Monday, March 9, 2015

Home again, home again...

Jet lag...the reason I've been up for over 3 hours already and it's not even 5:30am!!  Home.  Such a crazy little word.  I spent my last night in Australia with my friend Hossein, the Iranian fellow I met in Adelaide when I first moved Down Under.  It seemed rather fitting that one of my first friends in the country was also the last friend I saw before leaving.  He'd moved to Sydney a few months ago (his cousin had moved to Sydney to study) and we decided we'd try to meet up while I was back in town waiting for my flight home.  Since I was there during the week and he had to work we couldn't meet for coffee, so he and his roommates decided to host a Persian BBQ dinner for me.
 He lives with his cousin Ali and his friend Mehdi, whom he met while in the refugee camp.  It was a fun evening, and was nice to catch up - he does finally have a visa, but only a one year visa, so he's not sure what will happen when his year is up. The food was good and it was a nice way to spend my last night in the country.

For my flight home, one of the longest flights in the world, I was blessed to find out that the plane wasn't full, it was in fact quite empty!  I had 2 empty seats beside me and was able to spread out and actually sleep in a horizontal position.
It made the 16+ hour flight feel surprisingly short.  While I didn't sleep very well, being able to actually lie down and doze off for 7 of the hours certainly took up a large chunk of time.  The beauty of technology of course is being able to watch your own movie, and I can definitely recommend "The Good Lie" for anyone searching for a movie to watch.  It's based on the story of the Lost Boys from the war in the Sudan, and although it's a bit heartbreaking when you think of all they had been through there were plenty of humorous and heartwarming moments throughout the movie.  I landed in Dallas and had a few hours to kill before my flight home.  No dramas, we all eventually boarded the plane - well there was some drama about the lack of overhead space for everyone traveling with big carry-on's (why they don't just gate check them for free I'll never know).  Once everyone we were on they informed us that someone doing a pre-flight check had found a dent in the airplane and since we had an FAA employee flying with us they were being extra careful to dot their i's and cross their t's. I have no idea how long we sat waiting for this documentation, but my seatmate Tom and I eventually struck up a conversation.  They eventually had everyone disembark because it was decided the dent was too close to a seam and would have to be fixed.  We all headed back to the waiting area and thankfully after maybe 15-20 minutes were told we had a new plane and we all headed to our new gate.  Through all of this, and the flight home, Tom and I continued to chat.  I'd guess him to be in his mid-50's and he works in sales, so he's used to talking a lot.  We talked quite a bit about Australia and traveling; he often travels for business and occasionally that business is overseas.  He seemed a bit surprised that I had been in Australia for a year by myself and that I'd visited so many other countries. Anyway, since we talked the entire flight home and through all the waiting, it certainly made the time go by faster.  By 11:30pm we had landed and I was greeted by my parents, Crickett, and an awesome couple from my church.  Sadly, they had been waiting since 8:30pm because they hadn't known my flight was delayed!  It was so nice of them to stick around and it was fantastic to see everyone.  As we had started our descent Tom had asked me what I was feeling about almost being home and what-not and I honestly couldn't say.  So far, having been home for 2 whole days now, it doesn't really feel like a left.  A few things have changed, and I did have to unpack everything, but nothing earth-shattering was different.  I'm glad it doesn't feel really different, I think it would make coming home that much harder - especially when I was so content to stay right where I was in Cairns.  I've promised myself that for however long I'm home I'm going to do my best to appreciate it; enjoy being around family, having a closet full of clothes, listening to country music on the radio, having a car - all the little things I didn't have while traveling.  It has been a wonderful year, a year full of adventures I never could have imagined.  A year Down Under.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Why So Blue?

The final stop on my East Coast Adventure was the Blue Mountains.  Conveniently located just 2 hours by train from Sydney, the Blue Mountains are a World Heritage site.  After my overnight bus I arrived in Sydney and promptly hopped on a train to Katoomba, which is the main hub for visiting the Blue Moutains.  I stayed at the YHA in town which is an old historic building that they’ve restored.  It has a lovely lobby area with fireplaces and various couches and comfy chairs, plus a nice little balcony with a fountain.  Since I arrived too early in the day to check into my room, I headed back up the main street to visit the Cultural Centre.  They had an exhibition about the history of the area, the first explorers, and the environment – they have a vast variety of eucalyptus trees.  It was here where I first learned the reason why the mountains are blue.  In sunlight distant objects always look blue, but here the effect is increased by fine droplets of eucalypt oil from the trees, dispersed in the atmosphere.  The haze is said to result when sunlight illuminates floating particles of dust, water droplets, and air molecules that combine with the fine mist of oils.  The cultural center also houses the Blue Mountains City Art Gallery which was currently showcasing Peter Elfes’ photographs of Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre in South Australia.  You weren’t allowed to take photos, but the exhibit was stunning – his photos were breathtaking.  Part of my package was a 7 day ticket on the Explorer Bus, a hop on, hop off double-decker tourist bus.
 I decided since it was a nice day and I had 7 days to use the ticket I might as well validate it and see some things.  The famous icon of the Blue Mountains is a rock formation called the Three Sisters, so I visited that first.
 Although it was beautiful and sunny when I validated my ticket, by the time I got on the bus it was getting cloudy and when we arrived at Echo Point Lookout it was starting to spit rain.  It was still a great view to the Three Sisters and it didn’t pour on me, so it was fine.  I made a stop at Leura Village because I spotted a tiny little flea market.  One of the stalls was full of this beautiful jewelry made from pieces of old china plates.  The gentleman makes the earrings and necklaces all by hand, which was pretty cool.

I awoke to a cold, overcast day on my second morning.  The first bus pickup wasn’t until 9:45am, and I was up early, so I called and chatted with my parents one last time; it was Monday after all, and that’s our regularly scheduled time.  I ended up missing the first bus, which changed my plans a bit, but it was fine.  I spent my time visiting several different spots, including some waterfalls.  I made a stop back in Leura Village again, I decided to check out the little shops and to visit Bygone Beautys which houses the “Treasured Teapot Collection”.  There are over 3,000 teapots on display as well as many other antiques and gifts.  It looked like it could rain at any point all day long, but never did, so I was lucky.  I was back at the hostel by 5pm, so my roommate Maeve and I decided we’d have a movie night – complete with hot chocolate and M&M’s.  It was hard to decide on a movie, but she had never seen Paul Blart: Mall Cop before and you can’t go wrong with a comedy.  There was another guy who joined us as well, so I guess it’s a good thing we didn’t pick a chick-flick.  On Tuesday morning it was bright and sunny so I decided it was the perfect day to attempt the hike to Wentworth Falls.  The falls are quite a ways from Katoomba and the bus only goes to the stop out that direction about 4 times a day, so I had to be sure not to miss the first bus this time.  It ended up being a very warm day (it had been cold all day on Monday, but I guess that’s not so surprising when you’re in the mountains) but thankfully the majority of the trail was in the shade of trees.  There are so many trails in that area that it was difficult sometimes to figure out which one I should take to get where I wanted to go.  There were lots of lookouts and quite a few waterfalls you could detour to visit on the way, but I wasn’t really in a detouring mood, so only did a few.  Wentworth Falls isn’t all that impressive in terms of the amount of water, but in the sheer drop the water takes over the edge it is pretty crazy.
It was an enjoyable hike though and the views at all the lookouts were stunning because it was so sunny; you couldn’t see much the day before because it was so cloudy.  Back at the hostel I met a nice young man from Guatemala; he’d heard me telling another gentleman I was from Pennsylvania, so he came over to ask where in PA I was from.  He’d actually studied in Lehigh and had also been hiking around Wentworth Falls that day.  Since the main thing to do in Katoomba is go hiking, once the sun goes down there’s not much to do so I figured I’d have another movie night.  Sadly, Maeve had already left, but the gentleman from the night before was just starting “Flight of the Phoenix” so I watched that with him and then watched a chick-flick; he declined to join me for it… I enjoyed my side-trip up to the Blue Mountains, it’s definitely a lovely place for hiking and would be fine for a day-trip from Sydney as well.  Only a few days left Down Under….

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Lovely Port Macquarie
 I will admit that my arrival to Port Macquarie was less than ideal.  I was fit to be tied by the time I arrived at Ozzie Pozzie, my hostel for the night.  To start off with the bus left Yamba at 9:15pm and arrived in Port Macquarie at 1:15am so I was quite tired, which often doesn’t improve one’s attitude.  The hostel used to provide a shuttle to pick up the late-night arrivals, but doesn’t any longer so I was on my own.  I had a small map on the back of their brochure and asked the bus driver which direction I should be heading down the street (I knew I was on the right street but wasn’t 100% sure if I should go left or right and certainly didn’t want to drag all my luggage in the wrong direction).  He told me a different route to the hostel that was to save me from having to walk up a big hill.  I should have followed my instincts and just followed the map, but I didn’t because I really, really didn’t want to drag my luggage up a hill if I didn’t have to do so.  After dragging my suitcase all over tarnation, often down the side of the road because there was no sidewalk, a nice young man rode by on a bicycle (he must have noticed my lost and exhausted state) and asked where I was headed.  He tried to give me directions and was even so chivalrous as to ask if I wanted him to go with me.  I didn’t want to be a pain so I told him I’d be fine and he headed off.  I of course still couldn’t find the right street and in the end made a big loop and still had to walk up the stinkin’ hill which yet again only had sporadic sections of sidewalk!  In addition to not having a sidewalk throughout the entire trip there was no light out front of the hostel and you could have easily walked right past and missed it because it was so dark.  I’d finally made it there and was, by this time, sweating and incredibly mad at them for all the inconveniences for which I was feeling subjected.

I met a lovely Israeli-American girl during breakfast and we ended up talking the entire morning; we’d never moved from the table where we’d had breakfast and had the cleaner not come at 12:30pm to clean the kitchen, and therefore kicking us out, who knows how long we’d have talked.  We’re the same age and we just clicked.  We didn’t end up spending the rest of the day together, but that was alright.  She headed off to the beach to read a book and I headed into town to see some of the sights.
 I got a personal tour of St. Thomas’ Anglican Church which was built by the convicts in 1824.  It’s a nice old building – not all that impressive from the outside (or the inside for that matter), but the view from the top of the clock tower is quite beautiful, you can see the whole town.  The gentleman who led me around showed me a picture on his phone of a sunset from up there and it was lovely.

I’d decided to do a sunrise surfing session on Saturday morning, despite the bruises I still had from Yamba.  It was twice as much as the cost in Yamba, but I figured it was possibly my last chance to go surfing before I leave, and I do love  a good sunrise.  Not the most spectacular sunrise I’ve seen in Australia (I think the Whitsundays wins that award), but it was beautiful.
 As far as the surfing goes…ugh, I think it was the worst day of surfing I’ve ever had, and yes, I realize I haven’t actually done all that much surfing.  Kit, the British guy who took us surfing gave me a 7’2” (because I told him that I felt the 6’8” Shane had last given me was too small), but I still just wasn’t riding any waves!  I stood up a few times, but never felt like I actually rode any (and we were out for nearly 3 hours).  He kept asking if I wanted to go out the back – I felt as if he was a bit over-confident of my skill level – but I knew that I would love it out there: I really enjoy just floating on a board looking at the horizon.  The others had never been surfing before, or had only tried one other time, so by about 8am most of them were sitting on the beach.  I wasn’t getting any waves and by this point in the morning there were too many swimmers and I was afraid I’d run into someone (I’d already had too many close calls), so when Kit headed out I decided to go with him.  Sometimes just getting to the back waves is just as hard as riding the bigger waves.  There were a lot of good surfers out there so I didn’t even try to catch a wave, mostly just sat on my board and chatted with Ruby (the girl who works in reception).  It was time to go so I decided I might as well try and catch one in to shore, but I got pummeled on both tries.  In a way it seemed fitting considering how lousy my surfing skills had been all day.  After spending a few hours at the library uploading photos – the connection was so slow, it was taking forever, I headed back to spend the rest of the afternoon and early evening lazing in a hammock by the pool listening to music and then starting and finishing a book I’d found in their library.  I of course jumped in the pool a few times to cool off as well.  Of all the hostels I’ve stayed in during my year here, this one was definitely at the top.  It has a fantastic atmosphere with these beautiful murals on nearly every wall, lots of palm trees and hammocks – it just doesn’t really have the best location (it’s quite a walk to get to the nearest beach, and then of course there’s the lack of sidewalks…).

I’d had it in my head that I was staying for three days, so on Saturday night I was debating with myself on whether I should get up early and do the sunrise surfing again – I wanted my last surfing session for the foreseeable future to be a bit better – or try to sleep in since I’d have an overnight bus.  I was ready for bed but knew I needed to decide so I could pay if I was going along.  Since I couldn’t decide what to do I determined that more information might help with the decision and proceeded to head to reception to do some recon.  I’m convinced that prompting was from God, because as it turns out I was to have checked out at 11am that morning!  I didn’t have any roommates so I had a feeling that I was going to get some and they would be arriving sometime after 1:30am.  My inquiry into my future roommate status led to the surprising information that I wasn’t actually to be in a room at all.  At first I thought it was a mistake, but then had that sinking feeling that the guy in reception was right.  After consulting my carefully prepared travel calendar I did see that he was correct.  My bus was technically at 1:10am Sunday morning, which is really Saturday night….so you can see how easy it was to get confused; especially when I thought I was to have spent three days in Port Macquarie and was only on day two.  They graciously allowed me to just stay in the room the remaining three hours until I had to make my way back to the bus station, so I did get a bit of a nap before my overnight bus to Sydney.  They say you always want what you can’t have and of course after I realized that I was leaving and wouldn’t be able to do the sunrise surfing I then really wanted to do it.  All in all though, I really enjoyed Port Macquarie.  Not as many backpackers visit (maybe that’s partly why they’re lacking so many sections of sidewalk – not enough tourists), but I think it’s an absolutely charming place.  Definitely a city to which I would make a return visit.