Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Tomato Sandwiches

Yesterday I had a tomato sandwich. I could have had something else but I was afraid the tomato would spoil. The lunch reminded me of my first tomato sandwich, eaten on a pier in Darwin, Australia, 18 years ago.

I had been in Melbourne on assignment. I had read that Kakadu National Park was a great repository of aboriginal rock art and was determined get there. While still working, I happened to talk to someone who had a friend in Darwin who might possibly guide me into Kakadu. During short breaks, I made the phone calls and reservations to get me from Melbourne to Sydney to Cairns (with a brief stop in Brisbane) to Darwin.

So I made my way to Darwin and to the motel that the possible guide – whose name was John -- had recommended. I was just getting settled when he called, inviting me to join his family for a picnic on one of Darwin’s piers. What could be better?

We sat on the wooden pier, arranged ourselves around the picnic basket, and watched the antics of sea birds, fishermen and bungee jumpers. The picnic basket was opened and each of us was handed a tomato sandwich. I had never heard of tomato sandwiches. I thought tomatoes were what you put on other stuff in sandwiches. It turned out to be one of the great feasts of my life.

John and his family were wonderful hosts and guides. The next day John led me through Litchfield Park, telling the Aboriginal stories for every place and use for every plant. Then he arranged my two-day tour into Kakadu (at half price).

In those two days, I saw more kinds of birds and animals and plants than I had in all my previous years: bower birds, prehistoric trees, termite mounds, crocodiles, spoonbills, herons, ibis, water buffalo, pelicans, rainbow bee eaters, lizards, jabirus, lotus, egrets, storks, corellas, eagles, even odd frogs.

And I saw the amazing, millennia-old rock art. At Nourlangie Rock and Ubirr, I marveled at huge cliffs etched with depictions of history and myth and the right way to cook certain kinds of fish. At Ubirr’s Lookout Point, I looked out over a vista that so many others had seen for thousands of years. Woods and billabongs and vast plains. Some vistas velvet with scrub, others shimmering smooth, green and blue. And in the distance, another mesa, that was almost certainly another ancient Lookout Point.

When I returned to Darwin, I reconnected with John’s family before my long trip home. And I stayed connected with them. Hosting his daughters in Chicago and, years later, his widow when she visited Colorado.

I highly recommend tomato sandwiches.

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