Travels in Oz

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

Sunday, March 26, 2006

For the love of hip-hop

Americans have started appearing everywhere in Sydney. When I first got here, I was reveling in the fact that I seemed to be the only American in town, if only because it made me feel special. But now everywhere I turn, I hear American accents (although to be fair, some of them might be Canadians). Either the study abroad kids have appeared in force, or I’m manifesting homesickness by projecting nasal vowels on unsuspecting Australians.

In any case, a very welcome reminder of home came last Thursday in the form of a De La Soul, perhaps one of the greatest and most lovable hip-hop bands to come out of Long Island. When I saw that they were playing in Sydney, just a few blocks from my house, I knew I couldn’t miss the opportunity. None of my friends wanted to come along (a few were vaguely interested, but I didn’t want to go with anyone who was just tepid about De La Soul), so I ended up going on my own. Actually, going alone was a lot more fun than I expected, since it left me free to dance like a maniac and sing along to all the songs. Plus, it would be pretty hard not to have a good time at a De La Soul concert. They were incredible performers, and really interacted with the audience. “Put your hands in the air! Now wave them around! Now shout that you love hip-hop! Now put your hands down and bounce!” It was kind of like being back in elementary school, but much funkier. (That said, I had a purple bedazzled sweatsuit in elementary school that was pretty funky).

On the Australiana front, there’s a banana famine going on across the country. Last weekend there was a big cyclone in northern Queensland, which devastated the banana growing region. You can still find them in the grocery store, but at 3-4 times last week’s price – so that unexpectedly, bananas have become a luxurious status symbol. This is a nuisance to some, but is a real quality of life issue for me, since I inherited an intense love of bananas from my dad, a man who has been known to polish off half a dozen in a weekend. But a few days ago, I came to the profoundly disturbing realization I’ve reached a level of graduate student poverty where I can’t even afford my banana habit. I’ve had to quit cold turkey.

On Sunday I was hanging around the house trying to get some work done while simultaneously feeling sorry for myself for a) spending Sunday working and b) having no bananas to dull the pain. Luckily though, I realized that everything I needed was contained on my laptop, so I packed up and headed downtown to the Botanical Gardens, to spend some time writing in the sunshine. I may not have been any more productive, but it was a much nicer way to spend a working weekend than being cooped up in a library. Now I just have to resist the temptation to make the gardens my permanent office – there’s already too fine of a line between the life of a graduate student and a hobo.

My office

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a colleague drops by to inspect productivity levels

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My final banana

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Monday, March 20, 2006

Candy, the beach, some Chinese people

It's been one week of life in the empty house, and I have to admit, it's feeling more and more natural by the day. The biggest drawback is not having a fully kitted out kitchen - in fact I had to cook pasta in a frying pan the other night (which actually worked out surprisingly well). I've shied away from using the frying pan to boil water for tea though, since that exceeds my grossness threshold. It might just be time to head to Chinatown to invest in a $3 pot. But if nothing else, this lifestyle does give me pleasant flashbacks to my college days, when I perfected the technique of making macaroni and cheese in a coffeepot.

I was settling in for a quiet Sunday when I got a frantic call from my friend Ellena, who seemed to have just realized that it was mid-March. "We HAVE to go to the beach," she said, panic-stricken, "The summer weather could end any day now, and if we don't spend enough time at the beach, we'll probably REGRET it for the REST of our lives!" Well, I was loathe to argue with a rationale as solid as that, so I got into my swimsuit, found my towel, and waited outside for her to pick me up. When she arrived, she was even more wild-eyed than her tone on the phone had led me to believe. "You didn't TELL me that you lived on the same block as a CHOCOLATE WAREHOUSE! How could you NOT MENTION THAT?" Ellena, as you've probably figured out by now, is a little excitable. To be honest (and I know you'll all find this hard to believe), I really hadn't noticed that the big, non-descript building at the end of the street was a candy wholesaler. But of course as soon as we saw that it was open on Sundays, we had to go scope it out. Words cannot describe what it was like inside. It was truly a magical place. They had every type of candy you can imagine, lined in beautiful rows on shelves that were about eight feet high. Jawbreakers, smarties, Lindt chocolates, gigantic Easter eggs, gummies of all different shapes and sizes, and even Reeses peanut butter cups, which are my favorite, but which you can't find anywhere else in Australia. We ran around, well, like kids in a candy store. I spent far too much money on junk food, but later justified it with the thought that I had found an entire food group that I won't need to prepare in my frying pan.

We then headed for Coogee, which is a small but very beautiful beach south of Bondi. I had only heard of it once before, in Bill Bryson's book on Australia (thanks Howie). He tells the story of a group of fishermen who caught a shark off the coast of Coogee: they took it to an aquarium, where it was happily swimming around a few days later, entertaining the tourists, when it vomited up a human arm. I love stories like that - they feed my shark phobia very nicely - but for some reason, even knowing the perils of Coogee's beaches, I managed to get up the courage to actually go into the ocean for a swim. Perhaps it was the massive sugar high I was coasting on. Or maybe it was just Ellena's subtle urging: "We HAVE to go in the water! Swimming is SO FANTASTIC!"

After a few hours of roasting in the sun and 2 bags of gummy worms, Ellena dropped me off at my friend Chris' house for dinner. His girlfriend Insoon had a Chinese couple visiting for a few days, and it turned out that they didn't know very much English. I was invited along to keep Chris entertained while Insoon spoke to her friends in Chinese. Actually, Chris didn't need to worry - we all got along famously. Insoon was very good at playing translator, and it was fun to have everything said twice. I would tell a joke, Chris would laugh, Insoon would translate it, the Chinese couple would laugh. It was like living life in stereo. Plus, even without a firm grasp of English, the Chinese guests were incredibly charming. The guy in particular had a habit of laughing for absolutely no reason, at absolutely everything. At one point, we had a long, and quite serious discussion about how people often think he's crazy, since just can't stop laughing. I commented that having people question your sanity might be tough, to which he replied "Ha, ha, ha! Yes! Very tough! Ha, ha, ha!"

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Andrew and Peter

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The backyard Kookaburra

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Commonwealth Games coin

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Life in the shell

My roommates moved out on this Monday, so I am officially living the lifestyle of a hobo squatter in my empty shell of a house. It's a bit weird. I do miss having Peter and Andrew around - they were great fun and some of the best roommates I've ever lived with. But on the bright side, having only a bed, coffeepot, and can opener to my name gives me a nice sense of self-sufficiency. Plus, I've started to allocate rooms of the house to my various hobbies. The upstairs bedroom has now become my yoga room, the balcony off of Peter's office is my reading nook, and the living room turns out to be the perfect place to do cartwheels in the morning. Still, it would be nice to have a chair. Or more than one mug.

But life goes on. The weekend was full of packing and helping the guys move (made much nicer by the duets that Andrew and I decided to sing. We went through the Sound of Music, then on the Grease, and ended up with some classic Bon Jovi...), so I actually did very little by way of sightseeing. Luckily, though, Australian fauna came to me instead: on Saturday morning as the coffee was brewing, Peter pointed out a kookaburra sitting on the clothesline at the back of the house. It was much bigger than I expected, and seemed perfectly content to wait around for me to find my camera. But sadly it didn't laugh, even though I was telling it some of my best jokes (Horse walks into a bar. Bartender goes, "Hey man, why the long face?" Cue cymbals.)

The big news in Australia is that the Commonwealth games are about to start in Melbourne, which apparently are like the Olympics, only excluding any of the countries lucky enough to have been left out of the British Empire. Australians seem to be much more excited about these games than they were about the Olympics, largely because they will probably win almost every medal, unlike the country's somewhat poor showing in the winter games. I guess Australia's climate doesn't create many opportunities for bobsled or ice skating practice. Anyway, the Queen has come to visit, and the national mint has released a special 50 cent piece to commemorate the event. I've posted a picture of this coin, since the other night in the bar (where most great observations occur), a few friends pointed out that the design is a bit peculiar. The concept is a depiction of the various sports of the Commonwealth games. There's swimming in the lower left-hand corner, and high jump in the upper right. Now, I know it's a fuzzy picture, but look at the two pictures on the top and center left. The top appears to be that world-renowned sport of patting the emu. Or perhaps the runner is simply playing tag with the emu. The center left is even stranger: it seems to be a woman whipping a goose. Sure, geese aren't the friendliest of animals, but is there really any sporting prowess in whipping them? Although as an American, I suppose I shouldn't critique, since I come from the country that invented the playful sport of skeet-shooting vice-presidential advisors

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Exciting News!

Yet more proof that good things come from complaining. On the way back from Canberra, after writing about how unjust it was that Australia's marsupials seemed to be hiding from me, I saw my first kangaroos! I was on the bus to Sydney, staring out the window and thinking about nothing, when we passed a little stream in the woods, around which were four kangaroos of varying sizes, lit by a rosy late afternoon sunlight that dappled through the trees. It was like an Australian version of a Norman Rockwell painting. And it was, perhaps, the most exciting three seconds of my life. When I got back home, I of course started telling everyone I knew that I had seen kangaroos, but no one appeared to be as blown away by it as I was. I had been under the impression that the first kangaroo sighting was an important rite of passage, but maybe it's a bit like an Australian coming to the States and going on and on about the squirrels. A lot of people also told me that they were probably wallabies (which are smaller) and not kangaroos - as if that mattered! They had pouches, they bounced, what more could a girl hope for?

I was only in Sydney for one night before I had to jump on another bus for the five hour journey to Orange, a country town in central New South Wales. I was spending the weekend doing a number of interviews with the people I'm researching, so it was three solid days of work with very little time to explore the city. But that's all right, because there doesn't really seem to be much to Orange. When I asked some friends what the place was famous for, the most common answer was bar brawls and rioting. Luckily, the hooligans must have been on vacation last weekend, since I only met talkative, overly tanned but largely cheerful people. Orange has an agricultural college and is surrounded by lots of pretty farmland - in chatting to people, I learned much about chicken farming and topsoil. It also, I discovered, has a large commercial snail farm, which makes me wonder if there's actually a lucrative market in the snail business. In any case, my research also took me to a tiny town called Molong, about a half-hour drive outside of Orange, which was described by a local as a one-horse town. But having spent 7 hours there, I can authoritatively say that Molong isn't even exciting enough to warrant one horse. It's more of a one large-dog town.

Anyway, on coming back to Sydney, I decided that I needed to throw a dinner party before my furniture disappears. Perhaps I should explain: my roommates are moving to Brisbane next week and are taking all of their furniture with them. But the new owners of the house don't move in until May, so I'm staying on (rent-free) to watch over the place while they're gone. This arrangement saves me some money and the trouble of finding a new sublet, plus it allows me to broaden my horizons by experiencing what life is like as a squatter. I'll have a mattress, a mini-fridge, a pot, a pan, and some cutlery, but that's about it. So you can see that throwing a dinner party now is better than in a week, when my guests would have to sit on the bare floor and all eat off of one plate. The challenge was in the food restrictions: there were two vegetarians as well as two wheat-free / lactose intolerant people, so basically it meant that I was going vegan. That's difficult for people of any nationality, but I think especially for an American, since all of our best dishes involve some animal carcass or tons of butter (or best of all, animal carcass cooked in butter - yum!). After a despairing moment when I thought I would just serve them all potato chips, I found some great Middle Eastern recipes and managed to come up with the healthiest meal I've ever cooked. Some of it was even tasty, once you put enough salt on it

Wednesday, March 01, 2006


First, an explanation of the kangaroo picture. It was taken by my roommate Alex, who spotted it while hiking in the Blue Mountains last week. It was a young one - full grown they can be 5 or 6 feet - and despite the somewhat evil expression it's wearing in the picture, was apparently quite cute and friendly. Now, you might be wondering why I've put someone else's photos on my blog, but it's the closest I've come to seeing a kangaroo since I've been here. This makes me feel profoundly cheated, since I pretty much expected to see kangaroos everywhere: on the way to work in the morning, wandering through the backyard, hopping down grocery store aisles. But can you believe it, kangaroos don't seem to live in the suburbs of Sydney! And I haven't bumped into Russell Crowe or Nicole Kidman since I've been here either (although I did meet a girl whose first kiss was with Heath Ledger in high school). Anyway, I've decided that I'm not leaving Australia until I see a kangaroo in the wild. Or at least a wallaby. Or Paul Hogan.

Anyway, here I am in the Canberra bus station, killing time before I head back to Sydney. The trip started as a bit of a disaster on Monday: my bus was late, so I got to the archive with only a couple of hours left, and then discovered that my digital camera was broken. Because the archives are miles away from any sign of civilization, let alone an electronics store, I figured I would just start working and buy a new camera in the morning. But it turned out that the files I had preordered had been misdirected, and I got a stack of files on public planning in the 1960s. By the time my actual files arrived, I was able to read 10 pages before the archive closed. On the bright side, I did learn one new thing - Australian public planning in the 1960s is an intensely boring subject.

I was starting to think that I'd entered a particular phase of bad luck. The night before in Sydney, I had met some friends at Tropfest, which is a free short film festival screened every summer in parks across Australia. There we were, enjoying a picnic and some very clever little movies, when the skies opened and god tried to slowly drown us all. I've seen some amazing storms before, but this one was ferocious. Since I still hadn't bought an umbrella (I was sort of working under the impression that I could make Australia meet my expectations of sunshine through sheer force of will), I got well and truly soaked. And when I later took off my flip-flops to maneuver more easily through the puddles, I stepped on a slug. See? Cursed.

But things took a definite turn for the better when I met up with my friend Ritchie after the archives closed. Loyal readers of the blog will remember Ritchie from my last trip to Canberra - he's a friend of a friend who I met in Sydney, and is very enthusiastic about showing visitors that Australia's capital isn't as bad as its reputation (although I get the impression that he only half believes this himself). Ritchie, like most Australians I've met so far, is an incredibly generous guy, and when he heard that I'd be staying in the hostel, offered me the spare bedroom in his house. Well, of course I jumped at the chance, not only for the free accommodation, but also because it would save me from the YHA communal showers (or as I tend to think of them, the ninth circle of hell).

We went to Canberra's Chinatown - a pretty funny place, since like everything else in the city, it was completely planned. Compared to New York's Chinatown, with its crowded sidewalks filled with tanks of eels, carts of strange-looking fruit and stalls selling thousands of flashing miniature toys, Canberra's version is incredibly tame and gentrified. Really it's just a street with a few Asian restaurants and some Christmas lights crisscrossing overhead. But we did find cheap and very tasty seafood laksa, which made even my broken camera seem like it wasn't such a big deal. The next night, after a trip to the camera store and a full day in the archive, I came home to find Ritchie cooking an elaborate Thai dinner for his roommates and a few friends. It was absolutely delicious. The best part was a dessert of black sticky rice topped with mango and sesame seeds, which I have to admit, looked a little gross but tasted wonderfully sweet and coconuty.

So basically, thanks to connections and my extraordinary mooching powers, a boring research trip to Australia's most lackluster city has turned out to be a really nice couple of days