Friday, February 27, 2009

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

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