just down the street from where Max works

On our way home, we ran into a group of kookaburras resting on a rail quietly. Max headed off to have a chat with the owner of the hostel and find out whether he was interested in the job, as I hit the ground running on my job hunt on the island just in case. Cold calling each hostel and restaurant on the island (there aren’t that many trust me) I became discouraged to find that nobody seemed to be hiring. Disappointed, I decided I would go back to the mainland in Townsville the next day to see what they had to offer me there. You can actually work there and commute – it takes about 20 minutes – but it is really expensive ($30 return trip and $110 for 10 one-way trips).

We walked around the island a bit more and dropped off my resume at a few key places around town. After visiting the local IGA supermarket (one of only two supermarkets on the island), I picked up a community newspaper. In short, there was a tiny ad posted “Waitress needed at hotel – call 07 4778 5517.” 24 hours later, I had a job at a local bistro halfway between our new apartment (we signed on for a week to week contract with realtor Guy and his wife Cindy) and Bungalow Bay where Max accepted his job.

Pool at the hotel I am working at

What is life on an island like? Many of you, like myself, have asked yourself this question. Well we have landed ourselves two hospitality gigs and set up shop temporarily on a remote island off the coast of Australia. The transition from city life to island life has been, well, surprisingly smooth!

It may have been hard to accept a few of the facts:

–       There is only one bus and it only runs once an hour each day

–       There are two small food stores which are about twice the price of regular food; additionally forget about getting fresh veg and fruit…

–       The latest bar open is midnight – in order to get there I must wear a helmet and ride on Max’s handle bars of his bicycle sixth-grade style

–       There are three “neighborhoods” which are all about 10 minutes apart

–       Two weeks after arriving, the bus driver greeted me “Get on kid, I know where you live already”

–       Most people boarding the bus greet the driver and several other people by name

–       Once on a bus home from work we off-roaded across a valley just to tell people at another bus that the only other running bus on the island was 10 minutes late, then we reversed all the way back to the road

–        In my interview for a job at a local hotel, my interviewer asked where else I had applied. I mentioned that I had applied at a venue on the mainland, and he said he had recently had lunch and was good friends with the owner of that venue…

So I am now working at Hotel Arcadia managing the front of house portion of their bistro. The bistro, once a buzzing and trendy, now suffers of outdated decor and is in desperate need of some TLC! I have been hard at work, being the only waitress, cashier, Barista (coffee maker), dishwasher and busboy in the team. In the one or two spare moments that I have I study the menu, which I have secretly begun to redesign in my spare time at home.

The biggest adaptation for me on this island has been the amount of free time I have, most involuntarily induced. Mainly, my work schedule forces me to have a very large chunk of time off each day, so that I have a break from 2:00 p.m. until 6:00 p.m. on some days! Since we don’t have a car, I have had to improvise and find ways to keep myself occupied during that time period (there is virtually nothing around the hotel where I work, except the hotel itself). Conveniently the hotel is situated just steps from a beautiful and very popular beach called Alma Bay. Alma Bay is the central tourist attraction, and is known for its surfing, snorkeling, swimming, kayaking, and its unique shore lined with enormous boulders which welcome climbers of all ages.

Alma Bay, across the street from my job

My initial reaction to my schedule was a bit of panic – three to four hours to myself each day? What was I supposed to do during that time…I was so used to squeezing in a quick bite to eat and then booking back to my desk and engrossing myself in my work. One week into my new life began the most foreign process…things were…well, slowing down. My mind didn’t race, I didn’t have anxiety about all of the unread emails and unanswered phone messages, all of the deadlines to meet that day and how I would ever finish my to-do list. Work ends at 3:00, and picks up again later – that’s all there is to it.

I soon discovered my favourite place on the bay – sandwiched between four huge boulders there is a sunny, sandy and quiet cove. I began visiting the secluded spot and started a daily ritual. Wearing my swimsuit under my work uniform, I run out of work and straight to my spot to cuddle up and read a book.

The boulders at Alma Bay, which form sandy little getaways where I love to read during my lunch breaks

My latest craze is a book called The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin (and also yes, admittedly also Fifty Shades of Grey – I had to see what all the fuss was about). This is one book that, although I can never put it down, takes me ages to get through. Each page is full of so many bits of useful information, the kind of stuff you take in and then digest throughout the entire day. Rubin begins a year long project after she jumps on a quest to find out what happiness is and how she can control her own happiness as well as that of those around her.

The book has been hugely insightful, and has really opened my eyes to the pros of being a proactively happy person. Instead of dreading my three to four hours break each day, I have been starting to ask myself how I can be productive and squeeze in things I may not have time for in a couple months’ time.

When the sun sets around 4:45, the rays cast the most beautiful glare on the mountains covered in trees and palms. It is so serene, and coincidentally at this time the beaches clear out as the breeze picks up and scares everyone to their hotels where it is warmer. This is my favorite part of the day.

Another amazing advantage of working where I do is the boat ramp directly across the street and just next to Alma Bay. After walking along Geoffrey Bay for about ten minutes, you come to a boat ramp where dozens of rock wallabies gather to laze around and get some grub from visitors. For about $2.50 you can get a huge bag of food and head down to feed the little critters and take advantage of a great photo opp!

Feeding the rock wallabies during my lunch break

At the end of the night I typically take a bus ride home at 9:20 p.m., which is the last run. While I wait I sit at the dark bus stop and see wallabies, possums, curlews (exotic and very loud birds), kookaburras, and of course lots of big tropical bugs! In the case that I miss the bus (due to either a late clean up in the bistro or late night chatting with my work friends) I have two options: walk or run.

The view on my way to or from work

I’ve run and walked home several times, and the journey back to our humble abode is absolutely breathtaking and unforgettable. As you leave the hotel you walk down the main dirt road which takes a curve up the mountainside, and simultaneously the area becomes pitch black as there are no longer street lights. It is a bit alarming at first, since all you can hear are the thuds and hops of wallabies and the crash of the sea waves against the rocks below, but you quickly get used to it – especially on nights where the moon is so bright that it illuminates the whole area. Once you reach the other side of the mountain there is a long road that turns left and takes you to our home. We live in a previously successful resort which has gone downwards very quickly and is now being renovated. Because times are tough, rent is dirt cheap and include all bills (less than $800 a month total – which unfortunately is dirt cheap in Australia).

Our little home in The International Resort in Nelly Bay, Magnetic Island (this is the living room don’t ask why there is a bed in it)

Possibly the best part of my trip to the island is that I am working 25 to 30 hours a week here, making more than I did at my last job working well over 45! Plus, as if this country doesn’t offer enough glimmer and sparkle to attract your interest, they give each and every worker a mandatory 9% “superannuation” – that’s right, when I leave the country I will get 9% of whatever I have made in the year I’ve been here, delivered directly into my checking account back home (minus a bit of tax deduction from the Australian Government, but as far as I’m concerned I’m getting a good deal).

Max is working at Bungalow Bay, an eco-friendly youth hostel in Horseshoe Bay, which is on the other side of the island, as a Bar and Reception manager. The best part of his job (aside from the free pizza and beer he gets each day) is that there is a wildlife sanctuary on site. We went on the wildlife tour for free and got to hold a baby crocodile, black cockatoo, lizards, turtles, pythons and drumroll……KOALAS! It was amazing and an experience I will never forget.

Noah and baby Joey

Kissing “Shadow,” the very rare black cockatoo

Max and “Barbie,” the baby crocodile at Bungalow Bay where he works

Our buddy Noah the koala

YIKES! Sam the python – a NATIVE species to Magnetic Island where we live (and surprisingly one of the snakes we don’t have to worry about)

After a while of feeding the local birdies they were starting to become a little agressive (afterwards it looks like I had played with a string of barbed wire, those suckers can scratch!)

On our way up from Hamilton Island

Taking a hike on my lunch break…he’s a goof

Posing in front of Radical Bay (in my work uniform haha)

I’ve learned so much about life here on this island – it has forced me to realize that I need to slow down – and that slow is good sometimes. I have made the plunge from city life to small town island life, and a place where everybody knows your name is strangely intriguing to me.

I promise to write another blog very soon and update more of my island experiences, I must admit I have opened my computer no more than eight times since I arrived (I thrive on my phone). It has been a bit nice to shut out reality for a while and ignore the internet with all of the noise and anxiety it can bring to my life. For now, I will continue developing my island persona, and take advantage of all of the learning I have to do here during this unique period of my life. REALITY CHECK!!

Our beautiful island, a welcomed change of pace for these two Americans

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About girlindownunder

A young person in search of an identity - in 2011 I will launch a personal journey and this blog will serve as a platform for my family and friends - a unique documentation of life lessons, epic fails and unforgettable moments.

7 responses »

  1. Great blog Sunshine! I absolutely love it! Miss you though….can’t wait until after Christmas! The countdown is on! love you, mom

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