Pure Glee

I was having dinner with my friend, Patrice, and she described her best travelling moment as sitting on the lawn of a resort in Papua New Guinea, and eating coconuts. It was her first time on grass in three years, because she had lived in a concrete jungle, and the resort lawn overlooked the ocean. The coconuts were fresh from the palm tree, and were sticky and delicious. There she sat, eating and slurping away as she gazed out at a spectacular view and scrunched her toes into the grass. It was pure glee.

Glee is not only a great word (try saying it out loud – you’re smiling now, aren’t you?), it is a wonderful state of being. Glee only comes when you are right in that moment. When you’re in the thick of glee, there is no thinking and there is no worrying; there is only divine joy. There is no real formula for glee either. It is hard to seek out, because it just happens, and before we know it, we are basking in it.

For traveller’s, these are moments that we remember with clarity, the emotional snapshots we file away in our memories to revisit when we need them most.

Since that dinner, Patrice’s story has inspired me to write of my own moments of emotional alchemy, when I have experienced glee while on my travels. I thought I’d start with my encounters with creatures.

Snorkeling off the coast off Maui with green sea turtles was what started my love affair with these serene beauties. They move so slowly and gracefully, as though there is all the time in the world. All fears I had about being in the ocean vanished as I dreamily paddled above them, and I was delighted when a grand old soul popped his head up above the surface about two meters from me. I am sure he gave me a wink.
Ben's Sea Turtle
Ben’s shot of a green sea turtle

Llamas are my favourite land animal. They have spunk, and are damned cute to boot. When traversing Peru on motorcycle with my guide, Geraldine, we stopped at a llama farm. I was still recovering from salmonella poisoning, but my weariness was forgotten as I walked amongst alpacas and llamas. They ate from my hand, and I laughed out loud like a delighted child. “Llama, llama, llama.”
There's something in my eye
There’s something in my eye
Shall we shag now, or shag later?

Up the New South Wales coast, at Copacabana, my friend Paulie has a beach house (It is his home and it is stunning, and I am jealous, but this isn’t the time or the place). The kookaburras love to come and visit Paulie’s beach house, because they know they will get a feed. This fellow hung around for about 20 minutes and ate raw meat from my hand, which intrigued a fellow party-goer aged two.
Look at you
Look at you

For some reason, dogs love me. This has taken some getting used to. I have a long-held fear of big dogs since I survived a childhood attack by a German Shepherd. Regardless, dogs do not know this, and in my travels I often make as many canine friends as human ones. On Siros, in the Cyclades Islands of Greece, this dog met me and Ben in the main square, then took us on a tour of the town.
Our dog
Ben’s shot of Siros, our dog

She was such a lovely spirited dog, and a little naughty too (she chased and cornered a cat, and wouldn’t come until we threatened to leave without her). After a couple of hours, she led us back to the square and we thanked her for the tour with a bag of chips. Many of the dogs in Greece are homeless, but this one had a collar so she belonged to someone. For those two hours, however, she belonged to us.

I love kangaroos. They are almost as cute and cool as llamas. My dad (Ray) and step mum (Gail) live on the south coast of Western Australia in the tiny hamlet of Denmark (yes, that was intentional). Their home is in a semi rural area, where the roads and gardens are shared with the native kangas. When I wake, and before I drink my freshly squeezed orange juice, I go and say good morning to the mob. They look up from their eating, perfectly still, except for their mouths that continue to masticate. After a few moments, they decide that I am not as interesting as I obviously find them, and they go back to their breakfasts.
Breakfasting kangas
In the afternoon, they lounge, or fight if they are boys and are bored, and eat some more.
Lounging Kangas
Dad tells the story of a joey, fresh from the pouch, attempting to hop across the road. He was hopping with all his might, while his mother waited for him on the other side, but for all his efforts, he was only hopping on the spot. Yes, kangaroos are funny creatures.

Lambs like to frolic and there are few things more adorable than a frolicking lamb. I saw hundreds of the things all over New Zealand as we drove the winding roads. Leaping, jumping, running, frolicking. I would laugh aloud, as they are even clumsier than me.

On our quad bike tour I got to pet a lamb, which was probably not as much fun for the lamb as it was for me. He, she, it was bleating like I was choosing it for its shanks, but I just pet its curly little head instead.

Some days later, Ben and I were driving to Christchurch, and found ourselves being unseasonably snowed upon. We stopped at a tiny town – one church, and one abandoned shack – and took in the silence that comes as snow falls in the middle of nowhere. Well, almost silence. I could hear bleating. I went off around the back of the church, and there hiding in the woodpile was this little lamb.
Little Lamb Lost
He came to me like a dog would, and stayed close by my side.
My Little Mate in the Snow
The poor little mite had wandered too far from mum, and like in a lost kid in the supermarket, was scared. I pointed it in the right direction, and it ran off to reunite with mum (who seemed indifferent to her terrified child). I had lamb shanks for dinner that night. Yes, true!

I am not Dr Doolittle, but I do talk to animals. It is a reflex response now. I can’t help it. My voice travels up a few notches, and before I know it, I am having a one-sided conversation with one of mother nature’s creatures.

I remember once in a hotel in New Zealand I asked Ben a question. He didn’t answer even though he must have heard me, so I asked again. “Are you talking to me?” he replied. I looked around the room, empty of people except the two of us. “Um, yes.” He smiled at me, “I thought there must have been a bird outside and you were talking to it.” How could I argue with that?

I guess I talk to them, because I am in a moment that I don’t get to have everyday. These animals intrigue and engage me, and before I know it, I am not worrying or thinking about anything else. I just feel the glee.

More later on gleeful moments in natural beauty, glee in response to human beauty, and glee from loving where I am, who I am with and what I am doing.

Traveller or Tourist?

Years ago in another lifetime, I was a tour manager in Europe. I was responsible for running coach tours – 21 to 35 days for a well-known touring company popular with 18-35 year olds. My responsibilities ranged from accompanying a client to the hospital in Venice, to nursing broken hearts and hang-overs, and everything imaginable in between. One of my favourite parts of the trip took place on day one of the tour. We would leave London early morning, and drive to Paris by late afternoon. On the drive from London to Dover, where we would catch the ferry to Calais, I would give my ‘First Day Talk’.

The First Day Talk was a marathon of public speaking. It could take up to two hours, which may seem long, but when you are about to spend 24/7 with 50 strangers for the better part of a month, there are a few ground rules to lay. I covered toilets (not as available in Europe as in other parts of the world), and sleeping arrangements (I was not employed to hook people up), and departure times (I would – and had – left people behind). I also covered money, language, weather, clothing, behaviour, drinking, and food, but the grand finale of the talk was the ‘traveller versus tourist challenge’.

“A traveller,” I would begin, “is someone who tries new food and new experiences, who embraces differences from home, who is flexible and willing to ‘give it a go’. A traveller is interested in getting to know a place, and is keen to attempt the language. A traveller will appreciate that things in Europe are far more expensive than in Australia, New Zealand and the U.S. A traveller will want to get out there and do and see and participate in as much as possible, because a traveller knows they may never get the chance again. In short, a traveller will be an asset to this tour.

“A tourist, on the other hand, is someone who will notice all of these differences, and rather than embracing them, the tourist will complain and whine about them. Be a traveller, not a tourist.”

To this there would be heads nodding in response. I would even hear clients, when in unpleasant, awkward, or expensive moments on tour, say to another, ‘Remember, we’re travellers not tourists.’ Mostly it worked. Most of my clients were good fun and good people. There were a few tourists on the trips – but the others would usually bring them around – by cajoling, ribbing, or even with a few sharp words. Once I established that we were all in this together, the clients tended to develop a camaraderie much like a workplace. You all get on with it, even if you don’t like everybody else. When someone steps out of line, or needs support, the others rally.

A decade later, I still consider myself a traveller, not a tourist. I can think of two really obvious exceptions.

In Peru in 2006, I contracted Salmonella. It is in the tap water – even in a 3-star hotel – and through force of habit I rinsed my only tooth brush under the tap. I was then faced with the dilemma of rinsing it again under the hot water tap, or rinsing it in bottled water. I opted for bottled water, when what I should have done was throw it away. Within 12 hours I was sitting on the toilet, throwing up into the bathtub. I had to crawl on hands and knees between the bathroom and the bed. I could not keep down any food, and was on FULL STRENGTH, serious, do-not-mess-with-me-anti-biotics.

When I sobbed to the tour’s guide that I just wanted to go home, I was not in traveller mode. I was not embracing the differences between home and Peru. I was bloody pissed off. I was pissed at the water, and the hotel, who could not figure out how to get through to my mother in Australia. I was pissed off that I would miss trekking the Inca Trail. I was pissed off that for three months I had been getting up in the dark mornings, and running hills and steps in training for trekking the Inca Trail. And on top of all this ‘pissiness’, I was feeling sooooo sorry for myself. When I finally got my mum on the phone, I sobbed down the line in broken English, ‘I just want to come h-h-home. I h-h-hate Peru.”

I stayed. I got better. I finished the trip, and despite feeling like a cheat when I got to Machu Picchu – because I had arrived on a bus, not on foot – I was glad that I had not flown back to Sydney. When I was well, I got to feed llamas, and ride through the mountains on a motor cycle. I stood amongst ancient ruins, soaked in natural hot springs, and watched the sunrise over the Amazon Rainforest. I got to be a traveller again.
Barely Upright

My other recent experience being a tourist was in Maui and it was, I cringe to say, voluntary.

Ben and I were staying at the Renaissance Wailea Resort, and it was beautiful, particularly the sunsets viewed from the balcony. We had been there nearly a week, and had spent most of our time experiencing as much of the island as possible. We had trekked across lava, and snorkled with the turtles ( I LOVE the turtles). We had driven the Road to Hana, which is only 60 miles, but took us 10 hours each way; we stopped frequently so we could hike, and swim in waterfalls, and get amongst it. Our best meal on that two-day trip was a smoked fish taco from a road-side stall. We were in Hawaii and we were squeezing every joy out of it, including the luxurious touches afforded us at the resort.

On our final full day there, we decided that we would take it easy. We would indulge in something a little ‘touristy’: we would lay by the pool and drink cocktails. We gathered books, hats, and sunscreen, and strolled down to the pool. We grabbed towels and set up our little part of paradise. The sun was hot, the skies were blue and the breeze was gentle. I went for a swim. Ben went for a swim. We dried off, lying on our sun loungers, and then went back and had a swim together. We sipped on ice water and perused the cocktail menu. Ben read, and I took photographs.

Resort Relaxing

We had been there about 45 minutes when Ben turned to me and said, “This is boring. We should at least go to the beach.” ‘Thank god,’ I said, agreeing; it was boring, and definitely not something I could spend a week doing. We packed up our little part of paradise and opted for the beach – about 100 metres away – but even that got old after an hour. “Shall we make a move, Honey?” We spent the rest of the day driving to and from Haleakala Crater, which was incredible and other worldly – a grand mini adventure.

Telegraphs in Heaven

We tried. We tried to do the touristy resort thing, but it just doesn’t suit us. This is not to say that we can’t be still, that we can’t enjoy being in one spot and doing nothing. We can, but it depends on the spot, and it depends on the ‘nothing’.

Reading on a bench overlooking an incredible lakeside sunset in Wanaka, New Zealand – yep, we can do that.
Ben reading as the sun goes down

Sharing a hammock for two – yep, that’s us too.

Sitting by a generic resort pool, amongst row after row of sun loungers, and avoiding ‘kid soup’ (the resort pool), not so much.

When I returned from Hawaii, I met up with a friend’s mother who I see on occasion. She, too, had just been to Maui. “Oh, did you see the lava fields?” “No.” “Did you go out on a boat, go snorkling? Swimming?” “No.” “Did you see the volcano? Watch a sunset? Swim in the ocean?” “No, no, no.” She had not left the resort, but she claimed to LOVE Maui. Tourist. Definitely.

p.s. I am not just a snob about coffee.

Off the Beaten Track

‘Off the beaten track’ is a state of mind as well as a way to travel.  Many of my travels have been on well worn roads, but my approach allows me to have experiences far beyond the brochures.   

In the past decade travelling has taken me to incredible parts of the world, where I have met people who have influenced my life, and done things I had never considered.  I have greatly embraced the surprises that travel brings, even on ‘well-planned’ trips, and especially when those surprises could have been considered disastrous.   

One of the best days of my life started with a head cold and a scooter ride through torrential rain, but on a Greek Island in the Cyclades, this was the beginning of an incredible adventure and the forging of an important friendship.   My mindset is what takes me ‘off the beaten track’, which is why my Blog carries this name.  

My passionate affair with travel took hold when I was given a life-changing job with Contiki Europe as a Tour Manager in 1997.  With Contiki I travelled Europe extensively and even though our tours stuck mostly to well worn paths, my experiences during that time marked an incredible change in my view of travel.I ran organised tours, yet I saw a diverse range of clients, from tourists who saw Europe through the lens of a video camera, to travellers who sought out their own adventures.   

Armed with these powerful observations, I vowed from then on to always be a ‘traveller’.  Mostly, I have succeeded.  This does not mean that I enjoy five-star luxury travel any less, just that a backpackers’ hostel in New Zealand, serving free soup at 6pm, can bring me as much joy.  The diversity of my experiences is what keeps me addicted to my drug of choice: travelling.    

My focus for this Blog, and the accompanying photographs will be the travel I have done most recently.  In the past 15 months I have been sailing through the Cyclades Islands of Greece, traversed Peru by plane, train and motor cycle, had adventures in Hawaii, New Zealand and Canada, and discovered treasures in the cities of Las Vegas, London, Seattle, Christchurch, Vancouver, Los Angeles, Denver and my home town of Sydney. 

Where next?  This is a lengthy list peppered with must-returns and must-sees. 

I invite you to read, comment on and contribute to “Off the Beaten Track”.