Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Enough Already with Australia

One of my friends here in SF, a self-identified foodie, likes to host events that involve some form of cooking. Past party themes include The Deep Fryer Party (bring something to throw in his deep fryer and see what happens) and Thanksgiving Dinner (an opportunity for 30+ people to practice their new recipes before real Thanksgiving rolls around--think church dinner meets debauchery). People go ALL OUT for these events and the competition tends to be impressively steep.

This past weekend he and his roommate hosted a sushi making competition. The idea was that the hosts would provide sticky rice, seaweed, sushi making tools and all the fixings, and the guests would each bring whatever they wanted to include inside their roll. Each competitor had to make enough sushi pieces for all the other competitors to try. Every roll was then judged by the amount of applause it received when formally announced by the hosts at the end of the evening (a highly accurate method to select the winner in any contest as utilized by my sleep away camp to determine the coveted title of talent show winner).

Still riding the Aussie wave, I entered "The Vegemite Roll" (alternatively titled the "G'Day Mate") which consisted of Vegemite, sour dough bread and melted butter. I swear it's way better than it sounds. In fact, my entry came dangerously close to taking the crown, beating out "Thanksgiving Dinner" (a roll complete with stuffing, cranberry sauce and turkey) and "Worms in Mud" (Nutella with gummy worms). Sensing my disappointment, one of the hosts created a "Most International Roll" category special for me so that I could win, too. Apparently, I'm still at sleep away camp.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Back in SF

Sorry for the long lapse. The transition back to SF took a little while. Not only did I have to readjust to looking the "other" way when crossing the street (harder than it sounds!), but I felt compelled to respond to many a taunting email and voice mail, mocking me for not being able to hang with the intro to scuba crew. Luckily, one of my friends, who initially gave me the hardest time, later mistook a photo I sent him of a crocodile in the Cairns Zoo as a risky close up taken in the Aussie wild. So now he thinks I'm brave.

The other rough thing about coming back was the unusually cold weather here in SF, a far cry from the long summer days in Sydney. Apparently, I've lost whatever tolerance for the cold I developed throughout all those frosty winters in Jersey when I'd wake up to the sound of my dad shoveling, salting and sanding our driveway. (I would have helped were all my energy not focused on the important task of willing the public school mother's phone chain to launch into action announcing a snow day....from under the covers.)

Without a working heater in my apartment, I found myself among my fellow Mission residents in line for a discount space heater at a shady Mission "electronics" store. Based on the way we were behaving, you would have thought this was the Blizzard of '78. "Ay, que frio!" we complained to one another as we rubbed our hands together dramatically and sipped hot coffee. For a brief moment, I considered stocking my fridge with cold cuts, but then I remembered I haven't eaten sliced ham in at least 15 years and it wasn't nearly cold enough to snow...and the only phone chain I'm now part of is the one where your friend gives birth and you pass on the news...and still get out of bed and go to work.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

A Bon Voyage Barbie

Today is my final day down under--my flight leaves in a couple hours. Chris has left for work ("wuuhhk") and the contents of my luggage are strewn all over his “lounge room,” complete with a large jar of Vegemite and some new Bonds underwear to bestow upon my mates in San Francisco. (If you guys don't know about the Bonds brand, it's the best cotton EVER and Aussie men and women alike just love slipping into a pair of Bonds "knickers").

I spent the rest of the week in Sydney walking around the city and attempting to impress Chris with my intimate knowledge of the city bus and ferry system--a knowledge somehow reminiscent of Dustin Hoffman's character in Rain Man. (Me: "Chris, did you know you can take the #441 from the Botanical Gardens right to the Harbour?!” Chris (staring blankly at me): “Love ya 'wohrk.' Now excuse me while I grab a ‘beeha’ [beer].”) Taxi's just aren't as much fun and the drivers think you’re weird when you sit in the back seat (apparently, Aussies sit in the front seat, even if they're the only passenger.)

I'm pleased to report that my experience down under was quite a good one. I feel really lucky that I got to travel and live with Aussies as opposed to cruising around backpacker style. This way, I ate what they ate (we had a "barbie" last night with none other than kangaroo...and Semillon--check out the below photo!), went where they went (mostly to pubs) and discussed the kinds of things they like to talk about (with the exception of the cricket, which I “reckon” I’ll never quite grasp).

Since my time here is almost up, I've been reflecting on my trip and thinking about the similarities and differences between my fellow Yanks and the citizens of the land down under. And I've concluded that, for the most part, people over here are just like Americans with a few key exceptions. Following is my almost statistically significant analysis of the differences (where n = Chris’ mates plus random people I met on buses, ferries and in pubs).

Stereotypes that were confirmed:
  • People really do say "no worries" instead of you're welcome. Grandmas, business people, everyone! And not worrying is indeed a major priority as Aussies are huge into relaxing and not being "bothad" (bothered). No one is “fussed" if you accidentally spill or break something, people are up for anything and there's almost zero discussion about who does what kind of job or who went to school where--no one cares! I'm still not sure how they're able to reach this perpetual state of Zen, but I'm thinking it may have something to do with all the beer.
  • Beer, beer and more beer and maybe some wine...and then some more beer is THE WAY. Everyone I met here drinks A LOT (although I'm yet to spot a Foster's) and thinks nothing of it. Plain and simple: beer...and beef (on the barbie).
  • The sun here is really, really hot—way stronger than in the States. You can feel it beating down on you after just a couple minutes...and it does indeed burn you…BAD.
  • People are BIG. I guess I thought Chris was an anomaly (for those of you who haven't met him, he's quite big. Maybe 6'3 and looks like a gym buff although I don't think he's EVER seen the inside of a gym). Well, it turns out that he fits right in over here. When I walk down the streets, I'm shocked at how large everyone is (tall and built). It's like walking into a Marlboro ad from the 1980s.

Things I didn't know about Australians until now:

  • They have a strong affinity for pumpkin. True. Who would have guessed? They put it in homemade stir fries, offer it as a side dish in restaurants and even serve it as an extra at KFC!
  • They're tight with the English but rarely pal around with Americans, which is interesting since I think of our friends down under as geographically and politically much closer to us Yanks. And there are SO MANY English people over here and vice verse; every Aussie has an English mate or two yet you’d be hard pressed to find one with an American buddy.
  • Aussies just love them a good view! It's interesting to hear the these guys feel out a location since one of the first questions they ask is "what's the view like?" Whether it's a restaurant, someone's flat or a barbie in the park, it's all about the view, preferably of the Harbour.
  • Sydney is much more "up market" and sophisticated than I imagined. Restaurants are expensive, people are extremely well traveled and the CBD (Central Business District) boasts a serious collection of corporate powerhouses. I knew Sydney was a major world city, but I envisioned it to be a little less intense.

While Americans and Aussies are, at heart, for the most part, very similar people, there was one encounter I had that reminded me I was far, far from home. It was the day that Chris, Amy and I babysat one of their friend’s very adorable little girls. Her name is Eve (pronounced "Evie") and she's three years old (pictured below).

We picked Miss Eve up for the day on the town, and before we left her house, she insisted we check out the chalk drawings that she and a friend had made on her deck the day before. Next to the requisite chalk flower and traditional little girl chalk rainbow was a big chalk kangaroo, hopping under a chalk umbrella to avoid the sun. When we were in the car on our way to lunch, Eve pointed out "the harba breedge" while telling us about her “best mates at kindy” (nursery school).

Sitting down at lunch, Eve ordered "chippies" (french fries) and proceeded to ask for a "babyccino" (steamed milk with chocolate flakes on top, served in a latte cup—a common thing for kids to get here). Later on, we had a ginger beer in the park and Eve broke out her can of Playdo. "What are you making me, I asked? "Um, a meat pie!" she answered.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Sisters and Brothers

Since last I wrote, I've been in Sydney, cruising around the city and taking day trips...while all my Aussie mates have been hard at work now that "the festive season" (what we would call "the holidays") has come to an end (most people here are off of work between Christmas and Jan 8th).

My first trip was to The Blue Mountains, which are about two hours West of Sydney by rail. The mountain range is famous for two things--"The Three Sisters" rock formation and the eerie blue haze that sits over the mountain range (it comes from eucalyptus tree oil vapors). And it's true! The mountains really look blue --photos to come. It's beautiful up there and Katoomba (the main town of the mountains) is a cozy, funkylittle place. It reminded me of Asheville, NC--vegetarian cafes (I've SO missed my avocado, tomato and hummus on wheat!), artsy shops and laid back bookstores where Ben Harper/Joni Mitchell-esque musicians rock out to a view of the blue range.

Since I was only there for the day, I didn't have time to do an extensive "bushwalk" (hike), but I did undertake The Great Stairway, a two hour climb up the side of the mountain, looking up at The Three Sisters. Most people, I later learned, walk DOWN this path, but not this little American, no siree. Going in the opposite direction, all sorts of hikers passed me by, including an Canadian couple who looked to be about my age ("Go gihrl!"), an Aussie family ("G'day! How ya going?") and a panting group of pasty English blokes ("Ello. Do you reckon we're close to the baut-tim? Whateva gave you the idea to walk UP this nosty lit'el poth?).

Finally, I made it to the top, snapped some photos and hopped on the last bus back to town where I met a fun English guy (who took the below photo of me with my camera) and convinced me to get some dinner with him before we caught the return train to Sydney. I gave him my best pitch for the vegetarian cafe, but he "fancied a beer or two" at the town pub and couldn't quite see the allure of veggie burgers with soy cheese and cold herbal tea. Those Brits can be such savages! :)

After some beers, we rode the train back to the city and he told me how he paid "400 quid" (about $800 US?) for a dinner boat through Sydney Harbor on New Year's Eve. This made me appreciate my rowdy house party where we drank our dinner from an "esquie" (cooler)that much more, even though I still have a bruise on my arm from getting knocked into the kitchen wall by some guy "on the piss" who was yelling at his mate about "the cricket." No worries, I guess…

The next day, I was up and out of Chris' flat by 6:00 am and onto a tour van headed to The Hunter Valley, the Napa Valley of Australia. There were ten people in our group, and I buddied up with two English guys who were "keen for a day of laughs and giggles." Count me in. It's a good thing I was on a tour since I soon realized that "The Hunter" (as the locals call it) is HUGE. It's not like Napa where you cruise up one main road (and perhaps back on one smaller road if you're up for some diversity). This place is really spread out and you have to know where you're going.

Our tour guide ("Priscilla, Queen of the Hunter," as she called herself) knew her way around and focused our visits on family owned, boutique wineries. We got to check things out behind the scenes and I tried my first of many Semillons (the white wine that The Hunter is famous for). By the second stop, my English mates, who had started to feel like older brothers, had almost convinced me that the gray, woolly headrests on the top part of our van seats were made of "koala bum" (see below photo). It was a long day...

Sunday, January 7, 2007

Don't Touch That Plant, Mates!

So, Cairns (pronounced "cans" if you didn't already know) was, as my guidebook promised, VERY HOT. It felt like Florida in August except more humid, if you can imagine that. The city is very much about tourism, serving as the launching point for The Great Barrier Reef, the Daintree Rainforest and some cool little islands not too far off the coast. It's a great place to "get yourself sorted" for Queensland adventures, but the city itself is, for the most part, defined by rowdy backpackers raging in collegey-style bars...and you have to get on a bus to get to the nearest beach. As if.

Lucky for me, I didn't have time to hang around and quickly booked myself on some fun-sounding trips--one to the rainforest and one to The Great Barrier Reef where I signed up for an introductory scuba dive (note: just booking the reservation gave me butterflies in my stomach). I'd never gone diving before, but people had been telling me "If you can snorkel and aren't afraid to breath while your face is in the water, you can scuba for sure. You'll be fine, mate. Just go for it." So I did.

The first trip was a jeep tour of the rainforest and the Aussie bush. There were eight of us on the day trip and our guide was great. He knew EVERYTHING about the history, geography and plants/animals of the area and seriously looked like he had walked straight out of the set for Crocodile Dundee (see below photo). He drove our jeep through rivers, showed us the Australian stinger plants in the forest (if you touch it, you're in excruciating pain for up to three months and even morphine can't help you) and, like any good Aussie, stopped the day for morning tea along side a lake where we looked for six foot tall cassowary birds (we didn't see any).

What's cool about this part of the country is that the rainforest, the bush and the ocean all come together. One minute, we'd be driving through the bush (which looks like a forest of windy, small trees during a very dry winter, except no pine trees), and the next minute, we'd be in a thick, lush rainforest and the sun would be completely blocked out. Around the next bend in the road would be a view of the ocean...and then we'd be back in the bush, repeating the cycle again…and again.

We drove all day through these different areas, stopping to check out fig trees as big as California redwoods, gathering places for thirsty kangaroos and a roadside fruitstand that sells lychees by the kilo. On the ride back to Cairns, our group tackled the lychees and crocodile jerky while our guide told us how the movie "Open Water" was based on a Port Douglas/Cairns snorkel and dive boat. Despite the soothing undulations of his Aussie accent, I began to panic silently in my jeep seat thinking about my boat trip the next morning. Meanwhile, everyone else chatted happily about the adventures of our day, hoping to spot a koala out the window.

That night I packed my "toggs" and sun screen in my bag and set my alarm for 6:00 a.m. when the shuttle to Port Douglas would pick me up. I laid in bed, sweating, with visions of Jaws dancing through my head.

Insert “I Have a Problem” Scuba Sign

The following post is alternatively titled, "If you Cairns'norkel, you Cairns'cuba = false."

My cell phone alarm indicated it was time to get up. After a quick brekky and a "flat white" (coffee with milk), I made my way to the Port Douglas shuttle stop. Forty minutes later, I was shuffled to the "Silver Sonic" Reef boat (see below photo), carrying my quickly diminishing bottle of Clarins SPF 40 and an unraveling towel with rainbow fish on it—a scene I now recognize as a moment of foreshadow, thanks to high school English class.

I think the best way to describe my scuba experience is with a snippet from the day at sea. Following is a scene from our boat that took place right after those of us who had never "had a dive" before watched a ten minute instructional video and then suited up for our first attempt. There were about 100 people on the boat, 1/3 of whom were scuba diving--the rest were snorkeling. Eight of us were first time divers and we were split into two groups. My group got the cute instructor.


Cute Dive Instructor (CDI): OK, mates, let's have a go! Rob and Mike, you're up first. Please make your way to the watah and jump in. Lauren and Alan, on deck!

Me: (thinking to myself) Should I be embarrassed that this guy guessed the correct size wet suit for me? How do I know there's enough air in this tank? Why do I have the same number of weights on my belt as these 6 foot guys? I hope I see a sea turtle. Who the hell is Alan?

CDI: OK, Lauren. Jump in next to me and don't forget when you stand up to be careful since your tank weighs, pounds? Yeah, about 60 pounds.

Me: (Now in the ocean, panicking, attempting first time breathing through mask under water while clutching CDI in utter terror. Give the "I have a problem" sign within 20 seconds. We come up.) I'm not ready yet. Can I try at the next dive site?

CDI: Listen, this boat is chaukers (chock full) and you may not get anotha chance. Just keep holding on to me and we'll go down togetha. If you don't like it once you're down theya, give me the sign and we'll come up. You'll love it. Ready, mate?

Me: (I give the OK sign and we go down. Adrenaline rush sets in within seconds along with paralyzing visions of underwater asphyxiation. I don't hesitate to give the "I have a problem" sign again and we come back up).

CDI: Don't take off your mask! We're going down again. I know this is scary, especially the first time. I can tell this is doin' your head in (Aussies love that phrase). Look at me, Lauren, and stop breathing so hard or you'll use up all your air. You're from California, right? So you must know how to do yoga. Look at me and give me a nice big yoga breath, calm down and let's make this happen.

Me: (attempting yoga breath and having flash backs of fiercely dreaded swimming lessons throughout elementary school) I want to get back on the boat. (looking at boat). Please?

CDI: I know you can do this--you were so close just now. This is the Great Barriah Reef and you don't want to miss it. I'll stay with you since the other guys don't seem to need me, OK? Please look at me, Lauren.

Me: I'll see it with a snorkel. I'm so sorry. I just can't do it. (making my way back to the boat via panicky doggie paddle, mortified).


So, I got back on the boat, ditched the tank and the weight belt, threw on a snorkel and jumped in alongside those people who knew diving wasn't for them...or who, despite their plans to go diving the next morning, had had too much to drink the night before and now didn't want to risk screwing uptheir blood stream by going too far down under water. These were my people--the pansies and the delinquents, and off we went with our hot pink flippers for a day of snorkeling.

The reef really was beautiful and I saw all kinds of fish and coral—just like in Finding Nemo! The sun was shining, the water was close to 80 degrees (according to my shoddy Fahrenheit calculations) and we stopped at three different spots. On our way home, it started to rain and everyone huddled inside the boat for the obvious boat snack--tea and sweet crackers. (Apparently, watermelon and lemonade aren’t part of the Aussie sailors’ pallet.)

It was then that I overheard a conversation among some guys from Melbourne who were planning to ask for their money back since they had been sea sick all day and blamed it on the boat staff for not allowing them to smoke. "I would have nevva come out for an eight owwa day had I known that we wouldn't be able to smoke." "Yeah, mate. If I don't smoke after I eat, I get seek, even if I'm not on a boat." "I hear ya, matey. This is bloody torcha." This seemed like an odd reason to ask for a refund, but these guys were serious. Smoking is huge over here and people don't seem to be adjusting very well to the new nonsmoking restrictions.

Soon enough the rain had passed and we all made our way back outside. A bunch of us settled into a conversation, and I was glad to see that none of the people nearby had been in my dive group which meant they didn't know about my freak out. Suddenly I heard my name being yelled by my cute diving instructor (CDI) who was on the deck looking for me. I signaled him to come over and the girls sitting near me gave me winks and playful jabs in the side (this guy was apparently the talk of the boat). At this point, dozens of people were looking my way and listening to what he was going to say.

CDI: Allo, Lauren. Just wanted to give you this slip of paypa.

Me (guessing it was his number or email, I flashed my best American smile and reached for the piece of paper feigning composure): OK, thanks (turning red).

CDI: (loud enough for everyone to hear) Sorry about today, mate. This is a receipt that you can present at your hotel where you booked your boat trip. Since you were too scared to go down for a propa dive, our policy is to refund you for your lesson. Maybe you can try again some day. And work on those yoga breaths in the meantime, Cali girl! (He winked and walked away.)

Me: (mortified and noticing giggles from around me) OK, thanks.

I'm sure I'm going to get emails from all of you telling me how lame I am for not being about to handle going under water...and that's fine. I'd rather be the girl who aborted mission than the girl who had to be airlifted to the hospital for swimming to the surface in a fit of terror and getting the bends, right?

Wednesday, January 3, 2007

Keeping Cool with Gold Coins

So now I'm up in Cairns on my own and all is well (Jan 3rd). It's unbelievably hot up here, which I love but seems to be upsetting many tourists whom I overhear on the streets swapping "it was so hot the other day that..." stories. I'm at a hostel in the main part of town--it's sort of a nice place but you have to put change into the air conditioner in your room in order to turn it on. I've mastered the art of putting just enough money in to keep the room from exceeding 80 degrees until I fall asleep. The hostel is next door to a cafe that plays a 'round the clock curious combination of Phil Collins (his hits I think) and Imogen Heap. I guess the theme is "English?"

I leave tomorrow for a eco-tour on a jeep through the rainforest. Then I'm off on a snorkel/scuba trip (yes, I'm terrified). I'll be in touch with the report on my Queensland adventures. Until then...

Tuesday, January 2, 2007

G'day 2007!

On the 30th, the 4 of us who were in Melbourne flew up to Sydney in preparation for the New Year. Chris and I settled in at his Balmain flat where I met his girlfriend Amy, an adorable Kiwi (New Zealander). A couple hours later, I was on the bus downtown to join forces with my sister's friend, Beaux, and his boyfriend, who just happened to be in Sydney on vacation.

We met up in the Royal Botanical Gardens (gorgeous) where you get a beautiful view of the Harbour Bridge and the Opera House, and headed off for some shopping in a part of the city called Paddington (posh and trendy—Aussie style, complete with designer surf attire). Then we were off to a fish dinner in Surrey Hill (another part of the city) where I taught the boys all the Aussie vocabulary and cultural phenomena that I had picked up during my stay in Melbourne. "I dare say, they were well impressed with my knowledge of grilled tomatoes for brekky."

The next day, Chris, Amy, some of thier mates and I met up for New Year's Eve picnic in a park by the harbour-(New Year's Eve starts early here). Note: Apparently, the women of New Zealand can party EVERYONE I know under the table, and Amy and her friends were certainly no exception (see below photo--Amy is second to the right). I did my best to keep up (for purposes of cultural sensitivity of course), but had to take some breaks for a glass of water or two, resulting in angry cries from the pack of Aussie guys in the kitchen. "What you drinking THAT for?! Get back in here, Yankee, and pour yourself a real drink!"

Luckily, the fireworks distracted everyone for long enough for me to take a quick re-hydration break. The house where the party was had a view of the Harbour Bridge on two sides of a big deck--it was incredible and for sure the best firework display I've ever seen. As my Aussie mates would say, “senSAYtional!” The party raged on for another 7 hours after that, and I'm proud to say I held my own.

Three cheers for the American lass and G'day 2007!