The Ghan, Part V: Darwin and Kakadu

During the final three days of our 12-day Ghan trip, we hung around in Darwin and took a day trip to Kakadu National Park. It was our first trip together to Australia’s “top end,” and a chance to visit – albeit briefly – its largest terrestrial national park. Established in the late 1970s, Kakadu covers about 7,700 square miles and is home to 2,000 species of flora and fauna.

[This post is the final in a series of five posts about our Ghan train trip nearly 2,000 miles across Australia. If you missed the previous posts, you can find parts one through four in order at these links: Adelaide and Kangaroo Island, Marla and Alice Springs, Uluru and Kata Tjuta, and Alice Springs and Katherine.]

Packout Looms… PCS Update II

Before I get to the last post in my travelogue about our Ghan train trip across Australia, I thought it was time for an update on our upcoming Permanent Change of Station (PCS) move from Australia to the U.S. and eventually, onward to Mexico.

My posture towards the PCS is swinging back and forth between hyper-preparation and organizing everything, and hiding in my bed doing nothing. Both conditions may present even during the same hour. Ha ha! But whatever I do, it will not stop the inevitable: we are leaving Australia in less than three weeks’ time.

The Ghan, Part IV: Alice Springs and Katherine

We spent the eighth day of our Ghan train trip in Alice Springs, the geographic heart of Australia. “The centre of the centre.” We weren’t catching the Ghan north until dinnertime, so we had a full day to explore this spirited Outback town with a population of nearly 25,000. Even with our limited time, we managed to walk through the botanic gardens, see the Royal Flying Doctor Service and Telegraph Station Historical Reserve, take photos from the top of Anzac Hill, visit a pharmacy, and even eat a couple of sit-down meals.

[This post is the fourth in a five-part series about our Ghan voyage across Australia. If you’d like to read the first three posts, you can find them in order here, here, and here.]

The Ghan, Part III: Uluṟu and Kata Tjuṯa

Part of the reason I wanted to ride the Ghan train across Australia was to make a stop at Uluṟu (oo-luh-ROO) – the infamous red sandstone rock in the middle of the Australian Outback. Formerly known as Ayers Rock, to call it a “rock” is a bit of a misnomer; at just over half a billion years old and 348 meters or 1,142 feet tall, Uluṟu is visible from space. If you’ve ever seen a postcard or image of Australia, chances are it featured Uluṟu. I visited it previously in 2006 when my dad and stepmom came to visit, and it was one of the highlights of my euphoric grad school year in Australia.

Part of our touring package was a round-trip bus journey from Alice Springs for an overnight at Uluṟu, about 450 km (280 miles) each way, along with multiple activities and accommodation in the premier hotel on the resort grounds, Sails in the Desert. In retrospect, I wish I had questioned the distance a little more and arranged to stay at Uluṟu longer, but in order to reboard the Ghan in Alice Springs, we needed to either stay a night or wait until the following week to catch it north. And thus, a Hail Mary trip to Uluṟu it was.

[This post is part three in a five-part series about our Ghan voyage across Australia. You can find the links to part one and part two here.]

The Ghan, Part II: Marla and Alice Springs

On day four of our trip, we headed to the Adelaide railway terminal to catch the midday Ghan train north to the Australian Outback. We were greeted with champagne and juice, our luggage quickly checked, and then we were off with our overnight bags to snap some photos of the train before boarding the first leg of 2,979 km (1,851 miles).

[This post is part two in a five-part series about our Ghan voyage across Australia. If you missed the first post, you can find it here.]

The Ghan, Part I: Adelaide and Kangaroo Island

For more than a year, I have been dreaming about a train trip across Australia on the Ghan. Now in its 90th year of service, the Ghan is a passenger train that traverses the “red centre” of Australia from south to north. Operated by Great Southern Rail, the 54-hour ride starts in Adelaide, the capital of South Australia, and ends in Darwin, the capital of the Northern Territory. If you aren’t familiar with the geography of Australia, you could be forgiven for not realizing that covers an astonishing nearly 3,000 km (1,880 miles), plus whatever stopovers and forays into the Outback you do along the way.

This isn’t a trip you do on the fly. Most people who do it are retired – Australians call them “grey nomads” – and have been thinking about it for a lifetime. Several months ago I finally bought the tickets as a special gift to my husband, and in mid-June we took this inspiring 12-day journey. Now that we have safely returned home and entered our last month at Post, I cannot imagine a more profound way for us to have begun our goodbyes to Australia than riding the Ghan.

Vividly Felt

Earlier this month, we combined our last three-day weekend in Australia with our last road trip to Sydney for the 11th annual Vivid – a festival of “light, music and ideas.” Vivid didn’t exist when I lived there as a grad student, and last year we missed it, but I thought it would be fun to see to see the Sydney Opera House and Harbour Bridge lit up, and to check out the light installations at the zoo and Royal Botanic Gardens. We also did a couple of coastal walks, ate delicious food, saw a grad school friend of mine, and visited the Anzac Memorial’s recently completed WWI centenary exhibition.

Although we were only in Sydney for two nights, the trip reminded me of how much I love Sydney and what a beautiful city it is. There is often debate among embassy colleagues about our favorite Australian cities. I cannot fault Melbourne, Brisbane, or anywhere else; I have never been anywhere in Australia that I did not like. But Sydney holds a special place in my heart as my former home. In the intervening years, it has been full of changes. But many delightful old ghosts come back to life for me with each visit, and sharing that with V is terrific for me. It was good to be there one more time, with less than eight weeks remaining at Post.

Foreign Service Housing

Over the years, I have received lots of questions about housing benefits in the Foreign Service (FS) – primarily what my houses have looked like, if I liked them, and whether I got to pick them. Foreign Service Officers are assigned government-owned (or leased) housing to live in during overseas tours as a benefit of our employment. There can be a misconception that diplomats overseas “live like kings,” but where we live is much more about what is available within the applicable regulations – and sometimes that isn’t great – unless you are an ambassador or deputy chief of mission with a representational residence. (For more on housing sacrifices made by FS families, please read this really terrific article by former FS spouse Donna Scaramastra Gorman, “The Reality of Being a Foreign Service Spouse.”)

Whether you feel like your FS housing is an odd temporary space to put up with, or adore it and cherish it as your own home, the topic of housing inspires a lot of discussion – worry and questions, complaints and gratitude, and plenty of laughs. One post in an FS-related Facebook group asking for submissions of the strangest FS housing quirks led to hundreds of comments and hilarious photos that had me in stitches. I had a submission or two of my own, but so far we have been very lucky. Here I share my perspectives, along with never-before seen photos of our official residences from our first two tours in Tashkent, Uzbekistan and Canberra, Australia.

But Who’s Counting?… PCS Update I

We have now entered the 75 days-remaining-in-Australia window… but who’s counting? As the days grow fewer, I’m ramping up my departure preparations and trying to keep the details from becoming a bigger lift than necessary. Here is a snapshot of how V and I are getting ready for yet another Permanent Change of Station (PCS) move.

Work-Life, Unbalanced

Lately, I have been thinking a lot (and feeling all the feels) about the issue of work-life balance: why does balance going sideways seem to happen to some people more often than others? And is getting the balance back really as simple as just “leaving work?” I can’t say that I have all the answers, but I’m getting closer to my own personal solutions.

Lest We Forget

Each year on April 25, Australians and New Zealanders hold a day of remembrance to honor their fallen service members. Anzac Day was originally meant to commemorate the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) volunteer soldiers who landed at Gallipoli, Turkey on April 25, 1915. The battle at Gallipoli, sometimes also called the Dardanelles Campaign, was the first time Australian and New Zealand troops fought together in World War I. More than 11,000 ANZAC soldiers were killed and a further 23,500 wounded at Gallipoli. In the decades that followed, the holiday broadened to honor the fighting Anzac spirit that is a large part of the national identity.

All over Australia, Australians mark Anzac Day with dawn services, marches, and remembrance ceremonies, and reflect on the lives of those who persevered and died protecting the freedoms and values we enjoy.

Making Memories in Canberra

Since I came back from leave at the end of February, I have been working at breakneck speed. I’ve managed visits from Washington across two separate weekends, and spent several nights in the office until 10pm trying to catch up and stay on top of workload. It honestly feels a bit like a losing battle, although in a few more days, the 100 days-left-at-Post countdown will start. With that in mind, I have tried to focus at least somewhat on having fun and enjoying the time we have left in Canberra while it lasts.  Here are some memories of doing that over the last several weeks.

Collecting Postcards Turns Five

I wanted to take a moment to acknowledge that five years have passed since I first launched the Collecting Postcards blog on April 13, 2014. Some parts of the last five years are easy to quantify. Two agencies, five job assignments. Three cars. Homes on three continents. Travel in 14 countries. Five hospitalizations. Two pets. I’ve written 180 blog posts which 33,000 visitors from over 165 countries have viewed nearly 105,000 times. Everything else that’s harder to quantify? Well, that’s where you’ll have to read more deeply.

Work Email: A Love-Hate Relationship

In early 2018, I got hooked on a Harvard Business Review podcast called “Dear HBR” that a former Peace Corps colleague and LinkedIn contact recommended.

During each episode, hosts Alison Beard and Dan McGinn read three listeners’ letters on workplace dilemmas and talk out solutions with a relevant industry expert. Some of my favorite topics have focused on toxic workplaces, getting sidelined, job-hopping, hard conversations, dysfunctional teams, poor communicators, ineffective leaders, personal rebranding, performance reviews, annoying subordinates, lateral moves, career transition, and bad bosses. I’m always happy to see a new available episode of “Dear HBR.” A couple of weeks ago, the third letter on a new episode called Benefits and Perks got my attention. It was about managing the crush of work email upon returning from leave, and that topic is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately.

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