Modern travel is a marvel: On Monday this week, we had breakfast in Sydney and dinner in Davis.
Some 7,500 miles or 12,000 kilometers separate these two cities, yet that distance can be spanned in a single leap by modern aircraft carrying more than 400 passengers in relative comfort at nearly 600 mph or 1,000 kph. It’s amazing, really; it’s a modern magic carpet. We also traversed the International Date Line, which, despite nearly 14 hours in the air, caused the odd experience of arriving at SFO several hours before we departed from SYD.
We also crossed the equator and so had the additional curiosity of traveling from spring advancing into summer to fall advancing into winter. During our four weeks in the antipodes we became used to liters, liters-per-hundred km for fuel economy, meters, kilometers and degrees Centigrade but our journey has brought us back to pints and gallons, mpg, yards, miles and degrees Fahrenheit that, although I’m used to them, now seem anachronistic all over again.
Of course, there is plenty to complain about when it comes to travel through airports and on airplanes. We were fortunate enough — through the liberal application of frequent flier miles and the dogged determination of our trusted agent Jenni at Davisville Travel — to make the journey in United Airlines business class seating; this takes much of the sting out of cramped accommodation, bad food and expensive beverages that plague most journeys.
Nevertheless, we arrived at SFO at the same time as seven other jumbo jets from faraway places and there was barely enough space in the arrivals hall to allow us to exit the jetway; U.S. customs and passport control were their usual unwelcoming, surly, sullen and slow selves, making the experience of maybe 2,000 hot and tired travelers as unpleasant as possible. Welcome to the USA, the sign said.
Passing through TSA (Transport Security Administration) checkpoints was made easier for us than for most because, for some reason, we had a TSA check-mark on our boarding passes; even so, it was the usual carnival: My co-pilot lost a minuscule scissors, yet I carried through a walking stick with a solid brass eagle-head handle, given to me by my cousin, with which I reckon I could have killed any unready person with a single blow.
The reason we were in Sydney, and indeed the reason for this entire antipodean adventure that included three weeks in New Zealand, was to see my beloved cousin Gill; she was the nearest family member of my age when I was growing from childhood to maturity and her family was my family and we shared a good deal through the war years and into the 1950s. Sadly, Gill now uses a wheelchair as a result of a rare form of muscular dystrophy and in recent times she has had a hard go of it; it was time to visit her.
She lives far out of Sydney in the Blue Mountains in a small town called Emu Heights; it was in this relatively bucolic setting we spent our time. We found her well supported by the basic public health care system of Australia. For example, the sophisticated wheelchair upon which she depends for all her mobility is “on loan” from the government and she is able to call on a disability van, provided by the community, at no cost for travel farther afield. Gill lives in a pleasant assisted-living community close to her three successful children and six delightful grandchildren and so is well-supported, and it is a comfort to me to that I know her circumstances and can think of her in her place.
Fortunately, her affliction has not dulled her intellect nor changed her personality and she remains the Gill I remember so fondly. She and I had wonderful times together talking, for example, of old times and places, and of family members now long gone, how to maintain the family circle and exchanging tales of our different but parallel immigrant experiences. Hours passed quickly.
We stayed with Gill’s daughter Anne (my second cousin, I guess) and her children, who turned out to be very musical; we attended a piano recital by Anne’s daughter Emily and a ukulele join-in concert of about 50 strummers, including Anne and her daughter Alice Rose, that was a good deal more fun than it sounds. I also got to see international rugby on TV broadcast live from Europe.
Gill’s son Michael (my namesake), who is a great beer drinker as many Australians are, and his wife, were most generous hosts to the entire family that gathered at their charming home for our farewell dinner. My one regret is that despite pointed and repeated effort I could not persuade Michael to use a glass for drinking beer.
— Reach Michael Lewis at [email protected] Comment on this column at www.davisenterprise.com