Our passports were stamped a few more times this last school break. Reflecting on the experience it hardly seems like our life and none of us would ever have predicted that we’d be traveling like we are. For sure, it can seem like a scary prospect, but things have really been much easier and manageable than we expected. Perhaps the quick guided tour in China last December prepared us for more independence in Thailand. We arrived in Bangkok after a quick stop in Kuala Lumpur where we had just enough time to visit the facilities but not enough Malaysian Ringgits to purchase anything. I booked accommodations within walking distance of the cultural center, near the Grand Palace and many of the temples (though I don’t think you’re ever too far from a temple anywhere where we were!) As such we were able to walk most places but did grab a taxi a couple of times for longer trips and a tuktuk a few times for shorter trips and the experience. One day we were heading out for the day with a vague sense of what we wanted to do and where we wanted to go. Stopping on the sidewalk to consult the map, a Thai woman walking nearby came over to offer help. She pointed out where we were, where we should go, set out an itinerary, hailed a tuktuk, described in Thai what we were going to do, negotiated a price for us, then guided us into the vehicle. It was a whirlwind conversation with little time to think. Next thing you know we’re in a tuktuk zooming through traffic. At first blush it seemed like a great help. We did get to see a few things. Got a private boat tour through Bangkok’s canals with a stop at a temple, then the tuktuk to a travel agent to look into our next flight, and then back to the hotel. Well… that kind of thing apparently happens frequently and it’s part of a larger plan to get you into shops and services to spend. While we didn't get completely ripped off, we did end up spending more on some travel arrangements than we needed to. Tuktuk drivers seem to get paid a pittance ($1.60 from us for 3 hours of touring) but they get kickbacks from the places you visit. The drivers are always asking how much you spent at each place – we thought because they wanted to know that you got a good deal, but it’s really to know how much of a commission they will get. So, word of advice – know where you’re going, what you want, and the prices beforehand. Don’t visit the shops unless you want to experience the high pressure sales and the irritation of the merchant you’re turning down, or the knowledge that you paid more than you needed to if you do purchase. Once we figured out those arrangements things were much easier. Just take me where I want to go – no other stops. We marveled at the wires everywhere too – crazy to see the poles loaded with hundreds of wires, some working, some clipped and looped. One cab driver explained that it’s just too much trouble to find out which ones work and which don’t so they just keep adding fresh lines. We visited many temples, each with its’ own character and emphasis on an element of Buddhism to present. They are very ornate places inside and out and the attention to detail in sculptures, gates, pillars, roof lines etc. is amazing. Some sites had very old remains of temples build many hundreds of years ago alongside more modern structures. Everywhere you look are the distinctive lamyong ornamental on the roof peak ends. Reminded us of the clay figures on the ridges protruding from the roof corners in China.
Term 3 Not many posts for these last 10 weeks. Life had seemed to hit a bit of a routine. We find ourselves focusing on school, work, cleaning, visiting, grocery shopping, laundry, the routine stuff of day to day life. Every once in a while we think, “oh yeah, we’re in Australia.” Or “geez, this isn’t really our house we’re living in!” Even the spectacular scenery on the drive to and from work is blending into the background as my mind focuses on the day’s work, or course readings, or whatever happens to be taking me away from the present moment. Early in the year every texture, every hill and bird, and tree, the smells and sounds we all so unique. They still are, but they’ve migrated out of my consciousness into the background. We are focused more on people than places, it seems. With walks, coffee, and great visits over dinner, musical evenings, and games… it’s at once both happy for the amazing people friends we are making, and bittersweet knowing that our time here is increasingly short. Carlen and I have attended a few Astronomy Club meetings appreciating the access to dark skies and top astronomers here in Coonabarabran. we have also joined the community band finding a lot of joy in making music with others. We’ve also been here long enough for me, at least, to develop a bit of a liking for Vegemite. My exchange partner left a small jar for us and I promised myself I’d eat all of it before the end of the year. Was a slow start but I’m gaining momentum and find that occasionally I have a craving for some Vegemite on toast. The local bakery makes a delicious Vegemite Scroll; imagine a cinnamon bun where the cinnamon and sugar are replaced with vegemite and baked cheese – initially a bit of a horrifying prospect, but they really are a nice treat with a fresh ground "long black" coffee So life continues and we are ever grateful for the experiences. We certainly miss being in the same place at the same time with family and friends back home, and value daily connections over social media. It makes the distance seem far less great and our loved ones much more close.
Returning from Cairns we planned to spend a few days in Sydney to explore a bit more and spend some time visiting with Frances and Michael. We are getting comfortable enough to leave the car and take the trains and ferries – takes the stress out of commuting and eliminates the need for parking. The Powerhouse Museum has long been on our list of things to do and we thoroughly enjoyed the time there. We have long been members at the Manitoba Museum and Winnipeg Zoo back home and have found in our travels here that memberships, rather than one-time admissions, are often worth the cost. This was the case with the Powerhouse – even more so when we found that rural residents (like us) receive a SIGNIFICANT discount! We can now pop in to the museum whenever we are in Sydney, can use the members lounge, and get discounts to special exhibits like the Game Masters we saw this time. Game Masters is an exhibit of video games from its’ origins to today – game design and development, art and planning, lots to see. Frankly, the first section of 1980s arcade games had me hooked. So many old familiar games that I haven’t seen for almost 30 years still evoked muscle memory that allowed me to rack up quite a few high scores on several machines! It was interesting to see kids marvel at their parents’ skills on these old machines and their frustration when they couldn’t match their parents’ score. We did get out of that exhibit and explored other parts of the museum appreciating the vast open spaces and large artifacts. We also managed to find the members lounge and enjoyed a rest on some comfortable couches, a cup of coffee and a bikkie. As far as the membership goes, it has already paid for itself because the rural discount was less than what we would have paid for general admission. Any subsequent visits will make it all the more worthwhile. We also took the chance while in Sydney to train/ferry to the Taronga zoo. Having just been on the sky train over the rain forest in Cairns we didn’t bother with the sky train over the zoo and just walked up to the entrance. It is a great sprawling zoo with some amazing animals we don’t get to see in our own home zoo – like giraffes, hippos, elephants, platypuses (Platypii? Platypodum?) and a good variety of reptiles. Occasionally we would turn a corner on the path and get a spectacular view of the harbour with the bridge and opera house gleaming in the sun – another, “look where we are!!” moment. We also purchased a membership here as it will also get us in to the Dubbo Zoo which is supposed to be pretty terrific and much closer to home than Sydney. One of the memberships we purchased when we first got to Australia was to the Merlin group of attractions. The aquarium and animal attractions are worthwhile and educational. The wax museum is a little goofy but fun – with the membership we can pop in and run through without worrying about seeing everything. This membership also gets us in to the Sydney Tower Eye which we did this time through. Great views of the city from a unique vantage point high above everything else. While we were in the central business district (the CBD) we also found some neat markets with tons of fresh veg, seafood, and cheap tourist chachkies that, for the most part, we refrained from purchasing! We enjoyed a couple of meals out on the town – something we really don’t do when we are home. One night we hunted and gathered some comestibles from the market and enjoyed some time in the kitchen preparing a meal we could all share while we visited with Frances and Michael. It was a great evening with lots of laughs and stories. Another night Frances made it possible for Alicia and I to get out for an anniversary dinner which we really appreciated. On the drive back home we went through wine country making note of places we’d like to visit next!
After discovering that there is no beach in Cairns, we bundled up and hopped the bus out to Palm Beach – about 30 minutes from our hotel. It was a perfect day – warm, sunny, calm enough to be comfortable, but wavy enough to have some fun. We lathered with sun screen, sat on the beach, had a swim, went for walks, collected sea glass, saw a few little lizards, dug holes, got buried in sand, had a picnic lunch, enjoyed the scenery. It was a lazy day in a beautiful place. On the bus home was a large group of French students from New Brunswick – was nice to hear that familiar accent and see the Canadian flags on their bags and clothing. Not much more to say about the day other than it was another amazing experience where we find ourselves giggling, looking at each other, and saying, “hey… know what? We’re in Australia!!”
This is one of the items on the bucket list. We spent the day on a boat and snorkeling at one of the many reefs in the Great Barrier Reef. It was windier and choppier than we would have like making it hard to snorkel. Another thing we wish we had done, in retrospect, was take some diving lessons prior to hitting the reef. We just weren't confident enough after the short instruction to commit to heading deep underwater. There were a few tests we had to do before heading down like clearing water from the mask and reinserting the mouth piece that, on the surface seem simple, but underwater, when it is life and death, we just weren't ready. If we had some time in a pool with scuba gear where we could test and troubleshoot in relative safety to build our comfort level. Nevertheless, we did not regret the time out there snorkeling around the amazing coral formations with the remarkable diversity of ocean life. Alicia and Carlen got out for a second swim with a marine biologist that brought up a couple things for them to examine more closely. Part of the tour was a bacon and egg sandwich for breakfast, fruit and coffee/tea, a nice lunch with several hot items and salads, then wine and a cheese tray on the way back to Cairns. We did rent an underwater camera and snapped a few photos, but underwater photography is a completely different animal than on land. We did get a few neat snaps, but it is probably worth getting a pic or two from the professionals that are usually on board.