This week Australia, the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, and New Zealand held a ministerial-level meeting to discuss national security issues in the Australian state of Queensland. It was my first-ever visit to Queensland, and although I had a lot of work to do both as a political reporting officer and as a control officer, my time in Gold Coast exceeded my expectations both for professional development and as a new and beautiful place to visit. If you’re going to be busy, why not be busy with the ocean and sandy beaches less than two blocks away!
This weekend, we took a small road trip 50 miles south into New South Wales’ Snowy Monaro Region to experience a black truffle hunt. The greater Canberra region is known for its fresh black winter truffles. This year, the tenth annual Canberra Truffle Festival runs from June through August (the southern hemisphere equivalent of December-February). What better way to experience the festival and support local farmers than enjoying a black perigord truffle-infused brunch and tagging along with dogs trained to hunt the savory black gold?
Between November 2002 and August 2004, I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Republic of Macedonia doing environmental education and management. At that stage of my life, I was in my mid-20s, single, and a recent San Diego State University graduate who hadn’t seen much of the world outside of California, Nevada, and northern Mexico. Every few years, I take a look back at some of the emails and letters I sent to friends and family during that time. Even though some of the writing is spectacularly convoluted and would have benefited from thorough editing, I do see glimpses within of the person I would become. Some of the letters, while not a complete perspective on my service, are also a heartwarming reminder for me of my young resiliency, hope, and the struggles I had in adapting to my new home. Although some days I succeeded better than others, the prevailing legacy of that time was an openness to seeing life through others’ eyes. I’m sharing a few excerpts of those letters home here.
High atop Canberra’s Black Mountain within the treeline sits Telstra Tower, a futuristic-looking spire that looks like it was dropped straight from outer space. Opened in 1980 after almost a decade of bureaucratic wrangling, the tower serves as a national television and radio transmission hub, and also supports area telecom and interstate relay services. Attracting nearly half a million visitors per year, my husband and I have wanted to visit “the spaceship” since we arrived here nearly a year ago. Finally this month, on one of the coldest days of the year, we had a hearty brunch and then made the trek.
For Memorial Day weekend, we went on a road trip to New South Wales’ Hunter Valley wine region. I planned it a few months ago; although I last went in 2005, my husband had never been, and I thought it would be a nice getaway for us after a stressful few weeks at the embassy between official visits, long hours, and feeling bummed after the departure from post of two close friends. Throughout May and June (late autumn and early winter), the Hunter celebrates its annual Wine and Food Festival. But with 150 wineries, restaurants, and cellar doors to choose from year-round, it’s always a wine and food festival there!
Australians take a four day weekend for the Easter holiday, which I didn’t pay much attention to until it was nearly upon us. But a chance to go out of town for more than one night was too good to pass up, so I searched for romantic getaway places on AirBnB. I found and booked an inexpensive but nice-looking one with excellent reviews on the Sapphire Coast of New South Wales, a couple hours south of Canberra where we hadn’t yet been. After a day or so, I realized the reason that property had still been open when everything else – as is so typical during school holidays – was already booked solid: our AirBnB was in the coastal town of Tathra, which had headlined national news a couple weeks earlier while being ravaged by bushfires.
During my childhood, on my nana’s refrigerator hung a postcard featuring colorful hot air balloons floating over rolling green meadows. I would gaze at the balloons from my chair at her 1950s formica kitchen table, drinking orange juice and eating raisin toast, and think about how much I wanted to see hot air balloons. (That postcard might actually even still be there, come to think of it.) Somehow over the years, that fascination with the balloons’ appearance turned into a wish to ride in one. So in 2006 when she came with my mom to see me in Australia and we took a side trip to New Zealand, we made about five attempts to hot air balloon in Christchurch. Sadly, each try was rained out by unlucky southern hemisphere autumn weather. To add insult to injury, the day of our departure dawned bright and sunny. We groaned about it the whole way to the airport to catch our flight back to Sydney. My nana had hot air ballooned previously though, so she was mostly just disappointed for me. For twelve years, it remained on my bucket list. Until last month when I finally – on about my seventh attempt – flew for the first time in a hot air balloon.
Towards the end of February, we celebrated my husband’s birthday and his new embassy job with a weekend escape to Katoomba in New South Wales’ Blue Mountains. We also visited Featherdale Wildlife Park, located about an hour from Katoomba in the equally charmingly-named town of Doonside. On balance, even with weather extremes and about nine hours in the car over two days while only a month out from my back surgery, it was still very well worth the trip.
While most people we know are experiencing winter, summer is going strong here in the southern hemisphere. As I watch snowfall on my friends’ social media posts, Australians are looking to beat record heat, and with about 15,000 miles of coastline and a population of less than 25 million, Australians are spoilt for choice when it comes to beaches. And although Canberra is inland, as opposed to Australia’s other major cities found on the coast, it’s only a 2-3 hour drive from Canberra to most beaches of Australia’s famed south coast. Before Christmas, I started exploring south coast trips once I realized that beautiful beaches and inexpensive AirBnB options abound.
On New Year’s Day, my husband and I decided to go for a walk at Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve. The reserve, located about 11 miles from our home, is 34 square miles of protected land on the north edge of Namadgi National Park. It’s also part of the Australian Alps, a series of parks and reserves spanning south-eastern Australia. Full of wildlife, nature trails, and picnic areas, our first Tidbinbilla excursion was a perfect way to kick off a healthy and adventurous 2018.
It took us about eight weeks from the time we arrived in Canberra to really get out on the weekends and start to explore the city. Sure, we’d spent precious weekend hours running what few errands one can during non-business hours here: Setting up banking, assessing the offerings of Australian Costco, and even having blood drawn. Lots of things are slowing our jump from survival mode to enjoyment mode. My husband looking for work. Car trouble, repeatedly. And of course there was my six week hospitalization, my full-time job, and having everything we own on a cargo ship somewhere. At a certain point, we decided not to let anything stop us from having some fun – not the freezing cold weather, not the 24 inch chest catheter tube coming out of my upper arm, and not the fact that our lives are in boxes and we don’t know where our socks or cheese grater are. In October, as spring began to warm the Southern Hemisphere, we’ve been out and about in Canberra.
Foreign Service Officers (FSOs) have Congressionally-mandated “home leave” between overseas diplomatic postings. We are required to take a minimum of 20 business days in the U.S. in order to reorient ourselves and keep our ties strong. We don’t actually have to spend our home leave days at our home of record (HOR); we can be anywhere in the U.S. and its territories. However, unless an FSO is independently wealthy (ha), has a vacant property to stay in, or willing family members with homes large enough to host an officer and his/her spouse, kids, pets, and stuff for weeks on end, home leave for many can end up feeling like “homeless” leave.
I strolled slowly downhill through the gravel and broken pavement towards the Aral Sea as raindrops began to fall. The Land Cruiser rolled up slowly on my right, and M called out through the open window, “Hey lady, want a ride?” Looking skeptically over my shoulder, I replied, “I don’t usually take rides from strangers. But you guys look all right.” I laughed at myself as I clumsily climbed in and we rolled the remaining few hundred yards down to the seaport.
[This is a companion piece to my prior post about traveling to the Aral Sea earlier this month. If you missed the first post, you can find it here.]
The Aral Sea is located in the autonomous republic of Karakalpakstan, in the far northwestern part of Uzbekistan. While once the fourth largest lake in the world, over the last several decades it has lost 90 percent of its water, mostly due to irresponsible Soviet agricultural practices. Scientists have long considered the Aral Sea to be one of the greatest environmental disasters in human history. I saw a National Geographic article featuring the impending destruction of the sea around twenty years ago, and a small seed of fascination was planted. It has been without a doubt my biggest bucket list item during my tour in Uzbekistan. We were fortunate to finally make our visit happen two weeks ago – one of the most sad and contemplative, yet amazing and mysterious trips I’ve ever taken.
Last spring, I took a road trip through the Fergana Valley with some of my embassy colleagues and friends. Unfortunately, it happened during a time when my husband was in London and couldn’t attend. So this year when the trip was announced again, we signed up, and a couple of our friends said they’d roll with us, too. More than a dozen diplomatic-plated vehicles caravaning through the valley drew a lot of amazed stares and sometimes even a wave. Two days and in excess of a dozen hours in the car led us to beautiful Uzbek silk, hand-painted ceramic pottery, and the palace of the former khan. How could we say no to our second-to-last Uzbek road trip?