Monday, January 26, 2009

We had a 3-day weekend and you didn't: Australia Day

This weekend was our first Australia Day weekend. For a little background, I turned to Wikipedia:

Australia Dayis the official national day of Australia. Celebrated annually on 26 January, the day commemorates the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788, the unfurling of the British flag at Sydney Cove and the proclamation of British sovereignty over the eastern seaboard of Australia. There have been significant protests from the Indigenous Australian community. Many Indigenous Australians see Australia Day as a celebration of the destruction of Indigenous culture by British colonialism. Since 1988, "Invasion Day" protests have been held supporting this view.

Fascinating - and we thought it was just an excuse not to go to work!

Friday night, Eric and I went to one of his co-worker's birthday celebration at a local pub. While no one can really explain why, schnitzel is on the menu at just about every restaurant in Sydney. Schnitzel, by the way, is basically just meat beat until it is very flat, breaded, and fried. This pub was famous for its large schnitzel portions, so Eric and I decided to have a go at the cheesy schnitzel. I wanted to have Eric hold his hand next to the schnitzel in the picture below for reference, but he was already sufficiently embarassed that I was photographing our dinner. I believe the cheesy chicken schnitzel below actually served as six meals by the time all was said and done. At $18, this is the best value in Sydney. I think there's a reason that Australia has just overtaken the US as the fattest country in the world, although the Australians still like to make fun of fat Americans and our gargantuan meal sizes.
Saturday morning, Eric and I drove the 3.5 hours to Canberra, a really lovely drive through the countryside. Amazingly, we only saw a couple of dead kangaroos. After arriving, we visited the National Australia Museum and then went to the National Film and Sound Archives for a movie in their courtyard under the stars. The courtyard was filled with fresh lavendar, we had really comfy deck chairs, and the bar supplied us with wine and cheese -- it was devine.
Sunday we visited the markets in the old bus terminal, where I bought a sweater made from leftover yarn in cotton factories for $40 (second best value in Australia). Then we went to the visiting Degas exhibit at the National Gallery, which was about 1,000X better than the visiting Monet exhibit I saw at the art museum here in Sydney. For $18, the Monet exhibit in Sydney had two small rooms of paintinings. For $20, the National Gallery had a full-size Degas exhibit. To be clear, all of the museums themselves are free; the only fees are for the special exhibits. This is really nice because it allows you to pop in for an hour without feeling guilty if you don't see the entire museum. Following that, we visited the Old Parliament House and the National Portrait Gallery, but our brains were a little too full from all of the learning. I did learn, though, that Kevin Rudd's ancestors were both convicts who came over with the First Fleet. His great-great-great-great grandmother (or whatever) was convicted of some crime so heinous at age 10 that she was sentenced to death. At the last minute, her sentence was commuted to deportation to Australia, which was pretty much seen as the same thing.
Clearly it was time for beer, so we moved on to the lawn of the New Parliament House for the Australia Day Live festival. Canberra is a very small city, but almost 30,000 people turned out to demonstrate their patriotism and love of bad pop music played live. Before the music, though, K-Rudd was onhand to present the Australian of the Year Awards: Young Australian of the Year, Senior Australian of the Year, and just plain ol' Australian of the Year. It was kind of surreal to realise that the head of state was up on the stage at what was essentially a holiday celebration in the middle of nowhere. It's surprising how much access Australians have to their Prime Minister. He's on the news all the time taking unscripted, pointed questions, and apparently he walks around Canberra every morning and allows people to come up and chat with him. I got within about 30 feet of him to take the picture below. Behind him you can see my favourite newscaster, who made fun of the Pope's shoes on live television.

On Monday, which was actually Australia Day, Eric and I hit the War Memorial before driving back to Sydney. The memorial itself is quite impressive, as is the museum housed within the memorial, and the view is one of the best in Canberra. In the bottom picture, you can see down the Mall to the Old and New Parliament Houses. The Old Parliament House is the white building in front, while the New Parliament House and it's weird metal arch sits just behind it. The little bit of water that you see between the War Memorial and the Parliament Houses is an arm of Lake Burley-Griffin, the lake around which much of downtown Canberra is built.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Eric's pictures from Seven Mile Beach/Jervis Bay

Yeah, it sucks here. No idea why anyone would ever come visit us...Seriously guys, the American dollar is kicking ass over here -- buy a ticket!

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Seven Mile Beach and Jervis Bay

Eric and I drove the two hours down the coast to Seven Mile Beach Friday afternoon after work. While we've come to expect less than a return to nature from our Australian camping experiences, the campsite above was still a little disappointing. Little did we know that the ambience would be enhanced after dark by the psychotic lady in the cabin across the road parking her car in our "campsite," leaving her sun-like porch light on all night, and shrilly screaming about what a loser her husband was until 3 am. At daylight, Eric and I wearily took down the tent and vowed never to return, despite the fact that we had already paid $85 to utilise this patch of grass next to the road for two nights.

We made an attempt at surfing in what were some of the largest waves we've been out in before the little energy we'd stored in the three hours of sleep we'd gotten ran out. We decided to drive a little further down the coast to Jervis Bay, find a nice park, and pass out. Ideally, we hoped we'd find a beach that didn't look too patrolled where we could ignore the "No Camping" signs and throw up our tent after dark that evening.

We paid our $10 to get into the Jervis Bay National Park and spent the afternoon taking little dirt roads to isolated beaches. On one little trail, Eric spotted an echidna, a cousin of the platypus that is the only other mammal to lay eggs. Imagine a porcupine with a platypus beak ( He was totally oblivious to us as he rustled under the leaves with his little beak looking for something tasty to eat.

It was all very lovely, but my eyes were getting bleary from sleep deprivation by the time we reached an aboriginal village at the end of one road in the park. While the US government pulled a bait and switch, relocating the Native Americans to land that couldn't sustain much more than a family of lizards, the aboriginees have been given some of the land where they actually lived for thousands of years. We set up our tent in a big tree-covered field overlooking the ocean, and I vowed never to leave. However, we noticed as the afternoon waned that all of the non-aboriginees were packing up their gear and heading home, and the aboriginees themselves were giving us some funny looks.

I was too afraid to ask whether we could stay because I was horrified to think we would have to leave this fantasy place, but fortunately Eric was braver. He went over to a family's campsite and asked the man whether people were allowed to stay here. The man told him that only people from the aboriginal village, like his wife, were allowed to stay overnight. Eric and I started to pack our things to go when his wife ran over and told us that it was very respectful to have asked, and they'd be happy if we stayed as their guests. I was so relieved not to have to leave and scavenge for another place to stay that I did a little happy dance.

Well rested, we began to explore the area in the few hours before dark. There was a trail through the woods that lead down to a large beach of dead coral where we watched crabs and other mysterious sea creatures scurry about as the tide came in. A man who was fishing with his daughter called us over to see a giant ray that was sculling along the rocky shore looking for abandoned bait. He was gliding along so gracefully, but the little girl kind of spoiled it by musing that perhaps this was the ray who killed Steve Irwin. Later, this little girl and I were discussing a dead kangaroo a little ways up the beach when she hypothesised that the poor roo had also met his fate at the "hands" of the ray. I was glad we were staying up on top of a cliff as there was clearly a killer ray on the loose!

Our explorations complete, Eric and I spent the evening sipping beer and reading our books, watching the sun set over the ocean. The weather was fine, so we didn't even put on the rain fly. It's probably the happiest I've been since we've come to Australia. Given how the day began, it was certainly a surprise.

In the morning, we went to thank the lady for allowing us to stay. We chatted for a while, and I was struck by the fact that we share a lot of personal information with a lot of people before ever sharing our names. Is this because a) our names, as identifying information, are really precious and we tend to guard them, b) we think it sounds presumptuous to share our names, like we're starting a lifelong friendship, or c) we're just so caught up with trying to make conversation with strangers that we forget?

Anyway, we tried battling the surf again, but I was bested by the waves. When the surf is small, as long as you can catch a wave, it's pretty easy to manipulate. When the surf is big, there's a pretty good chance the waves are going to catch you against your will and show you who's boss. I guess some days are just better than others...and this is why people who have been surfing for years still don't consider themselves "good."

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

It's a tough life

I went to early work yesterday so that I could leave at 4:30 to catch a train to Cronulla, the beach town an hour south of Sydney where Eric works. Eric picked me up at the train station, and we were in the water by just after 6:00. There was very little surf, but it was a beautiful evening to be splashing around in the water. I caught two waves legitimately, meaning before they broke, and I rode another wave long enough to actually steer the board. You can't ask for much more. If you look on the horizon in the picture above, you can see the desalination plant that Eric is helping to design. If you were reading this blog back in August and remember me complaining about a 19 km walk, we walked from where this picture was taken, past the plant to the end of the peninsula, and back!

In the same post when I was complaining about the 19 km hike, I was also exposing the fraud that is Hog's Breath Australia. I swear they have attempted to swipe the identity of one of my favourite bars back home. However, they do have a lovely location on the water, so we decided to have dinner and a jug of beer there after surfing. Eric made me promise not to say anything, which was really difficult when the waiter asked, "Have you ever been to a Hog's Breath before?" I sputtered for a minute before Eric answered "no" for both of us. I did compose a short essay on the comment card after our meal, though. I gave them high marks for food, service, etc., but I also let them know I'm watching them...Next time I'm wearing my Hog's Breath Destin t-shirt!

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Let's go surfing now, everyone is learning how!

Eric and I have been surfing four of the last six days, and it has been AWESOME! Okay, it was awesome until today, which was really windy, creating huge waves that pummeled us into submission. It was good for me to realise that this is why I attempted to surf for almost two years in Florida and only stood up once. In Florida, the waves were either too small for me to catch with my girly arms or fueled by the wind, similar to the ones we battled with today. Here, we mostly get lovely waves that roll in in an orderly fashion and are big enough to push me along. I'm still kind of cheating, usually catching waves once they've already broken rather than riding down the face, but I regularly get to see the view from a standing position on my board. Next trick, actually controlling the direction of the board...Regardless of our skill level, there isn't a much nicer day than driving along the coast south of Sydney looking for a nice break, jumping in the water for an hour or two, and then eating our sandwiches on the beach. Since Eric's company pays for all of our petrol, it's even free!

More Hunter Valley pictures...

Our friend, Jake, got this amazing shot as we hiked across a field to dinner. It was amazing that the restaurant recommended to us was just a short jaunt away. After a day at the vineyards and then more wine back at the house, walking was definitely our most appropriate mode of transportation.At dinner, we were informed that pushing your head out and chin down made for the most attractive portraits. I think I look a little like Gollum from Lord of the Rings. Eric just looks generally like a deviant.The walk back across the field, after MORE wine, was a bit more adventurous. We had Dan's iPhone to light our way, proving that the iPhone really can do it all. It actually has a flashlight feature. As we were walking in the (almost) pure darkness, Jake kept snapping photos of us, lighting the field for seconds at a time with his flash. Things got really interesting once someone said, "What if there is a murderer in these pictures with us that we can't see now??" Probably the single creepiest thing I've ever heard.

We sought solace in yet more wine over games until the wee hours once we arrived back at the house. I'd say this picture sums up the majority of our time in the Hunter Valley...

After four days of "relaxing" in the Hunter Valley, this was about all we were good for. And it's just a really nice picture of two of my favourite boys. Note Otis' imitation of a kangaroo's belly.