Travels in Oz

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

Monday, April 24, 2006

Camping Antics

Throughout last weekend’s camping trip with my friends Ellena, Sudarshan and Andrew, we had an on-going discussion about whether or not we could cut it as pioneers. Ellena decided early on that due to her love of showering and gourmet meals, she was most certainly not of pioneering stock, and Sudarshan’s penchant for golf vacations quickly took him out of the running. Between Andrew and myself, he was clearly the more hardy – he made a fire, I complained about the smoke getting in my eyes – but I thought that maybe the prospect of me strapping on a backpack and staggering up and down hills all day wasn’t completely implausible. That is, until I spent the night in a tent, constantly changing positions, trying to find a comfortable spot. Sometime around 4am I came to the realization that there was no comfortable spot. It just didn’t exist. And even if my bones weren’t hurting from the hardness of the ground, they were aching from the cold. So that settles it; I’d rather have a bed than a life of exploration.

But despite the 8 hours of sleeplessness, the rest of the camping trip was a blast. We started by driving to Blackheath, which is in the middle of the Blue Mountains, about 2 hours from Sydney. The area is beautiful, and looks amazingly untouched. We went to overlook the “grand canyon” (which is big, but – ahem – not nearly as grand as the one in the States), and could see hundreds of acres of gum trees without a single path cutting through them. Feeling adventurous, we found a trail and hiked (sorry, “bushwalked”) to the bottom of the canyon, passing through a riverbed and past gigantic rock overhangs. The ascent was less fun, but we made the whole circuit without anyone collapsing, in about 3 hours.

Next it was off to the Three Sisters, which is the region’s most famous rock formation. The place was buzzing with tourists, but we settled in and waited until the crowds cleared a bit and the sun started going down, which lit up the orange in the rocks. Afterwards, there was just enough time for a trip to a gourmet chocolate shop (Ellena and I both find it sacrilegious to pass by any type of chocolate purveyor) before heading back to the campsite for an evening meal of burritos, baked potatos with beans and roasted marshmallows. I was excited to introduce the Australians to S’mores, but they were a little intimidated by them. Sudarshan said that although the roasted marshmallow-chocolate-cookie combination was good, it was far too rich for anyone to stomach more than one. As a true American, I felt it my duty to prove him wrong.

The next morning we were off to Jenolan, an underground network of caves around 90 million years old. Or something like that – I was too distracted by the pretty crystals on the walls to pay much attention to the facts. We took a tour through the biggest cave with a really enthusiastic tour guide and approximately one million screaming children. Ah, there’s nothing in the world like being enclosed underground with other people’s children. The cave was quite impressive though, and definitely worth seeing – although perhaps not during school holidays.

The last stop of the day was in Wentforth Falls, a small town where you can see (wait for it) Wentworth’s Falls. It hasn’t been raining much recently, so the waterfall wasn’t at its peak, although it did make a nice place for a picnic. Plus, the town had a café selling strong coffee and beautiful cakes, so all in all, it was a successful stopover. On the way back to Sydney, I tried to convince everyone to take a quick trip to Euroka National Park, which is apparently the best place to see kangaroos in the wild, but a traffic jam and Ellena’s desire for a shower cancelled that plan. We did pass by kangaroo roadkill on the highway though, so I suppose that counts for something?

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Hiking in Blackheath

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Andrew and Sudarshan have a Star Wars moment

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The Three Sisters

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In case you couldn't spot them

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Roasting Marshmallows

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Jenolan Caves

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Wednesday, April 19, 2006

The Great Escape

I’m back at work after fantastic four day holiday where I slept in late, played all day, and ate a lot of chocolate. You’ve got to love Easter. Friday kicked off with breakfast at a café in Newtown with some friends. The nice thing about eating out in Australia is that they have the European style of service – there’s no tipping, they don’t bring the bill until you ask for it, and there’s none of that overly friendly banter that desperate American wait staff are prone to (think TGI Fridays). So we arrived around 10am and stayed chatting until close to 2. I, of course, steered the conversation towards food, and one of the women there gave me the strangest breakfast recipe: a bowl of ricotta cheese, mixed with some fresh strawberries, and covered in condensed milk. I haven’t decided if that sounds good or sickening, although it does have cheese in it, so it can’t be all bad.

The next day I was up early to go to Olympic Park for the Great Escape, a music festival that brings in bands from around the world, but also showcases some of the best of the Australian music scene. I had never heard of these bands before, so I had no expectations, but some of them were really incredible. The highlights were Juan de Marco’s Afrocuban All Stars, which is a 20 member salsa band that I’m pretty sure was in Buena Vista Social Club, Femi Kuti from Nigeria, who also must have had about 20 people on stage, and the Black Keys, a bluesy rock band from (bizarrely) Akron, Ohio. On the Australian side, my favorite was Vasco Era, a band that seemed to be a cross between Nirvana and Green Day – their music was pretty good, but it was the frontman who made the show: he bounced around like a maniac, banged on bongos like Animal from the Muppet Show, and every so often would look out at the crowd with an expression on his face that said “This is so much fun! Isn’t this fun!” My friends and I spent the day wandering from tent to tent, listening to music, drinking coffee, dancing. It hasn’t rained much lately, so whenever a band really got going, the crowd’s jumping around would stir up huge clouds of dust – I got home that evening tired, happy, and caked in dirt.

After all that, I took the rest of the weekend easy. Another trip to the beach (it’s really too chilly to go now, but I can’t stop myself), a movie, lots of pottering around the house. Best of all, I realized that there are two more four day weeks coming up: next Tuesday is Anzac Day, and the following Monday is a public holiday for the Queen’s birthday. Let the gluttony continue!

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Assorted animal tales

Happy Birthday Lauren!

Well, just when I had started thinking about buying an extra pair of jeans and digging out an old scarf from the bottom of my suitcase, it’s become summer again. I’m writing this on a bench outside the library in gorgeous 80 degree weather, watching joggers run by in shorts and t-shirts. Life is good.

It’s funny how you can walk the same path to work day in and day out, and never notice the things you pass. A case in point are the two pictures of sculptures that I posted yesterday. The boar I had seen before, because really, how can you miss a bronzed pig that continually spits at you? It’s nose is shiny since (of course) rubbing it is supposed to bring you luck. But having passed by it on so many occasions, I only stopped to read the plaque the other day. Turns out, it’s a memorial to a doctor whose nickname was (can you guess?) The Boar. It sadly doesn’t say how he got this nickname, although I presume it had something to do with behavior at cocktail parties. The other sculpture – the one of the cat – I completely missed for months. It’s tucked away on a ledge of the library, behind a generic statue of one of the Brits who “discovered” Australia in the eighteenth century. The story is that the cat, “Trim,” circumnavigated the globe with his owner from 1801-1803, and “thereafter shared his exile on the island of Mauritius where he met his untimely death.” The best part is that the cat statue was funded by “Trim’s admirers” and unveiled by a Rear-Admiral, who must have felt a little ridiculous eulogizing an animal that bit the dust over 200 years ago. But you really have to love a country that will to go these lengths to commemorate a dead cat.

The other pictures are from my trip to the NSW Art Gallery last week. The museum’s hours are extended every Wednesday night, and the place fills with hip, young, twenty-somethings who love art (or, like me, have only one channel on their TVs). It’s a fantastic gallery, and has a lot of eclectic works, plus a really good aboriginal art section. These were my favorites – a gigantic sculpture made of pantyhose and filled with saffron and cinnamon. Art you can smell. The other is a display of 1000 small clay figures made from soil taken from the outback, arranged in a gigantic circle. You can walk through the display, which gives you the very creepy experience of slowly turning around to see thousands of tiny eyes staring at you. The guy who did this – Antony Gormlie – did another great piece of 100 identical cast-iron statues of himself, which I saw exhibited on a beach in Liverpool. He has also, apparently, put an empty box in the middle of the outback, in a location so remote that probably no one will ever find it. Weird. But still, the 1000 little clay guys idea is brilliant, and must have been a lot of fun to make. A woman who worked at the gallery told me that one gets broken by an over-exuberant tourist at least once a week, so they have a few hundred spares in the back room.

On Saturday I went to a housewarming party thrown by my friend Merissa, who’s also American and has also lived in New York – we bonded quickly since we remind each other of home. It turns out that Merissa has a very odd assortment of friends: the highlight was a guy who called himself Carl-Ó, who showed up with his own entourage of hipster doofuses, all in backward hats and ridiculously large pants. Carl-Ó spent the evening trying to get people to call him “The Wolf,” which seemed a bit inappropriate since we soon learned that he lived with his parents and supported himself as a professional picture-hanger. Since I had “The Boar” on the brain, I suggested he adopt that instead. He wasn’t enthusiastic about the idea. And after a few hours, there was a small but powerful underground movement sweeping the party, trying to rename him “The Idiot.” Although, I have to hand it to Carl-Ó, he certainly was good-natured, and very entertaining.

The library is closed for the four day weekend, which pretty much forces me to take some time off. Aw, shucks. On tap is a music festival on Saturday, followed by Easter dinner at my friends Chris and Insoon's house, for which I somehow have to produce a wheat-free apple pie without a) a pie plate b) a big bowl c) a cuisinart. Pray for me.

Monday, April 10, 2006

An assortment of randomness

Explanations of these pictures coming soon!

Close up of the little guys

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Gormlie exhibition

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Art that smells

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Spitting boar

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The intrepid cat

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Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Are my beach days over?

Another week, another few painfully written pages added to the dissertation. I’ve been a bit lax about the blog lately, since after spending my days agonizing over sentences – asking myself if I’ve used the word thus too many times, or trying to write around split infinitives and the dreaded passive voice – I’ve opted for more mindless activities in the evenings. Luckily though, I came to the realization today that this blog is pretty mindless. And I don’t think any of you would care if I used the passive voice. Or if the passive voice was used by me.

But the dissertation did take me to a number of strange places around Sydney this week on interviews. The most bizarre was Parramatta, which is about a 30 minute train ride from downtown, and as it turns out, is classified as the third largest city in Australia after Sydney and Melbourne. At least that’s what a friend told me. You would think that the third most populous district would have more to offer than a lot of fast food restaurants and a bowling alley. Although I should point out that there was also a sad little nature preserve where the woman I interviewed took me for lunch in order to see beautiful kangaroos and emus penned up in enclosures. I always find zoos to be downers (now, no one better call me a hypocrite for disliking zoos but loving aquariums, since we all know that fish aren’t cuddly), and this one was no exception. But I do now have some pictures of myself looking uncomfortable in front of a bunch of bored wallabies in cages. Woo.

The big event of the week was a trip to the opera house on Friday night. It really is a beautiful building, and I’ve passed it on the train every day for the last three months on the way to the library, so expectations were high. I went with my friend Andrew, who’s lived in Sydney for the past two years but had never been to the opera house either, so in effect we were both tourists. The play was “Doubt,” which is about Catholicism, and fantastically interesting, although to be honest, I was so excited about just being there that it could have been “Three’s Company: A Retrospective” for all I cared. There are a number of different theaters in the building – the biggest is obviously the opera stage, and “Doubt” was in a smaller, side theater. People often say that the design of the building creates bad acoustics, but I really didn’t notice it (although of course, the acoustic problem might just be on the larger stages). Afterwards, we got a drink at one of the bars on the harbor, which was full of suits who had just gotten off work, and a bit too loud and crowded to be much fun. Happily though, on the way back to the train, I discovered that there’s a Baskin Robbins right next to the opera house. Could there be a better way to follow an evening of culture and class than with a gigantic sundae?

Sunday was beautiful day, so I was off to Coogee for another few hours of beach time. It’s just starting to get cold, and was a little too chilly to justify sunbathing, but I tend to live in denial anyway. Based on the amount of other people there, a lot of tourists are also not accepting the fact that it’s the beginning of fall in Sydney. There we were, all shivering together in bikinis and swim trunks. It was faintly ridiculous, but did create a nice (but sadly, not warm) sense of comradery.