Friday, March 26, 2010

Oz: Chapter 3

general store

A General Store near Gloucester, New South Wales, Australia
By Andrea 


When you're on vacation and you happen to be allergic to pretty much every common food in the world, you tend to spend a lot of your time procuring, preparing, and eating food. This can be massively frustrating, but I found that Australia (at least the hippie inhabited east coast) is a dream for the allergy inflicted. Sydney is full of insanely cheap and delicious Thai food which M. and I enjoyed while staying in Newtown. We also discovered that lamb is abundant and quite reasonably priced in Australia and seeing as lamb is an expensive luxury in Canada we may have gone a little nuts. I think it's possible that I ate an entire lamb during my three week stay. We frequented numerous butcher shops and treated ourselves to rosemary lamb sausages (that I'm pretty sure M. is going to think about and drool over for the rest of our lives), lamb steaks, and lamb chops. One night in Port Stephens I literally ate nothing but a giant lamb steak for dinner. It was rather unrefined. There I was with a paper plate on my lap eating a huge lamb steak with my hands, dripping lamb juice all over everything, washing it all down with wine, and thinking that life was awesome in that gluttonous moment. In terms of food we returned to the basics--everything went on the barbeque. We ate a diet consisting mainly of meat and grilled vegetables and fish that were swimming around in the ocean just hours before we ate it.

In Coff's harbour we stopped at a fish co-op where we purchased thick tuna steaks, seared them for about 10 seconds on each side, and ate them essentially raw at a public picnic spot near the ocean. I got to thinking that those sharks I'm so terrified of are treated to an exceptionally delicious sushi dinner on a daily basis. It's no wonder that sharks aren't actually keen on eating people. They have fresh tuna to dine on--why would they want my leg? This made me feel vaguely better as I imagined sharks discussing the quality of their ocean buffet and eating with chopsticks. Our seafood adventure also included pounds of fresh prawns that we viciously devoured after grilling them and tearing off their heads. I can tell you now that prawns are surprisingly ugly creatures and I wasn't having any trouble dismembering and eating them until M's brother's girlfriend started making her prawn talk.

"Eat me, eat me...I'm delicious" said her prawn. While the spectacle of a prawn with bugging dead black eyes begging to be consumed was extremely amusing for all I had a slight amount of trouble eating prawns after that. This was reinforced after we travelled through Yamba where we saw a famous giant prawn. The giant prawn is located on top of an old fish co-op and is slated to be torn down very soon. The whole thing was surrounded by fences and demolition equipment so we counted ourselves lucky to see the absolutely massive and totally ridiculous prawn on top of the building.

I tried kangaroo in Sydney. M's mother took it upon herself to make a kangaroo meatloaf and it was actually quite good, though somewhat astringent. There was a sharp flavour very unlike beef under the initial taste. It wasn't unpleasant but definitely not familiar. I was grateful not to have to rip off the kangaroo's head before eating it. While I can manage destroying fish I don't think I would do so well with mammals. Later in our trip we saw a field full of at least 2 dozen kangaroos and they looked so peaceful and lovely that I felt a bit guilty about having eaten one of their brethren.

For drinks we filled up on local wines and soy chai lattes. After stopping at a few cafes I was surprised to find that LSD was a common menu item. Initially startled about this I quickly discovered that Australian cafes are not in the habit of doling out hallucinogens in their coffee, but do make a soy latte out of dandelion root (Latte Soy Dandelion--a bit of a stretch to create the acronym I think!). Once I conclude that ordering LSD would not be illegal or in any way cause my brain to explode I gave it a try. I wish now that I could find the same thing in Canada! I don't even really know what was in it but LSD was delicious, with a rich ochre colour and a fascinating nutty flavour, kind of like walnuts. It was initially bitter, but had a pleasant sweet finish and I was deeply intrigued by the whole concoction. If anyone knows where to get such a thing in Vancouver I would be obliged. Apparently what it does have in common with the drug is an addictive quality.

Australian cafes are also notable for frequently having gluten free bread on offer, which made me very happy. I managed to have a delicious, warm, thick, soft piece of raisen toast at a cafe that made me remember how satisfying bread can be. I also found a loaf of fruit bread at an organic grocery store in Byron Bay along with vegan fudge bars made out of nuts, dark chocolate, and coconut milk. The problem with encountering such an abundance of food options is that I feel obligated to try everything I can eat on principal and this meant that I ate a lot. A LOT! I'm hoping that the wedding dress I ordered will still fit. I will not be going near a scale anytime soon.

And so my culinary excursions in Australia were deeply satisfying, exciting, and sometimes surprising. Though I am happy to be home now where food is famililar and I don't have to go through the process of trying to figure out what's in food I'm ordering at a restaurant and I don't have to read every label I encounter and I won't have to rip the heads off of anything for awhile.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Oz: Chapter Two

palm tree

Palm Tree, Southead, Sydney Australia
Image by Andrea

M. and the Big BIG Spider

As I mentioned in my previous post Australia has a number of things that can kill you. These range from insects, to spiders, to snakes, to sharks, to mammals, to the ocean itself so that deadly encounters are just around every corner. Although a little bit of research shows that the thing most likely to kill you in Australia is not Funnel-Web spiders or Death Adder snakes but the sun! The sun in Australia is a harsh and dangerous thing that can quickly burn you to a crisp, cause heat exhaustion, dehydration, and death. I put on sunscreen 2-3 times per day while I was in Australia and still managed to get a mild burn. The combination of sunscreen, the drying effect of the heat, and lots of swimming in salt water also meant that I came home looking an awful lot like the Goanna we saw at our campsite. My skin took on a decidedly reptilian look and feel. It was flaking off. It was so dry that it didn't actually bend when I moved, it sort of folded and cracked. I looked about 2 decades older. It was horrifying! Perhaps even scarier than sharks. I've been slathering on moisturizer for days and exfoliating as if I have OCD and will evaporate if I don't attack myself with a loofah six times a day and I still look like a lizard. But I'm slowly returning to normal and hope to be fit to go out in public by the weekend.

Sun aside I didn't actually encounter any deadly things in Australia but M. and I did have a run in with a Huntsman Spider in our cabin on Fraser Island where we were doing a four wheel drive bus tour. We had just arrived in our room and had lazily tossed our bags on the bed when I took a cursory scan of my surroundings and found that I was sharing my immediate environment with a spider of epic proportions. Huntsman spiders do bite if provoked but all that you get is some localized pain. The worst thing about them is how disgustingly ugly they are. I felt a bit bad for being repulsed when I saw the spider crouching in the corner of the ceiling. Huntsmen are very helpful spiders. They literally hunt down all the insects in a room leaving it free from annoying mosquitoes and other things that might plague you. They don't build webs so you don't even have to dust away the remnants of their homes when they're done. Really, it's probably quite nice to live with a Huntsman--like having a barn cat or something. But I just couldn't get over the thought of that massive, furry, decidedly creepy arachnid crawling over me in the middle of the night or falling off the ceiling onto my head. It was clear that we could not coexist happily in the same room but it was also clear that there was no way in  hell I was going near that thing. Not even with a 10 foot pole.

M., however, did exactly that. I mean, he went near it with a 10 foot pole. Literally. He was given the pole by a tour guide staying in the same cabin as us.

"You're on your own guys" he said as he handed M. the pole and took off to an undisclosed location. I did the only sensible thing I could think of--I went into the bathroom and sat on the sink with my feet pulled up off the floor and listened to M. crashing around in our room. His plan was to chase the spider down the wall with the pole and then herd it out of our room and eventually out of the cabin. I didn't want my feet on the floor when that thing came running out. M.'s plan was ambitious and I wasn't entirely convinced it was going to work. M. shouted reports on his progress to me in the bathroom.

"It won't move unless I actually poke it with the stick!" he said (followed by shuffling and motion).

"It's coming down the wall now!" he reported.

Then, "AHHH....It's on the pole! It jumped onto the pole!"

M. came rushing out of our room holding the pole out in front of him. He dashed outside and dumped the spider over the railing like a bona fide hero. I breathed a sigh of relief, but I admit that I checked our room very carefully before going to sleep, including looking under the bed, to make sure there weren't any more Huntsmen lurking in the shadows. I hope the spider is having a nice life outside. I like to think that we did it a favour. It had clearly cleaned out our room of food already. I didn't get a single mosquito bite while in the cabin!

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Oz: Chapter One

bondi beach

Bondi Beach, Sydney Australia
Image by Andrea

First I would like to announce a rather momentous occasion: This is my 100th blog post. That either means that I have achieved a landmark of creative output or that I simply talk too much. Either way I hope that some people have gained enjoyment from my rambling but I'm happy even if I'm doing this simply for myself. Assuming that you have a public audience changes the way you write. It makes you think hard about what aspects of your life can be woven into good stories and results in a completely different type of narrative than that kept in my private journals. So I am grateful to my readers, even if they are just imagined. 

Now on to the meat of the 100th post! It will, of course, be about Australia. I realize that I promised updates from Oz, but my travels kept me well out of reach of computers at most points and really I was just too busy enjoying my time to sit around blogging about it. But now that I'm back I have lots of stories to tell and my plan is to do so in chapters so as not to overwhelm you with the longest blog post in the world. So here we go...

Australia Chapter One: Encountering the Ocean

I spent most of my time in Australia in New South Wales on the coast and what I quickly discovered is that the ocean is a constant presence there. Even when you can't see it there is a looming presence of water. You can hear the surf, taste the salt in the air, feel the grit of sand clinging to your skin even after you have tried to shower it off. When you are on the coast there is no escaping the grasp of the ocean and it is a much more powerful sea than anything I have yet encountered. 

When I was a child in Ontario we used to go swimming in the lakes and that was considered "going to the beach." In Australia stretches of sand along lakes don't even count as beaches. For an Australian the beach is defined by the presence of surf. Our lake beach adventures involved swimming lazily by the shore and letting gentle waves lap at your feet. My brother and I would pretend to be seals and swim around underwater. I guess I expected Australian beaches to be similar, but what I soon discovered is that the Aussie shore is far from restful--it is a swirling, pounding force to be reckoned with and deserves the utmost respect. I don't think I knew what a wave was until I set foot on my first Australian beach. As I stood on the pristine white sand of Port Stephens  in my bikini getting ready to jump into the water I found that I was seized with a very deep seated and mainly irrational terror. I never thought anything could eat me in an Ontario Lake. Sure, swallowing polluted lake water meant that my chest ached when I took a breath at the end of the day and prolonged exposure to the water might have eventually resulted in sprouting a third arm, but the dangers of the lake were remote and undefined. The danger of this ocean before me, however, was specific and wrapped itself around my imagination like a noose. Truth be told I was pretty certain that I was going to be either eaten by a shark or stung by a jellyfish and my desire to leap around in the tropical warm water fought against my wish to avoid being devoured, maimed, or injected with some of the most potent neurotoxins known to man. I wanted to frolic care-free in the waves but with the persistent fear that at any moment a giant sea creature like something out of myth was going to emerge and remove a chunk of my leg I struggled to breathe, never mind frolic. 

But everyone else was in the water. They were leaping over the waves, attempting to bodysurf, and appeared to be having a good time free from injury. So I pushed aside my horror and jumped in. The first thing that happened was that an unexpected wave slammed me in the face and I got a huge mouthful of salt water. I was surprised by just how salty the water was and the thought that rose unbidden to my mind was that I was sitting in a pool of brine being seasoned for the beast that was about to eat me. I tried to ignore the thought of myself as a human pickle and enjoy the day. And soon, as I was literally swept off my feet by the waves, I forgot about sharks, poisonous octopi, and bluebottles and had a really fantastic time. When I emerged from the water the sun dried me instantly and I was left with a film of salt on my skin--a reminder that the ocean had claimed me as its own.

Later on in the trip, while spending three days in Byron Bay, I encountered another property of the ocean that was cause for trepidation: rip tides and currents. Byron Bay is a surf town full of backpackers, bizarrely stereotypical long-haired surfers, hippies, and an eclectic mish-mash of musicians and artists. While there I bought a cheap foam body board with the notion that body boarding would be a safer and easier recreational option than surfing. I headed for the beach expecting an easy afternoon. I struggled against my fear of sharks for five minutes, then ran into the water only to be knocked over by a surging rip tide that ran parallel to the shore. I've never experienced anything like it. The current was so strong that it took all my effort to walk against it, and it frequently dragged me backwards along the shore. Thankfully it didn't head out to sea, but I could suddenly see how easy it would be to be swept away. That gave me something new to be scared of, but I was determined to go body boarding and focused my energy on moving against the tide far enough away from the shore to catch some smaller waves. Body boarding wasn't as easy as I imagined it would be. You actually have to time your jump onto a wave with great precision in order to catch it and get a thrilling ride towards the shore, but after I managed it for the first time I became addicted. On our second day in Byron Bay I spent nearly two hours in the water getting pounded by surf, scraped up by rocks, and generally abused in pursuit of the rush that came from surrendering to the waves. I realized suddenly that I was having a massively good time and wasn't at all concerned with the possibility of my demise. The next day I felt like I'd been to boot camp, as every muscle in my body was beat up, but I was absolutely alive and feeling fantastic.

At night I went to sleep with the sound of surf in my ears. In the mornings I woke to a light spray of salt water in the breeze. There was something exotic about it all, something otherworldly. There's nothing quite like lying on a beach with sand so fine it squeaks when you walk on it and knowing that you have nothing that needs to be done at all. It was the very definition of freedom.