Category Archives: Living abroad

Crocodile Adventures!

Day 21 of my Australia sojourn. I waited eagerly in the reception area of the resort to catch my 7am bus to the Daintree Rainforest. As I’ve mentioned, I’m sort of obsessed with plants.  I also love heat and humidity, so rainforests are my kind of environment.

A German couple sat on the couch opposite and we chit chatted about where we were going. Their bus came and went.  An Aussie couple I had made small talk with at the pool came out, said they were going on “a brekky reccy,” and left.  It was 7:15.  An English family of four came and we didn’t talk because their bus pulled up as if queued to their arrival and whisked them away.  I began to feel anxious.

Jim had said 7:00, right?  Maybe I had misunderstood.  Maybe he had said 7:30; it was just 7:30 now, and maybe the bus was late.  It was probably me—I had gotten too relaxed yesterday.

People came and went.  It was just past 8:00.  The Aussie couple returned and were surprised to see me.  Maybe I imagined it but I thought they looked at me pityingly.

Pangs of emotion welled up.  It wasn’t all the couples and families and no one else sitting by themselves waiting for a bus that never came.  It was not wanting to waste a day.  One day of leisure was enough for me.  I want to do and see everything.

Jim arrived to open the office and did a double take when he saw me.  It turned out there had been a mix-up on the tour company’s end, and he apologized.

“It’s not your fault,” I told him.  “What can I do, still today?”“All the tours are either full day or half day,” he said as he rifled through piles of brochures.  “It’s too late for the full day ones,” so the reef and the Daintree are out.”

“The two things I came all this way to see,” I replied glumly.

“There’s Hartley’s

Crocodile Adventures,” he suggested weakly.

I had seen ads for this place in the airport, on the street, and in brochures for other attractions. They certainly were good self-promoters.  I felt a surge of fear at the word ‘crocodile.’  Did I want to spend 5 hours in being surrounded by them?  The place sounded like a totally tacky tourist trap.

“Sign me up.”

Hartley’s turned out to be pretty fun.  There was much more wildlife than crocs.  Did you know Cassowaries are prehistoric Kung Fu fighters with giant claws with which they can disembowel you?  They’re actually very shy and avoid humans, but here’s video about how to survive a cassowary attack in case you decide to plunge into a jungle, locate one, and provoke it.

There was an interesting small exhibit about the break-up of Gondwana, the mega continent that had included almost all the continents.

And about first encounters with kangaroos.  People back in Britain thought the explorers’ tales and early depictions of roos were tall tales until someone managed to bring back a live specimen.

There was the obligatory croc boat ride, where a young blonde guy named Matt fed dead chicken parts to gigantic crocs and made dismemberment jokes.

Having worked up an appetite, I had a burger in the café.  It had beets in it; beets on burgers are an Australian thing.

I toured Hartley’s crocodile farm. I’m not sure to which end of the spectrum this sign was directed—animal rights activists or poachers.  Maybe both.

Our very earnest guide downloaded so much knowledge about breeding and raising crocs I felt confident I could start my own crocodile farm.

You could pose with a Koala for $$.  The poor things.

I bought yet more souvenirs in the gift shop.  All my unsuspecting friends’ and family members’ birthdays and holiday presents for the next year were now covered.

Which nativity scene would you have chosen—kangaroos or koalas?

I went to pay, the cashier asked for ID, and that was the moment I realized my passport was gone.  She let me pay anyway.  I said the only logical thing: “It must be in my room.”

But I knew it wasn’t.

Down Day

I allowed myself one down day in Australia, in Palm Cove.  I didn’t plan anything, I went where I was called.

I took a couple long walks on beach.  I had not realized that crocodiles swam in the ocean, but that helped me decide I would not be swimming here or renting a kayak.

I had wondered, before arriving in Australia, if the whole crocodile thing was overblown—something they played up to titillate the tourists and TV audiences.  But no.  As I wrote before, on the shuttle on the way from the airport I had seen signs that warning people not to swim or wade in streams, and just beyond the signs were people standing in the water up to their thighs, fishing.

“So … isn’t that dangerous?” I asked the driver.

“Yeah, it is.  A ranger was doing the same just last week with her family. She was an Aboriginal. You would think she would have known better.  One minute she was there, the next she was gone. They found her body a couple days later.”

I walked through the jungle around Palm Cove.  There were paths and boardwalks so I knew I wasn’t crazy to be walking here, but there were also warning signs about crocodiles everywhere.

I’m normally a pretty intrepid hiker.  My mother would freak if she knew some of the deserted places I have hiked alone down by the Mississippi River.

All the time I was in Australia, I never felt afraid of crime.  I’m sure crime happens there, but I never saw warnings about crime like one does everywhere else.  You know: “Be vigilant on trains and on the street for pickpockets.”

I would take my chances with a pickpocket any day, I thought, over a crocodile.  I was really on edge, watching for signs of fast movement on the sides of the paths.

It really wasn’t very relaxing, so I headed back toward the beach, past a new housing development. I imagined walking out my back door to find a big croc in my pool, or leaping out at me as I gardened.  No thanks.

I stopped for a fried barramundi sandwich at the corner restaurant/grocery and perused the Sunday papers while I waited.  I don’t know who this guy was, what really happened, or what his greatest triumph was, but he was handsome in a Cro-Magnon Man way.

They had all manner of fried snacks that sounded like exotic variations on fish sticks; I imagine my five-year-old nephew would find them appealing.

There was this sign explaining why they don’t issue plastic drinking straws.  Because of the glare you won’t be able to read it, but trust me—straws are bad for sea turtles.

I checked out every shop along the promenade and bought a few things but it was basically resort wear—nothing I would have occasion to wear in Minnesota.

Back in my room, I pored over the brochures, then arranged with Jim at the front desk to take an excursion through the Daintree Rainforest the next day.  I was excited; it would involve a train ride through the jungle, then a couple hours in the village of Kuranda, where I could buy more trinkets and have a beer, then a hike through the rainforest, then a cable car ride back.  I would be gone all day.  I couldn’t wait.

I sat by the pool and read my book.  I was half way through my 800-page Somerset Maugham short stories.  I was tearing them out as I read not only to lighten my load, but because he uses the N word and other offensive language.  He was a product of his time.  These were the words people used.  But I would not be leaving this on the take one, leave one shelf.

I took a dip in the warm salt water pool, gazing up at the pointillist canopy of gum tree leaves way above me.

I capped off the day with a gag-inducing “Japanese” dinner.  Imagine sushi made with “local fish.” Now think—like I didn’t—that the local fish is not tuna or shrimp or  salmon, but barramundi, which is nice fried, but not raw.

 

Palm Cove

After a 20-minute drive I alighted at the Reef Retreat in Palm Cove.  This was my big splurge. I had read about the place in Frommer’s Easy Guide to Australia; it wasn’t easy to find the website and when I did, it was fully booked for some of the nights I wanted.  I went back and forth for a month before securing five nights there, then I added a sixth night when I was in Blayney.  I felt so lucky to get the place I wanted.

I wanted it because it was one block off the beach, which was traced by a road full of traffic. I didn’t want to stay in a B&B because I didn’t want to talk to anyone. I didn’t want to stay in a chain hotel. I didn’t want to stay in a sterile high-rise where you had to take an elevator and walk down a long hallway.

This was the photo that got me.  The red square outlines the Reef Retreat.  Two stories of rooms were built around a central courtyard with a pool and, basically, a miniature rain forest. I could be close to the action but feel like I was in the jungle.

And it was only $95 a night.

The place did not disappoint.  I checked in with Jim and Joanne, the owners, who would soon become my personal support group.  I loaded up on brochures from the Wall of a Thousand Brochures, then rolled my bag through the courtyard to my room, which was up a flight of about 20 stairs.  This was the only downside of the place—you would have to stay on the first floor if you couldn’t manage stairs.

The rooms were clean and bright and had everything one needed to be a hermit in paradise.  Balcony screened by trees, couch and TV, and fridge.

These are the views from my balcony.  The big screen is to keep people who are using the barbie from being barbecued themselves, by the sun.

I hung up my dank clothes to air for the first time in weeks, then hustled out to buy supplies.  The books in the “take one, leave one” shelf in the laundry room were typical of a resort that attracts an international crowd.

I would pass on “Analfabeten” but I had a couple books with me and I could read by the pool every day!  I could catch up on blogging.  I could sleep late.  I could take long walks, rent a bike, maybe a kayak.  I would alternate excursions, like to the reef, with down time.  This was going to be great.

This was the night I would lose my passport.  This was not going to be great, but I didn’t know it yet.

I walked on the beach and took a few excellent photos, for once.  They somehow vanished off my phone, so here’s a photo from the official tourist site.

I have been to tropical beaches in Belize and Colombia in the last two years, and I have to say that one beach looks very much like another to me.  There’s sand, and water, and palm trees.  But that’s not to take away from their beauty.

I walked along the promenade and bought groceries, then donned my rain poncho so I could keep my bag from disintegrating until I got to the casino/bottle shop where I could buy wine and beer.  The 16-year-old kid who waited on me asked for my ID, and I fumbled with my poncho, backpack, and grocery bag to find it and show it to him.  If you like casinos, you would have loved this place.  I hate them so I hurried to get back to my quiet retreat.

I watched TV; there was the Ernie Dingo Show, where an Aboriginal guy walks around the outback and shows sites of cultural significance to a white guy, whose job is apparently to nod and show keen interest in everything Ernie says.  Megan and Harry were on the news, as they would be every night during the Invictus Games.  Harry was climbing Sydney Harbor Bridge, and it was raining hard.  “Guess I picked the wrong day to cross the bridge,” he quipped.

People with Points

As I waited for my flight, I reflected on how wonderful it is that people welcome me into their homes.  I knew Dean and Lisa from UK days, but we hadn’t been close.  I had never met Auntie Margaret.

Getting to know new people, and getting know acquaintances better, is such a huge attraction of travel for me.  Spending time with people I care for, like Heidi, is a luxury.

That said, I do like my alone time.  I’m an introvert who likes people, but I’m still a loner.  I can happily spend days in my house without hearing a human voice.  I’m never bored.  I get lost in household projects, a book, or long walks in the woods.

After 18 days of being crammed into planes and trains and cars with fellow human beings, I was ready to be alone.

As I boarded I was diverted from these lofty thoughts by a woman behind me asking the flight attendant for a seat belt extender.  This was my first knowledge that there was such a thing.  Australia doesn’t have quite as high a percentage of its population who are obese as the US (33%), but it’s up there, at 27%.

A flight attendant asked if I would like something to drink.  I replied yes, a Diet Coke please, which was when she informed it would cost $3.  Three dollars for a can of coke!  Way to nickel and dime, Virgin Australia!  I asked if I could have a cup of water, if it was free, and she gave me one, smirking like I was a cheapskate.

I read the thick weekend edition of a newspaper from front to back except for the sport section.  I compiled a list of new Aussie vocab to Google when I had wireless: squiz, spruiking, chook.

There was an article about young members of rich Aussie families who posted photos of themselves with products on Instagram.  They had millions of followers and made millions of dollars which they didn’t need.  They were beautiful, vapid, and dull eyed.

Another article was about an immigration scheme to make people settle in “regional areas,” meaning underpopulated areas that need workers.  To quote:

“Australia is in the self-inflicted paradox of having vast amounts of space but no room.

“Australia has pursued a big immigration intake for the entire post-war era for the very selfish reason that it’s in the national interest.  It boosts the economy.  It lowers the average age of the population.  This means that national aging is slowed.  As a result, the rising cost to the taxpayer of healthcare and aged care and welfare is slowed.  And it adds skills.  And cultural richness.”

The debate is: is it unconstitutional to dictate where people must live?  Is it impossible? Is it unconscionable?

“It is none of those things.  Australia already has such a program in place. It’s a category known as designated area migration agreements. There’s only in in effect, in the Northern Territory, but it exists in principal and in practice.”

In the proposed national scheme, people applying for Australian work visas will be given extra points if they indicate they are willing to live in Tasmania, for example.

Why can’t America have debates like this about immigration?  All we talk about is whether to build a wall or not.  A wall—such a 15th Century solution.

Australia has its version of a wall.  It’s the island of Nauru, where desperate migrants from Syria and Congo are penned like animals. But there seemed to be a lot of other ideas afloat.

It’s about control, right?  Any country justifiably wants to know who is entering and how they will contribute to the common good.  The US is one of few countries with a diversity lottery—most countries manage immigration based on merit, conferring extra points for engineering degrees, fluency in the native tongue, or big bank accounts.

As we approached Cairns, I looked down at the verdant scenery.  No wonder people want to come here.

I made a note to partake in the airport wine tasting ahead of my return flight.

My van driver was a British immigrant.

“Twenty years on, and me and the wife ain’t never been back.”

Prawns and Prisoners and a London Souvenir

After a lovely day with Puffing Billy, it was time to face facts that we would leave in the morning.

I would fly to Cairns.

Heidi and Danielle were hashing out how to get each of them back to different places with one car in one day.  They could retrace the route we took to get here, with Heidi dropping Danielle off in Blayney.  But Heidi wanted to stop in Canberra to see her friend Moira. Danielle was up for that but it would add another day.

People everywhere talk about how to get from A to Z: should we fly or drive or take a train?  “If we drive, maybe we might as well stop in Hooterville since it’s kind of on the way.  But the train would be more relaxing…but driving would give us more control.  But flying would be faster…not really, when you factor in getting to the airport and getting through the lines, and we wouldn’t have a car on the other end.”

And so on.  People everywhere do this, but I think for Australians the stakes are higher and they spend more time thinking and talking about getting around.

But first, a farewell feast.  Dean would barbeque and we would contribute three salads.

I made tabbouleh, my go-to salad.

“I’ve got shrimps on the barbie,” Dean joked, “except we don’t call them shrimps, we call them prawns.  There was an Australian Tourism advert …”

“Starring Paul Hogan—Crocodile Dundee,” inserted Danielle.

“Where they had to say ‘shrimp’ instead of ‘prawn’ so you lot would know what it was talking about.  I’m also making sausages and grilled veggies.  We do make other things besides shrimp on the barbie.”

I noticed the box of red wine on the counter top.  “Oh, these are the crimes people could be sent to Australia for?”

“Yeah,” Lisa responded, and we read them out loud.  We had to Google a couple, like “Impersonating an Egyptian” (a Gypsy, or Roma, who were considered rogues) and “Embeuling Naval Stores” (stealing).

“Murder isn’t on here,” I commented.

“Aww, you would have just been hanged immediately for that,” Lisa explained.  “These are all mostly property crimes that poor people would commit out of desperation.”

“Yeah,” added Danielle as she reviewed the list, “Don’t threaten an English lord’s right to own everything, from your house and land to the fish in the river and the rabbits and firewood in the forest.”

Back in December at my cookie baking party, I provided a few bottles of 19 Crimes and visitors had fun with their very clever app which brought the convicts to life.

I couldn’t help snapping a photo of Lisa and Dean’s shopping list the next morning.

Heidi was up before me, undoubtedly anxious about the long day of driving ahead.  Dean had harvested some gorgeous lemons and gave her and Dani a supply.

It was frosty, and as we huddled in a circle drinking our coffee we laughed when we looked down at our feet.

“Socks and flip flops,” Danielle commented, “Australian spring fashion.”

“Not thongs and camel toes,” I quipped.

That killed the conversation.  Sometimes I go too far with my language observations.

“Can I see the cab before I leave?” I asked Dean.

“Yes of course, give me a few minutes.”

I wandered around outside, enjoying the fresh air and this quiet Kookaburra on the sign post.

Dean called me over to the garage, where he’d lifted the door to reveal the souvenir he and Lisa had brought back from London.

“I’m just waiting for it to be old enough to register as a classic car, which’ll make it a lot less costly to drive,” he said.  “I was thinking of starting a car hire business with it but maybe we’ll just have fun with it ourselves.”

Heidi and Danielle and I said our adieus; I would see Heidi again in Sydney. Then Dean and Lisa drove me to the airport, a 45-minute drive on this early Saturday morning. I always enjoy dropping people off and picking them up at the airport.  It reduces their stress and it’s nice to say good-bye and hello to friendly faces, isn’t it?

Puffing Billy

As we were enjoying our meal at the sidewalk café in Melbourne’s Little Italy, a woman came along with a little dog and started chatting up Andrew.  Now, Andrew is nice looking, so I didn’t blame her.  However she was at least 20 years older than him.  That’s even older than me, and it hadn’t occurred to me to chat him up.  She looked like she hailed from Los Angeles, with wide-frozen botoxed eyes, enormous puffy lips, and more make up than a Sephora store.  Her suit appeared to be spray-painted on, it was so form fitting, and she was swaying unsteadily on six-inch heels. Maybe she had really just stopped to grab the table for support.

Andrew seemed oblivious to her intentions.  Heidi and Danielle seemed to think nothing of the fact that a total stranger had budged her way into our conversation.  They oohed and aahed over the little dog, whose name was Charley.  The woman had the same lilting, posh accent as our botanical gardens guide.

Chah-lee,” I intoned nasally, and everyone started.

“Annie!  You’ve got a real proper Aussie accent!” said Heidi.

“Well that’s one word I can say but only because there’s a character on the Doctor Blake Mysteries named Charlie,” I confessed.  “I love the way they pronounce Charlie, so I repeat it out loud when I hear it on the program.”

Sadly, the actor who plays Doctor Blake was recently fired for #MeToo-style infractions.

We got home very late and reluctantly rolled out of bed the next morning to ride the legendary Puffing Billy Railroad.  Yes, another legendary Australian railroad.  This rail line was built to populate and develop the rural areas east of Melbourne a hundred years ago.  It was closed in 1954 but revived by volunteers, who operate it as a tourist attraction.

It was one of those activities where you scratch your head over the brochure unless you are a local who has ridden on it before.

Which is what Heidi did as we were trying to get out of the house.  “Dean said we should start at Belgrave, get off at Lakeside, then get back on and go to Gembrook.  We have to be at Belgrave at 10:30 or the next train isn’t until 12:30.”

“You can read more in the car,” Danielle urged.

“Or we can go straight to Gembrook ….” Heidi read from the back seat as she flipped the brochure over and attempted to trace the timetable with her finger as we careened through the streets to get to the station.

“How much does it cost?” I asked.

“It doesn’t say.”

“$77.50 per person,” answered the ticket seller when we arrived panting after racing several blocks from the parking lot.

It was one of those travel moments where everyone sucks in their breath and looks at each other questioningly while internally saying, “Jesus, that’s a lot for a train ride!”  You don’t want to offend the poor volunteer who is just doing his unpaid job, but you don’t want to be a sucker, either.

We compromised, forking over $59 each for tickets to Lakeside, then ran to catch the train. It was totally worth it.

There was the beautiful train itself.  There’s nothing like the sound of a train whistle, a conductor shouting “All aboard!”, and the smell of Sulphur from the steam engine.

We took selfies with Billy.

The volunteers were clearly into their work.

The scenery was stunning.

When we crossed this trestle bridge, people below waved and smiled.  Apparently it’s a local tradition to go wave at Puffing Billy.

“Imagine being a school teacher being sent out here in 1910,” I said to Heidi.

“Yes, it would have been very exotic,” she replied.

We got off at Lakeside and ate in the old tymie café while parrots begged us for scraps.  We strolled around the lake.

We did not rent one of these.

Fighting wombat mange could be another fun volunteer job, as long as it couldn’t be spread to humans.

I kept thinking of my nephews, who would have loved this day.  If I ever win the lottery, my first priority would be to take my nieces and nephews on trips like this.

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.