Great Ocean Road

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Australia from the passenger side

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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.

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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.

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Starlight in Cape Town

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.

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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.

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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

Sun down in South Africa

Mexico Revisted

Note: I wrote this post before my trip to Mexico, but never got around to posting. The trip was different than I imagined, as trips generally are. But I thought it was worth posting anyway, and once I have my arms around exactly what did happen there, I will write to that as well.

Trips to Mexico punctuated my childhood with relative frequency. I don’t remember much from my first visit, but I know I was in Mazatlan. And the small terra cotta plate I painted in that part of a resort where they send children to be entertained hangs in my hallway, a colorful memento of my first steps in that first of foreign countries.

I spent other holidays there – spring breaks in the Yucatan, Christmas (and a quinceañera) in Guadalajara, a visit to Mexico City. I never knew to be afraid when I traveled, not the way we do now with State Department alerts and CDC websites. Back then it was about how many stuffed animals I could bring, or what kind of tan I’d have to show off when I returned.

A street in Puerto Vallarta Mexico

A street in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico

As bona-fide Mexican-American, I found Mexico as foreign as any other far-off place on the map. I didn’t feel home in any sense of the word, but after two or three trips I felt comfortable. I knew what to expect in the city and what to expect in the small towns (2 pesos for toilet paper at the town square restroom).

But more recently, Mexico has receded from the list of next adventures I always refer to. The trouble there with drugs and violence makes me profoundly sad for the proud, hard-working people who must live among those demons. That their once idyllic towns and villages have become freeways for smugglers  (headed primarily toward the United States), makes me angry that I am powerless to help in any important way. What appears to be the “safest” way to visit is now my least favorite way to see this country – through the gated entries of all-inclusive resorts, where no one has to leave the comfort of a swim-up bar. I cannot visit Mexico in this way. It violates every instinct I have about how to get to know a country – through their home-cooked food, their festivals, houses of worship and music.

colorful home in Mexico

Colorful homes in Mexico

And so of course, feeling as passionate about the tourist-ready version of Mexico I don’t care to see, I’ll be taking a cruise on the Mexican Riviera to Puerto Vallarta at Christmas. I didn’t mean to join the cruising crowd, but it is a gift from my parents for me and my sister – and I’m never one to turn down a trip of any kind. So I’ll cruise to Mexico. I’ll have the comfort of a swim-up bar, and a twice daily cleaned room and as much toilet paper as I’ll ever need. But the two days we spend docked in PV will be my relief. My family, who share the same instinct for culture, will find our way away from the dock, beyond the Senior Frogs and caricature-like mariachi bands. We’ll use my mom’s fluent Spanish to quiz cab drivers on where they eat breakfast, ask women on the street where we can find a Mass on Christmas day, and follow the local crowd to the best and busiest market in town.

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Seeing Puerto Vallarta from the deck of MS Zaandam

I’m sure we will appreciate the pool and air conditioning and unquestionably clean food when we return to the cruise ship. But we’ll know that we’ve seen more of Mexico than most of the people on that boat. Because we care enough about the country and the people to actually see them, for what they are, what they have been and what they will always be.

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Serenade during lunch

Finding Rhythm in El Colorado

I am not very good at sports. Honestly, I was generally chosen last or very close to last on any team. There are a long string of coaches from elementary to high school who knew I only showed up at my chosen sport practice to chat with my friends. My mom’s best memory of my short-lived pee wee soccer career was watching me pick daisies in the backfield while the game went on around me.

But I love to ski. For some odd reason, my mother would bundle me up in all manner of puffy clothes and lug our skis, both annual ski swap purchases, across icy parking lots to spend what was likely a hefty amount of cash on a day of skiing. I’m guessing she liked the sport a little, too, although the first few years of my downhill education she spent hunched over as I teetered between her legs, hanging over her ski poles. No way was that fun for her – but it was an outrageous time for me!

As I got older, I got better and eventually started skiing faster and steeper stuff, all the while demanding better equipment. And money for lift tickets and lunch. She complied. I skied. I loved the speed and the near-death experience you can have while facing down a tree or leaning just a little too far back on your heels. I loved the icy air, and hidden trails between runs, and the rhythm of turns to get lost in.

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View of the imposing Andes from Santiago, Chile.

It was inevitable that when we went to Chile one summer in June that I would insist on a trip to a ski slope. It was winter there, after all, and the Andes shoot straight up behind Santiago. I could practically smell the snow from the city streets. We found a small tourist shop that rented skis and sold reservations for a bus up the mountain. I remember arriving at some early hour to pick up our equipment with a few ex-pats and tourists, and off we went. Straight up the mountain, on roads covered in snow and ice, in a bus with bald tires. There was only room for one car on the narrow road, so the morning route meant everybody was going up, and in the evening everybody went down. Like suicide lanes on city streets, only deadlier. I remember sliding backward for the umpteenth time when our bus had to stop abruptly while a plow pulled out the car in front of us, and realized someone had forgot to put guardrails on this particular switchback. Actually, all the switchbacks.

Lunch break skiing the Andes

Lunch break at the ski lodge, atop the Andes mountains.

We finally made it to the top, thanked  the many saints and angels on duty, and went about spending a fine day skiing the Andes mountains. El Colorado was the resort where we skied and it could not have been a more perfect day. Blue skies, fresh powder and view from the top of the world. I could not believe my luck! I may or may not have accidentally fallen off the side of the lodge deck while peering down into the city far below, but aside from that slight misadventure, I thoroughly enjoyed my first ski trip on the South American continent.

I still ski, and will continue as long as my legs hold me up. It’s probably the most expensive hobby one can enjoy, and every few years they change all the rules for equipment. But for me, it’s still about the speed, the sound, the rhythm and the icy, open air.

Heaven Enters on the Inside

Tulip in bloom

Tulip in bloom

It is late April. All my windows are open and I feel the cold air rush in and around my home. The new air is coming in and I can nearly see the stale, pallid air rushing out. The cold and newness is touching everything I own, giving a hint of what is to come.

I’m feeling particularly inspired now, though I have no reason to be. One of my favorite songwriters, Roseane Cash, said that inspiration is not linear. You are not always inspired by what has happened to you. Sometimes you are inspired by things that have not yet happened. I’m feeling the pregnancy of a moment not yet on the horizon. I’m not sure sure what to do with it yet, but I know that opening the windows and doors of my home, my heart and my life will let the cool touch of newness in where it needs to be. Change will occur where and when it is meant to, and my job is to be here and do what I know best – to observe and record what it is that has become my life.

My life is not always (or even regularly) filled with flash or even excitement. But it is always here, waiting for me as I awake, and standing steady by my side while I sleep. I can be grateful for that.  There is a bit of heaven that  awaits me, if I choose to see it. It is in the clouds that roll in and out of my view; the rain that washes everything clean, leaving a slash of green for weeks to come; in the moments where I know I am, finally, becoming the thing that I have been all along.

Cannon Beach Pilgrimage

Every year, like clockwork, my little family consisting of me, my sister, and my parents, pack up all the food in the known universe and make our way to Cannon Beach, Oregon, for Thanksgiving. There is no discussion of if we’ll go or not this year, but only of who brings what dish and if five bottles of wine are really enough for a four day weekend (five is not enough, it is generally decided).

Southern view from Ecola State Park

A coastline of peace and relaxation.

And so we all journey from our respective homes and meet in late fall in this misty, rainy, evergreen corner of the Oregon coast sometime before dinner on Thanksgiving. It takes two or three trips with the luggage cart to unload my parent’s car (my mother is not known for her frugality with food – we could feed the entire hotel with what she packs in the back of one small SUV). There is good food, and wine, olives and pickles. We eat, we toast and we settle in for four days of bliss with a room facing the ocean.

It’s always been odd to me how well we all put up with the rain on these long holiday weekends. None of us are fond of precipitation in general, but for some reason, at Cannon Beach it is accepted, even welcomed. There isn’t much other weather this time of year, so our expectations are pretty low. Even so, we have very high tolerance for walks on the beach with a face full of rain. Where else but here, where we all run and play on the wet sand like schoolchildren, could the worst weather be nothing more than a side note to some of the most fun we have as a family?

Cannon Beach has been a particular vacation spot on my mother’s side for longer than I have been alive. There is already much family history here, and we continue to make more. We visit the same rustic wine shop every year (even when we finally concede we may have brought enough to satisfy us all) and listen to the stories and advice from one of the best wine experts you’ll ever meet. We tour the art galleries and snatch the free postcards and art catalogs, which some of us will later take apart and post on cubicle walls. There is always a play at the community theater, and we always go, even when the same actress plays the lead year after year. My mother paints, we all read thick books, check the tide tables and decide which portion of the leftovers to eat next.

It is relaxation like no other when we are all here. We can do many things or we can do nothing, and we are as happy with the former as we are the latter. I think that’s why the rain is so tolerable. When you aren’t trying to work against it, cover yourself from it, or run away from it, you can just let it fall. It does no harm, and there is nothing more peaceful than the sound of rain falling on a tide rushing in.