Sultana's Dream

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Sultana's Dream
September 2011

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Follow the Yellow Brick Road 

I had always planned to travel. In my youth I had spent countless hours planning every last detail of my trip.  I would eat, pray and love my way around Europe: visiting the great galleries of Paris; laughing nonchalantly as I strolled down the esplanade in Barcelona; cycling around the rolling hills in Tuscany. I wanted to see these things; to smell them, to feel them. I wanted to stand in front of the Mona Lisa and smile back at her.

But life got in the way of that dream. Married at 21, a mother at 23, divorced with two young children at 28.  My dreams gave way to play groups, scraped knees, school lunches and mortgage repayments. Life took priority and I silently filed away ‘travel the world’ under teenage whims along with ‘marry a prince’ and ‘live happily ever after’.

It was not until I was well into my fortieth year that the opportunity to travel presented itself and I finally felt confident enough to leave my two (relatively) responsible teenage boys for longer than a weekend. I had travelled within Australia on my own for conferences and work related activities but never for more than four days at a time. This time I was heading to a conference in Oxford and decided to extend my trip to Barcelona, Paris and Singapore.

My budget was tight so I spent hours trawling through Internet websites looking for cheap accommodation. A word to those who are thinking of doing the same - that quaint looking pension in Barcelona within walking distance of La Rambla is really a cockroach-infested, damp and dingy pantry-sized room right in the heart of the red light district.  And that charming little hotel with the romantic sounding name ‘just outside’ of Paris is actually a 30 minute metro ride to Montmartre and its ‘le jardin’ is a haphazard collection of plastic roses that have seen better days.

I dusted off my dreams (decided to re-shelve ‘marry a prince’ because that was never going to happen), packed my bags and headed out into the big bad world. I had wrestled dirty nappies, toilet-trained a temperamental two year old (twice in fact), survived a messy divorce and built a successful career as an academic. Ok it wasn’t exactly world changing stuff, but I had the kind of confidence that women of a certain age understand. It is a different kind of confidence than I had in my twenties or even my thirties. It is not the kind of bold, defiant, in-your-face confidence that often causes us to do irrational things (like getting married at 21) but a quiet confidence that comes with knowing that life’s challenges are just that – challenges.  They are meant to try us, not to break us.

I discovered I am not very good at travelling. I don’t mind the being there so much. It’s the getting there that I find tedious. After a gruelling 20-hour journey that included a ‘surprise’ 12-hour delay in Singapore, I finally arrived at Heathrow airport.  I collected my bags and proceeded to the bus station for the two-hour coach ride to Oxford.


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What on earth was I thinking? A forty-year-old Muslim woman traipsing around Europe on her own!  Had I imagined myself to be some kind of intrepid traveller? Did I really believe that just because I had conquered snotty noses, I could conquer the world?  “Turn around,” I told myself, “Turn right back around, get on a plane and back to Perth, to your home, to your family, to your children, to where you belong.” Suddenly that quiet confidence transformed from a re-assuring whisper to a desperate whimper.

It took every ounce of courage I had to put one foot in front of the other and get on the coach to Oxford that day.  I imagined myself as Dorothy, only older and with much better dress sense. I would follow my yellow brick road and collect travel treasures on my way. Who would I find along my journey - a lion in search of courage, a tin man looking for a heart? Hopefully not a scarecrow in need of a brain because I had already met too many of them!

I returned to Perth 21 days later, not much older but somewhat wiser. I discovered slow walkers are slow walkers wherever they are. I learnt that stolen money is not worth crying over; but seeing the Arc de Triomphe, the Sagrada Familia or sitting on the steps of the Sacre Coeur is so overwhelming it can make you weep. I found that happiness is everywhere, but so are sadness, poverty, indulgence and hypocrisy. Most of all, I discovered that it was the people I met on my yellow brick road that made my journey memorable: Lisa and Paul who found me crying at Singapore airport and stayed with me; Alfonso the doorman in Barcelona who insisted that I must be a ballet dancer; Christian the Irish tourist who escorted me to the police station when my bag was stolen; Antonio the Corsican who swims in the Barcelona sea; Sam the concierge who regaled me with tales of ‘a Muslim in Paris’; the four outrageous Iraqi women on the train to Calais who shared their food and a part of their lives with me for three hours; Garth and Siobhan the newlyweds who pointed out the sights of London and whose generosity to a total stranger renewed my faith in humanity; the four young German backpackers who let me be their mother duck; Rochelle and Les with whom I shared the adventure of a lifetime - a terrorist alert, a missed train, a hired car and my first real meal in Lille.

Through their eyes I found my lion’s heart and discovered the fearless within me.

By the way, I still have ‘happily ever after’ filed away somewhere. Maybe one day I will dust that one off too.


Anne Aly