Thursday, January 14, 2010

Life's a Beach, Chapter 2

My first week-end here, a work friend of Mark’s was up from Brisbane and we met her in Kuranda, a little hippie town in the mountains, to spend the day. Apparently it used to be just a market and a bunch of people camping in the jungle, but now it’s super touristy and ridiculously pretty, with free shuttle buses taking you around and a huge, labyrinthine market, where you can buy crappily-made hippie dresses for $85 a pop and bottled water for $6 – consider yourselves warned.

We picked Lee up from the scenic train she had taken up from Cairns and our first mistake was listening to me: I had seen a really cute restaurant in a brochure and we went there for lunch, where I paid $16 for a “turkey sandwich,” which was two slices of store bread, not toasted, smeared with butter, some cold turkey and a slice of processed cheese. Not even a bit of salad on the plate. The view was as lovely as promised (“Rainforest View Cafe”) – I think they were wise not to advertise based on their menu; good marketing strategy.

After wandering around a bit and deciding not to go to the butterfly sanctuary (read: the bastards vetoed my desperate request to go the butterfly sanctuary), we took the Skyrail down the mountain and back. There is no good story to tell; the reason I mention it is so that anyone reading this who ever passes through Cairns will know that this is a must-do.

You can fit up to six people in each little space bubble thing, which takes you through the middle of the mountains, with a waterfall on one side, a river on the other, lush green canopies all around you – just gorgeous. None of the pictures will do it justice, as amateur point-and-shoot pictures of trees are never big sellers, but believe me that it is the lushest, most peaceful space bubble trip you could ever take, as if you're flying through the forest. Sometimes the trees scrape the bottom of the space pod.

Lee was pretty freaked out for the first good twenty minutes, as well as every time we’d pass a transfer point and our little rail car would bump and swing – I don’t think her green face was just the reflection from the trees – and I’m sorry to admit that Mark and I still speculated out loud on how solid the rail cars were and what would happen if someone fell out. (Trying to reach out and comfort her just made the car swing more, so it wasn’t really helpful – sorry again, Lee...)

There are a few stops along the way, including a mini jungle walk – where we saw a huge, beautiful, blue and purple boa constrictor sitting in a tree just beside a look-out point – and an information station that smelled awful but had great information on rainforests. (Really, it smelled awful.) At the bottom we discovered that the base station is about five minutes from our house and we could have just parked there, rather than driving up, going down and up on the Skyrail and then driving back, but I guess you learn as you go.

Skyrail: do it! It’s great!

For Christmas we drove down to Townsville, where Mark’s entire family had gotten together, which doesn’t happen often. I can never really believe that it’s Christmas when I’m sitting in a sundress, sweaty and hot and barefoot – because my humidity-swollen feet won’t fit into my sandals – so I mostly just considered it a nice visit. Yes, there may have been a Christmas tree and lots of gift-giving, and Andrew wearing a Santa hat and doing a lot of shouting, but if you’re too hot to eat dessert, it’s just not Christmas. (Our big lunch was a heavily air-conditioned seafood buffet, though we did have Christmas crackers on our plates...)

One of my personal Christmas Day highlights is that Mark and his nephew happened to be wearing pretty much the same clothes, so Ewan looked like's Mark's mini-me.

Cairns is supposed to be hotter than Townsville, as it’s 300 km up the coast and in the jungle, but Townsville was SUPER hot, very sticky (everything brown and ugly and sad) and if you didn’t have air conditioning on, you felt sick to your stomach. It was about a week after getting to Trinity Beach and I thought I’d settled in, gotten past the immediate shock to the system, only to start all over again with the wishing I were dead.

Mark and I drove back up to TB, followed the next night by Anna and Nathan, Mark’s sister and her husband, who stayed for a few days. One highlight of their visit was a day spent up in Port Douglas at one of many wildlife places, hand-feeding kangaroos and gazing at koalas, which really are the cutest creatures on the planet. Man, would I love a koala. (I’m less enamoured of the crocs, which are super cool – I touched one and it mostly feels like a snake – but not so great to have around.)

We did have a pretty intense, real-live nature moment: we were among all the big kangaroos, after so many little ones and wallabies, and were disappointed that they weren’t interested in the food we were trying to feed them. Suddenly, one of them came down towards us. Great, we thought, this kangaroo is looking for some snacks and some love, and we’ve got both.

Except that an even bigger one followed the first one down and as they passed right in front of us and his very dangly balls dropped and swung back and forth as he chased after the pretty lady, we realized there was probably something fishy going on. And oh, there was.

Here’s how kangaroos do the deed: First he drinks her pee – or maybe not pee - I wasn’t involved enough to know;

then he follows her for a bit, stands on her tail, presumably to block her escape; and then he does the pretty standard move that we’ve all seen on nature shows.

(His penis is shaped really strangely, though, and Mark got a great picture to prove it. Look closely!)

Keep in mind that all this was about three feet from where we were standing, which was crazy enough, but then this other male came in and started growling at the first one, the two turning circles around the other while the female came straight towards us, maybe looking for somewhere to hide? Anna and Nathan moved pretty quickly but Mark and I wanted to see the story unfold – until, that is, the two males started moving their fight towards us, following the lucky girl, and we decided that we didn’t need to get kicked in the face by horny and aggressive kangaroos. Maybe another time, you know?

Anyway, check out the pictures. It was very cool.

Another fun time with Anna and Nathan was our pretty intense game of Taboo, which we had gotten them for “Christmas,” and in which we were all surprised at Mark’s and Nathan’s competitiveness. I, usually known for being so competitive in these games that it stops being fun (or so I’ve been told), felt totally laid-back and zen about the whole thing. Maybe people really can change, you know?

Less successful was when I decided to be "Helpful." I noticed that Nathan had a hole in his shirt, his favourite red t-shirt, some kind of New Zealand lamb wool fabric that supposedly breathes really well and thus never smells bad. A hole in the front of your shirt? No problem – give it to me! And off I went with my sewing kit, thinking that this hole would be like every other hole I’d ever sewn, where you turn it inside-out, hold it in a tight line and do it up. Right? Who’s with me? Except that – and we’re blaming the weird fabric here – it puckered up the whole front of the t-shirt and it looks like hell. And Nathan is polite to a fault and would not admit that I had butchered his favourite t-shirt, so he kept thanking me for my “help” while I named all the various items of holed clothing I’d fixed over the years... Lame. And lesson learned: mind your own business, always.

An update on the bird situation: I hate cockatoos. Think of the worst possible alarm clock sound you could design – would hundreds of squawking birds do it for you? Every morning at 7:00, then again in the evening. I hate them.

I am very pleased, on the other hand, with the beautiful green parrots that come to munch on the tree beside the balcony. They’re quite discreet – so much so that we didn’t notice them until very recently – and just so pretty. Unfortunately, they’re resisting my attempts at friendship and have actively ignored me (and my sunflower seeds) for three days running. I make all sorts of noises that I see no reason for them not to love, I offer them the seeds, I move my head around a little from side to side, parrot-style, to let them know that we’re on the same track, but they’re just not interested. One might even use the word “disdainful” if one were so inclined, but I’m choosing to go with “not yet fully engaged.” All in good time, my sweet parrot friends, all in good time.

As far as how stupid a person can be, how many times have I lived in tropical climates? How aware am I by now of how painful and dangerous the sun can be? Might I remind you that the big, famous hole in the ozone layer that we’re all so worried about is pretty much directly over my house? And yet – and yet. Off I went to the beach to get some sun.

I'd been using lots of good sunscreen and therefore remaining quite white and pasty, so I figured that if I went in the morning, until no later than 9:00, then I would get good sun but before it gets dangerous, and if I did that enough times I might start to have a general tan. Except that I’m someone who dawdles, pretty much always, our washing machine was broken, the laundromat was not open when it said it would be, everything got moved up in the day – long story short, I fell asleep on the beach and was lying in the sun until about 10:30, when I woke up, thought “well, I didn’t get any colour but I don’t want to push it” and went home.

Now. You can never see that you’re getting burnt – it only comes out later. I stepped out of the shower and was a lobster from the neck down, except for the blinding white of my bathing suit lines, like I was painted red and wearing white underwear. And it’s not like I can ask for sympathy, right? Because everything here is about slip, slap, slop, panicky covering up of skin, staying out of the sun... to have gone sun-bathing in the first place is pretty much a guarantee that nobody’s going to have anything to say except “look at the scars from the various melanomas I’ve had cut out of my white, Irish skin. You should know better.”

It was incredibly painful for two days, then nice and brown for two days (I dared get my hopes up) and now, of course, comes The Great Peel. You know those plastic-type face masks that you peel off? That’s the entire front of my body. It’s fascinating (or incredibly gross, if you’re, say, Mark) and also heartbreaking, because of course under the peel, I’m just as white as ever. So not only was it dangerous, but it didn’t even serve its shallow, superficial purpose. I’d like to say “lesson learned,” but who knows – sometimes I’m just an idiot.

Otherwise: Mark and I are continuing our war against the ants (and losing); the washing machine has been fixed; schools are closed for another week and I’m not sure whether to try to find another job or to just wait and get good money; they don’t have the feta dressing that my dad mixes with cucumbers and I when I tried with herb dressing and pieces of feta it was revolting and I don’t know what to do; our friendly neighbours are a cop and a soldier, respectively, which has exciting potential; immigration has confirmed that if I want to stay for 18 months, I’d better get fruit-picking (or fishing/pearling, which the lady said was actually lots of fun - ?!!?) and I really don’t want to; and finally, after over three weeks of waiting, they connected our internet – only to cancel my phone plan so that there is more work to be done.

Happy New Year to you all and here’s hoping that 2010 is the best one yet.


Friday, January 8, 2010

Life's A Beach: Chapter 1

Hi everyone!

So here's the blog version of the updates. I don't know how it works yet, how much space I have or how many pictures I'll be able to add, but for those of you who are happier not receiving e-mails, here's another way to follow my life in Northern Queensland.

As for the name of this series, I’m living in Trinity Beach, which is in North Queensland, near Cairns. I was trying to find something about the Holy Trinity or some kind of queen joke, or even a word play with Cairns (they pronounce it “cans,” in case that helps you come up with something that I couldn’t), but then I thought that “Life’s a Beach” would be the right attitude to be putting forth this time around. (I’ve decided to be actively positive and pro-active in my life here, rather than just complaining all the time... We’ll see how long it lasts.)

For anyone who doesn’t know the back story, here it is: I was in Townsville (also in Queensland) last year for teachers’ college and I started dating my house mate, Mark. He was working as a financial project manager for Honeywell Australia, who are currently installing or upgrading security in Queensland prisons. He came to Canada with me and stayed for the six months his visa allowed, during which time we looked for jobs in the Caribbean without much success. Then Honeywell asked him to come back to Australia for their next project, which is on Lotus Glen prison, about an hour inland from Cairns, and we figured it was our best bet for the time being. He’s been here since early November and I flew in this week.

Our together plan is to stay for 18 months, enough time for him to complete his MBA and the maximum time my visa will allow, before moving on. My own plan is tricky because the visa requires that I not spend more than six months with any one employer, so I’ll have to keep moving around. Also, if I want to extend to the year and a half (the visa itself is only one year at this point), I have to spend at least three months doing something like picking fruit or working in the forest – the details are foggy but suffice it to say that I will have to be crafty and open to whatever jobs come up.

Now. The trip itself was a bit dramatic because I was lucky enough to fly on the staff travel card of Mark’s pilot friend, Jason. (Who is a dead ringer for Jon Livingstone and happens to be one of the all-out nicest guys I know.) The deal with staff travel is that you save oodles of money but fly on stand-by, which means you can be bumped from your flight. Not a big deal, right? Except that in the moment itself, it’s depressing as hell.

It had been a long day, starting with a 5:30 wake-up, because I had to fly to LA first (via Minneapolis.) I’d had a bad cold earlier in the week, so my ears were in rough shape and the two descents were incredibly painful and left me headachy and hard of hearing the rest of the day. I got to LA at 1:20 and hung out all day in LAX (which is a miserable airport under any circumstances), checked in for my big flight and was informed at 7:30 that I wasn’t making it on and would have to go see the check-in staff to be put on the list for tomorrow’s flight. There were a few other people who had been bumped from stand-by so we all hung around during the four hours it took to get re-scheduled and collect our luggage; even better, we shared hotel rooms so no one had to pay too much.

It occurs to me that missing the flight, exhausting a day as it was (5:30 am until 3:00 am, Toronto time), was probably a blessing, as I needed a good night’s sleep and some time away from pressurized cabins. I hung out in LA with my new friends, resigned to the possibility of it all happening again that night; at least knowing what to expect would make it easier.

We went back for check-in as soon as they opened at 3:00 and we hung around the airport again, fingers crossed and trying to talk about anything other than our chances of making it on the flight, since we were making ourselves crazy with uninformed speculation. (And also informed, as legitimate ticket-holders who had missed their flight kept showing up, which meant that they would get priority on our flight and our chances were diminishing by the minute – a very tense situation!) Among other things, we brainstormed possible new career paths for Shannon, who spent the last six years working for Disney in London, found alternative travel arrangements for Saad, whose missed flight meant no possible connection to New Zealand for at least a week, and decided that if I had a baby I should name it “Mozzie.” We were briefly convinced that Nicole Kidman was on the flight when we saw excited people flashing cameras and I remembered seeing her in a BT interview that said she was heading home for Christmas, but it turned out to be Aussie singer Deltra Goodram. Very anti-climactic. Mostly, we stressed about what would happen if one or two of us got on the flight and not the others, since everyone had such a good reason to go home. (Especially this Mississippi couple whose son moved to Australia 9 years ago and has only come home twice since – get these people on a plane!) Would any of us be generous enough to give up our spot? Probably not.

And then, just like that, we all got on. It was incredibly exciting and I was glad to have people to jump around with and hug, rather than being all happy by myself. The flight was long and my ears were bad (I was also really nauseous and couldn’t eat anything – what’s with my crappy immune system?!) and I thought I was going to get bumped from my Sydney-Cairns flight, but I wasn’t and Mark was at the airport and everything was smooth sailing from then on. Oh, except for my bags still being in LA, but they were delivered yesterday (by an elderly man who really shouldn’t be carrying people’s oversized luggage) so after wearing the same sweaty dress for two days, I’m all unpacked and clean and ready to roll.

Mark and I had already agreed on an apartment (via online real estate sites) and he had moved in on the 11th, so it was nice for me to move straight into our apartment. It’s actually a two-storey townhouse, absolutely beautiful – airy, spacious, hardwood floors, great furniture, gardens out the windows, clean and modern – AND it has a pool, which we didn’t think was the case from the web site or from Mark’s first, quick tour of the place. I spent the day yesterday picking up extra sheets, towels, garbage bins, light bulbs, organizing baskets and other such household items, and we re-arranged the furniture right away, so now I think it’s the most beautiful place I’ve ever lived and I just keep wandering around and smiling at how nice and clean everything is.

Tropical jungle pool

Nice big windows out to the upstairs deck

View from guest room over main entrance

Garden outside main bedroom

What I had forgotten about the tropics is how noisy the creatures around you can be. The frogs are incredibly loud, the geckos make this weird little barking noise and there’s this creepy, whispered “hey” outside my room in the early morning. The worst, though (other than our loud neighbours with their totally screechy saxophone jazz and raucous parties) are the wild cockatoos that fly around in packs and squawk like they’re trying to raise the dead. It’s amazing and completely miserable, but it doesn’t last long – some kind of evening thing they have going on.

As for poop, I was sitting at the table yesterday when something hit my arm – I figured it was a bug of some sort but eventually noticed some lizard poo on the table. There’s an overhanging bit of ceiling, you see, and one of the many geckos running around on it had let loose right above me – luckily it bounced off my arm and not into my hair. I sit in a different chair now, though apparently it’s good luck when a gecko poops on you.

Less charmingly, Mark said that the other morning he found some possum poo right inside the big sliding door to the bedroom, which you have to leave open because it’s too hot to sleep otherwise, but which doesn’t have a screen door. I’m not that concerned about cleaning up the occasional little deposit, but I’m not feeling so hot about possums coming into the room and am trying to come up with a plan of action in case I ever wake up to see two little shining eyes staring at me in the night. I guess if you’re going to be all thrilled to be surrounded by trees, you have to deal with the tree dwellers as well.

Now for the best part. Better than a beautiful apartment with a pool, you ask? How is that possible? Better than being surrounded by lush, green mountains? Better than having a corner plaza with a goodwill, a post office, a Thai take-out restaurant AND a Brumby’s bakery?

Check it out: Jason (the pilot who looks like Jon Livingstone) happened to have a flight up to Cairns yesterday so Mark went and rescued him from a staff-hotel-room-and-partying-cabin-crew evening to come have a barbecue with us. They were chatting so much that he missed the turn-off and had to circle back, which meant that they passed a couple of big fields that are past Trinity Beach and pretty much right behind our house. Guess what lives in those fields? A herd of kangaroos! Kangaroos!

Like, maybe eighty of them, just hanging out in this grassy spot, munching away and completely unconcerned if you go right up close to them. So having never managed to see a proper kangaroo during the whole thirteen months I lived in Australia last year, I’ve landed in a house that is two minutes from their operational headquarters. I am so pleased.

I guess that’s it. My body is all puffy and panicky from the sudden heat, but I’m not that concerned because I have nothing better to do than just hang around and wait for it to work itself out. I’ve been driving a lot and was surprised at how easily I got back into the system; the opposite side of the road is actually a whole lot less of a problem than Mark’s big sedan, since I’m used to small cars. My old cell phone even still works! And I won’t even think about job searching until after Christmas, which will be a family visit period for us and during which everything’s closed anyway. In other words, now that I’ve finished with the household errands and my luggage got here in one piece, I’m ready to hit the beach or the pool as soon as the sun comes out; this is the rainy season here, so I’m happy to have nothing to do so that I can take advantage of the nice days when they occur. The rest of the time, it’s nice to sit and read with the shushing of the rain all around.

I hope you all have happy holidays and that 2010 is full of good stuff.