Tuesday, March 25, 2008

the great ocean road

Petra and I just got back from a fantastic mini-vacation on the Great Ocean Road. Easter’s a big deal here, resulting in a four-day weekend for professionals and ten days off for students like me. So we hopped in a rented car first thing Friday morning, and stayed away ‘til Monday evening. Off we drove (Petra behind the wheel) southwest out of the city, bravely on the left-hand side of the road, down along the famous Great Ocean Road.

We decided to go down to this part of the state for our vacation after I took my first surfing lesson last weekend and fell in love with the scenery and sport. It was great! I went with the university outing club, and spent all day staring at the gorgeous orange cliffs, turquoise water, blue sky, and white waves and clouds, delightedly catching huge waves, and magnificently falling off my surfboard. I got the hardest part down immediately (timing it so I actually catch the wave—I thank toddler boogeyboarding on Cape Cod for this skill) but was humorously unable to actually stand up on my board. I loved just catching the waves lying down, though, and everyone else there was just as bad as me at standing up, so we had a great time. I’m definitely hooked. So, in the hopes of more surfing, we went down to the Surf Coast of Australia. Only to find that autumn arrived suddenly (highs of only 70!), making it much too cold for scrawny wusses like us to surf. Not a problem, though: we took off to explore the area.

Let me start by describing the road itself. Think coastal Italian roads, and then make them curvier and narrower, with more fallen rock debris and closer cliffs on both sides. Thankfully, add guardrails. Then add the distractions of huge waves crashing on the sea side, and koalas and cockatoos and bright pink parrots hanging out in the trees. Cars drive just as insanely fast as in Italy: the largely-ignored speed limit is 65 mph, which in my opinion is far too fast as is. Much to the dismay of the drivers behind us, Petra reasonably and safely drove the entire road at about 20-45 mph. Nathaniel, you get to drive next time--you'll love it.

The road winds through the aforementioned coastal cliffs, plus patches of mountain ash and eucalyptus forests (hence the koalas) and grassy fields. The fields are sadly all brown, showing the harsh effect of 13 years of drought. Most aren’t being used, since there isn’t enough water for any crops. The few active areas are pastures for a variety of cattle and sheep. What kept blowing my mind was that these dry fields are right on the coast. I don’t associate coast with dry. Isn’t there at least some fog? But no. Too dry.

There are a handful of truly tiny towns along the road with remarkably little in between. It was a good reminder of how largely unpopulated this continent is. Once outside of Melbourne, we were basically done with the population of the state. We stayed at a hostel in the friendly fishing and dairy town of Apollo Bay. With a population of 1777, it is one of the largest towns on the road. It currently consists of a lot of farms and fishing boats, two perfect crescent beaches, the best fish-and-chips shop I’ve ever had the pleasure to patronize, two cafes, two fancy restaurants, a video store, a grocery store, two surf shops, a few clothes shops, a gas station, a souvenir shop, a tiny cinema, and a motel. Sadly, it looks like development will be quickly encroaching on the area: mini-mansions are popping up like zits on the coastline, and an astounding number of the failing farms are currently being auctioned off.

Despite this looming ruin, and despite the fact that it was the biggest holiday weekend of the year, most of the road and the loveliest spots along it were deserted. One of my favorite stops we made was on the section known as Shipwreck Coast, specifically at Wreck Beach. (These are the actual names of these places, not some Epcot-style touristification. I'm not so sure about "SurfCoastShire," the actual name of one of the counties we drove through.) The waves here are huge, and churn across dark jagged volcanic rocks to crash at the base of impassably steep cliffs occasionally alleviated by smooth crescent beaches. (Yes, Ma, we checked the tide timetable and maritime forecast before setting out.) Strewn along some of these beaches are rusting anchors from some of the 80+ shipwrecks near here. And one of the cliff faces looks just like the head of a gorilla in profile. When I saw that, I just had to sit down. Other than its lack of palm trees, it fit every single archetype for “shipwreck beach” that I’ve ever come across. It’s straight out of Robert Louis Stevenson or Pirates of the Caribbean. Then I realized, with so many British shipwrecks here during such a formative literary era, this similarity is no coincidence: I’d bet my bottom dollar that many of those stereotypes are derived from this very beach. And I was there! The little adventure-novel-reading kid in me couldn’t have been happier.

The next day confounded my inner kid even more by presenting another archetypical vista: the dark and ferny jungle opening up around a curve in the crevasse path to the straight gushing waterfall dropping deep between mossy cliffs into a perfect clear pool. Think the King Kong remake. It was even better than Costa Rica. This was Marriner’s Falls, just a few gorgeous miles up a winding dirt track from our hostel. Even with the drought, this bit of rainforest was happy and dripping. It’s set up perfectly to keep all its water to itself, a self-contained little water cycle despite its proximity to the coast and droughty fields. Not so for the former waterfall we hiked to the next day, which was reduced to a damp cliff above a puddle of stagnant orange goo. I wonder how many other places of natural beauty have already been killed by this climate change, and how we might consider their “cost” in our “balancing” of priorities.*

The definite exception to the lack of crowds was the 12 Apostles. For those of you not in the know, the 12 Apostles are one of the most iconic bits of Australian scenery: a group of striped limestone pillars that stand slightly apart from the curved coastline, where waves pound against them and do their damnedest to tear them down. The waves are definitely winning: there are only eight Apostles left, though in recorded history there have only ever been ten. No one knows why they’re called “Apostles.” That’s Australia for you. The coast here is quite lovely, with tall sheer cliffs reminding me of other tall sheer cliffs like the Cliffs of Moher, though nothing could be as beautiful as they. It was especially hard to appreciate the natural splendor because the crowds were so… crowded. It was shocking to go from solitary driving and walking in dry fields and vaulted forests and booming beaches to sudden traffic and shouldering my way through rude gaggles of oblivious camera-happy tourists. When left to my own devices I really don’t like most other people, especially not in unnecessary and dense quantities, and especially not when they’re not appreciating something good, like the glory of existence. (Petra showed admirable forbearance to my resulting grouchiness.)

To wrap up the weekend, Petra arranged an Easter egg hunt just for me. As she thought of it rather last-minute, she was hard-pressed to find any actual Easter eggs. Delightfully, she chose to focus on egg-shaped tasties. I hunted for bite-sized Violet Crumble, hard boiled eggs, dried apricots, a container of yoghurt, and a Kinder chocolate bunny.

A most fantastic weekend away, and it's less than 2 hours from home! We'll definitely be going back here. Often.

A photography note: as I’ve mentioned before, the intense sunlight here creates very harsh highlights and shadows, and it’s just getting worse as it approaches winter. I’m finding it very hard to take decent pictures in this unfamiliar light. Anyone have suggestions on dealing with extremely bright and high-contrast lighting situations?

*I’ll be writing my thesis refuting the idea of a cost-benefit analysis framework for approaching ideas of climate change, specifically refuting the morality of carbon offsets. Expect more along these lines over the next year. My apologies in advance.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

relatives and other animals

As I had hoped, we’ve been able to spend quite a bit of time with my extended maternal family since arriving in Her Majesty’s commonwealth. A fair percentage of these visits coincided delightfully with visits to zoos and nature preserves of various sorts. We went to the Werribee Zoo two weeks ago for a picnic to celebrate my cousin Matthew’s birthday. Those of you who came to our wedding will remember Matt from the ceremony – he’s the one who gave his reading in a perfect Australian accent (imagine that).

Werribee is a free-range zoo, meaning the animals wander around their spacious enclosures largely at will while zoo guides drive visitors through the park in little busses (it’s a “safari”). There are also a number of walks to and through different exhibits. The walk through the native Australian animal enclosure is particularly cool because once you go through the gate, there are no more fences. If an emu happens to bed down two feet from the path, you get to be two feet from the emu.

We went around with Matt and Julie (his girlfriend). I think my favorite animal was the beautiful strong lioness (take a look at the photos – she’s impossible to miss). She was not only wonderful but wonderfully loud as she growled impatiently for dinner. Erika, Matt and Julie all favored the meerkats. Julie was saying she and Matt usually go see them a couple times a year. She also mentioned this show called “Meerkat Manor,” which I hadn’t heard of (though Erika had). It’s a very dramatic, soap-opera style reality TV show about meerkats. In their meerkat den. Apparently it was wildly popular down here. I keep meaning to look it up on youtube.

After touring around the zoo, we settled in for dinner and a drum concert by a Ghanaian band. (The Werribee Zoo features mostly African animals, so they bring in African bands to play concerts every Sunday night. I know it’s a bit fraught, but the music was great and we had a blast.) There was delicious Ghanaian food available as well, which we very much enjoyed. Matt’s dad Peter went in for the drumming workshop. I believe he was the only person over 10 years old who did. I’m hoping he’ll agree to show off his newly developed skills at the next family barbeque. 

Peter’s photos are here.

The day before our visit Werribee, we went to my cousin Nick’s house (Nick is Matt’s older brother) to celebrate Nick’s 30th birthday. We had a big barbeque followed by the tallest mountain of chocolate covered profiteroles I’d ever seen (yum!). His friends got together and gave him a PlayStation 2. Nick was thrilled-- speechless. His wife, Tina, was speechless as well – also with delight, no doubt.

My uncle brought us to the Healesville Sanctuary last weekend to round out our zoo experience. It was a two hour drive outside the city. Once we got past the suburbs it turned into gorgeous rolling vineyards and grazing pastures. It was all a lot more developed than I remembered it being. Australia’s population is exploding, and it’s evident. The drought was also very obvious out here: everything was more brown than green.

The Sanctuary itself felt lovely and lush, which must have taken a lot of work. It was something in between a traditional zoo and an outdoor zoo: the animals lived in small, highly landscaped, caged-off outdoor enclosures. Some cages were especially large, and you could walk into them with the animals. I was glad we got there as early as we did, because the birds were awake and the other visitors sleepy. Cmoore and Toby: parrots galore, many more hangers-on than official zoo ones. Of the wild ones, laurakeets dominated, but there were also cockatoos and galas (which are big and funny and pink). Oh, and yes, we saw koalas and a kangaroo with a joey in her pouch, and a crocodile, and a frilled-necked lizard, and all the other required charismatic megafauna.

At this zoo, Erika was especially taken by the baby wombat. Not nearly so scary when she (the wombat) is ¼ sized, snoozing in her burrow, waddling excitedly and sleepily out to greet her keeper, and munching on ears of corn. Of course, the corn was dried raw on the cob and she was easily biting through the cob, so it was impossible to forget that she’s an adorable little pile of solid muscle… Wombats can be quite a pest in farming areas. They dig burrows large enough for tractors to fall into (this happens fairly regularly), stroll their way straight through strong fences, and nap in the road. When hit, they are sadly often injured, but they take even semis down with them. Semis often tip over after hitting a wombat, and are always totaled from the impact. These are seriously dense animals.

As wonderful as the animals were, the best part of the day was getting to spend time with my uncle and his partner Sue. I’ve been here long enough now that I can actually relax into my relative’s company. My whole life, time with my relatives has always been precious because of its rarity. I’m delighted to find that they are even more wonderful when you stick around.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

world vision

I’m now four weeks into my job at World Vision Australia. I’ve spent a lot of time in workshops and training, which, being me, I really appreciate. The particular duties of my position (Administrative Coordinator for Corporate and Donor Relations) are satisfying in the way that a crossword puzzle or sudoku is satisfying: I get a nice sense of accomplishment for having completed a series of precise and detail-oriented tasks. At the end of the day, though, all I’ve really done is organize a bunch of letters and numbers into their boxes.

That’s ok with me for now, though, because I’m learning a lot about how World Vision works. This is incredibly valuable because World Vision is about 50% of the entire international aid and development sector in Australia. Given that I want to work in international development, this works well for my plans.

The on-the-job training is superior. So far I’ve had the opportunity to attend workshops on marketing, campaign planning, fair-trade chocolate, poverty and it’s causes, human trafficking (which includes human slavery but is broader than slavery alone), case studies of specific development projects, and a number others. World Vision is definitely the largest and most efficiently-run organization I’ve ever worked for. I find this funny because it’s an NGO. NGO’s do not have a reputation for size, efficiency, or professionalism.

It’s quite entertaining being a US national working in this field, I must say. The US comes up every day in one way or another, in reference to a variety of things both good and bad – frequently both at the same time. Apparently the US puts out an annual report on human trafficking wherein we audit and rank countries according to how they’re doing at eliminating these exploitative practices. This information is undeniably helpful. At the same time it’s funny that the most prominent countries we don’t address in this study is – you guessed it – the US itself. We’re also the only country on earth that still hasn’t signed on to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

World Vision is providing an excellent introduction to international humanitarian aid, and I couldn’t be happier about that. The fact that I find this work so fascinating bodes well. I’m already looking forward to getting into it in more depth through future work and school.

Friday, March 7, 2008

nearer, my god, to thee

Shortly after we moved in, it occurred to Erika that we lived in the sort of building that might have a cool view from the roof, if we could access it. She suggested that we investigate. I heartily agreed, and we both promptly forgot about it for a few weeks.

The sweltering heat compelled us out of the apartment yesterday, and we finally remembered to try going up instead of down to find relief. You can imagine our incredulous delight when we discovered not just rooftop access, but a wide-open door, well-maintained stairs, and around the corner, …a 345 degree view of the city, gigantic wood-floored deck, picnic tables, deck chairs, potted palms, flower boxes, and several unfortunately-defunct barbeques. We can see all the way from the Dandenongs to the north to the far side of the Yarra river to the south. The live jazz bands of Hardware Lane (a trendy dining area nearby) waft up to our aerie, along with fresh breezes and bright sunshine or stars depending. The other sounds of the city are pleasantly muffled by the continuous white noise of the building’s vent system.

How did we not know about this glorious haven when we moved in? Why was it not the most prominent feature, or included at all, in the real estate agent’s tour of the building? Indeed, it seems forgotten, except for the occasional solitary smoker. It seems too good to be true.

Monday, March 3, 2008

the evolution starts here

That's what it says on a 50-ft. banner hanging over the main entrance to the Melbourne University campus. No intelligent design debates here!

Classes don't start til tomorrow, but I've been attending orientation workshops for a week now. The workshops are completely scintillating: "You and Your Tax File Number," "The Responsibilities and Structure of the Student/Supervisor Relationship," "How to Use the Library SuperSearch Database," etc. I am actually writing this during the "Strategies for Success" workshop. On the powerpoint screen: "Manage your time well, prioritize, make the best use of all available time." Check.

I'm signed up for three really exciting classes this semester: Value Theory, Metaphysics and Epistemology, and Moral Psychology. Ok, so maybe y'all don't think that sounds exciting, but I do. I guess that means I'm on the right track. I'll also be starting my year's diploma thesis (sortof like an undergrad senior year honors' thesis).

On an even more thrilling note, there's an outing club here at the University that has dozens of really fantastic trips planned for the semester, from one-day surfing lessons and cave exploration to weekend backpacking trips in the nearby mountain ranges to 11-day extravagent combo hiking/canooing/ATV-ing/etc. treks that cover thousands of miles. I of course want to sign up for all of them, but will probably just test the waters this semester with one or two. And there's a mountaineering club that I have learn more about. SO EXCITED!

And my very own photo tour of the campus: (more photos to be added soon)

There's also a rather unwieldy virtual tour of the campus here.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

the (rain)forest primeval

Erika bought herself a lovely book of the 60 best hikes (“walks”) in Australia. We leafed avidly through the section on Victoria (our fair state), and eventually chose to do none of them because we don’t have a car. Instead, on Saturday we took the train about 20 miles outside the city to a state park in the Dandenong mountain range that the book had mentioned but not detailed.

As soon as we got off the train in Belgrave, we knew we were someplace special. It smelled like the Smith plant house (misty and green plus sweet heaven and cow manure), and there were cockatoos feeding at a birdfeeder. We weren’t in the Central Business District anymore.

We walked through the tiny town, which is charming and strange, following our dodgy photocopied map a kilometer up the road. The sidewalk was really just a footpath, winding its way through people’s gardens and occasionally playing dual role as drainage ditch, driveway, reinforcing wall, etc. The town is cut into the side of a steep mountain, so they’re creative with their available space.

As I gazed over the painted tin rooftops of the houses at three distinct and mist-shrouded layers of forest and the profusion of Jurassic ferns, I remembered that the Dandenongs are, in fact, a rainforest. Right. Fortunately, when Erika packs for a hike, she prepares for all possible scenarios. An unexpected rainforest environment didn’t hold us back. Lilli, the umbrella came in very useful. Don’t ever let anyone tell you it’s not a good idea.

After finally finding our trailhead (in the back parking lot of a tavern), we headed into what Erika called “The Jungle! The Jungle!” Now, it’s not that I hadn’t been to the Dandenongs before. But I hadn’t been in a really long time and, while things were relatively familiar, I had forgotten how big everything is (and, well, that it was a rainforest, but…). The tallest tree in the world is somewhere in this forest. They’ve since lost it, which you’d think would be impossible, but somehow when you’re here it’s not all that surprising. Everything is incredibly big, in the literal sense of the word incredible—when looking at everything, you still can’t quite believe it’s that big.

It took us about forty minutes to go the first ½ kilometer because we had to stop every few meters to gape. It started with the cockatoos. Their gorgeous white shapes glide from limb to limb in the leafy canopy with a grace completely at odds with their raucous and obnoxious calls. Sooooar… SQWAWK! … Swoooop (coy glance, pretty eyes), … swoop… SQUAWK! CAHK CAKKKKK SCREEECH! …(pretty). Then there were pretty little green and red parrots that we think were laurakeets, and charming brown tree-hopping birds about the size of a can of tuna, the small kind (oh my eloquence…).

And then we nearly jumped out of our shoes when something huge erupted from the incredibly dense underbrush about a meter to our left and took off into the forest. By huge I mean like small pony sized. Like the kind you ride at the fair. The thing, which we only saw as BIG! FURRY! FAST! Brownish? was probably a wombat startled out of its daytime sleep. Erika had no idea that wombats were any bigger than a terrier. She went on about Rodents Of Unusual Size for some time after that. It really was very startling. And huge. And close.

The rest of our walk induced far less adrenaline, though no less amazement. We wandered up and down a few ridges, looked for a waterfall but never found it, had lunch (and a nap for Erika) by a stream, and took a lot of pictures (sorry). After scanning the canopy all day, we finally saw what we think was a koala dozing in the crook of a distant treetop. We decided this was an excellent conclusion to the day, and caught the train back home.

We’re caught wanting both to go back to that park again as soon as possible, and knowing that there’s so much to see in this amazing country. Erika’s suggested that she would have more time to see it all if she quit grad school. Luckily, this won’t be necessary, as we have weekends and holidays galore.

I’ve just realized I didn’t talk about the Lyrebird or the Kookaburra. They were awesome. Another time.

home tiny home

After a week's hard work, our apartment feels like a home. Thanks to bookshelves and little plants from Ikea (insert angelic choir here) we were able to divide our one room into a bedroom and living/dining room. It makes a big difference. I am completely and totaly in love with Ikea.