19 November 2009

A reason, a season or a lifetime

On the eve of Mom's trans-Pacific flight home, we returned to Circular Quay. We willfully decided to forgo a decadent $14 slice of cheesecake. Instead, Mom & I headed to the IMAX theatre. Since Harry Potter 6 was not yet released we bought tickets for "Under The Sea 3-D". Coincedentally the movie was filmed partly in The Great Barrier Reef! I was surprised to learn:

* Sea Snakes are very deadly.

* Turtles can actually eat Jellyfish, but close their eyes during this process.

* Great White Sharks sometimes hunt Stingrays out of desperation.

* there were only 2 types of Sea Dragons (Leafy & Weedy, which I saw at The Sydney Aquarium the day before!)
The time arrived to bid farewell to my partner in crime & perfect travel companion on my Australian adventure. Although 25 years old, my eyes still welled up at just the thought of goodbye. I sat alone in the domestic terminal and envisioned my Mom in the international mega-terminal. The quietness and loneliness felt palpable. I had spent two & a half months alone in Mackay. What unsettled me most during that time, was the realization that I was beginning to forget what my family and friends' voices sounded like. Now mid-July I would have to endure that nagging paranoia again.

A bit sad, my seat on the flight to Townsville was next to a guy in his mid-twenties from the States -- Connecticut to be exact. It turned out he was a teacher, like me, so we chatted about education, our personal lives, and adventures down under. He asked the stewardess "What candies [after a funny look from her].... er, confectionaries... do you have?" "Silly boy," I thought, "they're called 'lollies' here." The young guy affirmed that I was no longer a visitor or tourist in Oz. I was jolted by the fact that was truly living in a foreign country. In my uncomfortable airplane seat, in my miserable mood, I secretly relished in and replayed that moment.I arrived in balmy Townsville around midnight.  The guy from the flight never asked for my mobile a.k.a. cellular number or whether I'd like to discover the area with him. At first I found it irksome that we shared our quirky stories, pasts & itineraries, then immediately reverted back to total strangers when the wheels touched down. However, upon closer examination, I convinced myself not to over-analyze or take the gesture personally (which is atypical for me). We were world travelers whose lines happened to intersect in New South Wales and probably would never cross again.

On the flip side, there was my dear Mom whose path was so meshed with mine it was hard to tell where her line ended & mine began.


(The entirety of my titled excerpt:
"People come into your life for a reason, a season or a lifetime. When you figure out which one it is, you will know what to do for each person.
When someone is in your life for a REASON... It is usually to meet a need you have expressed. They have come to assist you through a difficulty, to provide you with guidance and support, to aid you physically, emotionally, or spiritually. They may seem like a Godsend, and they are! They are there for the reason you need them to be.Then, without any wrong doing on your part, or at an inconvenient time, this person will say or do something to bring the relationship to an end. Sometimes they die. Sometimes they walk away. Sometimes they act up and force you to take a stand. What we must realize is that our need has been met, our desire fulfilled, their work is done. The prayer you sent up has been answered.

And now it is time to move on.When people come into your life for a SEASON...Because your turn has come to share, grow, or learn. They bring you an experience of peace, or make you laugh. They may teach you something you have never done. They usually give you an unbelievable amount of joy. Believe it! It is real! But, only for a season.

LIFETIME relationships teach you lifetime lessons; things you must build upon in order to have a solid emotional foundation. Your job is to accept the lesson, love the person, and put what you have learned to use in all other relationships and areas of your life.
")

08 November 2009

Diversity

Who knew the world's largest aquarium was in my backyard?

FIRST STOP: SYDNEY AQUARIUM
Mom & I had a tough time getting a clear view of platypi at Carnarvon National Park so I was pleased the aquarium had an exhibit for us to see one up close. The busy platypus never held still long enough for me to snap a decent photograph, but Mom thought it was so interesting we stayed for 30 minutes just observing as the other visitors moved on.
There was a 20 foot oceanarium that depicted The Great Barrier Reef & had suspended walkways so people could view the sea floor below and endless waves above. There was always a lot of action going on at once -- I don't think I saw half of the fish that resided in the massive tank. Nonetheless, Mom & I were captivated. We watched the marine animals and plants carry on uninterrupted in their simulated natural environment.

I really respect the Sydney Aquarium's approach to housing the larger animals. Those creatures were kept in 3 ocean-like venues submerged in Darling Harbour. The tanks were separated from the main building so Mom & I crossed the wooden-plank walkway into, seemingly, another world. All 3 exhibits contained above-water and underwater viewing areas to immerse the visitor in the experience.

The first tank housed the endangered Dugongs -- the majority of which live in the northern waters of Oz. Only five are on public display throughout the world & The Sydney Aquarium housed two! I caught one napping with a smile on its face. I did not know if it was truly an emotion or the anatomical makeup of its mouth, yet both Dugongs looked complacent.
The other two worlds had a much different vibe. The tanks were filled with aggressive sharks, enormous turtle and lengthy stingrays. Every time a stingray glided above me I was held in awe by its wingspan that blocked all overhead light and oddly positioned mouth. I envied the way they moved so smoothly.

In addition, I was impressed that the sharks coexisted so harmoniously with the other animals in the tank. Still, their eyeballs creeped me out and the irrational part of my brain wondered how thick the glass was between us?Back inside, the aquarium was packed with various windows of dark water holding foreign marine creatures. Finally, the Lungish. Yes, a "fish" that actually breathed air I had to see with my own eyes! Furthermore, only Australian Lungfish have one lung (having just one lung is a rarity in the animal kingdom).The aquarium continued to maintain my curiosity. I was amazed by the flourescent coral. In Puerto Rico I had heard about the famed bioluminescent bays. Here, I had no clue something living a few fathors below the water's surface could produce such brilliant light! Also, I was captivated by the Moon Jellyfish but for exactly the opposite reason. Colorless, respiratory-less and formless, they moved not in the same manner as stingrays, but with the same fluidness. The tinted light projected from above that passed through their transparent bodies was beautiful against the void background.I hoped to see live Box Jellyfish & Irukandji since their infamous reputation preceded them. However, I only viewed a specimen of the Box Jellyfish & photos of its deadly defenses. Equally toxic & in front of me was a Blue-Ringed Octopus (its rings actually glow blue when distressed) and a Stonefish who won the award for both Best Camoflauge and Most Photogenic. That left only the poisonous Irukandji and Scorpionfish for me seek later in my time abroad.
A big hit with the kids were the Fairy Penguins as they were playful and energetic. I tried for a significant amount of time to photograph a Clownfish hiding in the anemones. Like clockwork, every time the fish swam by, a child would exclaim "There's Nemo!" (ah, the ubiquitousness of Disney).
Since aquarium was so alluring, the sun was setting when Mom & I emerged (remember, it was the middle of winter so the sun set at 5:30 PM).

SECOND STOP: WORLD SQUARE SHOPPING CENTRE
Always in search of our next delectable meal, Mom & I were drawn to a style we had not yet sampled. The advertisement worked its magic: "The world's tastiest dumplings!" For only $25 AUD we feasted on authentic pork dumplings, pork buns, vegetable wonton soup and fried rice. The flavors brought me back to San Francisco, where I used to eat genuine asian cuisine regularly.

THIRD STOP: SYDNEY OPERA HOUSETrying to burn off the calories from dinner, Mom & I walked back to Circular Quay (pronounced "kee") to the iconic Sydney Opera House for a 7:00 PM performance. We had center seats for the 20th Australian International Music Festival. The festival began with a Chinese tribute with native musical instruments. The feature band hailed from Anchorage, Alaska, U.S.A. There was an eclectic mixture of genres, solo artists, bands and choirs. My favorite sound was the resonating French Horn and the deep Cello.
Mom & I lollygagged back to the hotel in the late night as the city shifted from its relaxed, tourist-filled weekend routine to Sunday evening, ready-for-work-in-the-morning vibe. We were both utterly exhausted, but in a good way. I was thankful for a busy day because it kept my mind off Monday/tomorrow: the day Mom had to return to the United States.

06 November 2009

The good life

The last two weeks were spent sleeping on hard ground, secluded in nature with the only evening light coming from the moon or a travel-sized flashlight. Since it was another overcast, rainy day (New South Wales' winters are nothing like the sunny, comfortable winters of Queensland) Mom & I relished in the luxury of the Marriott and watched the Davis Cup in our pajamas while we ate breakfast in bed.
FIRST STOP: HYDE PARK
In the daylight the park seemed even more prestigious. The Possums & homeless man from the night before had vanished, but we discovered more & different features as we strolled away from the hotel. The paths were lined with massive trees (I wish I knew their names). Branches, vines and roots, all stretched vertically by gravity & time, created an artistic look and made the tree seem like it was straight from the pages of Sleepy Hollow. Close to our hotel was a gold-plated building that resembled a large mausoleum with a lengthy reflecting pool -- reminiscent of the Washington Monument's -- commemorating the ANZAC a.k.a. Australian & New Zealand Armed Corps. Further along people were playing chess with life-size pieces on a board painted on the park's concrete. Newspaper stands were open. Towards the end of the park was my favorite landmark: the picturesque Archibald Fountain with the monstrous gothic church of St. Mary across the street. Unfortunately the only plaque described Mr. Archibald, not the fountain, but it was clearly a tribute Greek mythology with Apollo/his lyre atop and Diana/her bow/a deer, Theseus slaying the Minotaur, and possibly Aristaeus in the main basin.


SECOND STOP: ART GALLERY OF N.S.W. & ROYAL BOTANIC GARDENS
In the art gallery we observed some Reubens, Rodins, Cezannes, as well as local artists. The Gardens -- although not in full bloom -- were quite spacious and well-groomed. The Queen Mum would be proud.

THIRD STOP: THE ROCKS' STREET MARKET
A hopping, quirky market on old cobblestone roads gave the experience unique appeal. There were so many intriguing or entertaining stands I wanted to buy a souvenir for everyone! Mom & I agreed on our two favorite shops. The first was devoted to hand-made bowls and plates. The friendly, retired couple shaped and smoothed regional Burl wood. So you could see the grain and rings within the wood but, in stark opposition, the edges were untouched and spiky. The second stand was owned by another crafty gentleman who hand-made all the products. At first glance I thought he was selling ordinary logs -- rough bark on the outside and various colors/types of tree limbs. Upon closer inspection the wood had been chiseled away on the inside. When flipped upside down, the logs became pop-out, puzzles that looked like a Puzz3-D skyscraper. The Desert Myall block was my favorite because it had constrasting very dark and light wood... I was seriously one second away from throwing down the money!

FOURTH STOP: DARLINGHURST
That evening Mom & I walked to this more residential but quaint area of Sydney. We were perplexed that the praised restaurant we planned to dine at was closed on a Friday night. Amidst all the busy restaurants and pubs we found a quiet Italian cafe that left us stuffed... but why stop with the luxury? Before we called it a night, Mom & I splurged at a Darlinghurst patisserie.

01 November 2009

Yum-cha

I was thrilled 1) that my head didn't explode on the plane from the added pressure and 2) to be in Sydney!

My generous Mom let me have the window seat since she got a great birdseye view flying into the country internationally. Upon touchdown I spotted a vibrant rainbow above the control tower -- that has to be a good sign, right?
I was long overdue for authentic sushi, so we got word from a local to try Sushi-E, although he claimed it was a bit of a hike. Compared to our last hiking excursions, the flat terrain & distance to the restaurant was -- literally & figuratively -- a walk in the park. Sushi-E was a swanky lounge scene complete with dim lighting and couches/ottomans in the bar area. My sushi mantra: try rolls customized to the establishment. I opted for the "chicken kara age roll" which boasted teriyaki chicken, sweet omelette, darling mills cress & pepper cream, rolled inside out with jasmin rice (don't worry, the chicken was not raw). It was a party in my mouth! Mom & I also received complimentary dessert: vanilla pancetta & raspberry coule. It was the icing on the cake!

It was a cold night (clarification: "cold" since my time in Australia, not "cold" like Ohio winters) and we smelled the moisture in the air and on the sidewalks. Apparently it had been raining for the past week. As Mom & I ambled back to the Marriott we passed a building in the main shopping area of downtown Sydney with a lot of small cascades, backlit with changing colors. I liked the sound & sight of water amidst all the concrete. We also passed a few subway entrances -- something neither of us had seen it quite some time!
Mom & I continued to walk through the gorgeous & well-lit Hyde Park. Suddenly we noted animals, the size of large cats, scurrying across the lawns. I learned they were Possums (not to be confused with Opposums) everywhere. One was even climbing on a homeless guy asleep on the park bench!
Still fighting off a head cold, with my stomach finally full, in a warm, dry hotel room, in a new scene and grateful to have a few more days with my Mom, I slept peacefully.

31 October 2009

Home sweet home?

"On the road again
goin' places that I've never been
seein' things that I may never see again
& I can't wait to get on the road again,
On the road again
like a band of gypsies we go down the highway
we're the best of friends
insisting that the world keep turning our way, and our way
is on the road again"
-- Willie Nelson

I should have known the nights sleeping outdoors & jam-packed days would catch up with me. My throat was sore & my head was stuffed up. After we arrived at my au pair family's new house in Townsville, Mom & I watched Deal Or No Deal (my fav show here in Oz!) and ate out. The city, the second largest in Queensland, was crowded in anticipation for the first-ever Townsville V8 Supercar races that weekend.

Feeling crook a.k.a. sick and running a slight fever I pushed myself to show Mom Townsville's famed Strand. It reminded me of the boardwalk in Santa Cruz, California, where I grew up. The Strand was a few kilometers of beach access. Along the path were various picnic tables, benches, and play areas. One dock had a cafe overlooking the ocean; another had fishing access. There was an area with water toys/fountains and the ever-popular-in-Queensland enclosed swimming area. (If you're not acquainted with Australia, you should know that during the spring/summer months a.k.a. wet season, it is highly recommended that no one enter the ocean due to Australia's deadly jellies: the Box & Irukandji). However, what I loved most about The Strand was its location. Toward the CBD we saw Castle Hill -- the landmark that the city was built around. Looking outward at the sea, Magnetic Island dominated the horizon.
An hour before the Aussie road trip with Mom embarked, I was told that I had been made redundant a.k.a. laid off. Although tragic, this left me with absolutely no commitments! Mom proposed that I travel to Sydney with her, but I felt like my head was still swimming and had no cashflow. I awoke Friday morning still in limbo over whether or not my body & bank account could handle another trip. I replayed a conversation that I had -- ironically, on my international flight to Australia -- with an American professor, Marc Mehlman, which left a big impression on me. On the plane, en route to Fiji, I explained my plan. He offered this advice: "When you're younger you have time, but all you want is money. As you get older you have money, but no time. In my experience, it is much better to be in the first position"... so here I am in New South Wales!

17 September 2009

A thousand diamonds strewn across a blue plain

We arrived back in Mackay (our original starting point on this tour de Queensland) with a few days to spare. Mom & I decided to pass on the Reef/Whitsundays because the trips are very expensive, we both get seasick, it would be a rushed trip, and we were both a bit terrified of snorkeling in the open water of the Pacific Ocean. That night we enjoyed our usual favorite: Hawaiian pizza from Eagle Boys! We opted to rest in Mackay at a caravan park and be local beach bums the next day. Plus, I wanted to show Mom the marine life I'd previously found at Harbour Beach during low tide.

However, we awoke to gray clouds and raindrops. Determined to let my Mom actually swim in Australian water we got on the road for Townsville, hoping to encounter better weather. Like the majority of Queensland in the dry season a.k.a. their winter months we found abundant sunshine just an hour's drive north on The Bruce.

On the last leg of our road trip, sweating profusely from the sun beating through the windows, we chose to stop at Bowen and its big pineapple. Bowen is a quaint town whose claim to fame is that some of the movie "Australia" was filmed there.

Of Bowen's many lookouts and beaches, we only visited Horseshoe Bay, but that was by choice... it was so pristine we couldn't tear ourselves away from it! After being on the road the last two days, sitting in the warm sand & listening to the quiet lapping of waves was refreshing. The view was heavenly! I was a teenager when my family last traveled to Hawaii & the Carribbean but the water in Bowen seemed as azure. Mom & I passed the hours eating Subway, discussing further plans, and recounting past adventures, but mostly we just sat and admired the moment: the weather, the scenery, the company, the serenity.

The water seemed chilly at first, but we both waded up to our bellybuttons. Being the middle of winter it was too cold for either of us to want to submerge completely. Underwater, close to the shore, the ocean floor was very rocky and uncomfortable. Upon closer inspection I realized we were sauntering on small, broken pieces of coral. Out at the Reef you cannot walk on the coral for fear of damaging it, not to mention cutting up your feet. Though knobby, the coral in Horseshoe Bay was entirely smooth and off-white. I wondered if it originated from the only living organism from outer space? How long did the coral have to endure the ocean's tides and rocks to become so flush?As we relaxed in the water I noted a rock through the clear water. I continued walking toward deeper water & realized the rock had followed me! The harder I looked, the more the "rock" began to resemble a stingray. Distraught, I turned around to warn Mom & felt a sharp pinching pain on my left heel. I looked down & saw an irritated crab swimming. I was being ambushed by Poseidon's creatures!

Our day lollygagging drew to an end but Mom expressed her vacation was "complete" after experiencing Australia's wilderness, animals, cities, outback, and -- finally -- beaches.

16 September 2009

Into the night

Mom & I left Australia Zoo -- an hour north of Brisbane -- in the late afternoon, embarking north along the coast. We had no particular time schedule to adhere to; no specific places to stop; just the wide open road & a few days' time until we should arrive in Townsville where I would stay with my au pair family & Mom would return to the States.

Queensland seems designed for the road traveler. The coastal drive on The Bruce a.k.a. A1/Bruce Highway has major towns in four hour increments from the southern end to the top of the state. So, from Brisbane it would be 4 hours to Gladstone - Rockhampton - Mackay - Townsville - Cairns (pronounced "Can-z"). We hoped to make it almost to Rockhampton that evening, putting us halfway to our final destination. Now the trip took on a different scope because we were free to do whatever we wanted! I borrowed a ton of books from the library so I leafed through Cassowary Crossing & Lonely Planet: Queensland for ideas. Our tentative plan was to drive most of the evening, then drive the following day until Airlie Beach (two hours south of Townsville) which is the main hub for boating to the famed Whitsunday Islands & the Great Barrier Reef. Another book I brought along was a RV/Camper's guide to navigating Australia. This atlas/book proved to be worth its weight in gold!

Considering it was winter in Australia & Queensland does not observe Daylight Savings Time, Mom & I had been driving in the vast darkness for nearly 7 hours after a full day at the zoo. We were becoming heavy-eyed. Along the highway we drove through quite a few towns with rest areas. There were also plenty of opportunities for vehicles to pull off and rejuvenate along the side of the highway. The atlas mentioned a popular free camping/parking area in a small village an hour south of Rockhampton, so we pushed ourselves onward. Around 11PM we arrived at the large, fine sand campground, sharing it with three other trailers. There was no need for flashlights as it was approaching a full moon. We parked the car, reclined the seats, crawled into our sleeping bags & snoozed. I just described one of the qualities I love most about Oz! The mentality & lifestyle for many is a bit different than Westerners. Australian highways are catered to the truck drivers, road warriors & backpackers. In the States, calling it a night means dropping $60 for a sketchy motel. In Australia drivers are welcomed to rest. Can you sleep in either a tent, car or RV? No problem, the space and -- a lot of times -- running water & shower/bathroom facilities are provided. I've even passed rest areas that allow fires within the provided pits.

More importantly, in In A Sunburnt Country one commonality the author finds throughout the country is that Australians are generally good-hearted and friendly. At Blackdown Tablelands National Park the few campers all greeted each other whenever a new trailer arrived; at Carnarvon National Park most hikers greeted others when crossing paths. At the roadside stop south of Rockhampton Mom & I weren't the first to arrive, but we weren't the last either. Trucks & Wicked vans rolled through at all hours of the night. Yet, we felt safe. Our commonality? We all just wanted a place to lay our head and rest our eyes.

06 September 2009

All I want for Christmas...

...is Meg, a Southern Hairy-Nosed wombat!The more I learned about wombats the more impressed I was. Not only are they adorable and plenty of braun, but they've got brains too! Here are a few impressive facts I learned at Steve Irwin's Australia Zoo:
  • There are only three species. The Northern Hairy-Nosed wombat is so endangered there are only 139 left in the wild in Queensland.
  • Baby wombats are also called "joey"s and like its cousin -- the Koala -- their pouches face backwards. WHY? So when burrowing all the dirt doesn't go directly into the pouch/baby's face.
  • Of the three species, Southerns are the most social with others and humans.
Now for the unique details that made me aspire to be like a wombat:
  • They are the smartest marsupials.
  • Wombats have few predators in the wild. Their defense? A piece of rock hard cartilige over their butt. Yes, you read it correctly. To protect themselves they'll run into their burrow with their sturdy rear end as a barrier. If that still doesn't work wombats may squash their attacker by sitting forcefully & quickly on it.
  • They can run backwards just as fast as forwards.
  • Their favorite spot to be rubbed? The butt cartilige.
Upon meeting Meg, I didn't understand why she needed a harness for a walk around an enclosed area of the park?! One minute into the extravaganza and Meg was already showing me who was boss! She was amazingly strong at 23 kilograms a.k.a. 50 pounds. She was also amazingly cunning and stubborn. I imagine children are the same way. Meg wanted to explore a construction area that was off limits to her. A staff member redirected her away from the site. As soon as the trainer turned her back, Meg bolted for the construction site with me sprinting behind to avoid being dragged!


During the latter half of the excursion -- and away from the forbidden construction site -- Meg settled down and chomped on some grass. This allowed us some QT (quality time). Her coat of hair was surprisingly soft. Not fluffy feeling like the koala's, but smooth and sleek.

If Meg could've fit in my suitcase she would be sitting with me as I write this!

31 July 2009

Australia Zoo

Dear wombats,
Congratulations on confirming your spot in the top three of Michelle's Favorite Animals! It is quite a privilege to be chosen for this short list. Since securing your spot at #3 you all will now be mentioned to everyone Michelle meets. Could you please pass word onto the echidnas that they made Honorable Mention?

Sincerely,
Dolphins & polar bears (#1 and #2 respectively)

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------
We arrived at Australia Zoo an hour after they opened. I barely knew what a wombat was, but I did know:
1) I had yet to see one in the wild
2) They looked overweight (Mom thought they looked like pigs!)
3) They were "naughty" according to The Crocodile Hunter

Immediately upon entering the park, Mom & I walked to the information center to book a session for photos with a wombat. I was devastated when I saw the red, capital letters "SOLD OUT". This couldn't be right. I came across the largest ocean in the world to see these critters! So I double-checked with a staff member. Nope. I read it correctly. "But..." she advised "we still have the Wombat Walk Experience." She didn't have to go any further, I already had my wallet out. It turned out the Wombat Walk Experience was an even more hands-on approach to learning about wombats for the same price! A small group helped a trainer walk the wombat on a leash around the park -- which was part of their daily exercise. The walk started at 1:30pm so we had a lot of ground to cover until then.

It was rather early so a lot of the animals were still sleeping. However, Mom & I were relieved to be at the Australia Zoo on a Monday because we often found ourselves alone in a particular area (with no noisy children to scare off the animals nor crowds of people to fight off for photographs). For instance, we were the only two people in the koala sanctuary. While strolling through, a staff member let us pet a female up in a tree. Her fur felt thick -- like touching sheepskin -- but at the same time it was very soft. They were peaceful creatures. Mom wanted to steal one she liked them so much. They looked like Yodas rolled into balls then staged on a branch.Early on we also saw dingos, Tasmanian devils, a shingleback, an enormous python, and monolithic tortoises that Mom thought were rocks. Cassowaries -- a flightless bird -- were also among Mom's favorite animals at the park. Then, we tried to find birds of prey in the enclosed area. I was finally able to see a kookaburra up close even though I've heard their call since I first arrived in Mackay. We walked through the outdoor aviary which had dozens of species of parrots, finchs, parakeets, doves, and other colorful fliers. Every step we took either Mom or I would see another type of bird & marvel at it. I particularly loved the bright blues in this parrot's tail feathers.





After studying the zoo map, I knew what section came after the birds...

We arrived at the exhibit just in time to see a Common Wombat (there are only 3 species) scurry across the open field. It was love at first sight (as you can hear from my giddy chuckling in the video).

We watched the first wombat go into the cave (which also had a viewing area) and wake up the other two wombats. Neither were interested in playing so the instigator left. Next door, but separate, were the Southern Long-Haired Wombats. According to zookeepers the Long-Hairs were the most social species.

Forcing myself to move on we saw a red kangaroo asleep on the lawn in the funniest position. We stopped by the Asian exhibit to see the elephants & tigers. The park also had a red panda which I've never even heard of! It had an adorable face, but was not round like typical black & white pandas. It looked like a panther with its long tail and the way he slinked on the branches. I found the emu very intriguing. Standing two feet above it on a platform, I realized how extraordinarily tall the birds we saw on Blackwater-Rolleston Road were. Plus, this emu was making a rumbling sound that seemed like it was resonating from its stomach.



We moved on and saw a rock wallaby. I never knew what one looked like/how it differed to kangaroos ever since I watched the cartoon Rocko's Modern Life on Nickelodeon. We observed echidnas -- not nearly as fascinating as in the wild. There were a lot of wetland birds to see including cranes, storks, ducks, and the most gorgeous bird in the zoo: a Jabiru. Its entire, long neck was vibrant shades of dark indigo which contrasted against its stark white, slender body, and bright orange legs. Mom & I were both transfixed by its beauty.

Finally 1:30pm arrived: it was wombat time!

21 July 2009

Going for the gusto!

FIRST STOP: CHINATOWN
Since we were in a large city, Mom wanted authentic Chinese food, and what better place to get it than in Chinatown? After we scoped the scene, we settled into a B.Y.O.B. restaurant that smelled a bit musty. Mom & I were greeted by a loud, but cheerful, oriental lady who immediately offered to help us decipher the menu. We wanted lo mein but that got lost in translation. Although not what we had meant to order, the food was delicious and for $30 total we left stuffed.

SECOND STOP: SOUTH BANK PARKLANDS & CULTURAL CENTRE GROUNDS
We checked out the markets next to Chinatown -- supposedly for up & coming fashion -- but they were pitiful! Convinced there had to be decent markets on a Sunday somewhere we rebounded to South Bank Parklands. It turned out the Scottish festival was also going on at the Cultural Centre so we heard bagpipes & saw a lot of grown men in full regalia. The South Bank Parklands markets were awesome! I've always liked markets because they can showcase a broad range of skills, products, and foods. Plus, I like that they're an at-your-own-pace but in-your-face environment where you can meet interesting people. I bargained a deal with a drag queen lady/man for an authentic Australian leather hat. There were even churros!

After we ambled around Mom & I took the CityCat (a waterbus service) back across the Brisbane River. Since we did not pay the first time, we fully expected to pay on the return trip, sort of how a toll bridge works: you don't pay until you exit. However, in the Sunday afternoon bustle, we got off without paying too. I'm still perplexed by the system but ignorance is bliss.

THIRD STOP: SOUTH BANK
By Sunday evening -- our last in Brisbane -- Mom & I were still quite full from the hefty Chinese lunch. I was starting to feel hungry though & wanted to try a new genre of food. We drove to Tukka which boasted gourmet Australian cuisine. The menu was like trying to read Japanese. I recognized only a few words in each item's description. So we opted for the sampler appetizer. I've never had so much fun eating (other than at Melting Pot)! The entire meal was a tribute to native Australian foods.

First, we received complimentary shot glasses full of the gazpacho... with a twist! Gazpacho is a traditional green, Spanish soup served cold. This gazpacho had a kick of garlic & I tasted tartness, like from a Granny Smith apple. It was an odd mixture of flavors but surprisingly, we both enjoyed it!

Then, the wood slab topped with our appetizer arrived. Mom & I tried native fruits -- such as the desert lime; berries -- such as muntries (yum); bread with kumquat chutney & macadamia nut oil dipping sauces; and meats. I imagine we looked like we were participating on Fear Factor because we only took little helpings, and took our first bites together on the count of three. The first meat we tried was the light-colored crocodile. It wasn't great. I would eat it to keep myself from starving & it wasn't horrible like liver. I'd best describe it as underwhelming. Next, we tried emu. It didn't taste like chicken but had similar flavors. Of the three meats I liked emu the best. Last, we tried kangaroo filets and sausages. The 'roo sausage-link tasted like bologna to me. The filet (pronounced "Fill-ett"by Aussies) wasn't awful, but I probably wouldn't order an entire serving of it.
Mom & I had fun exploring the city, local flavors and trying new tastes (even if we had just seen them out in the wild the previous week)! However, we were both eager for our next leg of the holidays a.k.a. vacation: Steve Irwin's/Australia Zoo!

19 July 2009

Quests

Mom & I forced ourselves to rise before dawn our last morning at Carnarvon National Park. We were in search (again) for the platypi who had eluded us at dusk the first evening in the park. We arrived at the main viewing area but didn't see any movement whatsoever. So we went to an area a few hikers told us about. As we approached the second site it sounded like something big had just fumbled into the water. We didn't see anything but continued to wait on pins & needles. Mom & I kept seeing ripples but it was from tree branches hanging in Carnarvon Creek. Then, to our left, more bubbles. Since I was sitting lower on the rock I saw the platypus first & pointed him out to Mom. It swam a little closer to where we were perched, but since it was hunting, it kept disappearing underwater. After 5 minutes of observing the platypus, it submerged for the last time. I was so happy for Mom; that she was able to see a platypus with her own two eyes! Another native Australian animal she could cross off her list. Walking back to the campground I couldn't believe I almost stepped on a brown toad! I cautiously avoided him, quietly removed my camera from its case, snapped a photo & motioned for Mom to see what I found. As soon as she came over she exclaimed "Michelle it's dead." "No it's not!" I replied. I poked it with a stick.... it was a petrified! I had been Punk'd by Mother Nature. Mom had a hardy laugh though!
We wasted no time in getting on the road to Brisbane. It was 8 hours of driving, but broken up by fuel stops and meal breaks. When you don't live around a major metropolis, driving into the city is always an overwhelming experience. The single lane "highway" became 5 lanes wide. The exits became more and more frequent. Brisbane's skyline grew larger and larger ahead of us. Of course, the traffic became worse. The quaint country backroads we had been driving all the way from Mackay to Ipswich now turned into a maze of one-way streets. Our neighbors were no longer kangaroos and tents, they were Hermes and Gucci. It was culture shock. Honestly, I think I saw more Asian/Indian people than Australian/American. Mom & I made it into the room just in time to watch Deal/No Deal -- after driving around a good 45 minutes trying to locate the hotel in the heart of the CBD a.k.a. downtown area (stands for City Business District).

FIRST STOP: MT. COOT-THA LOOKOUT
I expected Mt. Coot-tha to be a bit of a drive considering it's a mountain, but it was a quick hop from the hotel. We drove to the top of the lookout and I was able to Canon Photostitch a panoramic of the view of the area. For about 160 of the 240 degrees you could see the Brisbane River snake through the landscape, from Brisbane to the greenhillsides in the distance.

From here we also descended to J.C. Slaughter Falls on one of Mt. Coot-tha's many walking trails. The more we hiked downward, we knew the return trip would be intense. The Falls were underwhelming. After all our hiking the cascade was barely trickling. It was slack as a.k.a. what a waste of time!
SECOND STOP: MT. COOT-THA PLANETARIUM
After the strenuous climb back to the lookout, Mom & I drove to the Sir Thomas Brisbane Planetarium. I've always been a space buff. The universe never ceases to amaze me or challenge my thinking in the most abstract way.

THIRD STOP: MT. COOT-THA BOTANIC GARDENS
Not to be confused with Brisbane's Botanic Gardens in the middle of the city. I bet this place is stunning in the spring/summer. It wasn't horrible in the winter, but a lot of plants were not blooming. Mom & I did check out the tropical plants biodome, the Japanese garden/bamboo forest, the fruit trees, and the touch-me plants section.
The next day Mom & I drove across the Story Bridge to the south side of the city for an opportunity to personally make authentic didgeridoos. When we asked John -- the instructor -- about all the didgeridoos in souvenir shops he said they were all made in Bali & overpriced & that none of the profit went back into the artist's pocket.

Throughout our day John shared wonderful stories, insights into his tribe's way of life & powerful arguments. Consider this: the aboriginal people of Australia are thought to be some of the oldest races of humankind. It wasn't until 1976 that indigenous people were granted inalienable rights and realized as owners of much of the land. In February 2008 the Prime Minister (for the Australian Government) finally made a formal verbal and written apology to ["only"] the aboriginal children of the "stolen generation". What stuck in my mind the most though was John's comment that Australia gives so much of its money away to save face in the form of foreign aide and diplomacy in the Middle Eastern countries, but often when it comes to Australia's native people and their abysmal circumstances, a blind eye is turned.

INSTRUCTIONS FOR MAKING A DIDGE:
ONE. We chose our piece of Yellow Box Tree -- from inland, southern Queensland. It should be about half your height. Some branches were light wood; some were darker colored. Some pieces were straight as arrows; others had many curves. TWO. Using a blade, we shaved the bark/outer layer of skin off to get to the actual wood. This was the labor-intensive part & took a lot of time. In fact, Mom & I both developed a blister on each hand (the next day I felt like I had arthritis & carpal tunnel syndrome in every hand/wrist joint). However, this was where you could really start to see the characteristics of your piece of wood.

Mom's didgeridoo was so smooth and in tact, but had a commanding brown line going from top to bottom. If you turned the piece around you could see the line/contrast where dark met light wood. It was small, therefore higher-pitched, and not long.

On the other hand, my didge had a few extruding knots to break up the monotony of the single, light color of the wood. It was almost as tall as me, which gave it a deep, bass sound when played. There were a lot of little holes from the termites all over and around my piece. Plus, it noticeably curved (I don't like symmetrical things).

THREE. We sandpapered -- with the other edge of the blade --the texture of the wood. Although Mom's didge took more time to shave, it needed little smoothing. However, mine was easier to shave but needed some quality time to look more polished. Then, we rounded one end which was to become to the mouthpiece. FOUR. Applied wood laquer -- which lightly stained the wood -- & let it dry to seal the deal. It was a chilly day in Brisbane so we had to blow dry the lacquer. We had the option to paint a decoration on the didge, but like the authenticity/outcome of burning the wood better.
(Mom's smooth, darker piece & my curvacious, lighter piece with its tiny holes in the foreground)

FIVE. Mom & I drew the designs to be burnt into the didges, but John actually did the branding. Mom created a pattern with aboriginal symbols such for walking & sitting/a resting place. I created a scene to signify the fourelements (air, earth, fire, water) because we depended on them so heavily the past week while out camping. I started with the sun which shined on the aboriginal symbol for waterfall with nourished the tree whose branchesbecame the aboriginal signal for fire. I love it! SIX. Mom & I melted beeswax to mold the mouthpieces. We received a few tips from John regarding how to play our didgeridoos and circular breathing -- which is the hardest part about learning how to play the instrument. The company mailed us a CD with exercises. I hope to become a didge master honestly. Yet, we were asked to only play the instruments in the privacy of our home because it is shunned for a woman to play a didgeridoo. In fact, in most tribes it's not like a guitar & anybodycan have a go. John told us in his tribe only the medicine man/shaman was chosen to play.

It was getting dark and we had been chatting/working all day so Mom & I returned to the hotel after a delicious meal at Little Tokyo. Of course, we tested our instruments much to our neighbors' dismay. We were awful.