21 December 2015

Colors of the season

Despite being Australasia's winter (or dry season, depending on the location) my mother & I spotted exuberant fowl endemic to the region.  Shark Bay's protected 2.2 million hectares supports 100 reptile and 230 bird species alone, comprising 35% of Australia's total!


Found only in the state of Western Australia, White-tailed Cockatoo flocks indicate precipitation, appearing just before the rain.

A male Plum-headed Parakeet with his variety of pastels.  Like the majority of animal species, the male has more vivid colors, in this case, a rosy head.  Hilariously, its contact call is an "oink."

Red King Parrots like I saw six years earlier at Australia Zoo. Also displaying a pastel palette, Princess Parrots.


The male Mulga Parrots displayed the most iridescent aquamarine of any wildlife I've ever seen.

These Gang Gang Cockatoos were so cuddly with each other I assumed they were a species of Lovebirds.

This Australian Magpie sang the loveliest song though there was no other fowl around.  At times it was shrill; once I swear I heard the Star Wars theme; mostly I mistook its call for a bleating lamb though.  I sat outside the Kalbarri Visitors Centre enraptured by its timbre for half an hour.


The bright Collared Lory is endemic only to Fiji.

Major Mitchell's Cocaktoo can live up to 75 years in captivity!  They are named in homage to Sir Thomas Mitchell who exalted them by writing, "Few birds more enliven the monotonous hues of the Australian forest than this beautiful species..."

The Purple-crowned Lorikeets wore permanent blush.

Unlike the majority of its scientific family (Honeyeaters), the Yellow-throated Miner prefers insects to the usual fruit and nectar.  They are known for being bold birds, as proven by this fellow who flit into our campervan.

The Golden Dove, though more green, had a distinct woolly call.

Star Finches with their distinct, firetruck red faces.

The Blue & Yellow Macaw was always wary of the Sony Action Cam.

The Red-capped Parrot is unmistakable up close due to its pronounced upper beak (a Hookbill).  The beak evolved since the bird needs to pry Marri seeds from Eucalypt capsules.

With its unmistakable black jowls, the Alexandrine Parakeet was supposedly named after the ancient ruler (Alexander The Great) who brought them home as battle spoils from a far away land.

The scruffy Kaka a.k.a. Red Shining Parrot is a Fijian icon, printed on dollars and coins.  Ironically, its body is more crimson whereas the Crimson Shining Parrot's body is standard red.

Black-headed Caiques are the Jack Russell Terriers of the parrot families.  These playful, active birds are also found in South America.

This plump Hooded Parrot remained nestled between the branches.  Hooded Parrots nest in termite mounds but are the only species [of the three Psephotus] that has a thriving population.  One of the other species is already extinct & the second, endangered.

The Eastern Curlew's bill fulfills a third of its total length.  Mom & I watched this skiddish bird dodge the more aggressive Seagulls as it [successfully] probed the shores of Coral Bay.


Omivorous Scarlet and Green-winged Macaws are one of the many fowl species that -- like humans -- choose life partners.

When initially imported from South America, locals paid $8,000 for Sun Conures!

From Freo a.k.a. Fremantle to the middle of the outback, Djakal-Ngakals a.k.a. Galahs appeared abundantly throughout Western Australia.

The oddly-named Darmoorluk a.k.a. 28 Parrot was deemed such due to its call.  They warded off malicious spirits in the bush and were only eaten by certain Aboriginal groups in desperation. 

I hated to leave this Red-tailed Black Cockatoo because he clearly needed social stimulation.  He was curious about my mother & me, and would follow us [in his cell] as we looked at the other birds.

A covey of Brown Quails and a Blue-breasted Quail.  Like many pheasants -- and a Chinchilla my cousin once owned -- they prefer dust to water baths.

How can you tell the two parrots below are males?  Easy!  Females are entirely green and were once thought to be an entirely different subspecies.  Interestingly, the Eclectus Parrot is the only surviving species of its genus (also Eclectus).  The other bird species became extinct some 3,000 years ago.


Zebra Finches commonly weigh less than half an ounce -- and they're not even the smallest Finches! They prefer drier areas which would explain why I first observed them at Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park.  Though not exhibited in Rainbow Jungle, they swarmed -- uninvited -- through the open-air enclosure, often swooping past my head like stout rubber ducks.  As you can see below, there really was no keeping them out.

Did you know Wanamalu a.k.a. Pied Cormorants have extremely nutrient-rich feces thanks to consuming double their body weight in fish?  They are so abundant throughout the state and country that flocks have created islands of scat measuring one meter in thickness!  From the poorest pirate to the wealthiest king, people would go to war in Australian waters over the precious Pied Cormorants' excrement since it sourced gun powder.  Imagine, thousands of men waging their lives for poop!


The Yellow Rosella and its cousins the Northern Rosella & Pale-headed Rosella.  "Rosella" is a derivative of "Rose Hill" in NSW a.k.a. New South Wales where European settlers first gazed upon these Australian parrots.

It never fanned its tail, but the green and brown patterned feathers on this peacock were mesmerizing. Plus, I never knew their legs were cream-colored!


Western Corellas are easily identified as a member of Cockatoos and by the bare patch of bluish-gray around their eyes.  How many can you count in the tree (in Exmouth) below?

With its high-pitched call, this little Broad-billed Flycatcher was hanging out alone at the end of the jetty in Monkey Mia.



THE UNIDENTIFIABLES:

After a while touring Kalbarri's Rainbow Jungle, a lot of the birds started to look similar to my untrained eye -- especially the green birds because there were so many.  Despite all my Google searches, I could not find this colorful, red-capped critter.

These are not Eastern Curlews due to their short beak, but they scoured the shore of Port Gregory much like Curlews do.

Again, all the green birds started to run together in my mind.  These could be Little Parrots, but they look too big.  These could be Musk Parrots, but don't seem to have the light blue cap indicative of the species.  I'm at a loss.


Billy is a local hit at this avian sanctuary.  While wandering the premises I greeted each bird with a "Hello" but I was shocked when he responded "How are you?"  Allegedly he knows a few curse words and how to use them!  He was so darn cute and chatty, but I cannot -- for the life of me -- recall what kind of bird he is?!  Hoping Billy would talk with me more, I turned on the Sony Action Cam but he acted quite dodgy a.k.a. skeptical of it.


THE RAINBOW BUNCH:

Rainbow Lorikeets that swarmed the trees when I lived in Mackay, QLD a.k.a. Queensland.  Though eye-catching, these birds are ubiquitous throughout Australia but are so aggressive they are destroying many local avian populations.

Scarlet-chested Parrots are almost a rainbow, missing only orange.  However, most in the world are not pure, with certain colors bred in to the subspecies.

Equally rainbow, the Eastern Rosella reminded me of Santa Claus with his red head & white beard.

Interestingly, together the male and female Fischer's Lovebirds encompass the colors of a rainbow, save violet. Yin & yang in harmony.



The prettiest of all the birds I saw in Australia and Fiji was the Gouldian Finch.  Stout, but colorful, I noticed it on the ground.  It wore an array of vibrant colors which contrasted its dark face to hide its eyes.

Though the Gouldian Finch was the prettiest bird, the Kookaburra has long been my favorite since I first heard its call every day while living in Mackay, QLD a.k.a. Queensland.  It's unmistakable and reminds me of a menacing laugh The Joker would utter.  Kookaburras are sinister looking fowl with elongated, sharp beaks and masked eyes.  Their appearance matches their personalities too, as they will eat whatever, even preying on other baby birds.


Jurrunas a.k.a. pelicans were plentiful along the coast, especially at Monkey Mia where they frequently interrupted dolphin feedings, swam past tourists or intermixed with flocks of other water fowl.  Many stood as large as an elementary student.  At Kings Botanical Garden in Perth, Mom & I mistook a flying pair for drones because they were so monstrous from afar.  Yet we learned in Monkey Mia to never feed one by hand due to the hazardously hooked tip at the end of their beak.


However, the best birds could have been any species really.  Once I identified the patterns, I came to search the horizon for flocks of migrants streaking across the sky in a steady, flexing line above the sea.  While manning the volunteers' window at Monkey Mia, I watched birds cross the beach for 10 minutes, non-stop.  They moved so swiftly there was no time to quantify them, but somehow more materialized and flew past. This endless flow of birds would not exert all their effort to mobilize unless there was a jackpot at the final destination: a temporary, all-you-can-eat fish buffet.  Wherever the hoards landed, there would be a frenzy of Wanamalu diving, wings slapping against the water sending up a curtain of spray, and -- my jackpot -- bobbing dolphin dorsals amongst the pandemonium.


02 December 2015

Changes

"As you grow old, you learn more. If you stayed at 22, you'd always be as ignorant as you were at 22.  Aging is not decay, you know. It's growth.  It's more than the negative that you're going to die. It's also the positive that you understand you're going to die and that you live a better life because of it."
-- Mitch Albom [Tuesdays With Morrie]


Panting after walking up a flight of stairs; hangovers that leave you debilitated all day; wrinkles and gray hairs sprouting overnight... when did this happen?  We are all aware that we're aging, but then something that used to be so simple -- like staying up until 03:00 -- occurs & we feel 100 years old.  Typically followed by the abhorrence: my God, I can't believe how terrible I feel.  Next, the little white lie that runs through our mind: "Geez, I've got to do something about this!" knowing full well we won't follow through.

Now that I have been traveling internationally for a decade, the benefits of being older and going abroad are stacking up.  As I grow older I know: 


* IT'S CHARMING TO LOOK BEAUTIFUL, BUT IT'S BETTER TO FEEL COMFORTABLE.

I gave up dressing up for dates a long time ago.  Potential suitors are lucky if I wear shoes other than flip flops.  For a second, I envied that woman in the security line at SYD: hair straightened, smelling sexy, boots with fierce heels, eyelashes elongated by mascara. Did I want the entire, muscular, tan, professional Tongan rugby team to see me oily, in nappy socks, wearing crooked glasses & yoga pants on the airplane? Absolutely not, but that's precisely what happened when the beverage cart trapped me in the back of the cabin for 20 minutes.  Then again, I also did not want to endure a 14-hour flight (from Fiji to the United States of America) with jeans digging into my hips and shoes cutting off circulation.
There's a reason so many mothers are accused of living in yoga pants.  It's not that women don't care how they are viewed; on the contrary, we don't care how we are viewed by complete strangers who know nothing of our personality.  At the end of the day, we understand that the people who matter most don't care what clothes we're sporting.


* YOU MISS OUT ON A LOT, ALWAYS TAKING PHOTOS + VIDEOS

It seems contradictory.  How could you miss anything when you constantly clicked the shutter? On my Arctic adventure, I learned with the polar bears, that the rapid sequential frames didn't differ that greatly.  Furthermore, I felt like an outsider when I was snapping scenes.  It was the work of a martyr.  In order to get the best photo, you often didn't get the same experience as the other bystanders, nor were you ever in the photo.

My first day in Monkey Mia, Western Australia, I played tourist, capturing photographs left & right.  Days 2-6 were the complete opposite, as I stepped into the volunteer role & was charged with choosing a tourist -- out of the hundreds that lined the beach -- to feed a dolphin.  I always tried to pick at least one person obscured by a bulky camera. That person never raised a hand to be chosen nor looked at me with hopeful eyes. No, instead this person remained steadfast to the subject: the dolphins.  However, I selected a gentleman on shore to feed a fish to Puck but he was so engrossed with taking pictures of another irrabuga a.k.a. dolphin he didn't hear me. Stop looking through that eyepiece or at the screen.  It's easy to become so absorbed in the analysis of the perfect photograph: lighting, angle, subject, composition.  In turn you miss out on everything else that's happening simultaneously in the panorama so the picture feels emotionally disconnected from the moment.  Essentially, you are missing out on the tiny snippets that comprise your life!



* MONEY IS WORTH SO MUCH MORE THAN MONEY.

With 2 days left in my trip -- 48 already behind me -- my wad of Fijian dollars was thinning.  Mom & I had two days in Nadi (pronounced "nann-dee") with nothing planned.  Surfing had long been at the apex of my Must Do list, yet I had never been able to cross it off.  I was in Fiji one of the surf capitals of the world.  However, now that the decision was laid in front of me, I was scared to commit. I had been wanting to try surfing for so long & built the hobby up in my head so much, what if I was an obvious failure ten minutes into the lesson?

To make matters worse, the greedy Fiji Surf Company charged $110 FJD for an observer to simply ride in the car with the group & sit on the beach.  Though my mom wanted to see the omnipotent Pacific Ocean one last time before we returned to Ohio's cornfields, the price was exorbitant.

Mom & I let the idea of surfing at Natadola Beach stew one more night. I reviewed my past.  In 2012 -- without a mobile or internet -- I tried my best to find a surf shop in Puerto Rico, but the address in the guidebook proved inaccurate.  In 2009, I gallivanted around Brisbane, [Australia] famous for its swells, but I just wasn't compelled to pull the trigger.  Now 2015, I was old enough to comprehend the finiteness of life. I outgrew my teenage mind frame of being invincible. I realized I might never again be fit enough to try surfing.  I evolved from my 20s outlook of "I'll do   [insert activity]    the next time I have money" or "I can always try _______ later. It will still be there." Because I had no idea where nor when my next vacation would occur, I consciously chose to try surfing in Fiji.

After I hung up the phone, I felt a great burden lifted off my mind.  The hard part was over. The decision was made & the excursion confirmed, so now I just had to roll out of bed at 05:00, but what about Mom and the $110 FJD? $110 FJD could buy a lot in this country where tourism ruled.  However, that cash equated to a day spent with my mother; our last full day abroad in fact.  It meant she did not have to wait alone or bored in the hotel room.  Plus, deep down I believe she wanted to tag along to witness how I would fare against the roaring waves since she has always referred to me as her "water baby".
Morbidly, I thought if our airplane back to the U.S.A. went down amidst the vast Pacific Ocean, I would want my mother to know how much I loved her and the trips we embarked on together.  Diving toward a watery death below, I would feel comforted knowing that we pursued our dreams.  I still am so grateful for those last 24 hours together because she was my biggest fan & erupted into cheers when I finally rode a wave all the way to shore.
What is money when you can share an experience of that magnitude with your best friend?


* IT DOESN'T MATTER WHAT YOU LOOK LIKE IN PHOTOS

"Oh God, I look so fat!"
"I'm making a funny face, delete that."
"Ewwww."

All phrases I have uttered in regard to holiday a.k.a. vacation photos.  Over my dead body were any of those getting posted on Facebook!  I could find a flaw with myself in almost any picture.

Then, one photo jumped out at me.

Of course I looked plump in that swimsuit at Takalana Bay, but I had been feasting on the local food: Taro (prepared every way), Cassava, "Pancakes" a.k.a. deep fried patties of dough, Eggplant, Pineapple, any type of meat in Lolo a.k.a. Coconut Milk & moist homemade muffins!  Although I looked heavy-set, everyone else in the scene looked great -- no, looked happy -- and I remember in that moment I was too.  That's why my mouth is in that goofy position & my eyes are wonky.  Because I am mid-laugh.  It brings a smile to my face every time I review that photo, more so than any of my pictures where everybody is directly facing the camera and statuesquely posed, with a not-too-much-teeth-but-not-too-much-cheek smile plastered on their face.


* THE BEST VACATION ISN'T A PLACE, BUT A TIME, WHERE YOU CAN LOSE YOURSELF

I loathe being the center of attention. My Filipino cousins, aunts, uncles & dad karaoke from sun up to sun down.  Me?  I hate to even hear my own voice on the answering machine.  I can count on one hand the number of times I have danced at a bar or club.  I feel much more comfortable out of the spotlight, especially in new social settings, & my mother is the same way.

That's why Nacula, Fiji, was such a shocking transformation.  Never in a million years would I have guessed my mother would be shaking her butt like a jive turkey in front of twenty people;  never would I have acted like a total goofball by impersonating a maqe a.k.a. monkey.  However, the crew at Oarsmans' Lodge has that affect on people.  Of course there was the daily ebb & flow of visitors from the mainland, but our group was tight knit.  18 of us were ferried to Oarsmans, bunked, and dined together three times a day.  Although we could choose our individual excursions, everyone chose the same two (snorkeling in the world-famous Blue Lagoon & traveling to the underwater caves of Sawa-i-Lau).
The first night on Nacula, the whole gang participated in the traditional yaqona ceremony, even though I heard my mom swear she didn't want to taste "that stuff."  Yet, we let the culture envelope us and chatted with the locals past midnight.  Soon after, we had learned each other's names and a few of the girls saved me from being left behind in the dark waters running through Sawa-i-Lau.  We were a genuine family of transients.  Our last night at Oarsmans, the marama a.k.a. head hostess pulled out all the stops and put on a Fijian jamboree.

After the marama, Oni, taught us a popular Fijian song, the malarkey ensued.  We, tourists & the staff sat in a circle and sang a tune along the premises of Old McDonald's Farm.  The first few singers portrayed typical farm critters which were easy to mimic.  On Nacula -- the last stop for travelers up the Yasawa chain & an eight hour boat ride from Viti Levu -- we had to make our own fun.  Full from another divine meal and comfortable with this hodgepodge of people from various countries, I wanted to liven up the evening, so I chose a monkey.  Oni chortled and commented that no one had ever chosen that animal before.  Towards the end, the fauna became more and more creative: an elemante a.k.a. elephant (chosen by my mother), an emu and a shark!  Acting like an absolute idiot meant the entire crowd burst into riotous laughter.  I loved seeing the Oarsmans staff double over in explosive amusement or dab their watering eyes.  The video still causes me to laugh aloud as I watch everyone's body convulse from the hilarity of the awful animal impersonations.




* HOW TO PRIORITIZE.

The first time I visited Puerto Rico I was 23 years old.  There were 5 of us, but within the group I only knew my ex-boyfriend. The robust pilot who snagged us the complimentary tickets from Miami to SJU showed us all of San Juan's hot spots: La Plazita on the weekend, a beachfront bar in Santurce and a rooftop club.  It was a long weekend filled with more mixed drinks than sleep & it took its toll on my body.  Since I did not eat the night we arrived & started boozing immediately the next day, I was a mess. The only thing I ate during those three days was a single grilled cheese sandwich because my stomach was so upset.  This lead to me getting progressively more drunk each night my clan went out partying.
Now 32, not only does my trip to Puerto Rico sound awful, but also downright senseless.  I didn't need to approach South America to act like a heathen with strangers, nor did I need to spend all my cash for that.  Don't get me wrong, I do not regret the holiday in any way, but now when I go somewhere I want to go for the architecture, scenery, wildlife, and cultural experience. The uniqueness of it all. If you remember, that's why I returned to Puerto Rico at 28 to redo the experience correctly & travel to the sites that exist nowhere else in the world (like the planet's brightest bioluminescent bay)!

To the horror of a lot of fellow travelers I've met in the past 10 years, I rarely drink [alcohol].  I just cannot afford nor justify losing one precious day because I'm not feeling well.  Not to mention, I don't exactly possess the best health.

So when a few shipmates invited Sophie (one of the vollies) & myself to a beach bonfire, we politely declined.  Secretly, I was relieved that Sophie shared my same view on the matter of getting hammered into the wee hours.  Would it have been a blast?  No doubt.  Would I have persisted through the next day volunteering at Monkey Mia?  Probably.  However, I vowed to the ladies -- Nicky, Puck, Shock, but mostly Surprise & Piccolo -- that I would arrive at sunrise to defrost their Yellowtail & that was practically a sacred arrangement.  I needed to keep it.  My experiences with the Indo-Pacific Bottlenose Dolphins were certainly more important and fulfilling  than the company of guys or imbibing.


* THE IMPORTANCE OF SIMPLE PLEASURES.

The first full day in the northeast of Viti Levu a.k.a. many [sticks] to break, Fiji's main & largest island, left Mom & me exhausted.  The humidity and heat were arduous to adjust to.  Clothes that were wet never dried, and dry clothes became saturated from the moisture in the air.  Basically, we were always sticky.

To thwart the midday heat, an Australian family from Suva (pronounced "Soo-vuh") and the two of us hiked to a local watering hole not far from Takalana Bay.  Peeta, a quiet, older man with deep lateral lines in his forehead, guided us.  Jojo -- an adorable boy with unruly hair -- and Racule -- a lanky teenager -- tagged along for the trek inland.

Given the environment & physical exertion, every one of us poured sweat and was relieved to have finally arrived at the watering hole. Truthfully, my mother's face was as red as the fruit punch I chugged.  Before embarking on the hike I had no plans of swimming. I merely wanted to explore nature, but now drenched and smelly, I could not wait to jump in.
While Jojo sat coyly on the fringe of the group, I unpacked my Sony Action Cam & secured it in the waterproof case.  Peeta & Racule (pronounced "Rah-thoo-leh") were intrigued with the small, white device in my hand.  Racule seemed especially riveted that something electronic was going to take the plunge with us.  The three of us stood atop the ledge and hurled ourselves away from the rock wall.  Despite the melee of body parts flailing through the air & the elbow I took to the head, emerging from the depths, stoic Peeta, Racule & I were beaming.
Cooled off & already wet I figured I might as well jump in again.  I waved for Racule to join me. Since his English was not-so-great & my Fijian even worse, I tried to convey that we should leap on the count of 3.  As Racule and I inched closer to the edge, he put his arm around my waist.  Briefly taken aback by his expressiveness, I reciprocated.  "Dua" a.k.a. one, "rua" a.k.a. two, "tolu" a.k.a. three and we splashed into the clear water again.  For the remainder of the outing, Racule and one of the Australian boys were hams for the Action Cam.
Hiking back to the lodge through the imposing jungle, Racule & I conversed with some difficulty.  When I asked if he had ever seen Fiji's only indigenous animal (a bat), he responded "io" a.k.a. yes.  In my curiosity, I pushed him for more details.  He told me it was blue!?  He also complimented me on my tattoos & pointed out the inconspicuous one on his hand by the base of his thumb.
Back at the lodge, everyone fawned over the videos from earlier and I asked Racule whether he had drank yaqona a.k.a. kava yet?  He giggled at the thought of doing something illegal and replied "sega" a.k.a. no, but listened to me retell my experience drinking it with great interest. Later, he asked my mother if she had a wife. This day would be my favorite of the trip to Fiji.

Throughout my time at Takalana Bay, Racule would pop in and be the smiling, chuckling adolescent lost in the fast-talking Westerners' conversations (Mom, two Australian brothers & myself).  Probably spurred by his boredom in this secluded region, he appeared to enjoy our company.  Despite the language barrier, the vibe between our gang was always inviting and convivial.  Nathan -- one of the Aussies -- was also a rock climber so we swapped stories.  Stafford -- the other Aussie -- liked to get into heavy philosophical and political debates with my mother. One night after dinner, Mom suggested we teach the three guys how to play the card game Go Fish.  It was quite a waggery when all our accents combined, but it helped Racule brush up on his English, we brushed up on our Fijian, and the brothers relived their childhood.

At a bonfire on our last night, Mom sketched a simple map of her city in Ohio and handed it to Racule.  It contained her contact information and directions to her house from the nearest airport. I wanted to make a contribution as well to this innocent, malleable teenager so -- after showing Racule how to spot counterfeit currency -- I bequeathed my American coins and dollars to inspire him to travel.  Souvenirs from a far, far away land.

My mother writes to Racule quarterly.  As a Christmas gift, she mailed him still-frames from the footage along with money.  Certainly my mom hopes to one day receive a letter from Racule, but she will continue to send her love out into the world, desiring nothing in return.  At Takalana Bay, Racule's grandmother had voiced that she was raising him since his father lived on another island and his mother wanted nothing to do with him.  Of the 7 billion people inhabiting the planet, in the corner of Viti Levu -- an island smaller than Connecticut -- 45 minutes down a muddy, rutted, dirt road, sleeping in a bure, is an adolescent, forgotten by his parents but adored by many others.  Although having money is one of the pinnacles of success no matter where you live, it does not mean humans have to place such a high value on it. The best investment anyone could make with his/her time & money is in a young man's future.

18 November 2015

Wayfinders

"...For my ways are strange ways and new ways and old ways, And deep ways and steep ways and high ways and low;
I'm at home and at ease on a track that I know not,
And restless and lost on a road that I know."

-- Henry Lawson [The Wander-Light]



The idea of hitting the open road, driving wherever your heart pulls you, has long been alluring, especially in modern America.  Jack Kerouac & John Steinbeck catapulted their career by writing about it.  Thelma & Louise was a blockbuster.  Willie Nelson & Red Hot Chili Peppers crooned about their love for it.   The infinite autonomy is so tantalizing: Want to make a detour for ice cream?...add it to the itinerary on the spot.  Want to pause to photograph a watercolor sunset?...simply pull over right then & there.  Hate the town?...leave whenever you like.

However, it's easy for an adventurous soul to romanticize a nomadic life on the highway only for reality to come crashing down.  Oh a road trip across America, seeing all the sights... until you head through hundreds of miles of flat corn fields through Kansas, swearing there cannot possibly be a food shortage in the world!  How divine to drag your arm out the window and feel the wind caress every finger... until you are driving white-knuckled through heavy rain with zero visibility.

Surviving in a campervan in remote Western Australia proved that my mother & I needed to be just as organized as if we had a hotel room, if not more so.  Our Britz Hi-Top served as our kitchen, bedroom, closet, living room, electronics charging station, laundry room, pantry, travel agency and ground zero for daily operations.  Items were frequently misplaced: buried on the bed, up front near the driver seat or rolled into a groove in the floor.  There was no nightstand but even if there had been, all surfaces needed to be clear before switching the vehicle into gear.
When the beds were unfolded (and they always were because set up was a conundrum), a corridor 4 feet long by 2 feet wide was the only place to stand upright.  So, my mother and I learned to stagger our showers and divvied up dinner tasks so that we would not be crawling over each other.  If one person was cutting -- therefore using what little counter space was available -- she had to be responsible for all parts of the meal process save actually cooking.  There simply was not enough room to open drawers, rifle through cupboards, stow cookware and chop in the teensy area.

Aside from the logistics of cooking, meals in general had to be meticulously planned.. The mini-fridge (smaller than I've seen in most American hotels) lacked a freezer & leftovers occupied too much space, so we typically ate the same food for lunch, then dinner, and maybe lunch again the next day.  Every vegetable, meat or fruit needed to serve multiple purposes.  For example, we only bought apples because they could get crammed into a backpack or mixed into chicken salad.  Bread grew mould a.k.a. mold quickly in the stuffy vehicle so it held the aforementioned chicken salad and became croutons.  My mother & I never debated "What would you like for dinner tonight?" because we didn't have a lot of vittles at our disposal.  We ate all the mince a.k.a. ground beef and poultry first -- to prevent spoilage -- then foraged through what remained until we eventually returned to civilization & could stock up on supplies.

For five weeks, nearly everything we ate was prepared with one pan or one pot. Our water was rationed for fear we might break down & need at least 4 liters to survive.  Old spaghetti sauce jars became Tupperware.  The plastic bags that held our groceries were repurposed for rubbish a.k.a. trash.  Likewise, the bulky sweater we each brought from the U.S.A. became our pillows.  My mother claimed a towel from a caravan park's Lost And Found.  Also from the caravan parks, we hoarded extra paper towels.

When I imagined living out of a campervan for over a month, I didn't envision the not-so-romantic nuances:  my "bedroom" smelling like a locker room because my sweaty clothes were piled in the front seat; being confined when it rained all night.  When we passed the 26th parallel into "the Northwest" of the state, daily life became more uncomfortable thanks to the humidity.  We honestly crossed the imaginary line of latitude and within kilometers, the air felt heavier.  The towels hung out to dry never did.  At 21º S in Exmouth -- the furthest north we would venture -- I was too uncomfortable to sleep. I felt like I was suffocating inside the cramped Britz despite every window being wide open.

Or was it more unpleasant in the southern interior highlands that comprised Dryandra Woodland? The sun slipped behind the horizon at 17:30 [since it was Australia's winter] and left my mother & I in the frigid darkness of Congelin Campground.  Freezing, I layered every article of clothing, buried my head in the sleeping bag, covered with every last towel and blasted the heat before shutting off the vehicle. Still, I shivered & remained fetal all night.  The wintry air blustered through the campervan's openings for water drainage & electricity.

As taxing as spending 24/7 with someone for 5 weeks sounds, I assure you it was far from rotten.  Most days life on the vacant Western Australia roads was no fuss.  Though the speed limit was 110 kph a.k.a. 68 mph, no sane cop would bake in his metal car in the middle of the desert to earn revenue off one speeding ticket.  To me, it felt like 110 kph was merely a suggestion.  The only congestion we encountered outside of Perth was the 4-trailer "roadtrains".  They were certainly slow enough to overtake but usually I couldn't see that far ahead.  Often, the spotter vehicles (normally a mini-van or ute a.k.a. truck similar in size + design to a Ford F-150 or van) would jovially wave our Britz on when it was safe to use the on-coming traffic lane to pass.  Though there were no bonafide rest stops with extravagant pavilions like in America, there were plenty of barren pull-offs with trash cans and possibly a compost toilet.  Some provided fire rings & most small-town parks offered free BBQ grills.  Indeed, Australian culture embraces and caters to travelers, both local and global.
All this traveling transmuted my mother & myself into vagabonds.  With each finished day, we grew less and less attached to our clothes and physical belongings (I mentioned we threw away the majority of our attire before returning to the U.S.A).  To save money, we compromised to stay at a caravan park every other night in order to recharge our refrigerator & shower.  On the evenings we rolled into a campsite, under the cover of night we ran an extension cord to an outlet, though we did not pay for electricity. I always asked if my college ID or Western Australia Discount Pass was accepted. Though the cards were frequently rejected, questioning was an ice-breaker which lead to conversation which sometimes evoked a discount (like my "Cleveland discount" from Shelly in Kalbarri who once lived in Ohio).

Keen on saving money in the larger cities -- not to mention, sparing us the difficulty of steering a boxy campervan in a city full of one-way streets -- we parked the vehicle in free areas instead.  In Freo a.k.a. Fremantle, Mom & I left the Britz on the outskirts of town then jumped onto the complimentary blue CAT bus which brought us to the doorstop of most tourist sites.  In the state's capital, Perth, we stopped at Kings Park Botanic Gardens, snuck out a back exit, walked a few blocks & finally caught a CAT to take us into the CBD a.k.a. Central Business District.

Many nights my mother & I sat on the stoop, feet in the sand, eating dinner; or we'd simply admire the 'roos, like in Nambung National Park.  Inquisitive fowl feasted on our crumbs.  One in Coral Bay was brave enough to cross the threshold into the cabin. Often we rolled up to a beach, found it deserted & the sun shining so we opted to remain the entire afternoon, like in Port Gregory, as we watched waves violently collide with the reef.  No need to leave for meals, just hike back to the Britz. 


The second best thing about having wheels was all the aleatoric wildlife we observed.  In Dryandra Woodland I thought I saw a boulder crossing the road, but it turned out to be an enormous echidna startled by the loud Britz.  That night, in the pitch black, our headlights surprised a 5 foot tall gray kangaroo in the bush, eyes aglow. In Exmouth, I sped past a lean, tan dingo in a dried creek bed.  While leaving a coastal parking lot in Cape Ranges National Park we startled a young kangaroo then nearly flattened another hopping across the thoroughfare (no doubt the most inherent danger in regard to Australian driving).  Less appealing to Americans -- but no less threatening -- were the meandering cattle and sheep, since the majority of stations a.k.a. homesteads lacked fences.
The total disintegration of our American standards occurred when my mother & I agreed paying for a campsite was too expensive!  Why?  Because less than a kilometer down the road laid a well-lit park with free gas grills and public ablutions a.k.a. restrooms with soap.  My mother & I ate dinner, played cards, and reviewed photos as we waited to be kicked out of the lovely Coogee Beach park, but a police officer never materialized.  Other times we did not care for a hostel so we utilized the kitchen wherever we slept the night before.  Once, I acted like a fugitive in my quest to utilize a caravan park's facilities without being a patron.  To avoid sticking out, I pretended I was walking the trail to the coast like so many other people.  Behind the tall brush, I squeezed my body through branches into a residential area & circled back around toward the kitchen.  In the end, to any customer or staff nearby, it looked like I had just left the park's ablutions and belonged there. In reality I was a hobo who had rolled up 15 minutes prior.  The ultimate example of my frugality happened on the last day of nearly 2 months abroad. Too cheap to pay for lodging the day of my redeye flight home, I snoozed the day away in the sun then took a shower in the hotel restaurant's bathroom.  In my defense, there was a makeshift stall (no curtain) & drain so I helped myself.  Imagine dining at the expansive Tokatoka Resort, stealing away to the restroom to check your makeup & discovering someone in a bikini showering!

Though we bounced the Britz down unsealed, outback roads and I crunched the side of it against a petrol a.k.a. fuel pump, I couldn't have asked for a better campervan! In a foreign country where every organism was exceptionally deadly & each day marked another dot on the map, the Britz was our home. It was our only sense of the familiar, yet it symbolized our desire for new experiences.  The campervan was dually pure freedom and an expensive commitment.

Heaven forbid -- but honestly it's quite probable -- you end up in a predicament such as when a mechanic hands you a steep repair bill for your vehicle abroad. There is a metaphorical gun aimed at your head because, in essence, you are forced to dole out an extra $1,000 that certainly wasn't in the budget.  But what can you do?  If you do not pay it, you are stuck, and for a free-spirited soul, that's far worse than being a broke wanderer.

05 November 2015

Survive

"Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better, it's not."
-- Dr. Seuss [The Lorax]



No doubt Nicky and Surprise had rough upbringings, but they weren't the only ones in the area with gut-wrenching stories.  In fact, the common theme in Shark Bay -- the UNESCO World Heritage Site encompassing Monkey Mia Marine Reserve and the entire peninsula -- was hardship.

Like the other two, elder matrons of Monkey Mia's feeding program (Nicky & Surprise), many of Puck's calves passed away soon after birth.  Fiesty Piccolo was her first baby to survive weaning. However, Piccolo almost lost her mother as a yearling when Puck became entangled in a large net, the seamen oblivious to Puck drowning.  A nearby research tinny noted Piccolo's frantic whistling and zipping back & forth. The scientists alerted the fishing boat. However, Puck's dorsal fin and melon still bear the markings of her brush with death; the cartilage from her fin never reformed.
Other dolphins bore similar -- if not worse -- scars.  The tip of one poor irrabuga a.k.a. dolphin's dorsal fin limply dangled in the breeze; another's looked like it was almost ripped off entirely. India, a haughty juvenile male, displayed his battle wound every time he dove: a dark gray, almost complete, elliptical shark bite.
In Shark Bay, the Indo-Pacific Bottlenose Dolphins weren't the only species prone to adversity.  Of the throngs of jurrunas a.k.a. pelicans [in Malgana dialect], Rogue was notoriously famous amongst the staff.  Whenever she appeared during a feeding -- and it was quite common for Australian Pelicans in general to turn up -- she was a force to be reckoned with.  Rogue swooped in to steal Puck's fish, terrorized the crowd and created havoc at feedings as she swam from vollie a.k.a. volunteer to vollie in search of Whitetail, refusing to let tourists in the water.

But by the end of my stay at Monkey Mia, I grew to pity Rogue & whenever I shared her history with inquiring visitors, they too left changed I think.  Rogue would be entertained for a moment then suddenly nip at the air with her dangerously hooked beak.  One day, Rogue performed an all-too-close dance with me in the Indian Ocean.  I was forced to put myself between her and the shiny metal bucket of fish, but she had her eyes set on the prize.  She must have known her food was behind my back, but all I could do was continue to twirl despite my dizziness, attempt not to topple over Puck & wait until a ranger came to lure Rogue away.

However, Rogue's erratic behavior & scariness stemmed from a caveat: her brain injury.  She snapped at the air because she saw forms that didn't exist.  One day, I observed her repeating the all-too-close-dance on land with a ranger, encircling her prey.  In reality, Rogue shuffled about unpredictably because she was a scared peli protecting herself.  She had a crooked gait and her deformed right wing stuck out awkwardly.  The reason she got unnervingly close to people was because she actually felt safe there. Rogue endured bullying from all the other jurrunas, especially the males. Perhaps due to her disability or her gender; maybe both.  She was forced to be a loner. And when she bit a little Asian boy on the beach,  I didn't rush over to save or coddle the child.  His bite was a natural consequence for harassing the wildlife of Shark Bay. Sure enough, the crying boy and his older sibling stopped chasing Rogue.

The pelagic life patrolling the nutrient-rich sea grasses of Shark Bay did not scourge the dolphins compared to the harm humans wrought in the area.  You've already read the horrors involving Nicky's offspring. Lazy fishermen illegally dump offal a.k.a. fish remains overboard which draw sharks ever closer to the shore where dolphin calves find security.  Rangers have caught tourists picking up dolphin calves and posing for photographs in the shallows! The resort at Monkey Mia generates at least 85% of the trash scattered around the Marine Reserve but cleans up 0%, despite being the only business in Monkey Mia.  Yet, it reaps 100% of the revenue. My last day volunteering, a lady in the campground confessed she stood up from her lunch on the lawn & threatened to beat up a man who grabbed an irrabuga's tail.  He proceeded to jab the female dolphin in the eye with a selfie stick as he chased the irrabuga through the sea.

Assuming you were an animal already subsisting the vicious social scene and food chain of Shark Bay, you would still have plenty of travails with the environment.  Despite being at the 26th parallel, parts of Shark Bay are two times saltier than the ocean and water temperatures have reached 45º C a.k.a. 113º F. Can you imagine swimming in water that hot?

As a homo sapien, the environment was equally ruthless. Despite my olive complexion, the sun & its intense reflection off the Indian Ocean left my skin frequently burnt. I suffered a nasty, deep gash in my right heel from a busted seashell.  While strolling the water's edge, I was one step away from stomping on a stingray. It must have sensed the commotion because it scurried away kicking up sand in its wake, but from then on I dredged my feet as recommended.

Blissfully unaware of hidden dangers my mother and I hired a.k.a. rented a kayak one afternoon and paddled far from Monkey Mia Marine Reserve.  Preoccupied by surveying for dolphins, we eventually drifted to a distant pearl farm, waves peacefully lapping against the side of the vessel.  A tinny approached us at full speed.  I assumed the metal boat would pass us, but instead the man commandeering the small motor abruptly shut it off.  The passenger, a middle-aged woman, lifted the brim of her sun hat and shouted in an Australian accent "There's a Tiger Shark around here that's damaged our [oyster] traps.  I reckon I'd go closer to shore since its biggah than our boat!"  My mind flashed back to yesterday -- during the sunset cruise aboard the catamaran -- when I glimpsed a Thaaka a.k.a. Tiger Shark so large I thought it was a Whale Shark (the largest fish in the world.)  In a flurry, fatal scenes from Jaws sped through my mind and I imagined a massive, dark shadow gliding under us.  Filled with growing uneasiness we furiously rowed closer to Monkey Mia.
The world is a trying place, for humans, Indo-Pacific Bottlenose Dolphins & other creatures alike; even crueler here in Shark Bay.  These are not simple-minded animals; they are complex beings who -- like so many of us -- fight every day to survive. Let us not make life any harder for them.