Friday, April 29, 2005

Finding Nemo... 

Leaving Magnetic Island and my ocean-view campsite was tough, but my time in Oz was running short and I still wanted to dive a section of the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Cairns. I've overcome my need to do everything in every country, but checking out one of the wonders of the world seemed to justify skipping another beach day at Magnetic.

Although we only had 15 meters of visibility on my two dives this week, the reef life made up for everything. Ten minutes after entering the water on a self-guided dive we bumped into two sea turtles that had absolutely no problem with a bunch of funny looking divers hovering around them. One of the turtles even came close to bumping my mask with his nose as he mirrored my gaze of wonder and curiosity. They looked EXACTLY like the sea turtles in "Finding Nemo" and as the clown fish bobbed in and out of their homes below us I felt like I stepped into Disney's creation. It's funny that everyone over here calls clown fish "Nemo's" now. You have to love the educational value of the mass media huh?

I wonder what it must be like to work in the tourist industry. It seems glamorous and fun to be a tour guide or divemaster when you're on vacation, but their circle of friends is constantly changing with the seasons. How many real friends would you make? As they would say in Fight Club, you're surrounded with "single serving friends" all day long. I guess that's what my life has been like for the last two years and it hasn't been too bad, but I'm also anchored by consistent, strong, amazing relationships with you guys back home. I guess I'll just have to get a job here and find out what it's like first hand. Maybe next trip.

My Australian blogs are finally current as of today, and I fly to New Zealand in less than 48 hours. I still have no idea when I'm coming home for sure, other than the fact that I have to be home by June 18th or my little sister Shaun will put me six feet under. The 18th is Shaun's high school graduation, but I may be coming home a little early to sort out a summer job. Who knows, I may see you next week!

Saturday, April 23, 2005

Full Moon Dance Marathons... 

After a night full of jello madness I hitched ride north to Magnetic Island and my first full moon party. I missed all the full moon parties in Thailand due to the chaos of the tsunami, and this one just fell in my lap. I ended up meeting a bunch of friends from the Fraser and Whitsunday’s trips, so the X Base hostel at Magnetic Island felt like a home away from home. I was also pretty fired up to be able to use my tent again and escape the bed bug breeding ground of the hostel beds.

By the time we checked in the entire hostel was buzzing with excitement about the upcoming bash. X base hangs over the beach in private cove and when the first of four DJ's started spinning at 7PM I knew it was going to be a night to remember.

If you have never danced to a high quality techno/trance DJ, I would recommend trying it at least once. You too Mom. They have a way of changing the beats and tempo so well that you almost feel like they are your puppet master. As they ramp up the music you want to jump higher, spin faster, and go absolutely nuts. Wow. I love to dance, but twelve hours is definitely my record. The party started out with over 1,300 people on the beach, and as the sun came up, over a hundred of us were still going nuts. I didn't get to bed until 9:30AM, so I'm pretty sure I won't make habit of this full moon party madness, but I wouldn't trade the memories from that night for the world.

After sleeping a couple hours by the pool I managed to convince my body to go for a run to stretch out all my spazzed dancing muscles. While I was jogging along I was reminded once again how amazing our bodies are. We don't pick them, so it's interesting to test out their capabilities. It's like learning to drive a car your parents gave you. You really have no idea what it can do until you try. How will your body handle high altitudes? Will you get seasick on your first boat ride? Will you have trouble equalizing your eardrums while diving? None of these things have anything to do with skill. It's all genetic and you have no control over it. Over the past two years I've realized my parents gave me a pretty durable body to enjoy for the next 60 or 70 years. Thanks guys!

Speaking of bodies, I've noticed that I definitely look my age. No one really has any trouble guessing that I'm 29 and it was cool to realize I'm pretty OK with that. Why do we hate getting old? Are we afraid of dying? Do we think time is slipping away? Is every year a reminder that we have 365 less "someday's"? I think I would probably be more worried about getting old if I never would have left, so guess I should add the “elimination of old age anxiety” to my list of reasons why my little sisters should travel for at least a year before starting their real jobs.

Speaking of my sisters, as I watch these wide-eyed eighteen-year old girls getting hammered and hooking up with whatever dive instructor or hostel worker gets to them first, I can't help but wonder how my sisters would handle the backpacker scene. There is no way to protect them from everything and I know they can handle WAY more than I give them credit for, but if I'm this worried about my sisters, I can only imagine what it's like to be a father. I don't know how you do it Dad.

Monday, April 18, 2005

Jellyfish and Jello Wrestling on the Gold Coast... 

There are two things every Australian will tell you to do on East Coast: Fraser Island and the Whitsunday’s. I resisted buying a Lonely Planet because I'm cheap and I wanted to try traveling guide-less, so I bought my six day package without having a clue what to expect.

As I listened to the Fraser Island safety orientation with my seventeen co-travelers I couldn't believe what I was hearing. Even though a Landcruiser flips at least twice a month on the island, the tour companies continue to hand the keys over to rookie backpacking drivers with strong attractions to cheap drinks. The entire island is sand, and as I watched my future drivers eyes glaze over while the hostel owner described sand driving, I started having flashbacks to my accident in Tanzania. Get this; the speed limit on the beach is 80 kilometers an hour! I barely went 80 k's an hour on pavement in Africa! I think I must be turning into an old man. Maybe flipping a Landcruiser does that to you. What do you think Shannon?

While having car full of inexperienced drivers was a bit sketchy, I loved the fact that nine strangers were thrown together with no guide and no rules. We could camp anywhere, drive anywhere and do anything. Three days, two nights, and 72 hours of total freedom. So cool.

I could tell you all about the crystal clear water, champagne pools, and sand launch ramps, but a picture tells a thousand words. All the good stuff is in the slide show. Fortunately we all survived, but we did made it up on two wheels a couple times and I'm pretty sure I drive a 4WD like my Dad now.

After relaxing in Hervey Bay for a day, I jumped the bus to Arlie Beach and prepared for my three day, two night sailing trip through the Whitsunday Islands. I have to admit, writing about Australia makes me feel a little guilty. Travel here isn't hard work at all, and at times I feel pretty indulgent. Paul and I set the trip up this way on purpose to help us transition back to Western society, but I find myself wanting to work more and play less. I guess that's a good attitude to have considering the next two years of grad school are going to keep me off the beach for a long, long time.

My tour company packed 32 tourists and six crew members on our 95 foot sailboat, and I made quick friends with a graffiti artist named Jay from the UK. Jay was on my Fraser Island trip as well, and his chill attitude seemed to put everyone at ease. He flew to Australia to see his girlfriend and graffiti her van to help her sell it. Have you ever met a graffiti artist? Did you know there are professional graffiti artists that sell their stuff in galleries and get paid to tag buildings? Crazy huh? I had no idea, but after meeting Jay and checking out his work, I want to learn more.

I slept under the stars on the deck of the sailboat on our first night and I loved every minute of it. There is something very special about letting the sun wake you up in the morning. After a huge breakfast, my first dive on the Great Barrier reef lived up to all my expectations. Since there were so many people on the boat, the divemasters let me a two other divers find our own way around the reef. I've never dove without a divemaster before and now I'm addicted. What you lose in reef knowledge you gain in freedom and excitement. We stumbled on to a white tipped reef shark and drew the curiosity of a three foot long parrot fish within the first ten minutes. Awesome.

The only slight downer about the Whitsunday’s is the proliferation of deadly jellyfish. They are too small to see, but they can kill you in less than five minutes. Only in Australia. Luckily we had stinger suits to protect us, but I was still a little worried about my exposed ankles and wrists. I here now, so I guess it wasn't my time to die.

On our second day I stuck to snorkeling and I noticed the meditative qualities of underwater activities for the first time. Every meditation book and guru in the world will tell you focus on your breathing to help clear your mind, and when you're underwater all you can hear is your breathing...amplified. Complete silence interrupted only the sound of oxygen keeping your body alive. Nice.

The night we got back from the reef our whole crew hit the local pizza bar to celebrate the fact that none of us were killed by underwater invertebrates. While we were there I noticed that the local meat market backpacker bar was offering $500 to the winner of their jello-wrestling contest. Since several of my co-travelers were strapped for cash, two of the girls signed up. I almost lost my voice I cheered so loud, but Brekkie, a crazy Dutch girl from our boat, beat out 25 girls to take home the grand prize. Yeah, I kind of felt like a dirtball going to watch a jello-wrestling contest, but it definitely gave me a unique memory...

Monday, April 11, 2005

Aborigine Undercurrents and Imported Boar Semen... 

After my first day at the feedlot, Sam and I headed out to watch the Warwick rugby team take on their local rivals. If you've ever seen rugby on TV, you know how brutal that sport is. Wow. Sitting on the sideline with all the retired rugby Dad's, I felt just like was sitting on the sidelines of a Ukiah High School football game, except they drink beer and barbeque steaks on the Australian sidelines. Same same, but different.

I still haven't had much of a chance to learn about Australia's aboriginal history, but the overall attitude of rural Australia reminds me of the attitude I found in rural South Africa. The government heavily favors the natives, and the controlling white population resents it. This doesn't apply to all the farmers of course, but you can feel an uncomfortable undercurrent in the air between the white Australians and the aborigines. Plenty of parallel's can be drawn between our Native American population as well. A dominant group moves in, wipes out the locals, and then tries to pacify its historical guilt with handouts and affirmative action. I definitely agree that something needs to be done to make up for the sins of the past in every country, but choosing what to do is the tricky part. Just do a Google search on affirmative action in America and you can read all about it. Preferential treatment is never simple.

On my last day in Warwick I got to work with Wendy in her piggery on the Bryce family farm. Once again I was astounded by the level of technology used in farming. Wendy runs the piggery like a pig factory, ensuring that three sows are inseminated every week, yielding ten piglets each in around 21 weeks. This means that around 30 pigs are born each week, allowing Wendy to sell 30 full grown pigs each week and maintain her population. I got to help herd and weigh the pigs to determine which ones hit the slaughterhouse, and I couldn't help but think of George Orwell's "Animal Farm" every time one of the clever little guys tried to squeeze past me. In order to keep diseases from entering the piggery, Wendy never brings in pigs from the outside. Instead, she keeps the gene pool fresh by importing refrigerated boar semen and artificially inseminating a couple of her sows every month. I bet you never knew how much effort went in to growing your pork chops did you?

Sam, Doug, and Wendy work hard, but they are working for themselves, and that makes all the difference. It's scary and stressful, but it's also exciting and rewarding. All you have to do is spend ten minutes talking to Sam Bryce and you'll never want to work for someone else ever again.

Saturday, April 09, 2005

Free Lunches & Australian He-She's... 

When I spoke with Sam's Mom Wendy on the phone from Brisbane, I knew right away that my time in Warwick would be a blast. Wendy sounded just like one of the heroines in a John Wayne western...strong, joyful, intelligent, and overwhelmingly loving. She had never met me before, but as soon as she realized who I wa,s I instantly felt like I was talking to my Mom. Maybe it's because her son's name is Sam too?

Sam picked me up at the bus stop covered in farm dirt and grinning from ear to ear. "You ready to herd some cattle? No free lunch on the farm Yankee..." was my greeting, and things never slowed down from there. After traveling the world for almost a year, Sam decided to leave a successful career as a commodity trader in Sydney to help his Mother and Father (Douglas) expand their cattle business.

The Bryce family runs a feedlot for over 3,000 specialty Wagyu cattle which are bred specifically for the Japanese meat market. They also raise alfalfa, soy beans, wheat, race horses and 600 pigs in their free time, but the main income stream comes from the feedlot. I'm pretty clueless when it comes to farming, but the Bryce's gave me plenty of tips and laughed at all my rookie mistakes. For those of you wondering why farmers would pay thousands of dollars for the Bryce's to feed their cattle, it's all about the fat. Japanese diners love "marbled" beef. Beef becomes marbled when the cows become so fat by eating high protein, high carb food that their fat actually permeates their muscle, creating a "marbled" look. The feed mix is incredibly high tech, and believe me, it works. The cows Sam and I were herding weighed over 700 pounds each!

As far as the “herding” goes; it basically consisted of shifting the cattle from one pen to another, weighing them, shipping them, etc. As Sam chased them out of the pen, I would have to guide a charging herd of scared, 700 lb+ living freight trains using only my clapping hands and cracking voice. Nice. Even though I had to change my shorts a couple times, it was great to feel like I was doing some real work after so much time as a tourist.

Some of the cows in the feedlot are on growth hormones, and a funny thing happens when a couple hundred male cows on growth hormones hang out together in a small pen. Sam and Doug can't explain it, but some males inexplicably start smelling like females in heat. It's crazy and it goes away after a couple days, but Sam has to catch it early to save the poor he-she from getting gang raped by his buddies. Ah, the pleasures of farming...

Many people say their encounters with the brutal realities of raising livestock have made them vegetarians, but I never encountered anything on the Bryce farm or feedlot that came close to the sewer-like conditions of the Asian markets. Of course I didn't get a chance to tour the slaughterhouse, but overall the animals I worked with seemed healthy and well looked after. I'm re-reading "The Power of Myth" by Joseph Campbell, and he argues that "Man lives by killing, and there is a sense of guilt connected with that." When we survived by hunting and killing wild animals, we worshipped them, and nature, because without those "sacrificial" animals and plants, we would die. Now that we buy faceless packages of animal muscle in the grocery store, we have lost the guilt, reverence, and gratitude that came from taking life in order to sustain life. Now we worship the one thing we see as sustaining our lives...money...

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Butt Tattoos and the Bohemian Paradise... 

Everyone and their sister told me Byron Bay would be amazing, and they were all right. The memories of my sardine impersonation on the way up the coast faded as soon as I checked in to the Arts Factory. I've stayed at plenty of backpacker joints in the last two years, but this place was ridiculous. I felt like I had stepped into a 60's hippy time warp. I actually stood out as unique because I was missing the requisite butt tattoos, eyebrow piercings, dreadlocks, and bloodshot eyes.

There were over a hundred people camping in this Bohemian paradise, and another couple hundred packed into the canvas teepees, converted double-decker buses, and dorm lean-to's. The hostel butts up against a fabulous chill bar and one of the most comfortable after-market movie theatres I have ever enjoyed. When I wasn't relaxed on the reclining couches of the movie theatre or listening to live music by the lake, I found plenty of time wander through the dense rain forest surrounding the facility.

Ten minutes after arriving the camp maintenance guy gave me a free tent and mattress pad and positive vibes kept flowing from there. Some people make fun of the hippy lifestyle, but there was something very relaxed, real, and un-pretentious about the Arts Factory crowd. Everyone was happy to see everyone, happy to hear your story, and happy to share their food in the kitchen. I felt like I stepped into a communal utopia or something.

While finding a cool hostel is fun, no one really comes to Byron Bay to find a nice bed. Byron is all about the surf. Even though the sweeping current carries you down the beach at about ten football fields an hour, if you're quick enough to catch a wave coming off the point break, you'll enjoy a nice long ride all the way to shore. I was a little rusty since I hadn't paddled out since Sri Lanka, but after a couple waves...I still sucked.

I spent five days in Byron, and as I packed up my new tent for the trip north to Brisbane, I could easily see why so many people never make it past this little paradise. The combination of the consistently big surf, great hostels, relaxed atmosphere and table-dancing backpackers was almost irresistible. Fortunately my Ozzie friend Sam Bryce was saving a place for me on his cattle farm, so I had something to pull me past the Bryon vortex. Now I just had to figure out how to be a cowboy...

Saturday, April 02, 2005

Australian Liver Transplants... 

I woke up early inside the Manly Street backpackers expecting to spend a couple hours on the internet before grabbing the ferry to the Greyhound bus station. About five minutes after logging on, that plan was out the window.

If you've checked out the pictures from my whitewater rafting ride through Laos, you know that I met Jenni and Becky, two super fun, super cool Ozzie girls from the northern beaches of Sydney on that trip. As it turns out, Jenni checked her e-mail for the first time in months on the DAY I was leaving town. Fortunately I was still online when I got the invite to Jenni & Becky's action packed weekend of local Australian chaos, and since my best alternative option included a 12 hour overnight bus ride in a seat designed for a five year old, I pulled the plug on my bus plans and headed for the northern beaches.

My experiences with Matthew in Johannesburg, Duncan in Durban, my co-teachers in Quzhou, and the Bannister's in Sydney has taught me that nothing beats seeing a country through the eyes of a local. Jenni and Becky kept my streak of phenomenal local experiences alive by packing our three days together with DJ'd blowouts, family BBQ's, wilderness hikes, and plenty of chill (recovery) time.

Jenni's boyfriend Luke and his mates could give my Ukiah crew a run for their money when it comes to consumption of foreign substances. Two of Jenni & Becky's friends were leaving to travel through America, so everyone decided to rent out a massive hall, hire two DJ's, charter a fleet of buses, and party until nine in the morning. I hadn't pulled an all-nighter since I was studying architecture at Cal Poly, and I didn't make it this time either. Around 5AM I curled into a ball on the couch and served as a combination drink holder/ashtray until the rest of the crew finally passed out around noon. What's nuts is that these guys go this big once or twice a week! Up to this point I thought the Australian reputation for partying was mostly "Shrimp on the Barbie" propaganda, but the Northern Beaches crew officially lived up to the hype. Wow...there must be a huge demand for liver transplants over here.

Before we headed out to the going away bash I had a chance to flip through a travel guide on America. Can you imagine coming to the US for the first time as a tourist? What would you see if you had a month? Three months? The typical west coast tourist trip includes stops in Hollywood, Las Vegas, the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, San Diego, Mexico, Lake Tahoe, and San Francisco...all in three weeks! I'm still embarrassed to admit I've never seen the Grand Canyon, especially since ever Tom, Dick, and Harry European has seen it, but that will change this summer. Oh yeah, there was one thing that pissed me off about that travel guide...my hometown of Ukiah wasn't even on the map! Don't they know that Sports Attic has the most sports paraphanalia in the world? Don't they know we're in the middle of Emerald Triangle? Haven't they heard about our trucker's light parade? I mean heckfire, we have a Wal Mart don't we? Oh well, I guess Ukiah will just have to stay norcal's best kept secret...

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