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August 3, 2013

On Re-Entry . . . Back in the USA

I made coffee this morning. A whole friggin’ pot.
It’s hot; it’s strong, and I’m completely caffeinated.
I’m not sitting in a Parisian cafe with a tiny little espresso cup.
I didn’t make it in that crazy gravity-defying-espresso-pot that required YouTube tutorials to use.
I’m not stirring it with a tiny little spoon reminiscent of tiny little spoons from Florida parties in the 1980s.
I’m drinking it black from a huge mug that says Bald Head Island, plucked from a cabinet of mugs from other uniquely American destinations.
I just refilled the mug. For the third time.

It’s loud. Everything and everybody is loud.
The Jetson-bus that transports passengers from the plane to the terminal at Washington Dulles was loud. (And for the love of god, can they not dig a tunnel and connect the airport like every other airport and get rid of those ridiculous buses that last seemed cool in 1983?)
The immigration line was loud. And long and slow, but I was tired, so maybe it was just like every other immigration line.

People are oddly friendly. Well, maybe.
The line at Hertz Gold was long (and loud) but not as long as the regular line at Hertz. Those poor souls are still there.
The woman smiled as she assumed I wanted all their extra insurance and rolled her eyes when I declined, then smiled again as she assumed I wanted to get a larger car for $7/day more and rolled her eyes and sighed when I didn’t.
The woman who let us through the gate after confirming I was, in fact, licensed to drive a car in the USA asked “How you doin’ today?” and Emmi was reminded immediately of our Versailles host, who’d opined that the question always seemed nosey to her. We laughed, answered her — our official American Welcome Wagon — and told her to have a great weekend.

The highways are huge and loud and the cars are huge and loud and for a moment I thought I’d forgotten how to drive on these roads. But like riding a bike, for better or worse, I remembered.

Our iphones work without roaming and we can pull email and use the apps and text and call and check Facebook without incurring a national debt.

Netflix works. Enough said.

There’s a washer and dryer that make sense to us, and a refrigerator larger than some Parisian apartments, and ice in every glass.

We speak exactly one language between the three of us. Everyone here speaks that exact same language.

It’s our flag flying around the monuments and on top of buildings and in the parks.

We are home.

And with my mug refilled (for the 4th time, now), I’m looking at fares and options and miles and figuring out how early in June we should return next year so we can actually see and do all the things we want to see and do in Paris before my writing month begins and we do it all over again.

May 24, 2013


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 10, 2013

Why DOES the Kangaroo Cross the Road?

There’s a fine line between adventure and stupid – my mantra when traveling. And particularly so when traveling alone with the kids. Yet somehow, no matter how hard I try, I all too often find myself teetering there, wondering how the hell I managed to do it again.

Such was the case driving back to Penneshaw from far western Kangaroo Island tonight.  We’d known it would be a long day, taking the southern highway to the far end of the island to see the Remarkable Rocks.  “They’re indeed remarkable,” our friend and local host promised.  “You’ll surely remark,” he snarked.

Kangaroo, Kangaroo Island Australia

Kangaroos should not be hood ornaments

Of course, he also advised against driving all the way out there, recommending instead that we take one of the coach tours.  Our aversion to bus tours, however – except in Iceland where they do them brilliantly – sent that suggestion whistling in the breeze.

The rocks were, indeed, remarkable, a moon like landscape perched by the sea, eroded by hundreds of years of wind and waves.  As, too, were the seal colonies we visited, the koalas stoned on eucalyptus hanging on to the tippy top branches of massive trees, and the sand dunes that stretched for miles along the coast.

“Driving all the way back to Penneshaw tonight?” the park ranger asked as we headed into Flinders Chase National Park.  “Be careful. Drive slow. You have no idea how many creatures there are on the highway at night.”  We’d heard the warning before, and nodded dutifully, then sped off down the track towards the rocks.

It came out of nowhere. That’s what they always say, but now we know why.  It really did come from nowhere, a blur of furriness as it dashed in front then under the car.  Thu-thump.  The wallaby’s eyes were still looking back at us as its little body was flung to the far side of the road, lifeless.

Yikes.  And it’s not even dark yet. And that was a cute little wallaby, not a 6 foot tall, couple hundred pound kangaroo.

I’ve driven through oceans of fog; I’ve driven on fuel fumes through the back roads of Maine in the middle of the night; I’ve driven through mud tracks under the moonlight in Mississippi soybean fields, having sneaked out after curfew and worrying that I’d be caught. But never have I driven as I did tonight.  160 kilometers of inky black roads and Australian bush. My toes cramped; my thighs ached; my lower back screamed, and my eyes darted constantly left to right, right to left, then straight, repeatedly, until they ached too. And all of this on the wrong side of the road, as though it mattered, given only us and the creatures wandered the night.

Quickly proficient at spotting the wallabies, we weaved, bobbed and braked through their midst. They seemed almost suicidal, waiting in the brush until our lights were upon them, then darting across the road in front of us. There’s an entire island here they can roam, and only three roads. Do they have to claim the roads too?  Apparently, they do.  Our favorite, an albino wallaby, shot across in front of us just a few kilometers out of the park.  “Albino ones are really rare,” Austin shared from the back seat. “Well then, glad we didn’t kill that one,” Emmi and I replied in unison.

It was the kangaroos that were most daunting.  They say the kangaroos are bigger and burlier on Kangaroo Island than throughout the rest of the country. While no experts on the subject, Emmi and I can attest that the ones lumbering along the road, gathering in groups as though plotting our demise, were the biggest we’ve ever seen.

Yeah, I know. Kangaroos are cute and funny, hopping and carrying their joey in the pouch. They aren’t scary, right?  That’s what I thought, too. Until tonight.

Remarkable Rocks, Kangaroo Island, Australia

Hanging out at the Remarkable Rocks, Kangaroo Island Australia

Just as we’d settled into the 60km/hr pace, daring to pick up a bit of speed on the longer stretches, a massive ‘roo stood us down, right in the center of the road.  The bright lights illuminated his muscular frame, his eyes staring straight at us. Emmi and I both gasped loudly, and I think she yelled something. All I could absorb were its eyes, staring at me and owning the road. They say the car lights blind them momentarily – which I’m sure must be true – but to me, we’d locked eyes and were in a face off.  And the kangaroo was winning.

I swerved hard right (the blessing of an open road), then back again, barely correcting before careening off the other side.  The menacing ‘roo stood in place, watching, then with a snail’s urgency, hopped off to the left, seemingly irritated we’d cost him his coveted spot in the middle of the road.  Our road, I wanted to remind him.

Finally breathing again, we took our place on the wrong side of the road, resumed our plodding 60 km/hr pace, and continued the trek. It was still dark; I still ached; and Emmi still stood guard from the co-pilot’s seat.

Then there were the mice.  Tiny, quick little buggahs, these guys also darted across the road in the beam of our lights.  They deserved it, I reasoned.  No braking or swerving for them.

Half way home, we’d settled into some sort of rhythm.  My toes cramped and back ached and Emmi stared at the road pointing out every possible creature as well as the inevitable bush-a-roo that seemed so daunting in the night shadows.  It wasn’t fun, per se, but it was our rhythm.

Then she saw something else. I saw it too. Small, furry, and sauntering about the middle of the road, seeming dazed and confused.  “Holy crap!  It’s a koala!” she yelled. It seemed vaguely aware of our imminent arrival, but completely unphased. Koalas live on eucalyptus, which is a mind-altering substance of sorts, so truth be known they spend their entire lives totally stoned.  It wasn’t surprising it just wandered. I slowed to a crawl. He took a couple more twirls in the middle of the road, and eventually sauntered off towards the bush. “A koala!” she yelled again. “I can’t believe we saw a koala in the middle of the road!”

Austin, seemingly mostly oblivious to our front seat piloting since the albino wallaby, piped up. “It was a possum.”  Then he was quiet again, almost as though he had not spoken at all.

“We’re in the front seat, and it was a koala,” I declared.  I’m the mom. I get to make declarations like that. Particularly when my toes are cramping, my bright lights can’t possibly be bright enough, and there’s 75 kilometers more of black road in front of us. A koala siting was what we needed to get us home.

Austin quieted back down again, seeming to know he stood no chance against two women in the front seat.  Emmi continued her expert piloting, and I pressed on.  Somewhere at the end of this black track was a cold bottle of chardonnay.  I was determined to get to it without a dead kangaroo as my hood ornament.

The wine’s never tasted so good.


June 17, 2011

Kid Wisdom

Glow Worm Cave, North Island New ZealandFriends and wisdom show up in some of the most unexpected places.  I’ve recently  discovered a terrific Facebook group, Families on the Move, and this poem appeared there over the weekend from Mojito Mother.  (I’m captivated simply by the name and her blog: Mojito Mother — Putting the MOJO Back into a Mother’s Life.)

Raising kids is hard, at least if you want to do it well.  Teaching them, mentoring them, knowing when to dial it up then dial it down. It’s a balancing act, and all of us struggle to figure out how to do it right. I remember almost 15 years ago when my god-daughter (who was around 15 at the time) observed “I think Mom needs to set more boundaries for me. I need them.” It was one of those notes-to-self moments.

Now, all these years later, you’d think I’d know something after wearing the  MOM badge for over twenty years, but three kids and a step-daughter, and I’m still learning. This piece from a child’s perspective hit at just the right time for me — funny how fate works it out that way sometimes — and I  thought it should be shared.

Don’t spoil me. I know quite well that I ought not to have asked for it.

I”m testing you. Don’t be afraid to be firm with me. I prefer it…. it makes me feel more secure.

Don’t correct me in front of people if you can help it. I’ll take much more notice if you talk to me in private.

Don’t make me feel that my mistakes are sins. It upsets my sense of values.

Don’t be too upset if I say “I hate you.” It isn’t that I hate you; I only need your attention.

Don’t protect me from consequences. I need to learn that way.

Don’t take too much notice of small ailments. Sometimes they get me the attention I want.

Don’t nag. If you do, I shall have to protect myself by appearing deaf.

Don’t make rash promises. Remember that I feel badly let down when they are broken.

Don’t forget that I cannot explain myself as well as I should like. This is why I am not always accurate.

Don’t tax my honesty too much. I am easily frightened into telling lies.

Don’t be inconsistent. That completely confuses me and makes me lose my faith in you.

Don’t put me off when I ask you questions. If you do, you will find that I stop asking and seek my information elsewhere.

Don’t tell me my fears are silly. They are terribly real and you can do much to understand.

Don’t ever think it beneath your dignity to apologize to me. An honest apology makes me feel surprisingly warm to you.

Don’t forget how quickly I am growing up. It must be very difficult for you to keep pace with me but please try.

Don’t forget that I love experimenting. I couldn’t get along without it, so please put up with it.

Don’t forget that I can’t thrive without lots of love. But I don’t need to tell you that…. do I?

– Anonymous

March 1, 2011


Christchurch Cathedral 24 hours before earthquakeIt’s been a week exactly since the tectonic plates beneath Lyttleton Harbor brought Christchurch, New Zealand toppling down.  The city’s famed cathedral spire lay crumbled in the town center, twenty two visitors feared crushed beneath it.

The stories keep coming.  The 14 year old boy, on a local bus headed into town to plot how best to spend his birthday money; the bus is crushed; the boy, not heard from.  The young woman trapped under her desk, texting her fiancé, who led rescuers to her then helped as they dug her out; they were married, as planned, three days later.  The husband who survived the quake, then hoofed it over Bridle Path (the bridges & tunnels closed) to reach his family; “I’m OK. Walking.  Home in 10,” he texted, just before he was struck and killed by boulders tumbling down during an aftershock. My heart breaks everytime I read another story, hear the latest fatality count.

Less than 24 hours before the earth shook, we walked those streets, exploring this quaint little city so proud of its ongoing recovery from last September’s quake.  We frittered away the morning at the Boat House Café, Sacagawea and Dundee pedal boating and kayaking up and down the Avon, while Columbus and I enjoyed a scone and a cuppa. We’ve not heard the fate of that beautiful little boat house since.

Midday found us in Cathedral Square, Columbus drawn into the act by a unicycle-riding-juggling street performer with an inflated surgical glove on his head who needed a ‘big strong man” for his theatrics.   That open-air stage now lay in heaps of rubble, the epicenter of mourning for this frightened little city.

As the afternoon wore on, the kids and I hopped a city bus back to the port in Lyttleton and settled into a hole-in-the-wall pub for some fish and chips, while Columbus hunkered down at a swanky internet café to get some work done before meeting us back on the ship.  The signage from the café can be spotted in the footage of the rubble, while the entire Lyttleton block of that sweet pub has been leveled.

Christchurch is a small town in a big city’s hat. The comingling of old and new – modern buildings with an iconic cathedral and cheeky little trams, picturesque gardens and confidant entrepreneurs – seems the heart of the city we explored.  Yeah, they’d taken a hit last September, but they were quick to show us they were back and ready for business, ready for the Rugby Cup this fall, ready to get on with life.  Twenty-four hours later, it tumbled down again.

Timing. Fate. Karma. We all know it and think we understand it.  The car accident that happens just ahead, the one we might have been part of had we not taken that last call or gotten caught at that last light.

For us, however, this one seems a big bullet to dodge.  We keep thinking through it, how we would have been just beneath that spire as it toppled, or would have been separated on the Avon, or between Christchurch and Lyttleton.  Like everything in our travels, we talk it through.  We discuss emergency procedures, self-reliance, how and what to do.  And we answer the questions as they come, admitting we don’t know all the answers.  None of us ever do.

Yet, like other travelers, we keep going.  These moments, however frightening, are a vivid reminder that life doesn’t wait. It’s a big world, and bad things sometimes happen.   We are so touched by this earthquake because we were there; we feel in our own way we know this quaint little town, and we’re pulling for it to recover yet again.  When Thailand’s king celebrated his 83rd birthday before Christmas, we celebrated too, picturing the festivals in Bangkok and around the country, our friends there laughing and celebrating until all hours.  When floods and cyclones ravaged Queensland Australia, we cried too, fearing for the safety of friends up and down the coast and mourning the secret treasures we discovered during our journeys there.

It’s our world – not just our street, our town, our state, or our country – and these are our local events.  Just as we plug into our local community back home, so must we plug into our world.  That’s why we travel.  It just took Christchurch to make me realize it.

November 5, 2010

Elephants, Tigers & Snakes . . . Chiang Mai!

Maybe it’s the  retro-techno-remix of Gloria Gaynor blasting on the car stereo, the truckload of pigs oinking at us through the bars, or the wild mix of mopeds, tuk-tuks, rattletrap trucks and cars blasting through Bosang.  Or maybe it’s Udon, our local driver and new best friend.  One thing’s for sure . . . Thailand’s shaping up to be a wild ride.

Recently dubbed one of Lonely Planet’s “must see” spots of 2011, Chiang Mai is one of those destinations that people get all dreamy-eyed about.  A mix of old world Thai culture, hill tribes still living off the land, an ancient city (still surrounded by the moat), and a modern influx of music, opportunity and buzz.

Udon’s plans for the day include all things wild and woolly.  Having read Roland Smith’s classic, Elephant Run , experiencing these great creatures up-close-and-personal was a must.  Our challenge — find a spot where the elephants are loved and cherished, not exploited for the sake of tourism.  It’s a fine line, we’re learning, with much of what draws visitors to this part of the world.  At  Maesa Elephant Camp outside of Chaing Mai, we came close.  There’s something awe-inspiring to climb aboard an elephant and trek through the jungle, watching the close bond between the mahout and his elephant.   We fed them bananas and sugercane, giggled at their antics spewing us with water and mud, and marveled at their strength, soulful eyes, and mischievous trunks that seemed to sneak up and over our shoulders every time we got close.   I was reminded of the saying on the lodge wall in  Fraser Island, Australia.  I always botch it a bit, but it goes something like this:    We understand what we study; we cherish what we understand; we preserve what we cherish.

Bamboo rafting Chiang MaiThe rest of our day was spent floating down the river on a bamboo raft, cuddling baby tigers at  Tiger Kingdom, and keeping our feet high off the floor as snakemen danced with King Cobras and other slippery snakes.  Yep, it’s a jungle out there, both in the rice paddies and mountains of rural Thailand, and among the local vendors eager to lure tourists into their snare.  We took the bait, and after some soul-searching, concluded the folks at Fraser Island are right.

Tiger Kigdom, Chiang Mai