Category Archives: Joie de vivre

Posh Birds

After the cruise we walked along the river to the Royal Botanic Gardens.  I am a crazy plant lady.  Or am I normal?  At this time of year I make several runs to my local garden shop and spend loads of money to surround myself with doomed house plants. Is there something in the human spirit, our circadian rhythms, or our sensory organs that craves green in the winter?  I think this is one explanation for the origins of the Christmas tree.

Anyway, I was in my glory in Melbourne as we boarded a trolley and listened to the silver-tongued commentary of our driver.  She had one of those soft voices that lulls you into a trance.

Once again, my photos were subject to that particular effect of the Australian sun that makes them look like my lens was smeared with Vaseline.  I kind of like it.

The guide said, waving toward a tree, “And here are some of our famous elms. We get lots of Americans coming here to see them,” she looked meaningfully at me.

Hmm.  We have elm trees in America.  A lot of them were wiped out in the 70s by Dutch Elm Disease, but we still have plenty. I wasn’t sure what she was talking about, but I kept my mouth shut because she was obviously proud of those trees.

These are banksia nuts; what I would call cones.

I bought some diffusers in the gift shop made out of polished banksia nuts.  Normally I don’t like anything scented but I have one of these by my bedside filled with Eucalyptus oil.

These are banksia flowers, one of 70 varieties.

And gum nuts. I don’t know why Eucalyptus trees are called gums, or why their flowers are called nuts.  It kind of looks like the nuts burst open and flower.  So are they really nuts?  Who cares, they’re fantastic.

I don’t know what this was; all I knew was that anything that appears to be a 20-foot-tall asparagus spear must be photographed.

I snapped this shaky photo of a banyan tree from the trolley.  I wonder if the guide found me an annoying American due to the many times I exclaimed, “Wow!”

“I could have stayed on that trolley all day,” I said to Heidi and Danielle after we reluctantly disembarked.  The driver had politely but firmly said no when we suggested going around a second time.

“I know,” said Heidi, “Our guide had such a posh Melbourne accent.”

“Is that what it was?” I asked.

“I think so.  It’s hard to tell if she was putting it on or if that was her real way of speaking.  There aren’t loads of different accents here, like in the UK.  Mainly, we have regular … ”

“Like us,” Danielle interjected.

“Country,” Heidi continued.

“Like Crocodile Dundee,” said Danielle.

“And posh,” finished Heidi.

“That guide was posh, obviously,” said Danielle.  “I don’t think Melbourne is any different from the rest of the country.”

Heidi replied, “I guess I was talking about the lilt she had, like a bird.  Hearing all the birds of Australia—I hardly notice them but Annie, you’ve been bringing them to my attention—I wonder if our accent was influenced by them.”

She glanced at her watch.  “Oh my gawd!  We’ve got to meet Andrew!”  Andrew, an old uni chum of Heidi’s.  We raced past the Victorian keeper’s house and children’s garden.

We got to Lygon Street in Little Italy where, once again, I had a moment of disorientation where wondered, “Where am I?” because all the restaurants were Italian and people were speaking Italian.

We found Andrew and settled down at a sidewalk table with wine and pasta.  Andrew works for a Member of Parliament and commutes to Canberra during the week—a seven- to eight-hour drive or one-hour flight. We talked more about language.

“The state south of yours is the Mexicans,” Heidi said.

Fair dinkum means, ‘You’ve got a point’,” said Danielle.

“What’s a slice?” I asked, and was informed it was another name for a bar-type dessert, like a brownie.

“And tucker?”

“That’s just food,” Andrew explained, as he twirled his spag bol.

Sydney to Blayney

Heidi and I would drive Auntie Margaret’s car to Blayney, a three—or five-hour—drive depending on the route.  Well, Heidi did all the driving, and thank goodness.  Someday I will overcome my phobia of driving on the left side of the road.  It’s on my bucket list.

We headed northwest toward the Blue Mountains, passing English-sounding place names like Marsden Park, Liverpool, Londonderry, Windsor, Richmond, and Gros Vale.

Then there were the—presumably—Aboriginal names, like Paramatta, Winmalee, Berambing, Megalong, and Yaramundi.   We stopped in Kurrajong for a cup of coffee, then entered the Blue Mountains.

“If you roll down your window you can hear the Bell birds,” Heidi suggested.  Yes, Auntie Margaret’s car still has crank windows.  The bells echoed near and far in the forest of Blue Gum trees.  I would love to return some day and hike through to hear the bells without wind rushing by.

When I look at the map now, I’m amazed again by the distances.  There were no straight roads, so it didn’t pay to be in a hurry. Our next stop was Katoomba.  The main street was lined with head shops and cafes serving alfalfa sprout sandwiches but most everything was closed because it was late afternoon in the off season.

“Oh, sorry, our toilet is out of order,” said the owner of the one restaurant that was open.  “The public toilet is just down the block,” and he provided complex directions. Thankfully I had not been hydrating.  Heidi braved it, “And it was pretty much as bad as you would expect,” she reported.

There was a church across the street with a tree out front covered in knitting.

I think Katoomba is probably a funky, fun town to visit in the high season.

Just outside of Katoomba was the reason we were there, the Three Sisters overlook.  My first stop was the toilet, and it made me wonder just who my fellow visitors would be.

The Three Sisters is a geological formation overlooking a vast valley.

“Can you imagine?” I commented to Heidi. “The first Europeans crossing that valley?  It reminds me of the great north woods in Minnesota, where the Voyageurs came down through what’s now Canada, portaging their massive canoes, being eaten alive by mosquitoes. And they were just teenagers, basically, from poor farms in France and England and Ireland.”

“Yes,” Heidi replied.  “I think it was pretty much the same story here, except with lots of poisonous snakes and spiders and plants.”

We took a short walk and the lowering sun threw luscious light on the gums and golden rock face.

We checked out another lookout, where a ranger who looked like Rip Van Winkle was being peppered with questions from visitors about the rocks, birds, and animals.  Most of the visitors were teens or 20-somethings from other counties and many were trying to get the perfect Instagram but they were also curious.  I know I will sound condescending when I say I found this heartening.

We drove on and took another scenic hike.  This turned out to be my favorite because the light made it all eerily beautiful.  There were these giant tulip-like flowers.

And these tiny ones.

“And I think these are Scribbly Gums,” Heidi pointed out a funny-looking tree that resembled an old man with scribbles on his skin.

“It’s getting dark,” she said.  “I don’t know how far the lookout is.”

“And it’s cold,” I added.

We turned a corner in the path and came upon a woman sitting on a bench. She was wearing sunglasses, and a parka with the hood pulled up around her face.

“Do you know how far the lookout is?” Heidi inquired.

“Noooot faarrrr,” the woman replied in a zombie voice.

We walked a few more yards, then turned back because it was getting too dark.  The woman was gone, and we never passed her even though we were hoofing it to keep warm.

One more stop in the Blue Mountains: The Hydro Majestic Hotel and Ballroom.

It was … well, deco-majestic.

Next time, I would stay the night.  We were tired and I worried about Heidi driving another two hours in the dark.

Alice to Sydney

“That was weird,” Heidi remarked as we walked on after talking to her student for a few minutes.  He was in the Red Centre for his school holiday, just like Heidi.

“You were just saying you could bump into Mr. Right around the next corner and then BAM, there was Griffin.”

“Next time I’ll specify that when I mention dating younger men I don’t mean teenagers.”

At the airport, we ran into Griffin again with his mum, who was wearing faux eyelashes.  Heidi chatted with them while I hit the gift shops to make sure I wasn’t leaving behind some important souvenir.

Then it was all aboard Flight QF791 to Sydney.  I couldn’t get the scene from the movie Rainman out of my head.  Dustin Hoffman’s character says to Tom Cruise, “Quantas never crashed.”  I couldn’t help it, I had to say it aloud to get it out of my head.  Heidi smiled indulgently.

Heidi queued up a podcast for me on her Aussie phone (as opposed to her UK phone).  I had never listened to a podcast before. I know they’re extremely popular and that the cell phone zombies all around me with earbuds in are probably listening to them.  Heidi, who spends so much time commuting, says they’re a God send.

Lost in Larrimah is a about a town of 11 people in the Outback from which one person goes missing.  It was how I learned the phrase “hooning around,” (hanging out) one of my favorite Aussie slang terms.

Sydney was cold and rainy.  The train was packed; a couple from Melbourne who were touristing in Sydney struck up a conversation with Heidi while I pretended to be extremely interested in a mobile phone advert on the wall to their left.

When Heidi mentioned we’d be driving to Melbourne in a few days, they started rattling off sights we had to see.  “Aww, you have to go see the blah blah blah!” and “You have to go see the blipplity doo doo.”  They even began providing web site addresses and street directions.

Am I the only one who finds this irritating?  Heidi was nodding pleasantly but noncommittally.  Sometimes I think I need to go live in a mountaintop cave with no human contact for a couple months to reset my tolerance for strangers.

I had topped up my Oyster card with $35, but it was minus $2 by the time we reached MacMahon’s Point.  Now it was Heidi’s turn to be irritated. “I know Sydney transport is stupidly expensive, but that just can’t be right!  I’ll call them tomorrow and fight it.  There has to be some mistake.”  She did call them eventually and spent forever being transferred and kept on hold, but got the money back.  Bravo, Heidi!

Auntie Margaret had left a bottle of cab sav for us and we partook of it while Heidi made spag bol.  Then we watched the journos on ABC and went to bed.

In the morning Heidi had to do some very thoughtful packing—she would be here, in Blayney, then Melbourne, then Canberra and possibly back in Blayney, then back to Sydney but she wasn’t sure where she’d be staying for Sydney Part II and she needed clothes for work, home, and traveling—all in the smallest bag that was not a carry on.

“I’ll go for a walk to get out of your hair,” I said, and Heidi showed me something called Wendy’s Secret Garden in nearby Lavender Bay.  She handed me her Aussie phone with the place mapped on it.  “It’s a real jumble around here,” she said.  “It looks close but it’s easy to get lost.”

And I did get delightfully lost in the maze of alleys and dead-end streets below Auntie Margaret’s flat.  If I hadn’t, I would have missed views like this.

There were lots of renos and new construction going on, adding modern houses into gaps between older ones.

I passed a construction worker smoking a hookah.

The garden had been founded by Wendy Whiteley after her husband Brett, a famous artist, died.  It was all maintained by local volunteers.

Had I inhaled?  No, the garden really was magical.

 

 

Swimming Holes and Badgers

Heidi and I got on and off the tour bus and walked up and down paths to gaze at ochre pits, gorges, and waterholes.  Lachlan, our guide, talked about the geology, anthropology, paleontology, and other ologies of the area with authority and passion.  We could lob any question at him and he knew the answer, but not in a pompous, lecturing way.

Any question, that is, except ones about the Dreamtime.  Again, we were told that those stories were off limits to non-Aboriginals.

The water holes were what I had been waiting for—I whipped off my clothes, ran barefoot across the blazing hot sand in the searing sunshine and leapt in, then screeched and screamed because the water was, surprisingly, cold as a witch’s tit, as the saying goes.  I ran back to the water’s edge and re-entered slowly.  It was so cold my heart was palpitating, but I did a couple laps around and enjoyed hearing other unsuspecting initiates shrieking as they hit the water.  Heidi sat in the shade and chatted with Lachlan.

I walked to the toilet block to change out of my wet suit, and saw this sign.

They had me at effluent.

As I write this, I am smiling and laughing.  It’s six in the morning; I hope my upstairs neighbor can’t hear me.  It was a wonderful day.  Another wonderful day in Australia.  These are photos of a dry riverbed and a big gum tree that had grown up out of a crack in the rock.

Here is Heidi contemplating another water hole; in the second photo you can almost hear her sighing with contentment.

We pulled into a place called Glen Helen for lunch.  There was a sandwich buffet and it looked beautiful, but it was placed in such a way as to make it very slow going to get through the line.  I thought I’d come back later.  I went outside, kicked off my sandals, and ran down to the water’s edge.

Shoe removal had been a very bad idea.  After cooling my feet in the water and checking out the birdlife, I picked my way back up to the canteen exclaiming, “Ooh aah agh!  Agh argh arrrrgh!” The sand was so hot my feet felt slightly scorched for an hour afterwards.

Back inside, Heidi was sitting at a table with a German guy from our tour who had severely wandering eyes.  He talked nonstop about how he had planned his whole two-week trip by himself.  Well whoop dee doo!  Heidi had planned a whole month. He never asked about our itinerary.  But Heidi isn’t one to one-up, so she simply smiled and nodded.  She is so nice.  Much nicer than me.

There was a tiny gift area and I picked up a book, hoping it would explain the mysteries of the Dreamtime.  However I think the author has been listening to too much digeridoo music, because none of it made sense.  Or maybe I’m just not deep enough to understand.

After lunch, another water hole.  I sat in the shade next to an weathered old man wearing a cowboy hat.  He pointed out a long line of ants and warned me not to get too close or they’d “set ya skin on fi-ah.”

Back in Alice after the tour, we stopped into a supply store so Heidi could find a fly net hat.  We found one, artfully displayed with beer goggles.

We ate some leftover cheese and crackers for dinner and Heidi flipped on the TV while we got ready to go to the laser light show.

We never made it to the light show.  We became riveted to The Bachelor—Australian version, which is exactly like the American version but with Australian accents.

The bachelor in question was called the honey badger.  He was a former rugby player.

I was fascinated and repelled. “What’s with the eighties hair and mustache?  I hope he’s being ironic?”

“I’ve never seen the show,” Heidi whispered, mesmerized and horrified.

“Yep,” I replied.  “They’re not allowed to say god—only gosh.  But then the guy is screwing two women at once on national TV and telling each one, ‘I’ve never felt this way about any woman.’”

Cookies and Contracts and Chasms … and Poop

Winter Solstice, in real time.  The cookie baking party was a success, if you measure success by the amount of cookie dough and sprinkles and silver balls ground into the carpet.

One child took it all very seriously and worked steadily, ignoring all the others’ silliness, to meet some quota she had set for herself.  The rest of them were very silly.

None of them are destined to compete on the Great British Baking show, but that wasn’t the point.

And there was poop.  In the middle of the chaos the three-year-old exclaimed proudly from the bathroom, “I pooped!”  That did not mean she had done it in the toilet.

I hadn’t cleaned up human poop for a long time.  It’s really, really gross.

Later, the three-year-old exclaimed from the kitchen, in a distressed tone, “There’s poop!”  In an act of karmic justice, the cat had crapped on her coat, which she’d thrown on the floor instead of on the bed as the other, older, children had done per my instructions.  Someone had closed the door to the closet where the litter box was placed, also in contradiction to my instructions.

Then everybody was pooped out. The children cuddled up on the couch and read books, and the naughty poopers fell asleep.

My son’s step daughters stayed overnight.  The next day, we went for a long walk in the woods and across Beaver Lake.

That night, without cleaning up at all, I collapsed onto the new mattress that had arrived in the middle of all this and I slept through the night for the first time in years.

Still in real time.  Yesterday was my last day at my job.  It happened to coincide with a planned team retreat to a puzzle room.  Now, I can’t stand board games or “brain teasers” or Sudoku.  I am a crossword aficionado, but I was very leery about a puzzle room.

Well it was a lot of fun.  Ten of my coworkers and I entered a room and worked to solve a mystery by the end of one hour.  If it had been just me, I would still be in the room.  But we all contributed something, even me.  Then we went for drinks at a nearby pub, and that was my last day at work.

I also finished the day with a signed agreement for six months of contract work at this same organization, and an offer letter for a part-time job at my local YMCA.

It’s been dreary and cold for months.  As I write this, it’s the shortest day of the year and I am dreaming of winter travel but not getting anything done about it.

Day 8 in Australia: The West MacDonnell Ranges.

A new tour bus pulled up in front of our motel, a nice comfy one.  Lachlan introduced himself as our guide and we were off.  We were a group of about a dozen, including a family with four children, one of whom was disabled and used a wheelchair.  I give them a lot of credit for getting out there and seeing the world when it clearly took a lot of extra effort.

Lachlan was passionate about the area, so while there were only four or five stops on the official tour, he kept saying, “We’re going to stop here; it’s not on the tour but it’s one of my favorite views.” And it would be worth it.

There was a couple sitting in front of us and the wife was a loud talker.  She started every sentence with the standard Australian “Awww,” but much louder and more nasally drawn out than normal.  I could see through the seats, her husband gazing at her adoringly.

Heidi and I looked at each other silently cracked up.  It would have been annoying if we were on a five-hour drive but we were stopping every half hour.

I will never remember all the stops but I will never forget Standley Chasm.  We walked through a glade to said chasm and back, and Heidi and I agreed there was something about the place … we both felt a sensation of peacefulness descend on us.

Caravans and Bunkhouses

Last week I wrote a Facebook post which went sort-of viral:

Long post but important, I think.

There seems to be a lot of misunderstanding about immigrants, migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers. It’s important to know that asylum seekers Are Not Eligible to receive government benefits (no subsidized housing, no food stamps, no welfare, etc.) and they also are Not Allowed to work in the US for five months after their arrival.  

Most of the people in the so-called caravan in Mexico are hoping to claim asylum. They have the right to do so under international law. That Does Not Mean they will be granted asylum; the process can take years, and only 10% will be approved.

Asylum seekers are people who have been tortured, imprisoned, raped, and otherwise abused by their own governments, militias, gangs, police, etc. This may have been because they were fighting government corruption, organizing small businesses or unions, they were related to someone who was doing these things, they were the wrong religion or ethnic group, or they were at the wrong place at the wrong time. 

How would you survive for five months if you weren’t allowed to work and you couldn’t get any public benefits? While they wait for their cases to be heard, asylum seekers literally depend on the kindness of strangers. Many clients of my organization, the Center for Victims of Torture, depend on two local religious orders, the Sisters of St. Joseph and the Franciscan Friars, for housing. When you are thinking about year-end donations, think about contributing to one of them.

I don’t know why this particular post spurred people to share it.  When I started working where I work, I remember being shocked that asylum seekers could not work or get government benefits.

“But how do they survive?” I asked one of our social workers.

“Barely, that’s how,” she replied. She explained that they go from couch to couch in the homes of friends of friends who belong to their same nationality, or they sleep in homeless shelters, because there’s no way the Sisters of St. Joseph and Franciscan Friars can house all of them. “You can imagine,” she continued, “how stressful it is for someone who’s been tortured and is having flashbacks and is afraid of being sent back—how stressful it is to be in a homeless shelter, with people yelling and fighting with each other.”

Heidi and I arrived at Ayers Rock Airport, located in Yulara, a five-hour drive from Alice Springs.

Here, I would have a comical flashback to my son’s time in prison.

Heidi, with the help of her sister—a travel agent—had planned this whole thing.  I had followed Heidi’s instructions to bring only a backpack. She had also urged me to bring a pair of shoes I wouldn’t mind tossing when we left, since rugged hiking and the red dust would destroy any footwear but hiking boots.  I don’t own boots and I didn’t have time to break in a new pair.

A bus took us to Ayers Rock Resort, which holds a monopoly on accommodations in the centre.  There is every level of price and comfort, from a luxury hotel to caravan park, all owned by the same people.

Heidi had booked us in to a bunkhouse.  “I reckoned we’re only here one night, so how bad could it be?”

It was actually named the “Pioneer Lodge.”  There’s a reason they don’t show photos of the interiors on the website.

These people are outside because, well, who would want to spend any time inside?

 

“I feel like we’re in an episode of Orange is the New Black,” I commented as we surveyed the place.

“We’ll certainly get our thirty-eight dollars’ worth,” quipped Heidi.  It was, indeed, only for one night—this was an adventure.

We “fought” over who would sleep up top with the giant pipe.  Heidi sleeps through the night, while I get up several times to use the bathroom.  “You can’t climb down that ladder in the dark,” she insisted.

“I could hold a flashlight in my teeth,” I suggested feebly.  Heidi didn’t get much sleep, since the pipe turned out to be a hot air pipe.

Life is Like a Box of Chocolates

You never know what you’re going to get.

One moment my passport was in my bag, the next moment it wasn’t.   Did someone steal it?  Did it fall out somewhere?  I have no idea and I have covered so much ground it’d be fruitless to go looking.  I’ve torn apart my room and suitcase five times over but no luck.

My advice to you: Never lose your passport.  It’s a real hassle. Um, that’s an understatement.

Last week I added a night to my stay on the Queensland coast to spend more time near the Great Barrier Reef, Daintree rainforest, and the ocean, the jungle, and just enjoy the slow pace of this area, after go-go-going for three weeks around Australia.

I have to show up in Sydney to get a new one.  So I’ve cancelled two nights here in the north and changed my flight to Sydney for 5am on Wednesday to arrive there in time for the only appointment that was available in the next 10 days at the US consulate.  I filed a police report and cancelled my passport (maybe, the online system told me I had “no passports to report stolen or lost”). I am filling out forms and finding a hotel in Sydney at the last minute (not a cheap proposition!).

I am lucky.  I have a credit card, a driver’s license, and access to cash, which makes all things easier.  I can’t imagine how it would feel to be a stateless person and have no friends or resources.  It’d be scary as hell.

I am eating a veggie pizza and drinking some wine.  I could spend my last day here obsessing about all this in my hotel room, but I am going out to the reef tomorrow to snorkle.

This too, is an adventure.  I hope it ends well.