Two Backpacks

Mount Bromo

Prologue - Two years and still together!

     Ron and I have been together for two years. We met through an Australian online dating site in 2007, and from the moment we met, there was a spark, a tingle of excitement, one that has lasted to this day. (You can read about my adventures and how I landed on Australia’s shore in my memoir, No More Cups of Tea.)

     Born in Glasgow in 1951, Ron grew up in a city that continually struggled with a hatred between Catholics and Protestants, a rivalry that could flare up at any time (and still does!). Back then, companies run by Catholics refused to employ Protestants and vice versa. Even now, it’s common when meeting someone for the first time to be asked – ‘So which foot do you kick with?’ – If they answer ‘left,’ the person is indicating they’re Catholic. Just for the record, Ron kicks with his right.

     Growing up in this challenging environment meant Ron knew how to look after himself. It was only through his tales of Glasgow’s Saturday night clashes that I became aware of how volatile the city had been.

     Every year, the County Grand Lodge of Scotland organises the Orange March to commemorate the 1690 Battle of the Boyne, a Protestant parade of thousands marking the conflict between James II, Catholic, and the Protestant William III. William had overthrown James II as king of England in 1688 and turned the tide in James’s attempt to regain the British crown.

     On one such march in July 2018, a Catholic priest, Canon Tom White, was spat on outside St Alphonsus church, the culprit was arrested and charged with assault. Annual marches are now routed away from Catholic churches. Should a march pass in front of a church, music has to cease and march participants remain silent.

     The most notable rivalry between Protestants and Catholics these days is ‘The Old Firm’ football matches, played between Glasgow Rangers, the Protestant team and Celtic Football Club, the Catholic side. It’s a brave man or woman who’s prepared to be an away supporter at one of these matches, supposing you can get a ticket!

     In his early twenties, Ron sailed from Southampton to South Africa, where he worked for two years, in an assortment of manual jobs, before returning home to Scotland. Unable to settle, he set off around Europe for a year before again returning home. He left for Australia in 1982, arriving in Victoria before settling in Perth, Western Australia.

     When we first met, Ron had plans to travel again, this time with his mate from work. Their plan was to journey from Australia overland to Scotland by motorbike, with a few oceans to negotiate along the way. Neither man was a mechanic, and Ron had never even ridden a motorbike. Ron’s plans for his motorbike trip home didn’t come to fruition, but it didn’t stop us from talking about the possibility of travelling together one day.

    And that was our connection. I wanted to travel again, too.


     On 24th September 2008, I celebrated my sixtieth birthday. It was a small affair with my close friend Shirley, her husband Bernie and their son Shaun, plus my golfing buddy, Sandy. My son Andrew, was also on hand to help me celebrate having arrived in Perth for a visit only to remain indefinitely. Shirley and her family had helped me through some difficult times when my former boyfriend, Jak, decided our relationship was at an end.

     As a surprise, my daughter, Rebecca, flew from New Zealand, where she and her partner were living. The shock of seeing her standing on my doorstep when I opened the front door left me speechless for a moment or two; something that very rarely happens! The party that followed was great fun, the only dampener being the absence of my youngest daughter, Claire, who was back in the UK. However, we did manage a Skype call to her.

     Having turned sixty, I became eligible for my UK pension, a regular income to bolster my savings. It meant that if I wanted to, I could retire. I’d acquired a job as a data clerk with Emoleum, a road surfacing company in Perth when my visa had been approved. Over the two years working there I learned the techniques for laying bitumen, the aggregate used and the terminology for the equipment that followed the crews around Western Australia.

     At the time of my sixtieth birthday, I was running the Spray Seal department, overseeing three teams of men, totalling thirty in number. The job was tough, the men tougher and, being a woman in a man’s environment, I had to be able to stand up for myself.

      Road surfacing crews followed the good weather; from Broom and the Gibb River Road in the north through the months of November to February, storms permitting, down to the wheatbelt of Western Australia from March to September. It was a 24/7 job, finding accommodation, ensuring equipment and products were in the right place at the right time.

     The thought of no more work, of being a lady of leisure, had its attraction, but after such a busy work life, I wasn’t sure I could handle doing nothing all day!

     Ron had suffered a workplace injury just before we met and couldn’t perform the manual work necessary as part of the workforce building the Perth to Mandura railway. On doctor’s orders, he could only carry out light duties, his daily routine a morning visit to the gym for physio work, lunch in the canteen with his mates and then office work for the remainder of the day.

     One evening in October, we watched a television travel programme about South America.

     ‘That’s where I want to go,’ I exclaimed as a shot of Iguazu Falls appeared on the screen.

     ‘Then why don’t we?’ suggested Ron. ‘There’s nothing to stop us, now you’re a pensioner!’ he exclaimed with a grin.

     ‘Oy! Enough of the old stuff! But do you mean it? You’d come with me?’

     ‘Well, we did okay when we went to Phuket on holiday last August, didn’t we?

     In August 2008, (a year into our relationship) Ron and I went on holiday to Phuket. We’d arrived at Phuket airport for our flight home to Perth only to find the airport approach road closed, with barricades erected and guarded by PAD (Peoples Alliance for Democracy) demonstrators or Yellow Shirts as they were known.

     The Yellow Shirts, were opposed to Mr Thaksin Shinawatra, and it was the Yellow Shirts who were behind protests in 2006 that had finally led to a military coup. The opposing faction – the Red Shirts – supported Mr. Thaksin Shinawatra and were mainly rural workers from outside Bangkok but also included students, left-wing activists and some business people. Clashes and demonstrations between these two parties had been ongoing since 2006.

     I remembered the harrowing experience, the fear as we’d been surrounded by protesters when the taxi driver had refused to go any farther and turfed us out at the demonstrators’ barrier on the airport road. We’d made our way along the six-foot-high perimeter fence, hoping to find an unguarded gate. Instead, we’d found an area where someone had placed a blanket over the barbed wire on top of the fence; people were scrambling over it into the airport grounds.

      ‘What do you think?’ Ron asked. ‘Should we follow them?’

     ‘It might be safer in the airport building,’ I reasoned. ‘If we find our check-in desk and present for the flight, then the airline might help us,’ I reasoned.

     The crowd numbers had been swelling since our arrival. (We later read that there were ten thousand demonstrators at the height of the protest.)

     We needed get into the airport grounds.

     ‘C’mon, Sandi. We’ve got no other option. We need to get to the airport building.’

     Ron passed our suitcase (we only had the one) over to a man on the other side of the fence, then pushed me upward, his hands on my bottom. I gripped the top strand of barbed wire, now covered by a blanket, hooked my legs over and dropped to the ground on the other side. Ron followed me, grabbed our suitcase, and we ran towards the airport building.

     The departure lounge ran the length of the building. Pushing open the glass door, we were met with a scene of chaos as people shoved and jostled their way towards the line of check-in counters at the back of the building. Somewhere, a voice blared out over the loud-speaker system, first in Thai and then English, advising that protesters had blocked the runway and that no flights could arrive or leave.

     ‘Let’s find Jetstar’s offices,’ Ron suggested as we made our way through the crowded departure hall. ‘I think I saw a sign pointing to the first floor,’ he added, guiding me towards the stairway.

     Upstairs, the office was crowded with anxious passengers eager for information.

      ‘Please! Please calm down!’ insisted one of the airline’s staff, a thin, harassed Thai man whose white shirt showed damp underarm patches as he frantically tried to calm the gathering crowd. ‘If you’ll just quieten down, I can update you on what we know.’

     Gradually, the large, overcrowded room fell silent. Somewhere, a child began to cry.

      ‘We don’t have much information at the moment,’ began the young man. ‘All I can tell you is that the airport is closed and there are no flights in or out. Please remain calm while we try to find out what’s going on. We are also trying to find accommodation for everyone, once it is safe to leave the airport.’

     The sound of people running through the building was followed by the sound of breaking glass. Screams rang out from the crowd gathered in the departure hall below and we could hear shouting as scuffles broke out.

     ‘Stay here! Don’t leave our offices!’ yelled the young man, as a look of terror crossed his face.

     ‘Are they in the airport?’ asked a stranger to my right.

     I clutched Ron’s hand, terrified by what was happening around us. I could tell by the tension in his shoulders that he was just as worried about our situation.

      We had no idea what was happening below. Fear began to creep through the crowd. Were we safe? Would the protestors we’d seen outside soon be at our door?

      ‘We’ll be okay,’ whispered Ron, as he wrapped his arm protectively around my shoulder. ‘Just be ready,’ he added.

     ‘Ready for what?’ I replied, tension causing my voice to crack.

     ‘I don’t know, but I don’t like what’s going on. Stay close.’

     Over the next hour, the noise from the departure hall began to abate. Somewhere behind the counter that divided passengers from staff, a phone rang. 

      A few minutes later, the same young man reappeared. ‘It’s over!’ he exclaimed. ‘The army has arrived. Please remain where you are; there are still some protestors in the building. Wait for further information,’ he instructed.

     We left the airport later that evening. The airline found us hotel accommodation until the airport reopened and flights began again.

     ‘It was some end to our holiday, wasn’t it?’ Ron smiled. ‘We had an extra two days in Phuket courtesy of Jetstar, and the hotel was pretty good! We got through that, didn’t we?’

      It was the first time we’d had to rely on each other to get through trying times and I was sure it wouldn’t be the last.