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Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Bula, Marie! You’re on Fiji-Time Now…

Rocky shorelines, crystal blue water, eco-friendly resorts, stunning coral reefs, swaying palm trees and the warmest, loveliest people I’ve ever met. That’s a tip-of-the-iceberg portrait of the northern reaches of Fiji’s islands, which include Vanua Levu and Taveuni. I was taken off-guard when I arrived in Fiji; an island is an island, right? Wrong. I thought that before I went to Bali and was floored by how much of an impression it left on me. The same with Fiji. Before arriving, the South Pacific conjured the white sandy beaches of dream worlds, images crafted by Michener and Stevenson, tabloid portrayals of Marlon Brando’s French Polynesia and honeymoon couples lazing away days in overwater bungalows. Yet as I realized in Fiji, there’s oh-so-much more. Fiji is indelibly inked into my travel memories as the new favorite (as I’m sure over the last couple of years, I’ve said that more than once). A place where time doesn’t matter and loving thy neighbor comes naturally, Fiji was a country that I didn’t want to ever leave.

I woke at 3:30 AM in Auckland to catch the first airport shuttle of the day. Tired and cranky, I arrived to the international terminal at 4:30 for my 7 AM flight to Nadi (pronounced Nandi by Fijians) only to be told that I had mistaken the time. Huh? It was 7 PM. A joke? I don’t make organizational mistakes. Must be a joke. Yeah, not so much. All prepared to jump on a plane, fall back to sleep and arrive in the tropics, my whole day required an immediate re-plan. First, frantic calls to the SF and North Carolina based travel agents who e-booked this part of my trip. Cancel my Fiji inter-island flight, push to the next day; aware the north resort that I’d be a day late, arrange for a substitute Nadi hotel, arrange transfers. From 4:30 – 6:00 AM, I payphone re-planned. Then called my sister to bitch about it. Sometimes, a girl just needs a good bitching.

Unable to muster the effort required to play tourist in Auckland (which entailed changing out of “plane clothes,” packing a day bag, making an Auckland agenda, taxi-ing back into the city and hanging around for the sake of hanging around), I opted to take a couch day, only the yummy sofa would be an itchy airport plaid, the cable television a communal one tuned to CNN, and the food selection an assortment of fast food outfits like McDonalds (hashbrowns for breakfast), Burger King (a side salad for lunch) and Gloria Jean’s Coffee (a Starbucks knock-off here in NZed where I got about 6 lattes to keep awake). Getting online, I worked in my “office” at the food court, downloading pix, IMing with most of you, reading the papers and gossip mags that chronicled Britney’s psychoses (all the rags here are calling One, where she changed outfits with a stripper, a “seedy lower Manhattan hard-core strip joint” or a “Manhattan bordello”…kinda funny), and genuinely enjoying an otherwise frustrating day.

When I arrived in Fiji, finally, I was exhausted. Sleeping off the day’s airport in lackluster Nadi, I woke early, this time for my transfer to Savusavu, a city on the north island of Vanua Levu. Entering the airport, I knew that the bad luck had finally ceased. “Marie Elena! Ms. Martinez! Welcome home, Love!” smiled the faces at the Air Pacific counter. “Oh, girl. You’ve had a hard day! Bula, Marie! Bula! You’re on Fiji-Time now.” I almost wasn’t sure if they were talking to me. But, they were. My resort, Jean-Michel Cousteau (Jacques’s son), had sent someone to greet me, escort me through the check-in process and present me a cibi seed (plant indigenous to Fiji) necklace and lots of hugs and kisses. Oh, how I love being fawned over… I dug my handler’s flowy floral dress and her 70’s afro. Looking around, I concluded that the 70’s afro was “the” Fijian lady’s ‘do. Everyone sported it. The picked at it when they thought nobody was looking. I freakin’ loved it.

After a 45-minute puddle-jumper, I FINALLY arrived to Savusavu at 9 AM. There a driver that would shuttle me to Cousteau met me. Known for it’s diving outfit, the Cousteau resort was the recommendation of Jen-Cory, who described it as a slice of heaven. Given the recent coup in Fiji, which isn’t felt within the country but is taking a toll on tourism, prices at otherwise unaffordable places opened up to me. Coupled with rainy season, Fiji’s outer islands were quiet. So, I bargained myself down a beachfront bure (bungalow) with a couple of free dives, free massages and all meals (most of the outer islands serve all meals AT the resort since the towns are sparsely populated and lack dining establishments since the Fijian people cannot afford to eat at them). The humidity clinging to my skin, I stared out the window as we drove through the run-down villages of Vanua Levu, past the crumbling main drag in Savusavu town, and onto a dirt road that deposited in front of a group of guitar-carrying men that I would come to know as the Bula Boys (Bula is the Fijian greeting), serenading me as I stepped from the vehicle.

From that moment on, I was in heaven on Fiji Time (which means there is no awareness of time) at Cousteau. Cousteau isn’t divine because of all it is, its charm lies in its simplicity. It’s eco-conscious, so there’s no air-conditioning (and it’s humid and hot, make no mistake), the beaches (like most of the north beaches) aren’t sandy and inviting, the pool was gorgeous but small, and the daily activities board more campy than classy. BUT, Cousteau is the most special place I have ever stayed. My bungalow was spectacular and with only ceiling fans and breeze-allowing screens, the lapping surf put me to sleep every night. The products (all coconut based) were sinfully delicious. After the foot massage at check-in with the coconut scrub, the showers with pineapple shampoos, and the massages with starfruit oils, I added about 4 lbs of lotions and potions to my already oversized baggage. The meals were immaculately prepared and everyday a new menu appeared listing four entrees (starters), mains, and desserts to choose from. The one “treat” in the gift shop was these huge gummie snakes that I’ve become hooked on in these parts. For me, the perfect indulgence. ($30 of my final bill was spent on snakes. Problems…). Here, at Cousteau, the rain didn’t even bother me (it rained at some point each day).

But more than the food, the accommodations, the activities, the snakes, it was about the people. The staff was made up of the most inclusive and attentive people I’ve had the pleasure of interacting with. Everyone, from the gardeners to the wait staff to the diving team, knew my name. Bula, Marie! Bula, Bula! They would call out to me from across the grounds as I made my way past. How was your dive, Marie? How was lunch, Marie? To which I was always amazed and flattered. I felt awful for not being equally adept at memorizing all of their names. They deserved for me to remember as each staffer was encouraged to assert their individuality in dealing with the guests. I got to know them; I felt that I was not only receiving outstanding service, I was interacting with a Fijian friend, learning from them and their life, as they learned from me. While that seems like it can be a potentially annoying situation, it wasn’t overdone. It was executed flawlessly. Everyone else I spoke to at the hotel (there’s only 30 bures, so you get to know your fellow guests) agreed. There was just something special about Cousteau’s Fiji, Savusavu’s Fiji, Northern Fiji.

The diving was amazing, Namena’s reefs, specifically. Working on becoming a World Heritage declared site, Namena was way better than expected. The corals are eye-candy, the fish plentiful. My dives were of the type that I imagine people envision when I say “I scuba dive.” I wound up enjoying the dives SO much that I went on to complete training for my advanced open water certification, actually doing a night dive with a flashlight (very Jaws, opening scene, terrifying at first), an underwater wildlife awareness dive (I can actually identify the fish I see…), a drift dive (where you let the current take you through smaller passages not accessible without the current), and a navigational dive (let’s just say that Geoff, my divemaster, was thankfully lenient on that assessment, as I hope NEVER to need to rely on myself or my compass to navigate out of underwater trouble). Because of the comfort with the dive team, I went with them to experience a bit of Fijian life, going into their villages, to church on Sunday, and attending the Suva (Vitu Levu island) vs. Savusavu rugby semi-final match, a game where $5 entry gained me access to a makeshift field, ropes creating outer boundaries, attended only by locals holding umbrellas over themselves to shield the hot sun’s rays from their tanned bodies. I was intimidated at first, sticking close to Mary, my Fiji-born hostess. Being the only outsider, you never know if eye contact will bear warmth or hostility but EVERY person I made contact with smiled at me from their soul, their eyes sparkling. Even as I passed in a taxi through the streets later in my stay, every Fijian would meet my glance and beam. It was amazing, the confidence in themselves and their culture, their lives. I remember being struck by this in SE Asia, the happiness amongst poverty. Again, in Fiji, this was amazing to see.

On my last day, I allowed myself to indulge in the sweet pancake of the day, which ended my stay at Cousteau on a yummy sugar high. While the Bula Boys sang me off, I waved furiously to the staff that had accumulated outside the transfer van. I was immensely sad to be leaving. I enjoyed myself so thoroughly that I actually contemplated changing around more flights/hotels to spend more time with in Savusavu. But onward, upward, that’s the nature of my trip. I had other places to see and…one more night in Fiji. Off Nadi, on Denarau Island. A built up island that is home to the Westin, Sheraton and Sofitel, Denarau was a total disappointment. I might as well have been in Florida, not Fiji. Of course, being a chain, the Westin screwed up my reservation and wasn’t at all accommodating about rectifying it. While visually stunning, the Westin just reeked of commercialism, of a fake Fiji, of a recreated Fiji. After spending time in Savusavu, this just wouldn’t do. Even the Bulas were lackluster. So, I retired to my air-conditioned room and wrote this blog, preserving my memory of a true, amazing Fiji. A Fiji to which I cannot wait to return.

Next up: The Cook Islands after a quick 2-nighter in Auckland.
More soon.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Mr. and Mrs. Smith

Leaving Wellington in the wind, I began my northern climb toward Auckland, where I’d fly out on March 1st to Fiji. Dependent on buses, opting not to further push my automotive luck, it felt good to be at the transit center on schedule, throw my bag under a Greyhound for storage, climb aboard, grab a window seat and not worry about the roads, the map, my timing or what highway fed into what other one. It was nice to be on someone else’s clock, for a change. First stop, Napier. On the east coast of the North Island, Napier lies on Hawke’s Bay, and the claim to fame is its Art Deco architecture and surrounding vineyards. Off the wine trail, I was tempted to skip past Napier, knowing that my penchant for architecture doesn’t err on the Art Deco side of things, and being a Miami aficionado, I was sure Napier wasn’t going truly “wow” me. I should cater to instinct a bit more. In an attempt to miss nothing by stopping in Napier, I saw nothing but an unremarkable town with some fading art deco facades along the main strip. Salad for lunch, grilled chicken for dinner, sleep, move on…

Next stop: Lake Taupo. The city nestles itself on the largest lake in the country of New Zealand where I decided to go white water rafting. An activity I missed in Queenstown because the rivers were too low for a proper expedition, Taupo’s Rangantiaki River was supposed to be the best. Met at the bus stop by the rafting company at 10:30 AM, my luggage and I were shuttled down to the river’s start point. Excited for an adrenaline filled afternoon, I was paired with two Belgian couples that couldn’t decipher right from left and jabbered endlessly in foreign tongue. I knew the day would be trying. Constant confusion on the paddle instructions led to lots of back paddling out of bushes and coasting down Grade 3 (at best) rapids became tiresome quite fast. Dropped back at my hotel around 5 PM, Taupo sharing Napier’s lack of charm, I ate dinner (Thai this time), against a wonderful sunset (the ONE perk) and hit the sack early.

Onto Rotorua: the capital of odor. Rotorua sits in the center of a highly geothermal region of New Zealand. Geysers, mud lakes, sulphur holes, boiling carbon slicks, steaming fissures of earth, active volcanoes and hot springs pepper the area. In the middle of public spaces, ropes fence off danger zones. Every part of the city has the potential to be an active hot bed of geothermal ooze. Why anyone would choose to live there for that reason alone is beyond me. Maybe it’s a geologist’s wet dream, but for the layman, I don’t see the allure. Tourist-wise, it’s a big spa town: lots of public pools of naturally enhanced waters, mud baths, natural steam rooms and health facilities abound. Me, detesting anything resembling public bathing and not a real fan of anything sauna, hot tub or spa related besides a massage, this was NOT my kind of town to begin with. Then, add the air. The entire city smells like rotten egg. The sulphur in the water, in the mud, in the region emits a foul -- and I mean, throw up in your mouth FOUL -- stench. It’s egg and fart and vomit and dead mouse all rolled into one gently blowing westerly wind. Disgusting. And, it’s inescapable. The sheets of my hotel smelled, the elevator shafts smelled, the shower water smelled, my hair smelled. I don’t know what possessed me to come here in the first place except EVERYONE, and I mean EVERYONE said it’s un-missable.

So, I went. BUT I DO NOT and WILL NOT EVER recommend going there to anyone, ever. It’s mean. Even for your enemies. (Bob-Carol, why did you send me there? I’m sad about this…I think I’ve lost travel trust!) I did what I was supposed to do; I went to all the thermal crater parks; I went to see the mud lakes, to watch the geyser spout. I did not publicly bathe and I did not enjoy myself. Not for a second. And, to add insult to injury, within 5 hours of being in Rotorua, guess what…yep, bronchitis. It happened so fast. Before I could even say “nasal drip,” I was ill. Hello, Z-pack! I mean – with a smell this atrocious, I can’t imagine it being healthy, though that’s the schtick they’re peddling in this crap, shit, nauseatingly god-awful town.

So, I was thrilled when Rob Smith’s parents came to get me and whisk me away to Tauranga, north on the Bay of Plenty. Rob, a Kiwi who lives in Oz, is a friend of Sarah and Leigh’s. We met in New York this summer when he was looking for work. Now, in his parts, he offered up Mr. and Mrs. Smith. I was apprehensive to take him up on his offer. Parents could be great (Hanfts, hi!) or not great (I won’t name names…). Do I commit to the parental New Zealand visit? A gamble. But, I went for it. I almost felt I had to and figured it was a day, right? What’s the harm in a little Kiwi TLC from Mr. and Mrs. Smith? I guess part of my apprehension is that I can’t help but flash to my own parents, should I ever offer them up for a friendly spin with a foreigner. I love my parents to death (I love you guys!); my friends love my parents. They’re so easy, so down-to-earth but (maybe it’s an American thing), I just wouldn’t offer them up. Like, my mom would sleep with a knife under her pillow thinking my “international friend” was going to “rob” her, tying her up (in her own home!) with garage pilfered twine and make off with her Lladros. My dad wouldn’t know what to do, period. I can’t imagine what my dad would talk about with a strange friend of mine from abroad. (Admit it, you’d kill me if I did that, no?)

But this parental experience, the Kiwi kind, was great. And the Smiths single-handedly (well, four-handedly…) changed my opinion of the North Island. An affable, comfortable couple, the Smiths picked me up at my hotel and suggested we go for coffee at a little place called The Lime in Rotorua. (Rotorua, really? Can’t we LEAVE yet?) Sure, sure. I was still on guard, obviously. I had just met them. But, within minutes, it became clear that this was going to be a leisurely visit. Rob’s dad, Bob, was a spitting image of Rob, with more crinkle in his eyes when he laughed this funny chuckle of a laugh. He was so curious and knowledgeable about most everything, a treat to chat with. Shirley was any of our mom’s. Ready to gossip about people we had in common, happy to sit back and listen, fussing over the placement of the magazines on my bedstand, making sure I was comfortable (and fed) at all times. We went through the northern reaches of a pleasant smelling (and lovely!) Rotorua -- the Blue and Green Lakes and Lake Tawarewa, the surrounding village of which was once buried by volcanic eruption giving it a mini-Pompeii feel. From there, we went to visit Rob’s younger brother Warrick, and his girlfriend Jess, at their temporary beach house (awaiting move-in to their starter house) near Tauranga. We crashed their dinner, dining on venison their friend Dave caught (well…another story…) and chatted with Pat and Yolande, a Kiwi guy and his South African girlfriend who were Mark Madden and Nikki LaMotta clones.

Hearing that I planned to leave the next day, attempting to crank out two trips over 4 days to both the Coromandel Peninsula and the Bay of Islands, everyone said I was being way too ambitious and wouldn’t do right by either location to crunch them into such a short time frame. The bus trips would take more than two days of the four. Bad plan. Bob and Shirley to the rescue. “Stay with us the extra night, we’ll road trip the Coromandel Peninsula tomorrow, then you can go to the Bay of Islands for 3 full days. We insist.” Um….ok.

I woke at the Smith’s beautiful house the next morning to a waiting breakfast of thin pancakes “with real Canadian maple syrup,” (Shirley was proud) and a banana, apple and blueberry fruit salad while I took in a sunrise that took my breath away. The way the colors burst into the dawn sky in Taraunga was like no other sunrise I’ve ever seen (and this was the Smith family’s everymorning…!) Then we set off to cruise the Coromandel -- roadtripping with the Smiths. Shirley in her straw hat brought three pairs of shoes (walking shoes, sandals, and flip flops) as well as a change of shorts (she utilized it all). Bob, in his cargo pants and baseball cap, brought whatever Shirley told him to bring. We started in Whangamata, continued to Tairua, then onto the pearl of the Coromandel, Hahei Beach. There, we picnicked. Shirley made a bacon and egg pie (I took the recipe, some of you WILL be picnicking with me come springtime, be prepared…) and brought some chilled sauvignon blanc. We looked out on the most stunning ocean and ate. From Hahei, we crossed the peninsula to Coromandel township, a quaint town of about 1200 that still feels authentic, where we stopped for fish and chips that were wrapped in newspaper to-go bags, and absolutely worth the calories. We dropped in on Bob and Shirley’s friends that they hadn’t seen in over 5 years, asking a pick-up truck in a dead end if they knew where “the Bulls lived,” to which the pick-up driver replied, “Sure, follow me! I’ll point you the right turnoff to their land.” Amazed at the small-town-ness of this small town (…imagine asking a passing car in the States if they knew, let’s say, “the Cohens”), we spent the sunset high above Coromandel with Fran and Gib Bull (and their son Mark), a farming couple that couldn’t have been more excited to entertain their unannounced guests (and strange New York tagalong), all but begging us to spend the night. Phenomenal Kiwi hospitality. Again.

Waving a heartfelt goodbye to the Smiths at the bus station the next morning after another sunrise breakfast combo, I headed off to the Bay of Islands, Northland’s jewel and my last stop in New Zealand. Waters filled with 144 mostly uninhabited islands, The Bay of Islands was renowned for the fishing, especially big game beasts like marlins and sharks. Once upon a time ago, I used to fish every summer with the Pellegrino’s and I remember loving it. Blue fishing at night, casting lines off the beaches of Montauk during the day, but I haven’t picked up a fishing rod since, likely, 1986 or so when I hooked Christine in the neck, dragging her about 50 feet down the surf. Time to dust off some skills…

I settled in Russell, the original capital of New Zealand way back in the day, now an authentic, well-preserved hamlet in the Bay. The last ferry to Russell from mainland Paihia departed every night at 10:30 PM, so I found myself continuously Cinderella’d, running the length of the dark dock to secure passage home. But I didn’t mind, as the early wakes kept me plenty busy. And, yes…fish I did. I spent two days on the water, both exploring the outlying islands and hunting for dinner. I caught many a snapper and a few trevallys (a delicious, meaty white fish) on my excursions. I would squeal and struggle with the unseen fishes, to the amusement of my fellow fisherman, reeling in and out on my rod, before the fish (usually) would succumb to my strength. Then, I apologized to the little guy hanging off my line, before taking a requisite photo, disengaging him and chucking him into the bloody dinner bucket. After bringing the boat back to harbor, our skipper would filet the fish at the docks, gulls circling overhead, and we’d carry our trophies across the street to the Swordfish Club, a local restaurant that would prepare each catch according to specification, for $12 NZD! I cannot tell you how accomplished I felt with every bite!

Overall, the North Island was a very different adventure than the South, but ultimately terrific. The Bay of Islands, the Coromandel and Tauranga being my favorite parts, I ended on a genuine high and owe a huge thank you to the Smiths for helping me get there. Now, I’m off to Fiji, which I can’t imagine will be anything but sheer bliss…

More soon from the South Pacific.


Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Fat Joan's House and Further...

In my beaten vehicle, I pushed forward from Blenheim, moving from East Coast to West. My destination was Collingwood, New Zealand, a small town in the area of Golden Bay described as being “at the edge of the world” by the more comprehensive guides. I was headed that way to experience a horse trek run by a company that made trips along the Farewell Spit, a sliver of beachfront land that sat at the base of amassed mountains and reached far out into the ocean beyond. Everyone raved about the Cape Farewell riding adventure. Galloping atop the mountains, the views were stellar. Down on the beaches, the backdrop breathtaking. A sucker for a good romp on horseback to begin with, I made it my business to get myself to Collingwood.

After numerous unsuccessful attempts to secure a room, I exchanged emails with a woman named Joan who owned a “B&B” called Skara Brae. It wasn’t my ideal choice of lodging if the website photos proved telling, but it was one night’s accommodation and I would have to make due. While New Zealand offers plenty of range in terms of accommodation, it’s the ubiquitous B&B that often can trip up even the most discerning traveler. Due to the upsurge of the tourist industry, many homeowners with extra bedrooms will apply for a permit to declare their home a viable Bed and Breakfast facility. The process is simple and, at the end of the day, it brings in an extra income. The high-season tourist, hard-pressed to secure last-minute bookings, is the B&B scam’s easiest prey.

Arriving at the Skara Brae, I realized I was (almost) their next B&B victim. As I stood in the open arched doorway of what was quite obviously someone’s home and called out, I was greeted to the sight of an obese, thin-haired woman in a mu-mu type nightgown elbowing the heft of her body off of a twin bed in an outward facing room. Getting her balance, she poured out into the hallway in which I now stood. “Can I help you?” she asked, clutching a gossip magazine at her bosom. Looking around the “B&B” I almost didn’t want to respond. I was standing in someone’s living room, full of clutter and personal affects, none of which were a necessary visual inclusion in my tourist dollar rate. Stacks of magazines and old newspapers outlined the perimeter of the room. Laundry racks displayed a recent load of laundry. The shaggy carpets were coated with dust and dog hair, the kitchen sink was piled with dirty plates. A stale odor hung in the air. I swallowed. Hard. “I’m here for my room. I’m Marie. One person, one night. We emailed yesterday.” Without as much as a blink, my slobby hostess met my gaze, “I’m sorry, I think you’re mistaken. We’re full for the night.”

Both panic and relief hit me at the same time. Panic, for where else would I stay!? I had queried all the other establishments in the town of 200 residents. Relief in the happy glee of NOT having to put roots down in this shithole for more than this particular moment, here at the kitchen table. But, ever the New Yorker, I reacted. Poorly. “Um, excuse me? I have your email right here,” I spit back, part because of the mix-up, part because the filth seemingly justified a harsher reply. I flipped through my Treo (which has since died) to pull up her email. My proof of HER error. She wasn’t apologetic, barely responsive, when she said, “Oh, I think I remember. Well, heavens, I’ve made a mistake. I’ll call around and see if anyone can take you in. But, you know,” she admonished, “it’s high season now.” I was furious even though I was loath to stay within a five-mile radius of her little establishment. “Yes, Joan. I’m aware it’s high season, that’s part of my anger. I wonder how you’ll be able to rectify this situation. As you do know, you will have to rectify it. I’ve driven over 350 kilometers today, because of your room confirmation in my inbox, not to mention on my credit card. I do hope you’re planning to fix this.” Bad Marie was boring holes in Fat Joan’s nightgown with her eyes, as she clumsily dialed proprietor after proprietress in a forced effort to find me a place to stay. No dice.

Fighting back tears -- accident yesterday, homeless today -- I sat down at her stained kitchenette, tired and exasperated. Then, lightning struck! “Oh, wait,” said Fat Joan. “The Lewis House. It’s around the corner. They’re not technically open yet, but they’re opening next week. Maybe they can take you in. It’s REALLY nice. Much nicer than here.” Right, a horse stable would be nice than here. Unable to do more than agree, I asked her to point my in the direction of The Lewis House. I’m completely aware of the fact that I didn’t thank Fat Joan on my way out.

I’ve come to believe that things happen for a reason, as The Lewis House was a small blessing. A brand-new, 3-bedroom house with separate studio-unit out back, this true B&B would open next week to a more formal level of accommodation. For now, Sarah the owner was happy to hone her hosting skills on me. A lovely Hamptons-esque split-level facing the beach, Sarah gave me the studio unit for the same price that fat Joan was charging me. She stocked the kitchen with food for breakfast, supplied bath products, and offered me a wholly flexible check-out time AFTER my trek. Further, she seemed genuinely elated to have me stay there. Her home was up the hill, so I basically had a house to myself in Collingwood for the bargain basement price of $100NZD (about $70 US). A beautiful place, I can guarantee The Lewis House, on opening, will forever be packed. As it should be.

As I settled into the ONE establishment in the town for dinner, The Courthouse Café, I was joined by an Irish "bloke" and his girlfriend who were curious about my damaged car. Shocker. Jonathan and Kasey followed me from the Skara Brae to The Lewis House, settling in one of the upper rooms. My B&B roomies for the night, if you will. Of course, as travel would have it, they were from Queens. Both bartenders in New York City, we had dinner together, ultimately sharing too many bottles of vineyard wine and closing down both the Courthouse Café and the town of Collingwood. I shared with them my driving woes, they shared with me their own – picking up a hitchhiker, which became two when they actually stopped for the first one. Hitchhiking is commonplace in New Zealand, Kasey and Jonathan thought they’d do a karmic duty by helping one out. The stench of the guys they picked up taught them a fragrant lesson…

I barely dragged myself out of bed the next morning for my horseback ride along the Farewell Spit. It rained the whole time I galloped with Bridgette, the guide, along the ridges of the mountains, through meadows of sheep and cattle, and down seaside inclines. The views were non-existent, the air chilly and the tides too high to ride down onto the beach, but that morning ride was one of the high points of my trip. Of course, as I dismounted none of it mattered. For all the downsides of Collingwood, the upsides -- the triumph of getting there in one piece, the randomness of the night, the new friends I made, all while being at “the edge of the world,” -- were quietly liberating. I’m not sure when I’ll get back to Golden Bay, but if I do, I doubt the ultimate experience will top this one.

Of course, the sun shone brightly as I made my way away from Collingwood back the way that I came, through the towns of Kaiteriteri Beach (easily the most beautiful beach I’ve seen yet) boasting the famous Split Apple Rock and Motueka. The day’s end brought me through Rabbit Island (another beautiful beach) and into the quiet town of Nelson for one last night in the South Island. In the morning, I’d headed to Picton, the South’s northern port, giving my poor little Mazda back to the Europcar attendants (“Well, good on ya! That’s the worst we’ve seen in a while, love.”) and ferried across the Marlborough Sounds, passing schools of frolicking dolphins and surfacing whales (finally, my whale sighting!), to the North Island’s capital city, Wellington.

Wellington, a bland, windy city, was the base for the North Island’s first two nights. There I devised a game plan, a loose itinerary for the next 10 days. With the help of an old Harper colleague’s Kiwi friend Lisa, I decided my route and was given the grand tour of the city, from the highs of Mount Victoria by moonlight to the sea level swishes of the surrounding bays. On the second day, I sampled the city’s many coffee houses on Cuba Street, wandered the pretty botanical gardens, discovered some talented modern Kiwi artist named Judy Millar at the City Gallery and played flirty hide and seek games with a handsome Spaniard named Eddie through the exhibits of the Te Papa National Museum. Bored with Kiwi history, we retired to an afternoon of getting-to-know-you on the wharf that led to dinner in the center and promises of tapas crawls in Barcelona and lounge hopping in Manhattan one day in the question mark of a future that travelers talk about.

Now I’m firmly ensconced in the quite different feel of New Zealand’s North Island. It, so far, doesn’t compare to the South Island’s natural beauty, but I still have hope. After all, luck doesn’t seem to be on my side in New Zealand, but nevertheless, it’s been non-stop enjoyment. So, I have confidence I’ll be back on this page, extolling the North’s splendors soon.



Wednesday, February 21, 2007

The Hazards of Roadtripping NZed

When the drive to Franz Josef began, I was on a natural high. The weaving, winding roads that made “S” shapes up and down mountain passes didn’t phase me, the hairpin turns on opposite road sides couldn’t shake me, the barreling trucks coming at me straight on wouldn’t fluster me. The sheeps and cows were my friends, baa-ing and moo-ing as I past their pastures and since I was on the west coast, the sunset was on my side. I was invincible. I sailed through Wanaka, a pretty lake town that might’ve been nice to spend more time in, if time weren’t an issue. But alas, I had to take my coffee to go because of the day’s events. Then I got to Haast, chasing the sunset to Haast Beach. Haast, the last stop before the long road to Franz Josef, was supposed to be merely a fuel stop. But seeing the "Haast Beach" sign, I decided to see the sun set on the west coast of New Zealand before continuing the straight shot up to Franz. Sure of myself, I didn’t re-check my map after finding that Haast “Beach” wasn’t an actual beach, just a name of a town. I barreled past as darkness set in around me, figuring I’d see many more sunsets over the next weeks.

At about 9:30 PM, I found myself on a lonely, dark road, water to my right. That didn’t seem right. Heading north on the west coast, water should be on my left. And then, as if the road read my thoughts, it ended. Yep. Pitch black (there are no streetlamps on NZ roads), no more pavement, a cliff. Ummmm, what did I do wrong? There were NO turns off the road. How could I mess this up? I had seen ONE light on in a solitary shack a while ago. I’d have to travel back and…gulp…knock on the door. What else could I do? I was in the middle of a foreign country, lost in the dark.

Knock, knock, knock. A large, lumbering male figure approached, likely startled to find a knocker in the first place. I politely explained my predicament, to which he responded, “You’re at the end of the road, love. It’s a long, long way to Franz Josef.” Still on a bungee high, I shrugged, “Well, it could be worse.” I passed on the coffee he offered (“My mum’s in the other room, so you don’t have to feel worried…” Norman Bates' mum was in the other room, too, right?), wanting to just get on with getting on. He wished me well, sent me off. Plugging my Ipod back into my ears, I belted some Counting Crows as I ventured back the way that I came in the night.

After about 50 kms, I still hadn’t reached Haast again and started to panic. Had I really gone 50 kms out of my way on that little wrong turn? So when I saw headlights (the first pair in this whole mix-up), I put on my hazards, stepped out of my car and waved my hands above my head. It was now 10 PM. After whizzing past, the brake lights illuminated, and I exhaled in relief as a little sports car pulled up next to me. When the windows went down, clouds of marijuana smoke seeped into the air. Heavy-lidded young boys gazed my way. Uh-oh. Drastic scenarios found their way to my consciousness until a girl popped her blond, pony-tailed head out of the back seat. I exhaled in relief again. Kids from Invercargill (southern city) on holiday who had also made the wrong turn from Haast. Whew…I wasn’t totally crazy. Together, happy to be with same-plighted others, the potheads and I retraced our steps.

From Haast-Round 2, I ventured onward for another 3 hours to Franz Josef, crossing one-lane bridges, dodging (or hitting) possums (an enormous problem in New Zealand that locals actually try to hit them in an attempt to control the balance of the ecosystem; one local restaurant, The Mussel Inn, actually gives free beers to those who cut off and bring in tails of their roadkill), deafly singing in the darkness as I navigated (at 10 mph) the steep climbs and falls of the mountains in the foggy night. HOW I made it to Franz Josef is beyond me. HOW I didn’t scare or lose my cool is also beyond me. I rationalize it was the bungee high. Whatever the answer, I made it. At 1 AM, I passed the highway sign announcing that I had entered the Franz Josef township. I remember clapping, quite wildly, inside my little Mazda, as Kenny Loggins’ “I’m Free” came on. Apropos. My hotel left the door of my room open, key inside, that’s just the way New Zealand is.

The next day was completely worth the effort. Meeting up with Ken and Iris again (after my night, it felt great to be seen...), I heli’d over the Franz and Fox Josef glaciers, landing briefly atop, frolicking in the snow while amused strangers indulged the taking of a photo session. The three of us then partook in a 4 hour glacier hike, following our ice-pick laden guide over melting crevasses, sculptured ice staircases, and snowy blue and white drop-offs. Every so often, a gun-shot-like sound would echo in the air around us – the bottom of the glacier falling out, slowly rebuilding via the trickling streams of water, ice and new snowfall. The day after we did our hike, two tourists got seriously injured in the off-limits ice cave where the glacier bottomed out, driving home the point of just how unpredictable a natural phenomenon like a glacier can be… The headline in the paper read “Bloody Stupid Tourists!” From Franz, I headed up to Hokitika, a small beach town a few hours up the coast where I caught the most gorgeous sunset but where the hazards of roadtripping New Zealand continued to mount.

The next morning on my way out of Hokitika, I got a speeding ticket for going 68 km/h in a 50 km/h zone. The police officer chatted merrily the entire time he was issuing me my fine ($120 NZD), signing off with a “Well, Righty-O! I hope this is the worst car infraction you suffer on your holiday, Babe.” Babe, my ass. The good cheer of the Kiwis continues to amaze. From Hokitika, I crossed the South Island, following the highway through high plains and low, the awesome Arthur’s Pass, and the dusty, brown hills of Canterbury. Christchurch was the most charming of the cities I’d yet seen with it’s Victorian buildings, English gardens, artist cooperatives, and funky boutiques (most especially a designed named Carly Harris; I've hit her shops in EVERY city she has one for a new purchase); a brief two-day respite from the open road that kept me busy playing city-mouse to the country-mouse I had become en transit.

I overslept my alarm on the morning of a 2-plus hour drive to Kaikoura for a whale-watching expedition. Pulling into the coastal community at exactly nine on the dot, I ran into the Whale Watch office, wholly exasperated and New York-frantic only to be told that because of stormy seas, the tour was cancelled. Semi-relieved as whale watching just sounds like a waste of time, I shot straight up to Blenheim, the center of the Marlborough, and New Zealand’s most well-known wine region. I missed the start-times for the day’s wine tours. And, rationalizing that I wouldn’t be going on a rip-rouring romp through the vineyards as I did in the Hunter with Sarah, et al…I opted to take myself on a private, well-behaved, adult wine tasting tour, where I discovered more whites to add to my growing palate, and a few reds to compliment. Around the corner from my hotel, eager for a nap, I found that my day was far from over.

Heading over a speed bump in town, accelerating onto the gas just a bit to get my back tires over the hump, a taxi van swung the driver side door open. Yep, right into my little Mazda. Ccrrruuunnnccchhh!!! The hood buckled, the windshield cracked, the left side mirror collapsed into the window, shedding the protective plastic cover that I had nicked on various parallel park attempts in other places (guess I don’t have to worry about that now…) and the passenger side door (remember, it is on the left side here) dented in to refuse closure, swinging wildly as I move to the side of the road. What the fuck!?!?! Now, once upon a time ago, I had a bad accident record, but since I’ve been a vehicular star. The fracture of metal, foreign, rented metal no less, just sent me reeling. I jumped from the car to find an albino hobbit of a taxi driver (female) headed my way. What did you do, I said calmly. You were too close to me, she said. Just as I started to panic because I had NO IDEA what happens when you compromise an overseas rental car, two men who oversaw the whole thing start scolding the cabbie – you were in the wrong, they yelled at her, we’re calling the police. Wait, really? The cops. Foreign cops. No. God, what is going on here? (Cher, us and the freakin' Mazdas...!)

Then, all of a sudden, I realized...I had a few bottles of wine I had purchased in the car. I had the brochures from all the wineries I had visited littered on the floor, peppered with notes. I didn't overdo it, but I had my share of tastes. Granted, none of this seemed my fault, but...I couldn't help but freak out. Popping mints into my mouth, a towel over the 3 bottles in the back seat and cleaning up the paperwork, I met the townsfolk again, confident, strong and with fresh breath. Now, I don’t know if this cabbie had it coming to her, some karmic payback headed her way, but people were lining up to tell me how SHE was wrong. She opened her door; it was her responsibility to look before she opened. I would be absolved of any guilt. Um….Ok. Suck, suck, suck on my mints. Say little, stay calm. And, as promised by the townsfolk, friendly officer Mike Stern, who oversaw the accident from afar (Blenheim isn’t exactly a large town), concurred. Handing me his card, he took my cell and spoke with the rental company that I had on the other line (the frantic American on her cell phone schtick was working...) and assured them it was the cabbie’s fault. Luckily, I had taken the highest level of insurance on the rental (Dad, aren’t you proud?), so my out-of-pocket would only be about $100. Really….? Not arguing there. I stayed in that night. No more venturing out around Blenheim for this chick, no more wine.

Since Europcar was unable to locate another rental for me (as this one was practically impossible to get in the first place), Mike the Cop fixed my passenger side door (the window had to be pulled up and then he secured the lock back into place…magic!), and deemed the car drivable. Ummm… Ok. I had made so many plans over the next five days; it seemed silly to argue about keeping a car that I needed to keep, unsightly or not. So, the destroyed Mazda and I continued our South Island journey OUT of wine country and onto greener pastures the next morning. Broken windshield, busted side mirror, buckled hood, and all. I was quite the talking piece of every town I passed through. Strangers who might've passed me by were inquisitive; fingers were pointed, gasps were overheard, heads turned. “Oh, look at that irresponsible tourist!” they all said. To which I had no recourse but to respond “Righty-O!”

The pitfalls of automotive freedom…

More soon,

Monday, February 19, 2007

5, 4, 3, 2...

New Zealand.
Wow. Wow. Wow.

I know that seems an elementary description, but there’s no way that I can adequately do written justice to the plentiful natural beauty of New Zealand. Sure, I’ve seen a lot of stunning landscapes over the last eighteen months, but New Zealand’s South Island is like nothing I’ve visually experienced before. It’s not one or two stops that embody a worthwhile landscape, one or two “must-dos” in a list of other tourist destinations. ALL of New Zealand is worth seeing because every part, big town or small town, mountain or valley, lakefront or oceanfront, is breathtaking.

My first stop was Queenstown, in the south of the South Island. My plan over the next three weeks was to spend about two weeks on the South Island (hailed the better of the two) and one on the North Island. Everyone who had come to New Zealand before me, as well as every article I read on New Zealand suggested renting a car and driving the country. Not only would I be on my own schedule (buses run infrequently here), but I’d get to see much more of this glorious place than I would depending on public transport. But I’d be alone. Safe? Worthwhile? I decided yes. I loved driving, period. This couldn’t be anything but a good decision. So, upon arriving at the airport, I approached all the rental desks only to be told that ALL cars on the South Island were in use (is that possible?) and it was unlikely I’d be able to secure a car at all during my time in the country. No. Unacceptable answer. I had decided on the drive, I HAD TO drive, so I tasked my concierge, an able porter named Mike who, while schlepping my bags to my room, reminded me three times that he was “also the concierge.” “Mike the concierge, please find me a car, then.” To which he responded, “No worries, mate. I’ll get it done.”

Queenstown is, from what I saw, an Interlachen for adults. Most of my friends have been to Interlachen on the post-college Europe trip. For those who haven’t, Interlachen is the Swiss chalet town that functions on ski season tourism in the winter and lake district adventures in the summer. Queenstown is similar. But, oh-so-much-better. Lying on Lake Wakatipu and surrounded by the Remarkables mountain range, Queenstown is a gorgeous valley of a small, buzzing town hawking every kind of adventure sport under the sun: kayaking, white-water rafting, jetboating, 4-wheel driving, scenic-flying, skydiving, paragliding, canyoning, and, of course, bungee jumping. The original home of the bungee at Kawarau Bridge, there are now two other jump sites, as well as bungee swings that combine the freefall of bungee with the adrenaline of a mid-air swing. All frighteningly enticing…

Add to the adventure, the 200+ bars and restaurants in the tiny little area, there’s little time to want for things to do in Queenstown. Stores sell outdoor clothing, equipment, and supplies. Every café/restaurant/storefront also books day tours. So as you’re drinking your latte and devouring your eggs on toast, you’re also contemplating which combination of daredevil trips will merit your attention. Likely, you can just have the waitress add it onto your bill. It’s big business here in Queenstown, but it works. On my first night, after merely sitting baffled on the square deciding my vices for the next few days as I poured over the requisite brochure reading from various outlets, I met James and J---- (I never got his name, and when three days later, we were all still hanging out, I couldn’t ask…) who kept me busy sampling different pubs each night, and 4WD’ing around Arrowtown (a neighboring town) by day. The Kiwis are easily the friendliest people on Earth. Yes, even more so than Aussies (if that’s possible!)

On my own, without the J-boys, I did a Fly-Cruise-Fly to the Milford Sound, which is actually a fjord NOT a sound and an awesome example of the many natural wonders in New Zealand. I flew in a Cessna over the Remarkables (yes, shotgun) to the Milford region. Fly #1. Then, I took a boat ride down the water, into the inlets, out toward Tasman Sea, then back again (remarkably similar to the Chilean-Argentine Patagonia lake crossing). Cruise. We then boarded the Cessna once again, to fly back over the snow-capped mountains before landing safely in a sunny Queenstown for the rest of the day. Fly #2. An amazing morning. Onto the Shotover Jet, a highly publicized jetboat (a quick little zipper that can do 360 degree turns) excursion that ran down the gorge filled Shotover River. A let down, not at all the thrill-ride advertised (though the Spanish couple next to me were whopping like they were doing a bungee jump, rather than a fuel-injected boat ride), but there I met a great couple from California, Ken and Iris, who figured into my later travels.

Then I headed up to the Gondola, which overlooks the city. Opting not to indulge in the Luge track and race against myself like a loser, I walked over to “The Ledge” bungee jump. There I watched jumper after jumper brave their fears, hurling themselves…gulp…off a mountain. I desperately wanted to bungee jump. How could I be in New Zealand and NOT jump? The safety record was impeccable, the rush was guaranteed, everyone lived and raved once done. I HAD to do it. But each day I put it off, finding another activity to keep me busy, even preferring to sit on park benches reading, munching on a burger and fries (best I’ve had in my life from a Cory suggestion, Fergburger), or people-watching. I decided that IF a rental car came through, I’d drive to the “original” bungee bridge and do it there on my way north, out of town. Authenticity of jump would be preserved and a car rental company would decide my fate. When I arrived back at the hotel that night, Europcar had phoned. They had a rental for me. It would arrive in Queenstown tomorrow. 10 AM. Yay, I had a car! I would be the New Zed (as they say) explorer I so desperately wanted to be. Shit! I had to bungee.

10 AM became 4 PM as I waited patiently reading and eating YET another burger. I know, I know, I’m on a diet after Queenstown. When they delivered my little silver Mazda, I wasn’t exactly at my most pleasant, as I would be starting a 6 hour drive in a foreign country--driving on the wrong side of the street, sitting on the wrong side of the car--at 4 PM. Meaning if I wanted to drive in daylight I had to forego my bungee jump at the Bridge. No way. I could not use the car as an excuse. So, after Mike the porter/concierge loaded me up, I set off for the Bridge.

I stood at the Bridge for over an hour, watching from various angles. I stood with photo-snapping tourists, with fellow decision-wracked compatriots, with successfully jumped adventurists. I went on the Bridge and looked down wishing that I had a friend to goad me into doing it; it’s at these moments when a travel companion would come in handy. Better though, I had to find my own courage. And, I did. When the guys on the Bridge started to shut down for the day, my moment came. I marched into the office, hands shaking, knees already buckling, and plunked down my credit card. Barefoot and ballsy, I walked out onto the Bridge to get “secured” which translates to a towel (YEP, a towel) folded and wrapped around my ankles, wound by a elastic cord, and fastened to a longer elastic cord clipped to a harness around my waist that cupped my ass. That’s it. The guys were talking to me the whole time, questions about where I was from, what I did. Stairway to Heaven was playing. Apropos, in an ironic and morbid way. I looked down when I stepped out on the platform and lost my nerve. I was asked to smile for the camera then wave to the pack of Japanese tourists with cameras at the ready down below. “I can’t do this,” I said to Will, my friendly Kiwi bungee boy, as I started to turn around. “Yes, you can, Marie. The longer you stand up here, the harder it is. You’re going to be thrilled in one minute’s time. I’m going to count back from five. Ready?” But, I didn’t get any time to be “ready,” as Will went right into the countdown. “5, 4, 3, 2…”

I didn’t hear 1. I splayed my arms out and threw myself off that bridge into the air. I have NO IDEA how I did it or what came over me at that moment. As I sailed off, mountains ahead, river below, I heard Will say, “Damn, that was an awesome dive,” to Henry, his bungee co-worker. All I know is, it was one of the most exhilarating experiences I’ve ever had. It was over before I knew it; then I was just bobbing up and down over a raging, turquoise river as my stomach flip flopped, confused by the defiance of gravity. I finally screamed, letting out all the pent-up adrenaline I had bottled inside for the past hour. A throaty, satisfied “Waaa-hooo” that echoed off the surrounding hills. Mission complete. (And, I looked good doing it!)

Back into the car, nothing could stop me from smiling all the way to Franz Josef. A feat, in and of itself, given the way the drive went… That’s a whole other story. New Zealand is turning out to be not only more beautiful, but way more interesting than expected…

More soon,


PS. I got the BEST comment from a Kiwi who read my Oz blog... Check it out. I'm VERY proud....

Sunday, February 11, 2007

The Same...Yet Different

So, it’s over. Australia, that is. It’s flown. I can’t believe I’m moving on…

Almost six weeks spent in Australia (!), beginning with a celebration of the New Year with a view favoring the fabled Harbour Bridge and magnificent Opera House. It couldn’t get better, but it did. From Sydney’s food-frenzied glitz to the Gold Coast’s beach cheese, I funned and sunned, gaining friends at each new turn. Onto the Great Barrier Reef, checking another box off of my life-list, conquering coral-fantastic dives in idyllic settings like Port Douglas and the Whitsundays. Down to Victoria, to the more textured of Oz’s cities for a little tennis, which resulted in a quick affection for the laid-back ease of “Mel-burn” (as they say), life. The natural beauty of the country amazed me, first in Darwin’s Kakadu, then more in Ayers Rock’s Red Centre. No kangaroo in the wild sightings, but plenty of amazement in the middle of this vast, enchanting land. The final stretch found me back in Melbourne, driving down Great Ocean Road, beaching in St. Kilda, and back-alley bar crawling in the city with an able guide. On my last night, a karaoke dinner party with Natalie, my pop-star sweetheart from Vietnam, made my time in Australia complete.

While I utterly loved every minute of my time Down Under, I felt a little unchallenged by it. I have a different affinity for Australia than, say, Laos or Bali, Peru or Brazil. Australia functions on the same but different theory. A practical parallel universe to the United States, it was easy for me to feel comfortable in Australia; it was easy to not have to step outside comfort zones; not feel culturally stimulated. I, anyone, could so very easily live in Australia and be at home. So that was an odd feeling this time out. Not bad, god…certainly not bad. Just different. I’ve come to embrace travel as challenging, as mind-bendingly frustrating at points. But, here they speak the language, you can drink the water, the food is all a variation of other nations' best dishes. In trying to figure out WHY Australia is the same but different, I kept a running list of all the subtle nuances between Australia and the States. They got me every time. And, very much reminded me that I was definitely NOT at home.

A Day of Australia’s Little Differences….

G’day Mate. Want some “brekky?” “Brekky” comes with a choice of mushroom (large piece of portobella or similar, on the side), tomato (cooked, on the side), or beans (baked variety). Served OVER toast, making the "toast" a very mushy carb slush by meal’s end. (Forget about hash browns, wheat toast on the side and seasonal fruit). And, forget about grabbing a banana at a café or food shop. They don’t sell on-the-go fruit. Only at the markets.

I “reckon” you’ll fancy some coffee with that? There’s a system to coffee that took me a while to “suss out.” Coffee is coffee, but the variations are plentiful. There’s short black (espresso), tall black (double espresso), white (latte), flat white (latte, no foam), macchiato (more foam than latte foam), or cappuccino (the only self-explanatory order).

Assuming it’s a nice day out, after brekkers, you’ll want to be sure not to leave your “flat” (apartment) without your “sunnies.” (sunglasses) And, if it’s exceptionally hot, make sure you wear a “singlet” (tank top), bringing a “cossie” (bathing suit) for the beach and a “jumper” (long sleeve sweatshirt/zip up, etc…) for when it cools off later in the “arvo” (afternoon).

At lunchtime, you might want to grab something at McDonalds (there are more of these than anywhere I’ve seen in the whole wide world…) or Hungry Jacks (Burger King, here). But but sure to order “chips” not fries. And thai sweet chili sauce, rather than sweet and sour. If you want “wedges,” instead of regular chips, you’ll pay more and those COME with thai chili sauce and sour cream. If you want lighter, you can order “crisps” (potato chips). You can also have “crumbed” chicken, fish, or veal cutlets, sometimes called “schnitzel.” You can also opt for a kebab, which is the Aussie version of a burrito with Mediterranean fillings, rather than Mexican ones. Often times, if it’s a nice but casual restaurant, you’ll need to order/pay for your meal at one kiosk, then head to another for your beverage order, then sit down and wait for a waitress to bring your food/drink orders to your table. Self-service, but … not.

If you’re thinking Asian food for dinner, eat-in or “take-away” it’s more of the Thai/Malaysian/Vietnamese/Indian variety, rather than the Japanese/Sushi/Chinese variety. You never need to order drinks if you BYO, because pretty much every restaurant in Australia allows you, encourages even, you to BYO. And, any good/smart restaurant opens next to a “bottle shop” (liquor store) so that patrons can run across when their starting stash is finished. (With Australians…it always is!) Oh, and no need for a corkscrew, ALL wine here has screw caps. I know?!

People who live in Australia will tell you there’s no tipping here, but it’s catching on... They usually leave whatever change comes back from the “bill,” (never the check, they don’t what that means…). Only the “shrapnel” (coins) not the dollars. But, even in a nice restaurant, it’s only 10% … tops. Servers will thank you profusely instead of following you down Lexington Avenue asking “why the hell you left anything less than 20%?!?!?”

Australians don’t put their napkins in their laps when they eat. They merely use them to wipe their hands, faces. Conversely, I seemingly eat like a savage here, not using the left-handed, overturned fork, right handed cut scenario the entire meal. They’ll eat, say, salad with a left hand, upside-down fork, pushing lettuce onto it with their right-handed knife. I’m practicing, because I feel a bit primitive in ALL parts of the world except the States for my cut/switch (always using the right hand to actually FEED myself) scenario. And, they’ve noticed AND commented here. Mom…why didn’t you teach me to eat like a European!?

Hot tea here is served already brewed, and teapots don’t go on the stove, they get plugged into the wall! Coffee presses are also popular. I’ve never seen either of these two things before coming to Australia. Maybe that’s a ME thing, everyone seems baffled that I haven’t a familiarity with either one.

Obviously, they drive on the left side of the street. They also walk on the wrong side of the sidewalk. They walk left, we walk right. They always ask (the nice ones) if I’m American when I’m passing people…on the wrong side, leading into a both-moving-to-the-same-side-over-and-over-in-an-attempt-to-let-the-other-pass. Embarrassing. I also wait for buses to open their doors on the wrong side of the bus. Over and over again. And the people in the window, watching me from the wrong side, laugh at me. It’s been six weeks; I still can’t get it right.

There are roundabouts in the middle of EVERY street. Rather than stoplights, they have roundabouts to slow down traffic. The roundabouts are usually accompanied by speed bumps. It’s highly annoying to drive with all these little circular annoyances in your way at every mile. It’s like driving through your parents’ condo development every time you leave the house.

People are really friendly. In a park, on a bus, in the “cue” (line) at a shop, people will ask “how you going, today?” “Having a good day, mate?” “Do anything fun today?” Out of nowhere. I’ve come to expect it. For absolute strangers to initiate conversation with me for the moment of time we’re in each other’s company to pass the time. No phone number exchanges after the fact, just chit-chat for a bit, move on. It’s actually really nice…

On the same idea, strangers use terms of endearment very casually. When my father calls my mom “Babe,” it’s a little creepy (they’re divorced over 20 years) but here, like the British “Love,” anyone can call anyone “Babe,” or “Darling” (pronounced dahling). Waitresses call me “Babe,” cabbies call me “Darling,” and it’s all good. If they didn’t call me niceties, I think I’d be sad. They also say things like “you’re alright” (meaning all good, like when you say excuse me, or sorry) “good one” and “you’re a star,” or “you’re divine.”

They also call their aunts, “aunties” but that’s a little different and downright weird. Example: My Auntie Claire. OK...can’t she just be Aunt Claire?

Australians say “called” when they’re referring to someone’s name. Example: I met this cute guy. He’s called James. See how that works. Everyone’s name is Simon, James, Sarah, or Fiona. About 97% of the population is that way. If you have a different name than those here, you’re very special.

There are very few African Americans in Australia (that I’ve seen), but there are tons of Poms (Brits), Kiwis (NZealanders), Yanks (Americans), and of course, Aussies (pronounced Ozzies). Tons of Asians, that speak with an Australian accent. It throws me off when I get my nails done.

When going to a “pub” (they rarely call anywhere a bar or lounge), everyone gets a “shout” (to pay for a round). “It’s my shout! What do you want?” They rarely split bills between four-five credit cards at dinner. Bartenders use shot glasses to measure out drinks (I haven’t once been served more than a shot in ANY of my drinks) and are rigid about it. This ain’t no Angelo and Maxies, that’s for sure. The Aussie beer is Coopers and a lot of people are into Bailey's.

If you’re not a “piker,” (someone who always bails early), at pubs you get “pissed,” then go “blind” or get “annihilated,” before (if you’re lucky) indulging in a “party-pash” (drunken public kiss). Possibly you might get “loved-up” by some surfer boy or “pocket-rocket” (hot-bodied girl) and go home for a good “rooting.” You wake up in the morning, hoping the person you “shagged” isn’t “feral.”

Speaking of feral, the toilets here have two flushers. One is half-flush; one is a full flush. I didn’t get it. (Again, maybe it’s me on this one…) but I was told that half a tank is for “wee” and a full tank is for “poo.” Water conservation (there’s always a drought here…even though they’re an island).

They have Cadbury not Hersheys chocolate products, go to Woolworths for their food (it’s their national supermarket), indulge in cricket as the national pastime sport rather than baseball (flat bats, no mitts, more innings), live in one-“bedder,” two-“bedder,” or three-“bedder” apartments, and get paid for owning real estate in the country. They have to turn their electric sockets on/off by a switch, call their journals or daybooks diaries (making the whole writing thing feel a little bit 5th grade), and call me a flashpacker because I choose hotels not hostels, heels not flats, and restaurants not food carts. Australians attend “uni,” make “bookings” not reservations, and have Hens and Bucks parties when a couple is getting married. They might ask you to “walk them through it” when they want to hear a story. (I will use that one…)

Whenever I told people what I was doing in Australia, they would reply, “Well, good on you, mate!” and settle in to hear about my life. Usually, by the end of our chat, I would have made a new friend. That’s just the way Australia is and I’ve come to love all of the little differences. I’m “keen” to come back to this gorgeous country, filled with lovely people and positive spirit. I can’t imagine NOT coming back. If even just for a “fortnight” (two week period) …

More soon from New Zealand.


Thursday, February 01, 2007

Wet Heat, Dry Heat: The Northern Territory.

While the cities of Melbourne and Sydney have stolen a good deal of my attention, it was the last two trips that truly captivated my senses: Darwin and Ayers Rock. Both part of the Northern Territory, the two regions share many similarities: World Heritage protected, Aborigine-owned National Parks, visibility of prehistoric cultures and people, a tourist clientele, oppressive heat, original art galleries, and a respect for nature in all of its many forms. But, that’s where the similarities end. Darwin, part of the tropical wet, is painstakingly humid; Ayers Rock is painstakingly dry. Darwin is coastal; Ayers Rock is desert. Darwin’s Aboriginal culture is part of mainstream society; Ayers Rock’s Aboriginal culture remains invisible, confined to the bush, the outback, and the land. Differences aside, I had a similar fondness for these two very special places, vastly unknown worlds that helped me appreciate the beauty of Australia, away from the cities.

I was remiss in thinking that the tropical wet would only be represented by my sub-par experiences in Queensland’s Daintree, as Kakadu National Park (north of Darwin) was an abyss of beauty and reverential surrender to nature. A shit-kicker town dubbed “The Top End” because of its northern location, Darwin is the closest port to Asia and bustles in the way a port city does. The wharfs are active, the population is transient, and the water is a clear blue that reminds me of Bali’s southern shores, a semi-stone’s throw across the way, especially appreciated in Fannie Bay, a bit east of the city itself. I arrived during the beginning of “the wet,” a season that provides the year’s rainfall averages. Like in Port Douglas, I got lucky, avoiding the torrential floods and late day downpours associated with such a season. For that I’m grateful, as I got to explore Kakadu National Park in most of its splendor. Kakadu is in parts swampy marshlands that feed off a system of rivers flowing out into the ocean. In other parts, it is towering rock formations boasting century old Aboriginal artwork, the most beautiful (that I saw) being Nourlangie Rock, a lookout point that encompasses as much of Kakadu that the eye can see. The juxtaposition of the dry regions and the wetlands are remarkable, the colors of the vegetation are constantly changing while the colors of the rocks completely astounding, and the variety of wildlife interesting (and endangered, most). Who knew bird watching could be so worthwhile?

Begrudgingly, since I was short on time, I went on two tours in Kakadu, and both were absolute pleasures, restoring my faith in the tour guide. Kerry, the park ranger, is my new email buddy. Go figure. Granted, the heat was uncomfortable and the entire group was drenched throughout—seats of pants soaked through, darkened t-shirts clinging to torsos, matted ponytails, glistening forearms. And the flies! Australian flies are the true definition of pest. They obstinately refuse to be dismayed by swats, coming back and attempting to probe any exposed orifice for a bit of nutrition. It’s insanity. The park rangers wore nets over their faces; it’s that much of an issue. Had I seen a fly net hat, fashion victim or not, I’d have purchased it! To further illustrate the heat, any movement from indoor to outdoor venues in Darwin necessitated a 15-minute holding period for picture-taking, as my camera fogged and needed a brief acclimation before use. It’s unbearable weather. Tip for future travelers: come in the dry.

My second tour was a crocodile-feeding boat cruise. I had been foiled in Cape Tribulation, foiled in the Kakadu wetlands, and refused to leave 6 weeks of Australian holiday without a proper croc encounter. So, I signed up for the most croc-worthy adventure I possibly could: The Adelaide River Feeding (to wild crocodiles). Using pork chops guides lure the beasts out of the water. Natural jumpers, they spring out of the water for the bait. Well…it was worth every damn tourist penny. These creatures, that look Jungle-Cruise fake, stealthily glide over to the boat, flash their crooked, sharp-toothed smile and then, spring out of the water and snap that chop! Priceless, priceless. I didn’t win the boat’s lottery to feed one myself, though was praying like a grandma on the local church’s bingo Wednesday for a score. Can’t have all the luck, I guess.

Satisfied with all of my adventures in Kakadu, I moved onto Ayers Rock, or the Red Centre as the desert outback is called. An arid, dry heat festers here, in stark contrast to Darwin’s humidity. 33 degrees in Darwin renders one sweat-soaked merely by breathing; 33 degrees in Ayers Rock is breezy, enjoyable but potentially deadly without a water bottle close at hand. The reason to come to the Red Centre is spectacular Ayers Rock, a 40 million+ year old landmass rising 1100 feet high and a 5 mile-trek around the base. Made of sandstone, Ayers Rock is a desert mystery. Why, in the middle of this red sea of sand, did this structure prevail? Aboriginal culture renders it holy; the scientific community labels it a geological anomaly, and the Australian tourist council calls it a goldmine. However you want to define it, Ayers Rock is hands-down amazing. To contemplate this massive red rock, to walk the base, follow the lines and witness the ever-changing colors that beat off of it throughout the day, is one of the more appreciated experiences I’ve had yet in Australia. But, better than Ayers Rock (called Uluru by local people) are The Olgas (Kata Tjuta), 36 rock domes of conglomerate nearby to Ayers Rock. Entrenched throughout the domes are valleys and gorges, crevasses of hike exploration, and be sure that I tried to explore every last piece of it. This was my highlight – Kata Tjuta.

In the three days that I spent in the Red Centre, I was in awe. I was reminded of Bryce Canyon – the colors are remarkably similar and I saw every sunrise and every sunset over these formations, one more spellbinding than the next. After climbing Ayers in early morning, I spent a day wandering around by myself, in the heat of midday, prompting concern from the shuttle driver who dropped me off. Kata Tjuta, however, defies conventional descriptions of beauty. I initially went with out there with a tour but during the first 15 minutes my guide let everyone know we’d only be walking into and out of the main gorge as he brought the pace of a leisurely stroll down to a crawl. No way. So, I explained that I needed to stray from the group and do my own full circuit of the gorges. “I wouldn’t advise that,” said my worried leader. Noted. “What time do I need to be back at the bus?” I asked. “10:15, but you’ll never make it,” Ian doubted. Noted. Ever up for a challenge, I hiked the whole 10k circuit of Kata Tjuta, a tough, rocky, yet stunning terrain that had me panting at points, but never sweating (I love this kind of heat!). Two hours later, at 10:15 AM on the dot, I arrived back at the bus. I could barely breath through my dried out nostrils, my body was beet red, regardless of continuous SPF applications and I was out of water. But, I made it! Better…nobody else was there yet! My mission was victorious. 20 minutes went by before the Italian group I had passed along the way (turning back because they couldn’t continue forward) returned. No, no…the Americano! “You are here!” they uttered in halting English. “No way, you are here!” I won’t say I told you so, kids…

On my last night in Ayers Rock, I opted for the Sounds of Silence—a dinner under the desert stars. Owned by the same people who created Truman/Hamilton Island, Ayers Rock Resort itself was all about the tourist dollar, so I was wary of the likely kitsch factor. Yet, I’d heard it was a “must” and for all the solo time I’d had at the rocks, a little socialization might be good for me. I’m so glad I went. A lot of these tourist traps find me paired with seventeen couples of 60+ years. They ask if I’m still in school and when that fails, they ask if my parents worry about my travels. Blah, blah, yawn. This dinner had a singles contingent. Shocker! At the champagne and canapé sunset, I met Sarah from 8th Street/5th Avenue, also traveling alone. Then, Henry from Toronto, and Jack from Montreal. Two artists from South Korea who didn’t take photographs but sketched the landscapes of the cities they went to (!!), and a young couple from Sydney. Voila! A kids table. We were at a beautiful outback wedding, paired with the cousins and work friends who didn’t know the bride/groom very well, but had a blast, regardless. We drank lots of wine after hearing that the dinner was a bush selection of crocodile caesar salad (very gummy, the croc – yes, I tried it), kangaroo steak, lamb sausages, emu filets (gamey, yucky) and barrimundi skewers. We listened to the eerie didgeridoo play in the background (by a white guy in a polo shirt, NOT an Aborigine, of course), and had an astronomer take us through the night sky full of glittering stars. The coolness of the weather, the company, the setting (did I mention the wine?), were all fantastic.

After a quick weekend in Sydney for Australia Day (our July 4th, except a LOT more patriotism, painted faces in Aussie colors and flag-wearing ensembles), the Australian Open final and a trip to the Zoo, I’m now back in Melbourne for my final week in Oz. I can’t believe I’ve past the month mark and am headed onto the next leg of my journey soon. New Zealand. But first, Melbourne beckons once again.


Sunday, January 28, 2007

Tennis for Tourists

Melbourne, Australia. Once the capital before it was moved to Canberra, Melbourne is a world city in its own right. No, it’s not as pretty as Sydney, it’s not as hot as Cairns, it’s not as industrial as Brisbaine, and it doesn’t have beaches like the Gold Coast or the Reef, but Melbourne is most definitely the coolest of them all. Different for having four seasons, it has an underground vibe, an air of chic, and a penchant for the arts. It’s multicultural—everywhere else in Australia (that I’ve seen) is very white—with an intense appreciation for art, literature, architecture, and music. Boasting great universities in a cultural playground, the palate is world-inspired, the fashion sense is trendsetting, and the quality of life makes it all affordable. In a constant fight for bragging rights as Australia’s best metropolis, Melbourne wins.

While not immediately coastal, the Yarra River, which cuts right through the center of the city, gives Melbourne charming tranquility. The city is most active along the riverbank; there’s great people-watching near the promenade on Southbank and the up-and-coming Docklands or in Federation Square—a Melbourne hub across from the Flinders Street Station (with it’s recognizable clock façade) boasting restaurants, pubs, museums, and various outdoor spaces to watch the big screen broadcast of whatever major sporting event has the population of Melbourne momentarily transfixed. I spent the entire weekend in central Melbourne, getting to know the city a bit, riding the trams, walking the side streets. The center is an easy grid: Collins, Bourke, Flinders (Matthew Flinders circumnavigated the coast of Australia, so there’s a Flinders street in every city), backed by the winding alleys off of Little Collins, Little Bourke, et al. While the center is fantastic and kept me thoroughly busy, it’s really the suburbs (meaning city neighborhoods – like our Chelsea and East Village versus our Westchester and Long Island “suburbs”) that pulse. I met Ben one night in Collingwood, which is a grungy little suburb with rows of bars along Smith Street, a very different feel than the fancier Southbank or the laidback ease of waterside St. Kilda.

The weekend in Melbourne was a quick trip, a tennis diversion, if you will. Being that I’m annually obsessed with the US Open each year (similar to my love of all things Yankee at playoff time…), I decided to further my fan-dom and make a real go at becoming a year-round aficionado. So, onto Rod Laver Arena I went. Tickets for two sessions (a day and a night) purchased on Ticket-Tek, Australia’s answer to Ticketmaster. For all the cringing that goes on when I see camera-toting tourists at the U.S. Open, I WAS that girl. The foreign fan, camera at the ready, buying souvenir towels. here in Australia. Yep, I admit it. That was me. I was snapping pictures of players on warm-up courts that I wouldn’t have given a second look in the States. Ooooh, Tommy Robredo, shirtless on Court 6. Run, snap, snap! Ooooh, Federer in a night match. Run, snap, snap! Look, it’s Fernando Gonazlez, the new hot Chilean. Run, snap, snap! I even found myself, true to my love of ALL things South American, mumbling along with the Chi! Chi! Chi! Le! Le! Le! Vi-va! Chi-le! Every time Gonzalez took center court. (I’m thinking of getting myself a poster of him for my apartment, he’s THAT dreamy…) I was giddy with tennis fever, a giggling sidecourt fan. Who AM I? Appalled with myself, that’s what I am. I’ve seen these players play hundreds of matches and yet, here, in Oz, I’m a “Yankee” loser with a wild cheer and a Canon Elph.

Rod Laver Arena, with it’s retractable roof for rain (WHY don’t we have this?), is intimate, likely ½ the size of Arthur Ashe Stadium. I sat in the last row for one of my matches (the aforementioned Federer night match) and I might as well have been in Ashe, tier two, front row. It was fantastic, every seat felt close to the action. I asked an usher on the outside who was chatting me up (because I guess US Open tradition had to be tested) if I could pay to lower oneself down. Shocked, he responded politely: “This isn’t America. You can’t just buy your way through.” Ahem. Got it. The matches themselves were great. The protocol is the same, the antics are intact – the wave, the country chants, the overpriced food court, the corporate sponsor boxes. The only thing missing was the Ralph Lauren polo outfits on the ballboys. I didn’t miss them…at all.

In addition to Ben in the world, I met Caitlin & Vanessa in Melbourne, courtesy of Sarah. It’s amazing how keen everyone is to be out and about. It’s almost an effort to keep up. We went for divine Chinese in thriving Chinatown (you kinda forget that Australia is part of Asia), where we killed two bottles of fabulous NZ white before the matches after which we headed to Richmond (another suburb). But being a Sunday night, it was quiet. Plan B: onto Fed Square, where we met a whole new rolling posse. Gotta love the collective spirit of the Aussies; they’re ready to go out for allnighters with absolute strangers in their own town. Like we would ever do that in New York! (Sad…) Two guys in our new contingent were New Yorkers, but upon hearing I was from New York “City” dropped their smiles. When the girls inquired where exactly they were from, in a whisper, not meeting my glance, they replied, “Poughkeepsie.” “Where’s THAT?” Caitlin asked. “Pou-what?” asked Vanessa. “It’s upstate,” I offered. The pair just shook their heads, kicking the dirt at their feet, hands stuffed in chino pockets. “We hate it when we meet real New Yorkers,” they muttered. “Blows the ‘Poughkeepsie New Yorker’ right out of the water.” Ha.

Back to the tennis for Day 2. Man, was I lucky. For all of the first week’s issues, Sharapova’s meltdown, the challenging of the weather policy, the race riots, and a sex offender preying on kids in the bathrooms, it was uneventfully gorgeous during my time in Melbourne. 70 degrees, cloudless, breezy, the optimum conditions for some sport. I watched Hingis steamroll Li, Clijsters clobber Hantuchova, and Blake get his ass-whupped by my new love, Fernando Gonzalez. Stopping for dinner in Southbank, where I indulged in some Australian cuisine – kangaroo, which was delicious – I hit The Crown, a massive casino complex in Southbank, filled with high-end shops, restaurants, and a swanky hotel. Of course, it was packed. (I’m told there a bit of a gambling issue here in Oz, especially at “pokie” machines, or slots, which are everywhere.) I wound up next to a guy from Brooklyn, and wouldn’t you know it, he was with the Blake party. Soon after, the dred-locked brother Thomas showed up, then Blake for a quick spin at the tables before retiring back upstairs after too much unwanted attention on the day’s loss. Sucks you can’t take photos in casinos, otherwise my inner-tennis-tourist would’ve been back on display…

Overall, a blast. Can’t wait to return to Melbourne without the tennis distraction. A winner in my book, for sure.

More soon.


Friday, January 19, 2007

You Have an Ocean, People!

Oh, the Whitsundays…

Australia’s northeast coast is dominated by islands that flirt with the fringes of the Great Barrier Reef. The Whitsundays were supposed to be one of the most beautiful groups, with blindingly gorgeous views. At the top of the Whitsundays is the famed indulgence of Hayman Island; in the south lies a more laid-back Lindeman Island. I stayed somewhere in between on Hamilton, a self-sufficient, more built up island that offered all different types of accommodations rather than one high-end accommodation where I would be a single girl in a sea of wealthy honeymooners or one low-end accommodation where I would be a wealthy girl in a sea of single backpackers. I wanted variety. Hamilton afforded that.

So, Qantas. My first flight on the Australian carrier. Why is it that American carriers just can’t get it right? Qantas was roomy; I boarded without hassle in 10 minutes; was served food on an hour flight; and they didn’t charge me excess baggage fees. Being honest, that’s what really gave them extra points in my book. Everywhere else takes advantage of the fact that I like to alter my wardrobe and pack black AND camel heels…just in case. Qantas understood. As we flew back down the Reef, I was again compelled to pant breathlessly out the cabin window. After about an hour, into view came a weird little island with a high-rise in the middle, which I’ve come to know as the Reef View Hotel on Hamilton Island.

Hamilton is, basically, a fake town, built on the basis of the tourist dollar, nothing more, nothing less. It looks like a Hollywood movie lot, with the perfectly painted storefronts, evenly paved streets, equally spaced palms, and golf-cart-driving population of Bermuda short clad gents and ladies wearing their color-coordinated key straps (for designated lodging) dutifully around their neck elevating the whole lodging situation into a modified caste system. Why, if you’re staying at the red-roped 2-star are you wearing your key so loudly? It’s not the chic black 5-star key you’re boasting about! There’s also something very Stepford about Hamilton, how you’re treated by all of the staff, at every service stop. Service with a smile, and then some. It’s a little unsettling. There’s a bakery, one restaurant of each Chinese, Italian, Deli, Ice Cream Shop, Seafood, Steak, and Coffee Shop. There’s one nightclub, a general store, a beauty salon, a children’s clothing store attached to an adult clothing store. One internet café, a Doctor’s office, and a Marina. You have everything you might need, sure, but Hamilton lacks, well…reality. All that said, I admit that I liked it. Trolling around on the wrong side of the street in my golf-cart (only losers take the free Hamilton shuttle…) worked. It’s this quirky little Truman-esque town.

So…diving here was so much better. While Port Douglas looked like it would provide less glitz with the diving, it was actually here in showy Hamilton that allowed the diving part of the dive to “wow.” I’m a fan of the rugged dive trip; those outfits employ the real dive aficionados, the grittier types. They offer no frill boats, homemade lunches in Tupperware containers that the divemasters made themselves that morning, and there’s no photographer. The crew all sport that shaggy sun-bleached blond over brown hair that they push back with plastic sunglasses while they sing Jimmy Buffet on loud at the day’s end. Now, THAT’S diving. Also, contrary to the legend of the Great Barrier Reef diving being the best, the inner “fringe” reef offered MUCH better visuals. The coral was more varied; the colors were vibrant, pale blues, pinks, purples, deep oranges and bright reds. On the outer reef dives here, we saw heaps of sharks, turtles, and rays but it was the coral odyssey of cauliflower and spaghetti shaped life that enthralled me. Overall, great dives. More on par with what I imagined in my head. However, definitely not the dives I expected the Great Barrier Reef to offer.

I guess I pushed my luck by heading out again for two more dives on the Outer Reef. I couldn’t be satiated with 5 dives over the past week and a brush with a lion fish. The upside was that I realized that I’d become so comfortable underwater that I didn’t need half of my air, going one-on-one with my divemaster when everyone else ran out (on both dives). My own private dive finales. Quite a confidence builder. But, before I had peaceful finishes with Alana, my divemaster, I got beaten up by a dive couple who seemingly didn’t learn the ABCs of diving etiquette in their courses. Sydneysiders, him in a turquoise Speedo and a gut the size of Santa Claus (not pretty) and his wife of equal girth in Billabong ensemble, were ALL over me. You have an OCEAN, people! Can’t you stay in your own space? God knows there’s plenty of it. She would creep up on one side and knock my tank. Annoyed, I’d slow down to let her pass and he would kick my head with a fin from the other side. I hated them. But they got their due on the way back to shore. The water was ultra-choppy and they couldn’t handle it; they were sick as dogs the whole way back. The crew was loath to take their double plastic grocery bag messes that pulled and sloshed on the bottom. Justice. Ha. But for all my silent nasty satisfaction, karma worked against me. Answering my curse on the fat Speedo and wife was a change in my equilibrium. Seemingly, I dove so much over the past week (after not diving in months) that I developed an inner ear infection that messed up sense of depth. Yep – I wobbled dizzily through the last days on Hamilton, missing steps, having trouble reading. Not so fun…
Two dive lessons learned: never touch a lion fish and don’t curse other people’s dive etiquette.

Heading to Melbourne tomorrow for a few days the Australian Open.
More from there…


Ranger Rick and the Lion Fish

Brisbaine loses the ‘East Coast, Big City’ contest. I guess it’s hard to compete with Sydney, but Brisbaine’s too slick to even be in the running. While waterside, and potentially beautiful, it’s designed with too much chrome, glass, steel on both building and bridges, to be comparatively impressive. Luckily, I was just in and out, headed up to the reef-accessible city of Cairns (pronounced “cans” – they mute the ‘r’) then onto Port Douglas, the recent site of all those tacky Matthew McConaughey Down Under photos in the magazines that you all sent my way. “He’s in Australia, have you seen him?!?” No, I haven’t, though I’ve been looking . . .

Port Douglas is an adorable little town where they still park cars diagonally on the main street in front of the ice cream shop, the post, or the market. But, for all the quaint that Port Douglas dishes up, I was surprised to find that with respect to their bread and butter, diving, it’s very big business.

I was SO eager to dive the Great Barrier Reef. Just flying over it was breathtaking, the various hues of blue below me interrupted by greens and yellows glowing against the sun; it looked like a map, the underwater reef subbing for land mass. It was like nothing I’ve ever seen from the sky and the flight had me utterly transfixed, glued like an eight year old to the window. For me, diving the Reef was one of those things that I wanted to check off my life’s to-do list. Dove the Great Barrier Reef: check! Everyone was all Steve-Irwin-worried about my dives in Australia, but the places I was headed were nowhere as exotic as Irwin’s shoots. Plus, the outfit I had booked into at my hotel was “top-notch,” according to Steve, my B&B owner.

True to word, the Calypso boat was a three-decked glossy yacht of pristine white finish with royal blue trim. It was obvious that it was exceptionally cared for and each gleaming section of the boat offered more luxury. The top deck was devoted to plush lounge chairs; the second deck offered the same views, as well as shade. The bottom deck was divided into a designated dry space for our beautifully catered lunch and a wet staging area for the various divers (certified got red folders full of reef information and first-timers got green ones) and snorkelers (blue folders). There was a floating dive shop and (drumroll…) a full-fledged photo shop! The on-ship photographer, who looked like Pippy Longstocking, braids and all, was at the ready to snap you lounging with a book or engaged in underwater hi-jinks. The whole set-up was too perfect. I couldn’t imagine HOW people got left behind on the Reef with organization like this. It was here off Port Douglas that the “Open Water” couple was left at sea! I can’t imagine, given the onboard prep.

For all the hype, my three dives to the Outer Barrier Reef were disappointing. The coral was hardly colorful, the wildlife invisible, and the pace rushed. The most exciting part of the day came when Pippy the Photog had me sidle up to a spider-y looking fish hanging on some coral. She motioned (underwater signals are often guessing games…) for me to (I thought…) touch the fish. Um, really? He looks awfully menacing, Pippy. Throughout the day, Marty my divemaster had encouraged me to touch all sorts of anemone, coral, sea slugs, and clams that were double the size of me and looked like Audrey II from Little Shop of Horrors. So, when Pippy signaled, in I went for the grab. Why not, right? The feel factor of the day was pretty fantastic, thus far. WELL…. Ever heard a human squeal of terror? Underwater? Yeah, a bit frightening. Pippy’s eyes widened to the size of donuts as she kept squealing at me. Thankfully, the Lion Fish (I’ve come to learn…) scurried off, spooked by either Pippy’s noise or the motion of my hand. I was told on surfacing that the effects of the Lion Fish’s venomous quills have yet to be truly understood. Initially, I would’ve suffered convulsions, followed by a paralysis. Depending on the sting, the paralysis might have been local to the bite and passing, or comprised a trauma to the better part of my nervous system. Yeah…so, I guess all the Irwin-worriers had right. I almost became a vegetable.

The next day, opting for a safer activity, I headed up to Cape Tribulation and the Daintree Rainforest. Here is the only place in the world where two World Heritage sites meet – the oldest rainforest on Earth (with more species than ALL of the species in the whole world) meets the largest living thing in the world, the Great Barrier Reef. Ta-daa! Now, that deserves a trip, no? Well… I again listened to Steve and booked onto Tony’s Tropical Tours. Name full of alliteration, high recommendation, I’ll see what it’s all about. Picked up at 7 AM, I should’ve known that I was in for a long, long, long day.

After a brief rainforest walk where David, my eco-friendly, pony-tailed waif of a guide, pointed out a few species, I remembered that I get bored on these kinds of trips. I usually opt for the half-day version as I can only feign interest for so long. But, out of travel-practice, I forgot my “half-day is the way” theory and booked full. I’ve been to quite a few rainforests in my day, I’m kind of from the “seen one, seen them all” school. But, it seemed we were headed onward quickly, not spending too much time in the forest. Excellent. To Cape Tribulation next, where Captain Cook discovered the Australian coast. (No, not Captain Hook, the Disney character who lost a hand when bitten by a crocodile – but I understand the confusion…)

Photo op accomplished, we went for another walk through the rainforest. Another one? Here, I started to wilt. Seemingly I joined a group of aspiring botanists and entomologists who knew their omnivores, carnivores, and herbivores on sight. They were all SO into the rainforest walks, asking questions to which David would answer, “Now, that’s a GR-EAT question, Mark!” and embark on a ten-minute lichen tangent. Ranger Rick had as much of a hard on for the lively group as he did for marsupials, reptiles, cassowarys (a prehistoric bird, bigger than a peacock that lives in Daintree, and got Dave really going...). Being “green,” the commentary didn’t stop. Ranger Rick’s NON-STOP soapbox preaching about anything remotely un-eco stole thunder from an otherwise nice day. “This is the original Garden of Eden, people.” And you’re freaking Adam, right? “This world is a world of harmony, the rainforest. Do you hear the forests song?” No David. No I don’t. “When it comes to the environment, America leads the pack of those going to hell. With the Devil, uh Bush, at the helm. Sorry, Marie. I can’t help the eco-chatter, it’s my passion.” Learn to help it, David. Americans tip, Australian’s don’t. “Fun and friends in the forest. We’re all friends, us and the animals?” Uh, no. No David, we’re not. Two World Heritage Sites, a day at one with nature, an exploration of our scientific lineage in the rainforest -- I couldn’t wait to get off the goddamn tour. Half-days, half-days.

More soon from the Lower Great Barrier Reef. I’m headed to Hamilton Island, part of the Whitsunday group for four days of beach and diving (yes, more…). I promise to look not touch, this time…


Sunday, January 14, 2007

No Shirt, No Shoes....Service!

Australia’s East Coast is a virtual wonderland of beach towns. From small, sleepy little hamlets to glitzy, designer promenades, the Coast is rife with a beach community for even the toughest of customers.

I stopped in Byron Bay (in the northern part of New South Wales, Byron is the easternmost point on Australia's coastline) with Simon for a quick overnight, most of which I slept through. However, on the return, I found Byron to be a funky little town, full of bohemian ideals and hippie culture against an absolutely breathtaking beach backdrop. A backpackers wet dream, 100% surfer's haven with lessons being given by leather-faced pros on every stretch of beach imaginable, Byron Bay was a great few days. To start, the whole place runs on the anti-philosophy of No Shirt, No Shoes, No Service. Here, in Byron, it’s all about barefoot, shirtless service. Flip-flops were a practical luxury item. In Byron, everyone shed all conventions and I went along with the craze, tucking my Haviannas into my day bag for the duration. In addition, as I made my way through the maze of streets lined with bazaar-like stores filled with trinkets from dark corners of Asia, stores sporting frangipani incenses, tuberose oils, Thai fisherman pants, Indian tunics,Vietnamese silk skirts, golden Buddha heads and silver ankle bracelets, I was hard pressed to find a store actually open on a sunny afternoon. Signs hung gently in the windows, swaying from the recent posting that read: “Be back in 10 minutes.” Most of the shopkeepers were “sneaking a wave” when the surf provided. And, 10 minutes usually meant an hour plus. When I did find an open store, sunny day or otherwise, the shopkeepers usually had a beer or a glass of Shiraz in hand, as they threw a “How you going, mate? Can I help?” my way. Laid back is an understatement. But, it worked here.

The folks in Byron embraced the charm of the place, preferring and asserting individuality in all fashions, starting with dress -- polka dot top hats, Raggedy Ann knee socks, layered tulle skirts, koolats for men, floral patterned daisy dukes, and wrist warmers (in 90 degree weather, mind you…). The only cohesive body decorations seemed to be dredlocks, tattoos, and of course, piercings. But, the bent toward being unique extended far beyond frock. The creative arts were alive and well in Byron. Art galleries peppered the place; my own hotel room had the work of three different artists’ for sale. Entrepreneurs sat in closed doorways after hours, selling beaded necklaces, handmade wind chimes and homemade soaps. Street performers were everywhere: mock cover bands plugged into street outlets – 4 guys, no rhythm – belting everything from Billie Jean, the jazz version, to Will She Be Loved by Maroon 5 to Motown. Lone guitar players sat idly at every corner, top hat at the ready for an extra dollar. All had weird little voices, but crowds were large, generous and boisterously involved. (This has happened everywhere – these horrible Aussie bands of 1-5 guys. I think it occurs, and endures, because Aussies have too many drinks to realize how horrible it all really is by the time the singing urchins come out to play. Hence, it turns out to be a bonafide blast. So, really…what’s the harm, eh?) Add to the singers, contortionists, magicians, kids riding unicycles while juggling, and one over-40-year-old-man dressed in a yellow leotard with red wings. A human chicken, he clucked and pecked until you gave him a tip. At which point, he looked up to the heavens and let out a whopping “Cock-a-doodle-doo!” Welcome to Byron Bay.

Farther up, closer to Brisbaine on Queensland’s Gold Coast, there is an actual place called Surfers Paradise. I know, right? A marketing strategy from inception. It’s Australia’s answer to Florida, almost frozen in time circa 1975 when the plastic slatted loungers at dodgy looking tiled pools of pastel-colored high-rise communities and hotels were in Floridian vogue. Makeshift carnivals line the boardwalk and casinos lurk behind every doorway; Surfer’s Paradise, to me, was stuck in that Jersey Shore-esque, early Miami Beach time warp. Restaurants with names like Pancakes in Paradise and Surfer’s Seafood Lovers were plentiful. I noticed many a Red Lobster, McDonalds, Hungry Jacks (Australian Burger King), and Subways, along the Strip. The only addition that I found that brought the place current was the influx of designer boutiques to cater to an upper echelon of visitor (though most I met in Sydney that would fit the demographic advised me AGAINST coming to Surfers Paradise in the first place): Ralph Lauren, Hermes, Louis Vuitton, Gucci. But, overall, Surfers Paradise, I felt, could use one big face-lift. A little north of Surfers was a smaller town called Southport that might be considered the South Beach of the Gold Coast, housing some ritzier hotels, restaurants and shops. Here is where Donatella Versace has decided to try her hand at being a hotelier. Why HERE? I’m not sure. But, it didn’t seemingly stop me from booking a room for the night. Unremarkable, except I remember A LOT of gold. A lot of overdone, cluttered ugly-ass patterns on china, throw pillows, lobby lounge chair fabric, and tablecloths. And a lot of those Versace/Medusa-hair inspired heads embossed on everything from towels to sheets to the room pencils. BUT, the saving grace of Surfers, Southport and the Gold Coast is the beaches. If for no other reason, the Gold Coast should be a stop on everyone’s tour circuit around Australia. They’re absolutely amazing, expansive and pristine perfect beaches that weren’t crowded, eroded, or polluted. But…a quick stop only. I hightailed it back to Byron the next morning, removing my own gold necklace if but for just the afternoon.

I’m on my way north to Cairns, Port Douglas, Cape Tribulation and the Great Barrier Reef. More soon…