Out of Routine; Into The Moment

Off to Australia for almost a month; I was out of my comfort zone clothes, couch, town and routines. As I hugged my son goodbye at the drop-off curb, I felt a switch turn on inside; the switch that triggers anticipation, observation, excitement and awe.
People watching comes naturally; I notice how they're dressed, how much luggage they have, how young parents handle their little ones PLUS strollers, car seats and diaper bags. I wondered why men in suits carrying briefcases appear to be important; if  women about my age were going to visit their grandchildren or heading across the globe like me? 

Central Coast Ferry on our way
to Woy Woy. 
Their headmistress gave me permission
to snap a photo as they boarded.
I was going to see my brother and his family  and had plans with a dear friend.  Otherwise, I had nearly a month to take each day as it flowed. A spontaneous ferry ride for lunch, a local bus filling up with school children as I rode it home from the mall, a morning walk to the village, an evening with my brother's neighbors. I loved how these things just came about and I was ready.

An unexpected fall as that bus came to a stop kept me in the moment too! I stood up as we neared my corner, clutching my packages and holding onto the pole. But then I instinctively reached for a little girl's arm and down I went! Thanks to my training on 'how to fall,' I landed on my bottom, holding my bags and arms to my chest and then quickly standing up. I was fine....and grateful those kids didn't tell as they scrambled off and into mom and dad's arms!

Inscribed stones line the footpaths
of Old Sydney
Sydney is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. I made a point to visit the places my husband and I enjoyed on our visit 14 years earlier. I also made a point to visit new and different things not mentioned in the brochures. Balmoral Beach is small, remote and covered in sparkling white sand. It's out of the way and not at all a big draw like Manly or Bondi Beaches. I loved the solitude; loved that I was there alone. I made time to read more history about Old Sydney...the original spot created for and built by convicts shipped over from England. It's all sandstone....this ancient part of the city.

Sandstone walls, steps, narrow walkways and terraced gardens. The weathered sandstone breakwater along the harbor changes color with the rising and setting sun. Barangaroo Reserve, reclaimed land of the indigenous people, is the newest addition to the busy harbor area. Centuries old sandstone formations line the water's edge; many smooth enough to sit a spell in the shade.

The Opera House has several theaters and venues inside. It's iconic full sail image is recognizable the world over. I took photos years ago; took the tour and learned about it's history. This time I walked around to the front....the view cruise ships see as they round the curve into Sydney Harbor. I climbed the layers of stairs, checked out the underground level and strolled through the 200 year old Botanical Gardens next door. 

Didgeridoo wind instruments
I was so tuned in, so aware of street activity and music. The sound of boat horns, train tracks rumbling, babies crying, performers singing or playing instruments and the various languages being spoken around me. The smoothly run Overseas Passenger Terminal was captivating with it's constant buzz of worker bees. 
As I strolled the cafe and boutique promenade, I captured this funny store sign; French Connection United Kingdom is the label. A sale sign in the window pulled me in to browse. I rarely buy white tops, but found one in thick cotton for $20 AUS. Without my glasses on, the sparkly design on the front seemed pretty subtle. Bought it! Tried it on back at the hotel and ooops... a nice fancy F on the front! 

Cruise ships come and go every day. Sometimes three or more sit in dock while commuter ferries and tourist-filled boats zig zag around them. I met my high school girlfriend as she and her husband disembarked from the Millennium on my last day in Oz. Another unexpected pleasure walking and talking in the warm rain. And finding my picky-eater self enjoying a chicken pot pie at Pie Face, a favorite Sydney lunch spot. I'm glad I stayed around the terminal dock to watch their ship get underway that evening. Amazing how something this huge maneuvers out, around and away so easily. As it grew smaller, fireworks filled the sky! 

What a cool way to end my stay in Australia. The plan was simple; let's meet early at the pier.
It was the best of times, letting the day unfold spontaneously. 

 Going home brings a sense of anticipation too. I had a flight and procedures to follow which put me back in travel routine. I looked forward to seeing my younger brother waiting at the other end of my journey. It felt good knowing I'd soon be back in school pickup line, my granddaughters' asking "please, Grandma, can we go to Dairy Queen!" I've been home several weeks now; back to day-to-day chores, work and favorite TV shows. 
The best part about getting away on an adventure is still with me though.... 

The Savoring
 I'm writing stories for my blog, creating another Gramcracker picture book, 
still talking about it.

The Reflection
 I feel a sense of peace from spending days and nights with my family
 on the other side of the world. 
I feel accomplished by journeying solo, figuring things out for myself and discovering that I'm much more capable than I thought! 

The Dimmer Switch
 That switch that turned on the moment I stepped out of my son's car has not really turned off. It's dimmed for now; awaiting time and opportunity for next time!

Ten Travel Tips I've Learned Along the Way

  I. PACK small; pack light     

 I managed with a carry-on size roller bag and a canvas briefcase. My backpack and duffel bag were tucked inside; ready for weekend getaways or day tripping.

 2. EXCHANGE CURRENCY at a trusted bank
Airport and city kiosks will charge a fee. The big name banks give the best exchange rate with no fee. I had $300 American to exchange,and was able to get cash off my Visa card since my ATM cards didn't work anywhere. All I needed was my passport and credit card and about 5 minutes of the teller's time. Australian currency is different colors; making it easier to select the bill or coins you need.

3. FAMILIARIZE yourself with language and cultural differences before you depart

Countries that drive on the left also ride bikes and walk on the left. That means stay to the left when you're on footpaths, in airports and queues. Pedestrian crossings say Look Right.
Morning coffee is pretty much universal. Hotel and motel rooms provided an electric pot for boiling water; freeze-dried coffee and tea and containers of milk. Most rooms had a set of wine glasses...acknowledging that wine is best enjoyed with proper glassware!
       English speaking countries use different terminology and expressions; don't be shy about asking for clarity; you'll soon find yourself using them too.

4. COMMUNICATION know how you'll keep in touch...both in country and back home.

Despite requesting international service before I departed, I was hit with a couple $100 fees right off the bat! I next tried switching SIM cards; but my carrier had mine locked! Instead of making calls back home to straighten out; I just used email, Facebook and Instagram messaging to communicate with my US and AU families...no worries! I did make an overseas call from the hotel once; cheaper than using my cell. Bottom line...call your provider, talk to a live person, read the small print!

5. ASK for help with a smile and a thank you. Graciousness is recognized worldwide

Traveling solo, I asked strangers to take my picture; usually I was able to return the favor by taking theirs. I contacted the hotel ahead of time; explaining my purpose and asking for off the beaten path, non-touristy places and activities. I had to ask servers for ice a couple times for swollen feet; how grateful I was when one delivered in a ziplock bag, another wrapped in bar towels.Vigilant about photographing children, I first asked permission of their teachers. It was granted with 'no worries'...the refreshing attitude of Aussies that I so love. These field trip kiddos were at the Harbor Bridge Museum.

6. BE FLEXIBLE, be patient...many countries/people operate at a slower pace than Americans

7. EMBRACE the unexpected and spontaneous; wonder and wander about!

On the way from the airport to my downtown hotel, I realized I was too late for Easter Mass. I asked my cab driver if we could at least drive by St. Mary's Cathedral. He kindly stopped so I could take quick photos and step inside.
I did not want anymore long walks; but saying yes to this bridge walk brought happy tears as I realized this is where my husband walked so he could watch me climb the bridge in 2002. Spontaneity begets serendipity...often the greatest gift of travel.

 8. LONG FLIGHTS are manageable....it's a mindset. Accept and adapt...you'll be fine.

I knew I'd be facing a long flight and prepared by wearing loose, comfy clothes, and packing necessities in a carry-on bag; change of clothes and shoes, medications, snacks and trial-sized everything.
I had no control with layovers, delays and cancellations...my big day of departure became an unusual situation. I adapted by making new friends and writing my first travel post about living in airports!
Flight attendants mentioned wearing compression hose; something I'll consider in the future.

9. ENJOY AND TRY unfamiliar food choices and presentations.

This was a big deal for me...a fussy, picky eater all my life. It started with asking for my morning coffee. Long Black? White Expresso? As soon as I explained I preferred coffee with milk or cream; the server appeared to understand. She brought  me a Vienna...strong coffee topped with whipped cream...like real cream whipped! It comes with a spoon and looks like a sundae...I was hooked! I stuck to familiar foods at first; beef burgers, fish and chips. But as the weeks went on, I needed variety. I tried lamb chops, duck, pot pies, and skinny red salmon slices...seemingly raw...in my salad. They were all delicious! Never ate lamb chops, duck or chicken pot pies in my life, and grilled salmon chunks with spinach are pretty much my staple at home. I noticed kangaroo burgers on menu listings, but no way!

 10. REACH OUT to a concierge or public relations personnel before you go.

I was going as a travel writer this time; but in New York City, I was a nervous grandma taking a teenager to the Big Apple. I talked with the head concierge at least once a week for months. By the time we arrived at our hotel, I was greeted at the front desk with hugs and hand holding to ease my stay and worries. I call ahead to ask for low floors near the stairs and what kind of meals are offered on site. I learn so much more from a live person aiming to please than I do from chain websites.

Wally in New York probably pictured a little ol' granny and was prepared to make me comfortable. Todd in Sydney found me in the lobby pub to see whom he'd been emailing with for weeks. Both of these gentlemen suggested places that were perfect for me!
       Local knowledge trumps guide books in my opinion.
                                  Happy Travels!

Cameleers in CamelLot

Camel Lot/Farm at Ayers Rock Resort
British explorers in the early 1800's quickly realized horses were not cut out for crossing the desert region of Australia's vast arid center. Afghan camels and their handlers were shipped to this remote land down under to facilitate pioneering and discovery in the Outback. Today, there are more camel stations and ranches here than in any other country. In this Northern Territory resort area, camels adeptly navigate up and down red dunes with the famous Uluru and Kata Tjuta rock formations always in view.

Cameleering is a real occupation; requiring book knowledge as well as hands-on apprenticing. They also learn the centuries old Afghan commands still in use today.

8:13 AM; the start of  our 10K walk

Why did I choose to come ride a camel and walk 6 miles around Ayers Rock in 100 degree heat? My long time friend, Heather has family working here. When she learned I'd booked my flights, she surprised me with this unforgettable experience...oh, the things we do for fun!
We started talking and laughing from the first hello hug to the last goodbye, goodbye, goodbye four days later.

I had been in Oz for 10 days, acclimated to the heat and had just completed a 5K a few weeks earlier...what's a few more miles! 80° coastal is much different than 100+ degrees in the Outback! By the time we started; folks were heading back to their air conditioned rooms. "Some begin in the dark with flashlights"she tells me. She's done this several times before.....with every relative and friend who visits. Reminded me of when we lived in Boston and the never-ending trips to the House of Seven Gables.

But this was a really BIG deal. Bottles of water, bug netting, hat, sunscreen and Hydrolyte tablets...I WILL survive! Excitement and awe fed my momentum in the beginning. Then I got sweaty; changed hats to keep the net looser and not obstruct my vision of the rock. Next I noticed I was always a couple paces behind her, still trying to keep our conversations going. Walking and talking counts double...but eventually I said, "I'll tell you later, I need to breathe right now."

Finally the first bench! And another person.....a young person....and she was resting! Okay, maybe I'm not as out of shape as I thought. When we caught our breaths and drank some water, we took each others' pictures. Not attractive, not even half way around....but what's exploring without documentation!

 We continued on to shady spots, more benches, water stops and moments just to stare at the formations created from erosion. Recent rains had brought varying shades of green to the Red Centre; the contrast with Uluru's ochre pigment was stunning. I felt the spiritual significance as hot, sandy soil slid through my fingers.

The sun grew hotter, my feet ached and I may have said "please God" under my breath while saying 'no worries" to Heather. A Hydrolyte fizzling in my warm water bottle did the (mind) trick: I knew I could make it! Three hours later, we saw the car park and felt the high that comes with accomplishment!  I'm forever grateful to her for getting me around the Rock! And grateful she later suggested we rest a bit, then walk to lunch; then walk and shop, then walk again to dinner. Without those ten minutes here and there....my legs would have never worked again!

Off we were early the next morning...5:30 early! This time it was dark and silent and coolish in the desert as we listened to instructions on how to mount a camel. Heather and I were given their "favorite" (read gentlest.) Sitting up front and hanging on, we leaned back as Darcy raised her front legs first, then the back as gracefully as a waking cat. Easier than getting on a horse, except we were now seven feet off the ground! Camels are roped together; but they know this five-times-a-day routine quite well. Ten camels make up a 'train' with saddles for 20 riders. We were there on Good Friday; which called for two tourist-filled trains.

Head cameleer Mark allowed us only phones. No need for nets or water bottles this early. He showed us the side-to-side rhythmic gait we'd feel and assured us the camels would not notice our weight.
After everyone was securely on and up; we started through bushy dunes with the first rays of day lighting our way. A mounted cameleer led the way; others walked along side.

 As the sun began to rise, we stopped at the highest point for photo ops. The cameleers patiently took everyone's photo with individual cameras while a professional photographer captured us all in formation with gorgeous backdrops.

Darcy is the caboose of this Camel Train
The Olgas/Kata Tjuta in the background

 Yulara is the community of resorts and shops; the local school and resident quarters. The permanent population is around 800; made up of staff and their families only. This includes both hospitality professionals and indigenous employees in training. Heather's son and daughter-in-law live and work here in management positions. We chose the beautiful Desert Garden Hotel for our stay.

Many rooms have views of Uluru. The restaurants offer great meals and the large pool keeps guests refreshed and relaxed. Just as in big city hotels, there's wifi, cable and electrical adapters available at the front desk. Native flowers and trees fill the grounds, like this tall, striking White Gum trees.                                                                

We visited the Olgas, but I bailed on another walkabout; happy to just gaze at the 36 weather-smoothed, sandstone domes. Named after Queen Olga of Prussia; the Commonwealth government handed both Uluru and Kata Tjuta back to the aboriginal owners in 1985. Their original names and spiritual significance are restored and the land is now a National Park and World Heritage Listed.

 My first time ever sitting in a window seat...the views coming and going to the middle of the Outback were priceless! I can see the Social Studies teacher in my writing; the girlfriend getaway vibe....but mostly this: I'm growing more confident and braver as I grow along!

Coastal Connections

An hour and a half north of Sydney lies the Central Coast with it's many beaches and salt-water fed lakes. After a scenic drive through Ku-Ring-Gai National Park to see colorful wildflowers and white gum trees; we arrived at my brother's home in Saratoga; one of several waterside towns on Brisbane Water.

The map best describes my 10 day stay. I rode the bus to Erina Fair Mall one day; riding back just as the school bell rang. Students ride public buses in Australia; so  I was delighted when the headmistress led them on, made sure they found seats and wished them a good afternoon. Several got off at my stop....the corner near my brother's house...and there he was, waiting with his neighbors for us to arrive!

Another day, we all took a Central Coast Ferry to Woy Woy for mid-morning coffee. My sister-in-law is an artist; remembering the pictures I snapped here and there from the boat and presenting me with her paintings of the images when I left. Each community has a unique vibe and Woy Woy's is an alternative, sustainable, homemade and handmade, all-inclusive kind of town. I wasn't disappointed in my daily dose of decaf Vienna and scone!

Saratoga Boat Shed

It was brelly weather many days; but I walked the wet sand at Terrigal and Avoca Beaches anyway. Barramundi fish and chips at seaside cafes along the shores of the South Pacific were the best. Back in Saratoga, I watched for hours as the lorikeets, cockatoos and other feathered friends ate, bathed and visited. The welcoming country life and family routine was perfect.                            

We spent a weekend on the northern coast of New South Wales; visiting my niece and her family in the town of Kempsey. A four hour drive up the Pacific Coast Motorway; I noticed the rope caged bridges across the highway; possum and koala crossings! Amazing to me that the animals caught on to this; roadkill has been reduced to almost zero in the last few years. I also noticed road signs that said "Stop, Revive, Survive" every so often; reminding motorists to take a break every two hours. This is true all over Australia because of vast distances between places. We complied at the quaint little Art Cafe on pasture land along the Ghinni Ghinni Creek near Taree. We ate BLAT (bacon, lettuce, avocado and tomato) sandwiches outside, listening to the cows moo and admiring the yard art. Can you see the frames hanging from the tree?

Early morning and we're off to the remote little village of Bellbrook in the Maclean River Valley. The kids loved playing on the rocks and my niece pointed out photos of ancestors in the old hotel. There's still a primary school for locals and the general store where we had lemonade.

Maclean River Valley
Vast does not begin to describe this gigantic country. Most of the population lives along the coasts; the middle of Oz is arid and remote...the Outback. But in between are these small country towns; reminiscent of out-of-the-way places all over the world. No tourists; no big box stores or hotels...just real life, happy people...my people! How lucky to have this balance to my time in Sydney and Uluru.

After ten days; the teary goodbyes began. It was time to move on. My Aussie rellies drove me to the Gosford rail station. I wanted to continue using my Opal Card...the transit card for all NSW residents and visitors. Initial coast is $15 which gives you rides on ferries, buses and trains. It can be easily topped off at kiosks around the state. I had plenty left on mine and got an express computer train back down to Sydney. My luggage was less of a struggle now that I'd shipped a box home with souvenirs and books....my biggest weakness. I loved the purple interior and smooth ride along the water for much of the trip. Central Station is as 'grand central' as you can get and it took lots of asking 'which way out" before I found my way to the street. On my own but never alone is how I looked at it. Not only did friendly locals point and give directions, a cute little teenager led me straight to the exit.

Missing my family as I write this; recalling so many funny, laugh-out-loud moments with my talented sister-in-law, quiet evenings on the veranda with gin and tonics, the different foods I tried....to their delight. ("Joanie is so picky" is universal!) I'm grateful for the time spent living the life my brother lives; catching up after 14 years and meeting more family all over coastal New South Wales. I have another niece in Perth, in Western Australia....next time, mon cherie!

View from the jetty down the road from my brother's home