To celebrate my 40th birthday, I traveled alone for a tour of Australia. On a starry night, I found myself in the Australian Outback as I trekked to a dinner under the exposed night sky where I knew no one. And I was scared to death.
The “Sounds of Silence” dinner was said to be a magical experience. Strangers young and old gathered to dine under the stars as the summer sun set on Uluru, the Aboriginal name given to the massive red rock formation in Australia’s Northern Territory.
A cocktail reception in the warm open air just before sunset started the evening as people from all walks of life came together. We drank whites and reds from some of Australia’s finest vineyards as the bright orange sun slowly dipped below the horizon. Its rays painting a striking red portrait across the surface of Uluru as the didgeridoo hummed in the background.
I spotted him across the way sipping on a glass of white wine, observing the crowd. His crisp white button down with rolled up sleeves and olive linen pants were a perfect pairing for the warm summer evening. His youthful look read: “All American.” He could have been from anywhere, but definitely appeared to be a few years younger than me. I noticed him for the first time when he boarded the shuttle bus for dinner. He was alone. So was I. I wanted to walk up and say hello, but my shyness deterred me. Among strangers, I shut down. I was 10,000 miles from home and everyone was a stranger. Yet, I knew I had an entire dinner ahead of me and if I didn’t say hello, the “Sounds of Silence” dinner would take on a new meaning.
After several glasses of Chardonnay, I was “relaxed.” I took a deep breath and walked over to him. “So I’m traveling alone and unless I’m wrong you are too,” I said.
He let out a chuckle and smiled. “Yes, I am. I’m Dan.” We shook hands and exchanged pleasantries. He lived in San Francisco and like me was touring Australia.
“So you’re traveling alone too?” I asked.
“No, I’m meeting friends in Sydney and Melbourne, but I had some time to kill so I thought I would check this out.” We talked more about our travels abroad. This was the first time in Australia for the both of us.
Soon the sun fully set and applause erupted. The cocktail hour was over, but the evening was just beginning. Dinner was next and friends who previously attended told me guests were seated randomly. Unless I made a new friend, dinner was going to be awkward as I sat alone with perfect strangers.
After a few pre-dinner announcements, our host added, “You may not know anyone else at your table, so it’s a great opportunity to make some new friends. Enjoy.”
Dan spoke up. “Do you want to sit together?”
“Yeah, that would be great,” I said. One of my biggest fears had been set aside, now I’d just have to conquer chatting with new strangers at our table.
We entered the dining area under the open sky. A sea of tables draped in white linen cloths dotted the desert. Lantern centerpieces flickered brightly with their white gas flames, our only light since the moon was absent that night. Dan and I continued to chat while we waited to be seated. He mentioned a failed relationship with a boyfriend, so I knew he was gay. I was too and we would discover we were not alone. Also seated at our table that evening were two gay couples from London and Germany. Apparently, the gay gods were looking out for me. The odd couple at the table was the straight newlyweds from Washington, DC, so blond and happy their names could have been “Barbie and Ken.”
We made introductions and “Ken” exclaimed, “This is so cool. Everybody at the table is gay.” We all laughed, but his joy was a great icebreaker and my tension eased. The Germans mostly kept to themselves that evening barely uttering a word, but a rousing conversation was had amongst the rest of us as we dined on Australian cuisine. The kangaroo reminded me of a chewy steak slightly overcooked, while the crocodile, well, tasted like chicken.
Once dinner ended, one by one, the table lanterns were extinguished. The only light to guide us now was the billions and billions of stars sprinkled across the southern hemisphere. I understood why the dinner was called, “The Sounds of Silence.” No one spoke a word. We stared in awe at the beauty of the Universe. From horizon to horizon, draped across a sea of black I saw nothing but twinkling stars in the night sky.
An astronomer began pointing out constellations not seen in North America and the Milky Way galaxy. The evening sky was so clear wisps of clouds could be seen in deep space some 40 million miles away. When the presentation ended, everyone milled about discussing the sheer magnificence of what we were witnessing. In that moment, I knew my fears were unfounded. I was striking up conversations with random people, excited to discuss the awe-inspiring night sky. Each stranger was friendlier than the next, each more excited about a view almost none of us had ever seen.
I lost Dan a few times that night as I wandered gazing up at the night sky. Once back in the States, we lost touch completely, but the heavens inspired me that night. I thought I was going to be a stranger in a strange land when I arrived to that dinner. As it turned out, we were all strangers. Yet, these strangers became friends, bonding over an incredible experience.
My greatest fear was my insecurity as I traveled across Australia alone. My greatest success; however, was conquering those fears and sending them hurdling into the depths of space, hopefully never to be seen again.