No Fear of Flying

Written January 6, 2013

The wake-up call this morning came at 3:45 am.  Ecuadorian standards dictate that international travelers must arrive at check in three hours before flight time in order that the luggage can be thoroughly searched for illicit drugs. Apparently, from the condition of my suitcase, this involves peeking at my underwear.  This meant that we needed to be packed, caffeinated and bused to the airport by 5 am for our eight o’clock flight.  And I am NOT a morning person.  I am currently somewhere over Central America en route to Miami.  In Miami we will pass through customs before boarding a flight to Dallas/Ft. Worth.  After another layover we change planes for our flight to San Diego.  I expect we will be home by midnight or a little later, twenty hours after departing from Guayaquil and forty two hours out from San Cristobal, The Galapagos.

While I am not as unreservedly enthusiastic about air travel as we all used to be, I have no fear of flying.  I attribute my confidence in the air to a recurring dream that I have had ever since I was a teenager.  In my dreams, I am a passenger on a plane which crashes.  Each time I dream of air travel, I dream of a plane crash, and each time, I survive.  The circumstances of the dream change every time I have it.  In one iteration, the plane collides with the sheer walled side of a mountain, coming to rest on a narrow ledge which I must traverse in order to survive.  I am afraid of heights.  In another, the plane comes to a gentler rest on a four lane highway in the midst of a hilly green country, its wings rising and falling as we glide to a stop.  In another dream, the pilot is forced to ditch us over open water. My clothes weigh me down heavily, but for once, I am grateful to be an excellent swimmer.

In my fourth year of medical school I became friends with a man who is now a professional artist and photographer, Neelon Crawford.  He honored me with a gift of a black and white photograph taken through the window of an old DC-10.  The picture reveals the airplane’s wing, sleek as a seal, yet blackened with dirt tracking sooty streamers from the rivets.  The day I got the photo back from the framer, I wrote in my journal, “An airplane wing is a glorious thing.”  Despite the inconveniences of air travel, I still believe that.  And if this plane suddenly plummets from the sky, come find me.  I’ll be the one smiling on the way down.  As I said, I always survive.

I’ll get back to writing about cancer soon!

There Comes a Time

Written while returning from my Galapagos trip, posting now.

It’s happening—the moment that we all dread as we age, that point in time where we realize that we are becoming our parents.  When I was a child, my father was a busy man, completing his residency in plastic surgery, establishing a practice, climbing the academic ladder.  He didn’t have much spare time for us kids, but occasionally he would make an effort to take us on an outing—the circus perhaps, or the zoo.  On those outings, I remember one thing above all.  As we walked along beside and behind him, he would methodically point out every physical imperfection he could see on passersby—a bulbous nose here, a weak chin there, a jagged scar perched on an otherwise perfect cheek or a poorly repaired cleft lip.  The world of the unbeautiful was his oyster and he knew what to do to fix it.

On our recent trip to the Galapagos Islands, I found myself scanning faces and bodies in a similar fashion, but I am no Pygmalion out to transform the luckless Galatea’s of the world.  What my roving eyes were seeing under that equatorial sun were skin lesions aplenty—a benign nevus here, a senile keratosis there, but then, more importantly, an obvious basal cell carcinoma above the upper lip of one of my fellow explorers.  And then came my dilemma:  do I say something to the hapless traveler?  Can I convey in a casual sentence or two, “By the way Joe, you have a skin cancer on your face.  You should have that looked at when you get home, but don’t worry about it!  It isn’t a melanoma, the life threatening kind of skin cancer.”  What to me is a simple helpful hint might be to my companion a bomb dropped in the middle of that peaceful archipelago.  I took the easy way out.  I exercised my right to remain silent rather than risk ruining his vacation.

There was one incident, however, on a bumpy Zodiac ride from the good ship Endeavor to our first sandy beach landing for snorkeling.  Our naturalist guide Xavier had applied a coating of zinc oxide over his nose and cheeks so thick it looked like Comanche war paint.  Yet still, that greasepaint could not disguise an obvious bump arising from his right malar prominence.  He admitted to me that his doctor in Guayaquil wanted to “cut it off.”  Quickly I motioned for my father and together we performed the first National Geographic skin examination of the tour.  As the zinc oxide was wiped away, simultaneously we crowed, “It’s benign!!!”

A day later, Xavier admitted to me that he was so relieved he called his wife and children on the mainland to tell them the good news.  Have I mentioned that dermatology was a field I strongly considered while in medical school?   Reporting from afield…. Miranda.

Lighting Out for the Territories

“But I reckon I got to light out for the territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally, she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can’t stand it.  I been there before.”

Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain


As usual, I really should be asleep.  But there’s a load of laundry still in the dryer, and I haven’t packed yet.  We’ve got to leave for the airport in five hours.  I’m late, also as usual.  At 7:30 am Pacific time, my husband and I and our two sons will board a plane to Miami, where we will meet my father.  On Friday we will head out for Guayaquil, Ecuador where we will be joined by my sister and her family as we board the National Geographic ship Endeavor for a seven day tour of the Galapagos Islands.  My daughter is interviewing for residency programs—sadly she cannot join us.

The Galapagos was my eighty seven year old father’s idea.  As a plastic surgeon of some renown, he has traveled the world to operate, to teach, and to inspire.  But he has never been to the Galapagos, and this trip is on his “bucket list.”  Last January my husband and I traveled to Tanzania which was the trip of a life time for me, and the subject of another blog entry yet to come.  When we returned from Africa, my father said wistfully, “I have always wanted to go to the Galapagos Islands.”  I said, “Dad, you’re 86.  If not now, when?”  After less than a moment’s consideration, he agreed. So off we go to cross the equator just as 2012 becomes 2013, most assuredly a better year for all of us.

For my birthday, I bought myself a new underwater waterproof camera, a compact Canon Powershot D20 point and shoot.  As an ex-competitive swimmer, I prefer being on TOP of the water, not underneath it, but I will overcome my claustrophobia and fear of large predators against whom I have no defense in the name of art, and don that snorkel gear.   And I will be taking the Canon D60 with a moderately good telephoto lens that I bought to take to Africa last year.  All batteries are charged.  As much as I hate the grey screen of my first generation Nook (truth be told, I love “real” books—always have, always will, but I’ll sacrifice in the name of luggage weight requirements!)  I’ve got several books loaded and ready to go.  Detailed (and I do mean detailed!) instructions are written out for my house/animal sitter which include the name of every veterinarian west of the Mississippi.  I am hoping that the clothes just fall into the suitcase by themselves.

My writing may be a bit sparse for the next two weeks, but once again, as I travel, I entreat my friends to write their own stories and send them to me at .   I do plan to have email access most of the time, and I know that most of my readers are also writers, so write on!  I can publish from afar.  And for those of you who are also travelling this time of year, Bon Voyage!