Friday, 22 June 2012

Into the Bush

And no, that isn’t a TMI reference to our woefully inept grooming habits these days…

We are currently on yet another road trip in yet another camper van, only this time in what the Australians somewhat dismissively called “the bush,” that is, any even remotely rural area that isn’t the Outback. This particular “bush” refers to the forests, fields and small towns that line Australia’s East Coast.

We started in Brisbane and are slowly but surely making our way up the coast in a camper that pales in comparison to our trusty Chunk from New Zealand. 

Sad little Vincent in our sad little camper
It looks spacious, but that is an illusion, my friend.

We are getting by regardless, largely because in the place of the below-freezing temperatures in New Zealand, we have the positively summery weather of northern Australia. Instead of retreating to Chunk as soon as the sun goes down to burrow under our covers and eat hot soup, we can spend the evenings sitting outside in our wobbly camping chairs, drinking local rum from plastic cups and enjoying the stunning views of all of the mobile-homing retirees (they call them the “gray nomads”) in our camp sites. Very romantic, as you can imagine.

We have only been at it for a few days, but already we have learned a valuable lesson:
Australia is big.

This isn’t snug New Zealand, where every bend in the road hides another unique, usually breathtaking, landscape. Where we could average two hours of driving a day and still manage to see most of the country in three weeks. No, this is a massive country- all of Western and Central Europe fits easily within its borders- and that simple fact has serious implications for the road trip-inclined.

Isn't little Europe adorable?
Basically, we have to accept that given the limited time we have (two-ish weeks), we are able to see only a tiny fraction of the country: no Outback, no Uluru, no West Coast, no Melbourne. But that doesn’t mean we aren’t covering some serious ground. In two weeks, we will have driven well over 1,200 miles, which doesn’t seem enormous until you consider that the entire drive is on a curvy, congested, two-lane highway, which is the only kind available north of Brisbane. For all of the noise made about the veritable menagerie of lethal beasties in Australia- the country famously has more creatures that can kill you than anywhere else on earth- it is the roads here that have us quaking in our Crocs.

Vincent ain't scared.
Luckily, Australia’s beauty and singularity make up for the long driving times. Despite the fact that we have managed to take exactly one picture in the last five days, the views out our camper windows are very often lovely, in a bushy kind of way. What's more, the tropical, northern weather is a delight and we are able to spend our non-driving hours hanging out on one of the East Coast’s long, sandy beaches. Granted, our beach time is usually spent doing weird little exercises to ward off the chub (think awkward leg lifts and arm rotations), but hey, it’s still beach time.

The Bush, aka a bunch of Eucalyptus trees
In addition to the wonderful coastal scenery, our drive has also allowed us the opportunity to view some of Australia’s iconic flora and fauna, namely, more Eucalyptus trees than you can shake a koala at and a few kangaroos. Admittedly, the only kangaroos we saw were dead on the side of the highway, but that small detail didn’t damper our excitement in the least. On the contrary, actually. You can see live kangaroos in zoos all over the world, but only in Australia can you see them dead on the side of the road.

You see, kangaroos to Australians are a little like deer to Missourians: an over-populated, if lovable, road hazard. They are everywhere, especially at night when they are most active, and their habit of jumping out into the road the moment they see oncoming headlights borders on suicidal (or homicidal, if you consider the traffic statistics.) The danger they present is so prevalent that most insurance companies won’t ensure collisions with the bouncy marsupials after nightfall. Since I don’t have a picture of a live kangaroo- or a dead one, for that matter- here’s a picture of me being creeped out by some aggressive possums.

So until we actually see a live kangaroo, we will entertain ourselves with some of the other, lesser-known wonders of Australian life. The following, in no particular order, is a list of some of the more fascinating things we’ve learned about the Land Down Under in the past few weeks.
  •          Australians make a damn good coffee. Seriously, here and in New Zealand we have found the best coffee we’ve both ever had. Sorry France and Italy, but the Aussies have you beat with the combination of excellent quality and an almost American regard for variety and personal preference.  It took us a few tries to figure out how to order: long or short black, flat white, skinny, baby-cino, etc. - but once we got the hang of it, we have managed to find consistently great coffee everywhere we go (barring the instant shit we are drinking in our camper van, which doesn’t even come equipped with what the Australians call a “plunger,” or what the rest of the world calls a French press.)

  •          Australians really do say “mate.” Like, in every sentence. And “g’day”! Also, let the record show that I have seen several men wearing wide-brimmed, leather bush hats and even one guy wearing one with work boots and shorts, like some bad-ass love child of Crocodile Dundee and Steve Erwin. Nice one, mate.

  •          Aside from the mind-bogglingly ancient Aboriginal culture, Australia’s history is really recent. This, coming from an American whose own country is essentially an over-achieving teenager compared to Europe or Asia, should give you an idea of how obvious Oz’s newness is. Consider that the country’s very first settlement (Sydney) was started in 1788 (by a bunch of convicts sent from England, no less), that its constitution dates back only to 1901, and that its largest wave of immigration has been just in the past fifty or so years, and you realize that Australia’s modern history really isn’t that extensive. That’s not to say it isn’t important or interesting, it’s just a shock when we talk to people who mention their “ancestors” from England or Ireland only to find out that they are actually referring to their grandparents.

  •          Australia is surprisingly cosmopolitan- well, surprising to me anyway. It’s a country of immigrants, much like the US, but the newness of that immigration, coupled with the fact that Australia is closer geographically to Asia than anywhere else, makes the country a really interesting mix of backgrounds and cultures. There’s definitely a distinct Australian culture (see: “bush hats” above), but the Aussies are also admirably open to other cultures. Asian take-aways are as prevalent as the ubiquitous, and undeniably English, fish and chips shops, while American films compete with le cinema Français in the movie theaters. It’s an inspiring mix and gives the country more layers of culture than we expected.

  •          Australia isn’t all dry, barren Outback! I don’t know, I guess with the whole “Red Continent” thing, I expected Australia to be an only slightly more habitable version of Mars. But in fact, the north part of the country, including where we are now, is positively tropical! I’m talking exotic fruits, rainforests and sugar cane plantations- which just so happens to also mean locally made rum. High five.

  •          Lastly- and this comes as a surprise to absolutely no one- the Australians are so nice. Really, they are. Outside of New Zealand and the American Midwest, you won’t find a more friendly, open, willing-to-start-a-conversation-with-strangers people than the Aussies. It’s not only wonderfully comforting and helpful, but it’s also from them that we learned all of the above.
So, thanks mates. 

Friday, 15 June 2012


Yesterday was the day I had been dreading.

I started anticipating its approach about a month ago, bracing myself against its onslaught. I expected the realization of its significance to hit me like a ton of bricks, forcing me with its arrival to acknowledge my deepest feelings and doubts.

Well, none of that came to pass. Like a minor birthday or anniversary, this seemingly-important day came and went with an anti-climactic "wah waaaaah".

Yesterday, you see, was the half-way point of our trip. In exactly six months, we will have taken the last flight of our round the world ticket. In six months we’ll be back in Europe. Back home.

In six months, it will all be over.

So you can imagine that we expected to feel some profound emotion about the passing of that milestone: pride, dread, relief, I don’t know, something.

But really, the only thing we felt was acceptance.  We realize that we have as much time ahead of us as we do behind us; that there is as much opportunity to experience the world as we have already experienced in the last six months.

And we can accept that.

We have no regrets, no bad feelings about the passing of time, no real desire to slow down or speed up the clock. Looking back, we have done a lot since the start of the trip. On one hand, it feels like the time has flown by, but on the other hand, we feel like the start of our trip was years ago.

For example, I was thinking about our jungle tour the other day and what we were wearing during certain parts of it. It was an unexpected shock to realize that the clothes in our backpacks back then are the exact same clothes that are still in our backpacks almost six months later. The jungle feels like another trip completely, something far off in our pasts. It’s as if traveling has become our normal, everyday life, and each new place we go is a separate mini-vacation that has nothing to do with the previous destination.

People keep asking us how we are feeling now that we are half way through our trip: Are we still liking it? Are we sick of travelling? Have we started thinking about what we will do when it’s over? The short answer is yes, no and kinda.

The long answer is that we are (still) loving this trip. Seriously, I don’t know how better to express it. This has been the best decision of our lives and we are having an absolute blast. Every new place we go and new experience we have teaches us more about the world, about each other and about ourselves.

And it’s fun. Whether we are visiting a chaotic market in Bolivia with dead sheep opened up on the sidewalk, having a heated political discussion with one of our volunteering hosts or road-tripping around New Zealand in a giant camper van singing George Michael songs, we are having a fantastic time and making memories that we will never forget. I don’t know how better to explain it without sounding like a Hallmark card.

And no, we are not sick of travelling. For that, I thank our decision to volunteer along the way. Staying in one place to work for a few weeks every three months or so gives us a much-needed break from the little stresses and discomforts of backpacking that can wear on you after a while. Volunteering gives us a break from hostels and bus rides, from spending money and constantly being on the move. By the time we are finished with a volunteering assignment, we are ready, excited even, to get back on the road. This little respite, in addition to the invaluable learning opportunity working abroad provides us, makes volunteering one of the best parts of the trip.

Before we started this year-long adventure, we were worried about the things that we would have to live without, the comforts of “normal” life that we would miss along the way. Highest on that list was our own space: our own glorious, comfortable, solitary place that we could call our own. Surprisingly though, we haven’t really had a problem finding that, even on the road. We had it in our tiny cabin on the farm when we were volunteering in Argentina, when we rented an apartment in Chile, when we had our camper van in New Zealand. Sure, it’s not our own couch in our cozy apartment in Switzerland, but we quickly adapted and realized that it is possible to find our own little space in the world, no matter where we are.

There are a few things, however, that we do miss. Before I get into them, let me preface it by saying that these are tiny, insignificant little holes in our comfort. They are puny nothings and do not hinder our enjoyment of the trip in the least. I always feel like the biggest a-hole complaining or talking about what I don’t have when I am in the middle, literally, of an incredible life experience that few people are lucky enough to have. So, please, take this with a grain of salt and forgive me for being an insolent, unappreciative brat, especially after you hear what I'm about to say.

I miss looking good. There, I said it. It’s lame, I know, but it’s true. I miss dressing up and wearing heels.  I miss picking out an outfit, doing my make-up and then looking in the mirror and loving what I see (and yes, I said that too: loving it). It’s been over six months since I have used a hair dryer, since I’ve worn heels or perfume or lipstick. It’s been six months since I’ve worn jeans for god’s sake. And I actually miss all of that. I find myself looking at pictures Vincent took of me to test his camera before the trip with a kind of nostalgic longing that one normally reserves for a someone who has passed away. I mean, look at the “before” pictures:

RIP, hot stuff.

And now look at what I’ve been reduced to after six months of zip-off pants and sports bras.

Oh, the androgyny!

At first, having a minimalist beauty routine and wardrobe was liberating. It felt good not to care. But, damnit, I do care. And I’m not the only one.

Vincent has admitted as well that he’s fed up wearing the same convertible pants every day. He’s sick of having only one option when he wants to dress up, which happens to be exactly what he wears when he dresses down. He too longs for his old wardrobe of nice clothes and something other than hiking shoes to put on when we go out.

And it’s not just us. Other long-term travelers we talk to say the same thing. I remember one Swiss guy we met who had been traveling for five months and said that he couldn’t wait to get back to work simply because he wanted to wear a suit again. I wouldn’t go that far, but I do understand the sentiment.

Beyond our wardrobes- and this too will induce serious eye rolls- we also miss working out and having a routine for staying in shape. Yep, we are those assholes, the kind who actually miss exercising. True, we do quite a bit of walking and hiking, but I miss running so bad it hurts and Vincent yearns for his daily (well, every other day) hour at the gym. Yes, we can do make-shift exercises in our hostel room or I could run in my hiking shoes, but it’s not the same. Neither of us miss having any other routine- our jobs can suck it, for example- but not working out, really working out, has been much more difficult than we expected.

And it shows. As Vincent says, we are both a little “soft” these days…

But other than those two tiny complaints, we really don’t miss anything else. Sorry, that sounded douchey: of course we miss our friends and families too, but we expected that.  And honestly, with our friends and family spread out all over the world, we often go six months without seeing many of our loved ones anyway.  

The last question we get- do you know what you are going to do after the trip?- is one that I can’t even begin to answer in any way that isn’t flaky and noncommittal and confusing. But of course I’ll try anyway, mostly because I love the sound of my own voice.

We have had a lot to consider between the different places we have been and the kinds of volunteer work we have been doing. I personally have driven Vincent crazy with my repetitive assertion nearly every place we go that “I could live here.” It drives him insane, but it’s true! Buenos Aires, Auckland, Sydney, the countryside inland from Byron Bay; I could totally live in any of those places. Or I could happily go back to Switzerland.

See why this makes Vincent want to throw things?

Really, we are still so open that the only tentative plan we have for when the trip is over is that we are going to look for jobs in any of the places mentioned above (and any other we love in the coming six months) and see what comes up. If that's not flaky and non-committal, I don't know what is.

So that is our half-way checkup: what’s good (pretty much everything), what’s bad (lookin’ like a dude all the time) and what’s to come (most likely more places I’ll want to live in).

To wrap this up, I’ll tell you a little story to illustrate my previously expressed woes. I was looking through the “cute” pictures of me from before the trip when Vincent asked me what I was doing.

“Oh, I’m looking at pictures of myself before the trip.”

“Back when you were skinny and tan?” Vincent asked.

With a look that I hoped would turn my husband into a smoldering pile of ash, I responded, “Back when I was skinny?!”

As if correcting me, Vincent added, “And tan." 

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Do You Come from the Land Down Under?

Oh yeah, that's a "Men at Work" reference.

I do have a good excuse for it though: we are currently in the Land Down Under. (“Where women glow and men plunder”-  seriously, what does that even mean?)

Bad 80’s music aside, our first week(ish) in Oz has been a great introduction to the country. We started our stay with a weekend in Sydney, where we stayed at our friend and generous host Maura’s apartment. The great thing about staying with friends is that you have a fun, comfortable welcome in a new place and someone to explain Aussie Rules Football to you. The downside is that you spend most of the weekend eating and drinking and hanging out with friends instead of being tourists and actually seeing the city.

We did manage to tear ourselves away from the cozy, wine-filled apartment long enough to walk along Sydney Harbor one afternoon, take a few pictures of the world's most recognized opera house and eat a famous meat pie from Harry’s Café de Wheels, one of Sydney’s oldest culinary institutions. 

The Phantom of the Opera House
Harry's Famous Tiger Pie: a steak and gravy-filled pie topped with mashed potatoes and peas. Delicious.
We were also lucky enough to be invited by Maura to an Aussie Rules Football (AFL) match, where we struggled to follow the chaos that was happening on the field. 36 players, eight referees, two message runners, and a massive round field with four goal posts at each end. Even without all of the wine from the night before, I still would have had difficulty understanding what was going on.

As a last hurrah in Sydney before taking our plane out, we visited the Sydney Vivid Festival, which is a celebration of art through the colorful lighting up of Sydney monuments at night. It was spectacular and original: the perfect temporary good-bye to a city that we can't wait to explore more in a few weeks.

Sydney by Night, as seen from Maura's balcony
Vivid light show on the Opera House
Light show on the Modern Art Museum
From Sydney, we took a plane up the East Coast to Brisbane in order to catch a bus to Byron Bay, where we are spending two weeks working in the countryside on a pecan farm. It’s a similar deal to the farm we were working on in Argentina: five hours of work a day in exchange for room and board. We are living with a lovely Aussie couple who run the farm along with a pecan factory and a little country café. (A side note- they also have a hilarious teenage daughter who runs to her room and blares the opening guitar riff of “Smoke on the Water” whenever she’s mad at her parents. It’s awesome.) The area is beautiful and our hosts are great fun, which makes five hours a day of picking and sorting pecans a little more tolerable.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve nothing against a pecan or two, but after a full week of dedicating my life to the nut, I’m a little pecaned-out. The actual work tasks aren’t mind-blowingly exciting, however it has been really interesting to learn about the operation and understand all of the work that goes into growing, harvesting and processing the nuts. We’ve worked at nearly every stage of the supply chain, from shaking the trees and collecting the nuts, to working in the factory to separate, crack, sort, grind and package them. 

Another up-side is that we've had endless opportunities to giggle over juvenile "nuts" jokes, i.e. "Your nuts are huge!", "These nuts are old and wrinkly," "Stop playing with your nuts," or my personal favorite: "Can you hold my nut sack?"

Fondling my nuts
And I have to admit, I feel kind of badass working the line in a factory, like I’m some tough worker from the Industrial Revolution or something, enduring grueling conditions just to make a wage.  

Workin' the line...
Aaaand then I remember that I’m a middle class, college-educated white girl who’s choosing to volunteer in Australia for fun. Not exactly Rosie the Riveter, ya know?

When we aren’t working, we have been have a great time hanging out with our hosts: watching Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (it doesn’t get more Aussie than that!), going to the pub for Thursday Trivia Night and attending yet another AFL match. After seeing a second match and having the rules re-explained by die-hard fans, we’re finally starting to understand the game. Kind of. 

On a totally unrelated note, today is Vincent's and my fifth wedding anniversary. It's also our day off, so we are celebrating our special milestone by spending a rainy day lazing around on someone else's couch. I know, the romance is overwhelming.

So that's the summary of us volunteering in Australia: spending our days off being immobile sub-humans and spending our work days playing with our nuts.