Sunday, April 30, 2006

Back in the Northern Hemisphere

Greetings from Japan!

No more tomato planting for me. On Thursday I took an 8 hour bus ride up to Cairns and on Friday morning I was on a plane to Osaka.

We have packed in quite a lot of sightseeing so far around Kyoto. I have seen monkeys, deer, a bamboo forest, some nice views of Kyoto, and many, many temples and shrines (including the largest wooden building in the world). After we hit up Osaka, Kobe, Himeji, and Hiroshima, I will surely be wiped out.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

No More Farmwork

Ugh. Enough is enough. While I now have nothing buy the highest level of respect for anyone who works in the agricultural business, it is clearly not for me. My muscles aches, I'm tired, and I'm bored out of my mind.

I'm leaving the country.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Australian Mud Bath

There are some experiences that remind you who you really are inside. No matter how much you may try to change, there are some characteristics that are fundamental to your personality. Today, my identity as a spoiled brat was wholly confirmed. I, a girl who has never done a hard day's work in my entire life, decided it would be a good idea to try my hand at farm work. It seemed like a good idea when I made the decision--it's a new experience, I can do it for only a few weeks, it's a good way to save money (because it's always in small towns where there's nothing to spend it on), and I'd heard it wasn't so bad.

After four days of sitting around bored to tears at the hostel, there was finally work this morning and I was ready to go. It's been raining a bit here in Bowen, North Queensland, and when the ground is wet the machines that usually plant tomatoes can't drive properly so it all has to be done by hand. The fields were pure mud. They had us take off our shoes because it wasn't worth it to keep them on. Tomato planting consists of one person dropping the plants on to a plastic cover and another person poking holes in the cover and planting the plants. Basically, it's a lot of bending over.

The rows we planted seemed endless. There were 100 plants in a crate, and we just went through crate after crate. My back was sore after about 10 minutes. Just when you got to the end of the row, there'd be another row to start. All in ankle-deep mud. The sun came out for awhile, which made me think I was going to faint. As much as I adore the sun, it is hotter here than anywhere I've ever been, including the Caribbean, southern India, and equatorial Kenya. It's just brutal. Luckily the rain started up again. Never have I been so glad to be in soaking wet jeans.

Finally they told us we were finished. My shoulders and back ached, and I have the feeling my arms and legs will be sore tomorrow. I checked the time--we had only been out there for three hours! What am I going to do when we have to work a full day?

There is no question in my mind that I am not cut out for farm work. I will stay the week and a half that I have left, probably praying every night that there will be no work the next day. Yes, I am a spoiled and prissy and can't handle manual labor. But right now, I'm just fine with that.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

I Understand Why Rich People Buy Yachts

Soon after arriving in Australia, I realized that four months here is just not very much time, especially when I wanted to do some working in addition to sightseeing. But I narrowed my list down to include just a few "can't miss" things, one of those being sailing on the Whitsunday Islands. And now I can check that off my list.

The Whitsunday Islands are a group of 74 islands right on the Great Barrier Reef. They are about 2/3 of the way up the east coast (give or take). I have to say, my sailing trip did not disappoint.

At first I was slightly afraid that it would disappoint me. About five minutes before we got to the marina, it started pouring rain, and didn't stop that first night. Luckily, the first night was just sailing, so no swimming or sunbathing was ruined. The boat I was on held 24 passengers and 4 crewmembers, all in pretty close quarters. I don't know where I got the idea that there would be rooms on the boat (I swear the brochure said you could book private rooms), but the bunks were basically just holes in the wall. The boat was a racing maxi--I don't really know what that is, but they said that it won the Sydney to Hobart yacht race back in the day, so basically it's really fast.

On Tuesday morning, we left the area we were docked at and sailed over to Whitehaven Beach, which is supposed to be one of the top beaches in the world. The weather was still rainy, but it cleared up about the time we finished our hike over to the beach. The white sand there is silica, so when you look at it up close, it actually looks clear. It was absolutely beautiful. We spent the morning there, swimming and looking around. The water was extremely clear, and even though we weren't out on the reef, we still saw rays swimming around.

Check out the picture on the right--the little black dots are people frolicking in the water, but they're all wearing full body suits. It's "stinger" season still--stingers (aka box jellyfish) are deadly little guys who you can't see in the water, but their stings affect your nervous system and you become paralyzed within minutes. It's a little weird being on the beach decked out in a stinger suit, but I'd rather not take my chances.

That afternoon we headed over to some cove where we could snorkel. It was still raining some, but it didn't matter when you were in the water. Now, I have a bit of a confession to make. When I was in Australia in 1997, we took a trip to the Great Barrier Reef for snorkeling, and although I told everyone it was awesome, I was actually pretty disappointed. On that trip, I only saw a couple fish, and they were so far away that it would have been better in an aquarium. I told everyone it was awesome because everyone else I was with seemed impressed, but I was rather let down. Now, after this sailing trip, I understand why everyone is in awe of the reef. Just 10 feet from the shore, there was a whole underwater world with zillions of fish, brightly colored coral, etc. It looked just like Finding Nemo. The coral was actually had places that were neon blue and purple--colors you don't expect to find in nature. The fish ranged from very tiny, to great huge parrotfish, and none were scared of humans. If you just swam slowly and quietly, they came up right next to you. Perhaps the coolest thing was that if you were quiet, you could actually hear the fish eating.

The sailing trip came with a free scuba dive. I thought this would mean nothing to me since I don't have a scuba license, but it turned out that the free dive could also be an intro dive. I figured I might as well try. They dropped us out in the middle of the water, and the first thing they did was hand us a belt with about 10-15 pounds of extra weight. Hmmm... Treading water in the middle of the ocean and strapping heavy metal objects to myself? Then the vest with the oxygen tank was another 20 pounds or so. Luckily, it also acted as a flotation device. After practicing breathing and all that, we dove for about 10 minutes. It was amazing. I thought I had seen a lot snorkeling, but to actually go farther down and see the sides of the coral berths was like nothing I'd ever seen.

The next morning we got a bright and early start--about 5:30am, so we could sail out to the outer reef. Although I wasn't thrilled to wake up so early, it was worth it to see the sunrise. It wasn't just the sunrise that was great, but the fact that the sun was actually out. Apparently the Great Barrier Reef has two parts to it: the inner reef, which is younger, and the older outer reef. Most sailing trips don't go out to the outer reef, so I was pretty excited that ours did. I decided to try scuba diving again, because the groups that went saw sharks and things. When it was my group's turn, the waves were pretty choppy, and it took us awhile to get out to where we wanted to start. Then when we started our descent, the pressure in my ears built up much worse than the day before, and I couldn't get them to clear. A scuba diving failure, the dinghy had to come back for me and I sulked on the boat.

Luckily, my ears were clear enough that I was able to go out with another group in the afternoon. I was still a little bitter because what was supposed to be my group had not only seen a shark, they had gotten to pet a sea turtle! Still, round two of diving did not disappoint. In the area we were in, the current had cut holes in the coral berths, so we got to swim through them, like swimming through caves. Not too bad for my second scuba dive. In the end, I'm not sure I liked diving too much, and I'm not sure I'd try it again, but what better place than the Great Barrier Reef to have my only diving experience?

Thursday morning was our last day, and we headed back toward the islands for one last snorkel. Again, tons of fish, coral, etc. I just can't get over how close the coral comes to the beach. Just sitting on the beach you'd never know that there was a reef so close to you.

I highly recommend a sailing trip to anyone who gets a chance. It definitely surpassed my expectations. Now the remaining thing on my list is seeing Uluru (Ayers Rock). I have the feeling that it may surpass my expectations as well.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (and Boats)

Traveling is exhausting. I tend to forget that. The last two weeks have been a whirlwind, trying to pack in a good sampling of Australia's sights, while still allowing for the relaxation that a vacation is supposed to include. Not that I need a vacation, considering I'd only been working for a month, but John definitely deserved one, having only a short break inbetween the end and beginning of the Japanese school year.

John flew in last Sunday and we started our sightseeing with Sydney's great highlights. Where else first, but the Harbour Bridge and Opera House? We also stopped off at Darling Harbour and made an unsuccessful attempt to utilize Sydney's ridiculous monorail system. The evening was topped off with some delicious Thai food. The next day was off to the Botanic Gardens, where we spent most of the afternoon watching the giant bats and checking out the native and non-native foliage.

Trying to catch the last of the warm weather, we spent Tuesday up at Manly Beach. While we were waiting for the ferry, we saw a street performer at Circular Quay who called John out from the audience to participate in his stunt. This guy was pretty impressive. He had a tall pole (maybe 15 feet high?) that was anchored by audience members and the perched a bike on top of it. Then, using John as a human step-ladder, he climbed to the top of the bike, where he juggled a chainsaw, a torch, and an apple. Highly dangerous, but also entertaining. Fortunately nothing was dropped on John, or anyone else's head.

Up at the beach, the waves were massive, and John got yelled at for swimming, being told that the beach was only open to expert surfers with fiberglass boards. Probably safer that way, but less fun. It was getting cold anyway, so we left for more Thai food and a lovely sunset over the harbour.

By Wednesday, it was time to leave Sydney and move on to the "trains" portion of this trip. During the two hour train ride up to the Blue Mountains, we were entertained by Harry, a bratty three year-old and his brooding older brother, Sean. Can't they ban screaming children from public transportation?

Fortunately, our beautiful hostel provided a decidedly scream-free environment and wonderful place to relax. This was definitely the nicest hostel I've stayed in, and probably the nicest hostel I'll ever stay in. It was much more B&B than hostel, with a cozy fire burning and a sweet owner who truly took care of the guests. If anyone is heading up to the Blue Mountains, I highly recommend staying at Number 14. The other guests were all very friendly as well, and amazingly, there was a couple that had been at Circular Quay the same time we were and recognized John from the street performer's show!

The Blue Mountains were gorgeous. The weather was perfect and we hiked around a cliff-top trail, checking out the trees and valleys and waterfalls. There is no other way to describe the Blue Mountains other than highly vast, as you can see from the picture. The cliffs are steep and the valleys are endless. Very beautiful. The picture on the left is of the "three sisters," a cool rock formation that has pretty much become the symbol of the Blue Mountains. The only downfall of the hiking was coming around a corner only to find Harry, the whining child from the train. I couldn't help but feel bad for the parents. Note to self: don't take a stroller on a hiking trip.

One day in the Blue Mountains was not enough, and on Thursday we ventured down into the valley, traveling on the steepest passenger rail car in the world (or something like that). The incline was 52 degrees, which was definitely steep. It took us down into a rainforest, where there were more interesting trees and plants to be seen. The picture on the right is not actually from the rainforest area, but I thought it was a more interesting picture. No exciting wildlife, unfortunately, but what can you do? It was much rainier that day, which actually created some different views. The Blue Mountains are named as such because the oils from all the eucalyptus trees creates a blue mist. You couldn't really tell this when it was sunny, but the rainy weather definitely highlighted the blue.

On Friday it was time to leave the Blue Mountains and return to Sydney for a short stopover and on Saturday we caught a flight to Melbourne. Unfortunately, Melbourne did not get off to the greatest start. John had acquired a nasty cold soon after arriving, and the plane ride only made it worse. Soon after getting on the plane, he mentioned that his lip was starting to go numb, and after not too much longer the whole side of his face was numb. The flight attendants gave him oxygen, and after arriving our first stop was the emergency room. The doctor said that the pressure from the airplane had probably made the congestion pinch a nerve to cause the numbness. No good.

Needless to say, we slept in on Sunday morning before making our way out into the city. That was the day we caught the Aussie Rules Football Game, and then spent the evening in St. Kilda, a chic suburb of Melbourne right on the ocean. The place was a little too pretentious for me, what with all the fancy bistros serving unimpressive food, but we found a relaxed bar where they didn't care that we were wearing sneakers and everyone was salsa dancing.

There was more sleeping in on Monday and after the saltiest brunch in the world, we set out to do the tourist thing. We took Lonely Planet's walking tour, which showed us all the important Melbourne landmarks (I was not that impressed), and then headed down to the Botanic Gardens. I have to say that Sydney's Botanic Gardens surpass Melbourne's, although Melbourne's did have a fern gully and some pretty little ponds. I think salty brunch and the cold weather put a negative tinge on my feelings about Melbourne; maybe one day I'll return in the summer and eat somewhere different.

The city was somewhat redeemed that night when we went out to the Rainbow Room, a back alley bar with live music that came highly recommended by the guidebooks (understandably). The music was great, even for myself who usually is not that into live concerts, and was tons of atmosphere. You could tell it was lots of locals, just there because they love the place.

Having had enough of Melbourne, the next morning we rented a car and set off west to drive the Great Ocean Road. "Great" does not even begin to describe how beautiful this road was. It wound right alongside the ocean, complete with giant cliffs and bright blue water crashing into the endless beach. There were tons of interesting places to stop along the way. First we stopped at Anglesea Beach, which was covered in crazy rock formations, all available for climbing. The tide was coming in just as we got there, and I definitely almost got stuck out on some rocks.

Our next stop was along the Kennett River, where the guidebooks said we could see wild koalas. They were not kidding. We started to walk up the road where we were supposed to see them, and in the very first tree was a little guy just dozing away (we could see him better than you can in the picture). There were many more to be found, including one who was probably only 10 feet from us. It must be nice to be a koala, since all they seem to do is sleep. We stopped there the next day on our way back, and even though it was raining, the koalas appeared to be in exactly the same place. Sounds like a life I could handle.

We made it to our hostel in Port Campbell around 5pm, just in time to drop off our stuff and head over to the 12 Apostles. The 12 Apostles are these 12 giant limestone rocks that stand out in the ocean. Pictures do not do them justice. They are huge. We watched a very lovely sunset there, marveling in nature's beauty. According to the guidebooks, soon after sunset there are supposed to be tons of little penguins swarming the beaches there. We stayed around to watch, but only saw a couple. It seemed to be quite a struggle to get out of the water, so we'd see a small black dot up on shore, and then a wave would come and sweep it away. I'd definitely rather be a koala than a penguin.

The next day we set out back in the return direction, and John suggested that I drive. Prior to coming to Australia, I figured that I would not do any driving and would rely completely on public transportation or, if I were to get in a car, I'd rely on the other driver. But John had driven the whole way to Port Campbell, so it was only fair that I do some. Driving on the wrong side of the road is wierd, but not as bad as I expected. Having the driver's seat on the other side of the car makes a huge difference, because instinctually, you want to drive so that the driver is in the middle of the road. It was funny to discover what was confusing and what wasn't. What we both had the most trouble with was the turn signal, which was on the right-hand side of the wheel. Pretty much every time we turned, we set off the windshield wipers off by accident. I also noticed that the few times we had to make U-turns, we both did it going counter-clockwise, the American way. The wierdest thing to me was that when we went to see a movie on Wednesday night (Transamerica), it seemed wrong that the steering wheel on screen was on the left side of the car. It's definitely going to be interesting when I get back to the US and try to drive there.
On Thursday it was back to Sydney so that John could catch his plane on Friday morning. We checked his itinerary and figured out that we had to be at the airport by about 10am so he could make his 11:35 plane. When we arrived at the airport, the Vietnam Airlines ticket counter was empty. The screens showed a flight leaving at 10:15, and sure enough, a check of John's tickets showed that his itinerary had been wrong and that he was supposed to be on the 10:15 plane. No good. After traipsing all over the airport, he was finally able to call the airline, only to find out that the next plane back would not be until Sunday. No good at all.

So it turned out that I was actually the first one to leave Sydney. I got on a plane yesterday afternoon up to the Whitsunday Coast, which is about 2/3 of the way up the east coast. I am currently in Airlie Beach, and tomorrow I will set out on a sail boat for a three day sailing adventure around the Whitsunday Islands. Perhaps a way to unwind after an exhausting two weeks of traveling? Then I will had about an hour north to Bowen where I'll work on some sort of produce farm.

Of course, I had an awesome time having John here. To be honest, it made me a little homesick to see someone from home and it is now somewhat lonely to be back to traveling without a companion. But there are more exciting things to come. I can't believe that I have been in Australia for almost two months now, and even more so I can't believe that I only have two months left before I leave and head to New Zealand. It's all quite a whirlwind and I am definitely looking forward to settling down for a few months somewhere in New Zealand. But for now I am trying to take in as much of Australia as possible. Man, this is a big country.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Are You Ready for Some Football?

Fall is here, practically overnight it seems. John and I are now in Melbourne, where the leaves have started to fall and the temperature is in the high teens (in farenheit terms, that's approximately the temperature when engineers are still wearing shorts and the rest of the world has put on jackets). It feels a lot like September/October at home, and I can't help but feel like I've gone back in time.

At home, the turn to autumn is inevitably coupled with football season. You know it's fall when Saturdays are spent tailgating and then trying to avoid the traffic. Fortunately, fall in Australia has brought the football with it, making me feel right at home. This, of course, is not American football (which they call "gridiron" here), nor is it the world's football (aka soccer). Here in Melbourne, the fall football season means a very strange sport known as Aussie Rules Football.

I don't really know how to describe it, so I'll just put the link to the official website and you can read the rules yourself. Also, it's hard to describe because I don't really understand it. It's basically organized chaos. Imagine 36 players running around a cricket ground (a giant circle, maybe the size of a soccer field?), kicking a rugby ball for two straight hours with breaks only every 30 minutes. They can tackle just as hard as in American football, but there are no pads. And what really amazes me is that there is no stopping. Someone gets hit and the ball just keeps going. The ball goes out of bounds and the ref just throws it back in. The other team gets posession and they just start running in the other direction. These are hardcore athletes.

Last night we went to the season opener between the Melbourne Demons and the Carlton Blues. Despite the fact that I not much of a sports person, and I had little idea what was actually going on, I fully enjoyed myself. Melbourne got smashed (even I, with no understanding of the game, figured out that their strategy was weak), but the crowd was very into it. The crisp fall air brought out blankets and mugs of hot chocolate, just like football season at home. And to complete the autumn atmosphere, the standard uniform for a good AFL fan is a striped scarf with your team's name and colors. Adorable.

Like I said, I am very much not a sports person, but this is defintiely a game I can understand getting into. Nonstop action coupled with highly athletic players (their stamina and accuracy are pretty impressive) makes for good entertainment. I'll always love Michigan football (because there is no other option), but if Michigan had an Aussie Rules team, I would actually go to those games.