Adelaide

My best girlfriends are spread out across the world. It is the curse of someone who travels that they will find themselves missing friends all over the place; when a particular song comes on the radio, when there is a specific smell in the air, or simply when you are walking along and one of them pops into your head.

This particular weekend away took two girlfriends from Perth. We made our way to Adelaide to visit a third – a weekend away before the imminent arrival of a child from the one in the East.

5 years ago my idea of a perfect girls weekend would have involved the same girls, with champagne, music, dancing, late nights, early mornings, champagne, champagne, champagne. We would have left clubs late, having danced and talked and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves, then arranged breakfast for an early 8am start – dragging our hangovers out for coffee. There we would sit behind big sunglasses, dissecting the events of the night before until we felt ready to start it all again.

This time though, with one of the girls from Perth leaving two children behind and the one in Adelaide with one-and-one-on-the-way it was never going to be THAT sort of a weekend. Part of me mourned the loss of those carefree, hedonistic weekends of our younger years….. aaaaaand then part of me was glad – I do not seem to have the energy anymore. These days, I am all about the early nights and daggy trackies.

You do not realise how much you miss your girlfriends, until the three of you are sat around a table, bottle of wine (and a soda water) in front of you. Hours and hours passed, we talked of children, husbands, home renovations. Dreams we had for the future, unfulfilled dreams from the past. More wine was ordered (and more soda water) and we moved on to reminiscing, that delightful art of critiquing your youth from the safety of your adult-self. We paid the bill at closing time, and the barman queried “have you run out of things to say yet? You’ve been talking non-stop for hours!”. In truth, we had not, and while making a cuppa on our arrival home, I was filled with a sense of satisfaction – that no matter how much distance there is between us, friends we will always be.

Adelaide is a perfect and logical jumping off point for lunch in McLaren Vale – an hours car ride to some of the best wineries in the country. We lunched high on a cliff, overlooking a calm ocean and a blue sky. The one from Adelaide’s husband played with their child, who ran laughing, chasing a ball across the grass. The food was beautiful, the wine was crisp, sharp and cold. The talking continued, it seemed to flow and ebb like the waves on the shore we could see not far away.

As the two from Perth boarded a flight home having waved goodbye to the one staying behind, I realised this: Time marches on in friendships, as in life. For me, the weekend in Adelaide reminded me that while friendships come and go, this group of girls, at least, are my daggy trackies:

Comfortable, forgiving and way to good to ever throw away.

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A funny thing happened while doing laundry.

As anyone who has traveled for an extended period of time can attest, while on the road, occasionally, a person will run out of underpants & be forced to spend a couple of hours staring at front loaders spinning round while watching the crazies clean their whites.

This is what I call dead time – you are in a fabulous place doing something completely mundane, it always seems like such a waste.

 
For my husband and I, this particular Sunday laundry night started no differently. We had arrived into San Diego from the madness of Las Vegas in the early evening wearing our last pair of clean undergarments. Washing could not be put off any longer – unless we started wearing things inside out. We had loaded the machines and were settling in for the wait when I stepped out for some air. The night was cool. I breathed deep, savouring the taste of salt on my tongue from the sea two streets away.

 
Looking around at the seaside village scape of Point Loma, I noticed windows further down, floor to ceiling french ones thrown open to the night air. Curtains fluttered through on the drift of the breeze, like fingers beckoning me down the street. Warm yellow light spilled out into the darkness.

 
I heard voices, laughter, a guitar being tuned, a tinkle of a piano key. I closed my eyes and smelt the garlic, mingled with the salt air and smelling so much like home that I felt the sting of homesick tears. Peering in at the window, I expected a dinner party in someone’s house – instead, I saw a room with white walls, polished concrete floors and an oversized fireplace. The only light was from candles – they were everywhere, the place was alive with their flickering glow. A jazz band was tuning up, ready to let their music drift into the night.

Whiling away the laundry hours

The pull of this intimate restaurant was irresistible. We spent the evening there, eventually with bags of clean laundry sitting warm at our feet. We were bathed in candlelight, our homesick souls soothed by the jazz. The wine was cold – crisp sauvignon blanc to match the warm night and the sea air. The food was good – homely Italian pasta, seafood straight from the ocean, fresh crusty bread to mop the sauce from our plates. The waitress was welcoming and friendly, we swapped  “travel tales and small talk” over tiramisu.

If you are ever in San Diego, wander out to Point Loma and spend a Sunday evening by the sea, at a tiny restaurant called Old Venice, where the light is low, the jazz is smooth and the food is oh-so-good. While you are there, the laundromat 2 doors up is not bad either.

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The sun was shining on the glacier.

The Athabasca Glacier, a detour off the Icefields Parkway in Western Canada, was blue and white and clear all at the same time. We hiked to see it and as we went we passed markers showing the retreat of the ice from the 1950′s. It took Mother Earth centuries to create, it took me 25 minutes to walk there, and it took humans just 60 years to destroy it. There were signs up, explaining why the glacier was disappearing, begging humans to reduce their energy consumption and to lobby their governments for environmental change and protection.

All around me, I could hear water trickling down the mountain-side, in streams that were carrying more and more of the ice away. I wanted to run, to build dams and stop the water from coursing down the rock. I wanted to cup it in my hands and throw it back up onto the ice in a desperate attempt to keep the glacier from fading away. If it retreats like this, my children may never see this – the children that I love in this world will miss this sight, it will be gone forever and while humans will outlast the glacier, eventually it is the lack of water that will kill us. The very thing we are destroying with such recklessness and greed is the very thing our children need to sustain life on this planet.  It seemed so irresponsible thinking about bringing children into this world when I cannot guarantee them a life where there will be no wars over water as cities who rely on glacial melt for their drinking water get less and less and we continue to heat the Earth.

I expected to feel elated and awed by the glacier, but instead, I was devastated and angry. I was ashamed to be there, to be looking at something I know my grandchildren will never see. Surely the point of being a parent is to protect these things, so our children and theirs can look upon them and gasp with wonder?

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I want to tell you about Calypso Joe.

A string-bean of a Panamanian, he’d have to be 6’4. He walks the street of Bocas town with a guitar, playing in the restaurants to earn a living. We heard him play twice and both times moved me to my core.

 

The first time was night, dinner on a deck over the water. No electric light, there were candles everywhere and we had watched the moon rise to shine brightly across the ocean. Joe arrived and I paid almost no attention to him at first. Little by little he entered my consciousness, and he began to play “Knocking On Heaven’s Door”. One by one the people sitting with us on the deck raised their heads too. One by one they joined in the words. You could hear them, quietly singing, their voices together making a chilling harmony that complemented Joe’s soulful face. I looked around, I could see people singing out of the corners of my eyes, but when you looked directly at a person, no ones mouth was moving.

 

The second time we were lucky enough to have dinner with Joe, the owner of our 4 bedroom B&B and the other patrons who were staying there. Joe was a friend of the owner. He talked to us, told us he had saved for years to reach his one life-goal – to have his teeth removed and replaced with dentures. And he had.

 

Joe is as dark as midnight, with a delightfulCaribbeanafro and the whitest teeth you’ve ever seen. He smiles all the time and it is now easy to see why. He is showing off his life savings. He told us now he had new teeth, he was going to save to get a room to sleep in instead of a hammock open to the elements.

 

The owner of our B&B was a singer too, and they jammed together while we waited for our food. It was another moonlight light, full of candles and lapping water. Inevitably, the chords of “knocking on heaven’s door” started. The words followed….

 

“Mama take this badge from me

I cant use it anymore

Its getting dark, too dark to see

Feels like I’m knocking on heavens door”

 

I raised my eyes and looked around me. To my left was a US Marine, discharged with honors after 3 tours ofAfghanistan. He lost friends in that war, men who bled out into the dust of the desert. To my right was a man whose friends and colleagues died in 9/11, who were not able to make it out of the towers before they fell. People who died in the noise and terror of that morning.

 

And in front of me was Joe. A man who wanted nothing more from life than a new set of chompers. He did not aspire to power, there was no race for glory, status or political aspirations. Joe will fade out of the world having left no earth shattering impact, no worldly possessions save a glorious set of dentures.

 

After the song finished and Joe left, no one spoke. Finally I said “He has so much less than I do, but that man is happier than I am”. No one at the table disagreed.

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From the sea.

I have been lucky enough to spend weeks living on and in the ocean, from the Caribbean shore to the sands of the Pacific as, on this particular ocean trip, we worked our way through the coastlines of Panama, Belize to Hawaii.

Sometimes the water has been my friend…..

The wildlife off the coast of Caye Caulker

I have dived into it, been enveloped in its warm 28 degree embrace. A tiny island called Caye Caulker off the coast of Belize has water so clear you can see for 20 or 30 metres. The barrier reef here teems with wildlife, from turtles to sharks to massive rays. We sailed out there on a boat, slipping from its deck into the gentle swell that rolled across the sea. I swam with animals who floated past me on currents, so unmoving save a beat of a flipper to direct them. The turtles I danced this slow moving dance with were over 100 years old, old enough to have lived through droughts, floods, famines and countless wars that the human race have decided were necessary in the past century. I swam down to be eye to eye with some of them, to look at them and wonder what secrets they knew, what knowledge they held. You cannot be in the water with these creatures and believe they are anything less than wise sages. One looked me in the eye, assessing me, as though I was being weighed in some Mother-Earthly balance, and I held my breath until he blinked. I felt I had not been found wanting, and the turtle kept pace with me as I continued to explore the reef.

We swam from the dock off our room

I have fallen asleep at night to the lapping of the waves under my room in my seaside hut in Bocas Del Toro, Panama. I have waked in the darkest hours before dawn and been comforted by the familiar sounds that come with the sea, as if the breaking of each small wave washes away fears and anxieties that haunt us in those moments. I have risen and walked hand in hand with Adrian to the shore to swim before breakfast. We dive in, straight off the gnarled wooden dock that stretches away from our room, shaking sleep from our eyes. We float, absorbed by the peacefulness, the stillness of it all, wanting somehow to hang on to these moments forever. Breakfast – fresh fruit, eggs, juice – is taken with the sand on our toes and the water dripping from our hair, with the sea… well, just over there waiting for us to return.

Salty hair, brown berry skin.

We have spent days on a Caribbean Caye so tiny you can walk from one side to the other in 5 minutes (if your dawdling – which lets face it…we are). The water is everywhere here, it invades all of your senses. The smell of the sea in the air, the feel of the salt on your skin. I become my favourite version of myself in a place like this. The version who lives in bare feet with curls wound so tight with a crust of salt from the sea, skin brown as a berry from a life out of doors. This version does not worry about work, the cases I have left, the schools I will be returning too. This version sleeps soundly at night, does not lie awake wishing for the one thing in life I want the most. This version does not pay attention to the dull ache that is carried around every day, it seems quieter here somehow. I have embraced my “inner earth-child” here, and I have never felt more at peace.

Infinitely better though, is the change I have seen in the man that I married. Gone is the heaviness in his shoulders, the tightness in his neck. Gone is the eyes constantly on the look out for threats. Gone is the man who sits on the couch for hours at night, staring at the TV in an attempt to wind down enough to sleep. Gone is the man governed by routine in a desperate, and ultimately failed, attempt to keep his job from invading all areas of his life. Gone is the short temper, the frustrations, the million little stressors that make him so tightly wound at home. In its place…… well, in its place is the man I fell in love with all those years ago. The person who tickles me and laughs and jokes as we walk down the beach. The person who takes me to dinner where we sit and talk for hours. The person who strikes up conversation with random people on the street, at the table next to us, in shops. The person who does not care if he gets to a gym, what time we eat or whether he has a drink (or 4). The stress has melted away and he has rediscovered what life is like when you do not do the job he does every day. I want to bottle this for him, take it home with us and keep it on a shelf so that when his job starts to invade again, I can take it down and show him it does not have to be that way. I want all the people who love him to have a chance to see him relaxed like this. Most of all though, I just want for him to stay this way… I have never seen him happier.

That is what the sea can do, it has the power to release you from yourself, to question whether your priorities are right and whether deep down, you are letting life pass you by in an effort to “get ahead”.

And then sometimes the sea is my foe…..

The clouds were building before the hurricane

We outran a Hurricane from our little island paradise. Somehow an island so small you can cross it in 5 minutes sounds significantly less romantic when there is a hurricane bearing down on you. We had intended to catch a boat across the Caribbean to Mexico, but the authorities closed the ports the night before we were due to leave. We made the rounds of airports trying to get a flight. “We think we’re flying…we’ll have to see about the weather”. We booked tickets on a morning flight with the storm due to hit at midday. All the radio stations were on hurricane alert, tracking the storm as it gathered momentum.

Rain pouring either side of the hammock, Bocas Del Toro

We watched the sea turn from calm and friendly to the frothing, violent beast that can snap boats, sink ships and kill humans – the beings who pride themselves on their “top-of-the-food-chain” status. We lay in hammocks in the afternoon, under a palapa and watched the rain pour down on all 4 sides of us. We were over the ocean, and you still could not see if for the rain. We swam quickly, the waves were choppy and big. There was no blue in the water, only grey and dark, dark shadows. I stood and watched the water change and felt such respect, such awe for this force of water, currents and waves. Our tiny 4 seater plane flew us around the storm, we skirted the black edge and could see the rain just to the right of us as the storm grew. The water below us looked fierce, unforgiving, deadly. So removed from the calmness I had come to love, and maybe trust.

People died in that Hurricane and as I read about the damage I remembered the ocean’s dangerous, menacing air as the storm developed. It felt like the ocean was coming to claim what was hers, maybe as payment for the abuse we humans hurl at her every day.

But as I write this, from a room perched high on a hill, overlooking the Pacific off the coast of Maui I am contemplating an ocean that is still and calm and oh so blue. My breakfast is waiting, with a mug of steaming coffee. I can hear the water calling too, begging us to pay her one more visit before we leave.

Night time walks on the beach

The rays are majestic

 

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What I learnt in La Paz.

About La Paz I can tell you very little, except that this city offered up to me one of the greatest lessons life can ever teach.

The view from our hotel window....which is all I saw of La Paz

La Paz is 4000m above sea level, the air is so thin here you notice it as soon as you get out of the plane. People had warned us of the dangers of altitude sickness, the illness that comes with your body not being able to cope with the lack of oxygen available that high above sea level. We took the warnings semi-seriously, and had intentions of taking things slowly when we landed.

Within 7 hours however, Adrian could barely breathe, could not walk and was in a state of severe anxiety. He could not sleep and his body was jerking spasmodically. At 11pm I rushed him to hospital, a specific institute for severe cases of what I was assuming was altitude sickness. The doctors took him straight in, ran test after test, scan after scan to try and work out what was wrong.

I sat on a chair and watched my husband seem to fade away in front of me. The sicker he got, the more worried I became until I finally dozed off, exhausted some time around 2. The doctors woke me at 3, Adrian was being sedated and placed immediately on oxygen. He had fluid on his brain and in his lungs, a massive infection and severe acute altitude sickness. There was nothing more I could do for him and they wanted me to go home, to rest and sleep so I did not become sick also.

Against all of my better judgment I left him there, the man that I love, and took a taxi home at 330 am through the deserted streets of La Paz.

I cried all the way home.

In the decompression chamber, 14 hours after admission.

I arrived back at the hospital early the next morning, Adrian was wired up to monitors everywhere and breathing with the assistance of a machine. I had not really realised how severe Adrian´s illness was until the doctor pulled me into his office that morning and told me that if I had left bringing him in for another 12 hours Adrian may well have died.

I realised this in that moment: we choose a mate in this life, and somewhere along the way love becomes normal, everyday. Your time is taken up with worry about money, whose turn it is to cook, who forgot to put the washing out, who read the map wrong and got us lost, who thought Milanese meant eggplant in Spanish (n.b. it actually means huge hunk of deep-fried cheese).

You do not stop loving your mate, but the love kind of fades into the fabric of the things that need to be done everyday to keep your little worlds turning. It is so easy to forget how much you love someone until you are faced with a situation where they might be taken away from you, and then you want to grab them and hold them and fight with every inch of your being to keep them with you.

In that moment, all of the petty (and not so petty) fights mean nothing, they are swept away by the fear that your mate might not be there for always. Not many of us get the opportunity to have their mate make a full recovery after a realisation like this. Many have had this realisation and then their mate has slipped away forever.

I am so lucky that I still have my mate besides me, that I still have him to make memories with. I have no doubt Adrian and I will fight across the rest of our lives, but it is with the knowledge that I could have lost him that morning, and that changes everything.

So while I can offer you nothing in the the way of what La Paz was like, I can offer you this:

Life is short. Life is often too short and when it is, it will almost never be by choice.

Live now. Fight, make dinner, put the washing out, but do it with the knowledge that it may not be for always and there may not always be time for all the things mundane daily life stops you from saying.

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Could Rio be an artichoke?

The city cascades down the mountains to the sea

The city of Rio is built on impossibly tall pseudo-mountains that lurch majestically and imposingly out of the ocean. It feels like one day the sea burped and shot them up, up into the sky. On the beaches - the outer layers of the artichoke – the sandy shores of the Atlantic, is the Rio that is reminiscent of Europe. There are wide tree lined streets, outdoor cafes, rubbish bins, toilets you can walk into without retching. Cars drive in their designated lanes, there are cycle paths and people greet you smilingly, accommodatingly. Here beautifully dressed people stroll along designer cobbled pavements with dogs on leads past Yves Saint Laurent, Gucci and Prada. The beaches burst at the seams with perfect bodies, flesh flauntingly on display. Gorgeous bronzed men play volleyball and do gym workouts on the equipment in the sand. Stunningly defined women lounge around, flicking their oversized earrings as they turn their heads to laugh at a joke, delivered seamlessly.

Playing volleyball in tanned perfection

People here wander through the streets topless, with their perfect pecs and beautiful behinds on show, shamelessly, proudly, and oh so tanned. These people make playing volleyball in a g-string look like the most natural thing in the world (and believe me, it is harder than it sounds).

Beautiful people make beautiful babies and this part of Rio is no exception. Flawless children run, weaving through the adults on the sand, following a soccer ball with an ease and grace that tracks the beat of an invisible samba drum. Flick, kick, run, twist, jump, kick, twist, flick. Beat, beat, beat, beat, beat, beat, beat, beat. Their effortless movements are breathtaking to those of us that cannot hear it. Hours are lost watching. The sun shines here, it seems like the sun would shine forever on this glorious part of the world.

If you turn your back on the beaches though, walk inland and uphill – the mood changes. It is as if the city has pulled off her tummy tightening undies, let her belly flop over the top of her pants and sighed “This is the real me”. Here grey looking people walk down grey looking streets thinking grey looking thoughts. The sun does not seem to reach these middle parts of the artichoke, graffiti covers the walls. People throw rubbish into the streets to be collected… sometime… maybe. There is a sense of emptiness on these streets, a sense that life is tough, harsh and disappointing. People stumble over cracked pavements, the toilets are unthinkable and no one seems to want to catch your eye. This, to me, is the real Rio. The one the tour brochures do not show you. The one that leaves me with a heavy heart, a bitter taste in my mouth and smell in my nose… or is that just the stench of urine that pervades the air here?

The 'real' Rio - greyer, darker.

From here, the fevelas can be seen. Menacing, hunched over the city as a reminder that all that glitters is perhaps not gold. These parts of town are off limits to tourists, to anyone really, and warnings abound of the danger within them. Here sanitation, electricity and running water do not exist. Poverty, disease and maybe misery are abundant. Although… maybe the people here are happy, comfortable with the little slice of the world they have carved for themselves. The fevela children run across the hills, calling to each other, in filthy clothes with snotty noses. I never saw them, but I heard them calling and my heart ached.

Right at the heart, the pinnacle of the city, is Cristo Redento, Christ the Redeemer. He stands, proud and alone on the highest mountain of Rio. He can be seen from everywhere, a reminder of the strength of faith of the people here, from the favelas to the ocean. As we walk around in his shadow, through the streets, weaving our way amongst the leaves of the artichoke, I wonder if he gets lonely up there. Whether he despairs at the fate of mankind, whether he sees the shootings, the drugs, the haves-and-the-have-nots and wonders what the point of any of it is. I found him profoundly moving.

We walked away from Rio not unhappily, but not happily either. As I said, Rio is an artichoke, and they should only ever be eaten in moderation.

I wonder if he gets weary from watching the world?


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