I have been embarrassed and graced by several nicknames over my lifetime – “Soot,” as a child, for reasons I no longer remember (my cavalier attitude toward cleanliness in those carefree summer months, perhaps?); “Fumbling Dove” and “Thumbs” as I pursued an undergraduate degree in geology and a master’s in micropaleontology (homage to my shy nature and tendency to drop specimen trays); and, up to this day among certain friends, “Swun.”
I’ve always liked the ring of “Swun.” More to the point, it references no personal foible. Rather, it’s a shortened version of what comes out when you say “Sue Wunder” in one rapid breath, just as the sister of a high school classmate and lifelong friend once did. From that day on, “Swunder” it was, at least in that family circle. As it came to be adopted by a larger circle of peers, it naturally shortened to “Swun.”
“Wunder Woman” and “Suebee” popped up, of course. How could they not? And just this past summer I have begun to answer to a new and well-earned tag.
In late May, I and a couple I am close friends with began a six-week sojourn to New Zealand and Fiji. To keep costs down, we often shared a room. There is no better way to cement or destroy a friendship than to travel together; fortunately, ours not only survived but deepened. That said, there were moments of truth when we learned just how differently we all approach a new day.
Anyone following me on Facebook, where I posted multiple vistas of sunrises, knows of my early rising habits. (I did try to be quiet, but it’s hard to muffle all sounds of an urgent eagerness to get outdoors and explore.) Wendy was often an hour or two behind me, and we’d meet up along some beach, trail, or local street. Homer, a night owl, rarely surfaced early and was almost never ready for lights out when I tumbled into my bed. No matter: I was asleep when my head hit the pillow, lights on or not. Then out I would creep the next morning as he and Wendy either slept soundly or woke briefly to wave (perhaps shoo) me away.
We were about a week into the trip when Homer confided in Wendy, “It’s like traveling with a puppy.”
And “Puppy” I became as we journeyed, first around and across New Zealand’s South Island, then the North. “Off by the crack of noon!” I would quip when we finally coordinated timing and packing and were ready to leave one place for another. Shedding small irritations with the same brand of humor, we companionably shared single, two-bed rooms, and sometimes luxuriated in two bedrooms at a bed-and-breakfast.
Guest quarters at our Kiwi friends’ homes were ample and welcoming. I usually had my own room and could get dressed and leave at daybreak to enjoy the local birds and wildlife without tiptoeing.
Our friends in Taupo have two very young children and had planned to give me their little room and have the kids bunk with them. I insisted that their small sleeping mat on the living room floor would be fine. That night I happily re-bonded with Puku, a lovely dog they’d adopted as a puppy back in Indiana, where they’d lived for three years (in my home, no less) on a geological fellowship. That night, Puku flopped down on the bed beside me and we slept happily together, an image that Homer found irresistible and duly recorded with his camera.
After that my new nickname not only stuck, it became our trip’s mantra.
“Hang your head out the window, Puppy,” Wendy would suggest as she negotiated winding mountain passes, or as we approached keenly anticipated destinations. Good idea, I thought, and complied, letting fresh air flood into the back seat. When I took the wheel and drove those twisty roads, I was all too willing to heed my handlers’ commands to keep close to the lane divider as sheer drops appeared on the left. (True to their British roots, New Zealand cars are right-hand drive.)
In late June, we negotiated customs at the Auckland Airport and flew to Fiji for a wedding. We had all known and loved Lisa for many years, in my case since she was 7 years old, and this would be the final week of our sojourn. I heeled at command after wandering off in a duty-free shop before the flight we almost missed (not Puppy’s fault, I might add). Each night on the island I would fall instantly asleep to the accompaniment of surf breaking over the reef. And each morning I headed for the beach, as would any self-respecting puppy. Wendy would join me sooner or later, and once Homer awoke, we’d head off for a late breakfast together at some beachfront restaurant – where my food was served on a plate, not in a bowl.
Back in Indiana, I happily reunited with my own dog, who bounded up to greet me like a new day, rolling and yelping in surprised pleasure – ah, what mutual joy! It may have been my imagination, but we both seemed to feel an entirely new, if unfathomable, connection.