Saturday, November 8, 2008

Road Trip to Alaska (by way of Texas and Massachusetts), 2005

June 18, 2005
Hello from DALLAS, everyone.

I am four days and 2100 miles into my cross-country trip so far. It's been great. Had to exit California via Reno, as the Tioga Pass in Yosemite is still closed due to snow and the southern route across the desert was 109 degrees. I went across central Nevada - very cool, green and mountainous - and into Utah, where I spent the night at Richfield on Tuesday. That night there was a 7.2 quake off the coast near Eureka, which sparked a tsunami warning! So all day on Wednesday, I was being tracked down by the Public Relations person at my university. She had just sent a press release about my tsunami research study to KCBS TV the prior day, and they weren't interested. That night the tsunami alert happened and they wanted to talk to me badly! So I had to stop in places where my cell phone would work in Utah so that both KCBS TV in San Francisco and the CBS National Radio Network could interview me by phone. The story was the lead story on Wed. night's local TV news in SF and evidently ran with a photo of me and my voice being interviewed by cell phone! Too cool! It also was on the national news reports on CBS radio all day!

To escape the glare of the paparazzi, I drove on some VERY back roads in Utah that required me to get out and move rocks out of the way, and then drive 3 feet and check again to see if my tires could go over things without being torn to shreds. What an adventure! But, I made it safely through. Thursday night I got to Amarillo, and tonight I'm in the Big D, Dallas, where I am taking a needed rest from all this driving... Had a laugh on the drive down here today. I stopped at a little house along the road that had a sign saying “home-made doughnuts”. The proprietor was out on the porch and eyed me strangely as I pulled up – wasn’t sure if he was looking at my car or my California plates. When I got inside he and his wife asked where I was from and where I was headed to, and when I said I was from San Francisco and headed to Boston, the man exclaimed, “Well, boy, you done got a bit off-track!” I got a great deal on a beautiful hotel room here in suburban Dallas. Off to the pool and then will head into town for some dinner at a restaurant I remember here called The Black Eyed Pea. More later.

“On the Road Again, Amen!”

June 20, 2005

OK, it's now Sunday night at 11PM and I am in Knoxville, TN. I got a very late start yesterday morning because I was dallying too long in Dallas. I had breakfast at a swanky, local place called Breadwinners Bakery. Dallas is a hoot. There is a gay male bar there called "J.R.'s", and a lesbian bar called "Sue Ellen's". Ah the power of the media! It struck me that "Dallas" and the whole "Who Shot J.R.?" plot line was 25 years ago! Yikes!! Left Dallas and HAD to pay homage to the TV series by driving out to Southfork Ranch, the house that was used in the show. The area has certainly grown up since I was there in the 1980s - lots of malls and subdivisions in the nearby area, whereas it was once vast areas of fields and pastureland. Of course I had the theme from "Dallas" handy on my CD player... part of the soundtrack of my trip. Got a great picture of my car in front of the gate of Southfork... will look good on my office door.

Anyway, it was 1:30 PM when I finally hit the road, and so only made it as far as West Memphis, Arkansas on Saturday night - at 11PM. I guess I am getting old... I can't seem to do those 700 mile marathons like I did in years past. By 450 I am ready to stop now.

I really found Texas fun, and the people are incredibly friendly, but you can keep Arkansas! I stopped at a Western Sizzler tonight for dinner (OK, my first mistake, but it was late and there were slim pickins in terms of restaurants). Almost everyone in this place weighed 300 pounds or more - and most of them were children! I am not kidding. These poor 13 and 14 year old kids weighed more than me. They were in their seats for 30 seconds, scarfing down their latest plate from the "salad bar" - read: MACARONI AND POTATO SALAD BAR. Then they were off again, wearing a trail into the carpeting as they went back and forth to the salad bar to fill up another platter. It was scary and made me feel slim.

This morning I left Memphis at 10:00, munching on cereal and blueberries in the car, planning to stop at the Pancake Pantry, a wonderful find I discovered last summer in Nashville, 3 hours away. Well, 5 miles out of Nashville, traffic on I - 40 came to a complete standstill. There were no exits to escape from the clog, and we crawled maybe 3 miles in 2 hours! Torture! I'd assumed it had to be a major accident, and furiously scanned the radio for a traffic report, but all I could find were gospel preachers screaming into the microphone, peppering their sermons with strangely placed “amen”s in inappropriate places. (And I am telling you...amen...that you are God...amen...and that he is waiting for you...amen. in his holy amen kingdom.) I sat there thinking, "Can someone...amen...just give me a blessed traffic I can... amen... get to the Pancake Pantry...amen...before it closes? Amen!" Turns out it was just a road construction project, and this was Sunday... God only knows what their rush hour will be like tomorrow. Amen!

Finally arrived at the Pantry at 3:00 and the staff was very sweet and sympathetic as I spilled my guts about the horrors I'd faced in the traffic, and I felt better with a stack of 2 cornmeal cakes and 3 sweet potato cakes... bathed in cinnamon syrup. Mmm, mmm good! I had to cancel a hotel reservation I'd made for Asheville, NC as I knew I'd get there way too late. Pushed on for another 3 hours and just as I arrived into the outskirts of Knoxville... traffic STOPPED cold again! I luckily swerved over into the right lane and exited - even though it was the wrong direction - and had to make a wide detour around Knoxville to escape the massive pile-up. God knows what caused THAT one. (Amen!)

Found a great little hotel 15 miles beyond Knoxville. My room faces out on rolling farmland and forest, there's an indoor pool and jacuzzi, and I could walk to a place touted to be "the best restaurant in Knoxville" for dinner... Puleo’s Grille at exit 398 off I 40. it was a mix of southern U.S. and Italian cuisines. What a meal. I went southern and had an appetizer of fried green tomatoes over cheese grits in a tanno ham sauce! Amen! Wow. Then had roast turkey and all the fixins... and I was too full to even consider dessert. Amazing, eh? Amen!

Tomorrow I will have about a 9 hour drive to Virginia Beach to stay with my cousin for a couple days, and plan to head to Massachusetts on Wednesday. Will do a few overnight trips to northern New England while there, but plan to stay in the area till July 11 or 12... then make my way west toward the Canadian Rockies and Alaska. Gas has been fairly cheap... low of $1.89 in Little Rock, and hovering between $1.99 and $2.09 most other places. I hear it's going to be going up again though.

OK, all for now. Hope all is well with you, wherever you are.


“The Book”

July 12, 2005

Hello Everyone,

Well, the almost-three weeks in New England flew by and I am now in Buffalo, NY on my way to Michigan, Illinois, and then to Canada and Alaska. It looks like a LONG road. (maybe because it IS!) I just calculated that the drive time from Minneapolis to Calgary as 25 hours! Geez! I will continue my saga from where I left off in Tennessee a few weeks back and get as far as I can before I need to check out of my motel.

I had a great stay on the east coast in Virginia & Massachusetts. The night I spent in Tennessee, I searched online for "Best Barbecue Sandwiches, North Carolina" and came up with someone's website that rates all the places in the state on a scale of 1 to 4 pigs! A 4 pig rating is the best! So I picked one in Greensboro and looked forward to a good pork barbecue as I drove the 9 hours to Va. Beach. The place was amazing - the menu was very limited... I had the pulled pork barbecue sandwich, hushpuppies, cole slaw, and a strawberry cobbler... all delicious and the GRAND TOTAL was $4.64!! Amazing. I love the Internet.

I spent two nights at my cousin Marsha's place in Virginia Beach and it is always fun seeing her and her family and having her slaughter me at Scrabble and Upwords. Her younger son was visiting from Portland, OR and we all had fun catching up. Had a fantastic farewell dinner at a great Italian place in Va. Beach and then I was off the next morning, intending to get to Mass. that night.

I stopped in Richmond, VA to have lunch with my former Master's thesis advisor, Kelly and got the oil changed in my car at a Honda dealer there. Hit the usual traffic in Washington, and it was almost 10:00 PM by the time I got to NY. I decided I needed a pick-up, so drove through the Holland Tunnel into Greenwich Village and made a stop at the infamous Magnolia Bakery for their delicious butter cream-frosted cupcakes and a huge glass of cold milk. Even with that boost, I was dead tired by the time I got into Connecticut and realized I couldn't go another 3 hours to Massachusetts.

I decided to stop at a cheap place and just crash for the night. I had a travel book that you get at rest areas that has coupons for discounted prices on hotel rooms, so armed with this, I found the Milford Inn and pulled in. If I hadn't been so tired, I'd have been more vigilant and would have noted the odd woman smoking and talking to herself out front at 1AM, but I went in and was greeted by a boisterous, cross-eyed man with a truly dreadful New England accent.

"I see youz got the BOOK. Everyone’s got the book!" He was referring to the discount coupon book in my hand. Half asleep, I asked for a room and was told that there were only smoking rooms, but I was desperate and said that would be fine. I went to tear the coupon out of "the book" but the desk clerk stopped me.

"Don't ruin the book! Let me have the book." He proceeded to cut the coupon out meticulously with a little pair of scissors as I rested my head on my arm at the desk, trying not to doze off. Then he started trimming the coupon. It seemed to take forever.

"Youz want a room in the front or the back?" he asked.
"Is there a difference?"
"Well, ya know I am the security guard here and I make the rounds all over"!
I had no idea what this meant. I asked, "Are you saying it's safer in the front than in the back?"
"No it's all the same. I guard it all."

In exasperation, I asked for a quiet room ANYWHERE. At that moment a car pulled up and in walked the driver. My host quickly stopped what he was doing. "Ah look at this - he's got the book! Everyone has the book! Youz had it and now so does he. Everyone's got the book".
And then as the other guest attempted to rip his coupon out of "the book" I had to hear my host going through the same spiel about not ripping the coupon out. I wanted to scream, “Just give me my room”! As it turned out, the room could have waited. I have rarely stayed in such a flea bag - dirty carpets, one bed had hair in it, but the second looked clean, so I just curled up in a ball and slept for 6 hours. Ironically, it was the most expensive night I spent the whole way cross-country... even with the help of "the book".

Got up early and it was a quick 3 hours to Massachusetts and the beginning of my stay there. OK, I need to go now... will try to continue this later tonight or tomorrow. Anyway, all is well, am a little sad to be leaving New England and a little apprehensive about the long trip ahead.

Hope all of you are well, wherever you are...



“The Road is Long…”

Sunday, July 17, 2005
Hello all,

Here I am in a motel in far northern Montana, ready to cross over into Canada sometime tomorrow afternoon. I am in Glasgow, and plan to drive another 4 hours due west through Montana and then head up to avoid the $4.00 a gallon gas prices in Canada for as long as possible. I'm in a charming little motel mini-suite with a DSL connection for my computer and cable TV, watching "Dances With Wolves" for the umpteenth time in my life, but it seems very appropriate given where I am! Had a nice dinner, a swim in the indoor pool, and now I’m relaxing and getting ready for tomorrow.

Well, let me back up a bit and continue the saga of my trip. Having survived the fleabag motel in Connecticut, I arrived in Massachusetts and began an approximately 3 week long stay there. I spent the first night at my aunt and uncle's place. What chaos. Their son has bought their home and is building a 1 bedroom attached apartment for them to live in, and then he and his family will renovate the house itself and move in. So there was a team of construction workers there each morning at 7AM, pounding on walls, knocking out windows, tearing holes in walls... at one point the bathroom was completely exposed and open-air; interesting trying to get anything done in there with 8 guys standing around watching! I got very little sleep, since it was hot and humid and I fell asleep at 3AM, only to be wakened at 7:00.

My uncle has been told he has kidney cancer, and some suspicious spots on his lungs. He read about a study in which the spice tumeric shrunk cancer in rats, and so he puts large amounts of it on everything he eats - even oatmeal! Meanwhile, he has a cough so severe that he spends 15 - 20 minutes trying to get his breath. It truly sounds like he is coughing up one or both lungs, and yet he lights up a Camel cigarette every few minutes. My aunt is almost as bad cough-wise, and I clocked her doing 9 cigarettes an hour one night. They are both stressed out and cranky about the impending move, and my uncle made several remarks about how fat I am. Nice. They are a couple of characters. One morning I came down to find them having scrambled eggs for breakfast. My aunt suddenly bit down on something hard, and pulled it out of her mouth. It was a piece of a yellow sponge scouring pad that had found its way into the morning eggs! She stirred around in the remaining eggs to see if there was more. Uncle Harry, who is virtually blind with macular degeneration and can't hear much either, was oblivious to all this. Helena leaned over and surveyed his plate and he noticed that. "What is it, Mother?" he demanded. "Oh... nothing", said she, returning to her eggs with a giggle. Needless to say, I eat only cereal and fruit when I stay there!

Their place is truly amazing. One morning I sat at the table and tried to take it all in so I could describe what it's like to sit at their table. There are four large ashtrays, filled to the top with butts and ashes. There are about 20 bottles of pills, eye drops, jars of tumeric, etc. Packs of cigarettes, lighters, old greeting cards, a 1997 “Barns of Rochester, Massachusetts” calendar, newspapers, a cell phone charger, empty picture frames, old letters, a huge canister of sugar for the coffee, unsharpened pencils, a reading lamp... it is hard to find a place for the cereal bowl and glass of juice in the morning.

Needless to say, I got away as much as possible. Just a couple days after arriving, I was off again with my friend Joyce for a long weekend in Vermont. I hadn't been to Stowe or Lake Champlain before, so this was new turf, and it was just beautiful. Vermont is so quiet and peaceful... more so than New Hampshire. Joyce and I saw waterfalls, swam in the pools at our motels, sat in a covered swing eating cider donuts and sipping fresh coffee, shopped in quaint country stores and found things like a moose bobble-head for the dashboard of a car... and we ate a lot. One highlight was a tour of the Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream Factory... a fun movie and tour, followed by, yes... free samples! Then there was a visit to their ice cream stand to have MORE samples... larger samples. There is an adorable "flavor graveyard" on a hillside... surrounded by a white picket fence and guarded by a huge carving of a raven lie a dozen or so tombstones with the names of retired Ben & Jerry's flavors and the dates of their birth and passing. it was hilarious. We also sampled the famed locally-made Lake Champlain chocolates, local cheeses, fresh strawberries, and attended a rather lackluster strawberry festival - the 90+ degree heat had kept most folks away. It was a great weekend.

The following week, my friend Carol and I headed up the coast through Gloucester and Rockport, MA and then into Maine for an overnight trip. We did our yearly ritual, going on our own personal lobster-fest: steamed whole lobster with all the fixin's for dinner, and an amazing lobster roll and homemade blueberry pie for lunch the following day.

I stayed a couple days at my uncle's again, and then had to bail out for the Motel 6 near Providence to regain my sanity. Who'd have thought that an air-conditioned, non-smoking motel room and a TV with 72 cable channels could feel so much like paradise!

I spent 4th of July with the McK family - friends of my family with whom I literally grew up. I love Mrs. McK (my mother's best friend) and her older daughter, but the younger daughter and her family are a real trip. The younger daughter is married to Kenny - an aging fisherman with a long history of heroin abuse and drinking. He has few teeth left and due to liver damage his face is jaundiced and gaunt and horribly wrinkled. Imagine one of those shrunken apple core head dolls that people carve... in the likeness of Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones... and you have SOME idea what he looks like. He spent much of the 4th underneath his broken down car trying to fix it, and almost made me gag when he ate his holiday hot dog and hamburger with oily, black hands. When he saw my car, he exclaimed, "Hey Mattchew (that's how he pronounces my name)... YAW CAH is goofy lookin'!" The McK's Aunt Barbara, ever the wit, shot back with, "At least his car runs, Kenny!" One of Kenny's most memorable lines was when, referring to my constant traveling, he said, "Jesus Christ, Mattchew... I'd sure like to be a boil on your ass so I could see the world!" That is an image I'll never be able to erase, no matter how hard I try!

I needed breaks from all this excitement, so I ran away again for most of one week. I found a great deal online and got a hotel room north of Boston for 4 nights. It was a luxurious Wyndham Suites hotel and I had a king-sized bed, work desk, and indoor pool that I had all to myself each night for the princely sum of $34 a night! It's a hotel in an office park in a remote area and I guess during the vacation season, they need to try and get customers... it was a quiet and wonderful getaway. I found wonderful new places to eat on Boston's north shore, live "Vic's Waffle House" in Tewksbury, where the crusty New England waitresses asked, "How's that mornin' waffle workin' for youz?", referring to their special waffle containing ground sausage which I ordered on two separate occasions.

I discovered an Italian place that featured a scallop and shrimp pasta puttanesca... delizioso! And I found a new homemade ice cream place in Boston which featured flavors like Burnt Sugar, Cinnamon, Orange-Chocolate, and Fresh Mint. I tried them all. While I was up that way, Carol and her boyfriend Rich met me in Boston and took me to a swanky restaurant to celebrate my promotion and tenure. We had a "lobster bake", featuring clam chowder, a huge platter of steamed clams and mussels, upon which sat a steamed 1.25 lb. lobster, corn on the cob, and a baked potato. I hope I left SOME seafood in the Atlantic ocean by the time I left the northeast.

Saw several movies while back in New England; I saw "Millions" for a second time with Maggi, then saw "Ladies in Lavender" and "Cinderella Man" with Joyce. Absolutely LOVED the latter... what a great movie and a story about a great human being - it was so uplifting. Russell Crowe is becoming one of my favorite actors after seeing him in “Master & Commander”. Had lots of lovely lunches and chats with Maggi and several outings to Providence and Boston with Joyce. All too soon it was time to leave and I was sad to depart. I wonder if my uncle will be around much longer, and this was the last time I will be staying with them on my visits to New England. I also miss my friends there so much; it's hard to say goodbye.

But on Tuesday the 12th, I hit the road and headed slowly west. Gas prices jumped 25 cents a gallon within the last 3 or 4 days I was in Massachusetts. Perfect timing! I made it to Buffalo, NY that night, and then to Ann Arbor, Michigan to see my friend and former student, Stephanie and her fiancée. Had a nice visit with them and some more great food and homemade ice cream. Then I headed on to Illinois and paid a visit to my aunt on my father's side. She's in a nursing home with Alzheimer's disease, and I had not seen her in 16 years. She virtually stopped speaking to me back in 1991 when I told her I was gay, but over the years she at least started to drop me cards now and then. I am glad I went to see her; she did recognize me and cried with surprise when I walked in. Took her to lunch and met her good friend who's been watching out for her for many years now.

From Illinois it was on to Minneapolis, where I had a brief stay... long enough to discover a great place to eat - called the Eatery... lamb reduction over pasta and cauliflower fritters were on the menu that night. I also visited the statue of Mary Richards, the character made famous by Mary Tyler Moore in her 1970s TV show. Yes, they've erected a bronze statue of her tossing her hat in the air in front of the Marshall Field's department store on the pedestrian mall as her character did in the opening credits of the TV show. Again, the power of the media is awesome! This pilgrimage to visit this tribute to my TV heroine gave me a second wind. I doubted if I had it in me to get all the way to Alaska, but as the show's theme song said, "You might just make it after all..." While in the Twin Cities I got my car its 20,000 mile service and oil change, and satisfied that all was working well, I hit the road for Fargo yesterday and now am in Montana tonight.

I have found several interesting and thankfully not too expensive places to stay for the next few nights: a hotel in Calgary, Alberta tomorrow, a furnished teepee tent on a river in Jasper, a lakeside cabin in Muncho Lake, B.C. and then a lakeside lodge in Yukon Territory. I reach Alaska on Friday the 22nd, and depart on the ferry to Juneau next Saturday. At last, I will be able to say I have been in all 50 states!

OK, all for now. May not be in touch for a few days depending on whether the places I stay have internet connections. Anticipate being home in SF on the 6th of August.

Thanks for reading... stay well everyone!

Love and hugs -


“The Long and Lonely Road”

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Hello All,

As I suspected, I have not had access to Internet at all for the past few days, and most of the places I've stayed have not even had a telephone. So here is a record of what I've been experiencing since I last wrote from Montana.

I am staying at a lodge at Mile 442 of the Alaska Highway in Muncho Lake, British Columbia.
I left my Montana motel on Monday morning and started the long drive to Calgary. The weather was perfect, but the rolling, starkly beautiful hills of North Dakota and eastern Montana turned into a flat plain that went on as far as the eye could see. "Big Sky Country" indeed. I never realized how much the Rockies angle in a southeast-northwest direction. While the mountains begin at Denver further south, the plains extend much farther west up north in Montana - by several hundred miles. I was as far west as Salt Lake City before the mountains were starting to appear. But then I made a sharp right turn to the north into Canada and the mountains vanished again, leaving me crossing the flat Alberta plains to Calgary. The border crossing was easy and fast. I didn't even have to show ID of any kind! There was also little traffic at all... the road to the border was virtually deserted. It was almost eerie.

I neglected to mention the absolutely awful radio I encountered in North Dakota and Montana on Sunday. I always hate driving on Sunday because none of my usual talk shows are on, and the airwaves are populated by preachers ("Amen!"), shows about investing, and sports. But in Dakota there was Polka music! Yes, it was actually hard to escape I scanned the dial I heard memorable polka gems like, :"The Polka Nut Polka" by a group called... the Polka Nuts! There was a money advisor who was also a born again Christian and claimed that God had given him this show to help people sort out their financial messes: "You need to pay off those high-interest credit cards today! Amen!"

In Canada it actually got worse. There are only a couple of stations: CBC 1 and CBC 2, which sound a lot like National Public Radio in the U.S. The big news stories over the past couple of days: Canadian beef is once again being transported to the U.S. after two years since there were several cases of mad cow disease among Canadian cattle; James Doohan, the actor who played "Scotty" on "Star Trek" died, and that's about all we've heard up here in terms of headlines. Then there are talk shows: no call-in shows, no dynamic talk show hosts... The Canadian hosts and their guests speak in hushed, reverential tones about serious topics like battling cancer through self-healing, experiencing nature in the British Columbian wilderness, or the status of women in modern India. Have a little fun, people!

Anyway, I got to Calgary late, as usual... almost 9 PM. The Ramada Inn I'd reserved was run-down and tacky, but I was so tired I didn't even care. I'd stopped and had a huge breakfast in Montana (at "The Hitchin' Post" restaurant where the patrons honestly looked at me like I'd flown in from Mars). So all I did was run out to a gelateria I'd seen advertised in a guide book in the hotel room, have some ice cream, and return to the hotel to crash.

I didn't wake up and get on the road till almost 10 AM, but luckily had a somewhat shorter day planned in terms of driving. I headed west on the Trans Canadian Highway and after another hour of flat plains, the Rockies began to appear and I arrived in Banff National Park. This area truly has to be on of the most beautiful I have seen anywhere in the world. The mountains are magnificent, the rivers and lakes are tinged with an aqua blue from the glacial sediments in the water, and the trees grow tall and lush. I'd only been in this area once before and that was in June when things are a little less crowded. Banff in July was a madhouse, so I elected to stop for a take-out lunch and then picnic somewhere along the road ahead.

It's about a 4 hour drive north along the Icefields Parkway from Banff to Jasper, and the entire ride is within the national park boundaries. Last time I'd been there I had seen at least 8 bears, as well as elk, caribou, a moose, and several bighorn sheep. This time it seemed like there was just too much traffic on the road and sightings were non-existent until I ventured off on a rough side road that paralleled the main highway and soon was rewarded with the sight of a large black bear and several elk with antlers so huge and elaborate I do not know how they can even raise their heads. I stopped at a lodge in Jasper and had a phenomenal dinner of venison medallions in a burnt chocolate and sour cherry preparation, with some cheddar mashed potatoes and I was in heaven. Fortified by dinner, I continued another hour north to the town of Hinton to the place I was to spend the night.

It was called the Old Entrance B & B and I'd found it on the web. I found that I could camp out in a river-side teepee for 1/3 the cost of any motel in Jasper (prices up here are outrageously expensive and Canadian taxes make the Bay Area seem cheap by comparison! Gas is approximately $3.25 to $4.00 a gallon, and filling up when empty costs $45 or $50. Ouch!) Anyway, I got there to the B & B by 9:30 and it was still fairly light out. The owners turned out to be a lesbian couple. Given how late it was they just pointed me toward my teepee and I was on my own. It was a 16 foot teepee with a small door that required squatting to get through. Inside was a double bed on the floor, a pot bellied stove, and a couple of chairs and tables. There were many candles which I promptly lit, and there was firewood and kindling to make a fire. I surprised myself by how easily I was able to get a fire going in the stove (those hours of watching "Survivor" paid off!), and I was equally surprised by how much heat it put out... I'd transformed my teepee into a sweat lodge! I made my bed and read my guidebooks for a while by candlelight (not an easy task at 46 years old....) and turned in around 11:00, but the chill woke me at 1:00 and caused me to sit up rebuilding and re-stoking the fire. I imagine the low temperature that night was about 45 degrees.

Breakfast was at 8:30, and I woke around 8:00, got my shower and got the car packed before heading to the table. I had discovered that the place I'd reserved for that night was a LOT farther away than I had bargained for. I had a 730 mile drive ahead of me and much of that would be on the legendary Alaska Highway. I'd read guidebooks that talk about the harsh road conditions, loose gravel, logging trucks, etc. so had no idea how long it would take me to get that far. The only plus was that I was crossing from Alberta in British Columbia and therefore, gaining an hour. Any little bit helps!

Breakfast was a tasty mix of pancakes with strawberry rhubarb sauce and homemade sausage. Met a couple from Oakland, a lesbian couple from Australia, and a few local Canadians who thought I was insane to be driving so far in a day. They don't know me. So off I went on a full belly at 9:30 AM. The first 290 miles were on small roads that were nothing special but on which I was able to make excellent time - 65 or 70 mile an hour speeds were possible most of the way. Finally, around 2:00 I arrived at Dawson Creek, B.C. - famous for being "Mile Zero" - the starting point of the Alaska Highway. I had to traverse 442 miles of it to reach the lodge where I'd made my reservation for the night. Oy!

The road really surprised me. First, it is much less traveled than I was led to expect from what I'd read. You come up on a motor home or a slow truck, but it's easy to pass as the road is very, very straight and there's little oncoming traffic. I was able again to stay at 65 or 70 most of the time, though there are many patches of road construction that slow you down. Early on, miles-long fields of brilliant yellow flowers were everywhere - I found that they were canola, from which we get the oil. Soon, however the road crosses low hills of dense pine forest. As you go north and west it grows more mountainous, but the road makes very few twists and turns... it somehow just goes between the hills and continues straight ahead. I would almost describe the sensation of driving on it as "claustrophobic" in that there are only 2 lanes, a shoulder, and then a swath has been cut on each side like a large firebreak. And then the trees form a solid, unbroken line. Mostly firs, with some birch, they continue... the road continues. For mile after mile. Mile 100. Mile 200. Only 242 more to my motel! Endless. I almost panicked when I consulted the map and saw that Whitehorse, in the Yukon Territory, which is near the point where I will dip down into Alaska, is at mile marker 985! And the road goes all the way to Fairbanks... I think that's mile 1600! I can’t imagine that trip.

I have never seen such loneliness. Yes, there are stretches of Utah and Arizona that are desolate. But you know there are towns coming up, and if you're on the main highways, there are signs, radio stations, other traffic, and some services. But the Alaska Highway defies comparison. Mile 300. Mile 400. In all this distance I went through only two real "towns" - Fort St. John and Fort Nelson. Otherwise there'd be a small service station and cafe every 75 to 80 miles, but every other one seemed closed. There were lots of deer and caribou grazing on the sides of the road but mercifully they seem to stay out of the road itself.

Rain started at Mile 200 and continued all day. As it got late, there was pea-soup fog, which caused me to slow way down and to wonder what wildlife might come springing out in front of me. It was very tiring. At one point I'd been resting my right arm on the passenger seat, and shifted in my seat, bringing my right hand to the steering wheel. That action made me startle myself for a split second as I thought it was someone else's hand coming up from the back seat. Ok, when you start to hallucinate, it’s time to stop for the night! Soon! I did stop at my motel at mile marker 442 for the night - having driven almost 13 hours total. Dinner was awful... stopped at a place that had a whole slew of things listed on a white board. I thought they were the specials. No... it turns out that these were the things that they'd run out of! Ended up with a not-too-memorable Buffalo Burger and fries.

It's now Thursday the 21st, and I am continuing the letter. This morning I had my $13 breakfast of eggs, sausage, toast and coffee... ah yes, toast is either "brown or white" up here - interesting. The rain continued and I was back out on the Alaska Highway... Mile 500, Mile 600, Mile 700. Those of you on the east coast should imagine driving from Boston to North Carolina; on the west coast think Eureka to San Diego. Imagine in all this distance nothing but an unbroken 2 lane road cut through the forest, with only 3 actual towns the whole way (Watson Lake today was the 3rd). Around mile 700 an upsetting thing happened.

As I came down a long hill I saw some traffic stopped in the opposite direction and there seemed to be a vehicle in the middle of the road and some people in the road stopping traffic. I assumed it was yet another road construction delay, but as I got close I saw frantic people motioning for me to stop. There'd been an accident between a motorcycle and a pick-up truck. The motorcyclist was lying in the middle of the road, the pick-up was wrecked; the driver of the pick-up was a basket case. Other people coming from the opposite direction in large motor homes and trucks had stopped to try and help. No one's cell phones worked and of course, neither did mine. A man came to my window and said that he'd taken the pulse of the motorcyclist - he was dead. But no one could get through the debris in their large vehicles, and no one knew what to do. So I said I'd get through and try to call someone. Since my car is 4 wheel drive, I was able to go off-road a bit to get around the debris and the body -that was really a strange feeling. And then I went as fast as possible to the next ANYTHING, which was 22 miles further up the road - a small service station. The owner called the police and had me report where the whole thing was. I was glad I was able to help, but it was very sad to know that someone had lost his life that day in the blink of an eye.

I drove on through endless rain, and not one car caught up to me all of the rest of the day, so I am assuming the road was closed and that others were not able to get through for some time. So on I traveled along this highway that now felt even lonelier than it had before. Mile 750. Mile 800. Mile 850. I arrived at Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, Mile 875 at 6:00 PM Pacific Standard Time. I have now traveled almost 1600 miles northwest from the Montana - Canada border. I am much farther west than Seattle or Portland, and a few hundred miles north of Juneau, Alaska - as far north as the top of Hudson Bay or the northern coast of Labrador. On the far edge of the world. The rain finally stopped here and at 11:30 PM I was treated to a beautiful sunset, which made me feel even more thankful than usual that I was alive, well and here to see it.



“The Final Frontier: Alaska at Last!”

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Hello from Juneau!

Well, things have improved significantly since the last e-mail, and that may or may not be related to the fact that I'm back in the U.S. I arrived at Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, Canada on Thursday evening, but still had no cell phone or Internet access at all. Whitehorse is a "big city" of 30,000 people - not particularly scenic, but at least there were services and restaurants, etc. I had dinner there with a French Canadian guy I'd met via the Internet a couple weeks back. His name is Rejean, and he moved from Quebec to Whitehorse 15 years ago. It was interesting hearing about life in such a remote place, but it seems that people who live there spend a lot of money traveling to other places like Calgary, Toronto, or Anchorage when they get stir-crazy. After dinner Rejean showed me around the city a bit. One interesting place he took me to was a wooden suspension bridge that crosses the river near town. He wanted to show me something there that had special significance to him. It seems that a couple of years back he'd noticed that someone had carved into the bridge railing the following "poem":
"I hate Richard McKay... I hate him because he's gay. All gay people are sick and need to be sent away"

Rejean said that he'd noticed that carving and it always bugged him - he never seemed to be able to get it out of his mind. Last April Whitehorse hosted a Gay Pride celebration, and he was bored by the usual superficial carrying on... and then it struck him. He drove to this bridge - treading through a few feet of snow to get to it at that time of year. He took a carving knife with him and simply eradicated the entire "poem". He said he felt that THIS was what Gay Pride SHOULD be all about. It’s like finding the “true meaning of Christmas” I think.

The next day I left Whitehorse and braved another 100 miles of the Alaska Highway to Haines Junction amidst terrible construction and dust and mud and truck traffic. My windshield has more than a few pits now. Finally I reached the Haines Highway, a 159 mile road that dead-ends at Haines, Alaska, the town from which I'd be taking the ferry to Juneau and points south. The road was beautiful and well-kept and the mountain scenery was terrific. I got to the border crossing and showed my driver's license and was through in one minute flat. The weather held up all day, with lots of puffy clouds and a sprinkle here or there for excitement. Temperatures are in the 60s and very pleasant.

I found a small and relatively cheap motel room in Haines for Friday night - still no Internet or phone. I had dinner at a nearby place - wild salmon steak - the reddest piece of salmon I have ever seen. Lots of bones, but tasty nonetheless and about 1/2 of the cost of food up in Canada. Likewise, I had a great, full breakfast at a bakery-cafe in the morning and it cost under $7.00. Gas in Haines was $2.89 a gallon which seemed cheap after Canada, but I suspected it'd be cheaper in Juneau so decided to wait to fill up there - and I was correct: Juneau is $2.47. I imagine that is a LOT cheaper than good old, price-gouged San Francisco!

After breakfast on Saturday morning I headed out to the ferry terminal to check in. You must arrive 2 hours before your departure time. I was actually the first one in line and the first to drive onto the ferry. Got myself a comfy chaise lounge on the upper deck's covered solarium, and sat... and sat... and sat... we were delayed by 2 hours as the crew somehow struggled to get a couple of trucks and a U-Haul trailer aboard! Ugh! The trip was pleasant enough... it was a beautiful sunny day and the cool breeze off the ocean felt good. The trip to Juneau took 4.5 hours, and the scenery all the way consisted of fir-covered hills, snowcapped mountains, and an occasional glacier snaking down from the mountains.

There was an interesting cast of characters aboard, though one woman stood out. She'd been in a car next to me in the line waiting to board the ferry and was blasting music that no one else wanted to hear on her car stereo. She was dressed in a loud, leopard-skin print coat, wearing huge dark glasses and had a Sony Walkman, and as she lay in her chair in the solarium, she was making gestures along with the music as if she were conducting an orchestra, and then stopping to engage people in strange and seemingly unwelcome conversations. Other folks set up campsites in the solarium, marking their territory with sleeping bags and back packs. Some actually pitched tents on the deck by tying their tents to the rails and duct-taping them to the deck. These folks were likely spending several hours to a couple days on board, as the ultimate destination of our boat was Bellingham, WA. The rest of my trip will be broken up into somewhat smaller segments. On Wednesday morning I depart Juneau for the 4.5 hour trip to Sitka; on Thursday night I leave Sitka for the 22 hour trip to Ketchikan, but will have my own cabin on that leg; and on Sunday night I leave for Prince Rupert, Canada, which will be a 7 hour journey.

We got into Juneau at 6:00 PM, and I drove to my motel near downtown, the Breakwater Inn.
Had a nice room with an in-room jacuzzi tub, king sized bed and view of a boat harbor, but it faces a very busy highway, so the traffic noise has been annoying. Worse is the fact that my room is directly under the restaurant - it sounds like a herd of stampeding moose on the ceiling all day until the place closes at 11 PM, but then it gets worse till 1:00 AM as they move tables, clean and vacuum floors, and slam things around. Sleep continues to be elusive...
OK, I have more to say about Juneau, but it's now late Sunday night and I need to be at the airport at 8:15 AM. I'll be on a 4 seater airplane that will take me to the island of Gustavus, at the mouth of Glacier Bay, and on Tuesday I will take an 8 hour boat trip of the bay to get a close up look at the glacier. I'll be leaving my car and most of the luggage at the long term parking lot in Juneau until I return on Tuesday evening. Not sure when I will next have access to the Internet, but will write again when I can.

Take care everyone.

“Half-Cats and Half-Cooked”

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Hello Everyone,
How's that for a title with a tease? Half-Cats and Half-Cooked. Yes, it gives you some clues about the experiences I have had as I made my way from Haines to Juneau and out to Glacier Bay.

Last time I wrote I had arrived in Juneau on Saturday, but I need to back up slightly to Friday night at Haines, AK. I spent the night there and departed by ferry for Juneau the next morning. After 8 days of Canadian radio: "Today we’ll be talking about the art and empowerment of Polynesian women...” I was happily surprised to spin the dial and find the very American Art Bell Show. Art Bell is a strange and mysterious figure who lives in the mountains of Nevada near Area 51 and discusses all kinds of strange, supernatural and extra-terrestrial topics. I love listening to this show when driving late at night... listening to tales of UFO encounters as you drive down a dark desert highway at 1:00 AM is almost like being told a good ghost story when you were a child. At any rate, Art was talking to his "correspondent", a woman named Linda who phones in "news" stories from around the globe. Tonight she was reporting on the sharp increase in half-cat sightings in Washington State. Yes, you read that correctly... "half-cat sightings". What's wonder-ful about this show is that they have such a cult following that they seldom need to explain what they're talking about to their audience. It's just presumed that everyone KNOWS what a half-cat sighting is, in the same way that the mainstream media just assume that we all know Tom Cruise has become psychotic.

So it took me awhile to piece together the details of this story, but the gist of it is that people in the areas around Puget Sound, Washington are finding the front half of their cats, dead of course, sitting on their front lawns. There is a head, shoulders, and the two front legs... the rest is missing. Linda quoted an "eye-witness" who'd found a half-cat and said it looked like a child's hand puppet. Local animal control officials claim these are the results of coyote attacks, but there are some strange facts that seem to refute such an idea. The half-cats have no blood or scarring... they have been "re-sealed" using very high heat. With a straight voice, Al Bell said, "Well certainly coyotes are not capable of THAT!" I wanted to call in and offer that if this was the work of coyotes, why did they only eat half the cat? And why the BACK half? Ew! Al asked Linda whether it was always the front half of the cat that people found, and she replied that this is the case 90% of the time, but occasionally a back-half, half-cat shows up. She says this is not an isolated incident: London, Toronto, Phoenix, rural Nebraska, and yes, even Manhattan have had flurries of half-cat sightings. Pet owners, beware! Keep careful watch over your cats or you too could become a half-cat owner!

Onward to Juneau. I spent two nights in Juneau at the Breakwater Inn. The place was not as picturesque as it had appeared in the internet pictures, but the room was nice and had a king sized bed and king-sized jacuzzi tub in the room. The problem was that it was located underneath the Inn's restaurant and bar. The noise above was deafening. People running across my ceiling, tables banging, pounding noises, vacuum cleaners... and best of all, a floor buffer being used at 1:00 AM on Monday morning. I was so annoyed I ran out into the halls and screamed upstairs, "Are you almost finished up there? People are trying to sleep!" They looked surprised and said, "we're almost done". Great. At 6:00 the garbage truck arrived and played basketball with a dumpster immediately beneath my window. As I started to fall back to sleep, noises started emanating from the restaurant above... the breakfast preparation. It was like trying to sleep in a bowling alley! When I checked out that morning, I was cranky and exhausted and I looked at the desk clerk and asked, "Do people not complain about the noise from the restaurant? They were banging tables and buffing the floors until 1:30 this morning! I have had no sleep!" She looked genuinely surprised, apologized, and said that no, no one had complained before. Their patrons must have been comatose.

Juneau itself is a strange little town of 30,000 residents. It sits on the Gastineau Channel, a calm canal-like body of water, and is protected from the open sea by many islands and inlets; it's probably at least 65 miles from the Pacific itself. The ferry dock is 15 miles from downtown (BAD planning) and the whole community clings to the coastline strip for 15 miles to downtown. Mountains and glaciers rise immediately to the east. For a capital city, it is a rather laid-back place, rough around the edges, and it's an odd location given that you can only fly or boat in. The state of Alaska has tentative plans to build a 75 mile road from here to Skagway, Alaska up north which would link Juneau to the mainland and Canada. The proposed road would be crossing some amazingly rugged terrain and would be threatened by no less than 16 major avalanche zones. Mankind never learns. Downtown there are the cruise ship docks, where two or three skyscraper-like cruise ships are docked each day. The shops in the area are very touristy and flocks of cruise ship escapees roam the streets like crazed maniacs, all the while elbowing people out of the way and checking their watches. I am so glad I did not do the Alaska cruise option; I'd have hated it. I like having my car and using the ferry and being able to drive off at the next destination to continue exploring.

In a strange way, this area of Alaska reminds me of Hawaii. It is isolated enough to feel like an island, and you have the same strange mix of native people and whites and tourists all trying to get along. Like Hawaii, you feel similarly removed from the rest of the U.S. and the world here. So much of life revolves around the ocean and tourism in both places. The souvenir shops are very reminiscent of those in Honolulu or on Maui. The cost of living is high here, but prices aren't as bad as Hawaii - especially regarding food in terms of both the grocery stores and restaurants. But the food here can't compare to that of Hawaii. Sunday provided a couple of good examples of that. I went to a locally-recommended cafe for breakfast on Sunday and had blueberry pancakes. As I started eating them and thinking how they were nowhere near as tasty as the ones I make, I suddenly came upon an area of completely uncooked pancake batter. Ew! Pulling the cake apart, I found that the vast majority of the inside was completely uncooked. I showed the waitress; she took $2 off the price! That night I had dinner at the Inn (I figured that I might as well eat there once since I heard them cleaning the place so often from my room!). I ordered salmon, halibut and vegetable tempura. It looked good until I bit into it... it was tempura sushi! The fish was completely uncooked and cold in the middle, the vegetables were raw. I told the waiter and he did bring me another order with many apologies, but though the fish were cooked on the second attempt, the veggies were still cold and crunchy. Yuck. Cook your food, people!

While in Juneau I met another person I'd been in touch with through the internet, Don. He is a computer programmer and returning student who lives on his boat in the harbor. We managed to find a fully cooked meal at a good place called the Twisted Fish.... the halibut was delicious and they make a great sweet potato and shrimp fritter! Don actually invited me to stay on his boat later in the week, as I was returning from Glacier Bay at 8 PM, and had to catch the ferry at 5:00 AM, so that saved me another $100 stay at the Breakwater Inn! He told me an interesting about Juneau's "bootleg" radio station. It seems that someone in the area has been sending out 24 hour a day radio transmissions in the area. No one knows who it is, the signal can't be traced, and the FCC is really not taking it too seriously as, well... it's Juneau and who cares! The station plays some interesting music, but also raunchy stuff that would never be allowed on a "real" station. Bizarre. People have made bumper stickers supporting 96.9 FM even though no one knows who's running the show.

One of the highlights of Juneau is the Mendenhall Glacier, which is located just north of the city. I visited there on Sunday and got nice photos of this blue-gray river of ice emptying into a lake in which a few large icebergs floated. I also got to see salmon swimming upstream to spawn, which was very cool. Those are some tough fish! I must admit I have been skittish about hiking very much because of the bear threat. Everyone talks about "a person they know" who was mauled or attacked, and it's unnerving. You are supposed to make as much noise as possible as you hike, and I have to say I feel more than a little stupid walking through the woods talking to myself and singing. I wish I had the "Lost in Space" robot with me, who could warn me with a "Danger, Will Robinson! Grizzly bear approaching! Danger! Danger!"

Well, on Monday morning I went to the airport to catch my flight over to the hamlet of Gustavus, the gateway to Glacier National Park. I left my car in the long-term parking lot... it felt strange to be separated from my loyal friend after all these weeks. I was flying on L.A.B. Airways, and although I knew I'd be on a small plane, I didn't realize HOW small. It was a Piper plane and I was the only passenger. I sat up front with the pilot and there was a backseat that could have fit two small people. I swear I have more room in my Honda Element than there was in that plane! It was like a Mazda Miata with wings! Off we went into the wild GRAY yonder... it drizzles and is overcast a LOT here. As we soared in and out of clouds and passed what seemed to be dangerously close to tree-covered mountain tops, I couldn't help thinking of all the singers who died in small plane crashes... John Denver, Patsy Cline, Buddy Holly. Thank God I haven't kept up with my karaoke career or I might have been added to that list! It was a little scary, but mostly just fantastic to see this countryside from the air.

The flight was 30 minutes long. At the Gustavus air strip the van to my hotel, The Glacier Bay Country Inn, was waiting for me. This place had been recommended to me by my friend Peter in SF (Thanks, Peter!) and it was everything he said it would be. I was operating on only 4 hours of sleep and was just exhausted. We arrived at the hotel at only 10:00 AM but my individual cabin was already ready for me. It was a gorgeous little house all of my own. The silence was deafening. I could hear flies and bees from 50 feet away. I immediately crawled into the bed that was as comfortable as a cloud and snuggled in the flannel sheets. Paradise. I tried to nap, but the fact that it wasn't raining made me want to get outside, so I borrowed one of the Inn's bikes and though the seat was way too low for me and could not be raised, I managed to pedal into "town" if you can call it that... about 3 or 4 miles away. I had lunch - a halibut sandwich (caught and filleted that morning), clam-salmon chowder, and strawberry rhubarb cobbler - at a cafe attached to a B & B called the Bear's Nest. I was the only customer. The owner/chef/waitress told me that she and her husband were pretty much living off credit cards, as business has not really recovered since 9-11.

Gustavus is an interesting place. It feels like an island, but is really a flat area at the tip of a mountainous peninsula. Fans of the old TV show "Northern Exposure" would see some similarities between this place and the fictional town of Cicely, Alaska. There are perhaps 200 people who live here, scattered around an area which has no real downtown. There's a cool vintage gas station with old fashioned pumps, a Mercantile, a cafe, an airstrip, and a few widely scattered B & B's - none of these concentrated in one area. There is no police force or station, and there are no taxes here. The Lodge and visitor’s center for Glacier Bay National Park are 10 miles off at the far end of the broad, flat area. As I rode my bike into town, everyone driving a vehicle waved at me. Conversation on the island centers on fishing and planes. The island's lifeline is its air connection to Juneau and many of the locals are to be found hanging out by the airstrip waiting for supplies to come in.

It began to rain quite hard after I'd eaten my lunch, so I pedaled in the rain back to my cozy cabin at the inn, climbed into those flannel sheets and slept 2 hours, waking up in time for afternoon tea, which was followed by a 3 course dinner 2 hours later. There was an eclectic mix of guests. There was "the nanny" - a NY City woman who bore a resemblance to TV’s Fran Drescher - voice and wardrobe included - and her son and husband. There was a crazy man from New Hampshire who kept making absurd and inappropriate jokes as his wife and cousin rolled their eyes in embarrassment. There was a Georgia father and son fishing team, and a man from North Carolina who talked unceasingly about his hobby: geo-caching. There is a cult-like group which uses geo-satellite tracking devices to do scavenger hunts around the world to find children's toys hidden in "caches". This guy found a yo-yo near the Gustavus airstrip. No one at dinner seemed too enthralled. Now perhaps if he'd found a half-cat, he'd have generated some excitement.

The star of the dinner table, both literally and figuratively, was Jerry, a tall, exceptionally handsome 40-ish guy with a mop of black hair, stubble, and a clingy "Bodyglove" sweatshirt that emphasized each considerably chiseled pec and ab. Tanned beyond belief, Jerry was of course from L.A. and with a little prodding we found that he was somewhat of a celebrity - Jerry Penacoli, a celebrity interviewer for the entertainment show "Extra". He is also an actor who has had roles in various soap operas and in sitcoms like "Ellen". He was actually very funny and self-deprecating and of course I was all ears when he talked about various celebrities... including his many interviews with Cher, who he says is an absolute delight. It was wonderful to talk about something besides fishing and geo-caching, let me tell you! Dinner was delicious - a roasted pepper soup, duck a l'orange with barley and veggies, and a nectarine Napoleon for dessert. After dinner I tried to help Jerry with the internet connection we had at the lodge and learned his AOL screen name… hmmm, should I become a stalker? Went to bed by about 10, as those of us going on the tour to Glacier Bay the next day had to be up for breakfast by 6:15 AM. Slept like a log.

Morning came all too soon and I had to pry myself out of my wonderful bed. I have got to get a set of flannel sheets for my own bed at home! After a huge country breakfast, 6 of us were on a shuttle to the National Park to do an 8 hour boat tour of Glacier Bay. Unfortunately, the fun people like Jerry and the Nanny were doing other things that day, so I was with the crazy New Hampshire guy and the crazy geo-cache guy and their wives. Boarded a boat with about 75 other folks and off we went to explore the far reaches of the Bay. I must confess that the ride was pretty boring, given that rain and low fog obscured most of the scenery. I actually fell asleep a couple times, but when I was awake I marveled at the silver salmon leaping out of the water everywhere, and we did see a number of whales, sea otters, sea lions, eagles and funny red-footed birds called Puffins. The crew were fun and entertaining, and one member of the crew, Adam, spent a lot of time talking to me when he learned I was a professor. He is working in Alaska for a summer job and goes home to Michigan in September to complete his senior year at college.

The very long 3 hour trip to the head of the bay was rewarded by our visit to the Johns Hopkins Glacier. At the end of a long, narrow inlet, we had hints that it must lay further ahead as large icebergs started to appear and float past us. It was like boating in a mixed drink! Finally we rounded the bend and saw the glacier ahead, very blue colored in the gray light. Thankfully the rain stopped and as we pulled within ¼ mile of the edge of the glacier, the captain cut the engine and it was quiet and not windy. Then we began to hear the noise of the glacier – periodic explosions that varied from the sound of a rifle, to a cannon, to a nuclear bomb - echoing across the inlet. Sometimes nothing visible happened on the face of the glacier, but other times, huge masses of ice and rock went tumbling into the water, some generating little mini-tsunami that rocked our boat. It was really exciting and we spent a good 30 minutes parked there watching the show.

Throughout the day we ate well - halibut filets, clam chowder, warm cookies and hot chocolate. The temperature was probably in the upper 40's but the rain and wind from the moving boat made it hard to stay outside too long. Finally returned to the visitor's center at 4:10 and were met by a member of the hotel staff who was taking several of us to the Gustavus airstrip for our flights back to Juneau at 5:30. They had bad news for me: my airline, L.A.B. had not been flying all day due to the weather. I had two options: try to catch the ferry from the National Park to Juneau - 3 more hours on a boat - and that would leave me 10 miles away from where my car was parked at the airport! Or I could try to find a seat on another airline. I opted for the second choice, and luckily the airline that the New Hampshire and North Carolina folks were booked on had one extra seat for me - though I had to suffer more of their inane conversations. Anyway, despite the intrigue I managed to get back to Juneau - but had to pay $25 more than my original airline was charging for the trip. I did get a refund from my airline at least!

And now it's Wednesday the 27th. I spent the night in a very uncomfortable bed on Don's boat in Juneau, but it was a free bed, so I can't complain. Had to be at the ferry terminal at 5AM for the 7:00 departure and it was pouring all day long. The ferries are really nice though, and they have a ranger giving talks and pointing out wildlife all along the way. I saw at least 6 or 7 humpback whales flapping their tails repeatedly on the water; they feed here all summer and then go to Maui to mate in the winter. Not a bad life. There were literally hundreds of silver salmon leaping from the water. Evidently this is done to loosen the eggs before they start the journey up the local streams to spawn. The trip to Sitka took 4.5 hours, and after a lunch of some of the best tasting salmon I have ever eaten, I checked in at my B & B, in the waterfront home of a bubbly woman named Sue. Sitka is very beautiful; the scenery now resembles that of Oregon and Washington - very green and rain-forested with little snow on the surrounding peaks. Sitka is close to the open ocean and the harbor is dotted with dozens of little spruce-covered island. Miraculously the sun appeared mid-afternoon, and I spent an enjoyable time sitting by the harbor and watching an enormous sea lion fishing for salmon. He'd get a salmon in his mouth and toss it around with great abandon like a dog playing with a chew-toy. Then he'd swallow it whole and dive for more. It's 11PM now, and I am about to call it a night. I hear rain outside again - what a surprise! I will e-mail this on Thursday morning from a cyber cafe here in town. I spend all day in Sitka, and then at 9PM I have to again board the ferry for Ketchikan, a 22.5 hour trip! I have reserved a cabin on the ferry so will have a comfortable place to sleep on the overnight journey. I'll spend the weekend in Ketchikan, and then finally depart for Prince Rupert, B.C., Canada where I arrive on Monday morning. Then it's a two day drive to Vancouver, and I hope to stop in Seattle and Portland before I arrive home on the 6th - and I hope I don't find any half-cats down that-a-way!

All for now. I know this was a LONG e-mail. Hope you enjoyed reading it all.

Lots of love,

"Sleepless North of Seattle and the End of the Road"

Hello from San Francisco. It’s now Saturday morning, August 6, and I actually slept in my own bed for the first time since June 13th! So this is the last installment of my travel adventures (for THIS trip, anyway!) and all too soon it’ll be time to be back in the classroom, trying to explain to my students that words like THEN and THAN or WOMAN and WOMEN are not interchangeable. Summers go by way too fast.

Well, as I predicted, last Sunday in Ketchikan, Alaska was a long day. On Saturday night I spent the night at a Super 8 motel in this town. It felt more like a college dorm, or worse yet, the set of MTV’s “Real World”, in which young adults live together in a common area, drink heavily, argue, and have sex with one another. About 12 or 15 young “adults” occupied 5 or 6 rooms surrounding my own. They came in at 11:00 PM, and there was yelling, slamming of doors, and constant visits from room to room, preceded by loud knocks on the doors. This went on till 1 AM and I called the front desk. A short time later I heard the desk clerk come up and talk to them and things quieted down for maybe 20 minutes… enough time to almost doze off before being awakened by slamming doors, giggles, and more knocks on doors. I went to the door and mentioned that it was 1:30 AM and that people were trying to sleep. it got worse. At 2:30 I called the desk again. And again at 3:20. The desk clerk sounded frazzled and angry and said he’d take care of it.

Peering from the peep hole in my door, I watched as the clerk came up to break up the party. People were actually smoking and drinking beer in the hallway, the doors to their rooms were open, music was playing from tinny motel room radios, and there was much loud conversation. The desk clerk was nearly screaming at them, like a parent or a chaperone on a school trip: “Go back in your rooms and go to sleep! It’s 3:20 in the morning. Guests are complaining. There is no beer drinking in the public area of the hotel. There is no smoking in the hallways!” I then heard a flippant guy say, “Where does it say that? We don’t have a non-smoking room.”, to which the clerk had to explain that having a smoking room does not mean one can smoke in the hallways.
Finally by 3:45 or so, people quieted down and I fell asleep, but on a night when I really needed to get a good night’s rest, sleep was denied to me.

Sunday was one of the only sunny days I had in Alaska and I really just spent the afternoon doing a little shopping, some hiking, and a lot of watching the fish from one of the many bridges over the creek. Looking out at the creek or the inlets it appears that the surface is effervescent – like a giant glass of champagne, because there are so many salmon swimming around, their little shark-like top fins breaking the surface of the water, and almost every 3 or 4 seconds an 18” long salmon literally leaps a foot or two out of the water. There were hundreds of them. It was really amazing to watch. I had a farewell dinner at a restaurant on the water, dining on more of the delicious wild Coho salmon… and believe it or not, even though I was seated 3 feet from the dessert tray the whole time, I declined on dessert. I’ve actually been losing a little weight these last couple of weeks… probably due to walking a lot more, snacking all day on fresh blueberries and raspberries, and not having dessert at night. Pants that were not fitting a few weeks ago are comfortable again.

And now it was 8:00 PM and I had 7 hours to kill before my ferry departed for Canada. What to do? The ferry ride would be 6.5 hours long and I would not be in a cabin, so sleep would be hard to come by – though perhaps easier than at the Ketchikan Super 8! Once I arrived in Prince Rupert, Canada I’d have a 7 – 8 hour drive to Prince George. I needed rest. So I drove out to a remote park on a lake. There were very private little pull-in picnic areas that offered a lot of privacy, so I pulled into one and tried to have a few hours nap. Of course every time I’d be almost asleep, kids would wander by and scream at one another, or idiots would peel out and blow their horns and I would startle awake. It was almost comical; I’m in the wilds of Alaska and I can’t find a quiet place to just rest and have a nap undisturbed!

I went to the ferry terminal around 11:30 PM and I did catch an hour or two of sleep in the car there before we boarded at 2:30AM. I brought a pillow and warm sweatshirt on board with me and managed to find a chaise lounge in which I probably slept 3 hours. And that was it… Debarked at Prince Rupert, BC at 10:30AM (it took an hour to unload all the cars from the ferry) and I hit the highway heading south and east toward Prince George and Vancouver. I had filled up with gas in Ketchikan for a mere $2.41 a gallon, hoping that would get me a good long way through Canada before I had to fill up there, with their high prices. Canadian Radio was back, unfortunately:

“Today my guest will talk to us about some of the very interesting plaques that can be found around the province of British Columbia. If you have a favorite plaque, call in and tell us about it”. I longed to hear Dr. Laura nagging at someone because they were “shacking up” with their boyfriend.

The scenery was pretty… more pretty scenery. Hundreds of miles of pretty scenery, and lots of mist and drizzle. I finally found a country music radio station and really had a ball listening to songs from the 80s and 90s that I’d loved and danced to in my “Urban Cowboy” days in L.A. I heard many new artists and songs that I liked a lot. Country music is a great travel companion; for me it was a comforting old friend and it kept me awake till I got to Prince George at 8:00 PM. I had dinner at a pretty average restaurant, and stayed at a pretty average Travelodge, and slept about 7 hours. I needed to hit the highway again by 7:00 AM if I were going to make the 10.5 hour long drive to Vancouver and get in at a decent time.

I’d found a great hotel deal at a very cheap price over the internet, so my stay in Vancouver was very pleasant; I was on the 16th floor and my room faced east, and clear as a bell from my balcony I could see snow-capped Mount Baker, about 50 miles away in Washington state, the first of the dangerous Cascade volcanoes. Disasterman was getting closer to home! I had a great swim in one of the hotel’s three pools and then I amused myself watching Indian music videos on TV for awhile. (There is a large Asian Indian population in Vancouver).The lyrics are provided in subtitles, and almost every video focuses on a beautiful young woman being courted by a handsome young man, who chases her and dances around her as she plays hard to get and a multitude of dancers watch the action. The lyrics were hilarious and I wondered how close these subtitle translations were to the real lyrics or whether they reflected terrible mistakes in translation:

Man: “You are like a glistening fruit in the garden and I must pick you”.
Woman: “No, no… you cannot taste the fruit. You are the chill of my cucumber!”

Of course they always get together by the end of the video.

I had a wonderful, multi-course Lebanese meal with another interesting internet acquaintance I’d made, named Majid. He was born and raised in Lebanon, but is a Canadian citizen now and has lived in Canada for 20 years. It was fascinating talking with him about the world situation. He and his family were forced to hide in the hills of Lebanon many years ago during the Syrian occupation. They are now overjoyed that Syria is withdrawing from Lebanon and he just returned home for his first visit in many years. He said that in Lebanon it is common knowledge that the weapons we were searching for in Iraq went to Syria and Iran in the weeks and months before we got there. “Your country should never trust Syria. It is one of the most dangerous places on the earth!” He works in advertising and media, and it was also interesting to hear his research about how American and Canadian values are diverging. Ads that are designed for a Canadian audience rarely work in America and vice versa. He said, “We assume that our two countries are very much alike, but there are very big differences in the way we think”. I’d have to agree. I don’t think the show on interesting plaques would go over well in Boston or San Francisco!

I slept late on Wednesday morning and then did a little more sightseeing around Vancouver, stopping at an establishment called Death by Chocolate before hitting the road. I stopped at roadside stands in Canada and Washington to get boxes of fresh raspberries, strawberries, blueberries and blackberries and munched on them all day as I drove. Had a very quick border crossing back into the U.S. and continued south, aiming for Portland that night. As bad luck would have it, I drove into a heat wave: Seattle was 96 degrees! Passing Seattle was a traffic nightmare. I got to Everett, WA around 3:20 PM, and hoped I was in time to avoid rush hour, but I soon drove into a twisted mass of traffic that snaked along at 10 miles and hour for miles. I hopped off onto side roads, I tried to take freeways that would loop around the city… to no avail. Gridlock. It took 2.5 hours to get the 35 miles or so between Seattle and Tacoma. If I had to do that every day, I would be in a nut house talking about half-cats and plaques. I don’t know how people cope with it. The only consolation was that good-old volcanic Mt. Rainier was looming to the east, absolutely covered in snow and looking ominously close. I wanted to get a picture of the gridlocked traffic with Rainier in the background, but not sure if I was successful.

I didn’t get to Portland till almost 9:00 PM, and just collapsed, but I planned to spend two nights there and had a very nice motel room with high speed internet, 78 cable channels on TV, a very refreshing pool (Portland was also 96 degrees), and a QUIET 3rd floor room. I never heard a sound from any other rooms. I slept in till almost 10:00 and then brought the car in for its THIRD maintenance service since I left home in June! The Honda dealership in Portland was great. They squeezed me in even though I didn’t have an appointment, and they gave me complimentary tickets to ride the light rail system into downtown Portland and have lunch. I really like Portland and with my upcoming research work at Mt. Rainier, it seems I’ll have more chances to explore the place. Their light rail system is amazing – so clean and quiet, and cheap. In fact to ride around in the main downtown area there is no charge at all. Free, clean, safe mass transit! What a concept! I did have to laugh as I rode downtown. An athletic man of maybe 50 years old got onboard with his bike, and as the train continued, he set the kick stand on his bike and began turning the poles and bars that people who are standing up usually hold on to into his own personal gym. He did pull ups, he did strange vertical push ups. I was tempted to make a loud public announcement that aerobics classes would be starting in 5 minutes in Car #2! I am always amazed by how un-self-conscious people can be in public.

At any rate, after a great lunch, I returned to get my car and was assured it was ready for the road again. I told the woman at the service desk about my trip, and said, “after all that driving I am afraid I’ve worn my poor car out! (It’s not even a year old yet). She looked at me over her glasses and said, “Sir, it’s a Honda. You CAN’T wear them out”. I then took it to a carwash where layers of mud and dust were peeled away, restoring it to its shiny self. Got all my photos developed (and saved money on the developing since there are no state sales taxes in Oregon), had a relaxing swim to recover from the heat, and dined on an amazing fish and chips at a British pub. It couldn’t have been a more pleasant day.

Morning came too soon for my liking – I could have spent a whole day in bed or in the pool – and I went to my favorite restaurant in Portland for Wild Salmon Hash & Eggs before filling up with gas and heading south on I – 5. Terrible traffic around each of Oregon’s major cities – Salem, Eugene, Medford – slowed my progress, but thank God, Dr. Laura was on the airwaves to keep me company. Gas, which had been $2.42 a gallon in Oregon was $2.75 a gallon as I entered California. Welcome home! The temperature at Redding was 107 degrees, but by the time I reached San Francisco it was 57 degrees! My friends Gail and Chrissy waited dinner for me, and I reached their place in San Rafael a little after 9:00 PM, dining on organic chicken, organic corn, organic summer squash and organic tomatoes… they wanted to make sure I knew I was back in Marin County! It was delicious and much welcomed, as after the salmon hash, all I’d eaten were raspberries and blackberries for the rest of the day! I took a relaxing swim in their 90 degree pool, marveling at the brilliance of the stars above and realizing that I’d really never seen the stars at all in Alaska and Canada; it rained too much. So somehow it was an ironic twist of fate for me to lie in the warm water and look up to see the Big Dipper – featured on the Alaska state flag – shining brightly above me. I will think of Alaska now whenever I see it. And then I drove the last 20 miles across a fog shrouded Golden Gate Bridge, arriving home at 11:30 PM.

And so another epic journey is over. All in all, I drove a total of 14,000 miles: the equivalent of two round-trip journeys across country and then going 2/3 of the way back again! Just the drive from where I left the Alaska ferry to San Francisco was almost 2,000 miles… that’s how far north I was! I do not want to even think about how much money I spent on gas. But I am not sorry I did it, because with the state of the world and the economy and gas prices, who knows if I’ll be able to do it again. While I liked Alaska and am glad I finally have seen it, it is not a place that will call to me in the future, and that is somewhat of a relief, since Hawaii, New England, Italy, Sydney, New Zealand, Paris, New York City, Utah and many other places call to me all the time as it is! I would be interested in flying to Anchorage sometime and renting a car to explore that area, but I have no desire to ever drive Canada’s Alaska Highway again! Sick as this sounds, I could, if I had any room on the credit cards left, get back in the car and head back out across the country again. The United States is an amazing place. The vast majority of its people are friendly, well-meaning, good folks. The scenery is spectacular. If you can turn a blind eye to the McDonalds and the Wendys, there are terrific local treasures to be found in every part of the country. And the freedom of being out on the road, wandering from place to place, seeing friends and family along the way is truly my ideal vacation. I worry about the changes and the dangers that I believe we are facing in the not-too-distant future in this country and I wonder if things will always be the same, or I should say, “I wonder how much things will change”, because of course, they are changing all the time.

Thank you to all of you I visited with and who shared your hospitality and time with me. Thanks to those of you who wrote e-mails and called me – it helped in some of the lonely times when I really felt like I was at the edge of the world. And thanks to those of you who enthusiastically read all these personal accounts and vicariously shared my adventures with me. All of you, all I’ve seen and done, make me feel truly blessed.



Back in the Closet Again: The Life of a Gay Conservative in San Francisco

When I was in my late teens and early 20s, living in New England, Virginia and southern California, I remember the torture I experienced as a result of being gay and being completely “closeted” about my sexual orientation. All I needed to do was keep my ears open and listen to the kinds of things that I heard people say about gay people to realize that according to the prevailing values of society in the late 1970s and early 1980s, being gay was “wrong.” It took me years to screw up enough courage to tell even my very closest friends, and while most of those disclosures were received positively, it never got any easier the next time around. In some cases, sharing this secret with people I knew resulted in them pulling back a bit, or sometimes, rejecting me outright.

I think it is difficult for those in the majority to understand or imagine the tension that someone who is gay experiences in a society that simply assumes everyone is heterosexual and makes it pretty clear, directly or indirectly, that homosexuality is strange at best, and evil or sick at worst. I sat in social gatherings with people I really liked, only to flinch and feel like I’d been slapped in the face when I’d hear someone make an anti-gay remark or joke. I wanted to tell them that the people they were disparaging and dismissing didn’t want to hurt or threaten them, that they shouldn’t be feared or hated, and that they shouldn’t be judged on the basis of their sexual orientation alone. I wanted to tell these people that if they could just look beyond the fact that someone is gay and see the whole person, they’d realize that we weren’t so different at all. I wanted to tell them that I was one of the people they seemed to fear and despise. But usually, I just got quiet, tried not to let anyone see that I was upset, and just crawled away, feeling hurt, betrayed and so very alone.

I was always worried about someone finding out about me. In the days before there were openly gay role models and no support groups for gay people, I was always looking for other people who were like me. I wanted to talk to someone who felt the things I felt, had the opinions I had, and had been through the same experiences as me. But how do you meet other gay people when you are trying to hide the fact that you’re gay from the rest of the world, and in all likelihood, when the people you’re trying to meet are hiding too? I recall meeting strangers, chatting, thinking that maybe this person might be gay, but how could I be sure? If I told them I was gay, how might they react? Would they be angry if they thought I’d assumed they were gay when they really weren’t? I’d search for even the most subtle of clues. I’d pay careful attention if someone mentioned that they had recently been to the gay resort towns of Provincetown, Massachusetts or Key West, Florida. I remember interactions in which I’d ask seemingly innocuous questions about which bars or restaurants someone frequented, what music they listened to, or what TV shows they watched for the purpose of gleaning whether or not they might be gay. If I met a man who mentioned the name of a gay bar I’d heard of, or who admitted to liking Cher, or who said he watched Knot’s Landing and Dallas, my “gaydar” would sound and I’d realize I might have met a kindred spirit!

I also remember, and I’m sure that anyone who is gay or lesbian can relate to this, that I went through periods where I just wished that I could be straight. I’d think, “If only I was straight, life would be so much easier for me. I wouldn’t have to live like this and feel so isolated all the time.” But of course, being gay isn’t something I could just change my mind about, and I looked at it in some ways as one of life’s tests or challenges; perhaps not being able to travel the easier road would build my character and teach me things about life that I needed to learn.

Eventually, as the 1990s arrived, things did change. Society was becoming more and more accepting of gay people, and at the age of 33 I moved to San Francisco. For the first time in my life I felt like I was part of the majority. Again, anyone who hasn't been through this experience can fully grasp the total relief that comes when someone who has lived in the confines of the closet for so long and has been unable to express him or herself is finally free. In San Francisco I didn’t feel as if I had to run everything I said through a filter for fear of giving away the fact that I was gay and perhaps alienating, angering, or upsetting people around me. I finally found the courage to tell my family and some of my friends, with whom I’d never had the nerve to be open and honest before, that I was gay. I could finally be myself.

But over the past few years, still in San Francisco and rapidly approaching my 50th birthday, I have found myself right back in the tight confines of a closet again. This realization has been slow in coming, but undeniable. I am experiencing those familiar feelings of tension and needing to censor everything I say. I am living with the almost constant fear of being rejected by the people around me. I’ve begun to realize how hopelessly alone and misunderstood I feel. Yes, the closet is back with a vengeance. The irony is that in this city that is reputed for its tolerance and its acceptance of diversity, among people who are well educated and who pride themselves on their progressive views, I have been pushed back into a closet all over again, but not because I am gay. This time it’s because I have dared to be an individual. It’s because I have become more politically conservative in my thinking.

It’s time for me to “come out” all over again. I am politically conservative. There. I’ve said it. It’s out and I can’t take it back. I am a gay man and I am politically conservative. Although I have been a life-long registered Democrat and for many years held extremely liberal views on many issues, over the years I’ve begun to look at some of the far left political decisions that have been made here in San Francisco and in California and I‘ve begun to feel that the far left perspective is every bit as frightening as the far right perspective that made me flee to San Francisco in the first place. It wasn't as if someone waved a magic wand over me and I suddenly became conservative. It was a result of societal changes, reading and research, watching politics and listening to what was going on around me.

I don’t like the fact that my mayor has made my city a “sanctuary” for illegal aliens, and I am deeply disturbed by the fact that our city officials wouldn’t allow the U.S. Marines to film a training video here, tried to cancel the Blue Angels’ performance during Fleet Week, or want to ban ROTC in the city’s schools. I support and respect the police and those in the military. I think they are heroes.

I don’t find it clever and witty to advertise the Folsom Street Leather Fair on a billboard depicting DaVicni’s Last Supper, featuring figures dressed in leather gear and harnesses. I think it’s ugly and wrong for the “Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence” to mock the Catholic Church with their Hunkiest Jesus Contest at Easter or to disrupt a Catholic Mass just to make a political statement.

I listen avidly to talk radio: conservative talk radio. I’ve been entertained and have learned so much from radio personalities like Glenn Beck, Dr. Laura Schlessinger, Bill O’Reilly, Laura Ingraham, and yes, even Sean Hannity and Michael Savage. Their ideas and opinions have forced me to consider other perspectives when I look at the world.

I did not vote for Barack Obama for president; the majority of his social and economic policies scared me. I voted for McCain, and since I am coming completely out of the closet here, I voted for McCain because I liked Sarah Palin. I really liked her! And I can’t bring myself to vote or not to vote for someone solely on the basis of their stand on gay rights. Gays always say that there is more to us than just our sexual orientation; I agree, and that’s why I feel that gay rights are just one among dozens of urgent political issues facing us and that they can’t form the sole basis of how I vote.

But just as being gay was viewed with such disdain when I was younger, here in San Francisco holding any of the viewpoints or engaging in any of the behaviors I describe above is considered wrong. These are actions that not tolerated by the very liberal people I am surrounded by here, both gay and straight. These are things that I must hide from people and I find myself having to go back into the constricting closet that I thought I’d left behind many years ago.

I’ve had friends make remarks in front of me regarding how stupid and naive anyone must be to believe in God, or that people who are strongly religious are just ignorant. I‘ve listened to people who are ever-vigilant to fight prejudice and sexism and homophobia make sweeping generalizations about religious denominations or make nasty and derogatory remarks about “those people in the red states.”

I’ve know people who’ve never actually listened to Dr. Laura, but who’ve “caught” me listening to her show. They start railing at me for listening to such a “homophobe” and quote some comment she supposedly made, taking it completely out of its original context. And they make it clear to me that anyone who would listen to this woman’s show must just be stupid or backward.
I had a friend tell me that because I voted for a conservative candidate in a prior election, I should take the rainbow flag sticker off my car. He said, “You’re like a Jew in Nazi Germany who proudly wears a Star of David while you’re helping the Nazis kill other Jews.” At work, everyone just assumes that everyone else is liberal, much as most heterosexuals assume everyone else is straight. But when I finally had the nerve to speak up and disclose the fact that I didn’t share their opinions, I found that things got far more tense. I noticed that people began to “tease” me with lines like, “Oh yeah, I forgot... you’re a Republican,” with an emphasis on the word Republican that was reminiscent of someone using the word faggot. Even reminding them that I was a Democrat, or that as of this past summer I’d registered as an Independent, did not stop the teasing.

I was teased about wearing a Texas t shirt I’d bought on a vacation; Texas is apparently a bad place because George W. Bush is from there. At one time I had a “Don’t Mess With Texas” bumper sticker on my car. I thought it was an amusing slogan (it’s about keeping Texas litter-free), but evidently my fellow San Franciscans didn’t find it amusing and it was peeled off and ripped up while my car was parked on a city street. More recently I read a San Francisco man’s online blog in which he described how his car was vandalized when he parked in a rural area to go on a hike; he had an anti-George Bush bumper sticker on his car. I actually took the time to write to this guy, to condemn this act of vandalism, and to offer sympathy. I said, “I don't know what's happening to free speech in this country. I'd like to put a McCain bumper sticker on my car, but I’m afraid my car would be vandalized here in San Francisco.” His response was that if I had the nerve to display any conservative bumper sticker, I deserved to have my car vandalized. During the last few weeks of the presidential campaign, I taped a McCain/Palin bumper sticker onto the inside of my car window when I was driving and faithfully took it off the window and hid it in the glove compartment whenever I parked the car. Isn’t it wonderful to live in a place so accepting of diversity?

When people learned that I volunteer for an organization called “Soldiers’ Angels”, writing letters of support and sending care packages to our troops, they reacted as if they’d learned that I was doing something illegal or immoral. When I introduced people to a dear friend of mine, a police officer from France who was visiting me and who because of his job, cannot divulge that he is gay, friends criticized him and questioned why I would want to associate with someone who was so closeted and was, in their words, “too straight-acting.”

At work, people made comments about how anyone who could like Sarah Palin must be a “moron” and someone made a reference to “those pigs who would vote for McCain.” I felt the tension rise, my heartbeat raced. Do I tell them? Do I come out and let them know that they are talking about me? And because I am now almost 50 rather than 20, I did calmly and politely explain that, "I must then be a moron or a pig." When the gist of what I’d said had sunk in, I was met with the kind of disbelief and shock that I used to see when I told some people I was gay. One person noticeably stepped back and away from me as if I had some communicable disease. I can’t even recount all of the names I have been called in the rare situations in which I’ve actually tried to discuss my political views regarding the election and the candidates, but selfish, uninformed, myopic, and racist are a few that come easily to mind. As I search the on-line profiles of gay men in the Bay Area, all too often I see things prominently displayed in their profiles such as, “I don’t date Republicans” or “I’m open to various political ideas but don’t you dare bring Bill O’Reilly into my house.

And so, just as I learned to hide my homosexuality from a disapproving world, I again have had to return to the closet and conceal my political viewpoints. I don’t even know how to go about finding other, like-minded gay people. The San Francisco chapter of the Log Cabin Gay Republican group appears to have gone out of business, and when I have dared to advertise in my online profile that I am politically conservative in hopes of attracting someone else who might be as well, I receive nasty e-mails from those who read it. There have been many lonely times when I think to myself, “I wish I could just go back to being a liberal. If only I could just agree with the people around me, it would make my life so much easier and I could fit in again.” But I can’t just go along with political positions that I really feel are wrong, any more than I could just change and be straight. So I wonder why life has sent me this second daunting challenge: to be gay in a straight world, and to have conservative viewpoints in an increasingly liberal world, which in turn makes being gay even more difficult. What is the lesson I am to learn from this?

In a bizarre parallel to the days in which I lived in the closet and tried to carefully determine if someone I met might be gay, I find that conservatives here in the Bay Area engage in similar, furtive rituals. As I'm talking to someone I don't know well, one or the other of us might tentatively toss out the fact that, "I listen to a lot of talk radio." With a quickened pulse, tensed muscles, and breaking out into a sweat, the other casually asks, “Oh yeah? Who do you listen to?” Literally looking from side to side to see if anyone else is around, the other drops his or her voice to a near whisper and offers, “I really like Glenn Beck.” In the same way that hearing how someone went to Provincetown last summer gives away their sexual orientation, the admission that one listens to Glenn Beck or Laura Schlessinger opens the door to the fact that someone has more conservative political views, and a connection can be established. But still, at work, in cafes, on a busy street, people with political views that conflict with the norm here are careful, self-conscious, and terrified that someone might hear them and “out” them. What an irony in what is supposed to be the most tolerant city on earth.

But maybe there’s hope that one day, just as society has grown increasingly accepting of and comfortable with gay or lesbian people, perhaps the liberal place where I live or the overwhelmingly liberal gay community itself can come to grips with the reality that not everyone subscribes to the same world view. Even more importantly, they need to realize that the name-calling, bullying and outright hatred and prejudice that they level at political conservatives, religious people, or “middle America” is every bit as unfair and wrong as homophobia, racism, or sexism. The other night I was in a national online chat room. I actually had conversations with three other gay men from various parts of the nation who admitted that they had not voted for Barack Obama. One of them actually prefaced this confession with, “Please don’t hate me, but...” Another said that I was the first person he’d actually been able to tell this to since the night of the election. How sad is that?

The closet is a place where no one should have to live, for any reason: whether it’s because they are gay or because they don’t agree with a particular political agenda. And this should especially be true in a city or a state or a country that strives to be accepting of diversity and to value the right to free speech and freedom of thought. Being gay is just one facet of who I am, but I want and expect the same rights and respect that anyone else in our society is given. Likewise, being more politically conservative is just a part of what makes me who I am. I want and expect the same right to express my opinions and to be treated with respect by people who, because of their own experiences or because of their education or because of their sincere desire for social justice for all, should know better.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Matt's Travelog: Around the Pacific Rim, 2003

Adios, G'Day, Au Revoir, Arrivederci

Hello All, (or should I say, "Goodbye, All!"?)
It is Thursday night, February 20, 2003 and in about 24 hours I will be heading west for Thailand... the first stop in what will be a 5 month long adventure that will take me around the world. (Though my roommate Bernie says I'm cheating because I am not completely circling the planet! C'mon - give me a break here! I just really didn't think it'd be fun to fly over Iraq or Afghanistan to get to Europe, so I am taking the long way back via California!) For those of you I haven't talked with in awhile, I am on a sabbatical this spring and decided to make the most of it by doing even MORE traveling than usual. I will spend the next 6 weeks traveling through Thailand, Bali, Australia, New Zealand, and Tahiti. I am home for - at the most - 10 days in April and then I leave for a month in Italy (where I will be doing a research study involving how the residents who live near Mt. Etna and Mt. Vesuvius perceive their risk from volcanic hazards). After Italy, I will join a group from my university for 10 days in the Greek Isles (Santorini, Crete, and Mykonos), and then another 3 weeks at a Dominican seminar/retreat in France and touring the country. And if there is any credit left on my Visa cards, I must then head immediately to Hawaii to present a paper at a conference in mid-July! It's going to be a real adventure...

I have been making arrangements for all this traveling for almost 6 months now, and I have decided that I am going to need to stop reading tour books about locations I am traveling to. As if I am not nervous enough about terrorism and the too many to count plane flights I will be taking, the tour books have insured that I will not be able to rest easy in any of the exotic locales I am visiting!

1) In Bali, there were warnings about driving... "If you are in an accident, no matter who is at fault, you will be regarded as the cause of the accident since YOU are the visitor. If you hadn't come to their island, there would not have BEEN an accident". "Locals have been known to rough up foreign tourists involved in accidents and the police tend to ignore the situation". OK, so I'm hiring a driver to guide me around the country while I am there...

2) In Australia, anyone who watches the Travel or Discovery Channels knows that there are of course poisonous snakes and spiders everywhere, but in my guidebooks I read with horror about the box jellyfish (known as "stingers") that roam the coast from October to June. If stung badly enough, one stops breathing in about two minutes and death usually follows. OK, so I know to swim at beaches that offer "stinger nets" to keep the nasty things out! But it's not safe to walk in the rainforests either... there are "killer cassowaries" - huge ostrich-like birds that have been known to kill tourists with their huge claws. If you come upon one in the rain forest, the guidebooks say to "back away slowly and don't upset the animal". OK, I won't tell them how much I loved those ostrich steaks I have eaten in the past... There are also supposed to be a couple of plants that if brushed up against, will cause excruciating pain due to a toxin on their leaves. OK, long pants despite the 90 degree heat...

3) In Tahiti and Thailand there are said to be "deadly cone shells" that if stepped on, will send a possibly lethal dose of poison into the bloodstream. Ok, so I wear my sandals at ALL times...

4) And let's not forget that while in Thailand and Bali I will be taking medication to prevent malaria, while covering myself in strong pesticides to avoid the mosquitoes that carry both malaria and the unpreventable dengue fever. Oh yes, and of course if I am unlucky enough to get sick, the guidebooks simultaneously recommend that I drink as much water as possible to keep from getting dehydrated, but to be sure to only drink bottled water to prevent getting sick. Ou est l'Evian?

But I am brave... I am a seasoned traveler; I have watched all five seasons of "Survivor" - I know how to outplay, outwit and outlast! I'm sure that when all is said and done I will have a lot of exciting adventures to share, and hopefully some beautiful photos too.I hope to regularly get to Internet cafes to send out updates as I travel. OK, wish me well and please feel free to write to me anytime. It does get lonely out there when traveling and it's always great to hear from friends and family. Take care of yourselves and stay in touch!

Monkeys and Elephants and Sea Gypsies, Oh My!

Sawadee Krap... 2/25/03

That's hello from a male person in Thai. I am very bewildered by the fact that in the Thai language, men must end sentences with KRAP and women with KA. I am familiar with words being masculine or feminine in other languages, but it truly seems odd in face to face speech to have to say, "Hello (I am a man)", "Thank you (I am a man"... Oh well, when inThailand, speak as the Thais do...

I have been here only 3 full days and it feels much longer - in a good way. The heat is oppressive... it was close to 100 degrees today and the sun is scorching. The ocean really provides only slight relief, as the water temperature MUST be close to 85 or 90 degrees. The best thing I did in planning this trip was choosing accommodations with AIR CONDITIONING. It has truly saved my life.
I have done so much in a short time. On Monday I went to a Buddhist temple built inside an enormous cave... bats sat quietly on the ceiling of the cave and monks sat cross legged in prayer (praying that the bats would miss them perhaps...). Outside were dozens of monkeys and dozens of vendors selling "Fruit for the monkey! Peanut for the monkey!" The monkeys come right to you, take peanuts from your hand and gobble them up. One monkey that I met kept pawing through the peanuts in my hand and not taking any, looking at me as if to say, "Don't you have any macadamia nuts? Or some Junior Mints?" They were very sweet, and occasionally they'd appear in the trees above your head and try to snatch your cap.

On to the elephant trek, where for over an hour I rode atop a 60 year old female elephant through the jungle. The driver sits bareback on the elephant's head and neck, while I sat in a chair on its back. It was amazingly slow, because these creatures stop whenever and wherever they want. Mine seemed to enjoy large boulders for scratching herself as I clung to my seat and laughed uncontrollably. They also burp and fart a LOT, which also made the ride interesting.
It was so nice to be able to go riding on an animal that could carry me. I was traumatized at age 12 when my mother took me on our annual trek to a park in Providence that had pony rides, and as my turn came to saddle up, I was told, "Sorry - you're too big to ride ponies." Years later my desire to ride a donkey down the Grand Canyon trails was dashed when I learned that I was 10 pounds over the maximum weight limit. Well, my dear elephant friend carried me with no complaints... the healing of those old psychological wounds may have begun.

I also took a tour of some amazing offshore islands by sea canoe and motorized Thai longboats. One of the highlights was a stop at a Muslim Sea Gypsy village, set in the middle of nowhere beside an amazing island, and built entirely on stilts over the water. A Venice of the Pacific! Well, there was no San Marco Square... but it WAS indeed interesting. The poverty there was amazing, and yet the people there (and everywhere in Thailand that I have seen so far) seem so serene and content. Maybe we could take a lesson from their example.

Last night I stayed on a place called Phi Phi (pronounced PEE PEE) Island, a beautiful green island rising from amazing turquoise waters. I stayed at the far end of the beach and it was idyllic. As beautiful as it was, I have a feeling that it can't even compare to what I will see in Tahiti. This morning I hiked to a lookout point at 9AM and the sun and heat almost killed me. I went back to the hotel and rested in air conditioned silence for a couple hours to recover - then treated myself to my first Thai massage... an hour for $6.50. It was at times painful and felt like acupressure, but I felt a whole lot better afterward.

And now I have one more day in the south before I head for infamous Bangkok Friday evening. I heard stories from people today of how their children suffered instant asthma attacks as soon as they got outside because of the amazing pollution. I have to say that is my biggest disappointment about Thailand... the trash on the beaches and on the roads makes me truly sad. Of course the tourists contribute. I wanted to strangle a German woman who repeatedly smoked cigarettes and threw each butt into the waters of the protected mangrove we were touring. Many Germans are vacationing here, and many Swedes too. I also met an Italian couple today and have talked to French and Finnish and British and Australians here too. If you are a non-English speaking European, it must be very hard to get by here. I have trouble understanding the Thais' heavily accented English; a German with a thick accent trying to order in English gets nowhere fast!

OK, I think it's time to catch a tuk-tuk (motorized motorcycle with side-car that is used as a taxi) back to my hotel. Just had a 3 course Thai meal for $5.00. Prices are so cheap and though I know that you are supposed to bargain and haggle over prices here, everything seems so cheap I don't feel like I NEED to bargain! OK, I did get $2.50 off my t-shirt at the sea gypsy village... but otherwise, I just pay the price if I want the food or service or item badly enough.
Thinking of you all and hoping you're all doing well, whatever you're doing.

From Bangkok to Bali

It is now Monday night, March 2 and I am in Ubud, Bali. What an adventure the last few days have been. When I last wrote, I was getting ready for the trip to Bangkok. First I have to say a few more things about Thailand. I have always loved seeing typos on Asian menus, but what laughs I have had reading English language signs in Thailand. One restaurant sign proudly stated, "We serve SANDWISHES" But the best was at a national park area where the sign at the entrance said, "If you enter, please be clean". They MEANT, "don't litter", but I thought I should find a shower before I could come in.

Another thing that amazed me again was the willingness of people to go out of the way to help. Imagine this... I have a rental car reservation with Budget. To get the car would have meant traveling to an airport 30 miles away by taxi, and then driving back... and this was in the middle of the day so I would not have been able to make any plans for the day. Never fear - Budget had the car delivered directly to my hotel at whatever time I wanted it. THREE employees came and filled out all the contracts with me. They then painstakingly showed me everything about the car and how to run the radio and air conditioner... they were SO sweet! And the cost for this special treatment - NOTHING. Free. Imagine this happening in the U.S. or Europe!

I hated to leave southern Thailand and its beaches. My last morning I took a swim and suddenly heard a strange fluttering sound... at least 100 flying fish swarmed past me, skimming across the water like a flock of birds... so wonderful! Other memorable moments - sitting in a small lunch place facing the water and hearing them play the BeeGees song, "Massachusetts". It is a small world. People may literally be living in tin shacks with no windows, and yet almost every one has its ornately carved and painted Buddhist Spirit House out front. Some of you have asked about food... I had some very delicious meals - a Tom Ka Gai (Chicken coconut soup) served inside a hollowed out fresh coconut was very memorable... but overall I would say the food I had was just average. Cheap though - a 4 course meal can be had for $5 easily. One of my favorites was the fresh fruit shakes... fresh fruit juice blended with crushed ice... so refreshing on those 95 - 100 degree days!

And then I flew to Bangkok... immediately my cab driver tried to cheat me by requesting a "fixed price" to my hotel, which I knew was WAY too high. I had to insist 3 times that he turn on the meter in the cab and he finally, grudgingly complied. Saved myself about $5... the ride is only $7 from the airport by cab. I stayed at a very nice place on the river in Bangkok, with a river view. The Hotel Shangri la was supposed to be a 5 star hotel and has been rated as one of the top 10 hotels in the world! It was very nice, but honestly I can't say it truly amazed me. But the staff were very cordial and helpful, and it was a comfortable haven in a chaotic Bangkok.

Walking the streets of Bangkok is exhausting. People are selling EVERYTHING you can possibly imagine... huge pots of boiling stews, grills cooking chicken and beef satay, fried grasshoppers, silk scarves, shoes, jewelry, - a million and one things that I can't even name as I am not sure what they were! People approach you trying to sell you massages, taxi rides, and "young girls or young boys". Scary. There is little room to walk, people crowd the streets and stop constantly to look at things, the sidewalks are up and down and broken, and even at 1O PM it's a humid 95 degrees! In addition to all of this, there is a very, very dirty river that is used for a lot of water bus and taxi transportation - like Venice, but Venice's canals are a LOT cleaner.

Despite all this, I can't say I disliked Bangkok. I had an absolutely amazing 5 course Vietnamese dinner, I bought some very cool souvenirs, and I saw the unbelievably colorful temples and palace. I am glad I saw it, but I as I caught my cab to the airport I was dreaming of a quiet and serene place to escape to after the craziness of Bangkok.

Had good flights from Bangkok to Bali by way of Singapore. What a beautiful airport they have there and everyone seemed to speak perfect English. I arrived on Bali at 9PM and thankfully I was to be met by a driver sent from my hotel... walking out of baggage claim you are assaulted by dozens of desperate men wanting to carry your luggage and drive you somewhere - anywhere. "Hey boss, where you want to go?" My driver was there and took me on the hour long trip to my hotel. I already have reserved a guide, but my driver tried hard to persuade me that he could be a guide for me too. I felt so bad for him, and yet I had to keep telling him, "I am sorry but I have someone already".
We arrived at the hotel and I was simply speechless when I saw it... it is a large walled compound containing its own temple and several bungalows. My room was on a second floor with private balcony overlooking a beautiful pool with fountains and gardens. Hindu statues are everywhere and the doors to me room are intricately carved wood. A king size bed surrounded by mosquito netting was in the main room, and the whole place is pretty much open air. The shower is in a bathroom but there is no real ceiling in that room - just beautiful trees and flowers. I just couldn't believe how beautiful it was. I fell asleep to the sound of exotic birds outside the windows and a cool breeze blowing in.

I need to go soon - the internet cafe is about to close, but I spent my day getting a wonderful massage treatment where I was rubbed down with herbs, spices, rice, and yogurt... and then put into a warm bath filled with exotic flowers! I felt like a king. My guide for the next few days came to the hotel to meet me and tell me what he was proposing for our trips around the island. His name is Anwar and he is Muslim (only 5% of the population here is) but his father is Muslim and his mother is Hindu. He speaks English very well, and was funny and charming and I think he will be a good companion. Meanwhile, people at the hotel did all my laundry for $5 and Anwar took my only pair of long pants to be mended for me - the stitching had come out of the zipper. Again, people's willingness to help is touching, but it also reflects their desperation for luring tourists back to Bali after the bombing last October. Several people today thanked me so emotionally for coming to Bali. They survived almost exclusively on tourism and the flow of tourists has become a trickle. It is a very sad situation.

OK, I am being thrown out of the cafe... time to close. I am sure I will have a lot to say about Bali after the next few days. I have never been to a place so truly exotic.
Thanks to everyone who's been writing.

Temples, Butterflies and So Much Rice

Hello again -
It's now Tuesday night here in Bali (March 3) and I am at the same internet cafe as last night - and I have an hour before closing! I think I had just left off talking about my amazing arrival on Bali at 10PM on Sunday night. Monday morning I awoke to the sounds of birds and the fountain in the pool outside my window, and shortly thereafter the hotel staff brought my breakfast to my veranda. Fresh fruits, French Toast and mango-lime juice. Soon afterward, my guide for the following 4 days, Anwar arrived to meet me and discuss our plans for the next few days. I instantly liked him; very warm and with a good sense of humor, and his English was excellent. He is married and has a 14 month old daughter and has been working in the travel business for 10 years (he is 30 now). He is part of the 5% of Bali's population that is Muslim... his father is Muslim and his mother, Hindu. We spent about an hour discussing plans and then he left (taking my pants which needed mending along with him to be fixed).

I then decided to walk about 1 mile to the Monkey Forest Sanctuary - a temple area where dozens - if not hundreds - of monkeys roam free. Outside the entrance, women pleaded with me to buy "banana for the monkey", which I did... for maybe 30 cents for an entire bunch. The currency here, the Indonesian Rupiah, is valued at about 9,000 per every U.S. Dollar. So you are charged admissions of 2,000 Rupiah, or have dinners that cost 35,000 Rupiah and think you have spent a fortune until you realize that 2,000 Rupiah is 25 cents, or 35,000 is $3.50!
Small gray monkeys were everywhere in the shady sanctuary, and some are very aggressive - as soon as they see your bananas, it's all over - they swarm around you - and unfortunately the little buggers are smart: putting the bananas back into your backpack does NOT fool them... they will try to jump and climb on your leg to get to the food. One big guy was very aggressive and after stomping my foot and screaming "NO!" several times, to no avail, I tried "TIDAK! which is Indonesian for "No", and that seemed to do the trick. It is so interesting to me that my friend Christian's dog in Italy understands Italian, and Indonesian monkeys understand Indonesian! Wow! :)

At the market place near the temple I found myself a sarong to wear to the temples I will visit. Anwar said that to wear the sarong and a headband would show respect, which many tourists do not do when they enter temples in shorts and tank tops. I got an orange (of course!) and brown sarong with a very Balinese design and a yellow headband - yellow is a sacred color to the Hindus. Anwar said I had made good choices, and today I had compliments from a few Balinese women, so I guess I did well.

After the monkey forest I had a nice peaceful lunch in a small place where you eat in outdoors in covered huts... and soon it started to thunder and rain very hard. I stayed as long as possible, but finally needed to leave and of course, silly me, I did not pack an umbrella! I got quite soaked but it was a warm rain and it felt refreshing. After a hot shower I was treated to my complimentary massage and spa treatment. A woman came to my room and set up a long cushioned place for me to lie on the floor. She proceeded to give me a wonderful massage for almost an hour; then she painted me with a thick paste that contained many herbs and spices and even rice... she let it dry on my body and then massaged again and it acted like a skin scrub... it felt great! Then I was covered head to toe in a yogurt polish! Good enough to eat! Finally she had me shower off and then she'd prepared my large tub with a warm bath filled with flowers of every color: bougainvillea, plumeria, hibiscus... it felt so decadent. What a wonderful way to finish my afternoon.

At around 5PM I called a man named Putu, who had served my friend LeeAnn as a guide when she was on Bali. He came and met me for a cold drink and then offered to take me on a ride through the countryside on his motorbike... I was amazed by his skill at balancing us on the small and winding roads. We saw the nightly migration of white herons into the trees surrounding a small village, and then he brought me to a master woodcarving shop owned by an uncle. The carved wood masks and statues were beautiful but a bit expensive, but there was quite a bit of pressure to buy something. Putu's uncle showed me a piece of carved sculpture and said that it takes one person perhaps 3 months to do something of this size - larger pieces can take 8 months! The detail of the work was really astounding.

He also told me how difficult it was since the bombings last October - people simply are not coming to Bali and for these artisans, this is their only livelihood. He also talked about how grateful they are that I came to visit Bali and begged me to encourage others to come. It is a very sad situation here. So of course I finally gave in and did do a little bargaining and got a beautiful natural wood carving of the Rice Goddess. Putu would take no money from me for showing me some sights, but I finally convinced him to let me take him to dinner, and he seemed to enjoy that a lot. So it was a nice evening and was fun to have some company.

Today I set out with Anwar at 8:30 in a big air-conditioned Toyota jeep. We visited two beautiful temples and I learned a lot about Hindu beliefs. They have a trinity of 3 gods... Vishnu the Creator, Brahma the Protector, and Seawa the Destroyer. Many temple statues and shrines are "dressed" in black and white cloth and this is to symbolize the good and bad in everything. Also yellow scarves are tied around them to indicate the sacred. As we walked through one lakeside temple, I heard a chorus of men's voices... it was coming from a nearby mosque, and Anwar commented that the two religions seem to be able to exist in harmony on Bali. If only this were true around the world.

We made many stops at local vendors - one fruit stand cut open a sample of every tropical fruit to let me taste them - mangosteens, rambutans, you name it! They filled a bag full of the fruits and the cost - 25 cents! We also got roasted corn and peanuts, and then stopped at a wonderful coffee plantation for jaffles (bread, filled with cheese, eggs and tomatoes and pressed in a grill... and some freshly ground Balinese coffee which was out of this world. the pleasant manager showed me in detail the entire process of harvesting and preparing the beans and it was quite interesting. On a short hike, we stopped to admire some flowers and the old woman living on the land there invited us into the yard and painstakingly explained each and every flower variety (in Indonesian).

We visited a huge waterfall where there were not even a handful of tourists, and we stopped many times along the way to get pictures of Bali's beautiful rice terraces and the workers who harvest the rice and plant it. Children going past us would all giggle and in unison chant, "Hello Mister, how are you? Welcome!" Driving remote back roads you pass villages where woman carry huge bowls of food offerings, dirty clothes, plants, etc. balanced perfectly on their heads; people are taking baths in creeks beside the road, boys are carrying roosters in cages to the cock fighting matches, and people sit together on steps and wave and smile as we drive through. It feels so much like the Third World; like something from a National Geographic special. And still, here I am in an internet cafe... certainly a mix of the modern and the primitive.

Anwar talked during the day about his life and the hardship he is under trying to feed his family. If he can make the equivalent of $60 per month, he and his wife and baby have food. His YEARLY rent is $300 and he almost lost their place in December because he didn't have the money - no tourists had come and used him as a guide since October. Evidently the woman who had recommended him to me as a guide actually sent him some money to help pay the rent and he got very teary-eyed and emotional talking about how she had saved his life, and how happy his wife was when she heard he had me as a customer for 4 days. (His fee for a full day of service as driver and guide is $6.25!!!)

We drove to the north coast to a town called Lovina where I plan to stay on Wednesday and Thursday. We found a charming hotel with little individual villas, air conditioned, king sized beds, pool, beautiful landscaping...the usual price was $75 a night for the most deluxe villa, but their "special rate" (partly because of Anwar being my guide and partly due to their economic hardship) for me was $35 a night INCLUDING breakfast. For $8 more they take me on a sunset sail for 2 hours to see dolphins. As cute as this hotel was, I was not impressed by Lovina itself and the beach was a huge disappointment- very brown water that does not look appealing to swim in. So I asked Anwar to change our plan - I will spend one night at Lovina, and the return to my wonderful hotel in Ubud for my last night on Bali. I was so grateful to him for letting me see this area before committing to two days there; it worked out very well.

Tonight Ubud has had a spectacular thunder and lightning storm, and some heavy rain, but it all quieted down tonight. I had a specially prepared free dinner from my hotel - smoked duck with many interesting Indonesian dishes on the side. Now I will walk back to the hotel and have a late night swim in the gorgeous pool. Tomorrow Anwar will first take me to see some traditional Balinese dance, and then a trip to a shop where batik clothing is made. Then he will take me up to Mt. Batur, the active volcano that last erupted in 1997. There is evidently a HUGE caldera and inside of that another smaller cone where smokes pours out. There are supposed to be hot springs that we can bathe in there, so it should be a great day.
Ok, I guess I have gone on long enough for this installment.
Wish you could all experience what I have seen and done here...

From Mean Monkeys to Cuddly Koalas

G'Day Mates! It is late on Monday night March 10 here in Australia and hopefully I can continue my travelogue a bit tonight.I left off on day 2 or 3 on Bali, so will pick up there and see how far I get tonight. On my third full day on Bali, I reluctantly checked out of my wonderful guesthouse in Ubud, but told myguide, Anwar that I wanted to spend only 1 night on the north coast at Lovina, and then return to Ubud andthis hotel for my final night on Bali, and that was fine with him.
We started the day attending a traditional Balinese Barong Dance... it is a story of good vs. evil and the Barong or Protector god is challenged by evil, and thankfully always wins. The music was wonderful, the costumes fantastic, and it was an enjoyable hour long event. From there we went to a place to see how batik cloth is made by hand. After an interesting demonstration ofhow they draw designs on the cloth with various colors of hot wax, I was then ushered into the store for somehard-line attempts to get me to buy stuff. The same happened at the woodcarving place where Putu had taken me and I ended up buying a beautiful, but expensive piece I hadn't banked on. I was more firm at theBatik store, and managed to get out with an $8 batik painting reminiscent of the Bali landscape. I told Anwar later that if the salespeople would just leave me alone to shop, I might be more willing to buy – but the hovering and pressure is really annoying. If you so much as look in the direction of something, salespeople converge and start unrolling and unraveling dozens of garments for you to look at. So instead of casually browsing and maybe finding something I really like, the high-pressure tactics make me want to run from the place immediately.
We drove up to the volcano, Mt. Batur... an amazing huge volcanic caldera dozens of miles across, and inside it, another taller volcanic cone. Ate at a restaurant there and I truly felt like a celebrity... we pull up, the restaurant staff come to open your door, and from all directions people SWARM around you trying to get you to buy their wares. It is really overwhelming. Then took a dip in the hot springs in the area (I love volcanoes!) and headed down the backside of Bali to the northern coast. I spent the night in a charming little hotel there, though overall the town of Lovina was not that appealing. Bright and early Thursday I had to report to the beach (6AM) to go on a dolphin sighting trip in a smalloutrigger canoe with just 3 passengers and a driver. Seeing the sunrise from sea was nice, and we must have seen at least 30 dolphins during the 90 minute trip. Anwar then met me at the hotel and took me to his village of Sawan in the hills above Lovina. I got to visit his family home and met his father who is at home and not working and his mother who runs a satay restaurant in the village. Also met a couple of his brothers who worked in the travel industry until the bombing in Kuta and are now jobless.
The poverty is again profound. In the home, Anwar's younger brother proudly showed me his race track... his father had built itout of scraps of cardboard and plastic and it seemed that he just pushes miniature cars around on the trackmanually. He was thrilled with it and I wish American kids could see how people elsewhere live, and the simple things that make them happy. Neither of his parents spoke any English, but we managed to converse with smiles and my very small Indonesian vocabulary. The mother made me satay and rice and refused to take a dime... Anwar asked me please not to insist on trying to pay, so I stopped my protests.
More temples... one particularly gloomy place was located in front of the entrance to a cave inhabitedby HUNDREDS of bats, while in the parking area very aggressive children tried to peddle beads and would not leave me alone for a second. We stopped at a butterfly reserve in which you walk through beautiful gardens enclosed in huge nets and watch hundreds of butterflies of various colors and sizes go from one brightly colored flower to the next. And we saw many more of Bali's famous and stunningly beautiful rice paddies terracing down the hillsides. The people working in the fields work so hard - each rice plant must be planted by hand, one at a time, in a watery paddy and in the hot sun. Others carry huge baskets ofrice that's been harvested on their heads. And yet everyone smiles and seems content, and many took time to pose for a picture for me.
We also stopped at a beach in east Bali called Candidasa where I got to swim in a very warm Bali Sea and then we both got foot massages from a local... $3 for half an hour! Prices for things are amazing... admissions to parks run 25 cents to maybe $1.00. In small local restaurants you can have a whole meal for 75 cents. If you want a truly gourmet style dessert or appetizer in a fancy restaurant, they run about $1.50. Using the internet cafe for 1 and 1/2 hours cost $1.25 ($12 an hour in the U.S.!)
Got back to my beloved Ubud hotel in late afternoon and took a long walk around town. I have never used my mosquito repellent spray - I think I have seen maybe 3 mosquitoes during the entire stay in Bali - far less than I usually have in my bedroom when I stay with my Aunt Helena and Uncle Harry in Massachusetts in the summers! I also have had absolutely no trouble with my stomach during the entire trip so far. I have been careful to drink only bottled water, but it's easy to forget that you shouldn't rinse your toothbrush in the faucet!
Had a fantastic dinner in the hotel's restaurant and then went for my last swim in the pool. Everyone seemed to be in bed by 10PM so I had the place to myself and was astounded by the noises coming from thesurrounding forests and fields. Crickets by the hundreds, frogs by the dozens, and a huge and loud gecko lizards (3 times the size of those in Hawaii and with much deeper voices!) created a chorus that made me laugh out loud because it was SO loud. Some sounds I couldn't even identify - but they sounded eerily like the noises that the cannibal plants made in a "Lost in Space" episode in which Judy Robinson was nearly consumed by a giant cyclamen! (You can take the boy away from his television, but you can't take the television out of the boy!)
My last day on Bali was slow and restful. Anwar didn't pick me up till almost noon, and decided to visit thebeach at the resort city of Kuta, and then we went to two seaside temples on the western and southern areas of the island. The terrorist bomb blast in October was accomplished using what must have been a HUGE car-bomb. The bar where so many people died was totally demolished, as was a big building across the street, while several nearby buildings are still under repair. Most of the casulaties were Australians, but Anwar lost a friend from his ow village. Kuta seemed quieter than I expected, and partly this is because people are afraid to go to Bali and hotel occupancies are about 12% of normal. It is the last place you'd ever expect something like this to happen, but then, so was New York...
We finished the day with a visit to the temple of Ulu Watu, a magnificent place built on cliffs over the sea. It is unfortunately inhabited by a large group of monkeys who were more aggressive than any I have ever encountered. Anwar told me to take off my glasses and put on my contact lenses and I thought he was being silly, but we witnessed countless incidents of monkeys coming out of nowhere, landing on people's heads and shoulders, and fleeing with cameras, glasses, hats and jewelry! They were, as my French friend Gilles would say, "A bunch of brats"; in fact Anwar began calling them "monkey brats"! At sunset we saw a dance held on the cliff top; it is called a Kecak Dance, and there are no musical instruments... only a group of men chanting as the dance and action of the play (a sort-of Romeo andJuliet tale about a couple named Rama and Sita). The stage area was swarming with enormous, colorful dragonflies, and the setting sun made for a beautiful backdrop. In the final act, a monkey spirit character is burned in a circle... and they actually create a huge ring of fire around him fueled by dry brush. Barefoot, the man playing the monkey spirit stomps out all the flames and escapes... it was amazingly dramatic. What a wonderful way to end my stay in Bali!
Finally, Anwar brought me to the village of Jimbaran for a seafood dinner on the beach. There was a musical group performing on the sand, and to my amazement, the last 3 songs they played before I had to leave to go to the airport were: "Leaving on a Jet Plane", "Hotel California", and most remarkably, "Down Under"! What are the odds?!
I said a hasty farewell to Anwar, who seems now much more like a friend than my tour guide, and then got checked in for my flight to Australia and went through immigration with ease. At 10:15 PM we departed, and 6 hours later (with only 2 hours of sleep) I arrived in Melbourne.
I immediately picked up my rental car at the airport and headed west out the Great Ocean Road (very similar to Highway 1 on the California Coast). I knew I had a long trip ahead of me, as I needed to get as close as possible to the ferry port from which I was taking a 9AM boat to Kangaroo Island the following day. But it was much longer than expected... and of course I'd had only 2 hours sleep! I actually had to pull into a parking area along the beach and nap for 90 minutes just to keep going! After 12 hours of driving and almost 700 miles later, I was banging on hotel room doors at 11PM looking for a vacancy. I passed through literally 100 miles where there were NO towns at all... truly the "outback". I finally found a Best Western and happily crawled into bed.
And so on Sunday morning I drove onto a ferry at 9AM and arrived on Kangaroo Island an hour later (it's just south of the city of Adelaide). Got checked in at my hotel and immediately began exploring. After seeing several wild koalas clinging to eucalyptus tree branches, I went to an attraction called "Paul's Place". Paul is a farmer with a personality not unlike the Crocodile Hunter on "Animal Planet". He took children from the group visiting the farm and tossed them many feet into huge bales of lamb's wool, where they landed unhurt but dumbfounded. He'd bring out pythons and drape them around screaming women's necks... I got to hold the pyhton too for a bit - very heavy and starting to get a nice grip on my neck... "Oh, Paul... could you take him away now please?"
I got to hold and bottle feed a kangaroo, hold a sleepy koala bear, hand-feed sheep and emu and kangaroo. The nastiest were the sheep - they jumped up on me almost knocking me over and sticking their heads into the food bucket! The emus by contrast, may be 6 feet high and look like ostriches, but they were very calm and polite! Except when Paul stood me against a fence, poured seed on my head and hollered a couple of names... giant emus came up on the other side of the fence and pecked it off my head, occasionally taking tufts of hair too I think! It was really fun and I should have some great pictures from the whole thing.
OK, well that ALMOST brings you up to date now. Last night I took a "Fairy Penguin tour". No, we aren't talking about gay penguins! They are adorable and very small, one foot tall penguins that come in from the sea at night. Today I swam at cold but beautiful beaches, took a tour of a beach at which we got within 10 feet of dozens of seals, saw a few kangaroos hopping across the road, and then viewed bigger fur seals from a distance as they battled one another on sea and land, while barking viciously at one another. There are times when you don't pass another car for over an hour... delightfully quiet and uncrowded here.
Oh yes! Before I close I have to tell you about the night sky here south of the equator! Everything is BACKWARD! The new moon is opposite to what we see in the north -
the crescent open on the right instead of the left. The Milky Way is unbelievably bright here, and the constellation of the Southern Cross is dazzling in the southern sky. Last night I noticed the constellation of Orion, the hunter, but it looked funny - and then I realized why - he is upside-down from down here! His sword hangs UP instead of down from his belt! SO bizarre!
Also, I am finding prices very expensive. A fill up with gas is $50 Australian (about $32 American). Even though I know that our dollar is much stronger, the Australian dollars in my wallet sure go fast - postcards a dollar each, dinner easily $20, bottled water $2... I have spent close to $300 Australian in just 2 days! Ouch! I return the car in Melbourne on Tuesday so for both Melbourne and Sydney I will not have a car and that will cut out the huge gas spending at least! OK, guess this is long enough for now, eh? Hope all is well wherever you are when you're reading this, and again thanks for all the individual e-mails to me. It means a lot.

Those Wild Aussies!

Hello Everyone,

It is Sunday, March 16 and this marks the exact half-way point in my trip. Three weeks down and 3 to go. Is the glass half empty or half full? It is a warm and occasionally showery Sunday here in Sydney, and between the rain and a huge traffic snarl because of the St. Patrick's Day Parade here, I decided to duck into a cool, dry Internet cafe and write. I am really enjoying Sydney... it is one of those cities, like San Francisco, Paris, Rome, Venice... that just captures you. Exciting, beautiful, great cuisine, and fantastic beaches and surrounding countryside.

But let me not skip ahead too much... last time I wrote I was on Kangaroo Island, having cuddled the koala, fed the kangaroos, and had emu eating seeds from atop my head! I also went to see the tiny fairy penguins that roost along the shores of the island each night. The following day I did a lot more sightseeing around the island, and the highlight was a guided tour of Seal Bay. A ranger took me and only 2 other people on a walk across a beach that is a major home for seals. There were probably 100 seals lounging on the sand, body surfing on the waves, and arguing with one another regarding who owns which stretch of sand. I probably got as close as 15 feet from some of them, so it was a wonderful experience and I hope I got some great pictures that day. (By the way, I developed my previous rolls of film and have wonderful shots of me and all the animals at Paul's Place, as well as some great shots of Bali).

After Seal Bay, I explored many of the coves and beaches on the south coast of the island, and then ended up at Admiral's Arch. Within a national park, this place is situated on cliffs at the southwest corner of the island, and is a home to the somewhat larger New Zealand fur seals. You could hear them barking at one another from a mile away, and descending a long staircase down the cliff side, you can watch them leaping off rocks and into the pleasant cover below. AT the end of the stairs is the dramatic Arch. the ceiling of which is "dripping" with stalagmites (or is it stalactites?). The sun was getting low in the sky and was making wonderful patterns of light on the water and best of all, I was the last person there, so got to sit and watch the seals for a good hour in quiet and solitude.

As I started the long ride back to the main town, I was going down a dirt road at a relatively low speed (thank God) when out of nowhere a very large kangaroo cam bounding out from my left directly in front of the car. There was no time at ALL to stop and I hit it. He bounced forward, and as I came to a stop, he continued hopping into the brush on the other side of the road. I tried to see if I could find it to see how badly hurt it was (the travel info says to check the pouch of a kangaroo if you kill one, as there could be live babies that might be saved), but I couldn't find it - so I am praying it wasn't too badly hurt and was able to just keep on going. The rental car's left front headlight popped out of its "socket" but nothing seemed broken, so I put it back in, and headed on my way... painfully slowly for the rest of the trip. There are many, many animals lying dead along the roadsides... wallabies, kangaroo, and possums mostly. It may be worse than deer, as these animals can simply hop from the bushes to the front of your car in one leap. There is NO WAY to see them coming! Of course, those of you who call me "the carnivore" won't be surprised that my feelings of unease and guilt over hitting the kangaroo did not keep me from ordering a kangaroo steak at the restaurant at my hotel when I returned... very very good... and does NOT taste like chicken! I also tried the local fish (called "King George Whiting") with chips for lunch - really excellent.

The following day, Tuesday the 14, I started the long ride back to Melbourne. Taking the coastal route going westbound had been 1100 kilometers (almost 700 miles) and took me 12 hours. Eastbound I took the inland route, which was 800 kilometers and unfortunately still took almost 9 hours as the "freeway" goes through many towns and forces you to slow down to about 35 mph for long stretches. There was also a lot of road construction which furthered delayed my trip. I returned the rental car at the airport and then took the shuttle into the city and got in at the hotel at around 10 PM and collapsed for the night.

I spent the next two days exploring "Mel-bun" as the Aussies pronounce it. It is a very clean, very safe feeling city, but honestly did not grab me all that much. It is very flat and laid out in a predictable grid. The architecture is rather interesting, but it just seemed like it could be any big city in the American mid-west - Minneapolis, Denver, Topeka. I am glad I stayed where I did: a suburb on the beach south of town called St. Kilda. It's an area with a small oceanside amusement park, and a couple of main streets, Acland and Fitzroy, which are jammed with interesting restaurants and cafes. I was able to walk to a main beach area and I did go swimming - it was VERY hot the first day in Melbourne, but thankfully cooled off the next day. There must have been a dozen cake shops along Acland Street within 2 blocks of my hotel, so I definitely enjoyed sampling those. The best thing I had was a chocolate kugelhupf cake... kind of a marbled coffee cake with dark, wonderful chocolate swirls throughout. It took about 30 minutes by tram to get into central Melbourne, and trams are easy and convenient to use there.

On my second full day in Melbourne I took the tram out to Melbourne University to meet Dr. Bernd Rohrmann, a German psychologist who now teaches full time at M.U. He is an expert in the field of risk perception and I just read a book of his last Fall, so it was exciting that he took time to meet with me for lunch. He is an eccentric man, maybe 55 years old, and was wearing brilliant red socks, pants with legs a bit too short (maybe to show off the socks), and a red button down shirt with a big Chinese dragon emblazoned across it. In his heavy German accent he got off on a tangent about how the Australians have no sense of time, and are always late to appointments and for classes. He continued, "Of course I must be careful not to say too much to them about this, as they then accuse me of being a Nazi..." I was very relieved that I'd arrived at his door at 1:29 PM for our 1:30 appointment, and he actually joked and said, "YOU, however, were quite punctual and I appreciate that!" We had a good laugh about it.

We had lunch on the campus (a school of 35,000 students) and he had taken the time to look over my volcano survey and gave me a couple of very valuable suggestions on ways to improve it a bit, so I was glad I was able to meet with him. His area is really on technological risks, such as nuclear power, but he still had a lot of valuable insights.

Had a big Chinese meal that night and got to bed pretty earl, as I had to be at the airport the next morning by 11 for my flight to Sydney and needed to take a tram to the central station to catch an airport bus. I flew to Sydney on Virgin Blue Airlines, and was I impressed by that company. I arrived to find a line of almost 150 people or so waiting to check in, and even though I was there 1 and 1/2 hours early, I was worried. I think I was at the check in counter within 10 minutes... they were so efficient, and had folks calling out flight numbers that were leaving soon - if you were on that flight, they'd whisk you off to an express counter. It was remarkable and they were SO friendly and funny. On top of all that, my Melbourne to Sydney one way ticket cost me all of $18 in American dollars!

An hour and a half later and I was on the Airport Express bus (it WASN'T express - we took the most ridiculous route of surface streets I could have imagined!) into downtown Sydney and my hotel. The hotel is located right in the heart of downtown, and an easy walk to the trains, ferries, and shopping areas. I checked in, got on the elevator to head up to my room, and 5 Aussie blokes hopped in with me. They were loud, obnoxious, and seemed drunk already, even though it was 2PM. One of them asked where I was from, and when I told them, another yelled, "Wow, San Francisco! How's the pussy there? Must be great!" I was so caught off guard that all I could do was laugh. We stopped at one floor and there were two women wanting to get on the elevator but it was too full. As the doors closed, another of these guys chimed in with, "See that, mate - if you hadn't had that bloody big bag of yours, we'd have had 2 ladies and 6 blokes on here! Them's good odds!" Again, all I could do was laugh and hope that the 10th floor was coming up soon!

And so for the last 2 days I have been exploring Sydney. It is a huge contrast from Melbourne. It constantly reminds me of San Francisco and/or Seattle... surrounded by water, somewhat hilly, beautiful harbor and nearby beaches, ferries going everywhere, great bridges... It is considerably warmer, of course, and the foliage is far more tropical. It is amazingly compact - very easy to walk almost anywhere in under a half hour, and the trains, ferries and buses are plentiful too.

On my first day I wanted to have dinner at a Chinese place that my friend Brian recommended. He'd had emu (a big ostrich-like bird) in black bean sauce and said it'd been phenomenal) at a place called "East Quay" located in an area called Circle Quay (which I soon learned is pronounced like "key") from which all the ferries depart. After a little walking toward the eastern side of the quay, I saw a second floor Chinese place called "The Quay", and thought this must be the place. It was closed until 6, so I at least decided to check out the menu... no emu. Drat! Could it have been a special? Was it not emu season? Sighing heavily I kept walking out along the quay and soon saw a Chinese place called "East". Hmmm. I looked at their menu, and there it was: emu in black bean sauce. AND it was open. I sat outside with a view of the Sydney Harbor Bridge and a glimpse at the famous Opera House and dined on emu and it was indeed amazing. It did NOT taste like chicken! Like ostrich, it is like a lean, tender beef, and I think far more flavorful, and the Chinese preparation was wonderful. What a great meal. Thank you, Brian!

Other culinary things I have discovered here: a coffee with milk is called a "flat white", an espresso is a "short black", and a large black coffee is, of course, a "Tall black". Iced coffee is unfortunately NOT iced... it contains a scoop of ice cream and loads of whipped cream, so it's not the thirst-quencher that its American cousin is. So, you want some ketchup on those fried? A small container (like a plastic jelly container) is 40 cents... perhaps containing enough ketchup for 2 fries. Oh, you want a larger size? $2.00!!! Yikes! I asked for some jam on my toast this morning - I got two of those little jelly containers - enough for a half a slice of bread... and had 50 cents added to the bill. They are very stingy with the condiments!

This is definitely a place to study road rage. The drivers are VERY aggressive, and foul mouthed, rolling down windows, screaming obscenities, blaring their horns for 30 - 40 seconds. They drive very quickly and are not keen on stopping for pedestrians either.

I went out on Friday night to the gay neighborhood along Oxford Street. Very interesting place... a much greater mix of gay and straight people than in areas like the Castro, and absolutely mobbed with people! It makes a Saturday in the Castro look like a small town by comparison. I was really amazed by the sheer numbers of people. The Aussies by their own admission LOVE to drink, and it shows... by 10 PM there are some pretty rowdy folks walking the streets - the harmless ones simply walking into other people and things; the more frightening ones screaming and singing and teasing others on the street. As I sat alone in an outdoor cafe having dinner (I was about the last customer they had) a drunken woman walking past said, "Don't worry, Love - you could have your pick of any man in the place!" At first I thought, "Well, that was sweet", and then turning around and realizing I was the last person in the place, I realized I'd just been slammed!

Of course, news about the impending war is all over the place here; some Aussies are very negative about the U.S. and feel they are being pulled into a war they have nothing to do with by their prime minister. Another guy I spoke to said, "Well, I don't know, but if anyone's gotta be the police of the world, I'm glad it's you blokes... there are some crazy countries out there that I wouldn't want to have running the show!" Last night I heard that the U.S. Congress made a change in their dining room menu as a protest against the French... they have decided to delete the FRENCH from French Fries and call them "Freedom Fries" instead. I didn't know whether to laugh or cry... sometimes it is very embarrassing to be an American. I am sure this protest is injuring the French terribly! (Actually it has become a serious issue for French restaurants in the U.S. who are being boycotted and need to lay off their AMERICAN employees! People are also not buying French wines or cheeses!). Don't worry, Gilles... they will ALWAYS be French Fries to me! And could you send me a big hunk of Cantal cheese, please?

Well, I better get out there and do a bit more sightseeing. Late yesterday afternoon I took a ferry to the beach at Manly, about 30 minutes north of here - surprisingly cool water but very clean and wonderful beaches. In fact, Sydney and Melbourne are really clean... San Francisco really needs to take a lesson. It makes me sad to see these spotless cities and remember how San Francisco used to look in the 80's and just how shabby San Francisco has become over the last few years.

OK, that's all for now, mates. I leave in the morning for the city of Cairns and the Great Barrier Reef. Back to Sydney for 2 nights on Thursday and then next Saturday it's on to New Zealand...
Hope you're well wherever you're reading this from.
Lots of love,

P.S. Some of you have been asking about the time difference... I am now 10 hours ahead of Italy, France and Holland, 16 hours ahead of those of you on the East Coast, and 19 hours ahead of the West Coast. So in many cases, my yesterday is your today. Sounds like a title for an episode of "Star Trek".

TeleTubby Spotted On Great Barrier Reef!

Hello from Cairns, Australia... Wednesday, March 19

I have been up in tropical Queensland since Monday morning and tomorrow afternoon will fly back to Sydney for two more nights... then on to Christchurch, New Zealand on Saturday. Queensland is the Australian state that is in the far northern region along the eastern coast, and I am guessing that Cairns, which is the largest city in these parts, is about 1000 miles north of Sydney. Remember this is south of the equator, so as you go north it gets much warmer and more tropical. Luckily for me, after 2 weeks of solid rain, Cairns has been sunny and much cooler than normal... it can be oppressively hot and humid here, but today was very comfortable... I even turned the air conditioning off in the rental car.

I was sorry to leave Sydney, but pleased that I will have another couple of nights there before I depart Australia. It really rates as one of the most wonderful cities I have seen. At any rate, after a pleasant 3 hour flight spent taking with a feisty British woman who is visiting her son here, I got to Cairns and picked up my rental car. The woman at the Budget Rentals office was hilariously funny and good-natured. They were giving me a brand new car with only 10 kilometers on it. When it came time to go over the little damage forms they ask you to sign (where you must indicate any dents or scratches in the car), she said, "You needn't bother with this... the car's brand new. But when you go out to the lot, if you find it's been totally destroyed, could you please come right back in and fill out this form?"

I drove up the coast about 30 minutes to my home for the next 3 nights: Ellis Beach Oceanfront Bungalows. They are not kidding when they say oceanfront. There is NOTHING on Ellis Beach at all except this very small set of bungalows... it looks like the beach in the movie "Castaway", except that it is lined with adorable little cottages. Palm trees are everywhere, and you can hear the surf from the bedroom of the cottage. When the full moon rose the other night and lit up the clouds, palms and the Coral Sea at my doorstep, I almost cried. What a sight.

There is trouble in paradise however: from November to May, it is impossible to swim in these waters due to the box jellyfish or "stingers" as the Aussies call them. One big enough dose of venom from their tentacles, and you stop breathing and die within a couple minutes. As my good Northern Irish friend Maggi would say, sarcastically, "How lovely, Dear!" The groundskeeper at my place told me that they never really knew about stingers until 20 years ago or so... he said that when he was a kid, people swam all year and sometimes, someone mysteriously just died in the water and people thought it was heart failure! Now they realize it was probably a stinger! Swimming is only possible in "stinger nets" that have been set up along certain small stretches of beach, usually near major towns, and when I drove up and down the coast it seemed that due to the storms they'd had, the stinger nets were not well in place... so no ocean swimming. Strangely, these awful creatures do not like deeper ocean water and are seldom found out on the reef. Still, there are about 6 other varieties of jellies that can sting you badly enough to ruin a few days of vacation. Viva Hawaii!

The biggest dilemma in this part of the country is deciding which tour operator to use to take your trip out to the Great Barrier Reef. Unless you carefully shop around, you could end up on huge boats that carry 400 people at a time to enormous pontoons... 2 story buildings built off the reef like big Service Stations. Boats dock there (to avoid anchoring on the coral, which is a good thing) and then shuttle their multitudes off to shallow areas of reef. They look like small sets from the movie "Waterworld". Not what I wanted for my outdoor experience. It's also possible to get boats to take you to one of several offshore islands that really aren't as far out as the reef... but here you can use the facilities of big mega-resorts built on the islands. Again, not what I wanted...

I finally settled on the 40 passenger "Poseidon"; this trip lasted from 8:30 to 4:40 and took us out to the very outer edge of Great Barrier Reef, stopping at 3 different sites. Best of all, they rent you "stinger suits" to wear when you go snorkeling. These are one piece blue lycra suits with a hood and mittens... all that is left exposed to water is your face and your feet (which have flippers on them). The added bonus of the suits is that not only do they protect from stingers, they keep you out of the sun, so no need for 18 gallons of sunscreen to be applied every 5 minutes! The bad news about stinger suits... they are lycra! Of all the materials in the world, lycra has to be the least flattering for someone with a lot of extra pounds... But if it came to a choice between humiliation in a lycra suit or death by stinger, I'd take the humiliation any time.
I was the first to try mine on (worried that it might not fit!), and one of the funny Aussie mates who made up our crew asked me to show everyone how they look... so picture me in this full piece, electric blue suit with hood and mittens! He then came up behind me and placed an upside down coat hanger on my head and said, "Look everyone, it's one of the Teletubbies (those impish little characters like Tinky WInky on that British children's show). I just waved shyly and said, "uh-oh!" in my best Teletubby voice. Don't worry - pictures were taken!

The first two dive sites were ok, but the water was quite rough and truthfully I saw more fish in Hawaii... though the corals here are amazing. The third site was much calmer and here one of the crew took us on a snorkel safari where he'd dive under and find something interesting to bring to the surface for us to see and touch and hold. My favorite were the sea cucumbers... about 1 or 2 feet long and sort of the size of a very wide French baguette (or is that a "Freedom baguette" now???). They came in all shapes and colors; some had smooth silky black bodies while others looked almost shaggy with "hair"... like space creatures from "Star Trek". Some shoot seawater several feet if you gently squeeze them. I got to hold one of them and the leader had me put him on my head for another great photo opportunity! Another thrill here was seeing a reef shark maybe 2 feet long very close-up. They look sleek and beautiful when they are that small. The coral was so colorful and comes in every shape and color possible. I took a lot of pictures with one of those disposable underwater cameras so we'll see how they come out. It was a very fun day.

Today I drove up the coast to Daintree National park and the rainforests. I hiked at a place called Mossmon Gorge and swam in a beautiful fresh water pool and waterfall area (this is one of the few places you can swim in fresh water anywhere in Queensland... there are those pesky crocodiles everywhere!). Then I took a boat trip along the Daintree River, and in addition to seeing many beautiful birds, there were several crocodiles in the water - even saw a baby (maybe 2 days old the guide said) sunning itself on the sand along the river.

At night I have been coming into Cairns for dinner. It's a very pleasant city - tropical birds fill all the trees along the pedestrian malls and streets, making an unbelievable level of noise. I have sampled the local fresh water fish delicacy, Baramundi (also a name of one of the "Survivor: Outback" tribes for you TV fans), and have had more kangaroo. The best meal I have had was at a place called Red Ochre Grill... they served Italian gnocchi made with sweet potatoes instead of regular ones, and then serve it with sundried tomatoes, carmelized onion, capers, smoked salmon and a white wine cream sauce. Some of the best pasta I have had outside Italy.

Well, against this carefree backdrop, the war is of course looming. There has been terribly heated controversy here - many Australians do not want any part of the war and feel their Prime Minister has involved them in a fight that they should not be involved in at all. To add insult to injury, for whatever reason no one included the Australian Prime Minister at the Azores summit with Bush, Blair, and the Spanish President, even though Australia is sending troops. People here pointed out that it was nice of Spain, which isn't committing any of its own troops, to be involved in deciding when and where to send Australian troops. Today the beautiful and famous Sydney Opera House was vandalized by this country's Green Party... they painted "No War" in concrete on top of the white sail roof... it will be very difficult to remove it and not scar the building permanently. Another Australian guy I spoke with said, "I don't know what's right or wrong to do anymore... but if anyone's gonna be the 'policemen of the world', I'm really glad it's you blokes and not some of these other crazy places!" It is a sad time. I think of my guide Anwar in Bali who had been praying that there would be no war as he feels it will completely finish Bali's economy. It is a strange feeling to be away from home when one's country has declared a war. I can only imagine how terrible it would have been to be abroad on 9/11.

It's times like when I feel grateful for the opportunity to dress up like a Teletubby, wear sea cucumbers on my head, and focus on the view under the ocean instead of across it.
Take care everyone.

Even Farther Down Under

G'day from the land even farther down under... New Zealand. This is about as close as you can get to the Antarctic without actually being there. Tonight, Monday the 24th of March I am near the southern end of the South Isle, in a village called Te Anau, located beside an enormous lake in what is called the "Gateway to Fiordland". Tomorrow I will drive out to Milford Sound and take a cruise in the fiords there. We will see how they compare with the ones I saw in Norway a couple of years ago.

Last time I wrote I was in Cairns, Australia. I spent my last day in that area by going to Tjubakai Aboriginal Culture Park. (Wasn't Tjubakai the OTHER team in "Survivor: Outback"?? Anyway...) This is a park that provides a history of the Aboriginal people of Australia and documents the struggles they have had to stay alive and maintain their culture since the white men came and began taking their land. There were films, and several demonstrations: dance, music, food preparation, medicine, sports such as boomerang and spear-throwing, etc. It was quite moving and very entertaining.
I had to get parental at one point. There were three children who were left sitting in an amphitheater area while their parents were doing something. The second oldest boy (maybe 10 or 11 years old) was swatting at the air and taking handfuls of sand and gravel and whirling around in the air. Finally I realized what he was doing: he was trying to swat and hit the beautiful butterflies that are everywhere in this area. I just shouted in my most authoritarian voice, "Hey! What ARE you doing? Stop that! What is WRONG with you?!" (Great child psychology technique, eh?) He immediately stopped and the three of them sat on a bench like three bumps on a log until their parents returned. The boy kept looking back over his shoulder at me, but said nothing. Later I saw this same family in a nearby village where there is actually a butterfly sanctuary that you can visit. It was all I could do to hold myself back from running up to the parents and saying, "Have you seen the butterfly park? You should go - I think your youngest son would really like it!". But I refrained. I also rode the Sky Rail, a sleek, silent gondola that takes you up above the rainforest and into the nearby mountains to an aboriginal village called Kuranda. It was again a spectacular day, sunny and not hot, so I really was lucky with the weather.

I caught my flight from Cairns to Sydney at 3PM, and had an odd encounter with the Qantas Airlines ticket counter staff. When I asked if they had my American Airlines frequent flier number in their system so I would get credit toward these flights, the guy said, "Are you sure you want to do that? Then everyone will know you're American". I was a bit surprised and confused by his remark, though of course I had heard that war had just broken out that day in Iraq. I just replied, "Well, I didn't think that would be a problem here in Australia".

I returned to Sydney and had booked a different hotel this time, closer to the Oxford Street and Darlinghurst neighborhoods and not right in the financial district as my previous one had been. It was a charming studio apartment with full kitchen... and only about $60 a night in US dollars. From there I could walk anywhere easily, and I packed a lot into my final two nights in Sydney. I had a great breakfast at a place called Bill's where there is one communal table seating about 25 people. Had a great conversation with a woman named Ariana, who is a chef on weekends and gave me the hot tips about where to eat. She said, "You're lucky you found this place... it's one of the best." Again, I am always able to find the great local places.

The last day in Sydney was glorious; sunny, cool... just picture-postcard perfect. I took the train and bus out to Bondi Beach on the coast south of Sydney and had a great walk along the cliff-walk that runs between three local beaches. Had a good swim and some fish and chips (without springing for the extra $3 for tartar sauce and ketchup... no wonder I am losing weight!) Did some shopping for last minute souvenirs and went to one of the bar/cafes where I watched in awe as people put away 6 or 7 beers in the time it took me to drink my one. The Aussies are really big drinkers, and how they can even be coherent after so many drinks is amazing to me. I ended up taking an evening ferry ride - didn't care where it was going, I just hopped aboard and sat outside watching the city lights, brilliant stars, and the sea gulls who followed the boat like a flock of angels... they were so white in the light from the boat, and then they'd almost vanish for a second as they raised their dark gray wings. It created a strange strobe-like effect and I was hypnotized by the show they put on.

And so at 7:15 Saturday I was up and out of the hotel, catching my shuttle to the airport. I am finding that I get a terrible night's sleep the night before I have to fly somewhere - I worry that the alarm won't work, I will miss the flight, etc. I had maybe 3 hours of solid sleep that night, so I was a zombie on the plane. Despite my luck in getting a window seat in the exit row, with lots of legroom, I didn't sleep a wink as it was absolutely freezing! And they had no blankets on the plane.

And so, frozen and exhausted, I arrived in Christchurch, New Zealand and waited in a long customs line (they are very concerned about people bringing in foreign pests, fruit, etc. so the customs lines take a long time), finally getting through and picking up my rental car. It was much warmer in New Zealand than I'd expected... and the sun is brutal. They are very concerned here about sun exposure, as the hole in the Ozone layer of our atmosphere is right over New Zealand. Sun exposure can cause burns very quickly.

I decided to drive from Christchurch across the central mountains and to the west coast where I wanted to spend the night close to the two big glaciers there. I finally had a chance to listen to the news about Iraq. It's all so depressing - and it really sounds like we may be there for a very long time. Human shields, prisoners of war, civilian casualties, rumors of Saddam being dead... and now the discovery of a big chemical weapons stash. How did the world get to the state it's in? Meanwhile, I heard that the U.S. Government just issued a travel advisory urging Americans not to visit Indonesia...I guess I left Bali just in time. I couldn't help thinking of poor Anwar and his family there, and the many other people I met in Bali. This news must be so devastating to them. They kept trying to be optimistic that the troubles would pass soon and that people would return to Bali, and now it looks like it will be far worse for them for the foreseeable future. I am so glad I had the chance to go there.

New Zealand thus far has been very quiet and very slow to reveal itself. It is in places, stunningly beautiful and in other places, I could be in Fresno, California or Illinois. They are just coming out of summer, but I didn't expect it to be so dry... everything is golden in many places, much like California in summer. The coast has amazingly lush rain forests, with snow-capped mountains above them and in places, glaciers coming down from the mountains to meet the rain forests. The food has been excellent - lots of well-prepared lamb and venison. During a long ride yesterday, I lost all radio stations, as the area is so remote. To pass the time, I started humming songs and in particular, a song by Enya kept going through my mind: "Shepherd Moon". I was humming it as I drove along the surreal coastline (but I am not as soft and breathy as Enya is, of course). To my amazement, as I sat having dinner last night at the restaurant, they played an entire Enya CD, starting with, of course, "Shepherd Moon". The coincidences sometimes are just mind-boggling.

Well, my friends, it is almost 10 PM and the Internet Cafe is again ready to close, so too must this e-mail. I will be on South Isle till Thursday and then fly up to Auckland and the North Isle with all its volcanoes. In just a few more days I will be on Bora Bora... how is that possible?
OK, bye for now. Thinking of you all. Take care.

From Tramping to Tahiti

Kia Ora, Everyone... Sunday, 3/30/03
This is the greeting used by the Maori (pronounced MOWRY) people who inhabited New Zealand prior to the European immigration/invasion. I have been surprised by how much the Maori culture mixes with the prevailing Western culture here, especially on the North Island of New Zealand. In Australia, the Aboriginees definitely seem not well-integrated into the mainstream society, and perhaps this is because the "colonization" of Australia was particularly brutal. On New Zealand, there was the usual taking of native lands, but overall it seems it was not nearly the violent conflict that occurred in Australia.

I also hadn't realized that the Maori are a completely different people from the Aboriginee. The Maori are Polynesian, and so are distant cousins to the Hawaiians and Tahitians. There is much similarity of language. The word "wai" for example, meaning "water" in Maori is the same as the Hawaiian word. The English word "taboo" is actually derived from "tabu" in Tahitian. In Maori it is "tapu", and in Hawaiian "kapu". The music and dance of the Maori is also very similar to Hawaiian hula or Tahitian dance; though the Maori dance is not as gentle as the Hawaiian hula, the songs have the same rhythms and beautiful melodies of the Hawaiian music I love so much. So traveling New Zealand and seeing some of the Maori culture has been a nice way of preparing me for my trip to Tahiti today - my flight departs Auckland in a few hours.

The past few days have been very pleasant indeed. I completed my tour of the South Island with stops at the west coast glaciers and fiords, and did a bit of tramping. Get your minds out of the gutter... "tramping" is the NZ term for hiking. It is rather funny to see signs in places saying "no tramping". I also love the term the kiwis use for sheep herding: "sheep mustering"! How British! I also like the New Zealand accent a lot.. it is similar to Australian, but different, though I can't quite figure out exactly what the difference is. There is no short "e" sound in their accent... in other words, bed, bet, or red all sound like "bid", "bit", or "rid", or even ""beed", "beet" or "reed". Of course I am always amused when I say something to someone and they go completely blank because they can't understand MY accent! I had someone in Australia tell me how much they love American accents. Too funny.

The glaciers were impressive and unusual in that they come down from the mountains - the Southern Alps - and meet dense, beautiful rain forest, so the change in scenery and climate is amazing. I also went on a wonderful cruise on a fiord (glacially formed inlet from the ocean) called Milford Sound. Spectacular scenery - in some ways reminiscent of the Norwegian fiords I saw 2 years ago, but also different - definitely warmer!

My other big plan in this area was to try either hang-gliding or parachuting from a plane... New Zealand is the world capital for adventure sports (bungee jumping originated here). I wanted to do a tandem hang glide, where you go with an instructor. I arrived all psyched up and ready to leap off Coronet Peak near Queenstown, only to be politely told that there was a weight limit and that I was about 30 pounds over it! It brought back the memories of disappointment and loss I suffered when I was told I was too big for those pony rides at the park in Providence some 30 years ago. I was told that if there'd been more wind, they might have "risked it"; however, with calm conditions, my extra weight would make us "drop like a rock". Lovely. So, with a heavy sigh I got back in the car and headed on. I didn't even inquire about the tandem parachuting because if I was going to drop to the earth too quickly in a hang gliding situation, I can only imagine what free-falling from a plane 12,000 feet up would be like. Gravity is NOT my friend!!

I finished my travels on South Island crossing the far southern tip of the island, the Catlin Coast - a spectacularly beautiful region of rolling green farmland, low mountains, rainforest and deserted beaches where sea lions lay on the beach and barely notice you as you walk past them. I stayed all along in wonderful little motels... all between $40 and $55 US dollars a night, and all had a full kitchen. An amusing custom here is that at every hotel and motel, they ask you as they hand you the room key, "Do you want regular or trim milk"? Of course I was mystified the first time they asked this, but I learned that every place gives you a small container of milk (for your morning coffee). Still, it makes me laugh as the motel clerk invariably says, "Oh, don't forget your milk. Regular or trim?"

My final night on South Island was in the very Scottish-influenced city of Dunedin (pronounced "Do-KNEE-dun". I found a great little motel at a beach just a few minutes from downtown, where I got a one bedroom apartment, both rooms facing directly onto the beach for only $40 (and MILK too!). At the end of the beach is a salt water heated pool which I used that afternoon - it was very cool, gray and foggy (a lot like San Francisco, and in fact Dunedin is surrounded by mountains and is very hilly). So a soak in a heated pool on the beach was great. I also had one of my best dinners that night at a place called "Palm Cafe", an informal but lovely place with high ceilings, candlelight, and a view toward a small park. I had a great meal of mushroom soup, and a "lamb hotpot", a stew of many vegetables and tender lamb poured over a flaky crust tart. Absolutely delicious food.

The next day I took the short 90 minute flight from Dunedin to Auckland on the North Island, and got my rental car and was on the road again. Driving here and in Australia has not been difficult at all. I have adjusted to driving on the "wrong" side of the road with little problem; however, I do often turn on my windshield wipers instead of my turn signal by mistake, as they are on the opposite side than in American cars, and I am always trying to get into the car on the wrong side... the driver's side here is on the RIGHT! I know that when people see me go to the wrong door to get into the car, they will know I am a tourist, so I am try to fool them by following through and opening the passenger door anyway and pretending to be looking for something in my backpack on that side, before I calmly close the door and walk to the driver's side! I am sure I am not fooling anyone, but it helps me try to maintain my dignity!

Listening to the radio has been like a journey back to my past and the 1970's. Fleetwood Mac has released a new song and it's being played often; Olivia Newton-John (who is Australian) also has a new CD and is getting airplay here too. I bought a very hard to find compilation of early material of hers in Sydney, and at the cashier, the young man said, "Don't you just love, Livvy? She's a bloody angel!" And of course the Australians are still crazy about ABBA and the BeeGees, and they seem popular here on New Zealand too. So needless to say, I am having 70's flashbacks as I listen to the radio while I drive here.

The North Island is far more urban than the South... despite the land mass being smaller here, 3/4 of the residents live here and it's a noticeable difference. I drove about 3 hours south to Rotorua, a large lakefront town that is surrounded in all directions by volcanic hot springs, steam vents, etc. I stayed at the Royal Geysers Hotel, my room overlooking a volcanic thermal park - literally a geyser and a rapidly-boiling mud pool beneath my balcony! What a great place for "disasterman" to stay! The night before, I slept with the sound of the ocean out my window, but this night I had the boiling mud pools to lull me to sleep... really sounds like someone left a HUGE pot of stew boiling away furiously on the stove. Very cool!
I visited some hot springs and mud baths at a place called "Hell's Gate" (lovely place to relax!) and had my first mud bath ever - very interesting experience. Unfortunately the weather here has been quite rainy - the first really bad weather I have had in 5 weeks, so I am not complaining! So this was really a perfect way to wait out the rain, while sitting in a wonderful natural hot spring spa.

On Friday I spent about 3 hours touring a traditional Maori village that is built in and amongst dozens of steam vents, hot pools, geysers and boiling lakes and mud pools. It was really interesting - it reminded me of the Aboriginal Park I visited in Australia, but less touristy - this is more of a real working village where people live. They showed us how they cooked their meals in the pools and in steam-heated outdoor ovens. Some pools have certain good minerals and so sweet corn is cooked right in the waters there. Many other dishes are cooked in huge boxes atop of steam vents, and the traditional "hangi" meal is kind of similar to a New England clam boil: potatoes, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, chicken, corned beef, stuffing, cabbage and onion are all cooked together in the steam ovens and they serve the meal at lunch, along with the sweet corn - really tasty!

There are also bathing pools and separate pools for laundry. The village did a music and dance concert performed by about 8 people that was just excellent... again, I really enjoyed the Hawaiian-sounding music and the dance, and there was a lot of audience participation (I got picked to help demonstrate Maori greetings... shaking hands while touching noses... "Just touch noses, don't rub them together - we are not eskimos!"). I also got to have my picture taken with a Maori warrior... with our tongues out in a fierce battle stance (another great photo moment, I am sure!)

I toured a few of the volcanic sites in the area, despite heavy rain, and then had to make the trip back up to Auckland. I definitely need to return here and spend more time exploring of all the volcanic areas. Maybe my next research study will be here. With the rain and the traffic, getting back to Auckland took a long time. Getting into Auckland's center was a traffic nightmare as there was a huge rugby match and a Bruce Springsteen concert going on. Anyway, I found my way easily to my hotel, and was pleasantly surprised by my luxurious room (again with a full kitchen and milk!) at one of downtown Auckland's nicer hotels. I used a company on the internet called for making my hotel reservations in Australia and NZ and they offer amazing discounts on the nicest hotels. They do reservations in other places to, so check them out of you're traveling!

I spent Saturday wandering the city, which is a smaller and more sedate version of Sydney it seems. It is very clean, has a great location over a huge harbor, many hills surrounding it, and a great choice of cuisines. I had a scrumptious breakfast at a cafe inside the art gallery - corn cakes, which seem popular in this area. Drove out north to some of the surrounding beaches (one was featured in the movie "The Piano" years ago). Beautiful! Like Sydney and San Francisco and Seattle, there are many wonderful natural sights to see within an hour's drive. For dinner I had what was advertised as "the best fish and chips in Auckland", and it seemed to be... though I know my friend Ishmael would ask, "How do you know? Did you TRY ALL the fish and chips in Auckland?" I had kumara chips (sweet potato) instead of regular fries, and they were delicious. The kiwis dip them in sour cream instead of ketchup, but again, you pay for all condiments! My fish and chips cost about $6.00, and the tartar sauce and sour cream were $2.00!! Bizarre! I then visited a place called The Chocolate Cafe, where I had chocolate steamed pudding and an iced chocolate. That should calm my chocolate cravings for awhile!

Well, I am off to the airport now and hoping there is no one on my flight from China or Singapore. That strange flu/pneumonia they have there is scary. It was just making itself known in the news when I arrived in Australia from Bali, and since I changed planes in Singapore, I was worried when I developed a little bit of a cold, but thankfully I am fine. I am sad to be leaving New Zealand; so much more I'd like to see and such a laid-back, calm place. But I imagine Tahiti will be that and more. I guess the trick to good traveling is never see everything you want, so you have an excuse to return. Today will be interesting too, as I will be crossing the international dateline... therefore, I leave Auckland at 4:45 PM Sunday and arrive in Tahiti at 11:30 PM on Saturday! Tahiti's time zone is the same as Hawaii, which I think is currently 2 hours behind west coast time and 5 hours behind east coast. However, if daylight savings just ended... then it might be 3 hours and 6 hours now. Yikes!

Not sure what the internet situation will be in Tahiti, and I am sure it will be a lot more expensive than the $1.20 an hour here in Auckland. What a deal! So if I am out of touch for a few days, don't worry. I am staying at the Club Bali Hai Resort on Mo'orea on the 30, 31, and 1, and the Hotel Eden Beach on Bora Bora on the 2, 3 and 4. I then spend most of the day on the 5th in Bora Bora, return to the main island, Tahiti at 6 PM and fly out to SF via Los Angeles at 2:30 AM Sunday! What a schedule! Anyway, I should be home (in my own apartment again by around 7PM, Sunday April 6. Hard to imagine right now.

Have been watching a lot of coverage on the war and frankly, it's all too depressing to even talk about. I decided I needed to turn it all off for awhile, as it's bringing me down. Luckily, neither hotel on Tahiti has a TV set, so I will escape from the "real world" for awhile.

OK, off to lunch and then to the airport. Hope you're all well, and again thanks so much to those of you who have been writing.

Hawaii Has No Competition...

Ia Orana - which is Tahitian for "Hello"... not to be confused with Kia Orana in Maori or Aloha in Hawaiian... It is Wednesday, April 2 and I am at the airport in Papeete waiting for my flight to Bora Bora (doesn't that sound exotic?). Last night I typed a letter to you all for 1 hour solid, hit the "send" button, got an error message and all was lost. Merde! I was so pissed off. So here I go, trying to reconstruct everything I said last night.
I left New Zealand late Sunday afternoon and had a great 5 hour flight to Tahiti on Air New Zealand... wonderful food and comfortable seats, and of course because of that tricky international dateline, I arrived in at Papeete, Tahiti at 11:30 PM on SATURDAY night. I had made reservations at Hotel Matavai, having been told that I could call them on their complimentary phone at the airport and they'd send a bus to pick me up. I was spending only the night there, and the next day planned to catch the ferry over to Moorea where my real Tahitian vacation was to begin.

After a lot of searching I saw a sign for the Hotel Matavai phone, and rushed down the hall only to find that the cord had been ripped out of the wall. After another 10 minutes of searching, I found an intercom on a wall that said "Hotel Matavai", so I pressed the button, and after a few seconds, through ungodly static and electronic feedback, a dim voice could be heard asking, "EES THEESE MEESTER DAVEESE?" I screamed back that, yes, it was indeed Mr. Davees, and heard the static covered voice say, "Look for the bus in 5 minutes".

The big yellow bus arrived in about 15 minutes and off I went, arriving at the hotel at nearly 1:00 AM. It looked like a really run-down Holiday Inn, but it was only for a night so I wasn't worried. However, when I asked the desk staff when the ferry departed for Moorea the next morning they said, "We don't know. Come down and see our travel agent tomorrow morning at 6:30 or 7:00". So much for a full night's sleep!

I defied their recommendation and slept in until 7:45, got showered and down to the lobby and was told that the ferry departs at 9:15. Caught the shuttle down to the dock and drove through lovely downtown Papeete... picture a hybrid of Oakland, California and Tijuana, Mexico... with lots of chickens! There is a nice shopping area, but mostly it's a muddy, messy little hole in the wall. I couldn't wait to sail off to Moorea, which looms on the horizon from the port in Papeete.

I arrived a half hour later and had to catch "Le Truck", the island's bus system. Some of the "Le Trucks" are really buses, but many are a big pick-up truck like vehicle with a roof and bench seats down each side. It took about a half hour to reach Cook's Bay where my hotel was located: the Club Bali Hai. Cook's Bay is a beautiful body of water, surrounded on 3 sides by tall green mountains. Club Bali Hai has a prime location here, and my overwater bungalow was a roomy and pleasant little cottage of wood, with lots of windows and a porch built on stilts over the Bay. It had a refrigerator and stove and microwave, and a very cozy living area with separate bedroom and an outdoor shower with a garden. I was very pleased.

Starving at this point, I ate at the restaurant - only open for breakfast and lunch, and was introduced to Tahiti prices with my $15.50 cheeseburger and fries. Merde! I learned also that Le Truck only runs after or before a ferry departure, and there are only 2 ferry departures a day... so no public transport. Taxis cost between $25 and $40 depending on where you want to go. And everything within the immediate vicinity of my hotel was closed on Sunday. Great...

I ended up taking a long nap, and then went for a swim where I met Al, a 60-ish man from New Jersey. Al is a former US army officer specializing in chemistry who now bills himself as "Al, the Magician of Mystery". He is staying at Hotel Kaveka, a mile down the road and is trying to convince the manager there to allow him to do a dinner show of magic and mystery in return for a free dinner. Quite a character. By dinner time, I decided to walk up to the Kaveka as it obviously had a restaurant open for dinner. It was a very small place and rather dark and depressing, but I settled in on their outdoor terrace and ordered a plate of shrimp curry and rice for $28.50! Oh yes, that included a bottle of water (tap water is not drinkable in Tahiti... you must stick to bottled water everywhere). It was the most bland and tasteless meal you could imagine, and the rice was so dry and hard I thought it hadn't been cooked!

Of course Al soon appeared, lurking around looking for the manager of the Kaveka, who I am certain was trying to hide from Al. He joined me for dinner, and entertained me with several magic tricks... a few were kind of sad and pathetic, but he did do a few that truly stumped me, like smearing chocolate sauce into my right hand and having it magically move to my left hand as well. Also did a few interesting rope tricks that I could not figure out how he'd accomplished. He is, however, quite mad... he is saving money on bottled water (which is a bargain at the store for $1.50 a bottle) by using tap water and using iodine tablets to purify it. At the end of dinner he went off again in search of the manager, and I made a hasty retreat down the pitch-black road to my own hotel. I noted that there is a French gendarmerie (police station) just down the road from my place. I wish my friend Gilles could get transferred here!

The next day, completely short of cash, I made the 3 mile walk into "town" (if you can call 3 banks, two restaurants and a couple of souvenir shops a town) and after striking out on two of the ATM machines, the third one, Bank of Tahiti gave me my much needed cash. I then went to an internet cafe for a bit and was horrified by the $2.50 for 15 minute rates they charged. I ended up hitch-hiking back to my hotel the first time in my life I ever did this), and got a ride fairly easily.

I had signed up with Club Bali Hai's tour director, Stefanie, to go on a 4 hour long safari of the island... in a 4 wheel drive air conditioned van, scheduled to depart at 1PM. Well, I waited till 1:30 and no one was at the desk, but Stefanie finally appeared and told me I was the only person who'd signed up and the tour was cancelled. But she got on the phone and after the 4th try, found me a spot on Ben Tours (not Ben's Tours... BEN Tours). They'd pick me up in 10 minutes in front of the hotel. They did, after passing me by once and requiring me to run in and tell Stefanie they forgot me!

The "air conditioned van" was an open-air pick-up truck with boards for seats and a tarp on the roof... a kind of "mini Le Truck". The driver and guide was Roger (pronounced RO-JAY), a Polynesian man who spoke mostly French with a little English. There were two French couples already in the truck and neither of them spoke any English. Off we went to explore an agricultural area, a fruit juice distillery, a waterfall, a scenic overlook, and to complete a circle trip of the entire island.

We drove up terribly rutted and pot hole filled roads, mostly dirt and mud, and had to hold on tight to keep from bouncing on the plank seats. We entered the agricultural area, and without leaving his driver's seat, Roger began screaming fruit names, in French, from his window. It was hard to hear him with all the rattling and banging of the truck on the bad roads, and then of course, he only spoke French. Friends tease me that I learn the names of food first when I study other languages, but it paid off on this tour. "Annanas", Roger screamed (pineapples), and we would all look to the left to see a pineapple field. "Papaye! " (papayas), and we all looked to the right. "Annanas! Avocat! Annanas! Banane! Annanas!" (There were a LOT of annanas!) It was so absurd, I kept giggling, but I could not explain to my French friends WHY I found this all so amusing.

We then drove at least 15 minutes down horribly pitted and bumpy roads to the juice distillery. Free samples of tropical juice sounded good, as it was hot, sticky and rainy. Well, the distillery was closed, and why Roger did not know this is one of life's mysteries. Off to the scenic lookout, which would have been scenic if it hadn't been shrouded in clouds and rain. We then made a stop at a large flat stone structure that looked like the "Heiau" temples found in Hawaii. To my amazement, Roger actually got out of the truck and gave some explanation to the French tourists and they all hopped out to have a look. To me, all he said was, "ancient temple", which was wonderfully informative, as well as rather confusing since a sign beside this structure had English descriptions that said this was an archery platform. Maybe they shot bows and arrows during their religious ceremonies? I'll never know, as Roger herded us back into the truck for another grueling half hour's drive.

Meanwhile, cars would come flying up behind us, drivers cursing Roger's slow speed, and would zoom past us at their first opportunity. I got into a fit of almost uncontrollable laughter as I started daydreaming: I could make a sign saying, "Help... I have been kidnapped. Please save me!" and dangle it from the back of the truck. We finally stopped at a convenience store for cold drinks (price not included in the tour), and as we all got back into the truck I noted that one of the Frenchmen had a Hinano beer. I gestured to the beer and said, "Bon idee!” and then holding up my juice, said, "Je suis stupide", and this got a good laugh from the French who seemed every bit as bored as I was.

Finally we got onto the dirt road leading to the waterfall, but halfway down, Roger stopped, got out of the truck and told us that the waterfall was dry, pointing to a bare spot of rock on the hillside. Never fear... to make up for this sad state of affairs, Roger gathered several fruits (whose French names I knew by heart now) - pamplemousse (grapefruit), coco (coconut), and of course the ever popular annanas. Taking a hygienically questionable knife from the glove compartment, he began slicing them all up for us to sample. I began laughing again as I imagined my germ-conscious friend Carol being here, shaking her head and saying definitively, "I am not touching those fruits!" They were tasty, and several days later I am still alive.

That was my circle island safari. I can honestly say that other than a nice view here or there, I saw NOTHING on the island to warrant further exploration. There are simply widely scattered hotels, a restaurant or small general store here and there; that is the whole island. I kept thinking of Shania Twain's song, "That Don't Impress Me Much", making up my own lyrics in my head as we drove: "So you've got a lagoon... so you've got a juice distillery... that don't impress me much!" Maui, forgive me if I ever thought you could be replaced in my affections!

Things got a bit better that night. At 5:30 sharp, a guy named Muk (he is a white, American guy and I have no idea why he is called Muk) who founded the Club Bali Hai maybe 30 years ago holds a get together around the pool, and all the guests come out to have a drink and talk. It was actually fun, and I got the scoop on where to eat. A couple from New Zealand, Kevin and Christine invited me to join them for dinner at a tiny place called Chez Michelle. It is run by a single French woman (Michelle, I presume) who closes by 7:30 if no one shows up. We were her only customers, but for $15 she made us a delicious dinner of fresh fish, vegetables and fluffy rice, and some of the best ice cream I have ever tasted. Thank God, there is a good place to eat here!

The next day I'd signed up for a shark and stingray feeding trip on the lagoon, and many Bali Hai folks were on the trip too... the New Zealanders, a nice couple from Colorado, and newlyweds John and Erica from New Jersey. We set out on a sunny morning and went to the shark feeding location, where the captain was to get out and feed dead fish to black-tipped reef sharks while we all put on snorkels and held on to a rope down current from where the sharks feed. Although we were told by Stefanie (who I should not have trusted given her sending me on "Hell Safari") that the trip included full snorkel gear, there was none available... and when half the boat almost mutinied, they "found" a few stray masks, with no snorkel attached, and many had broken straps, so all you could do was hold it to your face, hold your breath and stick your head in the water for as long as you could hold your breath! I was furious. In addition, the waters were very choppy and it was hard to balance. I held onto the rope, but occasionally someone would hang on the rope, sending me underwater for a huge drink of sea water. Sometimes someone would cling to me for support and push or pull me underwater. It was a nightmare, and I got a few quick glimpses of golden reef sharks with black-tipped fins, maybe 5 - 6 feet in length.

The stingray feeding was MUCH better. We anchored in much calmer and shallower water, and before we could get out of the boat we were surrounded by dozens of these creatures, 4 - 5 feet across with tails about 4 feet long. They do not "sting" at all, as their name implies, and they are gentle and curious animals who will come right to you and sort of slide up your body until the front of the head is out of the water. They have very human-looking eyes that look right into yours, and you can pet them and feed them dead fish. It was an absolutely wonderful experience. Toward the end, many black-tipped sharks gathered around - at least 5, and some of them were swimming only 10 feet from me. It wasn't scary, even though it perhaps should have been.

After this "peak experience", we then went out to a "private motu" for a picnic lunch. A "motu" is a small barrier island. (It was also the name of one of the teams in "Survivor: Marquesas... see how informational TV can be!) This particular motu was by no means "private" though... at least 3 other tour boats docked along the beach and each had its own picnic area. They did serve a delicious lunch of grilled fish and chicken, pasta and rice salads, fresh fruits, and all the beer you could drink. So after the disastrous start, the day turned out well overall. That night I went back to Chez Michelle for dinner with the New Zealanders and two other couples. When we arrived, I said to Michelle, "We're back... and we brought friends!” Again we were her only customers and again, it was a delicious dinner.

And on Wednesday morning I climbed aboard Le Truck at 7:15 AM to get to the ferry dock for an 8:00 ferry. Arriving in Papeete, I found another Le Truck to go to the airport, and left a lot of my heavier luggage at a storage place there, since the flights to Bora Bora have strict weight limits on luggage. Interestingly, on the ferry crossing, I sat inside and didn't have the slightest urge to even look back at Moorea as we sailed away. Other than the fun of the Club Bali Hai and its guests, and the good cooking of Michelle, the island had little to offer at all, and uncharacteristically for me, I felt no twinge of sadness upon leaving. OK, I am going to stop here, as I must catch my flight. I'll save this and continue from Bora Bora....
Bora Boring

OK, here I am again... on Bora Bora 2 days later. The flight to Bora Bora took 45 minutes, and despite a lot of cloud cover, the clouds broke and we were treated to a spectacular aerial view of the island and its surrounding lagoon and motus. It truly is magnificent. The airport is located on a motu on the north side of the island, and is all open-air and fronting a beautiful with a view toward the main island. A launch from my hotel was at the airport to greet me, and I was taken across the lagoon to my hotel, the Eden Beach, which is also located on one of the motu on the east side of the island. I can truthfully say that as the boat docked at the Eden's pier, I thought I had arrived on "Fantasy Island". The lagoon is impossible shades of blue and green, and the white, coral sand beach was blinding in the sunlight. Palms trees line the beach and a pool and bar area have a million dollar view of the lagoon with the main island of Bora Bora and its craggy green mountains in the background. I got checked in and was shown my beachfront bungalow, which shares the same view as the pool area. No refrigerator here, unfortunately, but a nice comfortable room nonetheless.
The setting of the hotel is important to picture; it is on a long motu (island) off the coast of the main island of Bora Bora. I had read that it was on the same motu as the much larger Le Meridien Hotel, so I assumed I could always walk over there and sample their restaurants, shops, etc. My hotel has 14 units, only about 4 of which were occupied on the day I arrived. There is a restaurant, and a pool, and that is truly it. Nothing else at all. There is a free shuttle boat that takes you to the main island, but it leaves only 4 times each day: 8:30 AM, or 2, 3, or 5 PM. You may order a shuttle at another time, but it will cost about 6 dollars each way.

My first stop was the hotel restaurant for lunch. To my surprise I soon realized that of the three waitresses who seemed to be running everything, two were men... either transvestites or transsexuals. I later determined after doing some reading in my tour books and having a discussion with a New Zealander I met a day or two later that these people are referred to as "mahu". In Hawaii this term is a derogatory name for gays, like "faggot"; in Polynesia it refers to a "third sex". Mahu may dress and live as women out of a natural orientation, but in some cases boys who are born into a large family where there are already many boys may be chosen to be raised as a girl (mahu) from birth. According to my New Zealand source, these mahu are given a very special high status in the culture, but find life very difficult if they move to places like Auckland or Sydney where they are considered "freaks". I wonder how boys whose natural inclination is to be masculine and heterosexual must deal with this, especially when they reach puberty. Definitely an interesting discussion for my Human Sexuality course.

Anyway, this all caught me slightly off guard and I had my lunch wondering what it was going to be like to stay here. After lunch I caught the shuttle to the main island, and by now it was raining. When I reached the other side, I wandered around the dock area only to discover that there was nothing there except for a car and bike rental agency. No stores, no restaurants... nothing! The only substantial town is on the other side of the island and there is no public transport.

With the rain, I decided that renting a bike wasn't a great idea, so I caught the shuttle over to Le Meridien and figured I could walk from there back along the motu to my hotel. The Meridien is a beautiful, 5 star hotel, with the stereotypical overwater bungalows you see on TV and in movies. However, there was not much in the way of shops or anything to see, so I decided to begin the walk back toward my hotel. After several minutes of walking northward, the paved trails of Le Meridien vanished and I followed what appeared to be an established trail, but the farther I walked, the less developed the trail was. And then the rain started again... hard. I headed eastward across the motu to the ocean side and followed a gravel path for awhile, but that soon gave way to a rough coral path that was difficult to walk on. And there was little cover from trees to keep the rain off, so I zigzagged west again, back to the lagoon side. The trail got rougher, and soon small shacks that seemed abandoned cropped up in the dense foliage around me.
"Tabu!" (keep out) signs were plentiful, but by now I had been walking almost 45 minutes and figured the hotel could not be too much farther away. At some points the trail vanished entirely and I had no option but to walk into the warm lagoon and wade in water as high as my waist for many yards with my backpack over my head to keep it dry! At one point I came to another shack (and I began to realize that these were temporary quarters used by local fishermen) that was guarded by several barking dogs. Back into the lagoon I went for a long time until the barking was far enough in the distance for me to feel safe "coming ashore" again. Many times I was startled by things moving in the brush, and knowing there are no snakes on these motus I wondered what they were. Finally, I got a good look at one... they were huge crabs, the size of Alaskan king crabs! And then there were these plants that are covered in little sharp-tipped seeds that cling to your clothes and skin. Some of them got on my leg, and I thoughtlessly tried to sweep them off with my hand, only to have one embed itself in my thumb causing much pain and considerable bleeding! As if this weren't exciting enough, two thunderous explosions occurred off in the distance, but they were not thunder. I figured, "Wonderful. Perhaps the French have resumed their nuclear testing here!"

After 1 hour and 30 minutes I made it to the Eden Beach, soaking wet and exhausted. I showered and napped, and then went to the restaurant for what turned out to be a lousy and very expensive dinner. One of the mahu, Anastasia, urged me to return at 9:00 for the Polynesian dance show that she and her "girlfriend" were doing, but I reclusively hid in my bungalow, watching the rain from my porch. I have seldom felt so completely isolated. A rather odd hotel staff, a handful of solely French speaking guests, no easy transport off the motu and nowhere to GO if you could get off the motu! I went out on the beach and stole a scene from the movie "Castaway", screaming, "Wilson!!!!" several times out at the sea. (If you haven't seen the film, Wilson was a volleyball that was Tom Hanks' only companion during his time on a deserted tropical island. He talked to Wilson as if he were a real person as a way of staying sane. At this point, I could really relate!)

The following day I woke up early and decided I'd escape to the main island and rent a bike for the day, so I caught the 8:30 shuttle. But as the boat approached the shore, rain bucketed from the skies. No biking today. The basic rental car cost about 85 dollars for 8 hours (no air conditioning, manual transmission and no radio!), but I was desperate. I also learned as I signed the contract that they have a $2,000 deductible if you have an accident. But when I asked if I could purchase any additional insurance coverage to reduce my liability, I was told "no" quite matter of factly. Great. Thank God there are no kangaroos to hit on this island!

Risk taker that I am, I rented the car anyway, but kept it for only 6 hours and returned it early... I circled the whole island twice and there was simply nothing else to see! There were a couple of nice views along the way, many exclusive hotels that allow no public access, very few shops or galleries. For such a tourist destination, I am amazed at how little there is to offer.
I did have the good fortune to run into the newlyweds John and Erica whom I'd met at Club Bali Hai on Moorea, so we decided to meet at a famous restaurant called "Bloody Mary's" that evening for dinner. At least I'd have some companionship, and the restaurant provided a free shuttle for me! Before I left the main island that afternoon, I stopped at a general store in town and stocked up on some snacks to eat for the next day. I had decided I would just try and make the most of things and spend the next day at the hotel taking advantage of the lagoon, the beach and the solitude.

Back at Eden Beach that afternoon I chatted a bit with the French woman who manages the property. She seems bitter and disgruntled, and it became quite obvious that she hated being on Bora Bora... all the more interesting when you learn that her previous hotel job was in Nigeria!!! She had a look in her eyes that said, "Get me off this rock" and complained that there is nothing to do, no reliable phone or e-mail service, etc. I almost laughed when I asked her how long she'd been there... only 8 months! I said, "Well, it is a beautiful place,” and she replied, "It has the lagoon... that is all". I half-expected her to break into a chorus of Shania Twain's song... "So you have a lagoon... that don't impress me much!"

Dinner that night at Bloody Mary's was fun and I felt excitement and relief knowing that I was going out for dinner, though Anastasia seemed disappointed. This restaurant has been frequented by many Hollywood celebrities, and the daily fresh fish catches are displayed on ice. The fish is cooked to order on the grill, and my calamari steak and ahi tuna were amazingly good, though of course, tres expensive! And John and Erica were fun company, though that woman never let him get a word in edgewise. Poor John. They only got married a few weeks ago and I tried to imagine listening to Erica's voice for the next 50 years and a feeling of sadness swept over me.

I got back to the hotel at 10:30 PM, with my shuttle boat driver taking me across the dark and treacherously shallow lagoon holding only a flashlight in front of him for navigation! It rained hard all night long with strong gusts of wind, and it was still raining so hard when I woke up at 7AM that I stayed in bed and went back to sleep for another 3 hours!

By noon it had finally stopped raining, and I ordered a picnic lunch to go from Anastasia, and then went hiking along the outer edge of the motu. The open ocean with a couple of distant islands in the background were beautiful and I made a bit of peace with this place. I had my walk and my picnic and then I went back to the hotel and took out a sea kayak for several hours. The lagoon is so shallow that you can walk easily 1/2 mile out and be in water only up to your knees, so the swimming is not great. But the water is flat and calm, so it was easy to paddle the kayak and I had a nice time exploring the coast and then paddling out to where the lagoon deepens so I could hop into the water for a real swim.

For my final evening on Bora Bora, I arranged a shuttle over to Le Meridien (I had had quite enough of that lovely walk along the motu, thank you!) to attend their Polynesian Buffet and dinner show. The food was only fair, although there was a lot of fresh shrimp and sushi as appetizers and I really enjoyed those. The show was put on by several local families, and was very nice, though it was tarnished a bit by people with their cameras and video cameras. It amazes me how people are so busy trying to get a shot of the dancers or get the right camera angle that they don't focus on the event itself. When they watch the video they created once they get back home it'll be the first time they actually see the dance because they were much too busy to have experienced it live. This drives me crazy!

Anyway, I got recruited to dance with one of the young vahines (girls) for one number that involved me taking on a surfing posture and clacking my knees together in time with the beat of the music. Luckily no one took a movie of THAT! Those hula lessons I took a couple years ago paid off! Actually the Tahitian music and dance is a bit different from Hawaiian - far more reliance on drums and rhythm and I would say far less emphasis on melody. Speaking of Tahitian music, I heard "interesting" Tahitian versions of Cher's "Believe", and a medley of the Bee Gees' songs "Massachusetts" and "Words" done to a Tahitian beat by local artists! It is a small world after all! I also heard a Tahitian version of "Hotel California"... that song sure has haunted me during this trip!

I returned to my hotel around 11, and it was a beautiful night with no rain. Everyone was asleep. I got my walkman and one of my favorite Hawaiian music CD's and dragged a lounge chair right to the lagoon's edge so my feet could dangle in the water. I listened to my music and watched the sky as clouds parted and exposed a brilliant star or two before hiding them once again. I watched shells on the beach moving all around me... tiny crabs lug them around on their backs, but it is really amazing to see literally dozens of shells moving in chaotic patterns all around you; Mother Nature playing her own version of "The Shell Game". After almost an hour, lightning started in the distance and I watched as the storm came gradually closer. I could see the beautiful central peak of Bora Bora's main island illuminated for an instant against the lightning flashes. This was the experience I'd wanted when I dreamed of coming to Tahiti, and at least I managed to find it on my last night. Still, the Hawaiian music made me long to get back to my beloved islands again. I have such a strange pull to the Hawaiian islands, the culture and the music that it sometimes makes me wonder if there may be something to the idea of reincarnation or past lives. I thought of how the ancient Tahitians left Bora Bora in search of freedom from the controlling and violent religious practices there. While I sat on that beautiful beach I thought about glad I was to have experienced something of this strange and magical place, Bora Bora. But I also felt ready to go, and I am so happy that a conference this summer will take me back to Hawaii, where I really belong.

On Saturday, my flight back over to Papeete wasn't until 5PM, but the Eden Beach staff graciously allowed me a 4PM check-out time, so I did a LONG kayaking trip in the morning and lounged around the beach much of the day. Finally at 4PM, my bag was loaded onto the shuttle and off we sped to the motu where the airport is located, and within an hour I was back on the main island of Tahiti. Since my flight back to the U.S. was not until 2:35 AM Sunday, I had 8 hours to spend, so I stored my bags and caught Le Truck into downtown Papeete. My opinion didn't change all that much... it is not a very pleasant town, but I did take advantage of the Roulottes, a group of trucks and vans that park and serve meals in the main square for 1/3 to 1/2 what you'd spend in a restaurant. I had a delicious fish in Roquefort sauce, with fries, bread, and a chocolate orange dessert crepe for about $20 total. That seems so expensive given that you are eating on a stool in front of an open van, but it is so cheap compared to what you have to pay for everything on these islands. I truly felt as if I were just taking fists full of money and throwing them into the air the whole time I was there. It truly is outrageous, and only rarely does the quality of what you receive justify the cost.

It was hot, steamy, loud and obnoxious in Papeete, and as the night got later, there were more and more roving bands of guys drinking, so I hopped on Le Truck and returned to the airport by 11PM. I got checked in and resigned myself to the long 3 hour wait. After a bit of searching I found a comfortable couch to recline on and tried to catch a little sleep. Just as I felt myself slipping into a welcome slumber, I heard a loud voice shout, "Matt! How was Bora Bora?" It was Al, the Magician of Mystery, who just like the chocolate sauce smear on my left hand, appeared seemingly out of nowhere! He really didn't wait for an answer, and launched into a long description of all his trials and tribulations on Moorea where he'd spent the entire time.
Finally it was time to board the plane, with an 8 hour flight to Los Angeles. Getting through U.S. Customs was not as bad as I expected and I actually was able to go stand-by on an earlier flight to San Francisco, where my roommate Bernie met me at the airport around 6PM.

So I am now home, on my own computer, and in my own house... at least for 10 days. I can't believe that I leave for Boston on April 16 and for Italy on the 22nd. I can't believe that my six week Pacific adventure is over. But what a time it has been, and it has left me with so much to think about and remember.
First and foremost, I feel incredible fortunate to have been able to make this journey... what an amazing opportunity. I also am even more aware of how luck we all are to live where we do; I have seen so much poverty, people with so little, living in conditions we could never tolerate, and doing so with seemingly such good humor and contentment. I was also reminded how truly self-sufficient I can be; after such an adventure I am left with the feeling that I can handle just about anything that comes my way, and that is always a good thing to be reminded of. (Can I remember this when my sabbatical is over and I must return to grading that stack of mostly awful student papers that cover my desk?) I was seldom lonely on the trip; however, I did wish at many points that certain people could be with me to experience certain aspects of the trip that I know they'd have loved. When I did get lonely it was usually when I was around groups of couples and really felt like the odd man out.

To my dismay I found that even with a 6 week long time to just be off duty and relax, there never seemed to be much time to just "be". Just like home, at the end of a day I'd crawl into bed too tired to floss my teeth and tell myself I'd do it tomorrow... or the next day... Where will I ever find time to learn my Italian or French, or to write that novel I long to create? (well, maybe I have a start on the novel after all these long letters...)

So to wind things up... the Matt Davis awards for various aspects of the trip go something like this:

Friendliest People: Thailand (The Balinese, the Aussies, and the Kiwis were all wonderful, but there is something special about the Thai and their quiet, sweet manner.

Best Wildlife Experience: Petting and holding the various animals at Kangaroo Island, Australia and swimming with the stingrays in Tahiti.

Most Amazing Scenery: New Zealand, though Bora Bora is an amazing sight, especially from the air.

Most Exotic Locale: Bali. Such a wonderful mix of strange and wonderful sights, sounds, smells and sensations.

Favorite Hotel: Honeymoon Guesthouse in Ubud, Bali. Honorable mention: Wentworth Sydney, and yes, the Eden Beach Bora Bora... it really was an amazing spot.

Best Food Overall: New Zealand

Most Memorable Meals: Sweet Potato Gnocchi in Cairns, Australia; the Emu and Black Bean Sauce in Sydney, and the 5 course Vietnamese dinner in Bangkok (thanks for the recommendations Brian & LeeAnn!)

Biggest Disappointments: Tahiti (could you have guessed this?) and Melbourne, Australia.

Favorite Cities: Sydney, with a very honorable mention to Auckland, NZ

Place I'd Most Want to Return To: Tough, but I think New Zealand, and it's interesting since this was the place I was least enthusiastic about at the start of my trip.

Biggest Frustration: Cost and accessibility of e-mail.

Worst Moments: Hitting the kangaroo in Australia; the shark feeding in Tahiti.

Missed Most About Life at Home: Good, strong and bottomless cups of coffee, free ketchup, ice-cold drinks, TV (though not as much as you might expect).

Ok, I think it's time for me to call it a day. It's midnight and I had only 4 hours of sleep on the plane. Thank you all for staying in touch and being such a great audience for my ramblings. It's easy to travel the world when you know you have people who love and care about you back home and around the world.