Monday, April 23, 2007

All sorts of animal sightings

"This is how stereotypes are born," David said, as we walked a few blocks from his house and came upon a mob of wild kangaroos in a field. "You won't see this in any other city." This is largely because Canberra (if you're reading out loud, just pretend that "e" isn't there) has a lot of green spaces-- islands, central reservations, traffic circles-- where kangaroos can graze.

They were cute. Two of them were wrestling-- it looked very elegant, as if they were fencing.

Two days later, I'd get even closer to kangaroos, even pet them, although those would be in a nature park rather than in the wild. There, I'd see a joey climb back into its mom's pouch graze directly from it. I'd also see wombats, wallabies, a tasmanian devil, dingos and koalas. But it was still very cool to see kangaroos in the wild.

David also said people wouldn't be as gratuitously friendly in the cities, but I haven't found that to be true, yet.


On Friday morning upon finishing up work, two colleagues and I headed to the Australian War Memorial/museum, which is renowned (up there with Imperial War Museum) and IMHO lives up to that renown. From there, I met up with David, whom I'd met many, many years ago when we were both traveling in Europe, and we miraculously kept in touch, which is amazing because now I just wouldn't bother and I imagine he wouldn't either. Anyway, the sociability of the younger me paid off for the jaded, aloof me, and I had a friend in Canberra. We went to the botanic garden, looked out at the city from the telephone tower, walked around his neighborhood (where we saw kangaroos), and met up with his girlfriend for dinner. The next day, we toured the old and new Parliament Houses, which were amazingly accessible to the public. Outside New Plmt house was a wirish-looking representation of Australia's coat of arms, the kangaroo and the emu. "We're probably the only country that eats our coat of arms," David said.

Australia's a haphazard melee of natural and planned, and Canberra was planned as a city. The government was planned picking and choosing elements of both the U.S. and U.K. systems. Australia's great political scandal (on the level of Watergate) happened in 1975 when the Governor General-- the Queen's representative, a ceremonial, figurehead post-- dismissed the elected government. Australia survived the "Dismissal," as it came to be called, and moved on.

Saturday afternoon I arrived in Melbourne, where it was pouring. Locals were thrilled for the rain, as most of the country is undergoing a years-old draught. I was happy for them but it sucked for me.

Melbourne is not user-friendly. This was foreshadowed to me by two locals getting on an elevator at the train station. Before they even saw me, they said, "it must be awful being a tourist!" then saw me looking at them ironically and said, "oh, are you a tourist? isn't it impossible to find your way around?" And it was. The public transit system isn't designed for people who don't already understand it. Where was that helpful busybody type when I needed him? Even today, I had a hard time finding my way and two different train system employees gave me conflicting directions (I ended up walking). I'll now quit boring you with such things, lest you think I've completely lost my travel note mojo, which I fear I have anyway, but let me not make that too clear too soon.

I really like Melbourne. It has an old world feel although it's the newest world city I've ever visited. Busy, lively, chic, cosmopolitan... it's just a fun place to walk. Even people on the bus from the airport were carrying surfboards, as were people just walking down the street in the city, particularly in St. Kilda.

I walked a few hours in the rain and had had enough, so I decided to do something with myself the next day, and booked a tour to Phillip Island to see the penguins come up to land. Land is where they come to be social and mate, and they do it in the evening when they're less visible to predators. These fairy penguins-- the smallest in the world-- are blue on the back rather than black. When in the sea, they look like the water to a predatory bird, and like the sky to a seal or shark, but when on land they're exposed so they come out at night. So that morning, after walking out to St. Kilda beach and back, I boarded a tour minivan to Phillip Island, with stops at a winery and then a nature preserve/petting zoo.

The penguins were tiny-- they're sooooo cute. Their little bellies almost glow in the dark, no wonder they hurry onto shore. They come in rafts for safety in numbers, apart from a few bold ones that make the trip on their own.

True to myself, I wanted to beat the crap out of the screaming children (and their parents), who were disobeying the ranger's request to keep still and quiet so as not to scare the penguins. For better or for worse, I exercised restraint.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Kangaroo spotting

Australian kids are cute. At first I just thought I was seeing a skewed sample, but they just are. When I boarded the flight to Sydney and saw a one-year-old and three-year-old in the row next to me, I thought, "Oh, SHIT!" but they were angelic-- rather, their parents had activities for them and comforted them when they started crying. Why that's too earth-shattering for many parents is beyond me. Anyway, remarkably, after less than a week of being in Australia, I no longer hate kids.


Due to logistical issues, we got yesterday afternoon off. Our hosts took us to the Australian museum and then we followed them as they drove around the countryside for kangaroo-spotting. In the van, Steve said, "I see them! I see kangaroos!" This followed:

"Where, where?"

"Over there!"

"Those are bushes, Steve."

"No, they moved! There were eight of them or so!"

"Are those bushes moving, too?"
"Are you tripping?"
"Could I have some of what you're on?"

"They were kangaroos!"

Finally, the car in front of us pulled up and we all got out. We had to eat crow because they were actually kangaroos! They were pretty far away but someone had binoculars. They'd all stopped to stare at us. It was really cool.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

What are you reading?

My mom is not a native English speaker; her comprehension is better reading than listening (whose isn't?), and there's frustration whenever anything in English has to be conveyed over the phone. She just doesn't hear the words. In some situations it's worth spelling them (addresses, etc.); in others it's just as well to let it go, and I know that by now but she doesn't.

I called on my last day in Hawaii since I wasn't sure whether my phone would work in Australia. Side note: in theory it does but I haven't gotten a signal. I borrowed someone else's phone to let her know I got in safely, told her "I can't talk now, this is someone else's phone, here's my hotel number but I'm leaving right now, we'll catch up later." As usual, the concept of "now is not a good time to talk" did not register, and she ended up trying to cram in some very not urgent information, such as the kind of food she'll be bringing when she visits in a few weeks since I won't have any food in the house. To which I said, "MOM, THIS IS SOMEONE ELSE'S CELL PHONE. I CAN'T TALK NOW." We still haven't talked, although apparently she's called the hotel very often (there are about two hours that coincide between my not being at work and her not being asleep and the other way around). She gave my number to one of her friends that lives in Sydney, who called me just as I was going to bed (which was fine) to touch base, ask me when I'd be in Sydney, etc. She had apparently called the hotel every hour for the previous four hours asking for me before she reached me. Anyway, I gave her my itinerary, we agreed to talk later, and I was about to fall asleep, when the phone rang again. She called to argue with my itinerary. Okay fair enough, she lives here, I don't, but I'm not on vacation yet. I had to work the next day, it was late, and I wasn't up for a discussion about where I was going. I just said "okay" and went to sleep.

Anyway, back to Hawaii. I called to touch base, not in a hurry but also not with enough time to dilly dally. I wanted to talk to my parents, but didn't have a whole lot of time.

Mom: Where are you now?
A.: Just got out of work, heading to the beach in half an hour.
Mom: When's your flight?
A.: Just after midnight.
Mom: What's the time difference again? Are you ahead or behind?

We have this conversation EVERY TIME we talk when I'm in HI... my parents cannot seem to commit to memory that Hawaii is six hours behind EST.

Mom: What are you reading?
A.: I don't really have time to talk about it.
Mom: Gasp! You are bringing a book, aren't you?
A.: I'm bringing several books. I don't want to talk about them right now [nor spell out their titles].
Mom: I just don't think you should board such a long flight without a book. Anyway, call me as soon as you get in.
A.: Mom, I won't have a phone as soon as I get in. I'll have to get to Canberra before I call you.
Mom: Are you driving?
A.: No, a coworker of mine is driving.
Mom: On the left?
A.: I should hope so.
Mom: Is he on your flight?
A.: No, he's meeting me there.
Mom: Why isn't he on your flight?
Dad: Tatyana!
Mom: I'm just curious. That just seems weird.
A.: Because I'm going from Hawaii and he's going from DC.
Mom: [I don't recall exactly, but some question along the level of ridiculousness of,] Is his flight direct?
Mom: Okay, well, have fun at the beach. Oh, do you want me to bring that pewter tea set when we visit.
A.: ??
Mom: You said you liked it.
A.: Um, if you have room, please do, but don't worry about it.

We said goodbye and talked again for that minute in Canberra.

Not much to report since most of what I've seen in Australia is insides of buildings. Hopefully more interesting stuff later.

Monday, April 9, 2007


In my travels, I've seen luggage conveyor belts jam, but never flat-out break, until yesterday. I watched some very resourceful airport luggage employees climb into the area under the belt and throw bags out one by one. Few passengers were annoyed; most were so happy to be off the plane that they weren't bothered about waiting longer to leave the airport.

It was the least painful flight to HI I've ever experienced, perhaps because I had an aisle seat on an exit row. The woman in the window seat tried to switch with me, and I would have been willing to work with her had she been any less annoying. Yes, I did specifically request an aisle seat because I wanted an aisle seat, but whatever. It was her passive-aggressiveness-- she'd asked me several times if I wanted the window seat, whether I was sure I didn't want the window seat, even after I told her that I did not but that if she really wanted the aisle she could have it. Then she said what she really wanted was to sit next to her husband, but that was irrelevant because the guy sitting next to him wouldn't switch. The last straw was when she yelled back, "amazing how something like this would happen on our anniversary!" perhaps in a final, passive-aggressive bid for sympathy, but it just hardened my resolve. Besides, I have to be functional the next day; she just has to sit on a beach. That and I'd brought "Stolen Lives" by Malika Oukfir, her memoir of twenty years in dessert jails in Morocco, specifically so that I wouldn't dare to feel sorry for myself for having to sit on a plane for the better part of a day. I couldn't help but project that mentality onto her; while I felt slightly bad about not changing seats, I really didn't see why I should just because she asked (just because she felt right asking doesn't mean she had a right to it). What didn't help was the "whah, whah, whah, I can't sit next to my husband on a long flight." Had she said, "could you switch seats? I was just locked up in solitary confinement with rodents and cockroaches," I would have found it in my heart to accomodate her, even in spite of the annoying child the aisle behind us to whom I wasn't about to get any closer. It's more offensive when the children are older because the parents really could manage the volume of their voices but just don't choose to. Incidentally, there was a baby on the previous flight (just three hours) who behaved like a saint.

I'll have worse internet access after this week but will hopefully also have better stories.

Saturday, April 7, 2007

According to mom, I am twenty-nine going on six

Mom calls this morning, less than twenty-four hours before I depart on a month-long trip.

Mom: Are you packed?
A.: Not yet.
Mom: What time is your flight tomorrow?
A.: Something like 8am.
Mom: You need to pack.
A.: I know.
Mom: What are you going to wear?
A.: Mostly suits.
Mom: What about when you're not at work?
A.: Other clothes.
Mom: Well, it's about time you thought about what you're going to wear.
A.: I'll come up with something.
Mom: It's really about time you came up with something.
A.: Don't worry, mom. I'm on it.