Sunday, March 30, 2008

More on "Tassie"

Well, I guess the weather can't always be perfect for me... it was cold and rainy the next day in H9bart, and I just wasn't up to the stress of driving on the left side, and in the rain. I took a day off and just lounged around reading much of the day, tho as it cleared up I did go for a walk back down to the harbor, stopping by at my Irish pub again (strictly for international relations, of course). I also found a movie theater so I saw The Spiderwick Chronicles, paid a fortune for popcorn, and recouped some of it back by sneaking into 10,000 B.C. So now I'm all caught up on my movies.

The next day the weather was better, but still chilly. Autumn is definitely here in Australia. I walked around Battery Point, a nice old section of Hobart with some cute little cottages, tea rooms and shops. Popping into a used book store, I saw one on thylacines, or "Tasmanian tigers" because of the beautiful stripes along their backs. They looked more like dogs, but were actually marsupials which had evolved to fill the same niche. They died out from disease and shooting because they were thought to be killing chickens. The very last one on the planet died in 1936 in a zoo here, ironically the same year it was officially "protected". So there were actually some still alive when Mom & Dad were kids! They are still well-remembered in Tasmania, with a sports team named after them, and, if you look closely, you can even see them on the state license plates.

Anyway I asked the shopkeeper if there were any stuffed ones in a museum in town, and found that sadly, none were saved for that, but he told me there was a small exhibit in the Hobart museum & gallery. (That's right, the city is so small its art gallery and museum are both in the same building.) But it's a nice place to visit, and though the thylacine exhibit was little more than some old film footage, a baby "joey" in formaldehyde and a skeleton, I heard that there are stuffed ones in England. I must visit that when I get back there.

It's a good thing I rested because my last day was long and busy, but good. First I went down to the saturday market, very much like a European weekly market, with lots of interesting crafts and gewgaws to look at. They sell lots of beautiful cutting boards made of Tasmanian wood, but I would have felt like I was adding to the island's deforestation by buying one.

Then I went on an afternoon bus tour that took us to another little animal sanctuary, at which I petted another wallaby and wombat, and this time a koala, and heard a great talk on Tasmanian Devils, with some playful young ones that I almost got to pet, after one fell asleep! (Some day....) The guide's talk was good because he pointed out that the Devils are headed for extinction as they, too are suffering from a contagious disease, and thousands of them are killed along highways each year, and the government, while using them as a national icon and a huge tourist attraction, actually does next to nothing to publicize the plight, even to their own citizens. The average Tasmanian child knows more about dinosaurs and soccer players than they do about their own indigenous fellow animals. And all the sanctuaries I've visited have been struggling on private dontations: the government gives them NO support. The thylacine's demise was a tragic shame and is still painful to contemplate; if the Devils go the same way, knowing what we know now, it will be an unforgivable disgrace. Ok, that's my rant for the day.

Anyway, I also got a beautiful shot of a kookaburra that wasn't even in a cage, but just hanging around in an open pen. And I finally found out what a magpie really looks like: striking black & white specimens, or at least the ones here.

Then the bus took us to the quaint little nearby village of Richmond, where I checked out a miniature model of 1860 Hobart, and some other shops, and had an incredibly delicious vegetable quiche. There was a pretty girl on the tourbus who sat next to me, and it turned out she was visiting from Brisbane and was heading back this eveing on the same flight as mine.

Then I had an hour to kill back at the B&B, with a cup of tea and a quick read about Brisbane while I waited for my shuttle to pick me up. They have a nice system in some cities here, where shuttlebuses will take you directly to & from your hotels for A$12 (about U.S.$11). Not too surpisingly, the Brisbane girl was on the shutte too-- along with Incredibly Annoying Transvestite Cell Phone Guy, who kept calling people during the long bus ride, saying in a loud voice, "Hellew, it's me.... I'm leaving Hobart.... yah, I'm on the bus, heading for the airport now....." Anyway, I thought to myself: now, with MY luck, who am I going to sit next to on the plane: pretty Brisbane girl, or Cell Phone Guy? Neither, it turns out, but the guy was sitting in front of me, so it was close!

But good things come to those who wait, for the Brisbane girl met up with me at the baggage claim and said she was heading past my hotel and would I like to share a taxi? We were also joined by a very cockney young strapper she met on the plane who was also making his way around the world, but doing it the hard way: working as a bricklayer. He said Tasmania was getting too cold, so he decided it was time to move on to warmer places-- which Brisbane definitely is. It was about like flying from Boston to Miami. But more on that in the next installment: Brisbane, the Final Stop in Australia. See you then!

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Wild Tasmania

I took one last shot of Melbourne on the shuttle out, then I was on the plane to Tasmania.
I was curious about what the island was like; like most Americans, I knew next to nothing about the place except that cartoon animals that turn into tornadoes were from there. Flying in, I was disappointed to see that a lot of it looked cleared; somehow I'd pictured a forested, primeval land of mysterious creatures and few people. It was like that once, but it seems the loggers and farmers have changed much of the landscape even here. But there's still a lot of woods left, and a strong "green" group here is fighting to keep it that way.
Anyway, Hobart, the capital, is a nice, small city of 190,000; not too big, with a nice waterfront. I didn't see much my first night; after stopping by an Irish bar to try some Tasmanian beers (both excellent), I was walking along the pier and met a girl by way of her pomeranian, "Princess", and we wound up talking for hours. Kerri had a very profound insight into human nature, and is working on a book about it; I wish her well and hope it gets published, it could do a lot of people good.

The next day it was rainy, but I was supposed to see about volunteering at "Simply Wild", a wildlife sanctuary. I had an interesting time driving out there--even though, after New Zealand, Fiji and Australia, I was used to seeing cars on the left side of the road, it's quite another thing driving it, especially when the road on your left side drops precariously down the mountain. But I made it there in one piece; unfortunately the owners were gone on business and there was nothing for me to do but visit the animals-- which of course I did with relish! This time I got to pet a wombat, cute little fuzzy creatures that are a cross between small bears and fat cats. And they love scratches!

Then of course there were the wallabys (or is it wallabies?) who were also hungry. I never realized what huge eyelashes they have, they must use mascara or something. They're really gentle and sweet. Along with them were some sleepy owls, emus, and lots of colorful parrots which I never knew resided here; I thought they all lived in South America. One kept saying "hellew" with a distinctly posh accent. I even watched a platypus hunting in the stream running through the property.

I think the Tasmanian devil was hungry too, but she didn't seem to want my piece of apple; in fact, she didn't want my hand in her pen at all, and let me know in no uncertain terms! It was my own dumb fault; I know they were carnivorous, but thought I'd try anyway, seeming to recall that they ate just about anything. In spite of that, she was a cute little bugger; and hopefully pregnant-- they were waiting to see. I guess she was defending her nesting area. There were also spotted quolls, cute little relatives of the devils that I have never heard of in my life.

Later I decided to head into the nearby Mt. Field National Park, where the landscapes were more how I had imagined: ranging from eerie, treeless areas to dense, almost tropical undergrowth. I even spotted some tiny marsupials, the little cousins of kangaroos and wallabies called pademelons, another species I had never heard of. One even crossed the road on the way out, right after I picked up a german girl hitching from a hike that turned out to be too soggy. She too was spending a year traveling, but all in Australia. I don't think I could do that; I'd have to see more places.

So tomorrow I head south to see what's down there. Tune in soon!

Sunday, March 23, 2008

A Great 2 Days in Melbourne

So, I dropped into Melbourne yesterday and found my hotel pretty easily, thanks to a local guy I met on the plane who gave me good directions. It's funny, I saw him in the airport bathroom before the flight, coming out of a stall with his shirt off (I think he was changing-- I hope), and he had left his backpack on the sink counter where anyone could have stolen it. Anyway, I thought "What an idiot". Well, sure enough, his seat was right next to mine on the plane! So he over heard me asking the flight attendant which side of the plane had the best views, and started talking to me. During the one hour flight, it turned out he was a really nice guy, an immigrant from Lebanon, and a student at Melbourne University. He gave me some great tips on restaurants and other stuff. Just goes to show, you never can tell.
As soon as I dropped my bags off at the hotel I hopped back on the train (just a block away) back downtown, 2 quick stops, and within minutes I was walking in the CBD (central business district) of Melbourne with the crowds. The train , which go everywhere, let me off at a different stop from what I planned, but it let me see more of the town as I made my way back to Federation Square, the city center. It's yet another nice "people" place, with cobbled open expanses, modern buildings, a huge screen for outdoor movies, even a ferris wheel. The river's right next to it, but because of some unfortunate design flaws, you can't see it unless you go over to the railing and look down.
Anyway the next day (Easter sunday) I knew where I wanted to go: the Healesville Wildlife Sanctuary; not a zoo, but a place that rescues and treats all wild animals. It's a long way from town, requiring 2 train changes and a bus to get there. But while heading out there, one of those funny things happened. I was wearing my "Emergency Animal Technician" shirt, and as I got off the train and was heading for the bus stop, I passed an old lady and her dog (a big sweet mutt of uncertain parentage). She noticed my shirt and asked me to help her put on her dog's halter. Unfortunately, I have a mind-block when it comes to those-- I can never figure out how to put them on! But I tried (unsuccessfully) for so long, she gave me a lift to the sanctuary, which was great, as I found out I would have had to wait 2 hours for the bus! Things sometimes work out like that. So the whole way there she was telling me stories of the history of the area, including hearing the famous singer Melba (whom "peach Melba" is named after). I was in a sleepy haze by the time she dropped me off.
I was mainly excited to visit the Sanctuary's hospital, hoping to meet some of the staff. It was supposed to have scheduled "special events", but when I got there, it turned out to be just a recording. It's a nice setup; you can see into the hospital thru plastic walls, and they even have a camera right over the exam table showing a closeup of what's going on, but nobody was visible at the time. Disappointed, I wandered the zoo path, but as it was a hot afternoon, most of the animals were either alseep or not even visible. I decided to catch the 3:30 bus home, and it was only while waiting for it I noticed I had read the schedule wrong, and the bus had come at 3:15! The next didn't arrive til 5:15.
Well, that was the luckiest mistake I ever made, because as I sighed and went back in, all the animals started waking up. I got great shots of the kookaburras, dingos and koalas, and at the last minuted, I was lucky enough to get face-to-face with a Tasmanian devil! Even better, the wallaroos (smaller kangaroos) came up to the fence and I was able to pet one. But best of all, I wandered back into the hospital showroom which was empty except for me, and saw a tech and a vet examining a parrot-like bird. The tech noticed I was showing an interest, and actually invited me back! She showed me the radiographs of the bird's broken wing, and where it would be kept for the night, a nice little I.C.U. compartment. It really made my day, and I went home much happier than if I had left two hours earlier!
Today I took it easier, just wandering downtown Melbourne, from the "docklands" harbor on one side, up to the huge Queen Victoria Market, which is supposed to be a great outdoor market, but was closed today. I've already become an expert on the city train system, and can hop on & off with no problems now. I keep winding up back here in Federation Square, (named for when Australia officially became a country, not for anything from Star Trek, sorry Ween), where they seem to be the only place in town with free internet.

Yes, I'm learning ways to save money, which is neccessary if I'm going to be able to last through the summer in Europe. For instance, my hotel (hostel, really) includes breakfast; but not only can I eat then, but I can make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to have for lunch. Those breakfasts are also where I get those "crumbs" to feed the birds-- what, did you think I bought it?? I'm eating less, as I'm trying to (finally!) lose the belly. And eating no meat is surely helping not only my wallet but my cholesterol. All in all, I feel better and I'm discovering lots of wonderful dishes that I never would have dreamed of trying just a few months ago. Vegetable burritos, for example, are just as tasty as meat ones, and healthier-- for me, as well as for other animals.
I've also started realizing that you don't always have to pay admission to museums and such here; the art museum in Canberra, for instance. I went in, but had to use the bathroom, so I went in that before buying a ticket. Outside the exit was... the Chinese exhibit.... which led to the Impressionist Hall... etc. Overall it wasn't that great anyway, so I'm glad I saved the twenty bucks. I've also seen people walk into train stations without paying; I haven't had the courage to do that yet, but as they're pretty cheap, there's really no need.
So that's it for now; tomorrow I fly down to Hobart, the capital of the state of Tasmania. It's supposed to be more woodsy & wild, like New Zealand. We'll see; check back here in a few days for my final Australia installment. After that, it's on to Asia, where things really get strange!

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Canberra: A Capital City

Well, it turns out Canberra is the capital of Australia, not Sydney. It's like finding out New York city isn't the capital of that state. Makes you go "huh". Anyway, "Can-bruh" is a nice, spread-out, similar version of Washington D.C. All the buildings look like they were built in the '60s or later... they all have that Kennedy Center-esque modernism that John would have loved!

The weather's great here too; in fact, the leaves are just starting to fall. Isn't that weird? I hope it's warming up back home. Anyway, I'm still having good luck in that department.
There's one teensy problem: my hotel, on the map, looked only a few blocks away from Parliament (their Capitol building), but walking to it took eons! As the guidebooks warn: "The distances are greater than you think". They were right, and my feet paid the price for not listening. So I visited both the new & old Parliaments (the new one is pictured right), but after that, hobbling over to the National Gallery, I was getting a bit sore, and by the time I made it to the National Library I was downright aching. I sat down at a computer terminal just to rest (and check my email). But they did have a nice display on Linnaeus (the one who invented the Linnaean classification system), and another on how Australians coped with the vast distances they had to cover (I managed to get a photo from it online and have included it here-- enlarge it and check out those cool dogs!).

Anyway, after that I found a bus going into the shopping district, where I had a spinach-pie in a Border's bookstore, and even caught a movie (Horton) as a treat to my aching feet. Much rested, I found another bus whose nice driver practically dropped me off at my hotel.
Moral of the story: always take the time to figure out the local bus system.
Another thing: I have to stop going into shopping malls; I got angry twice today in one of them. The first time, I stepped into an Australian store, the kind that sells trinkets, clothes, and all things Aussie. Only thing is, all those kind of stores (and in New Z. too) have piles of animal skins for sale. Usually it's sheepskin, some in N.Z. had posssum too, but today for the first time I saw kangaroo skins, complete with tails. I complained to the manager; I figure if they hear that enough tourists don't like it, maybe they'll stop trying to sell them.
The other thing that pissed me off was a bookstore that sold two children's books (probably American) that were disgusting: one included a story about a mouse beating a cat to death with a baseball bat, and another, "The Bad Book" that graphically depicted throwing dynamite at a dinosaur: "First its arms were blown off, then its legs, then its head"; complete with drawings. I mean, is this what kids really need to be reading? What the hell do they think children are going to go out and do afterwards, after reading that? Whatever happened to teaching compassion? Anyway, like I said, I've gotta stop going to shopping malls.

Next: from Canberra to Melbourne
P.S. My sunburn is finally healing; my skin's peeling off my back like sheets of fine parchment. No more snorkeling for me for a while!

A Bit More on Sydney

Sorry about that last rant; could you tell I wasn't feeling too great? I forgot to relate a funny story about getting here to Sydney: while waiting at the airport, a rather large Fijian lady sat nearby, wearing WAY too much perfume; I could smell her before she even got close. I had to sit several rows further away; meawhile, her kids are running around in circles, with only a mumbled word of protest from the Fijian Mary Kay. Then on the plane, I was in the very back row (at last a window seat with a view!), I had an empty seat next to me, which is always nice, and noticed that the whole middle section across the aisle was emtpy too (known as a "bench" in travelspeak). Cool, if I got tired, I could lie down for once-- I've never been able to do that on a plane, ever-- someone always beats me to it. But just before they close the doors, a Fiji family sat there, with-- you guessed it-- Ms. Perfume sitting right next to the aisle! So much for my one chance at the bench.
Anyway, I liked Sydney; it's a nice, clean city with lots to do, great harborfronts, and a nicely restored old section the "Rocks", saved from demolition recently by some forward-thinking Sydnians and beautifully refurbished into quaint cafes & shops, where I spent the second day having a nice, easy walk around and a stop for lunch. I had planned to go across the harbor to the Taronga Zoo, but I just needed to rest that day instead, and got too late a start. I also had a long walk through the Botanic Gardens, which Mom & Chuck would love. Well, Mom may not have liked the flying foxes (essentially giant bats) hanging around in the trees!

And the last day I had time to visit the Aquarium (not bad, but not like Baltimore's or Boston's) and the Wildlife Encounter, an indoor zoo that I had doubts about, but actually it wasn't bad-- the habitats were open-air and quite large. I especially liked the butterfly habitat. But they were both a little touristy and not really worth the A$42 for a combined ticket. Oh, did I mention, everything's expensive here?

All over NZ and australia there are also these unusual ooking birds around (I've been told by Ange they are ibises); they wander around along with the pigeons and gulls. This one (pictured right) is not in a zoo, it was just hanging out by the harborside.
Speaking of birds, there have been a few more memorable ones I've fed, including a duck whose top beak was half-missing, and a pigeon with a broken leg that had somehow managed to heal bent backwards. Both birds looked amazingly healthy, and fought right in there with the others for the crumbs I gave them (turns out they like cheese, too).

There was also a great exhibit in the Australian Museum featuring closeup photos of faces of apes who have been orphaned by poachers and rescued. It was very touching-- but I'm sure I don't have to go into my views on that!

There are also some great old shopping halls (below right) like The Strand and the Queen Victoria Building, made in the old English arcade style. These are the prototypes of the modern shopping mall. Jen, you would love it here!
Then I made it to the Central Station with my bags, and found the train to Canberra, on which I had a nice 4-hour rest, saw some of the countryside (no kangaroos, darn it), and got to my hotel, the Forrest Inn (named after some famous Australian of old) around 10:30pm, but was worried when I saw the office was closed. Oddly, there was a phone hanging on the outside of the office, labeled "Pick up for Service". A voice told me my room number and said my key would be at the bottom of the door. And sure enough it was.

A hotel room never looked so sweet.

Next: Canberra: New Capital

Monday, March 17, 2008

St. Patrick's in Sydney

It's only now St. Patrick's day here in Sydney; I guess I'm one day behind you guys. I stopped by a pub to have a Guinness (I felt duty-bound, as I am, after all, one-eighth Irish), but since I didn't know anyone it wasn't much fun, so I left afterwards. I actually hardly go out at night, not only because I'm too tired after touring all day, but also I'm just not that interested in it. I'm especially not into it these past few days, as I'm not feeling to great with the sunburn I got in Fiji, and just road fatigue. I always seem to wind up walking for miles, even when I try not to: today in Sydney I bought an all-day ticket for an "Explore Sydney" bus that covers all the main sights of town and you can hop on & off. At first it worked great; I hopped of at Darling Harbor and caught the next one, then again at Mrs. Macquarie's Point to walk through the Botanic Gardens. Then once more at the Museum of Australia, but somehow wound up walking all the way home to my hotel, for various reasons.
Anyway, I'm glad I did, because I saw a lot I wouldn't have, which I'll write more about in the next blog. And now I'm in bed with a show on TV about how climate change is affecting Australia. The country is very concerned about it, and it's already crippling some farmers. They even have a Minister for Climate Change-- Penny Wong, who, after hearing the disturbing UN report on glacial melting, is going to present a plan for Australia to reduce carbon emissions. Isn't that great? Can you imagine the idiots in the White House appointing a Secretary of Climate Change? Of course not-- that would be admitting that there actually is a problem! Ol' George could larn a thing or two from these here Aussies.
So, while the rest of the world is trying to create solutions to the problem, the U.S. administration, led by the President, is hiding its collective head in the sand and pretending it needs "further study"-- while U.S. oil companies continue to make record profits. I wonder if they're even required to donate a tiny fraction of all those billions to do any research at all to try to find solutions for global warming. Anyone know?
Might be something to ask back there in the states. After all, it's YOUR tax dollars paying their wages. They work for you. Maybe it's time we all reminded them of that.
P.S. Also, has Bush said anything at all in protest to the corrupt, cruel, crappy Chinese government for its treatment of brave little Tibet? No, that might hurt his business buddies, which is the only important thing to him.

Sorry-- in the words of Dennis Miller, I think, therefore I rant.