Saturday, May 21, 2011

Austrailia Report

              Journey to the Land Down Under

    On the 18th day of June, Richard and I, along with sister Barbie and favorite brother-in-law John, and four other couples who are friends of ours, from WSD went on a wonderful journey that began at LAX.  Martie drove us, and the Colliers, and all of our luggage, to the airport.  Tucked safely inside my bag are my newly acquired “REI” pants with the eight handy pockets and the zip-off legs.  I love them!  I look like such a stud in them.  Our destination was Sydney, Australia. 

In the airport, Barb is bored.  We have walked the airport.  We have been to the Marriott to eat salads and to drink martinis with olives.  John-o has been here to give her his video camera. She is ready to record some action.  So far, there is no action.

 We make a video record of members of our group eating stuff and killing time.   I realize that I left my container of adult beverages at home, along with my little bitty cheeses wrapped in red wax.  Damn.

We meet up with some of our travel mates.  I find Barb’s boyfriend.  (You know that game?  The one where you find an unfortunate-looking or acting person and be the first one to say, “That’s your boyfriend!”) He is pacing back and forth with his hands poked in the back of his trousers.  He has painted flowers and palm trees on his luggage and backpack with pastel puffy paint, so he will be able to locate them on the luggage carrousel.  He turns out to be a very nice guy, but at this point we are not sure. 

Somewhere during the planning of this trip, I realized that I would be trapped in the plane for 14 hours.  In a chair.  Some events, like giving birth and sitting for 14 hours in an airplane seat, just call for drugs.  I am glad my doctor agreed.  I have tested them out to make sure I do not die when I take them with adult beverages and they passed.  How embarrassing to die on an airplane that didn’t crash.  Not to mention inconvenient.  But it’s too early for the travel drugs.  So we pass the time making light, gentle fun of people, as if we were in junior high.  We go into the ladies room and pass the vodka that we have in a flask under the stall.  My toilet automatically flushes twice before I even sit down.  This causes us to giggle uncontrollably.
We finally board and eat dinner again.  I take my travel pills, and know nothing until two days later, according to the calendar, and the cabin attendants are serving breakfast.  Why didn’t I think of travel drugs before?!

We get off the plane in Sydney.  Wow!  We are here safely, but John's bag is, well, …not. Our group leader, Tim, is waiting for us with a GC sign.  He is a comforting sight.  I overhear people talking about how we have only three more hours to go...  Um, what?
 Aren't we here? 
Sometimes it's a good thing to be unaware and dependent upon others to get you to each destination, because if I had known I had to get back on another plane when we just got here, I might have gotten cranky. I knew we were going to Cairns, I just wasn't prepared for it to be immediately.
As we wait for our flight to Cairns, (pronounced Cans, so why they don't just spell it this way, I don't know.  Actually, it's pronounced, "Cans" the way one would say it if one were in England or better yet, New England.) I sit on the floor and charge my camera battery.  I left it on in my camera case for the first of many times. 
While waiting for our flight, I hear a voice on the P.A. system call stragglers to gate 11 to board flight 19 to the Gold Coast. 
A minute later, "Flight 19 is in its final boarding process.  Board the plane NOW!"
A minute later, even more emphatically, "Final boarding call for flight 19 to the Gold Coast!  If you aren't on the plane, you aren't going!  The flight is closed!"
Thirty seconds later,  "Will Mr. Ralph Soandso PUH-LEEZE go to Gate 11!  Your flight is getting ready to leave!"
YES!! This is my kind of country!  In the States, if you are late for your flight, they just leave your sorry ass.  Here, they give you a personal page.  I need this type of service, as I have been known to miss calls for flights.  I have found my place!

The second flight was only three hours. A piece of cake, unless those three hours are the hours numbered 15, 16, and 17!  Barb threatens to run up and down the aisle screaming at about the beginning of hour number sixteen.  That should be entertaining, so I encourage her to do it.  She doesn’t. 
  We travel from the airport to our hotel in Cairns by tour bus.  Barb comments on the fact that she is 50 years old,
 and the fact that she is getting on a tour bus,
 and the fact that she is wearing a coordinated jogging suit.  (With no intention of jogging.)
 She’s having an age crises, I think.
 It is beautifully lush here.  The weather is perfect.  Our hotel, The Clarion, is perfect.  It appears to be situated in a rainforest.  We are actually in Palm Cove, a lovely little resort town with a climate rather like Southern California.  Other than the fact that we are out of wack time-wise, I feel at home.
We head for the Bottle Store, our first Ausi colloquialism.  After acquiring provisions, we set out to explore our surroundings.  Keeping in mind that, according to Bill Bryson there are 3 trillion things that can kill you while in Australia, we poke about carefully.   We photograph several wicked looking spiders.  We eat take-out while safely ensconced within our compound at Palm Cove.  Wimps.

We sleep lying flat.  Heaven. 

We awake on day "four" and have a wonderful breakfast that includes little spiney items that no one seems to be able to identify.  We are delighted with them and take several on our plates to photograph, taste, and exclaim over.  We secretly wonder if they are among the things that can kill you in Australia.  We later learn that they are thingies.  We also learn that vegemite, as in the song, "The Land Down Under," is a buttery, soy-sauce-type goo.  I cannot imagine eating a vegemite sandwich.   When we return to our rooms, John's bag is there. 

After our breakfast adventure, we meet with our leader, Tim, and have one of those introduce-yourselves-type-events.  I don't know why I always have a powerful urge to make up an extraordinarily bazaar life for myself when I find myself in these events.  It's all I can do not to put myself on the lunatic fringe of the group by saying that my mother was a hooker and my brother is a mass murderer, and, perhaps you've heard of my Great Aunt, Lizzie Borden.  Since there were three of my ordinary family members and several friends who have known me for quite a while with us in the group, I had to say that I was a retired teacher, ho-hum. 

Let them find out for themselves that I am a member of the Lunatic Fringe.

As it turns out there are many retired educators on this tour.  We meld together well and end up as a friendly, supportive group.  Harv and Richard begin the "Who is the Goofiest Dude" contest.  Richard is not my fault and I need a t-shirt that says so.

We get on the bus to go to the Rainforest Habitat.  They divide us into two groups, the Kangaroos and the Koalas, just like a field trip.  I begin to get a rash, as I do whenever I’m reminded of school things.  I find myself lost from my group, almost immediately.  I was just taking photos of stuff and everyone left me.   I walk on, and to my unending delight I come upon a friendly wallaby.  Fortunately, Cherrille and Duane appear with something that looks like Quaker Oats.  They are separated from their group as well.  We feed, take pictures of, and are enchanted by the little critters. 
The rainforest preserve is excellent.  They have many species. Most are roaming free.  Even a bad-tempered Emu, who comes quite close to me, with a grouchy look on her face.  She leans toward me and opens her mouth, and I have to practice my method of running hysterically while trying to keep that calm, “I’m not even slightly afraid of you” look.  It’s that same style of running from bees that I used to employ when my children were little and I didn’t want to give them my crippling fear of bees.  Picture a funeral director running.  You know how they have that way of not moving any body part other than their feet when they walk?  Well, it worked on the emu. 
Sadly, however it didn’t work on my children.  They don’t care for bees either.  Perhaps it was that time when we were coming home from the beach and one flew into the car while we were stopped at a stoplight.  I flung the door open and jumped out into the traffic.  When I took my foot off the clutch, the car leapt forward into the bumper of the car in front of us.  My daughter was in junior high so she was mortally embarrassed.  There was her mother squealing and jumping around in her bathing suit and the guy in front of us was letting me know that he was not pleased.  Furthermore, he had no sympathy for the fact that there was a bee in my car.
Where was I?  Oh, yes, Australia.
 In a rainforest.
 Running from a surly emu.
I hopped on a wooden bridge-like pathway and the bird, which I saw eye-to-eye with, I might add, decided not to follow me.  This wooden pathway took me through all four of the levels of the forest and even a little above. 
Little did I know that I would later travel again through the layers of a rainforest and even above.  Way above. 

First, we have a few moments of civilization in the form of Port Douglas.  There are souvenirs and beer.  Ever the tourist, I buy a mini boomerang and some rhythm sticks.  We re-board the bus (Barb continues to state her age and comment upon her attire when getting on the bus) and head for parts unknown.  We end up at a one hundred year old hotel/pub out in the middle of nowhere.  The people who were involved in the filming of Survivors of the Australian Outback stayed there.  Ah.  Well, then.  The crew should have been paid extra for roughing it.  Our other sister, a Survivor fan will be a jealous wreck when she hears about this. 

We end up at a working ranch called Whetherby Station.  The person who runs the ranch is a perky gal named Jenny, who isn’t over 5 feet tall or over 100 pounds.  I couldn't help but think of a heroine of a bad romance novel.  Except that her hair wasn't a wild tangle of curls and her eyes weren't a deep azure blue, and there was no gorgeous stud there, (without four legs) to my knowledge.  But don't those types of novels usually take place on an isolated ranch somewhere where the brave, but stubborn protagonist is in voluntary exile because some man has broken her heart into infinitesimal pieces, and…

Once again, I digress.  Whetherby Station is run for tourists, as well as for sheep and cattle.  Jenny and her talented dog, demonstrate how easily they can separate cattle or sheep out of the herd.  Her horse is very well trained, too.  They are a great trio, and I am quite impressed with the dog.

After spending about an hour and a half with the animals, they took us into the farmhouse and served us a delicious barbeque dinner including steaks, lamb, and chicken.  I had the chicken.  I find it impossible to eat a species I have just visited.  After dinner, Pete played his guitar and sang Aussie campfire-type songs.  I did not know that “Sixteen Tons” was an Aussie campfire song!  On the way home we saw a great video about kangaroos called, "Faces in the Mob".

The following morning we have breakfast in the unbelievable gardens of the Hotel Clarion.  I take my seasick pills, as we are going on a boat trip today.  We are headed for the Great Barrier Reef. 
We meet in front of the hotel and board the bus.  Barb is still fifty but she has traded her jogging suit for shorts.  The bus driver tells us that we may well have used up all of our luck today on the weather.  Indeed, it is beautiful. 

From the Cairns Marina, we head for Trinity Warf, and then on to Fitzroy Island, and the reef.  There is unexpected entertainment on the boat!  The sea is quite choppy and watching people walk is fall-down-hysterically funny.  Those who forgot to take their seasick pills, redecorate their outfits for the day. 

There is a glass-bottom boat and a glass-sided boat to ride about the reef on.  We preview the depths via this method.  We have a lovely buffet.  Now Barb and I don our snorkeling gear and prepare to go into the sea.  John is a diver, so he gets ready to scuba. 

Snorkel.  It’s a perfect word for it.  We snorkeled when we got in the water.  We snorkeled when we saw little fish near us.  We snorkeled when we lifted our heads to have our pictures taken.  (Perhaps it was because when we lifted our heads, our snorkel tube went into the water.)  At any rate we definitely snorkeled!

While in the water, my sister and I squeal so loudly and so much, that people on the boat can hear us even though the squeaks are coming out of our little snorkely tubes.   We spot John and begin to swim after him, squealing and thrashing, and snorkeling even more.  We spy a four-foot eel and, well, we just get out of the water quickly and quietly in a lady-like way.  Not. 

Although the diving and snorkeling area is cordoned off to keep us safely gathered in, and there is a rescue helicopter waiting on a floating dock close-by, and the multitudinous crew members are ever on guard, we feel that we have just survived a great adventure.

Day six takes us to an Aboriginal cultural center called Tjapuki.  (Pronounced Ja-bu-ki) It was great!  We went to a show where these Maori guys are dressed in their native garb and painted in white patterns the way they were” way back when” and they danced and played the didgeridoo.  They were excellent as well as funny, making references to microwaves and DVD players, while imparting Aboriginal history, culture lessons, and legends. 
Next we had the opportunity to throw boomerangs and chuck spears.  It is a good thing that we don’t have to rely on our skills at either of those activities.  We would starve.
From the Tjapukai Center, we boarded a sky-rail to take us up to the top of a huge, mountainous rainforest.  We weren’t expecting it to be so high or so long!  It was eight kilometers, (whatever that means), and we were in the clouds and higher than a jet at one point.  To be fair, I think the jet may have been on its descent into landing, but STILL!  I can’t begin to imagine how they built a sky gondola ride that long and high.  We got off about half-way up for a brief walk-about, and found a spider as big as my fist.  I’ll bet that he was one of the three trillion things that can kill you in Australia. 
      At the top of the sky-ride was a town called Kuranda.  We had a delicious lunch from a street vendor, (Were we brave, or what!?) and shopped for souvenirs.  I bought a t-shirt that turned out to match my REI stud pants exactly.
     That evening was dining-experience-in-a-real-Aussi-home night.  We broke up into groups and went to homes “nearby.”  Our dinner home was in BFE, and was a small step up from a trailer.   The woman was a single mum who wanted to send her son to private school.  Her son was precocious and funny.  The food was chicken tenders from Costco.
    When we reconvened at the hotel, we compared experiences.  Barb and John went to a home full of Japanese exchange students and they did the dinner thing so they could practice English.  They said the home was out of Better Homes and Gardens.  Ours was out of Sordid Lives.  At least we didn’t get the guy who put the cooked chicken back on the platter with the raw chicken juice that another group got.    
    The next day it is June 24th and that means it is both Barbie & John and Richard & Lynn’s anniversary.  After breakfast, we head for the Royal Flying Doctors Headquarters.  This is a group of doctors who fly to people in the outback who would have no health care otherwise.  They explained to us that each group or village gets an outline of a human body with numbered areas so they can tell the doctors what area number hurts.  The gals who were giving the presentation were perky and funny.  One of them began to tell a story of two men in the outback and one of them got bitten on the tallywacker by a poisonous snake.  (About this time we recognized it as one of our favorite jokes.) Anyway she gets to the part where the one who had gone for help and was told by the flying doctor that he was to cut an X on the bite and suck out the poison returned, Richard yelled out, “The doctor says you’re gonna die!!”  He ruined her joke.  I was so embarrassed.  Again. I had to say, “He’s not my fault.”
    With that we went to the Cairns Airport and got on flight QF 925 to Sydney.  It was 1,221 miles of the bumpiest ride I’d ever had.  I could see the wings outside and they were flapping!  If I hadn’t been holding the plane up by my tray table, we never would have made it.
We safely arrived at the Grace Hotel, a lovely, ritzy, old hotel with lots of crown molding and fancy lighting in downtown Sydney.  I loved it at first sight.  After settling in we head out on foot for the Circular Quay(“key”), and Darling Harbor for our first glimpse of the opera house.  We ate outside by the water, with the lights of the city and the bridge surrounding us and reflecting off the water of the famous Darling Harbor.  It was glorious. 
Something I learned; Tia Maria makes a good dessert if one isn’t on a diet.  What an anniversary!
OK, the next day is our anniversary too, because it’s the 24th back at home.  After breakfast we boarded another bus, (yes, Barb is still 50) and go for a tour.  We went around a hilly neighborhood of typical Sydney homes.  Our tour guide gave us the approximate cost of most of the property.  We saw Nicole Kidman’s house where she grew up, where she went to school, and where she lives now.  They are proud of her.

 We then, went to Bondi (Bond-eye) Beach.  Since it is winter, there were no bathers.  Ha, It was colder than…well, it was cold.  Then we went to the CBD Museum and saw a demonstration of Aboriginal music (irrikki) and some more history.  I like the dotty art of the Aborigine people.  My favorite was the display of the shoes that had been dotted.  There were children on a field trip there.  I got a rash.  I do not know what CBD stands for, but I enjoyed the museum. 
We then went to tour the Opera House.  Well. What can I say that hasn’t been said about it?  Briefly, there was this contest to see who had the best design and some Swedish guy won.  He worked on it for a while, abandoned it, and another guy finished it.  Inside, it is a normal performing arts building.  It just has sails on the outside.  
Somewhere in there we went to see Mrs. Macquarie’s Chair.  Mr. Macquarie must have been important, but I’ve forgotten why.  Mrs. Macquarie’s chair did not look very comfortable, but she could sit in it and watch the happenings in Darling Harbor.  The harbor is not named the Darling Harbor because it’s cute.  It is named after a man named Mr. Darling.  How embarrassing.
For our anniversary that night, everybody in our group went to dinner at Nick’s Bar and Grill.  Actually we would have all eaten there even if it had not been our anniversary.  After dinner, Barb and I bought “No Worries” T-shirts.
After breakfast the next morning we got in our lovely bus once more and headed for “The Rocks.”  John wasn’t on the bus when it was time to go so we left him.  Apparently they won’t let anyone get left behind in an airport, but if you aren’t on the bus, you’re walking.  John didn’t have any trouble finding us since he had been to Australia before.
The Rocks.  This is Old Sydney.  It is appropriately called The Rocks because it is literally carved out in the sandstone of Sydney.  We learned a bunch of stuff about the criminals who started the new colony from our guide whose great, great, great grandmother was one of them.  She was in jail for stealing a hankie.  We visited the Darling house and an archeological dig.  We learned that a “Larrikins” is a troublemaker.  I know many of them.  I’m married to one.
Later, we went on the best harbor cruise.  Darling Harbor is beautiful.  It has many bays and inlets within it, a wonderful bridge over it, and one very small opening to the South Pacific.  The guide pointed out Nicole Kidman’s house from the boat.  Yes, they are quite proud of her.

After our morning tours of great icons, we went back downtown and to a deli for lunch.  When we went in the door the proprietor greeted John by name.  He’s a busy boy.  It’s called the Manhattan Deli, and the food was delicious.  I recommend the Penne Pesto, and the Risotto, followed by a nap.
Later, we walked for two hours, signed up for the Harbor Bridge Climb, and then walked some more to a Thai food restaurant.  We took a taxi back to the hotel.  Unfortunately the taxi driver didn’t know the way.  Fortunately John did. 
Just so you know, if one wants a beer, it’s a “cannie.”  While I thinking about it, I might as well give you a few more Aussie words that I found either delightful or funny.
Boofhead            Idiot
Choof off            Go away
Dag    or Daggy        Idiot, Geek, or Dufus
Chuck a spaz            Be angry
Chuck a mental        Be angry
Drongo                Idiot
Nong                Idiot
Kark it!                Die
Narky                Upset, Moody
Winge                Complain
And don’t think the Aussie people are grouchy!  No, there are ways to say that’s great, too.
Crash Hot            The best, Great!
Onya                Good for you
Good on ya             Good for you
Half your luck        Congratulations
Chooky                Sweetie-Pie
Fair Dinkum            Fair, Honest
And many useful terms.
Sickie                Day off
U-ie                    U-turn
Rug Up                Dress for cold
Crook                Ill
I noticed they “Chuck” a lot of things.  In addition to chucking spazs, they also might “Chuck a u-ie” if they are making a u-turn.  If, say, someone in the land of Oz plans to call in sick the next day, he will tell his mates that he is going to chuck a sickie tomorrow.  I like that.  If I weren’t retired, I’d chuck a sickie tomorrow.
The next morning after breakfast, we went to a shopping mall called the Queen’s Mall.  It had large, animated historical dioramas everywhere.  It also had giant stained glass windows and ornate ironworks.  There was a stained glass domed ceiling that rivaled St. Paul’s Church.  It had a Gap and Nordstrom.  I bought a tiny “roo” for my car shrine.
(OK.  My car shrine is a small triptych with holy cards of saints and angels.  I cut out faces of my children and grandchildren and pasted them on the faces of the saints and angels.  I put my face on the biggest angel.  Then I hanged some old dangly earrings and feathers on it.  On the floor of it, I placed tiny items that are me, like a watering pitcher and gardening tools, some seashells, etc.  I also have a Buddha, a statue of the pope, I think, and a Star of David, and of course a pair of tap shoes.)
After lunch Barbie, John, and I took a taxi to the Sydney Harbor Bridge.  Oh, I’m starting to get nervous just writing these words.  We sign waivers that we won’t sue them if we fall and happen to live through it.  We put on ugly gray jumpsuits.  We have to put everything we brought with us into a locker, because as they said, if we happened to drop a quarter from that height it would kill someone on the ground, or in a passing boat.  If we needed to wear glasses, they had to be strapped on.  Then we had to hook this belt and ball thing on our waist and practice using it on a raised platform. 
While doing this activity, I hear, “There’s your boyfriend!” in my ear.  The ever-alert Barbie found my boyfriend in our group.  He was a doozey.  He had at least three teeth to call his own and didn’t look too “with it,” if you know what I mean.  I found hers.  He had a carpet of hair growing out of his ears.  He looked like he was wearing little mink earplugs.  I doubt he could hear a thing.  I think I made the best boyfriend find.
Then we took off to climb the bridge for the next three hours.  Oh, my.
Our intuitive guide, Jason, put Barbie and I in the front of the line, along with my boyfriend.  We can tell he always puts the goonies close to him so he can watch out for them.  We were the goonies.  We begin and when we are still on step one, I look down and we are already so high up the people below us  look quite small.
 I feel as if I am going to barf and I wonder if those little people down below us will appreciate that    Let me say that I am not afraid of heights, I am just afraid of falling off of high places and I constantly picture myself plummeting down from them.  With that said, you will understand why I spent the first one hundred steps with my eyes closed and humming a light little dirge. Since I could not see, I had to feel my way with each step, which took a little longer but I felt it was worth it.
As I begin to get a little braver, I open my eyes, but I keep them looking straight up, sort of like Bernadette Peters did when Steve Martin told her not to look at her plate because there were snails on it, in the movie, “The Jerk.”  I still have to feel my way with my feet, which I’m sure you will agree one must be very careful when you are a zillion feet off the ground.  You don’t want to be putting any weight on that foot until you are sure that all of it is on solid ironworks.
Our patient guide keeps asking me of I’m alright and looking at me as if I were a fifty-eight year old pregnant lady.  I begin to get slightly more embarrassed than I am nervous, so I start “looking where I’m going.”  Just like Mama always said to.  Just as I’m beginning to get a little cocky, we come to several flights of, well, ladders, actually.  They are arranged like a staircase in a building is, except that when you go from one staircase, or ladder-case, as it were, there is nothing underneath you.  Nothing.  So when you have climbed to the top of one ladder you must hover out over Nothing and turn to get to the bottom of the next ladder.  Did I mention that there is nothing under us?  I am completely traumatized by this and think it cannot get any worse, when a commuter train rumbles by, shaking these ladders to the tune of a seven-point-oh earthquake.
Somehow we make it to the top and Jason arranges us for some photos for us to purchase when we get back down.  I am just happy to be halfway home!  I think we are ready for the easy part until I think of the ladders going down.




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