Forced Relocation

Transition is rough. It is neither here nor there, but a murky and uncertain in between, fraught with both possibility and terror. It seems in my travels that I am rarely “done” with a place, and am plagued by a constant shortage of time.

Tick tock.

This causes a resonating sadness with every departure. Yes, the future is a bounty of potential, but I just now got the hang of this place, just now figured out where I really want to go and see and do, just now met some truly stellar people who cannot be idly abandoned in the sprint to the next place.

Tick tock.

My husband awaits me in Hong Kong, whom I haven’t seen in well over a month, but Australia is not finished. I don’t even like it that much here. I just love it. Oz has an unexpected comfort to it, a mixture of warm people, easy living, and a freedom to just drift. I anticipate no such comfort from China.

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I fry to a crisp in ten minutes under the Aussie sun, but still can’t get enough of their beach bliss.

Five weeks prior, as Kurt vanished into the airport terminal in his pursuit of a dream job and our future in Vermont, that terror of transition dealt a fierce blow. I was alone in a big, big world. Could I even recall, by myself, where we had parked the car? Could I, alone, competently plan and execute an entire journey? Could I make new friends? Collective memory and team effort is such a strong force of efficiency and specialization – to not have functioned solo or bear full responsibility in over 8 years causes a bit of doubt when the opportunity finally arises.

The hubby and I share one last $.30 ice cream before I stuff his ass onto a plane headed home.

The hubby and I share one last $.30 ice cream before I stuff his ass onto a plane headed home.

Thankfully, an angel of couchsurfing, Lucy, had welcomed me to her sofa that evening, so my deep sadness and mild panicking could be softened by good company and new adventures. I spent far longer in Sydney than ever planned because it was so very comfortable and interesting: World Cup matches at the local pub, birthday parties of Lucy’s friends, Sunday markets and beaches. So many beaches. I scrambled the rocks in between them, I snorkeled and swam and hiked and attempted to improve my surf game. But, tick tock, my ass needed to hit the road.

World Cup action in a Sydney pub. This crowd is for the England (yay, motherland!) vs. Argentina match. You could count the people attending the USA game within both hands.

World Cup action in a Sydney pub. This crowd is for the England (yay, motherland!) vs. Argentina match. Whereas you could count the people attending the USA game within both hands.

The Blue Mountains, they said. You must see them. So I did. I set out again, truly alone and with no couch to land upon, and what I found was that it’s marvelous to have full power of “the swerve”. Travelling with a companion is an eternal compromise, always adjusting your desires based on the interests of the partner. Solo travel means I can guiltlessly duck into that store that would only interest me, do the hike that best fits my energy levels that particular day, not be required to share the one pc, eat when only I am hungry and cook whatever the hell I want (within strict limits of budget and equipment of course).

Admittedly, breakfast looked the same when Kurt was here. But the principal is that I could be eating brie if I really wanted. Or could afford it.

Admittedly, breakfast looked the same when Kurt was here. But the principal is that I could be eating brie if I really wanted. Or could afford it.

But what happened, and shockingly quickly, is that I stumbled upon fascinating people whom I couldn’t get enough of and suddenly was solo no longer. We ate together and laughed together, slept in our cars in the same parking lot and elected to spend all the live-long day together because hiking is more fun with a buddy (and safer besides), meals are cheaper and more entertaining, and I had finally found worthy competitors in the vicious card game of Egyptian Rat Screw. Also, Marc and Lucas had alcohol of an exotic French variety.

Nothing motivates a hike better than hard French liquor.

Nothing motivates a hike better than hard French liquor.

But I did miss that solo swerve and, thankfully, Melbourne was a city I would have to do alone. And here is where I truly blossomed. Perhaps Melbourners are simply friendlier, but my hunch is that locals anywhere are insanely warm with travelers who come bearing a smile. And damn was I smiling. I blew an entire day wandering the plethora of classy, second-hand shops of Fitzroy, chatting with everybody, even people from which I wouldn’t have expected warmth. A gruff-looking man with a glossy veneer of pretention (manning a boutique selling hippo skulls and staggeringly expensive second-hand repurposed furniture) conversed passionately with me for half an hour about the sorry state humans have imposed on the natural world and attempted, at my request, to justify the existence of all the infant, taxidermied ducks I was seeing in Oz. It turns out he simply has ‘bitchy’ resting face.

Yes, them's real dead ducks. This is what everybody is getting for Xmas.

Yes, them’s real dead ducks. This is what everybody is getting for Xmas.

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Check it out – vintage American. This is our stereotype, people!

Similarly, I panicked at first sight of my couchsurf host, because he and his home were FAR more sophisticated than I could have imagined from an Aussie, and I showed up with a cask of goon in hand (box wine) because he had stipulated quantity over quality, when what he really meant was there was a $15 per bottle low end no matter the quantity. But two days later and he was joining me in drinking that crap. And boy did we drink and laugh and eat and generally adore each other. But it took a little while to get there, because appearances are hard to get past, and I am just now learning to aim for that hidden playful spirit in everyone and push its buttons first. Melbourne gave me confidence that I can be a social butterfly after all.

Alan, fine wine connoisseur, finally relents and breaks into the Goon. It gets the job done.

Alan, fine wine connoisseur, finally relents and breaks into the Goon. It gets the job done.

So what to do after Melbourne with all of Oz as a possible destination? Rent a car, strike out solo, and see where the wind blows? Or bind myself to Marc and Lucas because it would be cheaper and come with a guarantee of crazy rock scrambling (seriously my favorite pastime), inadequate planning, and companions who would gleefully push me faster and longer and harder than my muscles or spirit would normally endure. Well, I’m a cheap bastard, so the choice was simple.

Strap on that pack and hoof it! Miles to go before we sleep. Illegally.

Strap on that pack and hoof it! Miles to go before we sleep. Illegally.

We slept like sardines in our noble Jackaroo and showered so infrequently I was shocked there was no smell. These boys obliterated nearly all of my standards of comfort, hygiene, and planning. We hiked without adequate food or retrieval method for the car that would then be 57 km away (hitch-hiking was the final answer, and I was the brave one who landed it). We scavenged for crabs on ship wrecks and consumed meat that had passed four days raw without refrigeration. We camped illegally in a national park and warmed ourselves by a forbidden campfire. Our showers were in rivers and our soap was sand.

This was bliss.

Mealtime gets some company, and some exotic French cuisine. Toast with jam and cheese, anyone?

Mealtime gets some company, and some exotic French cuisine. Toast with jam and cheese, anyone?

Our noble stead, the irrepressible Jackaroo, on an island of sand that nearly defeated him.

Our noble steed, the irrepressible Jackaroo, on an island of sand that nearly defeated him.

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Please note those completely ridiculous French pants.

But now I go to China, where life will be a bizarre coexistence of extreme difficulty and total comfort. There will be hotels and showers and expensive restaurant food and wifi at every turn. But it will be in the company of my parents whose travel style could not be further from what I have come to love. There will be no swerving or just winging it. And the pace will be insane. Not in a 57km mountain hike in two days sort of way, but in a you only get two days to explore Beijing sort of way. It will be a transition to say the least, and it is taking me days to come to terms with it. But I know that on the other side is always a fascinating adventure. It will just be of a different sort.

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The post-hike Skype call that confirmed my husband can kick ass and take names. And land his dream job. Our new life in Vermont begins where China ends.

Expletives

“Mrs. Thoma?”  says the sweet flight attendant with the handful of Kleenex.

Yes?

“Your ticket comes with an in-flight breakfast.”

It does?

“Yeh, that’s odd,” says the seatmate from Australia with an accent rendering him barely intelligible, “I had you pegged as the brown bag type.”

It’s been a day of odd I admit to him while attempting to dry my eyes.  Below us the fuchsia sunrise is slowly carving out the pinnacles of New Zealand’s south island.  I can’t help but cry under this grief.  The immediate losses are those mystical mountains that we had no chance to explore and the newly bought car that we abandoned in Christchurch not knowing if we can sell over international phone calls.  The distant loss, however, is incomprehensible.

While consumed with this newborn personal crisis, I begin to realize that this is indeed a worldly experience – one that every human must eventually know, but that I hopelessly wish we didn’t have to come so far to learn.  Our dear brother-in-law and newest member of the Thoma clan, Jamie Brokaw, was killed just after takeoff while flying cargo out of Afghanistan.

We have no details, but our departure is immediate.  A 10 hour tearful drive thru dramatic pastures retraces our path from Invercargill to Christchurch, where we ditch the car at a new friend’s farm, catch three winks of sleep, and then leap on a plane with a hastily bought ticket whose extraordinary expense ensures that we get the most premium of service while stuffed into coach.  Hot breakfast and Kleenex are absurd niceties in this newfound hell of multi-faceted anguish.

Sunrise over Fjordland, NZ.

Departing during sunrise over Fjordland, NZ.

Pain this deep came always with a break-up that you weren’t prepared for.  In a single minute the person would vanish from your everyday life.  But that happens TO you; you are fully present and know the details and can immediately begin the long process of recovery.  THIS, however, this is an assault of grief from every angle, and your brain can’t comprehend the endless layers of sadness.

For one, a person whom you like very much is dead, and you will never even see his body. Secondly, those staggeringly gorgeous mountains rolling past your window will not be explored during this perfect New Zealand autumn, and the ticket price to return to them is equally breathtaking.  Thirdly, there is a beloved Thoma sister back home whose life, which hasn’t ever been easy, just literally crashed and burned and all of the happiness and security and love that came with her marriage to this delightful man ONE YEAR AGO has just blinked out of existence.

My husband is residing in his own heap of panicked and shocked silence and we are just beginning a series of 26 hours of planes and airports and physical misery.  The layers of sad run very, very deep.

Sunset for Jamie somewhere over the Pacific

Sunset for Jamie somewhere over the Pacific

Our future is an immense and uncomfortable question mark.  We have the strange luxury of being untethered to jobs or kids and can remain after all of the friends and family and casseroles depart from the house of the bereaved.  We will wash her dishes or remodel her fixer-upper house or sit around and drink and curse because that’s what makes Elizabeth feel slightly less awful.

So it seems that Monroe, Michigan is next on our travel list.

Let’s go see what grief is all about.

Jamie and Elizabeth Brokaw.  Dammit they were a nice pair.

Jamie and Elizabeth Brokaw. Dammit they were a nice pair.

 

 

NOTE: there is a backlog of adventure that will soon post.  Stories of penguins and tropical fruit eaten straight from the tree seemed unfitting to share in the midst of utter misery.  Please stay tuned.  We will continue to post thru our time back in Michigan and will return to  our adventures abroad in due time.