Monday, July 28, 2008

swimming with the fishes (port douglas day 4 of 5)

The life under the water of the outermost edge of the Great Barrier Reef is one of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen. We went snorkelling thirty + k’s (20ish miles) northeast off the coast of Port Douglas today, a highspeed catamaran ferry our steed and a floating pontoon our home base for the day. I’m a very strong swimmer, but it had been years since I donned a mask and flippers, and I found them rather disconcerting at first—the flippers made it especially hard for me to move around in the water the way I’m used to, and I kept tangling myself up. Luckily, I remembered my mom’s snorkelling tips from her recent Galapagos Islands trip (thanks, Ma!), and got my bearings quickly enough.

When I could focus on the water beneath me instead of not drowning—what a sight! The most over-the-top cheesy phrases of praise would not be enough to describe the emerald water itself, the panoply of fish bizarrely constructed of unimaginably bright colors, modern and deco designs, tamely meandering and darting all around us. I was shocked to realize I could hear them nibbling on the coral, swishing their little fins and tails through the water, blowing bubbles, all a sense I had never realized was missing through the thick glass of aquariums. Seen in immediate proximity, with no thick azure glass mediating the view, they seemed ten times sharper than I’d ever seen before. And the coral! Thousands of varieties, themselves of every conceivable color and shape, from antlers to boulders to brains to flowers to spaghetti, all growing on one another. Whole mountains and canyons and cliffs of coral. I was shocked at how 3-dimensional the submarine seascape was: all the pictures in the world can’t capture its depth and complexity. One of our fellow passengers was on to something when he devoutly said that it could only be the work of the creator.

Exploring this underwater world was like being a kid again, exploring a largely-unknown area at will, going any which way just to wonder at the beauty of it all, diving down into the slightly-scary depths and braving the shadowy places, floating in the warm upper water and watching it all unfold below. One disconcerting moment was when the photographer hired by the snorkelling company emerged up from a crevasse of coral beneath us, in full scuba gear, to snap a photo of us swimming on the surface. That was certainly the last thing we expected, but I love the resulting photo (scanned version forthcoming). We swam until Petra got practically hypothermic (it is the ocean, after all) and had to be warmed with hugs, tea, and towels, at which point we took the nicely heated submarine tour of the deeper areas. While previous tours of the day had spotted sting rays and sea turtles, we had to be content with a little shark and the (ho hum) gorgeous array of deep cliffs of more coral.

We loved it so much that we actually tried to book a second day of snorkelling for tomorrow, but found that it was just too expensive. I desperately want to buy an underwater film camera (digital just doesn’t cut it for these colours and lighting) and maybe learn to scuba dive. But I loved the flexibility of the snorkelling, and with my good French-horn trained lung capacity, I could dive down pretty deep with just one breath. Anyone have experience with scuba diving, and could share your thoughts on it?

(Note on the photos: some of the underwater shots are with my digital camera through the window of the submarine, some are with a disposable waterproof Kodak film camera whose negatives were scanned in at the processing shop. And if you’re trying to tell me and Petra apart in the pictures, my bathing suit has a racer back, hers is halter top.)

splish splash, I took time to relax (port douglas days 3 and 5 of 5)

I read an article in the paper the other day about a study indicating that your average adult will only start to relax mid-afternoon on the third day of her vacation. Perhaps that’s why we found ourselves sleeping to progressively later hours as the week went on. Perhaps that’s also why day 3 found us still keyed up enough to wake just before dawn to go jogging on the beach. On the other hand, the sun rises around 7:30 when you’re practically on the equator. In that context, getting up “just before dawn” isn’t actually saying much.

Regardless, there we were, jogging along the sand while waves crashed beside us and the sun rose into a cobalt sky. It felt like most of the town was out on the beach that morning with us: jogging, walking the dog, participating in the daily “Yoga on the Beach” class, or just starting the morning with a beachside stroll. One guy had collected coconut husks with which he and his dog were playing: he would toss the coconut husks into the surf, and his dog would ecstatically retrieve them.

The beach had a delightful feeling of community. I would have expected all the people to make the beach feel crowded, but it didn't. This is partly because the beach is four miles long and it would probably take most of the residents of the state of Queensland to actually crowd it, but I think it has more to do with people's friendly attitude. Back on the beach another day with my parents, we asked this lady walking by to take a picture of the four of us and ended up chatting with her and her husband for a pleasant half an hour.

We spent days 2 and 5 of our vacation just bumming around the Port Douglas. The beach is a four-minute walk from our flat, and the flat itself comes with access to two swimming pools. Needless to say we were in the water quite a bit. When we weren't in the water, we were on the town. There's nothing like shopping in holiday towns in the off season. On the beach itself, Erika carved an opulent lounge-seat out of sand, complete with a screen of palm fronds that blocked the wind without obscuring the view of the mountains. I helped, though mostly by sitting in the chair. When we didn't eat out, I introduce my parents to Mojitos and we put the barbecue to good use. With that and our books and card games, we definitely relaxed.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

a day with the birds (port douglas day 2 of 5)

Today, our second day in Port Douglas, we went to a rather gimmicky but enjoyable little zoo down the road for breakfast. A sumptuous buffet of fresh and dried tropical fruits, baked goods, and heavy British staples allowed us to eat for an hour straight. We wanted to linger, as we were surrounded by rude yet charming dining companions: the zoo’s vast aviary, flying and roosting all around us. Cockatoos, parrots, ducks: you name it, they wanted our breakfast. The silly rainbow lorikeets, the most personable, especially wanted muffins and coffee, while the shy egrets were after the bacon. They were not allowed handouts, but this rule was only loosely enforced. I worried about their nutrition, but they all seemed healthy.

After breakfast, we wandered off into the animal enclosures—and I mean into, as it is another lovely park-like set-up where you wander around fields and swamps and the like with the animals free with you within the large enclosures. Our first stop was the kangaroo and wallaby field. Wallabies are like mini kangaroos, and are rather painfully adorable. We got to feed some of the more adventurous little hoppers, including a mom with a tiny baby (‘joey’) in her pouch. Their little mouths feel rather like rabbits’, and their paws feel like rodents’.

As we wandered out of that field, Petra was accosted by an emu who was VERY interested in making friends with her and her handfuls of remaining food. While a friendly fluffy bird may not sound very intimidating, remember that emus are as tall as Petra, have beaks as big as my hand, can run very fast, and have a look in their eyes at all times that can only be described as psychotic. Petra bore up well under the emu’s attentions, though, and parted from the well-fed bird with all her fingers in tact.

A close relative of the emu was also at this zoo, though it was cordoned off in one of the few areas where visitors are not allowed to wander. The cassowary is a little smaller than the emu, with a brightly coloured head and razor-sharp claws. It’s pretty much a dinosaur’s head and legs stuck onto an emu’s torso. Cassowaries live deep in the rainforest of this part of Queensland, and were originally thought to have died out with the rest of the dinosaurs years ago. While the Aboriginal people of the area knew they were still around (as they were a favourite meal), the birds remained an enigma to white scientists for years. It was quite remarkable to see its lizard-like movement, hear it’s belly-tingling deep thrumming call, and feel the effect of its vicious red-eyed stare. Even its keeper is scared of it—calls it the Psycho Karate Chicken, as it can make gigantic leaps and can kick in any direction. It somehow seemed more threatening than any zoo animal I’ve encountered before. Must be something in the genes: run away from dinosaurs!

Too bad these instincts didn’t extend to little marsh chicken things. There were native wetland birds that looked like guinea hens that a goth had painted (black bodies, blood-red heads, black eyes) running rampant around our feet in the grasses and hummocks of the main enclosure. Unfortunately, my flip-flop(‘thong’)-clad feet strayed too near a nest that one such bird was attempting to build right on the edge of the path. I was pulled harshly from my adoration of the cassowary by a beak sinking into my big toe. I later found out that this particular bird is named Swampy, and has a reputation for being beak-happy and for building inconvenient nests. While I mopped up my bleeding toe, the keepers went off to move his nest again.

The culmination and highlight of the day were the koalas. We were mesmerized by watching a teenaged koala scamper around his sawed-off trees. It was quite the sight, as they hardly ever move. This one must have covered fifteen feet in the twenty minutes we watched him! After this energetic display, we went off to meet with his sister who was working as a model for the afternoon. (Scanned version of touristy photo forthcoming.) Working animals in Australia are unionized, so she had to get her timecard punched at the beginning and end of the photo shoot. By law, as a koala, she is only allowed to work half an hour a day, 3 days a week. Holding her for the photo was fascinating. She was very heavy at 20 lbs (9 kilos), and smelled pleasantly but distinctly of eucalyptus and musk. Her fur was soft, rather like a healthy dog’s, and her paws were hard and rubbery. She was very warm, and clung tightly to my torso, bottom paws on my hip bones and arms on my shoulders. Wonderful.

And there were arboreal kangaroos, too. Yup, you read that right: kangaroos that live in trees. But I’m tired and want to go to bed now, so you can read up on them yourself. :) Sorry. Goodnight.

port douglas (day 1 of 5)

As I’d mentioned, my parents are visiting on their annual trip from the States. They’ve been here almost a month now, and as a special treat took the four of us (me, Erika, and them) up to the coast of the northeastern corner of Australia, Queensland, for a vacation. Going on vacation to Queensland is the Australian equivalent of going to Florida, at least as far as warmth and beaches and the like goes. Queensland is much less populated (by humans) and more creatively hazardous than Florida (vicious crocodiles that put alligators to shame, jellyfish more deadly than man-o-wars, a host of other surprises), and has a pejorative reputation of being a bit of a rural backwater. As a reference point, this was the home turf of Steve Irwin, aka the Crocodile Hunter.

Our flight to Queensland was remarkably pleasant, a quality I attribute to two key factors:
1) The absence of stress and anxiety in the airport security procedures. I kept my shoes on, and none of us even had to show identification until we went to pick up the rental car at the end of the flight. It was an incredibly refreshing experience, and one that reinforced for me how dehumanising and unpleasant the airline security process is at home.
2) The presence of unexpected quantities of chocolate ice cream in transit. Thanks, Qantas!

Queensland’s winter weather is a tropical dream-come-true after grey and windy Melbourne. The heat and sunshine hit me as soon as I stepped off the plane. I could feel my spirits rising with the humidity. My hair swiftly followed, and has now achieved a level of curliness it is unlikely to reach again unless assisted by copious amounts of product.

Queensland so far seems full of delightful – and occasionally scary – animals. We’d scarcely arrived when we passed a mob of wild kangaroos monopolizing a cattle field. Fortunately the cows and kangaroos seem inclined to ignore each other. A bit farther along I spotted an absolutely enormous crocodile snoozing on the bank of a creek. Kookaburras are in abundant evidence, as are a smallish breed of wild fowl* we’ve christened “jungle chicken.” Possums don’t so much go bump as scratch and snuffle in the night, and the raucous screeches from the flocks of flying foxes (i.e. giant bats) echo throughout our neighbourhood. The bats are adorable. They’re nursing their young at the moment, and if you catch them at the right time, you can see the baby bats crawling around in the flowering gum trees, nibbling the blossoms.

From Melbourne we flew to Cairns (pronounced “cans,” like tinned products), which we passed quickly through in favour of more remote destinations. The road wound north past tiny towns, scattered businesses, tourist attractions, resort condominiums and holiday compounds. Despite notably increasing development, however, Queensland remains markedly empty. Mountains coated with rainforests bound seemingly endless sugar cane fields. The cane fields dominate the view as they have historically dominated the economy, though the areas large and growing tourism industry is gaining ground. The road never stays far from the coast, hugging the shore with occasionally unnerving proximity (think Great Ocean Road) and winding past pristine white beaches with turquoise waves and palm trees. Due to the convenient proximity of mountains and beach, this whole area is popular with hang-gliders, paragliders, and the like. We were tickled by the wonderful yellow road signs warning of the dangers that Box Jellyfish (“Marine Stingers”) pose to bathers who venture out of the designated swimming areas at the wrong time of year.

Port Douglas – our destination – is long and skinny. Although only the tip of it is actually strictly peninsular, the whole town feels finger-like because it stretches along the aptly named four-mile beach. The town is full of shops, great restaurants, and quasi-gated resort/spa compounds. Fortunately, the town is big enough that you can sense the existence of people, events, and a community unrelated to (or at least coexistent with) tourism: there is substance to Port Douglas beyond the tourists and the institutions that manage us.

Our holiday apartment was perfect: a fully furnished two-bedroom with a kitchen (so we could cook and avoid eating out every day), tile floors (great for sandy feet!) and a lovely patio. After checking in and getting settled, my parents, Erika, and I headed into town for the tail end of the Sunday market. There was a vendor selling coin purses and wallets made out of cane toad pelts. I kid you not. They were…bizarre. Eyes and legs and all. We also saw a man with two enormous and immaculately white Cockatoos on his head wandering the main street.

We finished off the day with a delicious dinner at a restaurant whose setting is so breathtaking that it’s difficult to describe. To reach Nautilus from the main street, you walk up a steep torch-lined trail through tall, lush rainforest plants and trees. The restaurant itself sits on a series of wide and open wooden platforms framed by more trees and plants. They describe themselves as “the ultimate outdoor dining experience,” and they are. We watched a possum scamper along a palm branch on the edge of the floodlit area while enjoying our perfectly cooked and creatively prepared meal. A capital culmination of our first day on vacation.

Note: the restaurant depicted here is not Nautilis, but another delicious venue, The Living Room, where we celebrated Mum’s birthday on Friday. Also pictured are a few shots of Palm Cove, a town down the coast a bit towards Cairns.

* Our Jungle Chicken is actually called Orange Footed Scrub Fowl, “Megapodius Reinwart”.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

family footie

We went to the footie (Australian rules football) again last night with a bunch of my family. This particular match – Carlton vs. St. Kilda – is significant in the LoSchiavo clan because up until Andy started playing for Carlton, most of the family supported St. Kilda. Now the family’s split about 50/50 between the two teams. I’ve decided to support Carlton. Sadly, despite Andy’s excellent performance, they lost by quite a bit last night. The boisterous crowds, family company, and delicious french fries (chips) made the evening well worth it, though. I could get used to this sports thing.

Monday, July 7, 2008


In addition to trying to save the world (see post below), we also visited the rural town of Daylesford. Located in the medium-altitude foothills of the Great Dividing Range, the town is only 114 km (70 miles) north west of the Melbourne. As most of that distance is through largely-uninhabited land, it seems like a distant isle of civilization. I am yet again reminded of how unpopulated this continent really is.

This former booming goldmining centre now has a population of only 2000, despite having famed mineral water springs, two beautiful lakes right in town, hills with views of the surrounding farmland, lovely Victorian architecture, and excellent restaurants. There is reputedly an active queer community, though we saw little evidence of this. Daylesford reminded me a bit of Main St. in Northampton, with a distinct overtone of Colorado thrown in. There are many abandoned buildings around town, and property goes cheap (check out this tempting one!), but this emptiness doesn’t diminish the spirit of the town: a combination of new-agey and old-timey, with a handful of realistic modern farmers thrown in. It felt a lot more like home than anywhere else I've been here.

After enjoying some of the delicious food on offer, wandering around the converted abbey on top of the hill, talking with the super-friendly unpretentious people around town, and enjoying the uninterrupted views, it was hard to come back to the city. Luckily, Petra’s cousin Matt lives not far from Daylesford, so we’ll have chances to go back.

it's getting hot in here

I’m back at World Vision (fundraising) after a full and fulfilling weekend of family, food, fitness, and fracas-raising fun. I’ve been revelling in the company of my wonderful parents, who are visiting for a full four weeks! As my Mum always says, “fabulous!”

On Saturday we participated in environmental rally and human sign event that my uncle encouraged us to attend. Organised by a coalition of over 60 environmental groups from all over the state of Victoria, the demonstration was designed to highlight the immediacy of global warming’s threats.

Erika, my parents, my aunt Sue, and I joined the 3,000+ crowd of every imaginable type of Australian in the centre of the CBD (Central Business District) early in the afternoon for remarkably interesting, intelligent, rousing speeches. The attire of the attendees added a humorous element: we had all been asked to wear red, so the oddest clothing appeared throughout the crowd, from ill-fitting raincoats to crocheted shawls.

My family and I decided to march with the Yarra Valley Environmental Action Group because they were friendly, happened to be standing nearby, and because the Yarra Valley region is renowned for its wineries and we were hoping for freebies. It would be a true tragedy if these local vineyards became casualties of global warming.

The march brought us all to the Alexandra Gardens for the demonstration’s main event. Directed by volunteer eco-crowd marshals (including my uncle), we in the crowd organised ourselves into a 140 meter sign spelling out “Climate Emergency.” We are the lower right-hand point of the N.

The event was a success: it was on every major TV news channel, made The Age (Australia’s major newspaper), and ran the gamut of online news sources. Hopefully the message got across. More than anywhere else I’ve been, the difficulty in Melbourne is not in convincing people that climate change is a problem but in communicating the true speed and urgency with which we need to respond. Equally difficult is inciting change on the scale that we actually need it. We need to drastically change our behaviours faster, but none of the big decision makers seem willing to take the lead. Our leaders move only at glacial speed – a metaphor which leads to an interesting lexical paradox: the slower we respond, the swifter “glacial speed” becomes.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

barak obama

I have an unusual perspective on the US presidential race, being on the other side of the world. I am living in a country where people take hope for granted.

I hadn’t realized how scared all of us are in the US until I’d been here a few weeks, and it began to feel like I was being cured of some long-lasting illness. And I mean real physical cures: my stomach unknotted, the headaches that I took for granted went away, my back stopped hurting, I had more energy, I slept better.

People here in Australia are, on the remarkable whole, not very stressed. It’s amazing. It’s so natural and obvious and right that it’s hard to write about. It’s like writing about unpolluted air. Not much to say about it other than it tastes good and you can see farther. Most people here are just happy, confident, and at ease. It’s almost disturbing.

Why is there such a difference between living in these two countries? I’m sure there are hundreds of factors, but a lot of it seems to come down to the excellent social services provided by the Australian government: excellent health care, including mental health care; excellent schools; assistance for caring for the elderly and for people with disabilities; clean, efficient, and prevalent public transportation; first-home-buying grant; job placement services; unemployment benefits you can actually live on; and much more. If you have all of that at your back, what is there to be deeply stressed about?

Seeing all of these superb services, provided by a country that has significantly less economic and natural resources than the US, gives me great hope. People of the US, we don’t have to be so unhappy, so fearful, so cynical, so distrusting, so unsupported all the time: It doesn’t have to be that way!

And Barack Obama understands that things can be better. That’s why I’m voting for him. I don’t think he’s some sort of political saviour, as some suggest, but he is bringing an important and powerful message at a crucial time: hope and change. He is reminding us that the US can be so much more than it is right now, and that we can work together to make it so. That we, as citizens, have both the ability and the responsibility to take charge of our country. That we are not powerless, but instead that we, ourselves, hold great power. He is telling us “yes,” he is speaking with love, which feels like breathing again after so many years of hatred and “no.”

I know that this is what everyone talks about: his message of change. “What about his policies? What about the issues?” you might ask. Well, he’s pretty good on the issues: I like a lot, but not all, of his proposed policies (see below for more info). But to me, what’s more important is the bedrock on which he intends to build those policies: a focus on the people of the US, especially those most in need. You can’t effect drastic policy change without changing the fundamental concepts of governance on which they stand. Obama is proposing a paradigm shift that excites me: the policies can follow, and will necessarily be more just because of their improved context.

One excellent example of this is Obama’s refusal to accept big-business, lobbyist, and governmental funding for his campaign. He does not want to be beholden to any organizations whose mission he does not support. This shows a sincere effort in the right direction: toward empowering and serving the people of the United States.

I encourage you to donate to Obama’s campaign now, and move America one step closer to being a country we can be proud of again.

For more information:

For a well-researched comparison of the two candidates on some big political issues, check out the Boston Globe.

To see how the race is going, check out the continually-updated button on the right-hand sidebar, and visit this excellent graph.

Obama's One Nation speech:

Emmy-award-winning Yes We Can music video by of The Black Eyed Peas, narrated by Obama's New Hampshire primary speech:

For another excellent Obama video, visit here.