Friday, January 28, 2011

There's No Place Like Oz...

I've been home over a month, and I can't help but escape to Australia whenever possible. When my mind wanders, it always seems to end up in cafes in Sydney or the harbor in Fremantle or fossicking in Coober Pedy. My next trip is already being planned in my mind, equipped with a list of things I didn't get to do last time, and a list of friends to look up on my return visit. I know it's time to return to reality, but when someone experiences something so amazing, something so big, something so different from anything else ever, how is it possible not to dwell and dream and hope it could happen again? Words, all words, even when it's bad news, seems to sound better with an Australian accent. It was clean and friendly and different all while being remarkably familiar. It was a place that if it wasn't 24 hours and $2000 round trip, I would visit each weekend. It was a place, that while I love America, I would live every other year. And can you blame me?

I saw the sun rise in the Outback over the most sacred and recognizable rock on earth, and set on the eastern and western coastlines, over the Pacific Ocean and the Coral Sea, and the Indian Ocean.
I spent two memorable nights being tossed around the Bass Strait en route to Tasmania and back.
I ate kangaroo, crocodile, emu, buffalo, camel, and yes, even vegemite.
I laughed a lot, and cried some too.
I met people from all over the world- the UK, Ireland, Netherlands, Japan, Thailand, China, India, Denmark, Holland, Germany- lots of Germans.
I got sick twice in three months, but wouldn't have traded sick days down under for healthy days back home.
I slept in the grass at the harbor in Hobart and on a hill in the courtyard outside of Luna Park in St. Kilda and on the sand of Cable Beach in Broome.
I hot air ballooned over the bush of Alice Springs and held an Olive Python in the same day.
I snorkeled without a stinger suit on the Great Barrier Reef.
I held a koala in my arms and a parrot on my head during my day on the Great Ocean Road.
I made amazing memories that I now use as an escape, as a mini vacation, when reality is just not cutting it.

Eventually, I will have to make the dreaming a reality once more.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Heading down south to the land of the pine, I'm thumbing my way into North Caroline...

I've been home about 24 hours, but things are weird. It's a combination of jet lag, climate change, and reverse culture shock that leaves me feeling like the past 3 months were just some great dream that I have woken up from. It's crazy to get on a plane in 80 degree weather, fly for a solid day without any sleep and almost solid sunlight the whole time, then step off into 20 degree weather and darkness. I carried my bags, shivering, through the hallway and into the airport at RDU. It was as deserted at 7:30 at night as it was at 4:30 in the afternoon it had been the day I left 3 months ago. Decorated only slightly for the season, it was weird to be here. Familiar, but still not home. I followed sign to baggage claim, turned a corner, and spotted my dad with a very blond woman that I quickly recognized as mom standing at the end of a long hallway. Since they were so far away, I waved from the distance to acknowledge that I had seen them. As I approached, I swallowed hard; the combination of no sleep and not seeing them for 3 months was making me feel like I was going to cry. I distracted myself by looking at the floor and managed to greet them with hugs without breaking down. We went on search for the baggage claim, and like every airport I had been in that day, things seemed to be under construction. We finally found the bag downstairs, and dad carried it, complaining all the way to the car that it weighed 80 pounds. Mom gave me a huge coat to wear out into the unusually cold weather, and we all walked across the parking lot to the car. We loaded in, and with Dad again grumbling about their being no signs for the exit out of the parking lot, I settled into the back seat. Yep, now I'm home.

Things I will miss
Hearing my name spoken in an Australian accent (I can't describe it. The "r" sounds fabulous)
And the words "girls" and "good"
Actually, hearing the accent at all
Their Milk and all dairy products
The freedom of traveling
Meeting new people from all over the world
The chocolate
The wine

If I ever, No, WHEN I return to Australia, things I will do:
See all of Tasmania, because the small part I saw was great
Broken Hill and other desert towns
Bungles Bungles
More time to explore in Broome, Melbourne and Perth
Climb the Harbour Bridge (ran out of time and money this time)
Visit all of my surrogate families all over Australia

Things I didn't expect:
The weird fashion trend of black leggings, especially in cities
Katy Perry following me EVERYWHERE
Not being able to find kangaroo offered on any menus unless you specifically seek it out
The friendliness of total strangers
The willingness of people who had never even met me before to take me into their homes and make me part of the family
The US giving Aussie TV our crappiest TV shows (for the most part)
I LOVE kangaroo! (steak!!)

Food I missed big time from home that I didn't expect:
Mexican food (well, I did expect, but not this much)
American hamburgers (I'm not crazy about Aussie burgers)

One thing I did learn, well not really learn, but had reaffirmed for me, is that there are wonderful, thoughtful, intelligent, kind people all over the world, and I met a whole mess of them on the trip. It was great to experience other cultures and see just how alike we really are.

Another thing I had affirmed for me was that despite what a lot of countries and people want you to believe, America does not have the end-all, be-all claim on idiocy, selfishness, rudeness, and ignorance. This trip really made me realize, which was not it's original purpose, how great my country is. I loved Australia, and still might live here someday, but I love America too. It's a shame at this period in time that I can't be patriotic for America like I see Canadians and Germans and Italians and other countries being, without subjecting myself to attacks. I was thinking about it in Broome when I saw a man check in. I noticed his lack of accent, and he was going upstairs with his bags. He had multiple Canadian flag patches all over his bags, signaling to everyone that he was Canadian, and proud of it, and don't you dare confuse him for American. I can't do that. Well, I could, but not in the way the Canadian can. No one is going to approach him and hassle him for being Canadian, or even a patriotic Canadian. I don't want to get too negative about it, or discourage Americans to travel. On the contrary, I want us to go out into the world and prove them wrong. Show them how intelligent, thoughtful, innovative, conscientious, and globally minded we can be. And be aware of this when you travel. Be ambassador for us. Go and show the world who you are, and meet the world and learn about it as well. The worst response would be to close in on ourselves.

Land of the Free, and the Home of Body Scan Metal Detectors and Inexpensive Soda...

I am back in America! Inhaling those sweet smog fumes over La La Land. I got through the 14 hour flight, possibly with less than 30 minutes sleep (I know I missed part of Christmas Vacation, but I still saw most of it.) But the fun didn't really start until the plane landed. I spent quite a lot of time in the maze known as LAX international arrivals. Delta assured me this is a temporary condition, but never the less, even as temporary, things need to be a little more organized. You walk and walk through long corridors, which in and of itself isn't bad, but there is no signage to reassure you that you are going the right way. To claim your baggage, instead of just labeling on the screens, you have to try and hear the inaudible system tell you where your bag should show up. The very butch passport check in lady seemed annoyed that I spent 3 months vacation in Australia, but the customs guy was nice, smiled when I explained the food I claimed was all candy, and made sure I had all my bags. But once through customs, you hand your bag to some guys throwing it on trolleys, say a little prayer it shows up for it's date with you in RDU, then follow signs for connecting flights through a door. You find yourself in an empty room, clearly under construction, but with no further signage as to what to do. The next room is a series of non-working baggage claim conveyor belts, and in your current room is an escalator feeding people to your level, an elevator, and a set of stairs with a sign above it telling you "do not enter." I paced around that room a few minutes before noticing a small sign in the corner, on the floor, saying Delta departures at terminal 5. I go outside, walk down to terminal 5, and see no one inside. It still looks very much under construction. I do see someone in red looking official, so I walk in, making sure I am looking very confused. She offers help, I tell her I am looking for security to my connecting flight. Giving me a bit of attitude because I am sure she does this at least 40 times a day, she points me down another unlabeled corridor, well, it's labelled once you're in it, but once you're in it, you know where you are going. Another ridiculously long corridor, then security. Now a pro at this, I whip out my laptop, line my bags up, ready to feed them through. A security guard points at me "Take off your shoes." Ah, welcome home. I haven't done this one in three months, and I can't say I missed walking barefoot on the disgusting, heavily traveled floor. I had my first experience with the "naked body scan thingie" (my name), then thought I was in for a pat down too because I was still roped in, but was waved through, retrieved my bags and re-shoed myself, and scurried away to my gate. It is two hours before my flight, and I am craving a nice fountain drink. I went to the McDonalds, ordered a medium Dr. Pepper (I have missed you so!) and a bottle of water and spent $4.78. Now I am sipping my medium fizzy sensation, which is bigger than a large in Australia, and I did in with half the money I would have used down under. God Bless America!

Booze Cruise in the Harbour, and Shopping in Hornsby

Yesterday I got up and got ready and called my parents. Dad wasn't home, but Mom was, and she said it is snowing in North Carolina! It's going to be so mind-blowing to get back to cold weather after all the sweating I have been doing for 3 months. I was picked up by Bert's daughter Michelle and her husband Grant outside of my hotel. The street was full of people lined up to audition for something that looked like American Idol for Asia. It was chaos, but once we found the other person we were picking up, we got loaded into the car and on our way. I sat in the back with Ann, who was from Italy. She had been in Australia about as long as me, but had only been to Brisbane and Sydney. She told me she came to Australia for two reasons- independence and a boy. But she said that the boy was now out of the picture, so she was still trying to find her place in Australia. I almost feel like I am bragging when people ask where I've been and I rattle off the 15-20 places in Australia I've managed to explore in 3 months. But they asked, and it's not like I'm going to leave anything out to save their feelings or something.
We drove to a marina outside of the city and approached a lively group of Aussies standing around consuming beer. Michelle introduced Ann and I, but we didn't get anyone's names. They continued talking to one another as we waited for Bert. Finally, a sighting of Bert's boat as he came around the corner. We carried our various eskies and cloths bags with food and alcohol to the boat and climbed aboard. we had to hold on and walk along the side of the boat to board, and I had a quick greeting as I came past Bert, who is a cute little old man with a white mustache and not much hair. We all got aboard, I took a quick tour of the ship, then was asked if I wanted something to drink. "Do you have water?" I said. Grant and Andrew looked at each other. "...Or beer?" I said, sensing that asking for water was not the correct thing to be doing. "Beer we can do," they said, and brought me a bottle. I accepted and so began the day long consumption of alcohol. I talked with the boys throughout the trip, who weren't actually boys, but all about 10 years older than me, who were various cousins of Michelle. I really admired their relationship, but they are all only about 2 years apart in age total from oldest to youngest, so they grew up together, unlike my relationship with my cousins, with me being the oldest on both sides, and the next oldest only turning 18 this year. But I'm sure soon enough we can be out on Sydney Harbour knocking back bottle after bottle of beer... well, not quite, but once everyone is grown, there can still be potential for good times to be had. I was given an impromptu tour of the harbour as Bert boated around. I took some great shots of the opera house and bridge, and learned about the prison out in the middle of the harbour. Michelle began feeling sick in the very choppy water of the harbour, so we went back upstream to dock for lunch. We anchored in a quiet area and had lunch. All the "kids" tried their hands at fishing, but the entire day, no one caught a single thing. It could be because of the inventive bate they were using, like salami, bread, and cheese. I did have some funny interactions with some of the guys. I was asked how we felt about Barack Obama (I always expect politics to come up eventually, especially when alcohol is involved). I told him that, overall, we like him a lot more than our last guy. He seemed confused and said he liked Clinton. I said, "Have you missed the past eight years? And the two wars you guys are also involved in?" He laughed, and said, "Oh yea, George W Bush. But Clinton is cool. I liked Clinton." I said, "Yeah, he was entertaining." I also got a wedding proposal before the night was over- later in the evening, while my wine glass was being refilled for some unknown number of times, the glass was filled to the top, but there was still a swig of wine in the bottle. "Go ahead and finish it," one of the cousins says. So I took the bottle and drank the last sip. "Oh, man, will you marry me?" he gasps.
We had to drop Michelle and Grant and Ann back off around 5:30, but the party was still not over. We boated back to our anchor spot and spent another 2 hours drinking and talking. It was a great day with amazing weather. Sydney has been rainy the past few days, so we were lucky with the weather. We helped Bert pack up the boat and unload all the trash, then waited for him to row back from his ship. I hugged all the cousins goodbye. I got in the car with Bert and we drove to a suburb outside of Sydney where he lives. The house is very nice, and I have my own little room. We ate leftovers from lunch for dinner, which was fine with me, my head still swimming from all the alcohol and probably dehydration of drinking very little actual water all day. We talked and watched TV a little while before bed.

This morning, I slept until around 8:30, then got up and ready and called my parents. I caught them both this time, and talked about 30 minutes. I ate breakfast then walked up the double hills to the bus stop Bert had pointed to me last night. I thought I remembered the name of the town he told me to go to, but I googled just in case to check and make sure I hadn't twisted it up in my tipsy head last night. I got on the bus once it arrived around 11 and asked about the rate to Hornsby. "This bus goes to Turramurra," the bus driver says, kind of grumpily. "Ok, the rate to there then." I said. I suspected I would have to take another train or bus to Hornsby from there, so I sat down, ready for an adventure. Sure enough, Turramurra was a train station, and their was a train going to Hornsby. So I bought a ticket, and since the train wasn't due for 25 minutes, I went to the post office down the street and mailed my opal ring to be repaired for free. It has become shaky from the setting, so I hope it gets there, and eventually makes it's way back to me. Anyway, I successfully boarded my train and made it to Hornsby. After a brief tour of one side of the town, I discovered that the other side of the bridge in the train station leads to a mall. I spent the day in the mall, shopping my heart out for Christmas. I got lots of cool stuff, including some prizes for Mom's class for when I visit them and talk about Australia. I got a train back to Turramurra around 3pm, then got a bus back to Fox Valley. Bus drivers were all kind of grumpy today, and I didn't get any free rides like I did in Adelaide, but it was still a good day. Tomorrow I will venture even farther down the train line to Sydney and spend my last day in the city, shopping again. It really makes me happy to buy stuff for people and imagine how happy they will be to receive it.

Back in Sydney...

We are back in Sydney. We arrived around 3pm yesterday, took the train from the airport, and spent the afternoon watching music videos (I know that sounds bad, but we were kind of stunned to see music videos instead of reality shows on a music channel. And these were good videos, from the 80's and 90's.) We decided to get dinner at the sushi place I had been when I was first in Sydney, it was amazing again. We walked around a little also, and I showed Matt where I had originally stayed when I first came to Sydney. It was freaking me out a little at first to be around a whole bunch of people again, after being in the outback and less populated regions for, well, the past month. But I suppose it's a good way to transition back into life in the vastly more populated United States.
This morning, either because we were exhausted or because of the time difference in Sydney or both, we slept until 9:30. We got up and showered and got ready. We skipped breakfast, and it was raining, so we decided to spend our morning indoors at the Art Gallery of NSW. They had lovely exhibits, and it was free, so it was great. We grabbed lunch from a little kiosk cafe outside, then did a few more exhibits. We were both kind of lacking energy, and Matt seemed distracted, I assume because he is heading back to work as soon as he flies home tomorrow. This was getting me down also, so when he went to get his haircut, I decided to do some walking around town by myself. I walked down the street, turned the corner, and saw the little cafe that I had eaten a very hungover breakfast with my Melbourne girls when we were all here back in September. I was immediately reinvigorated, we are in this amazing city, on the other side of the world, we have to use this time wisely while we have it! I walked around, stopped in a 7-11 to get another calling card since I had accidentally thrown mine out, called Bert and confirmed pickup time for tomorrow, and began thinking about how to cheer Matt up. Haighs! Chocolate will do it. I walked around in the area I thought I remembered it being and happened upon the only Haigh's shop in Sydney. It was packed, but being American and being used to fighting through crowds, I was able to maneuver and get some stuff for us to try. I checked out and saw a Coles across the street. I went in and got a banana and granola bars to eat for breakfast and I saw a liquor express. Liquor! That will also cheer Matt up! I got a small bottle of Jack Daniels, and an airplane bottle of Bundaberg, because he has to try it before he leaves Australia. I Was feeling pretty proud of myself as I made my way back to the hotel. I now greeted the doorman with smiles and a "hello!" I confidently climbed into the elevator and popped my card into the slot, pressed the 9, and smiled at my reflection in the elevator doors. When I got to the room, he wasn't there yet, so I scurried around, putting liquor in the fridge and setting things up to make my announcement when he got back. About an hour passed, then in walked Matt, with hair much shorter than when he left. He was already in a better mood, and excitedly began telling me about the Asian hairdresser and the Euro trash haircut he got and had to request to be corrected. I told him about his surprise, and he thanked me and dug into both immediately. And they really did the trick, he was in a much better place the rest of the evening.
Later on, we got dressed up and began our quest to see where we would be eating tonight. We were turned away from our first selection, a bar-like place that would be cheap, and decided to go to Bona Fide, the first restaurant I ate at, where I had breakfast on my first full day in Australia. It seemed fitting to be back in Bona Fide on my last evening with Matt in Australia. I ordered the steak and mash and he had the seafood risotto (including little mini octopus!) and we both had a glass of wine. It was delicious, and the perfect way to end Australia for him.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Exploring the Rainforest

We awoke this morning and suited up for a day in the rainforest. We had made the awesome discovery yesterday that breakfast was included with the room we got, so we had another tremendous breakfast from the international breakfast buffet (which included traditional stuff like eggs and bacon, Aussie stuff like baked beans, and Asian stuff like rice and soup). We were picked up in a very Aussie looking 4WD vehicle, by a man wearing what you would expect to see on an Aussie rainforest guide. He introduced himself as Kevin, and loaded us into his 4WD. It was a tight squeeze in the back, we had to duck our heads going into and out of the back of the vehicle each time. He chattered at us the entire stretch of road leading out of the city and toward the mountains in the distance. I felt like I needed to be frantically taking notes, because there was no way I was going to retain all the information he was throwing at me. We stopped on the side of the road on the way up the mountains and saw enormous bats hanging in a tree. They were a colony of fruit bats, the same gigantic bats I saw flying in Darwin in the early morning. We continued up the mountain and saw the deadliest snake in Australia crawling across the road on the way up. "It's definitely going to be a reptile day," said Kevin. We finally reached our first stop, seeing a bush turkey and a tree that was hundreds of years old. The highlight of the trip though was our drive through the section of the jungle that is off limits to anyone without a permit. We had several river crossings, which is something I have never experienced before. The coolest thing we saw on this trail was the fig tree. It looked like something straight out of Fern Gully or Avatar, which is essentially the same movie with millions of dollars difference in the budgets. The tree was enormous and made from growing vines over another tree. Eventually the original tree dies and you are left with an enormous tree of vines. It was an amazing sight.
After a day exploring the rainforests just beyond Cairns, we headed back down the mountain and back to Cairns. We spent the evening reflecting on the day and saving our pictures. Tomorrow we fly to Sydney for our last couple of days in Australia. Matt flies out on Sunday. I can't believe 3 months has gone by this fast.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish...

We are in Cairns! After a flight on Monday, checking into a gloriously posh hotel (and not even in comparison to hostels, but in comparison to other posh hotels), and getting a good night sleep, we awoke yesterday morning to begin our journey to Port Douglas and the Great Barrier Reef. We were picked up at 8am with a coach and carted up the coast. I got some amazing pictures of the coastline along the way. We arrived to the port and checked in and were directed to our boat. We were given tea and cookies and began our almost 2 hour journey out to the reef. We finally docked with the pontoon, which contained all the various activities we could partake in the day. We could snorkel, we could observe from a semi-submerged boat or an underwater viewer, or other activities that cost extra so I didn't consider them, but seemed pretty cool. We decided to do the semi-submerge first, just to get an idea of what is down there. It wasn't as colorful as the photographs lead you to think, but they don't tell you until you get there that they have to use lots of artificial light to capture those colors. We were able to observe a large variety of fish, and of course lots of coral, and I saw 2 giant clam shells that had died and opened and become part of the reef. The lunch line had just begun to form as we climbed off the sub, so we decided to do that next. I have to say, I don't think it improves the experience of eating shrimp at all to leave the head on, so I do prefer our ways when dealing with shrimp. Snapping shrimp necks is a little more familiar than I like to get with food, even though I will be peeling their skeletons and legs off as well. After lunch, we got ready for snorkel. All day, they had been pushing their Lycra suits for $5, saying it's not common, but there could be a stinger out on the reef. I had decided I wasn't going to wear one, it was humiliating and should be included in the cost anyway, but Matt was convinced and got one. It turns out I was the only person out on the reef without a Lycra suit, and I think that is a pretty cool thing. There was an older lady who didn't have one, but she didn't swim out far. I was a little paranoid all day, but it was for no reason, I didn't see a single jelly fish, and I was looking. I did see lots of parrot fish (Matt's favorite), lots of coral in blues and greens and yellows, little fish, big fish, of all colors. I took pictures with my underwater camera, but will have to see if they come out. I got out after about an hour and spent some time in the underwater viewing space. I was able to get some pictures of fish with my normal camera, as well as observe the scuba divers. The day concluded with Matt and I boarding the boat, finding seats, and traumatizing children (it's a long story involving me tripping one, and Matt laughing at the other when he fell off the couch and hit his head), but it was a good day. We ended up moving away from the kids and spending the boat ride watching the TV screen with the horrible pictures the tour guide took of me during the trip. We then were loaded again into our bus and forced to wait for the important people to decide they were done shopping so the rest of us could begin our trip to town. We got back and showered and found a cheap and good dinner near our hotel.

Today was spent lounging- by the pool, in the Vietnamese restaurant, by the Esplanade. It is quite an experience to be able to confess getting a sunburn on December 1st while watching Christmas trees be put up, but such is the life in this hemisphere, in this land of Oz.

Monday, November 29, 2010

A Rock, An Alter Ego, Lots Stars and Wine

It was made pretty official yesterday morning- I have been attacked by bedbugs!
The night before, Matt started compulsively checking his covers after finding the shedded skin of an insect and immediately assuming the worst. I googled frantically for about 30 minutes, learning all sorts of gruesome details about bed bugs. I had been waking up with a growing number of bites on me, but I had been calling them mosquito bites. But now I had a nice string of them across my neck and the bottom of my face, and they were horribly identical to the bites I was witnessing online. I searched my bed, but could find no evidence of what I had been told to search for in the articles online. It was also possible that the bugs were in the pillow, which would make sense seeing as I was bit only on my neck, face, and upper arms. We didn't know what to do. We were making this conclusion around 11pm, and reception was closed. We figured we would have to sleep in that room tonight, but the thought of just turning in as normal and offering another night of feasting was something I was not willing to do. I tucked in the covers tightly on my bed and threw my pillow in the floor. I wore a long sleeve shirt and long pants, tucking the legs into my socks. I slept with my head at the other end of the bed, and used my towel as a blanket. I didn't sleep soundly, and woke many times because I was cold, but I didn't appear to have new bites in the morning.

We were checking out to go to Uluru, and I was struggling with how to tell the manager he had bed bugs. Matt went to get our hire car while I finished getting ready. I kept practicing in my head what to say. I had to tell them or they might stick us right back into the same room on Sunday, and there was no way I could take that. Once Matt returned, we loaded the car and I took the key back inside to check out. I walked up to the counter and didn't even have to ring the bell. The male manager came out from the back and suddenly it came to me how to handle it; the age-old, tried and true, guaranteed method that has worked for women for ages- play dumb and let the man make the conclusion. I handed him the key and asked if there was anything I need to sign. He said everything was in order. I took a deep breath. "I just wanted to let you know about this. I don't know if I'm allergic to the detergent used in the sheets or if there was a mosquito in the room, but I have woken up and had this on me"- with that, I turned my head, lifted my hair, and offered my neck and face. "You got this from last night?" he asked. "Well, I had been noticing a growing number of bites on me, but these on my face weren't here until I woke up yesterday." He examined them and said to me "You know what those look like? Those ones right there in a line look like bed bugs" You said it, not me, I thought in my head, but out loud said, "Oh, bed bugs. Ok, well, I just wanted to let you know about it. Thank you." He thanked me and I walked out to the car, successfully and softly telling the hotel manager he had a bed bug infestation in room 25.

We hit the highway and were horrified to realize the radio stations ended only about 2 minutes driving out of Alice springs. Matt offered to serenade, but I declined, and we spent a lot of the almost 5 hour trek talking about years past. The drive really went by quickly, and we happened to stop at the roadhouse that was at the intersection of the road leading to Uluru. So pulling out, I said "No, we need to go this way, see? Uluru, it points that way." Who knows how long we would have driven without realizing we were heading to Adelaide instead of Uluru. The roadhouse was the half way point and we soon came up on a massive shape in the distance. It towered on the left side of the car, and Matt quickly identified it as Uluru and chattered happily about how magnificent it was. I looked at it, bewildered as to why it looked nothing like the hundreds of pictured of Uluru I have encountered over the years. I waited and let us approach it more, but it's shape and color just got more and more wrong. I took my time disagreeing with Matt, I feel like I do it too often, and I don't know if I do it to entertain myself, or if he's just wrong all the time, haha. But I had to say it. "I don't think that's Uluru." "Of course it's Uluru! Are you telling me there are other massive rock formations out here? If it's not Uluru, what is it? It has to be Uluru!" he said. "It's not the right shape or color," I said. "It's nothing like any picture of it I've ever seen." "Maybe it's the other side of it," he says. "But it's not red," I say. "IT IS RED, LOOK AT IT, THAT'S RED!" I stare at the grey, flat topped mountain in the distance, and decide to just lay it all out there. "If that's Uluru, I am massively disappointed," I announced, making the conclusion we were not looking at Uluru, and if we were, ultimately ruining the entire trip by saying I was disappointed. We sat in silence a few minutes, surveying the rock as we came up on it, arguing slowly with one another in a distracted way. We passed a sign about Mt. Connor tours, and I said, "That is Mt. Connor, it's not Uluru." Matt quickly changed his tune- "We do have over 150 kilometers to drive before we are supposed to be there." "Then why would you think that was Uluru?!?" "Maybe you see it from that far away!..." The argument continues a little, but let the record show, Courtney was, once again, correct from the start.

We finally do come upon the real Uluru, and even from a distance, it is what it is supposed to be- brillant, magnificent, rounded, RED. We watch it as it starts far away and grows as we glide along the unusually green desert towards it ("It's never like this, we have had a huge amount of rain...") We do finally arrive at the resort area and turn in. I check in and receive the ticket for our dinner and stargazing that night. We drive down to the cabin and unload. The cabin is good- two bedrooms, and a little common room with a small kitchen and table and non-working TV. I get the room with the double bed because I'm the princess. We decide we need to eat something before we explore, so we begin driving around the resort. We finally park and wander through the maze that is the resort. We have a map, but signage is not good. We do eventually find a cafe and eat some sandwiches. I try to finish quickly because I am anxious to get to the rock, and also Matt eats so much quicker than me. We head back through the maze to the car and drive out to Uluru. We had both decided not to climb Uluru out of respect, but upon hearing there is a $25 park entry per person, Matt jokingly announces, "I am cimbing that thing! I paid $25!"
We drive closer and closer to the huge rust monolith in front of us, and as we approach, it becomes more and more clear that it's not a smooth as eveyone thinks it is. It's cracked, it's pitted, it has lines and holes running about it, giving it character from millions of year of erosion. We park near the path that leads to the summit climb. We had already decided we wouldn't be climbing, but it was closed for the afternoon anyway due to high winds. We began our walk along the side. It was overwhelming to look up and see how gigantic it was, and to imagine it would take nearly 5 hours to walk the circumference around it. We had to get ready to be picked up for our dinner at 6pm, so we only had time for a short walk, but planned on coming back the next day. We spent about an hour at the base before driving to a lookout a little farther away to take some distance pictures. Around 4:30, we drove back to our cabin and got ready. I took the best shower I have had in a while (the water pressure was UNBELIEVABLE for a public toilet at a camp ground) and got dressed up in a dress and make up. We were picked up from near the campground at 6pm. We rode in a coach to pick up others before heading onto a dirt road. We were unloaded onto a path and walked up a hill. At the top, we were handed a glass of champagne. Matt said the evening was beginning to feel like a murder mystery. "Like one of those dinner theater evenings?" I said. "No, like how the story line begins, random people, invited to dinner," he said. "So you think someone is going to die, is that what you're saying?" We mostly stood by ourselves and drank champange and talked about the possibility of mingling and talking to others. Wait staff walked around a fed us a bit occasionally- a small bit of bread with kangaroo and cream cheese, a smoked salmon scroll, etc. Eventually, we were called to continue on the path to our seats. We were seated at a table with two couples and three women. I spent most of the evening talking to the women- Sarah, Christine, and Linda. Christine and Linda knew each other, but Sarah had just met them tonight. Sarah was traveling from the UK. The other women were Aussies. We had a buffett dinner that included croc caeser salad, kangaroo, vegetables, barramundi, lamb, and unlimited wine. After dinner, we had a brief star presentation. This was an amazing sight. To see the night sky, so absent of light pollution, was something I am not sure I have ever experienced, and certainly not the southern hemisphere night sky. I saw some constellations that were dead ringers for our dippers, but when I asked about it after the presentation, I was told you could not see any of our constellations in this hemisphere. We eventually were loaded back onto our bus, where Linda mysteriously began calling Matt "Adrien" (Did I mention the limitless wine?) Christine and Linda convinced Adrien and I to join them at the pub, and we convinced Adrien to walking to the back of the bus and talking to a group of girls he'd been eyeing all night. He invited them to the pub too, then joined us again. We got off at the pub, got beers, and sat with Christine and Linda. We spent the evening talking and laughing, and eventually convincing Adrien to go again and speak to the girls. We eventually did all part ways with a hug, and I had to endure the walk home with Adrien proudly chattering on about how charming he had been, even though he had to almost be forced into talking to the girls, after all, as he told me, "I was the most egging of the on-ers!"
The next morning, I woke to my alarm at about 4:45am. We had set it the night before, we wanted to see Uluru at sunrise. I woke Matt, who was now definitely Matt again and not his alter ego, and we sleepily got woken up enough to drive out to Uluru. We were not the only ones with this plan, and ended up having to fight for position with some Germans for a good shot of the rock in it's red early morning brilliance. Matt got some shots, then said, "Let's go back to sleep." we drove back and slept about 2 more hours before checking out and beginning our journey back to Alice.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Hot Air Ballooning and Snake Charming on Thanksgiving

Today was amazing!!!
It started off with a groggy wake up at 3:15am. We had to get ready for our 3:45am pickup to be carted off for hot air ballooning. We were the first pickup, being on the far side of town, so we were alone on the cold, dark bus. We picked up the rest and headed into the blackness that was predawn Australian desert. We stopped first to test the winds and let out a small balloon with a red light to see what direction the wind was blowing. I was able to experience the night sky in all it's brilliance, away from the city lights. We got back in the van and drove down the road a little more, tested the wind there, then got out of the van to begin the long task of preparing and inflating the balloon. We had to roll out the balloon first, then unfold it, then he began inflating it with a giant burner. Not long after, the tour guide motioned me over to the basket. He asked me to climb inside and hold on. He was going to inflate the balloon and sit the basket up with me inside! It was my worst fear, I thought there was a possibility that I could fly off into the sky without anyone else in the basket. He flamed and flamed, the heat was very intense and the sound reverberated past as I clung to the rope handles and pretend I wasn't hanging upside down in a hot air balloon basket. Finally, the balloon go full enough and the basket began to tip up. I slid upwards and was finally sitting upright. Everyone else jumped into the basket, and he continued to burn to achieve lift off, as his assistant ran around and untied the basket from the van. We dragged a little, but finally began to drift effortlessly into the sky. We watched the van get further and further away. I was concerned about the bottom of the basket holding everyone, and kept my hands on each side at the basket for the first 15 minutes of the ride, but I was mysteriously not afraid of the height. We got amazing areal views of the bush just outside of Alice Springs. We witnessed the sunrise from the air, as the light travelled higher and higher into the sky, making the dull grey greens of the plants in the morning into more brilliant colors. We travelled in the air, burning sometimes to go higher, opening the top at times to sink lower, for about an hour. He warned us to take the lift off position when landing because there was the possibility of landing sideways. We bounced once, bounced twice, dragged along the ground a little, until we finally rested, upright near our target. We were only upright for several second though, and our basket slowly tilted, then landed on it's side, all of us laying upside down and hanging on to the rope handles. We took turns climbing out of the overturned basket in the most graceful way possible. We then had to begin the strenuous task of repacking the balloon, before toasting with champagne and enjoying some fruit and light breky. We were carted back to our prospective hotels, and Matt and I returned to our beds to sleep for another 3 hours.
We awoke around noon, were happy to discover our leftovers from last night that we had offered to anyone as free food were still there, and had leftover pasta for lunch. After lunch, we went exploring, with the mission of visiting the reptile center. We arrived while they were in the middle of a presentation, but were able to join and hold some of the lizards, as well as the Olive Python. The guide draped the enormous snake around my shoulder and I held it's bulk with my arms. It's head kept coming closer and closer to my face. I closed my eyes, and it licked my cheek! We explored the rest of the center, which included some of the most poisonous snakes in Australia, as well as plenty of all varieties of lizard, a salt water croc, and a frog.

After my brush with the snake, it was time for more low key touring. We visited the flying doctors museum next and learned about how the doctors serve the huge bush region with medical care. It was fascinating to see how the program worked, and it was good to find out that even people living far outside of the main cities had access to good health care.

We walked back across town and decided to begin our Thanksgiving feast! We were shocked that we had been able to locate precooked turkey, cranberry sauce, and stuffing in the coles in town. We also had some biscuits and made some sweet potatoes and green beans. It was quite a traditional American Thanksgiving spread to be in a foreign country, in the middle of the desert. We had a nice Peter Lehmann wine with dinner, and Matt said grace, and we both said what we were thankful for. It was very civilized and pleasant and lovely, and it was nice to have Thanksgiving since I missed mine last year with my stomach bug!

Tomorrow we will explore Alice mall a little more, and Saturday we head to Uluru!

Bushwalking to the Telegraph Station

Matt and I decided today we were going to do the telegraph station, since it is the reason the town existed. Well, due to a lack of communication, or me not listening when I was told 4 times, depending on who you ask (I swear, it's like we're back to being a married couple almost immediately!), I think this walk is much less than it is. It isn't a huge problem, I just wouldn't have worn flip flops for an almost 8 kilometers round trip walk, and I would have applied sunscreen to more areas than my face. Needless to say from that explanation, the afternoon was spent in recovery for my feet and sunburn. But, at least despite the fact that Matt had the necessary distance information, he was burned too, haha.

We walked along the Todd River, which this year, like almost every year, is just a river bed, not actually containing any water. The walk was pretty exciting, punctuated by the sighting of occasional wildlife including beautiful birds, a kangaroo, and a rock wallaby, as well as the occasional attack from a rustle in the bush or a flying grasshopper, sending Matt swinging and restraining screams because he would think it was a much more formidable insect. He kept saying he loved that we were in the Outback, the Bush, and after pointing out several times that we were on a designated city walk, with occasional signs pointing how to go, I let him have his title of being in the "Outback." It did have a very secluded feeling to it, until the walk back when we encountered a man with a Virginia Tech hat, making us feel our remoteness and coolness of being North Carolinians in the Outback fade to not even the only ACC fans on this trail. But despite that, we got amazing pictures, and had quite a great walk through the "bush." We arrived at the telegraph station, just as it was really beginning to get hot. We walked around and looked at the various buildings, sweltering in the heat. The highlight was an Aboriginal man named Alec who works there now but had also lived there at the age of 5 when he was taken from his family. He showed us a picture he was in a told us a little about life on the station. He also told us about witnessing the Japanese bombing Darwin when he wasn't even 10. He has an amazing life story. He told us he loves country music, and hopes to take his granddaughter to Graceland one day. He also likes Taylor Swift. He soon announced it was time for lunch, and we shook his hand and told him goodbye. We spent a little time in the gift shop buying cold drinks before heading out again into the blistering heat. We made our way back to town and crawled back into our air conditioned den, where we soon discovered how burned we were, but mysteriously mostly on the right side of our body. One discovery we did make out there was a bird that sounded very much like a person whistling a tune. We looked around forever, expecting to see someone coming that was whistling, or someone sitting beneath a tree, but all we eventually found was an odd little bird that could carry a tune. We googled later and discovered we had encountered was called a Pied Butcherbird. It's a pretty fascinating specimen.

We spent the afternoon vegging out mostly, and made spaghetti for dinner. We tried to get in bed early because tomorrow is hot air ballooning and pickup is at 3:45am!