Going Home

This weekend I fly to Perth on the west coast, and will drive 5 hours to the southwest coast to see my dad for his 60th birthday.  I am going ‘home’. 


‘Home’ is a word laden with connotations that make me feel a plethora of emotions.  Coming ‘home’ after a long trip brings mixed emotions – from relief to sadness, and many shades in between.  From necessity in conducting a long-distance relationship, Ben and I have come to know our ‘home’ as ‘wherever we are together’.  Home in the context of my up-coming weekend, is my hometown, and even more than that, it is where my parents are. 


Ironically I have never lived in the house where my dad and step-mum currently live.  They sold up the house that was my home – and home base – for 15 years and moved from Perth to the south coast.  They did this a couple of years ago, and the last time I saw them at that house, in the hills outside of Perth, I drove away in tears.  I had lived there, moved away, lived there again, and then moved away again; it was my home base, my longest permanent address ever.  I still had boxes of stuff there long after I had moved to Sydney.  It wasn’t until my dad called and said, “Darling, come and get your boxes,” that I knew he and Gail were serious about selling up and moving elsewhere.


Now they are building a new home that my clever dad designed, and while they do that, they live in a rental property in the tiny, extremely beautiful, town of Denmark.  This is where I will be heading to this weekend.  But even though I have never lived there, and this is only my third visit to the house in two years, it feels like home.  As I have said before, ‘home truly is where the heart is’. 

I will sit at the breakfast bench in my pyjamas, with messy bed-hair, and as a 38-year-old woman, let my dad squeeze me fresh orange juice.  When he places it before me, I will say, “thank you, Daddy,” as I have done for decades and he will say, “You’re welcome, Darling,” as he has said for just as long.  It is a ritual that is a small, but integral part of the whole.  And in no other context do I drink orange juice; it is just what we do, one of the things that makes their home my home too.


In addition to the trip south, I will spend a fast and furious Friday seeing as many people as I possibly can, all of whom are ‘family’.  Like ‘home’, ‘family’ means so much more than its dictionary definition, as I am fortunate to have long-time friends who are as precious to me as my relatives.  I will be seeing three of these friends tomorrow. 


First will be Thomas, who I met in the first week of university many years ago.  We get to see each other so rarely, but it is always a homecoming when we do.  Tom has been my partner in crime so many times, that just a single word, or a look can set us both off on a nostalgic fit of giggles.  He understands my love-hate affair with my hair, as he has his own, he is unfailingly supportive and compassionate, and our mutual love of the dance floor has made us an impromptu floorshow dozens of times.  Even though we can only squeeze in a quick coffee tomorrow morning, it is worth it just to see him.


I will then hit the road and arrive at Jules’ house for lunch, and Stace will join us.  Both women have known me since I was 14; both are my sisters.  They have known me through bad 80s hair, and bad 90s hair, come to think of it.  In those 24 years we’ve all gained weight, lost weight, gained it back and lost it again.  We have seen each other through every relationship we have had, including three marriages (not mine), and the heartbreak we all endured in our 20s.  We have seen each other at our best and our very worst.  There are three children (again, not mine), so I have happily adopted the moniker ‘Aunty Sand’, and I am an awesome aunty.  Tomorrow I meet my newest niece, who arrived only a few months ago.


Tonight I will be collected from the airport by my dad’s sister and her husband, and we will catch up over a bottle of red, as is our ritual.  I am, at once, a friend and their ‘young’ niece.   I have travelled and worked and lived enough to have wonderful, worldly, lively conversations with them, but at the end of the evening when they hug and kiss me goodnight, I am their ‘Sand’, who still loves to be showered with affection and called ‘Darling’ before she climbs into bed.


Going home to Perth is often these whirlwind trips where I cram in as much love and laughter and, as many ‘catch ups’ as I can, but I do not come back to Sydney depleted.  Just the opposite.  Even though I love to go far and wide, a trip ‘home’ to Perth feels like an oasis.  With ease I strip off the roles I play in my working and grown up world, and just be me, the woman-child.  A dose of family and old friends, a visit home, where I am just ‘Sand’, becomes a sliver of heaven in my busy world.


I will not get to see everyone this trip over west; it is too short.  I will miss my mum and her sisters and their families.  I will miss many old friends.  I will not be able to take Ben with me this time, maybe the next. 


But these are not thoughts to dwell on, as I am looking forward to my glass of orange juice, and to wishing my dad a very happy 60th birthday.


Happy Birthday Daddy.


Losing watches

At a recent interview – for the job I am in currently – I was asked to describe my organisational skills. I replied, “Freakish.” And they are.  I am a list-maker. I have reminders – electronic and on post-its and on calendars – for all sorts of things. I do not forget birthdays, appointments, work responsibilities or social arrangements.  My job requires that I adhere to a strict timetable, and I am responsible for decision-making and organization that immediately affects 180 students and 6 other staff members.

I am a planner in most aspects of my life – except when I am in ‘travel mode’.

When I travel I revel in the freedom it affords me. I shake off the shackles of timetables, commitments and calendars. I take off my watch and happily forget what day it is.  On occasion, there are planes or trains to catch at specific times, but mostly I can indulge a side of myself that is rarely seen in my day-to-day and working life.  In recent travels I am happy to plan a day or two ahead, and leave the rest to unfold as it comes.  And I am often happy for others – in many cases Ben – to make big decisions about what, where and how. I give over to the lack of obligation, and it feels terrific.  I haven’t always traveled like this, but in the past few years I have been fortunate with travel companions who allow this side of me to emerge.

My greatest experience of this feeling happened in late September 2006. I stood on the dock of a small marina in the south of Santorini, Greece, and I searched the fleet of sailing vessels for the one with the red G.A.P. flag.

Standing next to me was a tall, dark-haired stranger who seemed to share my nervousness about being in the right
place. “Are you on the sailing trip up to
Mykonos?” I asked. “Yes, god I am so glad I am in the right place.” “Me too.” “I’m Ben,” he said with hand extended, Sandy,” I replied as we shook hands and smiled at each other.  We made our way down to the marina and found our yacht. We were greeted exuberantly by our skipper, Patrick, and introduced to the other 5 people we would share the next 9 days with. All were strangers to me, yet within hours I sat with them at dinner, laughing,
enjoying terrific local seafood and knowing that I was amongst friends.

Earlier that day, when I said goodbye to old friends and left to take up my trip with strangers, I had fretted. I worried that I wouldn’t be able to find the right bus to get to the right marina to meet up with the right yacht. I had all the same worries about the people on the yacht that a child has about their fellow students on the first day of school. “What if they don’t like me?”was foremost in my mind.

I needn’t have worried. I am still in contact with these fellow travellers 18 months later, and Ben from the yacht is the same Ben who shares my passion for life’s experiences, and peppers my posts about subsequent travels.

We all shared something on that boat that I have never experienced before; an intense feeling of freedom. We slept when we were tired, and we ate when we were hungry. For people from diverse professions all driven by deadlines and timetables, this was liberating.

I lost my watch and did not find it again until packing on the last day. I did not miss it. I forgot what day it was, and
not because the days all melded into one, but because each day seem twice as long as the frantic days of home. Each
day was filled with languid hours, each moment was lived in present tense, which is the key to this kind of bliss – not obsessing about the past, not fretting about the future.

Even the itinerary was ‘loose’. Patrick was the perfect skipper for this kind of trip. He knew the Cyclades islands so
well, that he sailed according to the whims of the weather and the sea. No matter the island on which we landed, he
knew the best places to eat, the best places to see, and how to squeeze every minute from the day without feeling rushed.

Sailing between islands came with its own unique joys. Being on the water with no other place to be at that exact moment, is exhilarating. Swimming off the boat, diving into the bottomless dark blue sea, is exhilarating.
atching dolphins cresting waves beside the yacht is exhilarating. Breathing salt air, basking in sunlight,
feeling the spray of the ocean on your face, holding on tight to ride the swell and looking ahead as the next island emerges from a hazy horizon – all bliss. 

There are so many terrific stories to tell from this trip, and I will some day, but more than unbelievable meals and
extraordinary sights, this trip unlocked something in me. I have described it to Ben as a loosening of knots. I discovered that life is less about timetables and meetings and the pressure of deadlines. Much more important are the moments when we are completely present.

I consider this particular trip a gift. 8 nights and 9 days in the middle of the Adriatic to remind me to be present, to stop obsessing about unimportant things. Whenever I get too caught up in the rigmarole, I think back and remember to breathe.

Oh yes, I will still be obsessively on time for flights, but when I get to the other end and my real journey begins, I
happily and purposefully lose my watch.

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Loathe of Flying Part Two

On every long haul flight I invariably end up wondering WHEN scientists are going to sort out this teleporting thing.  If you watch episodes of the original Star Trek, you will see Spock and Kirk and the gang talking into their mobile phones, and Uhura chatting away on her Bluetooth earpiece.  The crew even shock alien bad guys with Taser guns.  If so much of the technology imagined by Gene Roddenberry in the 60s has actually eventuated, when, oh when, will teleporting become a feasible alternative to flying long haul?

I saw Jumper yesterday, the film with Hayden Christensen. I watched enviously as he teleported from one part of the world to the next without jetlag, and without having to sleep sitting up while breathing stale air filled with germs.

Oh, how I hate the long haul flight.  I travel frequently enough that flying anything other than coach is not a financial option, and I have only been upgraded once in the past 20 years, so coach it is.  Every time.  As this is the status quo, I have developed some coping mechanisms, some strategies to make it more bearable down the less pointy end of the plane.  Feel free to borrow as many of these as you like.

I always request an aisle seat.  I want to know that I can get up whenever I want – or at least whenever the seatbelt sign is not on.  I want to be able to escape a leaner, a snorer, or a chatter to the airspace of the aisle.  I request these seats when I book.  I double and triple check that I have an aisle seat.  And one of the advantages of checking in so early is that I can guarantee this aisle seat.  It is so important to me that the on the rare occasion I haven’t had an aisle seat (twice), I spend much of the flight in a state of anxious claustrophobia.  Am not afraid of flying; am afraid of being crushed into a small space without chance of escape.  Fellow claustrophobics will understand. 

Once on the plane – and I wait until about 2/3 of the passengers have embarked, as the rush is over, but there is still room in the overhead lockers for my biggest bag – I like to ‘nest’. I put my newly purchased array of magazines, my water bottle and lollies in the seat pocket.  I take off my shoes and put on socks, and I ensure my moisturiser, lip balm, and eye drops are close at hand under the seat in front of me.  I stash my big bag above my head, and all this takes less than a minute.  Other essentials stashed within reach include a notebook and pen in case I am inspired, and my eye mask and ear plugs for sleep time.

The nesting is an important part of my flight, because it is me creating my own little world where I will have everything I need within reach.  Sandy-land in the sky.  Yes, I am aware that this sounds a little O-C and probably annoying for anyone sitting next to me.  Tough!

While waiting for other passengers to embark, I indulge in another small pleasure: reading about the flight menu and the in-flight entertainment.  Neither will meet the standard we enjoy in everyday life, but both take up time, and it is nice to look at the menu and think, “Oooh, we get supper, breakfast and lunch.  That’s got to take up a couple of hours right there.”  And the entertainment?  I purposefully flick to the back of the in-flight magazine and make mental notes.  Mostly I think along the lines of, “seen it”, “heard it was rubbish”, and “saw it and it was rubbish”, but every so often, I turn to that page and internally exclaim, “Haven’t seen it, heard it was brilliant!”  It is a small moment, but a good one.  Of course, many planes have those fancy-schmancy ‘back-of-the-seat-choose-your-own-adventure” entertainment systems which negates much of this.  However, although I generally fly Qantas and other such ‘first-rate’ airlines, I have poor luck in getting on one of these planes.  4 of my last 5 international flights have been on planes only slightly younger than the flight attendants. 

After checking out the meal service and entertainment comes the greatest pleasure of all when flying coach long haul.  It doesn’t happen very often, but when it does, you cannot help but feel smug and unbelievably elated.  It is the moment when you realise that the seat next to yours will remain empty for the next 14 hours and 27 minutes.  You can spread out.  And the only other person to share that moment with, is the one sitting on the other side of the empty seat.  A smile and a nod will do it.  No need for lengthy diatribes – you both just know.  YES!

So, I have expounded on the pleasures of flying coach long haul, and we haven’t even left the ground yet.  This is because once we leave the ground, any possibility of further small pleasures evaporates.  Once flying, it is all about the countdown to landing.   Why do you think they have those obnoxious screens with the little plane on a map, moving along at a rate that would make a snail smirk?  Because they (the all-knowing  ‘THEY’ with  their infinite  wisdom) know that even though we let ourselves get distracted by the movies playing on a screen we can only see if we sit on our hand luggage and crick our neck to the left, flying long haul is mostly about ‘Are we there yet?”  So, in between movies and food service, we stare at that stupid map and will the little plane to go faster.

About an hour into the flight, they start to heat up the food in the galleys, and no matter what it is, by that time, in that situation, the wafting aroma excites the palate.  The food when it arrives tends to disappoint, but we sit there with our itsy-bitsy plastic crockery arranging everything as though it is our last meal.  We take our time to butter the bread roll, to cut the cheese into small portions to evenly distribute it amongst the three crackers.  We look up the aisle excitedly as the drink cart makes its way to us, knowing we can order wine, because it is free on long haul flights.  We may even just save the mini-chocolate bar for later.  We eat like rows of praying mantis with our little plastic forks and knives, and we are grateful for this sub-standard fare because it takes up time. 

I should say at this point that I have a trick.  I always order a ‘special meal’ – and I will happily chop and change between ‘low fat’, ‘lactose intolerant’, ‘low glycemic’ and ‘gluten free’ options.  I am not fussed about the meal, but if I order a special meal, it comes out before the main service – often well before.  I may have to wait for that tiny plane to cross the international date line, but I don’t have to wait for that food cart to come all the way down the aisle to my row.  So, I lied a little before.  There is one small pleasure to be had once in the air.  It sounds like this, “Miss Barker, I have your meal for you.”

The other stuff is just there to suffer through – and sleep through if you can:

  • Children who kick the back of your seat or chuck tantrums.  Once in a while I feel like chucking a tantrum on a plane too – maybe thats why I dislike these children so much – because I am jealous.
  • The snorer, who keeps everyone awake but himself.
  • The phantom farter, who seems to think the air-conditioning just sucks the smell out into the atmosphere.
  • The dodgy entertainment system that stops working 3 minutes before the end of a film you have invested 2 hours and 45 minutes in.
  • The state of the bathrooms after 12 hours of flying.
  • The loud talker.  If I can hear her from row 32 when she is in row 19, could someone please tell her it is likely she can lower her voice and the person next to her will still be able to hear what she is saying?
  • Disappearing flight attendants.  “Excuse me, could I please have a cup of tea?” outside of normal drink service will guarantee you will never see that flight attendant – or any of her colleagues – again.
  • The uncomfortable irony of being desperate for the bathroom and more thirsty than you can ever remember  – and the seatbelt sign stays on for eternity.  Never has one little neon red light meant so much.

I did promise to write about airports, as I have been to more airports than destinations, but not tonight.  Tonight I am going to eat a delicious dinner on real crockery, then stretch out on my couch and watch whatever I darned well please.

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Loathe of Flying Pt 1

I LOVE to travel, but the cruel irony is that I hate to fly.

I appreciate that there are people who are desperately afraid of flying. That is not me. I suffer only from loathe of flying. I do not fear the plane falling out of the sky. In fact, often times I am so blasé about flying that I am asleep by the time we take off and I wake after we are in the air.

Mostly the loathing is because of what happens on the ground. I hate airports. I understand that few people actually like the airport experience, but I have had such bad luck at airports that I am often anxious when I get there.

I once arrived at the airport for a month-long trip to the USA where it was winter. I had boots, jumpers (sweaters), coats and ski gear in my carefully packed suitcases. My idiot travel agent had assured me that my airline allowed 2 bags at up to 32kg per bag, so I had one big heavy suitcase, and a small suitcase, its ‘mini me’. My large suitcase was seriously overweight. I argued that my travel agent had assured me I could carry up to 32kg per bag – and all I had was a paltry 27kg. I even called my travel agent, who was so stupid, she swore black and blue that she was correct and that the perfectly coiffed woman standing opposite me was the idiot. I told my agent I would be paying the excess baggage and then billing her. She was outraged at my suggestion – she was outraged, but she wasn’t the one facing an excess baggage charge every leg of a 6-leg journey.

We argued a bit more, and less than 3 minutes later, I had slammed my mobile phone shut (it was the best I could do to display my disgust) and was repacking my carefully-packed bags on the floor of the airport. In the middle of my summer, I lightened my load by putting on a jumper, boots and a long winter coat. When I was done, the small bag weighed almost as much as the big one – a feat in defiance of physics – and I was checked in. Idiot-travel-agent-woman.

In Calgary, I locked my friend’s baby in the car – while it was running, at the 3-minute kerbside drop-off point. Baby in the car, luggage in the car, keys in the ignition, and my girlfriend and I standing there, early morning, temperature well below zero. She started laughing in response to our predicament, albeit hysterically, and I stood there dumb-struck for about 30 seconds.

Thank fortune we had the car boot open, and that I could crawl inside, push through to the backseat, and contort my body enough to flick the lock with the edge of my finger nail. Thank fortune because her husband had lost the spare set of keys the day before. Baby Canyon was none the wiser and thought it was hilarious that Aunty Sandy was doing such a funny thing. I made my flight, but it took me until well into it to start breathing normally again.

And for some reason, no matter where in the world I am, I am selected 9 times out of 10 for ‘random security checks’. Random! As in, ‘You look like a good sort, so I will randomly select you‘? In Denver airport I wished I hadn’t worn my stripy toe socks inside my boots. The security staff did not find them as festive as I did, so I was randomly selected for further searches.

At Heathrow, when batteries were the greatest potential danger, and not liquids, the security officer asked, “Excuse me Madam, is there anything battery-operated in your luggage?” I immediately thought to my personal massager, and to save us both the embarrassment, I replied a simple, “No”.

I do not mind the latest security measures. I would much rather be safe, than to complain about them, and in truth I have flown quite a lot in the past few years, so I have my routine down pat. Shoes off, coat/jacket off, plastic bag of toiletries out, laptop out, bags flat, through the sensor, all back on and in again.

There have been a few glitches, like when I was in Peru. I had packed my hand luggage that morning for the trekking I would be doing at the other end of the flight. And without a thought to the plane travel, I included my Swiss Army knife – the one I’d had for a decade, with my name engraved on it.

When the security officer stopped me and asked about the knife, I indignantly denied it, as I had forgotten how stupid I had been. I cannot imagine the look on my face as I realised he was right and that I was about to lose a prized possession.

While in Hawaii, Ben’s bag was searched by hand after the scan because it was jam-packed, and he realised he had left his pocketknife in the bag. He whispered this me, and I had visions of us being carted away by U.S. security for further questioning. But no, Ben was simply chastised for a 150ml bottle of sunscreen, which was confiscated. “I told him not to pack that,” I said, and Ben looked suitably contrite. Phew.

As my luck at airports leans more towards ‘bad’ than ‘good’, I tend to arrive exceptionally early for my international flights. If all goes well, I have a comfortable window of time in which I can shop duty free, or have a leisurely cup of tea, or even browse bookshops. When it all goes pear-shaped, I have wiggle-room and will stress less (well, a little less anyway).

At Heathrow in 2006, they changed the gate for my flight to Athens at the last minute and my ‘comfortable window’ dissolved into harried running from one end of the airport to the other with 50 of my fellow passengers. When we got to the new departure gate, we were herded onto buses and shuttled to the other side of the airport (a 15-minute drive), and ended up at a gate that was suspiciously located where the original departure gate was.

But sometimes, my ‘boy scout’ approach to flying backfires on me. The last time I flew out of Australia, I arrived 3 hours before my flight. I was the only person at check in, the only person at security and had to interrupt two customs officers chatting so they could okay my departure from Australia. I was all the way through with a wait of 2 hours and 50 minutes until my flight – and I had already changed money. I browsed, I shopped, I had lunch, and I still had another 2 hours to wait.

But superstition and experience just wouldn’t allow me to be one of those people who leaves it all to the last second, and squeezes into their seat moments before the door is sealed, the plane is crossed-checked and we are cleared for departure.  That kind of stress would only make flying even more hellish.

Next time: The joys of long-haul flights, and best and worst airports.

Glitter, gambling, glamour. It can only be Vegas.

Las Vegas. An oasis of guilty pleasures in the middle of the desert. Glitter, gambling and glamour. Right? Well, sort of.

Last year the call went out. My mother wished for nothing more than to return to her homeland, and wanted my sister and I to join her for an American Christmas – in Las Vegas. This is where mum’s sister and her family have lived for the better part of three decades. For Aunt Joanne and Uncle Tom, and their children, and their children’s children, Las Vegas is home; it is where they live, work, go to school, buy groceries, do chores and play.

I hadn’t been there since before I was of legal drinking age (I was 19), so I was looking forward to reconnecting with my family, as well as discovering what all the fuss about Vegas was about. I was not disappointed on either front.

I was delighted to meet (again) my beautiful Aunt Joanne, who has the wisest and kindest eyes I have ever had look upon me, and my Uncle Tom, whose wit is drier than the desert he lives in. I laughed a lot with my cousin, Mary, and loved meeting her daughter, who I had nursed on my lap, now a young woman with a sharp wit of her own. What an ease there was between us, even when time and distance had separated us for 20 years.

My sister flew in from London, Ben flew in from Minnesota, Cousin Cathy flew in from Phoenix, and my mother was overjoyed to have us all there to celebrate Christmas together.

But, I couldn’t shake the question running through my head at a rate of knots: “What is Christmas in Vegas going to be like?” I mean it was LAS VEGAS and I was there to celebrate one of the holiest events on the Christian calendar – not that this is why Christmas is my favourite holiday – but that is beside the point. I was just fascinated by the irony!

I would soon discover that Las Vegas is a city of contrasts, where the beauty of the landscape far outweighs that of the ‘beautiful people’, and much of the fun happens well off The Strip. And Christmas in Vegas? Well, that was all about contrasts too.

We watched White Christmas; we fired handguns. We drove around looking at Christmas lights, and saw a topless review. We spent part of Christmas Day people-watching along The Strip, and the rest hanging out at ‘home’ and consuming an enormous Christmas feast with the family. Oh yes, we squeezed every ounce of goodness out of this particular holiday.

We did fire handguns – Ben, Vic and I. A few days before Christmas we walked through the doors of a gun shop and shooting range on the outskirts of the city. We were greeted exuberantly by a man called John, a gentle bear with no backside to speak of, so his jeans hung dangerously low.

Now, my sister and I had never shot a hand gun before – we were gun virgins – whereas Ben has handled firearms (responsibly) since he was a boy on hunting trips with grandpa and at target practice with dad. The process that day was pretty straightforward. We filled in photocopied forms with basic information, and between the three of us, we produced exactly 0 pieces of identification. Ben opted for the high end stuff; he shot a 50 calibre Desert Eagle and an MP5, which is an automatic. Vic and I were given a .22 and a Glock (.38), respectively.

The shooting range was just a small room with cinderblock walls, partitions and a simple pulley system for flying the targets to the other end of the room. When we walked in, the semi-automatic shotgun one man was firing tore through the sound-proofing of our ear protection. The ‘boom’, ‘boom’, ‘boom’ was felt right through our bodies too. My sister started shaking and spent most of our session in the safety of the gun shop. I stuck it out in the range to watch Ben fire high powered weapons, his back muscles straining against his T-shirt (sigh). Then it was my turn.

I was guided to the end partition, and John helped me load the clip into my gun. It was like it is in the movies. Gun in one hand, clip held in the palm of the other hand, and the two coming together with that ‘ratchet’ sound. Marvelous. I thought back to 15 minutes earlier when I had received my not-so-extensive instruction: right foot back, right arm nearly straight, left arm bent, lean into the gun, left hand cupping right, squeezing palms together to keep the gun steady and gently squeezing the trigger. “Pop”. Not quite the ‘boom’ of the semi-auto shot gun, or the short bursts from the MP5, but a satisfying feeling. I squinted down the room to my target. “Did I hit it?” I wondered. I squeezed the trigger a second time.

Now I voiced my thought aloud, “Did I hit it?” John informed me that I was firing high and just clipping the top of the target. “You need to follow through, just like as in tennis. Although with firing a gun, the ‘follow through’ means that you must keep the gun level and steady, even after you have fired it. This will keep the bullet on target.” Good to know. I tried it again and this time hit somewhere in the midsection of my target. I turned to John with glee on my face. “I did it!” I exclaimed. It was so gratifying.

I continued through the rest of the clip, aiming as best as I could for each shot. This particular gun will fire off round after round quickly, but I was purposefully aiming. At the end of the clip, I felt ‘done’. I still had another clip to go, but I didn’t want to shoot it, so Ben did. Inexplicably, I just didn’t want to shoot anymore. I had achieved what I wanted to achieve: I can now say that I have shot a hand gun. It is a peculiar feeling having that much power in my hands. I came away feeling contented, and with sore biceps.

I had already been out to see Vic and talk her into having a go, but she was teary and adamant that she was not going to. I went back into the range to collect my things, and John said he would talk to her. I thought he had no chance, until a moment later, there was my little sister (all 5’1” of her) geared up and firing a .22 – with a silencer.The silencer was the key. She was good too – a far better aim than me, and she seemed pleased that she had gone through with it.

How odd – and oddly rewarding – an experience. And no I.D. required! Days later I would need photo I.D. to enter Ben’s health club in St Paul as a guest, but I could fire a deadly weapon in the state of Nevada with nothing more than my signature on a photocopied form.

We commemorated the occasion with photographs of us holding automatic weapons, and with our rolled up targets in hand, we bid the boys at the gun shop and shooting range farewell. As we left I noticed the tinsel decorating the shop door. Oh yes, it was Christmas! I was so caught up in the incredibly cool thing I had just done, I had almost forgotten. “Happy Holidays,” I called out as we left.

The contrasts didn’t end there. Ben and I have had really different Christmases throughout our lives. We would be blending our own traditions to have our first together. Now, obviously, Christmas in Australia is hot. My family starts the day with a breakfast of champagne and cold seafood – prawns and crayfish (shrimp and lobster for my North American readers). The champagne was not much of a hard sell, but in our hotel room just off The Strip (The very lovely ‘Renaissance’) we opted for ripe red pears with our champagne, instead of seafood. We sipped the champagne while we opened our presents – mine to Ben a stocking stuffed with lots of smaller gifts (a Barker family thing), and his to me a stunning Sapphire bracelet (I am not sure if this is a family tradition, but it certainly took my breath away). Then we made our way downstairs for a full cooked breakfast, with coffee, which was more Ben’s style.

And the topless review? It was one of my gifts to Ben. Front row, baby! And it was spectacular. Sexy, sassy, a little cheesy, and a lot of fun. The women were every type of gorgeous, from natural fresh-faced beauties to heavily made up bombshells. Did it set feminism back 20 years? No. It celebrated the power of feminine beauty, and was a brilliant night out.
We also saw Cirque du Soleil’s Mystique – tickets were a gift from Joanne and Tom – and as a child of the theatre, it absolutely delighted me. I did not know where to look as the spectacle was all around us and above us. The stage transformed several times, and the journey we were taken on, a gift in the realm of surrealism. It was very easy to get lost in it.

We did gamble a few times, and we wandered The Strip, watching the people – a collection of folks from everywhere you can imagine. We went to M&M World, a merchandise playground for those with an obsession for M&M’s (um, me). My sister and I tried to out ‘cute’ each other with each successive thing we pulled off the shelf. I am such a sucker for that stuff. I found that I absolutely could not live without a Green M&M ruler, and matching keyring. They see us coming for miles, I am sure. They do not give out samples, which is a crime against humanity.

Yes, Las Vegas at Christmas time is a little unusual. The sun is shining and there are no clouds in the sky, yet it is cold, but not cold like it is in Minnesota that time of year. So, perhaps it was the perfect place for Ben and I to spend our first Christmas together – he got his cold weather and I got my blue skies.

And the real reason I love Christmas, is because it is a time when family and loved ones come together. I missed my dad, my step-mum and the rest of my family and loved ones back in Australia, but I am so glad I had my wonderful, bizarre, and love-filled Christmas in Vegas.

Writing Meme

Charlotte Otter writes a blog called ‘Charlotte’s Web’ (link on this page), and on occasion she posts a meme. I appropriated this meme from Charlotte, who appropriately appropriated it from someone else. If you’re a writer too, then pass it on.

It is about my passion for writing.

I am loving writing this blog, and offering my perspective on the places I have been, and how travel can change me, and any person willing to let it.

In addition to writing about travel, I write plays, short stories, poetry, articles and have even penned my first novel, which will be published (I invoke the power of positive thinking and action).

This meme not only highlights my shiny triumphs, it gets into the dusty, mouldy corners of my writing history. I answered each question in turn, without reading ahead.
What’s the last thing you wrote?
A blog post. It was about fresh perspectives that come when you see a loved one in their home town.

Was it any good?
I liked the points I made.

What’s the first thing you wrote that you still have?
I wrote a cutting satirical expose about public toilets when I was 15. It is still pretty funny, but limited in insight. I have been to many worse public toilets in the world since. Maybe I should revisit it.

Write poetry?
I used to. A long time ago. I did write Ben a poem last year, but that was the first (and last) one in a while.

Angsty poetry?
Yes, I often wrote about my poor, tragically-broken heart. My most angst-ridden was called ‘Screaming at the moon’. I still have it. Dire stuff. I was 20. Enough said.

Favourite genre of writing?
Autobiographical commentary – on life, on travel especially.

Most fun character you’ve ever created?
Kiara. She is a storyteller, and the heroine in a fairytale I am penning for adults.

Most annoying character you’ve ever created?
Any replicant of myself in fiction I have written. The angst I once expressed through poetry also came out through much of the fiction I created in my 20s.

Best plot you’ve ever created?
Something still in the works – the fairytale – and it’s good! But I will keep the details under wrap for now.

Coolest plot twist you’ve ever created?
It is in the fairytale. The heroine is not who she seems to be, and is subsequently faced with a harrowing moral question.

How often do you get writer’s block?
All the time. The best cure is just to sit down and start writing. 9 times out of 10, action creates inspiration. On the 10th time, I just give up and go for a run, or eat chocolate. The running sometimes brings inspiration. The chocolate just makes me happy.

Do you type or write by hand?
Both. I sometimes jot down lots of notes in one of the 10 notebooks I have lying around, and then form them into something on the computer at a later point. Other times, I am best friends with my computer. The computer is essential for the polished final product, but inspiration can strike anywhere. I have written lengthy passages on weird things like food packages, and plane tickets.

Do you save everything you write?
Yes. From my intellectual ramblings disguised as university ‘Literature’ assignments, to every film idea I have ever had. I keep all my travel journals too, and a huge thank you to my mother who kept all my letters from Europe (long ones before email was the thing), as these letters formed the basis of the novel I have written about that time.

Do you ever go back to an idea after you’ve abandoned it?
Yes. I started writing the fairytale about 18 months ago, and have left it and come back to it twice. I will go back to it again soon. I can feel it. It is not that we had a ‘falling out’; I just need breathing room from the big projects sometimes – to gain perspective and generate fresh ideas.

What’s your favourite thing you’ve written?
I wrote a detailed retrospective travel diary of my time in Greece in 2006. It is a record of falling in love with life all over again, after a long period of unhappiness.

What’s everyone else’s favourite piece that you’ve written?
The three people who have read my novel have enjoyed it. My best friend from high school still raves about the ‘public toilet’ piece (no, really). My mum (my biggest fan) loves the fairytale in progress. And Ben loves anything I write about our travels together.

Do you ever show people your work?
Yes, to people I trust to tell me the truth. I get positive and constructive criticism about my work, and take it all on board. I do not want to hear mindless responses about how good it is. Fortunately, these trusted people are good to me and are honest.

Did you ever write a novel?
Yes. It is about a year in my life when I worked for a tour company in Europe. This was one of the best and hardest years of my life, and I tell it all (well, almost).

Ever written romance or angsty teen drama?
No. Well, yes. Contemporary romance. In film form. Partially. It wasn’t good.

What’s your favourite setting for your characters?
Anywhere I have been. I hope to capture the distinct feeling of those places in my writing, both the fiction and the non-fiction.

How many writing projects are you working on right now?
This web page, my fairytale, and perhaps I will revisit the novel again soon. It needs to be dusted off and freshened up.

Do you want to write for a living?
Yes. I do write as part of my job – I am a Drama teacher. I can never find plays for my students with enough good roles, so I write my own. The last one was a Greek myth, which I also created, and observed the conventions of ancient Greek theatre.

Ultimately, I would love to write exclusively for a living. Perhaps I would continue to teach in some forum. Perhaps not.

Have you ever won an award for your writing?
Yes. I was chosen as a winner in a short story competition run by New Woman magazine. I won a trip, and I took a girlfriend to the north of Queensland and the Great Barrier Reef for a week. We lived it up, especially as it was on someone else’s dime.

Ever written anything in script or play format?
Yes. See above.

What are your five favourite words?
ebbed, cathartic, sumptuous, delicacy, dream (for today)

Do you ever write based on yourself?
Yes and no. The autobiographical stuff, obviously. For fiction I have shifted away from that – to a degree anyway. I do believe in the adage, “Write what you know.” This is why the autobiographical work and blogging has been so fulfilling.

What character have you created that is most like yourself?
I need to climb inside the mind of all my fictitious characters, but I most enjoy the characters who are least like me. They get to do and say all the things that I wouldn’t dare; I enjoy the vicarious thrills of their antics. No one character in current or recent projects is exactly like me.

Where do you get ideas for your characters?
This may annoy other writers, but some of my best story ideas and characters are those I have dreamed. Otherwise I am often inspired by places. I can envision who would live there, and what their life may be. Then I breathe into those shadowy images and create something more tangible. A favourite character evolved from a visit to Hradcany Castle in Prague.

Do you ever write based on your dreams?
Yes, as I said above. I dreamed the basic story for the fairytale I am writing. It has developed greatly since then, but I woke in the middle of the night and could not stop writing. I did not go back to sleep for over an hour.

Do you favour happy endings, sad endings or cliff-hangers?
Truthful endings.

Have you ever written based on an artwork you’ve seen?
Yes, in a writing workshop, and the facilitator was just brilliant. It was a terrific process he took us through. I did not go back to that piece, but I have used that technique in teaching students to write fiction. Art work can be a powerful catalyst as it often evokes such intense emotion.

Are you concerned with spelling and grammar as you write?
Scrupulously so. I cannot read anything without seeing any errors that might exist.

Ever write anything in chatspeak (how r u?)
Only on IM or sms.

Entirely in L337?
Um, yes?

Was that question appalling and unwriterly?
Am not cyber-savvy, and am guessing that is something to do with computing, so I do not know.

Does music help you write?
Yes. Often I play classical music while writing. Like art, it is evocative. I go in and out of awareness of its presence. On occasion I will replay a piece several times as I write; it becomes the soundtrack for what is on the page.

Quote something you’ve written. Whatever pops into your head.
Her voice was tentative at first, but soon the richness of its timbre filled the room as the young women sat around her, mesmerized by her face, her lined, and very beautiful face. She began her tale:

This is from the opening of the fairytale.

That is all. I will return to another destination soon. Vegas beckons.

Natural Habitats

I am a friendly person. As such, I am blessed (and cursed) to have friends all over the world. The blessing, of course, is that I enjoy these diverse and enriching friendships immensely. The curse is that I miss these friends more often than not. Some of these friendships were forged when I travelled, and others while living in various places on three continents. I am great at staying in touch, even when some of these treasured friends are not (I say this with love, and a wink). For these reasons, much of my travel involves visits to places where friends live.

A tourist can get into a city and explore its nooks and crannies armed with nothing but a guidebook, but to visit a place where a friend lives is to get to know the place – and the friend – in an entirely new way.

Last September Ben flew into Sydney, his first visit to the southern hemisphere, let alone Australia. And in September, Sydney shines. It did not disappoint me, or him, for the days we were here together. Blue skies, puffy white clouds, and warm, salty breezes. On the second day Ben asked, “Why can’t you take me somewhere pretty?” We were in Bronte, about to walk the cliff-side path to Bondi. He was being ironic. On the third day, after seeing the coast, Circular Quay, Botany Bay, Taronga Zoo, Sydney Harbour and various other attractive hotspots, he asked if there were any ugly parts of Sydney. I replied, “There must be somewhere, but none that I know of.” I had a glint in my eye when I said it, and he knew that, for this time I was being ironic. I wanted him to fall for this city as much as I have; he knew that too.

However, when we love where we live we often take it for granted. When I knew Ben was coming, it forced me to view Sydney through fresh eyes. I had to forget the day to day stuff, the traffic and the rude, impatient drivers, the huge piles of rubbish on the side of the road right before the councils do their quarterly ‘clean up’, the abruptness of sales assistants, the nightmare of parking – anywhere.

I had to go back to the roots of my love for this city, which was born about 8 years ago. I had to ask myself, “What made me pick up, and pack up, and move my stuff from the west coast to the east coast, without a job or a home to come to?” I cast my mind back, and I created a list of the must-sees and must-dos. In a week of exploring the city, my beloved Sydney, we worked our way through approximately 1/4 of the list. It’s a start. And on a selfish note, I fell back in love with this city with renewed passion and verve, and made a promise to myself to get out in it more.

I need to remember that the salt air along the coast is revitalising, and summer or winter, can shake me from a slump or a rut. I need to remember how much I enjoy the buzz and energy of a city filled with parks and waterways, and a passion for the arts, a city where the dozens of different cuisines are authentic, because dozens of nationalities reside here.

In essence, I became a traveller in my own town. Ben bore witness to this; seeing me in my ‘natural habitat’, and the passion I have for it. It was a way for him to get to know a different facet of me.

Similarly, I get to benefit from this dynamic when I visit cities where my friends live. They want to show it off, they want me to love it, and see it in its best light. So, I can toss the guide book in the bin as I know I will see the highlights and the hush-hush stuff that natives are not supposed to tell you. My friends in Seattle almost whispered when they told me that it doesn’t really rain 9 months of the year there. This is a fallacy perpetuated to ensure that ‘OTHERS’ do not head to the north-west in droves and ruin the delicate balance of their fine city.

In my recent trip to the US, Ben got to reciprocate. We flew together to Minneapolis/St Paul from Vegas, where we’d just spent Christmas with my family (a whole other story and fodder for a separate blog post). From the sunny skies of Vegas to the grey skies of Minnesota – not to mention it was -5C outside – it would seemingly be a hard sell. Not so. Ben is a Minnesota boy, born and bred, and with my impending arrival, he penned his own ‘to do’ list. And through his eyes I easily saw beauty and light through the cold and the grey.

My favourite thing on his list was, ‘walk across a frozen lake’. When Ben told me he was really looking forward to doing this with me, I said, “I’ve never done that before.”  He replied, “I know.” That it would be my first time made it all the more special. ‘Firsts’ are things we try to do as much as possible.

I had packed my ski pants and jacket for Minnesota, because I knew it was cold there, and that he wanted to do the lake thing. I did not wear these big, heavy pieces at any other time in my 5 week trip, but it was worth packing them, just for this outing. We suited up. Now, I should mention that Ben is hard-core when it comes to the cold; he can bear really cold weather. I cannot. So, when I saw that even HE was layering on the clothes and reaching for the serious gloves and boots, I knew this would be serious cold. Would the running I had done from the house to the car, and the car to the restaurant prepare me for being outside long enough to walk across a frozen lake? I crossed my fingers inside my mittens.

We put Spot, his room mate’s dog, on a leash, and I am not sure, but I think he was even more excited than I was. A few short blocks of walking along shovelled walks – people are so considerate in the mid-west – and we were there. There had been a fresh dump of snow not long before, so we could only see the ice when we cleared the snow away, but it was a lake, and it was frozen, and I was standing on it.

There were little ice-fishing huts dotted along the other side of the lake. I ensured Ben that would be an activity I would never participate in because it combines two of my least favourite things: fishing and being freezing cold for a very long time. I took photos of the bare landscape and houses across the lake, because it was all so beautiful. Even the ploughed streets with their shovelled walks were beautiful. I said so, and Ben just shrugged his shoulders, “Yeah, I guess so.” Could he see it all through my eyes? The beauty of a familiar place? I hope so.

Other outings included the Walker Art Centre where we saw a Kandinsky, and an installation by Warhol, and nearly a collection of Kahlo (it was a two-hour wait and I was hungry – I know, we may regret that someday). We made the obligatory excursion to the Mall of America, which did not disappoint. How could it? There is a roller-coaster inside – and a Ferris wheel! Just in case you finish shopping and you suddenly realise that you needed to ride a fairground attraction that week – there they are, handily right in the middle of the mall!

We also headed to ‘Uptown’ in Minneapolis, the Soho of the twin cities, where we ate at Ben’s favourite restaurant ‘Chino Latino’. As the name suggests the menu is an eclectic mix of Asian and Latin food – including Chinese, Japanese, Mexican, Spanish and Italian. It is a funky place, with hip waiters, groovy decor, and a diverse crowd. I liked it off the bat. That it is a favourite for Ben and he got to show it off, made me like it on a different level. It was part of seeing him in his ‘natural environment’. As too was visiting his parents in the home where he grew up. But again, that is a topic for another day.

Sometimes, when you go to visit somewhere and a friend lives there, they tell you that you must come and live there too. My friends who lived in Sydney long before I moved here from Perth would say it to me every visit. Years later the switch flicked in my head, and I made the move. Mostly, when I visit these places, it is about seeing the friend. The added benefit for us both is that the place becomes another character in our story. We interact with it, we draw on it, we see it – both of us – through fresh eyes. In addition, we are given a context for that person that we didn’t have before. When we’re apart, we will always be able to picture them in their ‘natural habitat’.

And that is a truly great thing.