“It felt like a firework,” it is the moment right before the sky illuminates with colors that don’t belong, the silence before the bang and the calm ache for simple wonders. Fireworks are freeing, the way they streak the sky - not knowing which direction they will take until they taste the open air. I sat on the mesh blue carpet in our room, as she explained it to me. This personified choice of leaving, which tugs inside of you unable to be ignored, demanding a presence. “There must be more, it told me…” Prior to leaving the country, she had only known one person who ventured into the “outside”. “There is no choice for girls who grow up where I did. You attend school and then build a family”, she explained, that because most of the media is censored by her government, she had little to no way of seeing the places she intended to travel to - only being able to build up her future through the eyes of a friend who had visited these places, strung together by her imagination and hopefulness. “He said, ‘you must go - you must see these things. They will disagree, it will be hard on your family, but it will be harder on you if you do not’. So I left…” That is when the fireworks began.
Our conversation took place about 3 months after she had made this decision. The hostel bunk in which she occupied had been her home during this time and throughout her stay she’d shared walls with backpackers from a multitude of different places, all heading in different directions. “Most come and go, just want sleep and no conversation. There are few who will ask about me or need to know where the toilet is…I mostly keep to myself, it’s easier that way”. To support her newfound self, she works as a waitress in a nearby restaurant, hoping to eventually save enough money to explore beyond Sydney. “I hear about the east coast from people who are starting or finishing, I will go one day”.
The backpacker route she was referring to stretches along the Australian coastline and has become popular for highlighting some of the country’s most famed destinations. Most people start in Sydney or just south in Melbourne, and through a series of buses and trains, ride up to Cairns, hopping on/off in the eclectic beach towns that dot the eastern shorelines. My plan was to do just this. I would stay in Sydney for about 5 days, then head north on a flexible 6-week trek that would allow me to stay/skip the towns my bus route ran through. This conversation found me on my 3rd day in Sydney Central.
Our exchange effortlessly rolled into my story. It felt weird to share my travels plans, as I knew I’d be falling into the same population my roommate had seen walk through the revolving door of our hostel, but I couldn’t help it. I found myself rambling on, stating the same spiel I had given over and over again to friends/family in the months leading up to my trip. About midway through my speech, I realized there was something different about this conversation, which set it apart from the 20ish times I had it previously. She was studying my every word, really piecing together a visual; it was calculated and reminded me of talking to a kid who’s discovering something for the first time. Then it occurred to me, we often walk through this world on autopilot, so accustom to the views from our sheltered routines. We take the words we share for granted, because they are just another one of the many forms of expression we have at our disposal. But what if the words from others were all that you had. Would we listen with more intent, take in all there is to take in? Would I have been able to get on a flight, as my roommate had, if I had only a slight idea of what would be waiting for me once I touched the ground again?
“It makes me sad sometimes that my family may never see the things I see,” she explained, and then shared that the last contact she had with her parents was informing them she had landed safely in Australia. Since then, she had tried to reach out, but because of their objection of her decision to leave, she had pretty much been cut off and was now considered a disgrace, “when it is hard, I talk to my friend who shares these places with me first, he shares the same feeling of fireworks that is in my heart”.
The lights in Sydney Central shine brightest between the hours of 7pm and midnight. It is when the streets truly come alive and offer a perspective different than that found in daylight. Although the heart of the city remains the same, the darkness gives it room to breathe in a way that, when the sun is still present, it cannot. Our hostel window sat about four floors up from a busy intersection, you would really only notice was there in the evening, when alternating red and green traffic signals spill into our room. “I want people like my family to know that on the outside they may not look the same, but on the inside, everyone has the same heart”. I sat back against the communal lockers, in complete awe of this stranger before me. In complete admiration of her for braving the world, as powerful as she had with the little she’d know of it, and furthermore, do so while carrying no support from those closest to her. It was not until I wrote this quote down in my journal a few days later that I realized the depth to which my roommate was speaking. When you strip away the societal expectations and preconceived ideologies, you create a space where it is possible to connect and ultimately realize, that we are all out here chasing the same feeling in our hearts anyway, sometimes you just need to stop and listen.
In the typical chaotic nature of living in a hostel, our conversation was abruptly cut off by another one of our suitemates, bursting through the door talking all too loud on her phone. After she hung up, she greeted us and asked if we knew what was going on in Darling Harbour that night. Although my jetlag was beginning to ware, I still had zero concept of time, let alone where I was on a map, so I shook my head confused.
“It’s Saturday night! They do a firework show out by the bridge in like 20 minutes, do you want to go?”