Yes, I’m Still Here

New Zealand is land land of big, great and imposing scenery, and not the land of big, great imposing infrastructure. What i’m trying to say is, I don’t have a lot of access to WiFi, or any internet connections for that matter, so there’s not a whole lot of bandwidth available to post pictures, videos, etc. So you’ll continue to hear from me, I promise, just as soon as I get back to Sydney, which is where i’m off to in about an hour anyway. In the meantime, be assured that I’m filling my time with lots of educational and cultural activities….like this one…

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Get me out of the city!

I’ve been in Australia for over a week and not seen a kangaroo that wasn’t on a menu. Not one! So we hopped in the car and headed about an hour out of Melbourne to Healesville Sanctuary, a great wildlife refuge/zoo-type park that features Australian wildlife in what is pretty similar to their natural habitats. Thankfully the weather held and it was a beautiful day to go meet some kangaroos, wallabies and really, really BIG lizards. Oh yea, and that pesky Death Adder snake. Ugh.

And, conveniently, you have to drive past a few Yarra Valley Vineyards to get home. Fine, twist my arm.  A fantastic lunch and 3 (or so) glasses of wine later I was finally dragged back to the city, and grateful to have gotten to see some amazing Aussie countryside after a week of concrete (But yes, of course, it’s amazing concrete).

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Welcome to the Land of Natural Born Killers

I had my first brush with Australian wildlife today…

F@#^*&^&%$%^%&%$^&*^&%^!!!!!!!!!  This not-so-little-turantula-esque guy hung out by me (as in, within a 5K radius) for about an hour today before some fearless Australian engineer scooped him up in a drinking glass and threw him outside for the kookaberras (birds) to munch on. Blech. Apparently, my new friend is a Huntsman spider – a large, terrifying and quite hairy spider with a bite that hurts A LOT but is not, thank goodness, one of the 10,634,721.549 species of animals or plants here that can kill you.

Seriously. Australia is home to some of the most terrifying animals/plants/modes of transportation on the planet. Taking a look in the local paper, it’s a wonder anyone in Australia has lived past the age of 42. I heard at least 4 stories today involving people’s relatives that had died in some hapless circumstance involving an animal. Some poor guy’s brother is in the hospital recovering from arm surgery after noticing a small prick of blood that eventually caused his arm to swell up to the size of a watermelon 2 hours later – cause unknown. I’m pretty suspicious of spidey, above.

The scenery will distract you from it, but O.M.G. there are thousands upon thousands of things here that are waiting in the bushes to jump out and bite/sting/eat you. It’s like a horror movie! Crocodiles, snakes (10 of the most deadly in the world), spiders, jelly fish, BIG ASS SHARKS, rays…all obvious killers.  Australia has, count em, 166 species of sharks. Including the main 3 to be worried about – bull sharks, tiger sharks and great whites.  Australia is also the only continent where venomous snakes outnumber their non-venomous cousins. Fun! Let’s go down the list: tiger snakes, king browns, black snakes, taipans, death adders…yes, the name of the snake actually has the word DEATH in it. As we learned earlier, Huntsman spiders won’t kill you, but you do want to watch out for redbacks (think black-widow but more bad-ass) and the funnel-web, who’s bite can penetrate your fingernail. #@$%!. The Box Jellyfish is responsible for more deaths in Australia than snakes, sharks and crocs COMBINED. Irukandji jellyfish are even more fun because they are also deadly and pretty much are impossible to see until after they’ve already stung you. Let’s go swimming!

And for bonus fun, here are some of the cuter, cuddlier, non-suspicious animals that will also wreak havoc on your life:

Dingoes – aka dogs. Wild dogs. As in, “a dingo ate my baby!” True story.

Kangaroos – cute and cuddly? No way. Come up on one of these in the woods, and there’s a pretty good chance that after kicking you in the face with their big ass feet, they’ll rip you open from head to toe with their sharp claws. Ouch.

Tasmanian Devils – MEAN. SUPER MEAN. Like a bunny but with a possum’s bad attitude and a piranha’s teeth.

Platypus – Yup! Apparently the male platypus is especially pissed off about getting leftover with all of evolution’s spare animal parts – it accessorizes with poisonous ankle spurs capable of killing dogs and small children.

Wombat – they don’t attack you, per say, but if you hit one of these with your car, you’d wish you’d ran straight into a brick wall instead. It would have done less damage.

Thankfully koalas have not made the list yet, but it’s probably because they’re so high on eucalyptus that they don’t care enough to inflict any pain on anyone.

And while deer in the States are picking off 5K runners, here in Australia they just like to party. This has got to be one of the best TV ads i’ve ever seen.
http://www.bestadsontv.com/ad/39630/Tooheys-Extra-Dry-Nocturnal-Migration

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Control, Alt, Delete and….Re-Wander

One of Melbourne's many sidelanes, full of coffees, shops and cafes.

OK kids, let’s try this again from Down Under! There’s been a few trips in between and a touch of jetlag since my trip to the Pacific Northwest (can I blame a 5+ month writing absence on jetlag?!?), but let’s put the past behind us and focus on where I am now…

(Oprah Voice)

AUSTRAAAAAALIAAAAA!!!

After almost 24 hours of flying from Atlanta via LAX, narrowly missing a Santa Ana-fiasco in LA, and having Delta incorrectly tag my luggage so that it went to New Zealand without me, I am FINALLY in Melbourne. OK, so I’ve been here for about 4 days so far but that’s a loooong trip and I was tired. And working. But after a few days of mental exhaustion from flying, working out logistics for a week-long course for the Aussies, total sensory overload from Central Melbourne, and driving on the opposite side of the street without seriously injuring myself or other passengers and drivers, I’m starting to feel back to normal, so we’re going to try this travel blogging nonsense again.

So for a brief trip recap, I flew over on Quantas in premium economy. After a few days of mentally stressing myself out about being trapped in a tube for 16 hours, I pulled it together after talking to a mom and her (almost) 2 year old after learning that said child had done this trip 5 times. 5! If a toddler can do it, I can do it. And with the help of Quantas’ comfy Premium Economy seats and Mr Ambien, I slept pretty much the whole 16 hours. And I don’t know what all this Quantas strike nonsense was about, my flight was great. And I got this cool consolation prize after my luggage was delayed, by no fault of Quantas. Thanks Delta! Try not to be too jealous of those sweet shorts.   Anyway, lessons learned: Splurge on Premium Economy if you’re able and try to carry-on your luggage.

So not by choice, the first thing I did in Australia was hop in a car and drive. Granted I’m driving as slow as possible with my hands at the 10 and 2 positions, so I probably looked terrified to anyone passing me, but I have driven so far without incident! But as you would expect, everything’s backwards. You drive on the opposite side of the road (keep everyone to your right!). The steering wheel is on the opposite side of the car. The windshield wipers and blinkers are reversed so EVERY SINGLE TIME I get ready to make a turn I clean my windshield. (Which is probably a very easy way for Aussie’s to spot American drivers). Oh, and to throw me off even more, Melbourne has two unique things going for it:  1. Trams and 2. Hook Turns.

1. Trams.These tram things are fascinating. They get you places and are very reliable and affordable forms of public transportation here. There’s even a free one for tourists that circles the city, and a restaurant on another that also goes all over the city. But trams are also apparently one of the umpteenth things in Australia that can kill/maim you. And they’re EVERYWHERE. In broad daylight, and in the middle of the street. So for people in opposite hemispheres that can’t quite get the hang of looking right first before crossing the street, AND looking again in the middle to make sure a streetcar isn’t barreling towards them, getting from one side of the road to another can be quite dicey. And apparently dicey for natives as well, since these rolling rhino signs are every 5 feet. (There are even festive ones with rhino-red-noses and antlers! Fun! But still alarming.)2. Hook Turns. I don’t know who came up with this or why, but it must be the same group of people that designed the layout of Washington DC because it makes absolutely no sense and is a disaster waiting to happen. So in certain very busy and populated intersections, in order to make a right hand turn (which here, is crossing oncoming traffic, remember) you first have to get all the way into the farthest left lane, i.e. the slow lane, or lane you would normally get into to make a left-hand turn. So get all the way to the left, pull into the intersection, block the group of cars to your left that are lined up to go straight through the intersection when their light turns green, and sit there until all traffic AND TRAMS (rolling rhinos!) have passed you on your right. Now, when the light for the people who look like they’re about to T-bone you turns, green, THEN you can turn right. Granted there are still no trams, and no one is running through a red light behind you to your right. Did you get all that?! Makes total sense, right?! I’m stressed out even typing about it. I stopped and tried to get a picture of someone doing this but I’m not sure it comes through with the full terror it inspires in me. So other than a few other minor adjustments – looking the correct way before crossing the street, and letting people on the sidewalk pass you to the right – my time here is going fantastically! The people are super nice and the food is delicious, and there is PLENTY of it. But more on that later. For real this time.

 

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Geek Chic

My own nerd brigade, in Everett, WA, just a year or so before I came into the picture

It’s one of those perfect, elusive Seattle summer days…74 degrees, sunny and not a cloud in sight…and i’m stuck in a day-long meeting in the windowless bowels of my hotel. Typical. Since my attention is waning from the roundtable before me, I thought I’d take a few minutes to let you all in on what’s going on in my general locale.  One word – NERDFEST.  Nerds are crawling all over my hotel – all over the city, in fact.  Microsoft is holding a convention at the moment, which means that 10,000 Bill Gates disciples have descended upon downtown Seattle. 10,000! Think about that number for a minute – that’s like two cruise ships (which also dock here every few days).  I’m also surrounded by the American Society of Civil Engineers, who are spending their week discussing pipelines, and any remaining rooms in the 80+ floors in the Westin Downtown have been claimed by SEOmoz and it’s SEO marketing nerds (hipster nerds). My elevator rides have been mostly quite informative, with a few in awkward silence. But it’s not like I can really judge – after all, I am, blogging (nerdy!), and the only reason I’m able to experience Seattle is because I have been taken in and am employed by engineering and math nerds. Gotta love ‘em!

On my previous trip to Seattle in my teen-spirit-smelling, angst-ridden (read: obnoxious) days, Kurt Cobain was the man to be. Today, vintage flannel and Doc Marten’s have been replaced by chunky black glasses, quirky cardigans and cuffed, pressed Levi’s.  Showering still seems to be optional.  Sometime while I was looking the other way, Seattle became a promised land for the perpetually pasty.  And for a city with a year’s forecast hinting of mist and drizzle, what better environment for the computer nerd/gamer to rule? Let’s take a moment to marvel at the nerd power in this town. You’ve got Amazon.com, Drugstore.com, Zillow.com, Onvia, Boeing, Microsoft, Nintendo of America, as well as the countless other game developers and programmers that I will never know nor understand.  There’s a dedicated, if not oxy-moronic, nerd social calendar at  Seattle-Geekly.com.  The sounds of Temple of the Dog and Nirvana have been replaced by Nerdcore, a phenomenon described by seattlemag.com as a “niche hip-hop aesthetic in which lyrics cover pressing issues relating to Dungeons and Dragons and/or Star Wars.” For your fill of musical odes to Saturday morning cartoons and the hassles of building a robot girlfriend, look no farther than Washington’s own Death*Star.  So is Seattle truly a nerd paradise, or if this is just the remaining grungy hipsters trying to organize their next uprising? Either way, I have to go back to paying attention to the actual nerds right in front of me. They’re staring at me, expecting me to answer some unheard question…uh oh…

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Down at the Market

Sure, Pike Place Market in Seattle is a total tourist trap, but as long as you can handle all the body-checking and panhandling, and you can deal with the person(s) in front of you walking slower than humanly possible, it is a MUST SEE. This place has everything – delicious, fresh and local produce, flying fish zooming through the air, crumpets and mini cheesecakes you can nosh on while looking across the street at a burlesque bar, ceviche to go, amazing flowers, baked good from all over the world, outstanding people watching and yes, the original Starbucks. You’re going to pay a premium price for everything, but the rainier cherries are worth it. Here are a few pictures…and be sure to click on the fish link above!

pike place market entrance
Dahlias, as far as the eye can see!

more flowers…

healthy fast food! grab a ceviche and keep wandering through the stalls
hmmm…i’ll buy a latte for the first person that can tell me what’s different about these original Starbucks ladies…
mine! mine! mine!
i’m still suspicious about bbq all the way over here, but they sure know how to package it! THAT, my friends, is a food truck.
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Beautiful British Columbia

Looking out into English Bay from 24 stories up.

It’s July 23rd, and I’m lumbering north on the Amtrak Cascades Train 510, taking me on an extremely comfortable ride from Seattle to Vancouver, Canada.  It’s a gorgeous 4-hour train ride over the border, and despite the fact that I’m jet-lagged and operating on 4 hours of sleep, I can’t nap for the view.  This is an incredibly beautiful ride through quintessential Americana – rolling green farmland, cerulean blue sky, and the most perfectly aged restoration hardware-esque red barns one could imagine.  And then we get into Canada…even more beautiful!! Green and blue!! Ocean!! Oh look, there’s a bald eagle!  Then, as the Vancouver seascape comes into view, I feel a nagging thought enter my head, and it just keeps getting bigger and louder.  We get closer, the landscape and city skyline get more and more vivid and beautiful, and I’m feeling more and more guilty. I owe Canada a pretty big, blanket apology.

I’ll admit I’ve laughed at the stereotypes, like when people refer to our friendly neighbors up north as America’s attic, or point to head-to-toe denim attire and dub it the Canadian Tuxedo. I may have possibly repeated one of these, although I’m quite sure I cannot confirm such an act.  It’s never malicious, but it’s just an easy country to playfully pick on.  I’ve always gone along with the assumption that Canada is like that well meaning, but maybe socially awkward family member you see every 10 years at extended-family reunions. “Oh, Uncle Sully, he’s a dear and he means well, but no need to pay him any attention. And by the way, can you believe that hat he’s wearing?!”

And as I’m transfixed in my seat on this train, face plastered to my seatmate’s window, I feel more than a bit of remorse that I haven’t given Canada enough respect as an AMAZING travel destination. After all, my visit here is by circumstance:  I’m headed to Seattle for work next week, and I came here early to make the trip to visit my friend Tanya, whom I met 3 years ago during a volunteer stint in Africa.  I’m all the way in the PacNW, right, so why not pop up to the Great White North, eh?! It will be great.

WRONG! Beyond great. IT. IS. AMAZING.

So Canada, I give you my most sincere apology for not giving you credit for your beauty, hospitality and versatility, and for not putting you higher on my destination list. Vancouver is like my Final Four Cinderella story – she came out of nowhere and landed in the finals. I guess all the really cool stuff really IS in the attic, right?? If you’ve never been, here are a few reasons to book your ticket ASAP.

It’s 68 degrees here. 68 DEGREES!!! Granted, my trip seemed to land on 3 of the city’s most perfect days of weather so far this season, but this is a place where the temperature peaks at 74 degrees Fahrenheit. Walking around in sunshine and not feeling like I’ve had a wet washcloth slammed into my face is quite refreshing.  Imagine a day on one of Vancouver’s many beaches (I recommend Jericho) and laying out all day without breaking a sweat. Here, being outside and being comfortable actually go hand in hand in the summer.

This is one polite and clean city. These guys have hospitality down to a key.  So fresh, so clean, and soooooo green.  And without a hint of sarcasm, everyone here seems genuinely happy to have me.  I haven’t had to open one door for myself if a Vanny was already within a block of it. Bump into a local, and it’s a race to see who will apologize first.  In fact, if you’re a person (like me) that is constantly saying “Sorry,” Vancouver is the place for you, you’ll fit right in.

THE VIEW. I’m just not talented enough to put this into words – this place is BREATHTAKING.  Imagine looking off the balcony of the 24th floor off my room at the Blue Horizon hotel, and I’m staring straight into English Bay.  I’ve got snow-capped mountains to the side, even more water and more mountains in every direction, and I’m wrapped in a skyline of gorgeous glass building and skyscrapers. Drive across any bridge, and there will be at least one if not five seaplanes zooming directly toward you.  Seriously, you can’t turn 90 degrees in this city without some fabulously incredible view slapping you hard in the face.  You also can’t walk 10 steps without having to stop to marvel at some sort of picture-window scene. It’s really quite exhausting.

Beach bunnies. Not the human kind, I’m talking about actual cute, fat, wild bunnies on beaches! As well as all the other kinds of flora, fauna, and general natural elements either directly in or right outside the city. Just listing the things I actually saw – seals, aforementioned hefty bunnies, bald eagles, ravens, owls, crows (ok, those were annoying) and Jurassic-sized seagulls. Gull-zillas, if you will.  Seriously, these things fly all over the city squawking, then congregate at Granville Island Market, where they wait patiently to swipe entire ice cream cones out of the hands of once-happy children.  When these guys jump from a pile-on onto the dock, I’m telling you, the dock shakes. I guess a steady diet of omega-3s and ice cream does a seagull’s body good. If you were to take the opportunity to wander into the forest-y interior of Stanley Park, I’m sure you’d find all kinds of crazy wildlife lurking in the bushes as well.  Drive just 15 minutes out of the city, I found an outstanding tourist trap suspension bridge (worth every penny), Grouse mountain, and the Cleveland Dam at the Vancouver Watershed.

Sushi. I’m sure this a no-brainer, but I cannot impress upon you enough, if you like sushi, you haven’t had it until you’ve been here.  It’s something like the 2nd best sushi in the world (if anyone know how to get the job of world-wide sushi-rater, let me know). I certainly hope my palette is not ruined from here on out, but I’ve never had such great tasting sashimi.  It’s a great cuisine to nosh on over dinner while playing a great game of Canada vs America – How Do you Say This and Do You Have X-Product Yet.  The rest of their food is nothing to laugh at, either. There’s a Vietnamese place on every block, incredible salmon, quality street food on popular corners, and something called Japadog that I regrettably never got to try – hotdogs with various Japanese-dish toppings. Those crazy Canadians!!

But my time here is over, just like the sunny weather, and it’s time to head south to Seattle…not much to be sad about, though. So, thank you Canada! Thank you Vancouver! It was an amazing visit full of wonder and surprises, but I’ve got to take a trip through teen-angst-ridden nostalgia via a Nirvana exhibit at Seattle’s Experience Music Project. Oh, yea, and quite a bit of work to do, too. Booo.

**I’ll have more Vancouver pictures up soon – Amtrak has been nice enough to give me free WiFi on this train trip, but the information card in my seat has sternly warned me that major file uploading is definitely frowned upon.

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