Friday, October 25, 2013

Cairns: Good Times Capital of Australia

The Great Barrier Reef is no doubt the most well-known attraction in Cairns, but the list of stuff to do and see goes so much longer: beautiful camping "where the rainforest meets the reef" in Cape Tribulation, exceptional wildlife zoos and sanctuaries, forests with lakes and waterfalls, hiking, bunjy jumping, skydiving, hang gliding, mountain biking, fishing, sailing, parasailing, abseiling, all kinds of atv activities, whitewater rafting, horseback riding, and people who actually dance.

The surprisingly dangerous cassowary

Shops and cafes along the esplanade, which travels along the oceanside walkway
Great Barrier Reef diving
The Daintree Rainforest

Cairns is the tourism capital of Australia, and that's pretty obvious, but the town is small and feels closer to Santa Cruz than Miami.  It's not overwhelming, but there's a good amount of hippie culture here .  In the outback my tour guides were rough around the edges - here my guide through the Daintree rainforest played Hare Krishna music on the bus and "quizzed" us on facts with directed answers ("When was Australia first discovered?  60,000 years ago!  *Ding*, correct!").  People here are laid back and spend a lot of time in beachwear despite there being no true beach (only a man-made "lagoon" - remember: crocodiles).

A favorite Cairns moment of mine was seeing some guy in the grocery store (in a mall, no less) in nothing but a bathing suit.  No shoes, no shirt, no service is pretty standard, so I took a second look - it was one of my dive instructors :P

It's one of the few places where, after having left, I wish I would have bought a tourist shirt.  Because I do "heart" Cairns.

Camper van

Cape Tribulation

Not to mention it's gorgeous.

In short, I'm left wishing it were somehow a part of the US so I could make regular trips.

Tours I took in Cairns:

-Atherton tablelands waterfall and lake tour with Uncle Brian's.  Takes you as far as 2 hours outside of Cairns into the forest and then the rolling countryside.  The wit on this tour was unforgettable.

-Cape Tribulation and wildlife park tour north of Cairns into the Cape so-named after Captain Cook totaled his ship on the reef.  Very, very beautiful rainforest and nice, quiet stay in a cabin for a night.  No swimming - again, crocodiles - but beautiful hiking and pretty located on the beach.

-"Learn to Dive" 5 day course, 3 day live aboard on the Great Barrier Reef with Pro Dive Cairns.  Absolutely perfect - gorgeous reef, nice boat, great food, great people - and now I'm PADI certified for any future adventures :)

-Bunjy Jumping at the AJ Hackett tower- one of few purpose-built bungy jumping facilities in the world.  I never intended to go bunjy jumping, so why here?  100% safety rating and 15 years in operation, that's why.  And probably the best move towards conquering a fear of heights.

A message to you, domestically untraveled Aussies: you're seriously missing out if you've never been here.  Get on it!

Scuba Zen

Videos of my time in Cairns: (via my YouTube channel, MeChamaCisne)

General Scuba on the Barrier Reef:

Playing with a giant fish:

Reef Shark:

Giant Clam:

Bunjy Jump:

More fun with Aussie sayings:

There are a few sayings in the northern parts which I never heard much, if at all, while in Sydney:

"Mufti days" - casual dress days.  Used for both work and private school. 

"Pommes"   - possibly derogatory word for the Brittish - usually ex-pats.  An Aussie told me this term was short for "pomegranates" - the color that Brits come after coming here and being out in the sun.  A Brittish person told me that no, this was derived from some old reference to the Brittish ships bringing over potatoes, which are "pommes" in French.   Hmmmmmm.

"Bugger that" - As in, "Take the bus for 12 hours? Nah, bugger that, take a plane!"

"Ripper" - pronounced "Rippaaa."  As in, "Everybody on the bus?  Rippaa!"

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Living History: Kakadu, Litchfield and Darwin

Jim Jim Falls, Kakadu National Park

Darwin is a small city.  There are really only a couple busy pedestrian streets, a park, and a bay, and then suburbs take over.  The hostels are nearly all lined up on the main drag, looking out from balconies over large bar porches and a slew of smaller food shops and tourist traps.  Southern Australians come here to warm up in the winter and spring ("nomads" are their version of "snow birds"), and tourists come here to see "the real Australia" - the crocodiles and snakes, aboriginal crafts and unique wilderness.  Yet on a country-wide scale Darwin is generally overlooked, overshadowed by every other major city.

Darwin's only swimmable waves
I can understand that - the city is set on an ocean that you can never swim in, and its skies are filled with eagles, no seagulls.  More often than not the weather is either enormously hot, rainy, or both.  But it's the tourists who have it right.  Culturally and historically speaking, "The Top-End", as it's called, has more intrigue than perhaps the rest of the country combined.  The city itself has a history filled with fascinating bits, if you seek them out.  Yes, it was named after Charles Darwin, and to this day new species of plants, animals, and insects are being found.  Prior to World War II the majority of the city's population was Chinese - along with aboriginal, Indonesian, and a few other ethnicities.  Likewise, Darwin has suffered disaster like no other city in the nation - having been essentially entirely destroyed first in World War II, then again by hurricane Tracy in the '80's.  Likewise, some of the most significant and important aboriginal rights movements happened here, which ultimately created a sea change for the entire country in recognizing the rights of and horrible abuses against a whole continent of native inhabitants.

To its south lies Katherine Gorge and the stark contrasts of an enormous red desert.  To the east are the prehistoric wonders of Kakadu and Litchfield national parks.  Just beyond these is the sacred Arnhem Land, now again in Aboriginal hands.  To the north is all of Asia, and to the west the coast and the Kimberly.

It seems even residents of Darwin may not fully appreciate how intriguing all of these is when it's put together in the right way.  Historical and cultural tours exist but are fewer and farther between- with crocodile features and sea fishing recognized as the big sales.

But if you're willing to get a little sticky wading around for the tasty details, you'll certainly find the diamonds in the rough.

Maguk Gorge, Kakadu National Park

Some features of my time in the Top End:

- many amazing sunsets over the ocean from the park, the national parks, and Mindil Beach

- great food and indie shopping at the outdoor, dry-season-only Mindil Markets

- a 2 day rough-and-tumble camping tour in Kakadu with a very fun guide in a 4x4 SUV via Kakadu Dreams

- a flip-flop day tour of Litchfield park waterfalls and holes with regular unexpected stops by the tour guide to show everyone a wide range of different plants, animals, and their significance

- a sunset boat ride across the bay to another peninsula to learn how aboriginals make rope and throw spears - only to get cut just a little short by the first storm of the season (they say if you're out in the first storm of the season it washes away your bad luck from the previous year)

All this after a week in the outback and I'm pretty done with the heat.  Perfectly, I arrived in Cairns today to breezy, sunny weather and a beautiful rainforest.  Even with so much more to look forward to and enjoy right now, it's almost hard to stay in the moment with so many great memories :)

Thursday, October 3, 2013

The Red Centre

Only one person I talked with in my office back in Sydney had been to the center of Australia.  For everyone else it was a bit of a national guilt trip - the place that all the tourists go see but many - possibly even most - Australians never do.  It's expensive, there's no beach, and it can be ungodly hot.

I suspect, too, that there had been some stupid publicity that there is little there other than Uluru, seen above (also called "Ayer's Rock" if you have outdated information).  Bill Bryson had me thinking this way after reading "In a Sunburned Country".  I'm not quite sure how he got so ignorant.

Other than being intensely beautiful, the terrain is surprisingly varied.  Every rock formation you'll go past is different.  King's Canyon, see above, is made up of sandstone formed after the inland sea which used to cover parts of inner and coastal Australia dried up, leaving behind sand dunes, some of which condensed into this rock formation.    Kata Tjuta seems to be some sort of conglomerate, made of smallstones hardened together, while Uluru is, infact, a gigantic rock which extends an estimated 6 km underground.  These features are only the most publicized - there are other unique areas such as the McDonnell mountain ranges and Devil's Marbles that seem to spring up as soon as the previous feature has gone significantly out of site.

Kata Tjuta
Uluru - smiling

This in addition to spectacular wildlife, and the sacred nature of these sites per the oldest maintained culture on Earth.

So seeing the red centre was epic - incredible sites, hikes, heat, camping, stars, wildlife, and kitsch.
Devil's Marbles
Daly Water's pub

What's sad is the disrespect that some of the people who have put forward so much time and energy into traveling to Uluru insist on.  Pictured below are tourists climbing Uluru.  This site has been estimated to have been used by local aboriginals for sacred purposes for some 10,000 years.  The English came here in the 1870's, gave it a new name, conflicted with local tribes trying to settle the area, and ultimately drove posts up this side of the rock and started bringing in tourists in the 1930's.  The Australian government eventually gave the site back to the aboriginals - but required that they lease it to the government for 99 years (yeah, don't know what's up with the British and the whole "99 years" bit).

This also included allowing tourists to continue to climb the site though this went very much against the sacred practices of the native peoples.  So they've put up a large sign in languages from German to Japanese at the bottom of the climbing point explaining this in detail and asking people to please not climb.  As you can see below, plenty of people ignore this entirely - actively choosing to disrespect and disregard what truly makes the site unique and powerful.

Other than wondering who really spends all that money just to come climb a big rock with an average view in the middle of the desert - it's a painful reminder of exactly how far the whole world has to come when it comes to respecting one another.  Though the posts the English drove into the rock can't be removed and the iron oxide which has been rubbed off under people's feet will remain as a reminder of the wrong that was done, the active disrespect of the people from every corner of the globe who come here and do this is an ongoing statement.


Anyway, getting off my soap box,  I'll list some of the cool activities I got to do between Alice and Darwin:

 -Hiked King's Canyon and Kata Tjuta is 36 degree + heat, walked around Uluru in the cooler morning

-camped under amazing stars for 2 nights

-mildly explored the hot, dusty and small town of Alice Springs

-only had 5 people on my tour up to Darwin, so got to know people pretty well :)

-got to stop at Wycliffe Well!!  Most amazing alien kitsch in Australia!  And an excellent gas stop.

-Explored Devil's marbles, experienced huge amounts of blow flies, a rare desert rain, and canoed beautiful Katherine Gorge

-got some decent historical insight: the telelgraph cable construction, one of the first Australian airports, and WWII significance of some of these sights after the attack on Darwin

And now, onward, to Darwin and Kakadu.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Pan-Australia Trip Schedule

Ladies and gentlemen, after 6 months of laboring and 3 or so weeks of contemplation, I have completed my plans AT LAST!

I'm so excited about this I can barely contain myself.  This is, by far, my greatest travel creation :)  Not sure I'll ever surpass this one, actually, but I guess that remains to be seen...

(so don't be jealous!  I'm guessing I could sit in an apartment until I'm 95 after this and still be content:)

And it all starts... tomorrow!


[NOTE: Actual city areas are underlined so you can better read exactly where I'll be geographically, MOM :) ]

Sep 23 - Sep 29: Fly into Alice Springs in the Red Centre of Australia, take a 3 day camping tour of and around Uluru, then another 3 day camping bus tour up to Darwin in the far, foresty north.

Oct 30- Oct 8: See Darwin and take a day tour of Litchfield Park and a 2 day camping and 4X4 tour of Kakadu.

Oct 9 - Oct 23: Fly into and see Cairns, then learn how to scuba dive in the Great Barrier Reef! Also a 2 day tour up into the Daintree rainforest of the Cape and a 1 day tour of the Atherton Tablelands and its waterfalls.

Oct 24 - Oct 27: Take the bus to Airlie Beach, hang out, and then take a 2 day/2 night sail about tour around the infamously beautiful Whitsunday Islands.

Oct 28 - Oct 31: Take the bus to 1770 (name of a town) and do "scooteroo"(surfing and motorcycles:), then head to Hervey Bay for...

Nov 1 - Nov 3: a 3 day 4X4 tour of Fraser Island (another infamously beautiful island) with plenty of camping, snorkeling, and beaches.

[NOTE: after this point all plans are tentative in terms of time.  Only the flight to Perth is solid.  Probably going to be back in Sydney a little earlier and longer than 1 night]

Nov 4 - Nov 8: "Gagaju"some sort of swamp camp. Might skip this. Then also some exploring of Noosa, the notorious hippie town.

Nov 9 - Nov 11 : Might stay longer, might not, here I'll see Brisbane :)

Nov 12 - Nov 19: Taking the bus down to Byron Bay and spending somewhere around a week trying to learn how to surf.  Unless the dirty, mooching hippies make things uncomfortable, as some people claim.  Then I'll be staying less than a week.  Kinda doubt that.  We'll see.

Nov 19 - Nov 21: Full day bus ride back to Sydney, staying a couple nights, then taking a flight to Perth on the West Coast.

Nov 22 - Nov 28: 7 day tour of the West Coast up to Exmouth, then back to Perth.  Dolphins!  Possibly more scuba diving!  Definitely more beaches!

Nov 30 - Dec 2: 3 day tour south of Perth and back.  Margaret River, Giant Tree Forrest, hopefully Wave Rock.

Dec 4 - Dec 12 or 13: Flying to Melbourne and hanging out with Nadine and fam :)  Then heading to Sydney whenever it seems safest.  Haven't booked this flight/bus yet.  Still need to check on seat availability for the flight home - the toughest part : /

Dec 17 or 18: The last days I figured it was still safe to fly back to the states on standby :)  Any otherwise,   I'm guessing I get stuck in Australia until ..... well, possibly until my visa expires?


Let the adventure begin!

6 Months Already, Really?

 Question: How do you make 6 months fly by quickly?

 Answer: Work 3 of them on night shift. The 4th will be spent recovering. The fifth, in this case, in religious practices/festivities. The 6th will be like nothing at all after all that. In the end it felt like I only worked that last month.

 I realize I have talked very little about my job here, so I feel like I should say something about the recently-ended gift that was:

 It was completely and unexpectedly great - especially considering I spent 2 months not knowing if I even COULD find work. I got to work with nice people, get experience working in Human Resources (yet another new field of work), and work in a professional atmosphere at the top of a building with a beautiful view, and a beautiful sunrise and sunset nearly every day (and I usually either saw one or the other)...

Since I may not have mentioned it before, I got to stay with the company for the full six months because my contract was re-extended about 3 times due to newly discovered need.   I became sort of "the last temp standing" - and was I ever lucky for that.  These people essentially have "cake day" once a month to celebrate monthly birthdays, and they always made sure one was gluten-free.  They even got me a card when I left and a gift card to a book store.  A co-worker bought me some cake from a "famous Sydney bakery".    I'm still kicking myself as a reminder of how blessed this has all been.

That and, of course, I've been able to save a ton of money.  And I will be spending it, probably all of it, on a round-the-country trip which, just to make this post even cornier and more cliche, I must call SUPER AWESOME.

Details to come.

And a great, great many thanks to my friends and former co-workers at Lend Lease :)

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Catching up

Whew.  Is it really June already?  Looks like I have a couple of months of explaining to do.

That apartment in another dimension?  If you didn't seeing it coming before, I had to get out of there.  Not only was it weird, loud, and overcrowded, it was also illegal and poorly designed.   So not only did I have to deal with my roommates switching to jobs where they needed to have the lights on and do stuff when I needed to sleep, but there were also unannounced flatmates moving in or out and a visit from the "owner" which required moving everyone and everything around and/or out of the apartment so that it would appear that there were only 3 people living there when there were in fact 9.


At the end of April I found a room to rent in Lindfield, which is just a couple of train stops north of my job in North Sydney.

My own room.  A nice bed.  Ahhhh.

But I basically spent the first two weeks and weekends just working and sleeping.  Sometimes like 12-13 hours of sleep a night on the weekend.  The room is usually cold because of the old, "double brick" style of the house, but the bed is really comfortable and has an "electric blanket." (Which in Australia actually refers to a body-length heating pad used under the mattress sheet.  They do have actual blankets or "doonas"which are electrically heated that you can buy, they're just much more uncommon.)

So my first month in this job I spent sort of "getting by" and then the second I spent recovering.  Then last weekend I had an extra day off on Monday (since on night shift we cover concerns from the US and the UK and both were off for Memorial day), so I spent a couple of days and nights in the Blue Mountains.

More photos on FaceBook if you're interested

I'm not sure you ever fully "recover" from working night shift until you just stop working it altogether.  I feel alright, I haven't gotten sick or anything, but my thoughts go hazy a lot and I'm tired a lot more than I normally would be.  This in combination with my new room being located about a 25 minute walk from the train, which I have to take to get to any grocery stores, it's a little discouraging in terms of getting out and finding new and interesting things.  I managed to make it to the aquarium the other weekend, but it was absurdly exhausting for what it was.

Although, really, it's been 4 months and I'm ready to head out of Sydney.  I've pretty much seen and done everything I wanted to here.  My manager has told me that they are expecting they'll only need me through the end of June.  So I figure that's one month to plan things out, try to get healthy (one tends to eat a lot of junk food/caffeine on night shift) and do whatever little things are left on my to-do list.

But really, I'm looking forward to sleeping at night.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Oops, My New Apartment is in Another Dimension

Sorry if anyone missed me updating my blog for the last few weeks, it's been hectic.  See my previous post for details.

However, after recovering from moving and getting a new job, it turns out I have moved into a really, really weird place.  Maybe there are weirder in the world - a lot of why I think this place is weird has to do with an almost-inexplicable feel to things.  And I have found a little of the "Sordid History of Chippendale."  But there are some weird things I've been able to document more directly.  Such as:

(note: skip to the bottom for my regular "Australian culture" section)

The crazy building with the floating platform at the...30th floor?

Not to mention it's crazy neighbor...
I had a look in UTS and you can see what it's supposed to look like after completion, which is still weird if you ask me:
(the one with the crazy ledge in the middle)
This building is also nearly next to the crazy looking bus station/train terminal entrance:

And the weird old hotel which has trance/electronica on Sunday nights with pulsing purple light coming out of its windows:

And is across the street from internationaly renown weirdos:

As well as UTS (University of Technology Sydney) which had its own share of weird inside:

Just down the block from here I had a freakish experience when I went to look at an apartment which was advertised as "wanting to start an artists collective."  I didn't have my camera when I was there, so no pictures from the inside, but I went back to take photos of the obvious signs of crazy outside.

The ally-way that led to the apartment:
sign reads, "Evacuation Route"

The side of the apartment which I passed on the way there, not knowing it was the apartment:

And the apartment itself:

If it looks crazy outside, you should see the inside. Lots of random plywood piecing together the ceiling, floors, walls, painted with acrylics (not wall house paint) in black, dark brown and dark purple on the walls and floor.  Random pieces of old dirty carpet nailed here or there, pieces of wood haphazardly nailed around, a crumbling hole of a shower which may or may not work and drain, seems like there's no heating, the furniture is amazingly old and torn up, and the place is almost maze-like in its rooms that go on forever and contain the most random crap.  There are few windows, almost no light inside, and it has the musty smell of a garage.

The guy showing this to me is little and weird, and "can't figure out why no one wants to help him fix the place up."

And then there are all the Alice in Wonderland cues:
These are the two doors that lead to bedrooms in my apartment.
Passed this on my way to the freaky house.

Another photo at UTS entitled...
..."Drink Me."

Yeah.  Anyway, onto...

The Good Stuff

More fun with Australian Culture

Lots of good info from my new work colleagues :)

1.) Australians, unlike virtually any other English speakers, make a distinction between "enquiry"  and "inquiry".  And "enquiry" is a question, an "inquiry" is an investigation.

2.) I'm told that many, perhaps even most, Australians don't like the "salty and sweet" combination.  It's weird, they say.  I was putting nutella on some crackers at work and both my coworkers just looked at me like I was sitting over there dipping cookies in horseradish sauce or something (and of course, over here a "cookie" is a "bikie", but you know what I mean).

3.) The letter "Z" is pronounced "Zed" - as in Canada.  However, just as in Britain (as I've discovered), the letter "H" is pronounced "Hey."  I work for "Heytch Ah" services.  :)

4.) The word "ghetto" isn't really used here.  In Sydney, if you look down on anyone, it's most likely the "Westies," or people who live in the suburbs far to the west of Sydney.  If they live just slightly to the west, they will be quick to correct you - "It's not IN the west.  Not, THE WEST."

"Westies" are, from what I can gather, people from the most crime ridden, low-income, high immigrant areas, far out from the city where real estate prices are more realistic.  There are biker ("bikie") gangs out there who will occasionally cause trouble with one another, but as far as I can tell, it ain't South Central.  No bloods or crips here - at least not yet.


"It's done and dusted"  I think you get the idea.  Fun phrase.

"Blokey bloke" = Manly man.  Beer, football, ooga.


The Best:     "When a Wog gets an Aussie girl" by SuperWog and Mychonny.

Dirty but hilarious.  A "Wog," so I'm told, comes from "Worker of Government," referring to the original waves of immigrants in the 70's and 80's who usually came to take the lower level government jobs.  I'm also told that this is sometimes used as derogatory, though these days "FOB" (Fresh off the Boat) is usually considered more offensive.

The Worst:  "The Last Templar "

2 part TV series which you can watch on SMH (Sydney Morning Herald) TV.  Right from the very start, lines so horrible you'll want to shoot yourself in the face.  And it gets worse from there.