Me back in New Orleans, April 2015

Me back in New Orleans, April 2015

This year is the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. This was also my  first time back to New Orleans since evacuating from the French Quarter in a flurry of cars, traffic, chaos and high winds in August, 2005.

The purpose of is to present a slightly different perspective on travel, one in which travel means movement and change, not only for vacations planned in advance just for fun (although we got those covered too!), but also those movements through the geographies of our lives that do not happen by choice and which may not be particularly all that enjoyable.  Sometimes movement happens because Mother Nature or life in general says so. Sometimes we move because the conflicts and wars between people demand it or simply because of economics, illness , divorce, the death of a loved one or any number of unforeseen things that happen in the course of a lifetime.

To me, these are examples of travel too. Travel involves geographical movement as well as internal movement. The result, in the end, can be  a switch in consciousness, extreme personal growth, friendships that last a lifetime and a totally new trajectory to one’s life.

After we travel, we are often not the same person who started journey in the first place.


The trip back to N’awlins wouldn’t have been possible without my sweetie. Thanks Shane! Did we eat some beignets or what?

There was a three year period─ 2005-2008─ when my life was in constant flux. And I mean constant. Most of the movement, it seemed at the time, was not of my own choosing.

First, I was catapulted into a new life away from New Orleans, where I had been living with my then-partner and his family for the last three years. We fled in a rented van at the 11th hour, just ahead of the outer bands of Hurricane Katrina and as the last freeway entrances closed behind us.

After six months of evacuee living in shelters, FEMA housing and people’s couches, as well as a bout with a serious illness and an attempt to make life work again in post-hurricane New Orleans, I divorced and moved to the Big Island of Hawaii alone.  There, I lived in another van (this time a 1982 Volkswagen), squatted in a tent, did rent trades for manual labor on various organic farms, and accepted a LOT of house-sitting gigs.

Strangely enough, while I was on island, I also found myself in the path of not one, not two but three other minor acts of nature that caused me to quickly flee yet again.

I left the island at the end of 2007 and arrived back in my hometown of San Diego just in time for the funeral of a young cousin and the Witch Creek fires. At my parents’ house alone with two dogs and two cats, I again contemplating having to evacuate as the flames moves rapidly through North County San Diego.

OVER NEW ORLEANS — Tech. Sgt. Keith Berry looks down into flooded streets searching for survivors.  (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Bill Huntington)

At the end of 2008, I moved again, this time to Taos, New Mexico, where I rented a lovely little adobe casita along the Rio Puerco that just happened to have its gas line near a busy road. The line was hit by a drunk driver. I got a knock on my door in the middle of the night.

“Ma’am, I’m sorry,” the tall officer said, standing on my porch in the darkness. “You are going to have to evacuate.”

I had been there less than six months.

Things eventually settled down. I still move around a lot, but for the last six years, it has been more by choice and less because of life “kicking my in the pants.” I still wonder, however: What was going on over the course of those three years? During that time, I was witness  to a total of FIVE natural disasters in four different states. Did I just happen to be at the wrong place at the wrong time? Or was there something else going on?

I still don’t know the answer to that question. I do know, however, that those years completely changed my perspective on life. Material goods? They could be gone in a heartbeat. Personal relationships? Go through a crisis together and if you make it through, you have a friend for life. Expectations? It’s natural to have them, but don’t put too much stock in them, because life often has its own agenda. What matters most? Being in the moment and loving the life you are living NOW and the people you are with NOW.

Hurricane Katrina from space

Hurricane Katrina from space.

All that movement taught me how to live in the present and how to live on the fly. I am an expert at picking up and moving geographically. I can usually do it within a few hours’ notice. Conscious inner growth and the practice of allowing the energy of life (i.e. the energy of love) to flow through me is what matters most to me now.

What has also stayed with me is my grandmother’s voice. It was the thing that got me through the dark-night-of-the-soul years and especially those darkest hours just after the hurricane. Her wise words came to me of their own accord in my dreams while we slept – all five of us who had evacuated together—on the floor of this kind friend or that, in those early weeks of evacuation when we were refugees in our own country. After my then-partner and I left the others and went out on our own to be closer to the city, I heard her voice in the pained yet kind words of others stuck in the same boat, in relief shelters and social service offices scattered across Lafayette and Vermillion parishes.

Travel “happens” to refugees. While it is happening, you do the best you can to make do. And you realize that you can make do with much less than you ever thought. You get through the day by making new friends fast. You stick together. You make a plan and then you put one foot in front of the other. This was how it was for me. I imagine this was how it was for Grandma, who, with the help of kind and caring others, put herself on one of the last ship’s bound for Alcatraz Island from Shanghai before the Iron Curtain came down in 1943.

NEW ORLEANS - AUGUST 31: Two men paddle in high water after Hurricane Katrina devastated the area August 31, 2005 in New Orleans. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

NEW ORLEANS – AUGUST 31: Two men paddle in high water after Hurricane Katrina devastated the area August 31, 2005 in New Orleans. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

In those early days after Hurricane Katrina, Grandma (who passed away in 2002) would visit me in a swirl of   floodwaters; the grey, murky cesspool of chemically-laden New Orleans and the muddy waters of Bei-Ti-Hu, China merged in that surreal space.

In a dream I had on a number of occasions, both she and I swirled around and around in a whirlpool of water as baby diapers, rats, bottles of household cleaners and live cows drifted by. I was afraid that I was going to drown. She was not. In the dream, she did not fear death. She held my hand and her long salt-and-pepper hair flew wildly about her. She smiled, a faraway look in her eyes. She said, “This is our story. It is going to be okay.”


I would like to dedicate occasional blog posts (under the category of “Travels with Grandma”) to my late Grandma Su, who taught me much about adventure, travel, storytelling and being brave. I will fill this category with the tales Grandmother told me as I was growing up.


Grandma Su, 2001

These are the stories she use to tell me (and the roomful of others who happened to wander by for a snack in her steamy kitchen in San Diego, California) during the years 1975 to 2001. Over a swirling pot of meat pies, she would spin yet another yarn, a faraway look in her eye…

Those tales of magic, mystery, destiny and distant lands were my first travel stories.

I hope you enjoy them just as much as I did!




Mother and daughter: Grandma Su and Mom

Mother and daughter: Su Chen Carlson and Cathy Pugh (i.e. my mom). 1980-ish


What tales of long ago were you treated to by elders in your family when you were a kid? Share them in the comments section below!