Sunday, July 29, 2012

And We're Back!

Yep, we're back from our two weeks in Thailand and Bali! We had an awesome time and there are tons of pictures and stories to share. I'll be posting all about it in upcoming days. Until then, here's one picture to hold you over...

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Catch-up Post: Our Hero Outback Ricky

As mentioned in the previous post, Morgan and I planned on driving from Kings Canyon back to Ayers Rock. That way, we could spend the night camping there, wake up to see the sunrise over Uluru (since the rain seemed to be going away), and catch our flight back to Melbourne at noon.

Well, I backed up the car and then pulled forward to leave the parking lot. But I didn't see a very low wooden post in front of us. Therefore, I rammed the undercarriage of the car into the post, and it did a little damage. Whoops.

That was only the start to our car adventures. We stopped at Curtin Springs campground again to get some fuel. It's basically the only place you can get gas (or even see any form of civilization) between Kings Canyon and Uluru (a few hours apart). Well, I sort of filled our car's tank with diesel gas. Whoops again! In my defense, I was still flustered from ramming the post, and the pump was old-fashioned and not well labeled at all. 

Luckily, I realized what I had done before we drove away. We would have been SERIOUSLY stranded if we had driven away and headed out on the cell phone reception, no people, nothing. Americans, we joke about how there is "nothing" when you drive through states like Kansas or Nebraska. You haven't seen true "nothing" until you've been in the Outback. I've never seen such emptiness; I can't even explain it.

Anyway, as soon as I realized what I had done, I knew it was bad. We told the people inside the little store, and we soon had a few guys who worked there gathered around our car trying to figure out what to do. The first thought was that we could siphon out the wrong gas, put the correct kind in, and be on our way. Well, our rental car was a newer model that had some sort of "lock" on it so you couldn't siphon it out with a hose in the regular way. Not that we had any clue what the regular way was!

One guy who was helping was particularly attractive. His name was Ricky, although to this day we refer to him as "Outback Ricky." Imagine the most ruggedly handsome cowboy-ish Australian guy possible, and that pretty much sums up Outback Ricky. This guy took off his cowboy hat and tried to siphon out the gas with his MOUTH for us. We're talking mouthfuls of pure diesel, folks. He was nearly gagging as he did it, but he tried for several minutes.

Unfortunately, it was soon quite apparent that this method wasn't going to work. After all, I had basically filled the whole tank before realizing it was diesel. Outback Ricky and his friend (a tour group driver who pulled in with his van full of folks for the evening) then came up with an idea where they could undo the fuel line from under the hood of the car and blow out the diesel fuel. This was after calls were made to car dealerships in Alice Springs to figure out if there was any way to easily fix this problem with this model of car (there wasn't). But the big boss man told us that Ricky couldn't do anything on his property, because he would be held liable if anything went wrong.

There was a repairman in Kings Canyon, but he was done for the day and couldn't come out until the next morning. So we were basically stuck. Outback Ricky and his friend pushed our car toward a campsite (since we were apparently staying for the night). Actually, once they were out of view from big boss guy, they pushed it over toward their work shed and kept trying to figure out how they could help us. Unfortunately, big boss man caught them and gave Outback Ricky a bit of a "talking to" around the corner of the shed. We felt so bad that we got him in trouble!

So we stayed the night at Curtin Springs. We made lots of frantic pay phone calls to the Kings Canyon resort to set up the repairman's visit as early as possible the next morning, and to Zack, trying to organize alternative flights if we weren't going to make ours the next day. That night, the tour group guy invited us over to share in his group's campfire. We met some nice folks from all over the world. We shared glow sticks with them, and they shared damper (traditional Australian bread made over the campfire) with us. It wasn't too bad after all.

In the morning, we anxiously awaited the repairman's arrival. He came, but it took awhile for him to get all of the gas out. Then we had to push the car back to the pump, put in the right gas, and head out on the road. Morgan gave Outback Ricky her phone number on the way out, because he was making a trip to the US (including California) in a few months. I desperately wanted a picture of him, but Morgan refused to let me take one. She was too embarrassed! I'll never let her live it down. Unfortunately, he never did call her! :)

Anyway, if we were going to make our flight, we really had to book it. The nice thing about Outback roads is that they are completely straight and empty. I was seriously going over 100mph almost the whole way to the airport, and it didn't even feel that fast. We were a little sad as we passed by Uluru when the sun was actually out; seeing the sunrise would have been awesome.

We made it to the airport in time. In fact, our flight was delayed! Unfortunately, this wasn't a good thing, because it meant that we would possibly miss our connection in Sydney. We had a plan when we got to Sydney; Morgan would get our bag, and I would check in with the Jetstar people and beg them to let us on the flight. Our first flight was with Virgin Airlines, so I knew Jetstar wouldn't be that sympathetic to our missed connection. Well, our bag was the last one out, and the Jetstar folks were closing the flight, saying I would have to get on the next one, which would cost us each over $100.

Morgan ran up the stairs and over to me with the bag as they were telling me this, and I begged some more. They said if we didn't have the bag, it would be no problem. So I said, "Pretend we don't have the bag; we'll leave it back on the conveyor belt with Virgin." They said if we did that, they could get us on the flight with just our carry-on luggage. So we ditched the bag, which ironically we only brought so we could have the tent (which we never used because of the rain!). I knew that Zack was traveling to Sydney for work the following week, so I figured he could pick it up then or something.

We ran through the airport, made our flight, and when we landed, I had a voicemail waiting for me from Virgin Airlines, saying that we had left a bag there (surprise!). I called them back, acting like we "forgot" it in our rush to make our connecting flight, and they actually flew it to Melbourne for free. So when I brought Morgan to the airport to go home the next day, we were able to get it! In the end, everything ended up okay, and we got home safely. Zack had food and flowers waiting for us, and we were happy to be back in Melbourne, where we were dry and warm.

Our trip to Uluru was kind of crazy and definitely not the normal tourist's experience, but it makes for a good story now. And I learned to always double check which type of gas I'm putting in the car!

Our only glimpse of Uluru in the sunshine!

Monday, July 23, 2012

Catch-up Post: Kings Canyon

Last November, after spending another night sleeping in the car at Curtin Springs Campground (where nobody was camping), Morgan and I drove to Watarrka National Park and did the Kings Canyon Rim Walk. It was a 6km trail with lots of climbing, and it was awesome! We were able to walk right along the edge of the cliff at points, and the overlooks were impressive. And the best part of all-it didn't rain! Of course, it was still chilly and cloudy, but for once, we weren't soaking wet.
My favorite part was probably the Garden of Eden. This is a waterhole in the middle of the canyon with huge ferns and a waterfall. The picture doesn't do it justice; it was beautiful! In the picture below, you can see the Garden of Eden far in the background. The one to the right is zoomed in. We were able to walk down to part of it at one point. If it had been a warm day, we would have loved to jump in and swim!

There were lots of strange rock formations along our hike, like these sandstone domes that look like beehives. Very cool. We finished off the afternoon with the short Kings Creek Walk that went into the gorge from the bottom (not nearly as impressive) and headed back to our car, planning to drive back to Ayers Rock that night. Things didn't go quite as planned...stay tuned...

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Catch-up Post: Kata Tjuta

You may remember that back in November, my sister Morgan stayed for a few extra days after my family left, and we took a short trip to Uluru and the Outback. I finally got around to posting about Uluru here, but I never posted about the rest of our trip. Well, now that Zack and I are away on vacation, it's a good time to finally get to these posts.

To refresh your memory, it rained A LOT while we were there, but we didn't let that stop us from visiting the places on our itinerary and doing the hikes we had planned. So on our second day, we headed out to Kata Tjuta (also known as the Olgas) and did the Valley of the Winds walk. It's a 7.4km circuit that goes in among the dome-shaped rocks. Even though the trail was covered in water, the domes were topped by fog, and we were wet and kind of cold, it was still a beautiful place and we had a good time. I think we also did the Walpa Gorge walk before leaving the park, which was just a short hike alongside a stream. 

Because it was several months ago, I don't remember the exact order of things, but I know we saw a few dingos run across the road on one of our drives. I wasn't quick enough to capture them on camera. But I did catch this cow! There were a few of them that crossed the road in front of us one time; then they took off running in the dirt, and one head butted the other in the rear. I think this is the one that got rammed right after it happened! Stay tuned for my next post about our awesome hike in Kings Canyon...

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Hello From Thailand!

We are sitting in Chiang Mai, Thailand right now after a full day of temple viewing and a Thai cooking class. We are having a great time; our elephant ride yesterday was especially awesome. Anyway, that's all for now!

Monday, July 16, 2012

Circus Oz

We went out with some friends on a Wednesday night to check out Circus Oz, a touring circus with no animals and live music. The Big Top is set up in a park near Federation Square in Melbourne for a few weeks. It was unlike any circus I've seen before, though I imagine it's a bit like Cirque du Soleil (on a much smaller scale). It was quite artistic, with funky costumes and an urban-type set. The music was great, and some of the acts were really impressive (trapeze, tightrope, tumbling, etc.). There was a political/social justice message woven throughout the show, which seemed a bit out of place, but it was okay. Overall, I'd recommend the show for a cultural and entertaining night out, but I was glad we didn't pay any extra to sit closer, because every seat was just fine in the small arena. P.S. Not to make you jealous, but while you're reading this, we are (probably) currently riding elephants through the jungles of Thailand!

Emily and I during the intermission.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Off to Paradise

Zack and I leave tomorrow for two weeks in Thailand and Bali. I'm beyond excited. Warm weather and sunshine here we come! We'll be spending a night in Bangkok on our way to Chiang Mai, which is a city in Northern Thailand where we'll ride elephants and check out temples and such. Then we fly back through Bangkok (spending a day there to check out the famous sites) on our way to Phuket, which is in the Southern part of the country. Here we'll enjoy the beaches, snorkel around the islands of Koh Phi Phi, and rock climb at Railay Beach in Krabi. Then we're off to Bali for a few days for more beach time, culture, and relaxation. Wahoo!

I've set up a few entries to post while we're gone, but there won't be much unless I can connect to some wifi and post some random pictures from my phone. So I'll be back with tons of pictures and stories at the end of July! Bye for now!

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Christmas in July

Ready for the party!
I know all of you American readers are "suffering" in your 100 degree temperatures right now, but here in Australia, we are cold. It's winter, and it definitely feels like it, especially on the days when it's rainy and gray (which is pretty often in Melbourne). We expats have been feeling a little glum lately, so we decided to celebrate Christmas in July to get our minds off the dreary weather and have something to anticipate.

Lots of planning went into pulling off this fun party. Emily and Adam came over on Friday night to help decorate our place; we put up the tree and cut out paper snowflakes (some better than others). I ordered a whole turkey from the South Melbourne Market for our Christmas dinner, and we all planned different appetizers, side dishes, desserts, and drinks to bring. I made some eggnog (Zack MUST have eggnog on Christmas) and tree-shaped fruit and veggie platters.

Everyone also brought a white elephant gift to share in an exchange game. We had lots of fun getting rid of silly gifts like Spam, but the best item was probably a copy of the book 50 Shades of Grey. We might have had a bit of a read-aloud session for part of the evening entertainment! We played the word/acting game called "Celebrity," stuffed ourselves silly, and even sang Christmas carols at the end of the night (Zack played guitar and I played piano).

If it has to be winter in the middle of July, I'm glad we have good friends to celebrate Christmas with to make it a little better!

Our crazy friends!

Monday, July 9, 2012

Requested Post-Help for Future Expats

I've had a request from a soon-to-be expat to do a post about what we would have done differently regarding our move to Melbourne (hindsight is 20-20 of course). So, in no particular order, if I was moving to Melbourne, here are the top 10 things I wish I would have known/done:

1. I'm glad we didn't do a sea shipment and bring over all of our furniture and household items. There was really no point (at least in our case). I do wish I had gone to IKEA right at the beginning to get decent (yet affordable) items right off the bat all in one place. Instead, I tried to be too thrifty by scouring Gumtree for deals and ended up repurchasing better items later anyway. I am glad we brought our instruments and that Zack brought his mountain bike, because those are important parts of our lives. But he still hasn't used his golf clubs!

2. I think I wish we had purchased a vehicle (one that would accommodate bikes and/or surfboards) at the start of our stint. We've built our lifestyle around not having a car now, and it's fine, but it does limit our mobility on some weekends and makes us depend on friends too much sometimes.

3. You always hear that clothes, shoes, and linens are ridiculously expensive over here. With shoes, I would agree. I would definitely bring shoes over from the US (especially athletic ones). You can find decent deals on clothes if you go to the right places at the right times, but overall, it was good to bring boxes of our own over with us. I wish I had known earlier about stores like Spotlight and Big W for linens and basic household goods; there was no need to bring towels, sheets, etc. Online shopping is a lifesaver sometimes too.

4. I think I wish we would have brought our dog over with us. I'll always question this one. I know the cost would have been outrageous, and the flight and quarantine time would have been torturous, but overall, we often wish Molly was with us. It would have made finding a rental place more difficult, and I'm not sure what we would have done when we went on trips, but she would have loved Australia. I guess we have to trust the expats we talked to before our move who had brought their dogs and said they regretted it.

5. I'm glad we joined some Meetup groups online and went to events right away. They have been the source of almost all of our friendships we now cherish here in Australia. I wish I had known that making new "couple friends" was going to be almost exactly like dating!

6. I wish I had not obsessed over the electrical appliances issue before moving. I did all sorts of research on voltage changes and transformers and converters and such. The few American items we did bring have been a pain to deal with overall, and you can find decent enough appliances for reasonable prices to get by for a few years. I would suggest not bringing any items you need to plug in if you can help it. The exceptions would be my laptop and camera battery chargers. A simple adapter plug makes those work just fine.

7. I wish I had known that we would end up becoming good friends with other expats. I don't know if I expected that we would hang out with mostly Australians, but I was surprised that we naturally gravitated toward those in our same situation. I guess it makes sense, but it was unexpected (to me). We do have some Australian friends, but I think it's just easier for expats to be friends with other expats, because you all know what you're in for (a friendship where someone is eventually going to leave), and you are going through the same things.

8. I wish I would have known that Melbourne is often a rainy, gray city. I would suggest investing in a good umbrella and raincoat. Also, it does get cold here. I wish I would have brought more winter clothing over with me.

9. I wish I would have gotten a job earlier. You can make good money over here, and we could have had a lot more in savings if I had started teaching last year. Oh well.

10. I wish I was better about embracing the once-in-a-lifetime opportunities we are afforded over here. We're making the most of our time on this side of the world and taking lots of trips and doing lots of things, but sometimes I freak out about the cost. To be happy (with no regrets) and not drive yourself and others crazy, you basically have to just "get over" the prices, especially of rent, postage to/from other countries, and food at restaurants!

So there you have it. I'm sure there are things I'm forgetting, but hopefully that's somewhat helpful to people who are trying to plan for expat life. I know I felt completely overwhelmed when we were trying to decide what to pack and such, so please feel free to contact me if you have any other questions about moving down under. Thanks for the post idea; anybody else have a request?

Friday, July 6, 2012

An Awesome Anniversary

Chocolates and flowers-the way to a girl's heart!

Yesterday afternoon, I received an e-mail from Zack, cordially inviting me out for a romantic evening to celebrate our fourth anniversary. I met him downtown last night, where he greeted me with red roses. We went to the Lui Bar at the top of the Rialto Tower (55 floors high). The view of Melbourne was incredible! It's not quite as high as the Eureka Skydeck, but you don't have to pay to get this view, although the price of drinks is "dear" (Australian for expensive).

They had the coolest pop-up menu with a story behind each drink. I had the Koala Stinger, which was a creme de menthe drink with infused eucalyptus. Zack had a honey scotch drink that came with a cool ice ball in the glass. He pulled out another surprise-a box of chocolates, and we enjoyed a few of those with our drinks while admiring the view. It was an awesome place; I'd like to take visitors and friends there for sure.

Our delicious drinks.
He should be on that show Mad Men!
After drinks, we headed to an adorable French restaurant a few blocks away. It's called Bistro Vue, and it really felt like we were sitting in a little restaurant in Paris (at least how I imagine it). Zack had scoped out the place the day before and reserved us the best table, a plush corner booth, and we shared a bottle of French wine while an accordion player played familiar tunes. We had a delicious dinner (I had steak), followed by my favorite dessert of creme brulee. Then our waitress brought us a surprise "Happy Anniversary" plate with two little donut treats! 

It was an awesome, romantic night (thanks Zack!), and a great way to celebrate four years of marriage. We don't know what we'll be doing or where we'll be next year at this time, but we're happy for nights like this in Australia right now. Happy anniversary to us!

Thursday, July 5, 2012

A Bit American

We didn't really celebrate the 4th of July. Well, I did wear my Americorps sweatshirt. And I made these apple puff pastry desserts in honor of the holiday, because they tasted like a good ol' American apple pie. But that was about the extent of it. Instead, because it's cold outside, we are going to celebrate Christmas in July this weekend with a party at our place. And today, Zack and I are celebrating our fourth wedding anniversary. I'm supposed to meet him downtown tonight; he's taking me out for dinner somewhere fancy! Woohoo!

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

My Beloved Bike

Until about two hours ago, I had a bike. It was shiny and red, and I had colorful spoke beads on it that went click-clack when I rode around town (put on after the picture was taken). I loved my bike. It was my main mode of transportation, and it got all sorts of compliments from friends and strangers. Tonight I got home from an appointment and left it in our gated front porch area during dinner. I was going to head back out in just an hour or so, so I left it unlocked, thinking it would be alright. When I looked outside a little bit later, our gate was wide open, and my bike was gone!

I'm crushed. I had the bike fixed up just the way I liked it-lights, bell, spoke beads, etc. I rode that thing school, to the market, running errands, etc. Now I have no bike. I am so sad. And mad. That was one bold thief...opening our gate and stealing it while we were home. I'm surprised we didn't hear anything. We filed a police report, and Zack and I biked around the neighborhood seeing if anyone was around and had seen anything. The thing is, our new neighborhood is so quiet. We rarely see anyone walking around on our street at all. We can't figure out what type of person would have done this.

If you live in the Melbourne area, and you see a bike like this somewhere (it won't have the basket-that's still in my room), check the back fender. If there is a line of touch-up paint on it, it's mine! Do a citizen's arrest on the thief and let me know where I can find my beloved bike! I miss it badly. Meanwhile, it looks like I'll be walking for awhile. :(

Muddy Buddies

A few weekends ago, we went to Lysterfield with Adam and Emily and Nigel and Kristy for an afternoon of mountain biking. It had been raining throughout the week, so the trails were extra muddy. By the end of our ride, we all felt like (or at least looked like) we had done the Tough Mudder race again! But despite the rain and mud, we rode for several hours and we girls even kept up pretty well with the boys!

Do you see the kangaroos?

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Rappelling and Rugby

I had a coupon for some rappelling, and we did our jumps the other weekend. We each got three jumps off the side of a building in the Southbank area of the city. It was a little scary at the top when you were going over the edge, but otherwise, it was good fun. The hardest part was fighting the natural instinct to grip the rope, which would slow you down. It was a lot more exciting if you just let go. I wouldn’t pay full price for this adventure, but with the coupon, it was a good deal and a fun way to spend a Saturday morning.

That night, after Zack’s coworker’s housewarming party, we met up with Adam/Emily, Nigel/Kristy, and Todd/Alena for the rugby match between Australia and Wales. Australia won in the end, and it was fun to catch up with the girls during the game (I’m not sure how much of it we actually watched!) and chat some more over drinks at an Irish bar afterward. It was a busy but fun Saturday from morning until evening!