Where are we going, and why are we in this handbasket?

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Trip Journal, Conclusion

We took a vacation from our vacation from Christmas to New Year's, so we've taken forever to finish our posts. The trip was fantastic, but it will be nice to return to Austin too. Sorry for the posting delay, and happy 2006!

Trip Journal Dec. 25

Christmas day started for us when it was 7am on Christmas Eve in Austin. We got on a plane in the morning and flew to San Jose, CA to join Elizabeth's family for Christmas, ending our around-the-world journey. By midnight we had had 43 hours of Christmas goodness.

Trip Journal Dec. 24

Today is our last day in Australia and only day in Sydney. We caught a 5:45am flight from Cairns, arrived in our 28th-floor executive room at the Westin at 10, and spent the afternoon on a cheesy hop-on, hop-off bus tour. So we can say we've seen Chinatown, Darling Harbor, the Powerhouse Museum, Harbor Bridge, Sydney Opera House, Mrs. Macquarie's Chair, the Museum of Contemporary Art, the red light district, and probably several other sights we've already forgotten.

A highlight of the tour was what appeared to be a Christmas carol concert on the floating stage in Darling Harbor. A crowd had gathered to watch, but the production seemed somewhat amateurish. After further observation (and some reading of signs) it became clear that this was only a rehersal for the real concert which was starting in a few hours.

After completing the tour circuit, we returned to the Westin to take advantage of the open bar and appetizers which we consumed in dinner-like quantities. We figured with the hotel at 26% occupancy they wouldn't really notice.

After so much time so far away, Sydney seemed almost like an American city.

Trip Journal Dec. 23

On our last day in FNQ, we tried to go on an aboriginal nature walk in Mossman, but found it closed for the summer holiday. Mossman is different from Cairns, Port Douglas, and Daintree in that it has a large aboriginal population. There is an aboriginal reservation near the town, and there is still a lot of social segregation too. We learned a little bit about aboriginal traditions from the interpretive signs on a walk we took in Mossman Gorge, but nothing about how people live today.

Next we drove inland for a taste of rural Australia. It was hilly, green, and alternately foggy and rainy, which reminded David of Scotland. All of the towns we passed were slow and small, and we visited a Mom-and-Pop mining museum in Herberton, where the volunteer guide took us on a personal tour. The museum focused on mining and display of minerals, but also mentioned some local characters, like a man who built a house in town but lived in a prospector's hovel instead, unable to stop looking for tin.

Near Yungaburra, we visited a 500-year-old curtain fig tree, a pond in a deep crater, and a waterfall. And on the way back to Cairns, we took a windy, mountainous road that dipped above and below the clouds before returning to civilization.

Trip Journal Dec. 22

There was a silver lining to our 3-day transportation marathon last week: we can now sleep in just about any vehicle. The night in our tiny Toyota Echo passed quickly, and at 7:30am, we met the B&B owners, who apologetically explained that the cottage with the curtains drawn and lights on was ours, and led us there for breakfast.

We drove farther north to Cape Tribulation, so named for the troubles that Captain Cook had navigating the shallows of the Great Barrier Reef and subsequently getting his ship repaired. I remembered this episode from the book "Blue Latitudes," so it was interesting to visit the place even though the location was no more impressive than the other beaches of FNQ (Far North Queensland).

Along the way, we took a rope-drawn car ferry across the Daintree river, then continued to trace the coastline, stopping at overlooks and in national parkland for nature walks. We lunched at the Fan Palm Cafe and sampled mango, coconut, date nut, and wattleseed ice creams at the Daintree Ice Cream Company. Wattleseed is an acacia seed native to Australia, and when roasted, it tastes like hazelnut coffee. It was definitely the most interesting flavor, but not the tastiest.

The highway had some tantalizing signs warning us of cassowary crossings, crocodile bites, and kangaroo zones, but we didn't see any of those animals. The best sign featured a picture of a standing cassowary, labeled "before," and a picture of a speed bump, labeled "after."

We took several boardwalks through the rainforest, looking for animals and reading about the history of the plants. We managed to see a tree snake, but little else. The coastline looked like a cross between a tropical beach and the central California coast, and made for a pleasant drive both ways.

We satisfied our hunger for more local animals with emu, kangaroo, and crocodile carpaccio at dinner.

Trip Journal Dec. 21

We took a morning walk around the hotel grounds since we hadn't seen anything in the dark last night. The Sheraton is the only Port Douglas property directly on the beach, and it is a beautiful, long one. We're now in the unique area where reef meets rainforest, and government has protected the rainforest plants along the beach, so although the ocean is right there, you can't see it from the hotel unless you take one of the narrow walkways through the plants. Next to each walkway is a black-and-yellow warning sign with a picture of a man being stung by a jellyfish, plus a text warning and a bottle of vinegar to treat stings. The deadly box jellyfish is in season here, and swimming is prohibited until fall, but we dipped our toes in.

To see some Australian land animals, we went to the Rainforest Habitat, a conservation center that houses birds, crocodiles, kangaroos, wallabies, and koalas in relatively natural conditions. After our safari, it felt like cheating, but we enjoyed petting the kangaroos and a koala. We also got to see a cassowary, the endangered, emu-like bird with a red and blue head, that looks like the output of an animal construction set game.

Port Douglas is a growing seaside town whose property values have supposedly risen by tenfold in the last ten years. Its tourist shops are more boutique than Cairns, and it has lots of upscale cafes and restauraunts along its main street. We had lunch - oddly, including a turkey and cranberry sandwich - and spent the entire afternoon and evening organizing our photos and working on Christmas presents.

The approach of Christmas makes us acutely aware of how close the end of our trip is. Two months sounds like a long time to be on the road, but right now it seems too short.

We ended up taking longer than we had hoped in the internet cafe, and committed a major faux pas by showing up at our bed and breakfast in the Daintree area at around 11:00pm. After driving through the one-block "town" of Daintree, we went down gravel roads through farmland for eight miles, then arrived at our pitch-dark B&B. We then prowled around the premises trying to figure out which room was ours, and rang the front bell many times, but no one came to the door. One of the cottages had its outside lights on, but the curtains behind the front door were drawn, so it seemed occupied. After much hemming and hawing, we decided to sleep in the car.

Although the area was devoid of humanity, there was clearly life and activity everywhere. Dozens of cane toads hopped in front of the headlights, bandicoots (which look like huge rats) forage in all the bushes, and there are constant insect and bird noises. I stepped within two feet of one bandicoot when I went to look in the window of a cottage. And the stars were the best I've ever seen.

Trip Journal Dec. 20

In the past two days we saw just about everything that we had hoped to see here, except for sharks. Our 6am dive was uneventful; in the low light, most of the animals were invisible, but we tried to refine our photography skills anyway. But in our 8am dive, we finally saw a white-tipped reef shark about 5 feet long. It wasn't sociable, but we were able to follow it for a few minutes and get some pictures of it (rather, it's rear end).

Seeing something exciting while snorkeling in a pair is a funny experience, because it's almost impossible to communicate what you've seen without surfacing and talking about it, which lets the animal get away. In several cases, we alerted each other of exciting sightings, only to realize later that we were looking at different things. But in the case of the shark, we both saw it, and both tried our hands at chasing it down with the camera.

The 11am snorkel today was our last of the 3-day cruise, and the fast boat took us back to Cairns in the afternoon. Since the water had gotten choppier, the ride back was an adventure, with water splashing through holes in the deck and waking us up from our naps a few times. The reef was wonderful, but we were both looking forward to a shower in a real bathroom and a bigger bed.

Back in Cairns, we staggered around a bit on solid ground, rented a car, and drove north along the coast to the Sheraton in Port Douglas. Our drive hugged the coastline much of the way, and we had beautiful panoramic beach views from late afternoon until the sun gave way to a starry sky. We found Orion upside-down while we walked along the beach, but couldn't recognize much else. Our hotel room was again huge, and we could have jumped into the enormous resort pool from our balcony.

Trip Journal Dec. 19

We were awakened twice during the night by loud, annoying music accidentally playing on the PA system. And since the staff sleeps on a lower deck, they didn't hear it, and let it keep playing for a while. So we were quite groggy for our 6am snorkel, but still wouldn't miss it for the world.

We seemed to have moved to a new reef overnight, and the water here was clearer than before. The pre-snorkel briefing set the visibility at 25 meters. Because of the early morning light, the colors were subtle, but we saw some huge fish, probably dogtooth tuna; tiny blue fish darting in and out of coral; lizardfish camouflaged in the coral and sand; rockfish lurking in the coral.

The daily schedule here is so well-tuned, it makes me think of the military. Snorkel at 6, breakfast at 7, snorkel at 8, move the boat at 9:15, snorkel at 11, lunch at 12, snorkel at 1, move the boat at 2:15, tea at 2:30, photo lesson at 3, snorkel at 4, dinner at 6, night dive at 7, presentation in the library at 9.

We saw more during our 8am snorkel, when we ventured over to where the scuba divers were, and played with some giant clams that clamped shut when we touched their dark purple flesh. We also saw huge schools of tiny fish, ever larger parrotfish, wrasses, Moorish Idols, butterflyfish, and angelfish. Sometimes the environment made me think of a home salt-water aquarium under very strong magnification.

After each snorkel, each person took turns rinsing self and stinger suit in the one tiny freshwater shower on the wet deck area, then we generally retired to the sun deck to dry off. We found a wooden bench on the starboard side of the boat that was partially shaded, and between our naps there, the meals, and the snorkeling, time passed quickly.

During the 1pm snorkel, we ventured into a very shallow area. I was trying to convince David to go to a deeper area to see bigger fish when the biggest two parrotfish I'd ever seen suddenly swam in front of us. I chased them a long way in an effort to swim up next to them to see if they were as big as I was, but I never quite caught them. As we returned to the boat, we passed through swarms of tiny jellyfish, and David got stung on his forehead despite his protective hood. Fortunately, these jellyfish are not harmful to humans.

Later, we took a short photography lesson on the boat and decided to rent a 3MP digital camera with waterproof casing for use on our next three snorkels. The boat's resident "video guy" gave us a simple formula for good underwater pictures: 1. Take pictures upward, to include water as well as coral and sand. 2. Take pictures of large subjects, like people, big fish, and coral heads. 3. Catch animals on the move, but don't photograph animals' rear ends.

The timing of our camera rental was perfect, because when the boat moved to a new site, the snorkeling was the best yet. Unfortunately, applying the three simple rules of good photography was not simple. A lot of the time, the LCD viewfinder wasn't visible in the afternoon light, and we had no idea how big the frame was, or what was in it. We were also always floating to the surface as we attempted to hold still for each shot. And the animals invariably fled when we got close enough for a good picture.

While the camera didn't capture much of interest, what we saw was fantastic. In a maze of coral bommies, we saw huge Maori wrasses, clownfish darting in and out of anemones, and spotted sting rays, in addition to the usual colorful menagerie. As we reluctantly returned to the boat, we swam right above a sea turtle, and couldn't help stopping to watch it for a while.

After a beautiful sunset, large swells made the boat rock so much it was hard to walk. At one point, David became airborne while sitting. The "video guy" showed us his impressive footage from the day's dives, and we reviewed our own pictures (in which we successfully captured the turtle at least). Thankfully, we managed not to fall out of bed.

Trip Journal Dec. 18

We took a 70km fast boat ride out to the Kangaroo Explorer, our liveaboard dive and snorkel boat this morning and checked in to our tiny, spartan cabin. The Kangaroo Explorer takes about 50 people on board and "hops" between Moore, Milln, Briggs, Elford, and Thetford Reefs on the Great Barrier Reef. It moves twice a day and offers passengers up to 5 snorkels or 6 dives per day.

After a lunch that reminded us of college cafeteria food, we donned stinger suits and hoods for jellyfish protection, and jumped in for a "snorkel tour" of the area. The fish life rivaled the best in Curacao, and the coral was even better. But the group of people included several who hadn't snorkeled and were uncomfortable swimming, and people constantly ran into us. We strayed from the group a little bit and had a much better time. While we didn't see any expecially exotic species, the sheer amount of life there was awesome. And our laminated fish identification sheet helped us to identify things. Favorite species name: chocolate-dipped damselfish. Favorite coloration: harlequinfish.

In the afternoon, we took a free introductory scuba dive. It felt interesting to be so still underwater, since snorkelers are always drifting toward the surface. And it was odd to hear our own Darth-Vader-like breaths and feel the pressurized nitrogen and oxygen fill our lungs. We saw a our first nudibranch, a brightly colored ribbon-like worm, and some of the fish let us get closer than they did when we snorkeled, but all of the equipment and extra safety measures were cumbersome, so we opted to go back to snorkeling later.

We had no trouble sleeping despite our unease about the rocking of the boat.

Trip Journal Dec. 17

We got up at 4 for our 5:45 flight to Cairns, and slept our way through all of it except breakfast. And we just slept more when we got to our motel, which was fine except that the pool was about 1/8 as big as it had looked on the Web. Our afternoon and evening were spent on foot around the city. Cairns is a city of about 100,000 that supposedly triples with tourists during peak vacation times. Australian summer vacation began a few days ago, but the city doesn't seem overcrowded. Most of the businesses are dedicated to tourism, particularly Japanese, but there aren't throngs of people anywhere.

We walked the esplanade lining the bay, reading the history and biology signs along the way and watching pelicans rest and crabs scuttle through the mud. The waterfront is a beautiful public area, with lawns, playgrounds built like boats, ocean animals, and waterworks, and "the lagoon," an enormous salt-water public swimming pool. A luxury hi-rise condo building boom is clearly in progress, soaking up the parkfront and waterfront views, and there are a lot of cafes spilling out onto sidewalks. It's about 90 degrees and humid, but otherwise the atmosphere is very pleasant.

There was a lot of public information signage about the Kuku Yalanji aborigine history and culture, but there are few aborigines to be seen. About 95% of the people in Cairns are white or East Asian. The signs always describe the traditional way of life, but I'm curious what role aborigines play in modern society. Are most assimilationist, or do they try to preserve their culture? And how common is racism here? Since there were thousands involved in anti-Lebanese race riots on Sydney beaches this week, we're especially attuned to the issue.

After confirming our liveaboard boat reservation for the next three days and having a fish-and-chips dinner at a sidewalk cafe with a mascot in a lobster costume, we went to Reef Teach, a presentation about Great Barrier Reef biology. In our two hours there, we learned how to identify some families of fish and coral, and were entertained by some of the more bizarre aspects of animal behavior. Little-known fact: the father in Finding Nemo should have had a sex change after Nemo's mother died. The female in a clownfish group intimidates the others, which suppresses their hormone levels and keeps them male. But when the female dies, one of the more aggressive males changes sex and takes her place. More fun facts: surgeonfish have scalpel-like spikes on the sides of their tails. Maori wrasses' tattoolike eye markings are unique. And most reef fish are capable of completely changing the color, pattern, or texture of their skin for camouflage or communication.

Armed with new marine knowledge, we walked the esplanade back to our hotel and were treated to a fireworks show. Few people were watching, and we were able to walk almost right up to them for the grand finale.

Trip Journal Dec. 16

They evicted us from the lounge at about 3:30am, so we found some lounge chairs and slept there for a couple of hours until the lounge opened again. Then we whiled away yet a few more hours before we caught our flight to Sydney, where we took a shuttle to an airport hotel, where we had to trouble falling asleep yet again. Quite an exciting day. Even if the Great Barrier Reef isn't as amazing as we have imagined, it will be paradise in contrast to this.

Trip Journal Dec. 15

We both slept through almost all of the bus ride, thanks to Benadryl. We occasionally woke to feel the bus weaving erratically, but were tired enough that we paid no mind and went straight back to sleep. We now wonder whether there were strong winds, or if the bus driver was on methamphetamines, as many Thai bus drivers are reputed to be. Our night's sleep abruptly ended at 3:40am when the bus attendant woke us up and told us we were at the airport stop. We staggered off the bus with one other passenger (incidentally, the only other foreigner), and when it left we realized that the airport was nowhere in sight. After some confused negotiating with taxi drivers who were reluctant to use the meter, we got a ride to the actual airport, which was a few miles away. We're still not sure why the bus stopped where it did, but no harm done.

We played cards until the airport opened, then went to the Cathay Pacific lounge to nap the morning away. Unfortunately, when we got up, we realized that the day trip into Bangkok for a massage that we had planned wasn't going to work. We had already gone through security, we'd have to use a held luggage service to avoid carrying everything, and we didn't even have enough cash to pay the departure tax a second time. So other than thoroughly exploring the Bangkok airport and lounge, reading, watching TV, and web-surfing, we didn't do much today. We did at least catch an earlier flight to Hong Kong and catch up on our movie-watching with their Video on Demand system on board.

We arrived in Hong Kong in the evening, but they wouldn't let us check in for our next flight until we loudly complained. When we finally got through security, we proceeded to what I think is the best OneWorld airport lounge in the world. We had noodle and dim sum dinners and Haagen-Dazs ice cream there, then played a taiko drum game on one of their Playstations. My Japanese has deteriorated to the point where I couldn't really read the game instructions, so it was an adventure just figuring out how to play. We played a racing game until about 1:30am, then called it a night on the sofas.

Trip Journal Dec. 14

Today is our last day in Chiang Mai - our transfer to the night bus to Bangkok is at 5pm. We hear Christmas carols here now and then, and are worried that we still haven't found the right presents. So today we just walked around town and shopped. It's easy to see how people can get caught up in buying frenzies here, given how cheap everything is. I'm sure we overpaid for some things, but not by a significant amount in dollar terms.

On a whim, David bought a VCD of War of the Worlds to see if the bus company would play it for us on the TV at the front of the bus. They obliged, and the first couple of hours of our ride went quickly. We probably would have had upset stomachs if we ate the sandwiches they served, though. They were so repulsive even 90% of the Thai passengers refused them.

This ride marks the beginning of about 60 hours of travel and layovers on our way to Cairns. After this, we have a day in the Bangkok airport, an overnight in the Hong Kong airport, and an overnight in Sydney before our early morning flight to Cairns on the 17th. It will be loads of fun.

Trip Journal Dec. 13

After all of yesterday's fun with the elephants, today seemed inevitably anticlimactic. We have already walked through most of Chiang Mai, and the Mardi Gras celebration by the night market ended last night. So we decided to make today a lazy day, slept incredibly late, and took full advantage of the lounging areas in our huge 21st floor suite. For brunch, David ran across the street and bought some mysterious Thai-labelled pastries and breads, which we found were filled with things like chocolate, coffee cream, and custard.

When we finally ventured out into town in midafternoon, we decided to go to a flower market and large indoor market in a part of Chiang Mai we hadn't visited before. The flowers were beautiful, especially the orchids and bright yellow Buddhist arrangements. In typical Thai style, the stalls were cramped and crammed together tightly enough that we had to walk between them in single file. The indoor market and surrounding streets were refreshing in that they were clearly not for tourists; white people were scarce, prices were lower than at the night market, and the goods for sale were more practical than ornamental. It felt like a different country, only blocks away from where we had shopped before. We had about twenty different luggage stores to choose from, and scrutinized all the merchandise before buying a large-wheeled duffle with a telescoping handle for about $10. (David had bargained hard to get a worse suitcase for $17.50 at the night market earler, so we're glad the saleslady refused his offer. My best "bargaining" was for a watch I decided I didn't want -- the shopkeeper dropped the price by 60% as I walked away.) The complex is so warrenlike that we very nearly got lost on the way back. For amusement, we looked out for knock-off labels like "The Mouth Face," "Espit," and "Esport." I bought a no-name brand laptop bag for about $7.50. The English on the label seems cut-and-pasted from elsewhere, and claims that it was manufactured in 1948.

We took the broken escalator to the bottom floor to check out the food section too, despite the awful rotting smells wafting up from it. There we found something everyone swore was saffron for a very suspicious 50 cents per ounce, plus lots of unidentifiable fruits and vegetables. In the basement there was a restaurant that alternately smelled delicious and foul, bustling with people eating some sort of soup. Bean sprouts, cilantro, hot peppers, and other condiments were piled directly on the tables for people to throw into the soup in bunches.

I wondered if any of the smell here resembled durian fruit. Every hotel we've been to in Thailand so far has had durian prohibition signs on the front door. Usually they depict the fruit like a spiky hand grenade, with a red slash through it. In a country full of bad smells, I was intrigued that anything could be awful enough to warrant these front-door signs. But it's not durian season now, so if we did smell it, it was fruit that rotted several months past.

In the evening, we went for one last round of shopping at the night market, since we wanted some touristy souvenirs. In about an hour, we bought enough to fill at least half of our new suitcase, then headed back to our hotel for a late dinner. The Lonely Planet recommended its Chinese restaurant as a splurge, and the service and presentation were perfect, but I found it hard to pay $25 for dinner when we knew an equally delicious one could be had outside for 10% the price.