Sometimes, I’m going through life doing something completely mundane when all of a sudden my brain becomes aware of a song and I’m instantly transported to a different place and time. This happened yesterday as I was completing an overdue monthly expense report for my employer. I heard the high hat and the keyboards and started bopping in my chair. In came the bass, and I turned up the volume on my headphones without even realizing what I was doing. I started singing the first chorus before I became aware of the sound coming out of my mouth.
Sidebar – this happens all the time, much to the annoyance of my former cubicle neighbors when I used to work in the cube farm. “I’m sure you think you have a lovely voice, but it’s very distracting when you sing at your desk.” Um, well, I actually do have a good voice, but most of the time when I’m singing at my desk at work, I really don’t notice that I’m doing it. I’ll try not to listen to music but you screaming into your phone is a distraction too! Is it any wonder I didn’t last there?
Back to the story…
When this happened yesterday, I was transported from my home office in Waterford, New York, USA, to the house on Mirramar Park in Blackmans Bay, Tasmania, Australia. I was sixteen years old in September 1990 when my host brother, Mike, blared the song at 6:45 AM and yelled at me to get out of bed. I remember the moment because it was one of the few mornings I did not get up before Mike to get ready for school.
This memory sparked another memory – February 15 is Mike’s birthday! A glance at the clock and some quick calculations and I realized it was already February 15 in Australia. I left a quick note on Mike’s Facebook page, sharing my musical memories and birthday wishes. He replied this morning (well, morning for me but I’m guessing he’s heading to bed).
Denise – You are AWESOME! I still absolutely love that song!!! i will play it tomorrow to my 3 daughters in your honour! I love how the bass line kicks in half way through the bar on the off beat…gold!
I love that music can be a universal language, connecting me to friends and family who happen to be on the other side of the world. Some people associate memories with food or scents. I know someone whose memories are triggered by clothes. But my memories have always been sparked by music.
The song that served as my memory spark this time was Modern Times by Daryl Braithwaite. Included on his album Rise, it is a staple on my “Aussie Tunes” playlist. I’ve listened to it hundreds of times, but yesterday I was struck by the second verse. Though the song was released twenty-seven years ago, the lyrics are still relevant.
Somebody pulls the trigger, while somebody waits to get hit
Somebody freezes in the winter, and I’m complaining about the heat
Nobody listens these days, though they’ve all got something to say
I’m singing songs about waiting, and you’ll come back some day
Now I need to go listen to the song again. You can listen to it too, in honor of Mike’s birthday.
Twenty five years ago the night before I left my hometown for Australia to complete my year as an exchange student, I received the best advice from a family friend. As he gave me a hug, he encouraged me to make the most of the opportunities on my upcoming journey.
Whatever you are asked to do, any invitation you receive – say yes. Do it all. You never know if you’ll get another chance.
I have tried to live by that motto as much as possible. Saying yes has brought me challenges, but it has also afforded me opportunities I never could have imagined.
Last June, I received an invitation to return to Tasmania. The invitation came in an email from James, a Tasmanian Rotarian I met as an exchange student.
Would you be interested and able to be a speaker at the Tasmanian District Conference from 22 – 22 March 2015?
YES!!! I didn’t even have to think for a fraction of a second about that one. In fact, I didn’t take a moment to think. I typed back an affirmative response right away, screaming and shouting as I whipped through my apartment in glee.
Only after five minutes of yelling did I realize what I had done. I meant YES with every fiber of my being, but making the trip a reality would take months of planning and work. I sent another more rational email to James explaining how I would need to do more planning before giving a definitive answer. James’ reply was brief and all the encouragement I needed:
Great things don’t just happen = people make them happen, so keep planning.
I printed out the note, highlighted it in bright yellow and pasted it above my computer screen. I knew I had the ability to make this happen, and so did James because twenty-five years ago he was involved in another adventure of mine which required planning to happen.
One of the highlights of my year as an exchange student was the Capricorn Ramble. This trip took me and eighty-four other exchange students around half of the continent of Australia in three and a half weeks. That’s right – two tour buses of teenagers from around the world traveling across the continent for twenty-four days, pitching tents each night in caravan parks and campgrounds.
Sounds brilliant, no?! When you are seventeen, it IS a brilliant experience.
I almost didn’t get to participate in the adventure. The Rotarians on the Youth Exchange Committee in Tasmania expressed doubts about my ability to ‘manage’ and participate in the tour because of my disability. Their intentions were well-meant, but I perceived this attitude as paternalistic and discriminatory. My fellow exchange students rallied around me, devising a plan to assist me and threatening to boycott the trip if I were not permitted to go with them. Their acceptance and support allowed me to fully experience the entire year, including the mainland trip, along with everyone else.
Trips like our Capricorn Ramble are only possible because Rotarian gluttons for punishment volunteers serve as chaperones. The Tasmanian chaperones for our trip were James and his wife Kathy.
From the first day, James and Kathy allowed me to be in control of my own needs. They allowed me to find my own assistants and schedule help as I saw fit. They never hovered or spoke out with unnecessary concern. Basically, they treated me just like every other exchange student – which was what I wanted and deserved.
At the end of the tour, I thanked both James and Kathy for giving me the independence to determine for myself what was possible and not possible. Some chaperones may have treated me as ‘ill’ or ‘fragile.’ Instead, they let me set my own path and find a way to make it happen.
So, when James issued the invitation to return to Tasmania I was confident he knew I would be up to the challenge to make it a reality. Once again his belief in my abilities provided a boost of confidence.
James, I am so grateful for the invitation to return to Tasmania. You allowed me to share my story of living without limits with the men and women who changed my life when they said “yes” to me twenty-five years ago. I appreciate your support in making the trip a reality. I promise, when you and Kathy come to New York (and I hope you will) I won’t make you stay in tents when I play tour guide.
I was introduced to Bill Brundle on the radio. His voice came on the Australian Broadcast Corporation (ABC) newscast every hour. I first heard him while my host parents were driving me to tour the school I would be attending as an exchange student.
It took me several weeks before I realized the Bill on ABC was the same Bill I saw each week at Rotary meetings. Hannah, the other exchange student also hosted by my host club, Kingston Rotary, was living with the Brundles. Bill answered the phone when I called to invite her to a party. I think I blurted out something like, “You’re the radio guy!” He laughed, thank goodness. He may not remember that call, but I do.
Bill and his wife Lyn invited me to their house while Hannah was still living with them. Hannah had talked about her host siblings Samantha, David and Solomon every time we were together. We had a wonderful dinner with plenty of conversation. I think Lyn was worried it may have been a little noisy, but coming from a large family myself I thought it was just like home.
Bill also gave me the opportunity to tour the ABC studio. At that time, I thought I might pursue a career in broadcast journalism. I had the chance to ask questions and observe a broadcast. It was a wonderful learning experience.
Because of Bill, I have remained connected to “my club” for the past twenty five years. Bill is the editor of the Kingston Rotary weekly bulletin. Each Friday morning, I wake up to an email from Bill with the latest update from the Club’s weekly meeting. I read about their fundraising efforts, their service projects, new members, their current exchange students and guest speakers. Sometimes the bulletins include updates from other former exchange students. I’ve never met them, but I feel a bond knowing we all had the privilege of being hosted by this amazing group.
Bill has been a dedicated and active Rotarian for several decades. He served as Team Leader on a Group Study Exchange to areas of the United States in 1997 and was District Governor for the Tasmanian District (9830) in 1999.
When the Kingston club agreed to host me, they made an arrangement of reciprocity with my home club in Bainbridge, New York. Since Kingston accepted me, as student with a disability, Bainbridge agreed to host an Australian exchange student with a disability. Bill’s daughter Samantha was born with a rare congenital heart defect. Meeting me and observing my experience planted a seed in her head which would forever tie me to Bill and his family.
In 1995, Samantha came to New York on exchange. She lived with my parents for part of her year. During that time, she participated in many of my family dinners, just as I had as a guest with her family five years prior. My father, who is named Sam, was thrilled to have another “Sam” in the house. He still mentions his admiration for Samantha’s zest for life whenever we reminisce about that year.
Like my exchange experience, Samantha’s year would steer her in a course never imagined. Upon returning to Australia, she followed her love of photography – a passion developed here in an art class. She went on to work for Club Med before marrying the love of her life and settling in Sydney. Bill and Lyn were told at birth she would live just a few years. Again like me, she refused to conform to medical providers’ expectations and lived for decades until her death nine years ago.
As soon as I received the invitation to return to Tasmania, I emailed Bill and other Rotarians in Kingston. If I said yes, would they help me once again? Bill’s response came first – an enthusiastic yes!
In March, the day after I landed in Tasmania, Bill and Lyn were the first to arrive for a visit at my host parents’ house. Lyn was flying to Qatar to visit their grandchildren but she made time for coffee with me. I saw Bill again the following week when I was the guest speaker at Rotary. After my speech, we posed for a photo. I posed for many photos that night and each one is special to me. But the photo with Bill is one of my favorites. It captures the love and affection between friends in a natural embrace. I have it framed with other photos from my trip and look at each day with a smile.
Bill, I have always appreciated your support and belief in my abilities. On behalf of my parents and sisters, thank you for letting my family have your daughter as part of our family for a short time. Samantha taught all of us to live each day as fully as possible. She learned to reach for the stars from the lessons you and Lyn taught her. I will always be grateful for our shared connection. Thank you Bill (and Lyn!) for helping to make this return trip possible. As you know, there are many in New York who would welcome you with open arms should you come for a visit!
As soon as I received the invitation to speak in Australia, I began to think about who could accompany me on the trip. I would need someone able to physically perform the duties required of my Personal Assistants. I would also need someone who was available to take a two week trip to the other side of the world – someone who knew we would be gone for a set length of time and would not be coming back early, no matter what happened at home.
You might think it would be easy to find someone to take a two-week all expenses paid trip to Australia. At first, people were volunteering. But as I began to explain the requirements, they realized they would not be able to go. Some had small children and did not want to be away for two weeks. Some did not have enough vacation time at their jobs to take two weeks off. Some weren’t able to perform the required duties because of a back injury or other disability.
For me, it was important to find a travel partner with the right travel personality. I knew I would enjoy this trip no matter what. However, I knew I would enjoy it much less if my travel partner was full of anxiety, uncomfortable in various social settings and crowds, and unable to be flexible. In other words, I was looking for someone who was not “high maintenance.”
I didn’t begin to stress about the lack of a potential travel partner until September. While having dinner with my aunts, parents and sisters one day last fall, I made a comment about not having someone to accompany me on the trip. The next week, I got a text message from my cousin Kelly.
“Mom says you still need a travel partner for your Australia trip. I think I could do it – what do you think?”
What do I think?! I think this is the best news ever! I had never considered asking Kelly to go with me, which was silly considering I had been asking almost everyone else.
Kelly and I discussed the realities of the trip. I explained the LONG flight, the reason for the trip. where we would be staying, and what duties she would need to perform. I was very honest about my needs. Every time I mentioned something, Kelly’s response was, “Well, that won’t be a problem.”
Kelly is a nurse and works at a hospital in Phoenix, Arizona. Although she does not do direct patient care like toileting and bathing in her current job, she understands the basics – like how to perform a stand-pivot transfer in and out of a wheelchair. For me, finding someone who already knew the basics, who was used to providing assistance, took a layer of stress off the trip.
Although Kelly is my cousin, we have always lived on opposite sides of the country so we have never spent long amounts of time together. Several people questioned me before the trip, wondering how compatible we would be. I never worried about that because I know Kelly is an easy-going person who knows not to sweat the details she can’t control.
Kelly gave up two weeks of her life so I could fulfill a dream, and I will always be grateful. Since Kelly lives in Arizona, we met in Los Angeles to start our journey. I wheeled off the plane to see her standing with a smile and heard her say, “G’day! Isn’t that what they say?”
Kelly was the perfect travel partner – upbeat, flexible, positive, social and FUN! I never heard her complain during our trip, even when things didn’t go quite as expected. Kelly just went with the flow no matter what happened. She listened to me practice my speech multiple times, offering suggestions and feedback each time rather than just tuning me out. She helped me perform at my best at every event while still charming the people we met with her humor and kindness.
At the end of our journey, as Kelly and I parted in Los Angeles after our long flight back home across the Pacific, we both said “thank you” in unison. We laughed as we hugged, knowing each of us had learned from the other during our adventure.
Kelly – thank you so very much for sacrificing two weeks of your time and energy for me. Without you, this trip would not have happened. I would travel again with you anytime because of all the fun we had. I appreciate all the little things you did to make it easier for me to be at my best. You were calm when I needed calm, eager to try new things, and able to be “on” without warning. From our time together, I learned new ways to appreciate so many of life’s joys. Your generosity and appreciation for all creatures helped me view familiar sights with fresh insight. I’ll let you know when I’m ready to go back!
When I joined an online writing group last year, I had no idea what to expect. I had read horror stories from some other groups. I knew as a social person I would do well if I could connect with other positive people who were engaged in the same activity. I took a deep breath and posted an introductory note, hoping I was not making a mistake.
Tonia was the first to welcome me, to say hello and reach out with support. She does this consistently for new members. If I have questions, or need to share a moment of joy, Tonia is always there. Whenever group members are struggling, she is the voice of reason and encouragement. Tonia is honest but never malicious. Earlier this year, when I was overwhelmed by the positive response to one of my posts, Tonia sent me a note I now have taped to my screen. Writing is not about numbers; it’s about heart. The message keeps me grounded, and has helped me focus many times.
Tonia’s blog, The Vast and Inscrutable Imponderabilities of Life, is full of wit and honest observations about the wonder of life. Like many bloggers, Tonia is participating in the A to Z Challenge this month. She graciously offered me an opportunity to write a guest post. I asked for the letter “T.” My post on the Tasmanian devil appeared on her blog yesterday. If you are interested, you can read it by clicking this link. While you are there, please visit her other pages. Read her exquisitely written prose, and admire her gorgeous photography.
In the post I mention a photo from my days as an exchange student. I did not provide that photo for Tonia’s post, and of course another amazing writing friend commented on the lack of said photo. So, for Roslynn, here is the photo of me as an exchange student twenty five years ago holding a Tasmanian devil.
My trip to Australia ended last Saturday when Kelly and I flew back to the United States. We both set our alarms once again for another early morning. Ulla and Carlos helped us schlep our belongings down the hill to the train station. After repeated farewell hugs, Kelly and I boarded the train for the airport. The sunshine sparkled on the harbour as we rode out of the central business district. I watched the pedestrians walking to and from coffee shops, wishing I could spend just a few more days exploring with them.
The Qantas counter at the international terminal was very busy, with long queues for every check-in terminal. However, a very kind customer service agent pulled us aside and brought us straight to the counter. Brian, our friendly ticket agent, processed our luggage and I was relieved to see I was .3 kilograms under the weight restriction for my suitcase. He then walked us through security and escorted us right to the gate, where he arranged for me to receive a pre-flight latte upon boarding. I’m not saying you’ll get the same service if you fly with Qantas, but they provided us with many extras which weren’t expected.
I have flown many times and I am accustomed to giving the ground crew instructions on how to safely maneuver my body in and out of the aisle chair for transfers on and off the plane. Boarding the plane in Sydney was a new experience. Qantas uses an Eagle lift to help people who cannot walk. I have used a lift before for transfers on and off examination tables in doctor’s offices, and I knew some airlines were using lifts on planes, but prior to last Saturday I had never used one. To see a demonstration of the lift process you can watch the promotional video here.
The video makes the process look simple, which in theory it is. The harness is positioned behind the passenger’s back. The leg straps are positioned under the legs and then securely fastened to the hoist. The passenger’s wheelchair is moved into the lift and locked in place. The passenger is then lifted out of the wheelchair, suspended in the lift which is then wheeled down the aisle to the appropriate seat on the plane. The passenger is moved over the row of seats and slowly lowered. The video is approximately five minutes long, and if your transfer only takes five minutes it would be shorter than the time it took to transfer me on to the plane in Sydney.
My experience began when Jim came to introduce himself and explain the transfer process. Jim was training a new team member (Betsy? I can’t remember so I’ll call her that for now) and wanted to know if I was comfortable having an extra person participate. Because I was once a student clinician, and I believe people learn best by doing, I have always agreed to let people learn through me in medical settings. This was no different. Adding Betsy to the boarding party, it took four people to use the lift to get me to my seat. Boarding with an aisle chair takes two.
Fifty minutes before the flight was due to depart, Jim and Betsy came to bring me down to the plane. We were once again flying on an Airbus A380 so I drove my chair directly onto the plane and into the lower forward galley behind first class, in front of the economy section. (Note: If airline regulations permitted people with disabilities to sit in the exit row, I could have transferred directly into the aisle seat of the bulkhead row by the door and avoided the need for assistance from anyone other than Kelly. If the airlines let us stay in our wheelchairs like we can on every other mode of public transportation, I could have easily maneuvered my chair into a space. But that’s a discussion for another post.)
Jim then began demonstrating how to position the harness, instructing Betsy as he slid the harness behind me. Betsy was timid about lifting my legs to place the strap in the correct position. I told her not to be afraid, and showed her how to lift and move my legs.
As an aside – people always worry about hurting me when they help me for the first time or two. Don’t. I have a high tolerance for pain. It takes a lot to truly hurt me or cause an injury, should we ever be together and I ask you for assistance. You’re not going to hurt me. I appreciate the concern for my well-being, but I’m tougher than I look. End of complaint. Back to the lift.
Once Jim and Betsy had the harness correctly positioned, the two lift operators (I don’t know what else to call them) brought the hoist frame forward towards my chair. They hooked me to the hoist and slowly began lifting me from my chair. Kelly instructed Jim on how to disengage my wheelchair’s drive motors, placing my wheelchair in free wheel mode so it could be wheeled manually off the plane. The lift operators rotated the lift and wheeled me down the aisle to my seat.
The video I referenced above shows a smooth lateral transfer from the aisle to the seat. If my knees bent at ninety degrees, my lateral transfer out of the aisle to the seat probably would have been smooth too. But my knees don’t bend at ninety degrees, which meant Jim and Betsy had to try to hold my feet out of the way of the seat back in front of me in order to move me out of the aisle. And when they lowered me into the seat, my foot got caught on the tray table latch and the back of the harness got caught on the movable head rest. Thankfully, the lift operators listened to me as I instructed them on how to move me. I was eventually positioned comfortably in the seat and I was not hurt along the way.
The entire process of hooking me to the harness and completing the move took about eight minutes from start to finish. When I transfer using an aisle chair, I can do the entire process with two people (one to lift under the arms and one to lift under the legs) in about three minutes. That includes the time it takes to strap me in and out of the aisle chair.
The Eagle lift could be great for those people who are unable to be directly lifted by others. If someone regularly uses a lift at home for transfers, the Eagle lift might make it possible for them to fly when they have not been able to be assisted safely on/off the plane in the past. Using a lift could reduce the risk of injury to both passenger and the staff assisting them. But, given the option, I would rather just have two people lift me onto an aisle chair and then again into the seat.
My choice is not what everyone would choose, and I understand that the option which works for me may not be the best for everyone else. Would I like to see wider use of the lift by other airlines in other airports? You bet. Will I use it if it is available? Yes, but only if I have to because an aisle chair is not an option. Would I rather just have the opportunity to remain in my own wheelchair on an airplane, securely fastened with tie down straps as is currently done on buses and trains? Of course.
Our flight to Los Angeles was completely full. We shared our row of three seats with Jennifer, who expertly crawled over both Kelly and I using the armrests to get to her window seat. She was returning home to Florida from a trip to New Zealand. I settled in to watch movies, something I hardly ever do at home. After two long-haul flights, I am caught up on almost everything I wanted to see, with the exception of Lincoln, because I finally fell asleep after I started watching it.
The Qantas flights provided me with THE song which will forever remind me of this journey. I attach memory to music. I always have. I hear a song and I can tell you who it reminds me of and why. The “Aussie tunes” playlist on my iPod has 289 songs which bring me back to my previous times in Australia. I really didn’t listen to music during this trip, except for the long flights over the Pacific. Last year, Qantas launched a new advertising campaign featuring a version of the Randy Newman song, Feels Like Home, performed by Martha Marlow. The song played repeatedly over the airplane speakers as passengers boarded and disembarked the plane. One of the lift operators sang along with it as he moved me into my seat. It also played each time I activated the touch screen at my seat to select a new movie. Good job Qantas; the song now triggers memories of Australia. You can see the ad and listen to the song for yourself:
We departed Sydney on Saturday at 10:45 AM local time and landed in Los Angeles on Saturday at 6:15 AM local time, three and a half hours before we left. Well, not really. It was really 12:15 AM Sunday back in Australia. But when you travel you are supposed to adjust yourself to the time zone you are in, and I was smack in the middle of the day that never ends.
One thing which made this trip easier was the availability of family restrooms at many of our destinations. Kelly and I were able to have space for our belongings as well as space for my wheelchair near the commode when we used these public toilets. I also didn’t have to wonder who might be listening when I gave commands like, “No, move the left butt cheek further over.” The domestic and international terminals in Baltimore, Los Angeles, Melbourne and Sydney all have family restrooms. Family restrooms are especially useful if your personal assistant does not identify or present as the same gender as you. I was fortunate not to have to worry about this with Kelly, but I know several couples who choose certain airports for layovers because they know they will have access to a family restroom.
Kelly’s flight for Arizona left about an hour before my flight. While we were waiting for our domestic flights, I learned it was snowing back home. In fact, many friends and family took great delight in letting me know I would be coming back to snow. I was not amused but then again, I had been bragging about my adventure in warmth and sunshine for two weeks so the ribbing was probably due.
Thankfully, I slept for most of my flight to Baltimore. When we landed, I confirmed my arrival with my sister Sandy who was picking me up at the airport. Unfortunately, we were delayed leaving Baltimore. I finally arrived in Albany on Saturday, 10:15 PM local time, twenty seven and a half hours after departing Sydney that morning.
I wish I could tell you how wonderful it was to be home, in my own apartment. But my homecoming was not good. There was snow on the ground, it was cold, and the apartment repairs and maintenance which were to take place in my absence were not completed. I returned to a mess, piles of boxes, and a botched paint job in my bathroom. The property managers and I have since taken steps to ensure all of the work will be done within the next week. But the state of my apartment upon my return, combined with fatigue, jet lag and the depression from leaving Australia, caused a massive midnight meltdown.
However, I will not let the current situation take away from what was an AMAZING experience. My Australian adventure was all I hoped it would be, and more than I dreamed. I connected with old friends and “family,” forged new relationships, visited beautiful locations, ate great food, drank great wine, and made memories which will keep me going until the next visit. Because there will be a next visit. I don’t know how, and I don’t know when. But it will happen.
I appreciate all of you who have read my travel journals for the past few weeks. I started this blog last year so I could learn the mechanics of blogging before this trip. What a joy it was to be able to share my adventure with those at home and around the world. I am grateful for your comments and reactions through the trip. I will archive these posts into an Australia 2015 page at some point. Next week I will return to regular blogging. And then I think it will be time to start the book I promised my sister Mary Jane I would write.
**Today’s post is brought to you by my wonderful cousin and travel partner, Kelly. Kelly – you volunteered to join me on this adventure and made it possible for me to travel back to Australia. I am so grateful and happy you were able to be a part of this trip. It would not have been the same fantastic experience without you. I’ll keep working on New Zealand!
Last Friday morning Kelly and I woke to our final full day in Australia. I knew two weeks would pass with lightening speed, and my attempts to slow time have never worked so I don’t know why I thought this trip would be any different.
We met Ulla and Carlos in the hotel lobby and walked to the GPO Grand for breakfast. The GPO Grand is a collection of restaurants, bars and entertainment venues located at the former Sydney General Post Office. This historic building was opened in 1874, relatively old by Australian standards. We found an outside table at the Intermezzo Cafe which gave us a great view of the plaza where they were setting up for a military memorial service. The Market Street side of the building has steps, but the GPO is wheelchair accessible via a ramp on Pitt Street. Once off street level, you can wheel around to the outside of the building, as we did, or continue up another ramp to enter the atrium.
Carlos left us for a meeting after breakfast, which left Ulla, Kelly and me free to spend a leisurely day shopping and exploring Sydney. I am not a shopper. I am the person who goes to a store with an idea of what I want or need to buy. I get frustrated if I can’t find what I am looking for quickly and easily. I hate spending time having to go through racks and racks when I am know what I want. The idea of spending an afternoon shopping for the sake of just seeing if I can find something is close to my definition of torture.
Wandering the pedestrian mall in Sydney, I had one goal: a new Country Road tote bag. These canvas tote bags have been my ‘go-to’ bags since I bought my first one in Melbourne in January, 1991. That khaki green bag lasted until my second trip to Australia in 1996, when I dragged Ulla into a Country Road store to buy a replacement blue bag. After nineteen years, my trusty tote now has tiny holes at the seams and is past ready for retirement. Yes, I know I could just go online and buy a replacement bag. I could easily find a different bag at home. There are many stores which sell canvas tote bags. But if I’m going to Australia, I have to return home with a Country Road tote bag. I’m sure there is a rule for that. Besides, I needed a larger bag for my carry-on for the flights home. So, as soon as I spotted the Country Road store, I was in like Flynn and on the hunt. After searching every level, we found a wall of tote bags right next to the door. I am now the proud owner of a new navy blue tote bag. I reckon this one will last until my next trip.
As an exchange student, I took a trip to Melbourne with a fellow exchangee, Susan, from Canada. We spent a great afternoon in the Melbourne David Jones shop. We went directly to the foodhall and ate our way through samples, finding foods from home (crispy dill pickles and real maple syrup) which we purchased with glee. We also treated ourselves to a trip to the salon. It was, up until that point, the best haircut of my life.
When we saw the David Jones store last Friday, I convinced Kelly and Ulla we should go inside to find the foodhall. We tasted our way through the displays, sampling chocolates, cheeses, chutney and fruit. I discovered these adorable penguin chocolates which sounded yummy (white mango ganache liqueur – because the sign is blurry when you take photos through the display case) but decided they were better off staying behind the glass at $130 (Aus) per kilo. In addition to a tempting array of chocolates, the foodhall also has an oyster bar, a sushi bar and a wine bar. I could be converted to shopping if every store had a wine bar. Although they probably have some rule about not letting you take the wine out of the bar area.
We left the store and found ourselves near the Sydney Tower. Since it was a clear day, we decided to take a trip up to the observation deck. The tower is the tallest building in Sydney, standing at 309 meters (1013 feet). There is an outside observation deck, the Skywalk, but we stayed inside behind the glass. Trivia fact: there are 420 windows on the tower and they are cleaned by a semi-automatic cleaning machine named Charlie. It takes Charlie two days to clean all the windows.
The views from the observation deck were spectacular! There were no clouds, so we could see for miles – towards the Blue Mountains, Botany Bay and out to the ocean. We pointed out our hotel and watched airplanes leaving the airport. On a clear day, it is worth the elevator ride.
We decided the afternoon was too nice to say inside, so Kelly and I went to claim a space in Hyde Park while Ulla went to grab “lunch.” Hyde Park was verdant green and filled with people enjoying their mid-day break from work. I was basking in the sun when I heard Kelly calling to me. I walked up the hill and discovered a lively chess game taking place in the dappled sunlight.
Kelly and I sat in the shade, watching the chess game and waiting for Ulla. After a few minutes, she returned from her trip to Lorraine’s Patisserie with the most divine flourless chocolate cake. I am not much of a cake person, mainly because I don’t like sickly sweet icing. But this cake – oh my! It was moist, with a perfect crumb, and swirls of dark chocolate on top. The three of us easily polished off half of the small cake while sitting on the steps behind the chess game. It was the perfect “lunch.” If you are visiting Sydney using a wheelchair and want to try some of Lorraine’s baked deliciousness for yourself, bring an able-bodied friend. Ulla said the shop is very tiny, and she is not certain a wheelchair user would have much success. I was quite willing to let her battle the crowds. Ulla and Carlos had been talking about Lorraine’s cakes since we arrived in Sydney. After having one, now I know why.
Andrew joined us once again on Friday night. We played tourist and joined the crowds at The Opera Bar for wine in the evening sunshine. There was a cruise ship in port, lit up against the city skyline. The bar gets crowded, and I was nominated to be “line leader” and clear us a path when we decided to walk back to The Rocks for dinner after dark. One of the staff saw me and decided to help us push through the crowds. Half-way through, he turned around and said, “You probably do quite well at this on your own, don’t you?” Yes, I do. But it’s nice to let someone else get the looks of annoyance now and then.
I live with my disability and the gradual changes in my physical abilities every day. I am aware of the decline as time passes, but the differences aren’t forefront in my mind. However, friends who only see me occasionally often comment on these changes. Andrew and Ulla have never known me to use a power wheelchair because I used a manual chair on both of my previous trips to Australia. Both of them made comments about my increased independence, and the change in our interactions caused by the improved mobility I now have with a power chair. I will have to spend some time thinking about this for a more in-depth discussion in a future blog post.
We said good-night to Andrew in the hotel lobby after posing for several more photos, and went upstairs to finish packing. I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect ending to my Australian adventure than to spend two days with great friends, in a beautiful city, with brilliant weather.
**This post is brought to you by my dear friend Ulla. Ulla – you made it possible for us to spend another two phenomenal days together in Sydney. Thank you so much for everything you and Carlos did to give Kelly and I a fantastic end to our trip. It’s your turn to come see me! And bring Andrew!
Kelly and I both set our alarms for last Thursday so we would wake in time to be ready for our early morning ride to the airport. The morning was gloomy, cloudy and wet, which matched my mood. We got ready and I tried not to focus on the impending farewells.
I hate saying goodbye to Tasmania. I cry each time I leave the island. At the end of my exchange year, there were fifteen people at the airport to see me off. I cried deep, wracking sobs for the entire flight to Melbourne. I stopped crying once we landed and pulled myself together so I could transfer to my flight to Sydney. As soon as I was on the plane, I proceeded to weep for the next flight as well. When I visited Tasmania in 1996, I cried when I left but only during take-off and the first half of my flight to Sydney.
Thursday morning we said goodbye to Rae at the house because she was spending the day babysitting her grandchildren. I cried at the house and most of the way to the airport. I started crying again when Malcolm said goodbye to us at the airport before he left for a meeting. Jill, a Kingston Rotarian, was dropping her son-in-law at the airport so she waited with us until we were able to board our flight. Once we were settled on the plane, I cried a third time as we taxied down the runway.
I’m pretty certain most people don’t cry when they leave Tasmania. But as much as I want to ignore the everyday difficulties created by my disability, the fact is I may not be able to travel here again. That thought breaks my heart. Then I remember I’ve had that same thought twice before in my life, and twice before I was wrong. None of us can predict the future.
Leaving Tasmania last week was made easier because instead of coming straight home, Kelly and I had planned two days in Sydney with some of my friends. As an exchange student, my closest friend was Ulla. We were in a few of the same classes at school and spent much of our free time together. Ulla now lives in Brisbane and as soon as I knew I would be returning to Australia, I made plans to see her.
Ulla was waiting for us at the gate when we got off the plane. I was instantly transported back twenty five years. People talk about having friendships where you can go for years and not see someone but pick up where you left off as soon as you see them again. Ulla and I have that friendship. We haven’t seen one another in nineteen years, yet as soon as we hugged each other we were exactly where we had been before.
The sky was a brilliant blue, and the weather was warm. I started shedding layers as soon as we got on the train. Traveling from the airport into the city is very easy, although the day we arrived one of the elevators in the domestic terminal station was out of order. As a result, we had to take the train in the opposite direction to the international terminal station and then transfer over to the train we really wanted. If you use a wheelchair and cannot pop a wheelie to cross the gap, you will need to use the bridge plate to board the train. Transit staff were timely with the plate and accommodating at every station. There are several accessible spaces on each train.
We found our hotel, the Amora Jamison, and dropped our bags in our room before heading out to lunch. If you need a wheelchair accessible hotel in Sydney, room 502 is very nice. The bathroom is HUGE – one of the largest I have ever seen in a hotel. There is plenty of room next to and in front of the toilet. I don’t use a hoist lift, but if you did, you would have ample space in this room. The pedestal sink is at a usable height, and the faucets can easily be operated with a closed fist for those with reduced dexterity. The only drawback is the lack of counter space. There is a wheeled shelf which you can position wherever it is most convenient for you. The bench in the roll-in shower is a bit low, but that is a minor draw back to what is a very comfortable room. The staff were willing to remove one of the armchairs so we had more floor space near the bed. We even had a nice view of the Menzies clock and Wynyard Park.
Ulla’s boyfriend, Carlos, met us and we walked down to Circular Quay for lunch. Kelly and I both love people watching and you can definitely spend some time sitting along the water doing this. But, we had a destination in mind! So, we continued to follow the Sydney Writer’s Walk towards the Sydney Opera House. The Writer’s Walk is series of plaques set into the walkway around Circular Quay. They feature excerpts of the author’s writing and a brief biography. Some of the plaques are out of date, as they were installed in the 1990’s and indicate some authors are still alive. But for someone who regularly looks down as she rolls along, it was fun to have something to read along the way.
The Opera House is situated on Bennelong Point in Sydney Harbour. When you walk to the Opera House, you can see the Sydney Harbour Bridge to your left. Last Thursday, both the Opera House and bridge were gleaming in the sunshine.
You can take tours of the Opera House, which Ulla and I did the last time we visited in 1996. We were fortunate to hear the Sydney Symphony rehearsing Tchaikovsky during our tour. Last week we just walked around the building, taking in the sunshine and the lovely blue sky and water. From the walkway we could see people in the Royal Botanic Gardens and curiously watched as a Cadbury egg display was erected across the street (we never did figure out what exactly was happening there).
There were boats and kayaks out on the water. Ferries went by with regularity while we played tourist and snapped many photos. I have a photo of Ulla and I at the Opera House on my wall. We took another one last week which I’m sure will find its way into a frame as well.
Carlos made us stage a group selfie, which took more time than it probably required, and the end result has become one of my favorite memories of the day. I laugh each time it comes up in my random photo screen saver on my computer at home.
Since all four of us had very early mornings, we decided to take a rest before dinner. Kelly and I took advantage of the hotel WiFi to contact home and share some updates. I eagerly sought out updates from the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. Usually, I take a day off from work to watch early tournament games with my friend Theresa. I love the close games and the excitement of upsets. I like them better when I manage to pick the winners, which doesn’t happen too often. This year I appear to be doing fairly well!
Another friend from my Tasmanian school days, Andrew, lives in Sydney and joined us for dinner. We walked to The Rocks and found an Italian restaurant with an available courtyard table. We laughed and reminisced, wondering what became of so and so, and playing “where do you think they are now” over dinner.
As Kelly and I collapsed in bed, I reflected on all of the amazing events of the past two weeks. I was able to see everyone I wanted to see, and met so many new friends. We explored beautiful areas, and captured some great photos. I can honestly say I have no regrets about my time in Tasmania, other than I wish I could have stayed longer.
** This post is brought to you by Carole. Carole shares my love of nature and knows how important it is for everyone to be able to access natural spaces. Carole – thank you for making it possible for me to experience this adventure. I appreciate your support!
Last week Wednesday, the morning of my final full day in Tasmania was bright and crisp. The sunrise over the Derwent River was sparkling peach and pink. We had planned for a relatively quiet day, but even quiet days can be filled with unexpected surprises.
Before I went to Tasmania, I made a list of “people I want to see.” By the time I got to Wednesday, the only person left on my list was Phil. Every Rotary exchange student has a Rotarian counselor. The counselor is available as a mentor and serves to help the student as they navigate life in a foreign country. Phil was my counselor twenty five years ago. I have fond memories of having dinner at his house with his kind family, laughing with his sons and daughter.
Wednesday morning we joined Phil for coffee and a mid-morning snack at a local restaurant. He had recently returned from a holiday with his children and grandchildren. I enjoyed hearing about his travels, learning about his grandchildren and sharing my Tasmanian stories with him.
I have heard other former exchange students talk about how strange it is to return to the places they once called home for a year. We have images and pictures in our heads which are frozen in time. Of course, nothing stays the same. I have changed. The people who were my peers have now grown up and become adults with families and lives of their own. I suppose growing up has happened to me too. Even though I am aware change occurs, it is still strange to witness it because in the pictures I’ve carried in my head, everything is just the same as it was years ago.
Kelly and I enjoyed fresh tomato sandwiches again for lunch before heading into Hobart. Rae had an appointment so Malcolm, Kelly and I spent time walking outside around Parliament House and shopping along Salamanca Place. Salamanca used to be the port of Hobart and now the rows of sandstone buildings contain shops, restaurants and boutiques. I had been secretly looking for some yarn spun from Tasmanian fiber over the past week, hoping to find a lovely color to make myself something special. I bought every ball of a beautiful cranberry color yarn from one of the shops. It will make a great memory I can wrap around me whenever I am “Tassie-sick,” missing my Australian friends back in New York.
We walked in front of Parliament House, where we saw Malcolm’s son, Simon, and Bryan Green, MP, leader of the opposition. I know very little about Tasmanian politics. But I do know enough to compliment an elected official about the beauty of their state, and share how much access for people with disabilities has improved in twenty five years. Mr. Green took a few minutes to pose for a photo before heading back inside.
That was not the only interesting encounter of the afternoon. As we sat in the sunshine, enjoying a coffee outside a shop in Salamanca, Malcolm smiled and exchanged greetings with a man who approached our table and dropped a parcel in the mailbox behind us. I did a double-take, recognizing the face. I turned to Malcolm in astonishment, saying, “You know him?!” Malcolm smiled and nodded, asking me if I knew who it was.
Did I know who it was?! It was none other than Richard Flanagan, at Salamanca! Richard Flanagan – winner of the 2014 Man Booker Prize for his novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North. He is a Tasmanian and while I knew that, I never expected to see him on the street in the brief time I was visiting. Before you ask – no, I haven’t read the book yet. But it is on my list, and Malcolm’s review (“I reckon it’s one of his better works.”) made it move up a notch or two.
Malcolm and Rae prepared a lovely dinner for us on Wednesday night. We were joined by Kingston Rotarian Paul and his lovely wife Cheryl (who happen to live on the same road as Malcolm and Rae), as well as my former host mother, Audrey. I sat eating and drinking with my friends and “family,” surrounded by love and friendship, and was reminded once again how enriched my life is because I took a chance to explore the world as a young person.
If you have young adults in your life, please encourage them to consider the possibility of an exchange program. Living in another country, in another culture, changes you. I am not the only former exchange student to make this claim. Travel opens your eyes to wider possibilities, and helps increase understanding of those we may consider different. Although I am biased because of my experiences with Rotary, it is not the only program option.
**Today’s post is brought to you by Kathi. Twenty five years ago, Kathi was the school nurse at my high school and encouraged me to explore the world and take advantage of every opportunity to come my way. I appreciate your support Kathi, and I am still finding ways to cause a bit of trouble on my travels! Thank you for making this trip a reality.
Last week Tuesday, on Day 11 of my Australian Adventure, Malcolm and Rae drove us to Mt. Field National Park, Tasmania’s first national park. I visited the park during my exchange student tour of Tasmania. I loved seeing Russell Falls and the amazing swamp gum and stringybark trees.
These trees are some of the world’s tallest flowering plants. The lush ferns which grow along the accessible path to Russell Falls were brilliant emerald. The photos show the beauty better than I illustrate it with words. Kelly described our visit to the park as one of the highlights of our time in Tasmania, and I have to agree. It was wonderful to spend an hour in the woods, walking among the trees and the ferns, marveling at the falls.
There are many walking trails you can take to explore the park, but not all are accessible. Even if you only take the accessible path to Russell Falls, you can still enjoy the majesty and natural beauty. And you should put this on your list of places to visit if you travel to Tasmania.
After a quick lunch, we drove to Bonorong Wildlife Sanctuary. Bonorong is a sanctuary, not a zoo, for Tasmanian wildlife. Their aim is to heal Tasmanian animals and return them to their natural habitat. You can see devils, wombats, emus, snakes, lizards, echidnas and more. Many of the animals do not exist anywhere other than Tasmania.
Bonorong has been very active in the efforts to save the Tasmanian devil. Since the early 1990s, the devil population has severely declined due to Tasmanian devil facial tumour disease. This cancer spreads through direct contact, and when devils squabble their direct facial contact exposes them to the disease. The cancer causes lesions and tumors around the face which prevent the animals from eating. The species is now endangered and there are preservation efforts throughout Australia to protect the continued survival of the devil. You can learn more about Bonorong’s efforts to save the devil here.
On our visit last week, we saw a delightful devil (I think his name may have been Banjo?) who was enjoying trying to wrestle a snack from his keeper. Twenty five years ago, I held a baby devil when I visited a wildlife park. As a young American, I only knew the Warner Brother’s cartoon version of the Tasmanian Devil. Seeing a real devil in its natural habitat helped me realize how important the species is to the ecosystem and environment in Tasmania. It would be a shame if the population continues to dwindle.
During our drive on Tuesday, we stumbled upon a farm selling fresh “field tomatoes” from a building boasting a sign which read “Men’s Shed.” Despite the warning, Kelly and Rae went inside and bought a large box of ripe, juicy, red tomatoes. They smelled divine, and Kelly was cleaning them off for a snack before we even pulled back on the road. Dinner that night was toast topped with tomatoes and Vegemite. I could get used to fresh tomatoes in March!
**Today’s post is brought to you by Chick, a man I adopted as an extra dad many years ago. Chick, you always told me to have fun and enjoy the everyday wonder of life. Thank you for helping me continue to explore the world. I appreciate your help in making this trip happen!