This is the conclusion to the start of this story.
There is not a more powerful thing to echo inside the ears of a poor traveler than the siren song of free food. With that, I allowed her to push me into the waiting shuttle bus.
The bonfire towered in the distance. A daunting column of orange with flames licking the setting sun. The silhouettes of youthful bodies, toned by hiking and surfing, jerked and swayed, backlit by the glow of the fire. I moved tentatively toward the tribal scene, convinced I was about to be scalped and made into a teepee. Just as I was about to turn around, someone grabbed my hand and pulled me in the direction of the heat. Before I could protest I had fallen into the pulsing group of strangers. The girl who had taken my hand yelled above the din, “Take your shirt off, mate!” I looked around and noticed everyone in various states of undress. Bathing suits, bras, underwear. I strained to recall the morning, before I had boarded a plane bound for this unkempt place, to remember what undergarments I had thrown on. If my memory drew beige, I was keeping everything on. I peeked under my neckline and saw I’d worn black. This is fun, I breathed, before slipping my shirt over my head.
The next couple of hours were a blur of dancing in the midst of crackling branches and spiraling smoke. I was introduced to people from the ends of the earth, all strangers before this night but united in wanderlust and diminishing bank accounts. We shared – but mostly I listened to – stories about the quirks of life Down Under with the kind of easy cadence reserved for intimates. The conversation turned in the inevitable way it does among backpackers to the next stop on the trail. The casual way with which these rootless souls tossed out locations like Bali or Jakarta or Singapore as though they were their grandmother’s house made my skin itch at the thought of returning home. Going back to the Midwest, back to Pre-Med, back to the loaded question, “Was it fun?”
Before I had to face the shame of revealing that I would no longer be galavanting around the world to the swarm of globetrotters, a booming noise rang out over our heads. Our eyes darted in unison toward the direction of the sound. A man, cloaked by the shadows cast by the fire, called out, “It’s time for The Game!”
You could tell by the way he said it that ‘The Game’ was capitalized. It was a thing that carried lore and probably fallen contenders. He continued on, his words traveling through the smoke and flames like errant embers, to describe a swimming competition. A tradition among the backpackers who traveled to Darwin. The idea was to coerce as many hostel guests as possible into swimming out to a deep point in the sea until we all had to race back to the sand, scramble on to the shore, and attempt to seize a prized T-shirt on the beach. The first to nab the T-shirt won his stay at the hostel for no charge.
I looked around at the faces of my new comrades. Some had a visible glint of excitement in their eyes while others held that I’m-too-drunk-to-even-walk glaze. But every one of us, me included, stared out at the ocean blackened by nightfall. Now I’d seen Jaws enough times by this point in my life to know that bad things happen to those who swim at night. I stood up and started to brush the sand off my still unclothed thighs, expecting my tribe of half-naked travelers to join me.
They did not.
They were trotting down to the water’s edge. I turned toward the idle shuttle bus and began to walk toward it when a voice yelled, “C’mon! This is fun!” I stopped dead in my tracks. The F word again. I pivoted to stare at the person goading me. I threw the clothes that were still in my hand into a heap on the sand.
I lined my toes up against the lapping water. Goosebumps staked claim to my body despite the balmy summer air. I looked out across the black sheen of the ocean, my mind drifting to what could lie beneath. The foam swirled around my ankles as I started into the surf. The hooting of the others had ceased, giving way to an eery quiet as everyone waded into the shallows of an ocean few had ever before touched. I slid under the water, allowing it to rush over my shoulders and head, before I broke the surface and began swimming to the invisible junction of black sky and blacker sea. With each stroke, I felt as though I was dredging a spoon through pea soup. The water was warmer than that of any ocean I’d ever been immersed in. It felt murky and thick and filled with sediment. I put my head down and continued to put one arm in front of the other when my torso was bumped by something on my right.
I gasped for air and flailed my arms, struggling to regain my bearings in the dark while staring wide-eyed into the abyss beneath me. Laughter rang out, and I realized with enormous relief that I had collided with someone – a human – in the dark.
The swimmers formed an uneven starting line and we awaited our signal, each of us silently treading water and fixing our gaze on the beacon of the bonfire in the distance. When we heard our bell, we all lurched forward, swimming with as much heart and energy as our underfed, under-rested bodies could manage. Every several strokes I had to raise my head to relocate the bonfire, my lighthouse ablaze, and recalibrate my direction. The churn of the water and the kicking of feet propelled me through the water, until I felt the grit of the sand graze my fingertips. I rose to my feet, water streaming from my hair and body, and began to run. I could feel the presence of other bodies but my fight-or-flight impulse had taken grip and I had lost control of my senses. I could only run. Toward the fire. Toward the T-shirt. Toward fun.
The sand flew under my feet as my eyes scanned in vain for the T-shirt. I saw it at the exact moment I felt someone overtake me. I hurled my body through the dark, arms stretched, through the night air. I hit the ground, fingers encircling the T-shirt, as a heap of other racers landed in a pile around me.
We all lay there for awhile in the sand, chests heaving and eyes unblinking, unable to do or say anything. And then I started to laugh. I laughed until tears sprang out of my eyes. I laughed until everyone else began to laugh also. We laughed with abandon until the mysterious man who had organized the race crouched before me.
“Now that was fun!” He said, staring into my eyes.
“Yes,” I panted. “That was fun.”
And it was.
I stayed an extra couple of nights in that hostel because I could and because it was free. And because I needed a couple of nights to recover from a conversation the next morning with a Darwin elder who told me that the ocean teems with crocodiles and that only a crazy person would swim in it.
Or a fun person.