Smoke Gets in Your Eyes

December 2nd, 2019

It’s “smoky Sydney,” tonight.  This afternoon the sky was bright and blue, but around 4PM, the strong winds had turned the air a dingy pinkish-yellow from a bushfire somewhere near the city.

I am staying in the area known as The Rocks, the site of the original colony, where the oldest remaining stone buildings were built with convict labor and almost every block contains a historical marker about the early years of what would become the nation of Australia.

My historical memory should have served me better than it did at lunch today.  I should have known, based on the bad fish tacos I have gotten everywhere other than San Diego,  that the chances of an Irish pub in Australia knowing what fish tacos were all about were (shall we say kindly?) approaching statistical zero. Indeed these examples were crimes that really should be prosecuted. Flour tortillas instead of corn? Sweetened cole slaw instead of raw cabbage?  Avocado sauce? Mayonnaise dressing?  That there were three of these monstrosities on the plate was a good example of the expression “kill it before it multiplies!”

Not being a breakfast eater, to have lunch be a bust can be problematic, especially when evening rolled around and the smoke was too thick to want to leave my room (no room service here). Google to the rescue!  A search for “Happy Hour Sydney Rocks ” produced a hopping pub a block away, where Aperol Spritzes ( my go-to drink) were $5– cheap in USD but here, with the Aussie dollar at 68 cents, practically free. A salad and TWO Aperol Spritzes later, I am back in my room no worse for the little bit of time in the smoke.

I probably wouldn’t have bothered to post about this, but something melancholic and pretty wonderful happened while I was in the pub. All of a sudden on the other side of the room a group started singing the birthday song to a friend. Wow, I thought—December 2!  Whoever the person was, he or she shares a birthday with my son Adriano.  My beloved boy only stayed in this world 22 years, and I am closing in on spending as many of his birthdays after losing him as I had with him.  So when the birthday song broke out, I sang along quietly over in my corner, adding his name.

December is a tough month for me, marking both his birth and death. But today, halfway around the world, I sang out his name. Happy Birthday, Adriano. I carry you tucked safely in my heart wherever I go.

Braver, Step by Step

November 23rd, 2019

I posted a while back about how I was trying to get more adventurous in port, and I took another step today in Phuket, Thailand.  There was no shuttle into town due to a strong taxi union, and everyone had to bargain with the swarms of taxis drivers hanging out at the port gate.  When I heard it wasn’t going to be a simple as shuttle in, shuttle back, and it would be expensive to boot because the drivers expected to be your escort for 4-5 hours minimum as you made your way around town, I had this moment of old Laurel, asking why bother going in at all if it would be a hassle, but the me I am trying to become won out, and I got a driver  for $70 and gave him the list of places I wanted to go.  Took a photo of him and car license just in case, but he was perfect and always found me.


I also swore to myself I would eat lunch in town instead of chickening out due to tender tummy issues, and indeed I did!  Here is a photo of my crab curry with some sort of  leaves and rice noodles.  It was wonderful.

I learned something interesting about Thai table manners too.  The restaurant was packed with Thais and I noticed they all were using their fork to place food on a big spoon, which they then used to eat.  Very different, but when in Rome, or Thailand, do what everyone else is doing, and I have to say it worked just as well as any other way.

I had a clueless moment, however, when I forgot to ask in advance if they took credit cards (it was a very nice restaurant, so I just assumed), and they did not, nor would they take dollars.  Uh oh!  I wandered around  looking for an exchange booth, but it being Sunday, couldn’t find one.  I went back to the restaurant only to be told that really credit cards were fine with a 5 % surcharge, which sounded just fine to me, despite a little annoyance at wandering around in sauna-like air to solve a problem I apparently didn’t really have. But note to self:  always take debit card, not just credit card and American cash, if I don’t have local currency.  And second note to self:  don’t assume anything.

Still learning!

But the big deal for me is that I pushed my usual boundaries.  I did what doesn’t come naturally, and what I hope someday will.  I can’t say I love Phuket, but I can say I didn’t let it pass me by.


















November 13th, 2019

Photo by Linda Olson


I am in Muscat, Oman, on my last day in the Middle East. Barren, rocky mountains loom behind the town, pressed into a tiny strip between land and sea— a reminder that people don’t easily make a place for themselves here. Beyond the mountains lie hundreds of square miles of sand dunes, the “Empty Quarter” of the Arabian desert.

Hardship brings communities together, but scarcity of resources can also work the other way.The Middle East illustrates both. Competition over water has pitted families against each other for centuries, while within these communities, I am told, one will not find greater friendliness and hospitality anywhere on earth.

I observe the lovely, languid way women in their black robes and headscarves move through their world, chatting among themselves. I observe the way men are more solitary, how even when in groups they tend to look outward, monitoring everything that passes by. Even today, when water and electricity and other niceties of urban life can be relied upon, their watchfulness may be a culturally embedded remnant of a time when threat had to be continually assessed. Or maybe I am, in my ignorance, reading too much into things again.

Despite the curiosity and desire to learn I bring with me everywhere I go, I am eager to be gone from here. I try to be open and and non-judgmental about other cultures, but this is simply not my kind of place. There’s a public aloofness in this part of the world.  People keep to themselves and public acknowledgment of the presence of strangers is minimal.  That’s fine.  It’s their right. They don’t owe me anything.  But for someone who grew up in a culture that goes overboard to say hello and smile at every social opportunity, it’s a bit of a disconnect.  Also a bit of a relief to be off the hook, not to “owe” them sociability back.

For another thing (hence the title of this piece) I can’t tolerate the desert. By the middle of the day in Doha, our first port, I was beset by a dry hacking cough, which turned into laryngitis the next day, followed by that nasty, noisy, infected cough you get at the end of colds. I seem to be nearing the end of it—much better today, thank you—but when I look back over the years, there seems to be a perfect correlation between these symptoms and being in a desert, whether it is the Atacama, Mojave, or here on the Arabian Peninsula. So yes, I have been literally choking the last few days.

Which brings me to why else I am calling this post “choke.” My two lectures so far have both been done in difficult circumstances. First, we had an unexpected sea day when swells made us unable to use the tenders to visit our port. I had about ninety minutes notice to get showered and dressed, review a lecture I hadn’t planned on giving, add in a few minutes about an additional port, and get early to the lecture venue because it was my first talk and we need a little extra time in case the equipment doesn’t sync. I was a bit frazzled by all of this, but it went off without a hitch. In other words, I didn’t choke. Experience is a blessing.

I woke up the morning of my second lecture barely able to squeak. I tried my usual remedy (hot water with lemon, ginger and honey), and was able to get to a pretty strong croak. My worry was that it would get progressively worse as I talked, but the cruise director and I decided the best course was to try, and then if I was going downhill after ten minutes to stop and reschedule. Much to my surprise, I got through just fine. I might have been literally choking, but I didn’t choke.

I am back on the ship after a morning in the souk. Those of you who know me won’t be surprised that I bought earrings—three pairs! I am done with the Middle East and now have two sea days before our first stop in India. Challenging in its own way, but at least it’s not a desert!