A is for Apsaras

The following is a whimsical summary of my recent trip to Thailand and Cambodia, in the form of rhyming couplets and photos. Any groans elicited at improbable rhymes or tortured scansion are purely intentional.

A is for apsaras carved in the rock

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

B for buffet where we ate lots of choc

 

 

 

 

 

 

C is for clown fish we saw in the sea

 

 

 

 

 

 

D is for dog, her name is Mutley

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

E is for eagle with imperial eye

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

F is for food we loved, especially Pad Thai!

 

 

 

 

 

 

G is for guards (we saw quite a few)

 

 

 

 

 

 

H is hotel rooms with fabulous views

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I is for idols in black and white stripes

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

J is for journeys on boats of all types

 

 

 

 

 

 

K is for kohn dancers covered with jewels

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

L is for lounge chairs close by the pool

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

M is the mist on Cambodian fields

 

 

 

 

 

 

N is for nightfall with sunset revealed

 

 

 

 

 

 

O is for owls with gazes serene

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

P is for pitta—the first one we’ve seen!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Q is for quiet walks down on the beach

 

 

 

 

 

 

R is for tree roots that ancient walls breach

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

S is for stupas, gleaming and gold

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

T is for temples with faces so old

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

U is for up, where we see hornbills pass

 

 

 

 

 

 

V is for village with walls made of grass

 

 

 

 

 

 

W for waters with colour sublime

 

 

 

 

 

 

X is xpensive but worth every dime

 

 

 

 

 

 

Y is for yawning in elephant style

 

 

 

 

 

 

Zzzz is for sleeping while earning air miles

 

Going the Distance with Travel Comfort Gadgets

Airplane sleep: an oxymoron

 

 

On past long-haul flights, I’ve often sat slumped forward with my head propped on my hands, elbows on the fold-down tray, desperate to sleep, but unable to relax. Sure, you can recline your seat back to a greater or lesser extent, but even when fully reclined, I find that my head lolls forward as I doze, preventing any real sleep. Those horseshoe-shaped neck pillows don’t really help. What I really needed, as I contemplated blearily over many dopey hours doing the tray-table thing, was a pillow shaped exactly to fit the cramped space between body and next-row seatback. It had to fully support my head in a forward position and, of course, it would have to be deflatable in order to fit in my carry-on bag.

Reasoning that I surely could not be the only person with this idea, I checked out a number of travel pillow styles online before choosing two to try.

The SkyRest is basically an inflatable quasi-cube (approx. 14″ x12″ x11″) with one slanted side where you rest your head. You place the pillow on the tray-table or on your lap, whichever height works better. There’s an attached pocket on the outside where you can slip in your hands, but that didn’t feel comfortable to me, so I let my hands/arms dangle or put them on top. The pillow has a large, easy-to-open inflation/deflation valve.

Unfortunately, I just couldn’t find a position that worked with this pillow. I tried various levels of inflation and several positions, but none allowed me to relax enough to sleep. Either I was suffocating with my nose and mouth pressed into the pillow or my neck was twisted to one side. Perhaps if you normally sleep on your stomach, you might have a way to get comfy on this pillow. It folds up to about 12.5″ x 9″ x 2”.

My second option is a bizarre device that looks like a cross between a World War I gas mask and the head of an arthropod. Imagine you have an air mat about 24” wide x 22” high, inflated to 2” thick. You roll that mat into a hollow cylinder. Prop that on end upon the tray-table and stick your face in the hollow. You will look like your face is being eaten by an alien. Never mind; your head is comfortably resting. However, it’s a bit stuffy and claustrophobic in there, so let’s cut a hole to the outside world to let in air. For good measure, we’ll cut two more openings so you can put your hands inside to anchor this structure. You now have the general idea behind the Little Cloud Nine.

This pillow comes in two sizes depending on your height. I am 5’6” and I bought the smaller size, which suited me. You can also adjust the height by inflating it more or less firmly. The two small valves work fine for inflation, but releasing them for deflation is tricky and a bit fiddly even once you get the right idea. Be sure to practice a few times at home or you may wind up wrestling the fully inflated contraption off the plane because you can’t open the valves.

I liked this gadget, odd as it may look. I was able to sleep for several hours, which is better than nothing on a trans-Pacific flight. Of course, once I raised my head, I realized I had unsightly dents and furrows imprinted on my face, but I have long ago said farewell to vanity, so I didn’t mind (much). Deflated, the Little Cloud Nine folds to about 13″ x 6.5″ x 1”; not tiny, but doable.

If you buy either one of these pillows, remember to inflate and deflate it several times before you travel to make it easier to do on the plane. Also, leave it in a space with good air circulation for as long as possible after you open the packaging so it can off-gas the heavy plastic odor. Finally, do not fully inflate any inflatable toys(!!) on a plane until you’re at cruising altitude, or your air buddy may explode from the change in cabin pressure.

Aside from not being able to sleep, another factor contributing to the discomfort of long flights is that there are limited positions you can manage within the confines of your allotted space. Any device that permits some further variation on possible contortions is worth trying out. I picked up the BlueCosto Portable Footrest online for about US$18. This is a simple item with a long strap that goes over your tray table. From this, a kind of foot hammock is suspended. Once it is adjusted to whatever height you prefer, you slip your feet in and enjoy. After several hours in the air, it is a relief to elevate your feet by even a few inches (which is about all you have room for under the seat in front). You can rest one foot or both, or use the footrest as a swing to work your leg muscles a bit, good practice for avoiding blood clots. The footrest is made of durable fabric and folds up into its own (flimsy) 10″ x 7″ x 1” pouch.

For the minimal cost and the space it takes up, I would recommend this gadget for long-distance air travel.

All three gadgets are available on Amazon. Tip: monitor the prices. I found they changed markedly over a period of weeks.

Got a favorite in-flight gadget? Let me know in a comment.

 

Spending Wisely

Not the moderate $80-per-night lodging I chose in Phuket.

As you begin to plan a trip, one of your first considerations may be budget. Unless you’re a part of the lucky elite who live and travel without a thought for money, you’ll likely have to work within some kind of limit. Does this mean you can’t have fun and enjoy travel? Not at all. One of the keys is choosing where to spend your money—and where not to spend it.

On a recent trip, I had a two-night layover on the resort island of Phuket in Thailand. I had to find accommodations, not a small task, as Phuket has upwards of 5,000 hotels/guesthouses/rentals. I was dreaming of an ultra-luxury resort, the kind you see in ads, with poolside teak bungalows, uniformed waiters delivering drinks to cabanas on a private beach, Thai massage in sublime surrounding, and lotus blossoms floating in the toilet. Thailand is—relatively speaking—cheap, so I could afford the kind of place I could never visit otherwise. Besides, I was only there for two nights, so why not splurge?

But on further thought, I realized this was not a good use of money. I would be arriving late on the first day, so wouldn’t have a chance to really enjoy the place. Maybe the lotus blossoms in the toilet, but not much else. I would be leaving early on the last day, so, again, not much time to play. That left me with one full day. Whatever luxury I enjoyed on that one day, would it be worth the hundreds of dollars it would cost me to book two nights?

Would I really have a massage? Would I want a cabana on the beach? Would I order drinks? Would it be significantly less pleasurable to walk a few metres to the pool instead of jumping in from the bedroom door?

Other factors came into play: were there other, comfortable and clean, if not luxurious, places to stay that offered facilities I really would use? Yup. These were the final two nights of a long trip through Thailand. I knew I would be tired and want to be away from crowds and noise. For convenience, I wanted to be fairly close to the airport.

In the end, I chose a small, locally-owned guesthouse for under $80 that had good reviews and everything I needed for a pleasant two-night stay. I figured I could buy a lotus blossom and throw it in the toilet if the mood hit me.

I can better justify spending big bucks on accommodations that offer something I can’t get anywhere else, or are situated in remote locales. The year we visited Namibia’s Etosha National Park—one of my bucket-list destinations—the park opened up a vast new area previously closed to tourists. The only way to visit this area was to book at their exclusive camp, Dolomite. The camp offers accommodations in permanent safari tents and has a small pool and restaurant. Comfy but not nearly worth the high price tag. I booked because I really wanted to experience that part of the park. As they say: location, location, location.

I feel the same about food and drink when I travel. Generally, I don’t seek out expensive or gourmet food because I just don’t appreciate it enough.* I’m happy to eat simpler fare in humble surroundings. I know this about myself. But when circumstances demand it—like I’m stuck in a lodge with only one, overpriced, restaurant, or I’m thirsty and the only drinks available are selling for three or four times the retail value—I don’t deny myself to economize.

My point is that sometimes you do have to make hard choices about money when you travel. Maybe you just can’t swing the cost of both the deluxe hotel and front-row tickets to that hot Broadway show, and you have to choose. Many times, though, if you examine the options closely, you might find that what you think you want is based more on glossy advertising and other people’s fantasies than your own preferences. Know yourself and understand what truly makes you travel-happy and you’ll be able to dole out your hard-earned cash when and where it counts most.

*Chocolate excepted, of course.

Where do you choose to spend your travel dollar? Luxury resorts with 5-star service? Remote locations? Unusual activities? All-inclusives? First-class airline tickets? Expensive souvenirs? Stupendous food? I’d love to hear about it, so leave a comment.

Calidris Reads: Cambodia

Reading and traveling are two of my favorite things, so it’s a joy to combine the two. Aside from being a voracious reader of travel guides, I also love to read novels written by authors from places that I visit, or set in those countries. In Calidris Reads, I will briefly introduce you to these books and provide my personal rating from 1 to 5 knots (Terrible to Must-read).

For our trip to Asia this winter, my companion and I each brought a novel set in Cambodia. As often happens, we read our own books and then swapped. The two books were similar in many ways: historical fiction set in the same general time period, focused on the Angkor area, and written by outsiders. I found both to be light, pleasant introductions to this era and place.

A Woman of Angkor by John Burgess

First sentence: “What if I’d told my husband no, no, we must reject the priest’s command, we must take the children and run away.”

The life of one rather extraordinary Khmer woman at the time of the building of the great complex at Angkor. While the main character is a bit too virtuous to be really sympathetic (Where are those likeable fatal flaws?), I still enjoyed reading about her challenges and everyday accomplishments.

That first sentence tells you everything you need to know about the writing style.

Temple of a Thousand Faces by John Shors

First sentence: “The temple of Angkor Wat had been designed to house the Hindu Gods but looked as if it had been built by them.”

Engaging novel that follows a range of characters from prince to fisherman through a period of conflict between the Khmer Empire and the Cham people. The writing is perhaps a bit more sophisticated than Burgess’. Forbidden love, heroism, cruelty, battles, it’s all here.

Perfect plane read en route to Angkor.

Both books: 4 knots (Recommended)

What do you read when you travel? I’d love to hear about it in a comment.

 

Trans-Pacific with XiamenAir

Image of happy smiling XiamenAir employees from the company website.

Whenever I have to book a long flight, I wrestle with balancing cost against convenience. It doesn’t take much online savvy to know that shorter, direct flights on well-known carriers are generally the most expensive, while the 24-hour-plus routings through cities you’d never want to visit on airlines you’ve never heard of entice you with irresistible price tags.

Such was the case on my trip to Thailand earlier this year. There are a number of ways to fly into Bangkok; it’s a huge hub and many airlines use it. After much comparison of flight lengths, layover times, routings, and prices (not forgetting to include extras like booking charges and baggage fees), I found return flights on XiamenAir for an incredible $700 Cdn. The flight lengths were comparable with other airlines’. The two downsides were a 6 hr 45 min-layover on the outward journey and routing through Xiamen, China. The arrival time in Bangkok was convenient for our schedule and arrival back home also worked well. With some misgivings, I booked.

Happily, my experience on XiamenAir was no worse than on any of the other airlines I’ve taken on long flights. Check-in was fine, although they weighed the largest of our carry-on bags, which is unusual (usually they just check the dimensions). They allow two free checked bags. On the plane, there was reasonable legroom, the seats were decently comfortable. Everything was about as clean as I’d expect. They gave us a blanket and pillow, slippers and headsets for free, which is more than a lot of airlines do nowadays. We also received two free meals and a couple of snacks. The food was average airline food—but we did get a little box of chocolates for flying on Valentine’s Day, which was a nice touch. Inflight entertainment choices in English were not as extensive as on some airlines, but I had enough to keep me amused, and the choices in Mandarin were excellent!

Once we arrived in Xiamen, the challenge began. We had that long layover and there were vague promises of a free hotel room. When we checked in at YVR, we specifically asked about this and the rep assured us that this would be possible. She told us that once we arrived in Xiamen, we would have to check in for the second flight (Xiamen to Bangkok) and the check-in people would have info about the hotel. However, as we wandered from corner to corner of the Xiamen airport, it became clear that this was easier said than done. First, we couldn’t find the place to check in. We were given conflicting directions from the various people we asked. To be honest, part of the problem was that (a) their English was rudimentary, (b) our Mandarin is nonexistent, and (c) we were trying to check into a flight that didn’t depart for 6 hours. It wasn’t even listed on the departures board yet.

Once we finally located the check-in counter, we were told that we couldn’t check in until two hours before the flight and that info about the hotel was not available there, but we could ask at the International Transit Lounge. So then we started hunting around for that. (Do not—as we did—confuse the transfer area with the transit area; the former refers to the place where you connect with—transfer to—other forms of transport, such as taxis and buses.) By the time we found the lounge, we had wasted so much time that we were afraid that if we left the airport for the hotel, we would not make it back in time for the flight—especially since we still had to check in—so we opted for the lounge instead.

This lounge is nothing to get excited about. There are a few beds to lie down, but they are popular, so your chances of getting one are small. There are cushioned chairs and we pushed a couple together to make a short bed. There is water, coffee, and tea, a few room-temperature soft drinks. Packaged snacks (nuts and bolts kind of thing). No entertainment. Airport wi-fi. Remember, this is China, so you may find some of your favourite websites blocked. We couldn’t access Google and our sent emails wouldn’t go. At least it’s quiet and there are plugs to charge your electronics.

Our return flights were similar to the outgoing ones. Economy class was clean and comfy, food was okay, entertainment ample, service friendly. The layover in Xiamen was short this time, only 1.5 hours, and because you must get a transit visa (free) on arrival, go through customs and security, and exit the arrival area, then go through the whole process in reverse one more time (find the check-in counter, check in, go through customs and security, and find your gate), we had only just enough time to make our connection. The only easy part was being able to check our bag all the way through from Bangkok to Vancouver, so we didn’t have to pick it up in Xiamen. Kudos to the airline which supplied each Canadian in the line-up with a personalized document to show to passport control officials. This paper made it clear that the baffled foreigner in possession was merely in transit and did, in fact, have a seat waiting in a departing plane.

I chatted with another passenger who had arrived in Xiamen from a different country and had a 20-hour(!!!) layover. He had been offered that mythical free hotel room and had taken advantage of the time to rest and tour the city a bit.

If you’re heading to Asia and you’re a confident traveler who can handle trying to navigate through a confusing bureaucracy and a foreign airport with little assistance (some airport personal may speak a little English, if you’re lucky), I suggest you check out XiamenAir’s prices and make your own comparisons on other features. Flying through an unfamiliar city with an obscure carrier may take you out of your comfort zone, but may turn out to be worth the trouble.

Have you had an experience good or bad with a less-known airline? Share your wisdom in a comment.

 

Healing a Wounded Country Through Art

Photo source: https://pharecircus.org/

They call it Cambodian traditional circus, but slapstick clowns and trained poodles, this ain’t.

It’s a steaming hot night in Siem Reap, the tourist town built on the doorstep of one of the world’s great heritage sites: Angkor. Visitors from across the globe fill the neon-lit bars and restaurants on Pub Street, where vendors hawk everything from “Fear Factor” fried scorpions on a stick to toe-tickling foot massages delivered by nibbling aquarium fish. There are only two kinds of people in Siem Reap: those who are there to see the temple ruins and those who are there to extract money from the first group. And who can blame them? This is a poor area in a poor country. Foreigners throw away big money on lodging, food, transport, and fun. Every local desperately needs a piece of that largesse and most work extremely hard to earn it.

In a dusty lot on the dark outskirts of town, far from the hustlers and the massage parlours, stands a tent. Inside, a simple, mostly empty performance space is surrounded by tiers of wooden benches. It’s well organized: young people in bright red t-shirts deal out tickets, hand out bamboo fans to keep the sultry air moving inside the tent, usher patrons to their seats, and sell snacks and merchandise. The place is packed and when everyone is seated, two musicians enter, bow, and take their places. The performance begins.

Sokha is nothing less than a retelling of the horrors that engulfed Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s and the struggles of the people to come to terms with this period when between one and three million Cambodians were executed or died from starvation and disease. The story is based on the experiences of the founders of the Phare Ponleu Selpak School, who lived through that time. The school’s mandate is to provide free education in academics and the arts and to train young artists for professional careers in visual arts, theatre, music, dance, and circus (two of their graduates were recently hired by the Cirque du Soleil). The Phare also strives to create opportunities for local artists and help to revitalize the arts in a country where most artists were targeted for death under the former regime.

The performance is a skillful blending of music, mime, visual art, dance, and acrobatics. With minimal props and basic costumes—a far cry from the elaborate trappings of the Cirque—the artists evoke laughter, tears, amazement, and total engagement from the audience. The story could not be more powerful, and knowing that the performers were all personally affected by the events referenced makes it incredibly moving. The use of masks to dehumanize the persecutors is chilling; you see that the ordinary people were under those masks and participated in the killing.

As the show progresses, we see Cambodia’s slow, courageous steps toward recovery after the end of the Khmer Rouge. Despite the trauma still felt today, the people are acknowledging and healing from their past. They are celebrating the rebirth of the arts through performances such as the Phare.

Near the end of the show, during an emotionally charged scene in which a teacher helps a shattered child to see the healing power of art, the electricity in the tent suddenly went out. The performers froze and did not move for many long minutes while crew scrambled to get the generator restarted. It was like Cambodia herself held her breath through her long darkness, balanced on the knife edge between annihilation and hope. When the lights came on again, the audience cheered and the actors moved forward to the end of the scene and toward a brighter future.

The day after the circus, we went on a nature tour to a manmade wetland in the countryside. It was filled with birds and fisherman poled their dugouts across the serene waters. As we commented on the beauty of the place, our guide said quietly in his broken English: “Built by Khmer Rouge. Three thousand people die.”

More information and tickets for the Phare are available at https://pharecircus.org/. Advance purchase during the high season is recommend; the performance was sold out the night we attended.
Have you seen a local performance during your travels that is a must-see for visitors? Let me know in a comment.

Morning Has Broken

Image source: easybackpacker.com

From my sixth-floor picture window in the Sheraton Royal Orchid, I am watching dawn come to the Chao Phraya river.

Late into the night, it was filled with brightly lit party cruises, neon pink, electric blue, sunlit wat gold, decks given over to the ultimate hedonism of dancing “The YMCA” upon a waterway both ancient and venerable. Some things are just universal in time and space.

The dockside was crammed with tourists and locals seeking food, fun, or friends–usually all three.

Then, for a few hours, it was dark and quiet, except for the occasional tug and barges on a stealth run.

As the faintest of light arrives, the first commuter ferry departs from the dock below. I hear piercing marmot-like whistles that I take for the calls of magpies, but which I later discover are the code the aft boatmen use to call instructions to the steersmen.

Sounding a bit like a white-crowned sparrow, the earliest bird commences its song.

Boats of diverse types begin to ply the water. The infamous longtails, narrow, painted in vivid colours, dart here and there like cormorants. The local ferries, plump ovoids of yellow or red-orange, bob their way back and forth. The fast ferries, larger, sleeker, and assertively pointed, cut through the water purposefully. Their destinations are indicated with coloured flags, an ingenious solution for a system where many of the users can neither read nor understand Thai. “Does this boat go to …?” The conductor meets all inquiries from confused foreigners the same way: “Go inside! Go inside!” she shrieks impatiently. Clearly, if the boat doesn’t go where you’re going, it’s no concern of hers.

Working ships of indeterminate industry chug by. Tiny bright orange speedboats–Safety vessels? River police?–buzz among the busyness.

In one boat, a woman wearing a broad-brimmed bamboo hat wields a net. Ah, a picturesque Thai fisher, no doubt following centuries of family tradition. No: look again. She’s scooping up garbage from the never-ending supply that rides the brown water. Is she paid by the city to do this, or does she do it to sell what she can: bottles, plastics, who knows what else she finds? The river travels a long way and encounters many things before it arrives here in Bangkok.

Above, a flock of cattle egrets, their white bodies reflecting the strengthening sun, fly by on their way to feed. Over the city buildings, a few wat spires and one church tower compete with electronic aerials for extreme verticality.

As the morning warms, swifts dodge and twist in pursuit of insects.

I reflect on how many people, both today and for centuries past, live or have lived most of their days on and around this river. Locals still fish off hidden piers and between the giant luxury hotels, tumbledown shacks cling to their piece of the shore, drying laundry sharing space with family shrines on the soggy, rotted porches. Well-used canals branch off to other residential areas, to painted wats with steps washed by the water, to still spaces filled with mats of floating lilies.

But none of that can I see from my exalted tower; I am a newcomer here and until I climb down, my view is limited.

My first day in Bangkok beckons.

Do you have a favorite first impression of a place? Let me know in a comment.

We’ve Only Just Begun

My travel companions learning about First-Night Syndrome, courtesy of Hawaiian Airlines.

The first 24 hours of a trip are often the most stressful. After the excitement and anticipation of planning and the bustle of packing, actually traveling to and arriving in a new place can make me want to turn around and run straight back home. I don’t know if it’s that more things can go wrong or if my capacity to deal with misadventures is particularly low as I disengage from easy routines and well-known surroundings.
I’ve had too many first nights of a trip where I lie awake listening to the unfamiliar noises, toss and turn in a bed that is too soft or too hard, inhale odd smells from a hotel pillow, and wonder why I ever left my comfortable home.

I call this “First-Night Syndrome.”

Of course, I’m always jet-lagged and have eaten little or no real food for many hours while feeling over-stimulated and exhausted at the same time, so it’s no wonder that I don’t sleep like a baby.

Sometimes, however, I have good reason for wanting to shred my passport.

Like the flight to Hawaii’s Big Island with extended family on one of my least-favourite carriers, Hawaiian Airlines. I’ve had enough bad experiences with Hawaiian that I’ve begun to suspect that the staff are all members of some underground organization dedicated to the goal of eradicating tourism in their state. On this trip, we had the cross-Pacific leg from Vancouver to Oahu and then the short hop across to Kona on Hawaii. We had an hour between flights, which was plenty of time to make the connection. All seemed to be going well until we approached Honolulu, when the pilot announced that due to the U.S. vice-president boarding a jet in the airport, all flights in and out were on hold. We circled Oahu for half an hour.

I told the flight attendant we had a connection to make and asked if there would be a problem; she reassured me. I didn’t see her fingers crossed behind her back.

As soon as we disembarked, we raced for the departure gate, arriving while the plane was still boarding. However, as the check-in agent coolly informed us, we would not be permitted to board—despite having valid tickets and being right there at the gate—because our luggage still needed to be transferred. I was stunned at this level of ineptitude. Although the entire airport had been on lock-down while the VP wended his merry way through, and every incoming flight had been delayed by half an hour, no one in Hawaiian Airlines had considered that this would mean passengers and luggage would naturally be arriving late for connecting flights, and perhaps some provision should be made for this.

The clincher in this situation was that ours was the last Honolulu-Kona flight of the day, so we were not being delayed, we were being stranded in the airport until the next morning.

After I suggested that, as the late flight was not our fault, and as the airline was well aware of the issue before we showed up, it was probably their responsibility to solve the problem, I was told that if I continued to argue, they would call security. Well done, Hawaiian: I commend you on your customer service training. This agent had aced How to Frustrate and Threaten Clients 101.

In the end, five tired people spent the night in moderate discomfort. The seating in Honolulu Airport is deliberately designed to preclude the possibility of an exhausted traveler lying prone, so I stretched out on the only non-floor area I could find, the cold and very hard narrow concrete shelf surrounding the plants. As I dozed there in some awkward and bruising position, the automatic sprinkler system switched itself on and I was duly watered.

It was a miserable “first night” of travel, just one of many I’ve chalked up. I try to remember that first nights are soon past and the rest of the trip can still be wonderful, if I don’t allow a bad beginning to ruin it. First mornings in a new place can be glorious, as when I woke up in Cairns, Australia, at sunrise to the sound and sight of hundreds of white cockatoos flying into the trees around the hotel. Or the first morning of a long-ago vacation in Hilo, when my companion and I opened our eyes to a huge picture window looking over the tropical ocean with early-morning surfers riding the waves, tinged pink from the rising sun.

Challenging circumstances can also create bonding: when you endure a bad first night along with travel buddies, if you’re lucky, the shared wretchedness creates a unity you might not achieve through many easy, fun days spent together. You gain new respect (or not) for someone based on how they come through the situation. On that not-soon-to-be-forgotten night in Honolulu, I learned that both my sister and my niece are cheerful and intrepid souls in the face of adversity. Good to know.

With the wisdom of age, I’m now able to step back and recognize the symptoms. Whether a disastrous beginning is just a case of nerves or the result of travel gone awry, I remind myself that I’m in the clutches of First-Night Syndrome, that I can get through it, and that the dawn will almost certainly usher in a fresh start to another—happier—adventure.

Sky Candy

I once took a balloon ride over the farmlands that surround my home. Floating hundreds of feet in the air with no roaring jet engine to assault my ears and nothing between me and the earth but a layer of basketry is probably the closest I’ll ever get to riding the winds like a bird. You expect it to be silent up there, but it’s not; the burners beneath the “envelope” flame noisily at regular intervals, and you can actually hear many sounds from the world below—dogs barking, cars honking, trains whistling. Above you is a rainbow canopy of brilliant colour. You gaze down at the patchwork of fields, roads, rooftops, and streams and it’s enchantingly surreal.

That’s the experience from the top down. Now, when I stand with my feet on the ground, looking up at a hot air balloon wafting by, I can feel that sensation of freedom again. Multiply that pleasure by a hundred times and you’ll start to understand the thrill of the Bristol International Balloon Fiesta.

Granted, the conditions the afternoon we attended were absolutely perfect: one of those rare English days with plenty of sun, blue skies, and almost no wind. We drove for miles through the countryside, searching for Ashton Court Estate, the location of the festival. Once again I thanked the patron saint of travelers, St. GPS.

The site was huge and grassy, with a few shade trees around the edges. A busy fairground with rides and games kept the youngsters happy while their elders staked out picnic blankets around the launch field. We sprawled on the gentle hillside and soaked in the sun with ice cream cones in hand to watch the entertainment. RC airplanes and stunt pilots in ultralights twisted and dove a few metres above the ground.

Eventually, the field cleared and the balloonists began driving out, trailers in tow. With practiced teamwork, they unload their baskets, unroll and hook up the envelopes (that’s the balloon part of the airship), and start up the burners to fill the envelopes. At this stage, the balloons look like a giant’s laundry spread out on the grass to dry. But as the air flows in, they come to life, big bubbles of trapped gas transforming flat into 3-D.

Slowly, each envelope grows, starts to rise and take shape. You recognize the traditional rainbow stripes, a multitude of corporate colours and logos, and, to everyone’s delight, the “special shapes.” An enormous one-eyed Minion grins at the crowd, while a pair of penguins (boy and girl) and the “Up” balloon—based on the animated film—carve out their unique silhouettes against the sky. There’s even a square balloon with a dragon wrapped around it.

Finally, like a child’s helium-filled toy accidentally released, the first balloon launches, followed by more and more, until the sky is filled with over a hundred gently ascending lighter-than-air vessels. They drift away, dandelion puffs at the mercy of the wind, gradually shrinking in our view until they disappear over the horizon.

And oh how I envy their crews! I want to see again what they see: ant-like people and cars,  little puffs of green that are trees, the houses no more than Lego blocks. I’m tired of being an ant, so look for me at the next balloon festival I can find. Maybe I’ll be able to hitch a ride.

“Up, up, and away in my beautiful balloon…”

 

Australian Anomaly

Is there anyone who sees a picture of a platypus for the first time and doesn’t think it must be something dreamed up by a Pokemon designer? Come on now–duck bill, lumpy tail, webbed feet, furry body, and venomous spurs on its hind feet. That can’t be right. And what are we all told about mammals: that they bear live young, right? Oh, wait, who’s got their paw raised in the back row? Yes, Ms. Platypus…What’s that? You’re a mammal and you lay eggs? Then provide milk to your babies through pores in your skin? How…special.

Certainly, the first British scientists to see a platypus pelt were flummoxed by the strange little creature’s appearance and believed someone was hoaxing them by sewing a duck’s beak onto a rodent’s body.

I was still very young when I learned about the existence of platypus (or platypuses, but not platypi, although there is some argument to be made for platypodes and platypoda). They were mythical beasts from a far-off exotic country, in the same category as kangaroos and Tasmanian devils. Unlike many other fascinating foreign species, platypus cannot be seen in zoos outside Australia. (They don’t like to breed in captivity. Neither do I.) I decided then that if I ever made it to the Land Down Under, I had to see a platypus with my own eyes.

Not so easy, as I discovered in my pre-trip research four years ago. To begin with, they are now extinct in some places where they once lived, such as South Australia. According to Wikipedia, their distribution in the wild is “unpredictable” and “not well known.” While they are out there, they are usually shy, nocturnal animals. Being semiaquatic, they spend a lot of their time underwater in murky streams. TripAdvisor’s forum “Where to see platypus” was discouraging: “Chances of seeing them in the wild are slim. No—make that almost non-existent….[G]o to a zoo.”

When I read about Eungella National Park and realized it was within reasonable detouring distance from my planned route through Queensland, I was skeptical. Sure, they promoted themselves as a “haven for platypus,” but maybe that was just hype. In any case, with wild animals, there are no guarantees. What were the chances of an average tourist like me actually seeing one? I told myself not to get my hopes up, even as I booked a stay at the Broken River Mountain Resort, located next to the park.

After a terrifying drive up the steep mountain road in the absolute darkness of unlit wilderness night, my companions and I checked in at the resort, and were assured that the platypus could be seen, sometimes from the viewing platform, often from the river bank under the bridge—but only at dawn and dusk. We settled into our cabin, dreaming of monotremes in the morning. Unfortunately, it was winter, the park is at a chilly altitude, the cabins are heated only by woodstove, and all of us failed utterly at getting a fire going in said heat source. I piled on every piece of clothing I carried in my luggage, huddled under the blankets, and shivered my way to sunrise.

At least we didn’t need to waste time getting dressed before waddling down to the river. No one else was there. We visited the viewing platform, but nada. We wandered up to the bridge and waited some more. In my heart of hearts, I knew this was a fool’s errand. So I was astonished to spot a faint v-shaped ripple heading up river. Something was underwater, moving with purpose. It could have been a turtle or a large fish but, of course, it wasn’t. It was my mythical creature, as I clearly saw when it surfaced. There it was, duck bill, plump tail, furry body, big webbed feet, and all.

Over the next two days, we spotted the platypus several more times, always at dawn or dusk, always near the bridge. Mostly they swam by at a leisurely pace, coming up for air for a few seconds as my camera clicked away, then diving again, but once we watched one feeding in the company of a little pied cormorant. Platypus use their “duck bills” to stir up the stream bed and uncover worms, larvae, and other edibles. The bird would dive at the same time as the platypus, and often came up with a fish. My guess is that the mammal’s activity incidentally flushed out the cormorant’s prey, making the bird’s hunt easier. The oddest part about this was that the cormorant would peck the platypus, as if encouraging or harassing it to dive. Maybe it was just communicating. Whether the platypus benefited from this relationship was not clear. I see someone’s doctoral thesis on the horizon….

This video, shot within a couple of days of my own visit to Eungella, shows this fascinating behavior. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ocq2jq4I4t8

Seeing an incredible animal like this in the wild is a life-changer. You realize that there really are more things in Heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy. If platypus exist, then why not unicorns and sasquatches? Would they be any stranger? Who knows—maybe somewhere out there in some unexplored corner of the most inaccessible jungle there is even an honest politician.