Term Two Holiday

This post is long and in three parts.  Hope you’re in a “fluffing around and not getting real work done on a Friday anyways” kind of mood…

Part One

It’s term holiday time again and I’m taking advantage of the time by getting in some travel!  I really think the US needs to adopt year-round schooling, it’s so much better for the mental health of teachers and students alike to have periodic breaks.  Adapting back to our school calendar is going to be tough!

I’m currently writing from an airplane, flying from Cairns to Melbourne, Australia.  I’m traveling with Tracy, my friend from the rowing team who is also on a visa teaching here from Ireland.  Ironically, both of us originally thought we would be exploring the South Island over this holiday break with our sisters, but those plans didn’t work out for either of us.  I told Tracy of my plans to go to Australia instead, and was excited to have a travel companion when she decided to join!  We’re having a great time.  We intentionally planned to take a relaxed attitude toward the travel and make most of our plans once we arrived.  We’d be happy as long as we got to the rainforest and the Great Barrier Reef.  We did both of those things- the reef we did really well, and the rainforest… not as well.  Tired from our previous day of travel we had a late start on Sunday, and didn’t realize getting to the rainforest would take quite so much time and would close early.  We did get to Kuranda, a fun hippie village for tourists at the top of the mountain, and took the train down through the rainforest.  (Not thrilling- see pictures below.)  We were told when we bought the train tickets that we would ride down to the bottom of the mountain, take a coach bus transfer to the Skyrail, and the  ride the Skyrail back up along the treetops, with opportunities to stop and explore along the way.  We were not told, however, to buy the bus and Skyrail tickets before riding the train down.  Also below: a picture of me calling a taxi to take us back up the mountain instead.  Using a payphone was a fun yesteryear experience.

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I’m enjoying traveling with Tracy because when things like this happen we laugh about them together.  And things inevitably do happen when on travel.  For example, we arrived to our Holiday Park lodging from the airport on Saturday to discover they had decided to close early.  We walked around the park a little bit and chanced upon meeting an employee, who asked us in astonishment: “Well, didn’t you check under the mat?!  Your key is there!”  Tracy’s reactions to people and events make me laugh…. “Under the mat?  Like we’re your neighbours?  What were WE thinking?!”  Another fun aspect of traveling with Tracy is that I’m also experiencing Irish lingo… when we’re ready to leave we “Gonna head” or “head out” , exploring a new place is “routeing around” (NOT OK to say in NZ) and if we’re partying and having a good time, it’s a “craic”.  I’m enjoying the occasional “Slainte” as well.

Anyways, Kuranda was nice to see and if I went again I’d want to hike around and explore more, and arrive earlier to see more of the markets.  If you go- skip the train unless you’re into hearing the history of its creation in a monotone voice.  I felt like I was in my final history class of the schoolyear and my teacher had just popped in an old video.  At one point I told Tracy I felt like I should be signing her yearbook.

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After Kuranda we went to see Cairns City, which is a nice tropical beach/tourist town.  Lots of shops, restaurants, vendors, and backpackers.  There is a beach beside it and a nice pedestrian mall (still love them).  They also have a neat lagoon/esplanade built into the mall, and a green area with a movie screen where we saw people watching a political documentary.  We ended up getting dinner at P.J. O’Briens, an Irish pub that was recommended to us.  I thought Tracy would be a novelty in the pub, but there were actually a lot of Irish people there.  I learned this once Tracy pointed them out to me and each of their different accents, as people from each locality in Ireland seem to sound a bit different.  The bar was celebrating Bastille Day (common in NZ and Aus), so people wore red, white and blue and French people had no cover charge.  We hit the hay after dinner, knowing we had to get up early the next day for our adventure to the Great Barrier Reef!

This was super.  On the boat we met a nice couple from Quebec that were spending the season traveling Australia and are planning to go to New Zealand in November.  As Tracy described them: “Those guys were so laid back they were horizontal.”  (And therefore hereafter referred to as “The Horizontal Couple”.)  They have degrees in Adventure Tourism and were currently working on a farm in Aus.  They alternate between work and travel and have been through South America, India and Nepal, and Europe.  They were fun to talk with.  I was again reminded of how different Americans are as we talked about things like Pinterest, wedding costs, and international travel customs in Ireland, Canada and the States.  American culture, and DC in particular, seems to be a more wound-up, overworked, competitive, stressed, image-conscious country than many others.  I think this can lead to a lot of opportunity and advantages, but also has its disadvantages for mental health and well being.

We went to three reefs and were in the water for about three hours, all of which were magical.  It looked just like the scenes in Finding Nemo – schools of fish zooming past, flitting on the sand floor, eating algae off the coral.  They were fearless and you could swim right through them, I even touched a clown fish (with permission from a guide, I tried to be conscious of how sensitive the reef ecosystem is and how much damage a person can do by tampering with it.)  I saw gorgeous, colourful, and massive fish.  I also saw a sea turtle and a clam as big as a bed pillow opening and closing.  Tracy saw a white-tip shark.  And on the boat ride home we even saw a humpback whale-!  “Nice bonus,” as Tracy put it.  Overall great experience and the best open water swim of my life.

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After our reef adventure day we made some more Melbourne plans and then went to the city again.  This time we went for dinner at Gilligans Backpackers for a cheap as meal.  Then we tried The Woolshed, supposedly rated Australia’s #1 Party Bar, but it was empty.  Knowing we liked O’Briens, we went back there for a few beers.  We also tried an Aussie drink “Snakebite” which is Strongbow cider and raspberry grenadine.  I remember my sister bringing Strongbow back for us when she went to Australia, so I had one in her honor.  (Love you, Smoosh!)  With the raspberry it was far too sweet, particularly in comparison to the Guinness’ I had been drinking, but was fun to try.

The night took an interesting turn when a group of University kids all wearing matching white “Monday Mission” shirts entered the pub.  They were a group of students in a study abroad program, and coming to Cairns to snorkel the reef and do this pub crawl was a part of their orientation. (I distinctly remember the highlight of my college orientation being that we could watch a movie from the gym hot tub… ) The first kids to talk to us were American, and told me they didn’t believe I was from the States and thought I had picked up an Australian accent…  Tracy and I knew that either I was reeeeaaally good at acclimating to a new country in only 2 days, or they were already pretty far along in their pub crawl.

One of the boys from Ohio told us “I’ve only been here two days but I’m already thinking of moving here, life is so much better in Australia.”  As Tracy and I watched their pub-led games involving  jumping on each others’ backs, imitating sex positions, and dance competitions in which everyone got down to their skivvies, we could understand why he felt that way.  We had fun talking with them all, dancing on tables ourselves (clothed), and in general spectating Animal House: Cairns Edition.  I couldn’t help but laugh that their orientation professors were there as well… University Approved debauchery?  The pair that won the Simon Says-esque competition were American kids, so I bought them a drink as a congratulations.  (Their “U-S-A! U-S-A!” cheers got to me, I just had to support).  Tracy and I laughed on the taxi ride home, and decided to cancel our early morning plans to take pictures holding koala bears in order to get rest.

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In an ideal world we would have had more time in Cairns and would have seen the Daintree Rainforest, Port Douglas and Mission Beaches, and I would have loved to have camped on a neighbouring reef island.  But, our itinerary has us headed to Melbourne- to see for myself why it’s often ranked the World’s Best City with the highest quality of life.   I’m sure when it’s time to leave I will feel like I would like to do and explore more there as well!   Even in the States I can never see it all, and I’m so thankful for the time and experiences I am having.

So next stop: Melbourne… And after that, Fiji to meet up with Bobby!

I am the absolute luckiest person I know.

Part Two:

Writing now from the plane leaving Melbourne to Fiji (I know I will look back on this time of life and not believe it- I am appreciating it while it’s happening.).

Melbourne is a really grand city- it’s got a lot of fun character, diversity, and culture.  It has the artsy and hipster feeling that San Francisco can offer, interesting architecture like Chicago, and certain streets of the CBD can feel like you are in NYC or Philadelphia.  I enjoyed checking out the urban planning and snapped pictures of their trams, bike shares, and bike lanes.

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Tracy and I had a few days to spend in Melbourne, and we tried to hit the highlights.  We spent the first night figuring out new accommodations because we heard from some of Bobby’s friends (and later our cab driver from the airport) that the backpackers we had planned to stay at was in a dodgy part of town.  We read some online reviews, and went during the daytime to check it out, but decided it wasn’t for us.  We ended up in a motel that hasn’t changed its décor since the early 80s in a room with a queen bed, a bunk bed, a twin bed, and a pull-out couch.  We took in our surroundings (and loved them), then headed out to the CBD.  The “horizontal couple” in Cairns had told us about a Bavarian restaurant they had enjoyed and Tracy wanted to try out.  It ended up being in Chinatown, and I had to laugh at the multicultural layers of the event.  Eating at a Bavarian restaurant in the Chinatown of an Australian city with my Irish friend at the recommendation of two French-Canadians.  I love international travel for experiences like that.  …I ate a noodle dish I couldn’t pronounce.

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The following day we rented a car and drove the Great Ocean Road in Victoria.  We enjoyed a relaxed pace with this day, spending time at the little towns along the way and stopping frequently to watch the surfers or take pictures.  We stopped at a café for lunch and ate it on the beach.  At the end a cockatoo came up to our table trying to steal chips (French fries) from Tracy!   We arrived at the Twelve Apostles, the biggest landmark along the road, just at sunset.  It made for a truly spectacular sight- though poor pictures of us with the shadows.  We spent a while there, as it’s a truly captivating sight, before turning back for the city.  It was fun to spend the drive back singing along to the radio and wishing for a kangaroo sighting every time we passed a yellow diamond “Kangaroo Crossing” sign. We think we saw one, but it was darting back into the woods- kangaroos are a lot like deer back home.  Everywhere (except when we’re begging for one to come out) and often crossing the roads at night.

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The next day I got up, returned the car, and then went for a run on the way back.  I love running through places I visit because I notice things differently.  Sometimes my favourite memories of a city might be the young family I saw walking in a park with the parents each holding one of their child’s hands…. Or the quirky art co-op at the end of a random laneway.  Melbourne turned out to be a great example of this, as I happened upon a perfect café near our motel when I was looking for a place to grab a quick breakfast at the end of my run.  Every room in this café felt like it belonged in a magazine or blog or Pinterest page- but it sent that excited energy through my spine to see it in person.  It was an old home redone into a café, and I think D.C. probably needs one.  Below, some pictures.

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Later in the day Tracy and I hit the Queen Victoria Market, which I had been really excited to see.  The building portion of the market was great- it had a lot of character.  It reminded me some of Eastern Market in DC and some of the Ferry Building in San Fran.  Bobby had sent me a leftover $2 coin from his recent trip to Australia, so Tracy and I made a game of the market to try to find the most interesting item possible for $2.  (I remembered your story, Fred.)  A kangaroo punching pen, sumo wrestler clock, and ultraviolet whiteboard were in the final running.  I ended up getting an original Australian penny, which they stopped making in the 1950s.  I spent $1.45 on it which felt like a bonus in the $2 challenge, but at the same time it seemed silly seeing as I did buy a penny.

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After the market we went to high tea at the Windsor Motel in the CBD, also per the recommendation of “the Horizontal Couple”.  I have heard about high teas a lot in New Zealand and had wanted to attend one.  I don’t frequently get or make chances to act all prim and proper at home, and we don’t have the British influence to have things like “high teas” that NZ does.  Tracy and I allowed ourselves to get giggly and silly with the experience being out of our comfort zone.  After the waiter left with our tea orders she exclaimed “He put my napkin on my lap for me!”  I asked for a picture holding my tea cup between tiers of scones and finger sandwiches.  We both tried out British-ish accents and remarked about how “absolutely fabulous” different things were… “dahling”.   We ate too much, took heaps of photos, and then walked around the stores of the CBD.  In theme with the day’s events, I then bought something at the very posh Salvos.  See below.  Note: Australians seem to abbreviate evertything.  It took me a little while to pick up the meaning of the term “arvo” in New Zealand (afternoon.)

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That evening we were lucky enough to meet up with Bobby’s high school friend Kristy, who he met while she was doing an OE in the States.  Bobby went to Australia to visit her in November and met many of her friends, and I was happy to meet them after hearing about them.  They ladies made plans for us to see and fun bar with a kind of “country club” theme with the waiters in tennis uniforms, lawn furniture, etc.  They also showed us the best tapas restaurant I have ever been to.  We enjoyed chatting about travel, families, school, gyms… what have you.  We enjoyed learning more about Melbourne and the chance to see some nightlife.

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The following day we went to see St. Kilda, the shopping district of Melbourne.  Tracy and I were actually a bit underwhelmed by the shops, and felt like the CBD offered more, but I think it’s possible we missed something.  St. Kilda had a boardwalk-esque feel, as it is right off the beach, and we enjoyed the walk around.  We ended up going back to the CBD before we headed for our evening plans of seeing an Australian Football League game.  This was a fun experience as I like learning about new sports in different parts of the world.  In general the AFL game was a bit tame compared to rugby and NFL games, the fans at this game at least were not very rowdy.  There are four poles making up three goals, with the inner goal being worth more points than the outers.  Goals are made by the player punting the ball in.  The field is circular with a ton of referees on it, which was interesting, and they take a lot more breaks to stop and setup the plays.  Honestly, without being invested in the game Tracy and I had seen enough at halftime, and went back to the CBD to check out the Friday nightlife.

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This was a good idea.  We met a lot of people from all over the world, and appreciated the diverse and eclectic nature of Melbourne.  I don’t think I have ever been in a bar where I have seen such an array of ages (18 to 60), fashions (gym wear to formal), and crowds (work colleagues to bachelorettes).  It was a unique experience to see these people all mingle in one bar and no one seem out of place.

This was the end of the Melbourne visit, as I was off the following morning to see Bobby in Fiji!

Part Three

I never really thought much about visiting Fiji when I decided to venture to New Zealand, honestly I’ve been more after mountains and rivers than beaches… but between Hawaii, NZ beaches, Cairns, and Fiji- the tropics have been where I’ve been going- and I don’t have any complaints!  I am very lucky that Bobby has been able and wanting to visit so often during my time here… those flights over the Pacific aren’t the easiest.  Fiji seemed like a great place to meet and travel as someplace we both had not yet been, and it was a REALLY good decision.

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I love how well Bobby and I have been able to keep up our relationship via Skype, email and text… but I really love when I get to see him in person.   We had booked a hotel for the first few nights in the city of Nadi, near the airport.  Going to Fiji can be an eye-opening experience.  Most of the people live in poverty, and it was a reminder of how very fortunate I am to have so much in my life.  The roads are mainly dirt, streets can be crowded, there are many stray dogs, and cars are generally over a decade old.  The economy is based largely on tourism (and sugar cane), and people push hard to get your business.  You are asked if you need a taxi, a tour, a wooden craft souvenir, nearly everywhere you go.  It is not wise to walk around and explore alone or leave your belongings unattended.

The Fijian people are also rich in many ways, though, through the benefits of having a more simple lifestyle.  The environment is beautiful.  Communal living is still popular and villages are a source of support and strength.   Many of the people Bobby and I talked to spoke of how proud they were to be from Fiji.  Everyone is friendly and says “Bula” (Hello)… to a point of excess, actually.  Bobby and I made a few games out of the number of times we were greeted, asked the same common courtesy travel questions, or asked if we were from the United States.  (My favourite involved us pressing deeper than the surface level questions with a “What’s your favorite color?” in reply.   I was also entertained by counting how many times our waitress would giggle at Bobby’s American accent… which was absolutely every time he spoke.)

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The hotel we were first in was not lavish or what one might typically see on a travel ad.  The beach was a good walk away, the hotel was run on a generator that would frequently power off, and at one point the hot water was not working.   This was still a pretty wonderful experience, however, as we got to see a bit more of the “real Fiji”.  It was also nice to be a bit isolated from touristy temptations to just enjoy seeing Bobby again at first, and we met a lot of interesting people during the communal meal times and it being a small hotel.   Below, a picture of the beautiful river and plants just outside our room!

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We decided white sand beaches were a must for our visit to Fiji, and went the resort route for the remainder of our trip.  We passed over what I call “The Bridge Where Worlds Change” into Denarau, and were then surrounded by golf courses, docks and boats, and hotels.  This was also gorgeous- and led to a different kind of appreciation of Fiji.  It was nice to be right on the beach and under the coconut palms.  The following days consisted of enjoying all the resort offered- sleeping in, eating out, reading, walking to the marina, Bobby teaching me the basics of tennis and chess, me teaching him a bit about kayaking… and some ice cream (New Zealand Natural?!  We must!).  Bobby got a new job while we were there which was really great to be able to celebrate while we were together.  He also wanted to play and hear a piece he composed on the flight over, and ended up making friends with the musicians at a restaurant in a neighboring resort.   We spent a few nights there while he played piano with and for them.  Learning more about these people and seeing how music can connect people from very different backgrounds was actually one of my favorite parts of our trip.  By the end of the week they and Bobby had traded CDs and email addresses, they made us a fancy crepe dessert (groupie bonus for me!), and we had an offer to stay in their village when we next come to Fiji…  “Cool as”, as we’d say in NZ.

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The most exciting day of the trip was Thursday, when we took an eco tour of Fiji.  We were picked up at 8:45am and told we were the only people booked for the day, “Let us begin the tour with a brief history of Fiji….”.  An hour and a half later, our van seats held us, two Irish girls from Auckland, and a set of grandparents with their daughter and two adorable grandchildren.  Then we were told “Now we begin our tour with a brief history of Fiji…”  The day required us to dial in to “Fiji Time”, which is quite relaxed and flexible.

The day consisted of a short hike up to a waterfall, which was wonderful.  We learned about some of the native uses of different plants for medicines and cooking.  Bobby and I had tried to get to a waterfall in Hawaii and New Zealand, so arriving was an accomplishment to be appreciated.  We swam for a while and took a number of pictures.  When I learned we could jump from the top, I was in.  I climbed up to the top, and I was out.  Eventually, after watching our tour guide do the jump and mentally coaching myself through, I did the jump and loved it.

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We hiked back and stopped at a village for a traditional kava ceremony and Fijian lunch.  This was a fun way to get a bit of insight into the culture.  We had to remove our shoes before entering the church, our knees had to be covered, women sat with their knees tucked behind them and men with their legs crossed.  Prayers were said over the food and drink, and we had to perform certain rituals in terms of when to clap, drink, etc.  We enjoyed our brief visit to the village very much.

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After this we went to an Orchid Garden at the Sleeping Giant, which is a mountain that looks like a man sleeping (like spoken about in an earlier post in Colorado and Matarangi).  After this came a mega highlight of the day- visiting MUD POOLS!  As many of you are aware, I love mud.  It’s a Facebook interest of mine.  When I was given the opportunity to literally put my hand in a bucket of mud and slather it on, I didn’t need the guide to tell me it’s skin- beautifying properties to convince me to dig in.  Dream come true.  Then getting to rinse off the mud in a natural hotspring … dreams exceeded. Below, pictures in mud and water.

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The rest of our visit was supposed to consist of a trip to the largest Hindu temple in the Southern hemisphere and a stop at a local Fijian market.  Instead it consisted of about a hundred games of “I Spy” with the two girls in our van who had by this point become super friends.  They thought Bobby was “funny” (I guess I was OK, too) and we enjoyed their company and silliness a lot.

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Overall, our Fiji trip was full of happy memories, wonderful people,  and a bit of adventure.  Vinaka (Thank you), Fiji, for a wonderful holiday!

 

And that… in a very long blog post… was my very fun, exciting, lucky term holiday vacation…

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