Monday, January 7, 2008

nostalgic insomnia

It's been hard, now that we're back home, to find the motivation to actually write the post I'd promised about the last days of our trip. I started writing something shortly after our return, but as we've slowly sunken back into the "real life" we'd left 4-plus months ago, and as I've been struck with the undeniable feeling that "for all my travels, I've gone nowhere," my sense of inspiration seems to have drained away. But in an effort to not completely give in to the inevitable post-trip malaise, I've finished the post that I'd abandoned (also added some funny pics to my entry about the Waitomo caves), and for what it's worth, here it is:

Saturday night, our first night back home, I didn't get to sleep until about 4:30am, woke up the next day around noon, felt surprisingly alert for the most of the day, but then that night, couldn't find my way to La La Land until 5:30 (and Maya, who'd passed right out Saturday night, didn't get to sleep until 6 or so) - strangely, our jetlag seems to be getting worse. It's as if our insides are trying to will their way back to foreign soil.

It didn't help matters that I had just finished watching High Fidelity on TV, which had left me introspective and nostalgic, and then, trying to fall asleep in bed, I was reading this weird-as-fuck book called Samedi the Deafness that our old friend Fish had given to Maya earlier that day when she'd met up with him and a few of her other college friends. If I didn't feel like I was tripping out already, this absurdist little tome was dragging me deeper into a drippy, waking-dream dementia of sorts. (If this sounds like a recommendation, it isn't - I've since given up on reading the book, which, unfortunately, didn't seem to be going anywhere.)

It's really no wonder that Maya and I are all out of whack. The final push home was, as I said in my last post, truly epic - 3 flights over 72-some hours, with a day and a half in Toyko stuck in the middle. The first flight, from Auckland to Bangkok, was 12 hours of hell (though not quite as bad as the 14-hour flight from NYC to Tokyo that kicked off the whole trip) - there were no less than 3 babies in our seating section, and they took turns wailing their pudgy, wobbling, barely human-looking heads off. I watched two movies - the totally unnecessary Invasion of the Body Snatchers re-re-remake, The Invasion, (starring Nicole Kidman, who's becoming increasingly alien-like herself) and the totally unnecessary sequel to an unnecessary sequel to 2 awesome movies, Live Free or Die Hard - both of which sucked. Our next flight, 5-plus hours from Bangkok to Tokyo, was, by comparison, almost relaxing - completely infant-free, it was possibly the quietest flight I've ever been on. I even got in a few winks of rest, but still, when we landed in Tokyo, I was very glad that we'd switched-up our itinerary to include a night's stay on solid Japanese ground - another 12 hours in the air, as had been originally planned, and I'm sure Maya and I would have both lost our shit, hijacked the plane with the plastic cutlery packaged with our air-meals, and brought everyone down with us into a deathly escape at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean.

But if we thought we had paved ourselves a smooth way home by stopping in Tokyo, this delusion was quickly dashed once we arrived at the hotel (we thought) we had booked a few days before. When tried to check in, the staff couldn't seem to find our reservation. The young Japanese man at the frontdesk (who looked all of 15, an impression encouraged by his ridiculously oversized suit jacket) asked us in very broken English if we had a printout of our booking confirmation. We didn't (we had discussed printing one out after we made the reservation in New Zealand, but since we hadn't needed any such printouts over this entire trip, we decided against it), but Maya noticed that there were two computers with free internet access over in the corner of the lobby, and we told the young dude that we could show him our confirmation email. So we logged into my hotmail account, and the first thing we see is a new message from the site through which we had made the reservation; the email had been delivered during our last two flights, and basically, it said that the hotel we were standing in was all booked up - the "confirmation email" we had received in the first place, it turns out, hadn't actually confirmed a room, just that we had tried to book a room. Like we didn't fucking know that.

Maya and I looked at each other, and with a silent, telepathic nod, decided to bluff. We found the original confirmation email, opened it, and showed this to the hotel staff, pretending that the second email didn't even exist. After much bumbling around (they couldn't seem to figure out how to get the printer to work, and because their English wasn't so great they were trying to translate the confirmation e-mail into Japanese via an online translator), they printed out a copy of this, and brought it back to an office behind the frontdesk. Maya and I waited nervously, trying to think up a plan B, which ultimately went something like this: Put our big backpacks into storage in the lockers at the nearby train station, and go to Shibuya and "Love Hotel Hill," and stay in a Love Hotel. The complication here was that, for some unknown reason, none of the 3 or 4 ATMs we'd tried so far were accepting my bank card, and so we had no cash on us to actually pay for a locker - or for a subway ticket to Shibuya, for that matter. In short, we were looking pretty well fucked.

But miraculously, the staff fell for our bluff and when they finally reappeared, they bowed numerous times, apologized profusely, and said that while they did not have our reservation, they did have a room, and they would give us the rate at which we had made our online booking. All was well and good, except that the hotel only accepted cash, of which we had none. This problem was remedied pretty quickly though - we did have a little over $150 in U.S. dollars, so we found a bank, changed this to yen, then we planned to catch the subway to Shinjuku where we knew there was a CitiBank (my bank) from our previous visit to Tokyo, and hopefully we'd be able to sort out my ATM card issues there. On the way to the subway, however, we found a 7-Eleven - from our previous visit we knew that the chain has ATM machines that accept foreign cards, and that proved to be the case here, and we were able to take out some much-needed cash.

Once this last misadventure was out of our way, our day and half in Tokyo was fucking awesome. Tokyo had been wet, hot, and humid when we were there last. Now it was chilly and windswept; the trees, bare; the air, smelling of winter. It was comfortable and familiar in a way that filled us with pride - we knew Tokyo - and yet different enough to be exciting all over again. We went back to "Electric Town" in Akihabara, where we shopped for twisted toys and ogled maids. We went back to Harajuku, where Maya shopped for boots (unfortunately, without success). And just a few blocks from our hotel in Ueno, we stumbled on a little shrine where we noticed a group of maybe 10 men wearing matching kimono-type outfits and standing in formation in the courtyard, holding a long bamboo ladder on their shoulders. Curious, we joined the small cluster of bystanders that had gathered around - this included a middle-aged man nonchalantly holding the leash of possibly the most disgusting dog I have even seen: it was mostly pink, almost completely hairless, with scratches and scars over its body, and a football-sized tumor/goiter dangling from its stomach. The diseased canine was quickly put out of our minds, however, as the men we were watching slowly lifted the bamboo ladder up on one end, standing it up into the sky; they used staves with metal hooks to hold the ladder in place, and then, to Maya's and my amazement, one of the men fearlessly scrambled up the visibly wobbling ladder. Once at the top, he flipped, twisted, and twirled about, balancing himself precariously on the improvised structure, saluting the heavens with various kungfu-like hand gestures and improbable poses.

Eventually, he climbed back down the ladder, improbably still intact, and another man scrambled up, taking his place, and doing his own set of ritualistic acrobatics. This man was followed by yet another. Maya and I looked on, truly astounded, as the few other bystanders around us (all of whom were Japanese, I think) gasped, applauded each move, snapped photos, and shifted to get a better view. It's completely random shit like this that makes traveling in a truly foreign part of the world like Asia so remarkable - there is always a surprise just around the corner; sometimes it's good, sometimes it's bad, but your mind is guaranteed to be blown.

And sometimes your taste buds, too. The one thing we were absolutely determined to do while in Tokyo again was to revisit the restaurant Sushizanmai - the memory of the fish we'd eaten there during our first time in Japan had had us salivating like Pavlov's dogs many a time over the last 3-plus months. And when we went there the night before our final flight back to NYC, the food did not disappoint. Here's just one of the many sushi orders we consumed (till we were sick) that night - clockwise from the top left: fatty tuna, broiled fatty tuna, medium fatty tuna, pickled ginger, egg, chives, and horse mackerel.

I don't know if I'll be able to eat U.S. sushi ever again...

Sunday, January 6, 2008

home is where your ass is

It's 3am, and for those of you who were worried, we're home, back in Krooklyn. Maya is fast asleep, I'm wide awake and jetlagged as fuck. Not sure if I'm still on New Zealand time or Japan time or, more likely, Martian time. Either way, it definitely feels strange to be back after 4 months of backpacking, stranger than I had expected. Our neighborhood seems somehow like a skewed version of my memory of it, and our apartment looks slightly alien, like some artist's recreation of our apartment with almost imperceptible alterations that you can't quite put your finger on but that fuck with your subconscious mind. it doesn't help that are also some unmistakenable alterations as well, care of Maya's niece Anna and her boyfriend, who were housesitting/subletting the place while we were away. For instance, both the DVD player and VCR were mysteriously unplugged from the TV, and the ethernet cable unplugged from our cable modem with the telephone line plugged in where it should have been... There's a cigarette burn in our couch, and when we first came in, no sheets on the bed... Where are we?

The trip back to this final and right now seemingly most foreign of destinations was epic and exhausting - 3 flights spread over 3 days. I'll post about all that shit, most notably our day and half in Tokyo, soon, hopefully tomorrow if the mind clears. Right now I need to try to find sleep.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

out of the darkness and into the light

This afternoon Maya and I begin the long trip home. We have a 12-hour flight from Auckland to Bangkok, then a 2-hour layover, and a 5-and-a-half hour flight from Bangkok to Tokyo. Our original itinerary next had a 5-hour layover in Tokyo and then a 12-plus hour flight back to NYC in store for us, making for a absurd total of 30-plus hours straight traveling time. Fortunately, we were able to reschedule our flight from Tokyo to NYC and sneak in one last day in Tokyo, where we plan to, well, eat sushi. That's the extent of the plan, really - eat sushi and shake off some of jetlag cobwebs from our heads. Maybe the strangest thing about the trip home is that we'll be traveling backward in time - our flight from Tokyo leaves on the evening on January 5th, and even through the ride is over 12-hours long, we'll be arriving home on the same date and at almost exactly the time that we left Japan. Visiting Tokyo feels something like visiting the future anyway, so maybe it makes sense...

Yesterday we drove back to Auckland from Waitomo, an area best known for its insane cave systems and its flourescent biomasses of glow worms. The Kiwis, as their driving suggests, are total maniacs, adrenaline junkies bar none, which makes New Zealand a great place to engage in all sorts of extreme activity that a layperson off the street just wouldn't be allowed to partake in Stateside. For instance, on the caving trip that Maya and I took while in Waitomo, after an almost ridiculously cursory rappeling tutorial, we found ourselves rappeling (or "abseiling," as the Kiwis call it) down two separate long, narrow cave tubes plunging down into the earth. The first channel must have been, at least, 20- or 30-feet deep; the second, no less than twice as long. I had the dubious honor of rappeling down first - even before our guides - which meant I was lowering myself all alone into utter darkness with only the lamp on my helmet to light my way. It was truly amazing - and I was too busy focusing on my rappeling technique and on the twisted formations and tiny passages I had to navigate through to think about the movie, The Descent, which might have made me slightly more hestitant to proceed if I had.

Once inside the cave, we tightrope-walked over a log bridge across a subterranean chasm, were led by our guides through various squeeze-spaces and claustrophobic chambers, and then rode a zip-line (or a "flying fox," as the Kiwis call it) through an unlit cavern hall full of stalactites and stalagmites!

The only thing that wasn't awesome about our spelunking adventure? The totally dorky blue-and-orange jumpsuit coveralls and white rubber boots that we had to wear.

Other highlights of our four days in Waitomo include:
- Walking by flashlight along a nature trail in the middle of the night and occasionally turning off our lights to see thousands of glow worms in the darkened foliage around us.
- Exploring a small but surprisingly deep and winding cave by ourselves and discovering a wall covered in ginormous Wetas, a gnarly prehistoric insect native to New Zealand.
- Taking a boat-ride cave tour and drifting along a subterranean river beneath dense constellations of glow worms.
- Discovering that the goat living next door to our Bed & Breakfast had broken free from its chain and stationed itself outside the door of our bungalow, where it was bumping its horns against the glass, holding us hostage inside.
- Eating our New Year's Eve dinner at the Huhu Cafe, the one good restaurant in tiny Waitomo Village (population: 45), where we were staying - it was our second time in two days eating there, and the place is really amazing, with a totally delectable tapas menu. We had lamb medallions with toasted cous cous and mango chutney, green-lipped mussels with bacon and baked cheese, goat cheese tart with an amazing salad of pears, walnuts, and something called "rocket," to name a few of the dishes sampled.
- Stopping at the Otorohanga Kiwi House & Native Bird Park on the way back to Auckland and seeing the Kiwi bird in the flesh. We felt like we couldn't leave New Zealand without actually seeing one of the creatures, since they are such a part of the country's culture (such as it is) - not only do the locals call themselves "Kiwis" but every native brand's logo seems to feature the bird in some way. And what a strange, silly (and surprisingly big) bird it is. When we first saw the female Kiwi (the House has two birds - a male and a female) running inside her pen with her awkward loping gait, Maya and I both started laughing outloud.

But for all our adventures, in many ways, driving around New Zealand reminded us of being in small-town America - except with crazier accents, crazier driving, and many, many more sheep. It also reminded us of why we live in New York City - which makes coming home just a little less difficult.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

the road to mordor

First off, Happy New Year everyone (if anyone is still reading - not sure cause you lazy bastards aren't commenting!). I've fallen a bit behind on this thing because decent internet access has been surprising hard to come by in New Zealand - it was faster in Laos! Anyway...

On Friday Maya and I left Rotorua, feeling a little underwhelmed and a lot poorer financially (shit is so expensive in New Zealand that it's almost inevitable that we'll end up feeling ripped off); we drove about 3 hours south to Tongariro National Park where we planned to take on the Tongariro Crossing, a 17-kilometer (about 11-mile) hike that usually takes at least 7 hours to complete, and which, I just found out a second ago, actually had two people die on it last year. Basically, it's no relaxing stroll along the beach, and while Maya and I have some serious hiking under our belts - we made a 7-hour climb halfway down and back up the Grand Canyon last year - we're not exactly what you'd consider to be the outdoorsy, trekking types, so we (particularly Maya) were a little nervous going in. Our trepidation wasn't helped by the fact that we had booked only one full day (the next day, Saturday) in the area so we were praying for the weather to be on our side, and yet, as we drove through the National Park to our guesthouse, we found ourselves in an absolutely torrential downpour. Then as we arrived at our accomodations, an attractively rustic-looking ski lodge, we saw the hikers who had been stuck on the trail during the rain returning from their trek, and they looked miserable, all drenched from head to foot, covered in mud, and limping.

That night we packed our backpacks - with multiple layers of cloths, snacks, lots of water - and went to bed around 10:30 - the shuttle driving us to the head of the trail left at 7:30am the next morning and we had breakfast before that at 7, so we set our alarm for 6. Now, you should know that Maya has had an issue for most of our trip - the night preceding any activity that you would really want solid rest before (like, when we hiked the unrestored Great Wall), she hasn't been able to sleep. And such was the case that night. Even with the help of two pills and earplugs, when the alarm started beeping at 6am, Maya had only gotten a few winks of rest, and she was fucking pissed. "I'm not going to do it!" she said quite for a few times of the Crossing, "I can't do it." But while Maya can whine, pout, and scream with the best of them, when push comes to shove, she's pretty fucking badass, and when she finally calmed down, stepped into the hallway, which was freezing cold, and was shocked into awakedness by a cold blast of outside air, she decide to go for it.

Good thing we did, because the weather ended up being perfect, and Tongiriro Crossing ended up being possibly the most amazing hike we've gone on anywhere. We climbed through Martian-looking plains...

...up crumbly lava flows, past snow-capped peaks...

...above the rather vaginal "Red Crater"...

...right to the banks of surreally colored mountain-top mineral lakes...

...and to the side of the active volcano Mount Ngauruhoe. I think I said of the Great Wall of China that it seemed like something out of The Lord of the Rings; well, Mount Ngauruhoe literally is something of The Lord of the Rings - it was the stand-in for Mount Doom in Peter Jackson's movies.

And the long, steep, exhausting climb up the side of Ngauruhoe was the road to Mordor in the films. Like true nerds, Maya and I joked about Gollum hiding behind the corner of various crags and recited lines of Frodo and Sam's dialogue as we made our somewhat less epic and arduous journey (we finished the Crossing in just about 8 hours, including breaks for lunch and to snap hundreds of photos), feeling not unlike two little hobbits awed in the face of nature's majesty.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

kiwi xmas

It's the day after Christmas here in New Zealand, or as they call it, Boxing Day. Don't ask me what the fuck Boxing Day is, but whereas nothing was open yesterday here in the rotten-eggs-smelling town of Rotorua, almost nothing is almost here today. (It took Maya and I 3 internet cafes before we found one that was open.)

Christmas away from home is always weird, I guess. Holidays (or birthdays, anniversaries, any of the things that normal people celebrate, really) aren't a big deal in my family, but Christmas has been the one day a year when I've always come home from wherever I was, and then, with my parents and at least one of my two brothers, went for dinner at my Aunt's place, where I saw her, her husband, my two cousins, and my grandfather. I don't see my immediate family that often, let alone my extended family, but I can't remember a year when I wasn't there for Christmas (there might have been one - I just can't remember it), so it is weird to be away, and so far away.

New Zealand has been beautiful - and fucking annoying. Part of this has to be our current state of mind as our trip draws to a close - it's like being stuck right in the middle between two worlds (home and halfway around the globe from home) and not being sure where we'd rather be, so we're not quite happy, no matter how we look at things. But it's also been annoying because, well, New Zealand is annoying. The weather has been annoying as fuck so far - it will be the most gorgeous blue-skied and sunny day one second; the next, you're caught under a thunderhead that's pissing down rain even as you can see those sunny blue skies right ahead taunting you. The driving has been annoying as fuck, too - whereas the roads are long, straight, and largely traffic-less in Australia (at least where we were), the roads in New Zealand are winding, narrow, occasionally unpaved, tipping over vertiginous cliffsides, and the native drivers are fucking maniacs - they drive retardedly fast even on the most serpentine strips, and because the roads are generally one-lane and full of blind bends, they end up tailgating you when they think you driving too slowly (i.e. not suicidally). The owner of our guesthouse in Rotorua explained that everyone in New Zealand starts driving at 15, and so there are a lot of inexperienced, hormonal drivers out there, and as a result a lot of bad driving, and a lot of accidents. Then there are the prices - like Australia, shit seems mad expensive. Of course, we're spoiled, having just come from Southeast Asia, but shit really is expensive. It's almost impossible to get dinner at a half-decent restuarant for less than $50 each; a music CD averages about $30; and most of the attractions charge, at least, $25 per person admission fees. We're fucking unemployed, so this shit is gonna break the bank quick.

Still, despite such obstacles, we managed to see some amazing shit. While staying in a beachfront hostel in Whitianga on the Coromandel Peninsula for a few days, we hiked through the bush, past rolling pastures...

...through tangled jungle, and by majestic coastline... the world-famous Cathedral Cove.

Another day we went on a boat ride through the choppy surf (shit was like a rollercoaster) along the rugged, volcanic coastline, visiting small islands and strange crags rising from the ocean.

And in Rotorua (which is plagued by that aforementioned rotten-egg smell due to the town's biggest tourist draw: it's sulfurous geothermal activity ((geysers, bubbling mud pools, hot springs, volcanos, that sort of shit)), we walked through Wai-O-Tapu geothermal park, where we watched the Lady Knox Geyser erupt some 30 feet into the air...

...and walked among amazing formations like the Champagne Pool...

...and the Devil's Bath, all bubbling up from the earth's hot, acidic, mineral-pigmented core.

We also went to Mitai, a Maori village site where we ate traditional Maori food called hangi (meat and potatoes cooked on hot stones under the earth for 3 hours), watched a cultural show (not as cheesy as it sounds) complete with singing, dancing, a weapons demonstration, and the infamous Maori pre-battle pump-up ritual, Haka, which goes something like this:

After the show, our guide - this huge, intimidating, tattooed Maori woman - led us through the dark jungle to her tribe's sacred spring, which had massive eels swimming in it (she claimed that they had swum there over a period of 3 years from California and would likely swim back at some point to die), and had the clearest water Maya and I had ever seen. The spring also had glow worms gathered around its bank, creating eerie flourescent constellations over the water; our guide explained that the glow worms were actually not "worms" but the larvae of a particular type of fly - maggots, in other words - and that the glow was actually due to an enzyme in the larvae's feces. Basically, we were oohing and ahing over a bunch of maggots' glowing shit. Still, by the time we left Mitai around 10:30pm (we'd been there for nearly 4 hours), we felt like we'd learned a lot about the Maori traditions (including their insane facial tattoos), which was cool since the Maori are a much bigger minority in New Zealand than we had realized (everyone working at the Auckland airport, for instance, seemed to be Maori).

As for our New Zealand Christmas, it was a strange one indeed. We spent most of it hiking through the bush right around our rather remote moutainside/lakeside guesthouse just outside of Rotorua, a location we selected mostly to be away from that rotten-egg smell. True to the New Zealand weather pattern so far, it was raining for much of our hike, but it was still a pretty awesome time, something like walking through a prehistoric landscape of massive ferns and towering redwoods, everything covered with moss and strange fungi. We didn't see any dinosaurs, but the lake we were walking along - Tikitapu (Blue Lake) - is reputed to have its own lake monster, named Taniwha. While we didn't spot the beast, we did see lots of New Zealanders laying out "sunning" themselves and/or picnicing on the lake's sandy beach, and swimming, waterskiiing, and jetskiing on its waters, even though it was freezing cold and raining out. Those Kiwis are fucking crazy.

Drenched after our hike, and after some lunch, we drove into Rotorua, which was basically a ghost town and walked through the hot springs and bubbling mud pools in the free-access Kuirau Park. They were kind of underwhelming - but the playground in the park was awesome, all futuristic-looking and interactive, much cooler than any playground we'd ever seen in the States. We played on that for a while - two Maori kids stared at us the whole time like we were crazy - until the rain got too hard and we had to retreat to our car.

When we returned to the guesthouse, a huge French family has arrived for the night (which they would be spending in the room right next to ours), including mom, dad, two little girls (one 5; the other, 6), and a tiny baby, not even 6-months old yet. As we stepped into the main door, the baby was wailing its head off and burping - we were not happy. This whole trip, we'd been talking about how annoying all the Frnech tourists are, and how they all seem to bring their half-naked children along with them to the most ungodly regions of the world. "French babies" had become a common, half-joking pet peeve of ours - Conan O'Brien does a hilarious impression of a French baby sometimes, and I would do my (not-so-good) impression of his impression in dismay whenever we were confronted with some new Gallic brat. It seemed somehow fitting that the Christian God would have given us, the atheist and the Jew, our own French-baby roommate as gift on his son's birthday.

But as we cooked our rather bizarre Christmas dinner in the guesthouse's shared kitchen - a tomato, scallion, and feta cheese salad (Christmas colors, it turns out!); BBQ lamb chops; garlic and butter potatoes; and a horrible store-made apple pie that made me wish dearly for my Aunt Ellen's delicious homemade pie - the clearly very harried mom of this French family told us sympathetically that her baby was "not a screamer" and that we shouldn't have any problems sleeping. And as it turned out, the French baby made hardly a peep all night, and though I haven't gotten a solid night's rest since we arrived in New Zealand, Maya and I both slept better than we have in days. Our own Christmas miracle.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

the end is nigh

Though we'd only spent a week in Australia, by the time we left a few days ago, we felt pretty fucking satisfied. We'd snorkeled and scuba-dived at the Great Barrier Reef, we'd hung in a town full of kangaroos, we'd driven through "the bush," seen massive crocs chomping chicken wings and massive endangered turtles laying their eggs. We'd even enjoyed a stomach-bursting Aussie BBQ, care of our awesome Bed & Breakfast owners. Stuffed with grilled meats, and a couple liters of Bundaberg's famous ginger beer and rum-and-cola-in-a-can, we flew off for 2 weeks in New Zealand, the final country and the final 14 days of our epic trip.

And the first day we arrived in Auckland, New Zealand, an earthquake hit the country. But it was on the other side of North Island (which is the half of the nation we're spending our time in), and we didn't even feel a quiver. Which isn't to say that we're feeling fine...

There are definitely things we look forward to about coming home. We miss our friends and family a lot. And it will be great not living out of a backpack, and finally sleeping in our own bed. But I'd be lying if I didn't say that the imminent end of our journey has our hearts heavy and has a dark cloud hanging over the New Zealand landscape, as beautiful as it is (more on that to come). But while this is almost certainly the most awesome thing that we've done in our lives so far, we don't plan on it being the most awesome thing we've ever done, so maybe we shouldn't feel so bummed out after all.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

down under

With Malaysia sitting atop our list of countries to revisit (we'd made the most new friends there, spent the second shortest time - just a week - there, and of course, there's the fucking Thaipusam festival still to see), Maya and I headed off for a week in Australia. Arriving in Sydney felt at once comforting after the last 3 months of Asian insanity (we can actually drink the tap water?! No squat toilets?!), but also strangely anticlimactic. A safe western city - yawn. (An opera house shaped like a bunch of big clam shells - double yawn.) And after Southeast Asia, shit seemed really expensive (and even compared to the U.S., it is). The next day we were flying down to Hervey Bay, and from there we were renting a car to drive to Bundaberg and Bargara Beach, where we'd be spending 4 days, visiting the Great Barrier Reef, among other activities; so we spent much of our afternoon in Sydney looking for CDs to listen to during our forthcoming drive - the new Serj Tankian solo album and the new Dillinger Escape Plan album. There were tons of record stores near our guesthouse (which was in a trendy, Village-like area called Newtown), but we couldn't find the Serj album for less than 20 Aussie dollars (which is just about 20 U.S. dollars!) and the Dillinger for less than 30 dollars(!) (so we bought the former, passed on the latter - both are really fucking good, by the way; a warning from Maya about the Serj CD: "The songs might get stuck in your head and drive you insane!").

But if Sydney seemed anticlimactic after everything that has come before it on our trip, once we got down to the coast and started driving around "the bush," as the Aussies call it, the great Down Under did not disappoint. First, there was just the view from the plane of the coast, the ocean, the islands, and the Reef - simply stunning. We couldn't help but be filled with anticipation.

Then there was the driving - my first time driving on the "other" side of the road, which has been a bit of an adventure but not nearly as difficult as I had feared (my biggest problem is that I keep turning on the windshield wipers whenever I try to turn-signal). And the landscape has been amazing - wild, wide-open countryside; vast, dramatic skies; perfect clouds...

...and, we were particularly excited to come across, the occasional kangaroo-crossing street sign.

Most of all, it has been all those crazy Aussie animals that have made our time here so outstanding - in the last 5 days, we've had run-ins with technicolor fish, 4 of the 5 most venomous snakes in the world, hungry crocs, suburban kangaroos, a ginormous nesting turtle - and a little dog named Buddy (who belongs to the owners of the B&B, Golden Cane, we're staying at) that even Maya (who's generally terrified of dogs) can't help but like...

Technicolor Fish: On our first full day along the coast, Maya and I woke at 5am, had our "brekkie" (as the Aussies call breakfast), drove an hour and a half through the bush, and went on a 9-hour trip out on the Great Barrier Reef. First, there was a 90-minute boat ride bouncing over the high waves - we saw at least two other passengers puking from motion sickness - and then, once above the Reef, Maya and I snorkeled and even scuba-dived (our first time doing the latter) in the midst of the most ridiculous menagerie of tropical fish - I don't know any of their names (parrot fish? Long, thin tube-shaped fish?), but it seemed like basically every species in Finding Nemo, other than the sharks.

4 of the 5 Most Venomous Snakes in the World: Another day we went to this place called Snakes Down Under, where this crazy Steve Irwin-esque Aussie dude, Ian Jenkins, runs a little reptile zoo, where he handles 4 of the 5 most venomous snakes in the world (all 5 hail from Australia). Visitors aren't allowed to handle any of those, but they are allowed to handle a big python - and since I had just gotten a snake tattoo before Maya and I left the States, and since this trip is, in some ways, supposed to be about gaining new strength and facing old fears (a fear of snakes being one of mine), I felt like I had to partake. And you know what, I really wasn't freaked out at all - it's been so long since I've actually tested my supposed fear of snakes that, it seems, the fear has faded away without me even realizing it.

Hungry Crocs: At Snakes Down Under, this Jenkins dude also feeds what turns out to be an absolutely humongous crocodile. We had no idea of the beast's proportions as it was laying at the bottom of a small muddy pool in its holding pen; then Jenkins - holding a fresh, fully feathered chicken wing in his hand, and wearing a Santa Claus cap on top of his Paul Hogan hat - slapped the water with a long bamboo pole and the croc, which must have been 10 feet long, exploded out of the surface, sending water everywhere as if a bomb had gone off. The creature then crawled after him and snapped the wing from his fingers with an awful crunch. That's one powerful motherfucking beast - and one crazy motherfucking Aussie.

Suburban Kangaroos: Another day Maya and I drove to this small beach town called Woodgate, where, according to our B&B owners, kangaroos are known to roam the streets and backyards. As soon as we got there (around 12:30pm), we spotted three kangaroos bounding across the road ahead of us, but when we asked a grizzled old local when/where was best for 'roo-watching, he told us that the "nasty pests" are "like Mexicans" during the midday, spenting it just "sleeping in the shade," and really only come out in the afternoon. So, with some time to kill, we decided to go swimming - the beach was virtually deserted; the surf, high; the ocean, bathwater-warm. We didn't have any towels or our swimming suits on us, so we just stripped down to our undies and jumped in.

After a few hours and a quick lunch, we drove slowly through the town, looking for kangaroos - and they were fucking everywhere! Whole crowds of them - huge adult males, cute little ones, and even mothers with babies in their pouches - hanging out in people's yards along Woodgate's perfect suburban lanes, just lounging, sitting, standing, grazing, and staring back at us! It was bizarre and amazing, everything we could have hoped for - and yet as we repeatedly stopped our car, gawked, and snapped endless pictures, the locals just continued with whatever they were doing, almost oblivious to what was to them an everyday presence. Maya and I could only conclude that if monitor lizards are Bangkok's squirrels, then apparently, kangaroos are Woodgate's.

A Ginormous Nesting Turtle: Perhaps our most remarkable animal encounter was later that same day, when we went to the Mon Repos Conservation Park, a turtle rookery where visitors can see endangered loggerheads laying their eggs during their late fall/early winter nesting season. Maya and I got there around 6:30pm, and along with a group of maybe 40 other visitors, we were led by down to the quickly darkening beach, where, we were told, a turtle had been spotted crawling onto the beach. As we approached, however, we saw that the creature - which was huge, 3 or 4 feet long, and maybe half as wide - was making a U-turn back toward the water. The female scientist leading us explained that the turtle must have seen us and been scared off, but she said that another turtle was up on the beach not too far away and had already begun digging out her nest. Unfortunately, when another scientist went to check on this turtle, she discovered that it was a very young female who didn't seem to know how to properly dig her nest, and she had already abandoned her first attempt and was on to a second; the researchers didn't want us to disturb her in the middle of her struggles, so they told us to all sit on the sand and wait. As we were waiting, we spotted a dark shape emerging from the water directly below us; it was, most likely, the original turtle re-emerging from the ocean. The first scientist told us that we would have to all shuffle over while keeping low to the ground to get out of the way of the turtle without her seeing us and getting scared away again, so, in a truly absurd scene, all 40-plus of us crab-walked and crawled through the sand as the loggerhead lumbered out of the water and up onto the sand, seeming to follow us the whole way, forcing everyone to crab-walk and crawl even further. (Our undies were still wet from our earlier swim, so Maya got to do all this in a skirt without any panties on! Don't worry - the skirt was long and rather tight, so there was no free show for anyone.) Then we sat frozen for a long time as the turtle set up almost right next to the group and started making her nest. We ended up watching her for over 2-hours (till 10:30pm or so), as she meticulously dug out her egg chamber with her two back flippers, as she lay 129 eggs, as she filled up and buried over the nest with sand, and then, as she crawled back into the ocean. It was a ridiculously arduous process; big loggerheads are clumsy on land, and this one was clearly exhausted by the end. Plus, the turtles expel the salt that accumulates in them during all their time in the ocean through their eyes in what are known as "turtle tears," which meant that as this loggerhead labored through the night, she appeared to be crying. What made the experience all the more powerful and poignant was that this turtle, like many others, had misjudged her nesting spot, placing it below the high-tide mark, which meant that, if left there, her eggs would all drown. In such cases, however, after the turtles return to sea, the scientists move the eggs to higher nests that they have made themselves; and in this case, Maya and I got to help carry the freshly-laid turtle eggs into the new nest. Unlike snakes, I've always loved turtles - I had many of them as pets as a kid, and there's something about their solitary nature, the way they carry their homes on their back, their slow-and-steady approach to life, their old, craggy, wizen faces that really resonates with me. As Maya and I watched the massive loggerhead crawl back through the darkness into the ocean, knowing that her species is facing possible extinction, and that for all her hard work, the nest she had just made would have been doomed if it had not been for the scientists here, I realized that I had discovered another thing I like about turtles: their persistence in the face of futility, fighting the good fight even when defeat seems assured. Which is really what it feels like sometimes, trying to live a good life in this world of ours.