Almost 12 years ago now 23Thorns and I were on our honeymoon at a beautiful hotel called Cybele Forest Lodge. Our room had its own swimming pool, the white bed sheets were crisp, the towelling robes were huge and fluffy. There must surely have been a scattering of rose petals on the bed, but I forget this detail. Dinner comprised about 7 courses of pretentiously named food which arrived artfully placed in the centre of big white dinner plates. The guest lounge had velvet sofas with huge brocade cushions on which to recline while enjoying high tea. Oil paintings in old gilt frames decorated the walls. It was luxurious and classy and romantic.
On our second day in the hotel, we organised for a picnic basket to be delivered to a waterfall that we would reach after a short hike. A car would sneak in, deliver our picnic with silver cutlery and lead-crystal champagne flutes and disappear before we reached the end of our walk. All of this wildly engineered romanticism rather paled into insignificance when, on hiking through an indigenous forest, we happened upon this little rock pool.
A little heart-shaped rock pool filled with the first spring rain was infinitely more romantic than lead crystal.
“Oh my! Isn’t that just wonderful” I thought, as I snapped off this photo that now sits in our entrance hall. Of course, it’s just a little erosion in a smooth, old, African mountain, and my brain was doing what brains do. It was finding a pattern. It was making order. It was finding meaning.
I mostly ignore the practical and reasoned approach to life though and embrace the magical thinking. I’m all over the magical coincidence of our honeymoon-love set in stone, just like I am all over a series of magical coincidences that led me to New Zealand about two weeks ago.
I wrote two posts back about my great great grandmother, Ethel. Ethel, for reasons I cannot imagine, left her husband and four very young children in South Africa in the early 20th century to return to her birth-country, New Zealand. She started a new family and a new life. Her South African children were told she was dead. Her New Zealand child was never told anything at all. Through a series of extraordinary “Oh my! Isn’t that wonderful?” moments and one Skype conversation with my long-lost New Zealand family, I had a single ticket to Wellington. I was going to follow in Ethel’s footsteps by travelling from South Africa to New Zealand solo. I was leaving my delicious husband and two children behind for an adventure on the other side of the world. On my own. My ticket was return though and on a 747 and not a ship, but I was to be covering the same ground that my sweet Ethel had covered over 100 years ago.
Ethel’s crossing would have taken almost two months, which is an awful lot of time to think about having abandoned your children. There would have been tears, big seas, seasickness, Sunday prayers, more seasickness, at least one visit to the ship’s surgeon, windy days in the roaring forties, dolphin barbeques, pelican shooting parties, walks on deck past the children receiving their lessons, incredible boredom. She would have cooked her own meals on board. Each passenger received a weekly ration from the quartermaster. Single travellers often pooled their rations to enjoy their meals together. The ships generally allowed passengers 500 kg of baggage although only a small case of clothes was allowed in the cabins. (You were only allowed into the hold once a week.) In this small case you would need to have set aside clothing for all sorts of weather. Ethel was travelling from the sweaty subtropics of Africa down through the roaring forties and sometimes (depending on the winds) as far south as 60 degrees, where icebergs would have been seen floating about. I doubt Ethel took advantage of her 500 kg baggage allowance though. When you’re running away you pack light.
I, however, had only a 14-hour flight to contend with. Isn’t that wonderful? This 14-hour flight plus a 3-hour layover in Sydney was too impossibly long for me to contemplate though because, you see, I am a smoker. No seasickness for me but instead a gnawing-in-the-belly-rage-building nicotine withdrawal. And I knew from a previous visit to Sydney that the international departure area, that I would sit in for 3 hours before my flight to New Zealand, had no smoker’s den of iniquity. So, I did what any sensible smoker would do. I decided that what I needed to do was to apply for an Australian visa, at great cost, book myself into a snazzy hotel, at great cost, and smoke Australian cigarettes, at great cost, to my heart’s content for 3 nights. I did not admit on my visa application form that I was going to Australia to smoke. With Australia’s stringent anti-smoking laws, they would hardly have believed me if I had admitted to it anyhow. Luckily I have some wonderful friends in Sydney who I could visit as a smokescreen for my real reasons for being in Australia. I had a 30 kg baggage allowance. As I was not running away and as I have an obsession with clothes and shoes, I cannot pack light. The worry and the fuss over what I was going to pack completely overwhelmed any panic I might have felt about meeting and staying with a family of strangers. My other worry and another one that would not have been a problem for Ethel was Australian Border Security. Ethel did not have jet-propelled transport but she also didn’t have terrorists and Malaysian food-smugglers.
If you haven’t seen the TV series, Border Security, it shows po-faced customs agents protecting Australia’s borders from narcotic, biological and criminal invasion. They are a problem for me because I have problems with authority. Not the I’m-always-in-trouble-with-The-Man problem, the I’m-a-goody-two-shoes-and-hate-being-in-trouble problem. This problem leads me to over-declare. I tick all the little boxes and then hand over my gel eyeliner as an incendiary device. I declare I’ve been on a farm when actually I just collected my son from his “farm” nursery school which has a guinea pig and some bunnies. I declare food and then hand over the snack I received on the flight. I know I am neither a drug-smuggler nor a threat to Australia’s environment or people. I know it’s moronic but I can’t control it. The customs agents get annoyed with me, to say nothing of my lovely husband, who had this time given me strict instructions not be an idiot. I followed orders. I cleared customs with my giant suitcase, my sizeable carry-on bag, my bottle of duty-free French champagne and my huge overcoat that I didn’t need in Australia.
Thus laden I was about to leave the Border Security danger zone when, perhaps distracted by a sniffer dog – would he stop to sniff where my dog had piddled on my suitcase? – I fell over my feet. In arm-wheeling slow motion, I came crashing down onto my hands and knees. People stared as my many possessions went flying. The sniffer dog startled. Border Security regretted letting me slip through their fingers. And in all this commotion and the seemingly endless time it took me to stand up and gather myself about myself with dignity and grace, all I could think was “Oh my! Isn’t that wonderful?” I had landed in Sydney for cigarettes and by doing so had avoided making a terribly dramatic entrance into New Zealand and in front of my new, unknown family by making it in Australia instead. I had used up my clumsy quota for the whole trip before I had even met the family.
And best of all, the bottle of French champagne had remained intact. The Universe was conspiring with me to make sure the trip would hold much to celebrate. It did. And that is no small thing. The family that Ethel left in South Africa was so broken. They died like flies under a weight of suffering. One generation broke the next, and it the one after. I am the last Farrow. The end of the line but I am not broken. I am intact, if red-flagged by Australian customs. And it was with bubbly heart that I spent my 3 nights in crisp white sheets and huge, fluffy robe in Sydney before I retraced Ethel’s final steps to New Zealand.