Tuesday, March 30, 2010

whirlwinds and tours

Back on the East Coast. Back to bustling cities, temperate weather and XXXX Beer. Another ride on the backpacker superhighway. This time, though, I'll be a passenger. A lowly dependent. Completely at the mercy of bus timetables, train stations, and airport ETDs.

Brisbane is now the only place in Australia I've visited twice. It's comfortably familiar. I'm even staying at the same hostel. There's a definite advantage to traveling somewhere you've already been. I know where and when to get free internet, the cheapest food, a bus ticket, and a refreshing swim (the only inner-city beach in Australia). I was even able to score free breakfast the past two days from my hostel's communal food shelf. Scrambled eggs with cheese and peppers, and two egg and cheese sandwiches on toast. True rarities in the world of hostel free-food shelves. Nothing like glorious triumph before most people have woken up.

I left Darwin late Monday night. My flight left at two in the morning amid rainstorms and lightning. Par for the course up there. Darwin was a nice little tropical city. I would've liked to have spent more than two nights there, but not much longer than that. It reminded me of Cairns, but with a few more stories on its buildings and a higher local-to-backpacker ratio.

Darwin has the unique distinction of being one of the few cities in the world to be destroyed twice. Not an attribute most cities would revel in, but Australia is a funny place, and the Northern Territory is certainly the crazy uncle of all the Australian states. It's like the deep south in the US, except without all the religion.

The first time was in 1942 when a surprise Japanese bombing pulled Australia into WWII. The number of bombs dropped and the resulting damage was far greater than that at Pearl Harbour. It happened just a few days after Valentine's Day. Darwin was destroyed again in 1974 when Cyclone Tracy ripped through the city with winds strong enough to break all the wind-force gauges. According to the damage, they likely reached over 250 km/h. The Cyclone hit during the early hours of Christmas morning. If ever there was a people wary of their holidays, it would be Darwinians. I have to imagine that New Year's Eve, St. Patrick's Day and Easter are tenuous mixtures of cautious celebration and nervous glances skyward.

I leave Brisbane tomorrow for Byron Bay and the Blues Festival, which I can only be disappointed by since every Australian I've met has told me it's the single most epic event in Australia. Perhaps the world. Anything short of an End of Days celebration will be a letdown. Some good music would be nice, too.

The past ten days have been a major highlight of my time here. I toured around the Red Center (Uluru NP, Kata Tjuta NP, King's Canyon), Kakadu and Litchfield NPs, and everywhere between (Devils Marbles, Katherine Gorge). The three trips were separate tours with groups ranging from 11-18 people. Each group was made up of different people each time, but there were usually a few familiar faces from the previous tour. We slept in tents every night, and always woke up early enough to see the sun rise. There were even two nights where I got to sleep outside under the stars in a sleeping bag. That was a great experience, even though massive spiders were constantly crawling through my thoughts.

Highlights were a sunrise and sunset at Ayers Rock, a crocodile boat tour where we saw a 4-5 meter giant (it rocked the boat with its tail and gave us all a scare), and too many waterfalls and swimming holes to remember. I've posted two hefty photo albums on facebook for anyone interested in perusing.

Another notable highlight was the food: it was inclusive, all-you-can-eat, and damn good cookin. Every night we were treated to a BBQ of Kangaroo steaks, Buffalo sausages, or beef schnitzels. My physique has taken a bit of a hit, but it was well worth it. Now back to whatever is on sale at Coles.

I'll check back in when I get to Sydney after the Blues Fest. I'll spend two nights there before flying out for New Zealand. After five weeks in New Zealand, I make a brief stop in LA and then it's back home on May 19th. Crazy to think my time in Australia is almost over. I'm very much looking forward to seeing the family and catching up with everyone, but not so much excited about leaving this place.

In more disappointing news, I'll almost certainly miss Opening Day and the first Sox-Yanks series of the season. As far as bummers go, that ranks pretty high. At least the baseball season is long.

My prediction: Sox 27, Yanks 0. Scutaro hits three home runs and Beckett strikes out 22.

Go Sox.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

"small world, dr. jones"

The other day I was hanging out by the pool at my hostel and I heard someone say to me, "Dude, are those Bridgton Academy shorts?" Turns out the guy (Dave) was from Danvers, MA, and has a summer home up in Bridgton (by Bear Pond, for BA readers). I couldn't believe that halfway around the world, on the farthest possible continent, I met someone familiar with my little world of the past three years. He's only the fourth person I've met so far from New England, and the other three were a family from Milton, MA. It was great to finally talk Sox and Pats again. Then we got to talking about BHOP, The Village Tie-Up, Long Lake, and of course, Bray's. It was a welcome trip to a place that had seemed so far away.

We went on commiserating about the lack of Americans down here, how the place is overrun by Germans (sometimes I feel like I'm in an Indiana Jones movie), and everything else we miss about home. In the spirit of my brother's new blog featuring movie lists, I've decided to give a top-5 list of what I miss most (as I said before, family, home, and individual people are exempt).

5. Having my own room to sleep in. I'm sure you can use your imagination and picture the many frustrating scenarios that might arise from sharing a room with seven other people. But in case you can't, here are a few: relentless snoring, loud/obnoxious people at ungodly hours of the morning, thievery, people trying to quietly have sex in the bunk below you, people having loud sex in the bunk below you, sleeping with the lights on, bedbugs, and non-believers in modern hygiene. Since Cairns I've spent 2 nights in a proper bed with the room to myself. Those were two incredible nights.

4. Good, cheap beer. I'd give anything for a PBR. There is some good beer here (James Squire, Fat Yak, Beez Neez, Little Creatures) but it's all pretty expensive. Even the "cheap" stuff is pricey ($50 for a 30-rack) and it tastes like crap. Not that I've ever had a beer I didn't agree with, but in the US at least bad beer is cheap. There's really nothing like savoring a Tallboy you paid $2 for. At a bar here, you pay seven dollars for a pint of soda-water and boot polish. You heard it here first: Australian beer is garbage.

3. Working out. I'm slowing and quietly wasting away. I haven't gone to the gym since October. I'm experiencing the frustration of gradual atrophe, and it's not pleasant. Daily pushups only go so far. On the plus side I'm not eating too much, so at least I'm not getting fat. That brings me to my next item...

2. Food. Where do I start? I've been in Perth nearly 6 weeks. I'm pretty sure I've cooked pasta for dinner for all but 6 of those nights. Breakfast is always cereal, maybe some toast. When I'm on the road sometimes I only eat Granola bars all day. I haven't had a hot breakfast since November. I really shouldn't complain though. I could eat better, but a small dinner starts at around $20. Dave and I agreed that the foods we miss most are pizza (Oz doesn't do pizza right), a good burger, steak, and chicken wings. I can't wait to get home and order out from Joe's, have a family BBQ, and of course get back to Mom's cookin'.

1. Sports. I've managed to somewhat keep up with baseball and football by downloading the PTI and Mike and Mike podcasts in the public library, but it doesn't compare to falling asleep and waking up to Sportscenter. I missed most of the NFL season, last year's MLB postseason (for the best, it turns out), the Olympics, and I will miss March Madness and the first two months of baseball this year. I think I now know what it must feel like to go into rehab. My withdrawal is reaching the edges of sanity...

So there you have it. A few that almost made it were: snow during Christmas, access to a DVD collection, laying down on a couch and watching TV, taking a nap, a private bathroom, and wearing un-wrinkled clothes.

I finally managed to secure my way out of Perth. I've actually got all my traveling plans worked out for the rest of my time in Australia. On Friday I fly out to Alice Springs, where I'll take a 3-day camping tour of Uluru and its surroundings, then I'll take a bus up to Darwin where I'll take another 3-day camping tour of Kakadu National Park. I'll fly out from Darwin on the 30th for Brisbane, where I can catch a quick bus to Byron Bay for the Blues Fest. It's not the dirt-cheap means of travel I had hoped for, but I think the group tours with other backpackers should be fun.

I'm excited for this Blues Festival. When I bought my ticket, I figured it was just a 5-day concert with local bands and people I've never heard of. Turns out Jack Johnson, Buddy Guy, Jeff Beck, The Fray, The John Butler Trio, Bela Fleck, The Gipsy Kings, 10cc, and Matisyahu will be there. Plus a bunch of people I've never heard of. I can't say I'm a big fan of all of them, but at least I'll recognize a few of the playlists.

I'm not sure how much internet access I'll have from Friday until April, but I'm hoping to write again after my trips to Uluru and Kakadu.

Enjoy a Guinness, everyone.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

a grounded olympian

My departure from Perth has reached desperation-level. DEF-CON 5.

My shifts at work end this week, as does my stay in my hostel. I have a ticket for the Blues Festival in Byron Bay (roughly 4300km east of Perth) which starts April 1st. Before that I'd like to see Ayers Rock and Darwin. A trip to Alice Springs, Darwin, then Byron Bay spans the full length and width of Australia. April 1st gives me less than 3 weeks.

As of today I have no plans for escape.

I've been counting on acquiring a relocation car (a car that needs to be moved from one city to another, free of charge) but so far nothing has come available. I called in to add my name to the waiting list and the following is a rough transcript of my conversation with the woman I spoke with:

"Yes, hi, my name is Conor Sullivan, I'm currently in Perth and looking to go to Darwin.

--"And your phone number, Conor?"

(I give my number)

--"OK and when would you like to leave?"

"As soon as humanly possible."

--"OK we don't have anything available at the moment, but I'll add your name to the waiting list. Would you be able to drive from Darwin to Perth?"

"Um.... (a long pause) I'm sorry, I don't understand, I'm in Perth and I'm trying to get to Darwin."

--"It's a very simple question. Would you be able to drive from Darwin to Perth?"

"Um... I guess in that case, no I wouldn't be physically able to do that."

--"Do you have a physical disability that limits your driving abilities, sir?"

"No, but my physical presence in Perth at the moment limits my ability to drive anywhere from Darwin."

--"I see. If anything comes available we'll call you."

She won't call.

Trains and buses are expensive and uncomfortable. I'm still looking for last-minute flight deals, but it's looking like I've been grounded.

I could think of worse places in the world to be stuck than Perth, though. It's a laid-back city. Small. Perfect weather. Not a drop of rain in 5 weeks and usually in the 80s. Plenty of beaches for lazy afternoons.

Come to think of it, I've been spending a lot of lazy afternoons here. My hostel has a pool, which gives me a great excuse to do some reading. I spend Tuesdays at the movies, hopping around from theatre to theatre all day. Last week I saw Alice in Wonderland, Shutter Island, and Men Who Stare at Goats. The week before it was Invictus, Wolfman, Crazy Heart, The Road, Up in the Air (again) and The Hurt Locker (again).

I spent one day visiting Fremantle, a cozy suburb right on the beach where Perth residents love to spend a free day. It's easy to see why. Beaches, fresh-food markets, an open air mall, no tall buildings. It's a perfect little town.

Tomorrow I'll go to an Australian Rules Football game, and on Sunday I'll take a ferry over to Rottnest Island. Looking forward to both.

Nights I either go out for a few drinks or work at the Mustang Bar. I've had a great time there. It's one of those places where the work sucks, but the people you work with make it worthwhile.

I'm part of the glassie crew who are responsible for maintaining the bar and clean-up duties. The monotony of picking up bottles and cleaning up broken glass does take its toll on us though. So we started the Glassie Olympics. We compete in various events throughout the night, showcasing the skills necessary for a competent glassie. Sometimes those skills involve balancing on a keg on one leg while holding two 5-Liter jugs of juice. Other times we see who can climb up the hole to the attic without a ladder, or who can tolerate a mouthful of ice the longest. It's all a very serious business. We glassies are a competitive sort.

All right, that's all for now. Sorry for the long post, but it's been a while. I got called out on that from a couple different people, so thank you, you got me motivated again. I'm planning on posting a top 5 list for things I miss from home (things like "home" and "family" will be excluded on grounds that they are obvious choices).

Someone please give George Clooney a hug.