Thursday, March 31, 2016

Farewell Australia, until we meet again

As my time in Australia winds down, I have to wrap up a few stray thoughts about Oz. First, driving. To begin with, they drive on the wrong side of the road. But since I lean left, I didn't have problems keeping left. And they have roundabouts which can send you into a loop at first. But once you master the 'right side gets the right of way', it's smooth sailing. They are way more efficient than the 4 way stop signs in the US. Though sometimes the Aussies have gone overboard and put them on highways with a 100 kmph speed limit. Exiting a roundabout at high speeds is like performing the sling shot maneuver of satellites. You dive into the intersection slow enough to avoid the kerb and then accelerate through the curve, exiting hopefully still with your eyes open and your wheels still on the ground.

Second, nature. While I didn't get to experience the famed outback in Australia, I did get to sample what nature has to offer around Melbourne. The south coast is spectacular with the rugged sandstone cliffs set against a turquoise ocean. Sun kissed beaches in pretty little sheltered coves.
When the sun's out it's picture perfect. While the beaches are magnificent, the waterfalls are mediocre. Don't go chasing waterfalls near Melbourne. One of them was so insignificant that I realized I had passed it only after I saw an arrow pointed back the path I had come from. I was surprised as I'm quite good at spotting waterfalls. So I doubled back to see what I had missed. I didn't see anything of note until I came to another arrow pointing back on my doubled back path. I concluded the waterfall must be in between the two arrows. On careful inspection, I realized what would pass off as a storm water drain in most places was elevated to the status of a waterfall in the driest continent on earth. It truly is a dry place. A lake I visited was basically an open field covered with mud that looked slightly moist in some places. And the largest river in the country was about half a mile across close to its mouth. Suddenly California during the drought felt like a rainforest.

Lastly, railways. I decided to take train from Melbourne to Adelaide hoping to catch glimpses of the bush country and maybe the outback. When I had booked tickets, passengers were warned that check-ins would close at 7am for an 8am departure. Even flights close only 30mins prior. I dutifully arrived by 6:45am and was left sitting on the platform till 7:45am. Apparently the regulars knew that the whole 7am check in was baloney. The passengers were greeted over the PA system and few safety instructions dished out in case a snake was found on the train. Just kidding, no snakes on this train. These were followed by an extensive and wordy commentary about the food options available on the train. By the end of it I knew what the attendant's grandma's favorite quiche recipe was. Information filed under, will never use in the future. The scenery whizzing by was quite drab to say the least. A never ending sickly brown brush over an endless expanse of flat land. The amount of empty space is mind boggling.
Think Wyoming, much larger and more desolate. I guess everyone is in a long distance relationship by default here. And this wasn't even the worst. Flying from Adelaide to Perth, you see how unimaginably vast, desolate and dry Australia is. It's truly a wonder that the world's oldest continuous civilization survived in this God forsaken place. The next time someone says they need space, send them to the Australian Outback.

A few passing remarks on Adelaide. It's like San Jose. It's big, it's important, but it will not be on anyone's travel bucket list. Unless, well nothing comes to mind. This one guy on knowing that I came from San Jose Calif, looked anxious and said that he had been to San Francisco but not San Jose. I told him to not sweat over it. He said he wanted to see where the big three, namely Google, Apple and FB were located. I replied not San Jose and repeated to not sweat over it. Adelaide is in the same league as San Jose. It's alright, but not striking. And all the nice places are a short drive away, just like San Jose.

Goodbye Australia. Not sure when we'll meet again. Maybe I'll check out Thunder from Down Under whenever I miss you.

Thanks to Richard and Shweta for hosting in Melbourne.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Melbourne - It's heaps of fun

I continued my peregrinations down under in Melbourne, the world's most livable city. I can see why it has captured that crown. It has a lively arts and culture scene, a plethora of cuisines and cafes, classy arcades for shopping, beautiful parks and trails, great public transportation, street music, a generous sprinkling of hipsters and very friendly people. Sydney is clean and efficient, but is rather one dimensional and sterile. Melbourne has character and I'd give it a Daniel-Recommended badge.

Strolling around Melbourne, you get a taste of its artsy vibe. You walk down alleys and arcades lined by cafes and bars. The cuisines are as varied as the people you see around you. It is a melting pot of people from the world over. The alleys are like a box of chocolates, you never know what you will find next. Some are covered with street art (euphemism for graffiti), or you might run into a Mumford and Sons cover band. Sometimes you might see some building from the Victorian era. I love the Victorian architecture brick and cast iron edifices. It's a shame that a lot of it was torn down in Melbourne in the 60s. But the little that remains, blended with modern and post modern styles make for a eclectic mix of contrasting styles. Eventually I ended up at the Anglican Cathedral and was treated to delightful performance of classical music. I'm no expert in any kind of music, but it was a pleasure to sit in a magnificent cathedral and listen to a virtuosic performance on the grand organ. Personally, I'm used to perceiving beauty visually, and I realized that I have ignored beauty in sound. Thank you Asian guy for that wonderful afternoon.

When it comes to tall buildings, Melbourne ranks outside the top 100 of the world. But I'd still recommend the Eureka Skydeck. It always an exhilarating experience to view a city from a high up vantage point. The cars appear like ants and the trains like caterpillars. You imagine different people going about their lives with trains to catch and appointments to keep. As I walked out cheerfully, I was stopped by a tourist couple. I guess have spent so much time in Melbourne that I got asked for directions. Maybe I'm the world's most interesting man because when I'm on vacation, the locals ask me for directions. Stay thirsty my friends.

A few other observations in Australia. A tip is not expected at a restaurant and since tax is included in the price, it feels like eating out is 25% off! Hurray for livable minimum wage. And that I presume makes for a more egalitarian society. Very few homeless people and very few Teslas on the street. But I also see the downside of excessive government spending. Does every train station need so many assistants? Does it take 15 cops to control pedestrian traffic at an intersection? Just thoughts of a visitor, who is here today and gone tomorrow, that should be taken with a pinch of salt. So what do Australians do with the extra cash? They go to milk bars! They are all over the place. It is said, "Alcohol doesn't solve any problems, but then again, neither does milk." Maybe in Australia milk does. I imagine Aussies going in for a glass of milk on Friday nights. Shots of half and half for the extra kick. Cheese if you are looking for a 'cultural' experience. And when you review the milk bar, it will have at least 4 stars. Honestly every cafe I reviewed has more than 4 stars on Google and Trip Advisor. Is everything is that good? Or that bad, depending on your perspective.

Lastly, I would like to mention Emily, who I met on the flight from Honolulu to Sydney. We started chatting and got to know that we both loved desserts. She mentioned that mince pies are delicious, but unfortunately they are made only around Christmas time. I thought I'd have to make a Christmas visit to try this delicacy, but lo and behold, Emily mailed a package of mince pies to me in Melbourne when she found some back in Sydney after I had left. How about that for a connection with a stranger (now friend) who she may never see again? Travel reminds us that people are generally good and sometimes excellent.

Sometimes during travel, we tend to spend too much time planning the future and too little time engaging the present. I was reminded of a Calvin & Hobbs quote "we are always looking ahead that we don't enjoy where we are." I guess enjoying where you are is easy when you are in a beautiful city like Melbourne. I look a around and see beauty. I realize how we are all human. The kindness, the humor, the joy etc. unites us no matter who we are and where we are. And also bad drivers. I'm happy to report that there are morons on the road here as well. Road rage is that unseen cord that connects humanity across the seas. And wine snobs. Yes, they are here as well.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Fun in the sun, down-un'

As I flew from Hawaii to the the Sydney, I crossed the date line and lost a day. With a blink of the eye, it was next day, same time. Imagine falling into a deep sleep and walking up exactly 24 hrs later. Thankfully it was the leap day, the spare day we get once every four years (except multiples of 100, but not 400. It's complicated) So I used a quirk of the calendar that gives us one extra day to pay for the quirk of timezones that cost me a day. It was a fair deal and I called it even. In addition, this was my first time in the southern hemisphere. I did feel my world turn upside down, but I attributed that to motion sickness from some unexpected high altitude turbulence.

Touchdown in Sydney and it was time to explore. I went straight to the Opera House and photographed it from various angles, light conditions, camera settings, filters, etc. After all that is the only landmark of Sydney that really stands out and I was out to get the most mileage out of it. The Opera house construction has an expected story of projects going well over budget, just this time a whopping 1457% over budget. Ok, let's take a few more pictures, in the hope that it justifies the cost just a little bit.

My impressions of Sydney were that it was clean and had a relaxed vibe, even for a big city. The sticker shock was alleviated slightly by a favorable exchange rate for the USD. Though with tax is included in the price, it feels like you get 9% off on everything. Public transport is excellent and very affordable. I used the ferry service for cheap cruises around the harbor. Expert tip, the best views of the city are to be had from the ferry. Yet another angle for that internet picture of the Opera House.

As I wandered around the city, I noticed that sight seeing has been replaced by sight backing. Everyone gets to a landmark and then turns around for a selfie. People watching is a lot of fun near famous landmarks. Why do people yell for a picture? After a while, the Australian heat got to me and I headed indoors to a museum. I wanted to get acquainted with the all killer creatures that Australia was famous for. It's good to know your enemy before the battle. There will be no battle for me as Australia's fauna is way out of my league. Most dangerous jellyfish, octopus, spider, snake, crocodile, shark make for a formidable line up. Half the creatures' poison had no known antidotes. A sting from a box jellyfish can kill an adult human in four minutes. I instinctively stepped back from the exhibit and crossed myself silently. The whole nope creatures exhibit gave me chills and I stepped out into the sunshine, pondering these creatures lurking around me.

Australia is famous for sun kissed beaches backed up against the deep blue ocean. The beaches are pretty and more so, the people. Bondi was packed with 6 packs. It was like being at beautiful people convention and I felt rather out of place. I wondered how could everyone be so gorgeous. I concluded that there might be a correlation between fitness and good looks. I was told that body scrutinizing is a Sydney pastime. I can safely declare that it is a rewarding pastime. I promised to have a 6 pack the next time at Bondi. No, not a 6 pack of Budlight. I will have to change my go to gym from Jim Beam to something else.

After Sydney it was onto Brisbane famous mainly for a a city near it. Gold Coast. It is like someone being friends with you because your brother is so cool, not entirely unique I suppose. Gold Coast is like the Vegas of Australia. It's a curious assortment of tourist traps. There is a strip club next to an antique photo shop. There's a tarot card reader stall next to one that sells organic dog shampoo. Throw in a guy with pet snakes charging a $20 for a picture with his snake around your neck. And top it off with a stand talking about Jesus opposite to a table talking about Allah. Whatever floats your boat.

One thing I enjoyed about the beaches is that the water is warm. All NorCal peeps will understand this sentiment. It is inexplicably a lot of fun to thrash around in the ocean. Only the ocean can bring back that unbridled joy from our childhood. Maybe that's why there are nude beaches and not nude ice cream shops. I can attest that bathing in the ocean au naturel is a rather liberating experience. Just make sure the tide is not going out because as Warren Buffet said "Only when the tide goes out do you discover who has been swimming naked"

A few miscellaneous observations. Timezones in Australia are weird. Brisbane that lies 8 degrees to the east of Melbourne is an hour behind. They use the metric system, which while refreshing in its simplicity certainly lacks in character. I like that there are 5280 ft in mile or 128 oz in a gallon. And I found an entire store dedicated to tea. I remembered an incident an Aussie guy had narrated to me a few years back. Once he was hiking in a Tasmanian snowstorm and came across a lost hiker. Assessing the gravity of the situation and that the hiker was a nervous wreck, his first course of action was to fix up a cuppa before proceeding any further. Tea must be serious business here but food portions are rather small. I am used to American servings where you eat not until you are full, but until you are sick. While the large serving sizes are bad for the waist lines, we at least get our money's worth. Also, houses here don't have massive garages that cover half the front of the house. I wonder where they store the bikes that have not been used since 2005, the kayaks since the 2003 floods, the power tools since Jim gave up on woodworking in 1995; the antique clock sitting silent in the hope of being discovered someday, etc etc. And lastly, the Aussie accent is delightful to the ear. There is an informal and friendly tone built into the accent that I wonder how it sounds when people fight or have a formal business meeting. Maybe in this slice of paradise, they have neither.

Thanks to Sampath and Sean for hosting me.

Ok, it is time for my high tea.

Sunday, March 06, 2016

A little more Aloha

Ok, Hawaii has more than beaches, volcanoes and pineapples, as incorrectly described in my last post. Well there is spam. And there are rainforests. And I concluded that GPS doesn't work in Hawaii as I met numerous people who were trying to find themselves. And the answer to global warming may be the tapping of the ubiquitous energy vortices all around the islands.
Hawaii is truly a state of mind, which can get high based on breathing the fumes from volcanoes or weed.

Hiking in a rainforest is scary. I have probably hiked over a thousand miles of trails in CA. I'm at ease in the clean, manicured forests of northern CA where everything is well behaved. In a rainforest, everything is out to get you. Insects, reptiles, plants with thorns, plants with weird oils that make you itch, plants that look plain evil. But since I was in Hawaii and since I like hiking, I had to hike in a rainforest. The rainforests of Hawaii are more welcoming. It is said that the plants and animals of Hawaii lost most of their defense mechanisms (aka scary features) because there was very little competition on these isolated islands. Until of course man arrived and all hell broke loose. But don't be put off by those nasty tropical plants. A hike in a lush forest is a spiritual experience. The strong aroma from the trees and the wet earth, the chirping of countless birds and critters and the bright green all around mixes up for a wonderful cocktail that quietens the busy mind and relaxes the weary body. Until of course something crawls up my leg.

After all the nature and man v/s wild experiences, I decided I should feed my non existent cultured side by attending a luau at an expensive resort.
How apt to reenact a rather primitive culture on the manicured lawns of a 5 star beach resort? The food was delicious and the hula dancing enchanting. Boy, those hips don't lie. They tell a story, I'm told. I wasn't sure how to read a story from a dance, but those gyrations did spin a tale. After a few Mai Tais, my mind wandered and pondered on the way rich people vacation. I wondered if mediocre pasta tastes delicious at a resort. Is going on an adventure tour really an adventure? Do they like puns?On a plus side, peeing at night is not a hassle. You don't have to worry about stumbling on some night beast when you step out of your tent or worse, run into wasted guys at the hostel restrooms. I have camped at dozens of campgrounds, but have never stayed at a 5 star resort. I'll need someone to sponsor me a 5 star vacation and then I'll make a accurate comparison.

Thus I bid Aloha to the land of Aloha. Onward and southward to Australia. Until next time, hang loose and have a great day mate.