Bright Red, Phthalo Blue and Phthalo Green. An artist dutifully pulled bold strokes with these colours, completing the painting before throwing soap water onto his canvas. Johnson’s No More Tears tells mothers that the product is gentle, safe and mild for their babies’ developing skin and eyes. He then exited the room. The world now no longer ferocious, became out of focus. Colours ran from their destiny and intertwined with one another as bubbles made colonies dispersed throughout different spaces and different layers on the canvas. This cotton-candied mess caused by a calculated kind of carelessness, is how I imagined each morning began while eyelids fluttered and breathing remained slow. This was what it was like to wake up to mornings at the Whitsunday Islands.
‘I’ve never been to a “Caucasian” island’, Natalie said.
Paradise is sold to us on an Instagram screen, with subliminal hashtags that invoke wonder and exoticism. This Bali villa you need to experience, Langkawi the getaway you’ve never heard of, a beach that is not Phuket for your own private full-moon party. As ‘otherness’ itself, someone from one such lauded tropical wonderland, I worried I was too close to reality to see the Whitsundays for its own brand of beauty.
Natalie is the first friend I ever made in Australia. At the boarding school we both attended, we had designated rooms that would change every two semesters. I loved how Natalie’s rooms were always cosy but tastefully decorated regardless of room configurations, as you’d expect from an artist. The photos of her friends she stuck on mounting board always looked the perfect mix of cool and genuine, the sketches her dad drew for her, a testament to the artistic blood that ran deep in her family. She had his pieces in her room as well. Months after our first conversation, I walked past her room as her ringtone echoed down the hallway. It was Justin Timberlake’s ‘Rock Your Body’. If you were to ask me when I knew Natalie and I would be lifelong friends, this is the memory that comes to mind.
Throughout our four-night trip, we spent the accumulation of an entire day travelling on ferries and one ocean raft, moving from island to main land to island. Each location owned their own charm, yet we experienced the same loosening in your limbs and the same abandonment in your ligaments as soon as first light hits the blue and green. At The Great Barrier Reef, we dived into waters, surfaced for air and dried our bodies in the heat of the sun before doing it all over again. The salty air and the even saltier water matted our hair as snorkel masks left tell-tale ring marks, giving us inverted panda eyes.
My favourite part, lunch, often left the skin around my fingernails crusty with the remnants of prawn juice and the tang of marinated mussels. Every inch of me had been consumed by the variety of sensations born beneath the ocean. On this first day, we spent it all on a giant pontoon in woop woop of the sea. And we saw Nemo.
When I first moved to Australia, I was thrown into ‘Place’, the first module for Year 11 Advanced English. Except I didn’t know ‘Place’, I knew addresses. I knew, to a limited extent, South East Asian geography. But it wasn’t a knowledge gap that I faced, it was an emotional one. Being unable to articulate or feel space, felt like a very apparent disability that hung over my head like Damocles’ sword. I came to Natalie for advice one night and she told me about her family rooster, about Thai folklore and about the life she led across the border from Malaysia. In my ears, I heard the low growl of a pestle and mortar grinding fresh curry paste, the steady hum of the car she attempts to drive through unforgiving Bangkok traffic and the soundtrack she sings of unconditional love and devotion for her whole family. I fell asleep and while my assignment remained incomplete, my conscience was better for it.
We visited Whitehaven on our third day where the theme of desolation continued. But it wasn’t the endless blue this time, it was the sand everywhere that made me feel like we were survivors. Not the by-product of a shipwreck but hand plucked by God from where we had come from and dropped onto this vast nothingness, where we are now. Whitehaven sand slips through fingers like a silk scarf and is cold like the cheek of a vampire. From the bushes on the highest point of the island down to its white gold, it was only through witnessing this all first hand that one could truly understand the thinking that this was the most beautiful space in the world. Further on, someone’s speakers blasted Total Eclipse of the Heart and the national dance of Australia, drunkenly swaying left, left, right with a stubbie-clothed beer bottle, accompanies the music that plays on.
We had Thai food on our last night, a stone’s throw from our hotel but also the only Thai restaurant in the area. I was eating what could have been the most expensive, mediocre seafood salad I’ve ever had as Nat inhaled something with a fried egg on top. It was a meal made for us to return to familiarity as fish sauce and chilli dripped like golden nectar down our throats. To take us back, not to Soi Sukhumvit 5, but to Pitt Street, Boon Café and Do Dee Pai Dang.
I love bodies of water. I love the way water transmits sensations that seemingly pass through your body. The way your skin turns translucent once submerged under the sea then set fire by the light of the sun. The Whitsundays is not my address, but this was someplace else.
Stayed at: Peppers Airlie Beach
Ate at: Hemingway’s