Saturday, January 31, 2009
By that I mean that I have landed safely in Christchurch, New Zealand and am safely ensconced in a middle-aged lady's house, typing on her dial-up internet.
And by that I mean that I have a great deal of blogging catch up to do! Unfortunately with the dial up it might be difficult...
Lastly, I would like to note that there is a cruel irony to the fact that I have arrived here in "En Zed" (as they call it) just as season 2 of "Flight of the Conchords" has begun.
Wednesday, January 28, 2009
To be fair, Qantas made it as enjoyable as possible to sit in a tin box for that long. They have an absurd selection of movies, TV shows, even video games and CDs, all available for starting on-demand whenever you want. I watched a funny Indian sitcom called "Mumbai Calling" about a call center, "In Bruges" (which, sorry, I don't really see the big deal), some standard American sitcom fare, and two tourist videos about Sydney and Brisbane. Qantas served a couple of quite passable meals, I managed to procure some Australian wine to help me fall asleep, and I woke up in time to help the Greek Australian woman next to me with her immigration card.
Customs took forever, as usual, but then I was wandering out into the bright light of Australian morning. The humidity even in the arrival hall was palpable. Without really understanding what I was doing, I used my AAA travel card to get some money from an ATM and bought myself an Australian SIM card, marveling at this brand new place in which I could function, even delirious from air travel. I took a long, sweaty bus ride from the airport to Burwood, the suburb where I would be staying for the next five days. I watched the Sydney streets crawl past and all I could think was “This is real this is real this is real.” For so long I had been looking ahead to this morning, and it had arrived.
As it turned out, Burwood was a nice medium-sized suburb/village with a huge Chinese population, obvious in the foot traffic on the street, the Chinese language signage, and the multitude of yum cha/dim sum restaurants lining the main street. This street also featured coffee shops with doors closed until after the New Years holiday week; several Adult Book stores; a grocery store; a fruit shop called the Fruit Bowl; a couple of Chinese-style bakeries (my favorite of these was called "Leanly Hot Bread"); and trinket shops of the kind I got used to in Kunming that sell plastic shower shoes, $3 hats, and a world of other non-necessities. It was a fairly quiet, safe town except once, late at night, when a couple of drunk boys yelled so loudly and suddenly out their open windows that I stopped short and then hurried back to my host's house.
The Rs were a lovely first-time couch surfing host family. The father regarded me suspiciously but was friendly (he once made a half joke about my stealing all their money.) The mother was rotund and looked vaguely like an ex-nurse although I never found out what she did. She spent a lot of time kindly lecturing me on wearing enough “mozzie spray” and sunscreen and was less than helpful in a friendly way about figuring out train tickets-- she was in short a nice stand-in for a mom. James, their son and my connection through couch surfing, was in his late 20s or early 30s, a science teacher and avid traveler, in great shape and fairly handsome. He was in the habit of raising his eyebrows a lot while he talked, so I could never tell if he was amused by something I said. As a teacher he was in the midst of summer holidays and had just bought a motorbike, so he was often off helping his father learn to ride or taking a spin down to various areas of the city, most often Bondi Beach (pronounced Bond-EYE, not that I knew that until I heard someone else say it) where I think he had something going on with a French couch surfer. That meant my Sydney time was mostly self directed.
The foyer of the R House; James, looking amused as usual
Dazed from the 14 hour flight, unable to believe I had really arrived, and feeling as if I were in another world, I dropped my bags at the R's house, walked 10 minutes down to the train station, and in half an hour was goggling at the Opera House. The building is pure poetry. You’ve seen pictures, but I have to say that nothing is quite like being next to it. It is breathtaking. The two partners, opera house and bridge, make for a fantastic view. You walk out of the subway stop at Circular Quay (you say it "Key," another pronunciation obstacle for me) and boom. There they are.
The sights of Sydney Harbor
It was incredibly hot and I found myself in a torpor of epic proportions. I ordered an ice coffee along the Esplanade, only to find that that meant ice cream and coffee rather than coffee made cold. I drank it watching tourists of all colors come and go, the ferries from all over the harbour fill and empty. At one point in the afternoon I visited the Museum of Contemporary Art--hooray, free admission!-- which had some really interesting exhibits. But jet lag hit big just then, and I spent the last part of the museum barely looking at the art, wandering from room to room, and trying to decide if it would be acceptable to lie down on the lawn outside the Museum with all the tourists going by. Luckily, within an hour or so the feeling passed.
Just outside the museum I met Graheme, a great-looking character busking on the Quay for the tourists passing by. I got into a conversation with him in which he revealed that he was a milkman by trade until about 10 years ago, when milkmen finally lost out to supermarkets. Now he sits on the Quay day in and day out playing Bob Dylan and traditional folk Australiana and trying to convince people to leave him tips. I sat and listened to him for awhile. He played some great old Dylan and “Waltzing Matilda” (which might as well be the national anthem here), as well as another song whose chorus included the worlds “tie my kangaroo down, boys.” I really loved having a chance to talk to him. That sort of interaction with interesting, real people, however brief, is one of my favorite parts about traveling.
Graheme in action
Before dinner I was supposed to meet James at a bar to watch salsa lessons but got hopelessly lost in the business district. It was a nice way to see a bit of the city, but I ended up having to buy a meat pie from a fast food purveyor (meat pies are left over from the British influence) and after a brief stop at said bar (where they were just finishing off the salsa lesson) jet lag called me back to Burwood.
Although exploring the city alone had its own merits, I decided to try and meet up with some couch surfers also traveling in the area for the next few days. The next morning I found Wil, from Sussex, England, in a coffee shop in The Rocks, which is the oldest part of Sydney, and later on we met up with Sonia, who hails from Brookline (Massachusetts) and with whom I had friends in common back in the US. The Rocks is a great tourist draw that has been heavily preserved, and it is very charming, with lovely Victorian architecture. As I remarked to my companions, I was very aware that the neighborhood was engineered to appeal to me-- and it quite succeeded. We spent the morning wandering along cobblestone alleyways past at least three bars claiming to be the Oldest Pub In Sydney, and divided our time between a neat historical museum, a honey shop (who knew there were that many kinds of honey? I could even taste the difference), and an amazing puppet store located in an old basement.
The puppet shop
After the Rocks we headed to the Australian Museum, which was a nice diversion that included interesting bits about Australian history (a subject about which I have learned a great deal since I arrived here) and some funny exhibits about weird Australian pets. We wandered from there through Darling Harbor, a very ritzy area chock full of fancy boats and fancier bars, through to the area of the city known informally as Chinatown. The street was lined with yum cha shops and tea houses, but we walked past them to Market City, a massive Asian-centric mall filled with internet cafes, cell phone bling shops, Hello Kitty outlets, fully stocked arcades replete with sweaty DDRing coeds, and an enormous food court featuring most Asian delicacy you can think of. As I rested our feet and relished my cheap, rich miso ramen, it was easy to forget where I was. Sitting in Market City was like landing on a piece of an entirely different continent. I saw maybe two other Caucasians in the entire mall, which is remarkable considering that Australia is something like 95% white.
It was raining by the time we'd finished, and we made a dash to the train station to go our separate ways. But not before Sonia and I decided to take the plunge and meet up at 7 AM the next day to go to what was said to be the best and most extensive fish market outside of Tsukiji in Tokyo.
An Aboriginal man in traditional dress and paint sells his techno-didjeridoo CDs to the throngs on Circular Quay. I had mixed feelings when I saw this, and still do, but having witnessed the poverty of many Aboriginals living in Australian cities my perspective is a bit different. I especially like this photo because of the bridge acting as a frame.
Sunday, January 25, 2009
Without making things too out-of-chronological order here, I wish to state my great excitement that I will be away on an overnight sail-snorkel-scuba-dive deal on the Great Barrier Reef (!) on Tuesday/Wednesday. Also, tomorrow is Australia Day (commemorating the day the first fleet from England arrived in Sydney, like Independence Day in the US), and I will be spending it on the Cairns Esplanade with my host and about 10 of her friends. No, we will not be throwing any shrimp on the barbie (especially because there aren't "shrimp" here, only "prawns") but there will be sausages. Australians love sausages.
In case you were wondering, Cairns is INCREDIBLY humid. Like, I thought Brisbane and Bundaberg were humid. I thought Boston in August was humid. I thought the Costa Rican rainforest was humid. But this is humid on an entirely new level. I was soaked to the skin by the time I arrived, so I went for a swim with my host in a lovely little pool in her apartment complex. The reason this is important is to explain to you that we had to creep through some dark gardeny parts to get to the pool, and all I could think about was that one picture I saw on the internet, basically one of the most terrifying things I've ever seen, which was a spider eating a bird--Yes, you read that right--right here in lovely Cairns. I'm betting you could google "spider eating a bird" and find the photo in question if you felt the need.
So hopefully I won't step on one of those?
Happy Australia Day!
Thursday, January 22, 2009
Shockingly enough, you can't fly direct from Boston to Sydney, Australia. As they haven't yet developed a commercially available jet that can take you across the world, I was lucky enough to stop in San Francisco en route to Australia. (Following one reader's request, I should note that the movie they played on the flight was positively frightful. So bad, in fact, that the woman sitting next to me turned to me at the end and said, "Did you watch that terrible movie, too?" and then we proceeded to bash the film for about 20 minutes. So: do not under any circumstances watch "Nights in Rodanthe.")
In San Francisco I stayed with dear friends Josie and Linnea in a little, cozy apartment in a little, cozy neighborhood called Noe Valley, and greatly enjoyed a three-day weekend exploring the city with them. I'd been to San Francisco a few times before, but with family and only for very limited time. It was lovely to come with the city at my fingertips, no agenda but exploring and enjoying friends.
We made the best of the three days, starting with a sunny breakfast in the apartment, with beautiful views up the hill of the city extending into the sky. As it turns out, if you let a persimmon (lovely native Californian fruit) stand for several weeks, instead of rotting it softens until it is essentially spreadable jam. We got a loaf of date bread from Noe Valley Bakery (suitably little and cozy, given the neighboorhood) and ate it with softened persimmon and great coffee, a delicious way to power up for a day exploring the city.
Following breakfast we drove to the DeYoung museum, a lovely art museum inside Golden Gate park, where there was an exhibition by the artist Maya Lin that Josie and Linnea wanted to see. I wasn't planning to go in, as I was feeling quite budget conscious, but it turned out that it was Bank of America day, and all card holders could get in for free or 50% off special exhibits. So I wandered the exhibit halls while the other two went to the special show, admiring a beautiful collection of South American and Papuan art, then moving to the museum observatory, a glass walled box eight stories above everything else in the Golden Gate park. The weather was completely clear and the view was gorgeous.
Part of the exhibition at the DeYoung museum
Views over the city, bay, and mountains from the DeYoung Observatory
The crazy roof on the California Academy of Science, which is next to the DeYoung and which I believe the lovely people at SGH helped design
From one great view to another: we drove to Louis' Diner for an afternoon snack. Those that know me understand that I do not take diners lightly. I wrote a diner-centric column in my college newspaper, and diners are among my favorite manifestations of Americana. Admittedly, Louis' food does not win any prizes. But the view, looking out over the ruins of a large bath complex from the mid 20th century and across the incredibly blue bay to the hills beyond, is fully worth it. As is the thoroughly 1970s Louis' decor. We enjoyed a refreshing hour marveling at the view and the adjacent, lovely Ocean Beach.
The view from Louis' Diner
Sunset over Ocean Beach
Noe Valley is fairly closed to that quintessential San Francisco institution The Mission, so we took a nice walk (luckily mostly downhill) to find burritos at Papalote, which does superb tacos and burritos. Dessert at Mission Pie featured several different versions of flaky deliciousness and a chance to meet some of Josie and Linnea's friends, who were coming in from town farther north.
In the morning we met long-time family friends for that other San Francisco requisite, dim sum (delicious), before wandering through a neighborhood full of Chinese tchotchke shops looking for little presents and pepper spray (for me) and special long-sought-after shell plates (for Josie.) We were successful in our search, but as it turns out it is illegal to carry pepper spray basically anywhere, on planes or trains, and possibly also to mail it. So it is not a particularly mobile acquisition, and I had to leave it in San Francisco in the end.
From the Chinese tchochtke shop: Odd and ironic choice of material for a plate
One of the highlights of traveling around the world, at least for me, is being able to catch up with friends in unexpected places/contexts-- this will be a repeating pattern throughout this year. In San Francisco it was two friends from Wesleyan, Will and Emily, who are living in Oakland trying to make it "in the real world." Whatever that means.
We met them back at Ocean Beach, near Louis', and passed several very pleasant hours sitting on a blanket drinking tea from a thermos, watching the gulls and the waves, chatting about where we had been and what we had done in the past several months, looking at shells and rocks on the beach. When that had lost its luster we drove back to the Mission, this time to look for a fabled alley full of street art and then to Pakistani food, which I had never had before.
Ocean Beach loveliness
Nothing like the beach with friends from different parts of your life
It took a good half an hour of wandering, but we did finally find the alley full of street art. It presented an interesting combination of obviousness ("Wow, look at this entire alley full of brightly colored walls") and subtlety ("Did we really just walk by that entire alley full of brightly colored walls twice?") The art itself was an interesting combination, too. Some was overtly political, some patently nerdy in content, some badly drawn, some masterful.
Beautiful street art in the Mission
The Pakistani food was delicious, as well-- and cheap! We walked home satiated, and I spent the next two hours trying desperately to reduce my 45 pound suitcase (I know, I'm embarrassed). I did manage to pick out 9 pounds worth of things to send home. But it's still been too heavy! (That comes later.)
Monday before my flight left I spent in preparations, trying not to disturb Josie as she worked from home. I ventured into the little main street of Noe Valley to send those things home (alarmingly they still haven't arrived, 3 weeks later). I bought some last minute necessities, salivated at the bakery, then went home, where I proceeded to have an anxiety attack of some proportions.
You might recall a few entries back that I've been unsure how personal I want to get with this blog. Well, I'm going to try it out. Those that know me well are aware that I struggle with issues of anxiety. I worry or feel agitated about irrational things and sometimes I can get upset and not know why. I haven't an anxiety attack proper in probably 3 or 4 years, as I've learned to manage it, but travel seems to be one of my push buttons.
It's odd, I know, to be taking on a trip of such epic proportions of traveling makes me so anxious. But the thing is, in my mind it's separate. I love traveling, I get high from it. It's something I do despite my anxiety, not something I don't do because of it (if that makes sense.) I choose to go up against whatever it is that goes haywire in my brain and not hide. Luckily, in this case I had lovely friend there to give me tea, talk me down, and remind me that it's normal to be nervous when you're about to leave the country for a year only under your own steam and using basically all the money you have ever saved.
So I got myself together and to the airport. Got on the plane and off I went!
Interesting retrospective on airplane seat design evolution at San Francisco Airport
Tomorrow I very well may snorkel the Great Barrier Reef! Also, I will stay with an Aborigine, which should be interesting. Also, today I got taken to a rather odd Australian's house. He showed me his many tropical birds, and then his house, which was covered with tropical bird paintings and prints. I like meeting odd characters. This one's name was Gus.
More soon. Promise.
Edit: Lucky you, my train is late. That means I'll work on my San Francisco post.
Sunday, January 18, 2009
When I was in China, there was a lot on this blog of "then we did this, then we did this." I got plenty of positive feedback for the way in which that sort of thing was executed, but it was very much a day-by-day recounting. I want to do that, too, to be sure, but I've had much more exposure to blogs since that year and I know there are other options. I want to get more comfortable with shorter entries (see the past few for examples), as well as more in-depth discussions of little ideas, links to interesting content elsewhere, things like that. I have to admit that I'm not really well-versed with all that Web 2.0 stuff, which is part of why you haven't seen much of it (or anything) in this space. But I want that for this blog; it's something to aspire to in any case.
I also have been thinking a bit about how personal I want to be in this space. The China part of my blog did not have nearly so wide an audience as this coming portion will have. How much of my anxieties, fears, quirks, and embarrassing mistakes can I share here without crossing a line, or without opening myself up to criticism and mockery? I'm not sure. I'm going to try to be frank and hope people will reserve judgment.
So, with this in mind we move forward. I'm quite behind, as I've been out living Australian life the past 11 days and haven't been keeping you all up to date. I imagine that the entries to come as I catch up will have to be quite heavy on the "then I did this" sort of content. But I will try to make it as colorful as possible. Believe me, it's been wonderful. I want to do it justice.
A bit of background, before I launch in:
I graduated from Wesleyan University in Connecticut last May. I decided that this year would be a year to have adventure. I moved home to my parents' house (rent free), got a temporary project-based job at a local engineering firm writing content for a biographical website, and saved money like a fiend. During that time I discovered Couchsurfing, an amazing worldwide movement that has changed my life (with no exaggeration.) The idea of couchsurfing is that you open your home to travelers in your area, and when you travel other people open their homes to you. This helps keep costs down, but more importantly it means you meet real people who live where you are, learn about daily life and culture, get great inside tips on what to see and what not to see, and so much more. I did a bit of hosting with my family in Boston, and now I will be surfing around the world. I am also a member of SERVAS, which is basically a UN-sponsored version of Couchsurfing.
From May until December 2008 I worked full time and planned a yearish long trip that will take me through Australia, New Zealand, Taiwan, Japan, China, Hong Kong, Vietnam, India, Jordan, Turkey, Greece, Croatia, and a great deal of mainland Europe. I read travel blogs and guides, applied for four different visas (China, Vietnam, India, and Australia), went to 7 shoe stores looking for light hiking boots, and took approximately 100 separate trips to REI. And then on January 2 I departed, and Things began to happen. There will be a separate entry on "how to plan a trip around the world," but that is the basic story of how I started on this epic adventure.
Now: onto San Francisco.
Tuesday, January 13, 2009
Koala in the wild: Check
Koala up close in a hospital: Check
Wild kangaroo: Check check (yes!)
For the record, I also saw:
Still waiting on the platypus and dingo, but you can't have everything. Especially not within a 24 hour period.
Monday, January 12, 2009
Anyway, I am in Port Macquarie at the moment. Took the train up here (about 6 hours) yesterday through endless farmland. Last night I surfed at the house of a Brit expat hippie. There were five other girls with me, from Germany and the UK, and we all drank wine and made amazing Malaysian stir fry, then drove out to the headland nearby, where there is a lighthouse, to watch the moon rise over the ocean and drink champagne. I know, I can't believe it either.
This morning we woke up early to listen to the birds at sunrise. I actually was woken earlier by kookaburras. I thought I had heard a kookaburra (which is a humongous bird related to the kingfisher) before, but I was wrong. The buggers sound deranged, like the Joker with a beak, and they are very, very loud. The other bird calls were beautiful, though.
In a few minutes I am leaving to visit a koala hospital (!!) and then catch a ride up the coast with two of the German girls to Byron Bay, which is close-ish to Brisbane. Hopefully there will be better internet where I stay tonight (if all works out, in the Gold Coast. If not, in a camper van, which will make the prospect for quality internet slightly less solid.) For now: an incredibly blue sky, a gorgeous coastline, and 6 hours to take it all in.
Friday, January 9, 2009
So you might understand why I'm tired, and why I find it daunting to begin to write. I think this sort of thing will be easier a) when I am better adapted to the time difference b) when I have a better grasp of the rhythm of travel and c) if/when I am staying with someone who has wireless.
So I will continue to endeavor to post as much as possible. Do not give up hope! There are gorgeous photos of the Opera House and a funny story about cute Sydney goths obsessed with Disneyland in your future. But first: 10,000 people descend on Sydney for the First Night Festival tomorrow night. Santogold will be there (and like 150 other artists and dance companies)! Wesleyan, represent.
Wednesday, January 7, 2009
But I would like to take a moment--just a moment-- to indulge myself in the following rant, having just read a lovely entry by Rania and her friend in New Zealand extolling the virtues of NZ's current weather, 75 F and dry.
Sigh: the way things were supposed to go, I should be in New Zealand right now. The weather would be fantastic there (is fantastic there) and I would not have to be dealing with the insane heat and humidity I dealt with today and will continue to deal with the next month. Don't get me wrong, I liked Sydney just fine. The Opera House was stunning. The bridge is formidable. I had a great conversation with an ex-milkman-turned-folk singer (more on that later.) But all of this would have been endlessly more pleasant if I didn't end the day feeling like a wrung out sponge. Alas, what could have been would have made so much more sense. There's only so much you can do in 35 C 85% humidity.
End rant. Maybe I'll feel better about this in the morning?
Tuesday, January 6, 2009
So I'm in Sydney. I honestly couldn't tell you how it happened. I mean, I know I just spent 14 hours on a plane and all. But it always boggles my mind to arrive in a new place. No matter how lengthy the trip, it seems a bit miraculous that I stepped off the plane on the other side of the world.
There's so much to say before now, however. I had a great three days in San Francisco with my lovely friends Josie and Linnea, got to see a few people from the college contingent, went to the beach, had fantastic dim sum, ate burritos in the Mission -- the San Francisco requisites. I also want to do some reflecting on what I want this blog to be over the next year, how I want to change it. And to write a bit about how I prepared to take this trip, because it has been, is, and will continue to be an enormous undertaking.
But the people I'm couchsurfing with (more on that in awhile...) don't have wireless, so I will need to snatch bits of internet time as politely as I can from them. Not sure when blogging will happen, but I'll do my best.
First, though, an afternoon nap in the heat of the day (it's 30 degrees Celsius today!), then going into Sydney to have a look at the harbor, the Opera House, etc, and enjoy the warm sun and this new place I find myself in.
It's a hard life.
Friday, January 2, 2009
Awesome. (Sorry for posting this on the internet, Emma...)
We had survived two thousand miles with minimal wear and tear and a lot of good stories. The car was dirtier and our wallets were thinner, but my camera card was packed with pictures and my suitcase featured a collection of little souvenirs, postcards, and brochures. It had been a lovely, sometimes crazy ride (literally) through a country I hadn't known much about, really. We'd traversed several mountain ranges, traveled 14 states, seen a lot of great road side attractions, eaten lots of BBQ, and learned a lot about the country we call home. A wholly successful trip, and proof that you don't have to travel around the world to experience new things and have your perspective changed for the better.
Although, as it turned out, the traveling around the world would happen, anyway, not long afterward...