Friday, January 28, 2011

G'Day Mate!

G’day Mate!  I’ve been in New Zealand now for a few days, but I’m just now getting to posting my last Australia post.  Sorry!  As our tour manager says, “this is not a vacation, it’s an adventure” - one which keeps us busy non-stop from 7am ‘til 9pm!
Crikey!  I got to hold a crocodile, my favorite animal, in Cairns, Australia!  It was a baby, but it was still a crocodile, and I held it!  :)  I watched a feeding demonstration of a gianormous crocodile whose head was about the length of my lower body and the girth of a large pig.  It was so forceful and was feeding just on the other side of the fence from me.  This croc was brought into captivity because it had a few altercations with humans, so they figured it was best to get him off the streets.  If only Steve Irwin, The Crocodile Hunter, were still alive and I was able to see him wrangle a croc or two my Australia experience would have been complete!  ::tear::
 My next great adventure, one I’ve been looking forward to for a long time, was snorkeling in the Great Barrier Reef!  It’s actually made up of 29,000 separate reefs to create the largest reef in the world.  I donned a lycra diving suit, a mask and snorkel and my flippers and hopped into the Coral Sea.  We were out in the Outer Great Barrier Reef about 16 miles out into the sea.  They said it was a protected area to snorkel in so I figured there was some sort of net surrounding the area or something, but no, we were open to sharks, killer sting rays and whales.  Yikes!  It was raining while we were there so there was reduced visibility to only about 10 feet or so, but it was still unbelievable.  I found a huge reef that was about 3 feet below the surface of the water giving me just enough room to swim over it.  It was covered with colorful coral, anemones and there were fish coming out of everyone.  Some single fish, some schools of fish, all different sizes and different colors.  I got a little nervous each time I went out into the water and no one else was around because it’s pretty eerie when all you can hear is your own breathing and nothing else.  When other people are around you inevitably bump into them and each time I was certain that I had crashed into a boat or a shark or something just as menacing.  So I went back down into the water, all by myself, and I saw something dark out of the left corner of my eye.  So I slowly turned around and saw, about2 feet from me, a HUGE fish about 3 feet long and 2 feet high.  It looked like a giant sheet and I turned around and started swimming away kicking as hard as I could.  I probably kicked the poor thing, but I had to get away – I don’t know if I’m cut out for this sort of thing!  But other than that I had an amazing time and it will go down as one of the most memorable things I have ever done.  It was really incredible to be out in the middle of the sea, bobbing up and down, checking in with others about what we just saw and directing each other where to go to see something even more beautiful.

Another item from my bucket list has been checked off and that is to visit a rainforest.  I’ve always wondered what it would be like to actually be in the rainforest.  And in a word it is WET!  We went on a day that was pouring down rain, so at least it was authentic, because what’s a rainforest without the rain?  We took a gondola up a mountain, amidst the clouds and I stared straight ahead and would not, could not, look down.  Once we finally reached the top I was so happy to be there!  We walked along a path with the huge trees drooping down in our way.  It truly sounded like “the rainforest” on sound machines, with the droplets of rain hitting the trees and the various animal sounds, ones I’d only heard before at Tropic World at Brookfield Zoo.  As the gondola passed over the Barron River I allowed myself to look straight down, but only because I was on the hunt for wild crocodiles.  Although, because of the floods there were a lot of sticks and trim limbs in the muddy water so it was difficult to differentiate.
 Our last city in Australia was Sydney!  Every tour guide on each tour we took was very eager to talk about Oprah in Australia and how Hugh Jackman crashed into the stage on a zip line (or a flying fox as the Aussies say) at full speed.  They’re hoping for the Oprah Effect on their tourism industry!  Sydney is such a beautiful city with so many aspects to it that are so diverse.  There’s the Sydney Harbor which contains the Sydney Opera House, Sydney Bridge, cruises, ferries and tons of shops and outdoor restaurants; the Rocks which has lots of shops, offices and restaurants perched on sandstone rocks; Bondi Beach which is a picturesque beach filled with surfers, sunbathers, beach activities and sun; and many more.  The Rocks was previously known as a dicey and dilapidated place to live back in the 1800s.  We visited the Susannah Place Museum which was a terrace house building from 1844 and is one of the few buildings still standing from that time.  It gave an interesting glimpse into life throughout the years in Sydney.  We climbed the Sydney Harbor Bridge while wearing attractive nylon climbing suits.  We were 440 feet in the air and I didn’t particularly like the shots of adrenaline that ran through my body when I looked straight down.  At the Sydney Wildlife World I got to pet a Koala but wasn’t able to hold him because they’re very shy (or at least that’s what they told us – I’ve heard they’re actually somewhat mean – but they’re so cute and cuddly looking!).   

Next we went on a tour of the Sydney Opera House and learned about its history – it almost never got completed because it exceeded the budget by approximately $100 million, the architect walked away from it while it was being built, and they couldn’t figure out how to make the roofing for the sphere shaped sails.  My mom went back in the evening to see if she could get her hands on some Jimmy Buffett tickets and she did!  She sat in a box seat super close and had a great time!  The concert lasted three hours (longer than I expected) and she was out there alone, without a cell phone, and I had my first glimpse into what it’s going to be like to be the worried parent waiting up at home!  I was a nervous wreck!  On my last night in Sydney I went out to dinner with my friend, Holly, who actually just recently moved to Australia and is having the time of her life!  I love travel!  :)

Friday, January 21, 2011

Adventure in the Outback!

G’day mate!  I have arrived ‘Down Under’ and I’m currently in the Outback of Australia.  I am having the time of my life and am so grateful to have the opportunity to visit this amazing country!  It’s a LONG plane ride, but so worth it!  I am L-O-V-I-N-G this!!
My mom and I are on an 18 day trip in Australia as part of a 44 person tour group with Collette Vacations and I’m one of four people under the age of 40, but I love it!  Everyone in the group is so friendly, they’re such interesting people, we’re laughing all the time and we have a fabulous tour director!  We have seen and learned the most amazing things over the past 5 days. 

I love the Australian accent and could listen to an Australian talk all day long!  Just as I did in Montreal I’m starting to adopt the sayings and have started to think and write in my travel journal in Australian.  I have caught myself saying “straight away” and “we'll give it a go”.  I’ve also noticed differences in food between Australia and the states.  When you order a strawberry milkshake, there’s no shake about it, it’s just strawberry milk.  Beef tastes completely different than it does in America, as I suppose it does just as if you were in different parts of the United States.  One night we were served steak and it tasted disgusting and I was sure that after we ate it someone was going to tell us, “Surprise, you just ate camel!”
The Outback is an amazing landscape that covers the majority of Australia, primarily the Northern Territory and Western Australia.  It’s called the bush as well and is a desert but one of the most lush deserts I’ve ever seen.  All the Australians say that haven’t had weather this perfect in years.  The desert is filled with green trees, shrubs and grass scattered amongst the rusty red sand.  This set against the bright blue back drop is quite a beautiful sight.  We had dinner in the middle of the bush one night completely in the middle of nowhere.  All that was there was a shelter made of straw and wood.  Our meal was complete with an Australian folk singer, a cooking lesson for making Spotted Dog (a dense bread that Australians eat all the time), astronomy lesson on the stars of the Southern Hemisphere (the constellation Orion looks like it’s standing on its head because everything is opposite here) and Billy tea from a can cooked over a campfire.

The Aboriginal people, the native Australians, are still very prevalent all over Australia, but especially in the Northern Territory and Western Australia.  There are over 500 tribes that have been able to maintain their traditions, language and culture even when their land which has been so sacred to them is being modernized and built upon.  In the town of Alice Springs there are two small malls and a downtown, a spectacular wide dry river bed and lots of open land.  The Aborigines still do what they’ve always done and find a place to sit on the land in their family groups and tell stories and socialize all day long.  They don’t care that there’s a mall in the way, they just sit in the mall or in the town or wherever it is important to them to be.  Further out in the bush there are tons of sacred sites that you can’t take pictures of, Aborigine communities you can’t go near, and there is story after story to explain the natural phenomena.  It really is fascinating.  They do not allow you to take pictures of them because when an Aboriginal person dies they are to be forgotten, never thought of again and all pictures or reminders of them are to be destroyed.  If we take pictures of them they cannot ensure that they are destroyed.  The Aborigines have no written language so the only exception to the picture rule is that when you buy a painting from an artist, the only way they can authenticate that piece of art is with a photo of them holding their artwork with the buyer.  My mom bought a painting from Audrey, the Aboriginal woman in the picture below.  You think you know so much about life and the world, but then you get to somewhere like Alice Springs where the Aboriginal people live and you realize you know don’t really know as much as you thought and you have so much to learn.  There is no better word to describe this culture than fascinating! 
In the very center of Australia is a small town called Yulara which is a town created solely for tourists who come to see one of the natural wonders of the world, Ayers Rock.  This massive rock is an amazing sight as it changes colors about 5 times a day depending on where the sun is.  It is, of course, a sacred site of the Aboriginal people who live in the bush in the surrounding areas.   Ayers Rock, or Uluru (the Aboriginal word), is in a national park which can only be occupied by the Aborigines, can be shut down for days at a time by the Aborigines for ceremonies, and has certain sacred sites that cannot be photographed.  We had a champagne toast as we watched the sun set over Ayers Rock!

On the same day that I saw probably a hundred wild camels in the middle of the Outback, I rode a tame camel at a camel farm at sunrise.  I had to rise at 4:15am (what?? I thought this was vacation!) but it was so worth it!  We rode in twos (Mom sat this one out, so I sat with Melissa, a woman in our tour group who also quit her job to travel and has been at it for 6 months already!!) and the mounting process, actually the rising of the camel, was quite an ordeal.  You have to lean back in the saddle as the camel gets up because you go through a process that feels like a roller coaster ride.  First you’re jerked backwards is it stands up on its front legs, then you sit there for a minute like that, then you’re thrust forward and backwards and all around while it gets its hind legs up.  It took a bit to get used to and I had to pry my hands off the handlebar in order to take pictures.  But after all that it was amazing!!  The camel is extremely tame and calm – I rode Lazy Dazy; when I heard that name I knew we’d get along great!  We wound our way through the bush and witnessed a gorgeous sunrise over Ayers Rock! 
We visited an interesting school called the School of the Air.  Because Australia is so large and so remote that kids would have to travel hundreds of miles to get to a school, they have created the School of the Air which teaches children over the internet with the help of a home tutor.  It’s really an amazing system that reaches all these children.  It started in 1951 as a radio transmission system and has evolved to what it is today.  We went to the studio in Alice Springs where teachers teach their classes everyday and communicate with their children by internet.  Each student is provided a computer, scanner, printer, fax machine and internet for their whole family to use.  Imagine if we had to go through all that to get an education.
Some other random Australian facts: The bugs in the bush are ridiculous and we had to wear bug nets on our heads so they wouldn’t go up our noses and in our mouths and ears, and I tried a tiny piece of kangaroo and hated it.

Tomorrow we’re off to the rainforest!

“Don’t put off living to next week, next month, next year or next decade.  The only time you’re ever living is in the moment!”

Sunday, January 16, 2011

I Still Love LA!

During the second half of my LA adventures I discovered Runyon Canyon, a Los Angeles public park which offers multiple hiking paths up the local mountains.  Even though Los Angeles is not one of the most beautiful cities in the world, its views from the top of the Santa Monica Mountains are amazing!  I sat on the top of one of the mountains for awhile taking it all in – as I approached the top of the mountain I saw a lady sitting on the bench and decided that I’d ask her to take a picture of me perched on the top of the mountain, but as I got closer I saw that it was Uma Thurman, and decided that instead I’d just sit and enjoy.  I determined that this hike is good preparation for my upcoming hike in the Andes Mountains which is 14,000 ft high – I figured the mountain had to be like 4,000 feet high – but I was thoroughly disappointed to learn it was only 675 ft, which I don’t even know if that qualifies as a mountain.  I’ve got a long way to go!

I spent a lot of time driving up and down the coast, north to Malibu and south to Long Beach.  It was gorgeous both ways!  I drove up one mountain and pulled off on an overlook that just took my breath away.  I felt like such a small piece of this earth surrounded by huge mountains, the beautiful ocean ahead of me and the palm trees and other foliage around.  I hadn’t heard such silence in awhile – it was a little eerie but also awe inspiring - incredible!
I kept returning to the Hollywood Hills and other communities perched on the mountainside to wind my way up and down and through the streets.  The houses are gorgeous and tucked so perfectly into the mountainside.  I love how the streets curve so tightly.  You never know what’s around the bend but it’s always more spectacular than from where you came.  I could drive around in the hills forever!
I took a mid-week break from sightseeing to see The Fighter starring Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale.  The movie was amazing and the actors were amazing!  I smell Oscars!
I took in a Lakers game, got thoroughly ripped off on my seats that I bought from a scalper (seriously, what did I expect?) and found myself sitting in the very last row of the stadium with nothing but a wall behind me.  But all in all, I was there, which was pretty cool! 
My mom arrived on Tuesday of this past week to get acclimated to the Los Angeles time zone, and to ensure there was no way she’d miss our Australia flight.  We went to more “cultured” destinations than I would have visited if I had been on my own.  We visited the La Brea Tar Pits, which is an old asphalt quarry that has since filled with water, bubbles methane and tar, and swallowed up thousands of animals in the Ice Age including American Lions (who knew there was such a thing) and mammoths.  I’m having a hard time imagining mammoths walking down what is now Rodeo Drive!  We also went to The Getty Center, which is an amazing campus built on the top of a mountain that houses art.  The spectacular architecture of the buildings, the grounds and a pretty man-made creek far outweighs the art inside.  We also visited the huge and luxurious Queen Mary, which now functions as a hotel and banquet hall in Long Beach.  We took the ghosts tour because supposedly the Queen Mary is haunted by the people who had died there.  It was half cheesy and half scary – I can still hear the tour guide’s creepy voice ringing in my head!
And now that I’ve discovered the most delicious frozen yogurt place, The Yogurt Stop, and I’ve finally had an In N Out burger (YUM!), my visit to Los Angeles is complete!  On to my next destination – Australia, here I come!!  I just hope I don’t get swept away in the floods!

Monday, January 10, 2011

I love LA!

Ahhh, this is the life!  On my fourth day into my world travels I am sitting on the beach in Santa Monica soaking up the sun – actually, no sun, but I’m still on the beach - and I’m having the time of my life!  My trip so far has been packed full of star studded activities.  To date I’ve seen 37 celebrities around town – some of the more notable have been Matt Damon, Denzel Washington and Katy Perry.  Hours after I arrived in LA I went to the People’s Choice Awards!  I knew there was a reason I had saved my high school dance dresses!  As I entered the Nokia Theater practice was already underway for the flash mob which was to start the show!  Before I could take my seat in the back of the theater I was taken to the front as a “seat filler” and settled into my seat in the 7th row!  No flippin’ way!  I was sitting behind Raven Simone and I quickly determined that she is a snob!  How ‘bout being grateful and appreciative that being a cute, talented little kid led to you being a millionaire and getting the amazing opportunities you have had in life?!  Geez!  The show started with the floor shaking flash mob, which was so awesome – I’ve always wanted to be a part of one!  Celebrities were all around and my head was spinning!  I’ve had two encounters that I think have landed me on TV – once at the People’s Choice Awards in the background when Queen Latifah (host) was talking to Taylor Lautner in the audience (Side note: It was entertaining to watch the pre-teen girls screaming and trying to run up to Taylor during the commercial breaks only to be whisked away by one of his three personal bodyguards) and once when I stood in the audience behind Mario Lopez as he filmed Extra.

You can’t go to LA and not do a tour of the movie star’s homes.  I took the tour a few years ago and it has been updated since then to include the house that Michael Jackson died in – kinda creepy!  As I rode through Beverly Hills, the Hollywood Hills and Bel Air I couldn’t help but to fantasize what it would be like to live there.  I’m sure each one of them had room for a dedicated scrapbook room and a gym, maybe a pool and even a personal butler – oh and I’m sure they come with a few million dollars in the bank – perfect for me!  I’ve decided that if I ever lived here I would live in Beverly Hills, the Hollywood Hills or Malibu!  Expensive taste, I know!  Although, I didn’t win the $320 million Mega Millions so I think that will have to wait!  That day ended with meeting the Ambassador of Beverly Hills, who was a very friendly man (as you can see in the picture below?) asking me, "Would you like a picture with me?!" and yelling to passing movie stars' tours buses that I was a celebrity and pointing at me.  A group of people came running over to me and said, "You're famous?!  Who are you?!"
You may recall from a previous post that I am not a fan of comedy clubs – but I attended the most hilarious comedy show ever at The Laugh Factory!  I thought I was going to die laughing!!  I got seated in the second row – uh oh, the people up front are always the ones who get picked on.  However, much to my surprise, the show was nothing like that!  Tim Allen was the headliner and a guy from Last Comic Standing opened for him.  I have never laughed harder or longer in my entire life!  Two hours of laughing is a great ab workout too, I recommend it!  And above all else I got to hear Tim “The Toolman” Taylor’s grunt in real life – lol!

I love TV and movie production and was fascinated when I took a tour of Warner Brothers’ studios.  I love seeing where everything goes down and getting the inside track on TV tips and secrets!  For example, in the famous upside down kiss scene in Spiderman they had never rehearsed that in the rain before, so of course when they went to film, as Tobey Maguire hung upside down his nose filled with water, so they had to plug his nostrils with cotton balls, seal them off with Vaseline and paint it brown so it wouldn’t show up on camera, but then this made his voice too nasally, so in post production they had to completely replace his voice with a soundtrack created in the studio.  And remember Gunther, the barista, from Friends?  Well, in the first episode they didn’t have a barista yet for Central Perk but they did want to run the espresso machine for authenticity, but none of the crew knew how to operate it.  So they asked the extras if anyone knew how to operate the machine, and one man raised his hand – he did so well that they kept him on for 10 years and thus Gunther was born!
I attended a taping of Two and a Half Men which may rival the People’s Choice Awards as the coolest thing I’ve done since I’ve been here!!  The episode was hilarious and it was really amazing to watch such good actors as Charlie Sheen and Jon Cryer act.  Now I want to see some of the greats in action – I think I’m addicted to this Hollywood thing!!