Archive | May, 2013
May 30, 2013

Being an American Around the Globe

“Its rather difficult traveling the world as an American, isn’t it?” our Australian host asked as we drove from the airport.  It startled me.  I’d been relieved when Obama took the White House; we were traveling in Asia and Europe at the time, and the political discussions under the Bush era had become tiresome. And embarrassing.  But difficult to travel as an American?  I’d never thought of it in those terms.

He asked the question because of the question I’d just asked him.  His two daughters, both grown now and also traveling the world, were born in the US to Australian parents.  “So they could have duel citizenship, then?” I asked.

“Yes, I guess they could. But they’ve never bothered. Just never saw a reason for it.”

I think it was the first time I’d ever encountered someone who didn’t see any benefit to US citizenship. My arrogant American self – the one I try so desperately to avoid – was stunned.

“Less controversy traveling as an Australian, I reckon,” I replied.

We both changed the subject.

I couldn’t shake the thought as we continued on our travels. I’ve not always been proud of my country’s actions, but I am proud to be an American.  When a cab driver in Adelaide – recently immigrated to Australia from Syria – showed me the Queen’s face on an Australian coin and asked if the US is also loyal to the Queen, like Australia, I couldn’t help but smile. “No. We waged a war over that one. And won.”  He seemed shocked.

We consider ourselves global nomads, but we are first Americans. I was reminded of this in Fiji once, when a young French woman – convinced that the US knew nothing of how the world really works – started a brisk discussion at our dinner table one night.  A smart young army officer also shared our table, and I had some sort of out-of-body experience, tag-teaming with him to defend our nation’s integrity, showcase our considerable achievements, and share a tutorial on the US / French relations dating back to WW II, a piece of history she seemed to have little knowledge of.  The beer flowed – and the politics were fiery – and I remember even being surprised by my veracity. Apparently she’d touched a nerve I didn’t even know existed — desecrating a country she later admitted she’d never visited — and I felt honor-bound to wave the flag.  She left the next day, so we never got to finish our discussion, but I took some childish pride in knowing she’d locked herself out of her bure that evening and had to break in through the outdoor shower to find her bed in the wee hours of the morning.

But I digress.

Australian Defence Force Memorial, Kings Park, Perth Australia

Australian Memorial to those lost in Iraq & Afghanistan

It was a couple of weeks later, still in Australia, that my friend’s words resonated again. We were wandering through King’s Park, a magnificent oasis in the middle of Perth, larger and more manicured than New York City’s Central Park, with spectacular vistas sweeping out across the city. It’s a working park, with kids playing, ladies sharing their wine and biscuits on the sweeping lawns, and meandering waterways and hiking trails and memorials.

The park’s memorials are its centerpiece.  The original memorial was built to honor the Australians who died during WW I, but as the conflicts around the globe continued, so did the memorials in the park. There’s a wall dedicated to Korea and Vietnam, and another section that honors Australian women who’ve served their country.

It was the shiny new addition, off to one corner, which stopped us in our tracks.  Emmi spotted it first.  “Look mom,” she whispered.  The granite was new and shiny, the brass lettering polished, and the flowers at its base still fresh. A hand-written note was stuck to the wall, ink still new and legible. There aren’t many names listed, but even those are too many. The memorial, honoring those fallen in Iraq and Afghanistan – conflicts for which no end date is noted, because none is yet known – is there because we called the shots, and we brought our friends with us.

In that moment, I heard my friend’s question again. In that moment, it didn’t feel so easy being an American, looking into the face of loss we’d brought upon our global neighbor.  In that moment, I was struck by all our power and our might and our force, yet wondered where in it all our integrity and our honor might still shine through.

Note on War Memorial, Perth Australia

Sentiments from around the World....when will it end?

 

May 25, 2013

Whale Sharks

Whale Shark, Ningaloo Reef, Australia

Whale Shark, Ningaloo Reef, Australia
Picture 1 of 16

“Great idea,” Owen (my 23 year old son who’s off doing his thing in the world) commented when we told him we wanted to swim with whale sharks.  “All of you in open waters, hundreds of feet deep, swimming with sharks larger than school buses. What could possibly go wrong?”  Truth is, Emmi and I wondered the same thing.  They are huge, and Emmi is pretty tiny, and I’m, well, not tiny, but still, they are really big. And they are, after all, sharks.

Austin and a whale shark, Ningaloo Reef, Australia

But it was Austin’s 16th birthday request, and so it was to be.  That’s the deal in our family. I adopted the idea from a client, back years ago when I had clients and my kids were still young, that on their 16th birthday, they could choose an adventure and I’d do it with them. There are rules and limitations of course, and it requires some mutual planning, but if it’s doable and within reason, that’s their big pay-out.

Austin was 12 when he learned about whale sharks and started planning.  Now, here we are, in remote western Australia, in a tiny outback town called Exmouth, the jumping off point for all things sharking on Ningaloo Reef.  Yep, that’s what they call it: sharking.

Exmouth itself is half the story. The town came into existence because the US military, during WW II, decided a refueling station was needed, and for reasons that aren’t entirely clear, selected this little outpost on a pristine reef as the perfect spot. They built a base, complete with a water tower (which was never used but was erected to make American soldiers feel more at home in the Outback), a bowling alley, and standard issue US military barracks. A tiny little town evolved to support the base, even establishing the point on the edge of town where cars moved from the left side of the road to the right in recognition of this American outpost.  Eventually, the US military abandoned the base – just shutting off the lights and walking away – leaving Exmouth to reinvent itself. The abandoned barracks became a traveler’s inn, and whale sharking and diving on the reef became the new source of revenue and prosperity.

We did what we came to do. We forked out the requisite small fortune and went sharking.

And I am here to tell you, it was worth every penny and every moment of trepidation.

It’s a funny dance, this sharking thing.  A plane flies overhead and spots the creatures, directing the boat captain to the vicinity. On signal, a group of ten “sharkers” jumps in the water and assembles itself into a pre-arranged order (which my group never seemed to fully grasp) and when done correctly, the whale shark comes swimming through the tunnel, almost like kids at the end of the soccer game running through the throngs of proud parents.  Unless the shark has other ideas. Then at the direction of the guide, the sharkers start swimming with the shark or around the shark or away from the shark, trying to stay with the amazing creature while also keeping the requisite distance – 3 meters from the body and 4 meters from the tail.

Trust me when I tell you that being any closer than four meters from that massive tail is something of a death wish.

Our first time in the water, it all worked just as planned. And I swear that massive, beautiful creature heard me mutter “holy f***king shit” when I saw him. We locked eyes as he swam by, as though to say, “yeah, I hear that all the time.”

Our next encounter, same drill. In the water, get in position, guide spots shark. But this time, the shark had other ideas. He took off swimming in the other direction, leaving us to catch up. This time, his swimming abilities and mine were not in the same league. Not even close.  The kids stayed right with him, but I was the forgotten bait, dragging up the rear. The kind and handsome guide in the dinghy took pity on me and towed me back to the group.

I was determined that would not happen again.

Two more encounters, each time same drill, and each time, “holy f***king shit” when I saw the shark. I couldn’t help it. There are no words to describe these magnificent creatures.  I’ve snorkeled the Great Barrier reef and seen some amazing things. I’ve been in a cage encircled by feeding sharks. I’ve had the privilege to swim with dolphins. None of it compares.

They are massive, yes, and they are beautiful, with unique patterns of spots all over their huge bodies. But it’s more than that. They swim with a grace and a power that is almost spiritual. They lock eyes with you, lazily open their massive mouths (easily 3 – 4 feet wide) and strain the krill from the water, then silently move on.

It’s magic.  And we were there to see it.

Oh, I did have one more encounter with the handsome dinghy captain, after swimming with one of the sharks I was a bit slow getting back to the boat. Once again, he came to the rescue, this time hauling me into the dinghy and giving me a lift. Trust me when I say there’s nothing ladylike about being hauled into a dinghy, but I didn’t care. I’d just been swimming with whale sharks.

 

(Photos courtesy of Three Islands, the magnificent outfitter we spent the day with. Luke, our photographer, was stellar.  The other cool creatures pictured — including turtle, reef shark and octopus — were spotted during our morning snorkel before heading out to the outer reef.)

 

 

May 25, 2013

Perth — A Vibe and an Attitude that Fits

We wandered into Perth for a couple of days on our way up to Ningaloo reef. We hadn’t loved Adelaide, where we’d spent one night before flying on to Perth. While the surrounding areas – Kangaroo Island, the wine regions, and Hahndorf were wonderful – the city left us cold and ready to move on. Our hostel (the YHA in Adelaide Central), a cool bar table/pit at the pub where we had dinner, and the new airport were our only highlights from the 24 hours, a sure sign a city won’t be on our come-again-soon (or ever) list. By the time we got to Perth, we were jaded, fearing another let-down.

Silly to be so worried.  In its little corner of Western Australia, this smart, can-do city delivers on the charm, adventure and simple pleasures that make Australia one of our favorite destinations.

Melbourne brags about being the best of the best of Australia (which, by the way, it’s not really, in our opinion, but would be pretty darn cool if it quit bragging so much.)  Darwin is the entry point to the Outback – or so it seems – and revels in its too-cool-for-school rough and tumble self sufficiency. Cairns and Queensland have the Great Barrier Reef (enough said).  Sydney has that iconic Opera House, a harbor with ferry tale boats that bob around taking folks to and from work, the globe’s best New Year’s Eve fireworks (above one of the world’s coolest bridges) and world famous surf spots; to paraphrase Bill Bryson, no wonder those folks are so damn happy all the time.

And Western Australia? It sits over there on the other coast, some several thousand miles from the rest of the country, just doing its own thing.  We get it now. Why would they want to share the secret?

We did what we always do in a new place. We walk. We eat. We explore. In those first three or four hours after dropping our bags, we introduce ourselves, get to know each other.

It was the simple stuff that spoke to us.  The artsy, playful street scene in the downtown walking area, for example.  It’s not that we’ve not seen it in other cities – street musicians, playful fountains, acrobats doing various routines for a crowd – but here, it felt normal, like part of the vibe.

Take the random fountain. A young mom embraced it with her two children, allowing her toddler to run, dodge, jump and try to outwit the spurting water that shot up unexpectedly from the sidewalk.  The little girl squealed and giggled, and mom encouraged her, praising her bravery, even joining in and darting between the spurts with her stroller to get in on the action. And when the little girl was finished, drenched and happy, mom popped in the department store and bought dry clothes so her daughter could change before continuing on. Other parents with other strollers followed her lead, and soon the fountain was filled with giggling, happy pre-schoolers.  And the department store readied for the after-party. All this on an otherwise random Wednesday afternoon.

In Kings Park, two women sat with their perfectly outfitted folding table and chairs, their picnic basket, their glasses, their biscuits and their bottle of wine, chatting and nibbling and enjoying the afternoon.  All in the middle of the green lawns between the memorials where people walked and snoozed and caught up on their reading. And somehow, it looked perfectly at home, this tea party setting in the middle of the park. I choose to believe these two kindred souls meet there weekly, and the stories they share are honor-bound to those grounds, never to be spoken of outside that sacred spot.

The café scene is all it’s cracked up to be, with cool, hip spots on every corner, and coffee a religion as though spun off of the grounds shipped over from Seattle. Even public transportation is in on the action:  free buses carve a pattern through the main areas of the city – totally free! – so locals can get to and from without drama. When we hopped on, clueless, the bus driver and several passengers took time to help us map our route, made sure we got off at the right spots, and even made suggestions of things not to miss.

When planning long-term travel, you get it right some of the time, and other times, you realize you fumbled.  Perth is the jumping off point for the vast wilderness wonderland that stretches up the western coast and on to Broome, the Kimberlys and eventually into Darwin.  I routed us through Perth for a quick stop-over before flying up to Exmouth for our Ningaloo Reef and whale shark adventures, not understanding that in this part of the world, getting there really is half the fun.  We’ve already decided, next time through Australia, we’re setting aside a month to drive, explore, meander and get to know the place.

And of course, we’ll start that journey in Perth, where we, too, will dance in the street fountains and share secrets at a tea party right in the middle of the park.

Perth Australia Bus Sign

 

 

May 24, 2013

Walkabout

The Aboriginal culture uses the term Walkabout to describe a journey of unforeseen destination and adventure in an effort to find one’s soul.  It’s a journey of unknowns –  destination, duration, and discovery. You go, then one day, you return. And in that time, it is believed, you find what you’ve been seeking.

Ningaloo Coast, Western Australia

Sitting in a campervan park in remote Western Australia, looking out over the vast red earth that stretches past the horizon, I get it.  What’s out there, beyond the last visible scrubby tree? As the sun sets, the reds and oranges and pinks stretch across the sky in technicolor, a prelude to the carpet of stars that soon fill the darkness.  What might be discovered if one ventures just a bit further, beyond the horizon and into the Outback?

Seems maybe there’s a reason our vagabonding keeps bringing us here.  We started our adventures in Australia, several years ago, and now seem to be drawn back again and again. This time, we’ve wandered through Southern Australia – Adelaide, Barossa wine region, and Kangaroo Island – and now on to  Western Australia, first Perth then north, to outposts it seems even many Australians seem only to have heard about but never visited.

We came seeking whale sharks.  We’d heard about them one starry night sitting on the Sydney Sundancer back in 2009, after yet another glorious day snorkeling the waters of the Whitsunday Islands (Cross link to that post.)   As our friends and hosts told tales of Western Australia – it’s rugged, outback terrain, and the stunning coastlines that stretch for miles – we knew we’d one day see that corner of their country.  When they told us about the whale sharks – gentle giants larger than school buses that swim near the surface – Austin knew what he wanted for his 16th birthday.

He never forgot.  For the following several years, he researched and studied and followed the patterns of these amazing creatures.  He knew where in the world they could be viewed; apparently one can also swim with them in Baja, but it’s less reliable to have a siting there he told me.  I think it was a ploy to get us back to Australia, but I didn’t mind. I wanted to return to this mosaic of a land as well.

Much has happened in our lives since sitting on that sailboat, bobbing around the Whitsundays

Exmouth, Western Australia, Vlamingh Lighthouse

Vlamingh Lighthouse

.  On that journey, we were just beginning our roadschool adventures, not sure how we’d do it or even what it really meant. Four years later, we’re still trekking around the world, roacshooling along the way, a Walkabout of our own, I guess.

As happens in travel – and in life, too, I guess – we plan less now than when we started out on these adventures.  We leave more to chance. We follow our whims and our instincts.  We’ve embraced hostels and campervans and rental apartments in the sketchier parts of town. We’re still learning to spend less and enjoy more.

Our family has changed too. We are older now. The kids, primary and middle schoolers when we started, are now teenagers with their own ideas and plans and dreams.  I’m older too, and keep the Advil bottle a bit closer for those days when the joints remind me of my age.  It’s just the three of us on the road these days. Sometimes families take different turns and course corrections as well.

It’s our Walkabout, our discovery, our adventure. Sometimes it’s hard, not knowing what’s around the next bend, where life might take us.  But it’s harder, I think, to be still and dormant and stuck, and know exactly what’s ahead day after day after day. And so we wander.

Tomorrow, we swim with whalesharks. We make a 16th birthday wish come true.  Then after that?  We leave that to the Walkabout.

 

 

 

May 16, 2013

The Power of Less — A Book, but also a Lifestyle?

There’s a little independent book shop in Sydney we love.  It’s in the Rocks, and we happened upon it our first time to Australia, when everything seemed so exotic and foreign and new.   It was our first year roadschooling, and Emmi discovered the magic of literature from that store. Those few books, Australian classics but new to us, still sit prominently on our shelves at home, a bit worn, tattered and loved.

Ariel’s Books, I believe it’s called. We can never remember the name, but we know exactly where it is, and always seem to make our way there on our first day in town. Small, quirky and decidedly independent, it somehow always manages to surprise and inspire us. This time was no exception.

“The Power of Less.” It spoke to me from the table in front, one of those hard cover self-help books that, for me, are like the gossip mags by the check-out in the supermarket.  I flip through them as I wait, never thinking I’ll actually buy one, nor really want to be caught reading it. But still, I’m curious, and it’s there, so I thumb through it.  But this one, I can’t put down.

“I’ve read it, and it’s actually quite good,” the proprietor says as she straightens another table.  She’s been there every time we’ve come.  Maybe the owner, she’s the one who first recommended the classics for Emmi back several years ago. She doesn’t remember us, and I’ve never drawn the connection. We always chat, and I always like her.  “It’s mostly stuff we know of course, but it makes so much sense, and is so well written.”

“Really?” I ask.  “I’m reading the part about managing emails and technology, the black hole of my existence,”  I tell her. I’m a compulsive email checker, and feel the need to respond to each and every one, then file it away somewhere.  But I hate it. My gut clenches every time there’s one from a needy client, from a business I quit loving years ago but just recently had the courage to walk away from. Or from others where distance is just better.  It’s all fear-driven, I realize, and I hate it. But still, I do it.  And somehow, this little book seems to have a few good tips that might help shift the tide.  God knows it’s time.

The proprietor and I continue to chat. Turns out she’s a writer as well, so we swap grammar and writer and funny wording stories.  She tells me about a medical piece she’s currently editing, something about women’s health, where the writer continues to write “sanity napkins,” despite the editor’s corrections.  We both laugh.  “Sanity napkins. How I could’ve used those,” I remark.

I’m too cheap to drop $25 for a hard-cover self-help book, so after too long thumbing without buying, I return it to the pile.  Emmi and Austin, likewise, haven’t found a must-have, so we wander on, without a prized purchase from our favorite store.

But I can’t stop thinking about that book, and our conversation.  The e-book version is much cheaper – only $10 – and it adds no weight to my already too heavy pack. I buy it.

She’s right of course. It’s all stuff we all know already. Time management, priorities, focus, etc, but somehow, this time it’s resonating.  I committed to one habit change – just as the book recommends – and am held accountable by my kids. (In case you don’t have kids and so don’t understand this, there is no tougher prison-master than an empowered off-spring waiting to catch you in the act.) I promised to check email no more than three times/day, and to process the in-box to empty each time.

So far, it’s been working.  The fact that we’re now in rural, isolated Australia with only one wifi spot in town makes the commitment a bit easier, but still, I take credit for change.

But like all tech junkies, I find work-arounds.  I have an international data plan, and periodically, the cell signal is just strong enough to set up a hotspot.  And of course, I can always pull mail on my phone. I just try to limit it to three times/day.  And again, so far it has worked. And I’ve felt really, really good about it.

Until today, when I slipped mightily off the wagon.

“Don’t do email first thing in the morning,” is one of the #1 rules to the book. “Use that time for your priorities, the things that are important to your personal success,” it counsels. I’ve been doing that everyday, getting up and writing – some of my best work I think – leaving emails for late morning.

Until today. For reasons passing all understanding, I picked up the phone off the nightstand (checking the time I said), and before I could stop myself, I downloaded the emails, “just to see what’s there.”  The sun wasn’t even peaking over the horizon, and I was cuddled under the blankets fingering my phone like a meth addict with a new score.  And just like the familiar villians in a made-for-TV-movie, they were all there: a couple of needy clients still wanting a bit more of me, attachments that couldn’t be opened because the signal wasn’t quite strong enough, along with an assortment of other meddlesome, time-sucking things demanding my attention.

The sun is now beating down on the ocean out my window, and I’m still consumed by these messages.  (I’ve tried to open the attachments four times as I’ve written this piece).  I’ve got a raging headache; I’ve used a huge chunk of my monthly data allotment trying to retrieve info that doesn’t want to be retrieved, and my morning productivity has been shot to hell.

And I still can’t open the damned attachments.

We fall off the wagon, I know. And if we can, we get back up and try again, hopefully a bit wiser from the fall. As for me today, I’ve finally turned the phone off, and once this piece is written, I plan to curl up under the blankets again, take some Advil for the headache, and finish reading the book. Or maybe I’ll start from the beginning again, just to be sure I really get the concept.

Oh, and I’ve already made plans to have dinner at the little café with free wifi. I’ll open the attachments then. Surely they can wait that long. Question is, can I?

 

May 12, 2013

WE’RE BACK! (Sometimes life gets in the way)

“There seems to be something about Australia,” Emmi opined as she saw the most recent blog post.  She’s right. We started this project on our first adventure down-under, and while we’ve since logged a lot of miles around the globe, my blogging consistency hasn’t been quite so robust.

That’s life, I think. We start down a path, but sometimes, unexpected turns shift and alter our course. Ours has been an adventure of discovery since that first voyage.  We’ve traveled some 300,000 miles (at least that’s what TripIt tells me), through almost 50 countries, and (perhaps a freaky weird highlight of some sort), even managed to hit three Disney parks (California, Florida and France) in one year.

But our greatest adventures have been those of self-discovery and growth.  I’ve watched my two children grown into healthy, vibrant, curious teenagers, and am grateful that, at least for the moment, they still tolerate me enough to explore the world with me.   We’re still road schooling, one school year at a time, and I’m thrilled at their intellectual maturity and curiosity. Our schedule isn’t as rigid as it once was — pajama days are frequent — and their educational interests have taken original and personalized courses.  Austin is the maturing writer in the family, and Emmi the budding artist.  While neither lists science at the top of their list, their knowledge of botany, biology and how-the-world-works astonishes me daily.  And we still manage to maintain a good course load of all the basics — math, grammar, literature, and the Iike.  Oh, and for those worried about these things, others report with relief that the kids are remarkably well socialized and manage just fine in a crowd of people, including folks of all ages, backgrounds, ethnicities and experiences.

They say the way to make God laugh is to tell him your plans.  I never meant for this blog to sit dormant for so long, but life got in the way. God giggled, but I think it’s okay. I’m back at the keyboard. We are out on the road. The world of educational reform and discovery is greater than ever, and we’ve got some great stories to tell.  Thanks for sticking with us.