July 30, 2004

The Cousins, inc.



Is Hell cold?


I take it back...It's cold as hell here. Wait a minute, is hell cold?

DO NOT go to Jolly Swagman's Backpackers lodge


This morning, my fellow traveller Amaury decides to get up early to visit a park. Why he does (this despite the bad experiences we've had with early starts) is totally beyond me. He politely asks me to join him. And kindly respond by throwing my left shoe at him and pulling the covers over my head. He comes back 4 hours later looking soaked, sandy, bleary-eyed and exausted. I am nicely rested, I raise my eyebrows and decide not to enquire about his adventure. I later learn that he was so enthusiastic with seeing wildlife that he steered off the beaten path only to get stuck in a sand dune. He had to dig his wheel with his hands and get a tough burly man to help him out of his miseries. And it was torrentially raining too. I think that I have finally convinced him that early mornings are not that great.

Jolly Swagman's Backpackers Lodge, despite its rather cheerful sounding name, sucks. It sucks big time. Why does it suck you ask? This is why:

1. It is situated at King's Cross in the Red light district of Sydney.
2. You have to stand on your tip-toes in the shower to avoid getting sticky feet and the carpet is more crunchy-sounding than chunky peanut-butter.
3. They are "renovating" ot right now...which means that they are covering the beer soaked wooden floor with slabs of concrete.
4. I initially mistook the kitchen for the trash disposal area.
5. My neighbor smokes pot. Wait, that's a good thing. OK let me rephrase that. My neighbor smokes pot and doesn't share it with me.

July 22, 2004

I Take that Back-Australians are Not Wusses


We arrive at Port Macquarie and I have to finally admit that it's f*#$ing cold outside. I take that back, Australians are not wusses. They have a perfectly good reason to wear thick coats. With that admission, I permit myself to spend money to get a sweater. Which is retarded considering I have tons of sweaters at home in DC and I will be moving to Senegal after this trip...where sweaters are not really necessary.

We visit the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary. I was expecting to see cute, little, fuzzy koalas. Nooooo... It is there that I find out that "Sanctuary" means "Hospital". Instead of little, fuzzy koalas, I see old, grumpy, burned, hairless koalas. This is a place where koalas are rescued from car accidents, fire fires, chlamydial infections and other such tragedies to be treated by professional volunteer grannies. Despite their often disfiguring ailments, they still manage to be cute and cuddly. Aaawww mom can we have a koala?

We decide to drive as close to Sydney as possible and arrive in a rather non-descript town. The "city center" consists of one ice cream store, an Indian restaurant, a Mexican restaurant and a sunglasses store. Pretty cool. We decide to eat at the Mex restaurant, which is an agonizing decision since we have soooo much choice. After dinner, with nothing to do, we drive ten miles for a snickers bar. Which we find in the only gas station of the town. It's all about the little pleasures in life...



Scorching Sun...in Winter


We woke up early in Coff's Harbour (after having made a strong pact NEVER to wake up early again) to watch whales. We were on a catamaran which was nice because it couldn't fit that many people. We still had the obligatory obnoxious passenger that shouted "OMIGOD I see its tail, I see its tail"; pointing to an obvious, rather large, sea creature "IT'S A WHALE!!!"; extending her arm excitedly screaming "did you see it? IT'S THERE, IT'S THERE!" (regardless of the fact that the whole boat had spotted it a full minute before she had). Yes, she did talk mostly in capitals and with exclamation points and no, she was not a child, she was very much an adult.

The thing to do to spot them is to scan the surface of the water and spot the gust of water shooting straight from the still ripples. Then you start to see the navy blue backs of these ginormous animals. Quite impressive. Trouble is that, while you are drifting in the sea, on this wonderful catamaran, being served fruits, cookies and hot tea, you don't realize that the sun is actually quite fierce...in Winter...in an overcast day.

Later that day, we walked through the rainforest again. We chose to do the skywalk, which in essence, is a part of the rainforest that is built up into a bridge (wheelchair accessible) and covered with a nice posters of various birds one may find there and a plastic roof should it start drizzling. I swear it was the rainforest though, even if it looked like Disneyland. I heard an odd bird that sounded just like an infant crying and another one that mimicked playing children. I hadn't known these were birds, I would have started looking for a lost baby in the woods. Really eerie and spooky.

That night, I decided to purchase an aftersun soothing lotion from the nice chemist at the corner who sympathetically winced at the state of my burnt-to-a-crisp skin.


The Town Stuck in the Sixties


We stopped over in a little town named Byron Bay. As soon as we stepped into the center, I had a weird sense of deja-vu and looked around quizzically. This place is so strange... In 15 mins of eating my breakfast on a cafe's terrace I saw two girls in tight spandex carrying their yoga mats, three men with large dreads and loose fitting navy clothing, teenagers with long underarm hair and various facial piercings, a mother carrying her child in an African-style cloth sling and an older man selling home-made incense in the street. At least 30% percent of the stores' merchandise included multi-colored tie-dye designs, marijuana leaves, items made of Tibetan wool/Australian seed casings or Buddha themes.

I saw Dolphins by Byron's Bay lighthouse. It embarrassing how easy it is to spot wildlife here. I'm starting to suspect that the Australian governments has people dress in animal suits to jump around in densely populated areas to entertain the tourists.


July 14, 2004

Surfer's Paradise


Can you believe there's actually a place called Surfer's Paradise?! I would call it Dorothee's Paradise: shopping, tanned men, beaches and mountains. The place would not be known except that it has meter maids-these are hot 18-year-old girls in gold bikinis that feed meters of cars that ran out of time. I swear this is true! Of course, Ammo had to approach them for a picture. I was mortified.

We went to the mountains and saw all that you expect to see in a nice mountainous region. On the drive there, Sharlene and I started reminiscing about our times in Japan and Ammo now has a little too much information about my past life. He is under oath not to repeat anything so don't even try to pry it out of him. We had yummy fudge and traditional meat pies in the mountain. How quaint!



Brisbane is cooler than you


Brisbane is one of the more built up cities that we've been to so far. Although I loved the parks, botanical gardens, animal sancturies bla bla bla, I was in need of serious retail shopping. There were lots of clothing stores and natural yogurt aromatherapy soap stores. I felt very self-conscious because the girls were all wearing black, very tall and skinny. In comparison, I felt rather dumpy and uncool with my bright, green T-shirt and tennis shoes. It's a wonder the men even looked at me. But they did, I swear! They either thought I was gorgeous or just shook their heads feeling very sad for me.

I could live here but I would definitely develop an eating disorder, physical complex and shopping addiction. Would that be so bad now?

We lazed around in the Botanical Gardens for a couple hundred hours and..surprise! there was the Queensland University of Technology right next to it. We picked up Sharlene who is currently studying there...or pretending to at least. I mean who could ever study in a place like that! It's Gorrrr-geous. I'm thinking about going back to school now.


July 12, 2004

Crickey! It's Steve Irwin's Zoo


This is the best tourist trap I've been to yet. I loved it! Saw Koalas, kangaroos, various kill-100-men-with-their-venom snakes, wombats, Tasmanian devils (Auzzie glorified rats), Dingoes (Auzzie glorified dogs), Croc feedings etc. The only annoying part was that Steve's grating, goofy, smiling face was posted pretty much everywhere in the zoo (even in the bathroom stalls where I almost had a heart attack) and his recorded voice blared 24/7: "Crocs are the most dangerous creature in the wild! Crickey, I would have died if I didn't have these Timberland boots on! These snakes can weigh up to 300 pounds mate! These gentle mother crocodiles roll their eggs in the mouth to release their young!)

That night, we slept at Sharlene's parents. Again, the house was quintessentially Australian: the landscape was beige, dry, and arid due to months of drought, the house contained a separate room for the rather impressive looking BBQ grill, a bar stocked with Australian beer, huge dog, horse, cats and various other scary sounding night creatures. Thanks to Sharlene's parents for putting us up!



The Way Real Auzzies Live


Today, we met my old roommate Sharlene from Japan in the Sunshine Coast. She very graciously invited us to stay at her grandmother's house. Her grandma struck me as the "Real Australian". Although 87 and moving around with a walker, this tough lady drinks strong beer like a fish, follows Football and various other sports religiously (you should see her rejoice loudly when her team wins) and doesn't cook. If I become that cool at her age, I should be so lucky!

Sharlene, Ammo, Patrick (some odd Irish bloke that we picked up along the way) and Tom Cruise look-alike did a bit of bar hopping. Sharles and I were quickly back to our Japan party routine: namely, Sharlene choosing the best looking guy of the club, kissing him all night and me trying to look cool despite my rather prudish and nun-like attitude. Between the drunken inappropriate comments of the various boys around us (largely by Ammo) and the snogs of Sharles and Tom Cruise look-alike, we managed to pack in some good hours of dancing. Of course, Tom Cruise look-alike turned out to be French. It's at times like these that I'm proud to be French :)

The last bar that we hit was full of trendy teens that drank cool drinks, wore cool clothes, and said cool things in cool accents. Picture the "O.C" with a beach background and a younger crowd. It's a wonder anyone there amounts to anything: I would laze around at the beach all day, stare at the surfers and make a living waxing surf boards.


We saw Crocodiles in the wild!


Hehe! Made you look. We left our hostel early in the morning for a visit of Rainbow beach. Our gas tank was running low but we decided to chance the next station as the gas prices were a little high. Unbeknownst to us, the next station was quite far from the last one. Our tank soon showed empty and an alarming red light flashed, reminding us of our impending doom. I pictured us stuck in the middle of nowhere with no gas and the next day's headlines would say "Two stupid American tourists were caught unaware and eaten by land sharks. Only their dirty travel cloths remain". Seeing no stations, I started sweating quite profusely, praying to God that we would make it to the next one. We did. Thank you God, I'll go to church next Sunday (maybe). This is quite embarrassing as a similar incident happened to us two days ago exactly and we had to ask the nice station manager to open his store and pump us full of gas. We made a firm pack NEVER to let the car run on less than 1/4 full.

As soon as we arrived at Rainbow beach, we headed to the information booth. 4x4 Jeeps were advertised to visit the beach. We were stoked and about to shell out the big bucks until we noticed a posting board full of pictures of stranded Jeeps wading in deep sea water--they were caught mid-tide and unable to drive back to shore. After this alarming realization, we decided to take a quiet Canoe ride.

The ride brought us through prehistoric-looking Mangroves. Ammo was very disappointed not to see a crocodile in the wild but I enjoyed myself immensely--most of time I pretended to row so didn't strain myself much. Ammo also decided to serenade me to "Row row row your boat" in a shockingly feminine register while the sun went down.



Chill Out Day


Decided that we were sick and tired of running around all day and wanted a "Chill Out Day". That wasn't too hard considering that we managed to score our own suite with bathroom (definitely a luxury for those of us use to grimmy youth hostels) in a beautiful place kept by old surfer dudes, exactly 23 seconds from the beach. Our queries at the front desk were answered by a lot of "No worries mate". I took lots of pictures of the beautiful sunset on the beach which turned out to look a lot like those cheesy inspiration posters that people pin up in their cubicles. Sigh...

That night, I froze my ass off. I wore two T-shirts, my jacket, my scarf and a pair of socks. I was too cheap to pay an extra $3 AUS for a Doonie (blankets for us Yankees).


July 07, 2004

The Majestic Capricorn Caves


Today we went for a guided visit of the Capricorn Caves. It was spectacular to see how the water had carved gigantic rooms out the rock. There were tree roots that had managed to grow through the limestone to reach to rich, fertilizing Guano (bat poop) floor of the caves. The caves were discovered by the Olsen family who came from Sweden to Australia. We were given candlelight and walked in near total darkness to recreate the way the first Olsens had to map the area. It was more than a little spooky and claustrophic and I admire their sense of real adventure.

We were very excited to see a whole herd of Kangaroos in the wild including several females carrying Joeys in their pouches. I intrepidly approached one of them (those large legs look like they could kick you pretty hard)and was able to pet them. The mother's fur was incredibly soft. Note to environmentalists: please do not read the following. Having tasted the nice meat of Kangaroo earlier in the trip and felt the soft pelt, I am suprised that they are not more extensively bred for good burgers and warm blankets. They make me think of giant rabbit: cute and adorable yet yummy to eat and nice to wear as a coat. As a matter of fact, I wouldn't be suprised to find that they were related.

That night we had a 400g slab of meat on a grill. Yum! I'm starting to feel very Australian.




Ungella Park around Mackay-The Bad Mood Incident


Today we decided to wake up at 6:00AM so we could catch a glimpse of Platapus (Platapi?). We saw *one*. Ammo proceeded to set up his camera, 10 lenses and tripod to get a semi-decent picture of the creature. I proceeded to walk around mumbling and grumbling under my breath. I hate early risers and that includes cute, fuzzy Platapus. I have decided never to wake up at 6:00AM every again.

Later that night we drove up to our hostel. Sensing my bad mood, Ammo let me sleep on the double while he used the single bed. As I settled content into my cozy bed, I yelped in horror when I felt something wet and cold soak through my PJs. I am not kidding folks: the mattress was soaked with urine. It was DISGUSTING. I ended up sleeping the whole night on the floor. Ah the perils of traveling...


Magnetic Island-A Little Piece of Heaven


Today I WILLINGLY stayed on a sunny beach for four hours. Those who know how much I abhor the sun understand that this must truly be a spectacular beach. Will post picture later.

I also ate a green ant. They are normal looking ants with neon green butts full of acid. If you can eat them before they bite you, I'm told that they taste like lemonade. Ya, if you're making really bitter, sugarless lemonade. Yuck!

Post publishing note: I am now told by two Australian sources that they have never tried them nor know of anyone who, in their right minds, have tried them either. I think it might have been a paragraph in the Lonely Planet to get naive foreigners to try stupid things. It worked.




The Rainforest Incident-a Near Death Experience

"Rainforest walks around Mission Beach can get exciting if you meet a Southern Cassowary. This large, flightless, blue bird is an endangered species that needs protection even though it can disembowel you with its toenail"

"(1) Do not run (pictogram: 6 foot Cassowary eyeing a skinny tourist)
(2) Without turning retreat slowly (pictogram: the large Cassowary is getting closer to said skinny tourist)
(3) If the bird becomes aggressive, place a solid object such as a tree between yourself and the bird. If nothing is available, hold an object such as an item of clothing or backpack in front of you and continue to back away slowly (pictogram: skinny tourist brandishing a heavy, iron shield in front of body while Cassowary back away)"

We decided to do a rainforest walk at dusk...because the animals are up at dusk Ammo said. Interpid explorers that we are, we walked around with not a care in the world... Until Ammo excitedly shakes his arm in the direction on the forest. There, I see a huge (6 foot at least) Cassowary look threateningly in my direction. Ammo takes a zillion pictures WITH FLASH of this threatening creature, which doesn't fail to excite it even more.

The Cassoawry takes even more notice of me and walks cautiously towards me. Then I remember the guide descriptions and the sign. I decide that my thin polo shirt would offer me little protection from the evil bird and unfortunately, I forgot my special Cassowary iron shield. So...I run as fast as my little legs take me. At the end of the incident, I see Ammo laughing to tears. I am told that I ran quite fast.

Endangered or not, I would have clobbered that Evil thing with my bags if it had gotten closer.



July 03, 2004

The Coral Reef

While we were in Cairns, we couldn't pass the opportunity to see the Coral Reef. I mean, who goes to Australia and doesn't see the Reeef. Sheesh! We decided that this was to be our big "depense" as the French would say; the one thing that we were willing to pay big bucks for.

We were picked up at our hotel at 7:15 sharp (ouch), transported to Port Douglas to hop on an impressively large, silver Quicksilver boat. Bla, bla, bla. I won't go into detail but we finally got to a station on the sea set up for visiting the Reef. The company cordonned off a little areas where tourists can scuba dive for a couple of hours and see the coral and the fish. Now I'm all for conservation and eco toursim but come on let's live a little! Again, this felt very coordinated and rehearsed.

We decided to shell out even more money and get a special tour with a Biologist. She was a lovely lady who blabbed on and on about different varieties of fish while we shook our heads in sympathy not really listening. We got to see the reef that was away from the station. Definitely worth the arm and the leg we paid for it. It was a full moon so the tide was very low and we could see the reef jutting out of the water. Today, we developed our underwater cameras and the pictures were crap. I'm convinced that those nice pictures that you see in National Geographic are retouched and recolored. Or I'm a crap picture taker. Funny anecdote: the biologist pointed out a shark and instead of fleeing in horror, the whole group beat their little fins out to get as close to it as possible. I swear, this country makes you craaaaZ.


July 02, 2004

Cairns- City of Tourists

Frankly folks, I'm a bit disappointed by Cairns. It's supposed to be this major city in Australia...and we get there only to find a travel agency, a youth hostel, a motel, a crummy souvenir shop, another travel agency, another youth hotel, another motel, another crummy souvenir shop etc (ad infinitum). It felt like some incredibly long strip mall in Ocean City. OK so I'll admit I did get a nice baseball cap with a hopping Kangaroo but still! I ate at the only crazy, hippy place in the town. It smelt of incense and my waitress had dreads with beads that clink-clinked every time she moved. I had Pad Thai while I watched dancing people swinging their arms with flaming batons to a techno beat.

I'm being harsh but I must add that there are incredible things to do in and around Cairns. We decided to go see an Aboriginal museum. We paid $29 big bucks (pretty expensive for people on a shoe string budget) to sit in a theater and see the whole Aborigine/Evil white men culture history in 20 mins. Can't help but think it doesn't do them much justice. Then we moved from station to station to witness a person playing the didgeridoo and a short lecture on some native plants and how they are used to cure various ailments. That was about 20 minutes too. Then we practiced throwing a boomerang...once. I really felt like a stupid, rich tourist. One thing worth mentioning: Amaury had crocodile hot dog (he says it tasted like a regular hot dog. Bugger).





Sydney-a recent email I sent to friends

Hello Boys and Girls!

We have arrived safe and sound in Sydney after more than 24 hours in Flights and waiting in crummy airports. Needless to say, we were glad to walk out into the cool air of Sydney. Australians are wusses: they wear thick winter coats, scarves and mittens when the weather is that of a nice fall day in the Washington DC area. Well since our check-in was at 12 and
we arrived around 6am, we set off for a long visit of the city, only to come back at 3PM and sleep until the next day. Sydney strikes me as being a bit like Toronto, kind of hip and cool but much much smaller (we walked from one end to the other in less than 30 mins) and full of Asians, presumably from Japan: "Shasin kudasai", "ah, kawai desu!".

Our hostel is incredibly cool with colorful couch, young people and good food. It's well equiped with phones, tour guides, showers (thank god because 24 hours of travelling REQUIRES a good half hour shower), internet cafes and travel agencies. I don't think it gets much better than that. Tonight we fly to Cairns where I hope that we get to do more "outback" stuff such as eating bugs and getting bitten by snakes. OK my half hour internet is up!

xoxo D.