Category Archives: travel

A day in a zoo of dead animals

I finally caught my breath next to a large brown bear chasing a rather panicky deer. The Ted Stevens International Airport in Anchorage is like a great zoo for dead things.

There are polar bears, mountains goats, Dall sheep, numerous brown bears, ptarmigan, caribou, moose and many other northern creatures mounted in life-like poses in large glass enclosures.

The Chugach Mountains glisten under bright sunshine to the east and out the large glass windows of the airport.

If you have to be stuck in an airport, this is the one to be stuck in.

The wake-up call came early this morning. It seemed like I just put my head to the pillow when my daughter jumped into bed with us at 3:45 a.m., just a few seconds before the alarm went off. Turns out all of our packing the evening before and a plan to leave for the airport an hour before our goal of being there an hour before departure was a great failure.

Mondays are terrible days to travel. Period. Dozens and dozens of suits lined up against the wall waiting for an automated check-in machine. Traveling with Morris the gecko meant we had to check in at the agent desk. The line moved like people waiting for an Eastern European toilet.

The ticket agent was a peach. She told me no less than four times there was no way we’d make our flight as she happily charged my Visa $100 for a pet that cost $39. Not to take away from the intrinsic value of an animal aside from its pet-store price.

She refused to check us all the way through, because she was convinced we wouldn’t make our Anchorage connection in Seattle.

We ran carrying heavy bags on our shoulders and wheeling the rest of our belongings behind us. Morris stood on all four legs with his belly high off the ground as if trying to find balance or meaning in the terrible commotion.

The TSA agent at security was the nicest I’ve ever met. She inspected Morris and instructed Carson to take care of this good-looking little guy. We put our shoes and coats on, repacked and ran down the people movers looking for gate A.

The ticket agent at the gate was a real peach. Oh, wait, I said that. Turns out there is a pattern with Horizon ticket agents when you’re late. They have no patience at all. After a good tongue lashing about causing other passengers to be late, we climbed aboard a very crowded Bombardier bound for Seattle.

I smiled at Cheryl as the sweat dripped off my head like it did the last time I had a good sauna.

We made it.

Upon landing in Seattle, we found out our connecting flight to Anchorage was about as far away as you could possibly be in the airport. So we ran to catch a train to catch an escalator to find a friendly Alaska Airlines ticket agent waiting for us with five tickets in hand.

“You must be the five people from Portland without boarding passes?”

“Yes, we are. I’m so sorry.”

“Nothing to worry about sir, we’ll get you on board soon.”

I collapsed in my seat dripping sweat once again and slept on an off between having to tell Gabrielle to stop kicking the seat in front of her. I set up some videos for the kids to watch, played Angry Birds for an hour and dozed until the bumpy landing in Anchorage.

If you know anything about me by now, you know I’m not a detail person, preferring instead the bigger picture. If I had lived 100-years-ago, I’d be traveling always with an assistant.

I neglected to tell our housing organizer that we were arriving Monday, substituting Tuesday instead. So here we sit in the Anchorage airport from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. waiting for a shuttle that will take us to our hotel where a 3 p.m. check-in time awaits us along with a good swim, a shower and an early bed time.

There were plenty of negatives this morning. The good thing is we’re together here in Anchorage, our new city. We took a walk to the other side of the terminal to look at downtown and then a peek at midtown. Somewhere out there we’ll find a new home, and these mountains will be our backdrop from now on.

The future is looking good.


Anchorage or bust!

Our plane bound for Seattle then Anchorage departs in a little over six hours. Our bags are packed, Morris the gecko has a travel home fit for a king, and though we sent the kids’ birth certificates on ahead, we found that the airlines will not require them to have identification.

And yet I’m awake and stressed to the point of breaking. Could be the the fact that our house in Missoula still is not rented out or the other fact that I accidentally told our facilitator in Anchorage we’d be arriving on Tuesday instead of Monday, and now we don’t have a place to stay tomorrow night.

Little details.

I’m sitting here reflecting on all that’s familiar about being home. We ate a huge breakfast of varenyki this morning. They are Ukrainian dumplings boiled then fried with caramelized onions and smothered in sour cream. For a Slavic boy, they are as comfortable as comfort food gets.

This evening, we crowded around the television set to watch our San Francisco Giants win their third game in this year’s World Series. I spoke briefly with my 88-year-old grandmother, who lives in the Bay Area, and sure enough, she was watching it too.

As I’ve said before, the Golden Gate is our Ellis Island. The San Francisco 49ers and Giants are our teams. They have always been.

The familiar helps me deal with the unfamiliar. A few of my favorite things make the looming storm of moving to a new city a little easier to face.

These last few hours in the home I grew up in have been healthy for me. In these walls I feel safe and welcome.

Here, surrounded by family, I feel as good as I think I’m capable of feeling right now.

I’m excited about the job and starting something completely new. I’m excited about moving to a new city and meeting new people. I’m thrilled to be exploring such an amazing place like Alaska.

But the trepidation is there under the surface. I feel it for the three little ones in my care. How to make them secure and warm and comfortable amidst a lot of change and chaos. Already they’re starting to feel the bigness of this move. Little questions like: “Daddy, are airplanes scary?” and “Where are we going to live when we get there?”

They are their father’s children. Adventure beckons, and they rush toward it. But the emotional heavy hitters like leaving behind best friends and moving far enough away from family that you can’t drive it in one day are sinking in.

Well, tomorrow is upon us. It’s time to rest for a few minutes and begin this journey in earnest.


Hitting the reset button at home

Home is a feeling, a state of being.

My mother is the queen of hospitality. After just a few days in her care, all troubles seem to melt away as the good food, fellowship and rest start to brighten one’s outlook and revive the soul.

Home is a familiar place where dark troubles in the distance, the great unknowns are reduced to a light drizzle on the windows rather than pelting cold that doubles you over in fear and confusion.

My family is a family of wanderers and virtual vagabonds, resistant to a lax existence tied to place. But we have a home, at least a place of congregation where we’ve gathered for many years.

In driving up that familiar, deeply sloped driveway lined with pine needles and oak leaves, I am aware of where I am. But its warmth and welcome are experienced only when occupied by the members of my family.

This week my little sister Aimee is traveling the Middle East for work, and though our dinner conversations are alive with stories and fellowship, it’s not the same without her sitting at her familiar place at the table. My brother-in-law is away as well, and his conviviality is missed.

I’ve often thought about how one creates that sense of home. Especially in light of moving my family around as much as we have these last 16 years. My mother, as I’ve said, does this with an unswerving sense of hospitality and care. My father is the patriarch, the storyteller, the passer on of wisdom. Together, they are the sense of home I most want to emulate.

As places go, our little enclave along Battle Creek Road is not the quaintest old building or the most pristine hillside. The one-and-a-half acres are slightly overgrown, and the tall pines block the view for the most part.

It’s a place created and recreated as our family grew. A hillside manor, of sorts, a place we come to gather where the marks of our former existence make us feel welcome but which do not hold a candle to the necessity of having family present. Without the players, this little world would not matter at all. Except to my brother, of course. His penchant for place is perhaps far more developed than the rest of us. His handy work is seen in the jungle-like back yard, where a fish pond and cold-hardy palm trees soak up the rain showers like sponges.

The old tree fort my dad built for us has been replaced by a new tree fort named the Dawn Treader in honor of our love for C.S. Lewis’ famed children’s books “The Chronicles of Narnia,” but mostly because a tree fort in the imaginative state of being a ship is the most fun a kid can have. I think.

Life in our house happens around the dinner table, where we sit close together eating from myriad dishes like a tasty carousel circling in front of us each night. We spend long hours sitting and talking, going from dinner to late-evening tea and cookies through dozens and dozens of conversations.

It has always been this way. Only today there is more laughter and mirth as the house is filled with grandchildren running and playing as we fellowship.

The remnants of our attempts to farm the land are evident in the old chicken coop falling into disrepair, the old goat fences clinging to rotting posts and a rabbit or two eating grass on the lawn. We are not farmers, though I believe we’re nostalgic for some trace of it in our history.

My mom travels the world with my father, she is savvy about the bigger picture and can converse about almost any topic with ease. But her pioneer roots are evident in the ceiling-high shelves full of canned goods in the garage. I don’t know when she has the time to accomplish these things, but over the last few days we’ve tasted amazing brined pickles and fresh horse radish as well as dried peppers and other examples of her harvest.

There are many reasons to love the comforts of home. Mine are nearly all found in the individuals who make up my family. But we’ve carved out a bit of a comfortable Hobbit hole here on this hillside. When we’re not adventuring around the world, we gather here and fill it with warmth and the smells of good food and conversation that resounds for me like cathedral bells long after I leave.

In moving to a place that is as far away as moving across the sea somewhere, I feel a sense of loneliness already, and it makes me want to grab up every last moment here as if I won’t be back for some time.

Home is the place you come to reset all the settings. As I revive here with all that I love, I realize that this is what I will need to create for the next generation of us. Place is only as good as those who inhabit it.


Forcing the Dream Part III

Getting from Missoula, Montana to Jaipur, India is not the easiest of tasks. Start with a $300 ticket to fly out of Missoula, and you’ll find yourself searching anything out of Spokane instead.

Itinerary: Spokane to Seattle on Horizon. Seattle to Frankfurt on Scandinavian Airlines, Frankfurt to New Delhi on Scandinavian airlines. Total flight time: 19 hours. New Delhi to Jaipur by automobile. Total trip time: 28 hours.

I was disoriented landing in a strangely foggy and somewhat chilly New Delhi. I found my bags and wandered around the terminal for about 10 minutes to collect my thoughts. I bought a Coke and a candy bar and phoned my friends in Jaipur.

The taxi sent to collect me was delayed in a horrific six-hour traffic jam coming into the city. For anyone unaware of what the Indian freeway system looks like, think about a post-apocalyptic Mardi Gras celebration with tank-like floats painted garrulous schemes of red, yellow, green and orange with green tarps. At most, they travel at a benign 15-20 kilometers per hour.

I was starting to fall asleep in my chair when my driver shook me awake. For a moment I forgot where I was, and the red and white color scheme on the Coke bottle in front of me and crumpled Milky Way wrapper gave me something solid to focus on.

We hopped in a tiny car and drove into what seemed like California coastal fog, a shroud that New Delhi wears something like 70 percent of the time.

Barely 15 kilometers from the airport, we ran into the traffic jam, something that reminded me of the lines at the passenger ferry terminals in Europe where you wait for hours to be loaded onto the big ships that cruise the Baltic Sea.

The taxi driver, who didn’t speak any English, tried to communicate that we’d have to wait out the jam and pulled over, turned off the engine and promptly folded his seat back and went sleep.

If you can’t beat them, join them.

Sleep sounded good, and although the excitement of being in a completely foreign place was starting to infest my mind, I put my seat back and went to sleep too.  Three hours later I awoke to the sound of a thousand trucks starting. It is not a pleasant sound, in fact it reminds one of the increasing drone of a hoard of angry bees flying in your direction.

I reached over and shook the taxi driver awake, and we inched our way into the slow-crawling line of trucks that make up India’s commerce system. On a good day it’s a six-hour drive from Delhi to Jaipur. On this day it was more than 10 hours with the delay outside of Delhi.

Once on the road, the darkness did what darkness does best. It lent a very mysterious blanket to a place the imagination couldn’t quite conjure up. I found myself trying to stare out in to the field and envision the place, but I couldn’t.

We stopped for tea as the sun came up. Thick, illustrious light raked the fields on either side of the road, illuminating farms and villages that might as well have come from a Dr. Suess book for all the familiarity they had to me. Large disks of collected manure sat drying in stacks in front of huts as burning fuel, and colorful saris decorated clotheslines like whimsical pirate ships.

The sweet tea tasted so good in the cool of the morning. We sat in the truck stop and sipped the tea and snacked on something akin to potato chips. The colors and smells began to resonate with me, causing the synapses to fire and begin the recording process.

 The desert region of northwest India offers the most vistas. Big sandy deserts, palm-treed, roadside oasis’ and azure reflecting ponds that increase the beauty of long-empty palaces are a few of the eye-candy treasures. And Suessical images of elephants and two-humped dromedaries plodding along freeways are so magical you can’t help but smile widely at the sight.

Jaipur is not an oasis. It’s a city of three million people on the edge of the desert. An outpost of sorts, the last stronghold of the Rajputs, Jaipur, the Pink City, is a monument to what I imagine life must have been like during the height of Middle Eastern power. A gilded life of finery and luxury unequaled.

We were stopped several times by police men trying to confiscate the taxi for political purposes. If a politician needs a vehicle to get from point a to point b, he has only to have a traffic policeman find a good car and confiscate it for his purposes.

At one such stop we sped off through a tight alley, a feat that reminded me of some such scene in any one of several James Bond films. We slammed into a wedding party, not literally, but suddenly, and soon we were surrounded by drum playing men and women singing dressed in all white.

I looked over my shoulder half expecting a cop to be running after us, but such things are evidently practiced in India all the time.

We arrived at my friends house nearly 36 hours after I left Missoula. I was exhausted and absolutely enthralled with this place.

I had come to Jaipur to teach mobile journalism to a group of media students in the city. My purpose was to teach them storytelling through digital tools like video, blogs and slide shows. In one journey from one place to another, I would have many weeks of teaching materials to relate to the students, not to mention evenings and days spent around the city investigating the rich tapestry of Indian life.

My love for journalism was completely reborn on those dusty, desert streets. Storytelling as art, as life, as science, as the act of creation itself was more real to me in those two weeks in India than it had been up until that point. Sometimes the familiarity of our lives gets in the way of seeing the color and smelling the smells of storyscapes. To be outside of yourself for even a brief period of time, completely immersed in something totally new is an exercise in scraping the scales from our eyes.

Forcing the dream is expensive sometimes. I’m still paying off that trip, but it was the most worthwhile thing I have done for my career. No training, no seminar, no webinar could possibly open my eyes to the quirks of storytelling like my trip to India in the late fall of 2008.

Aside from all the exciting adventures I had in Jaipur, my sister and I were scheduled to stay in the hotel in Mumbai that was attacked by terrorists. Our reservations were for one day after the attacks. Instead of Mumbai, I traveled to Kolkata to visit with my father who was teaching in another Indian city for a week before traveling on to Bangladesh.

While there I filmed segments of video in the Red Light districts to help bring awareness to the plight of Nepalese girls who are trafficked into India. Some are as young as 10, and they are highly sought after for the light color of their skin and their friendly demeanor.

Here it was, the culmination of how far I had dreamed at the time. To travel to a foreign place where injustices occur with alarming regularity and shine a bright light on them was the goal that had driven me thus far in my pursuit of journalism.

After India I would dream new dreams and plan new goals. But forcing the dream along lines that I had never planned has been the evolving nature of a life well lived for me. I will no longer just dream unsustainable dreams. I will dream dreams so big and wide and vast that forcing them will take up the rest of my life.