Downsizing

I think I’ve owned at least one of everything ever made at least once in my life. Looking back over countless moves through the years, I realise I’ve downsized every time, tossing out or donating boxes and bags of STUFF with each move, then ending up having to replace most of it as I settle into my new location.

Sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? My reasoning? Always aiming towards simplifying my life by paring my belongings back to basics, yearning for that elusive feeling of not being owned by things.

Take for example a simple item like a shoe horn. Does anyone even own shoe horns anymore? With the popularity of velcro straps, loafers, tennies and flip flops, who needs shoe horns in today’s world? Apparently I do.

I came across two while packing for my most recent move (which happened to be the 39th move of my adult life). This discovery brought me to a halt while I dithered over those shoe horns. At least one had to go, if not both. I pondered. So did I dump them both into the nearest trash can? Well, no, not exactly.

That old bugaboo, “what if?” or “just in case” crept into my thinking. Let’s see now, I’m getting older. It’s getting harder to reach my feet. I may find a need for orthopedic type shoes in the near future. “What if” I suddenly needed a shoe horn and couldn’t find one? After all, they don’t take up much space. I’d better keep one “just in case.”

Then the next big decision – which one? – the handy little plastic one or the longer metal one?

Well, you guessed it. As I’m unpacking my belongings in my new home, there they are, both shoe horns, ready to use, “just in case.”

No wonder my downsizing efforts never work very well. When you multiply two tiny shoe horns by the many things it takes to run one of today’s households, you soon develop a real problem.

How many people do you know who own two refrigerators, one in the kitchen and one in the garage for the sodas and beer? Plus a freezer! This is in spite of the fact that no one is ever more than ten minutes away from a Mini-mart, a Quickee-mart or a Super-mart? At least I’ve never owned two refrigerators at the same time, not yet.

I’ve finally had to face the fact that the more things I get rid of, the more I replace. My feeble attempts at downsizing are doomed from the start. No wonder the landfills are overflowing.

I still long for a simpler life. Maybe someday I’ll get there, just as soon as I can get rid of those two shoe horns.

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Creative Writing

My brother recently gave me a book entitled “642 Things To Write About.” As he handed it to me he commented,  “Here’s how to make a success of your writing. Just write about writing.” Simple! That made me think of all the  “How To For Dummies” books out there, and the endless supply of advice about beating the stock market and other Get-Rich-Quick schemes.  “How To Become A Millionaire Overnight,” now that’s always a winner. Advice is so easy to hand out but somehow so hard to put to use.

Scanning my gift  book, I’m soon bursting with new ideas, not 642 of them, but I do find lots of suggestions.  Some are challenging, some frivolous and some impossible. A lot of them leave me wondering “Why?” or “How?”

Opening my new book to the very first challenge on the very first page I read  “What can happen in a second?” Well, that’s easy, “Almost Anything,” I answer. Peeking ahead to the last challenge on the last page, my eyes pop as I read “Write your obituary.”  Now that one will take a little thought. In between, I scan page after page, amazed at the myriad possibilities.

Here’s a good one, “An argument at a Sunday dinner.”  My response, “I’m not carving today. Since Uncle Fred cut off both thumbs over the Thanksgiving turkey, someone else has to, not me.  I just paid $50 for a manicure. That’s $5 a nail and I can’t afford to lose one.”

Next comes “You’re in the interviewing stage of the Miss America contest. Besides your desire for world peace, what will you tell the judge?”  I answer, “My curves may have shifted a little over the years but they’re still there, plus a few more. And grey is a color, if you’re wondering about my hair.  Don’t be an ageist.”

Suggestion – “A perfect meal.”  My reply, “Any that ends with a chocolate frosted brownie.”

This is fun.   I rush on:

“Two guys walk into a bar.”  I scoff at this one: “Oh, Please! Not those same two guys again. They’ve been walking into that bar through at least 50 old jokes. They never do get far enough inside to get a decent  drink. Give ‘em a break.”

“What you won’t touch with a 10 foot pole.  Why?” I wrote, “My toes. I’m too short.”

“The corpse you saw in the undertaker’s window.”   “It winked at me. When I winked back it sat up and whistled. I should have stayed home and handed out Halloween candy but I wanted to see the decorations around town.”

Another suggestion,  “You forgot to pay your credit card bill.”  I come up with the following explanation: “Well, it was like this,  I was headed for my desk, checkbook in hand, when the phone and the doorbell rang at the same time. I answered the phone as I headed for the door. It was my bank.  A very nasty voice began ranting at me about my overdrawn checking account. I tried to explain but they wouldn’t listen so I slammed the phone shut. Sheesh, no sense of humor at all.  Meanwhile the doorbell kept ringing and in my rush to open it I tripped and fell, spraining both ankles and my right wrist. I dragged myself to the door, managed to open it with my left hand and looked up from the floor into the really angry face of a process server who jammed a sheaf of papers into my good hand and stomped off.

In my pain I had to call out to my neighbor for help as my family has deserted me and my friends no longer come around.  He called an ambulance and he’s texting this message to you for me, dear, sweet, friendly credit card people. Just as soon as I can swing a loan I’ll settle with the bank, the utilities, and a few other little obligations, then I promise I’ll pay your bill. Meanwhile just ignore the $380 I spent this morning at the BonTon Boutique, I’ll get to that later.”

Hey, I’m getting to like these writing ideas. I’m quite proud of that  last excuse. Let’s go for another idea. O.K, how’s this? “Write an X-rated Disney scenario.”  I write, “Mickey and Porky Tell All! Reveal details of their secret lives and show their private photo collections!”

Next one, “Summarize your dog’s life in less than 4 paragraphs.”  Do they mean my precious widdow FluffyBelle’s life? I could never do that in 4 paragraphs.  Or do they mean the dog’s life I led for 5 years before I finally threw my deadbeat 3d husband out?  Or was it the 4th?

Here’s a fun one,  “Write a poem about a tomato.”  I can do better than that, I’ll write a song, to the tune of The Girl From Ipanema.   “Short and round and soft and squishy, The red tomato goes rolling by. And when it rolls, each one who sees it goes  A-A-H.”

“Write about your worries 5 years from now,  10 years, 30 years.” Are they kidding? I’m in my nineties, I’m worried about the  next 5 minutes! 5 years from now I’ll be just a memory, 10 years and I’ll be a distant memory, and in 30 years they’ll be doing rubbings off my gravestone trying to decipher the dates.”

“Toto, if we’re not in Kansas anymore where are we?”   “Another darned tornado messed up my GPS.”

“Those men your mother always warned you about.”  “I married one. Mother was right.”

“Write a story using 4  L words: Lipstick, Lust, Loss and Locked.”   “My Lust for that Lipstick would create a huge Loss in my disposable income, so I Locked my wallet away, licked my lips and lost my Lust.”

“The biggest lie anyone ever told you.”   “Of course I’ll marry you, just as soon as I get back from my  honeymoon.”

And on we go: “Write the lyrics for a catchy jingle for a plumbing service.”   “Plunge in and Flush Away, Flush Away, Flush Away All.”

“You’re a Nigerian e-mail scammer. Write an e-mail that will convince the recipient to send you $200.”  I write “Please help me. I’m an American stranded in Nigeria, being held for ransom. They’re asking for 2 million dollars but will settle for  $200 if you hurry. p.s. Don’t use bitcoins.”

And last but not least:  “Describe your grandfather’s girlfriend.”   “What! Ick! Gross! Never!! He’s ancient, at least 70!  What’s this? You saw him with a curvaceous blonde bimbo in stilettos? What on earth would he do with somebody like that? And what would she want with a dried up old man like him?  Of course, he is a millionaire.”

Well, there you have it, a few samples of things to write about.  Only 600 and some to go and I can publish my book. I’ll call it “Writing For Dummies.”  Then I can sit back and wait for my success.

I wonder just how many copies of “642 Things To Write” actually sold.

Oh, yes, I really did write my own obituary a while back. I didn’t come out of it too well.  It was terribly hot down there and all my papers burned.

Off to the Land of Oz, Part 4 of 4 (from my memoir)

Aboard our plane, a 747,  landing in Tahiti was definitely white knuckle. We dropped lower and lower on our approach, tossing and wobbling in a violent thunderstorm, and there was nothing to be seen out either side of the plane but turbulent waves. Somehow, what seemed like hours later, a very capable pilot found the landing strip, surely the narrowest landing strip on this planet, and all was well except my nerves, which took quite a while to settle.

Papeete looked just like it should look, a little shabby, lots of colonial structures, no high rises except for a few hotels, flowers everywhere, with everything damp.  The atmosphere was definitely tropical, muted sunlight, deep blues and greens of the ocean, and gaudily colored plants and flowers smelling rich and slightly musky, There was no harbor;  numbers of sailboats were anchored offshore along a long narrow beach, and commercial docks were small and scarce. In fact, the entire country looked just like a Gauguin painting with deep, shadowed jungle and high, narrow waterfalls like shimmering ribbons and riotous flowers.

French is, of course, the language spoken and my one year of high school French didn’t get us very far. English was fairly common so there was no real problem. With boats from around the world in the anchorage,  every imaginable language was heard. Having had a Tahitian friend some years earlier I had grown used to her sweet, languid approach to life, typical of her Polynesian countrymen.

We spent a few days exploring, meanwhile  deploring the outrageous price of everything.  Fresh seafood was wonderful, as to be expected, as was the fresh produce, but a decent meal cost a small fortune and salad greens, being imported, were very dear.

We took a bus tour around the island, being very eager to visit the Paul Gauguin museum on the back side. It was disappointingly small, with only one of the master’s works on display. It had been painted during his early period in Normandy, a preview of his great talent, but a far cry from his glorious Tahitian works.

A short trip by motor launch took us to the nearby island of Moorea, 10 miles out. Our hotel was brand new, right on the beach and very comfortable and I got the worst sunburn of my life. Having lived in the tropics for 12 years, I knew I was breaking all the rules about sunning, but I had a hard time staying inside. Lynn had a voyeur’s holiday with all the French mademoiselles lounging around topless.

W arranged a tour around the island the first morning. I was waiting in the lobby wondering where he’d disappeared to when he came dashing in waving his arms. “Cancel the tour! I’ve rented a motorbike!”

My heart sank; I remembered one disastrous trip on a bike with him some years back, but realizing how small the island was, how could we get in trouble?  I hopped on the back and we putted off. It was fun, stopping to beachcomb, chat with passersby, and explore coves and inlets. The road was level and skirted the beach, the inland being mountainous. Suddenly Lynn veered off on a gravel side road and we began to climb. A sharp turn ahead, too much speed and I was dumped off the rear end as the bike went down.

So there I sat again, legs skinned and bleeding, mad as a wet hen. Apologies didn’t help; I’d known better than to get on that cursed machine. Being aware of that made me even madder. That dare-devil never could resist  the lure of a gravel road with twists and turns in it.

Between the major sunburn on the top and those raw, scraped legs, the rest of my time on Moorea was spent quietly. Warm sea water can be very healing so I basked in any shady cove I could find.

Strolling along the road near our hotel one morning, we met a couple from New Zealand carrying a bag of groceries from a tiny market nearby. They had won their trip to Moorea in a raffle, airfare and lodging for a week, but were leaving the next morning after only 2 days. Their problem? They couldn’t afford the food, were reduced to eating a few scanty snacks and were nearly broke. I guess it was a case of be careful what you wish for.

Our time and money were getting a little low too by then and we decided we’d been gone long enough; we were missing our family and it was time to get back to reality ourselves. The long trip back to Los Angeles was uneventful. I managed to cope with peeling skin and legs that didn’t want to bend, and we stepped off the plane after nearly 5 months of what had been truly the trip of a lifetime.

The Grand and Glorious Fourth!

If there was ever a dark and rainy 4th of July during the years of my childhood, I don’t remember it.  In my memory the 4th of July was always bright, sunny and hot. And how we looked forward to it! The 4th came around at the perfect time.  Memorial Day, or Decoration Day as it was known then, marked the end of the school year and the start of our long happy summers, and Labor Day meant back to school and other  serious pursuits.

But the 4th was the perfect holiday, a day everyone could revel in,  meaningful, colorful, noisy and loud. There were parades, family picnics, band concerts in the park at dusk, and firecrackers vying with fireflies to light up the evening.

In our town of 30,000 mid-westerners,  patriotism ran high, with the country caught between two major world wars and in the middle of a deep depression. Times were hard but the 4th seemed to help everyone forget their troubles for one glorious, fun-filled day.

We’d line up along the sidewalks early in the morning, waiting for the parade, sitting on the gritty curbs to get the best viewing spots. Every heart swelled with pride when the bands began to play and the American flag appeared in all its beauty, carried by a snappy color guard. Convertibles with local dignitaries, and floats decorated with crepe paper and pretty girls rolled past and we cheered them all.  Clowns rode funny cars and threw candy.

Everyone grew silent and respectful as the float filled with World War One veterans  rolled past. They always amazed me, they were so old! In the mid to late 1930s they were probably in their 40s but I thought they were ancient. The poor guys were stuffed into their old khaki wool uniforms, They had to be miserably hot but they smiled and waved cheerfully.

My favorite part of the parade was always the marching bands, led off by our high school band, The strutting drum major and the majorettes were spiffy in their red and black uniforms.  In later years it was such fun to look for one of our younger brothers, the smallest member of his middle school band with the biggest instrument, his tuba bobbing along above the crowd and nothing to be seen of him.

Those hot afternoons were often taken up with family picnics and visiting.  Fried chicken, potato salad and corn on the cob, with watermelon for dessert were always on the menu.  Fruit jars full of tart lemonade were soon emptied. My mother, wise woman that she was, always brought an extra fruit jar full of soapy water and a washcloth to keep sticky hands and faces clean as we tore around with the cousins.

Band concerts in the park rounded out the day and we listened to all the well-loved patriotic songs that we still enjoy.  Fireworks weren’t the big extravaganza they are today, but the boys saved up their coins to buy a few, and then couldn’t wait until dark to start setting them off.  I was terrified of them, they seemed so dangerous, but somehow there were never any serious accidents that I can recall.

At last bedtime would roll around and we exhausted kids were sometimes allowed to sleep outside on the cool green grass rather than in our stifling hot bedrooms, at least until the mosquitoes drove us inside.  Then we’d line up on the living room floor, hoping for a stray breeze to find us.

Our dreams were full of music, marching, good food, and the pop and bang of firecrackers.  Another 4th of July had passed, building up memories for us to look back on and remember with nostalgia.

Off to the Land of Oz, Part 3 of 4 (from my memoir)

Continuing my account of our trip to the South Pacific, New Zealand couldn’t be more different from Australia in almost every respect: landscape, people, accents and approach to life. The sun was less brilliant, the air was softer and the feeling of the entire country was homier.  New Zealand consists of two elongated islands, both mountainous, with pastoral vistas dotted with farms and sheep ranches. Known as Kiwis after their famous bird, New Zealanders are much more British than the Ozzies, quiet, soft-spoken and very welcoming. Maoris, or native New Zealanders are very much a part of the culture, while still retaining their own identity.

We spent a week in Auckland, a charming little city, easily walkable, with a very interesting, busy waterfront, and sailboat masts as far as the eye can see. We walked around the docks every day. While we were there, yachts taking part in the round-the-world Whitbread Race (since renamed) were arriving daily. Also, Queen Elizabeth’s yacht, Britannia, came in and tied up at one of the central docks awaiting the Queen and her royal attendants.

Queen Elizabeth’s visit was an exciting event. She, Prince Philip and their attendants walked the length of Queen Street in a light rain, along with the city officials. She was very attractive  in those days with her lovely English complexion and blue eyes. She paused to speak to several of the ladies I was standing with so I grabbed a nice close-up.

New Zealanders were like Australians at that time. Class lines just didn’t  exist as we know them. The lowliest ditch digger felt he was the equal of anyone else and tipping a person who gave service was considered insulting.  I wonder what it’s like now.

I had chatted up a department store clerk the previous afternoon and my mouth fell open when she mentioned, discussing the queen, “I thought she looked a little tired at dinner last night.”  Talk about the ultimate name dropping! It turned out that her husband was some sort of government official and they had attended the state dinner for the queen the night before.

Lynn had spent some months in Auckland during World War II, recovering at a  U.S.Naval hospital facility there, after the ship he served on was sunk during a battle. He had often told me about the War Memorial Museum and the remarkable exhibits of Maori carvings, especially a war canoe. It was amazing, carved from one kauri log in the 1830s, over 26 meters long and rowed by 100 warriors. It’s quite a sight in a room of its own.

Continuing our trip, we took a train to Wellington, the capital city. I decided every single structure, home, office, business and all, must have a view of the water as the entire city is on a bowl shaped hillside, sloping down toward the bay.

Planning to return to North Island later, we took a ferry across to South Island, the other half of this small country. We rented a car in Nelson and, risking our lives, took off driving down the “wrong” side of the road.  Traffic was light enough that we never did get in too much trouble, both of us alert to every road sign and turn. Heading south, our first stopover was in Fjordland, in the “Southern Alps” as scenic and spectacular as any part of Norway.

Glaciers, including their famous Franz Josef Glacier, fjords and icy waterfalls were to be seen everywhere. We wrapped up in every warm piece of clothing we’d brought, especially for a long boat trip we took up Milford Sound.  We only spent a few days on this wild coast but could have spent twice the time. By the time we’d reached the southernmost part of our journey, snowflakes were flying and we realized Antarctica was not very far away at all. And this was the middle of summer, as we kept reminding ourselves.

Finally heading north again, we were soon back  to rolling green hills covered with, as their slogan went,  “70 million nuclear free sheep.” Since this was during a global controversy over nuclear weapons, the slogan went a long way toward  reminding people that New Zealand was peaceful and safe. We never got away from the Southern Alps. As long as we stayed on South Island, there was always a mountain in view.

We enjoyed Dunedin and Christchurch,  boated through a firefly cave and spent a leisurely afternoon aboard a big old riverboat while a jolly Kiwi lady pounded away on an old upright and everybody joined in on the good old songs.  Before we knew it we were back in Nelson, back on the ferry and headed for Wellington and North Island again.

Having survived driving all over South Island, we rented another car and headed north. All of New Zealand is mountainous, scenic and picturesque. From Rotorua, a small scale Yellowstone, geysers and all, to driving along 90 Mile Beach, the most northern point in the country, then to the Bay of Islands, a wonderland of beautiful inlets, with boats everywhere. Keri-Keri, on the Bay of Islands has New Zealand’s  2 oldest buildings, a stone grocery store built in 1822 and still in use, and a house dating from 1836.

To us, the most poignant sight was the grave of a young American sailor, buried there in 1824. He had died on a whaling ship and the locals have tended his grave ever since,  I could only think what a comfort that knowledge would have been for his family, had they ever known.

We visited a vast kauri forest, the giant kauris being the most ancient species of tree to survive today. We got a peek at a few kiwi birds,  the country’s beloved symbol. These large, shy birds are totally nocturnal and we were only able to see them in a sanctuary under night lights.

We were impressed by the many structures built by the Maoris and still in use. Meeting houses, businesses and other public buildings were distinguished by their typical carvings, deep and intricate.

And we feasted on tons of cheeses, butters and rich milk. Their dairy products are superior,  the whipped cream is pure heaven. So much of the food had that special edge that total freshness gives.

We spent another week in Auckland, reluctant to leave a place where we’d felt so at home for the past 2 months,  but looking forward to our next adventure. Who wouldn’t be eager to go on to Tahiti and Moorea?

Off to the Land of Oz, Part 2 of 4 (from my memoir)

Continuing our trip through Australia, we arrived in Adelaide one Sunday noon and found that, other than the one man staffing our motel, there was absolutely no one to be seen. We took a long stroll around town and never came across another person or saw an opened business of any sort, having been warned by our  host that there wasn’t an open restaurant or cafe in business anywhere. Regretting that we weren’t traveling with at least a jar or two of peanut butter and jelly, Lynn set out on a very determined search for sustenance of any sort. He returned about an hour later, waving a greasy paper bag full of hot bangers and chips. Never did the so-called Australian national dish taste so good. They even smelled good, in a slightly rancid way.

After an all-night bus trip, Coober Pedy was our next stop, one of the strangest places I’ve ever seen. The ocean views, yacht basins and gentle wine country were all left behind. This was open, undulating opal mining country, incredibly hot and sunny, covered with small cone-shaped piles of debris from the mining as far as the eye could see..  The town itself consisted of very wide, open streets and meager looking, scattered buildings. Most of the businesses and homes were built into the hillsides, taking advantage of natural cooling and shelter.

Going into the shops and a few of the homes was to me an unnerving experience. I realized immediately that I would never  get any farther than 2 or 3 feet from the only door or the front windows. I couldn’t wait to get back out into the heat, although the interiors were pleasantly cool. As evening rolled around we discovered how a lot of the miners cooled off.  They bought huge bottles of Foster’s beer and stretched out on the wide walkways right in front of the liquor store. They looked comfortable as they lounged, passing the time of day with their mates and passers-by.

Another overnight bus trip took us to Ayers Rock, an enormous sandstone inselberg (or ocean island) standing alone in the middle of the  desert wasteland. Visible over a great distance in all directions, it has long been a sacred spot for Australia’s indigenous people, the Aborigines.  The Abos, to use the Aussie term, are seen in every part of the country, an important part of life there and yet seemingly not really involved. They are treated cautiously and with great respect. Touring by bus as we were, we were always sternly warned not to leave the bus or have a conversation with any Abo while stopped at any of the small towns belonging to them.  There was no danger and we weren’t fearful, just respectful.

Ayers Rock and the surrounding countryside have a distinctive sandy red coloration,  Climbing to the top and signing the guestbook is a great tourist activity, and there is a small settlement with hotels near the base.  The climb is harrowing, the descent even more so. A chain is provided for assistance, maybe to slow down an out-of- control descent.

I convinced Lynn I was too exhausted to climb after all night on the bus, and let him get well ahead of me before starting, not wanting him nipping at my heels. He was quite surprised to meet me walking across the top toward him.

Alice Springs has been immortalized in Nevil Shute’s book, “A Town Like Alice” and the actual town deserves its fame. Surprisingly green and verdant in the midst of the red outback, it’s a very pretty, comfortable-appearing  place with a large shady park in the center of town, giving you the feeling that you might like to live there. One of their attractions is the annual boat regatta, held every August. Since the only river through town is bone dry year round, none of the boats has a bottom. Six or eight 0f the fleetest runners get inside, holding the boat waist high, and run through the sandy “river”  to the finish line. I like a town with a sense of humor.

We flew from Alice Springs to Cairns;  back to the ocean and some of the best game fishing in the world. We found a cozy motel within walking distance of downtown and, with a landlady who brought a hot breakfast to our room every morning, we decided to stay put for a while. Her coffee was excellent as was the usual fresh fruit.  Fragrant pineapples, mangoes, bananas, and my favorite, bright red papaya with zesty green lime were among the best. Tree ripened, newly picked bananas have a flavor totally unlike the weeks-old bananas we’d always had.

Evenings were restful. We would stroll over to the beach to sit and watch droves of native, parrot-like birds come in to roost. They flew in by the hundreds, colorful and very, very noisy. We quickly learned not to stand or sit anywhere under them as we watched  the day end.

A side trip up the York Peninsula was interesting. Our bus driver was a volunteer on a lifeboat rescue squad. One of the few really deadly jellyfish species in the world lives in the warm sea water along the coast and those big burly men wore women’s panty hose out on their rescue trips to prevent  stings. We made a brief roadside stop where he showed us how the Aborigines clean their teeth. A large green ant living in certain trees was easy to catch, the idea being to break off and chew the bulbous posterior. I found it to be quite astringent and refreshing.

We continued south out of Cairns by bus, driving along Australia’s famed Gold Coast, or vacation land, skirting the Great Barrier Reef and taking brief excursions out to some of the islands. We spent Christmas Day standing on a section of the Reef, well south of where the deadly jellies thrived. To us the water was much too warm for swimming.

We spent a week in Brisbane, visiting various sanctuaries for everything from koalas and wallabies to flying foxes. I was shocked to find that kangaroo and wallaby fur was soft and fine,  while koalas have a bristly, coarse fur. I’d expected it to be the other way around. I spent half my time on our bus trips craning my neck, trying to catch a glimpse a koala sleeping in a tree top, where they spent their days, but never did see one. A side trip to the small scenic town of Kuranda, home of the duck-billed platypus, had me staring into every watery slough or stream we walked or drove past, but I never spotted one of those curious creatures either.

After two months, we finally said a reluctant good-bye to Oz and flew from Brisbane to Auckland, New Zealand.  Australia is such a vast continent we didn’t begin to see it all, and missed out on Darwin, Tasmania, and Perth, which Aussies told us was the prettiest part of the country.  There was a National Park outside of Darwin which I had earmarked as a must-see and didn’t get to. I’d still love to go back. It was impossible to do justice to a country as large as the United States is just two months.

Off to the Land of Oz, Part 1 of 4 (from my memoir)

OFF  TO THE  LAND OF OZ

by way of Fiji, Tahiti and New Zealand    (from my memoir)

PART 1:

Everyone needs at least one long, never-to-be-forgotten trip in their lifetime.  Travel is good for the spirit, good for the mind, good for the makers of cameras and scrapbooks, and good for stories with which  to bore friends and family for years to come.

I was delighted when my husband Lynn took an early retirement and we were able to spend time  exploring our own beautiful country. When we happened to sell a piece of property, we agreed it was time for us to make our dream trip.

A quick visit to a travel agent, a secure place to leave our R.V. and we were off to the Los Angeles airport and the South Seas, carrying one small bag and a light carry-on apiece.  We left in December of 1985 and returned in the spring of 1986 after enjoying the summer months in the Southern Hemisphere.

Our first stop was Nadi, Fiji. After a couple of days of decompression that included balmy patio breakfasts with homemade raspberry jam and our fill of fresh, fragrant tropical fruits,  I knew we had come to the right place.

I’ve always thought different countries have their own ambient auras, the sun, the humidity, the terrain all contributing to a distinct atmosphere.  Fiji’s skies were dreamy, the tropical sun mellowed by the nearby ocean, the jungles and the softly humid air. Colors and smells were mellow, too, flowers bright but never gaudy and the greens restful.

From Nadi we flew on to Suva, the capital city, a mixture of quaint and modern.  We spent 6 days there, Lynn wandering around with a bemused look on his face as he rediscovered sites he’d first visited some 40 years before with the U.S. Navy during World War ll.  The light cruisers he served on put in to port there periodically at that time for supplies and upkeep.

The Fijian people, once feared and reviled as cannibals, turned out to be extremely pleasant Melanesians, quiet, polite and gracious. Just about half of the locals were of Indian origin, mostly Hindu. Fiji’s past had been a colorful mixture of whaling ships and missionaries, and our hotel looked out on a small wooden church that would have been at home anywhere in New England.

One morning I braved a walk through the dense, shadowy  jungle, inhaling the rich, heavy, dark green smells, lured on by signs offering “Black Pearls for sale.”  I was a little nervous, thinking of both ferocious animals and cannibals, wondering if either species still existed. I rounded one last turn and came upon a typical tropical grass shack with a pleasant Fijian lady who greeted me with a breezy American “Hi!”  She had just moved home to escape the rat race after many years in Los Angeles. Her black pearls were beautiful, even though overpriced, and I admired them as we chatted, assuring her I’d try to bring my husband back later.

We enjoyed one last proper English tea that afternoon.  Imagine if you will, having a civilized tea with dainty sandwiches, tiny pastries and all,  while gazing out on the peaceful blue Pacific with the jungle for a backdrop. Early the next morning, a Saturday, we were back on a plane, heading for Oz.

Australian people refer to themselves as Aussies or, with their accents,  Ozzies, and their homeland as Oz. As Qantas Air bore us west, we had our first acquaintance with those proud, outspoken people. They are extremely independent, possibly a trait handed down from their renegade ancestors . Labor unions are a huge presence in Australia and there is always a strike or two going on somewhere. Strikes are referred to as Industrial Actions and we soon learned that the Sydney Herald publishes a list of current Industrial Actions on its front page every morning.

That day’s list included a strike by airline employees so we were forced to land in Auckland, N.Z. where we spent the day lounging around a hotel, enjoying 2 bountiful buffets laden with fresh seafood and tropical fruits of bright oranges, yellows and reds,  before finally reboarding our plane. We landed in Sydney at 2 a.m., and were met by a sleepy skeleton crew of airline employees who informed us that no one ever worked on weekends in Oz if they could possibly get out of it.

Most of the  passengers had hotel reservations and only one shuttle bus was in operation.  Our plan was to travel on the cheap and stay over in hostels so we had no reservation anywhere, a scary thought at that hour of the morning.  The only person on duty lined us up with a hostel. We finally got on board the shuttle for its last run and were dropped off at the hostel in King’s Cross, a busy part of the city.  It was staffed by a drowsy old gent who got our names and pointed us toward a room.

One night in the hostel and Lynn disappeared the next morning while I finished a hasty shower in the community shower room. He had located a fully furnished luxury apartment just across the street, ready to rent by the week and he grabbed it. That was the end of our plan to stay on the cheap. They aren’t called “youth hostels” for nothing. At 56 and 60 years of age, we didn’t quite fit in any more.

Australian sun is brilliant  and unending, the humidity is low and the prevailing smell to me was rocky. The entire continent seems to glitter and crackle with life.

Sydney is a bright, sparkling cosmopolitan city with wonderful ethnic restaurants. Other than those, Australian food is mostly distinguished by piles of chips, known to us as french fries, on every plate, at every meal of every day, along with big fat, bland sausages , called bangers, or meat pies, with  sometimes delicious lamb. Beer is a way of life, although Ozzie wine is gaining a well deserved reputation.

Sydney harbor has to be one of the loveliest harbors I’ve ever seen, dwarfing its 2 main attractions, Sydney Bay Bridge and of course the famed Opera House. We took a ferry out to the Atlantic 0cean through the harbor, winding among the many islands and spits. Aussies love their bridge, comparing it to our San Francisco Bay Bridge.  I failed to see its charm, thinking more in terms of a beginner’s Erector Set, solid enough that it will never fall down..

The beautiful Opera House, though disappointingly small, is lovely, soaring out to the harbor and the skies as though it can barely contain the  music it was built for. It was built by an American architect who won the privilege in an international competition. Construction was well along before it was discovered that no restrooms had been planned. Hasty revisions took care of that problem right away.

Touring around the country was amazingly efficient and comfortable. Greyhound buses went everywhere, their agents acted as travel agents and their drivers as tour directors, with commentary along the way.

Finally tearing ourselves away from Sydney, our next stop was Canberra, the national capitol. Interestingly enough, the entire city had also been designed, as was the Opera House,  by an American architect after another international contest. This time the results were mixed. Canberra is another clean bright city, quite small. but the uniformity is a bit off-putting.

Too much of a same-ness takes away a lot of charm. An occasional Victorian structure, or even a gritty industrial area tucked away somewhere would add to the interest. One expected to see the Stepford wives coming out of identical front doors of identical houses at 10:00 o’clock every morning, heading for the beauty shops and a daily touch-up to their beehive dos.

Our bus took us through wine country on the next leg of our journey,  picturesque as wine growing areas always are. Traveling through the many small towns, we would always spot at least one tennis court filled with energetic players at their favorite sport. Tennis is played everywhere by all ages. I got a kick out of the elderly matrons in their modest dresses having a late day game.

Melbourne turned out to be my favorite city, old enough by Australian terms to have a certain quaint charm, full of British touches, yet modern in every way. Captain Cook’s Cottage was a perfect example, restored for the tourists, and a reminder to the locals of their past.  Like almost all major cities in Oz., Melbourne is situated near the ocean and the many yacht basins are crowded with masts. I got the impression that if the Aussies aren’t sailing they’re playing tennis.

Our daughter and son-in-law lived at one time in Castlemaine, a small city just north of Melbourne.  Howard served as headmaster at a boy’s school and Mimi taught and served as the librarian. They enjoyed and treasured the two years they spent there.