Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Melbourne and the Prom (Australia: Melbourne/Wilson's Promontory: 22-26 July 2007, Written 26 July 2007)

Sunday morning, 7am. Got ready for Wilson's Promontory and met Alisdair. Picked up Keriann then we headed to Alisdair's in Dandenong to load up the car. Although we were going for just a night, we had heaps of food, blankets, sleeping bags, etc etc etc. We arrived mid-afternoon at Wilson's Promontory. Admittedly my expectations had been built up due to lots of different people telling me how great it was. I had been drifting off to sleep in the back when Alisdair spotted an emu - how exciting! Thus far, the only emus I had seen were in Wanganella after Susan and I had driven around in the ute for a good 45 minutes searching for them.

We continued on and went to Tidal River campground to pitch the tent and get oriented. We were just in time to hike up Mt. Oberon for a sunset view. This walk was quite montonous and boring, as it was just a wide road that went uphill, turned a corner, went uphill again, turned, and... you get the point. What we were awarded with was phenomenal. The Prom, as it's known, is the southernmost point of mainland Australia. It is surrounded to the south, east, and west by endless water. Antarctica is, it seems, not very far away. We sat on rocks watching the sun setting over the ocean and the expanse of small islands, bays, and inlets was breathtaking. It was extremely windy so the walk back in the dark was a bit cold but worth it.

We got back to the campground and Alisdair made dinner - lentil pasta bolognese. Looked like dog food but tasted great. I had read in a brochure that wombats, emus, and kangaroos were commonly spotted at the Prom, in addition to heaps of birds, and I had been excited by the kookaburras and parrots that had quickly appeared at Tidal River. As we went to the car to pick up supplies, I heard something on the grass nearby, and my eyes could vaguely make out a dark figure on the ground. A wombat! I was really really really excited. Australia Zoo was the first time I had ever seen a wombat, and I was instantly enamored. With a name like wombat, how could you not be? I didn't want to get too close and I quickly turned on the torch; he seemed slightly alarmed and waddled off in another direction. At the cooking area, opossums started appearing out of nowhere. They look quite different to their North American counterparts and have long, bushy tails, and these ones were dark brown. They were mildly aggressive but ran away - I wasn't in the mood to share food.

It was pretty unbelievable how quickly the temperature dropped. During the afternoon I had been comfortable in a long sleeved shirt, and as the sun went down you could feel the air becoming chilled, and the winds picked up a bit. A few more wombats wandered around the area eating the grass, and we did our best with numb fingers to wash dishes and we were ready for bed. Keriann and I were sleeping in the car and Alisdair was staying in the tent. Keriann and I stayed up for a few hours chatting away and gradually warmed up a bit.

We had a late start in the morning and had a big breakfast of porridge, baked beans, eggs, toast, and cereal. Hmm. We went down to Tidal River and wandered around a bit. We continued up to several different lookouts, bays, and beaches where we got a good idea of how we were situated and the sense of how we really were at the end of the world. It was beautiful.

We didn't stick around too long and we headed back towards Melbourne. Stopped in Fish Creek for some greasy takeaway, and didn't stop again until we got to Alisdair's house. That night, we went down to Fitzroy to have $4 pizzas at Bimbo's and then to Rainbow Hotel to hear a jazz band. Greg, who I had been in touch with nearly a year ago, came to meet us briefly. Exhausted, we finished up early that night.

Tuesday was my outing with Angie. We walked all over St. Kilda with Aiden, part of the time me pushing him along. I really love this part of Melbourne, it is so aesthetically beautiful, right along the water with several cute streets packed with pubs, cafes, restaurants, and shops. We went down on the esplanade and up to St. Kilda Baths, where there is also a restaurant called Soul Mama. It is a vegetarian place and if this was how all vegetarian meals tasted, I bet not many people would have such a hard time cutting meat out of their diets. The way the system worked was that you paid a set amount for a bowl, and that would give you a certain number of dishes, with rice. Angie and I both had the 4 dish bowl, and I filled it with creamy mushroom and white beans, potato salad with aioli and pumpkin, seasonal stirfried vegetables, and a catalan vegetable pasta. She had grilled curry mushrooms, a lentil and pea curry, season vegetables, and malaysian noodles. Fantastic. All while having a gorgeous view over the water.

Later that afternoon I headed to Rosanna to meet Declan. It's out in the suburbs and a stark contrast to the variety of things available in Central Melbourne. We cooked a yummy stirfry and rented a DVD, with lime and black pepper potato chips (my favorite Australian flavor so far) and raspberry Tim Tams. This was my first exposure to the ubiquitous Tim Tams. Not bad.

Wednesday morning we lounged about until I headed back to Melbourne just after lunch. I went to a few cafes in the CBD, St. Jeromes on Caledonian Ave. was a hip little place where people were clearly there to see and be seen. I then was pretty frustrated by the speed of public transport so walked all the way to Fitzroy to meet Greg.

Greg is one of those special ones. I had emailed him nearly a year ago when he was living in Osaka but it turned out I was too late - by the time I got in touch with him he had already left Japan and was travelling in China, headed to India. He mentioned then that if I ever came to Melbourne I should look him up. So I did. He was not feeling well at all but was kind enough to meet me, and we just went back to his house and had a good chat. He lives in a beautiful old house that was originally built over a hundred years ago. Felt even older than the house at Wanganella! It was refreshing to have a honest, straight conversation about so many different things - living abroad, multiculturalism and what it means in different contexts, immigration laws, fear, politics, etc. etc. It was really great to talk to someone who knew policies in Australia and we could compare with both Japan and the US. I was pretty astonished to hear about some of the refugee stories and how Australia's policy is to either set them up in camps in the desert or ship them off the remote island such as Naoru, a place I had never even heard of but with a funny history in and of itself. We went to have dinner at Dante's on Brunswick Street, it was yummy. Food in Melbourne is pretty fantastic. Anyway, hung out a bit more then I decided I should let him get his work done/rest and off I went.

Hung out at home for a bit then got totally engrossed in the book I'm currently reading, The Glass Palace by Amitav Ghosh. It intertwines stories in Burma, India, and Malaya over a century, including the World Wars with Japanese involvement and it's an epic novel. Makes me want to go to India and certainly return to Burma.

Today Angie, Aiden, and I went to Queen Victoria Market up in the CBD and we bought heaps of fruits, veggies, and other delights like olives and cheese, mmm. I had a Turkish lunch and fresh juice and we quickly left before I could consume more. I got dropped off at the pool and I went for a relaxing mindless swim, until I got back. And here I am.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Melbourne Part I (Australia: Melbourne: 19-21 July 2007, Written 21 July 2007)

It has been nonstop full on since I arrived in Melbourne. On the 19th, Susan and I left Aireys Inlet at 8am and we headed towards the city that I'd flown into but hadn't seen yet. We arrived after 10am in St. Kilda and went to see Angie and her 5-month old, Aiden. Aiden looks startlingly similar to his father, Mark. It was spooky! We chatted for a bit then Susan kindly took me to Dandenong where I was meeting Alisdair, a CS contact that truly embodies what the project is all about. I was exhausted so I took a quick nap before we headed off.

That afternoon we went all over the Dandenong Ranges National Park - the weather wasn't great, with intermittent rain, but we didn't let it bother us and we explored a variety of places. We stopped by Emerald Lake and saw the Puffing Billy, a steam train that's mainly just there for tourists but fun nevertheless; we checked out the Alfred Nicholas Gardens, which was breathtaking in this manicured yet natural layout with rainforest and eucalypt forest; and we got to the Mt. Dandenong Lookout, which offered views over Melbourne and was really impressive.

I headed in to the city on the train, and so I was alone and on public transport the first time I got to see central Melbourne; perfect. My immediate thought was that it was just like San Francisco; its location by the water, in my opinion the area around Flinders Street Station is just like the Market Street area in SF, and the bohemian alternative food/drink/nightlife vibe of the city is so nostalgic - I love it.

I went to Bimbo's to meet Conor and Joao, for our pre-CS meeting meeting. This cute pub/restaurant has $4 pizzas on Sun-Thurs, and they're yummy. A great deal and great atmosphere, smack bang in the middle of Brunswick Street, one of the main nightlife centres of town. Met a few others there then we headed over to Polly for the meeting I had arranged. It was a good turnout for a weeknight, probably about 12 people. Polly was awesome - red velour furniture, chandeliers, old wooden pieces, and a killer cocktail list. It's shocking how overpriced cocktails are in Australia but sometimes you just have to bite the bullet and drink (haha that sounds horrible). Had some really great chats with people and decided it was the best way I could have spent my first night in Melbourne.

A few of us headed over to Bar Open, drank more, then Lee, Conor, and I went to Souvlaki King...mmm. I haven't had anything resembling that since I arrived in Japan almost 2 years ago. Fantastic. Lee drove me home in the cold rain; he struck me immediately, a really tall, lanky guy that just exuded thoughtfulness and a bit artistic and I don't really know what else but it was instant. He leaves for Germany in a few days which is unfortunate as I would have loved to have more time to get to know him better, but such is life.

On Friday, I met Declan in St. Kilda. Declan - how to describe? Irish, soulful, hilarious, kind, curious, inquisitive, one of my favorite people I had in Japan. We did a bunch of walking around St. Kilda and got lunch at Lentil is Anything, a vegetarian restaurant that is "Pay as you Feel" - there is a donation box and you give however much you felt that the food and experience was worth. We had the 3 curry platter which could have fed a family, and yes, we finished it all ;)

Acland Street is one of the main spots in St. Kilda and I really like it; lots of cafes, restaurants, pubs, shops, it's near the water, it feels a bit like Venice Beach and it just oozes laid-backness. It's good.

I hung out with Angie a bit in the afternoon and then went up to Brunswick Street again to meet Bec. Bec is an accountant for Intrepid, and she came on one of my trips to Japan. We met at Bar Open and after chatting for awhile went to Labor in Vain, also on Brunswick Street. Lee from the previous night was going to be there, and perhaps some other CSers, and Bec's mates from Intrepid were there as well. A good few hours of banter and beer.

I then headed to St. Kilda to meet Luke, and his CS friend Simon at the Village Belle on Acland Street. Both guys had spent much of the past 2 years living in South America so it was a refreshing break from the really-not-Latin America vibe of Australia - not that there's anything wrong with that anyway. We then went to Velado, which didn't really do it for me, being a bit of a yuppie nightclub, then over to the Espy. The Espy is great; free live music every night, a really eclectic crowd, and it's located right on the water in St. Kilda. I stayed as long as I could keep me eyes open and headed back.

Saturday was a lazy morning at home, then I went to Southbank as I was going to the footy with Sue and family. When I arrived at their flat, I learned that Sue and Ian had hit an emu on the road and their daughter Emily had gone to pick them up; Sarah, Emily's flatmate, had stuck around for me and so we went on a walk through the city. We walked along Southbank, up to Flinders Street, Bourke Street, Collins Street, and all that CBD stuff - tall high-rise buildings, shops, shops, and more shops, mainly of the mainstream variety, and restaurants and cafes. I had a Koko Black chocolate which made me very very happy (thanks Sarah!)

Got some lunch at Lord of the Fries just outside of Flinders Street Station, a chips place that has international sauces - we had the garlic aioli - yum. We then met Emily and went down to the MCG. Wow! - what an experience. The Melbourne Cricket Ground is huge, and holds nearly 100,000 people. The game we went to was Collingwood vs. Essendon. AFL, Australian Football, or footy as it's commonly referred to, is something like a religion here in Oz. It's shocking how obsessed people are with their teams, being raised from a very young age to support their teams; infants, toddlers, children, adolescents, parents, and grandparents all decked out in jerseys, scarves, flags, hats, whatever, with their team colors. There were about 60,000 people there today and it was great to see how into it everyone was.

After the game ended, we walked back and Sue and I did a walk-through of Crown Casino, which was just like Las Vegas, then I headed back home. Angie had prepared an absolutely gorgeous paella with chicken, prawns, sausage, mussels, and fish and we feasted. Stayed in tonight to recover from the past two nights, both financially and physically, also because I'm headed off early in the morning to Wilson's Promontory with Alisdair and Keriann.

My impressions of Melbourne are contradictory and perhaps a bit odd. It had been built up a lot before me getting here; Victorians and Melbourne people are extremely proud of their home and a huge number of them will claim that they live in the best city in the world. In many ways, I agree that it is a wonderful city. There is a lot of green space, and there is no doubt that the music scene, culinary scene, and nightlife is vibrant, eclectic, and of a very high quality. It's certainly a very livable city. But for some reason, it's not making me want to stay here forever. Not that that's a bad thing at all; I just suspected that it may have had that effect on me. We'll see, as I still have over a week in the area. People have definitely been friendly and I've met a good number of great Australians and other nationals, and been in some really funky, atmospheric restaurants and bars. A good start for sure. I also really love being with Angie, Mark, and Aiden and their home really just feels like home.

I also decided that I'm going to Tasmania to see Chris and Jeff; when they were in Japan in June I told them I didn't think it was doable this trip both due to my limited time and the wrong season (bloody freezing in Tasmania in winter eh?) but I started thinking about it and how I may not be able to head back this way for quite some time after this current trip and I decided I'd regret it. So, I head over to Tas from 31 July to 4 August. Can't wait.

On that note, I really must get some sleep so I can stay awake for the breathtaking scenery tomorrow.

The Great Ocean Road (Australia: Victoria: Great Ocean Road: 16-18 July 2007, Written 18 July 2007)

Monday morning – Sue and I went to take the dogs for a walk in the crisp morning breeze. Had some grapefruit fresh off the tree then there wasn't time for much else before going back into town to meet Susan. We arrived right on time at 9.30am and the handover was completed.

Susan and I went through the ever-changing weather heading south towards Melbourne. We passed through the Macedon Ranges, mountains set behind rolling green hilly farmland, with leaves changing color and falling to the ground. We passed through several “Avenues of Honor”, rows of deciduous trees shedding their leaves, which had originally been planted in memoriam for the soldiers who had fought for Australia in past wars.

We arrived in Geelong, where Susan and the other Wallaces had been to boarding school, so we made a quick visit to the Victorian school by the sea, and I marveled at how different our lives had been growing up, and we had somehow managed to cross paths. We stopped by a shopping mall and had delicious kebabs, stopped off at a supermarket to pick up supplies for the next few days and off we went. It was a gorgeous afternoon so we stopped at Torquay, home to the famed Bells Beach where surfing competitions are held because the waves rolling in are oh-so-perfect and dauntingly high. Despite the sunlight the harsh wind made it stingingly cold and we didn’t spend too long.

We then drove through Aireys Inlet, where Susan’s aunt has a holiday home by the beach that she was kindly letting us stay in. We went to the lighthouse which sticks out on a piece of land that juts out from the coast, and continued on a bit further to the Great Ocean Road sign. We then headed back to Aireys, went down to the beach for twilight, cooked dinner and had an early night.

The Great Ocean Road is a must-see for most visitors to Australia. It technically starts just before Lorne and continues to Peterborough. This several hundred kilometer stretch of road was built between 1919 and 1932 in order to provide jobs for soldiers who had returned from overseas and found no work to come home to. This was the government’s way of keeping them busy. The road varies in distance from the ocean; at times you are hugging the cliff, and precariously winding along the coastline, and at other times, between Apollo Bay and Port Campbell, you go several miles inland and drive through farmland, then rainforest, then eucalypt forest; all alternating so quickly you can’t believe that there can be this many gradations of vegetation within such a short span of time and space.

Tuesday morning we headed off before 7am; it was still dark. It was also freezing and pouring rain. We drove past Lorne and really couldn't see much, then we decided that since we had all day on Wednesday maybe it made more sense to go back home, wait to see what the weather did, then start again in the afternoon. We got back home before 9 and slept til 11. We had a quick lunch and off we went. I’ve been told before that Melbourne can have 4 seasons in one day, and although I’ve spent time in other cities that do the same, like San Francisco, I didn’t really know what to expect. Well, now I know that it’s true, as it was bright sunshine, next minute hail, next minute rain, to clouds, to sun – all within 10 minutes. The whole day was a cycle of this, but it made things extremely photogenic so neither of us minded. We made several stops at lookouts, and of course got to the Twelve Apostles. There are now only 9 left, as 3 of them have fallen over, but they are still quite impressive. They are rocks that stand just off the coastline, and rise up like free-standing cliffs, withstanding the giant waves that come crashing in against them. It was hailing when we were there but the giant stormy seas were magnificent, and more than enough to inspire awe for how perfect and powerful nature is.

We decided to continue on further, and got all the way to the Bay of Islands, near Peterborough. Similar in some ways to the Twelve Apostles, this bay has more than a dozen small islands just offshore, and again the nasty weather provided dramatic waves and light. Just after that, the weather got better so we got some shots of the rocks from the other side in sunlight, and laughed as we discussed how we got better photos in the rain. We were driving back and decided to make a quick stop at the Twelve Apostles, just as impressive, rain or shine. We got back after dark and had an early night.

Today we had an early start and decided to spend the day going a bit slower, taking the time to look around and doing some of the fantastic walks in the area. We got down to Maits Rest, just past Apollo Bay. This 30 minute walk goes through ancient rainforest and is breathtaking; dozens of ferns amidst giant gum trees, fungi growing everywhere, birds fluttering about…not what you normally expect near the beach. We then decided to head to Cape Otway as it looked really beautiful on the map; we arrived and discovered we would have to pay entry fees to even get near the lighthouse so we decided against it and went to the Great Ocean Walk instead. We didn’t head too far, just up the hill to get a nice view over the lighthouse and headed back.

We were going back towards Apollo Bay to get lunch and decided to stop in at Maits Rest again and walk the loop the other way to get a different view. It was much sunnier the second time through as well and it didn't feel like a waste at all. The forest has so many details and so many hidden twists and turns and corners that it is constantly changing.

We arrived in Apollo Bay and were searching for the best, decently priced, fresh fish and chips we could find. I hadn’t had any fish and chips since arriving in Australia and what better place to try it than the Great Ocean Road? We found a Seafood CafĂ© that had several elderly people in it that looked like locals – excuse the un-PC-ness but they looked too old to be tourists, especially because they were along – and that usually means it’s well-priced and tasty. We headed in.

What we got was delicious. A piece of barramundi and a piece of flake, one beer-battered and the other crumbed, and some chips. Totally exceeded my expectations of fish and chips and I was tempted for more, but resisted. Ahh.

We were debating what to do with the afternoon so stopped in at the info center – the info centers along the Great Ocean Road are wonderful, with loads of maps and free information on walks, beach, tours, accommodation, etc – and decided to head to Beech Forest to check out some walks. On the way up from Skenes Creek, where you turn off the Great Ocean Road, we stopped by Marriners Lookout. A steep climb through private property lead you to astounding views of Apollo Bay and Cape Patton. These two inlets right next to each other, with layer after layer of wave rolling in are brilliantly picturesque, with views following the rugged outline of the continent.

We continued on, turning on to the unsealed road towards Beech Forest, meandering through rainforest with a high canopy and enormous ferns growing from the ground. We passed by the Otway Fly, where you can go on a walkway through the trees, and continued onto Triplet Falls. This one hour walk was gorgeous, again through the rainforest and leading to a set of 3 waterfalls gushing down with a plethora of water due to the high rainfall recently. Susan was great at spotting small details and she found some tiny tiny blue mushrooms which I’d never seen before.

We decided to head home after that, and went all the way back to Aireys. That was just a few hours ago and now I’m exhausted and happy and miss living by the ocean and am very excited that over the next several months I’ll be spending plenty of time near a coast.

I’m headed into Melbourne tomorrow which is exciting, it will actually be the first time I spend time in an Australian city as I didn’t get out in Brisbane and I haven’t been to Melbourne yet as I went straight up to Deniliquin when I flew in. 2 weeks of the Oz trip finished; feels like a lot longer and lot shorter at the same time. It always does.

The Meeting of the Waters (Australia: Echuca: 15 July 2007, Written 15 July 2007)

It’s not a great feeling to wake up and be cold – I really hate it. I think it has to do with my teeth clenching and your muscles get really tense. Well, that's how Sunday morning was. It’s ok though, I spent some time being really lazy, editing photos etc. Had some breakfast then Susan brought me down to Echuca to meet Sue.

Sue came on one of the gourmet trips in Japan and she is a lovely woman, a doctor in this small town of 15,000 people located 2.5 hours north of Melbourne. Echuca is an aboriginal word that means meeting of the rivers or waters, and Echuca is indeed where they meet; the Murray and Campespe meet, and it was an important point in transporting goods to Melbourne during the gold rush in the 1850s. Goods would be brought by river to Echuca, then transferred onto trains that would then do the journey into Melbourne.

We went for a stroll along the Murray, then along to the cute old fashioned part of town with old buildings and shops. We had lunch at a lovely little place overlooking the river called Oscar W’s – an eclectic menu including middle eastern appetizers, a variety of meats and seafood, and plenty of exotic vegetables mixed in. We then headed onto a touristy paddlesteamer, the P.S. Emmylou, that is a restored boat running on steam that shows tourists today how it used to be in the good ol’ days. It was a lovely afternoon, and we drifted slowly upstream passing by huge red river gum trees with their roots fully exposed due to the ongoing drought in the region. Cockatoos and galahs flew overhead while a plethora of ducks, cormorants, and other water birds went along their business in the river.

After that, we had a little driving tour of the town and visited Sue’s parents. They live in a gorgeous house designed by Fiona, Sue’s sister who was also on the trip to Japan. The backyard was lovely, going down to the Campespe River and wisteria vines draped across archways. We headed home after that.

Sue lives with her husband Ian at Cape Horn Vineyard, located 15 minutes out of Echuca. They grow 6 varieties of grapes to produce 13 different kinds of wine; it’s a small property, relatively speaking – about 20 acres of vines. She showed me around the place and we took their lovely dogs walking out back where there were plenty of kangaroo tracks, distinctive due to the long middle toe. Cape Horn gets its name because the Murray River turns there in the same shape as the Cape in South America that it’s named after. We walked around that bend in the river down to a campground and headed back.

A lovely evening started by some nibbles that I haven’t had in ages – or never at all; soft farmhouse cheese, quince paste, beetroot hummus, tzatziki, and olives, all served with grissini and crunchy crackers and potato crisps – ahh how nice to visit someone who had been on a gourmet tour in Japan! And, of course, a bottle of homegrown Cabernet Sauvignon – quite tasty.

I drifted off to have a quick nap next to the fire and Prince, the beautiful black lab, and woke up just in time for dinner – Osso buco beef with stewed carrots, celery, and onion, mashed potatoes, and green beans. And yes, more wine. Dessert was a gorgeous rhubarb and apple crumble with King Island cream; once again, all the Aussies who had advised me on the qualities of anything made on King Island were correct.

A full and enjoyable day, another glimpse into Australian life that makes me think, yup, I could live in this country.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

The Middle of Nowhere (Australia: Deniliquin/Wanganella: 11-14 July 2007, Written 14 July 2007)

I arrived at Tullamarine, the airport in Melbourne, and Susan was waiting there. It was just like yesterday that we had seen each other. We hopped in the car for the 4 hour drive to Deniliquin. It was a beautiful drive, flat rural landscape with green everywhere, heaps of galahs and rosellas on the side of the road (these are beautiful native birds, the first being grey and pink, the latter a rainbow of red, yellow, blue, green, and purple) – it was refreshing to see so much green. Despite the decade long drought that most of Australia has been experiencing, there had been some rainfall earlier this month that had helped make things green, at least for awhile.

We got to Deniliquin, population 8000, and met Sarah at her house. After chatting and catching up we had dinner and then we did the half hour drive to Wanganella, population 30. I don’t remember the last time I’ve been anywhere with population 30 – it was lovely. The night sky was so bright, and we didn’t pass any cars for the whole trip. I knew that the Wallaces owned a farm, called North Run, but had no concept of how large it was. 14,000 acres, she said, very casually. And the other property is about double that. I don't think I could even fathom how large that was. Thus I was welcomed to North Run. A beautiful old house, built in 1902, with a cozy fire going in several rooms of the house, with bedrooms equipped with electric blankets – what more could I ask for? I was about as far from Tokyo as I could ever imagine. Headed off to bed at about 9pm as we were going to catch the sunrise on Thursday.

I received a wakeup call from Susan at 6.30am and shivering, got dressed and grabbed my camera. We jumped into a ute and headed across the property, passing by sheep and cows to a nice spot on top of a small hill. Unfortunately, it was quite cloudy so the sunrise wasn't great; we headed back quite quickly. After breakfast, I met the other members of the family – Mum, Dad, John, and 8 dogs. Yup, 8 dogs. If that sounds like a lot of animals, how about 10,000 sheep and approximately 200 cows? I couldn't believe it.

We went to pick up some bicycles from next door neighbors – a 5 minute drive – and then to another neighbor – another 5 minutes to another neighbor to pump up tires, then headed to a lane on the property for a test run. Susan, Sarah, and I had gone on a 15km bike ride in the countryside in Okayama Prefecture, Japan, so it was good fun to get back on the bikes. We had a delicious homemade vegetable soup for lunch, then we jumped back in the ute to go look for some wildlife in the area. There were dozens of kangaroos around, that would start jumping away as fast as they could (which is quite fast) as soon as they heard the ute coming, because they’re really not used to seeing people or vehicles. There were many species of birds, my favorites being the galahs, which have light pink and dark pink feathers combined with a light grey.

We also stopped by the Wanganella store, which is a combination of post office, general store, take away, restaurant, and phone center. A baby kangaroo, called a joey, had been found about a month earlier and Sonia, the owner of the store, had adopted him. Max, the baby, was brought out from his pouch and I got to feed him his kangaroo milk. Kangaroos are really fascinating animals. Their tails are so long and strong; thick, and you can feel how solid the bones in it are. Their ears are large, and their hands are tiny compared to the size of their legs and feet. The hands have 5 pronounced fingers, very similar in structure to a human. The feet only have 3 toes, and the middle one is very pronounced and long. The feet are enormous, and the legs, what we would call the thigh, is so disproportionately large. Makes sense, considering that they stand upright and are using their tails to balance and their huge lower bodies to propel themselves forward.

We headed off for a beautiful sunset view, then got home to have Mum’s traditional lamb roast. My goodness; I’ve actually in the past not been the biggest fan of lamb as it tends to have a smell about it, but this was absolutely delicious. The meat as well as the vegetables, a cauliflower melt, roast pumpkin, potato, sweet potato, onions, and carrots, were delectable – as well as the apple puffs, ice cream, and homemade custard that followed. After a few games of dominos, it was straight to bed.

Friday morning, we got up for sunrise again – it was better – and went home and made breakfast. I had my first experience of actually doing something productive on a farm, as we were mustering rams that morning. There are about 100 rams on the farm, and they needed to be gathered that morning because there was someone coming to look at them to determine which ones to sell, which ones to keep, etc etc etc. Mum came around on a 4 wheeler, Susan and I were in the ute, and Jay, Mum’s working dog, ran skillfully behind the sheep to get them in the right place. We prepared the gates beforehand and followed behind as the sheep went forward dutifully. Sheep are so interesting; there is a saying that says “don’t just follow like sheep”, and in fact, this is what sheep do. I noticed as we drove out that there were several tracks in the paddock; they were generally one single line, not parallel tracks as would be made by a vehicle; they didn't have markings of tires but the marks were made deep. Susan explained to me that they were sheep tracks, because they follow each other so the tracks are made like that. Any time one sheep would move in any direction, all the others seemed to do the same. If one sheep started peeing, the rest would. It was really something.

We gathered them in the correct place and our duties were done (admittedly I didn't do much, but it was really interesting!) We decided to head off for another bike ride and did so before lunch. After lunch, I had a quick nap before we drove back into Deniliquin to meet Sarah at the golf course. I don't know if there’s been anything else I’ve ever tried that I was as bad at. At least I was able to provide entertainment for everyone else there. The golf course was incredible in that there were plenty of birds around that I hadn’t been able to see up close yet, like kookaburras. They’re like giant kingfishers, and very very cute. Also got to see some rosellas up close which was exciting. Due to my horrible golf skills we only played 9 holes and headed back to Wanganella. Susan was treating us to her creamy mushroom steak sauce (YUM) and we had some flame grilled steaks fresh off the barbie. Doesn’t get much better than that. The Radeskis, their next door neighbors, came over for dinner so afterwards we played some board games and went off to bed.

On Saturday, we agreed to have a sleep-in and finally got out of bed at 9 – not late by my standards but on the farm, that’s half the day gone! The task of the day was to light fire to some dead boxthorns, a pest that was introduced from South Africa to provide hedging. Australia is well known for its disastrous introduced species, from the cane toad, rabbit, fox, to several plant species, such as the box thorn. It’s a very prickly plant that spreads rapidly and is a good natural barrier – in Africa it’s used to keep lions out of certain areas. In Australia, it’s become a pain for farmers who don’t want it there and hurts the livestock. So, pyromaniacs gathered to light some on fire, and we set up a little camp type fire along the bank of the river and cooked some steak and “burdigan duck”, basically small pieces of leftover roast lamb mixed in a batter of flour, onion, parsley, milk, salt, and garlic – fritters that are tasty but probably horrible for you! We hit around some golf balls and watched as Maggie, the house dog, caught the rabbits that were running out of the burning boxthorns, and whiled away the afternoon.

After a quick bike ride, Susan and I went back out in the ute to try and find some emus. This bird, which is apparently something that can be seen everywhere in the area quite normally, had not shown itself at all since my arrival. One last look, and after about 40 minutes going around in the ute to different paddocks, we were rewarded. 2 large emus were racing away as fast as they could. They are enormous birds, that look like ostriches sort of – they have very interesting feathers, that seem to bounce up and down as they run run run – they can go over 60km/hr. We couldn't get too close but I was happy just to have seen them!

More kangaroos around, some of which we got quite close to. In the evening we headed back into Deni and cooked lamb chops with Sarah and spent the night there, with the AFL game on TV. I was glad to have experienced this quintessential glimpse of Australian rural life, miles away from the hustle and bustle of the larger Australian cities or the touristed spots I’d seen thus far.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Sand, sand, sand (Australia: Fraser Island/Noosa: 7-10 July 2007) Written 10/11 July 2007

It's a strange feeling to realize that I've only been on this country/continent for a week. Certainly feels a lot longer due to REALLY long days.

Saturday was a relaxing day. Got up early by my standards - sleep-in for Fiona and Graeme - and headed down to ride the horses. Jim, Fiona's horse, was being grumpy thus I chose to not ride for very long at all. Then, Graeme and I went for a bike ride - first around Anstead Park, where it transitioned from concrete to dirt track to asphalt. Got a great view of Brisbane River and saw some prickly pear cactus. Then we drove down to a service road next to a water pipe and road along there; my notoriously horrible bike-riding skills had improved somewhat since Graeme and Fiona took me on a bike ride in Takayama, Japan. It was great.

Headed back home, got hamburgers for lunch, because we had had a discussion earlier as to what is appropriate to put into hamburgers; they insisted that pineapple and beetroot were essential components of a delicious burger - so I had to try! Verdict: could go either way on the pineapple, and beetroot is goooood. Had a nap then headed to meet Josie and Gareth, who would be my new parents for the next few days.

After splitting up with Fiona and Graeme (really didn't want to say bye so quickly; I could have stayed there for a very long time...) we went down to cliffs by the river where people rockclimb and absail. From there we took a walk and made a loop crossing the Goodwill Bridge, around Southbank, and back on another bridge, getting great twilight views of Brisbane. It's a visually pleasing city, small, a very compact skyline, actually quite cute, with lots of bridges. Drove around the CBD (Central Business District), popped by West End, the bohemian dining/nightlife area, went home, and made a delicious dinner.

Sunday morning we headed out at 7am for Fraser Island. Fraser Island is the largest sand island in the world. I had first heard of Fraser Island when I saw a documentary about it on TV several years ago - the beach and colors of the ocean made me basically want to go to Australia. A 4hr drive brought us to Hervey Bay where we took the 45 minute ferry across to the island. We were staying at the posh Kingfisher Bay Resort but oh well, we have to splurge sometimes.

The first day I took the 3.3km loop walk from the resort – about 1.2km up there is the Northern Cliffs lookout, a beautiful view over the aquamarine waters. This turns into the Beerrillbee track which goes through a few different vegetation changes, from ferns to scrub to tall eucalypts. The amount and diversity of birdlife in the area so close to the resort was astonishing.

We enjoyed the sunset from the beach and had dinner. Afterwards, we joined in on the Night Walk which was a short stroll around the resort grounds but again, with a good variety of wildlife. Heaps of flying foxes, and a few sugar gliders; lucky for us, we actually got to see both species ‘flying’ across the trees. Then, we went to visit a golden trapdoor spider, probably about 3cm long; these spiders live in small holes that they dig out in the ground, and when prey walk by, creating vibrations, they jump out and attack – their venom is strong enough to kill a grown man within hours. The spider came out twice to bite the stick we were using, and as expected, we all were impressed. We also saw a tiny frog, about 2cm.

On the 9th, we hired a 4WD for the day. In the morning, I went on a birdwalk and saw about 20 species, including gorgeous colored lorikeets, several species of honeyeaters, and an azure kingfisher. We went first to Lake Mackenzie, in an attempt to get there without any other tourists there; we were handsomely rewarded, as indeed, there were 2 other people there, lazing on the impossibly white sand, gazing at the water that goes from clear to light blue to turquoise to a deep blue azure. It was indescribably beautiful. We then headed to Lake Wabby, walking down several hundred meters to a lookout where you could see the green waters and the sandblows surrounding it, before we headed for the Eastern Beach.

The Eastern Side of the island is famous for 75-Mile Beach; soft fine golden sand, with no debris or any footprints of human contamination, waves breaking all the way down as far as you can see. Going along the coast with the 4WD, I spotted whales off the coast, just a few, blowing out water through their holes, but no breaching. It is impossible to drive on the beach 2 hours either side of high tide, so we had to turn back before getting to the northern tip of the island, but it was an incredible drive. We headed back inland at Eurong Beach after having a horribly processed unnatural meal, and headed to Central Station.

Central Station is the remains of the old logging industry that existed on Fraser island for 130 years. Quite an amazing feat, considering that the trees here, the satinay, palms, and everything else, grow directly out of sand! There is no nutrient-rich soil on Fraser; the fauna has adapted to be able to survive and grow in sand, which provides no nutrients at all – rainforest plants thrive as they create their own rain, trapping evaporating liquid in their canopies. Nature is awe-inspiring.

We walked along the boardwalk, with towering jungle all around us, down to Pile Valley. We then headed back to Lake Mackenzie, where we realized that our morning stopover was a good idea for two reasons; not only were there a few dozen people at the lake now, the sunlight was diminishing and the spectacular hues had now disappeared. Despite being the middle of winter and very cold water, I ventured in – and quickly ventured back out!

We returned back to the resort and had a relatively quiet evening. What I realized is that there is so much more to see and do on Fraser that my visit certainly didn’t do it justice. However, since my current trip is a whirlwind tour of the East Coast of Australia, that’s the best I could do, especially considering I didn't really know how realistic facilities regarding camping, cooking, hiking, etc. were. However, I know now that I can go back with a tent, possibly not even get a vehicle at all, and slowly trudge my way through the sand to get to all the other beautiful spots on Fraser.

On the 10th, I did a 2.5 hour walk back up to the lookout, over to Duwonga Creek; this walk was incredible, a good view over to the tall eucalypt trees across the path, with plenty of short ferns growing along the ground. You emerge down at a creek almost on the beach, and I treaded alongside dingo tracks to get back to the beachfront of the resort. I went back on the Beerilbee track, this time with binoculars to see more of the birdlife.

We headed back to Hervey Bay, and whilst on the boat we saw a pod of dolphins breaching just next to the boat in the green water! Breathtaking sight.

From Hervey Bay we headed back towards Brisbane, making a stop at Noosa Heads. I cannot explain how much I loved this place; it felt like home. It very much reminded me of California, but just a bit different; the crashing waves on the cliffs, surfers in the water, the cafes and smoothie bars leading up to the cliffs, the vegetation; pandanus and banksia trees along the track hugging the cliffs – it reminded me of the Paseo Miramar hike I used to do often in Malibu and it was absolutely stunning. We walked about 2 hours round trip to get to Hell’s Gates, an inlet along the stone cliff where the waves crash in with such force that they create a white froth.

We arrived back in Brisbane exhausted from the 3 days of beautiful views of coastline, lakes, and rainforest. Excellent experience.

This morning, I was meant to take a 7.15am flight to Melbourne from Brisbane. We got up at 5am to get to the airport in time, I was standing in line with my bags to check-in, and as I got closer to the terminal, I realized that the tiny screens above the check-in were saying that my flight had been cancelled. No announcements, no flight attendant asking me what flight I was in line for before directing me. Umm…so, nobody actually knew why the flight was cancelled but I was made to stand in a separate line for about half an hour before I was at the desk. The lady working told me to put my bags on for check-in before she even told me what my new flight details were. When I asked, she said I would now be flying to Canberra an hour and a half later, then connect to Melbourne. Instead of arriving at 9.40am, I would be getting in at 1.05pm. I of course complained and asked if there was no other way to get direct to Melbourne, she said no, and told me that I would be given a credit shell – basically company credit towards a future flight. I was then sent to the service desk so that I could call Susan in Melbourne to let her know I would be late. When I asked about the possibility of meal vouchers, they sent a supervisor who said no, then I wanted to ask a question about the credit shell then they decided that they in fact were not going to give me the credit shell. I pointed out that it was their mistake for telling me they were going to give me the credit in the first place then they agreed to give me the credit. No meals though. So now I’m on the plane to Melbourne, 3.5 hours late.

Oh well.

Friday, July 6, 2007

It's Alive and it's Wild (Australia: Brisbane: 6 July 2007, Written 6 July 2007)

Throughout the past year working with Australians in Japan, I've come to the perhaps stereotypical perception that Queenslanders have peculiar happenings that would be so outrageous and ridiculous that the only other place they could occur is...America.

This morning we headed off towards Binna Burra, in Lamington National Park. We opted for the motorway and arrived at about noon at Binna Burra, and decided to go on the Tullawallal Track, a 6km easy walk. What I found most striking about this forest was that it seemed to combine vegetation that in other places, would never be together. Tall strangler figs next to gum trees that would normally be in drier climates, but with palm trees (indicative of tropical jungle weather) scattered throughout; ferns and moss scattered about. It was comfortably chilly and I enjoyed every minute of it. I was doubtful of seeing any wildlife, but sure enough, just a few minutes into our walk there was a small animal coming down the track towards us - a 'pademelon.' I'd never heard of this, but it's one of the 8 types of marsupials found in Australia, and basically, it's a mini-kangaroo. And it's damn cute. Unfortunately, it bounded off the path as we approached so I couldn't get a good look at it.

The forest was full of birds of all sizes and colors, and at one point there was a strange birdcall, because it seemed like lots of different birds calling at once. A lyrebird, on Australian coins. Now this animal is really crazy. It's a large bird on the ground, like a bush turkey (by the way why are there large turkeys randomly wandering around everywhere?) - it's brown though, but it's got a fan like a peacock, with traily beautiful feathers. What the lyrebird does is mimic everything; it wants to impress the female, apparently. So you hear calls of wagtails, parrots, creepers, honeyeaters, etc etc etc, and then a random opossum call, or, in a YouTube video Graeme found, chainsaws or a car alarm. It sounds astonishingly accurate and it just makes you's Australia.

We also did indeed see a pademelon, up close, it stared back at us, probably wondering if it should be afraid of us or if we were too stupid/slow to get it anyway - bounded away quickly. We also spotted some burrows which I proclaimed were from echidnas, which would make me happy because I could then claim that I saw the trail of this very illogical mammal with spikes that lays eggs. Another highlight was the small grove of Antarctic beeches that we saw, a very peaceful ring of trees - first time I'd ever seen them before.

After, we changed our plan for the day yet again and headed to the beach. Took about 40 minutes to get to the Gold Coast, which appeared, as I had been forewarned by other Australians, to be a horrific high-rise establishment on the Pacific Coast. However, we headed to a beach a few kms north of Surfers Paradise and it was marvelous. Barely touched, barely established, just some fences to keep natural vegetation separate from the sand, and the water was gorgeous. Very little surf, the dark blue water was rolling in, with turqouise touches as it came closer to the shore. The sand was a white gold, so fine it was remarkable. Cold though! Makes you wonder why anyone would ever want to leave Australia.

We headed back to Bellbowrie and I had my first Roast in over a year and a half, beef and 3 veg, as some have described the typical Australian meal to me. Random snippets of conversation; a little while ago a white woman gave birth to a black baby, and they did some checks and fonud that the father was legitimate. According to doctors, this can happen very very rarely when the random genes that usually don't get selected DO get selected from both parents. Then there was talk about farm animals and Fiona shared her thoughts on how cows were evil, then they were talking about how sometimes cows have a problem of some sort so they inject this blue medicine in their teat, which makes them have blue milk, so you know you can't drink it. Smurf Milk. Queensland.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Crikey! (Australia: Brisbane: 4-5 July 2007, Written 5 July 2007)

Flying is always easier after 2 sleeping pills...I asked nicely at the check-in counter to have, if possible, a whole middle row of seats to myself, and...after eyeing every person boarding the plane hoping they walked past my row, was luckily rewarded with all 4 seats to myself! Ahhh...plane took off, I popped pills, and lay down. Got maybe 5 hours sleep, and before I knew it we were landing in Brisbane!

Great weather, nothing too remarkable, walked towards immigration...and...lots and lots of noisy American students! It was insane - I began to think...oh my, I remember these accents, am I really going to be in the country where this comes from in less than 2 months?! They were students from Los Angeles going to study at University of I slipped in the planeful of them and waited, turning up the iPod...both Immigration and Customs were a quick affair, and there Graeme was! Hadn't changed at all!

The weather was so...perfect. So...Californian. It was only 8am so still quite cool, about 18 degrees, clear blue sky, not a cloud to be seen. The sweat-as-soon-as-you-step-outside humidity of Japan was replaced by a crisp dryness while basking in the sun. I was not disappointed. We headed into town and had a breakfast of mushroom, garlic, and pesto on Turkish bread...mmm. This was served at a small independent-ish bookshop with lots of eyecatching books from around the world. It was so...Venice Beach Novel Cafe. Then headed up to Mt. Coot-tha, where you get a great view over Brisbane. Immediately I was taken with the numerous birdcalls, colorful lorikeets, magpies, and...lots of other ones Graeme knows the names of ;) Upon my questioning what the word Coot-tha meant, we examined a signboard which spoke about One Tree Hill, which Graeme immediately claimed was the meaning of Coot-tha. About 2 paragraphs down, I found that it was the native word for honey made from the native stingless bee.

We talked about funny animals like echidnas and funny plants like golden wattles and I felt really good. We stopped in the lookout point restaurant and chatted about how travel and tourism are so funny, they mean entirely different things to different people; for many, coming to Mt. Coot-tha means driving to the carpark, going to have an oversized over-sweetened cake with an oversized coffee and driving off again. Oh well, that's not so bad. What I noticed here was the size of the ketchup and mustard bottles. When Leo from Rome came to stay with me in Los Angeles for a month, he went crazy in Big LOTS!, a warehouse type supermarket near my house in Venice Beach, taking pictures of how large everything was - specifically, ketchup and mustard bottles. I had laughed at him, thinking him silly because, well, that wasn't that interesting. And now, here I was, a year and a half of Japanese size condiments later, thinking, wow, those bottles are huge! How things change.

Back in the car and headed on our way home. Arrived and met the cats; don't remember the last time I saw cats this fat. They resemble stuffed animals. Promptly started sneezing and opted for a nap. Woke up and we had a very yummy lunch of salad with heaps of vegetables and blue cheese on bread...mmm. Chatted with Graeme about things to do in the area, and he said ok and we can do that to everything...which would have easily filled up a week - I had 3 days with them :) We waited for Fiona to come back from work and we went to ride horses. They own 3 horses which are looked after by a lovely couple, Lloyd and Mary. They have an unbelievably adorable white Jack Russell named Zaky who you just want to cuddle. The last time I had been on a horse was in South Africa where I was terrified of the animal, so I gratefully accepted Fiona's offer to walk me whilst I was riding Jim, her cheeky horse. It was good, I was much less scared and actually enjoyed it.

After I had my mini-ride, Fiona went for hers, and Graeme and I sat with Lloyd and Zaky as the sun went down. Fiona joined us and then Mary arrived, and the conversation was something that reminded me very much of Bill Bryson's In A Sunburned Country. Mary and Lloyd were talking about a 3 day road trip out West they had done years ago, and how hot it was.

"We didn't even have air-conditioning in those days!"
"What do you mean? Of course we did!"
"No, we had windows."
"Right, that's what I mean! You can close them or keep them open, or a little bit open!"
"Little bit of dust or lots of dust!"


We went home after two mosquito bites of mine started flaring up, and Graeme went and cooked some delicious chicken kebabs and sausages on the barbie. Fiona made a yummy salad and it felt good to be eating at home. It was the age-old State of Origin Rugby League Game, Queensland vs. New South Wales, so we went to the living room where the TV was muted and the radio commentary was on because it was funnier. Indeed it was. Good thing I'd recently been with Blair to watch rugby several times in Tokyo so I could actually know what was happening (though it's really not that difficult to follow for a casual observer). An exciting game, lots of injuries, penalties, and headbutts and NSW was victorious (though they had lost the first 2 games of the cup therefore it didn't matter anymore...) 54,000 people were in Brisbane at Lane Park watching this game. Australians really do take their sport seriously. During the game, Fiona mentioned that she had been to her favorite delicatessen to stock up on my favorite...cheese (she remembered from September 2006 in Japan! I was touched!) so there was a full selection of King Island Brie, Wasabi Cheddar, Sheep's Cheese with Chili, and Blue Vein Aged something or other. All tasty, of course! After our binging and yelling at the TV, we turned in for the night.

This morning (5 July) Graeme and I had a breakfast of fresh poached eggs from the chickens in the backyard and stewed tomatoes...mmm. Waited for Fiona to come back from riding and off we went! Took a long scenic route through The Gap, towards the Glass House Mountains, passing really breathtaking scenery. Within an hour of Brisbane you can pass through tall dry forest with gum trees and eucalypt, then through rainforest, then through dry farmland, then greener farmland, the two landscapes that really stuck out for me were the pineapple plantations and the tall grass blowing in the wind - the rhytmic pattern you see when that happens is really special. I found that the most beautiful thing I saw in Nebraska, USA as well. We made it to Beerwah where we stopped at the Beerwah Hotel Pub for lunch. Great service and a glimpse into semi-rural Australian life. Just a few kms up the road to Australia Zoo, Steve Irwin's creation (Crocodile Hunter who was killed by the stingray, ironic as he regularly came into contact with far more dangerous creatures but was killed by a relatively harmless one...)

I was really impressed by the zoo. Seeing the animals in there, then thinking, hmm all of the animals here (except the tigers, elephants, and camels, I think) are native to Australia, is really something. From the largest land animal, the cassowary, a very bizarre looking bird with a horn on top of its head, a light blue face, dark blue neck, and bright pink markings around its neck followed by a black body, to the numerous types of crocodiles, this country/continent really is something else. The aviary we visited was a contained area where there were dozens of species of birds flying around, including some really breathtaking parrots, finches, ibises, and doves.

The koalas were also interesting, the first lot we saw were being active and eating, which surprised Fiona who said they usually sleep abtou 23 hours a day. Sure enough, in another section of the zoo there were about 20 koalas scattered through the branches, all not moving at all. What amazed me was how they could just curl up, their necks curled into a perfect curve; I wondered, don't their necks get sore when they wake up? Also, most of them weren't holding on to the branch they were on, but seemed to maintain perfect balance. I certainly couldn't sleep on a branch like that!

And then, I fell in love with the wombats. They're just kinda blobby and fat and small and look like a friendly puppy and follow people around (probably because the zoo staff are their food-deliverers)...really really adorable. And echidnas...they're mammals with spikes that lay eggs. If anyone can explain that to me, please do.

Lots of snakes, the most poisonous one having enough venom to kill 100 grown men in one bite. Good thing I'm not doing a solo car trip camping across the Great Sandy Desert this trip!

After the zoo, we headed to Caloundra to stroll along the beach at Kings Beach, first looking at the rocks and limpits and things like trilobites, then walked back along the footpath. Spotted some dolphins out in the water and I just felt like home. Wherever that is. We headed back and before I knew it we were back in Brisbane. Takeaway Indian food and an Australian quiz show and I was done!

It's a funny reverse culture shock to be going through at the moment. Everything's bigger. Carparks are full of SUVs and brighter colors, people are louder (I'm NOT saying this critically, I'm just comparing to Japan which I found sterile and too-silent), there is much less racial diversity than I imagined having spoken to the Australians that I worked with or had on my tours in Japan. It's funny to go from looking like everyone else around you (sort of), like me in Japan, to being one of the very few non-Caucasian people around. I don't think that happens very often for me in English speaking countries, because it didn't in parts of the US I would be in, or the UK. Food portions are bigger, it's nice to have meals that look yummy because of what's in them, not necessarily pretty on your plate the way Japanese food is, and oh man is it nice to have fruit and vegetables at every meal that are fresh and not the cost of half your salary. Mmmmm.

And, last but not least, it is great to be with Fiona and Graeme. It is so nice to reconnect with people you haven't seen in nearly a year and share the same laughter and warmth you did initially, thousands of miles away. I've had a great 2 days with them and am sad that there are only 2 more to go. Graeme says I'll be back though and I'm guessing he's not wrong.

So I must go to bed as the chickens wake me quite early in the morning...

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Really Leaving Japan...

This is so strange. On one hand I cant believe I’m finally leaving, I’m so excited, really really really excited to see the people in Australia that I love; can’t wait to meet Graeme at the airport, Fraser Island, all of Victoria, and of course Matt and Mark in Sydney – I really am so excited for all of it.

So it’s strange because I think of that and I get really giddy and then I get really sad about not seeing Ojiichan, about how today was maybe the last time I’ll see him. I really hope that if his health worsens, it happens gradually so that I’m able to come back to Japan from wherever I am to visit him before he departs. But life does not always work out the way we want, and so I have to accept the fact that today may have been the last time. I don’t have any regrets, which I am really lucky for, and I know it. The past year and a half, I’ve spent more time with him than the rest of my life combined. Lots of chit chat, lots of shochu and umeshu and being told to clean this and tie this up and wash this, but I did it without complaint because, well, it’s just him. It became our ritual to have an orange after lunch every time I went to visit, peanuts maybe, share some senbei. Our conversations gradually became more simple, just about how we were doing, maybe stuff about Obaachan, after she passed. He talked a lot about the song, Sen no Kaze, where the grandmother who passed away had not died but had instead become a thousand winds, telling her granddaughter not to cry at her grave because she wouldn't be there, she would be accompanying her everywhere. I know Ojiichan knew how much Obaachan’s death affected me, perhaps he was the only one who really understood how much it meant to me, because he was the only one who knew how often I visited and how my relationship with her was. As I left today, after hugging him and holding him for awhile, poorly managing to control my sobs, he made great effort to come to the door to wave me goodbye, managing a big smile. It is incredible, how he, and Japanese people, can manage to smile as though there is no pain and loneliness, when I know that me leaving was a big deal for him. It’s a huge deal for me. I can’t stop crying.

The last days I was in Japan were wonderful, and I wouldn’t have changed how I spent them. On Friday morning I went to see Ojiichan, it was a quick visit, then went to meet Koseki-san in Kunitachi – the only family I’m still in touch with from MLS, which is where I was teaching English. Fua, who I didn't actually teach but who came during parents’ time each week, is a feisty 3 year-old that is, I imagine, pretty much how I was when I was 3. She is a ball of energy, totally disregarding all rules but never doing anything that would hurt others, and her fullness of soul is inspiring. To display that independence from that young an age, and compassion (despite her absolute refusal to share snacks she loves with me; snacks that are mediocre, she happily distributes)…I wonder what she will develop into with time. She had woken up with a cough so skipped school, so her mother brought her and we went to eat at La Maree, a wonderful French restaurant in Kunitachi. I had eaten there once before with the mother, and absolutely fallen in love with it so requested that my last meal with her be there. I had been looking forward to picking up Ren, my ex-student, from kindergarten and playing with them for the afternoon, but since Fua was sick, the mother decided that it would be better if we went to pick up Ren, did our goodbyes, and split up at the station. I started to object but realized it was probably better this way, in addition I was exhausted since I had had my final group dinner the night before in Kyoto. So we went to get him, and I told her I couldn't explain to him that it was a goodbye, so she did, and she explained that it would be awhile before we would meet again. “Shibaraku” – for some time – it’s a vague Japanese term that gives absolutely no sense of how long that might be. He asked me, “Ichi gakki mou aenai?” – we won’t meet for the rest of 1st trimester? (this is through July) – and I said no, and not 2nd trimester either, I told him that it might be next year at the same time, when he would already be in 1st grade. He understood, and was obviously upset. I explained that I was going to Australia and then America to visit my family, then to Cuba and Mexico, and showed him my Cuba guidebook and he said he wanted to go. When we arrived at the station, I said bye to all of them and he held my hand tightly and tears were welling up in his eyes, and he struggled with every muscle to not start crying. I was doing the same, and as soon as I turned away from them couldn't stop it anymore and just let go.

I went to Linda’s, in Takao, and we chatted, then I had a nap. I went back to Kunitachi in the evening to meet the Shimada family. I’ve really known them for a long time, about 10 years, and the first 8 months I was in Japan saw them regularly, but inevitably the busy-ness of people, including myself, caught up and it became more difficult. They are a lovely family, I originally knew their older son much better, Kohei, who is now studying in China. I remember the family before Tatsuya, who is now 9, was born. I arrived at their house, where the father was waiting and we sat in the cool cellar and had fruit – a bit of a ritual, when I started living on my own in Japan I had to cut a lot of fruit out of my diet as it is by far the most overpriced food item in Japan – a far cry from my Farmer’s Market visits in Los Angeles where I would leave with several kilos each trip. Emiko, knowing this, would always send me off with some fruit whenever we met up. Anyway, it was an icky rainy evening so Tatsuyas soccer was cancelled, so Emiko and Tatsuya returned, and we left to go to an Italian restaurant in Tachikawa. They asked me what I found hardest about living in Japan, and as usual, I talked about how there is so much restraint and as people are conditioned to not say what they think, they eventually don’t know what they think anymore. It’s a scary concept, much like Huxley’s “Brave New World,” but in many ways that is the society that exists today in Japan. We joked about the crowdedness of Tokyo trains, where during peak hours (which combined are nearly a quarter of the day!) you may have to ride a train, your body contorted into unnatural positions, closer to other riders than you’d want to be to your friends. Of course, the general busy-ness, lack of free time, and the island nation mentality of not really being aware of what is going on in the rest of the world, and not caring that they don't know what is happening elsewhere. It was something I found extremely frustrating when I lived in the US, and it definitely exists in Japan as well. I told them that it’s funny, as many things as there are that are different between Japan and the US, in a lot of ways they are very similar, more than I would have realized before living here.

Anyway, it was a great conversation, great food, and I was beginning to realize that there are people that I do love and connect with that I’m leaving behind, and will want to come back and visit. It is a great feeling, considering the chaotic spring when I was having a personal crisis of feeling like after losing my grandparents, I would never have any reason to come back to Japan, and now that I no longer have the right to live and work in the States, umm where would I go?!
I went back to Linda’s and we talked more, her husband came home and after a quick chat, off to bed. On Saturday, Linda made me my request, eggplant gratin (yum!), then I went to see Ojiichan. I had lunch with him, and we had our orange…in the afternoon I headed back to Ueno where I was going to meet Blair. I was early so sat at Kinuya and did a bunch of stuff on the internet…we met up, went to use my point card at Kohmen, those shiso gyoza are delectable! Then over to HUB to watch rugby, Oz vs NZ. Excellent evening as we just chatted away. Back to his place after the game and I packed and blah blah blah.

Early morning on Sunday as I wanted to pack more, then over to Uozumi. As with other things, it is often hardest to leave the things that are most familiar, what you get used to doing. I had been giving Uozumi-san English lessons since last January. We grew closer over the months as we opened up to each other increasingly about our families and our more intimate details. She is a spectacular woman, so intelligent and her breadth of interest and knowledge is so impressive. It was strange that it would be the last time that I see her for now, but I know that the next time I come back to Japan I’ll see her – I am quite sure of it, and that makes me happy. After that, I went to Ojiichan again and just hung out for a few hours.

Went to Omotesando to meet Blair, Aki, and Akiko as we were going to Al Solito Posto for dinner. Aki was running late, characteristically, so we went before he arrived. Chatting away and impatiently wanting to order, we kept wondering where he was…over an hour had gone by, and an appetizer and pizza had already been consumed (put me and Blair at a table together and that’s what happens…) so we decide to call him, his mother answers the phone and we find out that he’s left his phone at home and is probably lost (Aki!!!!) so Akiko goes off to find him. All worked out and had a great meal, the staff was mildly shocked that I was leaving but told me to come visit them in their new location when I got back to Japan, and I agreed with no hesitation. Blair and I wanted to go to karaoke after, Akiko agreed but Aki adamantly refused so instead we did a classic favorite pastime of mine in Tokyo; get cheap liquor at a convenience store and sit on some steps somewhere and watch the world go by. It was a great way to spend the last evening with my best friends in Tokyo. If I hadn’t worked for MLS I wouldn't have met Blair, then I wouldn't have met Aki, then I wouldn't have met Akiko. People and networks and relationships are astounding sometimes.

I went to Brodie’s and it was so nice to see him after not having seen him since last summer. Chatted a lot and found the same sarcastic midly taunting relationship hadn’t changed, which was good. Monday morning had brekkie with him then headed back to Blair’s to post off my last box and bring my stuff. I went to Ueno to leave my stuff while I ran errands – met Keiko in Yurakucho, had our last lunch together, trying blatantly to get her to visit me in Mexico or Argentina, and went to the bank, got my hair cut at QB House, the ubiquitous 1000yen haircut shop all over Tokyo, etc. Dropped my stuff off in a locker in Shinagawa then went to Shibuya, cancelled phone service, then met Blair and Jaime at TGIF (how ridiculous, my last night in Japan and I don't want to go to a Japanese Izakaya, I want a Southwest Caesar Salad from TGIF…sigh…) I always have a great time when it’s the 3 of us so was nice, especially nice since I don't get to see Jaime very often. He’s a real character, I always wonder if he even cares about anybody else – not in a bad way, it’s just that he’s so comfortable being on his own and is so secure and is just a real loner, one of those mildly arty-farty London intellectual types. We split up after that and Blair and I continued on my mission to use up all my point cards, so went to Capricciosa and had an enormous pasta dish, yum. Then we went to the batting cage in Shinjuku, I was real rusty since I don't go to hit very often anymore, walked around seedy Kabukicho, then it was time to split. Hardest goodbye excluding my grandparents. I veritably lost it and wished that we could have just stayed at the station without ascending to different platforms. He’s like my brother. Or something like that. Just this constant reliable source of laughter and intellectual stimulation and singing and dancing and everything else that I love to share with people…he embodies it.

So I went teary-eyed to Fujisawa, caught the bus to Tomoko’s, chatted a bit with her then off to bed.

Then it was today, and I went to see Ojiichan and then that’s it. Now I’m on the 4th and last train to Kansai Airport. I’ll be in Brisbane in the morning. Weird weird weird. In fact, by the time I upload this, I’ll be in a country where the water flushes down the toilet in the other direction. Funny how fast we can go places these days isn’t it?