Perched at the north entrance of Sydney’s harbor sits Quarantine Station. For more than 150 years, she tried to contain the infectious illnesses of the outside world. Spanish Influenza, smallpox, and the bubonic plague were among the contagions that the Quarantine Station held back, to protect the people of Sydney.
Imagine that you have been on a long journey, across the world and perhaps in search of a new life. Just as Sydney begins to come into view, the ship is stopped; a doctor comes on board to inspect the crew and passengers, and decides that you must be placed in quarantine before you can reach your destination.
All of your belongings are taken from you, and inserted into a giant autoclave. You are escorted into a group showering facility and forced to take a germ-killing carbolic acid shower. Perhaps you don’t speak English and the entire experience is disorienting and frightening.
Today, Sydney’s Quarantine Station, or Q Station, is said to be haunted* and offers ghost tours. By all accounts, this is a place with a long history of fear, sickness, and misery. Which is why this photo, which is hanging in the Quarantine Station’s museum, stood out to me.
These people were among the 320 passengers and crewmembers on the steamship Aorangi from Vancouver in January of 1935. The Aorangi was ordered into quarantine because of a crewmember with smallpox; the customary period of quarantine for smallpox is 14 days.
I know I get grumpy if my flight is delayed for a few hours, but the Aorangi passengers and crew were a happy bunch. While they found the fumigation process and weekly doctor’s checks “unpleasant,” they were generally pretty pleased about the experience. After they had been given a carbolic bath and had had their clothes disinfected they were left to go about as they pleased. They had sing-alongs. They made up new songs:
‘Oh to be in quarantine,
Now that summer’s here,
Phoning up your friends at work,
Sending out for beer.
Bathe by day and bridge by night,
Life of endless play.
Oh to be in quarantine
Banking up your pay.’
Aorangi, 1935. Quarantined by smallpox
Mr. A. Du Cros, a retired director of the Dunlop Rubber Co. Ltd., England, told the Mercury newspaper that, “the experience was worth having once.” Let’s think about this for a moment. Mr. A Du Cros said that quarantine was an experience worth having once. People use the same language in reference to trips to Paris or Disneyland. These people had a really good time.
So, how did this happen? How did this experience go from one of unhappiness to one of joy? I have a theory that there was one person who flipped the switch for everyone else. I am a little bit in love with this person. I think someone decided to make the most of the situation and just have a grand old time in quarantine. Someone who said, “Hey, guys, let’s make up songs and build a human pyramid at the beach.”
And think of the ripple that he or she created. More than 80 years later, we’re looking at them and wondering what they were smiling about.
This, my friends, is the golden ticket. This is the little truth nugget of this story. I tell my kids, and myself, and anyone else who will listen, that our lives are the stories we tell ourselves. Unlucky or lucky. Victim or survivor. Misery of joy. And we have to keep telling our story, over and over again, day after day, challenge after challenge, until it is sewn into the fabric of our soul. And then? I don’t know, but I suppose we tell it again.
We are all here for a limited time. But, hey, we’re in this together and the sun is shining. Might as well have a beach party.
* Evidence of ghosts at Quarantine Station includes unexplained smells of lemons and potatoes. My own home experiences smells far more sinister than that. I suspect ghosts.