Friday, December 18, 2009

round a small world

Hey folks. Checking in from Brisbane. Just about to leave actually. I spent three nights here and now I'm off to Surfer's Paradise for two nights before heading down to Sydney for the holidays. Brisbane is a nice city. Very clean and compact. I walked around the entire city last night and it took me about two hours. There's not much to do here besides walk around. I went to a couple museums to kill some time but that was pretty much all Brisbane has to offer in the way of tourist attractions.

The past two weeks have been fairly hectic. The three day sailing cruise around the Whitsunday Islands was incredible. It was relaxing because all we did was sail around, lay out on the deck, drink, eat, snorkel, and check out sandy beaches. At the same time it was tiring because we would be up past midnight, and I couldn't sleep in past six. Ever try sleeping on a sailboat? Getting to sleep wasn't bad, but once you're awake, you're awake for good. Anyway we had a good group of 25 other backpackers who were all looking for a good time. The best day was when we visted Whitehaven beach. Definitely a location rich in postcard opportunities. You could wade out into the water and see baby reef sharks and stingrays swim right past your feet. At night we moored up next to a sandbar in the middle of a cove. It was a little strech of beach in the middle of the water. We got dropped off (with enough supplies to last a few hours) played a little rugby and watched the sun go down. Great day.

After leaving Airlie I headed for Rainbow Beach where I stayed for a night before heading out to Fraser Island. There were six groups of ten people, and each group had their own 4WD vehicle. It was really more of a tank than a SUV, but we needed every bit of strength it had. Driving in deep sand is no picnic, and Fraser is the world's biggest sand island. We never got dug in too bad, but all became pretty skilled at pushing a car out of the sand (Think Little Miss Sunshine).

Fraser was an exhausting trip. Again, the cycle of staying up late and getting up early took its toll on all of us. We were always driving, setting up or breaking camp, cooking, or drinking. Deinitely worth every minute though. We stopped at a couple lakes that provided a nice afternoon break from traveling. After a memorable three days, I must admit it was a good feeling to get back to civilization and have a shower and sleep on something soft. Plus, after living on the world's largest sand island for three days, you can imagine how much sand we all had to pick out of our ears, noses, hair, etc. I've found that I need to add sand to my food since I've grown so accustomed to it. Nothing like a little extra crunch.

Well I need to get going. I feel like I've overstayed my welcome in Brisbane and Surfer's is just around the corner. One thing I will say, though, is how small a world the backpacking culture is. I keep running into the same people. It's pretty cool to randomly run into people you met hundreds of miles away and thought you'd never see again. It makes you keep your eyes open.

Hope you're all doing well back stateside. I probably won't check in again until after Christmas, so have a great holiday everyone. Watch some xmas movie marathons and have some egg nog for me.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

pearl takes a break at the beach

I've been in Airlie Beach for four days now and I'm happy to report that I've given in to a life of sloth and lethargy amidst its sandy beach and manmade lagoon.

I get up at eight, determined to make the most of the summer weather (but mostly because my hostel offers free breakfast until 8:30) and spend my day reading by Airlie Bay. There's not much else to do here, which at least eliminates any guilt from just lying around all day in the sun.

I spent the better part of two days driving here. From Cairns, I made a brief stop at Mission Beach where I took a much needed swim, as driving under the Australian sun for a full afternoon is a surprisingly sweaty business. I drove on to a little town called Ayr and pulled into a rest stop where I became more intimately aquainted with the back of my car. Equipped with a foam mattress, linens, blankets, pillows, curtains, and mosquito nets for the windows, I could do much worse.

I was able to find a hostel in Airlie for four nights, which I've been sharing with a trio of Irish backpackers. After discussions of preferable craic, countless 'emm..'s, and hearing how Guinness here is 'shite,' I was reminded how much I missed Galway.

Tomorrow I'm going sailing around the Whitsunday Islands for three days and two nights, and then I'll make for Hervey Bay, where I'll spend two days exploring Fraser Island on 4WDs with other backpackers. I'll need to get there quick because the trip starts 48 hours after I get back from sailing, so I'll be spending more quality time with the car.

Upon Kendra's insistence that it's bad luck to drive an un-named car, I've spent far too much time coming up with a suitable name. I have no idea how soon-to-be parents go about this. There are just too many factors to consider. She's a Ford Falcon. A white station wagon. At 17 years old, she's a Grandma in the automotive world. She's seen over 150,000 miles, but is still reliable.

I decided on Pearl.

You don't see too many Pearls around these days, except maybe a handful of grandmothers and great aunts who never fail to send distant relatives birthday cards every year. Plus, I've always been a shameless sucker for On The Road, especially the first chapter. Pearl seemed right. I hope she enjoys her rest.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

ebb and flow at the crown

A few days ago I bought a used car from a couple Irish backpackers and shortly after I post this I'll be driving south on my way down to Sydney. My first stop will be Airlie Beach, then to Fraser Island, the Brisbane area, and Sydney. Sorry for the long post here, but I probably won't have internet access for a while.

I'm done working at the Crown Hotel Bar and I'd be lying if I said I won't miss this place. There are only so many places in the world where you can drink a beer at 9am, play Keno and slot machines, buy a raffle ticket from a topless waitress, and then treat yourself to a fine dinner and a room for the night. I mean really, why am I leaving?

It's been my first time in the service industry, and the one thing I've been told is that you always need to be doing something. Wipe the tables, rinse the glasses, emplty ashtrays, wipe the seats, stock the fridge, clean the bar, collect glasses, sweep the floor, and every once in a while pour a beer. The waves of people come and go throughout the day. It gets busy and dies down, there's always people flowing in and out and always a task to busy myself with.

One of the aspects I've emjoyed most from working at the Crown has been meeting new people. Some of the friendliest and most interesting people I've met in Cairns either work or drink at the Crown. The array of regulars would be, in an understated word, colorful. The owner has asked me on more than one occasion, "Who are the normal people sitting the corner, are they your friends?" But the clientele is what gives the bar its character. Two of my favorites are Terry and Ash, They've taught me more about Australia then I've learned from living in Cairns for 6 weeks. Terry is a commercial diver with a knack for telling and retelling dirty jokes, and who proudly refers to himself as a functioning alcoholic. Considering some of the other regulars, his pride isn't all that misplaced. Ash is a bus driver who comes in on his days off (I hope) and throws down bottles of beer like they're juice boxes. There's also Smiley, who sits by himself and has animated arguments with who I can only assume is an imaginary friend. If he decides to direct his ire on actual people, I kindly ask him to leave. In Smiley's defense, there's a little bit of crazy in everyone here.

Then there are the Aboriginals. They are usually stone-drunk by 10am, but most of them are genuinely friendly people. When they order a beer I always get a big picket-fence smile with a few slats missing. They will drink until they run out of money or I kick them out for stumbling around. One day a guy passed out on the toilet and I had to wake him up. These are our customers.

During one of my last shifts I was clearing some glasses for a table of Aboriginals and one of them spoke to me in a loud voice, and with a great deal of beer in his speech, "Where's Jesus Christ, boss?"

I've found that when dealing with this kind of crazy that it's best to just go right along with it, so I said, "Dunno, haven't seen him in a while. I'll keep my eyes out for him and let you know if he turns up."

This found a few laughts from his three friends but he was beyond any sense of humor. Just as I was turning to leave he spoke again. "Y'from 'Merica. Who your god, boss?"

This caught me off guard but I thought for a moment and said, "The one with the trident." He quinted his eyes and shook his head slowly.

"You know, Poseidon."

"Dunno 'em. How's ee have you live by?"

I started to walk away, sensing an opportunity to leave, and said to him over my shuolder, "Ebb and flow. Always ebb and flow."

He raised his drink to me as I left, and I decided it would be his last of the night.

I'll miss those kinds of people and those types of questions. The on'es you can't predict. BUt it's time to go. And so it seems appropriate that the last bit of flotsam to be spit from the Crown, the last person I'll throw out on the street, will be me. At least I think so. Continuous motion. Goddamn right.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

crystal cascades and the game of life

First off, I need to thank my seven loyal followers. Though small in number, rest assured that you all have great taste. I hope you all keep tuning in. Also, I was psyched to hear about the Colby football team taking down Bates and Tufts. Wish I could have seen it.

I’m creeping up on a month in Cairns now and I’m starting to feel the itch to move on. Cairns is fun but it’s getting old. It’s the same scene at every club, every night. Not much variety. It’s tough to argue with a steady paycheck but I’m beginning to feel like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day. And there’s only so many times you can run into Ned Ryerson. I figure I’ll spend a couple more weeks here, buy a used car and steer south.

I posted my first batch of photos on facebook yesterday. Not my best effort but there’s a few good ones. The three spots in the album are Port Douglas, Crystal Cascades, and Ochre Beach (where I spend the night with some friends). Port Douglas is a day-trip tourist spot that offers streetside shops, cafes, and a nice beach. Not much there, but a pleasant way to spend an afternoon if you’re looking to take a walk or lie on a beach. Crystal Cascades was much more interesting.

It felt like I was walking through a cross between a rainforest and a New England stream with water holes and small falls. Five of us walked up stream on a paved path, passing several swimming pools and falls until we came to the final waterfall. It looked like a small gorge, with two steep rock faces on either side of a narrow but deep pool of water. Towards the end of the pool were two waterfalls that fed the entire stream. There were some good sized fish in there too. Made me wish I brought my fly rod.

The main attraction in Crystal Cascades, apart from a scenic overlook, is cliff jumping. On either side of the gorge there were places to jump at varying height intervals. Luckily, there was a group of local teenagers who showed me the spots that were safe, and of course, the highest one.

It was on the opposite side of the pool, and I had to climb a rope in order to scramble up the first few meters of rocks. At the end of the rope, I had to navigate the rest of the way on my own. It took me at least five minutes to get up to my spot, and that was the first time I looked down. It wasn’t comforting. I really couldn’t tell you how high it was, but the scene from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid came to mind. But I couldn’t walk away from it at that point. Besides, climbing down was a hell of a lot more dangerous than jumping. I took a small rock out of my pocket because the local kids told me that it was best to break the surface of the water before jumping. This was probably for the best, because when jumping from that kind of height, and without much room for error, the hardest part is forcing yourself to actually jump. Once you throw the rock, within a few seconds you have to jump. So I dropped the rock, and followed it down to the water. It was worth it.

I swam back to my group and got a few high fives. I was sure to lift my leg when high-fiving. This was one of the rules of the “Game of Life”. One of the reasons I like spending time with people from different countries is being introduced to their kinds of nonsensical games, contests, and different ways to have fun. These people were from the UK, and recently introduced me to the game of Life. As a participant in the game, you may never use the word “mine” and upon giving or receiving a high-five you must lift a leg. Failure to do so on either account results in ten push-ups, to be completed immediately. Of course, you understand, as I previously wrote the word which shall not be spoken, I did not actually speak it, so I am exempt from said push-ups.

Ten push-ups really isn’t a hefty penalty, but it’s more the shame of having to complete them while your friends look on and make fun of you. It goes without saying that it’s best to catch your friends off guard in very public and therefore humiliating places. I’ve seen push-ups done in supermarkets, nightclubs, and sidewalks. I was determined to never be caught. I resolved to be on guard at all times. This game feasts on the dim-witted and the abent-minded. I knew I would be OK.

On the walk back to our car, one of my friends was carrying my camera because he had been taking some pictures of me on the rock ledge. He examined the camera and said, “Hey this is a pretty nice camera, whose is it anyway?”

Ten push-ups later, I discovered the game of Life sneaks up on you.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

straying from the goulash

I’ve been in Cairns two and a half weeks and I don’t feel like I’ve been in Australia yet. Cairns is such a tourist/backpacker hotspot that it struggles for a sense of Australian identity. It reminds me of Cancun a bit, just on a smaller scale. During the day everyone walks downtown and shops, eats, and sunbathes on the esplanade. At night the young crowd (which is pretty much everyone) flocks to the four main nightclubs that offer dancing on tables, stages, and poles until five in the morning.

Backpackers keep the city running during the day as well. All the businesses rely on tourism. Everyone walking around during the day has a backpack and a water bottle. You’re likely to meet someone from every part of the world if you stay here long enough. And the population constantly turns over since the average visit is about a week. Cairns is an ethnic goulash, stirred regularly.

While there is a staggering amount of diversity, the majority of people here are Asian. Seriously, there are Asians everywhere. Mostly Japanese. All the signs in town are translated in Japanese. Most of the streetside eateries offer Japanese food. As you walk around town, the noise of passing traffic is dulled by the constant sound of snapping cameras. They are also the only people in town, and perhaps the continent, that wear pants everywhere. I find this admirable, yet puzzling, since the climate here compares well with the inside of a Hot Pocket. It’s really an amazing display of discipline. I’ve concluded that either shorts are frowned upon in Japan, or they just do not pack well.

My favorite day of the trip by far was this past weekend when I went camping on a beach up near Port Douglas with a few friends. I suppose you could call it camping. There was only one two-person tent between ten of us. We also forgot lighter fluid for our barbeque. Planning was not one of our strengths. To start a fire we used a combination of rubbing alcohol and torn pieces of a towel that had been shoved into the gas tank of our rental car. If you’re not going to plan well, you have to be adaptable.

We spent a good portion of the day rounding up the essentials. Chicken kabobs, steak tips, hot dogs, sausages, and of course, kangaroo steak. Some beer as well. I opted for goon though. Goon is slang for a bag of wine. In Australia, it’s the cheapest alcohol you can buy. I have no idea why they call it goon. It could be because after you drink one, you act like one. There is actually a law in Queensland that you can’t buy goon before 4pm. I’ve been told it’s in an effort to keep the alcoholics sober and docile during the day.

While there was still light we played cricket, soccer, and swam. I got the hang of cricket OK, but after kicking around a soccer ball with a bunch of Europeans I definitely felt like I must have some sort of foot-related disability. When it got dark we cooked our food. Our barbeque consisted of a metal grate balanced on two logs across our fire pit. It was the best food I’d tasted since I’ve been here. Especially the kangaroo steak. It was a bit like elk meat. Kind of chewy and gamey. I hope to someday see a kangaroo in its entirety.

We sat around the fire talking for most of the night. At some point, for no other reason than feeling hot, dry and drunk, we went for a midnight swim. It ended up being a clear night, and it was the first time I had laid down and seen the entire Australian starscape. Most of us slept right on the sand, although by that point we didn’t really care. Maybe acting like a goon isn’t all bad.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

getting settled

Hey folks. Glad to see so many of you are checking in on me. My first week here was a fair balance of productivity and recreation. I found an apartment, became a certified bartender, got a job, submitted for a tax file number, and opened a bank account. It’s amazing what a bumbling backpacker can accomplish here in a week with a fresh haircut, a stick of deodorant, and a healthy pair of legs.

I got a job as a bartender at a somewhat shady bar in town with a strictly locals clientele and a reputation for being rough. Fine by me. I figure if I will be dealing with sloppy drunks, they might as well have character. Besides, I have been told that finding work as a bartender in Cairns without experience or lying on your resume is an accomplishment roughly equivalent to finding work on the lunar surface. So either the manager was taken aback by an applicant whose honesty equaled his stupidity, or he needed a bartender who weighed more than 95 pounds. Either way, fate was with me.

My apartment is within a short walk of downtown. I live with a fellow Colby alum, Kendra King. Now Colby has a fairly good reputation for a strong alumni base around the world, but imagine my surprise when I learned an old classmate worked as a dive instructor in my first planned stop, and that one of her roommates had just moved out. I’m not sure if this is a good omen or if I just used up all my luck in one fell swoop.

We share the apartment with a young Belgian couple who can speak more languages between the two of them than most college language departments. They have both been overly polite and friendly, but sometimes I wonder what they are saying to each other when they speak Flemish in hushed tones.

Kendra has done her best to integrate me into her circle of friends, but they have seen enough backpackers in Cairns to know that I won’t be around for long. She will also punch my ticket to the Great Barrier Reef. I’ll get a free diving certification (provided I am not prone to swallowing dangerous amounts of water upon submersion) and will benefit from a generous discount on her dive boat.

Sniffing out these sorts of discounts has become a routine in my travels, mostly because I am my mother’s son, but also because Australia is an alarmingly expensive continent. Dinner entrees range between $20-30, going to the movies is $16, and a 30-rack is usually just over $40. With the Australian dollar nearly equaling the American dollar, those figures are a bit troubling. That said, there is free coffee at the local casino, I got a haircut from hairdressing students for $10, and Tuesday is a terrific day to go to the video store. At least there are a few things in this strange place that remind me of home.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

arrival, hanging curves, and dragons

Arrived in Cairns! Sitting outside a McDonald's right now, Bogarting some wireless. The area is for patrons only, so I'm sure in a few moments someone will come over and shuffle me off onto the sidewalk.

The trip here was a bit long.

I left from Boston to LA at 7:30am Monday, connecting in Denver. I checked my bag in Boston and knew I wouldn't see it again for weeks. It would have to go to Denver, LA, Sydney, Brisbane, then Cairns. It was going to get lost. I had never been so sure of any other gut feeling in my life.

Arriving in Sydney a few hours later, I was thrown a bit of a curve. I found out I wouldn't make my connection to Brisbane. This was less than exciting. After a 15 hour plane ride and hustling through a foreign airport, receiving this sort of news does not improve one's mood. But my luck changed. I was able to book a direct flight to Cairns, and would arrive an hour earlier. When I got on the plane, I enjoyed an aisle seat and a free beer. There were two blondes sitting next to me. I guess sometimes god's curveball hangs a bit.

To top things off, my bag was waiting for me in Cairns. Shame on me for doubting the competence of airline bag handlers.

Here are some random thoughts from my first few hours in Australia:

--I've been here three hours, and someone has already picked me up hitch-hiking (ironically, the guy who picked me up owns the shuttle business that I decided not to purchase at the airport) and two bartenders have told me to apply for a job at their bar. They also watched my backpack while I went for a much needed swim. Australia is a friendly place.

--Australians do not mess around with their coffee. I feel like I received an adrenaline shot to the heart from John Travolta.

--According to a couple I sat next to on the plane, ordering a Foster's or a Lite beer of any kind is grounds for rescinding one's Visa.

--Watched Brothers Bloom on the plane. Best plane movie I've seen in a while.

--Captain Planet is pretty big down here. I'm not sure yet whether their entertainment programming for children is eco-friendly, or if their TV shows are just 15 years behind. While swimming, I overheard four kids singing the Captain Planet theme song, then they put their hands together and shouted, "Earth, Wind, Fire... Dragons!" Apparently water has taken a back seat to dragons in the elemental hierarchy over here. Australia is a funny place.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

from the start

I was four years old when I knew I was restless. I couldn't sleep at night because my legs ached. I would whine and cry until my mother would come to my room and gently massage my legs. But the aching remained. I discovered that only constant walking could dull the sensation. So at night, after tossing and turning in my bed for what seemed like hours, I would get up and pace the length of my room. I was too scared to travel far from my bed in the middle of the night, but after a while I would get bored with my room and venture out into the hallway. I would always slowly peek around the doorway first, just to be sure. Even with my eyes adjusted to the dark, I couldn't see very far. The unknown was always a bit frightening.

The hallway led to other rooms, and soon I was wandering through most of the upstairs, constantly walking until my eyes grew heavier than my feet. My parents took me to a doctor and she asked me to describe the feeling in my legs. I told her it was just "the moving way." She smiled and seemed to know exactly what I meant. She said not to worry, I would eventually grow out of it. Sure enough, as I got older, the uncomfortable feeling in my legs disappeared, but my desire to wander did not.

In a few hours I leave for Australia. First stop is Cairns, and it's south from there. I started this blog to give my trip a hint of purpose. I've always thought people who spend their time constantly updating others of their activities and whereabouts are a little too self-absorbed. Maybe I am, I don't know. But I think in the end this site is for me. I enjoy writing and traveling. Combining the two seems like a good idea. And besides, a trip without a record just doesn't feel right. So check in from time to time if you'd like. You're more than welcome. I know my mom will.