Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Aussie Diary, Day 9


(The only Hard Rock in Australia. The Grand Chancellor, or hotel in Surfer's Paradise, is the building right behind it. The people on the streets are Schoolies.)

Today is another travel day. It doesn't occur to me on this day, but they had told us previously that flying the day after you go diving isn't particularly wise. But we rolled the dice and went diving anyway. On this morning we have a 10am flight, so we have enough time to enjoy one last free breakfast at a Shangri-La. This is a sad time, these breakfasts were amazing and they rank high upon my list of favorite things about this trip. We catch a cab back to the hotel which somehow cost us $1 less than it did on the way TO the hotel. Go figure. After checking in to the flight we then head off to collect my lost sunglasses. Of course there isn't anyone at the lost & found desk, so I have to walk all the way to the other side of the airport (where I started, mind you) to try to get someone to help me. I had the foresight to leave Steph at the desk as I went for help. And someone eventually came and gave her the shades.

Now, off to Brisbane. The flight goes without a problem and we arrive to begin the next great adventure: driving. I've been nervous about this challenge the whole time we've been here. I had no experience driving a Right-hand drive vehicle, nor did I have experience driving in a Left-hand drive country. I tend to be very confident in my abilities behind the wheel, but this is a different animal altogether. I liken the feeling I had to the feeling you get showing up to take an exam for which you haven't studied. The only difference is that instead of getting an F, you could crash the car or kill yourself if you're not on your game. So after getting our car (a Suzuki Swift that barely fit our bags), I set off very gingerly out of the airport. The main difficulty is that I've trained myself to stay centered in the driving lane by lining up my right leg with the middle of the lane. Well, that doesn't work here. I try to compensate, but after a while your natural tendencies creep back in and you drift left. So, that was the constant battle. Overall, though, I did well. I only turned into the right lane once while making a right turn. Fortunately we were on a traffic-lass residential street at the time, so, no harm no foul. I also didn't notice until I got here that the hotel I booked us in is 1 hour SOUTH of Brisbane when I thought it was an hour North. This isn't a huge deal, but the main reason we wanted to spend time here was to go to the Australia Zoo, Steve Irwin's zoo, which is about an hour north of Brisbane. Now instead of being a few minutes away from it, I'm a couple of hours away. Sigh.

So armed with our GPS unit we set off for Surfer's Paradise (yes, thats the name of the town. I know. Sounds awful). It would seem as though the interchange around the airport is relatively new because the GPS unit (whom we named Claire after the Aussie chick from LOST) had no idea where we were going. She seemed to be getting frustrated that we weren't following her well intentioned directions. So, almost immediately, we're on our own driving in a foreign land on the wrong side of the car and road. Great. Fortunately for us, there were well-defined signs for Surfer's, so I just followed those until the GPS got a clue where we were.

OK, so remember a couple of days ago when I mentioned Schoolies going on in Oz right now? Well, little did I know at that time that they were happening in Surfer's Paradise! So, thousands of recently liberated high school graduates had descended on this town for a few weeks of fun and debauchery. You can't walk 3 feet without running into a hormonally charged teenager. Its amusing to see how the shop owners and vendors are bracing themselves for this. Some post security at the door some set age limits for patronage. Out hotel was the Grand Chancellor, and they set really restrictive rules for the under 25 crowd.

So, after we get ourselves situated in our twin-bedded room (they told us we could have a King tomorrow), we set out in search for something to eat. We end up at the Hard Rock, which in addition to being 30 feel from our hotel, is the only Hard Rock in the whole country. And for the 1st time since we've been married, Steph and I ordered the same meal. The waitress thought this was cute, but we didn't plan it.

Friday, November 26, 2010

The Aussie Diary, Day 8

Today: The Great Barrier Reef.

As you know, this is one of the Wonders of the World. Steph and I are very excited to get to see it up close and personal. We’ve signed up with a tour operator who takes you to two different sites on the reef and lets you dive and snorkel them. Even if you’re not certified to dive, they do an “introductory dive” where they teach you the basics on the trip out and the dive master takes you down for about 20 minutes. The rest of the time you snorkel. The tour company picks you up from your hotel, but since our hotel is at the marina, we didn’t need a ride. We wake up early and were at the boat 15 minutes early for the 730am boarding. As the boat fills up, a group of people from Spain come along looking for a seat. I have been studying Spanish in school, so I figure this is a good opportunity to practice: “Ustedes quiren sentir aqui?”(Would you all like to sit here?) I say, without much confidence. Maite (I would later learn her name) turns around with a look of surprise on her face and says “Yes!”. So, she and her friend Lucio sit with us and we go back and forth with their broken English and my barely passable Spanish, but we’re able to understand one another, which I find quite gratifying.
OK, so, as we get ready to depart, the staff come by with ginger tablets for motion sickness, I got sick once 4 years ago going up windy mountain roads in St.. Lucia, so I figure it couldn’t hurt. I would be proven correct. It turned out to be the choppiest weather conditions for boat driving one can imagine. Imagine as if you are in a boat that is jumping a ramp every 15 feet or so, this was our experience. We had scoped out a seat up front so we could have a pretty view, well, this is the last place you want to be when the boat is being bounced around. So, I quickly make my way out back to the open air. There I find there is a “sick area” that has been set up with staff members holding napkins and sick-bags for everyone who comes out. So it’s me and a bunch of Asian women out back, but our band of sissies would steadily grow as time went on. Even Steph, Mrs. Cast Iron Stomach herself, would join us after a time. I eventually decide to head to the second level of the boat to see if it’s any better with a stronger wind in my face. Upstairs we discover that there are nice big seats that we can lay down on. This is a Godsend. The trip out to the reef is about 45 minutes and I spent most of it there. After a long while of laying down I am feeling much better but it has begun to rain so we’re getting wet continuing to hang out up top, so we head back inside. This was a mistake. I hadn’t been seated inside for more than 35 seconds before the illness came back with a vengeance. It hadn’t been this strong the entire trip. I made it outside just in time for The Big Moment. As I lay over the railing donating my breakfast to the fish in the sea below, the boat slowly comes to a halt. Almost as if my retching was the cue that the captain was waiting for to stop the boat. If I had stayed lying down for 2 more minutes I would have been fine. Figures.

Fortunately, I felt fine after we got stopped. One of the other passengers wasn’t so lucky. She was out on the sick-deck for most of the trip but then her body had enough turbulence and threw her into full blown panic attack. No matter what anyone did for her they couldn’t calm her down. They actually had to send a rescue chopper out and fly her and her husband back to the main land. Not THAT’S a crappy start to a day if I’ve ever seen one. The rest of us who were planning to dive then proceeded to get strapped into our gear. In Oz they don’t grow their people as large as we do in the US, so, there wasn’t a wetsuit my size. No worries, the water was 30 degrees centigrade so it was plenty warm. Plus diving without a suit made me feel like a tough guy. We get the gear on and we’re able to practice breathing through our machines, and it was strange. Breathing was no longer an involuntary action but required a conscious decision on your part every time. The instructor took another group down first and then it was our turn. We get in the water and I put my face in the water getting used to the feeling and then we’re taken down. It’s at this moment that I realize that Steph is no longer with me. I figure something is wrong but I have no way to ask questions right now. Our group of 4 is now 2 and we go down with the dive master. I’m pretty sure we weren’t down for a full 20 minutes but it was fun getting to follow the fish for a little while. We didn’t get much opportunity to swim away from the instructor, so, I felt restricted. Before I knew it, we were back up. Being certified to dive would be fun, I think. This dive barely whets your appetite. I return to the surface and climb back on board the boat after my dive to find my wife sitting on the steps looking quite dejected. It turns out that when she tried to submerge with the diving equipment on, her natural instinct to breath naturally proved too strong and she couldn’t go through with it. She was very disappointed and I was upset for her. But we both got to go out and snorkel together which, in reality, wasn’t any less fulfilling than my dive since we were looking at the exact same reef only 20-30 feet lower. I didn’t see any fish on the dive that Steph and I didn’t see snorkeling. This seemed to make her feel better. The second dive location was even better than the first. We saw lots of parrot fish (who were fond of defecating in our general area. Big ones too!) There were crazy looking sea slugs and huge clams and evey colored type of fish you can imagine. It was a great time. After we’re done with the reef they bring us celebratory cheese and wine. I was dreading the trip back to shore given our experience on the way out, but the wind had died down and it was smooth sailing all the way home. It wasn’t a day without incident, but it ended on a perfect note.

I slept quite soundly that night, but I could have sworn that our bed was swaying all night long…

The Aussie Diary, Day 7

Today was designed to be a take-it-easy day on our itinerary. We only had two whole days (3 nights) in Cairns and since we rafted yesterday and we’re going to the reef tomorrow, I figured this would be a good day to do it. Not a whole lot happened today, we slept in and decided to wander the streets of Cairns just popping into shops that we saw that looked interesting. As we got started I would be distressed to learn that I had misplaced my over-priced, prescription Ray-Ban shades somewhere during our travels on the previous day. I tear up our room looking for them, but they aren’t there. (the story has a happy ending though, I called Qantas that night and, to my great surprise, they actually had them! I collected them on our flight out a couple of days later. ) But I put this bothersome notion out of my mind as to not ruin our day. One thing we notice is that Cairns is must more ethnically diverse than Sydney. It took me until the 3rd-4th day in SYD before I counted more than 5 black people. Keep in mind: this is a town of 6 million, and fellow darkies were very hard to spot. Cairns, not so much, they came in all shapes and sizes. Sydney is very much like the New York of this country. By comparison, Cairns is like Key West. Not very busy, and all the activity seems to revolve around the reef and other water activities. We stumble upon a shopping mall as we wandered the streets and one thing that strikes us as odd is that people are fond of pushing shopping karts around the mall with small children in them as if they were watermelons or something. Strange. We finish our day by the pool, just in time for it to get overcast. I pick up a local paper and start reading about the goings-on in Oz. There are celebrations going on in the Goal Coast called Schoolies. This is when the year 12 graduates (high school seniors) get to overrun a town and debauch themselves on every type of pleasure they feel that they’ve been deprived in their long 17 years. Little did I know how familiar I was to become with this event soon enough…

Friday, November 19, 2010

The Aussie Diary, Day 6

Its a travel day.

We have to be up early to catch the 645am shuttle to the airport in time for our 915 flight to Cairns (it pronounced: Cans). The only notable thing about the trip this morning was our shuttle driver was the spitting image of Big Pussy from the Sopranos. He is a Russian immigrant who has been down under for 25 years but he doesn't have one trace of an Australian accent. Strange.

I'll take this opportunity to document a couple of interesting anecdotes that I have yet to mention. One of the first people we met in the airport in Brisbane was a gentlemen who was returning from NYC where his daughter had run in the New York Marathon, as I mentioned before, our bags took forever to come, so, as he and I waited we had a lot of time to talk. We talked politics for a while and its always fun to learn about the politics of a new place and to get an outsiders view of our own political game. The interesting thing he said is that in Australia, voting is compulsory. Everyone is required by law to do it. My first thought is probably the same as yours: wouldn't that just lead to a lot of uneducated voters? He said that does happen. everyone treats their vote differently. I then started thinking on the effect this would have on American politics if everyone showed up. There are certain groups that would fight that decision tooth and nail. Many people benefit from the fact that not everyone participates. I'm not sure which of us is doing it right, but it was interesting to think about. Is it better to be apathetic and vote or to be apathetic and not vote?

Another funny story happened on our first full day in Sydney. While walking back from the aquarium to the hotel we popped into a convenience store to buy something to drink. As I presented the credit card to pay, the nice Pakistani fellow behind the counter asked me "what is your account?". I took a moment to consider his question, then, stumped, I said "I don't understand the question.". I'm not sure if he took this to mean that I hadn't heard him so he repeated himself: "what is your account?". This time, having not acquired any new information, I decide to employ the "look confused" tactic. This is beginning to visibly annoy him, so he decides to repeat his question over and over, never changing the phrasing I might add. He just says it louder and more rapidly, then switching it up and saying it slower, maybe hoping the variety in pitch and speed will unjam the obvious blockage in my mind. He was wrong. I decide to attempt to break the stalemate and I offer a " my account is on the card." Then a breakthrough: "Is there a PIN? Do you sign?" Ah! This was a "debit/credit" question. I say "Sign". And the problem was solved. It was a great reminder that, although you may be in an English speaking country, there are still language barriers. Now, whenever Steph and I want to laugh, we just look at the other, open your eyes as wide as possible and scream: "WHAT IS YOUR ACCOUNT!?!?!" It gets a chuckle every time.

OK, off to Cairns. When I planned this trip I took a bit of a gamble. I didn't want to lose the whole day traveling, so, I planned a white water rafting excursion for 145pm. The flight was scheduled to arrive at 1115am and the hotel is only 3 miles away. I figured even if there is a delay, as long as we're there by 1230, we'll have time to get our bags and catch a cab to the hotel where they're going to pick up up from. A lot of people wouldn't have risked it, but I'm not most people. We take off and land on-time, life is good. We get to the hotel by 12pm, we're in the room by 1230 and we have an hour before we're to be picked up, I'm feeling like a genius. The pickup is for 145 and they ask that you're ready 10 minutes early just in case. Well, this hotel is shaped strangely, so, the room is about a 5 minute walk from the lobby. So, we don't get to the front of the building until about 140p. Normally this wouldn't worry me, but after our experience at the zoo ferry yesterday, I've lost all confidence. We had only been sitting there 3-4 minutes, but my heart is racing within me. "I hope I didn't screw this up too." my suddenly insecure psyche says to itself. But the bus arrives shortly thereafter and we're off.

Australia receives a lot of Asian tourists given its proximity to the continent. Therefore, our rafting group was composed of half English-speakers and half Japanese-speakers. Its actually a requirement of the job that everyone be able to communicate a few basic things in Japanese. I feel a bit left out as everyone was spitting out cool-sounding phrases around me. After we pick everyone up from their hotels we're off up into the mountains. The guides give us the safety talk and the step-by-step as we drive along, everything then has to be translated into Japanese by the girl who seems to be employed strictly for this purpose. Once we get to the river we get suited up into our gear and we're on our way. Our guides name is Hosannah, but he goes by Hoss. (I like the name a lot, actually. I like it more as a girl's name, though. So, if we have another daughter it'll be on the short list for sure.) So, we get on the river and he gives us a quick tutorial on how he'll run the boat, we're taught a few commands and how to perform them as a unit. There are about 4 other rafts going down the river and we take our time going down together always making sure the boats behind us make it through the rapids ok. It was a lot of fun and slightly dangerous, which gives you a sense of accomplishment when you make it through unscathed. This is my favorite picture from the trip:



There are some calm sections on the river and we get out and swim those, we even are able to swim a rapid. It was a baby one, grade 1, but still, never done that before.

After the trip the tour operator takes you to a local bar/restaurant where they have set up complimentary coffee/tea and potato wedges (a winning combination if I ever saw one) while they attempt to sell you the pics from your trip. As you can see from the picture above, their pitch was effective.

The Aussie Diary, Day 5

Its zoo day! As well as our last full day in Sydney. This fact begins to stir emotions in me I wasn't aware were present. The harbor and the city they've built around it are simply beautiful. I've never seen anything like it. I'm not a real "big city" guy, so, it may be that I'm easily impressed, but everything about this city has stood out to me. A few examples: I had never before seen a two story subway system. You go below ground to catch a train, but there are also trains below those trains! If that weren't enough train for you, the trains are double-deckers! You go in one of them and you'll find you can go upstairs or downstairs to find a seat. Second thing, they actually give pedestrians help to which way to look when crossing the street. I suppose having a lot of visitors to their left-handed country causes lots of confusion when trying to navigate the streets, so, instead of having mass-fatalities at their intersections, they give you a hint. Por ejemplo:



Seeing this made me feel as if every city I had visited previously cared not for my well being, but Sydney cares. A third thing, another help for the meandering masses, when you're at a cross walk, the button you press that tells the system you want to cross is attached to a speaker box that makes a noise when its time to cross. It sounds like a radar gun from a bad sci-fi movie, but its helpful if you happen to be daydreaming or otherwise not looking at the crossing light. Our friend Doug, resident of Sydney, hypothesized that it was an aid to the visually impaired. Again, Sydney cares for her people. You can also see in the picture above that there is a monorail line that circles the city, and when you include the bus service and the ferries to the huge subway line, you have an impressive mass transit system. For a person from Jacksonville who lives 20 miles from the nearest bus stop, this is a sight to behold.

OK, so its zoo day. We plan on catching the ferry to the zoo, it docks at the zoo its self, no parking, no finding my way around? I like it. We have to get to the port at Circular Quay (pronounced: key), the girl at our Roach Motel says the fastest way to get there is to take the bus. We want to catch the first ferry of the day, so we take her advice instead of using the train which we have more familiarity with at this point. So we get our bus passes and get to the stop, its supposed to come every 20 minutes. When we get there there is a group of 8-10 people waiting so I figure it should be by soon. 10 minutes, 20 minutes, 30 minutes later and we're starting to despair. The woman next to us the stop has already called her office twice to tell them she has no idea when she'll be at work. This doesn't inspire confidence. It finally does come, but not until we've missed the ferry we were trying to catch. No worries, we get there and on the way we get to enjoy a spectacular view of the harbor by boat.

This zoo is huge. They have a cable car that takes you to the top of the park, its advised to start there and work your way back down. Yeah, that big. I won't bore you with zoo descriptions, we've all been to a zoo. A few highlights were the Kangaroos and Wallabys, they have them in an open pen where you can walk right up to them. The Koalas were quite cute as well, we plan on going to Steve Irwin's zoo when we get to Brisbane and doing the "hold and cuddle with a koala" experience there. We saw a seal show, they were well trained and entertaining. I bought a burger and they put a beet on it. Yeah. No idea why they would do such a thing either, but they did.

We plan on leaving on the 2nd to last ferry of the day at 345 since that will enable us to get back to the hotel with enough time to prepare for our show at the Opera House tonight. We buy an ice cream and get to the ferry stop at 340. This is where things get fuzzy for me. I'm not sure how, it may have been exhaustion after walking all day for 5 straight days, but I managed to not see a huge ferry as it pulled up next to me. I know. Absurd. The wharf had jostled violently and everyone jumped up, and I assumed that was because they were startled, so I quickly took the seat of one of the passengers before she could realize there was nothing to fear and tried to reclaim it. I later learn that there was a boat there and they were standing to board it. The confusing thing is that there are a few companies that use this dock and so, not everyone got up, this gave me a sense that I wasn't being left, but I was. Also, in my rush to sit, I sat with my back to the loading area, if I hadn't then I would have seen them all boarding our ferry. Steph asks me "why is everyone getting up?" I say "because they're sheep". And as I was saying that I think "hmm, that was an arrogant thing to say, wouldn't it be funny if you were the one who was in the wrong?". But I quickly discard that thought and relax into my seat. I then hear a motor rev up and turn my head just in time to see out boat leaving. "Thats strange", I think to myself. It turns out that Steph had seen it and assumed that I had too, so, when I sat, she assumed I knew something that she didn't and followed my lead. As the reality of our situation sets in, my sheep comment comes back to mind: who's the sheep now? Shut-up, brain! The next ferry doesn't come until 515pm. The thought of sitting here for the next 90 minutes doesn't sit well with either of us and we're both feeling responsible for the error. Fortunately for us, a water taxi shows up and agrees to take us back for $20. Deal. So, in the end, my arrogance only cost us $20 and 20 minutes, I'll take it. I've had lessons that came with a much higher price tag than that.

We make it back to the hotel fine. We relax for a while, clean up and head to the Opera House for the show. The harbor at night is a sight to behold. As I look at the bridge and the harbor I wonder when will be the next time I get to be here, if ever. It feels nice to be in a suit with my bride and going to a nice show in one of the greatest venues in the world. The show doesn't disappointed either. It was a theater production called The Grenade. It is a comedy that comments on the role fear plays in our lives. Vey funny. I got several good, genuine belly laughs out of it. I recommended it highly if it ever plays near you. After the show I walk away reflecting on the good fortune I've enjoyed so far in my young life. Not many people I know can check "Show at the Sydney Opera House" off of their list of accomplishments, but I can. I'm not sure why I was chosen to be here now, but I'm not ungrateful.

We walk away from the harbor for the last time on this trip. Hopefully I'll return one day.

Tomorrow, Cairns.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Aussie Diary, Day 4


(View of the Opera House from the rear. No one ever shows this angle.)

Rain , rain go away.

Steph and I have been trying to get to a beach around here since day two, but the weather has yet to cooperate with us. We awake on day 4, to see rain dive-bombing the streets below. Poop! So, we have to make a tough choice, both options we had planned to choose from today involved being outside, so, do we go to the beach (or zoo) and risk having a bad time, or do we try to find something else to do indoors? This choice paralyzes us for a while and we end up wasting most of the morning. Another thing slowing us down is the fact that we have to check out of our 5-star suite from the gods and transfer to a place we can afford which is across town and, well, not as nice to put it mildly. So we pack up our gear, bid farewell to our absurd view and we head out. We store our bags with the bellmen so we don’t have to lug them around. Just as we’re leaving the hotel, however, I run into someone I met on-line but had never met in person. Geoff Cooper is a fellow Green Bay Packer fan that I met on twitter. It just so happened he lives in Oz, and it just so happened he was going to be in Sydney the same time we were (he lives in Brisbane), and it just so happens that he was checking into the exact same hotel we were staying in, and it just so happened that we bumped into each other as he was coming in and we were going out. My Packer sweatshirt gave me away. That was crazy. It doesn’t look like they’ll be time to hook up in Sydney but we probably will in Brisbane next week.

So, we decide to go to the zoo, but after learning about how much time we need to do it well we decided that we’d wasted too much time. We call an audible and decide to wander over to the Opera House and take a tour of it instead. As I’m walking towards it I start thinking about “how many buildings in the world are as recognizable as this one?” If you were shown pictures of buildings around the world, how many would you know without a caption? Obviously ones you’ve visited or lived near would fall in that category, but what of the ones you’ve never been to? I thought of the Taj Mahal, Eiffel Tower, Big Ben, The White House, things like that. If you’re compiling a list like that the Sydney Opera House has to rand in the top-5, right? So, we go on the tour and one of the first things they tell us is that the Opera House has a global recognition rating (who’s ever heard of that before? How the heck do you calculate it anyway?) of 4 billion. Meaning 2 out of every 3 people on the planet can tell you what and where this building is upon seeing a picture of it. “That’s pretty good”, I think to myself. The tour teaches you lots of interesting things about its construction: they held a design contest for the right to build the house, and the guy that one had already had his design thrown out, but they added a new judge to the panel and he insisted on seeing the entries discarded before his addition to the panel. Also, the design was way ahead of its time and no one could figure out how to build the curved roof. After years of trying, they had almost lost hope when a solution was finally found. We your some to the halls in the house, some are smaller and more intimate (400 or 500 seats), they use those for theatre and smaller one-man acts. Then they took us to the grand ballroom. Its amazing. Everything in the room is designed to add to the audio experience. The wood in the walls and on the floor, even the wood on the chairs, all are part of the plan. They tell us of the wide variety of shows that take place there from Kieth Urban to Mr. Universe competition (The Goven-ator won his title here) to sumo wrestling competitions. All happen on this stage. The organ they have built is truly a sight to behold. You can see it in the front of the room, 138 pipes standing tall and proud and you think “man, that’s a lot of pipes”. Then they tell you that there are 10,000 more pipes behind the wall that you cannot see. The organ took 10 years to build and an additional 2 years to tune. My God. As you continue along the tour they have video where they tell you more about the building of the house. The architect who designed was (he dies in 2008) the only person alive to have a structure he designed given World Heritage status during his lifetime. A great honor.


(The wife and I atop one of the pylons of the Harbor Bridge.)

After the tour we decide to climb one of the pylons of the Harbor Bridge. If you have paid for the Bridgeclimb experience, then they throw this one in for free. Otherwise you pay. It may surprise you to learn that the pylons have no structural significance to the bridge at all. They’re purely decoration. We ran into a couple from Wisconsin on the way up the bridge, and as I was wearing my Packer hoodie (its cold in the wind in Sydney this time of year) we had much to discuss. The view from the pylon is similar to the one atop the bridge, obviously, just not as high. They have a lot of facts and figures about the construction of the bridge there, but we heard most of them on the tour when we climbed it.
It was then time to face the grim reality that we were no longer guests of the Shangri-la. So, we go by and get our bags from the porters, catch a cab to the new hotel (which shall remain nameless since I’m ashamed of it). After weeping a bit over the downgrade in accommodation, the wife and I set out to the Queen Victoria Building to find a Pandora store so Steph can buy a charm to commemorate our trip (its our little tradition). So, we brave the subway system for the first time and we get to the mall in time to discover that it closed just as we got there. The woman at Pandora tells us about another place where we can get a charm, so we do. We the head back to Darling Harbor for dinner. It must be prom night because there are hundreds of sweet smelling, finely dressed teenagers everywhere. Strange sight on a Wednesday night, but we roll with it. On the way to dinner we run into a professional street performer named Paul who claims to have been doing this for 10 years. We stop and watch his show for light amusement. He juggles 5 balls at once to start, then moves up to knives. He then blows up a long slender balloon (like the one you make balloon animals with) and proceeds to swallow it whole. Yeah, it was crazy. The coup de grace is the escape from a strait jacket wrapped in chains, Houdini style. He asks me and another guy to help. I got him strapped in the suit and helped tighten the chains. He then gave me the mike and had me time his escape counting down from 3 minutes. I lead the audience in a countdown from 10, and he made it in the nick of time. After another kangaroo filet dinner (yes, I’m doing it as often as I can while here) It was off to the roach motel for a quick sleep. The zoo awaits us tomorrow...

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Aussie Diary, Day 3


(Me and Steph atop Sydney Harbor Bridge)

I was given a breathalyser test yesterday. Its not what you think, though. I'll get to that in a moment...(how's that for a tease?)

Well, as you can see from the picture, we made it. I was really concerned going into the climb about my own physical abilities to make the climb. As you know by now, we've walked a TON since we've been here. My calves feel like beef jerkey now. So, I was worried about having to take a lot of breaks or just breaking down in general. So, after free buffet breakfast (thanks again AMEX!) we walk down to the station where the BridgeClimb takes place. You go in and the first thing you see is a wall-of-fame with all the celebs who have done the climb. This makes you feel like you're in the right place, brilliant marketing. Steve Irwin, Lawrence Fishburne, Matt Damon, Al Gore, Will Smith, the Prince of Whales etc., all of them have stood where you're standing. This gives you an inflated sense of your own importance, but what's a little delusion between friends, eh?. So, as we're standing around waiting to get suited up to climb, we see people coming off of their climbs who are much older and in much worse physical shape than we are, this gives us confidence. We then are called into the queuing area where they go over the do's and don'ts and all the other preparations you need. We were all given a breathalyser test to make sure we don't go up loaded, this was the first time I've take one of these tests and hopefully I never have to do it again. There are only two other people in our group, a father and son duo up from Melbourne, who are there to celebrate the son's 18th birthday. Tim and Jake were there names, in-case you were wondering. A joke is then made about Jake passing the breath test since 18 is the drinking age down here. (Nugget: The US has the most restrictive drinking age in the world, and the most alcoholics. Why do you think that is?) Having only four people in a group is a treat since they max out at 14 usually, its almost like a VIP experience. We are given a great guide, Melissa, she has been working here for 10 years but you'd never know it from how much enthusiasm she had for the work and how personable she was. She made the trip what it was. We had booked what the call the Discovery Climb, which is a climb that takes you through the middle of the bridge where you can see and learn about a lot more (the other climb goes up the outer arch) and since we're on the inside, the climb is more gradual until the end when you have to climb straight up for a bit. They take time in the climb with a lot of breaks built in, "this is a good idea" i think to myself. Melissa tells us about every building, boat, and factoid of note as we have the most amazing 360 degree view of Sydney and can see it all. The climb is 3 1/2 hours, so we have a lot of time to talk and chat and since we're only 4, its a very personalized experience. Needless to say (why do people say that? If its needless to say, then why say it?), it was an unforgettable moment. I highly recommend it if you're ever down under.

Remember when I said on day 1 that I hoped prices here were looking inflated because we were in an airport? Well, we weren't so lucky. Prices here are INSANE. $4 for a soda, $30 for a souvenier t-shirt, $17 for 6 AA batteries. Like I mentioned before, the exchange rate to the US dollar is the same, so, I really paid that much for battaries. Its almost as if they priced their items when their currency was worth a lot less; now that it's pulled even with the US (or has ours just gone down?) they figured "hey! they're already paying, why stop now???) The good thing is tipping isn't required in restaurants and tax is rolled into the listed price of goods/services (what a concept!), but it doesn't reduce the shock when you spend $18 on a single cocktail (yes, I did that). ). Our friend Doug told us that Sydney has higher prices than the rest of the country, so, we’re hoping for a bit of relief when we leave.
The climb ended at around 5ish, we bought a few souvenirs and headed back to the hotel to rest for a bit before dinner. We’re trying to pinch pennies wherever we can, so I look up some restaurants that won’t break the bank (this is difficult to do because our free hotel is in one of the highest-end districts in the city and the food is priced accordingly). So, we finally decide on a place called Pancakes at the Rocks. It looks like a mix between an IHOP and a BBQ joint, but it has a lot of history and its not too long a walk (a key criterion at this juncture). Here is another opportunity to tell you about another feature of this section of Sydney for which we were not prepared: the town (at least around here) is tiered. Think of it like a bowl: near the water is the center of the bowl and is therefore the lowest point, buts as you head away from the water, the city climbs and climbs, so as you’re looking at a map (with an aerial view) it may look as if two streets run parallel to one another, but in reality one is 20 feet higher up than the other and you have to find a flight of stairs (sigh) and climb up to reach it. These stairs are not easy to find either, so, a trip that looked simple at the outset when looking at a google map in the end takes forever and over a mile of wandering. At this point my legs are convinced that I’ve turned against them and are planning a revolt, I can feel it coming any day now.

Monday, November 15, 2010

The Aussie Diary, Day 2


( A manatee, which they call dugongs down here for some reason, swims overhead as we walk through an observation tunnel at the aquarium.)

Walking. The word of the day is: walking. We awoke Monday morning for our first full day in Oz to discover that the weather called for rain. We then had to scrap our plans to go visit Manly Beach and figure out some indoor activities. We call the concierge and he suggests going to the Museum of Sydney and the aquarium, so, we get a map out, plot our course and go. Its at this juncture that its important to remember how little walking we're required to do in Jacksonville. You cannot operate in Jax without a car, everywhere is a 30 minute drive, the longest distances we're asked to walk on a given day is from the parking lot to the building you're entering. So, as a result of this, we did't really have a good gauge of how far things were from us on a map. When some thing is a ten minute walk, or a 20 minute walk, it doesn't sound too bad, but compounding a few of these back to back, they take their toll. Our first stop was the Museum, it was a nice history of Sydney, from the convict ships that the British sent to the smallpox outbreak the killed 50-90% of the indigenous population to the bubonic plague to the Harbor Bridge and Opera House construction to the Olympic Games in 2000, we read it all. Good stuff. While we were in the museum, it started raining really hard. We had no protection and our next stop was a 25 minute walk away, and we were wearing flip-flops (or thongs, if you're a local). These are not the ideal walking conditions. You have to walk gingerly because you don't want to slip out of your shoes, but you want to walk fast because you're getting soaked! A conundrum for sure. So, we finally get to the aquarium, wet and exhausted, but we've come so far that our will-to-win carries us through. They have a few animals there that we've never seen, the highlight of which was the duck-billed platypus. There were a lot of other great animals there like Manatees and sharks and the like, but at a certain point, I was more interested in getting off my feet than enjoying the show. But 1st we have to hoof it back to the hotel, in the rain. So we get back and I figure that we've walked about 5 miles at least, but who knows. We have a couple hour now to relax before we meet up with our friend Doug Elliot. I choose to use this time to pop some pain killers and soak in the tub. It helped a lot. It was a good thing too, because Doug wants to take us to a restaurant at Darling Harbor. You guessed it, 20 minute walk away. But we're feeling game, so we go. We went to a Thai restaurant called Thai Phoon, a have a Kangaroo stir fry and my second beer in as many nights. Yes, they serve Roo down here, its very beef-like but gamey. Doug explains that Roo is good for the environment since they're a natural inhabitant of the continent (unlike cows) and they're easier to take of and require less water, there is a real water crunch down here. Another 1st for us was the wobbly glasses that they serve water in, it was like a weeble-wabble toy, it rolled around but the water never falls out. It was strange. After dinner Doug takes us (another long walk) to a hidden gem here in Sydney, the Orbit Bar. It is a round building ironically named Sydney Square, at the top of this building is a bar that rotates and gives you a 360 degree view of the city if you sit there long enough. Its a little unsettling seeing the world around you move around, you keep looking at your drink like "what is in this?!?!?!", but after a while you get used to it. We have fun discussing American politics from an outsiders point of view (very refreshing) and then we head back home.

Today we climb the Sydney Harbor Bridge. Our legs are still hurting from yesterday, I hope we make it... To be continued...

Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Aussie Diary, Day 1


(The view from our room on the 30th floor of the Shangri-La Hotel Sydney)

So, I figured I should write down my thoughts about this trip somewhere. And what better place than your own blog? This trip has been in the works for over a year, my time at Amex afforded me the opportunity to make some connections and take advantage of a few deals which has paved our way here. If not for Amex, I could have never afforded this trip. So to them I am grateful. Our trip started at 230om Friday when we departed Jacksonville. We then flew to Dallas. The layover in Dallas was only supposed to be 90 minutes or so, but weather delayed us an hour. That was OK, though, since we were flying into LA and there a 5 hour delay awaited us, so, whether we wait in Texas or Cali, its all the same. We finally got to LAX around 8pm, our flight to Brisbane was scheduled at 11:50pm. We have a lot of time to kill. Its at this time that our bodies are figuring out "hey, shouldn't we be going to bed now?" since it was 11pm Florida time. But we had to deprive ourselves of sleep until the flight so that we could sleep on the way over. We ate in the airport Chili's, I drank lots of coffee, and we finally made it onto the flight. Now when i booked the flight 6 months ago, I booked an aisle and a window seat for Steph and I, hoping that the middle would remain open and we've had more room (its worked a few times, actually) but it was not to be this time. So I, ever the gentleman, gave up the aisle to Mr. Random Aussie (since Steph loves window seats like its made of chocolate cake or something) and i took the middle seat. Middle seat, in economy, for 12 hours across the Pacific. My knees were not happy with this decision. But fortunately for me I was able to crash almost immediately, I don't even remember takeoff. And I was able to get a solid 6 hours. In flight movies watched we're Knight and Day, which was funny and entertaining, and Toy Story 3, I had heard good things about it. It was good for a kid flick. So, we get to Brisbane and we have to collect our bags to go through customs. Well, it seems as if this was the world's largest flight, and our bags were obviously loaded 1st, since they now are almost the last to some off. We waited almost a half hour as a never ending deluge of luggage came pouring out from the baggage trench. And guess what? We missed our connection to Sydney as a result, but not before passing the dog that they employ to sniff for banned substances in your bag. I had a few thoughts passing this dog "1) How nice. A dog with a job. I wish my dogs had jobs, they could help pay some of these bills. 2) I wonder how many bags he sniffs in a day? It has to be thousands! 3) I hope the dog isn't overworked. Are there laws to govern how long a dog can work? Who is supposed to advocate for better working conditions if you're getting ridden like some k-9 slave? Is there a doggy union?". These thoughts about the dog came in handy since we couldn't take the 930am flight as booked and now would have to wait for the 115pm. So, thoughts of dogs with jobs filled my thoughts for the next few hours. But at least now we were in-country. I was able to now begin soaking in the Australian experience (as much as one can in an airport). The first thing I notice is that the prices of things are really inflated. $8 for a hologram bookmark??? (The US dollar and the Aussie dollar are almost equal in strength). At this point I'm hoping that this has more to do with the fact that I'm in an airport. The second thing I notice is that I keep bumping into people as I try to pass them on the sidewalks. It doesn't occur to me until later that I am in a left-hand drive country, so, people veer left when trying to negotiate passage on a sidewalk, and here I am, silly American, going right and screwing up the whole dance. Lesson learned. Third thing, Aussies pronounce their vowels very strangely. I can't even imitate it well, but I hope to be able to by trips-end. Ok, so, we finally get to Sydney. We catch a shuttle bus that claims to go to every hotel in town. You tell the guy where you want to go and he takes you. No map. All in his head. It was amazing to watch. It was a nice wat to soak in the city as we zig and zag through the streets. Our hotel is overlooks Sydney Harbor, the famous one you've seen in every picture of Sydney your entire life, but nothing prepares you from seeing it with your own eyes. My heart skipped a beat when I saw the bridge as we rounded a corner. The images are powerful. We arrived at the hotel and since our free room is on the club level, we check-in on the 30th floor. The two people at the desk have a large window behind them and what I saw is much like the picture above, stunning harbor views. Our room has the same view, and its beyond belief. I know 10 years from now it'll be hard to believe that I was here looking at it, but I was and I am. Steph and I are pretty beat at this point, but we are determined to take in some of the city before e we crash. So, we go for a walk in The Rocks district, which is amazing. We pass great restaurants and shops and an active archaeological dig. We wander down to the water front near that huge cruise ship you see above, its all very intoxicating. Europeans with broken English asked us to "make" a picture for them, we do. We wake a few self portraits with the Opera House in the background, as one is obliged to do. Then we decide to scrap our plan to go all the way over to the Opera House since our feet hurt a lot and we're dead tired. We stop at a pizza place near the hotel for dinner and Steph and I actually bought and consumed a couple of beers. Those of you who know us will understand how big a deal that is, since I might drink 1 beer a year and she, to my recollection, hasn't had on in the 4 years we've been married. Then it was back to the hotel to crash. We'll see what today holds in store...

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Dear Mr. President

The most beautiful anti-Bush song you'll ever hear:

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Quote of the Day

I had my father get sick when I was 22. And I was poor, alright. And my father had an ulcer, and it exploded and you know all these toxins get in your blood. And basically, my father died, whatever, 50 days after his ulcer. So I had a father get sick while I was poor.

My mother got sick when I was rich. And my mother, you know... I don't really want to get into it, but my mother was sicker than my father. And my mother's alive. My mother's fine, OK? I remember going to the hospital to see my mother and wondering, 'Was I in the right place?' Like, this was a hotel. Like it had a concierge, man. People don't... if the average person really knew the discrepancy in the health care system, there'd be riots in the streets, OK? They would burn this m***f*** down!"

- Chris Rock

Thursday, April 8, 2010

I Own Your Genes

This is nuts!


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Sunday, April 4, 2010

A Song for Easter

Slash and M. Shadows, lead singer of Avenged Sevenfold.

Slash said he wanted to get Shadows on his album since he was inspired by A7X's stuff. He said he's always wanted to play a song like this, but that he's never been in a band that really allowed him to go this direction. Well, they went there, and did it well...

Saturday, March 13, 2010

A Farewell

Keith Olbermann isn't my favorite person. I've recently stopped DVR-ing his show because, after two years of faithful daily viewing, I've decided I don't want my news so biased, even when I happen to agree. I want my assumptions challenged. I want to fight the temptation to have my "itching ear" scratched. I don't learn much when I watch him anymore, so I decided that my time is better spent elsewhere.

However, a couple of weeks ago I happened to see his closing Special Comment, and I'm glad i did. It was a news story and a personal story woven together in beautiful prose. (Say what you will about Kieth, but the man has a mastery with the English language that few have attained. His pen is quite skilled.) It was a story about his dying dad and how he had asked his son to kill him. Literally.

Well, Keith's Dad died today (Keith's announcement today). And as I reflect on this clip, which was the last time he was on air, it becomes even more powerful. Agree with him or not, his words are worth hearing.

Condolences, brother.

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Friday, January 22, 2010

100 Cheesiest Movie Quotes of all Time

I cried with laughter at a couple of these.

Its true:

-+

Monday, January 18, 2010

Football Island

Good Stuff.


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