Last updated on October 18th, 2017 at 07:21 pm

[Note: If you missed Part 1 and want to start there, here’s the link:
GOING DOWN UNDER AND COMING BACK UP: Sometimes a guy needs a break!]

A week or so ago, I had dinner with a friend who travels frequently. Confessing that re-entry is always a bit hard for him, he asked how mine was going. “Pretty well!” I said, and then went on to qualify that statement. I explained that before even becoming able to think about picking up the threads of my American life, I’d had to recover from an ordeal that had begun back in Sydney.

My entire trip took place during Australia’s winter. Melbourne had been cold, but having brought my winter jacket, scarf and ski hat, I was fine outdoors, and my hotel room there had a great heater.

Sydney: Beauty, joy and an ordeal

Balcony view from Sydney, Australia suburb - Going down under and coming back up

View from the balcony of the upstairs bedroom in Annandale, a pleasant inner suburb of Sydney

I arrived in Sydney on a beautiful, warm day. The city is 500 miles (about 805 kilometres) closer to the equator than Melbourne. I stayed in a beautiful upstairs bedroom with a balcony, in a lovely home in an inner suburb. There were several quilts folded on the bed, in case I needed them.

The first night, though, the temperature went down significantly, and I got really cold! Sydney residents didn’t consider it extreme for that time of year, but my lungs are very sensitive. My doctor has used the word “asthma” lately to describe a few winter episodes I’ve had.

There was a wall heater in the room, and I found the remote that activated it. I clicked it up to a very high temperature and got ready to relax. But the air coming out remained cold! My host even tried to help me work it later on, but it continued to baffle both of us.

I wrapped myself in quilts, my ski hat, my scarf and even, after a while, my winter jacket, but found no way to make the air coming in through my nostrils or mouth warm without starting to feel smothered. I shook and shivered, coughed and wheezed. At one point, I even had trouble breathing. My lungs seemed to be getting fluid in them, and I wondered whether that might mean pneumonia.

Had I travelled 8,000 miles (about 12,875 kilometres) to call in sick?

Now, when I’m a guest in someone’s home and have been assigned to a room, I usually don’t go wandering all over the house after bedtime. However, that night, it came to feel like a matter of survival. After trying to cope for a long time, I realized I simply couldn’t stay in the room. Besides my general concern about my health, I was also scheduled to play music, sing and recite poems at the celebrations that were to begin in less than 48 hours. Had I travelled 8,000 miles (about 12,875 kilometres) to call in sick?

Finally, I opened the bedroom door and crept as quietly as I could down the dark stairs to the living room, where I remembered having seen a large gas heater. I used the flashlight app on my phone to see the controls, and turned it on.

After the “whoosh” of gas, I saw the fire inside burning brightly. It put out a great deal of warmth! For the rest of the night, I lay like a dog in front of the heater, feeling every breath healing my poor lungs. I also pulled a pillow down from a sofa to rest my head. Although I can’t remember actually sleeping that night, I’d read somewhere that rest is nearly as good for health as sleep, and consciously rested my body as much as possible.

Trees in Hyde Park in Sydney, Australia - Going down under and coming back up

Lush vegetation in Hyde Park, adjacent to downtown Sydney and the Art Gallery of New South Wales

In the morning I went back upstairs, showered and surprised myself by proceeding to have a normal day! I breakfasted at a little café, then took a bus ride downtown and visited Hyde Park and the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

My second night was like the first, except that during the day, my host had pointed out a mattress leaning against a hallway wall. She’d suggested that if I needed to come down again, I could use that instead of lying directly on the living room floor. It was more comfortable, but I still don’t think I actually slept.

The next two days were filled by the Meher Baba anniversary celebration, and I did feel well enough to participate fully in the program! I was also well enough to attentively appreciate other participants, and to socialize during the lunch and tea breaks. It was the closest thing to a miracle.

Brisbane and Avatar’s Abode

People sitting and talking in Meher House at Avatar's Abode - Going down under and coming back up

Awaiting the start of an event celebrating Meher Baba’s 1956 visit to Meher House in Beacon Hill, Australia, near Sydney. The rear wall of the room is composed of stone that Francis Brabazon, Baba’s Australian poet/disciple, quarried on the premises of the property, and from which he built the entire original house.

I spent a fairly comfortable night in a good hotel in subtropical Brisbane, before going on to Avatar’s Abode. Even here, winter nights got quite cool. The heater on the wall was similar to the one in Sydney, and I wasted no time phoning the front desk to see if the clerk could talk me through to successful use! She informed me that you have to press HEAT on the MODE button of the remote before raising the temperature on the remote will have any effect. It worked. I still found it necessary to bundle up, but was able to get at least some sleep.

At Avatar’s Abode, the Meher Baba retreat where I spent the next five nights, I found two portable heaters in my cabin. The radiator one wasn’t powerful enough, but the other—in which heat came from a metal plate that also lit up the room—put out plenty of warmth. I wasn’t cold, but now the bright light kept me from getting much actual sleep.

Meher Baba's chair at Avatar's Abode, with his photo on it - Going down under and coming back up

“Baba’s Chair,” used during his 1956 Sydney visit

Still, however, my days were filled with friendship, peace and joy, as if none of these nighttime ordeals had happened! I thought of the myth of Persephone, who spent half of her life in Hades and the other half with her beloved Demeter.

I continued face-to-face meetings with people who had previously been cyber-friends, and I was able to feel the enormous amount of joy that experience provides. Meeting other lovely people I hadn’t known of at all before was another thrill. For four days I hiked in the forest, dined with friends, gave a concert, meditated in the cabin in which Meher Baba had stayed, attended reading and discussion groups, and got to a few charming scenic spots away from the centre itself, thanks to my Australian hosts.

My trip was now winding down. I started preparing myself for the long flight back to San Francisco, with layovers in three airports. My last night in Brisbane offered the benefit of that good wall heater again, and it seemed that, with experience, I was able to make the room even warmer! I used an afternoon to explore the city and get the obligatory photo of me with a koala and some kangaroos at the local sanctuary.

One more (unplanned!) adventure

Front of Nadi Downtown hotel in Fiji - Going down under and coming back up

Front window of the downtown Nadi Hotel in Fiji

I flew to my stop in Fiji from the Brisbane airport the next day, only to discover that instead of being booked on a flight to Los Angeles that night, my reservation was for the next night! A whirlwind of activity and help from friendly airport employees got me a room in little family-owned hotel in downtown Nadi, a one-street commercial town several miles from the airport. Yet another adventure!

Hindu temple in Nadi, Fiji - Going down under and coming back up

Sri Siva Subramaniya temple, the largest Hindu house of worship in the southern hemisphere, was just down the street from the hotel. The roof of this form of Hindu temple represents sacred Mount Kailash, the home of the gods.

I could walk out to the hotel balcony, look to the left and see the largest Hindu temple in the southern hemisphere! The next morning, I ventured out into the streets, but after an hour or two of exploring, I came to feel like the target of every Fijian crafts salesperson in town! I had purchased a carved walking stick and a little statue for our home, and those two items were all I needed. Fortunately, the hotel clerk said I could re-rent my room as a day room, and I spent a pleasant afternoon resting there before taking the bus to the airport.

I enjoyed spending the extra day in Fiji and getting to know a few more Fijians. That night’s flight, which got underway after more hours waiting at the airport, was as good could be expected. I actually surprised myself by sleeping a few hours.

The next evening, I exited the BART commuter train at our town’s stop, and lugged my bag out to where the sight of my wife Barbara, waiting near her car, was very, very pleasant.

Stay tuned for Part 3, which will be published this month. 

images: Max Reif
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