Vancouver experiences

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Once we left the quiet shores and relaxed lifestyle of Denman Island, our plan was to use our final month in the north country, hopping, skipping and a jumping through three of Canada’s bustling and beautiful cities. Magical Montreal was luring us to its streets during festival season, and Witty had a long overdue catch up with a great friend near Toronto, but our first stop was Vancouver. To add dangerous delight to this big city stop, Witty’s brother Dave and wife Sass had decided to fly over from Australia to meet us there for a week of celebrations in honour of Dave’s 40th birthday. Was it rockstar status? Hellzyah it was!

Leaving our hire car on Vancouver Island, we hauled ass (and our lugga-lug luggage) onto the public ferry, across the bay, and plonked ourselves onto a public bus to Downtown Vancouver. It may sound toats posh, but we really hadn’t done public transport with all of our gear in hand so far. Truth be known, until now, it had always been cheaper to hire a car or get a taxi, once you counted two people’s train/bus tickets… and occasionally put on a small price on the drama of dragging pram, baby backpack, baby car capsule, baby bed and Atlas-sized baby several hundred meters through the streets! But not this time. Once crammed into a bus, we buzzed smoothly into the CBD, then hailed a taxi to take us the last leg of our day’s journey… to AirBnB home number 6427 (so it felt).

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Vavoom! Vancouver was like a wild slap on the face! It was a city of contrasts and conflicting emotions. It confronted me with its poverty, and it excited me with its inspirational people and their eclectic lifestyles. Since we’d been lackadaisically living in an island cabin in the woods, the grit and the glamour of Vancouver shook us awake.

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As we rolled through East Van to our pad, our Pakistani taxi driver told us about the homelessness in the area. He didn’t have to use many words; the picture outside the car window painted a thousand of them. It was shocking… and bitterly upsetting. Tattered lines of people of all ages and backgrounds seemed to wander like zombies up and down East Hastings street sidewalks, carrying a grimy plastic bag of belongings, or simply sitting on the curb with a crack pipe in hand. It was a bizarre contrast to the serene island life we’d left that morning, but we had been told about it too. While we kind of knew what to expect, seeing the reality of homelessness, drug addiction and poverty with such intensity literally took my breath away.

The taxi turned off the main drag, and incredibly, like the flick of a switch, the energy changed. I breathed a sigh of relief. Alongside manicured gardens, families wandered down shaded neighbourhoods with prams, young, well-dressed workers spun by on their trendy bikes toward town, and dogs happily walked their owners toward the park. It was literally only 30 meters from the main drag, but with a sharp turn to the right, it was like our taxi had passed through Narnia’s doors: a magical line between the wired world of East Hastings and the sweet streets of suburbia. This was Vancouver. Contrasts.

We spent a week in this incredible city of diversity. The gorgeous in-laws flew in, and so began the rambunctious celebrations. We maxed out each day with activities and indulgences. We rode bikes around Stanley Park with every other tourist in town, hired a speed boat and jetted across the harbour like rock stars. We hiked through stunning forests, drank cocktails at trendy bars, and unexpectedly, I caught up with some good old friends. This was lucky. Thanks to Facebook and its tricky tracking systems, I got gratefully found… and reunited with a beautiful old Darwin friend, another wonderful woman I met in Thailand in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami, and one of the Darwin family kidlets who just became a father to twins.

These locals showed the extended Whitrod clan a bloody great time. Thanks to them we were able to find the best microbreweries, the only ice creamery with 248 flavours to choose from, and the best markets to mooch around. We were even gifted with a car to use (thanks Katie!) and a babysitter so we could dine out ‘sans babe’ for Dave’s birthday (thanks again Kelly!)

We all felt the love for Vancouver. It was the long evenings in the park, the quirky people that frequented those spaces, and the beautiful vistas that captured our hearts. It’s the funky streets, the natural edges and the good vibes that we will always remember, but Vancouver’s East Hastings street holds its grip, and a place in the shadows of my heart.

While I felt seriously confronted by the misery that seemed to waft around me through these pockets of town, and felt guilty about my inability to change what I saw, it did make me appreciate what I have. It made me feel incredibly fortunate that I grew up with love in my life. Seeing a young man sit on the corner in such despair makes one hold their own baby boy tighter, squeeze his love in closer and try to breathe a protective goodness around him with whispers of promise. Shit like that wakes you up. It makes me determined to do right by my child, and hopefully be able to influence those who need it in some positive way too. Vancouver, is so very beautiful. But in its blunt and raw way, it made me take stock of the fortune into which we are born and raised. Thanks Vancouver. You’re a beautiful beast.

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Denman Island dreaming

In June we’d clocked almost 6 months travel, 17 flights, four thousand miles of road and over a thousand nautical miles of marine highway. Then when you add in the legwork in those transit zones with cumbersome baby gear, the travel fatigue really set in. It was time to stop.

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Lucky for us, I’d foreseen this possible scenario many moons before the trip began. Lucky for me, I had a fantastic friend living on her working farm in sweet little Denman Island, BC. And even luckier still, her sweet partner Jer had a wonderful mother who had a cabin in the woods out the back of her property… with nobody in it.

There was no real plan, but I’ve learned some people can create opportunity. Kerri works with such wizardry. Then one day, along came Goldilocks and her two bears. Like a fairy tale story, the tiny cabin in the woods ‘was just right’. From ferry to land, they stepped onto an island dream. And just like that, the Wittys became non-vagabonds for a month.

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We feel so lucky to have had a home on this island. Locals often stop to chat and ask if we visiting or living. I’ve told them we’re ‘dream living’ for the month. It’s thanks to brilliant people like Jer, Ker and Jennifer, that planets seem to align and the universe seems to provide. In fact, there’s a mystical little universe story inside this one too.

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You see, Kerri and I met about 9 years ago. In fact, I met her in the most unlikely spot you’d imagine. In Bolivia, in a tiny mountain town, at the tail end of a 10 day Vipassana meditation course. Vipassana itself doesn’t lend itself to meeting folk. It’s a course where you don’t look at anyone in the eye for 10 days, and you sure don’t get to talk to anyone! Yes…for 10 days.

Fortunately, at the end of the course they give you one day to start communicating again so you don’t get swept out the door of zen, step into the big wild world and come crashing down in a post naval-gazing heap. It was then, on the 11th day of this challenging experience, that I got to look around the group. I noticed a few other non-Bolivians in the course. That in itself seemed unlikely, as we were really off the beaten track. However, there were about 8 of us extranjeros in a sea of Bolivianos. One alabaster contender was a wild looking red-head with green eyes and a bright smile. I thought I’d better talk to her.

We got to chatting and it didn’t take long for me to learn Kerri was Canadian.
“Oh I used to live in Canada once,” I chimed in. “My mum did a teacher exchange in ’88 and we lived in Calgary for a year.”
Kerri looked impressed. “No way! I’m from Calgary. Do you remember where you lived?” she asked.
“No idea,” I  replied. “But I did go to a school with ‘King’ in it.. either Kingston primary or…”
“Kingsland??!” she interjected excitedly.
“Ah yes! That was it”!

Turns out Kerri and I were in the same grade, at the same school in 1988. Two six year old sprouts running around in the same playground. While she was in the French immersion class, I was in the English one! We might have met each other during a game of Red Rover but we will never know for sure. Still, with a meditated mind ripe and open, we were definitely tuning into the ‘planetary alignmentness’ of this moment! Pachamama. Universe. Talk to me baby! Astonished at the very least by this ‘coincidence’, we both agreed this was probably a good reason to stay in touch. So we did.

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Many years later (after some wild family parties circa Calgary Stampede 2009 and many emails, postcards and Skype calls later), I learned I was pregnant. Knowing I’d always wanted to travel with my baby, I wrote to Kerri and told her we were finally hatching plans to come to Canada in some way, shape or form. I’d always wanted to live in Canada as a young adult. Now with a year’s maternity leave up my sleeve, surely we could find some time! Of course (thanks Universe) Kerri was pregnant too! Could you imagine our luck. Two gals with a year’s maternity leave, loose on Denman Island. Look out baby world!

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Of course, it’s not that crazy. But this story, and this experience has some wild type of wonderful in it. I love the synergy of our situations in life. That I could come to visit my friend during this global adventure, and that we would both be new, nursing mothers. That we’d both have time work on her farm with Jer, or just play with the babies under the hazelnut trees. That we could plan it to happen in summer, when the island is bursting into bloom and the sun is calling us out to the beaches and lakes.

That it could happen in the middle of our trip when we’d most needed time to catch our breath and just ‘be’. You see, Denman Island has a lot to offer for a young family like ours. The great part is, it’s kind of a secret. People know about Vancouver Island. And Canadians sure know about Hornby, which goes from 500 people to 5000 strong in the summer.

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But in between those two? On the ‘speedbump’? Well, you don’t know what’s there until you take some time to just be in it. That’s when the magic soaks in. I get a lump in my throat as I think about it, for we are literally packing our bags in between the moments I get to type today. We leave tomorrow, and how I’ll miss all this colour!

Thank you Denman Island, for your summer love! We’ve made beautiful friends on this island. Witty and all of his gang down at the Bistro, where he set up his office most days of the month. Impromptu sundowners with laid back locals down at the beach and hanging out with fun young families by the lake, eating hummus and nattering endlessly about our bouncing babies (because we all had one so we were free to binge on baby talk without driving anyone crazy).

We’ve loved our visits to the other islands too, but Denman captured our hearts and our tummies. Collecting oysters off the rocks for afternoon treats! Meeting Jimmy the Vietnamese clam purveyor on low tide. Scoring a bag of clams to steam up and chow down with a sip of summer buzz.

Even the cooler days on Denman were made toasty with a pot belly stove and a pot belly baby to cuddle. I had time to do things I never would have dreamed of doing on this trip. Making sauerkraut. Quilting. Who knew! I know we didn’t see the bitter truth of winter, but windswept walks along the coast were no worries when you could sport a new wind jacket, picked up at the Denman Island ‘free store’.

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Market day on Saturdays were a delightful way to catch up with the people you’d met throughout the week. Taking in our goods to the pro-active recycling centre got me high on community spirit. Seeing Jer and Ker’s efforts come to fruition, from farm to market table, was a real and delicious delight. The Rhubarb Ranch is a young but fertile farm, sure to bear many bouquets and feed the friendly faces of Denmanites for years to come.

I’ll miss getting around on Jer’s bike. Kerri and I attached a baby trailer to it. I even took it on the ferry over to Hornby Island for the day to see our longtime family friends, Karl and Chri. I’ll miss feeling like an island neighbour to that gorgeous lot, and those beautiful beaches that, yes, I swam in!

I’ll miss a lot of things. The lifestyle, the people, Kerri and Jer’s families. But I’ll stop listing there as I can’t start all this longing too soon! This morning the Wittys took a walk on the beach. We agreed that we’d both love another month… maybe another one after that. But we have a plan and off we shall trot. On the world reconnaissance mission, we have found a beautiful secret here. It’s in the friendships. And it’s in the air. It’s Denman Island Dreaming.

The Alaska Marine Highway

I love that there is an official highway in North America with no tar, no traffic, and no roadkill. North from Bellingham in Washington state, you can cruise up to the USA’s most northern state, but not in a car.  Passing through crystal clear Canadian waters, between tiny islands and all the way to Unalaska in the far western reaches of um… Alaska, you can take a ride. It’s called the Alaska Marine Highway.

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It’s wild, beautiful and importantly, it’s accessible to people like us. You see, it’s not all cruise ships, charter boats and seafood trawlers in this pristine part of the world. There’s also this ferry system run by the government, for the people. It’s a bloody good ride, and I got in on it. I think you should too so here’s the low down.

My Uncle Rick and Aunt Karen used to live in Alaska back in the day, so they know a thing or two. Spending time with them in their home in Colorado gave us a chance to look ahead at our undecided path, and man, am I glad they set us up with this bright idea. Take an affordable trip to Alaska, see the sights from the water, and then soak up the vibes from on top of the world.

It seemed to me that this longstanding ferry system was almost unheard of by most Americans. Lovingly known as the poor man’s cruise ship, the Alaska Marine Highway ferry system offers folk like you and me a chance to cruise, in relative style, alongside the whales through a coastal paradise.

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Witty, young Atlas and I boarded the MV Kennicott in Bellingham on a crisp, sunny day. For a few hundred bucks, we had purchased our passage through to Alaska’s state capital, Juneau, and with that, we included a “roomette” for us to tuck Finn away in for sleeps while we meandered up the marine highway for three days. A lot of people don’t get roomettes, or cabins of any kind. On the Alaska Marine Highway ferries, there are designated areas where you can sleep in reclining chairs or lay out your sleeping bag, binoculars and toothbrush. Other vagabonds we met had possied themselves in some pretty sweet spots around the boat. From their makeshift beds they had great views, ample privacy and bathrooms all to themselves!

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Incredibly, you’re even welcome to set up your tent on the sun deck or in the solarium if it takes your fancy! We didn’t see anyone do this on our trip though, which might have been because the weather was so bizarrely warm. You would have roasted, sleeping up there!

As we heaved our way onto the ferry with all of our gear that day, a decky by the name of Craig gave us a hand with our bags. Craig was a wise guy from New York. I give him this description as I want you to imagine it said with his thick New Yorker accent. And we later found out he was a fantastic smart arse. So it fits. We made mates with the wise guy that day, and the rough sweetheart took us under his wing. Throughout the boat trip we caught up for a yarn regularly, got the low down on where we were headed and what to look out for. We were even plied with pizzas from the crew’s mess. This newfound friendship later led to a few (or many) drinking jaunts when we finally arrived his home base, Juneau… but I digress. More on those shenanigans another time.

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Craig helped lug our gear via the Purser’s office who took one look at us, our cumbersome bags, and our charming, smile-baby. Melting under the grin of Finn, she said, “Hm, you booked the roomette, hey? I think you’ll need more than a broom closet with that lot.” Within moments, Purser Debby had upgraded us to the disabled suite, complete with sink, porthole (so maybe we really had booked a broom closet!), ample space to lay out a makeshift baby bed, and free linen! Score!! Suffice to say, Debby got a lot of chocolate dropped at the Purser’s office that day. And we basked in the joy of an upgrade! Thanks Finn!

For those considering taking the ferry, I recommend the cabins. Mostly because we are ridiculously messy and we try to hide that from the world (except when I put it online). I peeked my head into quite a few cabins, and while I never saw the broom closet ‘roomette’, all the others looked good. You can go super lush if you are cabining up, and get your own bathroom. Nonetheless, we used the shared bathrooms and quite honestly, I never came across one person sharing them! The water was hot and the pressure was great. Everything was squeaky clean and worked perfectly. Of course, you can get by without the room at all and sleep safely in the boat’s common areas, but if you can afford the extra cash (or have a kid), it’s a comfy choice.

There were other great features on the ferry too. Besides sun decks and spacious lounge areas with huge windows to the great outdoors, there were games rooms for kids, play mats and toys for toddlebods, and a cinema room that played a swag of PG movies and a few interesting documentaries about Alaska and the towns along the marine highway route.

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Of course, it’s not a complete tip-off without a review of the gastronomical entertainment. And let’s face it, food is high on the entertainment barometer for us Wittys. There was a diner offering breakfast, lunch and dinner, plus vino and cerveza for the over 21ers. The food was bain-marie style and sometimes the pasta was a bit gluggy after sitting too long, but the fish was fresh, the salads were crisp and my favourite was simply a bowl of chilli con carne with a few croutons and cheese. Deliciously warming after a cool walk around the deck in the evening breeze.

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You can also BYO your food, which we did using an eski (cooler box) that my cousin Sean donated. There’s a microwave, a supply of condiments, hot water for drinks, and an ice machine to fill up your eski. It is only a quarter for a bucket of ice, but if you hold the ice button down you can fill up 4 buckets and pass them off as treats to the next people in line: a great way to make friends for a quarter of a quarter, I reckon.

If you don’t like the beer or wine selection, you can BYO your own booze but you have to promise to drink it in the privacy of your own cabin, or subtly carry around thermoses of tea with chunks of ice tinkering cheekily in them. Ahem.

Remember, it’s NOT a cruise ship so don’t get all hoity toity on the crew. I read a lot of online reviews before buying these tickets and I was surprised at how many people ignorantly whined about the lack of cruise-shippy-ness. Get a grip! Expect a ferry, and you’ll be pleasantly surprised with the quality. Clean white linen, tidy cabins and very friendly crew. And then there’s the views. Unparalleled beauty, whales slapping their tails on glassy seas, late-night vibrant sunsets and bald eagles soaring overhead, waiting to see if you might drop your baby.

Our MV Kennicott took a breathtaking route through the inland passage. While many of the vessels running on the Alaska Marine Highway stop often, ours only pulled in at Ketchikan. It was brief, but fun. We chewed through an oversized 3-egg breakfast, wandered with the cruise ship tourists through the infamous Creek Street, and found time to embarrass our son by purchasing a Davy Crockett hat. Then, we were back on board, and onward to our final destination. We thoroughly enjoyed the journey and would recommend it in a heart beat. On on, Alaska!

An Olympic wild life

“If you come and hang out with me, I will probably take a lot of pictures of you that you will enjoy for the rest of your life.” – Sean Dustman, Oak Harbor, Washington, USA.

The man stands by his word. In June 2017, we bunkered down with our Dustman cousin clan on Whidbey Island, a pineland paradise in North-West corner of mainland USA. Sean is an amazing photographer, and he is snapping away in a photographer’s wonderland. It is a living, breathing garden of Eden.

Their home is in the quiet little seaside town of Oak Harbor. This hub was just a short ferry ride across a bay with dancing dolphins and orca, and through a windy road of rich, old growth forest, to the mammoth, mossy Olympic National Park. As far as parks go, this one’s definitely up there in the mystical category. This is where rivers run at their clearest, air dives into your lungs at its freshest, trees grow on trees at their greenest, and if fairies live anywhere, this is definitely where they live at their happiest.

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Everyone should visit Olympic National Park. Everyone. It was made a national monument in 1909, but still suffered many years while battles went on between the Forest (logging) Service and Park Service. When President Franklin Roosevelt visited in 1938 and witnessed the activities of the Forest Service, he was appalled. Soon, the area was re-designated as a national park. In this bold action, the President saved two of the most threatened valleys by stripping an additional 187,000 acres away from the Forest Service. Thank goodness for that guy. Now it survives for all of us: we can see, touch, listen, feel and smell this sweet sanctuary. It winds from snowy peaks, down rivers, through forests and all the way to the sea.

Our crew hiked through the Hoh Rainforest. We crouched at the banks of the Hoh River and splashed the water on our faces, icy cold as the snow from which it had melted. We visited the beaches. These were incredible shorelines with smooth stones to clamber over and fallen pine trees, washed up on the shore as big as beached whales.

It came as a surprise to me, that while ‘getting at one with nature’ I’d also brush so close to teen pop stardom. In recent years, this eerily beautiful countryside was the setting for the blockbuster series, Twighlight. Where we stayed in the town of Forks, every shopfront sold a vampire shirt or a warewolf hoodie. Twighlight tour buses putted down the street. People working in the diners even admitted to moving here just because they loved the series so much. Hence, I must record that there was a short time in my life where I momentarily regretted not having endured one of the movies or the books. The feeling passed.

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We loved our visit in this tiny corner of the country. The islands are patchworked with beautiful state parks everywhere and people take pride in their wild, unruly forests, their clean beaches, their sweet lakes and rivers. Patches of torn-down forest are, thankfully, an exception to the rule. And luckily, we came at the end of a long winter. We brought with us a nasty flu, and while we unfashionably shared it with our loving hosts, they took it in their stride! The sun came out, white skin was bared and reflected in the back yard, barbeques were abundant and we basked in the glory of being still for a while. It truly was a welcomed break from the road. Thanks for the photos, Sean. Thanks for the memories. We will miss your colourful crew.

Great American Roadtrippers

In 1965, a young and beardless Gordo Harris hitched a ride from Tucson Arizona to the coast of California. The beautiful and refreshingly confident young Mary Noble was his driver, headed to a Beatles concert in San Diego with a girlfriend. Gordo was happily crammed in the back of her tiny Karmann Ghia with his knees up around his ears, and took in the scene with pleasure. Mary was a ‘lush’ he’d always admired, so while the free ride wasn’t all that comfortable, it was free, and he figured it was a huge bonus to get to chat. He sat back and listened as the voices of these young women whipped out of the open windows and the wheels below his bony arse rolled them over the desert,  from the familiar saguaro cactus gardens of home, all the way to the crystal sea coastline of California.

Gordo didn’t go to the Beatles concert with Mary that year. Though he would have liked to, he couldn’t afford it. And she’d already been on a date with him before: she drove, and they split the bill. Anyhow, Mary didn’t have a free Beatles ticket for him that day, so he bid her adios where he climbed out at the highway. As he watched her speed off down the road that day, he probably noted that she wasn’t wearing a seat belt, and that he looked forward to seeing her again one day.

At such a time in their youths, neither Mary nor Gordo would have entertained the idea that this would be the first of many more road trips to come. They’d known each other in high school, but with college finishing up they were both off to seek their own destinies in the world beyond. Still, Gordo really felt … there was something about Mary.

Years passed, revolutions happened. Hippies sailed to Australia in search of a new world. Family and friends were fare welled in the USA.  Life started anew in wild and wonderful ways. This was of course, the 70s. Eventually, to cut an exciting love story short, these two individuals ultimately met up again in Coloundra. It was the Sunshine Coast of Australia, and life was beaming. Gordo had a beard. Mary had a bed. The rest is history and a whole lot of it! But the road trippers united for life that night, and have been traveling in tandem ever since.

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These days, Gordo still sports a beard, though its white and and a bit less woolly now. Mary, incredibly, still bounces by with an all natural brunette bob, only wisps of grey framing that joyful face. The two of them have gone through life together, traveling the world with their babies in backpacks or on the back of bikes. They’ve traversed magnificent mountains, run through forests that rained leeches, they’ve basked on glorious beaches and pedaled through mad traffic in crowded Asian streets. These intrepid travelers  have traveled many roads together. And they did it all with kids. Indeed, they are the original vagabonds!

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In 2017, the old… ahem… original vagabonds united with the next generation fam. As the Wittys descended onto US soil (part way around their planetary jaunt) the hippies patiently waited at the hideous LAX. And after several grueling hours in customs (including a full nappy explosion at the immigration desk), three travelers emerged, and an epic road trip began.

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The motley crew of 5 drove across about 10 states. They flew a few too! They visited relatives and loved ones, met up with old friends and made new ones. This time they started on the Californian Coast… but it wasn’t in a Karmann Ghia. Gordo had a bit more room this time.

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He was still in the back a fair bit. But in this huge white people mover, lovingly named “the Igloo”, Gordo had a bit more room for those lengky legs… and a few odd habits he’d also grown throughout the years! In the back of the Igloo, among a swag of toys for young Atlas, you would often find Gordo with his toys: earphones humming away the latest audiobook on file, ice chests full of baby spinach and several half eaten carcasses of cooked chicken, paperbags full of corn chips and Cheetos, multiple vessels carrying various concoctions of watered down Pepsi max… and plastic bags. Plastic bags in every cranny you could cran your eyes in! Ah there’s something about Gordo too, you see.

And how I love him so.

Over two months, the 5 vagabonds made many miles and made many, many smiles. Thanks to two old hippies, the wandering gang were welcomed into the homes and hearts of all of those family and friends who Gordo and Mary had left back in the USA in the 70s. On this trip, the young vagabonds were taken on a trip of trippers.

They literally drove through history. They learned of events that happened in this neighbourhood in the 50s, heard of friendships that formed in that bar in the 60s. They wound through the deserts, hiked into the canyons, walked through the national parks and held the family that formed the interesting lives of these original vagabonds. All those wonderful people, and this beautiful country, in all of its tragedy and glory, displayed itself wildly and proudly to the Vagabond 5. And they loved it.

The two hippies have left the Atlas Vagabonds now. They have left the old country for Fiji, and homeward bound to their beloved Darwin, Australia. But they have left many memories in the hearts of the Wittys who remain here. We love them. And we thank them for this trip. It really was… a trip.

 

ps. Gordo doesn’t always sit in the back. But he does let the Bison *nisob* go in front.

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Six months in Mexico

It’s been a while since I’ve logged any of our travels, but you can probably do the math. It hasn’t been six months, and it hasn’t all been in Mexico. I just thought it was a great title to jot down for my next big production- a Latino serial on US-Mexican political decisions gone wrong. And let’s face it, I’ll have some good material to work with. Seriously though, Finn reached Six months of age! And to celebrate, we drove him across an un-walled but well guarded border down to Puerto Punasco, aka Rocky Point. Happy Half-Birthday Baby. This blog is for you!

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Mexico wasn’t on the must-do travel card for the Atlas Vagabonds this year, but it was on the wish list. And our crazy Uncle Larry made it possible by coordinating a week of road trippin’, sand railin’,  sunsettin’ good times with his lovely ladies – wife Michelle and daughter Amy-  and a swag of friends who live part-time in Phoenix and bueno-time in Mexico. To quote history’s coolest Mexican mouse: ¡Ándale! ¡Ándale! ¡Arriba! ¡Arriba! ¡Epa! ¡Epa! ¡Epa! Yeehaw!

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Mexico was not crazed nights on tequila, dodging drug cartels. It wasn’t long transits in a truck full of chickens. Nor was it culturally immersive in any particular way, sorry to say. But it was laiiiiiiiiid back. And it was perfect for us. We rested. We took front porch massages from the local ladies passing by, went for fair-weather fishing trips, wandered along the quiet beach, swam in crystal clear waters, ate sand (well one of us did). We played catch with a dog named Blue, and hung out at Linda and Ward Bell’s beautiful beach house, soaking up the sunshine.

Our sojourn to Mexico took place within the Great American Road Trip… an epic journey by car across the west with not three, but five crazy Aussies. Yep. My parents have joined us vagabonds for a two month mission that includes a great whack of freeways, freedom fries, family and friends. This is gonna sound trite, but to prepare for this, we needed a holiday within the holiday!

I can imagine my working friends at home throwing tomatoes at the screen right now, but I’ve got to say it- travel can wear you out! Loathe as I am to admit it, it got to me, and I’ve been in a funk for some time which is why I haven’t written. After a few months, the lack of routine and the lack of mental challenges started to slow me down. And then the fog set in. Days still shone and life still seemed to look right from the outside, but I felt like I was just watching it, wishing somehow I could be there. Yet I was. It’s a hollow feeling. At some point I kind of lost my rudder and suddenly my mind’s sails were just luffing in a lifeless breeze. I can write about it now because I’ve identified the problem and put some tactics in place to fix the broken bits. But it’s a healthy reminder that travel and freedom ain’t freedom from everything; we still need to fine tune ourselves as we go. Mind. Body. The lot.

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So Mexico was a place to take stock of these things, to spend time with my mother, working it out. To drink champagne under a full moon and laugh it off. To walk on the beach with my fella. To meditate with my dad. To play with our relatives and that baby. Play, play, play!

 

Oh Young Atlas, you are the essence of distraction. Your cherry pink chipmunk cheeks light up the party. When you eagerly watch the dog chase the ball, your cackle is infectious. You are the salve for any sorrow and you are the light in our lives. You are the glue that bonds a group of crazies as we drive across the continent. Indeed, you are the reason we are here today (oh and a special thank you, NT Government, for the parental leave). Time has flown as we’ve danced, bounced and boogied our way across the continents. In Argentina you were already beginning to roll over from your back to your front. Now you are up on your haunches, crawling backwards, catching beach balls, rockin’ a self-shaped mega mullet, chewing anything you can get in near your two front teeth and perfecting the art of many different languages. While I’m teaching you English, Spanish and Sign Language, you’re teaching us Elk (a deep grunting vernacular, the language coined by my cousin Phil), Elf (a high pitched chatty chat, coined by moi) and Finnish (not to be confused with Finnish from Finland… but equally confusing).

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Thank you Finn for everything. We want to bottle up your joy and share it with the world. Happy Six Months.

Brasil, Te Amo.

Yesterday, in the back of a ute, I bounced through a national park of sand dunes and coconut trees with a baby strapped to my chest until I arrived at a true oasis on the North Eastern coast of Brazil, Jericoacoara (Jeri-kwa-kwara). It’s pretty remote, it’s buzzing with travelers, kite surfers and locals, and my god, it’s beautiful.  We’d left the small coastal town of Fleshieras that morning with our new friend, Andre, a cousin of our other Brazilian friends, Ness and Raph. Andre has been putting us up in the Pousada he runs, but he’s taken some time off this weekend to show us around Ceara, the state he loves and calls home. As we groaned carefully over those dunes and through the freshwater lagoons, I had time to take stock of my experiences in Brazil so far. It was clear to me then, through the movie of memories that flickered through my mind, I was in love with this country.

If you’d asked me about Brazil before we arrived, I would have bemoaned the visa application experience. I would’ve told you it was arduous and ridiculous, and had I known how painful it was going to be, I would never have booked all those flights in and out of the country. Now, as I sit here with a sandy baby on my breast, listening to the wind ruffle the palm fronds, I know I’d go through that visa process six times over and smile all the while, just to get where I am today.

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Brazil steals your heart. It’s the beating drums in the rolling, steep streets of Santa Teresa. It’s the dancing in the night through a crowd of colour. It’s sprawling cities combined with mountain views. It’s the glean of a thousand stranger’s smiles that shine down on our son every day. It’s the icy cold coconut that sweetens my salty lips. It’s my toes in the sand with a thousand other toes.

It’s beaches packed to the brim with people, umbrellas, bronzed bottoms and in that, a sense of community that makes rubbing shoulders with your neighbour on the foreshore seem right! In Australia, I know we’d gasp at the thought of having to share our patch of sand with another possie. No doubt we’d need a radius of personal space that matches a football field to feel content. Here, you crawl and duck under brollies and between chairs to squeeze into your spot within the crowded beach because that means you are among friends and family and the people you’ve shared that beach with for 30,40 or 50-something years.

You see, Brazil is packed with people, and as far as I can tell, they are all family.

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The Wittys have been blessed on this tropical trip. Our experiences have been fortified by special connections with old friends… and old friends who know how to party!  Witty had two great mates in Australia who returned home to Brazil to start their family a few years back. Now living between the coast and Belo Horizonte, Raph and Ness, with their two babies and extensive families, took us into their homes and showed us la boa vida! In the country where we predicted we’d be working our hardest as lone traveling parents, instead we found ourselves engulfed in family… in friendship, love and bloody good times! I’m not gonna lie: it’ll be hard to leave.

We left Rio de Janiero after an incredible stay with a beautiful couple in Santa Teresa. Ion was a refugee from Romania who ended up in Brazil in the 70s. He bought this old house on the hill and married the beautiful Sheila from Leblon.

They’d made a life in this rustic, mansion-like home, surrounded by mango trees and in them, a family of marmosets that came down to greet us in the afternoons. Ion made the best caipirinhas, and Sheila gave the best hugs. She also gave young Atlas a tiny soft toy- it is a jaguar and we have named her Sheila. Finn kisses her daily with an open-mouthed passion acceptable only by 5 month-olds.

We arrived in Vitoria and were picked up by Raph, who took us to his and Ness’s family beach homes in Guadapari. It was there, that the beaches, the families and Carneval swept us away. Carneval can briefly be described as thriving, heaving and wild. But to experience it is so much more. I could spill adjectives all over the page, then spray them with hypercolour paint and sweat, and then make them bounce off the screen to the beat of 28 drums. That might start to depict the sensation. Instead, I reckon you should just go. I was embraced by hoardes of happy people in the street. Babies, kids, young couples, old lovers. I danced beside a doctor playing Spanish guitar on a deserted beach in the evening. I swooned with dozens as a 79 year old man in nothing but his leathered, brown skin and his DTs, hollered Frank Sinatra’s I did it my way on a busy side street (awesome, by the way). We danced, danced, danced. Oh yes. And there were a few celebratory drinks involved.

Staying with Ness’ family at their beachside apartment, we also learned how to recover, Brazilian style. Most of this happened at the breakfast table around 10 or 11 before we hit the beach downstairs again. It was also here that we learned how to eat like Brazilians. Tapioca pancakes were a main event, and this other sawdust-like substance called farofa went on pretty much everything. Witty and I thought hard about what we could match it with, and we introduced Vegemite to the family’s breakfast table. Suffice to say, while we do have some things in common with the Brazilians (like saying “Oi”as a greeting and drinking cold beer), the appreciation of Vegemite isn’t one of them.

Other memorable culinary gatherings were back yard BBQs. Raph’s parents put on a beautiful BBQ party one afternoon. Excitedly, we went to the fish market with Raph to scope out the local catch. Fresh and deliciously priced, Witty and I bought a bunch of lobster to add to the feast. There were many moments like these. Long afternoons with lots of laughs, slow evenings with good company and red wine. The festivities continued long into the nights and stretched all the way through Vitoria and on to Belo Horizonte. As I learned, the Brazilian working year doesn’t (un)officially start until every last drop of the good times and fiesta have been squeezed out of Carneval. I thought we had a lingering start to the year with January 25th as Australia day… but March as the kick off? Now these guys know how to live!

It was sad to leave our friends in Belo Horizonte. Raph and Ness showed us not only the charm of their country, but the variety of life here and the importance of family. Still, as will be the way on this journey, we must eventually leave everyone we meet. With huge hugs and big love, they sent us on our way, and into the arms of yet another another laid-back legend of Brazil, their cousin Andre.

Jericoacoara will be our last hurrah in this fine land and it is a warm, windy and divine way to end the Brazilian experience. Tonight we will wander up on the sand dunes and, as is customary up here, we will cheer and clap with the bronzed Brazilians as the sun sets over the water. Then we will wander back down to the beach, Finn will squeal and gurgle (sing) again as the capoeira drumming starts and the dancers will form in a circle by the water’s edge. Brasil, Te Amo.

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Local artist in Fleshieras