Posts Tagged ‘Travel’

As the pilot circles above Canberra, I think he’s tricked us and flown instead to Boise.  I see round, brownish foothills, big blue skies, endless roads, wide-open space.  I step off the plane and it hits me – warm, dry air.  My throat fills with tears, and for a split second, I think I’m home.  But I’m in Australia, and just minutes away from a beloved friend.  I look up to see Tobie, holding Asha, waiting for me at the gate.  I step into their embrace, feel Asha’s hand on my hair.  It’s been a year, a really long year, since we’ve seen each other.  Asha pulls a stuffed rabbit from my backpack and cuddles it.  Aaron grabs my bag and we head out.  I’m leaving the airport in a car, with friends.  No taxis, no queues, no crowds.  This feels like home.           OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I delight nonstop in the ordinary bits of a day in Australia.  I am staying in a house!  The houseflies are huge!  It’s so quiet – no trains, buses, cars, honking, screeching!  It’s so dark – I can’t even see my hand in front of my face when the lights are out!  The birds – they’re huge!  The people – they’re huge too!  I get to drive a car!  It’s cool at night – I can sleep with the window open!  I get to drive a car!   They have a dishwasher!  A stove! They have real sausage here! I get to drive a car!  I get to see a kangaroo!

I really want to see a kangaroo.  Tobie promises me they’re everywhere.  She and Aaron chat about the best place to find them.  We sneak out at dusk, drive around, get out and stalk through neighborhoods.  But for the first five days, nothing.  Not a hint of a kangaroo, unless you count the dead one we pass on the highway.  We make a plan that if we haven’t seen one by the last day, we’ll go to the zoo.  A captive kangaroo is better than no kangaroo.

On the sixth day, we drive out to the bush.


Geared up to hike, we pile out of the car and apply sunscreen.  Then Aaron points to something on the hill.  Sure enough, kangaroos!  They DO live here!


We see heaps of them that day, hiding in the bush, sitting out on the open, hopping about where they please.



We even see a koala bear and a platypus, and we’re not at the zoo.  We troop about for hours.





Satisfied and hungry, we pack up.  As we drive away, we pause to see just one more mob.  And just like that, two of them bounce down the hill and head straight for our car.  They stop just short of us, lick their arms, stare for a minute, and then bound back up.  It is a perfect Aussie goodbye.



I know then that it will be really hard to say goodbye.  And not just because of the kangaroos.

To my sweet friends Down Under,

Aaron – thank you for teaching me to drive on the wrong side of the car and the wrong side of the road.  I know I hit the wipers more than the turn signal, and occasionally went into the wrong lane, but you stayed cool.  I felt so alive, driving around with your hand-drawn map and no idea where I was going.  Thanks for my morning coffee deliveries, for everything, and most of all for letting me steal Tobie for two days all to myself.


Asha – I had a wonderful time with you, little friend.  You’ve grown so big.  I can still hear you outside my bedroom door, asking if you could just take a peek at me.  I loved watching Dora and playing Swiper in the bush.  I’m glad we tried out all the stuff in my makeup bag, plus my shaving cream, hairspray, and mousse. You were great with your training chopsticks!  I remember you bravely carrying your little schoolbag on your shoulder, walking into your classroom.  Thanks for showing me your school.  And for sharing your books and hiking snacks.  I can still feel your hug as we stood at the window, waiting for the taxi to come.  You were still warm from sleep, wearing your jammies.  You kissed me and said that maybe I could come back tomorrow.  I wish I could, little one.  But we’ll see each other again soon, and until then, check behind all the trees, just in case Swiper is hiding….



Tobie – thank you for the loveliest week in forever. It was amazing to be in your home, to know that you were just on the other side of my bedroom wall.  I’ve missed you terribly.  Our trip to Sydney!  We talked for almost 48 hours straight, only taking time off to sleep.  It was so luxurious, wandering the streets, trying on shoes and jewelry, eating those gingersnap-butterscotch whoopee pie things, stretching out in bed and talking the night away.  I can still feel the salty air on my skin, the Sydney sunshine all around us. And you – all dressed up in your lace top and heels.  Thanks for talking me into a nightcap at Palmer and Co, because without that drink, we might never have started dialing up the USA!  I loved every minute of it, even the bus ride home to Canberra in the dark, munching the last of our cookies.  It was great to be at the National Library, to see where you work.  To go all the places you go and imagine your life.  To ride bikes and play with Asha at the park.  Thanks for taking those days off work to spend with me, for relentlessly searching for kangaroos, for clearly explaining what a singlet is, for keeping my secrets.  I continue to be amazed by you, your ability to move all the way around the world, to make a new life, to flourish, to get more job offers than I ever have, and to still be your humble, brilliant self.  I picture you that last morning, climbing onto your bike for your commute to work. One more hug.  I’ll keep our memories safe in my heart and think them when I’m missing you.  You’re one in a million, Tobie.




I love you.  And I’ll see you soon too.












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I wait nervously with Po in our Singapore apartment, scanning the airline websites.  Our friends from the US are landing in the middle of the night.  I wash a few stray dishes, fiddle around with the guest room sheets.  I reluctantly head to bed, sleep with one eye open.  And then I hear it, the soft click of our condo door.  I rush out to get my first hug from home.  World’s collide.  Singapore mixes with Boise as Mark, CS, Liz, and Aaron arrive.  We are six giddy schoolkids, heading to Vietnam together, where the Tiger beer is cold and the pho is hot.

Ho Chi Minh City is vibrant, buzzing.  We eat pho and prawn pancakes, run between motorbikes, buy tourist t-shirts, visit the War Memorial, and laugh at the water puppets.                      IMGP2653




Next we float the Mekong River, adrift on a wooden boat with painted eyes.  We alight and explore the surrounding villages, rice paddies, schools, and floating markets.  Some of us take a turn on the longboat oars as we paddle down a side creek, ducking under thick foliage and waving to the village kids. The sun sets deep pink and orange over the palm trees.









At dinner, one of the boat guides explains the reason for the ice-cold aircon in our cabins and we strain to capture the details.  He instructs us to keep our windows shut to freeze the flying monkey toes.  Puzzled, we stop listening entirely and ask each other – monkey toes?  Oh, mosquitoes!  And I groan.  If there is one thing I detest, and endlessly complain about, it’s mosquitoes.  I grimly wipe my nose for the hundredth time with a swatch of toilet paper and hope that either my newly acquired cold improves or that the aircon really does keep the monkey toes at bay.

We fly to Phu Quoc Island, eager for sun and sand, and find our jungle huts with mosquito nets over the bed.  The bathroom is also open to the sky and God, and we have no hot water.  As I see it, this resort called Freedomland should be called the House of Flying Monkey Toes.  How cold can a cold shower be, I muse nervously. I cough, sneeze, blow, and coat myself with DEET.  My cold hasn’t improved and I can’t find a Kleenex for sale on this island.  I wonder if I shouldn’t have taken malaria medicine after all.  But it’s time for bathing suits, another Tiger beer, and a swim in the Gulf of Thailand.  I wad up more toilet paper and jam it under the strap of my bathing suit.  Looking grandmotherly, I soldier off to the beach.






The water is divine.  Warm, baby waves lap against the shore.  We walk out forever on soft sand, the water only reaches our waists.  We swim with abandon.  Even I forget my terror of the ocean for a few minutes, and I help to judge the handstand, flip, and floating competitions between Mark, CS, and Po.  We romp up to the beach, stretch out in hammocks, eat crispy spring rolls, and guzzle coconuts.  Dinner is served every night under the trees.  White lights sparkle, music plays, and we dress up and sip cocktails until it’s time to eat.  Our green, wooden table seats at least thirty, and we cozy up to new friends from all over the world.  When dinner is served, the food is beyond delicious.  On our last night, the hosts build a roaring bonfire.  I stretch out next to it, feeling dry for the first time in over a week.









But I’m irritable and sick.  And beyond having a cold, I am homesick.  Our friends remind me of the life I’m no longer living, and I feel unreachable.  I can’t relax because the time might go too fast and our vacation will be over.  I want to be the old Jillian they know but I’ve changed, and not necessarily in a good way.  My crazy, grumpy bits still cling to me like sweaty clothes.  Iwon’t snorkel with broken gear and a head cold.  I can’t even will myself to drink a Tiger beer.  I am my worst self, complaining about city living in Singapore, the humidity, and the jungle insects. Then I worry that maybe my friends will move on, that my home in Boise won’t feel the way I remember, that everything has changed.  I tuck the mosquito net around me and bawl in bed.  They say home is where the heart is, but where is that?  And can I ever go back?

We slurp up our last bowl of pho together in the airport.  Then it’s time to say goodbye to Mark and CS and I come undone.  I curl up against them, wail out loud that I want to go to Boise with them. I say I’m sorry for spraying bug repellent in the van, sorry for being so whiny. They rub my back and say they love me.  A day later, when I say goodbye to Liz and Aaron, I cry again.  Liz and I kiss on both cheeks and blink hard.  I watch their taxi roll away into the dark, toward Changi airport.  They are going home, and for now, I’m staying here.


But the sweetness of our time in Vietnam stays with me for weeks, long after my bug bites stop itching.  My heart is just a little lighter.  Mark, CS, Liz, and Aaron – thank you for coming to visit.  Your friendship is home to me.

Thanks, Number 4, for the pictures.  And for rowing the boat like a local.


Antonia, if you’re reading this, it was great to meet you!

For a fantastic, local homestay, try Freedomland on Phu Quoc Island.  The hosts are so friendly and the food is incredible.


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I fly through the night skies toward Bali, relieved to be leaving Singapore behind.  I long for a break from my routine, from the struggles of hauling groceries and hailing taxis.  It has been three months since our move and homesickness still finds me when I least expect it.  I flop about, desperate for solace.  I resolve not to take yoga on this trip, and furthermore to forgive myself for that decision.  I want a different kind of peace – one that doesn’t require me to stand on my head.  I think of looking for God, and then I remember my dad telling me that God is in us, not in the places we look.  He said that before I went to Mt. Everest, where I was sure God lived.  My dad’s probably right.  But as the jet wheels touch down, I promise to keep my eyes open, just in case.

My resolve strengthens the next morning in Ubud, ensconced on my balcony, sheltered by rattan blinds.  I snuggle deeper into my robe.  The sun peeks through the clouds, reflecting light across the rice paddies. The rice shoots glow, lime green, chartreuse.  A white crane swoops in and settles in the marshy soil, foraging for food among the shoots. I watch him pick and sort, balancing on thin legs.  I hear frogs and roaring insects.  Roosters crow.  A lone cow moos.  Life teems around me, urgent, buzzing.  I hear water dribbling, a net being dragged over the pool to gather fallen leaves.  The soft chink of breakfast dishes in the kitchen, muted voices laughing companionably.




I have forgotten such sounds, living in our Singapore condo that overlooks the MRT.  There I wake to the whir of the train, the jangle of police sirens, the scream of tires stopping on pavement, the frantic, high-pitched barking of the neighbor’s dogs. There, I am an anxious girl.  I worry about the unsafe taxi driving, dread the pending rain.  I battle the suffocating tropical heat, at odds with my own self.  But this morning in Bali, I watch a blue dragonfly hover right above my knee, a huge bee probe about the tiles of the roof.  Their hum is hypnotic and I feel it deep in my bones.  I stay very still, breathing.  I am awake.  Now is the time, God, I write in my journal.  I am eager to see you.




And this is what I see.



Offerings, called canangsari, abound.  Filled with fruit, rice, and flowers, they are made to show gratitude to the gods for all the blessings of life, as well as to appease the evil spirits.   Sticks of incense poke out of these small baskets, the smoke carrying the blessings skyward. I see them in ornate temples, at the feet of the carved stone statues.  But then I find them on cash registers, sidewalks, dashboards, steps, doorways, making every place holy.  I move carefully to avoid disturbing them.


Villagers clog the dirt roads, preparing for a celebration.  Today they will ask the gods to ward off the evil spirits, to bring them another season of prosperity.  Women ride together on motorbikes, carrying baskets of offerings balanced on their heads. Men follow playing instruments and drums, children and dogs trailing.  Noise, color, prayers, love.  Knees touching, hands held.  The evil spirits don’t stand a chance.


Water surrounds me in Bali.  It is pooled, orderly, civilized, wild, dirty.  It sprays from temple walls, drips from my chin as I am blessed. The skies are wild with thunder, lightning.  Rain bangs on the thick canopy of leaves, softly patters on the ferns.  Soaks my dress as I run beneath my umbrella for dinner.  Twists my flip-flops as I climb the temple steps, drenches my sarong.  It unearths the smell of mud, chickens, frangipani, wood, people bathing, my skin.  It splashes off the end of my umbrella, weaves a path down the part of my hair, races down my arm.  Rain falls on the parade of villagers, washing away the evil spirits.  It hammers the roof of the shadow puppet theater, steaming up the night, adding to the profusion of music and revelry.  It mixes with the shower water as I soap up.  It falls steadily through the night.  I cannot stay dry, and never have I so loved the rain.






I find beauty everywhere, in the bright red blossoms holding the rain.  In the spots on Nancy’s large elephant ears and the fine hairs that sprout off her rough, gray skin.  On the slick temple stones, mossy, worn, washed by sun and rain.  In the shocking pink thread on the weaver’s loom.  In the smell of incense.  Beauty flickers in the coconut candle,  illuminating the lacy shadow puppet silhouettes. In the leathery filigree and craftsmanship of the puppets themselves.  Beauty lives in the chickens roaming the streets, herding their chicks.  In the giant lizard squishing through a pile of trash, tongue flicking in and out.  In the humongous fighting rooster with spraying plumage and feet the size of my hand.  In the stray and collared dogs ambling along the street, snoozing in the shade.  Beauty radiates from the Balinese people and from my husband’s patient grin.










I wear a yellow flower behind my ear all day, a remnant from my temple offering. It reminds me to stay connected to the spirit throughout the day, to stay humble and to keep my eyes open wherever I am.  I feel a little more like laughing.  I offer my sincere thanks for a renewed outlook on life.  I am reminded that our everyday steps are opportunities to see God, our every word spoken to others, our every action taken, our attention given to the slightest of details.  I am washed, refreshed, wrapped up, and given back.  And in this, I find solace.


For more information on shadow puppets and plays:


To stay at Villa Sabandari:


To learn more about the Balinese offerings:




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We approach Tioman Island on a ferry, speeding over the rippling, greenish sea.  I think I have arrived on the set of Jurassic Park.  Rainforest foliage chokes the rocks and the island rises steeply out of the water, shrouded in mist.  A small sandy beach sprinkled with cottages and huts appears.  The saltwater spray sticks to my skin.  My hair is plastered across my forehead and I am exhilarated. For a minute, I forget that a bit of snorkeling awaits me, and for that, I will need to get into this resplendent, jade colored water.

On Po’s birthday, we ride out to the reef and put on our gear. I am a Pisces with one swimming lesson under my belt, plus a few floating sessions in the confines of a pool. I reluctantly let go of the boat ladder and plop into the South China Sea.  We’re here for you, the boat crew says.  Main thing, just relax.  I’m told to circle Coral Island and enjoy the sea life.  I peer down into the water and it is deep, periwinkle, gray. I can’t see the bottom.  I hang motionless and suck air through my snorkel.  I don’t see Nemo anywhere.  I don’t see the island I’m supposed to swim around.  I thank God for my lifejacket and no longer feel embarrassed for wearing it.  I see a knee, then a flipper, then nothing.  Am I already alone?

I start swimming.  My arms flap forward, legs pedal like a bike.  I pass through currents of cold water then warm.  I can hear my heart beating in my ears.  I angrily remember my Everest trek performance, struggling to keep up, exhausted, lost, and dead last.  I have a massive underwater counseling session with myself.  Jillian, you’ve been here before and you will be fine.  Plus dive master has his eye on you.  Then I picture him enjoying a cigarette on the boat, completely oblivious to my location in the water.  I breathe so harshly that I fear I will pass out.

When I finally see the underside of the island, I am downright stunned.  Fish are flashing about everywhere.  Corals look like platforms or pointy castles.  Tentacles wave in the current.  Sunlight pierces the water and shoots laser beams to the bottom.  This is less ocean, more discothèque.  Out of nowhere, hundreds of fish engulf me. They are silvery with blue lips and red fins. They dart right, left, right, left faster than I can follow. So this is a school of fish, I marvel.   I try to imitate their movements.  They invite me to follow them, schooling me.  OK, why not?  How did you guys get out of the aquarium, I ask?  I keep the large shelf on my left and swim until my shins and arches cramp.

One of the dive guides taps me on the shoulder.  I look up above the water, blinking at him from behind my mask.  You take break, miss?  I shake my head no and lay my face back into the water.  He offers to tow me around on some orange float.  I decline, my pride getting the better of me.  A thrill shoots through me to know I am not alone.

I look up again and I see Po!  He says we have to stay with the group. If we spread out it’s too hard for the crew to keep track of us.  OK, I say, I’m swimming as hard as I can.  That’s the problem – why are you going so fast?  Everyone else is back there.  He points behind me.  I’m not last, I gulp?  We laugh together.  I’m speed-snorkeling and awash in delight.

Sun burns the tops of my ears and sparkles on the water. I drift over coral so close it could scrape my knees.  I hollow in my belly and skim over it barely breathing.  Yellow, zebra stripes, blue, tiny, flat, spiny –I twist around to see them all.  Sharks pass by, though only my companions see them. Po points out a turtle and I watch it feeding near the bottom. I slow my breathing a bit, laugh, talk through my snorkel.  Then I finally see Nemo.

I crawl shakily back into the boat, peel off my mask and rash guard, gobble a handful of salty Pringles. It’s done. I’ve snorkeled and stayed alive.  I ride back to the resort, drowsy, wrapped in a towel. I look over the side of the boat and remember what is below us, flooded by tenderness for our amazing world and how gently it accepts our presence, shows us into our own hearts. The color of the water is so blue-green beautiful it hurts and I pretend it is the speed of the boat and the wind that makes me cry.

Thanks, Po, for the encouragement and the photos.  Happy 43rd Birthday!



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I just returned from Ohio, which is about as far away from mountains as you can get.  Thankfully I had The Boardman Tasker Omnibus in hand for some serious winter reading.  The book is a compendium of mountaineering novels, with Tasker writing Savage Arena and Everest The Cruel Way.  Joe Tasker was a Catholic priest-in-training turned mountaineer who, in his short life, climbed many high peaks all over the world.  While it isn’t exactly easy to get up an 8,000-meter peak, there is usually an established tried-and-true, sorta safe way.  A $50,000 way.  But Joe Tasker climbed his mountains the hard way.

Joe’s on my mind because I’m neck-deep in his depiction of the climb on Changabang’s notorious West Wall.  I dream all day and night about it.  I read in bed in the dark using the new headlamp I found in my Christmas stocking. I toss around in a fuzzy sleep, repeating mountain words over and over.  Piton, Changabang, abseiling, bivouac, Dunagiri, West Wall, crampon, piton.  I picture Joe in a cold food storage warehouse where he trained for extreme bivouac situations.   I see his hammock suspended from the ceiling, stuffed with his down sleeping bag.  Would it crash down?  Would he freeze to death? I hang in my dream hammock suspended over a thousand-foot drop and I don’t move a muscle.  What would Joe think of my comfy blanket?  Where is his blanket?  I can’t reach my feet to take off my boots.  Why would he head up the mountain with an abscessed tooth?  My one crowned tooth is killing me.  Changabang, Changabang.  I run my finger over my aching gum. Joe had a filling fall out on his pillow. Did my filling just fall out on the pillow?   The line between book and dream is heavily blurred.  I’m dreaming in the Savage Arena.

Joe had a beard and a British accent.  He kept a journal during his climbs and remembered every crack and crevasse on the way up a mountain.  His sentences were long and full of words like whilst, manoeuvres, amongst, and foetal.  We knew well that without a plentiful intake of liquid and food we would rapidly lose strength and would feel the cold all the more, but we were deceived by our memories of ascending these fixed ropes in a few hours and preferred to put off the task of melting snow until we had reached the top of the ice field where we promised to ourselves a spacious ledge with room to sit and a place to shelter the stove.  I like wandering through each sentence the way Joe likes wandering around on a glacier.

Joe knew how to survive despite all odds and with just a few oatmeal flakes and some melted snow.  He peeled his skin off in sheets after weeks of extreme altitude and extreme cold.  He vomited bile while hanging from a climbing rope.  He found diarrhoea to be a mild annoyance as he made camp on a narrow mountain ledge.  During a hike the other day, I said aloud “I think Joe loved pain”.  But I was wrong.  Joe just loved climbing and couldn’t stand to miss out on an adventure.  He was brave enough to endure something that hurt for something that changed him utterly.  He loved the journey as much as the summit.  He sacrificed everything and lost his life on the North East Ridge of Everest on May 17, 1982.  His body has never been found.

He leaves with us with his climbing journals and stories.  He reminds me of what it means to follow your dreams.  As I burrow into my down blanket at night, I whisper rest in peace, Joe.  I can’t wait to read your journal about Everest.  And I’ll see you in the Himalayan clouds very soon.

To read a brief bio of Joe Tasker online, see http://www.boardmantasker.com/site/joe_tasker.htm

To really get to know Joe, read The Boardman Tasker Omnibus.


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