Monday, February 28, 2005

Home sweet....

... well, something. I admit it's nice to be home, but it's hard to get used to. I have stuff again. Lots of it. I can accessorize. I have lots of space in which to make a mess and no real reason to feel guilty about doing so. I don't have to search for the right converter plug for the wall outlet. I don't have to search for wall outlets, come to that. My hair dryer will probably work properly again. I have a cell phone. Not that it's gotten much use, save to call T-mobile and get myself a Hotspot account so I have wireless internet in Starbucks (that was easy to get used to, oddly enough). Most different of all, there's nothing new here. There are no new people. There are no places to go in the immediate vicinity to which I haven't already been. I suppose I could do one of those 'Houses of the Stars' tours for kicks, since that would be new, but I'd probably be massacred by the tourists on it after half an hour of snide remarks on how dumb I think tours like that are, because really, how else could I be expected to entertain myself?

Well, there is one thing I have to do while I'm here. Get myself the hell outta here. I understand this means that, at long last, I have to find myself a job. Scratch that, a career. Jobs are easy: I could go out and get myself a job tomorrow... it would probably involve wearing a Jamba Juice hat again (I always did think that was a cool-looking logo). If I wanted to raise my standards a bit and go white collar, I'm sure that wouldn't be too hard either. Again, though, I think I'm a bit overqualified. And when it comes to finding a job now, I've got this notion in my head that I should be doing something I actually like. It'll be an uphill battle, but I'm convinced that I'll eventually be able to find someone who will pay me to keep travelling around the South Pacific (I could be convinced to branch out to the North Pacific) while keeping myself up-to-date on everything that is happening on the O.C. Maybe Desperate Housewives, too. But reality TV is definitely out.

Until that happens, though, I have to play by the rules. Submit my resume. Write cover letters that show absolutely no trace of personality. Blackmail. Maybe a bit of begging thrown in (probably after I try and fail at blackmail). You know, the usual. Actually, all kidding aside, I really don't mind any of that stuff. Hell, blackmail's even kinda fun. But they're nothing in comparison with the fear that I'll do all that, with all the requisite research, over and over again, and nothing will happen. No one will call me. I'll still be sitting here in July, trying to think up a reasonable excuse why I shouldn't have to take over Steve's shift at Jamba Juice again this week, while wondering if maybe I'm setting my sights too high by applying for assistant manager.

Wish me luck. I think assistant managers get dental.

Sunday, February 27, 2005

Moorea cont'd

Now that I'm back in the U.S., enjoying an English keyboard and not enjoying too much else, like cold weather (55 degrees! aaaaahhh!), now's the perfect time to feed my denial by reliving just how friggin' awesome Moorea was.

Moorea's just a half-hour ferry ride from Papeete, and I left on Monday afternoon. It was still raining. So when I landed on Moorea and actually caught a brief glimpse of sunlight, I took it as a good sign. Next challenge: actually getting to my hostel without taking a cab. It was about 15 km from Vaiare, where the ferry lands. It took me close to two hours to get there. Not because I was dumb enough to walk, but because I was dumb enough not to. Public transportation on Moorea and throughout the rest of French Polynesia, if it exists at all, is a sort of bus called le truck. What this appears to consist of is a few guys who happen to own buses and drive around the island for kicks every once in awhile. They let passengers off wherever it is they say they're going and charge them about three bucks each. And that's their income. I had a random sighting of one of them wearing a USC t-shirt.

In my particular case, I was the only one on my ferry who needed a ride on le truck, so I had to wait an hour for the next one, which yielded about 3 more people and a buddy of the driver carrying a case of beer. The buddy got dropped off first, of course, about 10 km from the port. In the opposite direction from where I was staying. So what should have been a 20 minute ride became a 60 minute ride. Super. The thing about it, though, is that I didn't mind. I didn't have anything else to do, and seeing more of this gorgeous island sounded fine. And when I was finally let off, it was at this hostel.

This is where I met two of the most interesting people of my entire trip. One was the proprietor, Herve (add a mental accent to that second e).

Herve
Herve's story is as follows: he joined the French military when he was 18 or 19 and was stationed in Tahiti. He loved it, but wanted out of the military, so he just settled there, got a job, married a Tahitian woman, had a couple of kids. Some years into this that got to be too constricting as well, and he answered an ad in the paper looking for a caretaker for a half-built resort on an outlying island. He got the job and moved out there. What this job entailed was living on this tiny island, alone, maintaining the buildings and grounds for the owners, who visited maybe twice a year. The nearest village was 10 km away by boat. He lived mostly on fish and coconuts, and got drinking water by setting out jars and bottles to collect the rainwater. He did this for six years. Now he's been living on Moorea for about 10 years and running this hostel for 3 or 4 years, which he finally started up so he could have some company. He only takes travellers, not tourists. Any emails asking about private bathrooms or for him to translate his response into English or something he automatically deletes, because he doesn't care about keeping the place full, it's really just a hobby. And because of that he takes really good care of the place. There are always fresh flowers out, every evening and morning he sliced up half a pineapple (by the way, the best-tasting pineapple I have ever had) or a coconut for all of us to share. Laundry is free. Everything is kept clean. He's paid a lot of attention to decoration and creating an atmosphere, with curtains for doors, shell necklaces hung up, different-looking bottles lined up in the windows, a collection of coffee table books on the table. I've never stayed anywhere so lovely.

Maarten
The other person I met there was this Dutch guy named Maarten. You know how people dream of lives where they just travel around, occasionally making money by being a dive instructor or something? This is that guy. He's been a snowboard instructor for a few seasons in the French Alps, a dive instructor in the Mediterranean in northern Spain, a boating instructor running kayak trips, a mountain bike instructor (which is where he met his girlfriend of 5 years). For years he led motorcycle road trips across the U.S. and when I met him was on his way to do one for 3 weeks in New Zealand and then another in Chile and Argentina. He's a professional traveller if I've ever met one. One of those guys who always has a story. We had the same ideas for doing things on the island, so I spent most of my days there with him.


Day 1
I biked around the island with Maarten and a British guy named Nick. Thankfully Nick and I are at about the same level of fitness, which is to say, not, so when we veered off the coastal road and started up a hill and Maarten was for going all the way to the top (which was who knows how far), Nick and I were able to overrule him and go back down. It’s 60 km around the island (which is about 40 miles), and it was a great ride. We paused every once in awhile to take pictures or get food or just take a break to hang out on a beach. We stopped at one and tried to go for a swim before we figured out that we'd have to tramp over half a kilometer of coral before we were in over our knees. We settled for lying down in a foot of water, but I fell and cut my wrist on coral anyway. By the end of it, my ass hurt like a mofo, I had a sunburned stripe across my lower back where my shirt had ridden up, and I didn’t want to even look at a bike (future island transportation needs were taken care of by hitchhiking). However, I’d purchased a six-pack of beer. Cold beer. Hinano will always have a special place in my heart.

Day 2
One of our stops the previous day had been to book a couple of dives, and we were picked up at 7:30 that morning by our chosen dive center. They took us to their dock in Cook’s Bay, we got our gear, and were on the boat heading out just past 8. It was a beautiful sunny morning, which I was glad for, but then it got better: there were dolphins. On the way out of the bay we passed a load of dolphins swimming around there just inside the reef, and it was so cool to watch them come up. We spent 10 minutes hanging around there watching them before heading outside the reef, where we were followed by a bunch of flying fish. Also very cool. Then, even before we got in the water at our dive site, we spotted a couple of black tip reef sharks in the water just below the surface. The dive itself was amazing. There were only 4 of us and the dive master, which is what a dive should be (on the Great Barrier Reef, dives had been with groups of 9 or 10, and we came back to a boat full of about 100 people, the noise of whom chased away most of the stuff that we really wanted to see, like reef sharks). We saw tons more reef sharks, and a couple of lemon sharks, which was awesome: they’re about 6 feet long and actually look like they could do some damage. On our second dive we saw 6 of them.

That afternoon I hoped to get lucky with the sun and headed to the beach at the nearby Sheraton Hotel. I wasn’t that lucky, but I liked being on a beach and swimming in water that wasn’t littered with coral. Maarten went snorkeling while we were there and said he saw a manta ray. I never got motivated enough to go out and have a look.

Day 3
Last day. Hung out with Maarten again, because Nick and a couple of others had left the previous afternoon, and we had the same items on our checklist. We left around 9 and hitchhiked to beach by the Sofitel Hotel (one of the guys who gave us a ride was the general manager at the Sheraton--later that day Maarten hitched a ride from a guy who turned out to be the assistant manager there). It was straight out of a brochure. Sun shining, white sand beach, over-water bungalows in the distance, pale blue water at our feet. I’ve been in the ocean lots of times, but this was the first time I’d really been in a lagoon. You haven’t tasted tropical paradise until you’ve been swimming in a lagoon. It really is just as delicious as you’ve imagined it.

It was hard to leave, but we knew time was short for the next activity on our agenda: hiking. This was probably a really dumb idea, given all the rain that had been falling of late, and if I hadn’t been hiking with the ever enthusiastic Maarten, I never would have found the trail in the first place, let alone completed the damn thing. But we wanted to hike, dammit, so I put my jeans and tennis shoes back on and we hitched a ride to Vaiare. We followed the directions in our trusty Lonely Planet and headed into the interior. And started thinking said directions were really inadequate for what we were faced with. Thankfully we ran into a local and he showed us the start of the trail, which was marked by plastic orange ties on trees. Well-marked too, thank God, or we never would have made it to the top of the ridge (actually, given Maarten’s die-hard spirit, we probably would have, but I’d have just been in a worse mood throughout). This was real hiking. None of that pussy-ass walking on sidewalks that happen to be surrounded by trees and nothing else, which is what most tourists (and I used to be one of them) are referring to when they talk about hiking. No, this was climbing up a 40 plus degree incline slippery with mud, ducking or grasping onto tree branches, falling down regularly anyway, and getting attacked by mosquitoes. And sweating more than I have ever. And when we reached the top of the ridge (which was pretty cool… by then the incline was closer to 65 or 70 degrees because it tapered up) we paused for 10 minutes, took a few pictures, and then headed down. At least we were hiking through new mud, but slippery is worse when you’re going downhill and don’t want to go that fast. Anyway, we made it out at last, and enjoyed a nice cold Coke on a dock in Cook’s Bay while dangling our feet in the water. Good times.

We hitched a ride back to the hostel, showered and packed, and because I’m a girl and take forever Maarten left early to head back to the Sofitel to get a tattoo from the tattoo artist there before catching the ferry (honestly, what more appropriate place is there to get a tattoo than Tahiti? I would’ve gotten one if there’d been time or if I could possibly figure out what to get). I left a bit later, in the middle of the pouring rain (I would’ve waited but was already late) and hitched a ride to the ferry. I was mad when cars passed me with no one in them and I was a girl, alone, standing out in the pouring rain with a heavy backpack, but it still only took me about 5 or 10 minutes to get a ride. I later found out it took Maarten 40 minutes to finally get picked up. I lucked out, too: it was a French couple that was only heading a few kilometers down the road, but after talking with them a few minutes they offered to take me all the way to the ferry. My faith in the kindness of strangers was restored. I made the ferry in plenty of time, and it had just arrived when Maarten came running up with his new tattoo (a gecko on his ankle… it was really cool). He was 5 minutes from missing the ferry because of the tattoo, and had really lucked out with timing.

And then I had to leave Moorea for Tahiti and Papeete. Sigh. It was a lovely ride over though, and besides, when I got there, I was met by Herve. A different Herve. A 27 year-old French naval officer who happened to also be named Herve.

Uh, yeah. More on that later.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Sunday, February 20, 2005

Tahiti

This place is a trip. I suppose I'd forgotten that Tahiti was a domain of the French, and what that would entail. Throughout my travels, I've noticed that, when I took the trouble to think about my firt impression, it was invariably some mix of prior travel experiences: fitting the unknown into the context of the familiar, which is to be expected. Most places I go I generally don't have any real idea of what it is I'm going to find there (beyond the Lonely Planet maps, anyway), hence the above mental machinations. I've generally found (or at least have been convinced by my father that such is the case) that high anticipation and preconceived notions lead to disappointment. (I happen to think he's right.) That's kind of hard to avoid with a place like Tahiti, though. The myth of Polynesia is a very popular one. I suppose I expected Hawaii but on a smaller and more charming scale. If I had enough money to stay in the nice hotels here, which is what I'm used to in Hawaii, I probably would have been right.

But instead, here's the amalgam of experiences this place reminds me of: my spring break visit to Rosarito a few years ago (lots of rain in a place where you'd counted on not having it, plus that same kind of dinginess that comes from poorly-maintained brightly-colored buildings). France, because let's face it, that's what's going to come to mind when I'm in a place where everyone speaks french and I'm living off baguettes and salades nicoises because that's the only thing on the menu where I know what I'm getting if I order it. And finally, my grandmother's house. I'm staying at a pensione called Chez Myrna, which is just outside Papeete, and while I haven't yet figured out who Myrna is, I do know that the proprietor is an old man in his 70's and the house reflects it. It's decorated using materials and patterns that were hip decades ago, but more than that, it has that smell. I don't know how to characterize it, but I'm sure you know the smell I mean. The smell of furnishings that have been there for years. Nostalgia makes it pleasant. Also the fact that I can relax and do nothing and not feel all that guilty about it because it's pouring outside. Thank God I had the foresight to buy a few books before I left New Zealand. Although I'm almost done with the first one, a 500-600 page novel by Michael Crichton, and I've got a few days to go. Not encouraging. My last resort (and last book) is a copy of Vanity Fair that will either take up lots of time or inspire me to find other ways to fill it.

I'm heading to Moorea tomorrow to see what the rain is like over there. I'm keeping my fingers crossed for sunshine: there's only supposed to be a 10% chance of rain on Wednesday.

Saturday, February 19, 2005

NZ

This place is amazing. The past week has been a total blur of driving around, looking at stuff (generally with my mouth hanging open), drinking, dealing with sleep deprivation, and then drinking more anyway. I find it really remarkable that I haven't gotten sick, actually. Aside from the party aspect, with which I've become very well acquainted and have to say that I highly approve, the actual natural splendor of New Zealand--which was my original reason for coming here--is nothing short of stunning.

I don't think it's possible to oversell the landscape here. Nothing can prepare you for anything like this. Our very first morning out we drove over Haast Pass towards the west coast and encountered a low cloud snaking across the foothills of the mountains. Those mountains were sharp and steep, and covered with the most lush greenery I've ever seen. I think Hawaii comes closest, but even that still seems somewhat patchy compared to this. There were waterfalls everywhere. In short, a tropical paradise. But, like, cold. It was probably around 50 degrees out, plus rain and wind. But no tropical paradise is really complete with a parrot or two, and I got my first look at a kea, a mountain parrot and apparently one of the most intelligent birds in the world. They're also damn cute. They didn't fly around too much, instead hanging around on the ground doing this little sideways skip to move about.

A couple days later we got to Queenstown, on Lake Wakatipu--Polynesian names are fun to say--which is a bit further south on the southern island of NZ (I still haven't seen the northern island, but based on reviews from other travelers I think I picked the right one for my week here). It was in this area that they filmed Lord of the Rings. Again, stunning, but in a completely different way. The hills here are, for the most part, barren. There are a few trees in some places but it's amazing to see these golden mountains just stretch up out of blue mountain lakes and go so high. It looks like such a forbidding landscape and you have to wonder at the logic of people who decided living here was a good idea. But while we were in Queenstown we paid a visit to Milford Sound, in Fiordland, and forbidding doesn't even begin to describe it.

Fjordland National Park is one of the biggest in the world, and it's estimated that no human has ever been within 100m of 98% of it. And when you see it, you can understand why. I've never seen anything like these mountains. Steep is an understatement; they must go up at angles of 60, 65 degrees. On average. There's water everywhere. We went on a rainy day and there were literally thousands of waterfalls to be seen everywhere, pouring out of crevices, snaking over the rocks. And then there were the big ones that fell into the sound itself. These make Yosemite Falls look like a poorly-done experiment... they easily matched its height, but the volume of water was overwhelming.

As we left the park, we stopped off at one place to walk up and look at a stone crevasse that had been created by the water. The water had eaten out a gap that was now thirty or forty feet down, the rock itself now carved into smooth, wavelike formations. But the most amazing detail was the trees. The most common tree in the fiordlands is the beech tree, which lives for about 80 or so years and then rots and falls over due to the wind, the rain, and/or the snow, all of which exist in abundance there. Some get caught in the runoff and end up in streams like this one. In one part of the rock the water had carved out a hole, about 20 feet above where the water level was when we were there (on a day in which it was raining plenty). This hole had 3 or 4 full-sized tree trunks sticking out of it. Think of the force of the water that threw them in there. There were a number of others lying about the area too... you'd think some beavers had been at work, though it'd take a friggin' insane beaver to decide that that narrow gorge was a good place for a dam.

Milford Sound was easily the highlight of my visit here, despite all the wind and rain (I wasn't exactly equipped for such weather, seeing as how the other six weeks of my travels were spent in much hotter climates). Here again the vegetation was so lush that it actually seemed otherworldly, particularly in contrast to all the rock faces elsewhere. The southern island of New Zealand is stunning, breathtaking, awesome, spectacular, and just about every other adjective in that vein you can think of. This is a place you have to see before you die.

Monday, February 14, 2005

Brisbane

The best thing about travel, and the experiences you remember from traveling around, are the firsts. Usually the first time you've been somewhere, done something, seen something, insert-a-verb-here something. I was only meant to spend about 8 hours in Brisbane with my original schedule, and ended up extending it to 28 so I could finish my dive course in Cairns. And it's a good thing, too, because I had a blast. My list of firsts for Brisbane:
  • The first time I'd seen the college friend I'd stayed with, Rebecca, in several years
  • The first time on this trip someone's actually met me when I arrived (voluntarily, that is... a guy with a sign met me at the airport in Bali, and that was pretty cool, but I had to pay him ten bucks to do it and I don't see myself getting nostalgic about that at a later date)
  • The first home-cooked meal since I left
  • The first time I've ever managed to mess up hard-boiled eggs
  • The first time I thought drinking at a bar was too expensive
  • The first time I went to the bottle shop next door to the bar for a bottle of wine because of the above economic assessment
  • The first time I've evaluated wines according to whether their tops are cork or screw-off
  • The first time I've smuggled said wine into a bar
  • The first time I've really appreciated the size of my purse
  • The first time I've gone to the bathroom for reasons of getting a liquid substance into me
  • The first time I've later decided to hell with it and just refilled my glass from my purse while I was in the bar
  • The first time I tried to repeat that entire process and was thwarted by the fact that bottle shops close at midnight
  • The first time I bought a bottle of wine at the bar because I wanted to bring it home
  • The first time I smuggled said wine out of a bar
  • The first time I couldn't even finish the damn bottle and really shouldn't have bothered
  • The first time I was really hung over on a day when I had to travel
  • The first time I've come close to missing my flight
  • The first time a two-hour flight delay has been a good thing

Saturday, February 12, 2005

Cairns

While I was in Alice Springs, I talked to a number of other backpackers about what they'd done or planned to do, and I heard that one girl planned to get her dive certification in Cairns, on the Great Barrier Reef, and thought that sounded like a good idea. It was a lot easier to plan than a trip to Fraser Island (another highly-recommended spot), and fit perfectly into my time left: a dive course is 4 days, and I had 5 until I had to be in Brisbane to catch my flight to New Zealand. So to Cairns I went.

It didn't start off well. I had to wait at the airport for the shuttle that would take me to the hostel I'd booked, and was attacked by bugs. Not big, buzzy bugs like bees or mosquitoes that are easy to see. Tiny little black bugs that don't look like they could possibly be big enough to inflict any damage. You don't know there's a problem until they've already bitten you. Fuckers. And my bug spray was buried in the middle of my luggage and couldn't be gotten out. So I did my paranoid curl-up-and-sporadically-slap thing for about half an hour. No one else came near me.

I went to Cairns, checked into my hostel, and headed out to walk around. I had a coupon for a free dinner at a nearby pub, from the hostel, and figured I'd take advantage of that. There was a rugby match on, with about half the bar really involved in it. I went over to the bar to watch, and got myself a pitcher of Victoria Bitter (it only cost a dollar or two more than a pint). I talked to a few Irish guys sitting near me (in an Irish pub, go figure), watched the match, and generally had a good night out. I was sorry for it when I had to get up at 7 am the next morning.

The way a scuba course generally goes is you spend the first day in the classroom in the morning and in the pool in the afternoon. You need a medical examination to make sure you're fit for diving (congestion or other conditions that might mess with equalizing--relieving the pressure in your ears when you go down--have to be detected before you dive, because you can't dive with problems like that), then you have to watch cheesy PADI videos and take quizzes. In the pool you start getting used to the equipment and learning skills that you're later tested on in the ocean in order to get your certification, like how to clear your mask when it fills with water (definitely a handy bit of information) and how to descend properly. After 8 or 9 hours of this--with a hangover--I was pretty wiped. I'd also learned how necessary it was for me to bring a towel. The second day was the same, but in reverse order. The third day we finally headed to the Great Barrier Reef to go diving. The first day is kind of a blur--diving is hard to get used to, with all the equipment you're wearing (I'm not a fan of weight belts, necessary though they are) and things you have to remember. Also the dive buddy I ended up with couldn't swim. She didn't have enough weights and kept floating up and away. The second day out diving I gave up looking after her--it's exhausting work to tow someone else around. Despite rough seas, the second day went much better. I wasn't worried about my dive buddy (we were all swimming around in a big group anyway, it's not we really needed to be in pairs) and, more importantly, I had a mask that didn't leak. Swimming around and seeing the coral and the fish was lovely, it really is kind of like flying. And I love swimming. The number and colors of fish was amazing, and it was really cool to see all the different kinds of coral, some of which were really colorful. I didn't see any turtles or sharks, unfortunately, and while it sounds kind of weird, I did see a really cool clam. It was probably a foot wide, maybe more, with its shell partly opened so you could actually see the membrane inside, which was covered with brilliant blue stripes. In all I had a great time, and can't wait to go diving again when I'm in Tahiti.

I left on the following day, Friday--I'd had to change my flights in order to finish the course, because you risk decompression illness if you fly too soon after diving. My last hour in Cairns was great: I walked up to Baskin Robbins and had two scoops of ice cream for breakfast. It melted all over my hands and face (though I wiped that off periodically) to give me that really cool 5 year-old look. It was great. Then it was off to the airport and Brisbane. More on that later.

Sydney (part 2)

Sorry for my recent silence on here... I wish I could say something unutterably cool had happened, like I'd discovered the whereabouts of a gold field in the outback and had spent the last week or so wallowing in accolades and assembling an entourage, but no such luck. I could totally use the extra cash, too.

The rest of my time in Sydney wasn't nearly as active as the first few days. Thursday I just hung around Newtown and then met Steph after work for drinks and dinner at a Vietnamese restaurant with some of her coworkers. It was my first meal at a Vietnamese place, and I have to say, me likey. Then we walked back home and watched the end of Lost (it premiered in Australia that night) and The Amazing Race.

Friday I slept in again, then got set to head to the beach (I hadn't yet been to Bondi, which is the most famous beach in Sydney). First I stopped off in downtown Sydney to see about changing my ticket home from Tahiti so I could try and make a friend's wedding in Chicago which is set for the day I get back. The woman I spoke to was supremely unhelpful, but she did point out that it actually says 'no changes permitted' right on my ticket. Dammit. (I've since decided to go anyway, though I'll miss the ceremony and have to deal with an interesting luggage exchange during the few hours I'll be in LA--clothing appropriate to the South Pacific will not be of much use to me in Chicago this time of year.) The ticket place was not too far from the Queen Victoria building, which is a really nice mall in downtown Sydney, and as I was walking by my eye was caught by a few things, so I went in to have a look. And my anti-shopping resolve was broken. I spent a couple hours there, then decided I didn't want to carry all my loot to the beach, so I headed back to Newtown, and then did a bit of shopping there as well (King Street shops are similar to those on Melrose). I finally headed to Bondi around 3:30, more out of a sense of obligation to see it than out of any real beachy feeling I had. I got there at 4:30, had a look around, laid out for maybe half an hour, got some subpar fish and chips, and then had to leave (after about an hour and a half there) to get back and get ready for the evening. After a nightmarish navigation of Sydney's public transportation system, I finally got back around 7:30, rushed to get ready, and then Steph, her friend Christine and I caught a cab to a place called Goodbar, where there was a tsunami relief party being held for the staff at several local hospitals. We stayed there the rest of the night.

Steph woke me up the next morning. It took a couple tries. We went for breakfast at a Turkish restaurant she apparently went to almost every week. We were starving and it was delicious... hummus and chips, scrambled eggs with spinach and feta... we ate a ton, and eventually our food comas combined with our hangovers to leave us both completely exhausted. But we'd planned to go shopping, so we drove to Paddy's market and walked around for a bit. It's in the middle of a really nice shopping district but we couldn't get motivated enough to explore this larger territory. We went home and napped. I think it's interesting that both of the days where we actually had time to hang out, we were too hung over to actually do anything. That night we went to a nearby pub for dinner and cocktails, went home and watched Desperate Housewives, and that was it. Steph had work early the next morning and I had to catch a flight to Cairns that afternoon. I woke up, packed, had lunch at my favorite place down the street (called Taste, they made fresh salads and pasta salads every day that are soooo good) followed by dessert at my favorite gelato place across the street, then took a train to the airport. I'd been asleep (passed out more like) and hadn't seen Sydney when I flew in, and the view on the way out was gorgeous, all blue water and beaches, and I could pick out the white of the Opera House.

I miss Sydney.

Thursday, February 03, 2005

Sydney (part 1)

Sydney is one of the most spectacular cities I've ever seen.

The Opera House is emblematic of the city, and while it comes close to capturing the spirit (the domes meant to symbolize the sails in the harbor are an inspired bit of architecture), it just can't communicate the amazing setting of Jackson Harbor and the outer coast. My first day here--Monday--I took a ferry to Manly, a town that straddles a peninsula dividing the harbor and the sea. I can't decide if I like the look of all the houses on the hillsides, or the barren cliffs that stretch up out of the water and then back, covered with green trees. Or the beautiful blue water. At Manly I walked along the beach (which is lined with lovely tall trees of the fir variety--there's a good picture here) and up to another little inlet, Shellie Beach, and then out to the coastline beyond. It's all sheer cliffs, and there's tons of spray from the massive waves that kept rolling in. I was reminded of the California or Oregon coastline, but had never seen water this blue there: the white water after the waves had broken was tinted blue. I'd been out Manly the night before with the friend I'm staying with (Stephanie) to help her babysit the daughter of one of her coworkers, but it was evening and I was still recovering from Saturday night, so we didn't do much more than order pizza and watch Safin beat Hewitt in the men's final. I did finally learn the rules of tennis, but I didn't find out that there was more to Manly (we were in a building on the water on the harbor side) until the following day.

I caught a ferry back to Sydney (the only way to see the harbor: the boat was full of tourists taking pictures of the Opera House and Harbor Bridge together), complete with a cup of gelato--they have gelato places everywhere here--which left a lovely stain on my skirt. I met my friend for dinner at a Mexican place and, while it was good, it doesn't even come close to the Mexican food I've grown to know and love back at home. They served my margarita in a martini glass, for Christ's sake, without ice. Honestly.

Tuesday's expedition was to the Blue Mountains. They're about 100 km out of Sydney and the start of the Great Dividing Range. Their name comes from the fact that they appear blue, due to the mist of eucalyptus oil from all that trees that fills the air in the morning and evening. I couldn't really smell the eucalyptus (my nose is pretty selective about when it wants to do its job), or the tea trees, for that matter, but there was plenty for my senses to do anyway. I walked from the train station down to Echo Point, which is the major lookout towards the Three Sisters (here's a good picture, taken on a day much clearer than the day I was there). After that I hiked around Prince Henry Cliff walk and down into the canyon. The sheer sandstone cliffs, the tall trees, the waterfalls... it was a gorgeous hike. The canyon was a ways down, though, so I paid $7 to ride one of the steepest railways in the world back up to the top. They call it the Scenic Railway, which makes one think of a long train ride that winds along clifftops rather than a 60-second train ride down a 50 degree incline. But whatever, if it meant not having to climb back up, plus riding something that steep (that was pretty cool... they used to use it for mining, though I'm sure a few local kids must've had plenty of fun with it--minus the injuries--on off days), I think I got a bargain. I had a ticket for one of those hop on hop off buses, and rode that around to see another valley and then to a place a little past Echo Point, where there was a nice lookout and further walking back to Echo Point, with a stop off at the base of one of the Three Sisters. After that I was done with hiking, and took the bus to Leura, where I thought I'd have a look around before heading back to Katoomba, which was where I wanted to get lunch before taking a train back to Sydney. It started raining in Leura. After such a hot day it was nice, but that was only the first 40 minutes or so. After we got ditched by the bus the next time it came around (we were waiting where we were supposed to and bastard didn't even stop!), we went in search of a cab to take us back to Katoomba. I got my lunch, then got on the train, and finally made it back to Sydney. Stephanie was working late that night, so I showered and went out to see The Motorcycle Diaries, which was playing nearby and was something I'd wanted to see for awhile. Damn good movie. A nice end to the day.

Yesterday I decided to actually go and see Sydney itself. I made plans to meet an American friend of mine living here--JR--for lunch. Totally random: I haven't seen him in at least 5 years, and while we're from LA and Cleveland, respectively, we've never actually seen each other in either of those places. Nope, the last time we saw each other was Breckenridge, Colorado, and the time before was central California. At this point I don't think it's possible to get any further away without coming back, though. Anyway, we caught up, ate, had gelato (so I got a chocolate stain on a different skirt), wandered around the Rocks and then up to the Sydney Observatory, which has a good (and free) permanent exhibit, and a decent view of Anzac Bridge. It's still obstructed, but it's the best look I've had yet, and that's one cool-looking bridge. After JR left, I walked into the Museum of Contemporary Art, because you just never know what you'll find in a place like that. I got lucky. They had an exhibition on Bridget Riley. I was first exposed to her work at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Glasgow, and have remembered her ever since. Her paintings were what gave me respect for contemporary art. They're flat paintings, but consist of lines that, because of their placement, look like they're moving. I thought it was a brilliant way to use the medium, and was really excited to see that this exhibition was going on, which featured paintings over the span of her career. Turns out the line stuff I love was done in the late 60's/early 70's, and she's moved on to brighter shapes, which are also beautiful but don't create the sense of movement that I love. Anyway, I spent awhile there listening to the free audio tour--lucky day for me, everything there was free!--enjoying the paintings, and looking through the exhibition book, which I ended up buying.

I spent the rest of the afternoon just walking around. I walked over to the Opera House, which is just as dramatic close up as it is far away. I've never seen so many people taking pictures from so many different vantage points. After that I walked through the Botanical Gardens, which were lovely, and up to the Art Gallery of NSW. Nothing was going to top the Riley exhibition, and nothing did, but it was interesting to go through and see their collection of Australian art. By this time it had become overcast (earlier it had been very windy, with lots of little clouds that matched the whitecaps in the harbor), so I started heading towards George St. in the city in hopes of catching a bus back to Newtown. My timing was pretty good, though not good enough: it started to pour. The bottom of the bag carrying my Riley book fell out. Thankfully, I found a bus driver who gave me a lift for free to the Central Station (you couldn't catch buses to Newtown further north), and as soon as I got there I jumped on a bus to Newtown and was back. I'd meant to check email and all that good stuff, as it was only about 4:30, but ended up just showering, looking through my new book, and listening to the Kill Bill soundtracks I bought in Bali. When Stephanie got back we went out for sushi. It was one of those places with the little belt that goes by and you just pick off whatever it is you want to eat. It was awesome. It was the first time ever that I really had my fill of all my favorite kinds of sushi. Afterwards we had gelato for dessert, and I stayed up watching the finale of Outback Jack (Steph says there's no way he's from the outback, his accent is too subtle and has to be from a city... besides, he isn't even cute). American television at its finest.

I still need to head out to Bondi and try out surfing again, but today is actually kind of cold, so I'm considering just shopping and hanging out in Newtown. The main street here, King Street, reminds me of Clark Street in Chicago. But with more sushi places and fewer taco stands. Which reminds me, it's time for lunch.

Melbourne

Day 1: Arrive at hostel, get stuck with a top bunk again. It's just not fun anymore once you've passed the age of 10 years old. Head out to walk around the city, see pretty parks, Parliament, and Federation Square where they were doing a live interview with someone involved in that tennis thing that was going on there. Get hungry, head back to the hostel to get my book in preparation for eating alone. Stumble across a cute little alley in the middle of a dead city (a Melbourne friend told me that those little streets are the secret to the city and, by God, she was right) full of Italian restaurants, outdoor seating, and live music. Delicious dinner of risotto--which I still can't distinguish from rice--and gelato for dessert. Have to pass on that bottle of white wine because I'm sick, and have also recently learned the painful lesson in Perth that the alcohol flush makes sunburns hurt more before they hurt less. Head back to my (unairconditioned) room where I can revel in the coolness of being the first person in bed.

Day 2: Sleep in, then spend 2 hours showering and getting ready to head out because it's so frickin' hot I can't figure out how to put on makeup in a way that's more flattering than not. Succeed on my second try (standing in front of an open window). Meet the guy who goes around changing bed linens and convince him to help me move bunks to one that's not on the top. Yes!!! Head out to the suburbs to meet up with some people out there who I met in Bali. Spend the afternoon and evening doing whatever it is Aussies do in their free time, which appears to be hanging out, either at home or at the sports bar, with a little bit of alcohol and billiards thrown in. And the most massive burger I've ever seen. It's the first time I've ever not been able to finish a burger, and I blame the fact that they added pineapple, ham, and a fried egg to it. I almost managed to finish the day without doing anything worthy of my Lonely Planet, but it turned out we were right at the base of Mount Dandenong, so we drove to the top and broke into (aka climbed around the fence) the area with the good view at the top to see the city lights. It really is beautiful landscape down there: just the town we were in was nothing but tree-covered rolling hills. Day ended with me missing the last train back to the city and spending the night out there. We watched a bootlegged copy of The Aviator on DVD (thank you Bali) and couldn't finish it: too boring. Does that movie remind anyone else of Citizen Kane, but without the literary device that I've now decided really helped keep it interesting? Watch an episode of Cedric the Entertainer on TV before falling asleep.

Day 3: Wake up, take train back to the city (2 hours), spend the afternoon doing I have no idea what. I think eating ice cream was involved, though. At 8 pm go out to meet a different set of Aussies I met on Bali. One of them was a lead singer in a cover band, so I went and met the rest of the band and watched them perform. Drank me some beers and had an awesome time, and couldn't believe it when all of a sudden it was 3 am and the bar was closing. Also that I had to leave for the airport in three hours for my flight to Sydney. Convinced the drummer to help me kill some time (which mostly involved looking around for a food establishment that was still open), and then somehow turned my ride home into a ride all the way to the airport. Score.

Whole27: Recap

So we didn't quite make it 30 days. On Thursday, we looked at the prospect of a dry Memorial Day weekend (and the Friday leading up to i...