Monday, December 27, 2010

Bali Shock

Overwelmed is the best word to describe what wandering around Ubud was like for Jonathan and I that first afternoon. We had the 'taksi' drop us off at a bed and breakfast type house, but they were quite expensive (like $15) so we took to the streets in search of a bargain. It was hot and humid, but I almost didn't mind, even though we had yet to dispose of our heavy bags, and it turns out we had been going the wrong way. Almost. There was just so much to look at. So much to take in. We eventually followed a nice man down an alley to another alley and another alley to a four bedroom house overlooking a small family temple and lush palms. We bartered down to less than half of what he had been asking and settled into our large room with private bath and fan. We then set off to wander aimlessly and attempt to wrap our heads around the hustle and bustle of a completely different caliber than what we had been immersed in the day before in Perth.

Before we knew it, it was time to meet up with a Bali local we had met through couchsurfing. Lena, our new Polish friend has been nomadic for 2 years now. Having grown tired of 'homogeneous' Poland, she was in search of multicultural cities and experiences. Her quest led her to Bali eventually, where she met her now boyfriend, 'Blackie,' (you guessed it, he is so called by all (family included) because of his exceptionally dark skin) and so Lena has called Ubud her home for the last 8 months. Lena has led a very interesting life and has travelled around much of Asia. She had many great stories, tips and insights. We met at Blackie's sister's cafe just off one of Ubud's main streets. We had just eaten before arriving, but were keen to try a local dessert. (Surprise, surprise) The chef suggested the coconut cake and set about making a fresh batch. Coconut cake, it turns out, is a green, crepe-like wrap stuffed with coconut and a thick, almost chocolatey brown sugar, topped with coconut and honey. I'm not sure why the crepes were green, exactly, but we did learn that the food colouring comes from compressing the leaves of a special plant. Either way, they were super delicious and left us devising a scheme with Blackie and his sister to return the next morning for a special breakfast that Blackie would order for us, and his sister would have ready at 8am, despite the fact that food was more dinner fare.

Lena let us in on her experience with the people of Bali. 'Everything is very slow here' she told us. 'They work long hours, but that doesn't mean they get a lot done.' This is not meant to be a negative observation, however. Its just how it is. Friends visit throughout the course of the day, people make time to make offerings, they take ample cigarette breaks. Work is just something that gets done while life is happening. Lena confided that in the beginning, there was a bit of a 'culture curve.' She would be at her apartment, and Blackie would call and say he would be over 'soon.' So, like a good western woman, she would wait. And wait... and wait. Seconds turned to minutes, and minutes to hours. Three long hours later, Blackie would traipse through the door, sporting a huge, Balinese smile. Lena, of course, would be fuming. 'You said you would be here SOON!' she would say. Blackie didn't understand. There is no 'soon' in the Balinese language. It really does not exist. His typical response would be 'I came though!' Probably very confused thinking, 'What does this woman want from me?! I said I would come, and now I am here!' He would be held up by any variety of things: friends stopping to chat, helping a neighbour, tying his shoes.... and this is life, in Bali time. Although, confusion is bound to happen when the Balienese follow a completely different calendar than in the west. A Balinese month, for example, has 35 days, and most Balinese themselves can't figure out what day it is. That's the priest's job. Time here moves so slow that before international time standards were adopted, the longest measure of time was a 'Barong's wink.' Since a Barong mask never winks, Bali is pretty much saying, 'Don't hold your breath.'

We are very happy to have met Lena, Blackie and his family. We feel fortunate to be a part of the couchsurfing phenomenon which consistently allows us to meet friendly, generous, local people from around the world.

Lena had also invited fellow couchsurfer, Sandra, to meet us at the cafe for a drink. Sandra is a gorgeous, charming, Parisian woman on a one month holiday in Bali. This chance meeting, little did we know it at the time, would transform Jonathan and I from a boring couple to a party of 3. We were lucky enough to be joined by Sandra for the next 5 days as we travelled north through the Balinese mountains. Sandra turned out to be the perfect travel partner for us. She was funny, smart, a good bargainer, and well traveled. Just an introduction as Sandra will be a prominent figure in stories to come.

The next morning we were up early, eager to see the 'real Bali,' which happens early in the morning, according to our guidebook. The main streets were quiet, apart from a few women kneeling serenely in a cloud of sweet smelling incense making offerings at their family temples. There are offerings everywhere, as a sidenote. Little bowls made of palm and filled with rice, flower petals, candies and mini ritz crackers pile on top of each other in front of specific statues, or certain corners. Monkey Forest Rd, which we happened to be walking along, was mostly lined with men shining up their cars so they could later yell 'Taxi? Ya! Good price' at you, and point to their immaculate, buffed vehicle. It was like Trilllium Cres on Saturday morning with Dad and Jer out there waxing up their prized possessions. 'Transport? Ya!' was to become one of the many sounds of Bali. Just because you said 'No, Thank you' to a taxi driver does not mean that the taxi driver beside him will not assume that this means you do not want to take his taxi instead. In case you changed your mind in the last millisecond. At least there's selection...

Balinese music is wonderful. Bongos and chimes and instruments I have never seen before meld together in unique, tantalizing sounds. Where there is live Balinese music, there is something live and Balinese to witness, or so we hoped at least as we followed the notes off a main street and through an alley. We came upon a gaggle of children, all in costume, carrying instruments and parading down the street. Two children worked together to support a large dragon like costume, like the kind you would picture in Chinese parades, that danced wildly in tune with the melody. It was quite a sight. As it was meant to be. The troup leader out front carried a shoebox with 'Donation' scrawled across the front. He spotted me right off, in typical tourist form, camera posed, mouth in permanent smile. He followed his intuition and made a b-line to my wallet, looking up at me with his warm, soft, innocent eyes. Bugger. I pulled the only coin I had out of my change purse and plunked it in. It said 10 on it. He smiled genuinely, said 'Thank you', and bowed before scampering back off to join his friends. I smiled back, quite proud of myself for encouraging such a creative, local performance. 'You just gave him one one-hundredth of a penny' Jon told me. Oh.

Money here is confusing, for me at least. 10,000 Rp is about $1.1 CAD. There are just too many zeros for my pea brain to equate in a timely fashion... that's my excuse anyways.

On our early morning walk we wandered to the end of our aptly named Monkey Forest St, to the 'Monkey forest.' There were adorable grey monkeys everywhere! Big ones, small ones, some as big as your head. They were scampering about, around our feet, playing, scratching, playing, itching. There were even a few tiny baby monkeys splitting their time between skitishly running about, and crawling all over their mothers. I was having a heyday with my camera, as you can maybe imagine. Trying to capture the perfect monkey moment for all of you devoted armchair travellers back home. I was crouched down, attempting to get the lens at optimal monkey level when I heard Jonathan say 'Umm.. I think...' and thats as far as he got before the big papa monkey in the tree right behind me decided to take the opportunity to jump down from the branch where he had been perched... and onto my back. It wasn't that traumatizing actually, after the initial shock of having been used as a stepping stone. It didn't hurt, he didn't scratch me, he jumped off immediately. It could have been relatively uneventful, as far as mokeys jumping on unexpecting humans go. Except his feet were super grungy. Now, if it had been anyone else, the 'grunge' would have been mud caked all over his feet, or grass, or rice lying about from Balinese offerings or chocolate sauce. But, no. We are all aware what it is that monkey's particularly like to throw. And, might you know, monkey's don't wash up and sanitize after such shenanigans. This particular monkey, the only monkey in the whole forest who decided it would jump on someone? His feet were slathered with poo. Monkey poo. There was monkey poo all over my back. I know this because my darling husband pointed it out with glee, grabbing the camera from my hands to document this most precious of kodak moments. I also knew because it, and now, I, smelt like poo. My back, my dress, my bag, and over the course of my stomp home, my hands. There is monkey poo on my hands. 'Taxi!? Yeah?' greeted the taxi hawkers approximately every 20 seconds as I was rushing towards our room, in particular the cold shower in our room. I glared. 'You want me and my poo back in your freshly cleaned taxi!?' I wanted to yell at them. AHHHH!! 'This is crap!' I exclaimed. 'Literally' replied the peanut gallery.

After day #1's shower #2 we headed to the family run cafe we had been at the night before with Lena and Blackie. Blackie's sister greeted us like old friends. 'I make special dish for you! Not on the menu. My specialty!' she told us. Blackie had put our order in the night before for the tastiest, spiciest Balinese food she could cook up. It sounded like just the remedy I needed to rebound from the whole monkey 'incident.' Everything was made super fresh and from scratch. The food arrived at the table artfully arranged and smelling heavenly. The chef came out. 'You eat with your hands, like the Balinese' she suggested, placing a bowl of finger rinsing warm lemon water beside me, smiling and obviously very happy with the idea. I smiled back tightly. 'Ok...' I said unwillingly surrendering my utensils and looking down at my hands with suspicion. The same hands that were covered in monkey poo no less than a half hour earlier. Not that I hadn't washed them 10 times and sanitized them with the emergency hand sanitizer. But still... They needed time to heal. She stayed behind me just long enough to make sure I was really 'experiencing Bali.' 'Yumm' I said.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Step 1: Survive the Taxi from the Airport

The turbulence had barely subsided when we finally emerged from the clouds and landed on the Bali tarmac. We were in Bali!!! A new, exciting leg of our trip. We were herded off the aircraft in the typical border-collee style and raced inside to be the first to get in line for immigration. We hadn't arranged our visas in advance, which was fine other, than the potential hours we would spend waiting to be processed in the Bali airport. We paid $25 USD each (in actual US cash, which I think is a bit weird) to a lady in a booth and then were the first eager beavers, smiling hopelessly at the visa officer. He smiled back, took our paperwork and without more than a glance, we were done! We handed our customs declaration card to the officer who was standing behind a podium not even trying to conceal the fact that he was flipping through a magazine. He barely tore his eyes from the Brangelina spread as he waved us past. Did we miss something? Hope not. We took 1.5 million rupees (about $150) out of the ATM and breezed past all those poor folk starring blankly at the empty baggage carousel. Our plane landed at 245pm and by 3pm we were out in front of the airport bartering for a taxi to Ubud. After succumbing to a price (about $18 for the 1 1/4hr ride into Ubud) we were led to a nondescript, but shiny car whose door panels and visors were still covered in plastic. And so the adventure begins. My insides were humming with excitement but my teeth were gritted anxiously.
I wish I could have taken that hour and recorded everything I saw through the air-conditioned windows of my 'taksi'. It felt like I was watching a world pass by me through the lens of a documentary film. A real but absolutely foreign snapshot of everyday life in Bali. As we merged onto the road, aka cutoff 10 motorbikes and began to swerve in and out of traffic, I took out my notebook and began to jot down notes of the surreal scene unfolding before us. Jonathan, in the front seat turned around with wide eyes as we dodged motorbikes, oncoming traffic, pedestrians and stray dogs. I was so mezmorized that it didn't feel real. Was I really seeing all this? Is that guy really sitting on a bicycle, holding it straight with one hand and using the other to hang on to a speeding motorbike who is pulling him along the crowded street? Do people really live in those shacks? Or carve those immaculaely ornate temples and Hindu statues? Are those watermelon at those stalls on the side of the road? Are there really 4 people on that motorbike, and if what I am seeing really is real, is that a 2 year-old propped up in the front sans-helmet?! How are all these stray dogs managing to avoid becoming roadkill? What do they do with the goldfish in little plastic baggies strung up from that rope? Why have they dyed baby chickens neon colours? Are we now actually driving down the middle lane of the highway passing vehicles with less than inches to spare? As I said, it was completely surreal. It was more like being in a video game than a real life taxi. You got points if you stayed on the road, but it was a difficult task. Maybe you got points for behind-the-wheel-creativity? You most certainly earned more lives by honking. Honk, honk, HONK! Although it must be said that honking serves a completely different function than at home. Honks aren't angry. They are more an informative tool. 'Hey fellow driver, maybe you can't see me, I'm here, inches from your side mirror. Just wanted you to know.' or 'Hello oncoming traffic! Yes, it is true, I am in your lane, headed straight for you without any sign of returning to my designated lane. Just shove over a bit, ok? There's room over there on the shoulder. Let's share the road, friend!' The motorbikes roared by in hoards. They weaved through, around, in between and seemingly over top of the cars. 'Does anyone on a motorbike ever get hit?' asked Jonathan as one drove practically horizontal on the side of the taxi. Our driver laughed. 'No, no' he said. Hummmm
The colours wizzed by like silk scarves blowing in the breeze. The architecture that wasn't in shambles was spectacular. No centimeter of stone was left un-carved, no Hindu demi-god statue was less than serene. This is Bali... or at least the Bali that exists between the airport and Ubud. I can't wait to see what else there is!


Sunday, December 19, 2010

To Perth We Go!

Monkey Mia was an absolute must see, according to me. It's a resort town on a peninsula further south down Australia's west coast, known the world over for the wild dolphins that come ashore every morning to be fed from the Monkey Mia Resort staff. For a mere $8 each ($2 more dollars than our 2009 guide book says) you are allowed the privileged of entrance into the resort for the day (although they won't let you use their landry facilities, we asked), including the 845am 'dolphin encounter.' If I seem a bit disheartened- it's because I was, at first. There were a million people on the beach all lined up ready to 'encounter' one of the only two dolphins who had shown up for the morning feed. Dolphins have been fed at Monkey Mia for years and years. Back in the 70's people could feed the dolphins right from the beach, whatever they wanted (which usually was bread, chips and the like), whenever they wanted (which was all day every day.) It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that this is a bad idea. Dolphin calves were dying because they were being ignored by their mothers, the dolphins weren't in any way living a normal dolphin life and the male dolphins were becoming increasingly aggressive. These days Monkey Mia feeds only five female dolphins. They are always the same ones and the staff has detailed knowledge about their lives. There is a maximum of three feedings a day, all before noon, and determined by the dolphins when they show up and each dolphin receives 1.5kg of the 10-12kg of fish that the dolphin will eat that day. This leaves the dolphins with the rest of the afternoon to partake in normal daily dolphin activities, like jumping through hoops and balancing beach-balls on their noses whilst swimming backwards propelled out of their waters by their tales... Just kidding. Anyways. I was SO excited to see the dolphins up-close and (fingers crossed) I would be one of the lucky ones chosen to feed a dolphin! I even donned my cozzie (Australian for bathing suit) just in case a dolphin offered me a swim. It became abundantly clear that this was not going to happen. In fact, I wasn't even going to be able to wade into the water up to my ankles (which is the entire 'encounter' part by the way). There were more people there trying to fit their fat ankles into the water on the 20ft stretch of beach then we had seen since they were giving away free $100 bills.... Even if I had pushed my way to the front of the crowd there is no way that I would be chosen to feed the dolphins. There were far too many cute, dimpeled children, bikini-clad 20-somethings and sweet looking grandmother types to choose from. Things in my dolphin fantasy weren't looking up. We ended up giving up on the 'encounter' and instead watched from the pier. It was disappointing. Just as we were in the gift shop stocking up on discounted postcards to send you, our loved ones, we caught wind that the dolphins were back for a second feeding! I rushed down to the beach and within two feet of a mother dolphin and her 1 year old calf. It was looking like this detour was living up to it's $8 entry fee. Since most people had left after the first feeding, we were 2 of only about 20 people vying for ankle room. I was passed by again to feed the dolphins. Darn. The person to the right of Jonathan was chosen though, so we were getting closer. By the third feeding at 1030am or so, there were three mother dolphins with their calfs and only about 15 people. The volunteer brought the fish bucket into the water and scanned the crowd for the first lucky dolphin feeder. 'The guy with the big red beard!' she declared. 'The guy with the big red beard' of course, was Jonathan. He turned to me and generously asked, 'Do you want to go?' My head was saying 'YES YES YES! Of course I want to go! Get out of my way 'big red beard' I have a dolphin to feed!' But, what I actually said was 'No, it's ok, you can go.' (!!!!!) Even as the words were coming out of my mouth I couldn't believe I had said them. What was I thinking? My thoughts all morning had been consumed with potential dolphin feeding scenarios. As Jonathan walked out and took the fish from the volunteer my head was screaming 'NOOO. I take it back, I want to go! Come back! Come back!' But what I did instead was dutifully photograph Jonathan feeding the dolphin (and having a meaningful, personal, once in a lifetime, human-dolphin moment). Jonathan smiled for the photos. He really couldn't care less about feeding the dolphin. This story reminds me of one my Gramma always tells. Really, its a shame that I'm not better at learning from other people's mistakes. When Gramma was a cute little young-in she was taken out for ice cream by friends of the family. When Gramma was asked if she wanted some ice cream, she, being a shy little girl, said 'No thank you.' And so, she didn't get ice cream. Of course she wanted ice cream! Everyone wants ice cream. This non-ice cream ice cream excursion all those years ago was so disappointing to a wee Gramma that she always tells us the important lesson it taught her. If you want something, and you are offered it: Take it. (And, never ever turn down ice cream). If only I had listened. 'I should have gone' I confessed to Jonathan when he was back on shore. 'Of course you should have gone!' he exclaimed. 'But I guess I should have told you my plan. I decided earlier that if I got picked I would let you go instead. I knew I was going to get picked, so I should have warned you' says my humble hubby. 'How did you KNOW you were going to get picked?!' I challenged. 'Look at me' he said, 'I have a mop of hair, a big, red bushy beard and I am wearing a long sleeved collared shirt: I stand out.' On the plus side, at least he finally admits it.

Hundreds and hundreds of kilometers down the coast we stop in the little seaside town of Kalbarri. There is a daily pelican feed down on the beach. It's free. There are five massive pelicans awaiting the arrival of their buck-o-fish when we show up. 'Who wants to feed the pelicans?' The volunteer asks. Jonathan looks at me. My hand shoots up in the air and I start waving it frantically like she has just offered a cheque for $1,000,000, and not a staunch opportunity to throw a stinky fish to a mangey bird. It's all part of my new never-turn-down-a-chance-to-feed-a-wild-animal philosophy. Since I am the only one who looks like they may have a coronary if they don't get to feed a pelican, the volunteer takes pity on me and hands me a fish. I chose the best looking pelican, aimed the fish, and was about to have my fulfilling replacement dolphin feeding experience when a stupid seagull swooped in out of left field and stole the stupid fish RIGHT out of my hand. The crowd thought this was hilarious and laughed at me. At me. Not with me, because I most certainly wasn't laughing. But still, there were several fish in the bucket waiting to be launched into the air, caught in a large beak and then gulped down into the netherworld of Pelican Stomachus. With terrifyingly accurate aim, the less-slimy-than-I-would-have-thought-it-would-be, yet still scaly projectile flew up then down right on target and plunked right into the pelicans elastic-like beak. Though the pelican feed was satisfying, I still had some lingering annoyance about giving up the opportunity to feed flipper.

I was so annoyed that we decided to leave the country. We drove down a dusty dirt road for 30km or so to the border of 'Australia's second largest country.' There were tumbleweeds as big as the van rolling across our path as we made our way through the desert/farm land. Not often can land can be a desert and farmland at the same time. We did not pass a single soul all the way to the isolated border. Are you thinking I've been hit over the head one too many times with a surfboard? So was the Australian government, I reckon, when Leonard (now self crowned Prince Leonard) declared his 75 sq km wheat farm 'Hutt River' an independent principality. The story goes something like this. In 1969 the Western Australia government passed new legislation regarding wheat farming that left HRH Leonard and Princess Shirley feeling very ripped off. When their protests were to no avail, Leonard took matters into his own hands, and seceded from Australia. It sounds as though it has been a fight to maintain his kingdom's sovereignty ever since. We arrived and HRH himself greeted us and generously offered to take us around and show off his 'crown jewels.' Prince Leonard and his wife, Princess Shirley have a huge collection of memorabila from the last 40 years, as well as gift, letters and momentos from royalty around the globe. You can purchase Hutt River currency, postcards, pins and flags. They have their own government building, post office, church and giftshop. Its like a typical treasure of odds and ends that any grandparent may have on display around their house, only the items are, signed by the Chinese president, for example. And, there's a campsite, if you are so inclined to spend the night next door to a royal. After a thorough check of our passports under an ultraviolet light, the Prince stamped our entry and exit into his country. Since I had promised my mom a postcard from every country, I dutifully purchased a fitting postcard of Princess Shirley for Princess Penny and posted it from Hutt River. His Royal Highness himself even signed it! I had been reluctant when Jonathan wanted to venture in on the unsealed road and cross the border, but in the end, I am so happy that we spent the afternoon in Hutt River with Prince Leonard. I mean, how many times do you get a private tour by a real live Royal. Prince Leonard presides over his 24 citizens with dignity and pride. With a plethora of children, grandchildren and now 28 great-grand children, it appears as though the Principality will live on for many many years without worrying about running out of heirs.

Back in Australia proper, we stopped in the charming city of Geraldton, which also happens to be Jacqui's (from Darwin) hometown. We stopped in at the Western Australia museum which had great displays about shipwrecks off the coast, and all the murder, mutiny and lost treasure surrounding them. We then made what was meant to be a quick peak at the old jail house, whose cells have since been turned into craft stalls. It was one of the longest running gouls in Western Australia and framed stories along the cement walls provided interesting insights to the happenings of a jailhouse in the 1800-1900s. One of the cell turned craft stalls was run by woodsman, Dave. Dave was a friendly stout Aussie with grey hair and a beard that started under his chin. He had a contagious, and a wealth of knowledge of native Jarrah wood, which he shared with us for over an hour. We watched the jeep-fulls of shirtless Aussie surfer-dudes carelessly cruise by the white sandy town beach while eating delicious homemade ice cream and suddenly it was time to move on. Perth was looming and we wanted to make a quick stop to see the Pinnacles Desert before then...

Downtown Perth left me humming 'Silver Bells.' The streets were packed with the hustle and bustle of a holiday season. 'Dressed in Holiday style' had a slightly different look however, in the 30 degree weather. All of Perth's beautiful women were immaculately dressed in flowing floral dresses, or sleek business-like knee length frocks. Their hair remained remarkably frizz free and polished despite the heat. It was all quite impressive. As we were people -watching (or gawking) from a bench, munching on our typical supermarket-style lunch one of Perth's slightly less appealing characters ambled up. His hat read 'Fifty is Nifty' and rested on a nest of bushy grey hair. He eyed our picnic of a pre-made salad and yougurt. He smiled showing off his 6 crooked yellow teeth. 'Are you vegetarian?' he asked. 'Yes,' replied Jonathan, 'are you?' 'Half and half,' he told us. He was a half and half vegetarian. Interesting concept. We stopped at a bakery to pick up a couple rolls for our plane ride the next day. There was an interesting roll called 'tiger fibre roll.' 'What is that tiger fibre bread?' I asked the young blonde girl behind the counter. She stopped and looked at me with wide eyes for a moment like she didn't quite understand the complexity of the question. But she pulled through. 'Ummm, it's like, ummmmmmm like bread, with like, umm, like, umm, like, umm, like, umm, like fibre?' she asked me. 'Ooook...' I answered. Not quite sure how I would have come to know the answer, but it was comforting to know that valley-girls exist virtually in clone the world over.

The highlight of our final days in Australia, however, was meeting up with Jacqui (the other Jacqui of Jacqui and Jacqui). She had generously offered for us to stay in the spare room at her beautiful house and we were really looking forward to catching up on the last four years or so. Jacqui is friendly, generous, cute and funny. She had a wonderful idea of a picnic in Kings Park, a large, green, tree filled park on a hill overlooking the city of Perth. We stopped for picnic fixings and were on our way up. We strolled around the paved path admiring the great views of the city below. We ate our delicious deli fixings on a proper picnic blanket and watched as the last of the sun's golden hues drained from the sky. We chatted and chatted and chatted. Jacqui has so many interesting stories. She has travelled quite extensively and recently to China for the 2008 Olympics. Her pictures were fantastic and her adventures have us looking forward to China even more so. The next morning Jacqui even got up and ready extra early just to drive us to the airport for our flight to Bali! It was so so nice, and we certainly appreciated it. Again we are overwhelmed with how lucky we are in friendship.

Dolphin Fact: Female dolphins get along quite well and hang out in pods often. Once a female is old enough to reproduce, she is pretty much in a constant cycle of being pregnant, raising her calf alone for the next three years, and then getting pregnant and doing it all over again. They have babies throughout their entire lives. No menapause for them. Males, on the other hand, mostly hang out with other male buddies, doing boy things and chasing the girls around. After they have done their part to impregnate the female, they simply swim back off to their 'bro-mance' of staying up late, drinking and playing cards. Rough life, guys.

ps. The black dog in the photo above is one of many furry friends in Jonathan's fan club. As usual. We were walking along the beach and Rover spotted Jonathan and made a b-line for him, rubbing up against him and thumping his back leg on the ground when Jonathan scratched him behind the ears. He went off and returned with a gift for the newest member of his pack: a dead, dried up baby ocean sunfish that he kept ramming into Jonathan's legs. How nice of him! And Jonathan didn't even appreciate the offering!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Wild West

We left the comforts of Darwin Saturday morning after one last market browse. I just love markets. The sights, smells, colours, excitement. We were headed to Kakadu National Park. One of the best National Parks in the world, our Lonely Planet said. Our first night we headed to Ubirr, famous for it's ancient aboriginal rock art and stunning sunsets. Unfortunately dark, imposing clouds blocked our view of the setting sun, but the view from the top of the cliffs at the magnificent landscape was worth the effort in itself. We met a friendly aboriginal ranger wearing long pants and a long sleeve shirt. I was barely even wearing a strapless dress and drank litres of water a day without ever having to go to the bathroom because I sweated so much. We are in crocodile land. She told us all about it. It was hot, though. And very, very humid. Attempting to sleep in a van maybe wasn't the best idea we have ever had on a 40degree airless night. We flew through the rest of the Northern Territory, unfortunately because we couldn't take the heat. It's true. We might just be wimps. But, you know what they say, 'If you can't take the heat, get out of the kitchen.'
The Northern Territory we saw from the relative comfort our air-conditioned van was spectacular. Lizards the size of my arm pranced in front of the vehicle like a game of dodgeball. Frilled lizards, Monitors, skinks and more. There were tons of wallabies hippity hopping along to look at and the changing landscape was enough to keep us in awe for the hours, and hours and hours (and hours) we drove. I wish we could have stayed longer to enjoy it. Next time.

The other major sight along the roads were the hundred and hundreds of skinny 'farmless' farm animals. Cows mostly in the North but sheep and goats now on the West as well. I say 'farmless' because they literally just wander around, stopping wherever they choose. Their favourite resting area seems to be in the middle of the highway. The cows aren't your regular black and white milk cows. I don't know what they are used for, or what they eat because there isn't much vegetation, or what they drink because there certainly isn't any water here in the dry season. They might just be robotic cows strategically placed to keep drivers on their toes. You would think it would be easy pickings for the crocs in the North due to the limited watering holes. I would use the term 'livestock' but this would be a loose description. In particular the 'live' part. There may have been as many dead cows on the side of the road as live ones lurking on the yellow lines. Maybe this is how they make leather in the outback? This topic requires further research.
Speaking of driving, as we were speeding along (at the speed limit, of course) the other day we found our selves driving right smack through a mini tornado! There was some sand whipping up along the side of the road, as we drove past the mighty blowing sands, the van jolted across the centre line. It wasn't until it was behind us that we could see clearly in the rear view mirrors the perfect outline of a little tornado. One thing you can say about driving (and driving) in Australia: it's never boring. Whipitty Whip.

We arrived in Broome, high on the west coast early in the morning and headed almost directly to Cable Beach. It is a beautiful stretch of snow white beach set off by milky turquoise waters and blood red cliffs. The water was warm, like in Darwin but the lack of jellyfish (this time of year) make it perfectly swimmable. This whole area has a 'vibe' to it. Rickety campervans full of girls in bikinis, implying that yes, they all do cuddle up in those little campers with very little on, long haired men playing their guitars on the boardwalk and, later in the day, everyone in the entire town drives their 4wheel drive jeeps down onto the beach for sunset. Oh, and camels. Not wild, but there nonetheless doing their part to complete the Cable Beach atmosphere. All good things come to an end. Some things, like Cable Beach do it in style. The white sand somehow miraculously morphs into firey red cliffs made of shapely carved rocks contrasting the blue blue ocean leaving you in a take-your-breath-away sort of moment. Wow. So this is why people come ALL the way up here. Wow. Just wow. Because, really it is ALL the way. 611km north of the nearest town linked by flat, relatively featureless terrain. You have to really want to come to Broome. But you do.
'And miles to go before I sleep, and miles to go before I sleep.'

Eighty mile beach is perhaps the only thing between Broome and Port Headland. You don't get any beach views from the highway though. They make you work for it. Nine or so grueling kilometres westward on a badly corrugated red dirt road, bumpity bump, shake, smash, ERR and you find yourself at a campground that thinks they are justified in charging you $30/night for a slice of shadeless sand wide enough for one of those skinny roadside cows to park on solely because there is absolutely no where else to stay. And so, when your driver has driven approximately 1,500 kms in less than a week, and is hot and cranky and sunburned: you gladly fork over your $30. In it's defense, 80mile beach is breathtaking. We drove over the dune and gasped. We really weren't expecting THIS pristine. People from Western Australia will argue that some of the world's best beaches are in these parts. I would find it hard to disagree. The sand is snow-white. The water is so turquoise, so clear, so gorgeous that I can't look away. Apparently the wonder of this beach is not lost on Flatback Sea Turtles either. After almost 20 years of drifting around the world they return to the very beach that they were hatched to lay eggs themselves. They come ashore an hour before high tide between November and February. Turtles are amazing creatures. As hatchlings they only have about a one in a thousand chance for survival! They scurry down the beach to the ocean, being picked off by awaiting sea birds and then into the ocean where they are eaten by fish and other predators. They then spend the next ten years or so 'lost' at sea, drifting in the currents, eating and growing. They come back to the warm coastal waters in their teens and spend the rest of their years returning to these sites. Female turtles do not start reproducing until they are between the ages of 20 and 50! They always return to the very beach that they were born and mate with many different males before they lay their eggs, meaning one clutch can have multiple dads. Another amazing tidbit is that the sex of the turtle depends on the temperature of the sand! If the sand is warm, all the hatchlings will be female and if its cooler, they will all be male! Australian Conservation Volunteers were on-site to monitor the turtles, so with our wealth of information we headed down to the beach as the sun was setting to sit quietly and still in hopes of sighting one of these amazing animals. As the sky turned orange-y gold and the last rays of the sun fell behind the earth the first turtle crashed onto the beach in a tidal wave and laboriously began to make her way up to the beach. WOW!!! Turtles are endangered. And, surprise, surprise, the main reason is humans. Like most wild animals they are very timid and will not come ashore if there are people moving about or making lots of noise. You can imagine with only a smidgen of a chance for survival to begin with, obnoxious humans don't help the odds. Sometimes they even abort the eggs into the ocean in all the hype. It was to our horror, then, that as this mother, full of eggs, began her way up the beach, that an ignorant 20-something spotted her, ran past her to grab his camera out of his SUV which was parked on the beach, and then proceeded to literally chase the poor terrified turtle in circles trying to take her picture. This was followed by a girl, racing across the beach with her point-and-shoot, to capture the moment. We watched in disgust. There are signs EVERYWHERE informing people about the turtles. Even if there weren't, one would think it would be common sense not to chase around a wild animal. Especially one that obviously can't get away. Turtles aren't known for their quickness, as you may know. They are graceful in the water, but extremely awkward on land. The turtle, after what seemed like eons finally found a sliver of space between Stupid#1 and Ignoramous#2 to make her escape back into the ocean. Not, however, before the whole shamause was spotted by the all and mighty 'Turbo' (as named by us).

Enter Turbo. Quite literally. He stomped onto the beach, the rim of his outback hat quivering with anger, his beer sloshing to and fro (his beer AND his beer belly for that matter). Later he told us that he and his partner drove all the way to Port Hedland (240kms) just to stock up on beer. Turbo does have his redeeming qualities, on the bright side, they include today, his turtle saving antics. Half Canadian, from Campbell River (by Brian's very own Quadra Island), half Aussie (the baked half) and half Kiwi (the friendly when he's not fuming half). This is three halves. It should paint a picture for you. A big, crispy beer bellied picture..Allow me to paint a picture. Take an nine and a half month pregnant lady. Now take Steve Irwin. Now, use your imagination. Put the belly on the Steve, the animal advocate and throw your concoction into the deep fryer for about an hour and PRESTO!: Turbo. He stormed right up to the Goof show and tore one, big, massive strip off the two of them. Arms were flailing, postures were intense, profanities were drifting in the ocean breeze. I am half surprised he didn't grab the camera's right form their grubby little paws and toss them into the ocean in protest. The only thing that maintained it's composure through this whole ordeal was his beer. Tucked safely in it's cozzie. The photographers fled and he turned his eagle eye to us. Uh Oh. I looked around. I was shaking in my flip flops. Were we doing something bad? I haven't moved the whole time: I swear! '$&)@&$ dumb People!' he greeted us. He came in peace. Turbo lives on Vancouver Island half the year, but 'hasn't spent a winter in Canada in 12 years.' 'Wow, you must have a great job that you can do on the road,' Jon commented. Turbo whirled around. 'Why do you ask that?' he demanded. 'Well it just sounds like a fantastic way to live your life..' Jonathan recovered. Apparently Turbo's source of income was a guarded secret. 'You gotta make life what you want it, man' was his reply. He then continued to tell us all about his shell collection. What a character. As Turbo was winding down the list of shells he had collected that day I spotted a turtle emerging in a wake directly in front of us. Turbo left us for dinner and Jonathan and I sat memorized by the turtle making its way up the wide beach awkwardly like a fish (or turtle) out of water. 'Fiona the Flatback Sea Turtle' we named her affectionately and she became our pet for the night. We sat as still as statues while Fiona fought her way across the sand slowly. She would pull herself forward a few feet and then stop, exhausted and panting. She would look around, and being only about 10ft from us we often caught her gaze. I was worried we might spook her by the sheer intensity of our staring. We didn't thankfully and as the stars started to freckle the sky Fiona dedicated herself admirably to the task of excavating her nest in the dunes behind us. In the end she had dragged herself and belly full of eggs at least 75 meters to the nesting sight. What a humbling experience to know that this turtle, now at least a metre long had hatched on this very beach years and years ago and somehow knew exactly how to get back here. I felt like bursting out into the chorus of Lion King's 'Circle of Life.' I didn't though. For Fiona's sake. Jonathan and I sat on the beach for a long while, checking periodically on Fiona's progress and enjoying the perfectly clear star studded night sky and cool ocean breeze. What a night!

I really did think our encounter with Fiona was as good as it would get. But, to my astonishment, Western Australia had more in store. A full 14 hour drive south we detoured to Ningaloo National Park. The Ningaloo Reef is Australia's largest and most accessible reef. It is much less known than The Great Barrier Reef, and all the better for it. We rented snorkel equipment from a dive shop in the charmingly underwater-oriented town of Exmouth. I couldn't imagine it at the time, but for the next 48 hours I spent more time breathing through a snorkel than is probably healthy. Its like stepping out of this world into a completely fantasy one. Especially at Turquoise Bay, where it's not called 'turquoise' for nothing. Was I swimming in an aquarium? The colours, variety and number of fish mere inches from my face was outstanding. It was like the Blue Planet. I thought I had fallen asleep watching an episode and was dreaming that I was in the series. Maybe we should watch that episode again,maybe i am in it! (like that time I appeared as Sydney Bristow in Alias). Why aren't people here video tapping this spectacle all day every day? Parrot fish that look like they were cut straight out of a bright neon 90's tye dye shirt, butterfly fish, angelfish, damsel fish, groupers, wrass, triggerfish, picassa fish, blue spotted faintail ray, garden of sea cucumbers,trumpet fish, crocodilian long tom, clown fish, starfish, and, the absolute highlight...
Lurking in between pieces of coral I saw something large move. My heart stopped. What was it? I was half hoping to see a white tip reef shark, until that fateful moment of course when the thought of seeing a shark out here all by my myself made my blood run cold. I watched, unable to move. When I realized what it was I practically jumped out of the water with excitement. A Green Sea Turtle!! All to myself! I watched him for a long while. I almost didn't want to tell Jonathan who was standing on shore. Serves him right for wanting to be out on the boring land instead of in the wonderful water. But, my golden heart prevailed. I brought my head out of the water for the most fleeting of moments. Just enough to yell 'TURTLE' and then, my duty complete, I settled back in to watch him as long as he'd have me. Curiosity got the best of me and I peeked out to the beach again to see Jonathan's reaction. He was pulling on his
fins and mask as fast as he could. 'How big?' he yelled. 'So cool!!' I yelled back. Within 60 seconds he was out snorkeling beside me. How did
he get all the way out here so fast? Did he walk across the water? Just when I was beginning to think I had married Superman, Jonathan told me that I was actually only metres off the beach. Oh. I felt like I was bobbing in the middle of the ocean out here.

The next day was much of the same thing. The hours flew by like I was Hermione in that Harry Potter book. Only her little watch made the time go the other way, didn't it. Jonathan and I were up with the sun. I felt like I put my mask on, and then it was lunch. I allowed a short break and was back into my underwater wonderland. The afternoon was flashing by like a road-train on these Australian highways. (Yes, they have trucks that pull three truck loads behind them, like a train on wheels). I knew I should have gone back to shore, it was getting later in the afternoon, our fins were due back at 15:45, but I just really wanted to see one more turtle. I took my head out of the water to scope out where I was and when I put my face back in 'poof' a turtle right underneath me! Literally just like that. Sometimes I feel so lucky that I don't want to acknowledge it in fear that I will wake up from this dream life I am in. I followed the turtle for a while. He was so graceful. So different than on land. He floated around with the current, nibbling on tuffs of sea grass. Sometimes the current would push his little butt upwards while his mouth was still intent on the sea grass and he would be suspended in the water like a marionette. Colouful fish swam in his wake. When he eventually used his fins he glided through the water so peacefully, streamlined and chillaxed. His big dark eyes were so inquisitive. He was 'Dude' in Finding Nemo. It was incredible. Our fins were returned at 340pm on the dot. Five whole minutes early.
Before leaving Ningaloo we wanted to stop and fill up our camp water at the fresh water tap. Or, watering hole, it turns out. Fresh water is a hot commodity in these parts. Water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink. It seems funny to think that there is a lack of water when you are surrounded by it. But, true, judging by the two kangaroos and five emus that stood (relatively) patiently round the tap awaiting for some magical human to come by and miraculously make water flow from this metal knob. It was a real up close and personal experience. Jonathan and the 'roo vied for the water flow while emus closed in from all sides ready for the ambush. I did my part by recording the action. Being within scratching distance of the roo made me notice their particularly long jagged nails. After our jug was full the kangaroos started fighting over who would get to lap up the spillage and in all the confusion the herd of emus slipped in and stole their thunder. What a spectacle of survival in Australia. It's rough out here.

At a dusty, fly infested roadside stop further inland Jonathan and I had the pleasure of meeting a fantastic Spanish couple: Antonio and Andreas. They had us 'over' (to a camp-table in the shade of their van) for breakfast, coffee, green tea and bread with Olive Oil and sugar. They travel with a bottle of olive oil! How fantastically European is that. We have fake hydrogenated chemical fat compounded into a margerine like state. Well not even that anymore because it's too darned hot. I suppose it's like our beloved maple syrup. You just have it with you. That's all. Although Ted's homemade maple syrup has been quite hard to find down here.. Antonio and Andreas are on a year long sabbatical pretty much mirroring our trip, only backwards! They regaled us with helpful tips and fascinating insights from their travels to India, China and Southeast Asia. We feel very lucky to have met them and sincerely hope our paths cross again.

So. Back to the marine world. Anyone who knows Jonathan is aware of his exception fear/fascination with sharks. This is the
kind of guy who marks National Geographic Shark week on the calender, folks (well, not anymore...). When we were going to go snorkeling at Ningaloo maybe, I don't know, two days ago he refused to dip his baby toe in the water until there was absolutely no one left to ask 'So, what should we be 'concerned' with while in the water.' He was just hoping someone would confirm that, yes, there was a near daily shark attack in these waters, and then he would be scot-free and not have to go in swimming. This didn't happen, of course. Even against his best attempts, asking at least five separate people. This in mind, I practically fainted when he jumped out of his sandals and proceeded to run into the shallow waters of the aptly named 'Shark Bay' to chase down the sharks we saw from the shore. It all started with an innocent lunch break on the dunes. We could see multiple black sea animals with fins breaching in the waters right off the beach. There were at least 100 of the creatures. What could they be? When we couldn't take the suspense a second longer, Curious George and I went to investigate. 'They are definitely sharks' the expert (my husband) confirmed. See, Gord and Cathy, all those hours as a child watching National Geographic did pay off. Jonathan was able to recognize sharks so that we could steer clear. Or so I thought. This is precisely when he practically threw his sandals at me and started off into the shark infested waters to 'get a closer look.' Yup, what I always expected was finally confirmed. He was crazy. This is the same guy who wouldn't wade past his thighs when swimming with Sophie and I at Bondi Beach. At least I think its the same man. Did I make sure he put sunscreen on today? Did he eat some crazy pill from Turbo? I 'watched' (that was my job, he told me, to 'watch') as he waded out to his knees into the sharks. He was flailing his arms with excitement. 'There's one!! He's coming straight at me!' Shark Bait would yell back to me. I watched him in disbelief. What do you say to that? 'Great, honey? I'm happy for you! Sure hope that shark gets real close!' Maybe little children should cover their ears. Don't do this at home, kids. It will worry your parents. ' Can you see this?' my Shark Hunter would yell, 'I'm surrounded by sharks! One is about 5ft long!' But then the reassurance 'Don't worry, most are only about 3 feet! I wish I had a mask!' Yup, its official: he's nuts. Steve Irwin, ahem, I mean Jonathan, emerged unscathed ready to try again further down the beach where the sharks had moved to. 'I just want to touch one' he said to me, wading back out to the unknown. Great. Just great. At least we splurged for health insurance...

ps. We're still looking for volunteer opportunities....... help!

pps. 'Happy Birthday to you! Happy Birthday to You! Happy Birthday dear Jess and Leeeeeeeeee! Happy Birthday to you!!!!