Saturday, February 28, 2009

Last Aussie Days

Remember Tony and Ceal, from my first time around in Sydney? They were kind and generous enough to offer to put me up for a couple of nights when I came back, en route to New Zealand. Ceal was with her daughter north of the city for the first night, so Tony picked me up from the airport when I flew in from Cairns. He was his usual dry, funny self. We ate eye-watering curry for dinner, and then I asked him about the local pub. In response, he offered to take me for a drive around Paddington, the suburb of Sydney in which he and his wife live. We ended in Five Ways (named for the five way intersection), a charming place, with several little twinkly restaurants and bars. It was mercifully cool and lovely weather, especially after the humidity of Cairns.

On a whim, I asked Tony to let me off at Five Ways, and I spent a pleasant hour outside a tapas place drinking sangria on the sidewalk, then walked back relishing the comfortable air. I briefly found myself lost, and Debbie, a very drunk but friendly Aussie, offered to help me find my way. She was very happy to meet an American, and I wondered fleetingly if she was going to murder me as she led me through a shortcut in her apartment building's basement. Instead she drunkenly kissed my cheek by the sign for Roylston Street, and I made it safely home.

In the morning, Tony took me to The Gap, a stunning area at the mouth of Sydney harbor which is unfortunately also a common suicide point. We admired the scenery, and then he dropped me at the New South Wales art gallery, a great museum filled with interesting Australian and other art and an especially good exhibit on Aborigine art.

The Gap

An interesting piece at the gallery. It depicts Lake Wakatipu, which is a beautiful lake I've been to on the south island of New Zealand

At 3 I walked through the intensely green, steamy Botanical Garden to meet a friend-of-a-friend, Naomi, who was a Wesleyan grad a few years before me. So far away, out in the Real World on another continent, it would seem that graduating from the same school and knowing someone in common is enough reason to meet. And it worked out excellently.

The following tidbit says something about just how much Aussies drink. Naomi went on a lunch date with an Aussie guy that afternoon directly before she met me. He took her to a very chic bar and bought a bottle of wine, then proceed to drink four beers while she drank the wine. Neither of them ate anything. Naomi texted me apologetically all afternoon as she got tipsier and tipsier. When she came to meet me, the Aussie guy went back to work!

Alcohol or none, we got along great. It was really refreshing to be able to talk America, to be able to discuss Wesleyan related topics--professors we'd both had, campus politics, social theory. We chatted all the way through a scenic ferry ride around the harbor to Balmain, which I had heard was a charming village with good cafes. This ferry didn't stop at our desired stop, unfortunately, so we were forced to walk up an enormous hill in the intense afternoon sun to get to central Balmain. We finally gave in to thirst as we passed the London Hotel, a beautiful old hotel pub out that looks, as many Australian pubs do, like something out of the Old West. Damian (remember him from my first stop in Sydney? He treated me to Spanish chocolate and showed me around Glebe?) met us there, and we drank and chatted with some middle aged Aussie men who wanted to know about life in America. Naomi, who is black, told me she gets a lot of attention for her skin color there. Well, she's also gorgeous, so that might help as well.

Eventually we did strike up the rest of the hill to get Damian coffee and find Naomi some food to take the edge of the remnants of her lunch wine. We found a delicious Thai restaurant, eating with Damian's friend, Jacqui. She was sassy and salty, he nerdy and clever, and we drank wine (even Naomi) and enjoyed each other's company greatly.

Eventually, we all repaired to a pub for a celebratory "wedges with sweet chili" (a traditional Aussie snack, which is basically fat french fries with spiced mango salsa) and a couple of drinks. It was a festive, suitable way to finish off the first chapter of my round-the-world trip: after Naomi generously showed me how to take the the bus back to Paddington, I chatted with Ceal, packed my bags-- and in the morning I was off to the airport again. It only took a few hours to deliver me to my next destination, a fresh culture and a month ready to be filled with adventures. After a few years away, I was ready to rediscover New Zealand.

Naomi, Damian, and Jacqui at my Australian Last Supper

Friday, February 27, 2009

Reef Dreams: Cairns, 2

Usually when I have to get up early it's a struggle, a mental argument with myself, but the next day it wasn't hard at all. All I had to do was remember where I was headed, and out the door I went.

I had signed up for two days and a night aboard the Rum Runner, a little yacht with room for 15 passengers. There were 10 of us on the trip, all English speaking (which, given the number of German girls traveling Australia, was pretty remarkable), including two other American girls who had just graduated from Cornell. The Skipper was Jason, a seasoned sailor who started life as a druggie from Brisbane and came up to Cairns to try to make something of himself. He worked at the Woolshed as a dishwasher, did an intro dive once with a friend, and said "That's it, I'm going to be a professional diver."

The Woolshed staff said "Yeah right, see you in two weeks," but he got his PADI (open water license), worked himself up to a Dive Master, and then bought into Rum Runner. He was completely comfortable on her, jumping in the rigging and below deck like a monkey, barefoot and barechested, singing along loudly with the speaker systems hooked up to his iPod.

The other crew included Masa, a Japanese dive guide who'd been in Australia 13 years but had been guiding only for other Japanese for 12 so his English was still pretty poor (but he was very, very knowledgable); Beverly, a British "hostie" who did the cooking and cleaning and made amazing food for us out of tiny kitchen; and Matt, a dive master in training. The boat was not a big boat at all, with just room for some beds, two little bathrooms, and the kitchen below deck and then a sitting area open to the water upstairs. Note that I made the mistake of not buying an underwater camera, so there will unfortunately be no cool snorkeling pictures here.

Our schedule

The Rum Runner herself

The big disappointment of the day came at me fast, as soon as I boarded. I had hoped to scuba dive for the first time on the Rum Runner: you can do introductory dives with an instructor even if you haven't completed a course. But I'd made the mistake (or, some would say, the smart choice) of divulging that I have mildish asthma to one of the crew. Jason informed me that I needed an AU$55 medical appointment to okay me for diving, as Queensland has the most stringent diving regulations in the world. I was very disappointed at first but after about an hour I got over it. There was still snorkeling (which is one of my favorite things to do in the world), and, I reasoned, I was saving money this way.

The water was very, very choppy on way out. We were all a bit sick, but some more than others--I narrowly avoided vomiting, although a couple of the others weren't so lucky. In particular I felt bad for Chantal, a five-months-pregnant Brit who was very ill and couldn't take any motion sickness medicine. She and her husband had been traveling for 5 months already and only found out in India that she was pregnant, which drastically altered their plans, as you might imagine.

Things flattened out once we get to the reef. It wasn't very nice weather, overcast, but as I said I was lucky not to have been caught in the deluges to come. Our first snorkel wasn't wonderful, as I wasn't used to open water snorkeling, the current/waves were pretty intense, my mask kept filling up, and my snorkel came apart a couple times.

But things improved dramatically from there. At our second location, I found a mask that fit, which helped tremendously. The coral was gorgeous, all sorts, all sizes, and extending in either direction as far as I could see. I saw every kind of tropical fish I could think of-- clownfish, angelfish, parrotfish, so many more--in amazing colors. Just as I was about to go in for a rest, I heard Matt, an Aussie also on the boat, raise his head above the water and yell "Oi! Turtle!"

It was like a moment out of Lord of the Rings, or some similarly epic movie: everything slowed down and I could just hear the water moving around me, pounding dully against the coral heads. I could see the turtle almost directly below me, lit as if from below by the reflection of the pearly, cloudy-day light off the bottom. It was barely moving its flippers, just flying smoothly through the water. I couldn't tell how far away it was from me, as perspective in the water is so skewed. Slowly slowly I recognized that it was getting bigger, coming up to the surface to breathe. I saw it come to take a breath at the surface several feet away and took my head out of the water. By the time I'd put my head back in the water it had dived back into the deep and was almost out of sight. Magical.

The third snorkel that night was one of the best of my life. Everything came together. I found flippers that fit better and didn't give me blisters; my masked stopped leaking altogether; the reef was gorgeous. I saw a huge school of navy blue fish with yellow strips along their tails, and couldn't stop watching then flit from coral head to coral head. Three electric purple squid the size of sneakers looked like nothing so much as aliens as they swam around and around me and I realized they were just as curious about me as I was about them. A reef shark swam by and I was temporarily afraid until it became clear it wasn't at all interested in me. I relished hovering a few feet above the fish as they went about their business. If you think about it, it's really the only time you can get that close to wild animals and peek into their world.

As the light faded we had dinner, then later ate biscuits and drank wine as the sun went down over the reef. The cloudy weather meant no sunset, but it' was still lovely and serene. The wind died down, and the dark came surprisingly quickly. The clouds parted for a brief hour and I went out to lie on deck and look at an amazing display of stars. When it started to sprinkle, I braved my tiny, hot bunk. It was very, very sticky and I couldn't use the air conditioner because the boat was not on and the generator thus not working, but I reminded myself every time I woke up soaked that the first thing I'd do in the morning would be jump into the ocean. It was the right decision: a huge rain squall came in the night, and those brave souls who had tried to sleep on deck were soaked.

It is a wonderful thing to get up, put on your bathing suit, and jump into coral reefs before you've even eaten breakfast. Besides a digestive biscuit, the first thing in my mouth was salt water. It was beautiful again, of course. I saw a huge parrotfish school and lots of fish waking up to a watery world. After a refreshing breakfast, we went to our last dive/snorkel location, what they call "the lagoon." The sun came out there for the first time, illuminating everything into a brilliant, deep emerald . This snorkel site boasted violently purple starfish and enormous giant clams. Watching carefully, I could see them breathe, move minutely in their shells. I swam through a school of tiny jellyfish, feeling little stings against my hands (I was wearing a wetsuit, which protected most of me) that didn't last for long, although the discoloration continued for a few days; I watched clownfish fight to protect their anemone homes. For an hour and a half I swam and explored, relishing this endless aquatic fairy world, this last part of my dream.

You can't tell, but underneath this is "the lagoon"

Dry land brought a shower at Tessha's and Australian Mexican food, which wasn't bad but wasn't anything to get excited about. Then it was back to the Woolshed for a post-boat celebration with the rest of the Rum Runner occupants. Jason treated us all to pizza and beer (although I was pretty full already) and we socialized, played pool. But I was exhausted, feeling pretty pessimistic about the fleeting nature of connections during travel, and preoccupied with my return to Sydney the next day. I got a taxi back to Tessha's for the night, and the next day a different taxi came to take me away from the reef and on to my last chance for Australian adventure.

The Rum Runner 10, trying to eat our weight in pizza

Oh, here she comes, she's an ant eater: Cairns, 1

The bus ride to Cairns was long. Really long. Ten hours long. But in the end it wasn't as bad as I expected. They showed a couple of movies, "In Good Company" and "Ghost Busters" (I know!) and I saw a herd of kangaroos out the window and it rained and rained on the sugar cane fields. A few weeks after I left Cairns the road we drove on was completely underwater, deluged by flash floods, and the buses were canceled for 10 days straight. So really, for the rainy season I got pretty lucky.

I could not believe the humidity in Cairns. I got off the best and looked at a map, and by the time I had gotten my bearings I was soaked with sweat. Walking to find my couch surfing host, Tessha, was even worse. I got lost (as is my tendency) and was hot and overwhelmed, but eventually found my way and there was a lovely pool waiting. Tessha and I floated and chatted, and I made plans for my stay in the city.

Welcome to Cairns!

The next day was Australia Day, a holiday like America's July 4 that commemorates the day the first fleet of ships from England made landing in Sydney. There's often a lot of tension among Aborigines on Australia Day (I've heard some refer to it as 'Invasion Day') and sometimes there are protests, but in Cairns it was all barbecue all the time. Tessha and I met her friend Becky and several other sundry Aussies/Brits/Scots at the Esplanade by the ocean to have our own barbie.

The environment was very festive--small children swam in the lagoon, people played pick up games of cricket, and everywhere there were Australian flag hats, flags as capes, face paint, and stick-on tattoos. I learned that the proper way to celebrate Australia day is with damper, a fluffy white bread made traditionally in the Australian bush, and cane syrup (which is way sweeter than maple syrup). Also sausages with fatty bacon and sauteed onions, followed by Lamingtons, which are bits of pound cake covered in chocolate frosting and coconut.

A very festive cricket game

Toward the end of our feast

Needless to say, it was not a healthy day-- but it was totally delicious. We ate and chatted and put on our temporary tattoos, braved a rain shower, watched the revelry, and at one point I ate an ant raw.

... What's that you say, one of those things doesn't sound normal to you? Welcome to Queensland, where ants don't ruin the picnic-- in fact, just the opposite! Green ants are everywhere in Cairns, and I was goaded into trying one. You pinch off the thorax, which is twice the size of the rest of the ant, and after screwing up your eyes and nose you find that it's actually tasty. Apparently this is a custom that children in Queensland learn quite young, and they keep at it as they grow. I have to say I never thought I'd find a raw ant tangy and delicious.

My temporary tattoo: loyal to my (temporarily adopted) country

I started to feel a little antsy (ha, pun), like I needed to "do" something-- I knew I wouldn't be in Cairns long, and the call of a tourist activity to somehow prove I'd used my time well was strong (this idea that you have to "do" things, and usually spend money doing those things, to use your time well traveling is not something I'm proud of, but it is a phenomenon I'm interested in in the sociological sense.) So I went to the Wildlife Dome, which is a sort of open air rain forest zoo on top of a casino in downtown Cairns. They had all sorts of creatures in mini versions of their natural habitat and birds making the rounds in the dome's top, high above, calling endlessly. Tiny kangaroo rats hid in little groves of trees; Papuan birds that looked exactly tree stumps stood frozen outside of their enclosures. A guide showed me where a Bettong, an adorable marsupial, was hiding under a rock.

Bettongs are so cute!

Some of the friendlier, bigger birds followed me around, curious-- one, an enormous black cockatoo was happy to hang out on my arm. She sat with me and watched the 1500 kilo crocodile being fed. I'd come at almost closing time, so while the staff finished the day up around me I sat and enjoyed the sounds of the manufactured, but entirely functioning, jungle. I watched as the zoo keeper chased one escapee from the bird show around and around the dome. The bird was flightless, as many birds are in Australia, with very long legs, so it was just running as fast as it could from away from her, in circles around and around the footpaths. It looked like something out of a cartoon.

This cockatoo was every bit as heavy as she looks when she decided to have a ride on my shoulder

Picture the zoo keeper running as fast as she could after this bird, who was sprinting away on its funny too-long legs
I know this photo is totally unnecessary, but how weird is it that this is how that bird sits down?
After I left the dome I stopped at the Cairns Aboriginal art gallery, one of the largest in Australia. I find Aboriginal art., which is instantly recognizable in its vocabulary of dots, swirls, and patterns, very interesting. Looking at it feels like trying to read braille or Thai script: I know it has a complex deeper meaning, but it's just lost on me. A lot of it resembles abstract art, which I don't enjoy, but I like this more because I know it is based on a deep and long-running system that I just don't have the tools to decode. From reading I know that a lot of it is about mapping the landscape of inner Australia, telling stories of migration and journeys and family. Mostly I enjoy the vibrations some of the designs produce, optical illusions that create movement where there is none. You aren't allowed to take photos of the art (it's both a spiritual and a copyright issue, I think) so I can't offer you pictures, but it's certainly worth looking up if you have time.

The gallery had bios of all the artists near the paintings, explaining where they grew up, which people the belonged to, their training, the themes of their art. I found these bios really helpful and interesting-- I love people's stories, and the bios also helped me to understand the art a little bit more. Although I hadn't planned to make a purchase, I did buy a painted boomerang as a small souvenir of Australia. I think this was a worthy cause to support. The fight for equal treatment, respect, and social integration for Aborigines is far from over-- although that discussion is for another entry, I think.

I spent the rest of the evening wandering the Cairns Night Market and then drinking and socializing at a popular bar called the Woolshed. I replaced my daypack, which was coming apart, with a (very loudly decorated) cheap backpack, and then, at long last, I tried kangaroo-- I found it chewy but flavorful and filling. The Woolshed, a few blocks away, was festive, and I drank cider (of course) and chatted with Scott and Sonali, a Brit and a Canadian I'd met at the Australia day festivities that morning. But I couldn't stay out too late, because the next morning I was getting a super early start to fulfill a lifelong dream. It was time to take on the Great Barrier Reef.

Kangaroo skins at the Cairns night market

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Snorkeling, soldier crabs, and soda

I rode into Airlie Beach, gateway to the Whitsunday Islands, in the pouring rain. This wasn't particularly a surprise, as it was the rainy season in Queensland, but I was feeling gloomy nonetheless: I was hoping to take a sailing trip around the Whitsundays that day, but that wouldn't be much fun in the rain.

I had arranged to be dropped off at a backpacker's: my couch surfing host, Bill, was working all day, but I could store my stuff at the backpacker's for the day if I paid a small fee. The owner also agreed to book me on the aforementioned sailing trip, as many of the tourist day trips picked up from his place. Unfortunately, my train was late because of the rain, and that gave me literally 10 minutes to drag my things down the long driveway, change, and pack a day bag before turning around and heading out into the downpour.

We left port on a repurposed military raft, and the first hour or so miserable. The surf was choppy because of the rain, I felt a bit nauseous, and I couldn't see anything through the deluge. At length things started to look up, just in time for us to land at Whitehaven beach, one of the most photographed beaches in the world. We took a bush walk (Australian for "hike") through dense rain forest to a beautiful look out, then walked across a long, ankle deep inlet back to the boat, shuffling our feet to avoid rousing stingrays.

Whitehaven Beach, still cloudy

We lunched on a beach near Whitehaven, with the whitest sand I've ever seen. According to our guides, the sand is 100% silica, which gives it its white color and also makes it great for polishing jewelery. I considered trying to get the scratches out of my glasses but thought better of it. By the end of lunch the sky was clearing a bit, which cheered us up, although by then we had begun a day-long battle with marsh flies, which are some kind of devil's spawn of a mosquito and horse fly.

Leaving my mark (temporarily) in 100% silica

We spent the afternoon snorkeling at Border Island. The Whitsundays are at the very southern tip of the Great Barrier Reef, and this was my first taste of the wonders of the reef. The fish were gorgeous, and the coral remarkable. It was larger and more diverse than anything I'd seen in previous snorkeling in Bermuda and Virgin Gorda. And it carpeted the entire bay, as far as the eye could see, in knobs and swirls, branches and intricate patterns front light green to dull red to purple.

The rafting company dropped me back at the backpacker's, where I met my couch surfing host, Bill. Bill was a bit of a nomad: he worked out on one of the resort islands five days a week, then came into Airlie Beach each weekend to do overnight security work, sleeping in a motel. He had generously offered to let me stay in his room, which was a lot less suspect than it sounds, given that he was gone most of the time.

Airlie Beach is basically a big backpacker party all the time. The town is essentially pure tourist creation, and there are an endless supply of travelers, mostly foreign and ages 18-28, coming throughat all times. This meant that most of Airlie's main drag consisted of huge, rather expensive backpacker bars filled with glitzy people drinking copiously. I walked down the street looking at bar after bar filled with drunk co-eds but enjoying the warm night air. At length I chanced upon a little restaurant at the end of the road with a cheap soup of the day and a man playing an acoustic guitar at the bar. So I had my dinner, drank a cider, and felt good about finding a spot that fit me in the midst of so much else.

In the morning, Bill and I went sightseeing. We stopped first at the weekly Airlie Beach market to browse the crafts and produce stalls. This is one of the best market locations anywhere, I think, abutting a sparkling blue sea lapping under coconut palms. I tried to have coconut milk for breakfast but it was sour in a way I wasn't used to, so I ate dim sum pork buns instead.

Best market location ever

The wonderful thing about couch surfing (well, one of the wonderful things) in a place like Airlie Beach is that your host can take your off the beaten track and away from the plastic key chains and $10 Coronas. Bill was kind enough to spend the afternoon with me, driving me to a beautiful lookout over Shute Harbor (where the boats from the Whitsundays dock) and a gorgeous, deserted beach, and taking me to see a huge, old tree and a woodland waterfall.

Shute Harbor

Maybe the oldest tree in Queensland. To give you an idea of scale, you can just see Bill leaning against the the bottom of the trunk

Along the way, he told me a little about his experience growing up as an Aborigine. He was raised by his grandparents (although he didn't mention it, I inferred that his parents were among the Stolen Generation, an entire generation of Aborigines who were taken away from their parents and made to assimilate to white Australian culture at boarding schools, often never seeing their families again.) His grandfather was left to tell him about his family's people, who lived originally inthe Blue Mountains area outside of Sydney. Bill had had some success getting his people, who had scattered through New South Wales, to come back together and apply to be recognized by Government and reclaim some of their land, although much of that effort had come to nothing due to infighting.

As we walked through dappled sunlight out to a swimming hole/waterfall in the woods, Bill told me the story of the "Dreaming of" an area near the place he grew up. In Aborigine parlance, during the Dreamtime (a sort of prehistory) the ancestors sang or dreamed various places into being, so all creation stories involve the dreaming of a place, tradition, or landmark. This one involved a wise eagle fighting against dark spirits.


Our last stop was the beach. The tide was out and the sand extended about a quarter mile to the water, which blended seamlessly with the cloudy sky. It was dotted with seaweed and mineature armies of soldier crabs, tiny blue marbles with legs that travel in masses of hundreds or thousands and whose simultaneous scurrying sounds exactly like soda when you've just opened it. The tide had carved curving lines into the shore, and I wandered for a time hunting soldier crabs and relishing the solitude of an empty beach.

Soldier crabs

I spent that night at a little Thai restaurant, then back at the same bar with a different acoustic guitarist, this one accompanied by a drummer with an electric drum set. Between songs they were heckled by couple of very drunk, enthusiastic Kiwis, who would whoop, shriek, and yell at the performers to "get out the little brown cigar, broo!" ("broo" is what very Kiwi Kiwis call one another.) It took me several songs worth of heckling to realize that the "little brown cigar" they were referring to was a didjeridoo, and when the duo finally heeded their demands and played an acoustic version of "I Come From the Land Down Under" with didjeridoo accompaniment I experienced a moment of elated, hilarious harmony. I told you Aussies love that song.

The beach

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Ack! So behind!

I'm just starting to realize the gravity of my blogging situation. I've been in New Zealand 3.5 weeks and you haven't even heard about it! Plus I've gotten greviously behind on my own private journaling. Something must be done.

I think I'm going to work desperately to finish writing about Australia in the next couple days (I have photos all posted and ready to go) and then maybe my New Zealand entries will be a tad less in depth than usual. I know, I don't like it either, but the photos will be pretty--promise-- and then we can get back to real-time blogging sometimeeventuallyIhope.

If you have opinions on this issue (real time blogging versus archiving so you hear the whole story; photo entries versus in depth text entries; how to deal with this bit of trouble) feel free to leave them here! I am very open to suggestions.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Sea Turtles and School Teachers: Bundaberg, part 2

I spent my unexpected extra day in Bundaberg wandering the town and waiting for the train, which was not without its charms. I had breakfast at a cute little cafe (my favorite kind) called Fresh On Earls recommended to me by some people on the street, then in my shortsless panic bought two pairs, one overpriced and one very cheap, because I couldn't decide between them. I Skyped with my parents; I looked in a craft shop. In the afternoon I went to a teeny zoo near the down-at-the-heels hostel. There were wallabies there, which are essentially mini kangaroos, many varieties of exotic birds, plus baby emus (cute!) and an ostrich named Olly. Olly was very, very large.


As I looked at the bird display, an affable older Aussie who was also wandering about introduced himself and told me he knew one of the parrots from before it was taken away from its owners by the authorities. He claimed that if you asked the bird to walk with you it would follow you along the confines of its cage, speaking to the parrot in a very silly high voice--but, sure enough, it responded. Later he was shat on by a pigeon as we watched the wallabies. I was amused then, but little did I know that I, too, was destined to be shat on by a pigeon, albeit a month later and several hundred miles away.

After he cleaned himself up, Gus invited me to his house to see his birds. I didn't have anything better to do, so I agreed. When we reached his house, in the outskirts of Bundaberg, he introduced me one at a time to all of the birds in his garden (in cages)--there were 10 of them at least--and let me hold them. All of their wings were clipped , and when they, half-lame, tried to fly away he laughed at them, which struck me as oddly barbaric.

It got weirder when we went inside. The house was basically carpeted with bird art. Murals, sketches, paintings (he was careful to point out the originals), and limited-edition prints, of probably 50 different bird species. He also showed me his collection of trophies from his shooting club, about which I said vague, appreciative things. As we admired the trophies, he told me that his wife is second-generation Dutch and doesn't tolerate the Queensland heat well. She spends much of her time during the summer in her air conditioned bedroom, watching movies. As she was that day, which was about 35 C and quite humid.

I asked why they didn't move if she became so ill in the heat and needed to be on so many medications. "Well, I grew up here, I have my shooting club and my work," he said, adding that his wife is thinking about going to live with relatives in Melbourne 4 months out of the year. Or, he added in an oddly detached tone, "perhaps we'll part company forever, after 16 years of marriage." He insisted that we barge into the bedroom to say hello, and I wondered why he brought me back to his house. Maybe they had had a bad argument that morning. Maybe he was thinking of leaving her.

Gus with one of his birds

He dropped me back at the backpackers and I checked my luggage, fighting anxiety about whether I should have opted for a sleeper car. Feeling decidedly scattered, worried about plans for Airlie Beach and Cairns, I boarded the train, and things immediately improved. I celebrated my single seat, a window and aisle in one, and was happy to find that the chair itself was quite roomy and comfortable.

I spent the dwindling evening exploring the saloon and diner cars. I had just sat down with an overpriced beer (to make up for the lack of horizontal sleeping surface) and opened my computer to do some writing when I heard gasps of "Cool!" and looked up to see two dark-skinned boys grinning at me.

"Is that little thing really a computer?" one wanted to know. Then he heard my accent and demanded to know where I was from.

"Well, America," I admitted. His eyes lit up, reflecting off his dark face. He punced his friend lightly."Hey, let's talk to the American!"

Their names were Masi and PJ; Masi was a Fiji Islander and PJ a Torres Straight Islander, which means he comes from the area between Australia's northernmost point (Cape York) and Papua New Guinea. They had met on the train earlier in the day coming up from Brisbane and were really, really excited to meet me-- again, I was surprised to encounter such fascination with America and American culture. They asked me if I brought anything from America with me, went through my outfit-- singlet? earrings? bag? shoes?-- Yes, I said, everything was from America.

They wanted to see American money, and I gave PJ a nickel, dime, and quarter to keep. "What's it like to have an American dollar?" he asked. I said that it's about like having an Australian dollar, but I think he meant a bill instead of a coin-- Australian money includes $1 and $2 coins and starts bills at $5. "We like your Obama," he told me solemnly, with little transition. "We want to be like him."

We filled the next half hour with me sipping my beer and them telling me scary stories, some from "Ghost Hunters," which they saw on TV, some of crime on the streets of Townsville (which is near Cairns) and elsewhere. PJ told me his cousin was raped and talked graphically of other crimes. He also claimed that in the Torres Strait Islands when people who are from outside come, his family and relatives paint themselves, dance around, give the visitors necklaces, and then when the visitors aren't looking a witch woman beats them over the head and then slices them up to eat. Well... maybe, I guess. I'm sure these stories are embellished the way 11 year old boys embellish the world over. It's a nice story and it probably has some basis in truth in a distant past. Or who knows? Maybe there are cannibals in Torres Strait.

The train had stopped for some unknown reason, and rain was running down the black windows. PJ offered to escort me back to my seat in car H.

When I had gotten comfortable and opened my computer again, I put in my earphones and toggled iTunes to random. "Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?" filled my ears and I almost laughed. Tell me where in the world, tell me where can she be...

Traveling up the coast of Australia at 75 kph to a new place with crystal clear waters, maybe?

As I typed Masi and PJ passed me, back to their train car. They tapped me on the shoulder and grinned as they passed.

Sea Turtles and School Teachers: Bundaberg, part 1

One of my favorite things about train travel is the act of simultaneously typing on my netbook and looking out the window. Because I am an accomplished typist, this is a lovely possibility. There might be an occasional typo to go back and correct. But really my fingers can do the thinking. They gamely record my thoughts while my eyes enjoy the landscape outside the train, which in many cases is some of my favorite landscape, snatches of the life lived in tis village or on that farm, fleeting and intriguing.

The ride from Brisbane to Bundaberg was no different. I drowsed, exhausted from my long night, and watched a young girl waving at the train from her family's dinner outside in their yard; glimpsed an old freight car in a backyard; saw cows and horses cantering, rolling, and sleeping over endless, empty green hills. Taking a train through Australia makes it's hard to believe in the world's overpopulation problems.

My Bundaberg host, Pat, met me at the train station. He was an interesting character and had worked all sorts of jobs, from commercial fishing to dishwashing to hunting for feral pigs. He lives in what is called a "caravan park" in Australia, what Americans know as a trailer park but minus most of the social stigma. Ths caravan park was called Elliott Heads, and it marked the first time I'd ever stayed in a trailer. Well, technically I slept in the Annex, a tent contraption attached to the caravan. There were showers and toilets in a building nearby.

Elliott Heads Beach

The weather was finnicky, and it changed abruptly to rain from bright sunshine as Pat and I had dinner outside the comfortable, tiny Elliott Heads general store. We had just enough time to finish before making our way toward the reason I had come here, so far off the East Coast tourist track: sea turtles.

Mon Repos, 15 km outside Bundaberg, is one of the best known sea turtle preserves in the world. I had gotten the idea to come here from a book I read in Sydney that belonged to James (remember him, my Sydney host?) The book included travel ideas for every day of the year, and when I read that it was possible to see both laying mothers and hatchlings during January and then confirmed that Bundaberg was very much on my way up the coast I was convinced.

The night was long. We showed up, as instructed, at 6:30 PM to register. As we had only made reservations the day before, we were placed in the last group, meaning we would be the last to get called if the staff patrolling the beach discovered hatchlings or a mother coming to lay her eggs. There were a few educational films to watch about turtles and a little museum to browse through, but those small entertainments quickly dwindled. At 10:30 PM Pat repaired to his truck to get some sleep, as he had his first day of teaching the next day (I felt terrible, but he had assured me it wouldn't be a problem.) After he left I sat, restless and frustrated. I missed the comfort of Brisbane; I was bored and still exhausted. All in all I waited 4.5 hours, sometimes making small talk with the dwindling group (some people gave up and went home) and other times just quietly stewing. More than 15 years before I had been in a similar situation in Costa Rica with my parents; we had sat on a star-filled beach for hours waiting for sea turtles that never came. It was a very cool night, regardless, but my young self had been deeply disappointed, and this situation wasn't shaping up to be any different.

Finally, just after midnight, our group was called. The rangers apologized; Nothing is happening tonight, they said. They hadn't seen a single nest or hatchling, so they'd been taking the groups out to watch nest processing for nests from other nights, where a ranger counts numbers of hatched eggs. I felt furious and disappointed, slogging through the sand for no reason at midnight, but then--

Our guide stopped short. "Don't move," she said in a hushed voice. "I thought that was a boulder, but there isn't a boulder on this part of the beach."

I leaned into the blackness in front of me and, as she approached, could just make out a female sea turtle the size of a laundry basket working slowly up the beach. She was beautiful; I didn't know why, but the sight of her slow path toward the dunes brought tears to my eyes (and I don't cry easily.) We, the last, forgotten group of the night, were lucky: this female couldn't decide whether she wanted to lay, so we were allowed to see her more fully as the ranger used a flashlight to help her find her way up past the high tide mark to the dunes. Again and again she turned back to the ocean, in her slow but stately way, and finally the ranger gave up. Then and only then were we allowed to use cameras. Turtles are very sensitive to light, so they are usually prohibited to keep the turtles from leaving their laying point too early.

The ambivalent mother

All of that alone would have been enough to make the night magical, but there was more to come. We went to watch the ranger process the nest we had been on our way to see, and as he went through the empty egg shells, he found three live hatchlings that had been left behind! They were teeny and incredibly cute. We were allowed to touch them and take pictures of them, and when that was finished we helped them find their way to the dark ocean. We led them down the gently sloping sand with a flashlight, watching as they struggled over pebbles, seaweed, and the guide's feet toward the water. Apparently, picking up young turtles and bringing them to the ocean yourself does more harm than good, because during that trip they orient themselves to the magnetic impulses of the earth, impulses which will bring them back to the same beach to lay eggs/breed (if they are the one individual out of a huge number to survive.)

On the walk back the former rain had cleared, and the stars were incredible. Incandescent is the word I'd like to use.

Unfortunately, despite all that, my time at the beach was tainted. Pat had been texting me from his car for at least half an hour. It's 1 am, where are you? he asked. He had to get up for work, he wrote. He needed to sleep. It was so late, and I felt terrible. But I wasn't allowed to leave the beach without the rangers.

Hatched eggs


Pat left early for school, and I slept in, creeping into the caravan when it got too hot and sleeping the last half of morning wedged under the "kitchen" table. I spent the afternoon chatting with two Aussies next door and floating in the water at Elliott Heads Beach. When I walked back, however, I found that the situation was more complicated than I had thought.

To start out, I found that to get to Airlie Beach (my next destination) on Greyhound that night would cost twice the price of a train, but there was no train until the next night for reasons that did not become clear until later. Then my cell phone ran out of minutes; when I tried to use Pat's, his did the same. By the time I found a phone to use, the Greyhound office had closed and Pat had started to stress out, as well. Although he had said previously that my presence would be no problem, he felt very behind on work and exhausted from the previous night. He clearly wanted me out.

I didn't know what to do. I had nowhere to stay and no way to get to Airlie until the next day; Pat encouraged me to try to get a seat on the Greyhound bus that night at 2 AM, but I certainly wasn't up for staying on a bus bench if it didn't work out. Finally, barely keeping a lid on my anxiety, I agreed to stay in a hostel and take the train the next day. After having trouble finding the correct hostel, I ended up at a no-frills down-at-the-heels place that was particularly unwelcoming, but I sucked it up and reminded myself that it was only 24 hours. Once I settled into the hostel, I wandered down to the attached bar and had a Bundaberg rum and cola-- Bundaberg rum is incredibly popular in Australia, and it felt like a fitting thing to do and a good way to celebrate what was hopefully the resolution of an ordeal.

A few hours later, I sat in my sweaty bun, with three German girls asleep around me. Maybe I'll go to the zoo tomorrow, I thought. I woke just as sweaty, remembering with a groan that I was in a nasty hostel and that I had lost my one pair of shorts at Elliott Heads. But the day had better things in store.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Slice of Life: Adventures in Brisbane 2

The last of the Brisbane days: Karl and I had an Eggstravaganza in which we discovered the house was alarmingly low on groceries and cooked eggs all the ways we knew how; I played late night Scrabble with Sven, who couldn't quite believe that Americans really do spell "colour" without the U, and found this hilarious; Karl told me great stories about traveling through Eastern Europe; the fourth roommate's father showed up to collect some of his things, and I hid in my room. I did laundry, helped with dinner and dishes, played the piano for the first time in years, sounding out a copy of "The Scientist" by Coldplay that I found in the piano stool. In short, it was a brief, fleeting home.

On one of the last mornings before he was to start medical school, Karl threw a "Hey, I'm Back!" party at his house. The drinking lasted from 4 PM until 2 AM (well, I had been out in the city by myself, so for me it was 5 PM until 2 AM.) The evening consisted of loads of Karl's friends coming around to make sausages, welcome him back, and drink steadily into the night. As I've mentioned, Australians drink a lot. This particular night represented the most alcohol I've ever consumed in one sitting, although to be fair that sitting lasted nearly nine hours. And I would like to say (if I haven't already) that the sort of drinking in which Australians regularly parttake did not, at least under my watch, result in any of the obnoxiousness and generaly disgusting behavior I associate with those amounts of alcohol. Everyone is just the same, only better and more animated. In short, they can hold their liquor.

The party was great fun. I enjoyed the sausages and the company; at one point I attempted, slightly bleary with champagne, to explain the basis of the Revolutionary War and American race relations to several interested Aussies. It actually reminded me a bit of the simplified explanations I offered Lisu people when I lived in China, although in this case my handicap was liquor rather than linguistics. At one point late at night, once those who would depart early had "piked" (Aussie slang for bailing early), we and the remaining partygoers, including most of the Traveling So and So's (see last entry) repaired to another house about fifteen minutes walk away. There we spent a few hours in the aptly-named Shed, a converted garden shed at the back of the house now outfitted for video games, jam sessions, and general hanging-outage. Again I was struck by the overarching familiarity of the setting; the Shed was somewhere I recognized from my own adolescence, the kind of place we frequented when we wanted time all to ourselves, in basements, garages, and parks.

Against a background of Wii bowling (I did better than I expected), the So and So's had a great time jamming using the available instruments and with Karl joining in on guitar. Between bowling turns I sat back and listened, watching the jam turn from slow experimentation to a rollicking dance party (I took a video that I wish I could post , but it's unfortunately too big.) Around 2 Karl and I walked back to the house carrying his fire twirling staff, and he taught me some basic tricks as the suburbs slept around us.

Eventually the day came for departure, and my regrets about lack of time, about the walls that don't come down and the connections that aren't deepened came back full force. I started to face a newly-built fear of the nomadic existence I'll lead for the rest of the year. Making homes throughout the world sounds (and is) wonderful, but the reality of leaving them was, and continues to be, formidable. My ability to bond with and get attached to people is something I like about myself, but is it a practical way to live during this year? What would be the consequences of purposely turning that instinct off? I'm really not sure.

In any case, I went to bed the last night with knots in my stomach and slept perhaps the worst sleep of my life. I left Karl with a copy of Roald Dahl's "Going Solo" from the used bookshop we'd explored in the West End and pushed on, packing my things and leaving this one home for Bundaberg and a new advenure. (I'll give you a clue, it includes sea turtles.)

Karl, Woody, and the lead singer of the So and So's in the half-light of the Shed

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Slice of Life: Adventures in Brisbane 1

In my array of travels, some trips end up being about places--enjoying architecture, exploring neighborhoods, seeing what there is to see -- and some trips end up being about people. For me, Brisbane was very much about people. I got to see a chunk of the city, but my time in Brisbane was enjoyable and, even more, important to me, because of the people I met and the parts of their lives I got to experience.

I stayed for five days in a beautiful, rambling house in Sherwood (which is funny because the place I stayed in near Sydney was called Burwood) with Karl, his younger brother Sven, and their friend Ed, three guys roughly my age. The house belonged to Karl and Sven's parents, who moved to Singapore a few years ago and left the house for their sons to inhabit. Evidence of the family that once lived here was everywhere, in the high shine of the floors, the decorating choices (very much an Asian theme), the photos of younger days. Sometimes it was evidence in absence--the lovely pool was pretty much unswimmable, as no one "could be arsed" (as they say in Australia) to keep it clean. I don't mean to say that it was a messy house. In fact, it was much cleaner than I would expect from three guys ages 19-21.

Besides the highly-polished floors, the E boys' house featured a great open balcony/porch, a large, very fat cat called Attie, two turtles, and a small white mouse called Octavius. I later learned that this mouse once belonged to a fourth roommate, who tragically died of a brain hemorrhage about a month before I arrived, while Karl and Sven were in Singapore visiting their parents. As it turned out, the room I stayed in was once the roommate's. This was a little weird/creepy, but not as much as I was expecting, maybe because Sven didn't mention it until a few days into my visit.

Top: The living room and my host; you can also see out to the porch.
Below: A "family" dinner. From right Karl, Sven, one of their friends (reaching), and Ed (face partly blocked)

But I'm getting ahead of myself. I took the commuter train from the Gold Coast to the city, an unremarkable ride except for one stop, Olmeau, which sounded like "Almost" when paired with the announced "Olmeau Station." Maybe you have to be an English nerd to appreciate that.

When I arrived in Brisbane it was mid-afternoon, and Karl was busy at a first-aid seminar he was required to complete before he began medical school in half a week. So my first impression of the city was a very brief meet up with girl from Canberra (pronounced CAN-bra) and a local named Adrian. Adrian had seen a post I'd made on the local couch surfing group saying I'd be coming into town, and cruised up randomly on his bike, giving us a spin around the center of the city nearest to the train station, including a cool but touristy walking area called Queen Street Mall.

The Casino, a fancy building near Queen Street

Adrian left fairly soon after, and I had a coffee and enjoyed a copy of the local newspaper. Again, Bill Bryson puts the joy of Australian newspapers wonderfully:

"It always amazes me how seldom visitors bother with local papers," he says. "Personally, I can think of nothing more exciting-- certainly nothing you could do in a public place with a cup of coffee-- than to read newspapers from a part of the world you know almost nothing about. What a comfort it is to find a nation preoccupied by matters of no possible consequence to oneself. I love reading about scandals involving ministers of whom I have never heard, murder hunts in communities whose names sound dusty and remote, features on revered artists and thinkers whose achievements have never reach my ears, whose talents I must take on faith.
I love above all to venture into the colour supplements and see what’s fashionable for the beach in this part of the world, what’s new for the kitchen, what I might get for my money if I had A$400,000 to spare and a reason to live in Dubbo or Woolloomooloo... Where else can you get this much pleasure for a trifling handful of coins?"

In any case, it was a great way to pass the time before I met Karl at the train station and wandered off into suburban Brisbane and a fantastic stretch of days.

I arrived at the house and immediately felt that I had met some of my tribe, as they say. Sven, tall and striking, was into death metal and rock climbing. Ed loved similar music but preferred to hang about the house drinking beer and making droll comments. That first evening was spent eating spaghetti, drinking wine, listening to music, and playing Jenga and Guess Who?, two board games I hadn't thought about in years. A few of Karl's friends came around to visit after awhile--he had just gotten back from a six month jaunt in eastern Europe and so his presence back at home was a matter of some excitement.

In the course of the evening Ed, Karl, and I walked down to the "bottle-O" (that's what they call liquor shop) and I learned that Australia has, wait for it, drive-through liquor stores. Also I saw some possums (we know them as flying foxes.) Double plus bonus. The rest of the night was equally silly, fun, and low-key: it felt like a day at home with my friends. Except that every few minutes, as another song I loved came on Karl's iPod, I would pull out my mental map and remember exactly where I was. That made it all the more miraculous.

Quite a bit later, after an interesting conversation about gay rights in Australia vs. the US with a friend of Karl's called Woody, I ventured into the realm of Vegemite. Making me Vegemite on toast was a huge deal, apparently, and Karl and Woody made much of the right amount of butter and spread that was applied to the bread. I didn't hate it as much as I thought I would, but the salt was intense and built with each bite.

I snuck it into the waste basket after a few tries as we chatted about this and that, and Woody grinned, "I saw that." I shrugged, admitting it.
"That's okay," he said, "We'll ease you into it."

I spent the next several days alternately exploring the city and environs with Karl and hanging out with him and his friends. Karl told me that his favorite hosts on his trip in eastern Europe had been those who took time to explore with him and really introduced him to their world. His approach was the same, and the effect was great. We pushed through the considerable humidity and heat of mid-January Brisbane to walk the Botanical Gardens, take the City Cat (the commuter ferry that runs on the river) to South Bank to wander, and look through used bookstores and great coffee shops in West End, including one called The Three Monkeys with fabulous ambiance and great chai.

One morning I had the chance to experience Australian bureaucracy, which gives the American version a run for its mony, at a central office similar to the DMV, where Karl had to drop some papers. Another afternoon we gave ourselves up to the heat and sat on the false beach by South Bank, eating ice cream from Cold Rock (I guess they can't call it "Coldstone" down under) and watching small children flounder in chest-high water. In the background an enormous TV screen played "I Come From the Land Down Under" by Men At Work (I mentioned my surprise that Australians love the song) over the tumult of shrieks and splashes.

Brisbane skyline from the City Cat

Path through the Botanic Gardens

Bridge from the Botanic Gardens to South Bank

Chai and record shop in the West End

Nights were busy as well, fat with humidity and friends to see. Once we ventured into an area known as "The Valley" (proper name Fortitude Valley) near Brisbane, a warren of clubs and bars, to see The Travelling So and So's, a band made of up several of Karl's friends. We had drinks before on the street, revelers streaming past us on the way to another alcohol soaked night (have I imentioned that Australians drink a LOT?) The Traveling So and So's played in a dive called The Globe, which spotted an odd but cool characteristic: a dance floor tilted at 50 degrees. The So and So's music was heavy on the saxophone, and their singer sounded like Gwen Stefani: I felt pretty good about them as they tossed party noisemakers and plastic mini tambourines into the crowd (I still have mine), although not totally excited.

The lack of excitement was partially because I was having a realization. As I listened to the show, I watched the people I'd gotten to know over the past week enjoy themselves, dance, lean against each other laughing. I remembered, although the days before and after made me forget, that I was only a brief blip on their screens. Couch surfing affords incredible experiences and allows you to meet wonderful people. But put appropriate emphasis on "meet," because to dig deeper to the connection I generally prefer, well, that's not so simple, especially when your window of opportunity is only five days.

Even if you're staying with a person all the time, there are still walls that stay up, and I wanted them down. This made Brisbane both a wonderful experience and quite painful. The painful part came first as I watched the concert, then again later as I realized I was leaving and the walls I wanted down weren't there yet. Give me more time, I thought. We can make this work. The potential is huge. I just need more time. But there was a whole world waiting.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

All that glitters

"Nearly everyone you meet elsewhere in Australia will tell you, "Oh, you must see the Gold Coast. It’s awful.”
"Really", you say, intrigued, "In what way?"
"I don’t know exactly. I’ve never been there myself. Well, obviously. But it’s like-- Have you seen Muriel’s Wedding?"
"Well, it’s like that. Just like it, apparently."
So I was interested on many levels to see the Gold Coast, and disappointed on nearly every one of them. To begin with, it wasn’t tacky at all. It was just another large, impersonal, well-provisioned international resort. I could have been in Marbella or Eilat. Perfectly fine, it just wasn’t very interesting."-- "Down Under" by Bill Bryson, p. 260

Sometimes when I'm traveling I find it hard to resist putting on my Anthropologist hat. My training at school has really shaped the way I experience the world, but there are certain times when I make a conscious effort to think like an anthropologist, and my visit to the Gold Coast was certainly on of those times. Like Bryson, as I traveled north toward Queensland I was constantly told how terrible the Gold Coast was. Even Johnny, my host for the first night on the Gold Coast, called it "soulless" and compared it to LA. "Everyone is plastic here," he said.

Johnny wasn't plastic, just shy. He very sweetly offered to pick me up from Byron Bay, an hour from Gold Coast City, and drive me back to his apartment.

In any case, my motivation for visiting Gold Coast was partially pretty beaches, partially a desire to cram in as much as possible all the time (this is something I'm working on), and partially curiosity to see if a place could live up to such negative hype. Like Bryson, I found it wasn't so bad as all that--but then again, maybe I just didn't go to the right places.

I slept at Johnny's (he insisted on giving me his bedroom while he took the couch) and in the morning we dined at his favorite local cafe. We spent the few hours before he began his shift visiting three different beaches within the city limits, the surfing and swimming meccas the area is known for. First we took at Miami beach (yes, it's really called that), then walked along Broad Beach, and then explored a national park-type area where you can walk up into the bush-filled headlands and watch the surfers. The beaches were gorgeous, wide expenses of smooth sand and impossibly blue water, filled with hard bodies and little kids at surf school. We shared a butterscotch gelato milkshake as we walked (oh man, mmm) and I forgot to put sunscreen on my back, a mistake I would suffer for for the next week at least.

Johnny went to work and shortly afterward I was picked up by Erik, a quick-witted, friendly Norwegian immigrant who does TV ads for a living. After a stop at his very pretty apartment (complete with sunny balcony) we went out to Jamaican food with Sabrina, a French woman who came to Australia and found that the boyfriend she was following was not as nice as she would have liked. I was not expecting authentic Jamaican food in this opposite hemisphere, but the family who runs it were clearly Jamaican immigrants, and the fare tasted authentic (at least in my limited experience with Caribbean food.) Our waiter at the restaurant was painfully shy and could barely take our orders, speaking in a tone slightly above a whisper. I thought perhaps he was the owner's son, coerced into working for the family business, and that struck me as a bit cruel. He did, however, manage to slip in quiet questions about the US once he caught wind that that's where I was from. I always find it interesting how we are simultaneously reviled and the subject of so much fascination.

Later in the evening we were joined by Sanna (pronounced San-NA), a bombshell Finnish woman and fellow couch surfer. We spent the night at Erik's, drinking and discovering two overarching universals: funny youtube videos and dragging your friends to do obnoxious things at 1:30 AM.

To start out, we watched silly video after silly video, from classics like Teen Girl Squad and The End of the World to surreal Finnish dancing and the music video for "Take On Me." Finnish, French, American, and Norwegian, we all laughed helplessly. Around 1:30 Sanna, who was fairly well drunk, starting agitating for going to Surfers Paradise, a huge strip of clubs (some of them minus the "of") near Gold Coast City, and the main draw in the Gold Coast mystique. They urged, begged, wheedled me into going, even though I was sleepy and night clubs are not exactly my scene.

Here is where wearing the Anthropology Hat gets confusing. Is it good, or even is it important, to do things that you don't like when you travel? On the one hand, people on vacation are in some way always a bit hedonistic, doing only things they enjoy-- the point of vacation is certainly not to cause oneself discomfort. But on the other hand, people seeking to understand another culture will miss out on important components of that culture if they stay in their comfort zones and do only things they like or that are familiar to them. So where does that leave me, an extended vacationer attempting to enjoy a year experiencing new cultures? Well, on this particular night it left me under the bright lights of Surfers Paradise, having decided that I would wonder what I missed if I didn't come along. And it has left me since with food for thought as to what I'm willing to do for the sake of travel and experience, what risks I'm willing to take, and what exceptions I'm willing to make in the march of "who I am and what I like to do" outside of the US.

The answer to "what I would have missed" that night is "not much"--a street full of shined-up, over-dressed Aussies/Europeans gyrating to bad techno. It was gaudy and sort of amusing in a Crikey-look-at-the-Australian-in-its-native-environment sort of way (no, the irony of that sentences does not escape me.) But when we went to enter a club called The Bedroom and they asked for $10 at the door I decided I'd had enough. I took a taxi home and used the time to work on reading "The Graveyard Book," which I'd started originally in San Francisco but hadn't had a chance to finish. I finally did so in the morning on Erik's balcony, eating toast in the Queensland sunshine with not a techno beat to be heard or a stiletto heel to be seen. I entertain lofty goals of stretching further outside my comfort zone next time around, but you can lead a horse to water, can't teach an old dog, etc... Choose your own cliche, I enjoyed the evening and morning nonetheless.

Noontime came and Erik dropped me at the train station. Next stop: Brisbane.

Miami Beach

Monday, February 9, 2009

Port Macquarie Magic

The trains that traverse the east coast of Australia are quite slow: as I rode six hours up the coast toward Port Macquarie, I reflected more than once that we could have been easily outstripped by a car. Nevertheless, I napped, read the Bryson book, wrote a bit, and chatted with a British traveler named Ian who was heading to the same destination. Once, on the shuttle bus that took us from the train station to the coast, I thought I saw a group of grazing kangaroo.

I was met at the station by my couch surfing host, Chris, an ex-part Brit whose voice sounded exactly like Alan Rickman's (aka Snape in the Harry Potter films.) They must hail from the same area of the UK, and the timber was remarkably similar. Chris was barefoot when he hopped out of his car to help me load my things. That's how I knew this would be an experience.

There's something miraculous about arriving at a train station in a place you have never been and having someone there to call your name and take you away. And things only got better from there-- dedicated readers of this blog will recall the next bits, as I wrote about them in real time a few weeks back. On the way to his house, Chris ran me out to "The Lighthouse," a local landmark on the coast, to give me an idea of "where I was"--which, as it turned out, was a sunlit headland drenched in light mist and beaches stretching out below.

What a view

But before I could even register the beauty fully I was whisked back to the house, a lovely rambling one-level decorated with photos and artifacts from Chris' extensive travels in Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Cambodia. There were three girls waiting there with half-made dinner, two Germans from Munich, Tine and Lora, and a British girl. They plied me with wine and within a few minutes there was an incredibly delicious Malaysian-inspired stir fry on the table. We all ate ravenously. I couldn't remember when I had last eaten such a wholesome, solidly good meal--certainly before my week of meat pies and sausage rolls in Sydney. And vegetables! I was overcome with vegetables.

The feast

I was already in a state of surreal shock, a mix of red wine, benadryl (I was worried I might be allergic to Chris' cat, although it turned out I wasn't) and awe at the situation. Here I was, presented with an immediate place to stay and belong in a foreign city, complete with a dinner with people from the world over. And it was only to get better.

There were two more German girls arriving that night. Chris has his visitors coming by car meet him at the Lighthouse, so we went to wait and meet them. We brought a bottle of champagne and plastic flutes, and the breeze was just refreshing enough to require a sweatshirt as we watched the almost full moon come up over the vast Tasman Sea. The waves crashed on the rocks below and the moon danced behind the clouds, its light bouncing off the water. I kept laughing without meaning to. How does this kind of thing just... happen? I could only marvel.

I hadn't previously been sure how long I was to be in Port Macquarie. I knew I wanted to go to the Koala hospital, but that was about the extent of my To Do list. That night I found out that Tine and Lora were moving up the coast the next day in a rented van and I could save some money by going with them. It would mean sacrificing some time in this lovely house and exploring the beaches near the house, but I decided I was willing to do so, feeling a little reluctant but very money-conscious.

I had planned to wake up to listen to the birds waking up in the glen near Chris' house, an event he promised was worth the early start. As it turns out, I wasn't given a choice-- at 5 am, the sound of crazed laughter invaded my dreams. I woke thinking that the sound must have been a product of nightmare, that it couldn't be real, but then... there it was again. Kookaburras, which sound truly deranged, are always the first to start the bird symphony (or so said Chris), and they were soon joined by catbirds that sounded like they were purring or meowing, as well as a wide selection of clear whistles and caws. Following the bird chorus, I had a lovely breakfast and went with the British girl to collect eggs from the hens that live across the road, belonging to an Aussie professor who mostly works in US. Another sweetly surreal activity to add to the roster.

Collecting eggs

When we got back, however, things had taken a turn for the worse. Lora had been bitten by something, and her ankle was red and swollen. We called Chris, who hypothesized that the culprit was a painful but harmless black ant. But as a tourist you're told everything in Australia will kill you (and much of it will), and so I understood when they decided to go to the hospital.

One of the lessons I've started to learn from this trip is that regardless of what unexpected twist life throws at your when you're traveling, there is always the potential for something good to come of it. This time, for example, I was at first frustrated about the delay and worried about how it would affect the next few days, which were tightly planned (a selfish reaction to someone else being injured, but I'm trying to be honest here.) But I used the unexpected time to go on the first of a series of cliff walks leading into town through gorgeous, wild beaches, and it was wonderful. I walked with the other two German girls, and on the way we saw the morning culprit (a kookaburra), as well as some lime green lorikeets and a wild turkey. The beach was filled with mist, enormous boulders, and greenery. I sat under a large rock (the only shade), read a few chapters of Bryson, and relished the scene. The way back was even better, as I chanced upon a koala in a tree. It wasn't that interesting, as they sleep most of the day (and I couldn't get any good pictures of it), but it was suitably fuzzy and cute and I was gratified with another Australian Animal Sighting.

Kookaburra sits on the ol' telephone pole/merry merry king of the... I guess that doesn't work

The untamed beauty of Port Macquarie Beaches

The hospital had declared Lora to be perfectly fine, and so we got underway, first for a daytime stop at The Lighthouse and then to the koala hospital, where they rehabilitate sick animals from up and down the coast and house those whose habitat has been destroyed. There we were gratified to see a very awake (and incredibly adorable) group of koalas and to learn about what makes such a place possible. It was lovely.

Views from The Lighthouse

The rest of the day was taken driving. It was long, of course, but not so bad. I chatted with Tine and Lora about Germany, they asked about the US, we talked about our experiences so far in Australia. They laughed about the chain Bavarian Bier Cafe which is very popular in New South Wales, and often has a picture of a German man in "traditional" get-up with a falcon on his arm on their signs. "After a long day of falconry, I like to drink a nice Bavarian Bier!" he is depicted as saying. They reported to me that they had never participated in falconry, nor had they ever heard of anyone or anyone's ancestors, practicing falconry. They found this hilarious.

We stopped at a few places to look around-- one town was built around an estuary, where a river was busy mixing with the sea; in another, the home almost exclusively of Indian immigrants, featured a beautiful Hindu temple and women walking the streets in saris; in the last a flock of birds with bright red bellies filled the palm trees and made the most deafening noise I have ever heard birds make.

From our stops along the way

We arrived in Byron Bay, major pot and folk music mecca, shortly after dark. It was the kind of place I might have liked to stay a day to explore, but I had made other plans. I met Johnny, a very nice and quite shy Filipino Australian, at the Byron Bay supermarket. He had driven down from the Gold Coast to pick me up and take me to my next destination.