Tuesday, August 31, 2010

further up the east coast

In Mission Beach, I saw a rare sight: A cassowary in the wild!  I had never heard of cassowaries until I saw one at the zoo in Sydney a couple months ago.  I remember thinking, why haven't I heard of this thing before?  It's more endangered than the koala... and apparently less popular - so it gets less press - even though cassowaries are a critical part of the rainforest ecosystem (they disperse seeds that other animals can't to regenerate the forest).  Although these birds are known to move quickly, this particular cassowary took its time crossing the street, sauntering in the rain in front of our car.  I was lucky enough to see one further north as well, in the parking lot for a rainforest walk in Cape Tribulation.  That one moved much faster - by the time I jumped out of the car (fyi not recommended, as they can be aggressive), I barely had time to pull out my camera before it disappeared into the forest!  But I did manage to get this shot... :)

I saw a lot of beaches on the east coast, and my favourite was Four Mile Beach in Port Douglas.  It wasn't the most beautiful but it offered something the others didn't have: Yoga on the beach.  As a hot yoga addict back home, I'd been suffering from withdrawal for some time...  And although this wasn't in an infrared heated room, yoga with the ocean in the background sounded pretty appealing, so I went to a class.  I'm happy I did!  Lying on the beach in Savasana, listening to the sound of the waves coming in, I noticed something - or perhaps more accurately, the absence of something.  Other than a few traces in my jaw, there was no tension in my body.  This was a new experience for me - and one I wasn't expecting to have on this trip!  Or ever...

There were a lot of rainforests to visit in northern Queensland, and after hiking through a few of them I opted to gain a new perspective by going jungle surfing in Cape Tribulation.  I saw the Daintree Rainforest up in the canopy, zip-lining from platform to platform.  This rainforest is the world's oldest - and at 135 million years old, it was around at the same time as the dinosaurs.  The tour guides managed to keep our group in line, and entertained, by calling us the names on our helmets...  Mine was Stiffler's Mum :)

Priscilla and I tried to be strategic about selecting a second WWOOFing experience as the last leg of our east coast trip.  After scouring through the host listings, we categorized the possibilities into definitely, probably not and no way.  (We'd learned from Valerie during our previous experience that "mulching" meant handling manure, which didn't sound like something we'd enjoy, so this was a key criteria in our evaluation.)  We tried to book a couple of more appealing places further in advance, only to find out they were unable to commit to our requested dates at that time (for one place it was way too early, for another it was way too late)...  We also had some communication issues, with a few unreturned phone calls/emails...  Then we forgot about it for a bit, and all of a sudden it was just a few days before we'd planned to WWOOF.  And nothing was booked.  In a bit of a panic, we started making phone calls...  We had communication issues again, this time from the phone booth randomly hanging up in the middle of calls...  Some people weren't answering their landlines or mobiles...  Things from the probably not list started to slide up into why not?...  When we called, Russell answered - and had space for us!  After all that strategizing, in the end it all came down to who was there to confirm availability when we needed to book something, and host us for the timing we had in mind :)

So our last stop was in Mt Surprise, 300 km west of Cairns, for some WWOOFing with Russell.  His listing said that he had a small farm incorporating a museum, campground, restaurant and reptile demos.  Work would include planting, harvesting and selling of organic produce (and no mulching! :) ).  I was excited at the prospect of eating healthy for a week - based on the last experience, I was under the assumption that WWOOFing hosts live off their land and eat what they grow.

Arriving in Mt Surprise certainly was a surprise, in many ways.  Russell hadn't planted his organic garden this year as he'd been too busy... hosting a camp for 15 construction workers who were building a bridge nearby!  There was temporary housing set up on Russell's property for these men to live in - these long, portable-type things called dongas that had individual rooms for everyone.  We had to negotiate our responsibilities, as what we were expecting to do was no longer a possibility.  Russell wanted help looking after the crew, mainly in the form of doing dishes after breakfast and dinner.  He told us we could help out Cindy, the lady who ran his café, during her working hours, supporting her efforts to look after the construction workers.  It turned out that his restaurant - and our diet for that week - had a typical outback menu (meaning meat, burgers, fries, toasted sandwiches) rather than the organic veggies I'd been craving.  The café menu items are all things I typically don't make at home, and felt I shouldn't make if we were going to charge people for them, so I informed Russell accordingly.  He said he didn't have any expectations for us to do any food preparation - that he'd cook breakfast and dinner for the construction workers, and that Cindy would take care of the café during the day.

Shortly after our arrival, Priscilla and I found out that another WWOOFer - Sachika, a young woman from Japan - had just left Mt Surprise unexpectedly that morning.  She'd left a note for Russell and Cindy saying that she couldn't get used to this environment, and got up early enough to avoid saying goodbye in person.  Apparently there were a few events leading up to this unexpected departure:

- Sachika wanted to call a cab while she was in Mt Surprise to get around town.  With a population of 70, this town doesn't have any cabs - or need any for that matter!  There's nothing close enough to go to that you can't walk to in less than five minutes.  Everything else is really far away.
- The night before, Sachika had found what looked like mouse droppings on the sheets, freaked out and stripped the bed to sleep directly on the mattress.

Who knew culture shock could be defined by taxi availability and gecko poo?

Throughout the week, I had the opportunity to learn about and handle snakes.  Russell is a man dedicated to clearing the bad rap snakes have by default with the general public, and his informative snake show is filled with stories that help clear the misconceptions.  I've handled snakes before - reluctantly, with fear - but after spending a week there I was no longer uncomfortable with snakes...  In fact, I was surprisingly fond of some of them.  Funny how quickly things can grow on you!

I also had the opportunity to get to know some of the construction workers quite well.  Not since Stampede last summer have I seen such a concentration of men seeking female attention!  They were all happy to share their life experiences and lessons with me, reinforcing the need to be true to yourself while respecting others.  There isn't much to do in the outback, so after getting back from work a lot of them would start drinking and end up having a bonfire after dinner.  Every night.  Although they were full of wisdom, they were also full of alcohol and a couple of these men brought new meaning to the term stupid drunk - the morning after Priscilla and I decided to brave the campfire, we found out that three of them decided that it would be a good idea to go hunting for wild boar in the middle of the night.  They were already quite drunk when I'd left at 1 am and had apparently continued drinking until they decided to leave for the hunt at 3 am.  The hunt entailed driving around the outback in an open vehicle with some of them hanging out of it with knives and other sharp objects so that they could try to spear any prey they came upon.  I cannot believe they thought this was a good idea!  Fortunately no one got hurt.

On Sunday nights, the pub in town doesn't serve food so more tourists than usual come wandering into Russell's place.  When a group of hungry tourists came into the café after the construction crew had finished eating, I asked Russell if he could make them something.  He suggested I heat up some leftovers from our dinner that I'd just packed away.  I looked at him incredulously, wondering how many times I'd been served leftovers in small town cafés.  It wasn't that the food was bad or old - I'd literally just put it away - it was just that it was, well, leftover!... not made to order.  "You do know how to do that, right?" Russell asked, clearly concerned that I might not have the skills to support this request given our earlier conversation about cooking.  "Yup, I'm on it," I replied.  I prepared and delivered dinner to these four tourists - reheated BBQ'd steak and sausages as well as multiple salads.  Russell supplemented this with a batch of fresh french fries.  After dinner, they couldn't stop complimenting the food!  Success!!  Our responsibilities evolved as the days passed, and I actually did end up making quite a bit of food throughout the week - sandwiches in the café, pizza for dinner, plus dessert several nights in a row, which was an unusual treat for the construction workers.  Needless to say, they didn't want us to leave when it was time to go.

After Mt Surprise we spent another night in Cairns before flying back to Sydney, where I experienced a bit of culture shock myself.  Although I'd been in Sydney twice already and seen that it was filled with the hustle and bustle of a big city as well as tons of people, this time it struck me that these people were mostly strangers to each other - strangers who couldn't be bothered interacting with each other as they tried to get on with their busy days.  It all of a sudden felt surprisingly empty compared to Mt Surprise.  Thankfully we were staying with another friend of a friend, who gave us a warm welcome...

Monday, August 30, 2010

up the east coast

July and the first half of August were spent between Sydney and Cooktown, with a few ventures inland.  Now that I have some time and internet access, here are select experiences from the east coast road trip...

Before leaving Sydney, Priscilla and I signed up to be Willing Workers On Organic Farms (WWOOF).  This program allows you to work for 4-6 hours per day in exchange for room and board, and we decided to do this twice on the east coast - once at the start and once at the end.  Our first WWOOFing stop was in Willina, northwest of Newcastle, with Bill and Jilliana - medical herbalists who operate a wholesale plant nursery as well as a holistic health practice that manufactures herbal medicine and beauty products.  Their listing said: If you're interested in health, natural healing and disease prevention, amazing Greek vegetarian food then you will enjoy our paradise.  It also said: You will live in our barn house as part of our family.  After a few years of naturopathic treatment to optimize my own health, this place sounded pretty intriguing, and Priscilla and I felt like we'd lucked out when we confirmed they had availability to host us.  After the excessive proportions of meat in the outback diet, I was also ready for a digestive break and excited about Greek vegetarian, thinking about veggie moussaka and Greek salad (mmm... feta).  I was also curious to see what living in a barn would be like, although a bit apprehensive about it at the same time - would I be sleeping on hay?  I would soon find out.

It was interesting to see how Bill and Jilliana described their lifestyle in the listing compared to my experience of how they actually live...  We left Sydney in the evening and drove straight up to Bill and Jilliana's 400-acre property, arriving quite late at night.  It was dark, but I could see that the house looked like a giant shed.  Bill met us outside and lit the way for us to quietly climb up the stairs into the loft that housed our beds.  The next morning we woke up to find Valerie, a 19-year-old university student on exchange from New Jersey, and a fellow WWOOFer, in the third bed in our loft (which was surprisingly comfortable and cozy for a barn/shed!).  She gave us the lay of the land: Bill and Jilliana only ate organic food; didn't eat breakfast (to give their digestive systems a break); didn't drink water (to reduce the amount of work their kidneys had to do); and only ate properly food combined meals (too much to explain here, please google).  This meant that they only ate 2 meals per day, one primarily consisting of fruits and the other one was usually made up of vegetables and beans.  My visions of vegetarian moussaka vanished into thin air.  Bill later informed us that their diet was based on the ancient Greeks.  It was like doing a detox by default - which, in the end, I actually quite enjoyed, even though it was unexpected... I was just happy that my own quest for better health had already at least introduced me to some of the concepts Bill and Jilliana lived by.  Otherwise it probably would've been too much of a shock!  Especially with the physical labour...

Priscilla and I helped Bill and Jilliana with both of their businesses, with the majority of our efforts focused on the plant nursery.  We weeded in the nursery and packed up plants on two trucks - one for each of the Sunday markets that Bill and Jilliana attended as vendors.  As someone who packs frequently, I have to say that Bill and Jilliana took the concept of efficient packing to the next level!  Plants were stacked tight and staggered at least 3 pots high.  We packed the trucks a day early and then got up at 3 am on Sunday to do the 2 hour drive to the market with Bill.  It was still dark outside and on the truck while I was unpacking, so I had to be careful not to drop pots of plants as I pulled them out - which was actually surprisingly challenging!  We were set up and ready to go well before the market opened at 8 am, at which point Bill asked us to help out during the market as well.  Tasked with selling plants, I felt like I was on The Apprentice - except that rather than competing to win the opportunity to work for Donald Trump, my prize would be having less plants to re-pack onto the truck on the way home - which all of a sudden was oddly exciting!  I was not equipped for the job...  I gave away all my plants a few years ago to avoid killing them (since I was never home), and consequently I lacked the product knowledge required to support the inquiries of customers striving to make an informed purchase.  I decided to focus on supporting customers who'd already made a decision, and getting those who needed info access to Bill.  It worked well - when the market closed, Bill said that sales were higher than usual given the time of year.  We still had quite a few plants to re-stack on the truck, but I was happy to do it - and that he trusted me enough to allow me to contribute to his livelihood.
Right after leaving Bill and Jilliana's I found myself in Hunter Valley - one of Australia's wine regions - eating and drinking at a micro-brewery just hours after leaving their home.  The next day was occupied by a wine tour.  It's funny how quickly and dramatically things can change - and how easy it is to adapt! :)

You can feel the energy in the air when you get to Byron Bay!  This was the first stop on the east coast where I got that sense of relief that you get when you arrive at your vacation destination after a particularly stressful and busy period (even though I can't say that I've been stressed or busy lately!).  Byron Bay welcomes visitors with sunshine, beautiful beaches, great food, alternative therapies and interesting people - some of whom told me things I already knew.  I totally get why some people never make it further up the east coast.  After some surfing lessons...

...I decided to get a picture of my aura taken.  I was actually tempted to perform a very, um, scientific experiment of getting my aura cleansed (a service readily available in Byron Bay!) and then getting a second photo taken to see the difference.  After my first aura photo I realized there was no need to go any further, as the reading felt accurate.  Red represents vital energy, grounding, passion, determination, will and focus.  My reading revealed that I am:

- Considered trustworthy, competent and determined by people who meet me
- In the middle of a cycle
- Capable of committing to a cause to effect change
- Sometimes overly focused on others/external things and for this reason need to make sure I take care of myself

I was also informed that I need to get clear on what I want for the future - which, ironically, is the reason I decided to take some time off in the first place.  It's exciting when life gives you confirmation that you've taken a step in the right direction... regardless of the source :)

When I was in Hervey Bay I called Neil and Claire, friends of a family friend in Toronto.  I had never met these people before.  They didn't know I might be contacting them either so until I picked up the phone and explained our mutual connection they had no idea I even existed - and even so, they excitedly invited Priscilla and I to stay with them in Bundaberg for a night.  We arranged to visit them a few days later and I have to admit, some of my initial excitement was not just at the prospect of meeting these people I'd heard so much good stuff about, but also because of the idea of not living in a hostel for one night... showering in flip flops and sleeping with things you don't want people to steal in your bunk bed gets old kinda quickly.

When we arrived Neil and Claire welcomed Priscilla and I with typical Aussie hospitality - meaning, they told us to feel at home in their home and actually meant it.  And I did feel at home, right from the start - how can you not enjoy being in a house designed with a special nook for happy hour?  We first met up with Claire at the Bundaberg Barrel and went to the house to meet Neil, who had come home to greet us between work and his evening commitment.  Neil and Claire are avid travellers and we immediately bonded by sharing our various adventures, getting into a conversation about the realities of travel that left us all erupting with laughter.  I was laughing so hard my cheeks hurt and it felt like my abs had gotten a good workout.  Since we'd blocked in Neil's car on our arrival and he needed to get out, I went to move our car.  After I got in I finally stopped laughing, looked up and found myself in the front left-hand side of the car - the passenger side down under. I smiled and started laughing again: "Well, I guess I better get in the other side." Neil replied: "I was wondering what you were doing!" Instinct is a funny thing, and can kick in when you least expect it.

We were having such a good time that we ended up extending our visit in Bundaberg, and the rest of it was equally fabulous and entertaining!  We toured around the area, shared some more of our experiences, ate some authentic and traditional Aussie treats - homemade meat pie and BBQ - and used the happy hour space daily :)  When it was time to leave I didn't want to go...  I was hoping time would somehow just pause so that we could hang around a bit longer without compromising the rest of our desired itinerary.  Unfortunately that never happens.  We had to move on.  The day we left, Claire woke us up to say goodbye before leaving for work.  Neil came home between his morning commitment and work to say goodbye to us.  The night before, Neil had thanked Priscilla and I for treating him and Claire so well, saying that it isn't often that they have the opportunity to connect with people from our generation at that level.  He reinforced that sentiment again that morning.  After we said our goodbyes and Neil left for work, I felt completely overwhelmed...  I couldn't help it... I started bawling.  Uncontrollably.  These people, who days earlier had been complete strangers, had generously invited us into their home and graciously hosted us for a few days - and they were the ones thanking us for treating them well!  It seemed to me like it should be the other way around.  I've realized that although it was hard to go, this was the ideal parting - how often do both parties think they got the better end of the deal and express gratitude for it?  Not often enough I'd say...

A few more stops down the road, Priscilla and I were at Airlie Beach.  It seemed a bit cold to go snorkeling, so we opted to see the Whitsundays via a scenic flight on a seaplane.  We booked a plane ride for the following afternoon through our hostel shortly after our arrival.  When the booking agent was explaining logistics, she told us the airport was 10 minutes down the road.  Priscilla and I nodded in recognition - we'd just driven by some signs for the airport turn-off on the way into town.  I was excited - I'd been on a seaplane for a work trip between Vancouver and Victoria a few years ago, which had been pretty amazing.  And that was for utilitarian travel!  A flight designed for touristic purposes in a part of the world known for breathtaking views would surely be at least equally enjoyable.  The next morning we walked around and tried to fill up our day before the fight, wandering around a market and making some phone calls home.  We hopped in the car early and started driving to the airport.  Ten minutes down the road, we hadn't seen any signs for the airport.  Although I'd been going the speed limit, I wondered if I'd been driving too slowly.  Maybe that was why we hadn't seen them yet?  Five minutes later, there were still no signs... the airport turn-off was further out than either of us remembered it being.  We discussed, and eliminated, the possibility of there being more than one airport in the area - Airlie Beach, with a population of less than 3,000, was simply too small to support 2 airports... right?  When we finally got to the turn-off, I was feeling a bit unsettled...  Why had it taken us so much longer to get there than it was supposed to?  And why was it not in the direction of water?  I was still optimistic, guessing that perhaps the plane took off from land and landed on water (a convertible seaplane? how cool!)...  The additional travel time meant that we were no longer early, so Priscilla jumped out of the car to run in and tell them we were there for our flight while I went to park.  When I got into the building, Priscilla was running out - there were two airports, and we were at the wrong one!  My cell phone rang.  It was the scenic flight people, to ask if we were still coming.  I quickly explained our predicament, only to find out that they couldn't wait for us to get from one airport to the other.  The plane was going to leave without us!  After spending the morning trying to figure out how to kill time before our afternoon flight, we were going to miss it...  We debated sticking around for another night to catch a flight the next morning but ended up opting against it - the time felt right for us to move on and I think that I just wasn't meant to be on that flight.  (They also kindly refunded our deposit, since it was an honest mistake...  Whitsunday Airport vs. Whitsunday Coast Airport - who named these??)  So the Whitsundays - a "must-do" in Australia - will have to wait until next time... 
More to come!  Stay tuned...

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

and i quote 2

Expanded to include some additional sources...  Enjoy!

"Are you guys normal backpackers?" - Travel agent in Byron Bay, when Priscilla and I were unwilling to book a day trip through him 10 days in advance, as that's way too much advanced planning these days for that type of thing.  (We've since established that we are in fact not normal backpackers... but for other reasons :) ).

"You're just another tree to him!" - Tour guide at the Bungalow Bay Koala Village on Magnetic Island, to let the people who'd paid the $14 surcharge to hold the koala know that unlike the humans, the animal would not be emotionally attached after this experience.

"F@#%!! I was waaay off on that one!" - A bouncer's expression after it changed when he found the date of birth on my Ontario driver's license after carding me to make sure I was old enough to enter the establishment in Airlie Beach.

"Anti-social behaviour will not be tolerated." - Beach Hotel bar coaster in Byron Bay.

"You'll see it," and/or "You can't miss it." - Every single person who has provided me with directions in Australia.  These often refer to things like "a big tree/rock/field on your right" as there regularly isn't signage to refer to.

"Looks like they've set up a bit of a minefield for me." - Russell, a resident of a small town in the outback who gave us a lift, as he swerved to avoid the cattle dung while we were driving on an unfenced road...  It had rained the day before and apparently cows prefer wet asphalt to wet ground, making it a bit more challenging than usual.

"We're just going to cuddle... non-sexually." - Laura, one of my hostel dorm roomies, to let the ladies in our female dorm room know that a man would be joining her in bed. (I found out the next morning her statement was not true for the entire night, and was thankful I'd invested in noise-isolating earphones before leaving home and then fallen asleep wearing them that night.)