Sunday, November 12, 2017

About that week I spent in Australia...

So this happened...

You know me well enough to know I don't usually post photos of myself, but... me with this little cutie is worth breaking my rule.  Flattering pic it is not (my hair reacts to sub-tropical climate humidity, I digress...) but lovely moment in my life captured on film, I must share.  I got to cuddle this little beauty for a few minutes.  Her name is Vinnie, and yes she does have sharp-ish claws so I was grateful for the advice to wear long sleeves.  She did not smell bad, contrary to popular belief, and she did not pee on me.  Her fur was incredibly soft - like a cross between chinchilla hair and sheeps' wool, if I could describe it that way... super soft and fine on the surface, but very deep and floofy, my hand sunk in a bit when petting her.  Totally worth the 20 extra AUD dollars at Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary, just outside of Brisbane, Australia.  :-D

I also got to feed kangaroos - like real live hopping huge kangaroos.  Many of them were lying around just chillin', and they preferred their food to be delivered by hand directly to muzzle, but they were cool to observe, and pet.  Unbelievable experience!  One large 'roo hopped right by me and it shook the earth a bit... they are clearly very powerful animals.  I also saw a platypus swimming around like a mad man, couldn't catch him on camera (bought the post card though!), and hung out with the cutest Tasmanian Devil I have ever seen.. Oh wait, that was the only Tasmanian Devil I have ever seen.  Australia's largest predatory mammal didn't look too predatory to me - until it yawned and I saw it's razor-sharp teeth large enough to notice in a quick glance.

Not even an intro for this blog LOL - just STRAIGHT to the Aussie animal experience! :-)  

To say this trip was a dream come true is an understatement, but I'll try to keep the gushing and gratitude talk to a minimum, just give you the scoops on the trip itself.  Many of my friends know that I have ALWAYS wanted to go to Australia, but I had taken it off my bucket list a few... oh at least three... years ago when I thought my life was over.  #cancer  

Another time, I will write more about the reason for the trip itself, my attendance at the World Congress of Melanoma, and the Global Coalition for Melanoma Patient Advocacy annual meeting, but for the purpose of this blog I will share the personal stuff and highlights of photos.  For those of you who know me on facebook or instagram you have already seen a couple of these.  

Blogger's Lounge at Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary.  
A TRUE blogger, I suppose, would have posted notes and photos as they were happening, but frankly, I was too busy with the conference to be able to do that, so... you'll have to trust me now that I am home, comfortably sharing my stories, reminiscing from my couch.  

My flights were largely uneventful, and not nearly as bad as some had warned, I highly recommend Qantas, totally great food and staff, and every consideration.  Individual movie screens make the flight pass quickly between naps (of which I had several) - I even watched Crocodile Dundee on my way to Australia!  Yes, I am a tourist.  

I flew through Los Angeles from Toronto, so after that first flight and the few hours connecting, my Qantas flight to Brisbane finally took off around 4am Toronto time, so I was pretty beat.  I fell asleep for a couple hours immediately after take-off.  Funny part of this is that I woke up at one point, looked out my window, and saw lights below!  I was like - WHAT - did I just sleep 13 hours? No, couldn't be... but city lights? We're flying over the ocean!  I turned on my seat-TV thingy to the flight tracker and lo and behold, we were flying over Hawaii.  LOL!  I fell asleep again, pretty pleased with myself that I woke up just long enough to be able to say I saw Hawaii.  Amateur traveller I am not.  :-P

Got to Brisbane, uneventful trip through customs - I watch Border Security, so I certainly know what NOT to pack to Australia!  Made my way to a taxi to the city and, dead stop, cars and drivers of cars are on opposite side!  Enter my first tourist moment of the trip - taking pics to send the kids of the taxi driver driving to my right and our car careening around on the wrong side of the road!!  My first time, yes.  
My Aussie friends did warn me to look both ways before crossing any streets - like really - look the opposite way!  Which was helpful, and by the end of the week I did get used to it, though on day two I was almost taken out by a bicyclist.  Not for lack of signage though, it should be clear to any foreigner which side is which.  Even the roads and pathways are marked (they all walk on the opposite side too, which makes sense, I guess):

I did manage to take a few modes of transportation while in Brisbane, happy to say.  Taxi, uber, ferry, bus, bici-taxi, and I did walk a tonne.  The Conference Centre was on the opposite side of the river but not far from my hotel, so it gave me lots of chances to walk around and explore "South Bank."

Hotel was nice, and situated on the North Quay as it is called, a short walk to downtown and the Queen Street Mall, a pedestrian shopping/eateries area, totally safe for Canadians walking around oblivious of the side of the sidewalk.  I had a few meals there, and did most of my shopping there, got the touristy Aussie swag in the open-air shops all around, got a new plug adaptor as the one I brought from home conked out on the first night, hit the currency exchange booth, and brought the girls some treats from Lush Cosmetics LOL.  

 These birds, called Ibis, were everywhere! ---^

I tried lots of different foods, had the local "Moreton Bay Bugs" which are like large shrimp, but from the bay directly off the coast by the city of Brisbane.  The food in general was varied, all fresh, quite a bit of "fusion" food, Asian influence but also lots of English/British; it felt quite European to me.  Lots of staples like avocado toast with poached eggs, oh and grilled tomatoes with every breakfast

 Australian coffee speak: 
above-pictured espresso is called a "short black," 
a normal-sized coffee coffee is called "long black," 
and a "flat white" is a coffee-milk latte sort of thing but small.

(Aside - it is Spring in Brisbane now, so the temperature was pretty warm and humid. And rainy!  It rained every day that I was there, was cloudy most of the time, and that made great fodder for the presenters at the skin cancer conference.  After all, almost 2,000 people were gathered for four days in Brisbane, Queensland, Australia, the "melanoma capital of the world" - and none of us were in danger of getting any sun all week.  Many jokes were made over that, but it also gave me a great excuse to buy a local umbrella haha - why would I have brought one with me to a sub-tropical climate?  Silly traveller, always pack your umbrella, just saying)

(Chocolate Lab photo bomb- I just took this pic at home today, 
I was too busy using this umbrella in Australia to take pics of it then LOL)

Back to the food - yum, I love to explore local food when traveling.  In addition to the British pub fare and fresh sushi and Thai, I found an Italian restaurant making Napoli pizza, YUM.  Mine had buffala mozzarella and braised beef cheeks - and a glass or two of local Shiraz on the side.  for a long time my favourite wine at home has been Aussie Shiraz, I just like it.  It's a bit spicy, and the weight of it is perfect for me, not watery bland like a Zinfandel or heavy like a Cab, but right in the middle.  Going into the trip I made the mistake of thinking I would be able to enjoy lots of Shiraz while in the land down under, but it's not like traveling to a Caribbean country (or even the States) where the local booze is cheap and easy to bring home.  HA!  Not in Australia it's not! 

I drank the same wine in Aus that I buy at the LCBO here, but for the same price if not more.  In fact, I did manage to seek out one liquor store, and I did buy one bottle to bring home, but there was not a Shiraz for less than $28 AUD!  I was shocked; we pay half that for an everyday Aus Shiraz here.  I'm thinking maybe they send their cheapie stuff to Canada, and save the good stuff for in Australia  haha  

Most of the items I saw or purchased were very expensive actually, I would venture to say it was even more expensive than in Europe.  I'm not criticizing, it was just an experience I didn't expect.  The rate on currency wasn't bad, but the prices of things in restaurants and stores were quite high.  Oh and you don't leave tips at restaurants - Australian wages are quite a bit higher than ours, my friend told me that their minimum wage is $22-ish or something like that?  They are paid more, and valued more, from what I observed.  Which is nice.
One thing I did notice was cheaper there - passion fruit.  LOL  One day on my way to the conference there was a Farmer's Market setting up in Brisbane Square, so I got a few photos of what a tropical outdoor vendor market looks like.  Bags upon bags of passion fruit at one stall, and for only a few bucks!  Here we are hard-pressed to get passion fruit in the grocery store, and if we were to be able to, it would be about five dollars for one. 

One night after the conference sessions of the day I did manage to find a local grocery store.  YAY - one of my mandatory excursions when traveling.  At the direction of an interesting guy I met in the afternoon, who happens to be part of a macadamia nut farming family, I walked to the neighborhood "Woolies" or Woolworth's, to get some Vegemite, Timtams, and check out the fare.  I got a few things and a grocery bag, so now when grocery shopping around home I can casually pull out my Woolworths and Koala Sanctuary re-usable cloth bags and reminisce about my Australian grocery shopping.  Here is some of the stuff I bought (minus the TimTams, those did not last - apparently the "TimTam Slam" is a thing for a very delicious reason! The girls were very happily my official taste-testers):

Ahem yes, that is kangaroo jerky... I bought it for a friend. I did not eat any kangaroo meat while in Australia, though some of my colleagues did, as it was an option on the menu at one of the dinners we attended.  Apparently it is common to eat kangaroo meat there, and I am typically an adventurous eater in foreign countries, but this I just couldn't do.  They are too cute for me to eat.  (I'll spare you the details of the conversation I had with an Aussie on the topic, about the "cute" Bambi-deer (we consider pests) that Canadians are known to eat)

Speaking of the girls, they did a great job while I was away.  It was an emotional time for us, as that is the longest - and farthest apart! - we had ever been away from each other.  They were proud of me, and I was ambitious to go, but we were always on each others' minds and we were quite conscious of exactly how far apart we were.  Timezone-wise it worked out fairly well, as with my roam-like-home cell package from Rogers I was able to call home as much as I wanted for only $10/day, so the girls and I could talk anytime (except when I was flying of course). The 14-hour time difference worked with their school schedule, I was getting ready for bed when they were getting ready for school, and we could also talk when they got home from school in the afternoon, I was getting ready for work.

 (a few of my snapchat story pics keeping the kids posted on my whereabouts)

It helped that I didn't really sleep much, I suspect jet lag was minimized by adrenaline, and the incredible honour I felt for being invited to this event, plus my typical zest for exploration when I travel all caused me to check out everything I could from 6am to 10pm.  I knew I was one lucky SOB just to be standing on Australian soil, and I was going to make the most out of every moment I was there.

I feel I was able to cover a good portion of the city, though my photos aren't stellar for the most part due to the cloudy skies and my old/crappy phone camera.  I got a thorough feeling for Australia's "new-world city," Brisbane.  I went on the giant ferris wheel, put my feet in the sand on Streets Beach, sniffed the flowers all through the South Bank Parklands, and talked with everyone who would entertain conversation with me.  

Much of the city is open-air, restaurants and stores all wide open, but many many covered walkways or funky roof-type structures - all in the name of sun protection! That's truly what they are for, though I found them handy for rain protection the week I was there

 The Wheel of Brisbane
 City Hall Tower, downtown Brisbane

 Brisbane Square

Australian people are truly lovely.  I was impressed - Canadians have a reputation for being very polite - well in my experience, Aussies have us beat!  Sweet people, helpful, open, well-travelled, intelligent, and progressive.  I felt humbled but also very much at home, if that makes sense.  They were very welcoming, and proud of their heritage.  I was worried that Aussies might think me very touristy to be so ga-ga over the koalas and stuff, but no, they really seem to embrace it.  They are openly proud of their unique land and they seem genuinely happy to share their culture and specialties with visitors.  Lots of kangaroos and koala souvenirs all over, and koalas in every logo and crest around.  And so many Aussies I spoke with had either been to Canada or wanted to go.  Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal were all popularly named Canadian destinations for them, so I was happy to be able to reciprocate some patriotic descriptions of my country, especially since having been to each of those cities within the past year.  Yes, maybe now I'm bragging a bit.  ;-)  

Polymer bills like ours, and toonies and loonies but also a 20-cent coin!

I will wrap up with saying this trip was the most amazing experience.  It was the trip of a lifetime, and I am so very grateful to have had it.  I got to work in one of the most unique places in the world, on a topic that is very close to my heart.  I met many amazing people, and have made connections and friends that will last a lifetime-- shout out to my new friend Di - looking forward to a home exchange vacation in your lovely home in Tasmania!!  (hope you find Meaford as exciting as I will find Tazzy hehe)  :-)

A few more random Aussie wildlife photos for you.... and a major THANK YOU going out to my life-saver in many ways, Save Your Skin Foundation: thank you for making this possible. Thank you to everyone also, who helped make this trip feasible for me, who helped check in on the girls - and the pooch! - while I was away, and who supported me in the emotional and psychological ways it took to get me across that big wide ocean and back in one piece.  Love you. 

There is a eucalyptus plantation on the sanctuary grounds, so they can feed all these koalas - they eat tonnes of the stuff!  Fun fact: eucalyptus has very low nutritional value so koalas sleep 18-20 hours per day to conserve energy.

 Saw lots of these!  ----^ 
 Sculptural art in the street

Oh and LOL.... more snapchat anecdotes that I sent to the kids....

I made every effort to support the Australian economy, including the purchase of a couple Didgeridoos (spelling negotiable?), and one boomerang:

 And flying out of Brisbane, Queensland, Australia: 

...and into Los Angeles... I saw the Hollywood sign from the plane:

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