Nov 27, 2014

Week 8: Sydney, Melbourne, and... Paris?

When I've asked Australians about what makes their culture unique, they have a hard time coming up with an answer. Boomerangs? For tourists. Spiders and snakes? They have them, sure, but not in the cities. Crocodile-wrestling locals and beach-dude surfers? While they do exist, they don't exactly represent the majority of society.

What's distinctly Australian? The answer, I've found, is multiculturalism.

Chinese-Australian Pride; the University of Sydney

Australia as a country is even younger than America, and also a modern melting pot with British roots. When you're walking down the street amid Victoria Era architecture, you hear a multitude of European and Asian languages being spoken. Immigration policies are not nearly as restrictive as the US, so I met many young people, especially Chinese, who had just arrived in Oz on working holidays and temporary visas.

As Sheila explained to me, you're looked on a bit suspiciously in Australia if you're too religious or too political, or even excessively ambitious. Combine that with the fact that guns are illegal, everyone has healthcare, and the minimum wage is more than AUD $16/hour (compared to US $7.25), Australia seems like a more pleasant version of the States (minus the deadly wildlife).

Bronte Beach

Something else uniquely Australian: the walk from Bronte to Bondi Beach. Here is where you'll meet the surfers, strutting on the beach with surfboard bands around their tanned ankles. The walk itself is gorgeous, winding along the rocky coast with a constant view of the ocean and its powerful, crashing waves. Just watch you don't step on the stinging "blue bottles" (Portuguese man o' war) -- these cnidarians resemble tiny rolled-up plastic bags littered on the beach. Though there were hundreds of them, this didn't stop locals from hitting the sand on the near 40ºC (102ºF) day.

Festival Français De Melbourne

The very kind family I stayed with in Melbourne offered me a free ticket to go to Melbourne's French Festival. I spent the morning walking through small boutique tents, trying artisan cheeses, and applauding the antics of the Parisian stereotype performers.

I hesitantly bought a pain au chocolat (chocolate bread) -- I'd had them often while in Paris in 2011, and actually went through withdrawals from the lack of them, but my experience with Panera's lookalikes was dreadful. When I bit into the pastry: bliss! It was the real thing! That one piece of bread gave me a lot of simple, unexpected joy.

Also present at the festival was Andrew Prior, a former contestant on Australia's MasterChef (and the only one in the show's history to be retired for a medical emergency when he wrecked his knees). He currently hosts food tours around France, and had a half hour program where he talked about the sights and savories of Paris, Dijon, and Lyon. The way this man talks about food, whoa - it had everyone mesmerized. By the end, the audience was salivating and several were willing to forgo the tour's $10,000 price tag.

At the Melbourne Zoo: a koala, kangaroo,
Tasmanian devil, lemur, and blue-billed duck.

Thanks Laurén for suggesting I visit the Melbourne Zoo -- it was wondrous! There are no gates separating you from many of the animals, and you enter sections of their habitat like a visitor into their home. As you walk through the bamboo forest towards the Asian elephants, it's as if you were not in a zoo at all; each diverging path from the entrance plunges you into a new environment. There were so many animals, especially birds, I'd never seen or heard of before. There's so much more out there than we even know.

Get your knife and fork ready...
Besides in the zoo, I also came into contact with a kangaroo... at the grocery store. How does a 'roo steak differ from cow? I found kangaroo to be very tender and juicy, like slow-roasted beef at a very good restaurant. I liked it!

I've enjoyed this time in Australia, though I've often felt very lazy for want of a "cultural skill" to learn like the other countries I've visited so far. Tomorrow I'm off to Bali to try my hand (and arms and legs) at yoga. Tell you about it soon!

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Nov 22, 2014

Week 7: Welcome to Oz

There are boomerangs in the gift shop and men are wearing Crocodile Dundee wide-brim hats. There’s a photo in the Manly Beach museum of Santa wearing a bathing suit with his toes in the surf. You know the line, Toto: We’re not in Kansas anymore. Welcome to Oz!

Sydney Harbor from Circular Quay

I can’t get enough of the Sydney Opera House; it’s the most captivating building I have ever seen. Every program about Australia I’ve ever seen opens up with a view of the Opera House, and now I understand why — it’s mesmerizing. From Circular Quay, it looks like a beetle’s shell releasing its wings, like a ladybug just before flight.

Manly Beach

Sydney boasts about 300 sunny days a year, so it’s nearly always a beautiful day to go to the beach!

Queen Victoria Building

The Queen Victoria Building was constructed in 1898 and its decadent architecture of stained glass windows and arched doorways really puts you back in time. In the center of the mall is a Christmas tree that starts on the lower floor and goes through all four stories. Just imagine if that were a real tree, and not a glowing plastic prop.

The London-made clock was the most fascinating: it depicts a ship sailing through the different islands and coasts of Australia when it was first “discovered,” and has figurines displaying the horrors of colonization. After the sobering sight, you can go to the lowest floor and cheer yourself up with a cone of baklava ice cream.

Sheila - my generous host and friend of an unconventional lifestyle (WOO!) - suggested I take a day trip to the Blue Mountains. I’d never heard of them before, and they were just two hours out of Sydney, so why not?

As the train pulled away the skyline changed from skyscrapers, to suburban homes, to small towns surrounded by “the bush.” Then the view gave way to the Blue Mountains... Incredible! The mountains look blue because of the oil released into the air by the dense population of eucalyptus trees. It makes for a beautiful sight.

As I was reading the information board looking out at the 3 Sisters rock formation, I noticed a spider creeping its way up the post. GOOD GOD! NOT A SPIDER IN AUSTRALIA! RETREAT!! I gave it a wide berth, and it was content to settle on the post without bothering anyone - whew. Now I can say I survived the Australian “wilderness,” haha.

More from Sydney to come!

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Nov 14, 2014

Week 6: Wellington, Weta, and Hobbiton

Listen, Chicago, we gotta talk: you call yourself the "Windy City" but I believe Wellington has you trumped for the title. Wearing Oliver and carrying a second backpack, I was still pushed sideways across a busy intersection when the roaring gusts barreled down from the mountains.

Luckily my first night in Windy Wellington was markedly calm and fair; perfect weather for watching the belated Guy Fawkes fireworks show. In the morning there was a sprawling farmer's market where you could buy fresh veggies for cheap and listen to buskers croon mellow hits. Between the sights, food, and public art, I think Wellington really is the "coolest little capital in the world."

If you're wandering around the suburbs of Wellington and happen upon three larger-than-life-size trolls, you've found the Weta Cave -- the Weta Workshop's mini-museum and handmade souvenir shop. Behind glass displays are LOTR movie props such as prosthetic hobbit feet (below), Sting, and various Middle-earth warriors' helmets.

The souvenirs are all crafted in the workshop and are authentic, one of a kind, absolutely unaffordable treasures. If you have a spare $1799 NZD, for example, you can buy your own 10K precious gold (seewhatIdidthere?) replica of the One Ring (below).

Sir Peter Jackson was in Wellington at the same time for a special screening of the third Hobbit movie to superfans, but alas! was not at the Weta Cave when I went. However, during a screening about Weta's origins, I did get to hold Thorin's actual axe from the movie! Talk about cool.

What could top a visit to the Weta Cave? How about a tour of the Hobbiton movie set... pure magic. I'll let the pictures speak for themselves:

A Hobbit Hole

The Shire; The Waterwheel;
Sam and Rosie's hobbit hole, complete with blooming roses.

Bag End; The Green Dragon (a real cider and alehouse);
And a note from Sir Peter Jackson.

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Nov 8, 2014

Week 5: The Southern Alps

The farmstead has turned off the “WWOOF” light.
You are now free to roam about the country.

This week I left the farm in Oamaru and, on a whim (because when you’re traveling, you can decide when you’re exploring, eating, sleeping on a whim), booked a bus ticket to Dunedin:


Dunedin - meaning Southern Edinburgh - is a college town thriving with around 30,000 students; the vibe reminds me a lot of Ann Arbor, Michigan. I arrived just in time for Halloween. Rather than join the huge bloc party in the city center, I took a walking ghost tour. At one point, we descended six stories underground into an old war bunker, and there, in the creepy dank darkness, told each other our own ghost stories. One woman told a true story that had happened to her that left us all in shivers.


The Adventure Capital of the World was tinier than I’d imagined - aside from the boardwalk, the central city is a few blocks wide, yet the hostel was several stories tall and built like a family-style hotel. On the walls were ads for bungee jumping, skydiving, and other adrenaline-pumping activities for the mostly 19 year old clientele (I felt too old to be there). Queenstown was my base for the day trip to Milford Sound:

Milford Sound

I booked the 10-hour return bus trip to Milford Sound before hearing that “there’s nothing to do there except take the 2-hour cruise.” I had the intention of hiking, but was told there were no tracks, just a boat terminal and the road. I wasn’t swayed to buy the $92 cruise, and went on the trip anyway… and I’m so glad I did! I found small footpaths just a few minutes walk from the bay. It was so foggy you couldn’t see the mountains well anyhow, only the tendrils of waterfalls that slid down their sides as if the mountains themselves were oozing water. Also present: several very intelligent kea birds, the world’s sole mountain parrot.

Mt. Cook

As soon as I arrived, I booked an additional night in this stunning valley. A hike up Hookers Pass was rewarded with a crystal clear view of Aoraki/Mt. Cook, which for days prior had been obscured by snowy fog. There were other walks in the area that took you could take from the "village" - a cluster of buildings isolated in the valley below the innumerable snow-topped peaks. You’re humbled by nature real quick, to be surrounded by these mammoth giants who’ve stood here long before we were all born, and will endure long after we’re gone.


After arriving in the South Island’s northern town, I took a hike (you notice this is becoming a trend) up Bob’s Bay to get a view of the stunning smaller islands that make up the Queen Charlotte Sound. Probably best not to do this when you’re sleep-deprived from a short overnight in Christchurch, or haven’t brought along any water or snacks with you (I did survive, thanks for checking).

All in all, a very good week “tramping about,” as they say here. Tomorrow I’ll be taking the InterIsland Ferry to New Zealand’s North Island. Next stop: Wellington!

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Nov 1, 2014

Animal Life in New Zealand

I’d never met an endangered species outside the zoo before, and here in New Zealand I’ve met several. Pictured below are the little blue penguin, the yellow-eyed penguin, a fur seal, and a sea lion:

One evening, my WWOOF farm host drove us to the narrow Otago Peninsula that stretches out into the Pacific Ocean. We took a winding dirt road to the edge of that jut of land, then walked down a steep slope to get a better view of the coastline. The Prof stopped, and looked out at the waves breaking on the rocks.

“How many fur seals do you see?” She started to count, “One, two, three, four…!”

I looked at the same shore, and said, “Zero. Where are the seals? I don’t see anything.”

She pointed down at the rocks. “There’s one right there, and over there," she said.

There was nothing. I told her so.

“Open your eyes! One's yawning and stretching out right below us.”

I looked down and was stunned - so it was! The brown of their fur blended in so well, they all looked like a part of the rocks. Suddenly, I could see.


Going back up the steep hill, we spotted wooden nesting houses with yellow-eyed penguins staring at us, their eggs warm and safe under their bellies. I was dazzled by the beauty of the land, the sea, and the animals that belonged to both environments.

I'll remember the Prof's advice as I continue to travel: open your eyes.

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