The mystery of travel is that at some point on the journey, when I can pause long enough to breathe in the air of a place, I will feel at home – even for a brief moment. When I was walking along Cape Town streets, heading toward dinner on a now-familiar block, I felt it. When I spent an entire summer in Chile and knew how to order only one thing in Spanish from my favorite lunch spot, I felt it. And when I was standing at a tram stop in Amsterdam, telling the Italian tourists how to pay the fare when the train came along, I also felt it.
Street life in Amsterdam
I think one of the tricks, or maybe results, of a lifetime of world travel is the ability to quickly become familiar with a new place. Part of this trick involves careful studying of maps before any departure – easy for me since I’ve always been fascinated by maps of foreign places. But it also involves a willingness to be uncomfortably lost long enough to become comfortably lost. Because then I’m not lost at all, only wandering streets at will until I decide to return to where I first began.
Every city has a different beat, an unseen pattern to its own madness. Sometimes that beat changes from neighborhood to neighborhood, but the chorus stays the same. Finding out what drives that beat means getting to know a city in an intimate way, through the less-trafficked streets, the small shops and street vendors; even the largest art museums and popular cultural attractions add to the rhythm. They are all things a city can be proud of, and the people tend to reflect that pride.
Being “at home” doesn’t mean I feel like a local, or even pretend that my American clothes and accent don’t stand out immediately to everyone. I realize I look every part the tourist most places I go, with my giant backpack and camera clicking away. But that doesn’t mean I can’t also feel a sense of familiarity and comfort in a new place, even if it’s only the few blocks around my hotel. It’s looking for the familiar in unfamiliar places that keeps me traveling.
Steel, concrete and nature align in New York City
I have a love-hate relationship with Washington’s Puget Sound region. On the one hand (let’s say, summer) it’s absolutely beautiful. I can say with confidence that it’s one of the most beautiful places in the world. There are few major metropolitan cities that sit alongside island-dotted waterways with a backdrop of snow-capped mountain ranges and a variety of volcanoes. On the other hand (let’s say, winter) the gray skies and buckets of rain make me want to run away to to the the middle latitudes every other minute. Seriously.
The Olympic mountains tower over the water and provide a perfect sunset silhouette.
But even in the winter, there are always a few stretches of days with perfectly clear skies, bright sun and sparkling water. It’s on these kinds of days that I load up my camera gear and lunch and head out to explore the region. This winter I headed to the ferry terminal to checkout one of our region’s most noted attractions: The San Juan Islands. Specifically, Vashon Island.
Vashon is a large island in the southern end of Puget Sound, squarely between Tacoma and Seattle and a short 20 minute ferry ride from either. Washington state ferries are also something of a treasure. I’d hate to have to ride one daily as a commuter, but for the weekend adventurer they are the pause before the rush. A 20 minute or 1 hour road-side stopover where you have the best view of the city, the mountains, Mt. Rainier (our friendly local volcano) and the water. If you’re really lucky, some dolphins or even Orca whales will join you. And you don’t even have to get out of the car if you don’t want to. But if you do, the outdoor decks provide a refreshing (if frigid) blast of ocean air as you pass other ferries, freighters and pleasure cruisers as they crisscross the Sound.
Ferries criss-cross each other’s paths in the waters of the Puget Sound.
I had no real goal for the day except to wind my way across the island by getting lost as much as possible. One can only get so lost on an island – eventually you end up where you started. The short winter days also meant I had a limited amount of daylight to enjoy the island.
Getting lost was the perfect antidote to an all-too-hectic year, and I was lucky enough to stumble upon one of the most picturesque lighthouses on the most crystal clear of days. The Point Robinson lighthouse serves as a beacon on the easternmost point of the island, facing the urban density of the Seattle/Tacoma corridor that’s maybe five miles away as the crow flies. That five miles may as well be 1,000 as the pace of life on little Vashon is a respite of scenic calm that thankfully only takes 20 minutes and one ferry to find.
Point Robinson lighthouse, Vashon Island, Washington.
When you grow up in one corner of the world, you take the sky for granted. You know where the sun will rise and set and what stars you will see above you. Always up there, sometimes shifting, but never far from where you expect them to be.
I first saw the stars of the Southern Cross on a dark night in Santiago, Chile. For those in the northern hemisphere, the big dipper is generally the most recognizable constellation – at least the one they teach to elementary school children that they never forget. But south of the equator, the Southern Cross blinks to the stargazer that they are now looking at a completely different bit of space than they ever have before. Imagine that – a brand new corner of the universe to peer into!
The Southern Cross constellation
My first trip south of the equator was as a teenager to Chile, in South America. It was with great fascination that I found the four stars marking the perfect shape of a cross, and looked for it every night after. I saw it again a year later in Australia, as we rode across the Snowy Mountains on horseback in Kosciuszko National Park.
I still love to see the Southern cross on my travels. It’s a silent signal that though I am very far from home I still have some kind stars watching over me. In South Africa, the Cross waved a greeting across the bushveld as I looked out into the sunset across a watering hole filled with hippos. Last spring, in Hawaii, I was told the cross was visible in the very early mornings on the southern horizon. As it turns out, waking up very early on vacation in Hawaii is just not a thing. Until the morning I left. My 5 a.m. flight took off, banked around and out the window of my airplane were those four stars, blinking hello.
Australia’s flag features the constellation
I was far too distracted on the next leg of my trip to Melbourne to look skyward much, and I wasn’t confident in my star-identifying ability – the Cross was quite on its side down here, if that is what I was seeing after all. But on the night I was driven across a hot red desert in central Australia, I laid my head down for a brief nap on the armrest and out the window were those same four winking stars. They followed me all the way home.
The next leg of my Australian road trip I was on my own. I was going north, far north to Alice Springs and the heat would not be a pleasant experience for an expectant mum. Three hours flying over nothing, and I mean nothing, except red desert to land in the sleepy tourist town of Alice Springs that seemed to exist mostly as an entry and exit point to the middle of nowhere. But the ground was a beautiful shade of red, and I do love deserts, so I was perfectly pleased.
Uluru on approach
At 6 a.m. the next morning, I was hustled into a tour bus and sent on down the highway while I watched five hours of pavement pass underneath us. It was a long ride, but the destination was a rock formation elsewhere in that red nothingness. Uluru. A rock I had to see, because…it was there. The “nothingness” was, of course, a whole lot of something to those who traveled that way for thousands of years, long before I was ever a twinkle in the stars. Uluru is massive monolith that is so much more dramatic up close than photos could ever show. There are rock slides and gashes and canyons and deep open caves, some so sacred to ancestors of that land that photographs are not allowed.
And then there were the stories – the creations stories from the Anangu. Dramatic tales of battles, family tragedies and wildlife that account for every mark on that rock. I could have spent a week photographing and exploring it all, but I only had a few hours. Just enough time to appease my curiosity and more than justify the three days of travel to reach it. I watched the sun set on that rock, champagne in hand (who am I to refuse?), purchased aboriginal art that retold the most memorable story of Uluru and packed myself back onto the bus. Finally, another five hours drive through inky black nothingness that hid a world of somethingness that I hope, one day, to discover.
The artist graciously allowed me to photograph her with the artwork I purchased.
I spent a lot of time on the highway on this trip to Australia. In a country as diverse and vast as it is, there is no other way to see so much of it. And no better way, I would add.
I arrived in Melbourne freshly off a 14 hour trip from Maui, where I’d already spent a week. I was fully in vacation mode and ready to begin exploring the city before we ventured out of town. But first – coffee. Melbourne has a healthy coffee culture, music to my Seattle heart, and within a few days I was able to settle on a favorite spot. The Petty Officer in Albert Park is a sweet corner cafe with a properly caffeinated long black and entertaining stack of daily newspapers. Do stop in if you are in the area.
Once I had a chance to repack, we were off. The first road adventure took me and my traveling companion, only a year into her ex-pat status and 4 months pregnant to boot, up the winding Great Ocean Road. Beginning in Bells Beach, a breathtakingly deserted stretch of oceanside, we watched surfers glide in and out of the break with a howling wind at their backs.
Onward through charming seaside towns to Lorne, where we watched perhaps the most perfect late summer sunset drift off as the moon rose over the calm waters of the small bay.
And then to the dramatic Twelve Apostles on a stormy day where the sunlight slashed through the dark clouds at unexpected moments, lighting up pillars of limestone in a way I wouldn’t believe was real except that I was there to see it.
We threw in a few lighthouses to round out the trip, and unexpectedly stumbled on a koala teasing a small roadside crowd with his slow blinks and a mouthful of eucalyptus.
We managed to the highway on a shoulder season, with little traffic and many room vacancies, but still warm days and nights. It was a part of Australia I never knew I needed to see until I saw it, in person, through the passenger-side window.
For the first time ever, I found myself planning a trip to a place I had already been. I spent a summer in Australia as a 15 year-old, a backseat driver on a road trip from Newscastle to Canberra, then off to Cairns and the Great Barrier Reef and the bluest ocean and most colorful reef I could ever hope to see. The experience was worthy of a front row seat in my memory for decades.
Twenty-two years passed, then happy accidents began to form – a dear friend moved to Melbourne the year before, my family planned a mid-winter trip to Hawaii and I overworked myself enough that I swung approval for a 3 week vacation. When in Hawaii…keep traveling south? It made sense to me.
And here is where the story begins to repeat, with a view of oceans and red deserts and koalas out the window. I am still a passenger (should I take offense that my friends don’t let me drive on the left side of the road?), but I’ve spent my life looking out the passenger window and the views I have seen there are burned into my memory for life. It is the greatest gift for a traveler.
My first night in Cape Town, I could not sleep. I had spent over 36 hours in transit, between Seattle, Dubai and this new city at the bottom of the world. My internal clock was all wrong, and I was dead tired and desperately willing myself to sleep. I woke up at roughly 4 am local time and saw for the first time a skylight in the room I shared with my best friend and travel partner, Joan. She was soundly sleeping. I was counting the stars I could see through the skylight, and I watched as the light in the window turned from black, to pewter to rose to light blue. And I still could not sleep. My mind was racing through all that happened in the past two days. A brutal flight in coach to a hot city in the middle east; a view from the top of the tallest building in the world; dinner (minus cocktails) with veiled women and robed men; a picturesque landing on my sixth continent; and a white-knuckled ride on a South African freeway past townships and into the city of my dream. It was enough to make my head spin. It still does.
Cape Town from Table Mountain
How I ended up in Cape Town is both a mystery and obvious. In basic terms, I spent a few weeks planning, gave a paycheck to Expedia and then got on a plane. Mysteriously, I didn’t ever mean to travel to South Africa, at least not now. But I had a dream and in that dream I saw what I believed to be South Africa, near Cape Town. I still believe that. And then I called Joan, my college friend and frequent travel partner, and asked her to think about a trip to southern tip of Africa – we’ll see animals and oceans, I said. She said she was supposed to be paying off student loans this year….but, sure, why not! This is why I love her and also why we travel so well together.
Giraffe’s on the airstrip at Arathusa
We planned and discussed and planned some more, and then we got on the plane to the city that I never knew I wanted to see but that I cannot imagine not knowing. We did see oceans and animals, and sheer cliffs for roadways, and warthogs on runways, and ostriches sunning themselves on blustery beaches at the south-westernmost point of the African continent. We saw it all, and we saw nothing – only a glimmer of the mirage that is one of the most profound places on our planet. Like a view through a skylight, what I could see was only one window into a vast space, but it was still magnificent.
Sun down in South Africa