Jan 29, 2008

Aussie Aussie Aussie

First few days in Melbourne have been chock full of national events. Arrived on Australia Day to see drunken Aussies wearing flags as capes, or headresses made of hundreds of tiny aussie flags. girls in aussie flag bikinis, you name it. caught fireworks a la 4th of July, along with more drunken nationalist aussies. good times.

Day two Australian Open mixed doubles and men's finals. Nice timing. Bought grounds passes to watch the final matches on the big screen right outside the arena with the rest of the folks who couldn't afford to get inside, but wanted to feel the energy through the doors & walls of the stadium. Tsonga vs. Djokovic was a brilliant match til the end. Great drama as always. Serb and French fans alike adorned face paintings and chanted loudly, as expected. The 'treat' for us and our mates outside was a 45 minute performance by an australian teeny bopper band The Veronicas. Bad, but humorous to hear the lil' gals screaming in the front row.

Day 3 was the official bank holiday for Australia Day. Quiet as lots of folks were gone for the long weekend & businesses closed. I finally spent some time trying to organize and manage and keyword the over 3000 photographs i've already taken. yikes. it's quite an undertaking already. but that's the reason i'm here, right?

Jan 24, 2008

Palm trees in Mordor?

Today is the last day of our near 3 week road trip in the land of Kiwis. Spent the past 3 nights in what truly is the most spectacular landscape in NZ - the Milford Sound. While we didn't pay to take the "Lord of the Rings Tour" from Queenstown [not sure what part of Middle-earth they actually show you], we found ourselves saying OOOH, AAAAH, WOW and pulling the car over yet again as we couldn't pass without capturing (or trying to) the beauty of the jetting peaks, mossy forests, monumental waterfalls with perma-rainbows, a thousand sheep being herded down the road (literally), layers of mountain ranges and valleys, bridges crossing over wide rivers, more sheep, and more sheep... Ariella and Susan braved an evening kayak in the sound, while I preserved my back by seeing the sound via a boat. Easier to take photos from a boat, but the gals cruised under waterfalls and used their oars as sails bc it was so windy. Luckily the wind was at their backs!

We've covered a ton of scenic routes, adventures and kilometers on our road trip from Auckland to Queenstown. Highlights include:

Outside Auckland in Pukekohe: Bill & Helen Kilkolly (my uncle Craig's friends) hosted us for 2 splendid nights on their 10 acre farm. They hooked us up with their son-in-law's abseiling company for a full day canyoning trip in Piha (incl a 150 ft. vertical drop!), helped us plan out our full itinerary for NZ, introduced us to their pigs, dogs, horses and cattle, served us home cooked meals, insisted we do laundry and simply are the most charming people we met here in NZ.

Rotorua: Do not, I repeat, do not sit in the mud baths at the geothermal springs in Rotorua. Instead of Hell's Gate, it should be called Smell's Gate. Even after throwing a tank top and a t-shirt away, I literally still cannot get the residual sulfur smell out of 1/4 of my clothing. Don't do it! Seeing the bubbling earth was cool, just don't cover your body in it.

Taupo: A skydiving mecca. Susan's birthday skydive. I wasn't planning to dive 'til about 1/2 hour beforehand when we saw the parachutes coming down over a lake the size of Singapore on a crystal clear day. Had to do it. Didn't have as much time as Susan to freak myself out about it. But I surely freaked out getting on the tiny plane, knowing that I was to be the first jumper, sensing that my tandem partner Laci (a Hungarian) was seriously crazy, seeing the extreme sport junkie Susan panic, answering to Laci when he asked me if I was scared, and then inching toward the open door to FREEFALL!!! there i was, there was the earth below. what a serious rush. 45 seconds lasts a long time when freefalling from 12k feet. Once Laci pulled the chute, we swirled round and round in circles, flew so close to Susan & Reno and could yell to them, and cruised in for a smooth landing. what a flight.

Picton: I like that Kiwis call backpacking trails "Tracks" and backpackers (the hiking variety) "Trampers". We didn't do any overnight tramping, but we did enjoy a day hike on Queen Charlotte's Track. Took a speed boat out to a tiny bay and hiked amongst ferns with views of the water all along the way.

Kaikoura: Hanging with the mammals. While swimming with the wild Dusky dolphins in the wee hours of the morning was exhilarating, beautiful and mesmerising, I was surprised to find that I actually enjoyed swimming with the fur seals even more. I felt like an in-water spectator with the dolphins, even though they were less than a foot from my snorkel mask at times as the babies and moms followed each other in circles and lept out of the water doing backflips. The dolphins are pretty speedy and don't really stop. The seals, on the other hand, like to perform for their visitors (human or other seals) as well, but are homebodies. Once we swam to their alcove at high tide, I didn't have to move around too much to have a swim party with the seals - they swam around me in circles, flipped over and swam upside down, shot by with both finesse and speed, looked at me underwater with those cute big eyes, and were just happy to be playing around. The other half of their lives (or maybe more than half), they just sit around, bask in the sun and sleep (and snore). Not a bad life.

Susan is from Alaska and the scenery here in the Milford Sound is quite reminiscent of the Alaska 'wow', except for one detail - the palm trees and big ferns on trunks that look like palm trees. I don't remember seeing palm trees in Mordor on the big screen.

I think we'll all be confused when we have to drive a car with the steering wheel on the left, driving on the right hand side of the road. alas, that'll be a while.

p.s. I'll try to write more often and briefer from here on out......

Jan 6, 2008

Lucky Water

Fiji: Beachouse (backpacker resort btwn Nadi and Suva)
Jan 2-4

Walking out 50+ yards with warm (often hot) seagreen water only up to our knees (serious high and low tides), looking back at our resort nestled in a rainforest of palm trees, decorated with hammocks and a huge swing hanging from a palm tree over the water, it began to sink in that we really have left seattle. Seriously left seattle. We did a little ocean dance and screamed some ‘woohoos’. And so it begins.

I'm reminded that my senses are heightened as I approach new destinations. Straight off the plane I took in whiffs of that distinct tropical aroma – must be the humid air exuding some kind of scent. Birds chirp endlessly - both right next to our garden bure (aka thatched roof hut), but also off in the distance. Fiji Bitter tastes exactly like a nice tropical beer should, and my teeth recognized the texture of coconut as I gnawed on some freshly cracked pieces.

My little brother Luke recently told me about a couple extra senses he has – a sense of humor and sense of rhythm. We’ve already experienced the humor of the Fijians who work here – they learn your name quickly and then like to joke around with you, including throwing guests in the pool. Turns out this joking around is a huge part of the Fijian way.

So the pool. As with most cultures, the first week of the new year brings with it the traditions calling for luck in all aspects of life. Here in Fiji, submersing oneself in water is the key to a prosperous 2008. During daily tea time (4pm) yesterday, the guests and the staff were throwing each other in the pool fully clothed. Jumping in along with the person they dragged over too. As more and more of the guests were going in, we had a feeling it would soon be our turn. Sure enough, “Your turn America!” Ariella ‘cheated’ by taking her skirt off and jumping in with just her suit on. Next it was me, and I went in wearing my mumu with the staff member who jumped in holding onto/pushing me. We thought it was just one of those silly 'let's throw everyone in the pool' moments, but we found out later that it had a greater purpose.

Chatting late night with two Aussies who live in Suva, I asked if there is a way to experience a bit of Fiji traditions without going on a paid ‘village tour’ wherein you know you’re just getting a show. Wes and Ruth laid out a perfect plan for us, including rudimentary scratched out maps of where to get off the bus just over a bridge and wait by a hut to get picked up by a little speed boat. Now this is my kind of adventure.

Nice way to start 2008 being cleansed with some lucky Fijian water.