Go Now or Forever Hold Your Peace
Tampa, Florida, USA
I was wandering around the boatyards at the Port of Tampa, carrying an old 35mm Minolta camera and a card with some shapes and vague patterns drawn on it. This was my second year of college in nearby Temple Terrace, and I was working on a photography project. In art class we had been given the cards and the assignment to go out into the real world and find concrete representations of the abstract shapes that were drawn on them. It was a brilliantly sunny Florida afternoon as my girlfriend Julie and I looked for spirals, crescents, and cubes among the cargo ships, containers, and machinery of the industrial section of the port.
We noticed one ship with its gangway still extended and no one in sight. After a quick glance at each other and a short uphill sprint, we were on board, peering into the hatches, climbing to the bridge, and searching behind the lifeboats. Our exploration was soon interrupted by a friendly but unexpected voice in a heavy Australian accent, “Eh, how ya goin’?” “Um, just looking around, sorry, we’ll be going now,” I replied as I looked down the hatch at the spiral staircase that Julie had just descended. I had just snapped a picture of the staircase to match the spiral drawn on my card. “No worries, mate,” said the man who I would later learn was the first mate of the cargo ship that we had boarded. As Julie climbed back to the deck, I chatted with the first mate and the captain who had also walked over to say g’day.
Fifteen minutes later we were given one of the most exciting opportunities I have ever had. The ship was set to leave for Australia via the Panama Canal later that day. The crew was a little shorthanded and they had room for a couple more. Julie and I were invited to come along, the first mate would teach us whatever our jobs would be, and we would be provided room and board in exchange for our work. A free trip to Australia. All we had were the clothes we were wearing, my camera, and one roll of film. There would barely be time to find a pay phone and call our parents before we left.
Julie and I looked at each other, each hoping the other would make the decision. I glanced at the bow of the ship and thought of how, from the perspective of the water, it would almost match the trapezoid drawn on my card. After a short conversation in which we took turns arguing the pros and cons of the trip, we thanked the first mate, wished the captain smooth sailing, descended the gangway and waved goodbye from the quayside. It was a silent drive back to college, as we were both lost in our imaginations.
Turning down that trip was significant to me because it pointed out a limit in my own adventurousness. I – like many travelers, I’m sure – would like to think that I am only limited by the opportunities I have had thus far, that I am up for any journey and will never say no to an adventure, but the truth is there are some things that I am just not ready for. Leaving the continent with no time for preparation for a journey of several months is one. Adventure is calculated, the options are weighed, and a decision is made. Sometimes that decision is regretted but the true adventurer chooses his adventures wisely.
Just like the photography project, in life we are given a set of vague shapes and patterns. These represent our goals and ambitions. Travel is simply going out into the real world, trying to find shapes that correspond. Sometimes there is an exact match, like the spiral staircase. Sometimes it takes a bit of creativity and the shifting of reference, as with the bow of the ship. At other times it just does not fit. Such was the case with the offer to join the voyage to Australia. I had the vague ideas of adventure, freedom, and spontaneity in my mind, but what I found in the real world did not quite match what I had on my card.
I will visit Australia one day. It will almost assuredly cost more and be less unique than that trip would have been. But I will be ready for it. I will not be abandoning my car in an hourly space at the Port of Tampa. I will have at least one change of clothes and more than one roll of film. There will be a shape on my card that matches the adventure perfectly.