The Houston Nine

A year ago today, I was on board the National Geographic Explorer en route to the Falkland Islands (and, ultimately, Antarctica). But just three days earlier that was all in jeopardy thanks to United Airlines and an unspecified mechanical issue.

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(Five of the Houston Nine)

There we were, 200+ assorted passengers waiting at the gate in Houston International Airport for our flight to Buenos Aires, Argentina, listening restlessly to delay after delay, and then, more than two hours later, cancellation. I’m sure many of you have had this experience but, believe it or not – given the many thousands of miles I’ve flown – I had yet to to suffer anything more than a handful of delays. I guess my luck had run out that evening.

We scrambled to line up at the counter to receive hotel and food vouchers as instructed, while – in my head –  I wailed at the unfairness of it. Those of you who’ve been through this type of ordeal are thinking “What’s the big deal? You’re not the only person who’s ever been inconvenienced.” This is true. But that evening all I could think about was my emotional pain and the terminally ill cat I’d left behind at home in California. (I wrote about her in my first blog entry “Healing Through Horror.”) If I had known this was going to happen, I could have spent one more day with her before she died.

I’m sure many of you have suffered similarly, having flights cancelled while you were desperately trying to get somewhere before a family member passed away, or to the funeral, or to more happy events such as a wedding or a birth. Such pain is personal and probably can’t be readily explained to others. And maybe it shouldn’t have to be. We experience it in our own ways.

Fortunately, I was not alone. Even though I was not taking the pre-arranged group flight to Buenos Aires, there were eight other members of my tour group on this flight: Sandy and her sister Corrie, Bonnie and her brother Bill, Bruce, Gary and Joan, and Jay Dickman, Pulitzer Prize winner and National Geographic Photographer. Although they were meeting me for the first time under circumstances that were not the best, nor was I at my best (being rather emotional), they were supportive and understanding.

We had found each other during those interminable delays, talked, and begun to form a bond. And thank God for Jay. As the lead photographer on our expedition, he had a direct link to company headquarters, and had several phone conversations working out strategies in the event we could not reach Buenos Aires before the group flight departed to Ushuaia (one of two ports in Tierra del Fuego where Antarctica cruises embark. The other is Punta Arenas, Chile.) Our ‘last ditch’ move would have been to fly instead to Santiago, Chile, and then to the Falkland Islands to await the arrival of the ship. (Why Santiago? Because you can’t fly directly from Argentina to the Falklands. Why? Look up the 1982 Falklands War. We were, coincidentally, in the Falklands during the 30th anniversary of the war, but, despite some noise from the Argentinian government, nothing happened.)

It was Jay’s calming influence and his planning that kept the rest of us calm. We knew, that no matter when we reached Buenos Aires, we would eventually get to the ship and to Antarctica. Heck, the ship wasn’t going to Antarctica without him – he was the lead Nat Geo photographer of the expedition.

In one of those “It’s a Small World” moments, many months later while showing vacation photos to my Colorado relatives, they all said “We know him.” (Jay Dickman) Yes, my younger brother, Chris, was an Eagle Scout with Jay’s son. What are the odds of that?

But back to Houston, there was our little group of nine, hotel and food vouchers in hand. It was now after midnight. The food vendors at the airport were all closed, the food vouchers useless. So, we and the 200+ others all flocked to the exit to get our hotel shuttle. I don’t remember which hotel it was that United Airlines told us to look for, but when that shuttle driver showed up, he was completely confused. “What are you talking about?” he asked. “We don’t have any rooms.”

It became a madhouse as people raced in all directions, toward the next hotel shuttle to pull up, and the next, and the next. Gary came to our rescue here, spotting the Ramada shuttle way off in the distance, and sprinted for it, beating everyone else. Gary got us the last five rooms available! While we later learned that many other passengers ended up sleeping on the floor of the baggage claim, the Ramada wasn’t a great prize (other than the clean beds to sleep in). The water coming out of the faucets was rust-colored. I let the water run in the shower for ten minutes past it turning clear before I would get into it.  And, alas, even the hotel bar was closed, so we still didn’t have any food.  And no one had clean clothes because United wouldn’t give our luggage back to us.

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(Gary in action again)

The next day had the Houston Nine back at the airport – finally spending those food vouchers – finally eating! And finally onto an airplane. And even into the air!  After a couple more delays that is – something to do with “an immigration matter” (?) that they seemed to resolve abruptly. One moment we’re groaning at “it’ll be another hour” and the next moment we’re being told to sit down and put on our seat belts because we were taking off “right now.”  There were a few cheers. But only a few. I think most people were simply too exhausted at that point.

You would think that would be the end of the story. After all, the Houston Nine did make it to Buenos Aires in time to catch the rest of the tour group (with a mere 45 minutes to enjoy our rooms in the Caesar Park Hotel, showering, changing clothes, and eating breakfast). And on to Antarctica.

But let me tell you about the trip home from Buenos Aires to Houston. I’ve never before had an airline make such a valiant attempt at completely ruining a vacation. Yes, you guessed it! United also cancelled the return flight! This time we were actually on board the plane, about 45 minutes out, when the pilot announced that the weather radar wasn’t working and that we needed to return to BA. (There were storms along the equator he was worried about, so the return was understandable. However, don’t they do pre-flight checks? They couldn’t have found out the radar wasn’t working before we left the ground? They could’ve started fixing it earlier and maybe we could’ve still left that night. But no.)

So we sat on the tarmac for a couple of hours while they tried to fix it. And kept trying. And trying. And then cancelled the flight. Crew issues. We figured it was the pilots – maybe too tired to fly? – but we learned the next day that it was the flight attendants who refused to continue on. (While still on the plane, I snarkily thanked one of the attendants for the “second time in one trip” cancellation. She glared at me and said “Like it’s my fault.” I admit that my degree of snarkiness wasn’t called for, but, yeah, snotty flight attendant, it was your fault.)

So there we were, stranded yet again. And me, getting all emotional again, because I’d been out of contact with my pet sitters for three weeks. All I could do was wonder if my beloved cat would die on this day, and that I would miss it because of United Airlines.

ImageBut here’s where the sole bright point appeared in all this mess. In complete contrast to the horrible, disorganized disastrous service we received in Houston, the staff in Buenos Airlines met us at the gate. They guided us out to the luggage return where we picked up our bags, and then they guided us out to waiting buses which then took us to assigned hotels, all arranged by them. Being that it was 3 a.m., we didn’t get fed just like on the outbound, but the service – and the professionalism of the employees – was so much better. Why? Why couldn’t the passengers have been treated this well in Houston? They were all wearing United uniforms. Was it just Houston? Or was the difference that one was an American city, the other an Argentinian city? I don’t know the answer. I hope I don’t have any more chances to find out. I think I’ll follow Jay’s advice: when he signed my copy of his book Perfect Digital Photography, he wrote “Don’t fly through Houston.”

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Feet!! (And lessons in photo management)

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Following my “Footprints in the Far Places” post a couple weeks ago, I asked friends & family to send me any photos of their feet taken during their travels. Guess how many pictures I received? Yes, one. Only one. Disappointing. I’d been hoping, all these years, that my quirk had become infectious. Evidently not.

The one photo I received (taken in the Dead Sea) was from Lisa, a dear old friend I hadn’t had contact with since sometime in high school. But, hey, I guess that shows how much the two of us think alike despite all the intervening years. And why we had become friends in the first place.

So I searched for a few more photos of my own only to discover my iPhoto database still suffers from some corruption, despite my repair/rebuild attempts earlier this year. There’s several pictures that are missing. I have a great shot of my foot dangling over a 400 foot cliff in the Seychelles Islands, and another one with my foot firmly planted on the soil of the fabled island of Zanzibar. There’s copies in my printed photo books. But I couldn’t find the electronic versions to share with you.

(The dark, rocky shore of Madagascar.) (And the Teva sandals I won in a radio contest years ago.)Image

Fortunately, I have a backup of my iPhoto database before I performed the rebuild. My photos should be there. If not, I never re-use memory cards like a lot of people do. I label them, and store them in a safe, cool, dry place. I can restore my missing photos.

The lesson here for me is to better manage my photos in the first place. My iPhoto library has become too large, with approximately 3000 duplicates I must weed through. I need to adhere to the photo management lessons I’ve read about. And, of course, I need to make sure I’m following my backup strategy which, I admit, I’ve been a bit lazy about lately. You hear it all the time: back up, back up, back up.

I’m not panicking about my missing vacation photos. Not yet. It’s not too late to recover them. I really hope you haven’t suffered the loss of any of your precious travel photos (or pet photos, baby photos, wedding photos, etc.) With all this technology at our fingertips, it’s so easy to document our lives, but so easy to lose them too. Maybe that could be inspiration for all of us to firmly plant our feet on the ground. At least the act will be firmly planted in your memory.

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(South Georgia Island, South Atlantic. My boot print next to penguin prints.)

Footprints in the Far Places

Two or three years ago, in the “Reader’s Digest” magazine, there was a letter to the editor, accompanied by a photo from Machu Picchu (Peru), from a reader suggesting a new way for travelers to document their journeys: taking photos of their feet.

ImageNew? Hmmmm. No disrespect to the letter writer, who inferred that this was an innovative technique which he and his family had created and wanted to share with the world, but it’s hardly new. I’ve been taking pictures of my feet since sometime in the early 1980s. I’m not claiming to have invented the idea either, but I do have a picture just like the one they published in “Reader’s Digest” that was taken in approximately the same spot about a decade earlier than theirs.

It started in a moment of spontaneous silliness. Sitting on the beach in Santa Cruz, California, I pulled off my shoes and dug my toes into the sand, seeking the warmth trapped below the surface. I then placed my shoes – new pink and white Nikes – in front of me and snapped a photo of them with the waves crashing onto shore as a backdrop. Okay, that technically doesn’t qualify as taking a picture of my feet since they weren’t in the shoes at the time, but that quickly led to a new trend.

A few months later at Disneyland, sitting on the Thunder Mountain Railroad roller coaster, I slid my foot next to my cousin’s and snapped a picture of our two feet while waiting for the ride to start. That was only the beginning.

I have pictures of my feet everywhere: at home (which usually include a cat or two who are sleeping on them) and around the world: Norway, Zanzibar, Argentina, British Columbia, Antarctica, Iceland, Dubai, etc. I have pictures on beaches, glaciers, and man-made structures. I have pictures of my feet in places where it was probably a bit disrespectful: standing on top of Hadrian’s Wall in England, propped up against the Great Pyramid in Giza, Egypt. I tried to take a picture of my feet on a bench in the British Museum (London), but got yelled at by a matronly white-haired docent with a sharp accent and even sharper tongue. I have pictures of my feet alongside relatives and friends at any number of places from a nameless lake up in the Sierra Nevada to a park trail in Bandelier National Monument. The friends and relatives think I’m a bit crazy, but they go along with my urging to “hey, put your foot there!” I even have one friend who, when now viewing any of my vacation photos, always first asks “Where’s the foot pictures?”

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Do I have a foot fetish? No, I don’t think so. Feet, mine or other people’s, don’t fascinate me. I don’t run around in my daily life snapping foot pictures in ordinary circumstances. I don’t take pictures of strangers’ feet like some crazed stalker.

Like the letter writer in “Reader’s Digest” I came to discover what a unique way the foot photos were to document my travel, to say “Janet was here.”

All of my photo albums (traditional or electronic) have at least one foot picture. My Antarctica photo book even includes pictures of penguin feet (I thought that was a nice counterpart to pair with mine), and even a couple footprints in the snow. As eco-travelers like to say (and this might be a National Geographic slogan, but I’m not certain): “Take only memories, leave only footprints.”

I will eventually be making a photo album containing only my feet pictures, but I’ve got two more continents to go first (Asia and Australia). I envision using a global map and placing a foot photo on each country my feet have touched. My journey. My footprints.

Do you take pictures of your feet? Dog owners – do you take pictures of your foot next to your dog’s paw? It’s an ordinary thing, walking the dog every day, but did you ever think to memorialize it for later? Parents – you have tons of photos of your kids, but of their feet? Their foot next to yours, say once a year, as their foot grows in comparison? Take note of where your feet have been and whose paths they have crossed.

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Friends: Old, New…and Lost

Traveling isn’t just about the local people you meet, the tour guides, the shop keepers, taxi drivers, the woman on the street corner selling you baskets, or the kind shop owner who serves you tea. If’s about your fellow countrymen whom you may encounter along the way or, if you’re traveling in a tour group, your fellow group members. It’s about the things you share: curiosity about the world, appreciation for learning new things, or excitement upon jointly experiencing a unique event.

From the small moments of “Hey – I’m from that city too!” when the girls behind me in line at the Heathrow airport overhear the Customs agent remark upon the birthplace listed on my passport, to the camaraderie which develops after many days of togetherness.

There were the palpable feelings of satisfaction and happiness emanating from every person standing on the deck of the National Geographic Endeavor as a wild polar bear trundled away after spending an hour studying us from the Norwegian ice floes surrounding our ship.  Or the admiration showered upon the lucky photographers who captured the moments of our only Orca encounter in Antarctica, and their willingness to share their photos and videos. And, speaking of photos, there are those thoughtful individuals who don’t miss the opportunity to snap some shots of others because they know that everyone appreciates pictures of themselves, especially ones they can use to re-create that experience back home for their friends and family.

Then there are the “it’s a small world moments” (like the Heathrow encounter): the time I walked into my veterinarian’s office two months after returning from the Galapagos Islands only to recognize the man standing next to me at the reception desk as a fellow passenger on that cruise. Or traveling all the way to the Seychelles Islands (in the Indian Ocean, 1400 miles off the coast of Tanzania) and learning that the woman I’m eating dinner with lives in my city, only a mile away.

But most importantly, it’s the aggregate of moments which make you realize how much you like the person trudging next to you across a glacier or lava field, how much you admire them, or simply how interesting you find them. Maybe they have a really cool job back home, maybe they’ve been to places you’ve only dreamed of going, maybe they’re really skilled at something you hope to learn yourself. Heck, maybe they not only surprise you, but put you to shame (though not a bad way), like Skip, who, at the age of 80, was the only group member walking up the stairs in the Dubai airport while the rest of us – all younger – were exhaustedly drooping over the railings of the escalator.

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Or maybe they’re just really nice, like Corrie, a warm, welcoming 70-year-old retired music teacher I met in Antarctica. I couldn’t help but like Corrie, who could? Despite being on crutches due to what she believed to be a sprained hip, and missing out on many ship activities, the smile never left her face and she never complained, even when she was obviously in pain. She was just happy to be there. She had an energy, an enthusiasm, which was contagious.

It was those qualities that Corrie exuded which made it so disappointing, so upsetting, despite having known her for only twenty days, to learn that it was not a sprain which plagued her, but a tumor in her hip joint, and myeloma eating away at her bone marrow.

The doctors said they could heal her. It would take time, of course, but they had confidence she would be back on her feet in a year or so, and able to continue her world travels. Until late summer, that is. The myeloma returned, much more aggressive than before, and a prognosis of complete recovery changed to six to nine months survival, to – heartbreakingly – six to nine days when she took a sudden turn for the worse. Corrie passed away on August 25th.

As sad as that made me, I’m glad I met her. I’m glad I took the opportunity to snap some “action” shots of Corrie in one of her rare outings on a zodiac ride to share with her and her sister (who had accompanied her on the trip) and, ultimately, with those who attended her memorial service. I was flattered to hear that one of the photos I had taken was chosen for the slideshow played for the attendees. She will remain one of my lasting memories of the Frozen Continent.

I hope that I will meet more people like her, whether it’s complete strangers I’m encountering for the first time, or friends and relatives I’m traveling with for the umpteenth time while learning new things about them, meeting them all over again.

Dancing in Antarctica (Part III)

The best vacations never leave you. The sights, the sounds, and the emotions stay with you forever, laying dormant in your mind until they rise to the surface with even the slightest of urgings. From glancing at a photograph or hearing a penguin honk on t.v. or listening to a song, it can take only a second for unbidden memories to rise. In the most unlikely of places, even the deserts of New Mexico, Antarctica can live again.

It was just after dawn, and I had slipped into the steaming hot pool on the patio of my room at Ojo Caliente Mineral Springs Resort & Spa. Not wanting to disturb any other guests who might also be enjoying the cool morning air, I turned on my trusty 3rd generation iPod Nano – which has now been to five continents with me – and let it shuffle through songs at a low volume. But after a few minutes, the tunes weren’t fitting my mood. So I scrolled through the playlists, not looking for anything in particular, until I came upon Franti’s song again.

I leaned my head back and, yes, turned up the volume a bit, tapping out the beat with my feet on the opposite wall of the small pool.  It wasn’t dancing, not really, but close enough. As the ripples in the water, caused by my movements, washed over my legs, I imagined myself back aboard ship, listening to the faint slap of the waves against Explorer’s hull. And I remembered the emotional turmoil, the tug-of-war I had felt between despair and hope.

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Not all the lyrics in “Hey, Hey, Hey” speak of hope. They question death, guns, Wall Street greed. As the song reached the line “Until the morning comes again, I will remain with you my friend, and we will ride into the sun…” my thoughts naturally drifted back to Turtle. It’s been seven months since I lost her, but I still miss the feisty feline. Being winter when she died, around 6 am, we didn’t quite make it until dawn, but I did stay with my friend, and even if she did not see the sun again, I did. I held her there, on my chest, her now motionless head under my chin, until after dawn before taking her on her final journey.

With the sun rising higher in the New Mexico sky, I knew it would soon be time to go home to California. My next dawn would find me awakening to the plaintive meows of my other three cats. As much as my heart aches for Turtle, and for other cats lost before her, it is now my duty to take care of those cats still here. My job, my pleasure, to love them, cuddle them, give belly rubs, rest my cheek against them while listening to purrs, and clapping my hands and saying “no, no, bad cat”…..  And, yes, to dance with them when I’m in a silly mood, even if it annoys the hell out of them.

Healing Through Horror

She was running after me as fast as her little legs would carry her. She ran and she ran, but she was old and tired. She couldn’t keep up with me as the airplane carried me away. She faded into the distance, a tiny animal swallowed by the blackness of my mind.

I don’t know if she couldn’t catch up, or simply gave up, but I think it was the latter. I had abandoned her, betrayed her, when she needed me most.

Turtle 4x4

She was Turtle, an opinionated and stubborn 16 year old calico cat. Feral born, I found her in the parking lot of a liquor store, and over the years formed a closer bond with her than any other pet, or any human.

So why was I on an airplane, traveling further than ever before – literally to the ends of the earth?

Because I had a dream, a goal, for which I’d been striving for years, to set foot on Antarctica. I can’t explain my need to travel to the most remote locations I can, nor is this the time or place.

This is about Turtle, or rather my guilt at leaving her to die without me. I’d been with every previous pet when he or she passed away, and now I was going to miss seeing the one I loved the most off to her next journey.

Granted, this was a colossal case of bad timing on my part, nor did I believe it would come to this. When she was diagnosed with kidney failure in August, I thought she would go quickly within a month or so like Indy ten years earlier. But kidneys are unpredictable, and cats with little kidney function can stabilize for months. She did. So I set aside my fear and prepared for my dream trip of a lifetime. After all, she would be in the good hands of neighbors Chris & Myssi, both of whom work as veterinary technicians.

Then came November 7th, around 1 a.m. I needed to leave the house no later than 5 a.m., and was scrambling to get ready, and maybe catch a couple hours of sleep. But Turtle – probably stressed at the sight of me packing a suitcase yet again – started vomiting and showing signs of distress. There was not enough time to take her to the emergency vet and, admittedly, I did not want her to die in a strange place. So I did the only thing I could think of. I zipped the suitcases shut, and held her for the last four hours. And then I said goodbye to her (3 or 4 or 5 times) before rushing to the airport in tears.

When I saw her in that mind’s eye image, chasing after me, I knew I would never see her again. I cried in the airport; I cried on the airplane; I cried in my cabin every night aboard the boat.

I’d left instructions with the vet and neighbors as to what to do should Turtle die, so I knew her ashes would be awaiting me when I returned. But that didn’t make my emotional pain any more bearable. That didn’t lessen my guilt nor make my selfishness any less real. Non-pet owners probably don’t understand this, and maybe even some pet owners. But I take seriously my commitment – my promise – to any pet I bring into my home. It is life long. I owe them a good life. I owe them a peaceful death. A death with their human at their side to say goodbye one last time. With Turtle, I had failed. I’d broken my promise and that was probably the most painful realization.

So I did the only thing I could. I’m a writer. I decided to work through my guilt, to “heal through horror,” as I decided to label it.

I’d taken a notebook and an idea with me on the trip, not knowing exactly what I would do with it. A dark fantasy/horror piece I titled “The Fisherman’s Wife” about a woman named Kima and her revenge against the men who murdered her magician husband. In their culture, magic is found in the hands, so his murderers had cut off his fingers and divided them amongst themselves. Kima’s mission was to recover her husband’s fingers, thus to restore his magic and kill his enemies.

I decided to give Kima a dog. A big dog named Oolee who, despite having been injured and left for dead in the original attack, will follow Kima on her mission. (A cat would have been impractical.) I decided to give Kima a similar gut-wrenching decision. Stay or go?

The fate of Kima and Oolee is found in their story.

My fate: still to be written.

Turtle’s fate: she sits beside me now…in an urn with a beautiful plaque reading “In Loving Memory.”

I am happy to report that she survived my month-long absence. I can’t express enough gratitude to Chris & Myssi for nursing her back to stabilization, praying for her survival. Even as a writer, I can’t find words to describe my astonishment at finding her curled up underneath the desk where I now sit. She growled at me for a moment, then melted into my arms, purring. We had another month together. And then, in a bookend image to that early morning back in November, I sat, holding her, telling her it was okay to let go, as she slipped away to heaven.

How will Kima and Oolee say goodbye?

Discover the answer in “The Fisherman’s Wife” (part of the “Skin and Bones” anthology e-book for sale at Smashwords.com and at Amazon Kindle):

Smashwords: http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/337955
Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Skin-and-Bones-ebook/dp/B00E19DQHA/