It seems there should have been some warning, but I felt none. Events were already in motion. The group of predators sat, miles away, awaiting their prey. The luggage I had unpacked one hour before would tomorrow be tagged "unclaimed" and stay in storage, month after month. I was to become merely one more American to disappear in a foreign country.
It was a sweltering October morning. I stood looking down the drive of the Australian five-star hotel for an unknown courier. Contrary to receiving a warning, my heart was literally singing. I felt so good, so excited, so successful and prepared. Inwardly I sensed, "Today is my day."
A topless jeep pulled into the circular entrance. I remember hearing the tires hiss on the steaming pavement. A fine spray of water leaped over the bordering foliage of brilliant red bottlebrush to touch the rusty metal. The jeep stopped, and the driver, a thirty-year-old Aborigine, looked my way. "Come on," his black hand beckoned. He was looking for a blond American. I was expecting to be escorted to an Aboriginal tribal meeting. Under the censoring blue eyes and disapproving manner of the uniformed Aussie doorman, we mentally agreed to the match.
Even before I made the awkward struggle of high heels into the all-terrain vehicle, it was obvious I was overdressed. The young driver to my right wore shorts, a dingy white T-shirt, and sockless tennis shoes. I had assumed when they arranged transportation for the meeting, it would be a normal automobile, perhaps a Holden, the pride of Australia's car manufacturers. I never dreamed he would arrive in something wide open. Well, I would rather be overdressed than underdressed to attend ameeting--my award banquet.
My curiosity had not subsided from the moment I received the initial phone call, although when it came I couldn't say I was truly surprised. After all, I had received other civic recognitions, and this project had been a major success. Working with urban-dwelling, half-caste Aboriginal adults who had openly displayed suicidal attitudes, and accomplishing for them a sense of purpose and financial success, was bound to be noticed sooner or later. I was surprised; the tribe issuing the summons lived two thousand miles away, on the opposite coast of the continent, but I knew very little about any of the Aboriginal nations except the idle comments I heard occasionally. I didn't know if they were a close-knit race or if, like Native Americans, vastdifferences, including different languages, were common.
What I really wondered about was what I would receive: another wooden engraved plaque, to be sent back for storage in Kansas City, or perhaps simply a bouquet of flowers? No, not flowers, not in one-hundred-degree weather. That would be too cumbersome to take on the return flight. The driver had arrived promptly, as agreed, at twelve o'clock noon. So I knew, of course, I was in for a luncheon meeting. I wondered what in the world a native council would serve for our meal? I hoped it would not be a catered traditional Australian affair. Perhaps they would have a potluck buffet, and I could sample Aboriginal dishes for the first time. I was hoping to see a table laden with colorful casseroles.
This was going to be a wonderfully unique experience, and I was looking forward to a memorable day. The purse I carried, purchased for today, held a 35-mm camera and a small tape recorder. They hadn't said anything about microphones or spotlights or my giving a speech, but I was prepared anyway. One of my greatest assets was thinking ahead. After all, I was now fifty years old, had suffered enough embarrassment and disappointments in my life to have adopted plans for alternative courses. My friends remarked how self-sufficient I was. "Always has Plan B up her sleeve," I could hear them saying.
A highway road train (the Australian term for a truck pulling numerous full-sized trailers in convoy style) passed us heading in the opposite direction. They came bolting out of fuzzy heat waves, straight down the center of the pavement. I was shaken back from my memories when the driver jerked the steering wheel and we left the highway, headingdown a rugged dirt road, followed for miles by a fog of red dust. Somewhere, the two well-worn ruts disappeared, and I became aware there was no longer a road in front of us. We were zigzagging around bushes and jumping over the serrated, sandy desert. I tried to make conversation several times, but the noise of the open vehicle, the brush from the underside of the chassis, and the movement of my body up and down, made it impossible. It was necessary to hold my jaws tightly together to keep from biting my tongue. Obviously the driver had no interest in opening the portals of speech.
My head bounced as if my body were a child's cloth doll. I was getting hotter and hotter. My pantyhose felt like they were melted on my feet, but I was afraid to remove a shoe for fear it would bounce out into the expanse of copper-colored flatness surrounding us as far as the eye could see. I had no faith the mute driver would stop. Every time my sunglasses became filmed over I wiped them off with the hem of my slip. The movement of my arms let open the floodgate to a river of perspiration. I could feel my makeup dissolve and pictured the rosy tinge once painted on my cheeks now streaking as red trails down my neck. They would have to allow me twenty minutes to get myself back in order before the presentation. I would insist on it!
Four hours later, we pulled up to a corrugated tin structure. A small, smoldering fire burned outside, and two Aboriginal women stood up as we approached. They were both middle-aged, short, scantily clad, wearing warm smiles of welcome. One wore a headband that made her thick, curly black hair escape at strange angles. They both appeared slim and athletic, with round, full faces holding bright brown eyes. As I descended from the jeep, my chauffeur said, "By the way, I am the only one who speaks English. I will be your interpreter, your friend."
"Great!" I thought to myself. "I've spent seven hundred dollars on airfare, hotel room, and new clothes for this introduction to native Australians, and now I find out they can't even speak English, let alone recognize current fashions."
Well, I was here, so I might as well try to blend in, although in my heart I knew I could not.
The women spoke in blunt foreign sounds that did not seem like sentences, only single words. My interpreter turned to me and explained that permission to attend the meeting required I first be cleansed. I did
Marlo Morgan is a retired health-care professional. She lives in Lee Summit, Missouri. Her first novel, Mutant Message Down Under, was a New York Times bestseller for thirty-one weeks and was published in twenty-four countries.