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Australia Trip: Sacred

Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, at Uluru aka Ayers Rock watching a double rainbow.Everywhere I went in the first half of November – Melbourne, Adelaide, Alice Springs, Cairns, and Sydney – Christmas decorations were springing up. In Australia there’s no Thanksgiving to buffer the way into the holidays. All the sparkle and flash of the upcoming season suddenly hit me. Hard. But it had no spiritual significance to me.

I’ve always wanted something in my life to mean more, to mean everything. To be sacred. The closest I ever get to sacred is when I’m hiking. Especially in mountains. Or by the sea. Walking where people have walked for eons. To me, rock that’s been tread down, paths worn bare, and ancient places that have drawn wanderers forever, are holy.

It took all of Day 10 to travel by bus from Alice Springs to Uluru aka Ayers Rock, a big rock in the middle of the desert. I was bummed because I’d dressed expecting sun and heat. But it was raining. Drizzling on and off. Downright gloomy. Just my luck to come to the desert in Australia in late spring-almost summer, and it rains.

From a distance, the rock looked like a massive meatloaf. Only majestic. Monumental. Mesmerizing. Even from far off, the sandstone monolith seemed to have some ancient mystical spirit pulsing within. Nothing else was anywhere near. How could that rock NOT be sacred to the indigenous Anangu, or to anyone in this desert? “The home of the culture of the world’s oldest culture, it means everything to the indigenous people,” said the literature we’d been handed.

We were to watch the setting sun bounce rays off the rock’s surface. Only – there was no sun. It was cold and dismal. Still, we “rugged up” in every bit of warm clothing we could find, and headed out on the bus. “You never know what you’ll get,” our tour leader said.

At the site it was pouring. I pulled up my hood and hurried to the huge tent that had been set up over tables of champagne, smoked salmon, veggies with dip, cheese and fresh fruits. At least I wouldn’t go hungry. Along with hiking, food is my religion. I stuffed myself, and hardly looked at the sacred Uluru rock. Until somebody yelled, Miracle!

Gulping down the champagne, I grabbed a last piece of salmon. Outside people were hollering, “Double rainbow! Over the rock, it’s a miracle!” I crept out of the tent and joined the crowd that was now scrambling every which way in the finest drizzle, to capture rainbows on cameras and cellphones. An eerie light lit up the rock and the landscape around it. Two rainbows ended at the rock. The sacred place. I stood there trying to focus my camera, through tears. Remembering how rainbows meant everything to my girl. My Marika. Who I pray to, now. Who I’d asked ten days before, “You’re coming with me to Australia, right?” Who is forevermore, Somewhere Over the Rainbow.


What is sacred to you? What do you look for when you travel?


Australia Trip: Screaming Birds

Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops emus in Australia.Leeches were not on my list of things to be afraid of in Australia. There were so many other scary things. Stingrays. Screaming birds. Poisonous snakes. Jellyfish…. On the morning of the day I was headed to the Great Barrier Reef, my heart was clunking so wildly I could hardly breathe.

“I’m terrified. This is a real challenge for me,” I said to my tour-leader, trying to hold back tears. I envisioned myself bumping into the coral and bleeding, choking on seawater, getting stung by stingrays, and ripped apart by sharks. I imagined getting left behind in strong waves, and drowning. Alone. All this was really just my regular old cry of fear. I’m always finding things to worry and whimper about. The leader assured me we’d all stick together, I’d do fine.

With a heavy sinking dread, I pulled on the tight black lycra full-body suit, complete with hood and mittens, to protect from hungry fish and sun. The rental suit was still damp and sandy from the last brave soul who’d used it. Zipped up, it exaggerated every bulge of belly fat, but I was more concerned about how I could pee. Dragging my feet, I followed my tour-mates from big boat to small boat to Michaelmas Cay, the tiny reef island from where we’d snorkel.

Once landed, to keep up with the others, I threw on the fins and facemask with snorkel, and took off kicking as fast as I could without getting cramps. Head down 45 degrees as instructed, every half-minute I looked up for the others, while schools of white ghostlike fish surrounded me. The waves were shallow but the current was strong. Soon I spotted green parrotfish, banana fish. Zebras. They hovered around the nooks and crannies of the coral, which was bleached gray from pollution and climate changes. Beautiful anyway. Ahead, something big was approaching. Turtle? Snapping man-eating turtle? I choked. My snorkel filled with saltwater. Panicking, I looked up and realized, Hey. Where is everyone? A wave hit. I bumped against the coral, then took off like a rocket, flipping my feet hard as I could, swimming against the current. Head down. Blow hard out the snorkel. Long way to shore, kick harder. Lots of little white fish with long pointy fins. Keep kicking.

In the shallows I tried to stand, but the fins made me flimsy on my feet and the waves kept toppling me over. Flailing, unable to keep upright, I was laughing because the alternative was to cry. I needed a bathroom, hoped a little pee wouldn’t hurt the fragile reef. I realized half of what I’d feared had hit me, yet I’d survived. So I shook out the snorkel and swam back to the coral twice more, all by myself, still scared but determined to make the most of my once-in-a-lifetime moment on the Great Barrier Reef.

I didn’t get rid of the heavy sinking feeling until I had one more sob-fest, this time to the tune of “It should have been Marika out here enjoying every bit of this Reef, not me.” My daughter would have been there. If she had lived. Maybe that was what I’d been struggling with all along: not the fears so much as the sadness. Because when I set free that thought, I felt like I could float forever with her smiling down at me, laughing at all my fussing.

And that night, while safe and snug in my hotel bed, I heard the bird that screams like it’s being murdered. Bush stone-curlew, the tour-leader had told us earlier. When scared or threatened, it shrieks a blood-curdling cry. I turned over, went back to sleep. And in the morning we headed out for the Daintree Rainforest where the Kuka Yalanji man leading us through the trails warned about snakes. And crocodiles that kill for pleasure. And leeches.


What fears have you overcome in your travels or ventures into the unknown? What has triggered hidden emotions?

Touched by a Kangaroo

In Australia, Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photographs kangaroos and wallabies at Cleland Wildlife Park in Adelaide.On my first night in Australia, at a restaurant in Melbourne, I traded a bit of my barramundi fish for a bite of kangaroo meat. It tasted like highly seasoned steak. One taste was enough. Days later, after an afternoon at Cleland National Willdlife Park in Adelaide, I knew I’d never eat kangaroo again.

This is what I learned on my 6th day in Australia, observing kangaroos and their smaller version (called wallabies):

They are even shyer than I am. But the ones in the park like being fed and being scratched under their chins, so they are polite and put up with humans constantly creeping up to them. They’re nocturnal, mostly. During the day they laze around under shade trees, in small groups (called mobs). Their eyes are often squinting, maybe because their sleep is always being disturbed. Kangaroo babies (called joeys) pee and poop in their mama’s pouch. When the pouch gets too smelly, the mother cleans it out. I saw this. It’s not pretty. In one single leap, kangaroos’ strong hind legs allow them to reach 3-feet-high and 25-feet-over. Supposedly a kangaroo can stand on its tail, but I only saw them using their tails as supports when standing, and as counterweights when hopping. Their paws, similar to human hands, have 5 toes; each is curved and clawed. They use them to grab, eat, dig, groom, and fight.

Upon entering the park, I’d bought a small bag of kanga food. Hesitantly, I approached my first ‘roo with a trembling outstretched hand full of pellets, remembering that if you offer a horse an apple you have to stretch your palm flat so they can find the apple and leave your hand. Remembering how you end up counting to see if you still have all 5 fingers after you feed my dog Suki a treat. But here was this small sweet kangaroo. Or maybe it was a wallaby. I’d inconsiderately snapped several photographs as it lay in the field trying to sleep, so it really deserved some compensation. And as I got closer with the food, it looked at me with its half-closed eyes, got up, and slowly hopped over to me. It nuzzled through the pellets with its soft warm mouth. And then it laid both of its 5-toed paw-hands on my hand, and gently held on. Something in me melted. Something in me felt cared for, kissed. Something in me would later, and probably forevermore, prickle upon seeing kangaroo on a menu.


Did you ever feel a deep connection to some strange creature you met up with in your travels? Was there ever an animal in your life that seemed to understand you?



Stuffed Puppy’s Final Trip: Australia

Robin botie of ithaca, New York, photoshops her daughter Marika Warden's stuffed animal before taking it to Australia to be cremated in a ritual to celebrate love and life.This is Puppy. She is going to Australia. Her third trip there. This time she will not be coming back.

Stuffed Puppy. A gift to my daughter shortly after she was born, Puppy spent almost every night of Marika’s twenty years tucked in the crook of her arm. Every time Marika left home for more than a day she took Puppy. Camp, vacations, weekends with friends, hospitals, and a year of college. In 2010, with cancer in remission, Marika probably brought Puppy to Australia. Puppy traveled there with me in 2012, as I scattered Marika’s ashes.

Puppy was always key to my communications with Marika. My words came out differently when they channeled through Puppy. Puppy didn’t say, “Don’t you have homework to do?” She said, “Can I do homewawk wiv you?” Years later, I would regularly fish Puppy out of hospital beds and pose her so Marika, returning from radiation, would find Puppy on top of the bed, hunched over a tea mug with napkin and cookie, like Puppy had a secret life of her own. Like I was leaving my daughter a kiss when we were no longer on touching terms.

Ragged love-worn Puppy. With her brownish matted fur and long floppy ears, she often got mistaken for a rabbit. She looks kinda haggard now, threadbare in places. From her little alter in the middle of the house, she watches me, with a look in her shiny plastic eyes like she doesn’t quite trust me. Like, she’s wondering if I’ll make good on my promise to “return” her to her girl.

“Okay, what a dope, what the heck,” you’re saying, “It’s just a piece of stuffed polyester.” But no, Puppy is a part of myself I wasn’t able to let go of the first time I went to Australia. And now, five years later, I am going back, ready to cremate Puppy and toss her ashes into the sea. Hopefully, there will be other mothers to celebrate with me. Maybe they, too, will have read Margery Williams’ The Velveteen Rabbit to their children, sniveling with tears spilling down their faces when they got to the part where the little boy’s stuffed bunny gets tossed out to a rubbish pile. And maybe they’ll understand that I need to wrap up Puppy’s time here on earth because I can’t bear to think of my daughter’s beloved stuffed animal being heartlessly dumped into the trash after I die.


What did you hang onto for its sentimental value? What brings you comfort?