A “Boomer” and Tripping My Brains Out! Traveling Solo at 63…on a Budget.

Kununurra in the East Kimberley:  Adventure in a Wild and Ancient Alternate Universe.  (Part 1 of 3)

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View of the Bungle Bungles in Purnululu National Park, a World Heritage Area that only became widely known in 1982. These “beehive” domes are striated with beautiful colors of ocher, orange, and black!

 

When I told a friend that my travels would be taking me to Kununurra and the Kimberley region of northern Western Australia, he snapped to attention, eyes wide, brows raised, and exclaimed, “Wow!  You’re going to the outback of the outback!”   My well-traveled friend is right.  Over and over I’ve been told here that most Australians don’t ever get to this beautifully remote, wild, and rugged region, let alone Americans.  And I was spending a month!

As luck would have it, I would be house sitting for the month of June(during the “dry” season May -September) for friend Gayl’s daughter Victoria, a nurse in Kununurra for the past five years.  Best of all,  Gayl would be meeting me here from Perth to help me settle in. That would mean three things:  five star hospitality, a whirl-wind of activities, and fantastic eating planned for the week.  How many people do you know fly with their travel baggage packed with farm fresh eggs, specialty goat cheese, and an organic shoulder of lamb (just to name a few)?

I’ve known Gayl since she was an exchange student at my high school back in 1971 when we were seniors. She’s had a love affair with Maine ever since and continues to visit every couple of years.  After leaving my teaching career and leaping into the unknown, well-traveled Gayl and her daughter Victoria, on a recent visit to Maine, mentioned travel and posed the question: “What are you waiting for?”  They have been both instrumental and a great support system in making this odyssey a positive and life-changing event.

Gayl is a force to be reckoned with.  Strikingly elegant, youthful, and charged with electricity and charisma, I elect her our Boomer poster girl for “Sixty is the new Forty.”  Before I knew it, we had exchanged our excited hellos, and she began rattling off all the adventures planned for the week including a camping trip to the Bungle Bungles!  But not before she and daughter Victoria (her mother’s daughter and very much her own person) acquainted me with my new home and surroundings.

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Toasting my first day in Kununurra with Gayl and Victoria and an action-packed, upcoming week.

Kununurra is a young town established in 1961 and now has a population of about 7,000.  During the dry season, the number doubles with tourists, many of them known throughout Australia as “Grey Nomads”–retirees traveling in a wide array of campers and caravans(RVs). On any given day, the local Coles supermarket is jammed with campers and backpackers, and the parking lot is filled with a multitude of vehicles resembling a tamer version of Mad Max engineering!  Eggs are always the first item to sell out.

 

The CBD (central business district) isn’t overly impressive, but located on the outskirts are interesting cafes and businesses.

One of Kununurra’s chief industries is agriculture (cattle, mining, and tourism too) thanks to its most famous landmark the Ord River Conversion Dam constructed in 1963. Water is released from Lake Argyle( created in 1967 as a major storage reservoir) into the Ord River, into Lake Kununurra, which then is irrigated to thousands of acres of farmland.  Some local crops include mangos, watermelons, melons, citrus, and seed crops such as chic peas and sunflower and chia seeds.  Australian sandalwood is also grown here, and the pure sandalwood oil is used by many of the world’s luxury perfume houses.

After familiarizing myself with the town(a friend of Gayl and Victoria lent me a car for the month–hospitality), we were off on our second day to El Questro (just over 700,000 acres in size) and a hot soak in Zebedee Springs.  This is truly a tropical paradise with palm trees, hot shallow pools, sheltered by rugged, orange rock looming from above. We enjoyed ourselves until a small snake slithered by my left shoulder, and we suddenly burst from the pool like waterfowl hearing gunshot!

On day three, Victoria’s boyfriend Joel, a helicopter pilot who mustered cattle up here for ten years, joined us for a visit, and we headed to Wyndham, the Kimberley’s oldest town and once a thriving port when Wyndham Meat Works was operating. The abattoir closed in 1985, and the only thing happening now is the occasional export of live cattle to Indonesia. Most “live export”(pretty controversial) is shipped from Darwin or Broome, and it’s common to see the mammoth, three-vehicle-long “road trains” coming from various cattle stations on the roads.

A popular tourist attraction in Wyndham is the Five Rivers Lookout on top of the Erskine Range, where you can see all of Wyndham and the whole Gulf Coast where the Forrest, King, Durak, Pentecost, and Ord rivers flow into. We also made our way past the salt flats to the Prison Boab tree, but not before a stop at the popular Rusty Shed Cafe.

Barely taking a breath and barely containing our excitement, we were off day four and five camping in the Bungle Bungles at Purnululu National Park, a World Heritage area.  If you are going to spend any time in the Kimberley, a four-wheel vehicle is a must. There are a variety of trucks and SUVs on the road up here, many of them with “snorkels” attached for stream and river crossings.

An iconic, Australian vehicle in these parts is the “Ute.”  The popular story goes that in 1933, a Gippsland farmer’s wife wrote a letter to Ford Australia asking, “Can you build me a vehicle that we can use to go to church in on Sunday, without getting wet, and that my husband can use to take the pigs to market on Monday?” A young designer modified a 1933 coupe with just a tray on the back and strengthened the chassis so it could carry a load, and the rest is history.

Fortunately Victoria had a Toyota SUV for the four of us and all our gear because the drive in to the Bungle Bungles involves about two hours of off-road driving on narrow, deeply rutted, dirt roads over numerous creek crossings of various depths.  (I later met a very large, cane-toting  74-year-old woman who told me she was visiting Kununurra for two days and driving to the Bungle Bungles.  After I talked with her, she thought she might fly over them instead.)

The landscape in this part of the world is like nothing I’ve ever seen.  Not only is it visually stunning with its changing light and colors, but it also touches you on some deep, cellular level that you can’t quite understand. The land vibrates with the mysteries of the human condition, its traumas and its joys…  OK…. it’s just feels *~x#1+$%) OLD!

Having not done a lot of camping, I experienced the pleasures of sleeping under the stars in my “mozzie dome,” comfortably curled up in my “swag.” (Does LL Bean have these?) The Milky Way is visible in these parts.  Another wonder to behold.

Back home on day six, Gayl and Victoria made sure I got my library card, visited Birdland Functional Pottery and the Artopia Gallery where I signed up for life-drawing classes, enjoyed “cuppas” at their favorite cafes, connected with the Waringarri Art Center, where I would be volunteering with the Aboriginal artists, learned Banjo the dog’s routine, and, finally, (whew!) met some of the locals I could call on.  I have never felt so cared for.

Then, Gayl left, followed by Victoria and Joel the next day.  I would be meeting up with Gayl again in her hometown of Perth in three months and seeing Victoria and Joel after their holiday abroad.

They left in their wake, a colorless vacuum:  The house quiet…a sense of loss. But I relish being in one place for four weeks, in one of the remotest parts of the world.

Every day I wake to sunshine*  The laundry dries in 15 minutes*

A “Boomer” and Tripping My Brains Out! Traveling Solo at 63…on a Budget.

Darwin: The “Mostest” Little City in Australia.

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One of many signs posted along the harbor esplanade in Darwin.

To say that I’ve learned a lot while traveling on my own is a gross understatement, but where my  learning curve has shown the most dramatic rise, is on the subject of how to be a gracious host.  Over and over I have been warmly greeted and then entertained by folks who have taken time out of their busy lives to make me feel welcome.

This certainly was the case when meeting Nan, the cousin of my friend Gayl’s husband, Tom.  What a comfort it was to be picked up at the airport in this new city, and to be free from the stresses of finding a shuttle or cab to some little known address.  I’ve come across lots of blog posts and Facebook postings that feature stories about good deeds and kindness shown to strangers. Over and over on my travels, I have been the lucky recipient of these acts of kindness. Nan is just this kind of person. She exudes benevolence.  Nan showed me incredible hospitality for three days in Darwin, and  after spending time with her, I felt like I had connected with some long, lost relative.  And, I learned a lot from her about the city, including history and global politics.

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Nan and her husband Pete who shared their home with me.

Darwin is Australia’s most northern city, and the most diverse (with more than 75 ethnic groups–10% Aboriginal).  It has the youngest median age of any city, and its population is the most transient. With just under 130,000 people, Darwin also has one of the highest crime and homelessness rates.

While driving around the city, Nan pointed out the Darwin Military Museum.  I didn’t know that during WWII, on February 19, 1942, Darwin, seen as a key port and filled with Allied ships, was bombed by the same Japanese commander who a year earlier bombed Pearl Harbor…and they dropped more bombs on Darwin than they did on Pearl Harbor.

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A view of Parliament house from the front. It is Australia’s newest Parliament building.

Next, we stopped at Northern Territory Library located in Parliament House and visited an exhibit about The Stolen Generations   and Kahlin Aboriginal Compound in Darwin, which existed from 1913 to 1938.  While many Aboriginal children were forcibly taken there, Darwin’s Aboriginal workforce and their families were required by law to live at the compound as were children of mixed descent.  It’s an important piece of history because the people from the compound helped to build Darwin.

We drove around Darwin’s impressive harbor and stopped for a walk on the esplanade where I encountered, for the first time, crocodile warnings.  All that water and no place to swim!  Of all the deadly things that inhabit Australia, salt water crocs (salties) freak me out the most. I wasn’t up in this part of the world more than a couple of weeks when it was reported that a 40 something-year woman, with  a friend she was visiting with in Queensland, decided to go to the beach at night(stupid).  Her last uttered word, reportedly was, “Crocodile!!”   Authorities searched for her body for a couple of days.  Nada, zip, 0…. Death by crocodileTerrifying.

I also learned something about the importance of Darwin harbor and how it is not only  strategically placed as an entry way to Asia, but it is also the base for the Royal Australian Army’s border protection operations.

In 2015, the Northern Territory government(with clearance from the Defense Department) signed a deal for 506 million to lease Darwin Harbor for 99 years to the private Chinese company Landbridge, which purportedly has ties to the People’s Liberation Army.   The U.S. was never consulted (nor were a host of other people) and only found out about it after the fact (an article in The New York Times).  It is understandable that Obama was a little angry since the U.S. is an important ally, and the port hosts annual visits of more than 1000 marines. Since 2011, Darwin has been an important staging post for U.S. Marines, and up to 2,500 are expected to be on rotation.

Some in Australia see this harbor lease as a big economic boon, others see it as holistically short sighted.  Although China is Australia’s biggest trading partner, it is not a major ally. (The Chinese also just bought Carlton Station also in NT for 60 million.)  I point this out because a new goal of mine is to be a better informed U.S. and global citizen.  I know little about foreign policy, especially from the perspective of other countries.

On a lighter note, Darwin is host to many bustling outdoor markets featuring delicious food from around the world.  Nan took me to the Rapid Creek Market, one of her regular shopping stops, and my senses were overloaded with fresh, colorful, and exotic foods and produce.

Darwin’s climate is tropical, and features several “seasons:” cool dry, hot dry, build up, hot wet, cold wet. I was there the end of May, and it wasn’t very cool or dry.  Build up is pretty rugged as the humidity soars and the clouds fill with moisture for weeks before finally letting loose the wet season.  Suicide rates rise during this time.  The only thing I can compare it to in Maine is what we call “cabin fever,” when spring never comes and it can be cold with snow well into April.

You have to love the warm evenings though!  Sunsets in this part of the world are spectacular.  Viewed from the patio of the Darwin Boat Club, or the Mindil Beach Sunset Market, pinks, oranges, and reds ignite the sky.

When previously in Alice Springs, I was advised by my airbnb host to be sure to go to Litchfield National Park, home to huge magnetic termite mounds and many stunning waterfalls that cascade into crystal clear pools.   Without even mentioning this to Nan, she had already made plans to do just that the next day.  The park is about a 2 hour drive from Darwin and the waterfalls are just off the main road.  This is swimming at its best!

 

There is nothing more pleasing than the music of splashing water, bird chatter, and happy voices. Couple that with the silken embrace of clear, tepid water and I’m taken back to those old Johnny Weissmuller, Tarzan movies I watched as a kid where he and Jane swam in exactly such a place.  The only thing missing is an elaborate tree house.

My visit wouldn’t be complete without some art, and Darwin doesn’t disappoint.  The Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory has everything including a great collection of Aboriginal art and terrific views of the ocean from the huge veranda near the cafe.  I was able to see the NATISSA winners(National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders Art Awards) of contemporary and traditional media by established and emerging artists.

After three great days in this cosmopolitan city, I’m off to the east Kimberley and the real wilds of Australia.  I’m told that 17 people last year “disappeared” (a good place to go if you want to disappear– not so good if you get lost and run out of gas).

As I travel farther west and north, the colors and mysteries of this land are a source of wonder.   This quote by one of the artists captures it best: “I am not painting for pleasure.  Out in the Top End, the land is not empty.  The land is full of knowledge, full of energy, full of power.”

A “Boomer” and Tripping My Brains Out! Traveling Solo at 63.

Alice Springs: “What’s in a Name?”

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Kalaranga Lookout :Impressive red sandstone formations on the way to Palm Valley.

Alice Springs is a pretty interesting town.  Surrounded by desert with the MacDonnell ranges running east and west, it is smack dab in the middle of the country approximately 750 miles from the nearest ocean and about 930 miles(1500km) from Adelaide to the south and Darwin to the north. Since I was in Uluru and headed to Darwin and then to the Kimberley, I decided to stop in “Alice” and check it out. And you have to admit the name is kind of intriguing.

Alice Springs was actually the name given to what was thought to be a permanent waterhole discovered by a government surveyor exploring the area for the Overland Telegraph Line (OTL). The surveyor named the waterhole after Alice Todd, wife of the Superintendent of Telegraph Sir Charles Todd, and the repeater station was eventually built adjacent to it. The OTL was completed in 1872, and the settlement became known as Stuart after the famous explorer John McDouall Stuart who earlier in 1862 had led an expedition through the center of Australia to the north coast. (Stuart Highway is named after him).  To avoid the confusion of two names, the town was officially named Alice Springs in 1933.  And then there are camels.

An expanding country requires ingenuity, and before there was a railway line linking Alice Springs to Adelaide, provisions had to somehow reach central, outback settlements. Since horses and steer weren’t suitable in the desert, camels were.  Between 1870 and 1920 approximately 20,000 camels and 3000  Afghan Cameleers (called Ghans) drove camel trains across the desert delivering supplies. They were crucial to the exploration and development of the interior, and it is only in recent years that their story has been told.  Today, many tours around Uluru and Alice Springs feature camel rides. (Australia’s wild camel population is the largest in the world, and if you’re looking for a good movie, watch Tracks, a true story).

Considered the central hub of the Australian outback, I immediately liked the town.  With a population of about 26,000, it’s bustling, diverse (I met a bearded lady working at one of the coffee shops…didn’t ask), with a good energy that offers everything a traveler would want, especially great Indigenous art galleries.  Eye-opening to me was the fact that this was my first real experience with contemporary Aboriginal Australia and a peek at some of the present day challenges that exist.

As I’ve mentioned before, airbnb is a great accommodation option.  As luck would have it, I booked a room with a lovely young family at their home about a 30 minute walk from the CBD.  Clare is a teacher originally from the Melbourne area, Moga, her partner hales from Sudan and is studying Law, and Danny their four year-old will soon have a sibling.  Clare and Moga have traveled extensively throughout Australia, love art and culture, and were a great resource of where to go and what to see….one of many benefits staying with locals!

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Danny, Clare, and Moga, my terrific airbnb hosts in Alice Springs.

I spent my first day ambling around town and hanging out at Todd Mall, the town’s focal point. With outdoor cafes, shops, and galleries lining both sides of the pedestrian-only street, it’s a pleasant and lively place. But I quickly learned not to use the public loo because “there might be someone passed out in there” but to use a pay toilet in the mini mall nearby.

Like our native Americans, Aboriginals have had a long, sad history of alcohol problems, and since Alice Springs is a central hub, it draws Indigenous people from outlying communities to its great services and often trouble breaks out.  I did notice that each day at one end of Todd Mall there was a constant police presence at what appeared to be a local hangout.

Alice Springs has had, in the last several years, a history of violence, domestic and otherwise.  Adding to the problem are the deplorable conditions at “town camps” (Indigenous public housing). I did drive by a couple of these camps, and they looked to be pretty run down and miserable. You get the sense that a strong racial divide exists here.  Adding fuel to the fire, a few months ago the Northern Territory Government decided to put a private company, Zodiac, rather than an Indigenous community housing group in charge of managing the camps.  Like the racial tension that exists in US, it’s much more complicated than what I am presenting here; nevertheless, it’s not a good idea to be out walking alone at night.

On a positive note, the town has much to offer.  My hosts recommended a very good cafe in town which happened to be part of and next to the Royal Flying Doctor Service Museum. Royal Flying Doctor Service’s inception and vision is credited to Reverend John Flynn, a missionary in the central outback in 1912, who wanted to provide better medical services to remote areas of Australia. This service still operates today.

Close by is the National Pioneer Women’s Hall of Fame and the Alice Springs Reptile Center.  I wanted to see the Araluen Arts Center, a bit of a walk heading out of town. Since it was late in the afternoon, I took a suggested short cut, crossed over a sketchy part of town and almost got lost. Arriving twenty-five minutes to closing time, the Center let me in for free, and I was able to see this year’s 39th Alice Prize show celebrating contemporary Australian art from across the country.

Realizing it was late and I should get a cab, I walked out to the lobby, and, low and behold, there were Clare and Danny!  After a little playground time, Clare took the long way home pointing out other places of interest.  Still got good mojo going on. (Thank you Peter Rivard for your “blessings!”)

With one full day to get in a tour, Moga suggested Palm Valley, one of the family’s favorite places. When I visited the i site center to book the tour, I found one that also included a visit to the Hermannsburg Historic Precinct.

Hermannsburg was the first Aboriginal mission in the Northern Territory established in 1877. Later, it was home to the famous painter Albert Namatijra.  Today, Hermannsburg is internationally renown for its pottery, which originally started as a training program in the 1990s for Indigenous families living in the area. Our tour stopped here first for high tea before continuing on to Palm Valley. (I much prefer high tea to coffee break!)

I am happy to say that this tour company–Alice Wanderer–had a great tour guide who was only 23 years-old but really knew the land and loved what he was doing. Tours are really the way to go if you don’t have a lot of time. Who you share your tour with is the luck of the draw as is getting a seat assignment on a plane.  The average tour age is somewhere in the late 50s, mostly couples.  Earlier that morning we were kept waiting when picking up three women from Sydney. When they finally showed up, they were wearing what looked to be night club attire. (Note: dress comfortably and wear good walking shoes).  I bumped into two of them the next morning at a pharmacy. One of the women had broken her toe and was waiting for medical attention–unfortunate because they were heading south to Uluru the next day.

Getting out beyond Hermannsburg to Palm Valley, part of Finke Gorge National Park, is about a 2 hour drive from Alice Springs. It’s 4 wheel driving most of the way and truly spectacular scenery along the Finke River, the oldest river in world.  Palm Valley is so named because it is the only area in central Australia where red cabbage palms are able to survive thanks to small pockets of spring fed pools.  It’s a real outback oasis!

When we arrived back in town, it was dark. My hosts had offered to pick me up, but since I was the last person to be dropped off, my tour guide insisted on delivering me to my front door.

At this point, I’ve been five months on the road.  I think I’m officially a seasoned traveler. It’s exciting to be heading farther north to Darwin, Australia’s most northern city and the tropics… where hungry crocodiles live!!    Seasoned traveler could take on a whole new meaning..

 

A “Boomer” and Tripping My Brains Out!

Uluru and the Red Center: The Spiritual Heart of the Country.

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Driving up to Uluru. It really does take your breath away.

“It’s not that Uluru is bigger than you had supposed or more perfectly formed or in any way different from the impression you had created in your mind, but the very opposite.  It is exactly what you expected it to be.  You know this rock.  You know it in a way that has nothing to do with calendars and the covers of  souvenir books.  Your knowledge of this rock is grounded in something much more elemental.”

Bill Bryson, In a Sunburned Country

After reading Bryson’s travel book, I knew I couldn’t come to Australia and not see Uluru (formerly Ayers Rock).  In addition, British artist Bruce Munro’s Field of Light solar- powered art installation had just opened in April. How lucky to have this added bonus!

Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park is located in the Northern Territory, smack dab in the middle of the country and about four and a half hours from Alice Springs, the nearest major town.  I flew directly from Melbourne to Ayers Rock Airport and was happy to learn that the Ayers Rock resort,  which has sprung up to provide visitor accommodations and other essential services, also runs free buses from the airport to the resort

I had read that accommodations at the resort were expensive–and they are.  Be prepared to spend anywhere from $220 to $475 a night for a hotel …unless you are willing to stay at a campground or share a hostel dorm.

After doing some research, I found that the Outback Pioneer Lodge and Hotel (cheapest hotel with rooms running $220 to $300) also doubles as a YHA hostel with a section of dorm units.  These tiny rooms house up to four people and consist of two bunk beds, and that’s about all, but close by is a kitchen, large shower/bathroom/laundry facility, and lounge room.   The price: $34.00 a night.  AND the best view of Uluru in the whole resort can be seen from the viewing station out back behind the dorm section!

 

Initially when I found the dorm rooms online, it appeared that only mixed dorm units were available.  I was put off at first about a “mixed dorm” and hemmed and hawed a little before deciding, What the hell. It was only for three nights. But when I arrived and checked in, I realized that my only other roommates were two women.  I have a feeling they advertise mixed dorms on purpose to discourage people from from taking the cheaper rate, and the hotel sells the more expensive rooms.

At first I thought I would splurge and treat myself to a private hotel room. But then I remembered my goal of meeting people, and what a wise decision.  Returning to the dorm later, I was greeted by two lovely young women, Mika from Japan and Rena from Indonesia.  After chatting and exchanging introductions, Rena turned to me and said, “I am so glad you’re here.”  I was somewhat taken aback, and she must have read my expression because she went on to explain that what she loved about traveling was meeting people. What a beautiful thing to say to a complete (and older) stranger who would be taking up one quarter of a very tiny room.  All in all, we ended up spending about eight hours of sleeping time together as most tours left before sunrise or ended after dark in the evening.

 

I had booked ahead a sunrise tour of the Field of Lights art installation with AAT Kings and  was picked up at 5:30 am the next morning.  Excited about seeing this, I had done a little reading  ahead of time to pick up a few facts. Munro created 50,000 hand made globes on flexible light stems that allow the lights to sway in the wind like wild flowers. The palette of colors changes from the deepest purple, to red ocher, to a soft white and cover an area the size of four football fields with Uluru majestically in the background. It took forty people and many volunteers six weeks to plant the stems of light and install 144 light projectors and miles and miles of fiber optic cable.

I paid $89.00 for this tour which consisted of a short bus ride to the location and a few nibbles of cookies with tea or instant coffee.  Expecting some great commentary, imagine my dismay when the tour guide got on the PA and said  well most of you have probably already read about the Field of Light, but here’s a little background information.  What?! That’s it?!  Nothing about what inspired the artist?  Not even a few anecdotes about the installation?  Surely people have tried stealing the lights!(there’s 24 hour security)  A few of us asked questions, but I felt cheated somehow.

Fortunately, I quickly quit my grumbling when we arrived in total darkness to a jeweled landscape of glowing color that stretched as far as the eye can see.  Even better, we were allowed to walk down into the installation and see it up close.  The globes are about the size of tennis balls on flexible stems that sway above a tangle of  illuminated cable. You have to wonder how the hell did they install this?

In total silence, we were left to wander and wonder.  This is what it must be like to walk among the stars.  Slowly the night sky began to lighten, and as dawn seeped through, Uluru loomed in the distance–the face that launched 50,000 lights and enraptured an artist for 24 years.  As light filled the sky, the spheres slowly faded in color to a soft white then gently melted into the red earth. This once in a life time experience ended up being the perfect first act to introduce the main attraction.  The next day I would get up close to Uluru.

As I did with the Field of Light tour, I also booked ahead my Uluru sunset tour for the following day.  For $119.oo plus $ 25.oo for the Park ticket, my trip included the base tour and Kuniya Walk, a visit to the Kata Tjuta Cultural Center, and then late in the afternoon a stop at the Uluru sunset viewing station to watch the sun go down.  For an additional $136.00 I could enjoy the sunset barbecue (kangaroo fillets included) under the night sky with star gazing too.  I initially balked at the price but  later changed my mind and figured when in Rome…  The bus picked us up at 2:35 pm, and we were on our way.

The atmosphere on the bus was infused with a kind of electricity of anticipation the closer we got.  I actually felt a little twinge in my chest. Was this anxiety?  And then we were up close and personal.  Uluru is spell binding and totally arresting.  Those weren’t chest pains; I could feel it in my heart. Arriving at the base you are not only hypnotized by its sheer size but also overwhelmed with the feeling that this is a living, breathing, brooding entity, millions of years old. It really feels alive, and you can’t stop looking at it.  Up close, the surface of the rock has what looks like a red, flaky skin. If extraterrestrials have ever visited earth, they had to have been drawn here.

This tour provided some good commentary, but I preferred to wander off a little on my own.  After our base visit, we continued on to the Kata Tjula Cultural Center and then to the viewing station, joined by other tour groups, to watch the sunset color Uluru in array of subtle shades.  With some snacks and assorted drinks, the mood was festive, and  I met some Australian tourists who introduced me to legend Slim Dusty and another country singer John Williamson and his famous song “Raining on the Rock.”

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Enjoying nibbles and drinks at the sunset viewing station at Uluru.

When it was time for the barbecue, we were told that it looked like rain and that dinner was being moved indoors at the Cultural Center –a total cop out as it had been partly sunny all day with only a few clouds. I did, nevertheless,  have a lovely dinner sharing a table with a grand mother and grand daughter from the states (a high school graduation gift to go anywhere in the world), and I even tried the Kangaroo, a mild and pleasant dark, red meat.  With wine and champagne flowing, it was a great way to end the day.

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Saying goodbye to my terrific hostel mates Mika from Japan(left) and Rena from Indonesia (right).

Although I wasn’t impressed with the resort and the accommodations offered (they have  a captive audience here), it was worth every penny to see Uluru.  After three quick days, my roommates and I said goodbye early the final morning. But while waiting for the bus to the airport later, we met up again and were excited to have another chance to see each other.  We embraced once more, but when Rena and I hugged, this time we held each other for a few extra seconds…and I felt it in my heart.   Maybe Uluru is the personification of love?

A”Boomer” and Tripping My Brains Out!

 A Trip Across The River Styx to the Underworld:  The MONA Museum, Hobart, Tasmania.

 

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Arriving at the MONA on the Mona Roma ferry. You can also drive or take a coach. I recommend the ferry!

Tasmania (known as Tas or Tassie by locals) certainly lives up to one of its slogans: The Island of Inspiration.  This Commonwealth, island state just south of Melbourne is home to approximately 500,000 residents, half of whom reside in the port city capital of Hobart.  Known for its World Heritage wilderness, good food, and clean air, I think most people would agree that what has really put Tasmania on the map as a destination is the privately owed MONA museum(Museum of Old and New Art), which is dedicated to sex and death.  With only three and a half days in Hobart, it was the focus of my visit.

The MONA is like no other museum in the world.  Since it  opened in 2011, it has been hailed as both visionary and profane and has drawn over 1.65 million visitors from around the world (Tasmanians have embraced it and get in free).  The man inspired to create this is as interesting as his collection of modern art and antiquities. David Walsh grew up in a poor, working class suburb of Hobart(across from where the MONA is built), was considered a shy nerd, developed an algorithm, and became one of the world’s top gamblers earning millions. A self proclaimed atheist, Walsh gambled 150 million dollars on what he describes as “a secular temple and subversive adult Disneyland” with art that he wagers could become worthless in a decade or two.

Going to the MONA for one day just wasn’t enough… too much sensory overload. I had to go back a second time.  Even so, it was several days later before I could make sense of it all. The experience  had to be ingested and digested before I could excrete anything I could express verbally ( you will come to appreciate this analogy later).

Visiting the MONA is like crossing The River Styx to the Underworld, but this time Charon is taking you across the Derwent River on a luxury, two story ferry, and it only costs $20.00 round trip for the half hour ride. If you want to “escape the riff raff,” a $50.00 Posh Pit ticket will get you an exclusive lounge and lots of extras including a 30 minute wine tasting at Morilla Winery next door to the museum.

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The Mona Roma ferry, takes you on a half hour ride from the harbor to the museum for $20.00 round trip. If you are Tasmanian, you get to go to the museum for free.

A light drizzle, grey skies, and cold temperatures (by Australian standards) provided what seemed like  perfect weather for my first visit.  It’s quite dramatic approaching the museum from the water. This steel and sandstone edifice sits theatrically  up high on a promontory, and after docking at the ferry wharf, a ninety-nine-step climb takes you to the entrance.

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Mirrored entrance to the MONA. Walsh is an avid tennis player, so, of course, there’s a tennis court at the entrance.  Nothing intimidating or high brow here!

 

What I immediately loved about the MONA is that there is nothing sanctimonious about it.  So often when entering museums, and even some art galleries, there is an atmosphere that suggests conversations should be spoken in whispers… that maybe genuflecting is required.  There’s serious stuff at the MONA, yet the place doesn’t take itself too seriously.  There’s a healthy dose of humor and irreverence everywhere.

First of all, there is no writing or labeling of artwork on the walls.  After getting through the lobby, a smart phone-like device called the O is handed out. The O is the first system in the world designed to replace traditional artwork labels. Walk into any of the galleries and a click on the device brings up pictures of the artwork. An additional click on each piece shows a selection of information you can access such as ideas, artist’s interviews, art wank, Gonzo (Walsh’s commentary–he thinks Madonna is shit), music, and videos. Who wants to read stuffy art discourse bunched up against other viewers when you can listen, at your convenience, to what interests you? Save your tour gets you an email later that night of your path through the museum including a list of viewed, loved, and hated works.

Armed with the O, you are directed by “front of house staff” to a circular, steel staircase that descends 55 feet (17 meters) to the bowels of a dimly lit underworld… complete with a bar. The basement level is otherworldly and  feels a little cave-like, with a narrow hallway lined with a huge wall of ancient sandstone left exposed. It seems fitting that Cinerarium, velvet drapes surrounding three shelves containing elaborate, egg-shaped cremation urns, is the first artwork seen.   A reminder of death, but also a reminder to celebrate life. Just beyond, a huge water installation, Bit.fall, rains paintings of words most commonly seen on the internet.

The remainder of space in this level is dedicated to new exhibitions that change every few months, and the latest,  Field Lines, by Cameron Robbins had just opened up.  Robbins somehow harnesses nature using “instruments” set up outside that draw the wind and map geothermal dynamics using neon light against a night sky.

 

The remaining three levels house Walsh’s collection of contemporary art and antiquities, and the two are intermixed.  An ancient Egyptian coffin stands along side a contemporary ink on paper drawing inspired from forensic photography and scientific textbooks.

If you should ever meet someone who has been to the MONA, he/she will undoubtedly mention the wall of vaginas.  Entitled Cunts… and other Conversations, the installation features 77 life- size, porcelain, molded sculptures of women’s vaginas modeled by women from all walks of life ranging in ages from 18 to 78. It’s a little titillating and pretty much in your face (literally, they hang at eye level). But what inspired the artist(a man) was an article about three young women who had undergone labioplasty surgery because “…they feared men wouldn’t find them attractive if their labia did not conform to a standard seen in pornography, in which labia are airbrushed out.” These women models wanted one thing: for young women to be free of growing up with fear, ignorance, and loathing of their bodies and sexuality.  Let’s face it. How many of us women really know what we look like down there?   It’s amazing how different we all are. Who knew?!  (The gift shop sells vagina soap replicas, apparently very popular).

One of the most hated and popular installations is Wim Delvoyes’s Cloaca Professional, a large machine that replicates the human digestive system turning food into feces(remember that earlier metaphor?).  At appointed times of day, you can witness it  being fed or taking a dump (making fun of modern art?).

On the other hand, one of the most disturbing and painful works is that of Jenny Holzer who makes words into art, and in this case, words printed on human skin.  Inspired after reading about rape as an act of war carried out in Bosnia, Lustmorde, is a series of photographs with a narrative from three different perspectives: the perpetrator, the victim, and an observer (most often a family member).  They are excruciating to read. Hotzer’s work hangs near a Goya etching entitled This is Worse, from a series known as The Disasters of War.   Walsh is right when he says a lot of blood and guts are represented.

A visit to the MONA  isn’t something that is quickly forgotten.  It confronts, it entertains, it stirs things up.  Its effects are residual.  Almost six months into my trip, I realized that this was the first time I had felt lonely.  Maybe it was a combination of things.  The skies had remained overcast the whole time with the constant threat of a cold rain. My airbnb room was not in a welcoming, private home but rather in a kind of chilly rooming house, and I appeared to be the lone occupant. During this visit, I was totally on my own and never met up with anyone to share a meal with or have a friendly chat over coffee.

The MONA did what it does best, and that is it left me overwhelmed with a lot of mixed feelings.  Like an unwelcome visitor, that what-is-the-meaning-of-life existential angst crept in during the night, kept me awake, and wouldn’t leave. I finally figured the only way to get angst to leave was to make him laugh and not take myself or it too seriously. For me, the MONA reminds us that we are mortal–and to find the humor in that.

 

 

Postscript : Hobart is a beautiful city. I loved it!

 

 

A “Boomer” and Tripping My Brains Out: My Solo Adventure at 63 Down Under…On a Budget!.

It’s Back to the Big City!

Melbourne, a Genteel, Well-heeled Lady with a Complexion of Many Colors.

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A view of the Yarra River Bridge walking from Southbank the Arts Precinct  to Federation Square and Flinders Street Station in the Central Business District, early evening.

Living with uncertainly is a skill I am slowly acquiring–on second thought– quickly acquiring.

I suddenly found myself in Australia’s other big city of about 4.5 million people, Melbourne, for close to three weeks. And this time I didn’t have anyone picking me up at the airport. ( But I did learn to book flights that arrived during the daytime, avoiding late night wanderings.)  All I had was an airbnb address in South Melbourne along with directions from my hosts to take the SkyBus to Southern Cross Station in the city, find Williams street, hop on tram number 55, and get off on Park Street.

Needless to say it didn’t run all that smoothly. After asking LOTS of directions, I did find myself on tram number 55…but heading in the wrong direction.  I have to say that people were incredibly helpful (pointing out the correct tram on the other side of the street),  chivalrous (lifting my suitcase on and off the tram), and caring (one young couple getting off at the same stop, walked me to my address).

Initially, I didn’t think I liked Melbourne as well as Sydney.  Melbourne doesn’t have that beautiful harbor, and I didn’t find the trams and myki card particularly user-friendly.  I was somewhat acquainted with the long-standing rivalry that exists between the two cities reading that it might have started back in the early 1900s with the intense competition between Melbourne and Sydney for the new national capital. Canberra had to be built to end the fighting. Still others posit that it began back in the 1850s during the gold rush making Melbourne for the next 40 years one of the wealthiest cities in the world.

The rivalry still exists today, and you’re apt to hear little quips about the weather differences: Sydney is sunnier and has the beaches. Melbourne is colder and can have four seasons of weather on the same day, or remarks like: Sydney is “fashionable and luxurious,” while Melbourne is “intellectual and cultural.” I came to realize that I didn’t prefer one over the other. They’re both great, just different. Friends in Australia told me I would love Melbourne. They were right.

Melbourne has a way of capturing your heart. Like the beginnings of a  promising relationship, you aren’t necessarily dazzled by a blinding attraction. There are no immediate fireworks and adrenaline rushes.  It’s more a kind of like, and over time as you get to know each other, a slow, passionate burn. As you plumb the regions below the surface, more and more of the city’s fascinating personality is revealed, and you slowly fall in love.  This city is no light weight. There’s depth here… and always something to do. The pace seems slower, and people don’t appear to be rushed.  Yet there’s a lively, celebratory ambiance and a multi cultural beauty that makes for a great “global village.”

Don’t get me wrong, Melbourne is not without its deficiencies. Housing costs are exorbitant, negative gearing (investors who lose money on a property can deduct losses on income tax) and real estate investing are making it nearly impossible for young people to buy a first home. (Housing prices in Sydney are higher). Yet people want to move here like the young man with his two young kids I met on a tram who hailed from Los Angeles but recently relocated.

My first four days were booked through airbnb with hosts Christian and Sean in South Melbourne. I highly recommend airbnb and renting a private room.  Sean gave me a myki card for the tram saving me six dollars, and they both were a wealth of information about getting around the city. (They also had just returned from a great weekend in  Hobart, Tasmania, where I would be going next.)

The tram stopped right outside their door, and if I was up for some exercise, a thirty minute walk would take me to National Gallery of Victoria, past the Arts Precinct, to the CBD (Central Business District). I opted to walk because the best way to learn the city layout is on foot, and walking is just plain good for the soul.

Melbourne’s CBD is well organized in a rectangular grid with five main streets running horizontally and seven streets that bisect vertically.  The tram is free to ride within the city center, but if leaving the tram free zone, a prepaid myki card is required, and you have to touch your card on the card reader either entering or before exiting the tram. They do police this with surprise checks as I found out heading back home one night. There is a fine for not having a myki card. I’m told it’s either $75.00 cash on the spot or a billable $200.00 later.

The city is fairly easy to navigate once you learn which trams take you into the CBD and which take you outside.  Then there are all the Lanes and Little Streets in between.  For instance, Flinders Street has a Flinders Lane, Collins Street( a mini Paris!) has a Little Collins Street, Bourke Street has a Little Bourke etc.  THEN on many of the main streets, there are Arcades, like the beautiful Block Arcade, which are little mini malls stuffed with more interesting shops, cafes, and restaurants, AND particular buildings (The Nicholson Building, Curtin House) that house several floors of shops and artist studios. Hosier, Rutledge, and Union Lanes are known throughout the world for their iconic street art.  Every nook and cranny surprises.

After getting around by myself for four days, I met up with Carol, from the BroadsAbroad website, who invited me for a total of three days at her place, also in South Melbourne. Carol, a long time Melbourne resident, is a savvy business woman who has her own HR consulting company.  She, along with her very sharp 89 year-old mother, took me for a ride around the city and beyond pointing out the different suburbs (the very posh Toorak) and the many precincts.

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Having breakfast with Carol from the BroadsAbroad network at St. Ali Cafe in So. Melbourne.  St. Ali roasts their own coffee and gets my vote for the best coffee in Australia…so far. They also feature dinners with special pairing of coffees for each part of the meal! For the true afficionado!

Aussies love sports, and Melbourne is considered the sporting capital of Australia. The sports precinct is home to the Melbourne Cricket Ground(MCG), also called the “G”, a premier venue for cricket and Australian Rules Football (footy for short),  and has a seating capacity  100,000. Melbourne also hosts the Australian Grand Slam (at Rod Laver Arena), and since 1996, the Formula 1 Grand Prix, set up in beautiful Albert Park, part of the track using closed- off, city roads and a car park. The Melbourne Cup, Australia’s most prestigious thoroughbred horse race with over six million in prize money is a short train ride from either station to Flemington racecourse.  Other precincts include the medical, university, and arts/cultural precinct (my favorite). It makes sense to me to group these together.

After our ride, Carol’s mother Doris took us to brunch at IL Vicolo in the Italian section of the CBD, near Lygon Street. Italian immigrants are credited with bringing outdoor cafes to Melbourne.  Ohhh, the food…

Since my hosts Sean and Christian were booked for the coming weeks, I found another airbnb room in South Melbourne, even closer to the National Gallery of Victoria and the arts precinct.  Sydney has its captivating harbor, but Melbourne has Southbank and the arts precinct, and most nights I found myself walking along St. Kilda Road with the opera, symphony, and theater goers, enjoying the beautiful lights and being part of a happy crowd celebrating La Dolce Vita.

I was definitely living the good life, with introductions to Melbourne folks from Gayl and husband Tom’s friends and colleagues back in Perth. I’ve visited with many great people who met me in the city and took me to lunch(Maria, not pictured), to the Yarra Valley region, and to Mt. Macedon, once the summer retreat of wealthy city dwellers.

I’m five months into my travels at this point, and although I miss family and friends, I haven’t been lonely.  This low budget trip has been rich in the relationships I’ve formed, even the short stays with hostel mates and airbnb hosts who have shared with me little pieces of their lives.  I wouldn’t swap a luxury suite for any of these experiences. (But if anyone wants to take me on a five star, we-cater-to-your-every-need cruise, I’m there). Without a traveling companion, I’m more engaged, more conscious of me viewing people viewing me. There’s no one else to hide behind, act as a buffer, or take the edge off.  I’ve gained confidence. And who couldn’t use a little more confidence?

So I find myself, as I have more and more frequently, enjoying coffee at a little cafe, this time the Barista Cafe on Flinders Lane, and I’m overcome with an intense feeling of joy. It hovers and it’s fleeting, but not before the molecules are vibrating and I’m infused with a happiness that life is good.  Damn, I’m glad to be alive.

 

(And then I went to the MONA(Museum of Old and New Art)….next)

A “Boomer” and Tripping My Brains Out! My Solo Adventure at 63 Down Under…On a Budget.

Byron Bay and the Hinterland, Part 2:  Finding a Sanctuary at Sanctuary in The Pocket (WWoofing?!)

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Entering The Sanctuary in the Pocket retreat.

What a surprise to find out that my next exploit in the Byron Bay Hinterland was also in The Pocket, literally just up the road from my housesitting hosts, and since Lani knew the address, she offered to drive me there.  As we pulled off the dirt road and entered through the gates of the Sanctuary, we both let out a slight gasp. A little disoriented, I could have sworn we had been magically transported to some tranquil, exotic, Balinese retreat. My blood pressure must have immediately dropped because my physical body registered: peace.

If I had any quandaries about my new situation and who I’d be working for, they were quickly dispelled when I met Susie, one of the owners. Susie is dazzling with bright blue eyes that smile and an infectious, ready laugh that is instantly both welcoming and endearing. Her husband Jonathan was away in Sydney where he works four days a week, and I wouldn’t meet him until later.

My quarters would be the cabin, a charming, little house with all the modern conveniences (including a big screen TV with Net Flicks) that they often rent. My initial impression was akin to being eleven again and taking in with delight new and unfamiliar surroundings and imagining all the exciting  adventures in store–even more pythons, spiders, and snakes.

This stay at the Sanctuary came about, once again, through the great networking of my friend Gayl. Several years ago, Gayl spent three months living in NYC, and while there she became involved with an organization called Australian Women Living in NY. Gayl put me in touch with BJ, who is married to an American and currently lives in Brooklyn.  While in Brooklyn celebrating a family birthday in November, I met BJ, and she recommended a work exchange stay with her friends Jonathan and Susie. She made the introduction through email and sent them a copy of my profile.

Jonathan and Susie are transplants from Sydney where they ran a much smaller retreat. Wanting to locate closer to relatives, they spent ten years looking to find the perfect property. It took a year of renovating the three rental units and their home, in addition to creating the desired gardens. During this time they hired wwoofers , who often stayed for up to three months, for landscape work and small building projects.

WWoofing (Willing Workers on Organic Farms) is a loose network of national organizations that facilitate placement of volunteers, who work four to six hours a day on a host’s farm in exchange for meals and accommodation. Hosts do the hiring, and wwoofers often stay anywhere from a few days to three or more months. People (typically young) from all over the world who want to experience a place and maybe learn a new skill and save money, leave the tourist trail behind and live with the locals.

Jonathan and Susie emailed to say that as long as I brought a positive attitude,  I could wwoof as long as I wanted, so prior to my arriving, I agreed to a two week stay.  But after only two days with Susie’s great company (Jon was in Sydney) and generous, delicious cooking, I quickly asked to stay for three weeks!

My work schedule consisted of six hour days Monday through Friday with the remainder of the day free and weekends off. Work days started with breakfast with Susie around 7:30, work commenced at 8:00, followed by a mid morning break, a lunch break, and finishing  at 3:00. Most of my time was spent working on the five acres of botanical gardens weeding, pruning, transplanting, and hauling palm fronds to the burn pile. To break things up, I also did interior painting, pool cleaning, mowing with Jonathan’s big riding lawn mower :), and helping Susie with cleaning the guest cottages. (And to think I was paying big bucks back home lifting weights and doing squats with a trainer.)

I worked hard, but they both work a lot harder! Susie’s days never end. After hours of cleaning, doing laundry, preparing me a nice lunch, doing more laundry, she’d have a home cooked dinner ready for us at seven. This was when we could relax and talk about the world and life in general.  I think she enjoyed having me, a contemporary, for company.

Jonathan and Susie have hosted may young wwoofers from around the world, most of them of great people, but life would not be complete with out a few intermittent bouts of drama, most often the broken heart kind. One Canadian young woman called Susie and Jonathan in the middle of the night in tears because she was not only heart sick missing her new German boyfriend who had returned home, but also because she was living in squalid conditions at a new host farm. They promptly went up north to pick her up.

They are both still in touch with several young people who worked for them, and while I was there, Susie played matchmaker and fixed up a Brazilian woman now living in Sydney with a guest also from Brazil who was relocating there.  Many a Friday night wwoofers would find themselves treated to pizza and music in town with Susie and Jon.  Anyone would be extremely lucky to find themselves wwoofing at Sanctuary in the Pocket. And then there is the beauty of the place and the peace and quiet.

Each morning donned with rubber boots, gardening gloves, and hat, I grabbed my wheelbarrow and entered a sub tropical world of exotic plants and manicured gardens surrounded in the distance by lush pastures and the rolling hills of the hinterland. But most of all, I relished the silence--intruded on only by the lilting trills and warbles of the Australian butcherbird, the occasional raucous, staccato laugh of the kookaburra, and depending on where the neighboring farmer was grazing his herd, the occasional, lowly baritone moo of a cow.

There is something so satisfying about doing physical work, particularly working the land.  I’m the kind of person who tends to be in my head a majority of the time.  Having worked as a high school English teacher for many years, papers to correct and constant planning always came home with me.  I savored summer vacation and the meditative time working in my gardens. I am reminded of Antaeus, the giant wrestler in Greek mythology, who tapped his power from the earth and was invincible as long as he kept his feet firmly planted on the ground. Heracles defeated him by locking him in a bear hug and lifting both feet off the ground, crushing him. Feeling a little crushed and dinged up myself after months of traveling and city life, I felt restored (and slept like a rock at night).  Jonathan (as genial as his wife), an accomplished gardener, with a keen eye for landscape design, was happy with my work and glad that I knew what I was doing.

Two weeks into my stay, I was joined by Victor and Cleaya, a young French couple from Lyon.  On vacation for three months in Australia, they came to wwoof for four days having worked on a bamboo farm nearby the previous four days. A little older and more mature, they were both looking to make career changes, and since the job market is tough in France right now, are even considering making a move to Australia. Like- minded travelers, they wanted to experience all aspects of life in a different part of the world.

Looking back, it is beautiful how we all touched each other in some way having come together from different countries, backgrounds, and age groups, living and working in tandem for a few short days and doing simple, physical but satisfying work bringing us closer to nature  without modern distractions.  I am forever thankful to Susie and Jonathan and many of their friends who welcomed me and shared little slices of their lives.

As life in The Pocket was quickly coming to an end, it was time to figure out where I was off to next.  At this point, I only knew my next stop was south to Melbourne, and I had already booked a flight from Darwin in the Northern Territories to Kununurra in  Western Australia on May 31st where I would be spending the month of June. But what was I going to do with the five weeks in between?  This kind of thing really throws me as I can become overwhelmed easily when faced with making concrete plans, arranging plane reservations, and figuring out accommodations. And doing all this online, navigating web sites, juggling credit cards and bank accounts–and keeping it all straight. But this is about growth, right?! And panic is a natural part of the process of growth.

I had to move forward. I couldn’t stay stuck.  So I went back and re-read  Steven Pressfield’s powerful little book, Do the Work, and called on stubbornnes and blind faith, a couple of champions on my side, and “slayed that dragon resistance.”  The end result….pretty amazing…. the adventure continues.

 

A “Boomer” and Tripping My Brains Out!

Bryon Bay and Country Life in the Hinterlands–Part 1

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The beach at Byron Bay. Clean and still undeveloped!

If you measure distance in time, you must be either in the state of Maine or the huge country of Australia.

For some reason, I was thinking that Byron Bay was only a couple of hours north of Sydney… wrong!  It’s about ten hours by car and twelve to thirteen hours by bus or train.  Flying is the best option, but for some reason I found myself, a lone senior, on a Greyhound stuffed to the gills with fresh-faced millennials leaving Sydney at 7:00pm and arriving in Byron Bay at 8:00am the following morning.  Trying to be an optimist, I figured I wouldn’t have to find accommodations for the night.  I could sleep on the bus.  In a stiff, narrow, barely reclining seat….pillowless.  End result…snoozeless! (Yes, I made up these words)

Arriving thirteen hours later, I  wanted to kiss the ground as I stepped off the bus weary and bleary-eyed. But this is a comfortable and soft place to fall.

Byron Bay has a “turn on, tune in, drop out” hippie past, but it still has that “be cool”, laid back vibe, and keeping with the tenor of the times, it is also infused with a healthy dose of New Age. Downing two cups of coffee in quick succession at the Byron Cafe, my eyes scanned a heavily papered wall of posters advertising an array of festivals (Moonlight Mystic, Starlight, Spirit, Writers, Blues) and every imaginable service or class for the mind, body, and soul.

Life style is important to Australians, and this region with its beautiful beaches, warm weather, lush country side, and long growing season is drawing more and more people from the big cities who want to either buy vacation homes or move here permanently.  A  fun and relaxing place to be on my own, I booked an airbnb private room within walking distance to town and the beach for three days until my new hosts were ready for me.

I was planning to be just twenty minutes north of Byron Bay in the hinterlands, known as the Northern Rivers Region, for a month, first house sitting for two weeks and then doing a work exchange for room and board.  Experiencing rural life is another goal of my adventure.

Once again, thanks to the great networking of my friend and travel mentor, Gayl, I was introduced to her young friend Katrina, originally from this region and now a busy lawyer who splits her time between working in Melbourne and coming here on the weekends (did I mention life style?).  Katrina put me in touch with childhood friends who have also moved back to the area from Melbourne, and they offered me a house sitting position while they’d be away on vacation.

This really is God’s country. Still very rural, the rolling hills and lush green landscape is dotted with farms and open pastures. Practically anything can be grown here due to the subtropical climate and rich volcanic soil. Although beef is still a major producer, fresh, local, organic food sourced from local artisan producers have joined the ranks with crops like avocados, macadamia nuts, bamboo, and coffee.  Farmers’ Markets laden with fabulous produce can be found almost any day of the week.

My host family lives in a little village called The Pocket, so named because it is surrounded by foothills. The closest town is Billinudgel a short drive away and home to the historic Billinudgel Hotel, which has been open since 1908. Some other towns close by and part of this region are Mullumbimby (Mullum), New Brighton (Newie), and Brunswick Heads (Bruni). Australians love to shorten words.

 

Lani and Paul’s lovely home is a restored school house with soaring cathedral ceilings and an open floor plan.  The property also boasts a swimming pool, two small cottages, and three acres of land. Lani, the consummate gardener, has created a landscape of exotic flowers, fruits, and vegetables. My duties for the next two weeks were to water the gardens and plants, vacuum the ever-present cob webs, and haul away the palm fronds (they collect water and breed insects) to the burn pile (everyone here has a burn pile). I was scared out of my wits a few times hearing the sudden BANG of a large palm frond hitting the roof.

Since this is the country where all things poisonous dwell, she also educated me about red back spiders, a host of snakes, and even pythons. Lani related a story –this is firsthand not hearsay–about a young mother who suddenly awakened in the night, went to check on her new infant, only to find a huge python coiled around the crib!

I later found out that there was a python living on Lani and Paul’s property. I never saw it, but on a return visit after their vacation, they told me they found the skin it had shed on the front porch hammock.

I did have a minor spider encounter. One morning I woke up to find a HUGE spider (Huntsman?) on the wall just above the bathroom door.  Too freaked out to kill it AND not knowing how to take it alive, I left it there for two and a half hours, skulking back every few minutes to check to see if it had moved.  Finally, realizing I couldn’t leave it there only to find it later (or not) in some other part of the house, I took out the vacuum cleaner and …

This is just life in the hinterland (rats too!), and I did become acclimated to my new surroundings and found lots of time to paint and write.  But I would still find myself at dusk (when snakes are apt to appear) skittering from building to building like some terrified bug avoiding its prey, trying to make it to safety. (I’m kidding…bit just a little.)

I might have felt a little isolated but for the incredible hospitality of friendly Australians.  Katrina, home for the weekend, took me to lunch and a drive around the area. This resulted in another invitation from Katrina and her parents to a family dinner on Good Friday of Easter Weekend. My special treat was the traditional dessert, Pavlova, consisting of meringue, fresh fruit, and whipped cream.   And yet again, an outing with Katrina’s dad to the Tweed Regional Gallery, and Margaret Olley Art Center, lunch, and a drive to the lovely town of Bangalow, known for some of the region’s best street architecture.

Paul’s mother, Jeanette and a friend stopped by for the night to attend the Blues Festival. (The Byron Bay Blues Festival this year featured 82 bands, a total of 633 artists and their touring crews, and recorded over 100,000 attendees over the Easter weekend. Brother Jake’s band, Kaleo also headlined.) Jeanette raised four boys, and at the age of 55 decided to become a nomad of the sea. For the past fifteen years, she has been living on her boat “Ariel,” a Down Easter, 38 foot sloop and migrating up and down the Queensland coast. Simply amazing. Simply the best.

Pretty idyllic all around, but as we all know too well, “Into each life some rain must fall.”  Literally, this is the rain forest. It rains.  Metaphorically, this is life.  Shit happens.  The day after Paul and Lani left for vacation, I drove Paul’s car to a busy gas station and … backed into the car behind me.  Not just any dumpy, beater car, it had to some bloke’s just restored 1971 Camaro.  He was not happy.  I felt really stupid, but I had to learn (once more) to forgive myself. We all do stupid things. It’s part of the human condition.

Several hundreds of dollars and a bartered painting later(I decided to be gracious about it), I tried to figure out what I was supposed to learn from this.  The best I can figure is this: first, if you are offered the use of a car, be sure to check that your name has been added to the insurance policy; second, I realized that I can be rather cheap with myself in an effort to save money, but I control nothing! Life deals you a hand and you have to play it, or in this case pay it.

Needless to say I was a little skittish about driving again (but I did…staying left).

 

Part 2: Finding a Sanctuary at Sanctuary in the Pocket–stay tuned 🙂

 

 

 

 

 

A “Boomer” and Tripping My Brains Out!

Australia’s Beautiful beaches: Ettalong Beach, a quaint vacation spot, just north of Sydney.

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The 2016 Surf Life-Saving Championships at Umina/Ocean Beach, in Ettalong  just north of Sydney.

There is no shortage of beaches in this part of the world, and Australia is home to approximately 10,000!  Popular beaches to visit in Sydney are Manly and Bondi, both beautiful but very crowded. A little further north and just an hour’s drive from Sydney’s CBD is Ettalong Beach, a relaxed little enclave, and for many Sydney natives, a favorite summer vacation spot growing up.

I had plans to do some house sitting further north in Byron Bay, but I wasn’t expected for another week. A couple of friends confirmed that this was a nice place to visit, so I checked the BroadsAbroad.net site and found Ally.

My trip involved taking the train from Wynyard Station in Sydney to Woy Woy then  catching  a bus to Ocean Road in Ettalong.  Ally wasn’t expecting me until after 4pm, and always early, I had time to kill in Woy Woy.

A byproduct of this nine month adventure has been an exercise in patience– not one of my strong suits. Waiting for flights, trains, buses, hosts, check in times…waiting, waiting, waiting. It’s been a real lesson in acceptance and letting go.  I’ve also become quite comfortable dealing with new and novel situations.  That feral cat fear is slowly being tamed a little more each day.

When I did arrive, I was greeted by Vic, Ally’s husband,  who informed me that she was in  bed suffering from a severe migraine. An affable guy, we chatted a while, and then he showed me to my room with its own private bath.  Not wanting to be in the way, I decided to take a walk and explore the area.

The town of Ettalong is set right on the waterfront and a short walk from Vic and Ally’s place. The esplanade takes you along one side of a lovely cove where boats lazily cruise about. Enjoying this tranquil scene after the brash, noisy city of Sydney, and hearing the low, murmuring sounds of boat engines off in the distance, made me a little wistful and nostalgic for my long ago, childhood summers spent on Lake Cobbosseeconte in Maine.

When I returned, Ally materialized, and I was met with a tall, willowy blonde draped in brightly printed shorts and tank top–the proverbial surfer girl!  My first impression was a good one, as I found out that becoming a surfer is a long term goal of hers.  For many years, she and Vic longed to move from the colder climate west of Canberra to the warmer central coast of New South Wales, and they made that happen three years ago taking out a  substantial mortgage to realize their dream, yet not compromising their life style which includes working part-time. It’s worked for them.  They love it here.

I’m reminded of my brother Jake and sister-in-law Lauryn’s three life rules to live by: 1. always write a thank-you note; 2. always wear a good pair of shoes; and 3. never let money get in the way of what you really want.  I’ve embraced these rules myself (except my shoes at this writing are looking a little shoddy).  There’s never enough money, there’s never the right time. You have to listen to that voice deep inside and just DO IT!  And then prepare yourself to make new friends. They will appear.

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Taken by Vic, a selfie of me, Tarni (Ally) and Vic.

True to her ever expanding self, Ally decided she wanted a new name and has chosen the Maori name Tarni, which means salty water. An array of interesting new friends have entered into Tarni’s life, and feeling better the next morning, she invited me to join her and her group, who call themselves Waves of Wisdom or WOW for short, for a swim at Avoca Beach, famous for its great surfing.

This golden, sandy beach is patrolled by members of the Avoca Beach Surf Life Saving Club who put up a set of flags each day indicating where it is safe to swim. On this day the seas were roiling, and we were only allowed to swim between a very narrow section.  While Tarni’s friend Chris, a life long surfer, tackled the high waves, a few of us went swimming and were not only dragged outward by the strong undertow but also pummeled by high breaking walls of water, tossed ashore like so much abandoned cargo. I’ve never taken in so much sand or had so much fun!  What a workout.

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A shot of Avoca Beach and flags showing the safe swimming area.

After swimming, others joined us for coffee and conversation, reminding me of my own special group of dear friends back home dubbed The Coffee Girls.

Since Tarni had to take it easy for the rest of the day, her friend Nikki offered to take me to Bouddi National Park nearby for a hike and a picnic. Armed with great snacks and lots of sunscreen,  we climbed up to spectacular views of cliffs and more golden beaches below while Nikki educated me about the many different species of trees and the diverse landscape.

I was lucky that during my three day stay, the New South Wales Surf Life Saving Championships were going on in Ettalong on Umina Beach, another short walk away.

Surf Life Saving is one of Australia’s largest volunteer organizations. These volunteer, life guard groups help keep beaches safe. A whole sport has developed as a result, and for nine days every year, up to 7000 members from Australia’s 313 surf clubs, along with over 600 volunteer officials come together to compete. This uniquely Australian organization brings together people of all ages and looks like a great way to make new friends and do important work.

Making new friends has certainly been a hallmark of this trip.  I regretted leaving this relaxing paradise and saying goodbye to Tarni and Vic and their wonderful hospitality, but they assured me I was welcome anytime should I make my way back to the Sydney area.

I continue to stay in touch with Tarni on Facebook and was delighted to read recently that she caught her first “green wave,” an unbroken wave and not just white wash.  I wish I could have been there to witness her unbridled enthusiasm and excitement.  Once again, I end with a quote. This one is dedicated to Tarni:

“Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it!”

Goethe

 

A “Boomer” and Tripping My Brains out!

Australia:  It’s BIG ASS and BAD ASS

(Australian friends, Bad Ass is slang in US for a good/cool thing!).

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How do you keep her down on the farm after she’s seen Sydney?!

The city of Sydney, Australia, has a population of about 4.2 million people.  That’s a little daunting coming from New Zealand, whose total population is about 4.5 million.  I was faced with flying into Sydney at 8:30 in the evening, and after getting through customs, it would put me at 9:30 at night trying to figure out how to get from the airport to the Bounce Sydney Hostel. (It’s a good idea to book flights that arrive during the day—even if you have to pay a little more, I’ve learned).

Since this whole scenario was anxiety producing, I decided to check the Broadsabroad.net  site for hosts in Sydney. Low and behold, I got in touch with Colleen who immediately responded that I could cancel my hostel reservations and stay with her in the central business district (CBD) at her inner city apartment. She also stated we could break the three night stay rule and offered three additional nights while she was away for the weekend.  Wait.  There’s more: she volunteered to meet me at the airport!  This from a total stranger who’d I’d only messaged a few times. I’ve always thought I’d like to win the lottery, but, in fact, I have won—the lottery of meeting remarkable people.

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Colleen, always ready for an adventure.

As I made my way through customs, there she was sporting a big grin; I liked her immediately. Colleen directed me to the train and we enjoyed a short ride stopping at many points of interest like Town Hall and the Circular Quay (the Sydney Harbor stop) before reaching our destination at Wynyard Station and Colleen’s tony apartment on the 4th floor of a former Presbyterian Church. Here I was in the ideal location and a short, five minute walk to the famous Sydney Harbor.

Colleen is a woman after my own hart.  A divorced, middle school math teacher with three grown children, she decided that the city is where she wanted to be, so she rented her home in the suburbs and made it happen. Colleen is bigger than life and beautifully bohemian in her attire and accessories.  If there is one word to describe her, it’s unflappable.

Having met her, I recalled a quote from Leonardo DiCaprio I’d read recently that resonated (and made me like him more):  “Every next level of your life will demand a different you.”  He’s right.  As we get older, our vision of ourselves should expand, not contract. Colleen…and, actually, all the women I’ve met… seem to embody that philosophy.

The next morning after Colleen headed to work, I headed out to explore.   Sydney’s happy vibe quickly cast its spell.

The harbor is smaller than I had imagined. It doesn’t overwhelm.  I actually felt like a kid again taking in, with childlike wonder, the bustling activity of ferries toting passengers to and fro, the latest cruise ship docked for a couple of days, tourists taking in the sights along the harbor promenade, outdoor cafes serving flat white coffees, buskers entertaining, and presiding majestically over all, the iconic Sydney Opera House.  Maybe it’s the warm weather and the fact that everything appears so clean, or maybe it’s the huge expanse of sunny skies over sparkling blue water…a feeling of lightness permeates this city.

Wanting a picture of myself with the Opera House behind me, I stopped and asked a young man, who seemed to be showing his mother and sister the sights. He flashed me a huge smile and enthusiastically told me he was from Thailand, and after five years, had just gotten his Australian passport. Australia has a universal visa system. All non citizens (excluding New Zealanders), must have a visa to get into the country.  Getting one can be tough, but I can see why people come visit and then want to stay.

For the next week, my days began at the Circular Quay (it’s addictive; you really just want to hang here and soak up the atmosphere) frequenting Starbucks (yes, I broke my own rule) because there is great internet and the employees don’t care how long you stay. There’s lots to do close by including the Botanical Gardens right on the edge of the harbor, The Art Gallery of New South Wales, and one of my favorites, the Museum of Contemporary Art and a terrific exhibition of work by Grayson Perry, Britain’s most acclaimed contemporary artist known for his ceramics and large scale tapestries.  A visual chronicler of popular culture, Perry has a shrewd humor and his work reflects many themes about what it is to be human.

I had to take a ferry ride, so I went to Luna Park on Sydney’s North shore and then strolled over to Lavender Bay and Wendy Whiteley’s Secret Garden. The widow of Australian artist Brett Whiteley, she has transformed what was originally a railway garbage dump into a sculpture garden and sanctuary right in the middle of the city.

Being in the city necessitates walking, and it felt like I clocked ten mile days that often stretched into evenings. But I always felt safe. In conversations with other foreign travelers, I’ve heard the same sentiment:  Australia feels safe. With strict gun laws and new alcohol initiatives enforced across Sydney and New South Wales (ie. a ban on takeaway alcohol sales after 10pm and 1:30am lockouts), I never felt uneasy. The threat of terrorism doesn’t seem to loom as heavily as it does in the US and Europe. People are friendly and accommodating, hence the lightness again.

Speaking of walking, I trekked from Wynyard Station all the way to Chinatown to get to the Powerhouse Museum, a trip well worth it. This museum of applied arts and sciences holds a wide array of treasures. On view was the world premier of an exhibition by artist Nathan Sawaya using hundreds of thousands of LEGO pieces, a beautiful exhibition of 70 garments designed by Australian fashion pioneer, Collette Dinnigan whose signature lace dresses have been favored by celebrities like Cate Blanchette and Taylor Swift, and a exhibition celebrating jewelry dating from antiquity to the present.

These wonderful places are available to any tourist with a brochure and the internet, but meeting  Colleen was what really enriched my stay.  After work one night, we took a ferry, this time from Darling Harbor, all the way to Sydney Olympic Park, built for the 2000 Olympics and now a suburb 10 miles west of Sydney, to have dinner with a couple of her friends.

While Colleen was away for the weekend, her friend Cecilia, who I’d met earlier in the week, invited me to the magical Blue Mountains, home to some of the most incredible scenery in Australia and less than two hours from Sydney by car. Having worked in this area for many years, Cecilia knew the region well and showed me the best viewing spots to see the blue-hazed beauty at Echo Point.

After a visit to Scenic World and a late lunch in Katoomba, Cecilia zoomed me back to my doorstep in Sydney in her Mazda sport’s convertible (I so appreciate great driving).  It just doesn’t get better than this.

I had to leave Colleen’s place, but I wasn’t ready to leave Sydney, so I booked a three day stay through airbnb  in nearby “chic, metro”Surrey Hills, right next to busy Central Station. Surrey Hills has a wonderful mix of cultures and a strong sense of community.  I was really excited to meet up with my young friend, Victoria on holiday from the Northern Territory in Kununurra, where I will be in June. I felt quite urbane meeting up for a drink in another neighborhood of this fabulous city.

WOWED is how I would describe my initial visit to this vast country with so much to see and experience (and I haven’t even mentioned the beaches yet).  This quote from Mark Twain comes to mind:

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do.  So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Cut the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”

Sailing from my safe harbor…what a good idea.

A “Boomer” and Tripping My Brains Out! Traveling Solo at 63 in New Zealand and Australia…on a Budget!

photo-1444090542259-0af8fa96557e“Buy the ticket. Take the ride.”

                                                    Hunter S. Thompson

My departure is only two weeks away! Funny how the anticipation of a trip, or any adventure that requires us being out of our comfort zone, suddenly creeps up. It’s like the sudden tap from behind given in surprise by a long- awaited friend;  it startles you at first, and then the surprise of it only deepens the feeling of excitement of what is to come.  But… there’s also a wee bit of uncertainty too, and that’s a good thing because it means that we are venturing outside of the safety bubble we’ve been living in.  Suddenly it POPS!  The moment has come, we’re exposed to the unknown, and the question, Can I do this? has to be answered.

The older we get, we tend to like things a little predictable and safe. The older we get, we’re less likely to take risks, and we limit ourselves and potential opportunities.  This was made clear to me recently as I was staying in Brooklyn spending time with my son, who decided to stay in NYC after college and was lucky to find work in his field.  Watching him navigate this busy metropolis —even commuting by bicycle from Manhattan to Red Hook— is impressive.  Young people live life with passion.  It’s why we love their company.  So, fellow aging population–let’s not lend credence to the saying, Youth is wasted on the youth!  Instead, let’s embody the quote by Helen Keller: “Life is either a daring adventure or nothing at all.”

I’ve often thought I would like to live in Brooklyn for a year, but all the uncertainties about a move like this paved the way with pot holes of doubt and held me back. This trip, I’ve been implementing the practice of facing the unknown in little ways like driving my son to his job in Red Hook and finding my way back alone, taking the subway, switching trains, and arriving at the right place, learning you can’t be afraid to ask for help. People in New York love giving directions.  If you ask someone who doesn’t know the answer, nine times out of ten, someone else will over hear you and chime right in!  I’m rewarded with a small hit of dopamine each time I learn something new. If we cultivate curiosity, new things, and confidence, our lives will be enriched.

So, I’ve also figured out that all I’m going to bring on this adventure is a 25 inch suitcase and a Pacsafe shoulder bag that will house my Mac air, travel documents, iPhone etc.  There is lots of information out there on what to bring on a lengthy trip including these tips from How I Planned for Nine Months of Travel. Rolling your clothing also seems to be the best way to utilize limited packing space.

I arrive in Auckland, New Zealand, on January 13th and have a room reserved for two days through the Airbnb site. The hosts may even pick me up at the airport!  I”ll spend a day or so in Auckland before meeting up with friends who live in Tauranga  and Whakatane, also located in the north island.  I’ve been told that visiting the south island is a must, but I haven’t figured out this part of the trip yet. I will also be practicing to expect the unexpected. 

I thought it would be a good idea to reread Paulo Coelho’s book The Alchemist, the story of Santiago, the shepherd boy on a journey to find his “Personal Legend.” There are many life lessons to be realized from this story, but since I am trying to quell feelings of fear that rise up to overtake me as I bob to the surface for air, this lesson stands out: Fear is a bigger obstacle than the obstacle itself.

“Tell your heart that the fear of suffering is worse than the suffering itself. And that no heart has ever suffered when it goes in search of its dreams, because every second of the search is a second’s encounter with God and with eternity.”

I’ve read that great risks are rewarded with great rewards. My sister Janet has instructed me that nerves are excitement without the breath.   So with that said, I’ll leave you with, “See you on the other side!”

A “Boomer” and Tripping my Brains Out: Traveling Solo at 63 to New Zealand and Australia…On a Budget! Dreams of Ocher

The idea of taking a trip like this sounds so romantic and adventurous, but how the heck do you plan for this, especially if you’re on a budget and not a great planner or stickler for detail? My Meyer’s Briggs personality type is INFP–introvert, intuitive, feeling, perceptive–in a nut shell: I’m quiet, I go with my gut, I operate more on feelings than logic, and, finally, I like to “wing it.”  Could be in trouble here, but this is about growth, right?

My friend and travel mentor, Gayl, began by asking me a lot of questions. Questions bring on anxiety and a kind of “fight or flight,” panicky reaction in me. What do you want to do on this trip? Do you want to explore nature, study art, meet people, explore the culture, visit cities and rural areas? Although these questions were overwhelming at first, I realized that, (and what my friend knows) the best tools to unearth buried drives are questions. So after tackling these questions and with a few suggestions from Gayl, I started reading and hit the internet.

Remember the old days when we had to go to the library, study the card catalog, and pour over reference books? According to Daniel Pink, author of the very interesting book, To Sell is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others, the challenge today isn’t accessing information, the challenge is curating it. I took the book’s advice and put aside time every day to bookmark the best sources of information, then started taking notes in a journal of the things I needed to have (visas, round-the-world tickets, sim cards for my iPhone) and things  I wanted to do. The clincher is that this is a “practice,” which requires discipline.  Ouch! More growing pains!

The planning of this adventure has also enlightened me about the power of networking. I am currently working on other Workaway sites in New Zealand and Australia, and now hosts are contacting me, validating that we Boomers have much to offer.  My Aussie friend liked the profile I’d written for the Workaway site and suggested I make it a bit more chatty and add a few more pictures. She has since started “marketing” me to other friends and acquaintances.  And it’s working.  My friends and family here and in New York, too, have connected me to their friends Down Under, and all the synapses are firing and creating a rich network of travel stays with exotic names like Tauranga, Whakatane (pronounced fuck a ta ne!), and Kununurra.

Since renting my house in October, I’ve pared down my belongings and have been living a kind of nomadic existence. My gypsy vardo is a 1993 Volvo 240 station wagon that houses a box filled with all my important papers, last minute odds and ends that didn’t get packed, and a blue, plastic tub filled with winter clothes.  Propped up by the kindness of friends and family, I stake my virtual tent from place to place and try not to overstay my welcome. There’s a tremendous feeling of freedom after being so responsible for so many years. The silver lining— there always is one— is that my dysfunctional upbringing has actually served me: I’m very adaptable and enjoying this!

I’ve been doing some travel reading too, and friends and family have suggested great titles like Bill Bryson’s Australian travel book In a Sunburned Country.  Bryson is a funny guy, and his outsider’s perspective evinces not only the quirkiness but also the history and vast beauty of this huge country and continent. It’s an engaging read! My brother-in-law James recommended Bruce Chatwin’s, The Songlines, a very different book, set in the desolate lands of the Australian Outback. A bestseller in 1987, Chatwin is credited with transforming travel writing. His book is part travel adventure and personal philosophy as he explores the meaning and origins of ancient Aboriginal “Dream Tracks,” invisible roadways left by the totem ancestors as they “sang” the natural world into existence. Chatwin postulates that we humans have a “nomadic instinct.”  Staying in one place, sedentary desk jobs, and our excessive accumulation of stuff are unnatural and don’t make us happy.  Hmmm….. Maybe to find yourself, you have to travel?

I’ve since purchased plane tickets.  It’s real now. To steal a couple of quotes from the Notebook section of Chatwin’s book, they read:
“You cannot travel on the path before you have become the path itself.” “Walk on!”

Gautama Buddha

 

Original oil painting, Connie Ottmann “Jack at Reid State Park” oil on canvas, 24″x 30″