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Last year, I decided to do a pre-emptive purge, or an early spring cleaning, to streamline the clutter in my life. Pouring over about a decade’s worth of random documents, pictures, and other belongings, I discovered a red journal where I had had every good intention of recording what would prove to be a memorable vacation in Australia.
The journal continues just one short entry:
Sydney Dec. 25th 2004
Left Japan 12/23 – had a long stopover in Taipei, Taiwan, but got the free ½ day tour
The rest of the page/journal is empty. Why?
A Memorable but Not a Chevy Chase European Vacation
In 2004, I lived in Fukuoka, Japan, a city in southern Japan, on Kyushu island. My youngest son, born in Japan, had just turned a year old. My international family (French-American) desperately needed to take a vacation from the scrutiny of gaijin life (foreigner).
I turned to the local travel agency as well as my Japan Exchange Teaching (JET) program colleagues for suggestions and guidance. After consulting with my senpai (more experienced co-worker) and presenting options to my family, I obtained quotes for three destinations: Guam, U.S. Territories; Sydney, Australia; and Phuket, Thailand.
Having sold a house in the Washington metro area at the height of the real estate bubble in 2003, money was not an issue. After ruling out Guam, it came down to making the difficult decision between Phuket and Sydney.
Thailand would be different and exotic. My senpai, Megan, raved about Phuket and how wonderful it was to sleep on the pristine beaches. But having grown up walking distance to the beach in the Hamptons as well as owning a home not far from Siesta Key beach in Sarasota, Florida, I longed for something more invigorating than an overrated beach vacation.
In weighing the pros and cons, one consideration was my younger son’s vaccination schedule. In Japan, measles, mumps, and rubella vaccines are given as three separate shots. If we went to Australia, the timing was such that he could get his combined MMR which would streamline his medical records.
Another deciding factor: My older son transferred from a Japanese pre-kindergarten to Fukuoka International School (FIS). We befriended an Australian expatriate family with three boys.
When discussing options for our upcoming vacation, my friend Dallis took me under her wing and sold me on a trip to Australia. She suggested we not only visit Sydney, but also fly up to the Gold Coast to spend New Year’s with her family. And so it was settled: We were going to Sydney!
As my journal entry indicates, on December 23rd we left Fukuoka. We flew via China Airlines, with a stopover in Taipei which included a complimentary tour of the city. Our lightning quick tour of Taipei included paying homage to Chiang Kai Shek, touring a museum, and visiting a temple. It culminated in a mandatory roadside gift shop to boost the local economy where we purchased matching mandarin ‘hats’ or beanies for the kids.
The Land of Oz (aka Australia)
Entry into Australia was memorable. Away from ‘home’ for Christmas, ‘Santa’ (yours truly) had to pack the gifts and stocking stuffers in her suitcase. However, Santa didn’t realize just how strict Australian customs and immigration might be! As we approached the customs area, we witnessed a customs enforcement agent loudly berating (and threatening to arrest) a reentering Aussie who tried to sneak in food from overseas.
Nervously, I approached the customs agent, and whispered, “Um, excuse me, but I packed chocolates for my children’s Christmas stockings. They still believe in Santa, is it possible not to end that?” Fortunately, he winked at me and waved us through!
Oh, My Darling (Harbour)
Arriving at our apartment-style hotel in downtown Sydney, a stone’s throw from Darling Harbour, we were amazed at Australian hospitality. As we gathered our belongings from the sidewalk, random strangers, seeing that juggling small children and luggage, stepped up and offered to help us.
Normally I avoid tourist traps, but followed Dallis’ advice and spent Christmas atop Sydney Tower in the revolving restaurant.
The view of Sydney was of course, fabulous. The food, well, as to be expected, average and overpriced. Overall, it was a low key, uneventful Christmas. I mean, hey, Santa’s true identity remained intact.
December 26, 2004—Woke up to the earth-shattering news that there had been a tsunami in Thailand. We watched images of the tsunami in horror as it become apparent that the hardest hit area was where we came so close to selecting as our vacation spot: Phuket!!!
We were stunned.
Phuket was on our short list of potential vacation spots in part thanks to my senpai, but also thanks to a French chef at Club Med, Kabira in Ishigaki (part of the Okinawa archipelago).
During a previous relaxing vacation (“haut les mains, donne-moi ton coeur”), a French chef befriended my French-American family when he prepared a special ‘steak-frites’ for us. He encouraged us to go to Club Med Phuket for Christmas.
The tsunami of 2004 was the backdrop to our vacation. Although Australian beaches (Manly, close to Sydney, as well as beaches on the Gold Coast) are gorgeous, the ocean was rough — the tsunami’s aftershocks were as far reaching as Australia).
I was in awe – and kept thinking ‘don’t fool with Mother Nature.’
Having spent my childhood on the Atlantic Ocean, ocean swimming was a no-brainer.
The tsunami wiped out my desire to swim–my survival and motherly instincts kicked into full gear. I admired the crashing waves, but didn’t dip my toes in them.
What I didn’t realize until a few years after our trip is that as we were watching the tsunami unfold on Australian television, thousands of miles away, my mom was in a panic stateside.
Life Before SmartPhones: Incommunicado
She didn’t realize that we had opted not to vacation in Phuket and had no idea that we were safe and sound, having made our decision to visit friends in Australia.
We had purposely decided to ‘unplug’ for this vacation–in 2004, that meant not bringing a laptop. Ha!!
This was before the era of smartphones and international mobile web access.
We were incommunicado with loved ones for two weeks. I can only imagine my mom’s stress level, especially given family’s unfortunate history with Mother Nature and bodies of water. (Subject of a future post)
Alive and Kickin’ in Sydney, Australia
They say cats have nine lives. I definitely feel as though I burned through one of mine the year of the tsunami! Luckily, I spent my family vacation alive and kickin’ in Sydney!