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 Queensland...so 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...