For years Joy has longed see Hong Kong. She’d heard it’s a Mecca for shoppers. I thought we had doused that dream when we gave up our home. After all, why buy things when you have no place to put them? I’d been to Hong Kong a couple of times and found it yet another large city with confusing currency and daunting language barriers. Besides, since I have never had any interest in shopping as a recreational sport, you will understand that we spent three days here only because I’m a dutiful husband who likes pleasing the wife.
I even gave her an additional day. We planned on two. They became three when I discovered I had booked our hotel for the night after our cruise ended the day before. I caught my mistake in time to correct it, then carefully explained the generous impulse that extended our stay by another 24 hours. She expressed surprise and gratitude. Unfortunately, she reads our blog, so now she knows the rest of the story!
We didn’t shop but majored in photography. We had hoped to have some stunning pictures to show you. Hong Kong is a remarkable visual feast–when the sun shines. It didn’t. The cold caught us unprepared. for the cold. Hotel rooms here, at least those I’ve stayed in, are unheated—unless you ask for a space heater, which we did. We had left our winter coats behind in Australia, thinking the remaining 2017-2018 itinerary would be in warmer climes, so we layered up each day before venturing out.
The warmth of the hotel staff compensated for the coolness (literally) of our accommodations. They met our every request with dispatch, carefully helped us plan our itinerary and city bus jaunts, and made us feel at home. In spite of their helpfulness we still managed to see more of Hong Kong Island than we anticipated. We knew we’d gone too far when the bus stopped with us as the only remaining passengers. The driver was another really helpful guy, though. He led us to the right bus, which departed just before we could get on it. He flagged it down and explained our plight. The new driver in the new bus made certain we arrived at our destination and got off on time.
“The Peak” is Hong Kong Island’s vista. Chinese entrepreneurs take full advantage of this tourist attraction. A giant mall covers the hilltop. I enjoyed this once-threatening outing, because we can’t buy anything! It turned into a photo opportunity. Not a long one, though, because it was chilly up there.
Our Hong Kong days were quietly spent. The weather didn’t entice us to put in long days touristing. We caught up on a backlog of email and writing, took in an art gallery, checked out St. John’s Church (Anglican), sampled a variety of Chinese restaurants (including a Mexican one), tried our hand at bus and Uber transportation, went to The Peak, and strolled the Promenade, and marveled at the energy of this unique semi-independent city-state perched on the border of mainland China.
In our last post we told you about our visit to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). Here are a couple more pictures from there.
The centerpiece was the visit to the former Presidential Palace, now called Reunification Hall. It was here that the North Vietnamese tank #390 crashed through the front gates on April 30, 1975. The “war” would soon be over.
Like me you probably watched that event on television and felt the sadness of a long, futile struggle coming to an ignominious ending. The building remains in good repair—we quickly toured the reception and dining rooms of the President’s quarters as well as the basement, which is still full of the American-made telecommunications equipment and other memorabilia.
At the City Museum, a rather anachronistic mid-19th century French colonial building in this very modern city, we examined more artifacts of Vietnamese culture in general and the “American” War in particular, including pictures commemorating the communist struggle for power.
We told you we were on a cruise, but we also spent many hours aboard excursion buses:
Hue was our next excursion, where we looked around the Imperial City of the Nguyen emperors who reigned from 1802 to 1945. The Citadel is a pretty impressive place, beginning with the Mon Gate which we passed through to reach the main pavilion, the Palace of Supreme Harmony (an ironic name for a fortress/capital, don’t you think?). The Palace is largely a ceremonial venue, resplendent in ornate columns and furnishings of red and gold. The Tet Offensive of 1968 took its toll, but restoration work continues.
We also took a quick look at an imperial tomb nearby, this one built by Nguyen Dynasty Emperors. It served as a place of recreation and then finally as the final resting place of Tu Duc—although apparently no one knows exactly where he is buried—to prevent robbers from desecrating his grave. If we hadn’t been told we were at a tomb I’d have thought it was simply a smaller palace replete with the lake, gardens, hunting grounds, and other ornate buildings. My democratic/republican convictions have trouble reconciling how well the emperors took care of themselves in life and death and how little thought they gave to the conditions of the peasants who supported them.
BTW, Tu Duc had 104 wives and concubines, but left no heirs. It’s amazing to think that he could have tried to get progeny from so many women, all of whom apparently were infertile. It surely could not have been his fault. He was the emperor, after all.
Several times our guides explained the prevalence of ancestor worship in this predominantly Buddhist part of the world. It would take a foreigner–
at least this foreigner–some serious time and study to separate the strands of religious observance here: Buddhism, animism, ancestor worship, Christianity, Islam, communism, and other minor ones.
It was in this area that we observed a fishing technique new to us. The above nets are submerged at night to capture the prey, then lifted very early the morning to get the fresh catch to market. Apparently this time-honored method works well.
The most memorable sight in Da Nang was the many crowds glued to large screen televisions set up in shops along the street. By their enthusiastic roaring we were sure Vietnam was trouncing Uzbekistan in the Asian Cup games. We weren’t alone in our conclusion. On board ship that evening the assistant cruise director announced the victory, only to have to apologize the next evening for his mistake. Uzbekistan scored in the last 20 seconds to defeat Vietnam. We were sad.
From the first day we began planning this SE Asia cruise Joy insisted we get to Ha Long Bay if we went nowhere else. She and Candy had been in Vietnam in 2011 but missed this stop which other tourists in her group insisted was a must. So we went, taking a luncheon cruise aboard a converted fishing junk and exploring Thien Cung Cave.
This is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It’s easy to understand why. Our boat passed by many (I lost count) of the 3000 limestone islands that dot the bay. This is the count our guide gave us; the brochure said otherwise: “Ha Long Bay is dotted with an estimated 1,969 islands spread over 900 square miles.”
Our guide exaggerated some other facts as well–or was it my unreliable hearing?– so I’ll stick with the brochure’s number. The full name is Ha Long Bay of the Descending Dragon. The guide had some tall tales to tell about the dragons, also.
I was satisfied that Joy had made the right decision; the bay alone was worth the price of admission, which included an excellent seafood lunch. I liked it all. Joy wasn’t excited about the fish served with head (including the eyes) intact, but the meat was good.
Then came the Thien Cung Cave. Over the years we’ve explored several grottoes. I’d rank this one at or near the top of the list—although Joy reminded me of the magnificent Oregon Caves, which she thought even more dramatic. Her pictures capture something of the splendor, but this is a case in which “you had to be there.” I felt the same about the bay islands.
The brochure warned: “You will stop at Thien Cung Cave and wander through the cavern to marvel at its stalagmite and stalactite formations (suitable only for the agile).” I’m happy to report we were among the agile.
As our cruise ended we did not enjoy saying goodbye to the delightful people we met aboard. Here are four of our favorites, the Bodners (Marty and Gladys) and Brintons (Michael and Elaine) from Victoria, B. C. Three of them are retired school teachers and Michael’s a retired civil servant. Their zest for life is contagious.
This voyage is my penance. Remember my report a few posts back on how I saved $1500 on flight tickets from Sao Paulo, Brazil to Melbourne, Australia? All we had to do in order to achieve such a feat was to take the 56-hour route from Campinas (by car) to Sao Paulo, then go by air to Orlando, Florida; to Los Angeles, California; to Sydney, Australia; and finally to Melbourne. Remember how I said I knew I had to make it up to Joy somehow? My quickly devised plan was to take her on a cruise from Singapore to Hong Kong with stops in Ko Samui and Laem Chabang, Thailand; Sihanoukville, Cambodia; Phu My (and Ho Chi Minh City), Nha Trang, Da Nang, and Halong Bay, Vietnam? This plan would cost a whole lot more than the $1500 I saved us. Well, the plan worked. Our marriage is still together. There are worse things than doing penance. Divorce, for one.
At first blush our ship had all the appearance of a floating old folks’ home, the inmates in varying degrees of decrepitude shuffling along from meal to meal with compulsory stateroom naps in between. We feel right at home among them. The ship was newly renovated just before this cruise. It’s in good shape, but the decor is muted, appealing undoubtedly to people who don’t want any visual violence in the decorations. (I might not have noticed it if my younger wife, with her eye for color and beauty, hadn’t pointed it out.) Each evening’s entertainment is also subdued: no exotic dancers, no throbbing disco and strobe lights, no edgy Broadway extravaganzas. They feature instead a concert pianist, for heaven’s sake. And a violinist! As I said, we belong here.
(I wrote the above observations early in the cruise. As time went on I noticed more younger people; I also noticed that the on-shore excursions were totally subscribed. These oldsters and their younger traveling companions paid good money for this cruise and they were determined to get their money’s worth. So were we.
We thought we’d have a little time in Singapore, our port of departure, but our plane left Jakarta late which meant a late arrival here. Add to that tardiness our taxi driver’s confusion—he drove us to the wrong marina—which meant missing closing time at the right one’s gate by five minutes. Fortunately, our patient (and subsequent fairly well tipped) porter knew how to lead us, bags in tow, through the terminal maze to the upstairs gangway. All we can tell you about Singapore is what we saw through the taxi’s windows. Joy has only mentioned that a dozen times, followed by, “I’d sure like to see more of Singapore sometime.” Another addition to the bucket list.
Our first stop, after a couple of sea days, was Ko Samui, on Thailand’s southern coast. It wasn’t to see the town, though. We were pretty desperate to find an internet cafe. The connectivity on board the ship is so bad even the crew advised us not to waste our money on it. Later, others who did buy time told us we had been well advised. So we went ashore. We had a post to send, probably the only one we’d be able to get out during this two-week cruise, and some correspondence to catch up on. We did get last week’s blog post off and took a quick look at our email, but had to postpone answering until later. This is the most disconnected we’ve felt since going on the loose. I’m afraid we’ve been ensnared by the allures of cyberspace. I remember when being aboard a ship felt like a wonderful retreat from all responsibility. Where did I go wrong? Anyway, after several minutes of hard labor at the computer, I returned to the ship while Joy toured Ko Samui’s plentiful sidewalk shops offering the same touristy stuff you can find everywhere else. Sometimes I just don’t understand…
Laem Chabang, our next stop, was a surprise. We had made careful arrangements for this one, since it was advertised as Bangkok’s port. Bangkok was a top priority. We were to connect with Mark and Princess Bernardino and their fellow Globalscope campus minister Michael Tomczak. We’ve been on the loose since May 2016 with a goal of visiting all CMF Globalscope ministries. By fall of 2017 we had met with the leaders in all of them but one: Puebla, Mexico; Birmingham and Nottingham, England; Edinburgh, Scotland; Brisbane, Australia; Santiago, Chile; Montevideo, Uruguay; Valencia and Salamanca, Spain; Tübingen and Freiburg, Germany. The one exception was Bangkok. We promised ourselves we would not abandon our globe-trotting until we’d visited here, too. Mark and Princess hadn’t been able to attend the annual Globalscope Celebrations which bring together these leaders from around the globe; visa complications kept them away. So, since they couldn’t come to us, we’d go to them.
We chose the Volendam because their propaganda promised a couple of days in Bangkok—we thought. We wrote the team we were coming. Could we meet them, take them to dinner, be briefed on their work? We told them we’d be docked in Laem Chabang. Could they name the time and place for our dinner and discussion? They could. They did. Not until the day before we arrived, though, did we discover that Laem Chabang is not a section of Bangkok. It is not even near Bangkok. They had to drive 2 1/2 hours, book hotel rooms for an overnight stay, and then drive back the next day. Can you guess how the arranger of our travel plans (that would be me!) felt when I discovered what I had asked of them?
They were gracious and forgiving and our brief time together couldn’t have been better. In addition to Michael and Mark and Princess we were able to meet their beautiful boys and Princess’ brother Preacher (Princess and Preacher are their given names, by the way). The Bernardinos are from the Philippines, Michael from the States. They all fell in love with campus ministry when they themselves were university students and, in spite of the challenges they face as “aliens” working on this predominately Buddhist environment, they are being rewarded as the young people they work with respond to their love and teaching. Meeting them was a positive conclusion to our Globalscope visitation project. We’re ready to do it again!
Pattaya was our chosen onshore tour from Laem Chabang—we’d been to Bangkok proper before. Intrigued by what we’d heard of the Sanctuary of Truth, we signed up on the excursion that included it and a quick look at the city itself. Joy’s pictures capture a bit of this remarkable pseudo-temple.
It’s the brainchild of Lek Viriyaphant. The all-wood 105-meters-high Sanctuary has been under construction since 1981; 250 wood carvers ply their trade here, enhancing the exterior and interior with jaw-dropping sculptures of gods and goddess and symbolic representations of Hinduism, Buddhism, and other religions and philosophies. Mr. Lek is dead but his elderly son presides over this privately owned tourist attraction which is as much a tribute to the family’s business acumen as their interest in religion and philosophy. Paying crowds throng the place.
I was eager to see Pattaya again to neutralize the bad impression of my first visit here. Then I was attending a conference of Christian leaders, a positive experience. One evening, though, three of us skipped the session to get a better look at the host town. Often in business travels I arrive at the airport, am whisked to the conference hotel, attend to business from early morning to late evening, and am whisked back to the airport without learning anything about the city. So we went out for a look-see. What we saw was one an unforgettable, heartbreaking scene. We drove past blocks where crowds of women, some very young girls, were on display, scrubbed and draped and painted as provocatively as possible for the sake of the shopping tourists (men, of course) ready to buy what the girls were selling. I’m the father of girls, as were my companions. After awhile we couldn’t stand it any longer. We were back in our hotel room by 9:00, subdued and dejected. We’d seen all we wanted to see of Pattaya.
That’s the memory I wanted to erase. This trip helped. Pattaya is a boom town, with new towering high rises and other buildings dominating the once quiet beach front. The resort city seems loosely stitched together by a tangled maze of telephone and electrical wires. The vista point reveals the secret to the city’s growth: a long strand of sandy beach, an almost irresistible lure for city dwellers in Bangkok to the north and tourists from all over the world.
Our only stop in Cambodia was in Sihanoukville. The ship’s cruise director and others repeatedly warned us pampered Westerners in the language printed on the list of tours : “NOTE: Life in the third world: be prepared.” We were prepared. We’d been in other third world countries. We hadn’t been to Cambodia, though, so we decided not to stay in the port town but signed up for the “Town and Village Exploration” excursion to Kampot Town, stopping on the way to visit a local pepper plantation.
We learned Kampot pepper is “renowned as one of the best peppers in the world.” This pepper (as in “table salt and pepper,” not the green and red vegetables) is shipped far and wide.
Kampot is a riverside town featuring only a couple of buildings left over from the French colonial period, which we walked by but didn’t find as interesting as the large tourist restaurant where several busloads of us were treated to a feast including local fish, shrimp, squid, clams, rice, vegetables, jackfruit—and black peppers like those we saw on the bushes at the pepper plantation. They were served and eaten like the other veggies. It’s an acquired taste. The scarcity of buildings from the French colonial period reminds us that the Vietnam War was also fought on Cambodian soil.
If you are of a certain age you remember the horrible Killing Fields of Cambodia. We didn’t visit the burial places (I saw the movie; I didn’t mind not going to the actual fields.) Our guide said that after the demise of Pol Pot’s murderous regime, Cambodia had only one lawyer. Only 53 teachers. The “intellectual” class had been decimated. And not just that class. Out of a population of eight million, two million were killed. The population now stands at 15 million; the majority were born after 1980 and have no personal memory of the genocide. Have you noticed a recurring theme in these posts? We have yet to visit any place that has enjoyed uninterrupted peace.
Another surprise was Angkor Wat. Early in our planning I told Joy that something I really wanted to see in Cambodia was this famous Hindu temple, the world’s largest. It was named in the advertisement, also. Turns out we could have gone there if we wanted to take a two-day excursion from the ship and pay too much money in addition to what my penance has already cost me. So we skipped it. We have gained so much else on this trip we can’t complain about this omission. Besides, I’m learning how important it is to carefully read the fine print!
For those who lived through the awful days of the Vietnamese War (over here it’s called the American War), a visit to Ho Chi Minh City (which we knew as Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam) was imperative. We saw Tank 390 on proud display; this was the vehicle that crashed through the gate of the presidential palace, signaling the imminent defeat for our side. We saw the hotel building with its helipad on the roof where Americans and sympathetic South Vietnamese were rescued from the angry mob below. We paid a brief visit to the city museum, taking in its display of instruments of war and reading the story as told from the Vietnamese point of view. Sobering. Choices had to be made; we couldn’t go on all the tours, so we did not climb down into the tunnels (250 miles of them!) in which N. Vietnamese soldiers slept and ate and recovered and prepared to emerge to fight again. And again.
If you hadn’t known of the war you wouldn’t have guessed it just driving through this bustling metropolis of 12,000,000 people—and 8,500,000 scooters and motorcycles! It’s a thoroughly modern city. As in Cambodia, most of the population is youthful; many of the buildings are new. Construction cranes are everywhere. The communists may have won the battles but capitalism obviously won the war.
There will be a brief interruption in our weekly transmissions. We’re aboard a cruise ship in SE Asia which has almost no internet connectivity. We’re still producing our posts, but the next one will arrive on your in-box only after we are once again on land. Thanks for your understanding.
Somewhere I read Garuda Indonesia was a backwater national airline not quite up to keeping company with the majors. Based on our flights to and from Makassar, we think the critics got it wrong. From the first friendly greetings at the check-in counter through the boarding process to the onboard creature comforts and solicitous crew and trouble-free flights, our experience was as first class as you can get anywhere when you buy economy tickets. Oh, there were some snafus, but they weren’t exceptional. Well, maybe a little. We required some assistance from the help desk in Melbourne on our way to Makassar because the day before Garuda had notified us our return flight from Makassar had been cancelled. The airline automatically moved us to a later flight. Thoughtful not possible. The new flight had us arriving in Jakarta 15 minutes after our connecting flight departed for Singapore. Hence our trip to the help desk. After some confusion, the attendant went to work, rescheduled us to the earlier flight we requested, and we breathed easy again.
We thought our troubles were over, but we then left Melbourne an hour late, which reduced our connection time in Jakarta, so we practically ran down the long, long concourse as the announcement came over the PA system, “Final boarding call for Garuda Flight 717 for Makassar.” This came after a polite golf cart driver offered to carry us to Gate 20—and I just as politely declined. “We need to walk,” I explained. But then we had to run! Sometimes our crises are not the airline’s fault.
We were greeted by a stutter of Js—the Liles family. Juli jumped out of their van to greet us, John to load our luggage. Then we met most of the rest of the Js: James (11), Joshaya (8) and Joel (pronounced Joe-ell) (5). We met Jona (13) later. Thus began a whirlwind of activities as John and Juli made certain we learned as much as possible of Makassar and their work here.
This was a long overdue visit. I had fun explaining to their Indonesian friends that I’ve known John since before he was born. I first met his parents Ona and Ruth at a CMF board meeting in Mesa before they left for service in Ethiopia, where John was born. They later returned to Mesa for a short stay when the Communist revolution forced them out of Ethiopia. They then moved on for distinguished service in Indonesia, where John and his siblings Naomi and Philip and Rachel grew up. Joy and I reconnected with John when he was a student at Hope International University during my time as president there. After graduating he returned to his real home in Indonesia, met and married Juli, a native of Sumatra, and eventually settled in Makassar where together they founded and now operate and teach in a small but growing elementary school along with their extensive work among the poor. Ask me if we’re proud of this energetic, visionary, dedicated couple! I should add, from all we could observe, they are also exemplary parents. We enjoyed hanging out with all these Js.
We didn’t pick the best time to visit, just the one that best fit our travel schedule. It’s rainy season here. By rainy season I don’t mean what the term means elsewhere, as in San Miguel, Mexico for example, where the rains come predictably late every afternoon but the sun shines most of the day. By our last day here we hadn’t seen the sun, and torrential downpours didn’t discriminate between day and night. As Oregonians, we welcomed them.
A comment about traffic. If there’s a good time to try to get somewhere in this city, we haven’t found it yet. (3:00 AM, John suggested; we didn’t test his hypothesis.) A ten-minute trip regularly stretches to an hour. If there are any rules for the road, we couldn’t detect them. Still, every driver seems intuitively to know when to go and when to yield. U-turns occur everywhere; drivers play “chicken” while foreign passengers hold their breath. Once again I was happy I wasn’t driving. The secret to survival is rather simple, it appears. Drive slowly, take turns, never panic and don’t lose your temper. “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.”
Makassar is the provincial capital of South Sulawesi, Sulawesi island’s
largest city, and the fifth largest in Indonesia. It lies just across Makassar Strait from the island of Sumatra. (Don’t worry if you haven’t heard of it; we hadn’t either before the Liles moved here.) From 1971 to 1999 it went by the name Jung Pandang, which is still often used interchangeably with Makassar—to this traveler’s confusion. The population of the greater metropolitan area is about 2.5 million. And they’re all going somewhere else at the same time.
Dutch traders arriving in the early 17th century left an indelible stamp on the culture of Makassar. They replaced the Portuguese—earlier colonial masters—to capture the lucrative spice trade. The Sultan of Gowa (the name of this general area) lost his power as the Dutch took over. They renamed the city’s fort to Fort Rotterdam and in general ran things. For awhile. Gradually, though, Dutch power ebbed as Arab, Malaysian, and Chinese traders gained increasing independence. In time Makassar became a trading center for most of eastern Indonesia. Wikipedia quotes author Joseph Conrad’s assessment of Makassar as ”the prettiest and perhaps, cleanest looking of all the towns in the islands.” Then came World War II and the Japanese occupation. An uneasy independence followed as a succession of dictators like Sukarno and Suharto assumed control. Regardless of who is running the country, what is immediately apparent to the Western visitor today is the dominance of Islam. Indonesia is the world’s most populous Muslim country.
On Sunday morning the Liles took us with them to Every Nation Church, a strong body of about 200 worshipers. Several things impressed us: 1) the very full room; 2) the youthfulness of the congregation; 3) the enthusiasm of the worship—they all sang and many of them bounced and danced as they sang; 4) the excellence of the worship team, band and vocalists; 5) the friendliness of the people; and 6) the invisibility of the pastor.
He was there but took no part in leading the service. He looked on, I suspect with pride, as the young men and women he has been mentoring led the service, including the sermon. Of course we understood very little—our grasp of the Indonesian language being zero, but John quietly translated into English for us. The scripture was one of my favorites, Ephesians 2, emphasizing our unity in Christ and our dependence on grace and not merit for salvation. The sermon gained added poignancy since we were among only a handful of white faces in a sea of brown. We listened to a message that was all about including minorities like us regardless of our sinfulness, our marginalized status, our race and color, and our lack of spiritual merit. It seemed particularly timely for us Americans. We were glad to be here.
Then John and Juli gave us another treat. They had arranged a leisurely Sunday dinner with two other ex-pat families: David and Ruth and their children, and Brandon and Wendy and theirs. I think I counted 11 children. In the way they played together it was obvious they were good friends. The three families meet and eat together often enough to be a source of encouragement.
We are wealthy here. The American dollar is worth 13,500 rupiahs. More than wealthy—we are millionaires. On our last evening Joy and I, wanting to say thanks for their superb hospitality, took John and Juli on a double date to an upscale restaurant. We spared no expense. The whole meal for the four of us came to $45. Earlier we shopped for some clothes. Didn’t buy any. I’d have had to shell out up to $6 for a shirt! There’s a limit, even for millionaires.
We got to see the Liles’ school on Monday. It was the pupils’ first day back after their holiday vacation. After starting with a student population of seven two years ago, the steady growth has brought the number to over 40. Teachers are both Christian and Muslim, the Liles’ believing that the best way to teach mutual tolerance and respect is to minimize the us/them polarity.
It’s an openly Christian institution that accepts Muslim students and Muslims on the faculty to share the teaching load with their Christian colleagues. The Bible is part of the curriculum; so is daily chapel. From what we saw, the result is a pretty happy, well-integrated faculty and student body with a strong but not overbearing Christian emphasis.
Makassar boasts a large wharf for all-wooden cargo vessels. Designed as oblique Us—high in the prow, low in the middle and rising again to an abruptly truncated stern—when loaded the center rides just above the surface. We crawled around one of them. Its load was cement!—ballast was not going to be a problem for this boat. I think three families make their living and their home on it. The toilet is self-flushing. There’s nothing below it but the sea.
So much more to tell, but this post is already long, so we must bring it to a close before we’re quite ready to go, just as it was on our final morning. John transported us to the airport before 6:30 Tuesday morning, where we bade farewell and gave thanks for this time we had together. At that hour, the traffic was manageable. It would slow to almost a halt just fifteen minutes later.
P.S. Because internet availability is so spotty on our cruise in SE Asia, it may be a couple of weeks before you receive our next post. Thanks for your patience.
Speaking of patience: We aren’t pleased with the quality of today’s pictures. Something seems to have been lost in transferring them from camera to blog post. Hope they look better to you than they do to us. We’re sending this to you from a small village in Thailand.
“Time flies when you’re having fun” is a really worn cliché, I admit. There’s this to be said about clichés, though: They usually ring true. They’re a kind of shortcut to mutual understanding. What I want you to understand by quoting this one is how much we’ve loved our time in Australia, as if we just got here. But Garuda Air just sent an alert. “Time for your online check in.” Airplanes don’t wait (although we often wait for them!) Tomorrow we leave our Richmond home at 5:00 AM bound for Makassar, Indonesia via Jakarta. We’re looking forward to seeing John and Juli Liles’ family, but it won’t be easy to leave our Aussie family behind.
We’ll miss Milly, too. She comes in once a week to help Candy, who like Michael works full-time at Praemium, with the housekeeping–a task which has been tougher of late because of the interlopers camping here. Milly and her husband are Ugandan refugees. In their home country they were professional journalists; in Australia he is currently unemployed and Milly is a housekeeper. It’s a subsistence income, but they are free and out of harm’s way. Melbourne and Richmond abound in signs welcoming refugees and immigrants, signs we haven’t seen lately in America. Milly’s a delight, a devoted Christian minister who cleans houses to pay expenses.
We travel light, as you know: one suitcase, one carry-on, and one personal item apiece. Not light enough, it turns out. Because of my worthless back, Joy too often has had to contend with the luggage, including her heavy suitcase. She packs fewer clothes than most would be capable of, but her big bag is still too heavy, sometimes causing grief when we weigh in. The culprit is the load of art supplies she’s been lugging around. A sore shoulder and wrist have forced her to downsize yet again. She’s shipping her art paraphernalia on ahead and, as I write this, is shopping for a manageable smaller suitcase like mine. Her body will be happier. So will the nice check-in people at the airports. Until we’re Stateside again, Joy will concentrate on her photography.
We both boast overhauled computers. She’d been nursing hers for months; in Florida it finally collapsed. Solution: a new internal hard drive. This was after replacing the touch pad in Copenhagen and several other parts in various IT hospitals along the way. Of course, thought I. She bought a used MacBook Air and its age is showing. (It’s like the tradeoff between paying for depreciation or repairs on your new or used car. Either way it costs you!) I didn’t worry; mine is only two years old. But pride goeth before a fall. A couple of days ago I retrieved my Air from a Melbourne repair shop where it spent almost two weeks because of the holidays. It also has a new internal hard drive. The poor thing had caught a virus. Vagabonds like us conduct our business online: bill paying, correspondence, banking, bookkeeping, Skyping, blogging, airline reservations, etc. Your computer may be laid up, but that doesn’t stop the incoming work!
Then there’s the challenge of keeping your bank happy. Credit cards are frozen because “suspicious activity has been detected.” Pass codes suddenly don’t work anymore. You do everything the programmed template requires–and it’s not good enough. (Case in point: Wells Fargo demanded a nine-digit routing number. I provided it, only to be told again I needed to type in 9 digits. I typed them in again. To be rejected again. Of course you can’t connect with a person who can help you. So you go to a different bank. My favorite is Citizens Bank of Elizabethton, TN. It’s small enough that when I phone in a real person answers. Then she transfers me to another real person who works with me until she resolves the problem. In this “high tech” age, it’s still a business virtue to be “high touch.”
Just 78 miles northwest of Melbourne is Daylesford, Victoria, famous in these parts for its vineyards and mineral waters. Only three miles from Daylesford is Hepburn Springs, where we retreated for our final leisurely weekend in the country. That is, this is what Candy and Michael told us we were doing. Then they pulled up in front of an old folks home. We tried not to panic. Had the whole weekend thing been a ruse to get us to go peacefully into this new residence where “aged care” is promised? Had they detected signs of Alzheimer’s? I mean, we do forget things from time to time, but have we come so far? Have we become unmanageable? Do the kids think we’ve become too big a burden for them to handle, so they’re arranging professional care? Well, as it turned out, Michael had just stopped to get his bearings. His GPS was leading him astray. He needed to regroup. Our children weren’t dumping us, after all. After only an hour or so we began breathing normally again.
These small towns are in the heart of the state of Victoria’s largest concentration of mineral springs, a natural magnet for city dwellers seeking respite from urban pressures. Some even move here for a healthier lifestyle. In the 1850s and 1860s, though, it was gold that drew people to Hepburn, though by the end of the ’60s the rush was over. That’s when the mineral springs became the chief attraction. The locals didn’t regret the demise of mining; in fact, they forced it. The settlers, esteeming water of greater worth than gold (a remarkably sane but rare opinion), petitioned the government to shut down the mines to restore the water supply. The miners were eventually paid to go away. The healing waters returned.
This is a hilly but not a mountainous region, an ideal location for the many boutique vineyards here. Small farmers grow grapes and crush them into wine as a labor of love. They don’t aspire to be major players in the industry. We saw none of the huge spreads so common to Napa Valley and other American and European vineyards. The vintners we met here love to share their enthusiasm for their chosen craft.
Returning to Melbourne made it possible reconnect with the O’s family and friends such as Michael and Cobein Watts and Trevor and Jillian Keetley, and CMF missionary Abby Weller, among others. As I’ve reported before, we enjoy exploring new places, but the abiding joy in our travels comes from the people we get to hang out with. We will return one day. We want to see them again.
During 2017 the banner over this Lawsonsontheloose.net blog has featured hot air balloons; we watch them almost daily from the Ohanessians’ apartment. Seeing them is an uplifting (pun intended, I’m afraid) way to start the day. It’s also been a tempting one. How much fun it would be, we tell each other, to soar over the Yarra River Valley (Melbourne and vicinity). We really ought to do that someday.
Someday came early on Boxing Day (December 26). Very early. The alarm clanged at 3:30 am; anticipation had already forced me out of bed an hour earlier. Not too excited! Michael drove us into Melbourne and parked (no charge at that hour); then a 10-15 minute walk to meet our companions and load the Balloon Man’s van for our ride to the take-off spot. No good, our pilots judged. The breeze was wafting the wrong way. So off we drove to a second spot. This one, the pilots deemed, was OK.
The ride was more than OK. It was exhilarating. The weather was crisp and cool but not cold. Visibility was forever. We did have one complaint. The sides of the gondola were deeper than necessary. The designer must have been a six-footer. Or more. Joy and I managed to climb into the thing, but perhaps with a little less gracefulness than we desired. Our not-very-polite fellow passengers, all of whom were younger and lither, could have looked the other way. To our knowledge no one took pictures. If any should turn up on Facebook, we’ll sue.
We’ve been in air balloons before–I once even preached from one–but this ride was exceptional. We’d never flown so low over a city. In fact, we couldn’t have done so in the States, where there are ordinances to keep balloons sky high. Not here. We barely cleared some treetops for a close look before ascending quietly to take in the breathtaking panoramic views. These pictures tell some of the story, but only some. You had to be there!
New Year’s Eve saw us once again in Docklands, Melbourne’s dramatic waterfront and marina area, for New Year’s Eve spectacular fireworks display. We thought last year’s was fantastic; this year surpassed it.
It may be because our hosts placed us this year at the base of one of the high rises from which the fireworks were launched. The sky burst directly overhead.
I wanted to duck, convinced that so many burning embers could not fall without singeing us. But we were untouched–except in our inner feelings. They require that vastly overused adjective: awesome.
The evening’s enjoyment came also from the good company we were in. The O’s good friends Cobein and Michael Watts hosted about a dozen of us in their apartment and on the waterfront sidewalk so we could enjoy the music, dancing, fireworks and general revelry welcoming in the new year. I think you’ll know how much we loved our time together when I confess that after the fireworks, after a brief post-party visit to Kamran and Fatema’s apartment, and after the Uber ride back to Richmond, we finally fell into bed around 2:00 am. Right much excitement for the elderly.
Do you remember Hang from our last post? She’s the gracious young Vietnamese university student who rescued us as we tried to find the right tram to the Christmas carol party in Northcote. When she waved goodbye after shepherding us to and helping us board #86, Joy and I agreed we wanted to get better acquainted with her. We invited her and her boyfriend Harry to Christmas dinner, which they had to miss because Harry had a previous appointment with his work colleagues. So we tried again and this time almost succeeded. We asked them to join us for New Year’s lunch at their favorite Vietnamese restaurant.
Turned out Hang could accept but Harry still couldn’t. Work, again. Hang asked if her mother could come instead. Of course. Well, we missed getting to meet Harry, but Hang’s mother Ha did come and we were glad. When we first met her, both Joy and I thought we were meeting Hang’s sister, she seems so young.
We’re fans of Vietnamese food, and this restaurant provided the best (Hang used to work here, so she knew what goes on in the kitchen.) We’re also fans of Vietnamese people if these two are representative. We think they are. Ha is also a university student. They are in Australia because the current political climate in America makes it hard for international students to study in the States. This former professor grieves at America’s lost opportunity.
Melbourne hosts a large Vietnamese population. This was a safe haven for escapees from that war-torn country in the 60s and 70s and beyond. They are still welcome here. Fortunately, the ones we met don’t hate Americans, though the memories of that disastrous conflict aren’t easily erased.
I wish we could write a personal note to all of you, or even better, host one big celebration with everyone present. Many have written us either as a comment on a post or in an email. Thank you. You lifted our spirits throughout the year, not just at Christmas. “Merry Christmas” seems a pretty inadequate response to your kindness, though.
Kindness—yours and others—is very much on my mind as I write. We’ve received so much of it while on the loose. Let me give you just one example.
At church Sunday morning the congregation was invited to join with a sister church in the nearby suburb of Northcote for a “Beer and Carols” evening in a pub in a former church building there. We love singing Christmas carols, so we decided we’d go. The evening was open to everyone, a gentle way to present Christmas in a secular setting. We set out in plenty of time but almost missed the event. “Just take Tram #86,” the pastor instructed. Right. Except we didn’t know where to catch #86. We went to the stop just a few blocks from home. Then we discovered it’s a stop only for #75 and #48, but not #86. While Joy was trying to find the tram schedule online, I went in search of human help. You can’t catch #86 in Richmond, I learned. You take #48 into the Melbourne and board #86 there. By this time we would already be an hour late. Still, we persisted.
My helpful informant was Hang, a 23-year-old university student from Hanoi, Vietnam. She works part-time in the flower shop adjacent to Cole’s on Bridge Street, a large grocery chain here. I liked her immediately; I had to bend down a little to hear her! After giving me directions to the proper tram stop–and reading the confusion on my face– she said, “If you can wait fifteen minutes, I’m closing the store and I’ll take you there.” We waited. She walked us to and helped us board Tram #48, accompanied us into Melbourne, then led us from #48’s stop a few blocks to #86’s stop. She wouldn’t leave us until she saw us safely aboard, then waved goodbye. Oh, I forgot to mention. She had a date that evening but offered to cancel it to ride with us out to Northcote in case we needed her (and we hadn’t told her of any of our other transportation adventures. She just surmised. I guess.) As we were walking toward the Parliament building between our Melbourne stops, I pointed to a large church spire in the distance. “Do you know that church?” I asked. “Oh, I don’t go there,” she explained. “I’m Buddhism.”
This is the story of the hard-working young Vietnamese student who is “Buddhism” going the second mile in showing kindness to the elderly Christian couple on their way to a church-sponsored Christmas caroling party in a pub.
Melbourne may not feel very Christmassy to the visiting Americans who’ve always described the holiday as a season of snow and sleighs bells ringing and children singing and fir trees glistening and special church services and manger scenes. In addition, this preacher has always enjoyed reminding everyone of “the reason for the season.” It’s different here. But not totally.
We’re not going to forget that Christmas really is rooted in that remarkable event that “came upon a midnight clear” two millennia ago. But we’re also not going to forget that God majors in the unexpected, sends his message of peace and goodwill to (and through) shepherds in their fields and wise men studying their charts, and offers hope to the least and the lost everywhere– and uses a young woman who runs a flower shop to remind longtime Christians that the Spirit of Christmas comes packaged in many ways.
This time of year is an excellent opportunity to look forward to the new and reflect on the past. Here’s Joy’s monthly selection from her thousands of pictures, each just a hint of the what made 2017 such a remarkable, memorable year for Lawsons on the Loose. We hope yours was good for you and that 2018 will be for you a Happy New Year!
JANUARY -KULPAHAR, INDIA
FEBRUARY – HELENA BAY, NEW ZEALAND
MARCH – VALPARAISO, CHILE
APRIL – SALAMANCA, SPAIN
MAY – CHELMSFORD, MASSACHUSETTS
JUNE – BRANSON, MISSOURI
JULY – NEWQUAY, CORNWALL
AUGUST – CHESTER, ENGLAND
SEPTEMBER – BRUGES, BELGIUM
OCTOBER – TALLINN, ESTONIA
NOVEMBER – KEY WEST, FLORIDA
DECEMBER – MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA
After this fairly strenuous year of travel (and Joy couldn’t include Uruguay, Germany, Denmark and Brazil in this retrospective) the following picture pretty well captures The Hat’s general response:
In preparation for our return to Australia for the holidays, I boned up a little more on the history of this fascinating continent. A few years ago I treated myself to Colleen McCullough’s novel The Thorn Birds (1998), first reading the book and then with Joy and Gretchen and Brad Jacob spending some pleasant hours in Tillamook viewing the television series based on it (starring Richard Chamberlain, otherwise famous as Dr. Kildare). McCullough’s an accomplished story-teller, but not one you consult for documented history.
Last year I turned to Thomas Keneally’s 2006 A Commonwealth of Thieves: The Improbable Birth of Australia. The title gives away the plot. The white man targeted Australia in the late 18th century when the UK attempted to purge itself of the “criminal class.” For crimes great and petty, men, women and children were charged, convicted, condemned, and transported to the other side of the planet to serve their terms (generally 7 or 14 years). Out of sight, out of mind. What happened to these prisoners was despicable. Their stomach-turning story is a reminder that “there’s none righteous, no not one” and some who wear uniforms and bear titles are the least righteous, most cruel, of all.
This year I reread Robert Hughes’ classic The Fatal Shore, published in 1986. It is another tough slog. Hughes is Australian, proudly so, convinced that to fully understand this independent, occasionally fractious, quite secular society those early years must be revisited, painful as they are, back when white settlers with their guns (the military, not the convicts) and deadly germs almost completely wiped out the aboriginal population, replaced by the prisoners and their keepers. The hunter-gatherers thrived, generally self-sufficient and satisfied before the English descended. Then they died. In those early years their white successors didn’t do so well. They lacked basic skills and tools for farming and for re-creating a proper British society on this foreign soil. Basically, they were warehoused here until their sentences or their lives ran out, whichever came first. Too many of them died, also. Others wished they could have. But a large remnant not only survived but in the end built themselves a nation.
I’m typing this post in that nation a little over two centuries later. It’s as modern, attractive, democratic and economically competitive as any on earth. I just wish it were closer to America. What we like best about Australia is this: it gave us our son-in-law.
This is enough of a backward glance for now. Except for one more word. The next time you’re tempted to give up on the human race, pick up Keneally or Hughes. On their pages you’ll encounter at its very worst—and I’m not talking just about the so-called “convict class.” Then glance up from the pages for a look at modern Australia. It’s a country founded on people England wanted to get rid of—they considered them sin-ridden, beyond redemption, the dregs of society—who collectively did not give up or give in but persevered and in the end triumphed. The result looks pretty good!
Our trip to this far-flung island/continent was a bit of a challenge. You have already learned I’m your basic cheapskate. As the person in this partnership in charge of buying airline tickets, I always go for the least expensive. It’s a matter of principle. So instead of flying from Sao Paulo, Brazil through Santiago, Chile—the direct route to Melbourne—I found we could save about $1500 by flying Delta. So we did. From Sao Paulo to Orlando to Los Angeles to Sydney to Melbourne. Total elapsed time from Campinas (friend Carlos drove us to the airport) to Melbourne: 54 hours. That is, it would have been 54 except that our flight out of Los Angeles was delayed, which meant we missed our connection in Sydney, so add on two more hours. Somehow, when we finally stumbled into the Ohanessian home, I had the feeling Joy thought I might have made a better choice.
That choice is costing me dearly, by the way. After the first of the year we’re heading to Southeast Asia. I felt so guilty about this cheap itinerary and what it did to our photographer that I booked us on a sight-seeing cruise from Singapore to Hong Kong. We’ll get to visit places and friends we want to see in Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam on the way—and we can sleep in our same bed every night. And don’t have to wrestle luggage. Don’t ask me how economical this trip will be. Might save a marriage, though.
One more word about our flight to Melbourne. Two, actually. The first is about our arrival in Orlando. Delta agents lined the jetway from the plane to the terminal with flashlights. The person in charge of turning the lights on was missing, so we disembarked in the dark. That would have been noteworthy in itself; we’d never seen it before. But then it happened again. Our departure out of LAX for Sydney was delayed over an hour because…. the jetway was dark. The person with that key was missing, also. Finally the agents gave up and lined the walkway, flashlights aglow. Isn’t this modern age wonderful? It just takes one person in charge of a key in one city to make innocent travelers miss their connection an ocean away 16 hours later.
I take a daily early morning walk. I love it. Melbourne has so much to commend it, not the least is what we pay for rent in our kids’ apartment. (Of course, we have to do repair work. This morning we had to go into Richmond—several blocks away–to buy batteries for the air conditioner’s remote control. It took two trips. The first to buy a tiny screw driver to open the device so we could learn what kind of battery was required. Then we discovered the part we needed to open wasn’t controlled by the screws, so we didn’t need the screw driver in the first place. Then back to the store to buy the batteries. I hope our landlords appreciate the trouble we go to on their behalf.) Obviously, what’s best about the city is that our kids live here. (That’s what’s best about the St. Louis area, also; we head there this summer to be with our other kids there.)
We’re dieting. Our eating has been out of control. We travel without bathroom scales, so we don’t have solid evidence of our weight gain—until we look at ourselves in the mirror or let out the belt one more notch. So as soon as we arrived I went shopping. Couldn’t find SlimFast but found something like it called OptiSlim. Tastes just as bad. Joy insists I supplement the supplement with a bunch of green stuff. My personal goal is to lose all the weight I can before next week when Candy and Michael return. Then out of respect for their hospitality I’ll have to return to my regular overeating—so as not to upset them, especially during the holidays. I figure a week of dieting ought to do it. It’s amazing, isn’t it, though, how when you are dieting all you think about is food? That’s another reason why I need to limit the dieting to a week. There are other things calling for my attention.
I wrote Candy in London to alert her about our dieting, so she and Michael won’t be shocked by our svelte appearance when they get here. I also mentioned the work I’ve had to do: replacing the batteries; buying a set of tiny screw drivers for the job She wrote right back. I think she is sincere: “Oh Dad, you must be exhausted. The batteries, the screwdriver, and all on reduced caloric intake. You deserve a nap.”
Here’s the worst part of her letter, though. She writes of being converted to better eating by a film called ‘Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead.’ She’s started making vegetable smoothies to start the day. She says she’s already feeling better. Then this: “I was hoping to inflict it on you guys for a few days when we got back but it looks like you’re ahead of me. Maybe we can meet in the middle. Veggie juice for breakfast.” Sounds like more green stuff.
On my walk this morning, I realized for the first time that Richmond, our Melbourne suburb, really is in a relatively high rent district. Last year the hygienist in the dentist’s office explained she couldn’t afford to live near her work but must commute from a suburb farther out. I was surprised.
The place doesn’t look that affluent. It is an old town; most of the older houses are quite small. The lots are tiny. Apparently the value is in dirt they sit on. What made me suddenly become aware? Swan Street. I don’t know property values but I can spot a pricey car anywhere. Swan Street is the home of several automobile dealerships. There they are, lined up in a row for your inspection and, they hope, consumption: Maserati, Lamborghini, Ferrari, Aston Martin, Alfa Romeo and others.
Renault, for us humbler sorts, couldn’t break into the neighborhood; it’s around the corner on Church Street. Still, Richmond auto patrons may be wealthy, prestigious even, but they haven’t caught on to the latest rage: You have to go to Sydney for your all-electric, self-driving Tesla.
As for Joy and me, we’re content with the Melbourne tram system. It’s all we want. Except when we need something more versatile. Then we borrow the O’s Toyota Prius. We don’t look rich but we do feel trendy.
You might remember from the past couple of posts that I grumbled ever so slightly about the complications of the Brazilian visa application process. On top of all the red tape was the final insult: $160 apiece for Americans, the highest price charged for all countries except Angola. Just taking advantage of us “rich” Americans, I complained.
I gently brought this outrageous gouging of Americans up to Carlos, our host. Unfortunately for me, he explained Brazil’s reciprocity policy: It treats other countries as other countries treat Brazil. American visas are extremely expensive ($160) for Brazilians, so Brazilians charge the same. They call it reciprocity; it feels like retaliation. Carlos travels fairly frequently to the States; he’s had to jump all the hurdles getting into America that we jumped coming to Brazil. He understood our pain. Well, call it reciprocity if you want; it still feels like retaliation.
By our second day here I exclaimed to Joy, “Think what we’d have missed if our visas hadn’t come through on time!” Complaints forgotten, replaced by deep appreciation for Carlos and his wife Malu. They gave us an unforgettable experience.
About Carlos. I’m being too familiar. He’s Dr. Carlos Fernando Franco, Jr., agronomist, professor, entrepreneur, business consultant and coach, leader in his church in Campinas, and Christian Missionary Fellowship’s (CMF’s) liaison/leader in Brazil. Malu is a dentist; she has been practicing here for twenty years. We first met the Francos in the 1990s when they visited Central Christian Church in Mesa, Arizona. They hadn’t come to see the pastor, but good friends Chip and Teri Stauffer. Chip and Jeff Greene were CMF missionaries in Campinas, where they established the church the Francos joined. The Stauffers and Greenes returned to the States in time and the Francos later. Carlos has continued in Christian leadership, now as part of five-year-old church that numbers 7000 in weekend attendance on several campuses. In more recent years Dr. Franco and I have become better acquainted through CMF; he’s on the board and I’m on staff.
You don’t want to invite the Lawsons for a visit. We accept! It’s Carlos’ fault, though. Because of our CMF association, I was eager to know him better. We had first come to Brazil in the 1980s; we were eager to return for another look and to spend some quality time with the Francos. But we did not expect to be feted so lavishly by Carlos and Malu.
We flew from Key West to Sao Paulo via Ft. Lauderdale. Carlos had rented a car and driven to the airport (an hour-and-a-half from Campinas). From the moment he greeted us we relaxed; we were in competent hands. This is his country. And he speaks Portuguese and fluent English.
The first night was the promise of more to come. Carlos took us to dinner at D’Autore Restaurant, where Malu’s nephew Tulio is a chef. We ate too much—as we would for the next several days. Appetizers: beef tartare—special recipe and a special fish hors d’oeuvre. Main course: Argentine beef (which, Carlos explained, was probably raised and grazed in Brazil). They know Carlos here. Waiters hovered. Chef Tulio came to our table to confirm that everything was OK; the Manager materialized. We concluded that we’d be able to adjust to Brazil, so long as Carlos and his Portuguese were with us.
The next morning we boarded another plane bound, this time, to Fos do Iguaçu. On our own we’d have missed this treat. Carlos booked the four of us into the Bourbon hotel for a couple of nights. Our goal was to see the famous falls here, larger than our Niagara. No, that’s not quite accurate. Our goal was actually to ride to the falls—and into the falls. We were warned we would get wet. (Something was lost in the translation from Portuguese to English. We didn’t just get wet; we got drenched.)
It felt like coming as close to drowning in the boat as you can and still be afloat. Religiously speaking, it was a rite combining sprinkling and immersion. Joy and I had envisioned a quick ride through the falls to safety behind; we’ve done that elsewhere. The practice here is to plunge into the falls, wallow around in them until nothing dry remains anywhere, then retreat back out into the river and just, as evaporation is beginning to offer a little relief, turn around and plunge in again, as if to guarantee that nothing, absolutely nothing, escaped the inundation.
We had taken the warning seriously, so we secured our valuables in a locker. Most of our valuables. I forgot about my glasses, so they took the plunge with me. As did my iPhone. And my hearing aid.
In bouncing around in the falls I broke my iPhone case, but the instrument survived unscathed. My glasses will come clean one day (Iguaçu’s water is brown). My hearing aid battery gave up the struggle very quickly, but it was soon replaced and this instrument, also, proved itself a hardy traveler. Altogether, the experience warranted an A+.
As if that wasn’t entertainment enough for one day, the Francos then packed us off for dinner and show at Hotel Rafain’s Churracaria (a barbecue or steak house). The food was, again, outstanding, the buffet a rich array of the finest in Brazilian cuisine. What we’ll remember most, though, was the floor show with song, dance, and vaudeville acts representing several Latin American countries:
From Uruguay: Traditional dances and musicians featuring a virtuoso harpist and “bottle” dancers, two young women who stepped forward from the dance troupe. One by one wine bottles were stacked upright on their heads until finally they were balancing five of them—while never missing a dance step.
Andes mountain people (Bolivian and Peruvian) presented their colorful traditional songs and dances. From Argentina came the tango followed by an alpha male “gaucho” (the man) who whirled a couple of gauchos (round metal balls that look from the distance like yoyos at the end of a metallic rope). From Mexico came the mariachi band and traditional dances, always a favorite. Brazil’s carnival music and dance from the 40s to the present climaxed the show. Can you tell we enjoyed the evening?
Carlos was eager to see Itaipu, Brazil’s largest hydroelectric dam. Not just Brazil’s, but the world’s. It is located about an hour-and-a-half from Iguaçu. We went by bus. You know how, when you travel, you frequently see people who for some reason or other remind you of people in your past? Our driver reminded me of one of my best friends, Bill Sherman. Bill’s gone now, but every so often I spot his likeness. This man, except for his brown skin, could have been Bill’s brother). He drove, though, more like a young Jeff Terrill, our oldest Velcro son. It was easy to imagine Jeff pushing that bus to the speed limit and beyond, careening around curves, tossing passengers around with glee, racing to get to the next stop, stomping on the brake, roaring off again. It was fun, if you were properly braced. (Jeff is mature now. Still, he could be tempted…)
Back to the dam. The Itaipu Hydroelectric Power Plant stands as evidence that sometimes nations can get along. The governments of Brazil and Paraguay built it (1975-1982). The cooperation was probably made possible by the fact that both countries were under military dictatorships; no messy congresses to contend with. The result is a plant that leads the world in renewable energy production. In 2016 Itaipu Binacional (operator of the plant) produced more than 100 million megawatt hours of clean and renewable energy. If it hasn’t done so yet, the Three Gorges Dam in China will surpass this record. Still, record or not, a pretty impressive output.
While in the neighborhood we spent too little time (I could have devoted a day instead of a couple of hours) to Fos Do Iguaçu’s Parque das Aves. It is, hands down, the best dedicated bird sanctuary we’ve seen. A tropical paradise in itself. It looks and sounds and feels like the jungle. The collection of South American winged life, carefully protected and provisioned, quickly grabbed our attention and wouldn’t let go. The park has three aviaries, a butterfly house, and some reptiles (no pictures—not Joy’s favorites). So many birds: macaws, toucans, scarlet ibises, jays, thrushes, eagles, owls, and more. Our favorites were the macaws, dozens of them, who put on an aeronautics show without parallel, accompanied by their own brand of ear-splitting “music.”
Carlos treated us to a sunset cruise on the Paraná and Iguaçu rivers to their junction at the point that Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil meet. There the captain treated us to a 360-degree view of the three nations’ shorelines. To be honest, they all looked pretty much the same, a reminder that, in spite of our prejudices, we humans–and our nations–are more alike than different.
Unfortunately, after these two days together Malu had to go to work back in her dentist’s office. The rest of us went on to Rio. “It would be a shame to come to Brazil and not at least see Rio,” Carlos said. We agreed.
We only had 24 hours. So many options, so little time. For sure we planned to go to the top of the mountain to see the famed Cristo Redemptor statue. While we waited until the fog lifted we took in another magnificent botanical garden. You wouldn’t believe it possible to dedicate so many acres in the heart of the city to simple natural beauty, but Rio did it. This was another bit of serendipity.
We didn’t see the world-famous statue. The low cloud covering simply would not cooperate, stubbornly covering the hilltop until we were back down the mountain. Then, as if gloating, the clouds lifted to show us the mountain top, as you can see above. This picture is of the other side.
We couldn’t remain disappointed, though. On our tram ride down the mountain we met Veronica, a delightful Russian from Siberia (now living in London) who was in Brazil for a three-week holiday. She was traveling alone. I admired her spunk but couldn’t keep from wondering how I’d feel about it if, at her age, daughter Candy or Kim had taken off on her own across the ocean to a strange land. There are some things protective fathers don’t want to think about! This chance meeting happened after friend Carlos had carefully made certain we were always kept of harm’s way; Brazil has another side we aren’t highlighting in this report. He kept us safe. He even drove us back to the Sao Paulo airport, whether to guarantee our safety or keep us from getting loss, I’m not sure. What I am sure of, though, is that he made all the hassle of obtaining our visa worthwhile. It’s a ten-year visa, by the way. Carlos, beware! We can come back.