Koalas with chlamydia

A teenage girl learns about her mother and Australia during a summer holiday.

Published September 24, 1997 1:47PM (EDT)

No one my age really knows anything about Australia. It's not like
Italy where you know about the art, or China where you know how big the
population is, or Greece where you know about democracy. Your knowledge of Australia basically stops at kangaroos, boomerangs and "'Crocodile' Dundee."

I found out I'd be visiting Australia only a week before our trip,
so I had little time to research it. My mom bought a little Australian
guidebook, and a couple days before we departed she read that the
number of koalas is decreasing because of their high rate of chlamydia. I
arrived in Australia categorizing it as the place where koalas have

A holiday is a great way of testing your feelings for your mother
because there is no escaping her. Unless you have the money to pay for
your own flight home, you're stuck with her 100 percent of the time.
However well you think you know your mother, however many years you've
lived in the same house, you don't know her until you've experienced a
holiday together.

As soon as we landed at the Australian airport, my mother and I
walked through customs. "Are you carrying any drugs in your baggage?" the
customs officer asked. I, in a sarcastic mood, answered him, "Yes. Is
there a problem?" He took it with a grain of salt and let us move on. But
my mother warned me not to do it again. There could be serious

There are two things about my mom that became transparent during our
first day in Brisbane: her honesty and her realism. Now when you first hear
those words they sound good, and with my mom it is mainly good, but there
is a part of those qualities that isn't. There is a part that destroys my

As we strolled lazily for the fifth time down Arthur Street I
noticed a tall, Twiggy-like girl. "I want legs like that," I told my mom.

"Do you?"

"Of course, Mom. How can I get legs like that?"

"Caitlin, you could never have legs like that, ever."


"You're not built like that."

"So I can never have legs like [my friend] Odie's?"


I felt like I was surviving a shot in my brain. It wasn't that I
didn't already know -- it was that I never thought of anyone else knowing. My heart knew. I had told my heart. But I hadn't told my brain. My mom told my

After a few days in Brisbane, we were picked up by our host, Bob,
and driven three hours to his home in the country. We stopped at a market
in a small hick town. All the guys had tattoos of naked mermaids. The
posters on the wall read: "I don't need a dog. I already have my bitch";
"I'm the boss of this house. Just ask my wife"; "Avoid hangovers. Keep
drunk"; and "This house is protected by a dog with AIDS." I felt
completely out of place. I began to have doubts about this trip. I stayed
close to my mom.

We then stopped at a town, Maleny, that I was much happier with.
It was small but hip, and Bob and I shared our first bonding experience at
the "Up-Front Cafe" when we discovered we were both vegetarians. After that
we watched kangaroos and wallabies hop about and then made our way up the
dirt road to his house. Bob's wife, Vanessa, greeted us and showed us to
our rooms. Over the course of the week my mother and I discovered what a salvation it
was to have separate rooms, but how nice it was to be next door.

There is something about being with my mom that makes me feel
placed. I could be at the top of a coconut tree in Jamaica and somehow feel
settled. It's a feeling of acceptance. Alone I'd have to find and wind my
way through things, but with my mom I know I'm OK. Not necessarily safe, but

The next morning we drove down to the stables on the wrong side of
the road in a beat up, dusty car. There were 90 horses, but something was
wrong. They all shared a strong resemblance to Kate Moss. When Bob pointed to
the horse I should ride, I was afraid it couldn't hold a person. I did
eventually hop on when I saw everyone else in their saddles, but I felt
bad for the horse.

After I got comfortable with my horse, Bob said, "Well, we're going
to go for a bit of a run up this hill." I gave my horse the slightest
squeeze and it took off. We galloped around sharp turns at incredible
speeds. When I figured we would stop we only went faster. We dodged and
ducked vines that hung over the trails. We must've gone a mile at top speed. The horses would go as close as they could to each
other, trying to pass, loving every moment.

When we eventually stopped I realized there was a grin glued to my
face and as sophisticated as I tried to be the grin would not leave. I
noticed my mother had it too. And as many times as Bob had done this ride,
he also had the grin. And I realized my horse was nothing like Kate Moss.
My analogy was completely wrong. She was like ... Mary Decker.

My mother became completely obsessed with taking pictures. She'd
trot ahead of the gang to get photos of us all grouped together. One
afternoon seven of us were galloping over a rocky field, each horse not
more than an inch from the next. Just my luck, after my horse Lexia hopped over a log, she landed in a hole and fell over. I blanked for a second. When I opened my eyes I saw Lexia tossing back and forth. I was sure she'd
roll onto me but fortunately she got to her feet and pranced away.
I, on the other hand, lay holding my throbbing head, afraid it might burst and
everything might spill out.

Everyone was completely nice but I kept having to say, "No, I'm
not dead" and "Yes, I can hear you." They weren't really helping. What
I needed was a 5-foot-9-inch woman with shoulder-length brown hair who was
born in South Africa, majored in social work and happened to give birth to
me. Luckily she appeared and knew immediately that I wanted a glass of
water. After that I was fine.

Most of our rides were a lot quieter. Except for the laughing
kookaburras in the trees the rides were pretty much silent. Sometimes I forget that it's all right not to talk. There was so much new to look at and it was a pleasure just enjoying being on the horses.

One thing I definitely respect and appreciate about my mother is
her willingness to accept who I am and stick up for me. At dinner one
night Bob told us that his granddaughter's kindergarten teacher didn't
like her because she talked too much. I could easily relate. Some adults I
know complain that I was a pain in the ass when I was younger because I'd
shout out things they thought were offensive. But my mom always tells me,
"You were a wonderful little kid. Social, into life and people."
Remembering what my mom said, I reassured Bob: "Don't worry, your
granddaughter will be extraordinary."

Incidentally, on the way home, departing from Australia, a custom
officer asked me and my mom if we had any drugs. "No," my mom said, "but we
have a bomb."

By Caitlin Talbot

Caitlin Talbot is a freshman at a San Francisco high school.

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