Monday, November 13, 2017

Week Five - Melbourne Cup & A Holiday in Cairns

All it took was a definitive return date for me to feel reset, re-motivated, and refocused. Suddenly every day left was precious Sydney time.

On Tuesday 7 November I got to experience my first Melbourne Cup. Horse racing is kind of a big deal here, as is gambling in general, and the Melbourne Cup is the biggest race of the season. In the city of Melbourne, it's an actual holiday off work. But in Sydney, it's an unofficial half day, where most offices have a lunch time celebration and then spend the rest of the day... partying. It's team building on a Tuesday. Such a great holiday! Our office hosted a really nice celebration and then our team ventured out to the pubs with a few other employees.

I tried my first scone with clotted cream
HR Gals
After some quality conversations with a bunch of Dimensional's FAS guys, I learned that a pack of cigarettes can sometimes cost you $40! And this is what they put on the boxes to try to stop people from smoking. It's disgusting! And highway robbery! Addiction is real.
On Friday of this week I also had to move hotels. Because Dimensional was a little last minute with extending my stay, the hotel I'd been living in was sold out for the remainder of my trip. Thus, I packed up and moved a few kms south to the Haymarket area.

It's essentially Chinatown, and living here reminds me even more of my Thailand adventure. So despite the minor inconvenience of packing/unpacking, it's been a nice change of scenery to add to this whole experience.

And just as I checked into my new digs, I was off to the airport to catch a flight to Cairns and fulfill my Great Barrier Reef dreams.

To get to Cairns, I flew Virgin Australian, a very nice airline that does free drinks for every flight departing during the 5-7pm window. Unfortunately my departure time was about 7:10pm... so no free drinks for me. We did get a nice little snackpack with this amazingly delicious piece of half dark, half milk chocolate. I landed in Cairns around 9:30pm, grabbed my bag, and ordered an Uber to take me to my home for the weekend, Caravella Backpackers. For my first experience in a hostel, it was five stars. I paid about $70 for three nights in a females only shared room with a private bathroom. When iIarrived on Friday, I was greeted by a 31 year old girl from Poland who recently quit her job in IT to travel the world. She'd been going for about 3 months and was just at that point in her journey where she was starting to feel a bit lost and anxious about her future. Before Australia, she'd spent a month biking and camping around Portugal and could not stop raving about that amazing experience. In her opinion, the coastal walks of Sydney did not come close to the scenic beauty of Portugal.

And when I woke up on Saturday morning, we had another girl in our room! I later learned that this girl had arrived around 2am straight from Germany. She'd unpacked, showered, and gone to bed and I had not heard a peep. The answer? Wax earplugs.

To see the reef, I had booked a reef/rainforest tour combo through Sightseeing Tours Australia. Again, I spent a lot of hours researching the best deal that would take me to the places I wanted to go. Compass Cruises had the cheapest GBR tour at just over $100. The Polish girl and I had vented a lot about how commercial Australia seems to be, and charging people that much to see the reef really doesn't seem fair. Most of the tours to the reef cost even more, which was pretty apparent as I walked up to the boat I'd picked, definitely the dumpiest in the pier. But, the crew was awesome, lunch was delicious, and we got a free glass of wine in the afternoon. The weather was not ideal and the swell and waves were unbearable. Both the internet and everybody I spoke with advised me to take seasick medication. I bought some from the pharmacy at the airport and it definitely saved me from puking overboard. Lots of people were nauseous, it was pretty awful. But after 3-4 hours, we made it to the reef!
leaving Cairns. Totally looks like Thailand.

At the reef!
Scuba Diving lessons on the deck
first time in a wet suit and feeling like a manatee
coral - photo courtesy of Compass Cruises Facebook
We made it back to Cairns alive!
The day at the reef was long. I got sunburned. I felt lonely. The reef is dying. I saw a lot of bleached coral and it broke my heart. But I saw some truly amazing fish. When I first jumped in the water I swear I was in a school of rainbow fish. They were beautiful, and huge! And they were everywhere. But I was expecting to see some Nemo-esque coral forests but because it was pretty cloudy it was hard to see a ton of colors. The water was also very rough so I was a little scared I was going to drown or get swept away by the current and be too tired to swim back to the boat. I'm so glad I did it, but the whole experience was sort of stressful.

After the tour, a friend I'd made on the boat and I decided to meet up for dinner later in the night. We treated ourselves to a feast of local seafood at The Raw Prawn. I even tried some crocodile and kangaroo. Oh, and I got a free glass of wine! 
free Sauvignon Blanc
king prawns and barramundi
On Sunday, the tour picked me up at 7:10am for a Cape Tribulation and Daintree Rainforest adventure. It was so fun! And because we weren't under water, I was able to take a lot more photos.
our first stop in Mossman

crossing the Daintree River

there is a crocodile swimming in the river! It looks like a log.
Mount Alexandra Lookout, in Daintree National Forest
The Strangler Fig Vine

When the strangler fig takes over the tree, the host tree can sometimes die. Leaving a hollow tree. SO COOL.

our tour guide, Doug, was amazing. He knew everything. Claims to have been friends with Steve Irwin.

then it started raining on our tour of the rainforest so we took cover under the umbrella trees

Doug told us that vines in Australia also grow counter clockwise but vines in the northern hemisphere grow clockwise

I learned a ton about mangrove trees on the tour. SO COOL.

The viewpoint of Cape Tribulation

"Where the Rainforest Meets the Reef"

after lunch we left the rainforest and went back to the Daintree river to hunt for crocs. It was near impossible for me to capture them in photos. But we saw 3!

Then we went to Mossman Gorge. In the rainforest, in the rain. A lot of rain!

Do you see a man's profile? Totes looks like a face.

On the bus we got some afternoon snacks. Fresh lychee fruit picked from a tree nearby and TimTams

Beautiful sunset on the drive back to Cairns

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Week Four - Off Balance

When my Sydney assignment was initially approved, back at the end of September, the arrangement was for 3 months. But nearly every day leading up to the trip, something changed affecting the duration of the stint, so nobody really knew exactly when I'd be coming home. We'd booked my return flight for 3 months out, because it was pretty easy to modify and that's the longest my visa would let me stay. And we'd booked my housing for 30 days, through Nov 10th, and could easily extend, depending on the circumstances. As Nov 10th quickly approached, the amount of variables affecting my timing seemed to increase exponentially, causing me a lot of anxiety and uncertainty. In short, this was a rough week. This weekend's weather was also rainy and cloudy, leaving me zero motivation to get outside and explore. Mental exhaustion.

But by Friday, I had enough conversations with my colleagues to give me the control I needed to figure out my return plans. Words of wisdom: only you can control you. And with all those variables at play, it took me several hours in front of a computer to decide that I would stay working in Sydney for two more weeks, My last day in the office will be 24 Nov. This gives me sufficient time to wrap up this portion of my job and manage the US portion. And (arguably more importantly) will give me enough time on both ends to take 5 days of PTO the week of 27 Nov. I'm going to New Zealand! I spent countless hours researching guided group tours to places in Australia and New Zealand to figure out how to use my accrued PTO days. Ultimately, I picked Wild Kiwi's Southern Voyager trip for the following reasons:

  • Trip dates and duration worked pretty well with me work schedule
  • Demographically, the group is for those in their 20-30s and not for single seniors (so many trips for those types!)
  • I haven't heard one negative thing said about NZ from all the people I've chatted with about traveling
  • People have also told me the south island is better for beautiful naturey things, which is my kind of place. I don't have enough time to see the whole country, so I will prioritize.
  • Two of my Austin friends will also be in NZ around this same time... it's a long shot, but there's a chance we can meet up.
  • I get to go to another country and get another passport stamp
  • As much as I want to see all of Australia over the next few weeks, I also have a job that happens to have two offices here, so it's not outside the realm of possibilities for me to someday get to come back. And, I may also have time then to see more Aussie stuff.
Anther big factor with my indecision on when to leave and where to go was knowing that by going to NZ, I would not have enough time to go see the Great Barrier Reef. This has been a huge bucket list item for me since about grade three when I learned about it. So to solve this problem I decided that I've been working enough 10-12 hour days to stop feeling so guilty about taking 1/2 days of PTO and just go for the weekend. Thus, TWO trips booked! I'm flying to Cairns next Friday after work to see the reef and see the rainforest. I'll return on Monday morning to be in the office by about 12:30pm. Done and done.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Three Weeks Down Unda

I kicked off 31 with happy hour and an Aussie pub staple, Wedges with Sour Cream & Sweet Chili. Translation = potato wedges fried to crisp perfection, served alongside a heaping scoop of creamy sour cream/cream cheese/Greek yogurt tasting dip dolloped into a dish of tangy sweet chili sauce. I stole the photo below from here.

Why do we not have this appetizer in the states? It's right up there with Canadian dry ribs. For a country who loves its football and chicken wings, it makes no sense that American's don't get to enjoy these delicious bar snacks.

Speaking of delicious Aussie foods, I tried Vegemite! My coworker prepared it properly for me, spreading salty butter onto a cracker, then a thin layer of vegemite. I didn't hate it... It was definitely weird though, unlike anything I've had before. And very difficult to describe.
Besides trying new foods this week, I sunk to an all time cultural low, and watched the two hour Bachie finale. Sophie picked the right guy and that show is just as terrible down unda as it is in the US.
Apparently she's also semi-famous? #thingsIdontcareabout
And in other television news, this week I started watching Homeland! While we did get the new season of Stranger Things (thank goodness!) most of the other shows on Aussie Netflix are completely different that what I got in the states. None of my other TV aps work down here either so I'm going to have so many fun things to catch up on when I get home.

As exciting as new foods and TV is, this weekend was one of my best ones yet. On Saturday, I woke up bright and early to head out to the highly recommended, Blue Mountains. After scouring the internet for the highest value tour, I selected Tours R Us' Blue Mountains Tour.

I was the first one on the coach at 7am and got a nice tour of Sydney as we picked up the other passengers and hit the road heading west for about an hour. First stop, Featherdale Wildlife Park.
Stealing a koala is definitely against my better judgement but also...

The best animal.

Featherdale was also cool/gross because you could feed the kangas

A Canadian (proof I was not the youngest person on my tour bus!) and the roo

Australia has the best animals

 After plenty of time with the wildlife, it was back on the coach for about an hour drive into Katoomba, the largest town at the top of the mountain range. Most of the other passengers fell asleep on this ride but I was wide awake taking in the views. Our next stop, Echo Point for the Three Sisters view.
It was about a 20 min hike to the closest sister on the left, so I ventured off quickly to make it down there

the staircase down was super steep. It reminded me of the Grand Canyon.

View of Katoomba Falls from Scenic World
The next stop on the tour was Scenic World, a complete tourist trap. $32 includes all the rides! First, we took the sky-lift down to the rainforest at the bottom of the canyon. There's a paved pathway that takes about 30-45 min to walk through, then you take the "steepest train in the world" back up to the top. The rainforest was cool but I wish I could have just bush-walked on the trails rather than been affiliated with the silly park. Live and learn.
in the rainforest at the bottom of the canyon
 After the rides, we jumped back on the bus to check out a few viewpoints in the other canyons. Blue Mountains has three valleys, and we saw two of them. The Jamison Valley (where the 3 Sisters are) and the Megalong (below).

After the valleys, we stopped for lunch in the cutest little mountain town where any Sydney-Sider should want to retire, Leura. For any future tour-goers, I would recommend not including lunch with your tour and just trying one of the local cafes in Leura. It was adorable, and I'm sure way tastier than the tour-included meal.

The last stop on our tour was Olympic Park, in a suburb west of Sydney. Olympic parks post Olympics are never that exciting. But to its credit, this one was still mostly functional. The aquatic center, main stadium, and gymnastics stadium are all used for local events. They've also built an impressive bike path through the park lands in the area, great for families.

I'm still impressed by all the wildlife, so spent most of this stop mesmerized by the trees and birds.

Australian crested pigeon

I learned on the tour that there are 700 different kinds of eucalyptus trees. So if you were to guess that any tree you see is a "gum tree," you'd probably be right. After the park, we ditched the bus and hopped aboard a ferry boat to cruise the Parrametta river, under the Harbor Bridge, past the Opera House, and back to Circular Quay, my home away from home.

On Sunday, I took almost as many photos, as I ventured out east to the Pacific Ocean to complete the Bondi-to-Coogee beach walk.
Bondi Beach, 8:30am. Watching the Surfers

Setting off on my walk

the famous Icebergs pool on Bondi

Sculpture by the Sea is going on now, so the walk was extra crowded

Ants Marching, reminded me of Michigan

sure beats Lake Michigan

the kids doing surf lessons are called Little Nippers

Coogee Beach at the end of my walk

settling in for some beach time

I left around 1pm because I was getting burnt and it was getting so crowded
 While on the bus back to the CBD I rested a bit and figured, I might as well make the most of the rest of my afternoon, so grabbed the ferry and hit up Watson's Bay, another highly recommended area. It's the northern most part of the south side of Sydney.

Watson's bay beach area was far less crowded than further south, and you're swimming on the harbor side, rather than the ocean side, so it had teeny tiny waves. Great for swimming, terrible for surfing.

the view facing north from the South Head. A few weeks prior I had visited Manly, and North head.