Monday, October 22, 2012

Home: A Finale

I doubt anyone would be surprised if I said I haven't yet experienced that reassuring sensation that says: Oh, yup, this is HomeThe northeast coast, where I've spent most of my life, no longer rivals the familiarity of the quasi-home I had cobbled together after living six months in Sydney or Perth.  It's not like I came back expecting otherwise, but there is a strangeness to feeling unsettled in a landscape that superficially hasn't changed much in two years. I guess I've also realized how I've changed in my time abroad, and when those moments of self-awareness dawn on me, I smile. (Probably stupidly, just like Wallace).

In the past two years, my parents have moved from New Hampshire (the state I grew up in) to West Virginia (a state I'd never even driven through til a month ago); the lovely girlfriend I abandoned after a half a decade of dating is on skeptically friendly terms with me (rightly so) and was kind enough to allow me a brief visitation with my "ex-dog"; some of my best friends have relocated to different parts of the world/country, gotten married, or had kids, if not a combination of the three; and I've returned without a single clear purpose or aspiration to precipitate some semblance of direction to life. It's the last one that probably causes me the most anxiety, but that will change with time. 

The last month I've spend my time re-connecting all across the United States and it has been amazing, if not too brief. It still surprises me at how thin those connections with my old friends have gotten in two years away. But so far, if as by magic, I meet an old friend, we embrace, quickly dispense with formalities, and it's like I never left. It's reassuring to know that it can be that easy when both people want the same thing. And as much as I love all my friends, I probably would have stayed longer in Australia if I didn't have a longing to see my family. Not having a Home isn't too bad when you've got an amazing Family to return to. 

Three generations posing for the camera after our 30 - 60 - 90 birthday celebration (for me, my Mom, and Grandfather, respectively). The Pythagorean Triangle Birthday!

For me, this travel blog ended herewhen I departed from Asia, in the sense of why I started this blog and more importantly, why I left to travel in the first place. Over the last year, I've done my best to occasionally write interesting stories from Australia as a way to share my life with family and those friends that consistently put in that effort in to stay in touch. Hopefully you know who you are. I do. On those most trying of days, it's those people and those relationships that helped move me forward.  (There's a part of me that feels that the latter half of this blog was boring and long-winded. On reflection, I wish I had burnt-out instead of faded away. Well, there is always the next adventure to blog about).

As for being back in the States, I realize that things will always feel unfamiliar as long as I don't grow those roots, find a routine (a job?!), and make regular friends to make things more interesting. A part of me -- the one that likes to travel -- is apprehensive about doing just that. But without that, life feels shallow. And there is a part of me that wants to be surprised to one day look around at my life and say, "I don't want to go anywhere far, anytime soon". Time will tell. 

And finally, I know there are a great many people I will meet in places I’m going to visit in future adventures, and that makes me happy. It seems like the world is teeming with special people, and when you look at the world that way, it doesn't seem that difficult, with enough time and effort, to call any place Home. Thanks for reading. Safe and happy adventures.  

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Blogsplosion: More Cairns, Darwin, and Uluru

Easily the best part of scuba diving in the Great Barrier Reef, for me at least, was the spectacle that two humpback whales put on while cruising to the morning dive spot. My opinion is a little biased, since my ears didn’t equalize very well during the first dive, and I only got down to 16 meters after 20 minutes of agonizing effort. The second dive was a drift dive, and by that point I couldn’t get lower than 7 meters without feeling like my ears would burst.

Mama whale breaching, but the cafe was the one who put on the show. The Japanese people want to kill and eat these things... why would anyone want to kill a beautiful animal that puts on a performance without being caged or trained first??
The highlight of the diving itself was a grouper fish the size of a small car – actually the fish had been dubbed “VW” for that reason. Our group also interacted with a friendly bumphead parrot fish that had become accustomed to being feed out of hand. It was cool to be face to face with a beautiful meter long fish, but seemed to contradict the philosophy of preserving the natural habitat. In my opinion, this type of gimmick is a tacit acknowledgement that the sea life at the GBR is no longer as abundant or colorful as it once was due to increasing ocean temperatures and poor eco-tourism management (at least compared to the places I was fortunate to see in Southeast Asia). That being said, several people raved about a dive site near Townville where people went diving with Minke Whales and schools of sharks.

My last day in Cairns was spent walking around the town. In some ways it reminded me of Perth, which has warm weather and a slower pace to life. It’s a beach city, but there are no nearby sandy beaches like Perth, so people end up sunning themselves on the grass around the artificial lagoon in the city center. Aside from the diving, I can’t see a huge reason anyone would chose Cairns over a place like Perth, but maybe my three days there weren’t enough to “suss it out” (as they say in Australia).

I arrived in Darwin late at night and booked another guided tour for the morning, this time an overnight camping excursion to Kakadu National Park. The name comes from a mishearing of an Aboriginal word, which was then confused for the German word for Cockatoo. Personally, it makes me think of poop. Twice. Despite the name, the highlights of Kakadu are nice. Kakadu doesn’t beat the national parks of Utah (Bryce, Zion and Arches) nor Arizona’s Grand Canyon (and that’s coming from a guy who didn’t think the Grand Canyon was that grand compared to Zion). But if you like camping and hiking, there seems to be plenty on offer at Kakadu. Considering the park is half the size of Switzerland, it damn well should.

A feral and hyperactive-looking tour guide named Dan picked me up at 7am and I crawled into the back of a modified Toyota Land Cruiser. By modified I mean the cabin had been gutted and fitted with two parallel poorly-padded benches. The rest of the camping crew consisted of two Finnish girls, two Slovakian girls, an Italian girl, a German girl, and Russian guy. The seats were uncomfortable but at least the ratios were agreeable.

Our first stop was a jumping crocodile cruise, and as contrived as it was, my butt was numb and I needed to stand. A fiber-glass replica of the largest saltwater crocodile (a dangerous misnomer as they spend most of their life in fresh water) ever found was sprawled in front of the ticket office. It came in just over 8 meters long, originally weighing more than 1000 kilograms (in imperial units, that’s a fucking lot), and had a head the size of my body. It’s there in order to hype up the size of the crocodiles potentially in the estuaries but the crocodile leather trade, wholly unregulated until the mid 1970s in Australia, resulted in crocodiles being hunted nearly to extinction. So a very large crocodile comes in at about 5 meters these days and those don’t seem to be very common either. The biggest I saw was probably 3.5 meters. The cruise operator felt it necessary to remind us on each occasion that even those crocodiles were “big enough to kill you.”

The replica of the largest crocodile ever found, I think somewhere in PNG or the Philippines or another P country. 

He looks funny without long arms, am I right?
After lunch, I satisfied my daily culture quota when we hiked around a cave area featuring Aboriginal rock art. Dan told us that there are four distinct types of Aboriginal art (but I have some doubts on the veracity of the details): 1) Contact art, as in contact with Western civilization (or as in a euphemistic punch to the face and made into second class people in society); 2) Modern art (circa ~10,000 years ago), a period of rapid artistic development caused from rising sea levels which required less time for hunting and gathering, and hence more time for art; 3) Ancient art (circa 10,000 to at least 40,000 years ago), consisting of simplistic animal designs and geometric shapes depicting the “creation time”. Some of the ancient artwork depicts paintings of mega fauna which are thought to have gone extinct more than 50,000 years ago, which is pretty cool (if you define cool as giant sloths and enormous gerbils).
A story about a creepy guy who will beat adventurous women or children with a yam if they wander out of the sight of the men. Standard stuff.
That night, we ate kangaroo steaks cooked on a campfire and tried our best at playing the didgeridoo. In a cloudless sky, the gash of the Milky Way cut across the sky. Dan showed me the Southern Cross constellation, which is depicted on the Australian flag, and from that how to find due south. Fascinating stuff for which the details I quickly forgot. I fell asleep in my tent looking at the stars, thinking how easily 6 months of living in a city can make you forget the pleasantries of the simple life.

I woke up in the middle of the night with something hissing at me, and if you didn’t know this already, crocodiles hiss when they are threatened.  I quickly pieced together that was some sort of possum in a dispute with a neighbor opossum, but for the first minute I was a little unsure of my next move. I scared the beasts off and fell back asleep for what felt like an instant, and then was roused with an early morning wake up call.

Our second day had us off-roading through the park, and hiking to Twin Falls and Jim Jim Falls. Twin Falls had tantalizing crystal clear waters but fresh water crocodiles inhabited the area, so swimming wasn’t allowed. As it was the dry season, a more apt name would have been Singular Trickle.  At Jim Jim Falls, in a similar aquatic state, a turquoise pool of frigid water lay at the base and had no crocodiles to worry about. I swam the 100 meters across the pool and arrived on the other side entirely numb, where I climbed onto a ledge to warm up. I stood underneath the falls as it pissed cold water onto me until I summoned the courage to jump back in. The cold water stole my breath but I managed to make it back alive (just in case you had any doubt). After sunning myself dry, I had to suffer the long walk back to the truck where, once arrived, I needed another dip in the pool.

Jim Jim Falls
We had a three hour ride back to Darwin without much to look at on the way. Our guide passed a fellow guide from the company driving a tamer looking set of guests back to the city. This driver entertained us for 30 minutes by dressing up in various tasteless outfits. His first character was a member of the Towelie-Ban sporting an uzi, followed by Steve Irwin, Anna Nicole Smith, a guy asleep at the wheel (at this point, we were at a stop light), and some other crude animations I’ll leave unmentioned. It passed the time at least, but probably freaked out the passengers in the other vehicle.

The towelie-ban character (i.e. he is wearing a towel on his head which I didn't get in the picture). 
For the next two days in Darwin, I fought off boredom during the hottest parts of the day, either by not moving (at most lifting a beer to my lips) or visiting an air-conditioned building, like a bar or Darwin’s art-science-history museum. By the late afternoon, it was comfortable enough to sit outside with the friends I had made from the tour in Kakadu. The running joke between us was, “What suburb are you going to go to tomorrow?” because Darwin city is tiny and dull. To think this wasn’t even the hottest part of the year where it is typically 38oC with 95% humidity. Also note that the risk of box jellyfish stings from October to May means you can’t cool off in the ocean during this time. Sorry to say it, but it astounds me that people actually live in Darwin on purpose, especially at any time before the tourism boom. Maybe it’s like America’s Florida where people go to retire and become forgotten by their children.

In travelling through Kakadu, I realized that Australia is too damn big for me to drive from Alice Springs to Uluru like I originally planned. In my last full day in Darwin, I re-arranged some flights and added another so that I could arrive by plane at Ayers Rock. In the end it was cheaper than driving too. Right now, I’m in Alice Springs’ airport waiting for my connection, and I’m thankful for my prudence. The outback is expansive and flat. If boredom hadn’t killed me on the drive, I’m sure a “Big Red” kangaroo would have jumped in front of my hired car in the middle of the night. You’ll have to be cleverer more clever (?) craftier than that if you want to kill me, Australia. You have four more days before I escape this lethal country.

(I wrote the above part earlier but since I haven’t had an internet connection, I’m combining posts).

There are two major rock formations in the Ayers Rock, Uluru and Kata Tjuta. These are sacred locations for the local aboriginal people, so they ask visitors to not climb Uluru, but they haven’t legally restricted access. Uluru is the one you typically see in pictures. I arrived with enough time in the day to watch the sunset at Uluru where they offer complimentary sparkling wine and hors d’oeuvres. I also organized transport to the two rocks sights for the following day.

Remember that night when I drank 10 complimentary sparkling wines in an hour? Funny thing, me neither really but I get the general sense I had a lot of fun. I’m happy to report that someone also turned in my daypack at reception, which contained my passport and camera.  I was still pretty hungover or drunk when the shuttle picked me up at 8:30am, but it was the holiday-mode hangover, not the working-weekend hangover, which, for reasons of perspective, the former tend to be more tolerable, um, comma.  

First attempt at catching the sunset.
There are many different types of people in life when they see natural beauty. Some people want to study it; some people want to put a house on/in it. Others want to take a picture. I’m the type of guy who wants to climb it. So for the entire hike at these rocks I thought about how epic a multi-pitch slab climb it could be.  Unfortunately, the hike at Kata Tjuta wasn’t that spectacular. As soon as you walk into the gorges, the looming grandiose peaks jutting into the vast flat landscape is lost. 

Uluru was more interesting. The rock is bigger, the facets on the rock are more varied and it’s just plain pretty. It was named by an explorer looking for suitable farm land in the 1870s, who found nothing but this rock and named it after the Chief Secretary of South Australia who commissioned his exploration, Sir Henry Ayers, but I doubt Ayers ever saw his rock.  Anyway, I took about a million photos and probably 50% of them are all the same. On a few occasions I took a picture of a cool rock feature, looked away, and by the time I looked back I took an identical picture because I was so excited by the rock features. Since I opted to do the walk around the base of Uluru, I had walked nearly 20 kilometers by the end of the day, my feet were sore, and my body was pretty ripe.

Some perspective. These people are climbing up the ridge that is visible on the most shadowed area of the rock pictured below. 

Sunset of Uluru on the second day. 
I got back to my dorm, showered, cooked dinner and sat down to write this blog post. I'll add a full set of pictures once internet is more reliable. Tomorrow I’m back in Sydney for the weekend and, after an epic flight across the pacific, San Francisco!   

Tuesday, August 21, 2012


I had only three days to spend in Cairns, so as soon as I arrived I organized a guided tour to the Port Douglas area, which meant I’d get to check out the Daintree Rainforest and catch the scenic drive along the Great Barrier Reef. Unfortunately, tourism in Australia involves choking down the outrageous prices, which aren’t even on the same order of magnitude as Asia. Despite that, I surrendered my money under the premise that I wasn’t coming back to Australia anytime soon. (I can't prove it, but I believe the tourism costs are part of Australia’s strategy to push travelers into exploitative low-skill farm jobs).

Afterward I went to grab dinner and check out the rest of town. I hadn’t yet seen Cairns during the day, so my first impression consisted of a small, binge-drinking, kitschy tourist city. Two days later, when I would see it during the day, I realized I had pretty much nailed it. For now though, I made a loop around the city scouting out the restaurants. I finally settled on something familiar from Asia: A Chinese buffet market, all offering the same buffet selections for the same prices, and yet everyone was waiting in line at the shop in the southwest corner. Kafka would be proud.

I stood in the same line waiting for my turn, and reflected on the demographics of the people eating: Mostly older couples or families but some (much) younger travelers than me, mostly obese, and seemingly no solo travelers. I was still getting comfortable in my solo traveler skin, and I realized that the markets in Australia are not the hubs for social interaction that they are in Asia. I’d have to rethink my strategy in meeting people.

Fortunately, this issue was resolved in a “small world” way. I caught the profile of a familiar face from my days at Lafayette College (or rather, from my ex-girlfriend’s days), and I instinctively called out her name to see if I was mistaken.  Sure enough, in two years on the road, I had finally met a friend from my old life in the USA. (Since I didn’t ask her if I could use her name, I’ll refer to her as Lucy). We spent a few minutes to get through formalities and we decided to meet later after I finished dinner at Kafka’s Place.

When I met Lucy and her friend later that evening, we swapped travel stories and impressions on Australia, but the conversation tended to circle back to how freakin’ incredible it was to run into a friend so far from where we first met. I have to admit, it was a great way to settle into the last leg of my travels, and it also reminded me of how much I missed my friends and family from home.  And as nice as it all was, I called it any early night because I had an early pick-up for the tour of the Daintree National Park. It was too expensive not to be well rested.

The shuttle bus that picked me up at 7am was still half full and I chose the only seat that had any semblance of leg room. Seats during a tour tend to be de facto assigned seats, and I was happy with my luck. 15 minutes later, the rest of the bus filled up in one go and I was crammed shoulder-to-window as an overweight, emphysemic man huffed his way into the seat next to me. So much for good luck.

An estuary from the Daintree National Park flowing into the Great Barrier Reef. Our guide informed us that these are the only two UNESCOWorld Heritage sites that are immediately adjacent to each other. 

Over the next 8 hours, I learned that my travel companion was a simpleton, he talked in a lisp (the quantity of teeth in his mouth were a handful shy of enough), his inside voice was closer to a shout than a whisper, whenever possible he shouted bad and off-color jokes in relation to the tour guide’s monologue (bringing admonition from his wife), and his name was Michael. I learned his name from context since I figured asking might lead him to believe I wanted to continue the conversation. At the present moment, the air-conditioned bus hadn’t even started the journey north to Port Douglas and Michael was dripping sweat while struggling to get enough slack in his seatbelt to fit around his waist. Michael was special, maybe clinically.

The problem with guided tours in Australia, often guided tours in general, is that they tend to be over-hyped and gimmicky. The guided tour I was currently on advertised a chance to observe Australian wildlife including the colorful cassowary bird, a scenic view of the coast from the top of a mountain, a boat cruise down a crocodile infested estuary, and a hike through the rainforest. In reality: We visited a bird sanctuary with a petting area for kangaroos and wallabies, the bus driver drove up the mountain and we were given 5 minutes to take pictures from the lookout, we hopped on a rickety boat with a chatty tour guide who pointed out all the wildlife that I deduced is in the same place every day (if it hadn’t moved I would have assumed it was plastic), and we followed a wood-planked walking trail for a few kilometers through the jungle. I more or less expected all this, and took my disappointments in stride.

Look at how cute that eager wallaby is!! 

Someone clever altered the speed bump warning sign.

A young cassowary that snuck up on us during our hike in the woods. 

I’ve added a few pictures to Picasa, here, so you can get a sense of the tour, but my personal highlight was Michael. (I didn't take any pictures of him). When we stopped for lunch Michael was floored with the crocodiles we had seen on the riverbank. “That was probably the second favorite thing I've seen in Australia,” he told the air. And what was his first?! It was “eating lunch while feeding lions and tigers raw meat”. I was fascinated and appalled at the same time. Keep in mind that about an hour earlier, our guide explained that Australia’s rainforests are so old (~50 million years old) that they do not have any large predatory cats or primates. I thought about telling Michael that maybe only half that statement was true on this day, but that seemed mean. 

Talk about slightly optimistic signage when a crocodile "attack may cause injury or death". Only in Queensland. 

In the end, it was a nice tour for a person with a limited amount of time to spend, but I would have rather experienced it on my own at my own pace if I could have. For the next day, I had organized scuba diving in the Great Barrier Reef, and perhaps that would be better. Surely that wouldn't be over-hyped, would it?

Thursday, August 16, 2012

A Bag Packed

On Friday, my co-workers organized a going-away happy hour and dinner for me. The timing coincidentally corresponded to our monthly paycheck deposit, which is usually accompanied with a happy hour, and so it appeared like I was extra special because a lot of people showed up. On top of that, they paid for my drinks and food and picked a venue near my apartment in Sydney, so perhaps, yes, I felt special.

That evening I started what I will call "a wicked bender" of a weekend. It is the type of weekend fueled by the desperation of an individual trying to extract everything fun possible from a city before he leaves it behind. It started tame: Sangria, a margarita, a very dirty martini. (There's a pun in there somewhere, I'm sure). Then a brisk walk to Darling Harbor, a few drinks at a sports bar, and an awkward yet non-threatening moonwalk around a group of nonplussed young ladies. Somehow that turned into gambling at the casino until 5am with two accomplices. That will happen. Fortunately, I won $600 playing Blackjack, which meant I paid for half of my flights around Australia. A similar experience happened again on Saturday night (sans the gambling), woke up a few hours after going to bed to have breakfast with a friend, and then returned home to pack my bag. After five minutes, I gave up and accomplished a nap instead. Packing is hard.

In a sort of awkward arrangement, my last day was a Monday. I said my goodbyes and tried not to think too much about how I would like to stay if circumstances were different (i.e mainly, Australia being closer to eastern USA). I returned to my apartment that afternoon where my first task was to sort my belongings into four piles: Things I will ship home, things I will donate to the salvation army, things I will throw away, and things I will carry around for the next few weeks. I did this apathetically for 30 minutes, gave up and went climbing instead. Somewhere around midnight I summoned the motivation to finished the job, and when it was finished, I crashed on my bed. It was a long previous three days.

So it was early Tuesday morning, the day of my flight to Cairns, that I went to the post office to ship my box of things home. When I plonked the large box on the counter, the postal worker's blank emotionless countenance told me my task would not be so simple. She notified me, with a condescending frown only a disgruntled union worker can give, that the girth of my box was too large. Indeed. I pleadingly asked her if she could find another box in the back room instead of having me purchases multiple tiny boxes (sold for $5 a pop) and have to pay separate shipping charges. She waddled, oh so slowly, to the back room to "look". I imagine her closing the door behind her, counting to 10, and coming out to tell me with a slight nod of the head that, "No, there are no boxes". I wanted to ask if she is always so helpful to customers.

$400 dollars poorer and an agonizing hour of my time stolen from my life, I walked out of the post office to head to the airport. On the walk and train ride there, I realized that I had still over-packed, despite all the things I've learned in two years on the road. To be fair, my pack weighed 13 kilograms at check-in, but I know I can do better for a 2 to 3 week trek -- I just didn't want to worry about not having certain things. (In contrast, when I went to Korea two years ago, it was 22 kilograms). Sometimes piece of mind is worth a few kilograms.

My whirlwind tour of Ozzieland. Keep in mind that Australia is about the size of continental USA.

I'll be flying from Sydney to Cairns to Darwin to Alice Springs, road trip to Uluru, and back to Sydney in less than two weeks. It isn't cheap but at least domestic flying in Australia is sort of what I imagine domestic flying must have been like in the USA during the late 80s and early 90s. In Sydney, no one asked me to take off my shoes. My Pennsylvania driver's license was taken as suitable ID. No one really gave me a "does he look like a terrorist?" once-over evaluation (I have a slight beard mind you). I high-fived the guard as I walked through the metal detector. Well, maybe not that last one.

Three relatively painless hours later (at least compared to the post office in Sydney), I arrived in Cairns. I walked to baggage claim and my friendly green backpack birthed itself through the carousel flaps. I threw it over my shoulders, sinched the straps, and walked toward the shuttle pick up area. Two sliding glass doors parted, a cricket (just one it seemed) chirped quietly nearby, as a gentle evening breeze welcomed me to Cairns. It feels good to be back on the road, I thought to myself.

Oh! And happy birthday Mom!

Sunday, June 24, 2012

It's a Date

I can finally say, with a tinge of sadness and anxiety, that I've bought a plane ticket back to the USA. I will step onto American soil (San Fran to be precise) on August 26th 2012. That's exactly two years to the day from when I quietly hugged my half-asleep sister goodbye in her bed, and crept out to a dark and sleeping city of Boston. In the cab, I pensively looked out the window at the blurry and unexciting scenery to Logan Airport. I tried to convince myself that my shivering was from being under-dressed in the cold wee-hours of the morning and not nerves.

I sometimes think of that person in the taxi on that morning -- That Me. Am I any different from That Me? Would That Me be happy with what I've been doing with the last two years of my life? I definitely don't think That Me would be disappointed, but I can't honestly tell you because I find it hard to think of myself in any way other than what I am right now. The funny thing is that my time of traveling in Asia all seems so distant, like a life I've assimilated into my memory after watching it too many times in a film.

The sky this past Saturday morning was striking and typical for a Winter's day in Australia: cloudless and vibrant blue. I patroned my favorite bakery and, with bread and coffee in hand, strolled down to a nearby park. I found a jungle gym on which to lounge about while I finished my breakfast, reflecting on the fact that my days in Sydney were numbered (and feeling mostly good about that fact).

A group of teenagers decked out in capes and swords were On the playing fields, men were kicking around a rugby football. Near me, an old man let his dog off the leash and the dog did a wild dash that says he has been pent up inside too long. The dog rolled around and delightfully proceeded to military crawl for a few meters back to his owner, apparently unwilling to sever complete contact with the pleasantries of green grass. I think I felt a little like that dog. This was a good morning.

If I could have, maybe I would have bottled that morning into a jar, so I could remember it so clearly in the future. Or maybe I wanted to save those sentiments from that exact moment, because I know its easy to forget how lucky we are, and how exciting and open-ended life's journey really is. Well, Time has a funny habit of moving on and this moment was no exception.

I was broken from my daydream feeling self-conscious and awkward (which is a personality trait I am painfully reminded of on a nearly daily basis). An adult can only play so long on a jungle gym by himself before strange looks follow. I figured I'd do a more normal pursuit and walk around the streets of row houses with no particular direction or stopping point. If there is a motto I've tried to follow while traveling, I'd probably quote from a Dan Bern song, "Sometimes you gotta get lost till you wind up someplace new."

I hadn't thought of that song for a long while -- maybe a year or more -- until I got a text from a friend asking what I was up to at the moment. I replied, "In the process of getting lost somewhere near the football stadium." I queued up that Dan Bern song on my iPod to kick off the walkabout, and set out. A few minutes later, I noticed for the first time that he finishes the song with a variant of the aforementioned lyric, saying "Sometimes you get lost and you don't find something new."

You might think I'm insinuating that my trip has been a trivial enterprise. That would be incorrect. But I am saying, in a really long winded and somewhat contrived, figurative way, that I guess I don't feel I'm any different than That Me in the cab in Boston two years ago. Or if I am, I can't really tell the difference. And I guess it doesn't really matter either way. You, dear reader, may one day soon be the judge.

In an ironic way, the idea of heading home is more daunting than leaving. I left for Korea on a one way ticket with my own means and a flexible itinerary (to get to Europe; Ha!). I'll be coming back with plans of catching up with family and friends, and after that, confronting the existential abyss. It means figuring out a new life again -- one that seems to be calling for a less transient lifestyle -- or figuring out how I'm going to procrastinate that for a while longer. Man, the existential abyss is such a pain in the ass. I think Nietzsche said that.

Anyway, I'm excited for the first phase of being back in the USA! T-minus 63 days!

Monday, April 30, 2012


Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and write down blog ideas once in a while, you might forget what the hell to write about.

I usually know that it's time to make a post -- whether I have an idea or not -- when I find myself day dreaming about stories I want to write. Recently, my day dreaming starts with the image of a woman curled up with a pillow in a French window. She is looking out into a grassy, yellow meadow with a green evergreen forest in the background. The sun is setting behind the trees and there's a gentle cross-breeze in the room.  Sometimes, somewhere, a piano is playing, but it's muffled by walls or distance. (It's cliche, I know,  but it's a nice picture in a nostalgic sort of way). Then I pick a literary genre, piece togeher some details, and try to create a story that might be worth telling. 

Is there a narrator or am I the narrator? Is it a female voice or a male voice? Is the woman young or old? Am I seeing my own house with someone else in it? If yes, how do I fit into the story?  What is this woman feeling? Is the house empty? Who is playing that piano? What song are they playing?  The song always parrots how I imagine the woman feels: It's Fur Elise playing, but just the up-tempo section (that comes after the right handed notes every kid tries to learn so they can pretend that they know how to play piano for about 6 seconds). Then Charlie Chaplin pops out of the woods and the piano is playing the "The Entertainer", but Charlie Chaplin can't be alive SO he must be a zombie and now the pianist is playing Mozart's Requiem and I'm thinking that this woman is never going to survive the Charlie Chaplin zombie apocalypse with such abject observation skills that she could let an entire orchestra and choir sneak into the house without her noticing, not to mention locking the effing door! You're done for, lady! 

Well, I doubt anyone will be surprised to hear I haven't made millions on any book details. Yet.

So day dreaming covers about, uh, say 85% of my life since the last time I posted. Maybe. Maybe not. The other 15% I've spent at work (less so doing work) and starting to get more selective with my friends and acquaintances that I've made over the past two months. (You can never be too picky when you're new in town). Surprisingly, I've made a handful of friends from the New England area (probably a sign I'm missing home or they are just better people).  

My french roommate hitting in the GPS location for an early Saturday morning road trip to wine country. Mind you, the van was full of roses and other assorted flowers for the wedding. No complaints. 

Recently, I updated my tired-looking backpackers' wardrobe (with the help of my gay roommate, as cliche as it sounds), and continue to do so with weekend visits to the Salvation Army one block away. I've explored the extensive parks and gardens in the Sydney CBD area. On an invite from my French roommate, I kept him company on an overnight trip to the wine county of Orange where he was the florist-decorator for a wedding. Afterward, we sampled the local cellars.  I visited the Blue Mountain National Park and a set of nearby caves. I saw a platypus in the wild  (sorry if you already know this, but I repeat it because I'm proud of it). I went canyoning with a co-worker through a narrow, sun-warmth blocking canyon. And although I didn't see a Sydney Funnel-web spider, I thought about it sneaking up on me the whole time -- that is, until my core temperature got so cold from the water that I couldn't feel my limbs. 

My roommate's flower set up for the dinner table. 
Wine country in sunny Australia!

I've started climbing frequently at Sydney's Indoor Rock Gym, and I'm smashing it despite the fact that the route setters are friendly graders. I met up with a climbing friend from Perth and I pieced together a 26 (5.12b) at the rock gym. At the same time I was graced by my girlfriend who traveled 50 hours (round-trip flying time) to spend a mere week with me. That's purely a sign of her greatness, not mine. 

I've done the touristy stuff. The zoo: classy, well-arranged, nice variety of animals who look and act happy. The aquarium: Nothing special. Save your money. The casino: Don't go unless you plan on winning. Opera house: Sort of cool, but I would like to get back to something in the main concert hall. The Sydney Harbor Bridge: A nice walk with a view if you like windy bridges. Bondi beach: Where I ate my first deep-fried Mars bar. It's touristy but oddly alluring. Manly beach: Some good hikes around the national park, as long as you don't get lost.  I've hopped around the town from wild clubs to high class bars to dives to the gay clubs in "The Slurry". On ANZAC (Australian New Zealand Army Corps) Day, I played two-up and won thirty dollars. 

The ANZAC bridge looking into the Sydney Harbor. 
Fresh sashimi from the fish market in Sydney. 

My roommate is helping me to attain a beginner+ level in piano. Currently, I can play both hands of Jingle Bells. But only the chorus. And it's a kid's version. I sometimes try to improve my french. This typically consists of my french roommate teaching me bad words to call women as we drive to the rock gym. I met the friends of the biker in the video below, who seemly want to pick a fight with me because I was wearing a helmet and riding a road bike (with "skinny tires"). I smiled, got my beer and then filmed this from a higher, farther vantage point. 

So things are good in Sydney. I highly recommend a visit if you ever have the chance. And if it is in the next four months and you're on a traveler's budget, you can sleep at the foot of my bed in a tiny, tiny room. 

But seriously, who is playing that piano?

Monday, March 12, 2012

Sydney, New Apartment, Mardi Gras

I flew into Sydney after a heavy storm had recently cleared. The plane rolled hard to the right for the approach and I, with a window seat, took in a birds-eye view of my new city for the first time. Suburban sprawl bled into denser residential housing into light commercial buildings and finally into jutting skyscrapers at the center. Brooklyn Bridge-esque sandstone towers anchored the north Sydney suburbs to the heart of the city and in between lay the Sydney Harbor bustling with ferries and sail boats. The Sydney Opera House -- smaller than I expected but catching the eye like a diamond -- conspicuously glistened in the clean, post-storm gleam of the setting sun. Talk about a grand first impression.

I had spent a lot of time looking at Sydney from Google maps, and roughly deduced the plane's location. I was quick enough to realize I was probably looking at a commercial building that would soon be my haunt eight hours a day, five days a week, for the next six months. What would my life be like here? What does Sydney have to offer?

I took a double-decker train from the airport to CBD (central business district), and then a bus to the apartment I had found from Gumtree searches when I was still in Perth. I met my quirky home owners, Maurice (ex-pat, British, age 63, semi-retired, slightly obsessive compulsive) and Alice (age 45, Chinese immigrant, hairdressing shop owner, chatty and fiery). They introduced me to my room in the detached in-law flat I'd be sharing with a Chinese university student. When I say detached flat, I mean a renovated garage. Unsurprisingly, the kitchen was outside under a covered patio. I sat outside with the owners as we got to know each other, and a rat ran across the one of the beams of the pergola. Alice exclaimed in stilted English, "I never seen that before!" One hour into my short-term lease and I was sure I needed to find a new place sooner than later.

During the first night, I was disturbed intermittently by some sort of rodent scampering in the ceiling. It didn't take much to imagine what sort of rodent it would be. I brought this up to Alice the next evening, and she said curly-tailed possums are notorious for nesting in ceilings, but they aren't a big problem. Okay, whatever. I started my search for a new apartment that evening. A few evenings later, while I sat at my desk, I heard scampering directly above the ceiling. A piece of the drywall spackle fell away from the edge where the ceiling mated with the wall. I looked up to see a dark brown rat tail hanging down from the hole. Yeah, try to fall asleep with that image in your mind. Good luck.

This time, when I told Alice, she listened. The next day she installed an ultra-sonic rat alarm, which surprisingly worked, and they had a contractor stop by to quote a price to fix the problem permanently. Fortunately for me, I had been proactive in finding a new apartment, and would move into my new place by the end of the second week of work.

Fast forward five days. (Whitney Houston died. The owners bicker about petty things. Every night, Whitney Houston music plays on a stereo system through a blown speaker).

With little fan-fair on a Friday after work, I packed my boxes and backpack, and hailed a cab to take me to my new row house apartment in the inner-city suburb of Surry Hills. (The cabi's licence was alpha-numeric and there were no dice in the mirror. He was from Bangladesh, if you were curious). I had only visited this part of the city once, which was during the room showing on a late night weekday. Now, on a bustling Friday early evening, I got to see it in a new light. Night clubs were setting up for the weekend debauchery and trendy clothing stores were closing down. A small number of street-level shops had seedy looking neon signs in front of inconspicuous staircases. Bars, cafe's and restaurants were full of people of all ages enjoying society. While I'm painting you a picture with words, there seemed to be a noticeable amount of well groomed men wearing tight fitting clothing and speaking in flamboyant accents.

Jason welcomed me with a formal tour of the house. He had taken care of everything so I could move right in: clean room, clean bed sheets, a shelf in the closet for shoes (and yes, I need a full shelf), cabinet for my food, two shelves in the frig, and a cabinet in the bathroom for toiletries. He suggested I unpack and then offered a tour of the essential shops nearby. So I did just that. As I learned the location of two grocery stores, Salvation Army, straight clubs, gay clubs, liquor stores for wine, liquor stores for beer, and bus stops, I got to know my new roommate better (I also live with a French guy and his Thai girlfriend).

During the house showing I had learned that Jason is from Malaysia, he's gay and works as an accountant in the city. While walking around the street, he laughed at me as I asked him if Surry Hills had a large gay community. He basically said Surry Hills is the heart of it. Sydney seems to be is a very gay friendly city though.

At some point during that walk, Jason asked me if I wanted to join him and some friends in the Mardi Gras. I agreed then basically out of a principle that my friend in Perth once put to words regarding living in a Western country like a traveler: Say yes to all new opportunities, because they usually end up being great experiences. Well, the Mardi Gras parade was one of those things I didn't feel comfortable with -- not because I assumed I'd be dressed in a hyper-skimpy outfit in public (which is really the best part) -- but because thousands of people would be intently watching each float that goes by and secondly, the parade was being broadcast internationally. With a debilitating fear of being the center of public attention, I'd have been equally as nervous as a driver of a float.

Between that Friday and the next Saturday, I got ready for the parade. First, Jason mentioned that he liked to style hair, and I mentioned that I liked to get free haircuts. When my trendy haircut was all finished, he gave me styling tips for how to use gel. Then he looked at my patchy chest hair, waved an open hand in the general area, and said, "You're gonna have do something with all this before the parade." Two days later he was shaving my chest and giving me instructions on how to do it without getting ingrown hairs. There was one night during the week where I met Jason's friends and we brainstormed about costumes trying to incorporate the float theme colors of red, white and black.

The float theme was "Muslims Against Homophobia". I mentioned this to a few people, and if they didn't say it out loud, then I read it in their faces: Um, are you crazy? I assumed they were trying to estimate about how many people in the world hated me. I would then have to explain that the float needed volunteers and, depending on how hard the guy was coming onto me, that I was neither. Anyway, I personally preferred our sign that read "Queer Muslims Need Acceptance". That's a message a little easier on the ears.

On the morning of the parade, I walked to the Asian market and picked through some of the women's clothing stores. I found some white daisy duke shorts, and striped white-and-red socks. I would pair that with suspenders I'd be borrowing and a star-print handkerchief.  Finally, I thought I'd paint on a lightning bolt over my eye a la Ziggy Stardust.

Jason's friends came over at 3pm and we spent the next 3 hours getting ready. My lightning bolt idea turned into a star to stick with the theme of the handkerchief and I added a few more in some risque places. Everyone else had rocked the color theme well.

The final product. The gay turned up to 11. 

From left to right, me (I'm the fat one), Jason, Florian (my other roommate, the florist), Susan, Yens, and Alan.  During the parade, everyone was cat calling for the two on the right. 

We arrived at the parade around 5pm but the first float didn't launch until 8pm. It had been overcast all day, and soon it was raining and cold. We were all a little under dressed, to say the least, and our float was scheduled for the last half of the parade. After a long time of huddling under a bus stop awning, the marching director of our float, a militant drag queen, arranged us in three's and two's and made us practice a dance routine to a Shakira remix. And then we were off.

At the back of the pack, anything resembling order quickly fell apart and we ended up free form dancing (well, you could call it dancing for the others; my technique is often classified as awkward shaking), waving, screaming, and running around to our adoring fans. It was pretty amazing how much warmer the street was when we got to the spot lights and big crowds (and the television cameras, which I ignored). The rain let up too, but I got the impression that the crowd was a little more subdued than previous years.

Forty-five minutes later, and it was over. There was an after party concert with RuPaul and Kylie Minogue, and we lost a few of our group. The remainder of us went out for Thai food in the Kings Cross area. The streets were a sea of people, but I would only be a spectator for the night. I was happy to have survived a very public event and have a set of friends for a unique welcome to Sydney.