More Australia Photos

I uploaded another batch of pictures to Flickr (link) and upgraded my account, first so that could I upload more, and second so that people could actually access the larger versions (2816×2112 makes the scenic vistas look quite nice, if I do say so myself).

Hope you like ’em!

Australia Day *error*- Back Home

Well, I’ve been back home from Australia for a week now. The jet lag from the return trip wasn’t too bad; the worst side effect of coming back is that every morning, my alarm clock goes off at 7 am and I can’t get back to sleep, because I have to drive to this place called “work”.

The return trip was about 2 hours shorter than the trip going over, due to the vagaries of global air currents, but somehow it seemed a lot worse. Maybe it’s just that there was no anticipation of two weeks vacation to insulate me from the stress of air travel. Or maybe it’s that I lost weight over the trip (the result of entire days of walking around and/or diving), so there wasn’t quite as much cushioning between my pelvis and the uncomfortable airplane seat. Or maybe it was the much-more-noticeable security. On the return trip, I got to:

-Go through customs twice (Australia makes you go through customs on the way out, too)
-Go through airport security twice (including dumping my water bottle and doing the whole “take off your shoes” routine both times)
-Watch a security officer root through my carry-on baggage
-Get wanded by the aforementioned officer
-Have my checked baggage X-rayed at US customs
-Watch another officer root through said checked baggage (from which I derived no small amount of schadenfreude, since it was pretty much a dirty clothes hamper at that point)
-Have my passport double-checked (thankfully no one on the terrorist watch list shares my name)
-Redo security at LAX because I left my metal-free wallet in my pocket instead of putting it in one of the plastic trays (for some reason, I was reluctant to let it out of my sight while surrounded by strangers in LA)

To top it off, my baggage didn’t show up in Raleigh until about six hours after I did. Admittedly, if the airline is going to lose your luggage, better for it to happen on your return home than when you get over there… but still. The ideal scenario would be for it to not get lost at all.

And now I’m back, poorer financially but richer in experience, which sounds sappy and cliche but is pretty much why I travel: not just to see new things (though that’s certainly a large part of it), but also to put myself in new and unfamiliar situations, surrounded by new and unfamiliar people, and prove to myself that I can successfully navigate my way through.

I’m naturally very introverted, and part of me would love to lock myself in my room and never come out. Trips like these don’t change that (one thing I’ve learned is that your insecurities will follow you across the ocean), but they do provide an opportunity to challenge myself. In that sense, I’m sort of like an arachnophobe who keeps thrusting his hand into a box full of tarantulas. Maybe one of these days I’ll get the hang of it… or at least it won’t freak me out quite so much.

Another reason why I travel is to gain a wider perspective of the world. When all you see is your own city, or your own state, or even your own country, it’s easy to be dismissive of the rest of the world, or to group an entire country or region in with a single news story or stereotype that you’ve heard. (For an easy example, just look at the way some people group all Muslims or all Arabs in with radical terrorists. But pretty much any national or ethnic stereotype falls into this category, some of which are more harmless than others: the Irish are drunkards, the Jews are stingy, the Brits have bad teeth… or, in reverse, Americans are loud, obnoxious, gun-toting hicks.)

When you travel, though, and immerse yourself in the people and places of another country, you see not just the stereotypes, but the entire humanity of a place. Sometimes the stereotypes are even largely true, but they’re still wrong, because they only encompass one aspect of a place or a people, who are at least as varied and colorful as the people where you’re from, even if it’s not obvious from the way they look.

Maybe Australia’s not the best example of this, because Australia is largely a Western country, not too different from my own. Even so, though, certain images and stereotypes dominate: Crocodile Dundee and Steve Irwin come immediately to mind. And even though we know these aren’t actually true (or at least say words to that effect), they don’t come close to exemplifying how amazing and diverse the place actually is: from the cattle farmer raising his herd amidst rainforest on the Atherton Tablelands, to the schoolteacher living with his girlfriend in Melbourne, to the Chinese immigrant in Brisbane hawking her wares in her native tongue, to the businessman working for a bank in the skyscrapers of downtown Sydney, to the real-life bush guide working on the edge of the Outback, to the twenty-three year old diving instructor working his way from boat to boat in Cairns… the reality is actually far more complicated and interesting than the stereotype could ever hope to be.

Every place, and every person in every place, has their own unique story, influenced by their upbringing, their culture, their environment, their beliefs, and by the long string of mostly-random events and occurrences that make up the history of their lives. And while you can’t learn all the stories of a place, you can at least begin to get a sense of what that place is really like, beyond the stereotypes and the news articles and what you heard from your Uncle Ray about that one time he went there twenty years ago.

There’s a lot more I could say on this topic, and I probably will at some point, but suffice it to say, this is where the tagline of my blog comes from: when you meet someone new, or explore an unfamiliar place, you also gain a new story, and through those stories you gain a little better understanding of the rest of the world. (I think this can hold true for fiction as well as nonfiction, but that’s a subject for another blog post.)

So thanks for reading this particular chapter of my story. More will come on this blog– though mostly about my own writing endeavors. Still, whenever timing and finances allow, I plan to do it again… it’s a big world, and there’s a lot to see.

Australia Photos!

Okay, I’m gonna be lazy for the time being, and rather than insert a lot of photos into existing blog posts, I’ve posted them to my Flickr site. You can view them by clicking here. If you follow that link (as opposed to clicking the Photos feed on the right-hand sidebar), the photos are sorted in chronological order. There aren’t many up (the free version of Flickr doesn’t allow for too many in one shot… besides, uploading the 1000+ I actually took would take a while), but it’s a start. If you want to see the larger version of a photo, click on it and then click the “All Sizes” button right above it. I definitely recommend it, especially for the scenic views.

Also, if you’ve seen the pics I posted on Facebook, these are pretty much the same ones (with the addition of shots from the Atherton Tablelands), however, the large version of the pics have considerably better resolution than Facebook allows.

Australia Day 14- Of Rainforests and Rental Cars

The past two and a half days I’ve been making my way in a rental car around the Atherton Tablelands, a plateau just inland from Cairns and the Northern Australia coast. It’s an interesting mix of farmlands and tropical rainforest. Admittedly, the former was created by clear cutting large chunks of the latter, but there’s a much greater emphasis on preservation and sustainability than there was a hundred years ago. Some sections of forest have even been re-planted so that the wildlife have corridors to cross between different areas of forest, and in places where the forest is cut by roads, rope bridges have been built between the trees on either side to allow small wildlife, like possums, to cross. This has apparently worked, and road kills are way down.

Still, not all was well. From my first day, I saw the effects of a years-long drought that has gripped the entire country; the air was hazy with dust from a dust storm system that has affected Sydney badly and made worldwide news. And even though I was almost 2000 miles north of Sydney, the same system was in evidence here. It wasn’t nearly as bad, but it did mean the horizon faded into a white haze in every single scenic picture I took.

Which was okay, since the most interesting stuff was usually up close. In the farmlands, brahman cows dotted the landscape, and hung out by the fence with peaceful looks (really, though, when do you see a cow without a peaceful look? Other than a bullfighting ring, that is), munching on grass contentedly. The farmlands were punctuated with long stretches of rainforest, and every mile, or so it seemed, there was a turn-off that led down a dirt road to a beautiful scene with a waterfall, the sort of perfectly idyllic jungle picture that made me expect to see Tarzan and Jane splashing in the swimming hole at the bottom.

There were other cool sights around, too. The area used to be very volcanic (the aboriginies even tell stories of when this area was “a land of fire”), and I could see the effects of it. One particularly cool site is the Mt. Hypipamee Crater (aboriginal names are always fun… for example, Wooroonooran National Park), which isn’t really a crater at all, but a site where volcanic gas exploded out of the ground. The result is a massive hole about 200 feet wide and 450 feet deep, the bottom 250 of which is submerged in water. It’s particularly fun to throw a rock down it, since the resulting splash will echo up the crater walls with a reverberation effect that makes it sound almost like a gunshot.

Each little town I drove through has its own character, and it was striking how much rural Australia is like rural America, except with land rovers instead of pickup trucks, patches of tropical rainforest instead of patches of temperate forest, and with the cars racing down the wrong side of the road (on purpose, that is).

Which brings me to the whole driving-on-the-wrong-side-road thing. Australians, like the British, drive on the left-hand side. I had never done this before (I’ve avoided driving so far on my trips to Britain), and so was mildly nervous… luckily, I had the constant reminder of the steering wheel being on the other side (the “right” side, as a British tourist pointed out to me) of the car. I never ended up on the wrong side of the road, well, except for one or two times, but seeing a car barreling toward me quickly clued me in that something was amiss.

Actually, those incidents weren’t even caused by the difference in which side of the road you drive on; rather, they were caused by the fact that the Aussies have apparently not discovered yellow road paint. This means a dashed white line down the road can mean either “feel free to switch lanes whenever you like” or “okay, you can pass that slow-moving car in front of you, but I definitely wouldn’t hang out there unless you have a fondness for 200 km/hr collisions” (or, to use American parlance, “ouch”). More embarrassing than ending up on the wrong side of the road was the time I ended up on a bike path, so I probably shouldn’t even mention that.

It’s not just the steering wheel that switches sides in an Australian car; it’s everything. The dashboard is a mirror image. So in an American car, the turn signals are controlled by the stick to the left of the steering wheel, in an Australian car, it’s the stick to the right. This means pretty much every time I wanted to turn I ended up with the windshield wipers on. And of course the entire console (radio, A/C, etc), had to be operated with the left hand instead of the right, which might be great for lefties, but is sort of annoying for the other 90% of the population.

And I won’t even count the number of times I went to get in the car and found myself staring at the passenger seat. If there were people around, I would have to cover for my mistake by pretending to fix something on the passenger side, then, done with that, walk around and get in the driver’s side.

All in all, though, it was a fun adventure, and the Tablelands were actually great for driving. Lots of interesting stops over a fairly wide area, and beautiful scenery that would have been even more beautiful if not for the constant dust storm. My final driving adventure, which took me back to Cairns Airport this morning, was a winding mountain road back down off the plateau, which involved lots of steering around hairpin turns, trying to not get distracted by the view or plowed into by the cars racing up the hill, all the while trying to keep the car successfully in the “wrong” lane. Fun times.

To make matters more interesting, the rental company had given me a Ford Falcon, which, ignoring all issues with the left side of the road, is a much wider car than I’m used to, so I was constantly getting friendly with the little bumps on the side of the road as I edged away from the middle dividing line. It’s probably good I didn’t have any passengers, as they would have bailed out from fear halfway down.. and it was a fairly short trip from the passenger side over the edge of the mountain.

Nevertheless, both my car and I survived without a scratch. If I could say one thing to the Aussies about driving, it would be: if you want to drive on the left, be my guest, but seriously… yellow road paint. Try it. You’ll like it, I promise.

Australia Day 11- Reef Debrief

Note: From here I’m actually posting blog entries from back in the U.S., catching up, as Internet access was fairly limited over the second half of my trip. Still back-dating them to the day they should have been posted.

Over the past 3 days I’ve been on a 25-meter boat with about 40 other people (in English units, this is “kind of cramped”), doing pretty much nothing but eating, diving, and sleeping. I could get used to that life, actually. These were pretty much my first ocean dives, so it took me a dive or two to feel comfortable with what I was doing, but after that it was a blast.

Scuba diving isn’t the most relaxing activity in the world; part of your mind always has to keep track of where your buddy is, and stay aware of your depth and your air gauge. This was particularly problematic for me because the air tanks came in multiple sizes, and by random chance I was assigned the smallest size, which was about a third smaller than my diving partner’s. This meant it was always me who was cutting short the dive due to lack of air, watching my gauge, and willing it to go down less slowly. Oh well. That’s diving for you. Some people snorkeled, but pretty much everything interesting was over 20 feet down– much easier to access with an air tank.

Usually when I told someone I would be diving the Great Barrier Reef, the comment I got was either “Watch out for sharks!” or “Watch out for jellyfish!” Actually, there are no jellyfish on the Great Barrier Reef (at least not box jellyfish, which are the scourge along most of the coast). The reef is several miles offshore, and the jellyfish stay further in… on top of that, it wasn’t even jellyfish season. As for sharks, they were actually the shyest creatures on the reef… they almost always swim away when you get close (close in my experience was “about thirty feet”). The best time to see sharks was on the night dives, near the boat, when you could just see their green eyes hovering at the edge of the floodlights.

Ah, yes, the night dives.. here the objective wasn’t so much to see cool stuff (although that was certainly part of it), it was also the adrenaline rush that comes from diving into a pitch black ocean 60 feet deep. Actually, it wasn’t totally pitch black… the area around the boat was illuminated with flood lights, giving it a creepy greenish tinge. When we moved away from the boat, we had powerful flashlights with could reach several meters through the water, and this was mainly how we saw stuff. Navigating via compass was the hardest part, once you were out of sight of the boat… luckily my dive partners knew what they were doing, because more often than not I got lost (my scoutmasters who taught me orienteering would be ashamed).

Despite the supposed dangers of diving the reef, it was those “dangers” that we all looked for. Sharks, stingrays, barracuda, moray eels… those would always provide the best conversation back on the boat, but they were few and far between. Mostly we got to dive around cool coral formations and see lots of different small fish (the most photogenic ones were always the quickest and hardest to take pictures of), and the most serious injury anyone suffered was sunburn.

So all in all it was a fun dive trip, and I was sorry to see it end on the third day, right when I had finally gotten the hang of ocean diving, and had learned to extend my dives from 30 to 45 minutes by being more careful with my air and staying shallow. I actually preferred shallow dives, not just because you use up your air slower, but also because the colors are better. Colors fade very quickly underwater, and red fades first, which is why the photos I’ll post later are extremely dominated by blue and green. Usually when you see professional underwater video or photography, the scene is either artificially lit (since if the light source is with the diver, there is less distance for colors to fade over) or are filmed with a red filter (basically a red-tinted monocle for your camera).

My only worry now is that having started my ocean-diving career on the Great Barrier Reef, other places just won’t measure up by comparison…. like starting your mountain-climbing career with Everest. But every dive is its own experience, and I’d love to dive in the Caribbean and see how it compares. North Carolina’s coast may not have coral reefs, but it does have plenty of shipwrecks, which is something I didn’t see on the reef.

That isn’t my main concern right now, though: having lived on a small-ish boat for three straight days, I’d really just like the world to stop swaying…

Australia Day 8- Half-Baked Thoughts from the Halfway Point

I got to Australia on the 13th. It’s the 20th. I’m leaving on the 27th. It actually feels like I’m past the halfway point, but maybe that’s because the first week was the busiest. Sydney, the Blue Mountains, Brisbane, and now I’m typing this from the hostel in Cairns. Coming up next week: the Great Barrier Reef, the rainforest, and one last evening in Sydney.

Brisbane was a nice city, but not particularly interesting from a blogging perspective. Lots of green space, some great outdoor malls, and a picturesque river… all make for better pictures than stories. (On a side note: I’m posting pics to Facebook, but haven’t posted any on the blog yet because that takes time, and I’ve had difficulty finding Internet time that isn’t really expensive. So I’ll probably go back to all my blog entries and post pics on ’em when I get back.)

Anyway, a few random thoughts before I go off to the Great Barrier Reef and get fully cut off from the Internet for 3 days (horror!):

-My left shoulder has been complaining about the backpack I carry everywhere. It got worse in the Blue Mountains, and I had to improvise some extra padding– so I used a sleeping mask, folded under the strap, which worked for a while. Unfortunately, I lost it when I took my backpack off to take a break, but I can console myself that when someone finds a sleeping mask at a cliffside overlook in the middle of the mountains, I will have successfully made the world a weirder place.

-America may have lost the ability to manufacture anything but reality TV and faux outrage, and the entire country may be more bankrupt than Bernie Madoff’s investors, but I am pleased to note we still appear to lead the world in certain major areas: ubiquitous acceptance of credit and debit cards, and ubiquitous (and often free) wi-fi spring immediately to mind.

-It’s good to know that American culture has penetrated the world to the extent that even halfway around the world, I can have my ears assaulted with the exact same incessantly annoying pop songs as at home. Does Taylor Swift not realize that Romeo and Juliet DIE at the end of the story? It’s supposed to be a tragedy; instead, the only tragedy is that the song has been stuck in my head for the past day and a half.

-I love decent public transportation. I loved it in Europe, and I love it in Australia. Why can’t we do it in America, outside of like 5 cities? I know, I know, it’s because American cities are too spread out… I still think it sucks. Both Sydney and Brisbane have fully functioning rail, bus, and ferry public transport networks. And Brisbane is only a city of 2 million! That’s only twice as big as the Raleigh-Durham metro area in North Carolina. Of all the things that piss me off about America… well, this isn’t number one, but it’s in the Top Five.

-Australian (and for that matter, European) cities also do green space way better than American cities. Sydney and Brisbane both had massive, well-kept, and free Botanical Gardens located smack in the heart of the city; actually, both had multiple such parks. They’re what New York’s Central Park wishes it could be.

-With all this ranting about what America doesn’t do well, I’ll give you one thing it does do well: currency. Aside from the previously-mentioned fact that debit cards are ubiquitous (they’re widespread in Australia, but some places, notably the Sydney Rail Network, still either don’t take them or require a minimum purchase cost), there’s the matter of coins. I’m quite happy that dollar coins never caught on in America; Australia and Europe have both 1 and 2 dollar (Euro) coins. Maybe this is just me, but I like dollar bills, which fit quite nicely in my wallet and don’t increase the weight of my pants pockets by two pounds, thanks.

-Anyway, enough general ranting. I’m in Cairns now, and I think this is the closest to the Equator I’ve ever been (the latitude is 16 degrees South… which is closer than my previous record, Grand Cayman, which is at 19 degrees North). Cairns has a touristy but relaxed feel to it… and like Brisbane, it has a great outdoor mall. I’m not gonna get to spend much time here, though (leaving at 6 am tomorrow), which is a shame. Still, I bet the Great Barrier Reef will be even better.

Australia Day 7- Interlude on Writing

In the Blue Mountains and in Brisbane, I’ve taken time out each day to rest my feet (much needed) and just relax (not quite as needed, but fun). The Kookaburra Inn, where I’m staying in Brisbane, has a particularly nice little patio where I can sit for a couple hours in the shade, put my feet up, and type away. Most of my creative energy has been funneled into planning out a novel for National Novel Writing Month, which will be the subject of a longer blog entry when I get back, but suffice to say: come November, me and a few thousand other authors are each going to try to write a 50,000-word novel from scratch in 30 days. Why, you ask? Well, why not?

I’m also trying to organize a few people from my Writing Group who are going to do it as well, and our first meeting is four days after I get back to the U.S. Trying to organize a first-time group meeting? In the US? From Australia? Yeah, I don’t recommend it.

Australia Day 5- Blue Mountain Blogging

Today’s entry finds me in Katoomba, amidst the Blue Mountains, about 2 hours inland by train from Sydney. I was sorry to leave the city– I could easily spend two weeks just there, but in the interests of seeing all I can, it was time to move on. And there were aspects of my Sydney stay that I was ready to leave behind, like my hotel, which had a certain “charming ambience” exemplified by the solicitations for gay sex that were etched into every stall door in the communal bathroom. At least I had my own bedroom; I’m staying in a dormitory-style hostel now. It’s easier to meet people this way, though, and harder to be lonely.

My last day in Sydney took me to Taronga Zoo, which was much like any other zoo, except for the view it provided– since it was on the hills of the harbor opposite the Opera House, the entire zoo looked out over a full view of central Sydney’s skyline (the giraffes had an especially good view, and not just because of their long necks).

There was one particular section where kangaroos, wallabies, and emus wandered loose in a large enclosure that visitors could walk through, which meant a kangaroo with a joey in its pouch might come up and sniff your leg, or if you left your belongings lying on a rock in order to take a picture, they might get attacked by emus (this actually happened to a Japanese tourist, when an emu tried to eat his umbrella).

After strolling through the zoo and dodging the hordes of hyperactive, screaming schoolchildren who were also there (some things are constants in human society, and one of them is the behavior of kids in large groups), I made my way back to central Sydney, then out of Sydney into the mountains.

After spending the morning hiking through tourist-laden but beautiful forest paths and along spectacular cliffsides, I’m now back in the hostel, resting my feet, which reached their limit, oh, I’d say sometime in the afternoon of Day 1.

Australia Day 3- On Winging It, Wickedly

I said in my first Australia that there might not be an entry for every day. I did not, however, say there wouldn’t be days with multiple entries…

One nice thing about travelling, particularly by yourself, is the ability to change or make plans instantly, on whatever whim strikes you. Like how, tonight, after dining at what was recommended to me as the best Thai restaurant in Sydney (a neat little hole in the wall with way better food than you’d think), I was strolling through the area, seeing what there was to see, when my path happened to take me by the Capitol Theatre, where the Australian production of “Wicked” was in its first week of playing. A half hour later, the play is starting, and I’m seated in the center of the eighth row from the stage. Fun times.

By the way, the production was awesome, and I was particularly drawn to the story. The best villains are always the heroes of their own story, so purely as a storytelling exercise, I loved the way a stereotypical evil villain was re-written into a fully fleshed out, “good” (in multiple senses of the word) character. I should really go read the novel that the musical was based on. But did I mention how awesome the production was?

(On a side note, I learned that Australian actors, when singing in musicals, do not have a noticeable accent. Either they suppress it, or they just don’t sing with one. I was kind of disappointed.)

Australia Day 3- Manly Blog Entry

Manly is a section of Sydney north of the harbor, stretching from well inland to where the harbor empties into the Pacific Ocean, and let me state for the record that it’s a great name for a place. I wanted to take pictures of me flexing my arms in front of every sign I saw. Let’s take the Manly Ferry to the Manly Wharf, and stop by the Manly Visitor Center! Maybe we’ll visit the Manly Art Gallery! Grrr! It gives me a testosterone rush just thinking about it.

In this case, the name was given because the British officer who first met the natives here was impressed by how manly they were. More places should have adjectives for names: “Let’s go visit Awesome today!” “Nah, I’d rather drive over to Totally Kickass.”

Anyway, I was there to hike the Manly Scenic Walkway, a nine-kilometer (45 furlong) walk from the beach on the Pacific, following the harbor shoreline through various subdivisions a national park. It’s really a good way to get an idea of how absolutely massive Sydney harbor is. Most people who’ve never been here only see the pictures of central Sydney, with the bridge and the opera house, and think that’s all there is. I know I did. As it turns out, that’s just one little nook of the harbor, which is actually fairly far inland from the actual harbor opening. Most of the harbor has almost a Mediterranean vibe to it, with red-roofed houses intermixed with greenery along the hills of the shoreline. There are enough million-dollar homes surrounding the harbor to make Malibu blush, and it’s obvious why– virtually every view has me snapping pictures, and the water is remarkably clear.

The Manly Scenic Walkway winds along the edge of high-class neighborhoods, past marinas full of sailboats, then into Sydney Harbour National Park, a section of fairly unspoiled wilderness sitting smack dab in the middle of the bustling city, winding its way past empty, pristine beaches and culminating a climb up to the top, which gives you as close to a full view of the harbor as you’ll get. (There is no 360-degree view that lets you take in the entire harbor. It’s too big.) A lot of wildlife here, too… a Kookaburra sitting on the railing lets me get within a few feet, and several goannas sun themselves on the path. At the top, a black-and-white bird noisily insists that I share my granola bar with him, so I do.

All in all, not a bad way to spend a day. My only complaint is that the Welsh tourism board is apparently in charge of signage. (Not really; that’s an in-joke that only my Dad will get.) Suffice it to say, getting lost was a common occurrence, but hey, that’s what makes exploring interesting.