Vacation is synonymous with relaxation - the whole goal is to take a break from normal life, to sit back, enjoy time without work, deadlines, demands. So it should be no surprise that being on a once in a lifetime adventure would engender calmness and delight; that was, after all, the point.
And yet what I noticed most, about three days into our tip, was that a burden had begun to lift - a burden I hadn't known I was carrying.
I had awoken from a nightmare - but no, that's not quite right.
I was in a three week dream. Because the life we live here, so close to Washington, D.C. - the life I had to come back to - is our waking reality, and anything else is a brief moment of bliss.
I had many conversations with other travelers and with Australian and New Zealand citizens, and inevitably I found a sense from them of pride in their home countries and utter shock at my own. On our bus tour to Hobbiton and the Waitomo glow worm caves, our driver spoke at length about the national values of New Zealand - equality, transparency, fairness. I couldn't help but notice the contrast to my country's current values - oppression, occlusion, and I've-got-mine.
One woman - freshly washed in the warm waters of the Great Barrier Reef - told me that she was afraid to come to the U.S., that on her last visit she had witnessed violence and racial epithets shouted in the streets. She told me that, even so, when she vacationed in Japan right before the 2016 election she assured her hosts that Americans couldn't, wouldn't be so stupid as to elect our current monster in chief. She faced them on that Wednesday, shame-faced and betrayed.
A young woman on the train to Kuranda, a mountain village home to an artists' commune, discussed with me the inequity and insanity in America as well as the encroaching xenophobia in her homeland, the United Kingdom. I found in her the same worries that I had felt as Donald Trump stumped in speeches glorifying himself, whiteness, maleness, hatred, violence - and yet when she spoke of Scotland she was so proud of its beauty and kindness and liberalism. She had hope.
Having that burden lifted from my shoulders - feeling the muscles relax, feeling safe, feeling clean air in my lungs - was such an incredible gift. And it alerted me to the pain we are all in, every day, here in this broken homeland. I've seen and heard such ugliness and such bitterness, and it repulses me, and yet it has almost become a white noise, a soundtrack, the heartbeat of our every day lives.
My husband and I went to see a movie in Canberra, and for the first time in years, I didn't consider what I would do if someone pulled out a gun and started shooting. If you roll your eyes, here, at what sounds like hyperbole, only remember that my fear is based in events which have already occurred. Which are on their way to being forgotten, as there have been so many others.
I'm not saying, in any way, that Australia and New Zealand are perfect. Indeed, they have their own histories of atrocities - in Canberra, I saw an exhibit of portraits of Aboriginal Australians with disabilities, many of those caused or exacerbated or flat out ignored by their government. Their stories were reminders of injustice and documentation of their dignity. And in New Zealand, I learned that the native Maori were almost wiped out by white colonizers. None of this is surprising to any American with sense - it is always the people of color who suffer. This is what we do, we who occupy. We are cruel.
And cruelty is the theme, here - it is our bread, it is our wine, it is the American sacrament.
Our president is cruel, as are his advisers. Our congress is cruel, as are so many of our citizens. We live in a world of state sanctioned executions, persecution, and enslavement through our justice and prison systems. And we live with this, every day, and we wonder why everything hurts all the time.
And we continue.
The refrain I hear from friends and family is this - why, why is no one doing anything? Why can't this be stopped? What nonsense are we expected to accept, and why do we accept it? No answer is adequate. And lets be honest - I live in a pretty cushy bubble of whiteness - most of what is wrong with this country is not going to happen to me or to my family. Yes, if things continue, I may well be royally screwed - mentally and chronically ill, queer, female - but for now I pass as the "great" Donald Trump is talking about. I look in the mirror and I know damned well that I have the face of the oppressor.
And I have a responsibility, too. Because silence is another form of cruelty.
Having just come back from a part of the world where my dread need not exist, and having observed injustice there, and having found a few selfish breaths of calm, I have an obligation to return to my home and speak up. It is uncomfortable, I think, for many people, because we have accepted this white noise of hatred for so long - after all, the current political situation began not a few years ago but a few hundred years ago. I have encountered push-back from people I love when I stubbornly stick to my values, when I insist again and again that we must examine the shaky foundation upon which this country is built. It is an ugly mirror to gaze into, especially for women like me - white, educated, liberal. It requires so much work; it requires deprogramming.
I wish everyone had the resources and will to take a vacation like I did, because the mirror there is clearer. Broadening our horizons, I think, is the key to a deeper understanding of what our world should be. Most people aren't lucky enough to get that opportunity. I hope that we learn, if we cannot leave, to listen to the voices which are so often silenced. There is incredible value in putting aside our pride, being quiet, and actively listening. When we see statues torn down we must ask ourselves why and seek from those taking action their reason. When we see protesters in the streets we must, if we cannot yet join, silence our own voices and attend to those who demand to be heard. And when we feel in ourselves a move, a shift, a deepening of compassion, perhaps then we can have a voice to speak to others like us who have not yet gazed in their mirrors.
I had a wonderful trip. I drank far too much ginger beer, ate far too much gelato, and got a bit of a sunburn. I visited five cities, stayed in seven different hotel rooms, and I took about a million pictures, and I kissed my husband on the other side of the planet. And along with all of that joy I came back with a pain in that hollow place below my heart. It aches, still. It feels like the first time I fell in love, ten years old, too young and wondering if there was any hope.
I've got to keep putting in the work - listening as hard as I can, developing my compassion, speaking my truth even if others aren't ready to hear it. I hope I can share some of that process with you, even when I falter, even when I fail. I can't bring Australia here, nor New Zealand, nor the calm dream state of a better world. But I can be honest.
And God knows our country needs a little honesty right now.