Sunday, 7 November 2010

Denham, Australia: Where the wind and the sun battle for dominance

When we woke up in Denham the morning after our arrival, it was rather a surprise to find the beach literally a stone's throw away on one side of our door, and a grocery store on the other. It had been so dark the night before that we hadn't noticed either feature. The grocery store was particularly convenient, since the main task of the day was to procure food. I always find it interesting to cook while traveling, since every step of the process involves compromise. You try to cook things that don't require too many ingredients and won't produce too many leftovers, since you won't be able to store them and take them with you; you are constrained by the dishes and implements that are available in your accommodations, or by how imaginative you can be in figuring out how to prepare something without tools that you would normally use; perhaps most importantly, you are at the mercy of the local grocer, who determines what food you will be able to purchase. The Denham grocery store turned out to be a bit of a surprise, since it looked rather small and unimpressive from the outside (this is true of many things in WA), but then had a bizarre selection of foods on the inside. For instance, we ran across tofu, of all things--an ingredient I still haven't been able to locate in our local grocery store in Falmouth. Another thing that struck me funny was finding a package of Virginia ham (as in, not just in the style of Virginia ham, but actually from Virginia) in the sandwich meat section.

After buying our rations, we set off to explore the rest of the town on foot. First we headed across to the beach in order to dip our toes in the water and see how the temperatures compared to those of the Atlantic just off the Cornish coast. Unfortunately, because the Australian spring and summer were only just beginning, the water was still chilly; however, "chilly" by Australian standards is still "comfortable" by British standards, so it was better than nothing. The real downer was the incessant breeziness along the shore. Swimming in cold water is one thing, but swimming in cold water and then emerging into cool, blustery winds is another. The one advantage of the wind, though, was that it kept the flies at bay. Prior to going to Australia, I was unaware that flies were such a problem, but it was a lesson I learned quickly. Where we were, at least, they didn't bite, but they did perch in a very obvious and emphatic way in obnoxious locations--the corner of your eye, your lip, up your nose, on your forehead (they really like faces). Heaven forbid you left your car window down; if you did, you could find yourself driving hundreds of miles listening to the flies incessantly buzzing while bashing themselves against the windows.

In any case, it didn't take us long to walk down to the edge of town and back. Even though it is a fairly well-known tourist destination, Denham hasn't experienced the sort of tourist-induced building boom that you see in beachfront places in the US--a rather nice change of pace. It apparently can be quite busy during the tourist season, but we were there just before all the visitors arrived, so many of the shops and restaurants were open only for limited hours. We did find an internet cafe where we could put our iPhones to good work. While we were surfing and e-mailing from the comfort of the patio, I got a good look at a new species of local bird with whom I was to become very familiar--the singing honeyeater:

[This photo is poached from the Canberra Ornithologists Group--I only wish I had taken it.]

This species is a great example of what is so amazing about birding in other countries. No matter how pretty or interesting your own homegrown birds are, you can't help but grow used to them after a while. When you go somewhere else, even the most common, ordinary birds seem exciting. In the case of Australia, they often don't just seem exciting, they really are. Australia, after all, is chock-full of biological excitement, full as it is of things that can't be found anywhere else; many of the plants and animals aren't even closely related to species found elsewhere. Later in the day we went to the oceanfront, where I sat on the beach shivering while my husband plunged into the cool water in order to look for interesting marine life. Sure enough, he located one of these and herded it towards me so I could take a peek:

[Thanks to the Australian Museum for this photo of a sea hare. Sea hares are perhaps not the most photogenic of all marine creatures, but they look very graceful in action--a video would be better than a snapshot, I think.]

I apologize for waxing eloquent on biology, but my husband and I are, after all, biologists, and the predominant reason we decided to go to the Shark Bay area was to see the local wildlife. On our second day, we drove up to Monkey Mia, a resort/research station about 15 minutes outside of town. Monkey Mia is sort of a tiny town unto itself, since it has a restaurant and bar and tiny shop and post office, one set of facilities for the tourists, and another set of facilities for the biologists. They do dolphin feedings every morning so that visitors can see the dolphins up close; that is, perhaps, a bit Sea World-y for some people, but you can also explore the outback in a number of other more "realistic" ways, including 4x4 adventures through otherwise unaccessible wilderness, camel safaris, Aborigine-led walkabouts, snorkeling, hikes along the nature trails, and cruises. My husband and I elected to partake in the last of these three options, spread out across three days. On the first day we took a long walk along the coast, where I added many new species to my mental list of Australian fauna; the numbers of cormorants were phenomenal and we passed several inlets where they congregated with pelicans, ducks, gulls, and terns--hundreds of birds just sitting and staring out to sea. We came across two other interesting animal specimens, but both were dead--a sea snake that had washed up on shore (not pictured, because I am not that weird) and a long-desiccated turtle:

[I was glad to discover this was quite an old skeleton; I have been told by several people that the smell of rotting, recently-deceased sea turtle is one of the most appalling stenches imaginable.]

Luckily, we were to see both of these species alive later in the trip. Further along, we came across a small tidal pool filled with hermit crabs and marine snails. We amused ourselves by conducting minor behavioral experiments and filming the results with my iPhone. (Yes, this really is what biologists do on their honeymoons.) Later, I wandered off to look (unsuccessfully) for birds in the bushes, while my husband went for a brief snorkel. He saw a few more sea hares and some flat fish, but the sightings of the day were two rays that he startled off the bottom, plus a green turtle browsing in the eel grass.

The following day, we headed to the aquarium just outside of town. On our way there, we encountered our first emus:

[I was so excited about running across not one, but two emus, right next to the side of the road, that at first I didn't pull my camera out at all. When I did, I started off by shooting two videos, and only after that took a still photo. Too bad the bird is a bit far-off, which prevents you from seeing the iridescence on the head/neck and the crazy texture of the body feathers.]

When we arrived at the aquarium, I was a bit worried because, yet again, it looked a bit unkempt from the outside, but the trip ended up being worthwhile. The display consisted of several circular tanks filled with coral fish, squid, eels, a sea snake, lobsters, and juvenile turtles; a kiddie-pool-like rectangular pool filled with small sharks, skates, and fish; a pool with a couple dozen large fish; and a deep circular tank with several small and medium-sized sharks. We had a guided tour of the facility and though our guide was quite young, he was very knowledgeable and funny; he reminded me of a less manic version of Jeff Corwin. The most poignant part of the tour was the bit centered around the tank with the juvenile turtles:

[The sea turtle tank. The turtle at the back is in the midst of diving deeper; the turtle in the front is, alas, not able to perform such a maneuver.]

Both of the turtles in this tank were less than a year old and had been brought to the aquarium after being found, injured, in the wild. The one in the back, who you can see diving deeper into the tank, had some sort of flipper injury from which he appeared to be recovering nicely. The one in the front, on the other hand, is currently in quite a precarious position. Like an increasing proportion of marine wildlife, this guy has ingested plastic refuse. Because it is not biodegradable, plastic accumulates in the water, from streams to rivers and eventually to the seas; although it is broken down into increasingly smaller pieces, it never goes away. Organisms like this turtle eat those small pieces, and if they eat enough of them, they do what the plastic does--float on top of the water. This particular turtle has been nicknamed "Bob" because all he can do is bob on top of the water. This is not a very handy trait in a species that needs to dive in order to hunt. The biologists at the aquarium are hoping that Bob will eventually pass enough plastic out of his system that he stops floating, but if he doesn't he will end up living in an aquarium for the rest of his life.

But on to happier topics. That evening, we headed back to Monkey Mia in order to hop aboard the sunset cruise. All the Monkey Mia cruises involve a catamaran called the Shotover, which is decorated with a very clever emblem:

[At first I thought this was just a gigantic hibiscus, but then I noticed that each petal is an animal common to the bay.]

For the sunset cruise, you are encouraged to pack a picnic, including alcoholic beverages if you like, and have a relaxed dinner while watching the sun set over the bay. We didn't see much in the way of wildlife (except for the seemingly endless stream of cormorants flying back and forth), but we did hear some interesting tales from the ship's crew as well as from the Australian couple sitting next to us. The sunset was quite impressive, as was the waxing moon high in the sky, accompanied by two bright planets (Venus and Jupiter?).

The following morning, we reported back to the pier in order to board the Shotover for an all-day wildlife cruise. Our first sighting was a sea snake (alive this time), after which we ran across dozens and dozens of dugongs munching on eel grass. At first, we were quite far away (there are laws regulating how close to the dugongs ships can purposely go), but then we had some dugongs approach us and swim near the sides of the boat. It is utterly pointless to try to photograph dugongs unless you have a great camera and vantage point, otherwise all you'll see is a brown splotch underneath the green water; in fact, lots of people who were taking photos were joking about how they'd look back at the pictures later and wonder why they took so many shots of the ocean. But, to help you imagine what we were experiencing, I have poached another picture:

[Thanks to Richard Seaman, the "Flying Kiwi," for this view of a dugong. As you can see, dugongs are larger than dolphins and much more brownish.]

We caught brief glimpses of a loggerhead turtle that came up for air and then dived under the water again; we also saw several pods of dolphins, including some that were being observed by the resident biologists. Although we were hoping for possibly a whale (one had recently been seen in the bay) or a shark or a couple rays, we struck out. Still, it was lovely to be out on the ocean all day, and to do so in a place where it was actually warm and comfortable to do so (unlike in the UK, where it is often chilly even in the summer).

Because we still had a bit of energy and daylight left once the cruise was over, we decided to head back to the other side of town, past the aquarium, to Eagle Bluff. The name is a bit of a misnomer, since actually you are more likely to see osprey out there, the ubiquitous cormorants and gulls, and possibly some parrots that nest on the rocky outcroppings of a little island just offshore. From our vantage point on the bluff, we could see straight through the crystal-clear water to everything that was going on under the surface. We watched cormorants swimming around after fish, only to emerge and have gulls try to steal their hard-won prey. We also saw a couple of rays, languidly flapping along just above the sea floor. The flies became a bit aggressive and we had to flee back to our car after a short while, but as we were departing I briefly caught sight of two enormous birds gliding along the shore. I will never be sure, but I think they may have been albatrosses--my first ever. Hopefully one day I will have a confirmed sighting of these birds (and a better view).

Thus drew to a close our time in Denham, but not our last adventure in the north. We had to reach Jurien Bay by the end of the day, since that was the half-way point between Denham and our next major destination, Nornalup. Jurien Bay wasn't too far away, though, which gave us time to stop and explore a bit as we traveled southward. On a whim, we pulled over to see Shell Beach, which is known for its blinding white beach composed entirely of crushed shells (hence the name):

[My husband gets his last taste of the Indian Ocean during our brief visit to Shell Beach.]

Our next stop was one of two places we went after being inspired by Bill Bryson's Down Under: Hamelin Bay, to see the stromatolites. Stromatolites are the structures formed by accretions of sediment secreted by cyanobacteria. I know that doesn't sound very exciting, but some of the stromatolites we saw are several thousand years old, and they may be representative of some of the first life forms to emerge on Earth. They thrive at Hamelin Bay because its geographical layout is such that the bay is rather isolated and shallow; as a result, it is both relatively undisturbed and intensely saline, allowing the cyanobacteria to go about their business without any interruptions. Stromatolite formations vary in color and size and height and layout, and we saw quite a variety at Hamelin Bay:

[Trust me, stromatolites look more interesting in person.]

The weather had become increasingly warmer as we stayed in Denham, and this particular day was the warmest yet. As you can see from the background in the photo above, the sand at Hamelin Bay was brilliantly white. The 10-minute walk from the car to the stromatolites was intense--baking sun, blinding sand, incessant breeze. As annoying as the breeze usually was, it was a godsend here because we otherwise would have been miserably hot. We got a good taste of how harsh the outback could be--and we were only out in the elements for about a half-hour, during a relatively cool time of year. I cannot imagine what it would be like to live in that place--where, I might add, many people do not have air conditioning--during the summer. It was a relief to get back in the car, crank up the A/C, and down a bottle of water.

The rest of our day was spent retracing our steps back towards Perth. Around sunset, we decided to ignore the advice of our GPS navigator and take the scenic route the last few miles to Jurien Bay. It was a pretty drive (prettier than the scrub we had been seeing earlier), and we did not have much trouble finding our bed-and-breakfast, which was only about 5 minutes outside of town. Unfortunately, upon arrival we discovered that we could only pay in cash. That meant we needed to go to town to find an ATM so we could pay up in the morning. We decided to take advantage of the trip and try to find a restaurant where we could eat dinner. This was a bit of a tall order, given that it was a smallish town and we were heading out past the normal dinner hour. However, it turned out that the major complication was not associated with what would be on offer in Jurien Bay, but with whether or not we could actually get there. Since we hadn't quite understood our hostess' directions, we decided to rely on our sat-nav to point us toward the nearest ATM. As we followed the instructions, we became increasingly uneasy at how we seemed to be driving away from lights, toward houses, and into a very dark area. Our suspicions were confirmed when, while sitting in front of someone's driveway on a dead-end street, we were declared to have reached our destination. *sigh* On the up side, as we sat there we saw a kangaroo hop across our path and start digging its way under a fence at the side of the road; that answered a question I'd had earlier about whether the fences acted as 'roo corrals (apparently not).

Eventually we got ourselves into town (without the aid of the navigation system this time, thanks). When we pulled in to a shopping center to use the ATM, we happened to notice a small diner still open for business. The menu featured all the standard fried, meaty sorts of dishes we'd been seeing everywhere, but, remarkably, they also had a huge range of Thai food. The place was owned and run by an Australian man, his Thai wife, and their children. The wife whipped up a tofu pad thai for me and a green curry for my husband, and they were amazing--authentic Thai cuisine late at night in a small town in the middle of nowhere at the extreme western edge of Australia. Unexpected, and delicious. (I should point out that Australia has quite a large number of Asian immigrants, but, as you might imagine, the majority of the population is on the east coast, closer to Asia. All the same, we routinely saw a huge variety of Asian ingredients in supermarkets, even in places where we weren't seeing many Asian faces. I got the impression that, culinarily speaking, the Australians and Asians have a link similar to that found between the British and Indians in the UK, where the most popular dish in the nation is chicken tikka masala).

Cash obtained and dinner eaten, we reported back to our spacious B&B to relax with a bit of television after a long day's driving. Because we were located out in the countryside, away from streetlights, we had an amazing view of the southern hemisphere constellations. As I was to find out the following morning, our pastoral location also offered some prime birdwatching opportunities, a feature that is definitely something worth paying for in cash.

Next up: The final leg of our Australian honeymoon journey, during which we see a most amazing moonrise, walk in the canopies of tingle trees, paddle up the Frankland River, watch kookaburras forage in our yard, and see the cutest bird in the world.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Perth to Shark Bay: Wide open spaces...and a few kangaroos

There was no way to avoid a very unromantic first day of our honeymoon; we were starting off the day in Perth and needed to end the day in Denham, and that meant we had to drive 841 km (approximately 523 miles, or 10.5 hours) all in one go. When I was a child, I used to think that extravagantly long car trips were fun, but that was when I could sit in the back seat listening to music, reading books, snacking on Wheat Things and Twizzlers, and asking my dad to pull over every 20 minutes so I could have a pee. Now, of course, I have to be involved in driving or, at the very least, navigating, which means I also have to worry about running out of gasoline or locating the nearest toilet or passing slow drivers in the single car-length of space where the road has a dotted center line. Driving in new places can be particularly stressful, even with the help of a GPS unit, because you are surrounded by new and unexpected stimuli, but it can also be entertaining for the same reason. Here are a few of the things that Australia's roadways have to offer:
  • Road trains. When I read Bill Bryson's account of Australia, he frequently mentioned heart-pounding encounters with road trains, so I was really excited, though a bit nervous, to experience these first-hand. Soon after my husband and I left the city limits of Perth and began our drive through rural WA, we passed a warning sign indicating that we were entering road train country and should be on the lookout for road trains that were as long as 35 km. For those of you who aren't used to thinking in scientific units, 35 km is 21 miles. Yes, that's right, a 21-mile-long vehicle, not over on some tracks parallel to the road, but actually on the road with you. My husband and I kept trying to figure out how the drivers could possibly handle such long and unwieldy vehicles, and what they would do if something went wrong somewhere in the middle. Surely it would be impossible to maintain any control? After a while, when we'd passed our first few road trains and found them to be only 2-3 cars long, we were feeling pretty disappointed in the lack of drama; then we passed another sign that said to be on the lookout for road trains that were 35 m long. In other words, approximately 100 feet. Obviously, someone had thought it would be amusing to play a little joke by manipulating the previous sign; there aren't actually any road trains 21 miles long (which is probably much better for everyone's safety and sanity!). As you might imagine, then, road trains, with 2-3 cars that might extend about 100 feet behind the cab, are nothing more than semis. In fact, none of them were any bigger or more dangerous-looking than semis I've passed in the US. What a letdown! All the same, I took a picture of one that we were about to pass, just to capture the essence of driving behind this cultural icon:
(Rear end of a road train. Even from this angle, you can tell it's just a semi with a fancy name.)

  • Roadhouses. If this makes you think of Patrick Swayze, you are not getting the correct mental image. Roadhouses in Australia are like those giant rest areas you get along toll roads in the US, where they put restaurants, convenience stores, and gas stations all in one place. Only in this case, it is smaller, has much less variety, looks like it was built in 1970, and sometimes even has a small motel attached. I'm not poking any fun at roadhouses here, because they are a godsend when you are in the middle of nowhere (which is where we were about 90% of the time) and need a drink, get hungry, have to use the toilet, or are running low on gas. What is weird is that you would think these places were be larger and fancier because there is nowhere else around for anyone to do business, so these guys must be rolling in dough. But, like pretty much everything we encountered in WA, they are only as fancy as they need to be--which is to say, not very. However, the short order cooks at most roadhouses can grill up a mean hamburger and great fries, and they offer the most wonderful collection of carbonated beverages. I found four different varieties of fruit-flavored sparkling/tonic water (lemon, lemon-lime, lime, orange) and kept cycling through them throughout our trip. I also discovered the same dinosaur-shaped gummy candies that I stumbled across during my recent trip to Ireland, after which I proceeded to ensure their mass extinction. After about 4 hours of driving on the first day, I started to get a massive headache from being pinched by my sunglasses, so I bought a new pair at the first roadhouse we visited. As we shall see, this turned out to be rather a large mistake.
  • Sunshine. I have spent a lot of time in sunny places, and I have spent many consecutive hours out in the sun, but I was completely unprepared for Australia. I don't know if it is the angle of the sun, the openness of the habitat (easily the most expansive horizons I've seen), the brightness of the orange-y red soil, or the fact that we saw almost no clouds the entire time we were there, but boy is it a bright country. Endlessly bright. The sun rose around 7 AM and set about 12 hours later, but by the end of the day you'd swear you'd been exposed to about 20 hours of light. As it turns out, while my roadhouse sunglasses were polarized, they were not UV-protective. Thus, I managed to sunburn my eyes (yes, that is actually possible). For about four days, they were itchy, burny, raw, and streaming tears, and I had difficulty focusing them. It really is bright Down Under.
  • Bugs. Our trip to Australia coincided with the beginning of the Australian spring, so what can normally be quite a barren-looking landscape was very beautiful (though sparse)--lots of green bushes decorated with small, brightly-colored flowers and little birds flitting from branch to branch. You know what those birds were doing? Catching bugs, of which there were very, very many. When we drove without any music playing, we could hear a steady tappity-tappity-tappity of seemingly endless numbers of insects being plastered against our windshield. Here is what our car looked like at the end of the trip:
(Because of the brightness of the sun, you can't quite see just how many insect carcasses are glued to the front of our poor, dirty car.)

  • Animals that like roads. At sunset, just before my husband and I turned onto the road that ran up the peninsula to Shark Bay, we stopped at a roadhouse to gas up. Noticing our foreign accents, the proprietor mentioned to us that we should be wary of kangaroos. In all my excitement about the possibility of seeing a real, live kangaroo, it never occurred to me that there might be a down side to their presence. As it turns out, they are very similar to white-tailed deer in the US--they are crepuscular (perhaps my all-time favorite word, so you'll forgive me for sounding a bit overly-scientific here), they love to graze right next to the side of the road, they are apt to cross right in front of you as you drive past, and they can do devastating damage to your vehicle. We were later to find out that emus are fairly similar, only they appear not to even notice that a car is nearby; they just proceed across the road, completely lost in their own little worlds, without any concern about your presence. It really is unnerving. As soon as the light starts to fade, you find yourself intently staring out the window, analyzing every little shape and shadow; every pile of dirt and fence post begins to look like a kangaroo sticking its head over the next rise. After a while, we did finally see our first kangaroo, after which we went on to see dozens over the course of the trip; there were probably some wallaroos mixed in there as well, but we aren't really experts in identifying marsupials at 60 mph. Once you see a few and there is no problem, it's easier to relax--like deer, most of them seemed pretty well-educated about the road, and the real danger was probably the odd occurrence where something happened to make them jumpy (literally!) just as you drove past, leading to a collision. We even saw a few hopping along, which was pretty cool--their tails were amazingly thick and strong and even from the car it was easy to see how they were used to provide stability and balance, almost like a third lower leg. We eventually saw emus, too, but not for a couple of days, and only during the day. Because emus are diurnal, I was able to catch a snapshot of a couple:

(The pictures aren't nearly as good as the video I shot, but this was the best I could do in my over-excited state, with only an iPhone at my disposal.)

What we weren't warned about were the little animals--in particular, rabbits--which seemed intent on killing themselves under our wheels. I don't think I have ever encountered so many bunnies in my life--especially ones that were so suicidal. We were braking and swerving left and right (no pun intended) to avoid hitting them, though to be honest it would have been better for the ecosystem if we'd killed them all (they're an introduced species and have irreparably munched their way through Australia's native flora). Given the odds, it was almost inevitable that we eventually would hit something, and wouldn't you know that the one thing we couldn't avoid was a (feral) cat. It appeared to be taking advantage of the heat rising from the asphalt, and as we crested a rise we only had the briefest moment during which to observe it lounging right in the middle of the road. My husband swerved well clear of its initial position, but, in its fright, the cat jumped up and ran towards us rather than away, and that was that. I felt absolutely nauseous and thought there couldn't be a much less auspicious way to begin a honeymoon, but later was mollified by the discovery that feral cats are a horrible problem in the region because they eat so many native birds and small mammals. In fact, the government routinely sets out poison for feral cats and dogs (we saw warning signs posted all over the place), but the animals have mostly learned to avoid the traps; furthermore, when they are tricked, their last moments are pretty uncomfortable. So, while I would rather the strike had never happened, at least we gave the cat a quick, painless death, and saved a whole bunch of endemic animals in the process.

  • Cheap gas! Now, obviously, "cheap gas" doesn't mean the same thing to a resident of the UK as it does to a resident of the US. All the same, we paid less in Australia than we normally do in the UK, and it wasn't any more expensive than the high prices that we hit in the US a few summers ago, when some people were paying over $4/gallon. Given how expensive everything else was in Australia, this was quite a pleasant surprise--particularly since we spent so much time on the road. Our car was actually very fuel efficient, so on top of paying less, we also needed to do so less often.
  • Great views. I tried to take some landscape pictures to capture the essence of the Outback, but my little camera just wasn't up to the task. The vistas really were incredible. I once drove from Ohio to Iowa and encountered some of the flattest, most open spaces possible in the US, but the amount of space I could see then does not even compare with what I saw while driving through Australia. It is amazing how far you can see in all directions, and how there is nothing in the way of the view. The habitat is also fascinating, since it is has so much variety and is so unlike anything most people will ever have encountered before. We passed through scrub country full of gorse-looking bushes and various species of euphorbs putting up enormous phallic-looking flowering bodies; there were bright, velvety-green pastures for sheep (lots of sheep) and cows; there were rivers and creeks edged by massive eucalyptus trees (no koalas, though--those are on the other side of the country); there were vineyards and orchards just starting to bloom. Then, of course, if you go far enough west, there is the ocean, bright, clear, and teal blue, sparkling under the blinding sun.
(A view of the countryside from Eagle Bluff, just outside of Denham. Is that the Pacific Ocean I can see in the distance?)

(Looking the other direction at Eagle Bluff, a view of the shore. We didn't see any eagles or the osprey that are known to nest here, but we did have a great view of a ray swimming through the shallow waters at the base of the cliff, as well as some gulls trying to kleptoparasitize some cormorants, and--just maybe--some Indian yellow-nosed albatrosses.)

One other thing to mention about our road trip(s) through WA is how easy it was to imagine we were driving through the US, but on the wrong side of the road. Although there were roundabouts, there were also lots of stop signs, which you almost never see here in the UK. The average vehicle was also larger than in Britain. The majority were Land Rovers and Range Rovers and similar 4X4-equipped all-terrain vehicles; the next most popular was the mullet of cars: sedan in front and truck in back (the popularity of these "crossover" cars certainly explains why the Subaru Outback was so named). We also encountered a seemingly endless array of caravans, for quite a practical reason: All along the road, every 20 miles or so in some places, there were roadside rests where you could pull over and spend the night. This must come in handy for anyone who plans to travel very far across the WA countryside, since you wouldn't have to worry about where to eat, go to the toilet, or spend the evening; whenever you get tired, you can just pull over, cook up dinner on your stove, wash up in your sink, then tuck yourself in for the night. Another very American feature of the roadways was how wide and straight the roads were; not that all of Britain is full of narrow, windy roads, but certainly for someone coming from Cornwall, driving in Australia was like being given an upgrade from economy to first class. The wide open spaces and distance between establishments/settlements was also very American. Although I've rarely driven through anywhere in the US that is quite that remote, it seemed remarkably similar to images I've seen of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. All that sunshine was certainly more American than English, that is for sure.

At the end of a very long day, we finally reached our home base for the rest of the week: Monkey Mia Wildsights Beachfront Unit #1. Because we were arriving so late, the proprietor had agreed to leave the key under the mat for us, so we just pulled in and made ourselves comfortable. As we were unpacking the car, we could hear the waves crashing on the beach nearby, though because it was so dark, we had no idea where the ocean was. Not until the next morning did we realize that this was the view from both our front and back porches:

(A view of the bay that runs along all of Denham's eastern, and part of its southern, border. Clear blue water, bright white sand, and warm sunshine. If I had to complain about anything, it would be the breeziness, which could become a bit intense, but which wasn't any worse than the wind here in Cornwall. Also, the water was chilly enough that none of the locals were going in; however, it was still several degrees warmer than the waters off the shore of the UK. All in all...pretty lovely.)

Next up: Visits to Monkey Mia, where we see many new species of animal while hiking, snorkeling, and boating, the Denham Aquarium, Coral Beach, and the Hamelin Bay stromatolites, as well as a brief adventure in Jurien Bay.

Sunday, 10 October 2010

Perth, Australia: Driving on the left while sitting on the right

It sounds a little lame to say this, but I think perhaps the defining activity of my trip to Australia was successfully driving on the left-hand side of the road, while sitting in the right-hand side of the car, without anyone else in the car with me. Because my husband's car and I don't get along very well, I avoid driving in the UK as much as is humanly possible, and so most of my experience with the left-hand side of the road is as a passenger. That means that, while it now seems natural to be on the "wrong" side of the road, I haven't yet had the opportunity to get comfortable with the different spatial arrangement, or with orienting myself from a novel position in the vehicle/road. Thus, from the moment I began organizing the trip to Australia, the thing I most worried about was having to pick up our rental car and use it to get to and from my hotel all by myself for a day and a half before my husband arrived in the country.

To make things easier on myself, I reserved an automatic rather than a manual, just to make things easier on myself; it's not that I don't drive stick, it's just that I don't normally do the shifting with my left hand. I also rented a GPS unit so that I could have a nice, calm voice telling me when/where to turn, rather than trying to shuffle through maps in the midst of driving. When I arrived at the rental desk in the airport, I was told that not only would we be getting an upgrade on our rental, from a small mid-size to a medium mid-size ("mid-mid-size"?), but also that it was a brand-new vehicle with only 7 km on the odometer (but it wouldn't remain in the single digits, or even the double- or triple-digits, for long!). It was a nice little car, from the same manufacturer (Hyundai) as both my mother's and my cars, so I felt pretty comfy in the driver's seat:

(Our little Hyundai.)

All the same, I sat in the parking lot for a good 5-10 minutes, trying to feel normal over there in the right side of the car, and also trying to look over all the controls and figure out where stuff was (I wish I'd spent a few more minutes on the latter task--I kept putting on the windshield wipers the first dozen times or so that I went to signal for a turn).

Much to my surprise, it turns out that the driving wasn't awkward at all. I guess I've spent enough time in the UK that my US instincts are starting to fade, and I never had the impulse to turn down the wrong side of the road or to panic when I approached a roundabout. The major problem was the fact that the GPS unit and I did not agree about what constituted a road versus a driveway versus an exit off roundabouts, and also about how to count the exits; during my journey down the driveway to the airport, I had to circle two roundabouts multiple times because the map and the voice on the sat-nav didn't quite match up. So much for having technology make things easier! Beyond that (and the blinker/windshield wiper problem), there weren't any incidents in getting to my hotel. It was surprisingly easy, and after a while it was even kind of fun. I was on an adventure in a brand-new car in a city I'd never been to on a continent I'd never visited. I even relaxed enough to turn on the radio and jam out a bit.

Because I'd been worried about driving very far on my own, I'd booked the closest hotel I could find from the airport. It was a motor lodge on a rather busy highway that led straight into the downtown area. I was worried that it might be loud, but my/our room faced away from the traffic and overlooked a little courtyard full of tall palm trees and quietly cooing turtle-doves. During the check-in process, I discovered what appears to be a fundamental truth about Australians, or at least about Western Australians: they are incredibly friendly and helpful. I have never been anywhere where people were so naturally pleasant and considerate. Also, I have never checked into a hotel where I was given a small carton of milk along with my receipt (it was for the complimentary tea in my room).

The room was a bit spartan, but otherwise very comfortable. It included a little kitchenette area, which I quickly stocked with food from the deli around the corner. After all that time eating airplane food, the fridge/toaster/microwave were a godsend.

(The room may not have been too fancy, but at least there were wine glasses!)

(The strange window that opened from my kitchen counter out to the hallway. Why?)

The TV didn't have much to offer--none of the TVs we encountered in WA ever did--but I was able to find some news and catch up with current events. I also had free wireless access, which, along with a bed, is really all I need in a hotel. The most exciting event of the evening was looking through the bird book that I'd purchased in the airport. I had forgotten to buy one in the UK before leaving (how?!), but was pleased to find exactly the volume I wanted in the book store at the Perth airport. It was quite expensive ($48 Australian), but I figured that, with the exchange rate, that was a pretty fair price. Then I got home and discovered that the exchange rate had become much less favorable for Americans than when I'd last looked; in fact, for the duration of our trip the Australian dollar was at, or near, an all-time high against the US dollar, meaning that I was paying outrageous amounts of money for pretty much everything (with the exception of, oddly enough, gasoline). In any case, if there is one thing that is worth a little money, it is Australian birds, and I spent my first evening in Perth stoking myself up about all the cool species I would see during my trip.

I was not scheduled to pick my husband up from the airport until midnight on the following day, so I decided to amuse myself by locating a mall with a movie theater. I planned to stock up on all the food/toiletries we'd need for our massive drive the next day, perhaps pick up a couple of souvenirs for family and friends, and then watch a film. Luckily, the nearest mall was less than a ten-minute drive away, and the GPS unit found me a shortcut for getting there. First, though, I spent a good 30-45 minutes just driving up and down the road outside my motel, getting comfortable with the car and driving in a foreign country. When at last I did get to the mall, I became further acquainted with the dismal exchange rate--I managed to spend about $70 on nothing but breakfast and snacks (in other words, a shopping trip that should have cost about half as much as it did). However, I did stumble across a Christmas present and a couple of stocking stuffers, which was pretty handy. I then went over to the movie theater and watched Despicable Me in 3D (ticket + bottle of water = $20 Australian; ouch). While I was in the restroom after the movie, Men at Work's "Land Down Under" started playing on the radio.

After a few more agonizing hours of waiting, it was finally time to go to the airport to pick up my husband. Before I went, I had a nice, refreshing shower. I only mention this because, as I was soon to discover, showers would be a recurring theme during our trip. I am not sure if Australians just don't like baths, or if the aridity of the country has inspired its citizens to try to preserve water when they clean themselves, but either way, it was a bit of a bummer to have to spend three weeks shaving my legs while standing up. In any case, when I got to the airport, I discovered that my husband's flight was a bit delayed, so I paced around for a good hour or so until he arrived. In the process, I discovered some additional evidence that Australia (or Western Australia or Perth, whichever) is awesome: a little kiosk, of which there were several in the airport, where three computers were set up to offer free internet (there are few things in the world that make me as happy as free internet).

Luckily for my husband, his trip through customs and immigration was more rapid than mine, and we were soon back out in the surprisingly chilly and even more surprisingly gusty Perth night, making our way back to the motor lodge. We needed a good night's rest because, the next morning, we planned to embark on an 11-hour trip up the coast to our first stop: Shark Bay. The honeymoon had begun!

Stay tuned for the next installment, in which we see our first road train, stop at our first roadhouse, see our first kangaroo(s), and hear the waves of the Indian Ocean just outside our condo.

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

A really long trip

When I went to Brazil last summer, I had never been on such a long flight, or trip, in my life—I was in the air for a solid 9.5 hours between Atlanta and Brasilia, with an overall trip time of about 20 hours, including all car rides, flights, layovers, and shuttles necessary to get me from Williamsburg, VA, to Pirenopolis, Brazil. Little did I know then that it was good preparation for this summer’s trip to Perth, Australia: I left Falmouth at 9 AM on a Monday morning and arrived in Perth at 3 PM on a Wednesday. I’m too lazy to do all the time zone math in order to calculate the exact length of that trip, but the bottom line is that it was long. However, because I was routed through Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, I got to add two continents to my growing list of visited landmasses (Asia and Australia, for anyone who is not geographically inclined; this coming winter I will also check off Africa, but I suspect it will be a while before I get the 7th and final continent, Antarctica). The other benefit of flying through the Malaysian airport and having such a ridiculously long layover there was that I got to spend the night in a transit hotel (which, prior to this trip, I did not even know existed) in the same time zone as my destination; this was very effective in helping me battle jet lag. But I digress.

As I said, I left Falmouth at approximately 9 AM on Monday morning, which gave me enough time to endure the 5-hour train ride and 15-minute Heathrow express ride required to get me to the airport. It was a distracting train ride because the car was incredibly full, and only kept getting more full as we went on. I have no idea where everyone was going on a Monday morning, but it seems that all of Cornwall and Devon were desperate to relocate. Directly in front of me were a couple with a baby that could only be kept quiet with the aid of a rattle. Further on up the car were two caretakers and their mentally handicapped wards, one of whom periodically asked for food/drink/blanket with a heart-rending and ear-shattering bellow. This is yet another example of how impressively blasé the Brits are about handicaps; people with crutches/walkers/canes/wheelchairs/etc. are out and about in public much more than in the US, as are individuals with all sorts of physical deformities and intellectual handicaps, and nobody bats an eyelash. I felt bad for these guys, though, because (as I learned through a bit of unintentional eavesdropping) the handicapped toilet on the train was out-of-order, and they had nowhere to take their wheelchair-bound ward.

During the ride, I amused myself with music and games; not to harp on about how awesome my iPhone is, but I was also able to use it to determine which terminal I needed to get to once I reached Heathrow. As per usual, once I got to the airport it took me very little time to check in and get through security, leaving me with oodles of time to wander around wondering why on earth they tell you to arrive two hours before your flight. There was one slightly interesting event during check-in that came back to haunt me once I reached Malaysia: The woman at the Delta desk informed me that I would need to collect my luggage once I arrived in Kuala Lumpur and then immediately re-check it so that it could be sent off to Perth. I immediately thought this sounded bizarre, since normally you have to go through immigration in order to retrieve your luggage, and I would never be leaving the airport; however, when I asked her about this, she assured me that I definitely needed to go to the baggage claim area once I reached Malaysia. We shall return to this concept later.

My trip from London to Amsterdam was not very interesting, though I encountered an airport feature that would be a recurring (and annoying) theme throughout my journey. You know how you can’t ever take bottled drinks through the security checkpoint prior to the terminal? Well, in many airports, there is now a second screening process to get you from the terminal into the gate; at this point, you have to throw away anything you purchased between the previous security checkpoint and the new one. I understand why we are cautious, in general, but I am not quite sure I understand why we are that cautious. I wasted three different nearly-full bottles of water/juice during my trip because of this new technique, and I did not like it.

Things got much more interesting on the flight between Amsterdam and Kuala Lumpur; given that the flight was the longest I’d ever taken (11 hours), how could they not? First of all, I discovered that my ticket placed me right in the middle seat of a three-person row. *sigh* For a long time, the row remained empty, and I began to get excited that I might actually have two or more extra seats to myself, which I could use to stretch out and sleep. Alas, no. My aisle-side seatmate arrived and immediately asked me if I was Norwegian, a question he explained by saying that he (a Norwegian) and several members of his company were being sent to Kuala Lumpur together, but that the different travelers had not previously met and were looking for each other on the plane. It turns out that my window-side seatmate was one of these, as were the three men in front of us. Thus, for the first hour or so, my two row-mates chatted to each other across me, which would not have been particularly annoying except that one of them had extremely bad breath and it kept wafting in front of my nose.

I preoccupied myself by perusing the list of movies I could watch between Holland and Malaysia. I was on a quest to catch up on all the films I’d missed in the last several months. I saw “Shrek 3,” “Kisk-Ass,” “2012,” and “The Wolfman.” As you may notice, this is approximately 8 hours of film, which is a good portion of the flight. That is because I am pretty much incapable of sleeping on long plane rides unless I am able to position myself horizontally. I have a blow-up travel pillow, but I can never seem to get comfortable with it—it is always too flat or too low or too high, and the built-in seat pillow tilts my head forward at a funny angle. During this particular flight, I also had to contend with my neighbors. Both of them were dozing and, as they slept, began to take up increasingly more space—my space. Their legs and arms started bumping into mine and I kept folding myself smaller and smaller in order to avoid contact. The only advantage of this was that it forced me to find a position that was actually fairly easy on my bad back, such that when I arrived in Malaysia after 11 hours of sitting, I was less sore than I often am after only a couple hours in the car.

This is a good time to register a complaint about the airline and airplane itself. Back in the golden days when I first started traveling abroad, planes were not as crowded as they are today. This is an actual fact, which I can prove by offering the evidence that in the majority of those flights, I had at least one and sometimes two or even three empty seats next to me. I could lift up the arm rests, spread out some pillows and blankets, and recline in comfort for the duration of the flight. Lately, though, I’ve been on one sold-out flight after another, and there is just no room to breathe. Also, while some airlines have fairly comfortable planes (e.g., Virgin), others do not. Previously, I considered Delta to be a pretty lackluster company, but on the way to Malaysia I discovered that their affiliate, KLM, is even worse. On this particular flight, there seemed to be a problem with the air conditioning, such that it was boiling hot all the way to Kuala Lumpur; this completely caught me off-guard, since I always prepare to be frozen stiff during airplane rides. I had to strip off both my jacket and sweater and sit around in a tank top--and I was still hot. Despite the heat, the staff did not come through the compartment with drinks during most of the “night” (the latter half of which was actually “day,” since we were flying into the sunrise); by the time we arrived in Malaysia, I was sweaty and parched.

In this heat-stricken state, I wandered into Terminal C of the Kuala Lumpur airport with two goals: a) take care of my baggage issue, and b) find my transit hotel so I could shower and enjoy a loooong nap. I had decided on the way to Malaysia that the London check-in lady couldn’t be correct about my baggage, so I wanted to find the local airline desk in order to ask. On my way to do this, I passed my hotel and dropped off my carry-on luggage; the lady at the desk told me where to find the airline information people. When I got there, I started at one end of the counter, was referred to the other end, and then slowly worked my way back from one person to the next until I finally located someone who told me that the KLM-specific staff weren’t in yet. I was told to go to the main terminal, which was a short “aerotrain” ride away. The aerotrain was not your typical shuttle between terminals—it did not roll along the ground on rails, but was balanced by super magnets so that it hovered in the air as it moved. Pretty cool. In the main terminal, I found a general information desk where I was told my baggage would go all the way to Perth without any interference on my part. However, the woman who gave me this information also misread the ticket and thought I was going from Perth to London, so I didn’t feel too confident in her proclamation. Thus, I wandered around some more—a trip that included a journey down to the immigration area and back to Terminal C—before I finally found a KLM person who told me that the lady in London didn’t know what she was talking about, and that I could rest easy that my luggage would be in Perth once I got there. Whew.

That settled, I grabbed some food and headed back to my hotel. Prices in Malaysia seem exorbitant given the amount of local currency required, but through the wonders of exchange rate, they are actually very affordable. I spent something like 35-40 ringgits on 2 drinks, a sandwich, and a muffin, but that was only about $11—pretty darn good for airport food. Oddly, my sandwich was purchased from an Irish deli, which I thought seemed a little out of place in Kuala Lumpur. What was really crazy, though, was how many duty-free shops there were; I have never seen so many. If the prices there were similar to the prices at the restaurants, I understand why--people must have been getting some amazing deals on high-end designer merchandise. There were also several specialty shops geared towards Middle Eastern and Muslim customers, which I found interesting; they sold head scarves and burkas and traditional regional dress in a variety of rather beautiful (and, I am guessing, upscale) fabrics. As I mentioned in a previous post, the majority of travelers I passed were, indeed, Muslim, so I could see why these shops might be particularly popular. As an aside, I will mention that the majority of non-Muslim travelers (who appeared to be mostly Middle Eastern and SE Asian in origin) were clearly from northern Asia (especially Japan, but also China, Korea, etc.). The proportion of white people was infinitesimal, while the proportion of native English speakers was even smaller; this was quite an eye-opening and humbling experience for someone who otherwise has never been somewhere where she looked or felt in the minority.

Back at the hotel, it felt absolutely wonderful to take a shower, eat non-airplane-food, and then crawl between the crisp, clean sheets of my bed to sleep. I went to bed at 5:30 PM (local time) and didn’t need to leave the hotel until 6:30 AM the following morning, so I was able to get quite a bit of rest. However, I couldn’t sleep all the way through the night because it was just such awkward timing for my body. With stops and starts, I did manage to make it until about 5 AM, at which point I finally gave up and departed. I had several hours before I needed to report to my gate, so I headed to the Starbucks (is there an airport anywhere in the world without a Starbucks?) and took advantage of their free wireless access while drinking an enormous cup of caffeinated tea (just to further confuse my body). Not only did the Starbucks have free wireless, but the whole airport did, as well. How civilized--all airports should have free internet. I was able to send e-mails, catch up with the news, and even download a new album onto my iPod. After all that tea, I eventually had to head to the toilet, and this is what I found there:

(A squat toilet, also known as a Turkish toilet, which I had heard of before but never seen.)

To be fair, this was only one of three stalls, but I can confirm, after repeated sampling, that this style of toilet was present in each of the restrooms in the airport. I am not sure why anyone would choose to use this when she could use one of the two “regular” toilets next door; given the number of women in burkas, I thought perhaps it might be an easier style to use when you are maneuvering lots of skirts and robes? Anyway, I didn’t give it a try. I also didn't try the little hoses next to the toilets, which I always find odd because I don't understand how you're supposed to dry off after giving yourself a mini shower. That doesn’t mean that I completely avoided walking on the wild side, though. As I wandered around trying to amuse myself prior to catching my flight, I passed a Japanese noodle restaurant at just the moment that my stomach started growling for more food. It was only 9:30 in the morning, but the noodles looked good, so I sat down and had noodle-y chicken broth for second breakfast—I even used chopsticks, and it was delicious:

(I felt pretty good about using my chopsticks to eat this until I watched the Japanese girl at the next table over--she was holding the sticks much further up, which is a sign of better control, and she did it much more gracefully. Oh, well--I get points for trying.)

Soon enough it was finally time to catch my flight, and after passing through the second security check, I managed to set my passport down on a seat in the waiting room and then wander off without it. Thankfully, I happened to notice its absence before I got onto the plane and left it behind in Malaysia—that would certainly have been my worst travel mistake to date. My flight to Perth was operated by Malaysian Airlines, which was a huge upgrade from Delta and KLM. For one thing, there was a ton of leg room in front of my seat, and for another thing, there were three seats between me and the next passenger over (also, the hostesses had really cool uniforms). I plugged myself into my iPod, pushed aside the arm rest, and curled up for a nice, long nap.

After flying 11 hours from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, you think you must be near Australia, but, in fact, another 5 hour journey is required to get to Perth. When I awoke, we were over land again and flying low enough that we could clearly see the bright red soil and sparse scrubland; there was no question about where we were. I’m not sure why we were flying so low, since such flights are normally conducted at 30,000 or so feet; perhaps there is just so little competing air traffic in Western Australia that it doesn’t matter, and/or the sky is so clear that there are no clouds to obscure the view. In any case, it was cool to catch a glimpse of the land that I would be traversing in the near future (also a little daunting, given its remoteness and excessive size).

Before I could do that, though, I’d need to make it through Australian immigration and customs, which can be pretty hard-core. The immigration bit isn’t any different than in the US or UK, really, but the customs people are very intense about what can and can’t be brought into the country. The landing card you have to fill out has tons of questions about all sorts of things that you may or may not be carrying or have come into contact with during your travels. Because they live on an island, and have had serious problem with introduced pests of various sorts, the Australians have to be pretty careful. They are even concerned about the dirt on your shoes—one question asked whether you were carrying anything that had come into contact with dirt or carried dried dirt, such as cleats, etc. The scientist in me wanted to point out that all of us were wearing shoes that carried some amount of dirt from foreign countries, but I didn’t think that would go over very well. In any case, I was slightly worried because my suitcase contained an entire plastic box full of "pookies," the Metamucil-like bran cookies I eat every day. You aren’t supposed to bring any food into Australia, though I couldn’t quite tell whether they meant the “normal” sort of forbidden food (e.g., meat, cheese, nuts, fruit) or all food; this was the defense I planned if my hidden stash was discovered.

After making it through immigration, I headed to the baggage area to see if my suitcase had successfully made its way from Kuala Lumpur. As always, I was accosted by a second security guard on my way to the conveyor belt. I don’t know what it is about me, but people love to stop me for further questioning. As far as I can recall, this always involves young male security people, so I’d like to think they just find me attractive and want an excuse to talk to me. I think that’s probably unrealistic, so one day I would love to ask someone why they’ve pulled me aside—do I look suspicious? dangerous? I find it very difficult to talk to these people because I’m usually quite distracted and tired, which makes it hard to provide answers without sounding as though I’m making something up. In any case, I was finally waved through and, lo and behold, almost immediately found my suitcase—miracle of miracles! Keeping my fingers crossed, I headed towards the customs area and was directed into the line of people whose bags would be sniffed by a little beagle. Part of me thought that was pretty awesome, since I love animals and all, but part of me thought this made it pretty likely that my pookies would be rooted out. The beagle seemed utterly fascinated by my carry-on, and it took the customs lady several attempts to get him to move on to my main suitcase; I have no idea what he was smelling in there, unless perhaps it was the remnant smells of my parents’ cats. After he took a couple perfunctory sniffs of my suitcase, I was waved on, and my heart lifted. My pookies and I had made it without incident and were about to begin our journey through the land down under.
Stay tuned for the next installment, in which I: drive on the right side of the car and the left side of the road, all by myself; discover Aussie hospitality; identify my first Australian avifauna; go shopping at an Aussie mall and find things outrageously expensive; pay $20 to go see a movie by myself; and return to the airport to pick up my husband so that our belated honeymoon can begin.

Sunday, 26 September 2010

Rosturk Woods, Ireland

I don’t know what most Americans think of when they hear “Ireland,” but I have always imagined a very green place with quaint cottages, stone walls, and lots of sheep. Also, because I have read many historical fantasy novels set in Eire, I pictured sprites and pixies and all other manner of supernatural beings that emerge from the mist on a long winter’s night. In other words, I suppose I thought of Ireland as being, on average, slightly more rural, picturesque, and magical than the most rural, picturesque, and magical part of England. On the whole, my recent trip to Ireland confirmed these suspicions (though I never did see any fairies).

Before I moved to the UK, I didn’t really understand the difference between the two parts of Ireland, but now I am more educated. “Ireland” refers to the large island (the third biggest in Europe, in fact) that is off the west coast of Great Britain. It is divided into two parts: the Republic of Ireland, which covers most (5/6) of the island, has a government that couldn’t care less about what Queen Elizabeth and the coalition Parliament think, and uses the Euro as currency; Northern Ireland, on the other hand, is a part of the United Kingdom with the same kind of separate-country status as Wales and Scotland and uses pounds sterling as currency. When I recently went to visit “Ireland” during the first week of September, I traded in my pounds for Euros and went to Clew Bay in County Mayo, Republic of Ireland—or, as I tend to call it in casual conversation, “Ireland Ireland.” (I bet a lot of Northern Irish would cringe to hear me say that.)

The trip began with a flight into Dublin, which really could have been a destination unto itself—one day I do hope to go back and get more than a bird’s-eye-view of the city. We flew there from Newquay Airport in Cornwall, and it amazing how quickly we arrived in a whole other country—we were not even in the air for an hour, and barely had time for drinks and miniature bags of nuts before we were back on the ground. The flight itself is pretty impressive, since it takes you over the many peninsulas and inlets of Cornwall, then along the southern coast of Wales, before finally approaching the eastern coast of Ireland. You can see all sorts of cliffs and beaches and giant green fields, as well as the deep turquoise ocean along the shorelines:

(A view of the coastline from our plane back to Newquay; I forget where I was when I took this, but I believe it is Cornwall rather than Wales.)

As soon as we arrived at the airport in Dublin, it was obvious that we were no longer in the UK. It’s amazing how such a short flight could transport you to a place where people wear such obviously different fashions. Of course, an airport crowd is not exactly representative—there were many Americans there, and also a bunch of Brits—but even among people with Irish accents, I could see a difference; this held true even once we left the city and explored some of the smaller towns. Even down in Cornwall, which is not exactly what I would consider the most modern part of Britain, there are people who wear the types of very current trends you see in fashion magazines. The style of dress in Ireland was toned down in comparison; people weren’t dressed unfashionably, but they weren’t wearing some of the more outrageous things I normally see in the UK, either (e.g., none of those little Charlie’s Angels beach rompers or ankle socks with loafers—thank God). In other words, while the Irish looked unmistakably European, had I seen them elsewhere, I wouldn’t necessarily have identified them as coming from Ireland rather than, say, Scotland or Germany. The exception to this was many of the older working men that we saw—in particular, farmers and fishermen:

(Our caretaker, who is also a fisherman, and his son--those are genuine seafarers' oilskins!)

Those guys could have walked off the set of Far and Away or any other period Irish drama set over the last 100 years. The majority of elderly gentlemen walking through town or working in their fields wore wool flat caps that matched their wool jackets. I can imagine wearing this when going on the weekly shopping trip, but while ploughing the field?—that is pretty hard-core. It must have been rather toasty, but it did lend the gentlemen an air of distinction.

Once we left the airport, we had an unexpectedly long drive in order to get to our destination, Rosturk Woods. Given that Dublin is located on the east coast of Ireland and Clew Bay is on the west coast, we actually drove across the width of the entire country (though not across the widest part), and in a single day. I think that is the first time I have ever done such a thing, anywhere. Although I don’t particularly love car trips, given my propensity to become massively motion sick, I enjoyed the opportunity to watch the countryside as it became increasingly rural. For about the first two-thirds of the trip, the scenery didn’t scream “Ireland!” in the way that I had expected; we could easily still have been in England (though the vistas were much wider than those in Cornwall, since the roads weren't hemmed in by stone walls). However, it was extremely green (just as I predicted!) and the fields were decorated with many sheep and bright orange wildflowers. As we moved into the center of the country, there were lots of picturesque rolling hills. To my excitement, there were also tons of pine trees. Although there are also evergreens in Cornwall, the landscape is dominated by deciduous trees, and conifers are few and far between. Not only did Ireland have many pines, but they were grouped together in big patches; that is a habitat feature that reminds me of home and that I miss in the UK.

One of the other big scenic differences between the UK and Ireland was the style of house that we passed. Bungalows abounded—one-storey homes spread out over a lot of ground, fronted by a little stone or cement wall and fairly sizeable front gardens. Many of the gardens contained topiaries, or at least very well-sculpted red-cedar-like trees. I suppose the bungalow-style home is a modern version of the traditional long-house style of dwelling that many of Ireland’s first residents used. Oddly, though, we also passed some brand new McMansion-style homes like those you see in the US, jutting out of the landscape in a very unnatural way. I did not expect to see those in the middle of the Irish countryside, and they looked as surprising and bizarre there as they do in the middle of an otherwise empty field in the US. I will never understand how anyone could choose to live in such a home/location. Both the McMansions and the bungalows were situated extremely close to the road, which also reminded me of much of the US. I had a friend from the Great Plains who could never understand why East Coasters didn’t use long driveways in order to give themselves some privacy. I suppose it is a bit odd—if you have several acres of land, which these places clearly did, why not remove yourself from the noise of the traffic? I suppose it allows residents to maximize the amount of space they allocate to their livestock, which abounded. In fact, sometimes the livestock felt the need to break free of their confines and occupy some additional space, regardless of how their human neighbors felt about it:


The landscape really started to change around Westport. Suddenly there were picturesque stone bridges stretching over tannin-darkened waters and glimpses of fishing vessels sitting in the mud flats, awaiting high tide; we were definitely nearing the coast. From Westport to Newport, and then from Newport to Rosturk Woods, we passed many roadside shrines to the Virgin Mary, which is something I haven’t seen in other highly-Catholic countries I have been in; maybe I just haven’t been to the right places. As one might expect, there were also tons of Catholic churches, whose adjoining graveyards also contained shrines. This in the same country where the “quick-release” tab on a kayak’s spary skirt is referred to as the “Oh, Jesus!”handle—as serious as they may be about their religion, they can also involve it in a laugh.

We finally reached our house just before dinner time:

(Home, sweet home, for our week at Rosturk Woods.)

Like freshmen arriving at our dorm for the first time, we explored our surroundings and staked out our sleeping quarters. Oddly, two pairs of bedrooms were “stacked,” such that you had to walk through one bedroom in order to reach the other from the hall. On the bottom floor, where the bedrooms also had patio access, this meant you could reach the living room or kitchen by going outside; on the top floor, where my husband and I were staying, the only way out involved intruding on your neighbors. I found this to be particularly uncomfortable because we ended up in the back bedroom, but I was consistently the earliest riser in the house, which meant that every morning I woke up our friends in the adjoining room on my way down to breakfast. Sorry, guys! The other weird architectural thing was that the bathroom doors in both of the upstairs stacked bedrooms had panes of glass in their upper halves, covered only by a thin curtain. Thus, anyone who wandered past could see you using the toilet. I’d like to have a chat with both the architects and interior designers involved in making this building.

(Our see-through bathroom door. Luckily the curtains were not hung on a rod, but on a flexible, stretchy wire, which allowed us to hang towels in the window for better coverage.)

Our arrival at Rosturk Woods coincided with a bit of nasty weather, which was fine by me. For one thing, I like cloudy skies and rain, anyway. For another thing, I hadn’t had a true vacation for a very long time. I had a lot of sleep to catch up on and some very long books to read. Other than a brief foray down to, and along, the coast (about 5 minutes’ walk from our porch), and a short blackberry-picking expedition, I pretty much didn’t leave the house for the first three days.

(I took this photo during one of my brief forays along the coast outside our house; this castle was built in the 1800's and our caretaker's father grew up in it. I believe this may be the first time I vacationed within walking distance of an actual castle.)

It turns out that Ireland is a great place to hunker down inside, snack, and take naps. Our bedroom was particularly good for sleeping because, from it, I could hear the waterfall, the rustling leaves, and the birds singing outside; it was very peaceful. In the evening, we lit a fire and burned some very Irish peat bricks. In front of it, we watched movies and played Celebrities (in which I redeemed my poor performance in the one-word round by discovering a talent for the charades round).

I finally ventured out on the fourth day for an afternoon kayaking expedition. Although I am quite fond of kayaking and, indeed, own a kayak, I hadn’t been out on the water for over a year, and had never before been out on the sea. The day started stormily, but cleared up just in time for our outing. Clew Bay supposedly contains 365 islands (one for every day of the year), and we paddled from one to the other in bright sunlight atop sparkling waves:

(A view from my kayak of one of the Bay's more impressively-sized islands and its smaller neighbors. Unfortunately, my camera was just not up to the task of capturing the phenomenal, wild beauty of the Bay.)

We visited maybe 3-4 different islands and a nearby salmon fishery, taking shelter along each island’s coastline in order to rest up for all the hard work required to get across the choppy, open bits in between. Nobody tipped over and nobody was too sore the next day, so the trip was definitely a success. Once we got back to the pier, we had to rush home rather quickly, because the gravel track that got us back to the main road was being overrun by water as the tide came in. I suppose that is a bit of evidence in support of the widely-held belief (by Brits, anyway) that roads under control of the Crown are always in better shape than roads maintained by the Irish.

The next day, we went back out on the water in vehicles that could move a bit faster. Our hunters and gatherers hopped aboard a small fishing vessel in order to throw out lines for mackerel and collect some scallops; others of us took a rib out to meet them, making a brief detour to do some seal-watching along the way:

(The Twilight Star, our caretaker's boat.)

(If you look closely, you will be able to see that the dot in the water is the head of a bull seal investigating our presence.)

After we rendezvoused, we pulled into an island and had a little picnic, complete with freshly-made hot tea (our skipper was both prepared and thoughtful). As we ate, we could see very intense clouds making their way towards us from the open water; just in time, we collected our belongings and set off for home. Our brief window of sunny weather was closed. Luckily, we had a home-cooked meal of freshly-caught seafood to distract us from this unfortunate fact.

On our final full day in Ireland, my husband and I drove to Westport for a little shopping. I was hoping to find some traditional Celtic-themed jewelry to take back to the US as presents. Oddly, this proved to be nearly impossible, despite the fact that Westport had many shops, a large proportion of which we visited. However, there were tons of other items on offer, including a wide range of things made by local artists. My husband and I were both impressed by the quality and the prices of these artisanal products, which were made in many media. In many cases, the art had a Celtic theme, but did not dwell on the stereotypical images of Druids and "faeries" and knots and the other sorts of things that most tourists might think of; rather, they reflected contemporary ideas of what it means to be Celtic and/or Irish now. That surprised me, but I also thought it was pretty neat (and I used my credit card to show my support).

Throughout our stay at Rosturk Woods, we also did “regular” shopping, which was an interesting process. The nearest village, Mulranny, had quite a tiny grocery store—smaller than many typical 7-11s in the US. Although that is completely understandable, given the size of the local population and the distance to the nearest supply centers, it was difficult for those of us who had planned to cook complex recipes. For instance, there were no fresh herbs in the store, and only a half dozen dried herbs; there was only one brand of tea, with no herbal options; and there were no options for health and beauty products for those of us who ran out or packed too lightly. Although none of this really bothered me during my 7 days in town, it did make me think about how difficult it would be to live that way year-round; I am definitely not a city girl by any means, but I do like the choices and conveniences that are a part of being nearer "civilization."

On the morning that we took off, we woke up to the sounds of rain but, after pulling back the curtains, saw sunlight streaming through the clouds. This yielded some of the prettiest views I had seen yet, which also matched most closely with my preconceived notion of what Ireland looks like:

(The view from our bedroom window on our final day--notice the simultaneous rain and sun.)

Unfortunately, the loveliness of the first few moments of the day did not persist throughout the rest of the day; after issues with unplanned potty breaks and fuel stops and traffic jams and lacking/poorly-positioned car rental signs at the airport, we barely made our flight—by which I mean that we were the last people to check in, and did so during the final five minutes before the gates were closed. That was undoubtedly the most stressful airport moment I have ever had when traveling, but at least it had a happy resolution. Maybe after a week in the country, we had been blessed with a little of the luck of the Irish.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Travel thoughts

When I am traveling, my mind seems to work overtime, and I find myself contemplating all sorts of stuff. Mostly I think this has to do with the fact that I get extremely motion sick, so whenever I’m on the road/air/water, I am forced to do absolutely nothing except maybe listen to a little music—a far cry from my normal state of being, when I can barely think straight because I am usually busy accomplishing about ten different things simultaneously. I am, by nature, full of curiosity, so with the unusual amount of mental freedom afforded by long-distance travels, my thoughts wander far and wide. In addition to all the normal thoughts in my head (the book I’m reading, the last movie I saw, my research project, etc.), there are also many ideas related to the new and interesting things I’ve been exposed to during my trip. Having just completed 37 long hours of travel (that’s 5 hours on the train, 18 hours of layovers, and 17 hours of flying, in case you were curious), I currently have a very tired brain.

What was I pondering during that long trip? Well, for starters, I started wondering about geography after I checked out a map of the flight route between Amsterdam and Kuala Lumpur. I realized that I wasn’t really sure if Malaysia and Indonesia were both countries or whether one (or both?) of them was a collective name for one or more of the archipelagos in the region (it’s the former; and, speaking of archipelagos, would you believe that Indonesia comprises 17,508 islands?!). I also noticed that Singapore was at the tip of the Malay Peninsula—this leapt out at me because that’s where my husband is right now—and it occurred to me that I didn’t really even know what Singapore is: a city? a territory of another country? a country in and of itself? When I looked it up online, I discovered that it’s a city-state, which then made me wonder how many other city-states there are in the world (apparently 2—the Vatican and Monaco). As you can see, I am woefully ignorant when it comes to geography and world history, which is a shame; I really find all this stuff fascinating, especially because I like to apply that kind of knowledge when I travel. Every time I discover yet another obvious geographical fact that had previously escaped my attention, I cringe at the knowledge that I am proving true the stereotype that Americans only know about their own country.

I also think about cultural stuff, for obvious reasons—when you are in an airport, you are bound to run across someone who is “different” in some way. When I was in the Kuala Lumpur airport, for instance, I encountered more Muslim women than I have ever seen in my life (the only other place I’ve observed multiple burqas in a single day/location is Minneapolis, Minnesota—weird, huh?). Given how few burqa-wearers I’ve ever seen, it is perhaps unsurprising that I’d never noticed how the women often decorate their otherwise bland outfits in order to spice them up a bit—many of the ladies had beads or sequins placed around the edges of the headpiece, or along the trim of the sleeves and dress; some had also pinned their scarves in place with jeweled barrettes. It was quite pretty, and I was surprised to find that such a practice was allowed, given how solemn that particular mode of dress is. I also noted the striking eye makeup that all the women wore; they all looked quite beautiful, though of course it is difficult to make those judgments very accurately when all you can see is someone’s eyes. That made me wonder what courtship is like in areas where the women always wear burqas in public: Is there ever a time when their husbands-to-be get to see their brides prior to marriage, or does the literal unveiling only happen on the wedding day? If it is the latter, one would imagine that some men are in for a serious disappointment, if their brides’ eyes are their most attractive feature. Perhaps you will forgive me for being so shallow when I tell you that my Muslim-oriented thoughts also drifted to a wonderful book I read in high school, called Daughter of Persia. It is the autobiography of Sattareh Farman Farmaian, the daughter of an Iranian prince and a humanitarian who lived through the turbulent, US-aided regime change in Iran. I had always meant to re-read that book, but never did; now I’m feeling inspired to return to it. Back to a bit of semi-shallowness, I was also trying to remember the names for the different parts of Muslim women’s headwear. I recently read an article about the different components and how they all fit together to make the final product, which usually looks as though it is all one piece. I was totally convinced that one of the pieces was a habib, but when I looked it up, I discovered that habib meant “beloved.” The word I was trying to think of was hijab, which can be used to describe both the head covering itself and the modest Muslim style of dress, in general.

By this point in my contemplation, I was feeling pretty stupid, which prompted a whole new flow of ideas—about Americans and their general ignorance about Islam. This was a particularly timely topic, topic given the recent events with that idiotic pastor in Florida who threatened to burn the Qu’ran last week. It occurred to me that, while Americans have become more aware of Muslims and Islam since 9/11, most of us haven’t really become much more knowledgeable about them. As someone who’s taken some history courses examining Muslim countries, who has read up a little on Islam-related history and current events, who has some Muslim friends, and has been to places where multiple Muslims can be seen at any given time, I would say that I represent the American median, in terms of Islam-savviness—although a part of me suspects, with a bit of dismay, that I might actually be slightly above average in this respect. Either way, that means there are actually people who know less than I do, and that is pretty scary. What is even scarier is that I was having these rather deep thoughts at what was, to my body clock at least, 3 AM.

Of course, at that time in the day, it’s a miracle that anyone can think straight at all, and I will admit that my mental stability was waning. That’s another interesting thing about travel-induced meditations. They are not only affected by my surroundings, but also by my state of being. There always comes some point when I am running on empty, and when that happens, I find everything funny. This is dangerous because I keep wanting to chuckle to myself, which probably wouldn’t do much to endear me to other nearby travelers. I’m also often highly caffeinated, since I am an avid tea drinker, slurp down Cokes in order to minimize motion sickness, and take caffeinated headache pills. All that caffeine makes my thoughts race—not only am I constantly thinking of something, but I also jump from one topic to the next with amazing rapidity. For instance, the following is a fairly accurate representation of a sequence of thoughts that actually went through my head during my recent trip: (listening to iPod) “Wow, this is a great song, I’m glad I bought this album. I wonder if Mom would like this? Well, she would, but she might not have the time to listen to it. I wonder what kind of souvenirs she’d want me to look out for? I could buy her something with my own money, maybe as a Christmas present; or, I could use her credit card and she could buy it herself. I wonder how much money is her limit? I should buy Dad something, too, but that’s harder—what would Dad like that I could fit in my suitcase? What am I going to get Dad for Christmas? I should go shopping for myself at Christmas, too, and take advantage of being able to spend in dollars instead of sterling. I definitely need some pants. But no sweaters—I have too many sweaters. I’m going to need to reorganize my clothes when I get back home. And clean. I need to vacuum and do the bathroom and dust. Ugh, I hate dusting. Why can’t they sell Pledge in the UK? That’s what I really need but they don’t have anything that good…” I could go on, but I won’t bore you; it’s boring even to me and they’re my own thoughts.

When I get to this phase—the uncontrollable-racing-thought phase—I often am overwhelmed by the desire to list things. I think that may be my coping mechanism to prevent myself from coming totally unhinged. Sometimes I make to-do lists; other times I make grocery lists or plan out travel itineraries in more detail. Occasionally, I record all of the questions I’ve pondered during my trip (e.g., Malaysia vs. Indonesia, names of headdress components, etc.) so that I can remember to look them up when I get to a computer; likewise, I also write down words whose definitions or pronunciations I’ve realized I am unfamiliar with. Since starting the travel blog, I’ve also started writing down all the topics I could discuss in future entries. That’s what I did this afternoon at the peak of my over-caffeinated, under-rested mental overload. I made a list of all the bizarre things that happened in the day and a half since I’d left Cornwall. Thus, some of my most recent travel thoughts have ultimately proven to be useful, since they will help get this blog rolling again. That just goes to show that all this cogitation can sometimes be good for something, as when I catch a little inspiration, remember a vital piece of information, or, on the rarest of occasions, have an epiphany. But, most of the time, my mental chatter is relatively pointless--I have fleeting thoughts that keep me entertained for a bit but then vanish into the mists of my mind, never again to resurface. I think maybe there is a metaphor somewhere in there, but my brain is just too tired to grasp it right now.