Category Archives: Adventure

Life is Like a Box of Chocolates

You never know what you’re going to get.

One moment my passport was in my bag, the next moment it wasn’t.   Did someone steal it?  Did it fall out somewhere?  I have no idea and I have covered so much ground it’d be fruitless to go looking.  I’ve torn apart my room and suitcase five times over but no luck.

My advice to you: Never lose your passport.  It’s a real hassle. Um, that’s an understatement.

Last week I added a night to my stay on the Queensland coast to spend more time near the Great Barrier Reef, Daintree rainforest, and the ocean, the jungle, and just enjoy the slow pace of this area, after go-go-going for three weeks around Australia.

I have to show up in Sydney to get a new one.  So I’ve cancelled two nights here in the north and changed my flight to Sydney for 5am on Wednesday to arrive there in time for the only appointment that was available in the next 10 days at the US consulate.  I filed a police report and cancelled my passport (maybe, the online system told me I had “no passports to report stolen or lost”). I am filling out forms and finding a hotel in Sydney at the last minute (not a cheap proposition!).

I am lucky.  I have a credit card, a driver’s license, and access to cash, which makes all things easier.  I can’t imagine how it would feel to be a stateless person and have no friends or resources.  It’d be scary as hell.

I am eating a veggie pizza and drinking some wine.  I could spend my last day here obsessing about all this in my hotel room, but I am going out to the reef tomorrow to snorkle.

This too, is an adventure.  I hope it ends well.

How Ya Goin’?

Greetings from Palm Cove Australia, where I am on my own in this country for the first time since arriving 18 days ago.  I am reading the guest information book in my room and under “Swimming” it says:

Crocodiles are occasionally seen off the beaches but generally they inhabit creeks and estuaries that flow into the ocean. They are ambush predators and generally do not actively hunt or expend a lot of energy in the process.

Is this supposed to make me feel safer?

Visitors are discouraged from wading in creeks, waterways and mangroves where water is shallow or knee deep. Visitors should NOT swim in the ocean at night.

I can abide by those guidelines, but apparently others cannot.  Before I left Melbourne my friends were telling me about recent croc deaths. A park ranger was fishing with her family—wading in a shallow creek.  One minute she was there, the next she was gone.  They found her dismembered body a few days later. A German tourist went swimming in a creek that had a sign warning, “NO SWIMMING—CROCODILES.”  It even had a picture of a crocodile with its mouth gaping open, for non-English speakers.  That was his last swim, ever. As I was riding into town on the hotel shuttle, I saw dozens of people fishing and wading in the creeks and mangrove swamps.  What gives? These are probably the same people who would swim in the ocean at night.

The one thing I dreaded about this trip was the 15-hour flight from LA to Sydney. I have to say, it wasn’t that bad.

I had my compression socks, eye mask, ear plugs, down pillow, crossword puzzles, and a book, which I thought might be overkill but the movie selection wasn’t great so I was glad to have it.

I did watch one really good movie, All the Money in the World, about the kidnapping of J. Paul Getty’s grandson.  It starred Michelle Williams, Mark Wahlberg, Christopher Plummer, and his grandson Charlie Plummer as the grandson.  This was the movie Kevin Spacey was cut from after his #MeToo moment.

There was an Aussie sitting next to me on the plane who was returning from a vacation in Mexico.  He raved about Mexico, took a sleeping pill, then didn’t move for 15 hours except when I shook him awake so I could go to the bathroom. It’s interesting how Mexico was exotic to him but he was dreading going back to Australia (and work).  I have spent a lot of time in Mexico and it no longer feels exotic.

And Australia—does it feel exotic?  There have been moments when I thought, “This could be Minnesota.”  Like this view of Heidi’s family’s farm:

But then there were the roos.  These photos aren’t great, but they are candid.

There are other landscapes, of giant gum (eucalyptus) trees that feel alien, in a stunningly beautiful way.

The language is English but they shorten many words (a journalist is a journo, a medic is an ambo) and so much slang that I have often found myself staring blankly at the speaker.  A newly arrived immigrant is a FOB (Fresh off the Boat) and going to hang out with your friends is hooning around.

In the UK I was thrown by the standard greeting, “Ya’ll right?”  In Australia, the greeting is “How ya goin’?” instead of, “How ya doin’?” as we would ask in the US.  Aussies really do say, “G’day”—not everywhere, but here and there and more so in the country.

People are so friendly. Yesterday when I was checking my bag at the airport, the agent told me about her favorite tour here, while hundreds of people waited behind me.  None of them seemed irritated.

Is Australia as expensive as I’d read?  It depends.  Hotels are very reasonable, while meals out are outrageously expensive, and food in groceries is somewhere in between. The American dollar is strong against the Australian, so I get to take 30% off everything.

Heidi and her family have been so welcoming.  Heidi’s Auntie Margaret gave up her flat in Sydney for us to use for a couple nights.  This is the view.  Horrible, huh?

Australia Bound

Twelve hours from now, I will be in Los Angeles waiting for my flight to Sydney. Sydney is 13 hours ahead of LA, and the flight is 15 hours long, so that means in theory I will try to stay awake as long as possible and then sleep the second half, so I will be somewhat rested when I arrive in Australia at 7:30am.

If Lynn is reading this she is probably laughing, because she knows I can barely stay up past 9pm.  But I have been slowly moving my bedtime forward in anticipation of this trip, and last night I was awake until 1:30am—probably for the first time since I was a teenager.

I downloaded an app called Timeshifter that claims to help people shift their wake/sleep schedules ahead of long-haul trips.  I just couldn’t bear the thought of staying indoors with the blinds drawn to block out the sun during the day, and drinking coffee at 3:00 in the morning.  So I deleted the app and concocted a do-it-yourself program. I’m not great at math so I may have it all backwards. I fully expect to get no sleep on the plane and arrive completely exhausted.

As is my habit—and I recommend this to anyone—I use a big trip as a deadline to really get in shape so I will have energy and strength for lifting and pulling bags and walking everywhere—and staying awake.  For the last seven weeks I set a goal for myself to swim for 45 minutes once a week, bike 20 miles a week, lift weights twice, do yoga twice, and walk two or three times.  I am happy to report I stuck to this plan so now I can let myself go.

Yesterday after work I went for a swim even though I Really Did Not Want To.  I am still a crap swimmer.  I have no endurance; rare is the instance I can do the crawl for a full pool length. I always tell myself, “It’s okay to go slow” but that gives me the sensation I am sinking.  So then I flail and thrash about and am soon winded.  I do a half dog paddle, half crawl the rest of the way, gasping for breath.

Which brings me to the What Ifs.  What if my lousy swimming is due to having undiagnosed lung cancer?  As usual, I think about all the possible things that could go wrong before or during a big trip.  This is not helped by the half dozen comments I’ve received from well-meaning people warning me about crocodiles, sharks, and poisonous things in the desert.

What about you?  Would you rather be attacked by a shark or a croc?  I’d take a shark any day.  I think it would be a quick death, whereas crocs pull you under water while you’re still alive and munch on you at their leisure.  Plus, you can punch or kick a shark and maybe they’ll back off, or at least that’s the lore.

But my mind is not limited to savage wild animal attacks.  What if I stub my toe and break it today, and the doctor says I cannot fly with a broken bone?    What if someone hacks into my bank accounts while I’m camping in the desert and cleans me out?  What if someone breaks into my house while I’m away and steals…my plants or my 10-year-old TV?

Most dreaded of all: What if my flight turns into another Malaysia Airlines Flight 370?

While all this is whirling around in my head I will carry on doing what needs to be done, including putting my plants in the bathtub so they’ll live without me for a month, fishing the goldfish out of the backyard pond and delivering them to a neighbor who has a year-round pond, calling my mother, going for a walk, packing, unplugging all my appliances, and cleaning out my car because I am renting it to someone while I’m gone.

What an exciting life I lead!  I really am fortunate.  Even if the plane does go into a death spiral over French Polynesia, I will have had a fantastic time up until then.

Summer Summary, the End

For the past decade, summers have been capped off with a family gathering in northern Wisconsin at a resort called Garmisch USA.  This is to distinguish it from Garmisch, Germany.

Garmisch USA was the brainchild of a series of Chicago lumber barons and their heirs, starting at the turn of the last century.  One heir, Jean Funk, had traveled the world and came back eager to recreate what she had seen.  Here she is, posing on the Queen Mary with her mother and in front of a bistro in Paris.

Garmisch is comprised of a lodge and about 20 “cabins,” if you consider this a cabin.

The “cabins” are named Blarney Castle (above), Chateau des Alpes, Edelweiss Haus, Schwaben Haus, and The Beetle, which is where we congregated thanks to my aunt’s generosity.

The Beetle looks normal from the outside.

There are two levels, each with bedrooms, a kitchen, and living area.  The kitchens look normal.

But turn around, and you’ll wonder if someone slipped LSD into your beer.

Jean must have traveled through Africa and the South Pacific, too, and brought home treasures to incorporate into Garmisch.  There are shelves and glass-fronted display cases full of souvenirs, including this uniform.  Swiss?  German? Hitler Youth?

There are closets galore, an elevator, and a hidden trap door that leads to two vast unfinished third-floor rooms full of surprises.

The grounds are sprinkled with out buildings overrun by chipmunks.

And creepy figurines, and a cannibal cauldron.

But we’re there for the family time on Lake Kabetogama.

We sat inside during the rain and talked and ate and read and played Scrabble.  When the sun was out a dozen people took the pontoon to fish and swim and gape at other enormous cabins.  We hiked and kayaked and made bonfires.  Some of us went into town to the farmer’s market and some went to my niece’s baby-naming ceremony at Lac Courte Oreilles reservation.  She and her partner and the baby are missing from this photo, otherwise there would be 17 of us.

Boy, am I ever short.  I wonder if I am shrinking or if my niece, whose shoulders I am holding, is getting taller.

No Minnesota summer is complete without a day frittered away at the State Fair.  Dubbed “The Great Minnesota Get Together,” this is your chance to socialize with two million of your neighbors in the heat and rain and to enjoy gourmet delights such as deep-fried pickles on a stick.

I arrived early to hit the booth of a local spectacle store that had advertised State Fair specials. I need a new pair of glasses and I found some great frames on sale.  After figuring in my three prescriptions (reading, computer, and driving), UV protection, antiglare, and tax, I walked away having blown the better part of a paycheck.

I met some friends and we partook in craft beers, then perused the crop art in the Horticulture Building.  Yes, all of these are made of seeds.  Winters are long on the prairie and people must amuse themselves somehow.

We swung through the Dairy Building to gaze upon the climate-controlled, revolving butter-busts of the Fair Princesses, including Princess Kay of the Milky Way.

Then it was on to the livestock pavilions.  Really, it’s a wonder these poor animals don’t die of terror after 12, 12-hour days being poked and prodded by strangers (We were there on the last day and the rabbits were being readied for transportation back to their farm; they were in larger cages during the fair).

We swung through the Department of Natural Resources for photo ops with Smoky the Bear, who turns 50 this year.  I know he’s not real, but a girl can dream. Tall, dark, and furry….

Evening began to fall, and do did the rain, as I met another group of friends for the concert in the Grandstand: the Thomson Twins (but only one of them), the B52s, and Boy George and Culture Club.

Boy George’s makeup can only be described as satanic.  His response to the audience, was “Wha’ di’jer expect?  I’m Boy Fucking George!”  It was great.

And that was my summer. Eight more sleeps, then I’m Australia bound.

Summer Summary

Today is Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.  It’s as good a time as any to re-start writing.  I’ll join some friends at synagogue this morning, then have a free day.  The weather is always beautiful on Rosh Hashanah, so I’ll spend as much time outside as possible, doing as little as possible, which is really hard for me.

It’s been three years since my son was released from prison.  I saw him yesterday and reminded him, “When I called you the day before I picked you up, I asked if there was some food you’d like me to bring along for you.  And without hesitation you said, ‘an avocado…or any fresh fruit or vegetable, really.’”

He laughed, remembering this. I had brought an avocado, and some oranges, and he wolfed them down.  Then he had asked to stop at a MacDonald’s, and to buy a lottery ticket. I wasn’t happy about either of those but I bit my tongue. I did a lot of that in the months that followed, as we lived together in my tiny, dark flat over the winter. A couple times I lost my temper and screamed at some inanimate object.  Vince would draw himself up to his full height, look at the floor, walk to his bedroom that doubled as a laundry room, and shut the door.  It was a very long winter.

Vince now has four years of sobriety.  He’s got a job at a country club with good pay and benefits like health insurance—for the first time in 20 years.  He bought a house this spring.  He has a girlfriend with two young children, and he is thriving at playing a father role.

It’s complicated.  I love kids and I am cautiously forming attachments to these two cuties.

It’s been a great summer. As I’ve written over and over, I’m a big advocate of seeking adventure at home. Sure, I would love to travel nonstop, but that’s not in the budget.

This was Pola-Czesky Days, the annual festival in the tiny town where Vince lives. Small town parades consist of marching bands and floats featuring veterans, civic groups, politicians, and other towns’ princesses.

There was also a tractor pull, which I didn’t understand.  It was basically just tractors roaring down the street over and over, making a lot of noise and belching out fumes.

As a life-long city person, this type of thing is more exotic to me than London or New York.  I loved the classic cars.

Other summer doings: I won tickets to a St. Paul Saints minor league baseball game. They were playing Winnipeg.  I don’t know why the Saints mascot is a pig, but hey, never pass up a photo opp with a mascot.

I went to Irish Festival, which always has great music and strange performances involving little girls wearing curly wigs, Irish dogs, and men in kilts hurling things and playing bagpipes.  Then were the Christians at the gate.  I already knew I was in trouble so their Good News wasn’t news to me.

I went to Wannigan Days in St. Croix Falls, Wisconsin, the highlight of which was human foosball. Unfortunately I didn’t get a good photo so you will just have to use your imagination.

There was a memorable happy hour at Lake Monster Brewery sponsored by Jewish Community Action, with which I am still doing my very small part on their campaigns to reduce mass incarceration and injustice against immigrants.

Inspired by the Great British Baking Show, for my nephew’s birthday I made a cake with layers of sponge and crème patisserie covered with whipped cream and fruit.  It slid sideways in the car on the way to the party but it still tasted good.

I hung out in the backyard of my apartment, which is wild and secluded.  I have come to love where I live, but then I love anywhere in summer.

My summer summary will have to be continued, as will an update on my Australia trip, which starts in two weeks.

Broken, now Free

I thought it might be difficult to not write. After nearly 600 posts since September 2014—and many streaks of every-other-day posts, I pledged to (mostly) take the summer off from writing.

And it’s been great.  I have no problem sleeping in instead of leaping out of bed at 5:30am to knock out 700 words.

But yesterday was a big milestone, something worth writing about.  The reason I ever started this blog in the first place—my son going to prison—is gone.  Yesterday, after spending half his time in prison and half on supervised release, my son’s sentence is over. Over!  He wrote a post about it on his own blog, if you’d like to read it.  I liked this line:

“I am free to roam about the country or world as I please. I am free to register to vote, and I will. I am free to drink alcohol, and I won’t. I am still not allowed to own a gun, and I don’t care.”

For me, the low point was the day I was ejected from Moose Lake prison without seeing Vince because I was wearing a “low-cut shirt.”  Then I went off to the Middle East for work, where I got to hear stories of people being tortured in prison.  When I came home, there was a letter waiting for me, informing me I was banned from stepping foot on any correctional facility property in Minnesota for six months.

Corrections employees have nearly complete discretion, and impunity, to do whatever they want.  And so they do whatever they want.

I feel like I am walking out into the sunlight after several years under a cloud. I transitioned the blog to writing mostly about travel a while back, but I’ll still write about prison once in a while because … there are still 10s of thousands of people in prisons. I don’t just care about my son; I care about my whole community, my state, my country.

Sigh, my poor country.  What a mess we are.  It’s like a nightmare where we are all living on the Jerry Springer Show.

I had never given a thought to prison, prisoners, or people whose loved ones are in prison.  Why would I?  Prisons are far away.  You can’t go inside them without permission. Only bad people are in them, so why would you want to go inside, anyway?  And if a single mom is on her own because her man is in prison, then she and her kids are probably better off, right?

Boy, has it been an eye opener. There are some bad people in prison, for sure.  But mostly they’re regular people who messed up.  Have you ever messed up?  Of course you have.  You just didn’t do something illegal, or you didn’t get caught.

I am grateful to my son for doing the hard work it took to change his life. He had been under arrest before.  He had been homeless.  I suspected he would die early due to liver failure or a car accident or a drug deal gone wrong.

Ironically, it was prison that set him free.  He always says he needed to go to prison. So for all my idealistic fellow campaigners on prison reform, keep that in mind when you propose repurposing prisons into artists’ retreats or organic garden centers.

I have made little progress planning for Australia, except to decide that I will limit myself to Australia and not attempt to also visit New Zealand, Fiji, Borneo, or Papua New Guinea.

Heidi and I spoke for over an hour yesterday on What’s App, and we agreed it’s crunch time.  Time to figure out how we’ll get from Sydney to Melbourne, time to book flights to Tasmania and maybe a train ride to Alice Springs.  Time to book accommodations in the Red Centre.   The pressure is on.

And yet it is summer, and it’s Sunday.  I think I’ll go sit in the garden and read the paper.

Road Trips, Fireworks, and Kittens

I’ve written about snorkeling in Belize, hiking in Petra, learning Spanish in Mexico, working in Istanbul and Ramallah, and the biggest adventure of all, visiting my son in prison.

But I’m also a proponent of finding adventure closer to home.  After all, you can’t travel internationally 365 days a year, although I’d like to test that assumption.

So on Tuesday I drove 260 miles (418 kilometers) to Madison, Wisconsin to visit my cousin.  The speed limit for most of the route is 70MPH (113KPH).  On the plus side, the road is smooth, the scenery is pretty, and I just found out I have cruise control—after owning my car for over a year.  I set it to 76 in honor of the Independence Day holiday.

I90 was congested with semi trucks.  There are a lot of disturbing billboards for truck stop porno shops along the way.  Is that all truckers do when they don’t have their hands on a steering wheel?  Ugh.

This was the route Lynn and I took two years ago on our way to New Orleans.  This post describes some of the exciting places we visited, like the Cranberry Discovery Center and Jellystone Park.

I stopped at a wayside rest and learned about sphagnum moss, including how to spell it.

I somehow tore myself away from this fascinating info-plaque and drove on.

Madison is half the size of St. Paul-Minneapolis.  It has a Top 10 public university where I met one of my nieces for happy hour.  She’s always been a great person and she’s even better now because she’s doing what young adults are supposed to do in college.  I don’t mean studying.  I mean figuring out how to be an adult.  How to manage friendships, romantic relationships, inner turmoil, outer turmoil, etc.

A few hours later, my cousin and I went to Hyvee for dinner because his wife, who was exhausted from her work as a physical therapist, wanted to rest and asked him to bring her a to-go Cobb salad.

When Hyvee opened in St. Paul, people acted as if it was the second coming of Christ.  I don’t get it.  It’s just another grocery store with all the same processed food but presented beautifully. We had the all-you-can-eat “Chinese” buffet and I can tell you, they should have paid me $8.99 to eat the execrable crap they passed off as Chicken Stir Fry.  The chicken was rubbery and looked suspiciously as if it had been extruded from a machine.  But I wolfed it down because I hadn’t eaten since happy hour, where I had ordered a large basket of deep-friend cauliflower. It was terrible.  I ate every crumb.

Back at his house, my cousin and I sat on the porch in the dark, slapping mosquitoes and talking about politics and our childhoods—we grew up three houses apart so we feel more like siblings than cousins. He’s a radio journalist and just about ready to hang it up in this political climate.  “Working at Hyvee looked really appealing,” he remarked.

The next day we drove through the arboretum, had breakfast at a place called Barriques and a few hours later lunch at Monty’s Blue Plate Diner. Then we spent an hour at Olbrich Botanical Gardens.  How had I never been there?  I’ve been to many botanical gardens around the world, and this was one of the best.

Then it was back on the road, just in time to arrive home for 4th of July fireworks.  You may have read that people who have lived through war can be re-traumatized by the sounds of fireworks. Well I live in a neighborhood of many Southeast Asian immigrants and last night it was like trying to sleep through the Vietnam war.  I could hear my neighbors yelling and shouting in Hmong in between what sounded like cannon blasts until 1:30 am.

I finally gave up on sleep and got up, only to find an animal adventure under my dining room table, where my latest foster cat was in the process of giving birth.  I sat with her, stroking her head.  It was a rough night, but here they are this morning, six in a pile.  Worth it.