Big Question Marks

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

5 Great Things About Xmas in Queensland

1. Sticking your feet in the sand... on Xmas!

Yeah, it's hard not to love spending Christmas at the beach. Ask anyone in Brisbane where they're spending their festive season and you'll always get the same answer: "On the coast." We were lucky to get invited to stay with our friend's family on the Sunshine Coast at their house, a five-minute walk from the beach. There was no ocean swimming to be done though -- the waves were huge and scary, thanks to the tail-end of a cyclone that passed off the Queensland coast that week. The cyclone must have whipped the waves up something terrible, as the beach was aflurry in this strange bubbly foam, that broke off from the waves in chunks and flew around in the air like soap bubbles. We loved chasing it as much as the dogs who were visiting the beach.

2. Mangoes

Christmas coincides with another important time of year in Australia: mango season! At Christmas, people buy Queensland mangoes by the box... and they are as delicious as they are fun to peel and eat.

3. Jean shorts = unofficial Qld Xmas uniform

There were no Christmas sweaters to be seen this year... Christmas is a pretty informal event here. And truly, why bother getting all snazzed up to hop from house to house and eat and drink with family, friends and neighbours? People get more dressed up for Saturday night at a pub (or Melbourne Cup Day) than they do on Xmas. It was kind of fun!

4. Swimming pools in 30 degree weather

Need I say more?

5. Neighbourhood cricket games

Boxing Day was our first introduction to the peculiar game of cricket. There was a friendly neighbourhood game organized by one guy whose  family was visiting from Sri Lanka, where cricket is also a big thing. We were enlisted to help up the numbers (no previous experience required) and it was soon our turns to bat. First off, batting for cricket is nothing like baseball, where you hold the bat above your shoulder and watch the bad pitches go by - well, at least this game wasn't like that. Lesson 1: You can swing for any pitch at all (I hit a ball from a pitch that came in behind my head) and even if the ball bounces while on its way to you, it's still fair game. Lesson 2: If you DO hit the ball, you don't have to run if you think your hit is kind of crap. But if you do choose to run, the strangest thing is, you're required to run WITH the giant paddle... which is easier said than done when your instincts have trained for your entire lifetime to toss the bat aside and RUN as soon as you hit the ball. That and you're running back and forth, back and forth between a couple of sticks, with, as Bill Bryson describes it*, "a mattress strapped to each leg". Fielding is even more of a hoot. Depending where you choose to stand (which is anywhere, unlike a game of old-fashioned baseball), which means the ball may NEVER come to you. Which means it's the perfect game to play with a beer in your hand. Which is probably the reason why this country likes cricket so much. We have no idea which team won, but we did manage to work on our tans a bit while waiting for the ball to arrive in our vicinities.


There are lots of other great things about spending Xmas here in Oz, and lots of little differences to what we're used to. We found it interesting that preparing a stuffed turkey isn't really a thing at all here -- and Christmas lunch seemed to be the thing to do, rather than Christmas dinner. Prawns (aka shrimp) and salads replaced the turkey and potatoes (though we missed the mashed potatoes!). It was a lovely hot day made up of eating, swimming, and random neighbours dropping by the house -- and we made our families just a tad jealous via Skype -- but perhaps just because it wasn't at all like what we're used to, it only vaguely felt like Christmas. And of course, we missed our families and friends, but maybe we'll be back in the snowy north for a white Christmas sooner than we think. You never know. Hope you all had a happy holidays! xoxo D&A

Happy holidays! [image from]

* Oh yeah. While we're on the topic, Bill Bryson's unique take on cricket always makes us laugh....

"After years of patient study (and with cricket there can be no other kind) I have decided that there is nothing wrong with the game that the introduction of golf carts wouldn't fix in a hurry. It is not true that the English invented cricket as a way of making all other human endeavours look interesting and lively; that was merely an unintended side effect. I don't wish to denigrate a sport that is enjoyed by millions, some of them awake and facing the right way, but it is an odd game. It is the only sport that incorporates meal breaks. It is the only sport that shares its name with an insect. It is the only sport in which spectators burn as many calories as players - more if they are moderately restless. It is the only competitive activity of any type, other than perhaps baking, in which you can dress in white from head to toe and be as clean at the end of the day as you were at the beginning.

Imagine a form of baseball in which the pitcher, after each delivery, collects the ball from the catcher and walks slowly with it to centre field; and that there, after a minute's pause to collect himself, he turns and runs full tilt toward the pitcher's mound before hurling the ball at the ankles of a man who stands before him wearing a riding hat, heavy gloves of the sort used to to handle radio-active isotopes, and a mattress strapped to each leg. Imagine moreover that if this batsman fails to hit the ball in a way that heartens him sufficiently to try to waddle forty feet with mattress's strapped to his legs, he is under no formal compunction to run; he may stand there all day, and, as a rule, does. If by some miracle he is coaxed into making a misstroke that leads to his being put out, all the fielders throw up their arms in triumph and have a hug. Then tea is called and every one retires happily to a distant pavilion to fortify for the next siege. Now imagine all this going on for so long that by the time the match concludes autumn has crept in and all your library books are overdue. There you have cricket.

The mystery of cricket is not that Australians play it well, but that they play it at all. It has always seemed to me a game much too restrained for the rough-and-tumble Australian temperament. Australians much prefer games in which brawny men in scanty clothing bloody each other's noses. I am quite certain that if the rest of the world vanished over night and the development of cricket was left in Australian hands, within a generation the players would be wearing shorts and using the bats to hit each other. 

And the thing is, it would be a much better game for it."

-- from In A Sunburnt Country, one of our very favourite books

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Aussie Adventure Part 4: A Bit of Urban Relief

We realized by this stage that the trip had been planned in the best possible sequence - because after a couple of days getting all dusty in 40 degree oven-like heat, a little bit of urban culture was just what we were needing. We arrived in Melbourne after two days in the Centre and it was lights, traffic, and restaurants everywhere. I couldn't help but lead my folks down some laneways and where did we end up on our first night? Not a quaint little Melbourne eatery, but Grill'd... not exactly the classiest/most typical Melbourne dinner to be had, but as we all know, it's really hard to beat a Grill'd burger.

We did a lot of exploring on foot the next couple of days. Our unexpectedly swanky hotel was on Collins Street, just a block from Fed Square, which was incredible. Having lived in Melbourne for nearly a year in 2008, I was automatically appointed tour guide -- kind of a tough job when you know a place by living it (and not necessarily doing most of the touristy things in that time). I could tell you where to find the best bagels, or how to get to the library or The Body Shop outlet (hint: it's in Richmond), but as for organizing an introductory walking tour, I'm kinda hopeless. Lucky for us, the amazing tourist info centre at Federation Square now publishes an array of walking tour maps that I'm positive weren't around when we lived in the city. So from there, we set off on a route that wound through the CBD along colourfully-painted laneways, lush parks like Fitzroy Gardens, to cool historical sites like Cook's Cottage (where we learned a lot about the famous Captain Cook, and even got to take silly photos in period costumes!), to huge ornate churches. All that walking wore us out, so we hopped on the old City Circle tram and ended up in Docklands, where a Harbourtown outlet mall had popped up in recent years (oooh, if only there was time to shop!), and later that night had a laneway dinner in picturesque Hardware Lane.

Our second day took us further afoot-- I revisited our one of our old neighbourhoods and found our beloved little apartment building still standing strong amidst all the development in South Yarra (and about to be dwarfed by a huge glass tower in the works next door). My parents hopped on a free bus and discovered a war memorial with great views over the city on the south side of Melbourne... that I didn't even know existed. After a brief visit to the fascinating and creepy Old Melbourne Gaol, our wanderings took us to Chinatown where we found a fantastic (and cheap!) dinner at Golden Orchids. I am a little sheepish to admit we possibly saw more of Melbourne in two days than I had in 11 months, but we were on a mission to check of all we could in the few days we had in the city. The next day we set off super early on a bus tour of the Great Ocean Road (a bit more relaxing than driving it all in a day!) and took in all the sights -- Bells Beach, koalas around Kennett River, the Twelve Apostles and Loch Ard Gorge. It was all as beautiful as I recalled and definitely impressed the socks off my parents!

On Day 13 of our trip, we hopped on our last short flight back to Sydney and met up with Adrian at the airport for the last hurrahs of the trip, visiting the incredible Sydney Aquarium, the Maritime Museum, and The Rocks Markets, and soaked in those last views of the harbour (in sunshine, for a change!) before my parents had to board their plane the next evening. We found a great little spot to have one last al fresco dinner before my parents left for the wintry climes of the northern hemisphere -- the Australian Hotel in The Rocks -- and said our sad farewells on Saturday night before beginning a brief little Aussie adventure of our own.

Not sure what it was with the Canadian influx this year, but we were stoked to continue the fun with my best high school friend Erin, who'd just arrived in Sydney with Jemma for a month of flitting between Oz and New Zealand. By the time we met up with the girls, they'd done most of the touristy stuff on their list, and the rain had started again, so we spent the next couple of days dodging rain in pubs and shopping malls and catching up. We explored a totally new side of Sydney, starting with the area we were staying in at The George (a definite step down from the Sheratons and Westins of my days previous, but not at all shabby for a hostel), right in the thick of the Chinatown [partytown] area along George Street south of the CBD. When the weather brightened up briefly, we managed to do the hike across the Harbour Bridge and checked out the adorable neighbourhoods on the the north side of the harbour, and later headed into Newtown for a little retail relief from all the tourist stuff -- a suburb that definitely lived up to our expectations!

Sadly, our time with Erin and Jemma was also far too short, and we said more goodbyes just a few days after our reunion... although we were happy to find no problem in occupying ourselves for the next couple of days in Sydney, where we visited the Art Gallery of NSW for the Picasso exhibition, ate humongous breakfasts, walked the gorgeous Bronte to Bondi seaside clifftop walk high above the ocean, and chilled out in Bondi (where it rained on us yet again) before hopping on a plane back to our far less exciting home of Brisbane. It was a fabulous end to a fabulous couple of weeks, and if I realized anything in that time, it's how small the world is nowadays -- my parents are already talking about what they plan to do "the next time" they come to Australia -- and the fact that we live just a short plane ride from all of these amazing places makes us really, really, really excited to be stationed once again down under. And the fact that my parents and I can share a hotel room for two weeks without murdering each other. :) Success all around! xx d.

Friday, December 2, 2011

A Weekend in the Centre

The third stop of our journey around Oz was a far bigger jump than the previous, so there was no time to waste. We barely had time to squeeze in a swim in our magnificent hotel pool at the Sheraton Port Douglas, or to have a peek at beautiful Four Mile Beach (my former commute to work), before it was time to pack up and head to the centre of Australia.

We were happy to learn on 26 November that Qantas had NOT yet gone on strike again! We were a little wary of flying with them, as we were making the flights bookings just as the strikes were happening just a few months back. This time when we landed, our runway was surrounded by red dirt and scrub, and we disembarked making jokes about being celebrities or presidents and the like (there's something about descending a stairway onto tarmac that feels so old-fashioned and glamorous!). It was hotter than ever and not a chance of rain in the vivid blue sky.

We checked into our hotel, and headed off to The Rock, loading up on water and hoping to catch the cooler time of the day in the late afternoon (actually, I kind of forgot at Uluru, it's ALWAYS oven-roasting hot). We checked out the very excellent park cultural centre and managed to brave one or two short walks, dodging tour groups and flies along the way. We caught a pretty fantastic sunset over the big rock-- probably what most people expect when visiting Uluru, but having experienced torrential rain on my first sunset viewing a few years back, I was very happy!

The next day was a real test of our stamina as we watched the themometer in the car climb to 34 degrees, then 36, then finally 40! We wanted to see as much of Uluru (Ayers Rock) and Kata Tjuta (The Olgas) as possible, but every time we got out of the car again for another walk to a cave or a trail seemed harder in the blazing heat. I feel like we did see a good chunk of the national park -- caught a great sunset, checked out cave paintings and water holes, and even saw a few lizards just before they dashed back into the scrub. The desert was actually very green when we were there, and there were wildflowers everywhere -- not what my parents pictured at all. The scenery and the colours of the landscape were incredible and it was yet another place that I was thrilled to revisit -- with a much better camera this time -- and seeing Uluru from the plane this time was quite the sight!  Finally, we felt like we'd seen (and sweated) enough and took a break at the hotel pool at Sails in the Desert, which to our surprise was ICE COLD. The desert really is a strange place....

*In case you're wondering, this is not the hotel pool.