Group of people drinking coconuts under a bungalow
11 Nov

Homeward bound - the final chapter

Day four of our cruise saw the sun rising as we docked in Noumea. (if you haven’t read the previous instalments, make sure to read them first here and here).

We spent the day a-shore in Noumea visiting local markets, travelling on local buses around the city, eating at fabulous beachside French restaurants and swimming out to a pontoon crammed with local youths attempting daring back flips. The local markets sold everything from locally made jewellery, hats and t-shirts to shiny fake souvenirs with embossed bikini clad figurines on top (top-selling item). The markets accepted local currency with some of the more established stalls taking Australian dollars. A few of the Chillies had a big spend in them and a crisis loomed when one of our young men tried to purchase an authentic gold bracelet for $32 but could only muster $20 in cash. After combing the waterfront for ATM’s that accepted his card the deal was done before the market closed down in preparation for the afternoon storms. We spent the evening back on ship sharing stories of using some of the French language we had practised (bonjour), and the showing each other the treasures of the markets.

An overnight sail from Noumea and we awoke moored several hundred metres from Mystery Island, off the coast of Vanuatu. Copying a George Costanza line from Seinfeld, Michael said to the lifeguards, l’océan est en colère aujourd’hui, mes amis (the ocean is angry today my friends!)

Mystery Island…

A small uninhabited island approximately 1500 metres long and 200 metres wide surrounded by stunning snorkelling reefs. The island is covered in palm trees, market stalls and themed ‘head-hunter’ podiums celebrating the island’s cannibal past. The dual assault of being met by a local in full pirate costume on the jetty combined with other passengers posing for photos in a giant papier mâché cooking pot unsettled a few of the troops but once the snorkelling gear came out and we hit the water it was magic.

The group broke up into sub-groups, some went in search of deeper reefs, some went exploring the island, others had their hair braided (Michael) while some strolled looking for shells on the beach. Mystery Island was magic in many ways, day 5 and the group seemed to relax away from the familiar comforts of home and also in each other’s company. Friendship groups had gelled even more in recent days with wonderful conversations, dinner groups and even signs of a bourgeoning ship board romance (what goes on tour, stays on tour).

The last three days of the cruise back to Sydney were the highlight of the cruise. Fresh from his success winning Sexiest Man Alive earlier in the cruise, Damien had been working on a stand-up comedy routine with mentor and actor Zac.  With his full routine ready to go he and room-mate Lachlan decided to hold a cabin party with the comedy routine as the party sweetener. It was like a scene from a Marx Brothers movie with so many bodies and mayhem in one small cabin. James returned for the 5th time to the robot bar (looks like a scene from the Jetsons with a bionic bar tender) where he ordered his own creation, a layered mocktail he called an aqua-tonic-A blast.  With his mentor lurking behind a palm tree poised to step in if needed, James drank his multi-coloured creation with absolute delight.

Independence soars

The mentor support faded substantially on the last few days as the independence and confidence of the group soared. Mentors were reporting responses such as We’ll see you at the show, no need to come by our cabins or I’ve taken down my personal plan from the bathroom, doing it myself and I’ve done my clothes sorting already – dirty clothes are in the laundry bag.   On the final morning at sea, one Chillie said can we do breakfast solo?like two of us just have breakfast at our own table? We said sure, great. Across the restaurant we would spy on mentor-less groups of two and three ordering their a-la-carte breakfasts, chatting to the wait staff, it was all very independent and posh. Nathan and Nick looked very pleased with themselves when they scored a window seat in the restaurant on their own. That was until an earnest waiter decided they looked lonely and ushered an elderly couple to join them at their table! We could only look on from a distance, but I would have loved to hear the boys using their Chill skills to the max!  Another chillie exclaimed at his table OMG I haven’t given any staff compliments for the whole trip!  Calling a waiter over, he said, you are very well groomed and an excellent waiter.   Doing a thumbs up and a wink to his mentor, he had ticked his final chill skill!

The afternoon of our last day I received a call from Julia, our Croatian cruise manager.  She exclaimed Helen, I have 3 gentlemen at the sales counter wishing to book their next cruise.  

As I approached the sales centre, 3 chillies, with credit cards poised were in agreeance that the 10-day cruise out of the Bahamas was a sure-fire winner!

The mentors were looking tired but so happy with the achievements, the connections and fun that everyone has experienced.  Mentors (not carers) on the cruise and all Chill programs, are fellow travellers who provide social modelling just by being themselves.  There is no therapy or intervention more powerful than authentic friendship.

Our final night at sea

On our final night at sea I organised awards to celebrate the achievements of the group. On the top deck looking out over the pacific at dusk it was time to come together and reflect on what has been an amazing journey. Awards for given for Best Group Conversation Skills, Initiating Conversation at Dinner, Best Formal Dress, Best growth in Independent Self-Care, Most Organised Chillie, Most Improved Listening Skills, Best Dance Moves, Best Time Management and more.

When we got home to Brisbane,  one parent exclaimed  He won’t stop talking about it.  He has grown 3 foot taller.  They are all on whatsapp still chatting about the best and funniest part of the cruise!

At the family debrief 3 weeks later the chillies got up one by one and explained different elements of the trip; the shows, the food, the cabin party, the snorkelling.   As they spoke with confidence to their fellow chillies and families, I saw the joy in parent’s eyes.  There was so much laughter and tears as the families felt the incredible camaraderie amongst the group.  It was really something.

Straight after the trip one Mum sent this to me…

Sometimes you have hopes and dreams for your children, you want to believe that they can happen but realistically you are aware of the challenges they face. For Lachie I wanted him to be able to travel, see parts of the world, and through the process become more self-sufficient but knew this was not possible as a family and also not possible for Lachie to achieve independently. You have given him this opportunity to not only experience travel but also to do it in a social group where he is understood and accepted. Thank you does not seem enough to say, to see Lachie in those photos looking happy and confident, it was nice for a change to have tears of joy. I’m very sure this all happened due to many hours of preparation and planning and I am very grateful for your efforts. This social event will no doubt have lasting impact on Lachie and how he moves out into the real world of everyday, he has gained new skills, new friends and confidence to take away from this journey and to build on in the future. Unfortunately, due to our circumstances we could not take these journeys as a family and I sometimes feel Lachie misses out because of this, so when I say thank you, I mean it from the heart. I hope Lachie has the opportunity again in the future to join a Chill vacation, this has been an adventure he will not forget and will always treasure as will I. Thank you for all your support and friendship to Lachie on the maiden Chill Ahoy 2019 cruise.
Kris McDonald, Parent

For me Chill Ahoy was a complete success.  Extraordinary connections were formed, chillies’ social and independent living skills were soaring, we had no gastro, no sea sickness, no accidents and thank god the smorgasbords were over!  That is until the Next Chill Ahoy!

Helen Whelan
Code Blue For Autism / Chill Program

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