Travels in Oz

I'm off - for 6 months of adventure (er, research) in Australia.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Final Post - Part II

Well, I’m happy to report that I’m officially over jetlag. Now when I sleep until 10am, it’s just plain laziness. I would have finished this up earlier, but a computer meltdown delayed this final post. I suppose I should count my blessings that the laptop held together through six months in Australia, a year before that in the UK, and countless run-ins with my cat, who doesn’t tend to distinguish between a computer screen and a scratching post. But the fact that my computer was considerate enough to die on domestic soil doesn’t make the pain of shelling out a few hundred dollars for a replacement any easier.

In any case, back to the trans-Australia parental extravaganza. After a day or two winding our way through forests, we picked up the Great Ocean Road, which runs along the coast for almost 300 km. It’s a beautiful drive, and reminded me a lot of Big Sur in northern California – lots of twists and turns along cliffs, with gorgeous views of the ocean. The area is known for its ocean rock formations – huge pinnacles in the water that somehow remained while the rest of the cliff eroded and receded. The most famous are the Twelve Apostles; gorgeous orange and pink rock towers that are peppered along the coastline. Actually, I think there were only 10 or 11 of them to begin with, and now one or two have fallen down, making the official title a bit of a misnomer. Although I guess “The Rock Formations Formerly Known as The Twelve Apostles” is too much of a mouthful. We arrived just as the sun was setting, which set off the colors in the rock beautifully. It was fantastic.

The next morning we got up early to watch whales swim past a beach near our hotel, but the whales didn’t show up. The nerve. So it was on to South Australia and the Barossa Valley, one of the oldest wine producing regions in Australia. But first, we made sure to pass through a little town called Kingston, which has achieved world fame for a tourist attraction called the Big Lobster. It is…wait for it…a big statue of a lobster. Yes, we actually went out of our way to see this. Although, to be fair, it was extremely large – about 50 times bigger than a real lobster. And it had a gift shop, so all in all, it was a successful detour.

After a very relaxing day in the Barossa Valley, tasting wine, eating a gourmet lunch and channeling our inner yuppies, we flew north to Cairns. The city itself doesn’t have too much going for it – in fact, the closest comparison I can think of is that it’s kind of like Alabama (no offense to any Alabamans out there, I’m sure it’s a lovely place). Cairns, however, is a great jumping off point for trips out to the Great Barrier Reef. My mother isn’t too fond of boats, or water, or people who like boats and water, so she decided to spend a day relaxing with a book while Dad and I joined a tour that offered both snorkeling and diving. Now, I know that many of you who know me won’t believe what I’m about to write, but I actually conquered my fears – of sharks, and eels, and seasnakes, and estuarine crocodiles, and giant killer minnows – and gave diving a try. Actually, I couldn’t really believe I was doing it myself until I was in the water. But my friend Nadine had once told me that diving is easier than it seems, since it feels so abnormal – you have to put on a strange outfit, the only thing you can hear is yourself breathing, and even the way you swim feels different – that you sort of forget all of your usual fears of the ocean. And she was absolutely right. I didn’t freak out at all. It also helped that we were only underwater for about 25 minutes, so before I could start to panic, it was time to resurface. The fish were astounding, and the coral was very pretty, although not as brightly colored as in the aquarium. I did see a shark, but it was only about a foot long, and seemed to be sleeping. Still, that counts for something, doesn’t it? The whole experience was incredible and exhilarating, and that evening we celebrated my newfound status of fearless underwater adventurer by eating a lobster dinner. What can I say, it just seemed appropriate.

We flew back to Sydney happy, tired, and with my parents’ bank account considerably depleted. After a final day in the city, my parents jetted off to Hawaii, and I was left with four days to pack, wrap things up, and say goodbye to people. I had a fantastic going away party at Retro, a dance club that specializes in 70s and 80s music, and then a final dinner in a restaurant in Customs House, which not only had great food but a beautiful view of the harbor. Before I knew it, it was time to go. These past six months have been an amazing experience, and I’m so lucky to have met such wonderful people. I’ll miss them all – and Australia – for a long time to come.

But now it’s back to real life, and hopefully a completed dissertation and professorship in the near future. I’d keep this blog going, but I’m pretty sure that my trips to the library and back won’t excite even my most devoted reader (i.e., my mother). So that’s all for me. Thanks for reading everyone!

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Final Post - Part I

It’s been ages since I’ve written, so I’ll have to break this final post up into two. I’m now back in the States, settling in for the transition back to reality after an action-packed and wonderful final two weeks in Australia. My parents arrived excited and jetlagged, and we spent the first weekend in Sydney doing all of the typical tourist stuff (a play at the opera house, dinner by the harbor, drinks in the revolving restaurant at the top of the Australia Center Tower). Bright and early Monday morning we were on a flight to Melbourne for the start of the road trip. My mother turns into a narcoleptic in the car, so my dad and I did most of the driving. And actually, I found that driving on the other side of the road isn’t as hard as I’d imagined. The only problem was that since the steering column was on the wrong side, so too were the signals – meaning that every time we went to signal a turn, we inevitably hit the windshield wipers. I never realized how instinctual driving was until I changed lanes while cleaning the windshield for the 30th time. But the up side of our ineptitude was that our car was always spic and span.

We started out by heading east to Healesville, a tiny town that happens to have a huge and beautifully kept wildlife sanctuary. They provide free guides if you call ahead, so we were shown around by a friendly and very informative woman who spent three hours giving us interesting facts about the animals and answering our (sometimes very inane) questions. Kangaroos, echidnas, wallabies, dingos, koalas, emus, platapus (platapuses? platapi? whatever.) – we saw them all. I had heard somewhere that much of Australia’s koala population suffers from chalmydia, and it turns out to be absolutely true, although you’ll be happy to know that the Healesville koalas are disease-free. What might be less than true was my dad’s announcement a few days later that the koalas first contracted chlamydia by eating dirt – I’ll just leave that one up to you to decide.

Next it was off to Philip Island on the southern coast to see little penguins. During the summer there can be upwards of 2000 of these miniature birds crossing the beach every night, but during the winter they hibernate, so there were only about 400 making an appearance in our “penguin parade.” They come ashore to sleep and lay eggs, but are vulnerable to predators while out of the water, so they only make the trip under cover of darkness, in groups of 10 or 20. It started a few minutes after the sun set – we began to see a few huddled together on the shoreline, where they waited nervously until the leader suddenly got up the courage to go. The group ducked over en masse and waddled like mad to the long grasses on the other side of the beach. A few times one or two would get spooked and the entire group would abort the mission, plunging quickly back into the water until the coast was clear. Afterwards, we walked along the boardwalks by the beach, and got a fantastic close-up view of the penguins settling down for the night. It was adorable, and well worth sitting in the freezing cold for an hour. Plus, I’m pretty sure that none of them had chlamydia.

From Phillip Island we looped back past Melbourne and started heading west, through the forests of Victoria, where my dad – the ecologist – took approximately 837 pictures of leaves. He could describe this part of the trip to you in detail, but all I can say is that there were many nice paths through the woods, a few waterfalls, gigantic trees and thankfully, lots of little towns with coffeeshops. It was very relaxing.

I’ll leave it there for now – will wrap up the trip (adventures with giant lobsters and other sea creatures) after the jetlag starts to wear off…

Friday, June 16, 2006

Sports! Sports! Sports!

I’ve never been a big fan of sports, probably because any team competitions tend to bring up traumatic memories from my childhood (always the last picked, zero athletic ability, never quite understood the rules – all the usual stuff). The only trophy I ever won was in the duckpin bowling league I somehow found myself a member of at the age of 12, and that was for “high flat,” meaning the highest game you can bowl without getting any strikes or spares. Yes, it was a trophy for getting the best possible score if you otherwise suck at the game.

With all of that sports-related baggage, I shocked myself by spending the week watching, and actually enjoying, three different games. Living in Australia, it’s hard to avoid sports – everyone you meet plays something or supports some team or at least knows enough to engage in long conversations about sports heroes and game controversies that I always find completely incomprehensible. Since my time here is getting shorter and shorter, I figured that I needed to jump right in and find out what all this talk was actually about.

I started with an AFL (Australian Football League) game last Saturday night; the Sydney Swans were playing the Saint Kilda Saints, my friends were already going, and tickets were cheap. About ten minutes after we found our seats in the bleachers, it started raining steadily, and didn’t let up for the rest of the game. I discovered that feeling cold and soggy isn’t the best way to appreciate a new sport (there’s nothing quite like sitting in wet jeans for two hours), and besides that, I had no clue what was going on. Guys were scrambling around, sliding on the wet grass, pummeling into each other, kicking the ball, throwing the ball – it was all very confusing. Something like a cross between American football, soccer, and rugby, with perhaps some gymnastics and synchronized swimming thrown in for good measure. After it was over (Sydney lost by two points, but don’t ask me how), my friends declared that it had been a boring game, and we all went home.

Monday night was a different story. Australia was playing in the World Cup for the first time in 32 years, and everybody I knew was ridiculously excited about it. Even though the game didn’t start until 11pm on a school night, the pubs were packed. The crowd was pretty tense though – Australia’s team is better this year than it’s even been before, but it’s still not amazing (I guess you don’t miss out on playing in the World Cup for three decades for no reason), and a number of people told me that this would probably be the only game that they stood any chance of winning. The first half went terribly – Japan quickly scored a goal, while Australia took a few shots but never came close – and when things weren’t picking up in the second half, I thought the guy next to me was going to start crying. A friend of mine turned to me and said, “I just want to see Australia score one goal in the World Cup. They don’t have to win. I just want to see one goal,” which I found endearing in a really pathetic way. But just when everyone was about to give up, the team somehow rallied, and scored three goals in the last ten minutes. It was beautiful – strange men were hugging each other, everyone was cheering, and I got a free beer from the bartender (which I have to admit was probably the most exciting part of the evening for me).

To complete my sport trilogy, I decided to watch the second game of the State of Origin competition with my roommate on Wednesday. It’s a three game rugby series that’s been played for years between Queensland and New South Wales, and even though I was watching the game from Sydney, I chose to root for Queensland. Most of my friends are from up north, and in any case, they had prettier outfits. My god though, that game was intense. The guys playing were ridiculously beefy, and spent an hour and a half slamming each other to the ground, and then pummeling their opponents’ heads into the dirt for good measure. Tackles that would have killed most of the people I know were just shrugged off, men kept playing with bloodied faces and broken noses, and of course there wasn’t any padding. After the first 45 minutes, I was exhausted. But – and I hate to admit this, being an academic and all – it was great viewing. Plus, my side won, which made me feel accomplished even though all I did to support the team was sit on the couch in a ball, grimacing and saying “that looked painful” every now and then.

So, in sum, I’ve learned a few things: 1) sports are better when you are dry. 2) sports are best when accompanied by free beer. 3) brutality is fun.

The big news is that my parents are currently flying across the Pacific on their way to visit, arriving tomorrow morning at the crack of dawn. We’re off for two weeks of traveling – Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Cairns – and knowing my mother, many hours spent touring the gift shops of Australia. I can’t wait!

Friday, June 09, 2006

The Trip Out West

Here I am, back in Sydney, where it’s been raining nonstop for the past five days. This strikes me as incredibly unfair – Australia is, after all, the driest continent on earth, and I don’t want to spend my last few weeks in the country feeling waterlogged. The most ironic thing of all is that even though it has poured here (literally, poured) every day this week, it hasn’t helped the water shortage whatsoever. Apparently, Australians are adept at building dams in places where it hardly ever rains a drop.

But I really shouldn’t complain, since my mini-vacation in WA last weekend was pretty near perfect. Andrew and I started out bright and early on Thursday morning, picking up the rental car in downtown Perth, which came with the weird stipulation that we weren’t allowed to drive at night. It turned out that there are so many kangaroos in the region (who tend to get confused and hop towards headlights) that it’s easier for the insurance company to bar tourists from driving after dark than to keep replacing totaled cars. I mentioned that this was actually great news for me, since I was on a quest to see as many marsupials as possible, to which the rental car lady replied, “Oh you’ll see kangaroos. Dead ones.”

Well, that was a little disconcerting. But what did we care? We were on vacation! We started by driving south down the coastal highway, passing through a number of small seaside towns with little boutiques and shops selling great fish and chips. The beach in Western Australia is absolutely beautiful, stretching for miles and miles with huge waves pounding the shore. It’s unsurprisingly very popular with surfers. We stopped off at a cape and climbed around on the gigantic rocks on the shoreline, having fun finding crabs and urchins in the tidal pools, until – with my natural sense of grace and coordination – I nearly fell into one. Next it was off to look at thrombolites, which are billed as prehistoric “living rocks” of the kind that used to exist on earth before fish started climbing out of the sea. They were kind of neat, I suppose, but didn’t really do much.

As we were driving to find a place to stay that evening, Andrew pointed off to the left and said nonchalantly, “Oh look, there are some kangaroos.” And yes, there they were, about 50 of them of all different sizes, hanging out in a field eating the grass. I was incredibly excited, although they didn’t do much either, until a loud motorcycle passed by and they all started hopping nervously into the trees. It was great. That evening, we stayed in a tiny town called Bussleton, and after a Chinese dinner in the one restaurant that was open, we headed to the local pub. Luckily, it was karaoke night! The bar had about a dozen regulars in it, which by Bussleton standards meant it was packed. And as the new kids in town, we got a lot of attention. Andrew and I did an extremely poor rendition of the theme song from Dirty Dancing, which I followed up with a few hits from Journey, and Andrew with Dancin’ by the BeeGees. The DJ gave us second prize in the competition (although sadly, I think we were the only ones competing), and after a few games of pool with the local surfers and a long conversation about life with a couple of old guys at the bar, I decided that Bussleton was a surprisingly happening place.

The next day we got to the Margaret River Valley, which is one of the best wine regions in Australia. It produces about 1% of the nation’s wine, but counts for over 10% of the premium vintage market. I started to feel bad about making Andrew do all the driving – especially if he was going to have to cart me around from wine tasting to wine tasting – so we decided to get around the issue of a designated driver by renting bikes and cycling to the wineries. I had forgotten how much fun bike riding can be – and also how sore it can make you – but it was a great way of seeing the scenery. The problem was, my bike was the one with the basket, so that towards the end of the day I was peddling up hills carrying the extra weight of seven bottles of wine. Thankfully (and somewhat miraculously, given the amount of free wine we had drunk during the day), I didn’t topple over, and the precious cargo made it back safe and sound.

Saturday we went east into the Tall Timber Country, an area that used to have spectacularly big trees until most of them were either logged in the nineteenth century or burned down in the bush fires of the twentieth. Still, there were some really beautiful ones that had managed to survive, and it was relaxing to spend the day driving through forests. We spent the evening in a town called Mandjimup, which if possible, was even smaller than Bussleton – and since even the pub closed at 9pm, passed the time with a hard-fought game of Scrabble. It was up early the next day to climb the Diamond Tree, a 65 meter (a little over 200 feet) tall karri tree that has a ladder winding up the trunk that takes you to a fire lookout above the canopy. The book made it sound like a piece of cake, but when we got there, we found that the “ladder” was just some iron spikes stuck into the side of the tree, with nothing underneath to keep you from falling to your death. There wasn’t even a forest ranger on hand to call in the ambulance. It was, by far, the most dangerous tourist attraction I’ve ever seen. But, not knowing how high 65 meters actually was, I figured I might as well give it a try. About halfway up, I started seriously freaking out – it turns out 65 meters is high – but I eventually made it up to the first platform about 55 meters off the ground. Since my legs were still shaking from the climb, I was perfectly happy to stay at the lower platform, but Andrew managed to keep going to the very top, and said that the view was amazing.

On the way back to Perth, we stopped off for a very quick swim in the ocean. It was freezing, but I’d never been in the Indian Ocean before, so it had to be done. We got to the airport just in time, and were rewarded for sitting still on the five-hour plane ride with a perfect aerial view of Sydney harbor at night. Best of all, for the entire trip, it didn’t rain once.


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Nellie with Ye Olde Historic Lighthouse

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The coastline

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Andrew sees a rock

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Margaret River

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Action shot

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Climbing the Diamond Tree

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Ridiculously happy to have made it to the top

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Tuesday, May 30, 2006

The Perth library is fascinating

Just a quick post today - it's my last day in the library before a mini-vacation traveling around the southwest, and the books are calling. But I can't wait for some time off. As it turns out, spending 10 days straight huddled over a microfilm machine isn't the nonstop thrill ride I had been led to believe. At least I've gotten some good work done, and incredibly quickly too. Perhaps if I can do 3 months of research in a couple of weeks, then I can write up the dissertation in a month or two?

The weekend was filled with interviews for my research - none of which were particularly notable, except for one woman, aged about 85, who decided to take me on a little driving tour of Perth and Fremantle after we had finished. As we passed through the suburbs, she kept pointing out dilapidated houses, saying things like: "There's a house from the 1950s. The architecture is so interesting, isn't it? No, not interesting. It's fascinating, just fascinating." Believe me, this was an abuse of the term fascinating. And it went on for hours and hours. Just when I was considering throwing myself from the car, we passed an old pub, built sometime in the 1920s. "Oh that's a historical pub," she said. "It's listed with the National Trust. And it's also the first in Peth to feature topless barmaids!" Now that was fascinating. How she knew about the stripper waitstaff is anyone's guess.

My friend Andrew arrives this evening, and the plan is to rent a car and drive down the coast to the wineries of the Margaret River Valley, and then loop back to the "Tall Timber Country" in the east. Wine and trees, hooray!

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

I'm in Perth. Yay.

Hello from Perth, a city that appears to be one giant suburb. When I was first planning my trip to Australia, I thought I would split the six months between Sydney and Perth. Then I discovered how nice Sydney is, I made friends, I found a place to settle in - and my time in the west kept getting shorter and shorter. Now, I'm hoping to fit three months of research into about ten days. It means spending eleven hours a day in the library, and filling my weekend with back to back interviews, all of which leaves little time to sightsee. But that's actually alright, since there doesn't seem to be much to Perth. I went for a run yesterday next to the river, which was nice, and passed a bizarre tower that houses (randomly) the 18th century bells from London's St. Martin's in the Fields. It's apparently the biggest musical instrument in the world - a challenge if I ever heard one. Surely we can come up with something larger; a giant kazoo perhaps? There's also a big park that's worth a wander around, and as the airport shuttle bus driver told me, one street with good bars and cafes. And that's about it.

Still, it's probably too early to judge, especially since I've spent the vast majority of the last two days huddled over a microfilm machine in the state library. For the interviews I'm doing this weekend, I'll have a chance to get out of the city and see a bit of the surrounding area, which is supposed to be beautiful. (Of course, this also means renting a car and driving on the left-hand side of the road for the first time - please pray for me.) I got a glimpse of the countryside on the flight, and the views were really amazing. Perth is right next to the Indian Ocean, and is surrounded by farmland, but further east there is really nothing - just miles and miles of red and brown emptiness, with gigantic mud holes appearing periodically. It was strangely very pretty.

In other news, last weekend in Sydney was tons of fun, starting with a double feature on Friday with Ellena. Actually, we were just going to see one movie - a French film called Hidden - but it was a little too obscure for us. In fact, after it ended about half the audience lingered in the lobby reading the reviews and chatting to each other in a vain attampt to figure out just exactly what it was about. Ellena declared that she didn't like the move and felt she hadn't gotten her money's worth. The only way to even the score was to sneak into another movie. Well, her logic made sense at the time, and in any case she had already barreled into the next theater, so we ended up seeing some British comedy about a guy who swims the English Channel. It was pretty lame, but whatever, it was free.

On Saturday night, it was off to Paramatta with Andrew to see a band from New York, Living Colour. They haven't toured for 13 years, and were fantastic, but the show ended late and we had to sprint for the last train, or else risk a hundred dollar cab ride into the city from the suburbs. We just caught the train as it was about to pull out of the station, making us feel victorious in a Chariots of Fire sort of way. The next evening I headed over the Nadine and Emilie's house for another evening of music, but of a somewhat more kitschy variety: the Eurovision song contest! (Jealous, Wendy?) Americans sadly don't get to experience Eurovision, which was started in 1945 by a philanthropist who wanted to repair the discord of the Second World War by bringing the nations of Europe together in song. It's a beautiful idea, but over the years has devolved into perhaps the cheesiest spectacle ever created. To give you an idea, it's where ABBA got its start. But I absolutely love it. Where else can you see bleached blondes from Moldova wearing gold lamme jumpsuits sing about true love while pyrotechnics explode in the background? This year Finland won in a bit of an upset - their entry was a death metal band that wore monster masks and costumes with caps and wings. Unorthodox, yes, but they certainly expanded my understanding of Finnish culture. And really, isn't that what Eurovision is all about?

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

A whirlwind trip to Brisbane

The best thing about being a grad student is that you can take your weekends in the middle of the week. Last Tuesday night I flew up to Brisbane for an impromptu visit with my former roommates Peter and Andrew. It was a cheap flight, I needed a break, and Andrew’s pictures of the beautiful new house, complete with a pool, were just too much to resist. Moving up north hasn’t changed Peter and Andrew at all – they are just as silly as before, and it was great to have the chance to relax with good friends. Plus, I got to see Toby and Lulu, their very lovable golden retrievers, and to spend some quality time with the espresso machine that I’ve been missing so deeply for the past two months.

Wednesday was my day of sightseeing, and Brisbane is small enough that you can do all of its attractions in one go. I started by taking a ferry down the river, which meanders through the city, and hopped off at the Botanical Gardens. My father is an ecologist, and after countless walks through the woods with dad as a kid, I should be able to tell the different types of trees apart. Sadly though, I’m lucky if I can distinguish an oak tree from a bush. But, ignorant as I am, I still find botanical gardens serene and impressive, and the one in Brisbane was no exception. There was a wooden walkway through a marshy area by the river that was particularly beautiful, and made a perfect spot for lunch. I was then off to the art gallery, which was fairly small, so I saw pretty much everything in an hour and a half. Actually, the best pieces were in an exhibition of prize-winning work by Australian high school students – some of them really blew me away. Of course, then I just started to feel old and unaccomplished (after all, my two greatest achievements in high school were playing a bit part in Bye Bye Birdie and not failing Chemistry) so I quickly moved on to the nearby Museum of Brisbane. It was, by far, the strangest museum I’ve ever been in. Here’s a selection of the exhibits it held:

Ceramics from the 1970s
Stuffed polar bears, stuffed kangaroos, stuffed birds, stuffed possums
Old trains
Egyptian mummies
Pickled snakes in jars of formaldehyde
A dried skeleton of a lizard with a bird in its mouth (apparently it had tried to eat the bird, but bit off more than it could chew, choked on the carcass, and was found – mummified by the sun – years later)


Afterwards, it was time for a recuperative coffee on the south bank of the river, and then back home for dinner; Andrew made an incredible lamb bruscetta, and we spent the evening chatting over some wine. The next day I lounged around by the pool, then met up with my friend Ragne, who I lived with during my first two weeks in Sydney before she moved up the coast. It was a fantastic mid-week weekend. Thanks Peter and Andrew – I had a great time.