"I'm going to speak my mind because I have nothing to lose."--S.I. Hayakawa

Saturday, June 28, 2008

The Aussie Journals, Ch. 13
Kilroy Was Here

Deep within the heart and soul of every person, I believe, is an innate yearning to leave a mark upon the world. Large or small, that mark is meant to say, “I was here. In this way, I mattered.”

That mark could be a writing of such power and imagery that the words can not be held captive on the printed page, but instead propel themselves into the imaginations of readers. It could be an invention that benefits mankind, a theory that expands our knowledge, a discovery that changes man’s understanding of his world. Or, it could be as simple as the ubiquitous “Kilroy was here” graffiti.

Often the people who leave such marks are not recognized until after their death, though whether that is because their accomplishments are not fully appreciated until then, or because of the more prudent hope that the person live out his life with decorum and not discredit himself with scandal, I could not say. Nonetheless, our world abounds with accolades.

Those honored during their lifetime generally receive their awards with dignity and humility. Some are honored, but have never beheld the reality of their genius.

Enter Jørn Utzon.


The design he submitted to the contest was simple in the extreme: a series of curved lines, two straight lines intersecting across the center. Yet somehow this scant drawing evoked the sea, the romance of sailing ships, the historic birth of a country.

The sails, most likely, came of working for his father in a shipyard, their voluptuousness inspired by the hours he spent beneath them as they reached with the wind. His talent at sculpture and free hand drawing, his artistry and imagination compounded a germ of an idea into an explosion of creativity.

Thus, in 1957, the design of 38 year old Jørn Utzon of Demark captured the eyes of the judges in the anonymous international competition. Out of 233 entries from 32 different countries, his sketch of black lines on white paper, a drawing rather than a design, was selected as the winning entry. Utzon was selected as the architect for the Sydney Opera House to be built on a point of land jutting into the blue waters of Sydney Harbor. Its neighbor would be the majestic Sydney Harbor bridge, the world’s largest steel-arch bridge.

“The drawings submitted for this scheme,” said the Assessor’s Report, “are simple to the point of being diagrammatic. Nevertheless, as we have returned again and again to the study of these drawings, we are convinced that they present a concept of an Opera House which is capable of becoming one of the great buildings of the world.”

When construction began in 1959, Utzon’s design was far beyond the structural engineering technology of the day. Eventually, the geometric shapes of the shells evolved from parabolas, through ellipsoids, to the final design of sections of a sphere. The credit for this idea is as enmeshed in controversy as the fourteen years of construction.

Cost and time overruns large enough to boggle the mind along with a change in the political administration of the state of New South Wales, trapped Utzon in a bitter battle. Eventually, he resigned in 1966 and returned to Demark. Others were brought in to finish the building.

Finally, the Sydney Opera House was opened by Queen Elizabeth II on 20 October, 1973, many years after its original estimated completion date of 1965. The final tally of costs at $102,000,000 Australian represented a 1400 per cent estimate overrun.
Interior concrete ribs of sails, Soucy photo

Utzon’s concrete sails, which have also been called “shells” and “vaults,” spring full-blown from a four and a half acre platform, or podium.

From street level, a visitor climbs the dozens and dozens of steps leading to the main performance halls—the Concert Hall and the Opera Hall—and in so doing, symbolically leaves behind the everyday world to enter the realm of art and creativity.

Overhead towers the first of the sails, supported by massive pre-cast concrete ribs. Each sail is entirely independent of the interior structures, so that an out-dated hall can be torn down and rebuilt without removing the enclosing shell.

Under the sails are five main performance spaces, other areas used for performance, a recording studio, five restaurants and four souvenir shops. Various venues are used for conferences, ceremonies and social functions such as weddings.

More than a million light gray and beige tiles were used to cover the roof shells. Some are matte and others are glossy finished. Some interiors are covered in pink granite, while inside the Concert Hall and Opera Hall, the walls are black to draw attention to the stage. Tiered seats are angled towards the stage, and off-set, so that there are no obstructed views. The concert hall features the largest mechanical tracker pipe organ ever , with 10,154 pipes.

Roof tiles, Soucy photo

Utzon has never seen the completed Opera House, so embittered was he by the circumstances surrounding his resignation.

He declined an invitation to visit in 2000 when Sydney hosted the World Olympic games. In recent years, his son Jan has been associated with the on-going work at the building, and discusses all matters with his father.

In 2004, a small multi-purpose room, the only interior room designed by Utzon, was renovated and renamed the Utzon room, with his approval. Other changes are likely to reflect the vision of its original architect, and plans have been made for a Design Principles document, which will serve as a guideline for future generations when updates to the structure are needed, as well as explain the underlying design principles to the casual reader.

The Sydney Opera House, Soucy photo

It seems unlikely that Utzon, now 90 years old, will ever see the finished reality of his genius, but one can always hope. It is recognized instantly around the world, as iconic to Australia as the pyramids are to Egypt, the Statue of Liberty to the United States, and Big Ben to England. If a building can be revered, this one is.


I believe that I leave a piece of myself with every person with whom I communicate, at every place I visit, in everything I do. And, I take a piece of that person, that place, that thing with me.

Other than a souvenir postcard, I took nothing physical from the Sydney Opera House. I did not pry off a roof tile, carve my initials in the arm of a seat in the concert hall, or Sharpie my name in indelible ink on the marble walls of the mezzanine. The things I leave and take are intangible. Nonetheless there is inside of me, in that very special part of my soul where my most precious memories dwell, a piece of this magnificent paean to the world of imagination and expression and creativity.

Every second, every minute of my days, some sublime abacus tallies up the sum of those pieces, and I am the better for it.

Thank you, Jørn Utson.

Kilroy was there. KC Hart photo

June 14, 2008, Gullible

Friday, June 27, 2008

And the Earth Has Music for Those Who Listen…

Chapter Two

The Crossing Guards

The handsome Canada goose stood confidently in the concrete gutter, allowing traffic to pass, intelligent dark eyes watching for just the right moment. Its commanding presence alone seemed enough to demand obedience from the gaggle of three dozen or so goslings waiting on the sidewalk behind him.

The youngsters waited patiently, and not one moved out of position. There was no pushing, no shoving, no complaints that a sibling was standing on another’s webbed foot.

And then suddenly, undetectable by humans, permission was given and the goslings began hopping off the curb to follow their leader without hesitation. They were shepherded across four lanes of this busy city street by three more adult geese. Two flanked the gaggle on each side, preventing strays, and a fourth brought up the rear, allowing no stragglers.

The formation was tight and precise and proceeded with deliberate speed to its destination, an area of swampy muskeg behind a large big box store in mid-town Anchorage. The maneuver seemed well-practiced, well-executed. Each adult was assigned a task and carried it out perfectly.

Canada geese crossing Denali St., Anchorage

I myself assisted in their safe passage, blocking traffic behind me until the last of the geese had attained the sidewalk. While I watched, I marveled at how these wild creatures have adapted to the barriers and obstructions put in their way by man, and how they have procreated and thrived despite the changes to their habitat.

This is not the only time I have seen this behavior, this shepherding of the flock to safety. While snowmobiling in Yellowstone National Park one winter we approached a small herd of bison near the road on which we were traveling.

A huge bison walked onto the shoulder of the road and slowly ambled to its center and stopped. I brought my machine to a halt, and watched the progression of the herd. I noticed that the first bison remained standing in the center of the road while the smaller females and calves walked across, and then another large bison came to take the place of the first one.

The second large bison stood guard, acting as a roadblock, while other bison continued crossing the road. This happened a third time, and then finally the last of the largest animals brought up the rear. The herd was safely across.


June 22, 2008

Sunday, June 22, 2008

And the Earth Has Music for Those Who Listen...

And the Earth Has Music for Those Who Listen…

Chapter One
Avian Rascals

The sun was doing its best to put me to sleep as I lounged in an Adirondack chair on my deck on a warm and sunny Saturday afternoon. I was attempting to read, but the print kept slithering into smudges on the paper as cotton crept into my mind.

Suddenly, a flash of blue and a cocky swagger jolted me alert. There he was—pugnacity on display with that black crest—perched on one of the flower boxes that line my deck perimeter. A Stellar’s jay, the scalawag of the bird world, looking to cause trouble, no doubt, after chasing all the songbirds away from the feeder.

What mischief is he up to, I wondered, and foreseeing nemesia uprooted from the flower box, I waved a hand at it to leave. It did not, of course. This rascal was bent on destruction. With a short flight it landed on another Adirondack chair a dozen feet from me, near the hose bibb.

He’s up to something, I thought. What can this raucous devil have in mind?

Not quite out of sight behind the barbecue grill, I saw it lower its body onto the edge of the green plastic chair. I leaned forward to see what trouble it was causing now.

What I saw was this lovely bird settled on the edge of the chair, iridescent blue wing and tail feathers spread, joining me in an afternoon’s bask in the warm June sunshine—utterly charming its way into my heart.


Stellar's Jay

June 22, 2008

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Aussie Journals, Ch. 11, A Pictorial Essay on the Kiwi

The Aussie Journals, Ch. 11

A Pictorial Essay on the Kiwi

The Kiwi is a totally usele… uh, I mean, totally unique bird purported to live only in New Zealand. Much like Bigfoot, Yeti, and the Loch Ness Critter, sightings of the usele…uh, unique Kiwi bird are anecdotal.

Its champions insist that the usele….ahem, unique Kiwi is seldom seen because it is semi-nocturnal. Rumored to be the size of a chicken, those who claim to have actually seen a Kiwi bird report that it is covered in bristly, hair-like feathers. In other words, brown and fuzzy. And, they say, it lays olive-green eggs.

Further reports allege the usele….excuse me, unique bird has two inch long wings, which are useless. It has no tail. Some of the more preposterous witnesses say the bird’s nostrils are at the end of its very long beak, and that it has only three toes on each foot.

Gullible and reproduction of the legendary Kiwi bird ,Kathy Hart photo

Bird fanciers report that the female lays an egg one-quarter of her weight (which can reach nine pounds), and then the male takes over with an eleven week incubation, which pretty much shoots his summer, wouldn’t ya think? Then, they say, if the female comes back and lays another green egg, the male has to sit tight even longer.
After all this care, neither parent feeds the fully-clothed chick that emerges, though Dad, probably weakened by sitting all that time, sticks around to make sure junior eats—after it finishes digesting all the yolk in its stomach. Moreover, these researchers claim, these usele…unique Kiwis can live up to twenty years!

New Zealanders are adamant that the Kiwi bird exists, and its likeness is found everywhere, even on the rear engine hatches of motor coaches.

Coach engine hatch.

Souvenirs featuring the Kiwi bird have flooded the market, and I suppose if enough people actually believe there really IS a Kiwi bird, then some day it might come to pass, kind of like wishing on a star or before you blow out the birthday cake candles.

It is, however, generally accepted that there is only one way to prepare a Kiwi, should one actually catch one, that is, and have the nerve to eat the national bird of New Zealand. The process, though involved, is relatively simple.

Tee shirt design with Maori influence. Gullible's photo

Complete instructions, with pictures, appear on the following page.

June 8, 2008, Gullible

Aussie Journals, Ch. 12, It's Nice Being a Sheep

The Aussie Journals, Ch. 12
It’s Nice Being a Sheep

If necessity is the mother of invention, as the fellow said, then I offer that curiosity and discovery are her children. That’s what happened when I went to enter the names and e-mail addresses of all the people who were fellow travelers on the tour to Australia, New Zealand, and Fiji that I recently completed.

I opened Outlook Express and started searching for a way to enter all the names as an easily-recognized group. Lo and behold, there it was: click on “new” and “new group” is an option. Now, when I want to send something to all of them, instead of clicking on each name individually, I click on that group name and this infernal machine that is ever-so-much-smarter-than-me does all the work for me. No one gets left out because I can’t remember all the names, nor do my bank, doctor, and Ameritrade receive an account of hot air ballooning in the Australian Outback.

Simon M, an Australian, was our tour director. He was also our ticket facilitator, translator, instructor, guide, mother hen, luggage handler and guard, baby-sitter, fountain of knowledge, and, I hope, friend. He was always cheerful, humorous, kind, courteous, reassuring, and patient beyond belief. And cute. Very cute. We loved him. Especially my friend Kathy, who considered proposing marriage to him.

And, Simon spoke English with only a touch of an accent, though considering that we were in his country, and in the minority, I reckon WE were the ones with accents. I know that Australians and New Zealanders speak English as a native language, but at times they may as well have been speaking Hindi, for all I could understand.

At various times during the trip, Simon would answer certain questions by telling us that one of his cousins would handle that particular business. When we asked if he were going to accompany those of us who had opted for the three-day extension to Fiji, he demurred, saying that his cousin would be there for us. When he handed out some paperwork for us to evaluate the trip for the home office, he suggested that if we have anything negative to say, we should write that his cousin Paul Simon was responsible for that portion of the journey. One of his cousins, he said, would drive us somewhere in New Zealand, and a cousin owned a certain cafe in downtown Rotorua that we should not miss.

During our final dinner together at the five star Sofitel Resort and Spa in Fiji, after a sumptuous buffet of Indo-Fijian foods, a number of us were offering verbal evaluations of our experiences. Most comments were overwhelmingly positive, a few suggested minor changes to the itinerary (less time there, more time in another place). The home-hosted dinner night in New Zealand received rave reviews, though I am sure that many, just like me, were a bit anxious before our hosts picked us up at the hotel and drove us to their homes. We mentioned the little surprises during the journey that we had enjoyed so much, like drinking champagne at sunset before Uluru in Australia, and the unexpected ice cream stop in New Zealand.

We spoke of many aspects of the 25 day journey, the various hotels, events, optional side trips, and so on. Simon thanked us all for helping make the trip come in on time and under budget.

“I don’t know about Simon’s budget,” I remarked, “but mine is shot all to hell.”

He also said that the marks of a successful tour were twofold: one, he didn’t have to bail anyone out, and two, there were no international incidents.

When we questioned him further, he talked about tours during which flights had been cancelled because of weather, of flights that had to over-fly their destination and the passengers who had to be bussed back to where the hotel rooms were reserved, because finding 26 rooms in the same hotel in the large metropolis at a moment’s notice was almost impossible and horrendously expensive. That’s where the “under budget” aspect arose. Right now, he said, all the reservations are made for next year’s trip at the same time of year, which permits group discounts and makes it possible for the tour company to house their clients in very, very nice accommodations.

Earlier that day Simon had said us that the nightly charge for a room at the Sofitel Resort, where we were now staying in Fiji, cost almost as much as the entire three-day extension we had purchased for $599. Factor in the unknown costs of three included fabulous breakfast buffets with champagne, the traditional Fijian lovo feast cooked underground (much like the Hawaiian luau and the New Zealand Maori hangi), and the final Indo-Fijian buffet that we had just finished enjoying. With that, it was quite apparent that the entire cost of the three days wouldn’t have purchased one day at the resort for an independent traveler.

I spoke up, saying that with one exception, I had never traveled with an organized tour group before and always thought I wouldn’t like it. Unsaid were my thoughts about a flock of sheep, mindlessly obeying a tour guide, rushing about and seeing the country through the lens of a camera—or, as we do now, on the LCD display screen in digital cameras. I thought of all the tourists I had seen climbing down from diesel-powered coaches, allowed only 15 minutes at this spot or 30 minutes at that stop.

However, I continued, I now loved the whole concept. I realized I had seen and done things I never would have otherwise. The whole discombobulating experience of international travel, from passports and visas to entry and departure cards, and getting to the correct terminals and gates had been a snap because of Simon. He and his company had taken care of all the arrangements, all the transportation whether by airplane or motor coach, railroad and ancient steamship, trams and busses and trolleys. We hadn’t had to go through the process of registering at hotels, because Simon and company had already done it for us, and he simply passed out an envelope containing our key cards and maps. Porters handled our luggage. Coach drivers spoke knowledgably about the history, culture, and attractions of their area.

“I loved it!” I exclaimed. “All I had to do was show up when Simon said, and have fun.” Beside me, Simon was silent for a few moments. The he professed to being choked up with emotion. I’m not at all sure he was joking.

In retrospect, I realize that the reason I had never traveled much outside the U.S. before was exactly why I now appreciated organized group tour. All those arrangements had to be made way in advance. Arranging a simple flight from Anchorage to Phoenix and back can be exasperating. What about arranging the thirteen (or “thir-deen” as the Aussies say) flights my trip included, and the coach transfers to hotels and back?

How would I know, without hours of research, the best places to go, to stay, to eat? How long would it take to get to a certain airport? What happens if a computer eats my e-ticket? Where’s the nearest restroom? Where do I get tickets for an Aussie Rules Football game? Simon and company knew. Simon even escorted us there on the city bus in Melbourne, and watched the game with us. If we wanted to go somewhere in particular during a “free time” evening, Simon helped with the arrangements, and frequently got us discounted ticket prices.

In the humorous card bulging with tip money that we gave him at the conclusion of the trip, we nominated Simon as Mr. April for next year’s Go Ahead Tour Director calendar. I would have loved to have seen his face when he opened it.

So, when I was considering what to call the group of names and e-mail addresses that I was entering in Outlook Express, I chose the only possible name: Simon’s Cousins.
May 30, 2008

Friday, June 13, 2008

Aussie Journals, Ch. 10, Didgeridoo and Gullible, Too

The Aussie Journals, Ch. 10

Didgeridoo and Gullible, Too

I must have had my mouth open, because, “OH, GOD, NO!” escaped before I could shut it. Such is life. C’est la vie. Oh, well. Open mouth syndrome is what usually causes most of my troubles.

Before I could shut my mouth this time, though, I was onstage with internationally acclaimed musician Andrew Langford, who had just captivated his capacity audience at the Sounds of Starlight theater in downtown Alice Springs, Australia. Worse, he was expecting me to follow his act! He asked me to sit on the stool, and handed me one of his prized musical instruments.

I started laughing. Not all of it was nervousness. In fact, I wasn’t feeling at all nervous, up there in front of the large crowd. The whole idea of me following his act was hysterical in the extreme, and I never quit laughing.

To explain my predicament, I must backtrack to earlier in the afternoon….

We were passing around various brochures while we waited for our coach to arrive to take us several miles out of town into the Outback desert, to learn about the Aboriginals of Australia, an enigmatic people who have lived on this continent between 40,000 and 70,000 years, with 50,000 being the currently accepted figure. One brochure in
particular caught my eye. I passed it on to my friends.
“Look, Kristy,” said Kathy, “this place has didgeridoo workshops.” Kristy, the owner of a didgeridoo, took the brochure and saw the workshop would fit nicely into the free time we had right after noon, and would take place in the pedestrian mall where the coach was going to leave us after the Aboriginal event.

On hearing that a number of us were interested in the afternoon workshop, Simon led the way to the theater, and also secured discounted tickets for that night’s performance. During the workshop, Kristy made didgeridoo noises while I, seated beside her and trying to not spit out my denture, made trumpeting noises. Not acceptable.
Eventually I accidentally made the correct noise and was thrilled. Others did much, much better. I was taken by the sounds of the didgeridoo, a reedy, haunting, droning sound that we heard in every shop we entered or passed.

After the workshop, I wandered around the store in the entryway to the theater where didgeridoos were displayed. I attempted a few more acceptable noises, though in order to keep my mouth off the beeswax mouthpiece, I circled my thumb and forefinger on it and blew. Again, quite by accident, I made the appropriate didgeridoo noise and the clerk gave me a thumbs up.

At the hotel later, as we were preparing to leave for the concert, Kathy asked me if I planned to buy a didgeridoo. I looked her square in the eyes and responded, “That would be absolutely the most foolish thing I could spend money on….”

She nodded in agreement.

“…which is why I’m going to do it!”

She cheered.

I had my eye on one already. Long and sensuously curved, decorated with a kangaroo in the Aboriginal art style, I was a goner when I read the tag that accompanied it: “Artist—Merkel, Key—F#, Timber—Eucalyptus Woolybutt.” How could I resist a didgeridoo made of woolybutt? I took it to the counter and asked the clerk to hold onto it for me until after the performance.

And that is what got me on the stage of the Starlight Theater. They had my name. And, as I said, my mouth must have been open when I heard it called.

“OH, GOD, NO!” I blurted—and headed for the stage.
It did not take the beautiful Andrew long to figure out that I was no threat to trump his act. In fact, he quickly began trying to SAVE his act by getting me offstage, pleading for anyone who could sustain a drone to come onstage. Don Black rescued me. Don, however, had an advantage—he plays the oboe in a concert symphony.

Andrew grabbed the didgeridoo from me, kicked me off the stool, and told me to go sit on the edge of the stage, where I was handed a drum. Today was the second time in my life I’d ever even seen a didgeridoo.

Soon, Andrew and his two-man crew had the entire audience involved in playing music. Some like me, were given drums, others clapsticks and similar percussion instruments. That is how we
closed out the show. I will confess that I didn’t do much better on the drum than I had with the didgeridoo.

Afterwards, I went to the front counter and handed over my Visa. Then the clerk arranged for Andrew to talk with me about the didgeridoo I had just adopted. “You’ve made a good choice,” said Andrew. “This is a good didgeridoo and easy to play.” He then did just that, leaning the butt of the woolybutt (I love writing that!) didgeridoo on a step of the circular staircase behind him and making incredibly rhythmic music.

Andrew said something that night that completely changed my understanding of how to play the didge (as we players call them). The instrument itself, he explained, does not make a sound, as it is nothing but a length of eucalyptus tree trunk hollowed out by termites. Instead, it
amplifies the sound your mouth and lips make.

You know the expression “loose lips sink ships?” Well, loose lips—the vibration of one’s lips and the sounds from one’s mouth—are what create the distinctive tone of the didgeridoo. It also involves inhaling and blowing at the same time! As for myself, I am still in the rude noises stage, but I am trying.

Not to big note, mates, but here’s the dinky-di: If I gobsmack meself and turn tall poppy with the didge, it’ll be my shout for the house or I aren’t worth a zack. An’, I don’t mean at Mackers, either.

June 7, 2008 Gullible

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Aussie Journals, Ch. 9, Crossing Fingers

The Aussie Journals, Ch. 9

Crossing Fingers

We are waiting; they are reluctant. We are hopeful; they are suspicious. Curiosity guides us; they are propelled by instinct. “We” are tourists wanting to watch them; “they” are Little penguins trying to reach their burrows safely.

We sit on pink or green blankets brought from our hotel in downtown Melbourne. Simon arranged with the concierge for a couple dozen blankets to be available to us. When I left the Mercure Hotel entrance and crossed the sidewalk to the waiting coach earlier this afternoon, I wondered what passers-by thought of the stream of us exiting the hotel, blankets in hand. Mass blanket theft?

Now, in the minutes before it is too dark to see, I smile at the thought. If those pedestrians live in Melbourne, they know exactly what we are doing with all those blankets. We have placed them on the cold concrete and asphalt tiers of the spectator stands at Summerland Beach on Phillip Island. I choose a seat on the risers, but abandon it in favor of leaning against a concrete bulkhead next to the rope that keeps the spectators confined to certain areas. At my feet are tiny penguin footprints in the sand.

Almost full dark now, I begin to suspect that this is the one night of the year that they won’t come back. We all watch the water’s edge, right where the gentle surf effervesces into white froth before it begins to recede from the sandy beach. I think I see movement there, but nothing appears. The park service turns on floodlights and we can see the beach better. We wait for some time.

A white spot appears against the inky blackness of the water. Then another and another. Soon I count a dozen white spots. The first group of Little penguins is huddled at the water’s edge, the light illuminating their white undersides. They have been to sea feeding, some for days or weeks at a time. Now they are returning to their colony burrows to feed their young, or just to be home.

Some minutes pass as the group summons enough courage to make the trek across the beach to the vegetation on the dunes. Several false starts are made and with a flurry of fins they plunge back into the water, then gather together once again on the sand. These birds believe there is safety in numbers. It is not the human spectators they fear, but animal and avian predators.

I mentally cross my fingers, silently urge them on. I scan the sky, thinking it is surely too dark for eagles, then remember animals that hunt in the night. Suddenly they make a break for it, waddling quickly across a dozen yards of gently inclined sand, and reach the dunes safely. The theme music from “Chariots of Fire” swirls in my head. One penguin lags behind, his distress at being alone obvious.

I ask the ranger, who is there to make sure humans stay quiet and in bounds and do not use flash photography, about the slow penguin.

“I got a good look at its legs,” she answers. “It’s okay, it walks okay. It’s just fat.” She tells me the penguins feed alone at sea, then gather a hundred yards offshore when they want to return to their burrows.

Soon more groups are mustering up and down the beach. After almost two hours we start to leave. One group of penguins has been unable to make “the” decision for some time. It has been in and out of the water a dozen times, and it is still there as we climb the steps to the boardwalk. It takes only one to turn back and the whole group will follow.

All around us in the full darkness we hear caws and barks and chirrs. Penguins are scattered throughout the rolling dunes, standing next to the low vegetation outside their burrows and chatting with their neighbors. Others are alongside the dimly lighted boardwalk, unafraid of the dozens of humans passing by or stopping to watch.

A bit further up the walk, a group of people are gathered at the rail. A man calls his wife over to watch. “Ew-w-w-w,” she exclaims as she sees an X-rated penguin propagation spectacle occurring in full view.

“Aw, c’mon,” the man says. “He’s been gone a week.”

The night air is alive with penguin calls. They may have been afraid to cross the beach alone, but they are not hiding in their burrows now. Everywhere we look there are penguins, all of them vocal. Some have to waddle as far as a mile and a half to return to their own burrows.

Almost a half million visitors come to this site every year to watch this Penguin Parade. The smallest of the seventeen known varieties of penguins, Little penguins are found only in the Southern Hemisphere, mostly along the southern coastlines of Australia and New Zealand. They appear to be about a foot tall, but the largest males can grow to sixteen inches. Instead of black, their feathers are an indigo blue. Adults weigh around two pounds, and barring foxes and cats and perils of the deep, have a lifespan of about six years.

Blankets under our arms, we walk back to the visitor’s center, through the gift shop, and out the front door towards the dark parking lot where our motor coach awaits. As we leave the building, we see a sign that warns drivers to look under their vehicles for penguins before starting or moving them.

Our group is quiet on the long ride back to Melbourne. Some nap, others take in the night skyline of the city. We are comfortable and reassured in our silence. We have seen the Little penguins safely home and all is well with the world.

June 5, 2008, Gullible

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Aussie Journals, CH. 8, Uluru

The Aussie Journals, Ch. 9

Early in the trip I discovered a truth about group tours: all roads lead to gift shops. Get off the tram and the exit is through the gift shop. Try to find your gate at the airport, and you must first run a gauntlet of gift shops. The public restrooms are at the very back, through the gift shop.

Thus, a trip to a gift shop is what I expect when I awake the morning after our sunset visit with Uluru. There is an Aboriginal cultural center to be seen, Simon said. And, our itinerary notes mention a drive around the five mile base of the 1100 foot high rock. I am not expecting much more than a close-up view of some rock art in caves and another gift shop.

We have to be at the Ayers Rock airport at noon for a flight to Melbourne, so we leave the hotel at 8 a.m. for Uluru. Along the short drive, our driver relates some Aboriginal legends regarding Uluru. This is a sacred site to the Aboriginals, Laurie says, and some specific spots around the base are so sacred to them, that they request no pictures be taken of those sites. These places, he explains, are sites of gender-based rituals, and photographs might lead to inadvertent violation of the taboos by Aboriginals of the opposite gender.

We approach Uluru on its right side, follow the paved road around to the shaded rear. The driver parks the coach and we descend into the morning chill. Our group is silent as we walk along the pathways, dodging other groups and independent tourists. I am struck by the realization that Uluru is not the seamless loaf of red rock that it appears to be from a distance. Instead, on this side, are canyons and fissures, massive boulders and overhangs. Few speak, but in the exchange of eye meeting eye, a gigantic “WOW” is communicated.

Like an iceberg, Laurie continues, only a third of this rock is above ground. That information boggles my imagination.

The driver points out features and marks, telling us this is where the Aboriginals say Kuniya, the python woman, lived and where she fought Liru, the poisonous snake. He points to a dark serpentine mark that represents Kuniya on the rock face. We reboard the coach and drive to another location a short distance away. A footpath leads to a water hole at the base of the rock. Another drive takes us to a cave where the Aboriginals left paintings. We recognize the symbols—man sitting, water hole, meeting place. The platform on which some thirty or more tourists stand protects the underlying flora as well as the paintings themselves. No one speaks.

Another stop, the path leading to a massive overhang, all smooth and curving and flowing like softly over-stuffed furniture. I walk up a gentle incline and step onto a long ledge created by eons of erosion. I am standing on the feet of Uluru, and I am overwhelmed with its beauty, its gracefulness and symmetry. Even the name is perfect, I think, with its melodious vowels and soft consonants.

I meet one of my friends on the pathway. “I had no idea,” she says, “how sensuous it is.” It’s the perfect word. “sensuous, sensual”—relating to pleasing of the senses. My senses are stunned into overload. There are no sharp edges on this red sandstone. Erosion has polished it into fluid curves and sinuosity. I touch the rock, lay my hand upon it, and imagine that I am stroking its whole. The rock is warm in the early morning sun.

There is something else here; there is a spirituality. It is easy to understand why the Aboriginals consider this a sacred place. I could be in a church or a cathedral, a temple or a tabernacle. There is an aura here that commands respect and silence. This is a place where one communicates with one’s soul, speaks with one’s god. There are dozens of tourists here, I think, but I am oblivious to all, so overcome am I with the tranquility of Uluru. I feel that I am dressed far too casually to be in the presence of this place.

Along one slope of the rock, stakes are set in the sandstone, with a chain handhold leading towards the summit, an arduous half-mile climb. People come from around the world to climb this icon. At the base is a sign next to a portal in a simple fence. The sign explains that Uluru is of great spiritual significance to the Aboriginals, and they ask that we chose NOT to climb the rock. In addition to its place in their religion, they are concerned about our safety.

Today, the park service has closed the climb, for reasons unexplained. It may have to do with expected weather or winds, although today is mild and still. Nonetheless, I am pleased that no humans are sullying the route.

Later, I do some research and find that at least 35 people have died while climbing Uluru. I recall how, some years ago, a car accident killed a couple people not far from my home. It occurred on a gentle curve near a popular hiking trail, a place where we knew to watch for moose and bears crossing the two lane highway. Close by, red salmon fight the current in Moose Creek to reach its headwaters and spawn. Those deaths forever changed my perception of that particular curve.

South of Mazatlan one day, a tour guide told us the Mexicans believe one’s soul remains at the site of the person’s death, explaining the numerous roadside memorials where accidents had taken lives.

Is that the reason for the aura of Uluru? Is it the beliefs of the Aboriginals, and the deaths that have occurred there? Or, is it that Uluru itself has the capacity to touch one’s soul and to leave a piece of itself deep within?

I have seen many impressive geological wonders in my travels. I have seen the Grand Canyon in Arizona and the Waimea Canyon of the island of Kauai in Hawaii. I have snow-mobiled through Yellowstone National Park in the winter and stood on top of the Arrigetch Peaks of northern Alaska in summer. I have walked the rim of Kilauea caldera in Hawaii and flown over Katmai Crater and the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes in Alaska. I live in one of the most spectacular places on earth.

Nowhere have I been as touched by geology as the day I communed with Uluru. I look at photographs of a “red loaf of bread” and feel a bond. I know what that loaf-like image holds in store for those who venture close to it, for those who are open to its power.

I am forever changed, eternally moved, permanently affected by a massive red rock in the middle of the Australian Outback that is called Uluru.

A tee shirt I find later in New Zealand carries the ideal message. The print is of a hiker and mountains in silhouette, with the legend beneath: “The earth has music for those who listen.”

June 2, 2008

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

The Aussie Journals, CH. 6, Above and Beyond

The Aussie Journals, Ch. 6
Above and Beyond

This is the day we have been waiting for, or as Simon put it, “Su-u-u-per Wednesday, the most anticipated day of the trip.” Thus, when the wake up call comes shortly after four a.m., I jump out of bed and get dressed. Kathy, my roommate, does the same, and soon we are in the lobby of the hotel.

A bus with a company logo painted on its side arrives, and twenty of our group board and select seats. After a few miles, past the airport, we leave the pavement and drive down a dirt road. Dust infiltrates the bus. Finally we slow and pull up next to other vehicles. One of the trucks has a flat tire, and we wait on the bus while the men finish changing it.

“If you want to help,” says our driver, “you’re welcome.” He is not referring to changing tires, but to helping the crew inflate a giant hot air balloon. Still dark, the scene is lit only by headlights, the temperature cool but not uncomfortable. The crew on the flat across from us already has its balloon out of the bag and stretched on the ground. Behind us, and also on the far side of the road, the second crew pulls its balloon and straightens the straps and ropes and cords.

Our crew unloads the wicker passenger basket and lays it on its side. A stout strap fastens it to the bus. We are given safety instructions: “Do NOT walk between the bus and the basket!” Crewmen straighten, adjust, pull and flatten the balloon. They crawl inside, making sure everything is ready.

Across the way, I see both balloons in various stages of inflation. A huge fan is turned on to inflate our balloon with cold air. A crewman turns to me, “Do you want to help?” I spring forward, anxious to be a part of this adventure. He instructs me to hold one side of the balloon’s neck (or “skirt” as it’s called in balloon-ese) shoulder high so the fan can direct air into the balloon envelope. Again they crawl inside, tinkering with who knows what in the darkness.

I hear a loud rushing noise from across the road and see flames from the propane burner of the first balloon. Soon, the same noise comes from the second balloon. We are a long way from that point, I think, as cold air rushes past me into the cavernous shroud of nylon. Eventually, Eric turns on a burner and hot flames plunge into the darkness through the fire-retardant skirt. I see light on the eastern horizon now, and can make out figures outside the area lit by headlights.

Again and again Eric shoots short blasts from the burners, and the balloon begins to stand upright. A crewman runs to the wicker basket and pushes it onto its bottom. Per instruction all twenty rush to the four points on the basket where we climb in. The basket is untethered from the bus, a blast of fire escapes from the burners, and we begin to ascend. In the distance, the other two balloons are drifting in the morning dimness.

I look down at the vehicles at our launching site. They are preparing to follow us to our anticipating landing site. Eric keys a two-way radio and announces to flight control at the airport that three balloons are launched and gives the approximate direction of travel. The message is acknowledged. This is, I think, a morning ritual for Outback Ballooning.

Except for the occasional noise from the burners, the flight is silent. We rise to a thousand feet, slowly sink, more flames, rise again. The sun appears, lighting the desert with orange, then golden light

We see cattle tracks on the uninhabited land below us, then wild kangaroos.

We float northwards. Below, near a patch of scrub trees, I spot three kangaroos, one obviously a young joey. It appears anxious, hopping one way and then the other, pausing to look at its mother. “Shouldn’t we run,” it appears to be asking. Mom is unperturbed. She’s seen these large orange UFOs before.

Eventually we are given landing instructions: hold on tight, flex your knees, be prepared for three bumps. That is exactly what happens as Eric pulls the cord and air escapes through the valve in the top of the envelope. We climb out, the envelope is laid out straight, and volunteers help to roll it and stuff it back into its bag. We are exhilarated. This has been worth every cent, but more is to come as we are bussed back to Alice Springs and let out onto the park-like grounds of a resort.

We are served baked chicken legs and champagne, the traditional foods associated with hot air balloons. Then Quiche Lorraine and orange juice, cut fruit, chocolate cake, cheese and crackers. It is the best breakfast we have enjoyed on the trip.

Soon our coach arrives with the 19 members of the group who did not opt for this side trip, those who slept in until 7 a.m. and missed a thrilling ride in the sunrise hour of the Outback.

Most of us find empty rows on the coach, and settle in for naps. We have a six hour coach journey ahead of us today, with a couple short stops. Sleep comes late for me. My mind is replaying the morning, too vivid with color and subtle drama to allow it to slow down and slumber.


The camels got me up. No way was I going to miss this.

“The best five dollars you’ll ever spend,” promises Simon. He hasn’t led us astray yet. Off the coach I go and into, of course, the gift shop, where I plop down my five bucks Australian and return to the paddock outside.

I wander around, looking at both saddled and unsaddled camels, then find the place where the camels rides begin. Two saddled camels kneel on the ground, wearing contraptions that look an awful lot like two saddles with the camel’s hump in between. These are dromedaries, one-humped Arabian camels.

Oh, no, I think. They can’t possibly carry two people at once. I examine the camels’ legs, notice the thick bones but the apparent absence of meaty muscle. Their hindquarters seem to be emaciated when I compare them to the rears of horses and moose. The feet are extraordinarily wide, for floatation on sand.

One camel seems to agree with me about carrying two people. She lets out a long, bellowing moan as she surveys the crowd before her. She moans again. Laughter. Again. For obvious reasons, her name is Mona, and she is a very vocal camel. Two well-proportioned Americans climb aboard Mona and another two on the accompanying beast. My knees hurt in empathy as the two animals lurch onto their front feet, then onto their rear feet. A handler leads them around the large paddock.

Visions of Lawrence of Arabia fill my head. “’Orenz,” I cry when two of my friends ride past on their camel. “’Orenz, ’Orenz!”

I am at the end of the line and feel overwhelmingly grateful that my camel has to heft only me as it stands. I am full of questions as the camel is led around the ring.

“How much can they carry?”

“Four hundred kilograms,” comes the answer. That shut me up. I feel pretty proud of myself when I can convert centigrade and kilometers into something close to the correct ballpark, but kilograms are beyond me. Later I learn it converts to 880 pounds!

“Why the cord in the nostril?”

“We can’t use bits and bridles on camels as they chew their cud. This cord merely pierces outer flare of the nostril, and doesn’t hurt.” I wasn’t sure about that, but I notice the gentle touch of the handler and say no more.

My camel goes down on its front knees, then down at the rear, its legs underneath itself, and placidly begins to chew its cud. I dismount, pat my camel a thank you, and my heart is racing. As Simon had promised, it was the best five dollars I’ve ever spent.

Back aboard the coach, we are off to the Yalara Resort, located on the outskirts of the famed Ayers Rock, deep within the Australian Outback.


June 2, 2008

Monday, June 2, 2008

Aussie Journals, Ch. 5, Photo Ops

The Aussie Journals, Ch. 5
Photo Ops

Cuddling a Koala

“The Koala (Phascolarctos cinereus),” according to Wikipedia, “ is a thickset arboreal marsupial herbivore native to Australia, and the only extant representative of the family Phascolarctidae.” Okay, but it’s also doggone cute, much, much cuter than its closest relative, the wombat.

Despite its nickname, it isn’t a bear at all. It’s a marsupial and carries its young in a pouch. Did I mention it’s cute? It’s so cute, in fact, when the opportunity arose to actually hold a koala and have my picture taken with it, I forked over my $15 and stood in the short line. We were at the Kuranda Village, located in a rainforest outside of Cairns, Australia. This, we were told, is the only place in Australia where we could actually hold a koala. The possibility of injury to ourselves became apparent when we saw the long claws on the animals.

A nearby open display held a number of koalas, all sound asleep on tree limbs, in every posture imaginable, all of which looked totally uncomfortable to me.

I watched as the young woman instructed the first in line on how to hold the sleepy koala. One arm down to hold the animal’s weight, the other arm up to support the body against our torsos. Pictures were taken, and the koala retrieved from the woman’s arms.

I stepped in front of the painted backdrop, ready to receive the koala in my arms. By this time, it was more awake and decided it wanted to lean on my opposite shoulder. I switched arms, and the furry gray creature draped its clawed front legs over my left shoulder.

The first thing I noticed was the sharp smell. It was not an unpleasant smell, and probably came from its sole diet of eucalyptus leaves. I turned so the little animal’s face was towards the camera. The attendants offered to take pictures with my own camera, and allowed others to take pictures also.

The picture is priceless.


Litter Pouching

I had just finished speaking to the six Brownie Scouts assembled in the gym at the Moose Pass school for their bi-weekly meeting. I had been invited to talk to them about picking up litter in public places. They wanted to organize a community clean up day while I was away on vacation.

The troop leader, Rose, began the session by asking, “Who knows what litter is?” Hands shot up.

“Trash,” said one.

“Where the cat goes to the bathroom,” said another. We were off and running, as soon as Rose and I could stop laughing.

After I finished my presentation and was leaving the gym, one girl asked, “Where are you going.”

“To Australia,” I answered.

“What are you going to do there?”

“I’m going to pick up litter and put it in kangaroo’s pouches,” I said.

“Nuh-uh!” came the chorus.

So there I was, outside the koala enclosure, past the wombat and the lizards. Around me were kangaroos and wallabies. A feed station dumped pellets into my hand and I approached a kangaroo. From her pouch protruded one long hind leg, a tail, and the head of her joey.

I knelt beside her, petted her and the joey. As the joey and then the mom gently nuzzled the pellets from my palm, my friends snapped photos of me pretending to place a Kleenex in the kangaroo’s pouch.

Now I have the proof to show those Brownie Scouts back home!
June 2, 2008

Aussie Journals, CH. 4, True Confessions

Aussie Journals, Ch.4
True Confessions

I have a confession to make. I am no longer “world class” at the one thing in which I knew for certain I excelled. Therefore, in accordance with my ethics, I feel I must abdicate my title.

To be brutally honest, I’ve suspected for about a year that I had slipped in the rankings. I hinted at it last winter. If you go back and look at some of the things I wrote in February, you’ll see I was honest enough to reveal my growing doubts. Thus, I not only abdicate my title, surrender my claim to fame, and admit my fall from greatness with great humility, I also turn in my unused supply of barf bags.

Yep. I can no longer claim to be world class at motion sickness, and I have the proof, along with a couple hundred witness. It wasn’t the two little ginger pills or the two pink Bonine that cost me the title, either, because I hadn’t taken either of those when I crossed Kachemak Bay from Halibut Cove to Homer and back in a snarling blizzard that had some of the Cove regulars hanging over the rail on the Storm Bird. Last winter I totaled ten successful crossings of the bay without a twinge of illness.

I am somewhat abashed to count the last crossing, though, because the bay was so flat dead calm I could have been sitting in my chair in my own living room, instead of on Grant Fritz’s boat. Nonetheless, a successful crossing is a successful crossing, so I’m including it. I’d made four crossings the previous winter, all without motion sickness, and that’s when I began to wonder.

The final proof came early this month, the day after I arrived in Cairns, Australia. The Aussies like to speak in diminutives, like “brekkie” for breakfast and “tinny” for beer can and so on. They also tend to totally ignore letters in some of their words, “Cairns” being a fine example. The Aussies pronounce it “Cans.” Every once in a while I thought I could detect an “ay” diphthong as if they were actually going to pronounce it “Cay-ns,” but I’m not really sure about that. Mostly I’m not sure because I was really struggling to understand at least half the words in any given sentence.

“Melbourne” is another example of forgotten letters. It comes out sounding like “Mell-bun.”

Anyway, back to Cairns and the barf bags. The first activity of this guided tour (after the group hug, of course) was snorkeling at the Great Barrier Reef. At 10 a.m., we 39 tourists and Simon, our tour director, boarded a huge catamaran named “Sunlover” along with maybe 150 other tourists, many of them Asian.

A long, respected tradition in motion illness prompted me to choose a window seat in the back of the main cabin, close to the water rather than on the upper deck, and nowhere near the bow. I knew that should I become ill, I could curl up in the corner and not bother—or be bothered—by anyone. I’ve spent many hours curled up in corners with my eyes shut. Don’t believe that stuff they tell you about watching the horizon either—that only emphasizes the up and down movement of the boat.

We were given advance notice about the 28 mile trip out to the reef: it was going to be rough. Large jars of free ginger pills for settling stomachs were at the concession stand. I swallowed two and kept two more for an emergency. We were going to cross a shipping lane, we were told, and it was going to be wild water. It was.

I sat in my corner talking with others at the table, occasionally watching the coastline on the starboard side as the water became rougher, and the twin bow of the huge catamaran slammed up and down violently. The boat pitched and rolled and yawed. Huge waves broke across the bow, covering the large craft with saltwater spray. I noticed a young Asian man across the aisle from me, sitting with his arms around a young woman who was lying in his lap.

His stare grew distant and his face paled. She sat up and leaned over the end of the bench seat on which they were sitting. I saw a crewman immediately approach her. The Asian man slid to the opposite end of the bench seat, his face drawn and almost white. Misery dulled his eyes. A crewman was at his side instantly, holding a white bag. He seized and bent to it. I looked away.

Glancing around the large cabin, I saw the Sunlover crew scurrying about with supplies of white bags in their latex-gloved hands. Many were already assisting the ill, others watching carefully for the tell-tale signs. The crew was experienced at this, I could see. Soon, a steady parade of crew walked past me to the rear of the boat, each holding one or two carefully folded white bags. They disappeared from my sight and came back with new white bags.

I suffered not a single twinge. The young Asian man used several bags, his girlfriend sitting with her back to him at the opposite end of the bench did likewise. When I started laughing out loud, I came to my senses. The gods of Mal de Mer were gonna get me for laughing, I thought. So, I leaned back against the bulkhead, closed my eyes, and daydreamed the rest of the way across the channel. I made sure I kept my stomach muscles loose and did not fight the pitching and slamming and yawing and bucking of the boat.

When we tied up to the floating platform at the reef, I recognized the looks on the faces of the Asian man and many other passengers. They were waiting for the merciful relief of death. I knew that feeling well.

I was fine. (I’m not bragging. I am still far too astonished to brag.) That’s when I knew what I had to do. Remember, I’m the one who got sick standing on shore watching a boat. I got sick sitting on a boat that was still tied to the dock in Homer, on a day so calm I could see a perfect reflection of myself in the water. I’m the one who can’t watch boats in movies. I’m the one who got carsick while driving. I was the best of the best!

I signed up for a guided snorkel tour at 12:30, lured by the promise of seeing giant clams. In the meantime, I was free to snorkel on my own, within a roped off area. I picked up my gear and headed for the platform, noticing a number of passengers still sitting with their little white bags at the ready. The survivors and those who had recuperated were heading for the glass-bottomed boat, the semi-submersible boat, the SCUBA area, or, like me, to the snorkel equipment bins.

I was ready to snorkel the reef!

I hereby abdicate my title of World Class Queen of Motion Sickness. I can only hope my honesty and willingness to step down from fame and acclaim will bode well with the gods of Mal de Mer.

May 28, 2008

Aussie Journals, Ch. 3, Go Ahead

The Aussie Journals, Ch. 3
Go Ahead

The thick packet from the Go Ahead Tour company arrives not long before the trip is to begin. I shuffle through the pages and pages and pages of information, a Go Ahead travel bag and name tag on a green ribbon, finally arriving at a folder marked “Tickets and Travel Guide.”

Inside are my e-tickets, exactly what I have been awaiting. I am to leave Anchorage, Alaska, at 9:30 a.m. on April 30, flying first to Seattle, then to Los Angeles where I will join up with the rest of the tour participants. Then, at 10:30 that same evening, we board a Qantas Boeing 747 for an overnight flight to Sydney, Australia.

So far, so good, I think. Then I notice another flight scheduled immediately after arriving in Sydney. Another flight? The fourteen and half hour flight from LA isn’t enough? No, two hours later we board a Boeing 767 and fly three more hours to Cairns, situated along the northeastern coast of Australia. I go back to the pre-LA flight itinerary and add up the hours. The final sum is staggering: just under 24 hours of flying time, plus eight hours of layovers in terminals. Twenty-four hours on airplanes in steerage class boggles my mind. My joints start to ache in anticipation.

And, that doesn’t take into consideration the time needed to get to Anchorage, almost a hundred miles away, before my first flight out. I decide to drive the near hundred miles into Anchorage the day before, do some last minute errands, and stay overnight at Patti’s. She will keep my truck at her place while I’m away, and pick me up at the airport when I return.

I chuckle at the idea of 32 hours of travel time, because Fiji and New Zealand lie almost directly south of Amchitka Island in Alaska’s Aleutian Islands where my husband and I lived for a year while working a construction job there. Additionally, in the days before the long range flight capabilities of the Boeing 747, Anchorage billed itself as the “Air Crossroads of the World.” Almost all of the planes flying to and from foreign countries passed through Anchorage to refuel, then resumed their routes over the North Pole, which were much shorter than flying horizontally around the globe.

April 30th finally arrives and so do I in Los Angeles. I wander around the airport, dragging my wheeled duffel bag and two carry-ons with me, trying to figure out in which terminal my Qantas flight originates. Finally I approach two TSA agents and ask.

“Doesn’t your itinerary tell you which terminal,” asks one.

“No,” I respond as I dig out the thick sheaf of papers and point. Oops. There it is: Terminal 4.

The agent points. I’m heading in the right direction, but need to go a ways farther.

Idiot, I tell myself. Read the paperwork.

Finally I reach the right terminal, the right check-in counter, and the right gate. I am inordinately pleased that my checked luggage weighs only 43 pounds. I am allowed 70 lbs. Because the seasons in Australia and New Zealand are opposite those in the northern hemisphere—it’s autumn there when it’s spring here—packing the right clothing had been pure guesswork: shorts and summer tees, a pairs of jeans, the slacks I was wearing, rain jacket, sun shirt with SPF protection rating, Teva sandals, sneakers, and a more dressy pair of shoes. Add to that a somewhat dressy pair of slacks and a few somewhat dressy tops, and I called it quits.

My carry-ons were a very small backpack and a travel bag recently given to me by friends in Halibut Cove. That travel bag had oodles of zippered and zipperless pockets and I was still trying to learn what lived in each of those pockets. That meant every time I wanted something, I had to search each pocket until I found it.

I was entertaining myself with one of those searches when my friends arrived at the gate. This trip was their idea; I had begged to accompany them. First, my friends Kathy and Katie, whom I met forty years ago when we all worked at a ski resort in Girdwood, Alaska. Kathy and Katie have known each other since kindergarten. Then there were Kathy’s two sisters Julia and Kristy, as well as Katie’s identical twin sister Missy, and their other sister Charlotte. With them was Katie’s husband Norman, who has come to be know as the group’s token male. They have traveled the world together for many years. The other four were new to me: Jan, Joyce, Bev and Pat. All of them, with the exception of Charlotte who lives in Seattle, are from the LA and San Francisco areas.

Twelve of us, traveling as a group, and joining 27 others from the U.S. and Canada, were about to invade Australia. But before that we had to survive fourteen and a half hours of flying over the Pacific Ocean.

I checked my seat assignment. Oh, no! Not the middle seat—the torture seat! I requested another. No more windows or aisles, I was told, so I opted for a seat down the center row of four seats abreast, but even then the aisles seats were taken. Well, hopefully I would have an empty seat beside me.


I kicked off my shoes and donned the gray socks that were in the courtesy bag handed to all the passengers by the Qantas flight attendants. After inserting the bright orange foam ear plugs I’d brought with me, I put the seat back tray table in the down position and set my small backpack on it. The teeny airline pillow went on the backpack, and my inflatable neck cushion on the top. Then I wrapped my arms about the mound, laid my head on it and went to sleep.

That worked for a while, until my shoulders locked up and started complaining. The next step was to move the whole pile to the empty seat beside me and, with the intervening armrest up, lean against it and go to sleep. When various body parts had had enough of that position, I slept sitting straight up. With those three positions available to me, I passed most of the fourteen and a half hour flight.

Then I was rudely awakened by all the cabin lights coming on and the attendants serving breakfast. Criminy, I was sleeping pretty well, I thought, and we still had three hours until we landed. I’d slept through the hot towels, too.

We landed in Sydney and found the gate for the flight that would deliver us to Cairns. That hop was only three hours. Nothing. We were seasoned fliers now. Simon, our guide for the next 25 days, met us at the airport in Cairns and gathered us all together the way a good shepherd would.

By the time we reached our hotel in Cairns, I’d been in transit for forty-five hours since leaving home in Moose Pass, and felt surprisingly rested and ready to go. Simon called us all together for a “group hug,” his term for a short meeting. We introduced ourselves to the group, and received a forty page document from Simon that detailed our itinerary, and also contained maps, brief summations of the history, culture and attractions of the three countries we were going to visit, restaurant and shopping suggestions and other tips.

He gave us instructions for the next day’s trip to the Great Barrier Reef, telling us when to show up for the coach transport and what to bring, including what Aussies call “swimming costumes.”

Then he passed out envelopes containing our room keys, and reminded us to appear downstairs in the lounge for a free welcome drink, with a dinner buffet to follow.

Once we reached our rooms, we changed into shorts and tees and returned to the lobby to catch the hotel’s shuttle to downtown, a mile or so away. In downtown Cairns, which we quickly discovered was pronounced “Cans,” we hit the first ATM we found and withdrew Australian money. We’d seen signs at the airport and in town that suggested U.S. dollars and Australian dollars were pretty close to par with each other. When I later checked my bank account online, the $400 AU cost me $374 US, plus a $5 fee.

The Australian dollar, we were told, was quite strong because the Chinese and other countries were buying all the various mining production of the country. None of this meant much at the time, because so far our only exposure to Australian prices were the few shops in the area, and Woolworth’s, which was the main grocery store and carried other sundries and merchandise.

At last, we were in warm and sunny Australia.

May 27, 2008