Sunday, May 31, 2009

Chip Food and Staff

While Jeanne and I were on the bus, heading to the vintage market at Bondi Beach (lots of cool jewelry, clothes and used books), I received a text from our Russian friend Alexey, inviting us to meet him in Chinatown after church at 3 o'clock. The text read: "Lots of markets. Chip food and staff:)"

"Chip food and staff? What does that mean?" I asked Jeanne, laughing.

"He's saying 'cheap food and stuff' I think."

"Or maybe he's saying chip food, like chips, and staff. Maybe he's going to Chinatown and eating french fries with some of the staff from Hillsong."

"Or maybe he's eating cheap food WITH the staff."

We go back and forth, chuckling over Alexey's lovely Russian-accented text. We remember that he's not so much a fan of facebook or chatting on Skype because he's not nearly as good with writing English as he is speaking.

We text him back, and tell him we'd meet him in Chinatown after we were finished at the market. A few bracelets, one journal, and two used books later, Jeanne and I were finished with the market and on a train, heading for downtown Sydney to meet up with Alexey.

As we exit the train station through a long corridor that dumps us out on George Street, we see Alexey, smiling and waiting for us up ahead. One thing I am surprised to find that I like about Russian/European culture is how friends greet one another: an embrace and a kiss on the cheek.

Alexey greets us and immediately begins leading us throughout the city, first stopping by Paddy's Market, a bustling, confusing maze of stalls and kiosks of everything from boomerangs to baseball caps. "I need to find some pants here," he says. "In the first year I live here, I come here once a week." We turned a corner, and descended a flight of stairs to the fruit and vegetable market in Chinatown. Hundreds of people milled around, while dozens of Chinese grocers yell prices at each other, and piles and piles of colorful fresh fruit and vegetables are stacked everywhere, at dirt cheap prices.

As we're trying navigate our way through the chaotic hubbub, Alexey turns around, a lone, happy statue in the midst of a loud, pulsating, crushing mob with a grin on his face and exudes, "I love this place. It is like Moscow!"

He ricochets from stall to stall, full of fruits and vegetables that I do not recognize. "So many weird things here. I do not know what this is," he says.

"What is that?" Jeanne asks, pointing to a bright green, bulging fruit that looks like a bullfrog that swallowed a burrito from Chipotle.

"This," says Alexey, grabbing the bullfrog fruit. "This? No clue." He tosses it back into the box.

We wander through Paddy's Market some more (Alexey is still searching for some pants), then wander upstairs to Haymarket Plaza, which is more of a mall. Dressed in his light pink button-down shirt, gray slacks and black jacket, Alexey clearly takes his clothing very seriously. He gushes over a shirt as he's purchasing it, saying it is "Good quality. Best price. And all made in Australia." He points out his favorite stores to get clothes and where he gets suits.

He takes us through the food court, where Jeanne and I split a fountain Coke (these are somewhat rare in Australia) and I get a spring roll. Jeanne suddenly gasps, "This would be a good time to settle this." She turns to Alexey, "Alexey, is Russia in Europe or Asia?"


Jeanne smiles in triumph, settling a long-standing debate we've had over this very question: whether the land mass of Russia is considered Europe or Asia, and whether or not Filipinos are considered Asian.

I make a face at her. She replies, laughing, "I already conceded that you're Asian. What more do you want from me?"

Back out on the street walking toward Chinatown, Alexey calls out encouragement to a young skateboarder trying to jump down a short flight of stairs. "Good! Go!"

He turns to us and continues: "The Asians and black people are going to take over the world. The whole world will be dark. No more white people."

"What about the Irish? The Irish will still be around," Jeanne insists.

Quoting the film In Bruges, I reply, "But we have the Vietnamese!"

As if to prove his point, Alexey asks, "Have you ever seen a blue-eyed Chinese person?"

"Yes," says Jeanne, not wanting to admit an Irish defeat. "They're genetically altered."

"Or have blue contact lenses," I added.

After passing through Chinatown where Alexey points out his favorite pseudo-Russian restaurant, we wander over to Darling Harbour, a beautifully-lit section of Sydney that sits directly on the wharf. Alexey treat us to ice cream, and it tastes delicious despite the freezing cold.

Alexey is an endless reel of information and interest. He talks to us about salsa dancing, incredulous that neither of us have either been salsa dancing. "You should know salsa. You are from a Spanish country!" Alexey believes the U.S. is a Spanish country.

He asks us if we've heard about Korean sauna, saying it's better (meaning hotter) than American saunas, but not nearly as good as Russian saunas. "Russian saunas," he said, "will melt your face off. You must start at a lower level, like, an American sauna."

"It is the BEST, when you have a guy, like beat you on the back with the branches of this plant, and then they turn up the steam really, really hot, and you feel like you're gonna die. That is the best. I love it."

"Alexey, that sounds like torture. Some countries do that when they are torturing and interrogating suspects."

"Well, I stick needles in people for a job. What do you expect?" Alexey is a massage therapist and also performs acupuncture. "You know, acupuncture used to be torture. The Chinese used it for torture. They put needle in skin, so the person doesn't pass out. Doesn't lose consciousness when they are being tortured. Then they discover, "Oh, if I put needle here, it is good for health." He shrugs. "It's all about your health."

Jeanne and I have contemplated trying out acupuncture some time. Seeing our faces, he assures us, "Don't worry, I will stick needles in you girls. No problem."

Later that night, after church at Hillsong (during the sermon, Alexey turns to me and whispers "When woman speaker, boys fall asleep."), he invited us home for dinner. As we are walking to his car, Jeanne asks, "How tall are you, Alexey? Two meters?"

"Yeah, yeah. Meters." He shakes his head at us in our ignorance.

"Maybe they measure in decimeters."

"Or centimeters."

"Or millimeters. Jeanne is 168,000 millimeters tall."

"CENTIMETERS, girls. Centimeters," Alexey looks at us in exasperation. "Come on."

As we walk through his front door, we wave hi to Petrovich the bird, and Alexey gives us each a pair of Russian slippers to wear around his apartment. The meal is absolutely delicious. It's a chicken and tomato stew that's been slow-cooking for about 16 hours, with slices of cob bread, pieces of chocolate with almonds, a glass of port.

He explains, "I have to cook the chicken before it dies."

To Alexey, vegetables or meat spoiling means it "dies." I laugh though, trying to picture Alexey chasing a live chicken around his apartment, trying to catch it and cook it.

Jeanne and I sit there, over steaming bowls of delicious chicken stew (perfect for a cold, rainy night) and agree that this is the best meal we've had in a really long time.

I sigh and mumble to Jeanne, "This is comfort food. This is like something my mom would make."

Alexey couldn't hear me, and says, "Sorry?"

"This is comfort food."

He shrugs, not comprehending, and waits for me to explain.

"This is comfort food. That means..." I search for a way to explain the phrase. "That means that it feels like home."

He suddenly smiles, holding his hand over his heart, and he bows his head slightly. "That is good."

Later, that evening, he is driving us home. With his Russian disco music blaring on the stereo, Alexey asks us, "So will the soup make the book?"

We laugh at this comment. Yes, the chicken and tomato soup/comfort food will definitely make it into the book.

Thanks to our new Russian friend, his hospitality and his dead chicken stew, Sydney is starting to feel like home.


goodbyes are so barbarian.  one minute, you're with someone, their laughter pounding your ear drums, their smell tickling the inside of your nose, and then next minute they're gone, ripped apart from the physical space you once shared.  for me, the shock of such separation is like the slice of a deep, sharp blade;  i don't even know i've been cut right away, but then the pain comes, pulsating, growing larger throughout the rest of my body, causing me to grab hold of the cut, put pressure on it, try to make the bleeding stop, make it go away.  

 i've left the land of oz and have returned to the land of origin.  all the funny voices, all the funny roads, all the funny creatures...gone with the click of my heels.  my funny friends, who braved the haunted forest, walked the rusted rocks, flew through the crisp air...gone with the chant of home, appearing now as old faces all too familiar but not quite the same.   

i've traveled through time and found myself right back where i started, left with the knowledge of all that has occurred and the decision to change, to be better, to maybe do it a little different.


Saturday, May 30, 2009

Alexey the Russian

It's 8pm on the first Friday we've officially lived in Sydney. Winter is supposed to be 2 days away, but I think it arrived early this year. The day brought freezing weather (okay, probably in the 40s) and tons of rain. This city is schizo when it comes to its weather personality. All day it varied between drizzle, blue skies, downpours, and sunshine. It's near impossible to dress appropriately without carrying around a huge bag to put your 10 layers in.

Alexey, the Russian, waits outside in his car for us. Mel and I gather our jackets, scarves, etc and run out to his hatchback in the cold rain. We're currently staying with Sarah, a friend of Mel's friend, Chalis, for 2 weeks. We have entertained the idea of (and would greatly enjoy) living with the Russian, but at the moment, his current flatmate is still living in his flat and searching for a new apartment. Apartment hunting in Sydney is not like Orlando - it's a vicious game of 15 minute inspection times, falsely advertised units, and high rents. Needless to say, it's unknown when Alexey's flatmate will officially move out. So until then, we are trying to find either another temporary place to stay (until Alexey's other room is open) or find a more permanent place of our own closer to the city.

We make small talk about the cold weather and Sydney and life. I try to impress Alexey with the story of meeting Will Farrell at the World Premiere of Land of the Lost, but his response to "Will Farrell was there" was "What is that?" Mel and I laugh and wave the story off.

So tonight, the Russian is taking us to meet his friends Rebecca and David, who live in a 3 bedroom flat in Rockdale, which is about 20-30 minutes outside of the CBD (Central Business District, or downtown). This is the same city we'd live in if we live with Alexey. Alexey is very entertaining, and quite straightforward. There is an obvious culture difference which I absolutely love, and it is that Alexey will say things that I'm not sure Americans can get away with, at least in America. A great example of this is something we laugh over which he says to Rebecca at her house (she's just over 3 months pregnant): "Look, if you stop working for a while after you have your baby, you become dumb. You stay with kids all day. They are annoying." (Please re-read this aloud in your best Russian accent.) I constantly find myself either appreciating or laughing at him for these types of comments.

We show up and meet Rebecca and David, who host a Hillsong Connect group at their home that Alexey and several others attend. We chat about favorite movies, the States, Russian and Chinese dumplings, and our potential staying at their place. Their place is the nicest apartment we've been in thus far - it's more like something you'd see in the States. It would be a great place to live, temporarily.

Alexey is a good friend of these two, and he quickly makes himself at home when we are visiting at their place. Mel and I chat about it today, and she says it's like something from a sitcom. She compares him to the ever-lovable Kramer, who barges into Seinfeld's house repeatedly unannounced, rummaging through his stuff, etc. (I should interject, in case Ah-lex-ee, as he beautifully pronounces his name, reads this later, that he's clearly not being rude or intrusive - they don't seem to mind one bit.)

He slices up an apple as the rest of us sit in the living room, coming around to offer it to us. He lays on their couch, looking very comfortable as he mentions he is hungry. David and Rebecca kindly offer us the pasta they have leftover from two nights ago, and David casually mentions that Alexey ate this same dish at their place last night. David sets off to making us fresh hot chocolate (have I mentioned these Aussies truly know how to treat their potential flatmates?), and Alexey says, "David is going to serve you some wine." David looks up at Alexey's statement, and in turn start to rummage through the fridge to find an open bottle of local Riesling. Alexey grabs 3 wine glasses and starts pouring for us. David and Rebecca turn down the wine, and David questions whether we still want our hot chocolate, which he is in the process of making. We nod and think that pasta, wine and hot chocolate are a combination that the Italians should have come up with, but haven't. Mel polishes off her glass rather quickly due to the steaming hot pasta, and he immediately replenishes her glass with another, as if he is the host.

Rebecca goes to bed and we head back into the living room and wrap up the evening with a viewing of the YouTube video of Matrix Pingpong. Alexey drives us back to Maroubra Beach, and shows us the infamous Maroubra Beach rock pool (you have no idea how rad these things are...) and we end the evening by setting an alarm (the first time in MONTHS!) to wake up Saturday morning to go apartment hunting, yet again.

Since finishing Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, I've wanted to meet a Russian named Alexey (both the husband and the lover are named such in the book). Australia has assisted me in this endeavor of mine, and I've now realized the goal of meeting a Russian named Alexey. And he is rad.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Lanky and Three Wishes: a conversation by MJW

"Man, Ima have to stop eating this shit if I'm gonna have my Hugh Jackman body," said Walter gruffly, tossing the remains of his quarter pounder with cheese and french fry box.

Since being on this trip, Walter has firmly resolved to eat healthier and get into shape upon his return to the states. He cites Hugh Jackman as Wolverine as his recent inspiration for this newfound desire for discipline.

"That man went for 18 months without pizza and beer to get in shape. Four percent body fat," Jeanne said, shaking her head.

"I mean, I'm sure he could get away with eating pizza or beer every now and then," said Walter, grasping for a loophole.

"Not when he's building that body mass," Jeanne shot back.

"Yeah, maybe not building, but after he got to the ideal weight, I'm sure could sneak a pizza or two while he's maintaining it."

I look back and forth between Jeanne and Walter. We've arrived in Sydney after a grueling seven hour drive down the Pacific Highway. The terrain coming into the northern side of Sydney resembled the Pacific Northwest Coast, under a grey cover of rainclouds and a intermittent showers. The highway wound around cliffs and low-lying mountains, dipping lower into the landscape. We are sitting at McDonalds, having yet another absurd conversation, this time about Hugh Jackman's body type.

"I would say he's lanky," Walter was saying.

Jeanne shoots him an incredulous you-must-be-crazy look. "No way. I'd say he's long and lean. Not lanky."

"Lanky does not imply thinness," Walter states.

"Yes, it does," Jeanne insists. I nod in agreement. "Lanky by definition means thin."

"No, it doesn't. It has something to do with bone structure."

"You can't be both fat and lanky," I say. "Name one person who is both fat and lanky."

"Orson Welles."

"I don't know what that man looks like."

"Well, then I can't help you."

"I'm trying to think of someone in Hollywood who is lanky," says Jeanne. "But I can't think of anybody. Our friend Brooks. Do you know Brooks?" Jeanne asks Walt. Walt shakes his head no, and for the first time, it dawns on me: here sits Walt, who has so much become a part of my life and routine and comfortability over the past two and a half months, I can't conceive of this person not knowing Brooks, who seems like he was from another era of my life, before Australia and before traveling.

I met Brooks more than a year ago, through Jeanne. He's about 6'5'', and in typical emo fashion, his thin frame is always decked out in skinny jeans and V-neck shirts, with hair styled with enough hair product to match. He and Jeanne used to have occasional and impromptu Scrabble tournaments. I didn't really know Brooks all that well, but anybody who can pose a significant threat to Jeanne's Scrabble-playing abilities can't be all that bad.

But yes, Brooks is definitely the epitome of lankiness.

But Walt doesn't know Brooks.

Jeanne and I try to come up with another example.

"See," Walt interjects. "Jim Carrey is lanky."

"No, he's not lanky," disagrees Jeanne.

"Oh yeah! He even says that in Liar, Liar," I remember. "About 6'3'', large teeth, kinda gangly," Walter and I both quote the movie and laugh.

"Brooks is Lanky. Jim Carrey is lanky. But Hugh Jackman is not lanky," I say.

"Hugh Jackman is not lanky," echoes Jeanne.

"Hugh Jackman IS lanky," counters Walt.

I often silently wish that the real Hugh Jackman knew how many pointless conversations we have at his expense. In fact, it is one of my greatest wishes that one day at a cafe or restaurant, as we are having yet another Hugh Jackman discussion, that the real Hugh Jackman would casually turn around and introduce himself. We ARE in Australia, after all. I imagine that little scenario would happen something like this:

Mel: "I heard that 30 percent of Australians follow the Jedi faith."
Walt: "What! 30 percent? That can't be right."
Mel: "That's what that Lonely Planet book said."
Jeanne: "That's right, I remember reading that somewhere in the book."
Walt: "30 percent? Maybe 30 percent believe in the Force or something, but I doubt that 30 percent of Australians actually, genuinely adhere to the Jedi faith."
Mel: "What if Hugh Jackman were an actual Jedi knight? Jeanne, would you date Hugh Jackman if he followed the Jedi faith?
Jeanne: "Umm...I'd have to think about that a lot. Seriously."
Hugh Jackman: (he turns around, fully-garbed in a Jedi knight hood, with his light saber swinging by his side) Excuse me, guys. I couldn't help but overhear... But may the Force be with you.

I truly wish this would happen.

I would not, however, waste three of my hypothetical wishes from my hypothetical genie on this wish.

Walter, Jeanne and I have also discussed the implications of making three wishes. We on the back verandah of Ellie's parents house, drinking our morning tea under Gold Coast sunshine.

"Obviously, you couldn't wish for more wishes," I said.

"Yeah, that's like a given, in the genie-wishing world," Jeanne said.

"Like in Aladdin. You can't make people fall in love with you or wish for more wishes, etc., etc." said Walt.

"What would you wish for?"

Jeanne doesn't skip a beat. "I would wish that I was Hugh Jackman's wife."

"How funny would that be if you got your wish, you woke up the next morning in Hugh Jackman's bed, and you were married, but he had no idea who you were?" I laugh.

"That would NOT happen."

"But how do you know?"

"I would just wake up and me being Hugh Jackman's wife would be a new reality."

"Oh, like an alternate reality. Like in Lost."

"Yeah, an alternate reality. Not that he would wake up and I'm some random woman in his bed that he happens to be married to. Clearly."

"Can you imagine how creepy that would be?" Walt exclaims. "Hugh Jackman would wake up and be startled to death and Jeanne would just be standing there, smiling at him. She'd sit down on the arm chair reach out, shut the lamp off beside her, with her silhouette in the darkened room."

"You're making me sound like a creep!"

"It could happen," Walter shrugs.

Jeanne is insistent. "My genie would KNOW."

"I guess you'd have to be pretty specific when making the wish," I pointed out. "Let me be Hugh Jackman's wife and that we've known each other for awhile, and I'm not a complete stranger and that he wouldn't be freaked out..."

"I would just trust my genie," says Jeanne. "Also, I'll make a 12 page legal document clearly outlining every detail in fine print of the wish when I'm wishing, just to make sure. No loopholes."

"I think I'd wish for an infinite amount of wealth," Walt thinks out loud.

"What do you mean exactly by an infinite amount of wealth?"

"Well, exactly what I mean. An infinite amount. Every time I withdraw, it'd magically replenish itself. That way, I could take care of my family, maybe hand out a million dollars here and there. Just so I wouldn't have to worry about money for the rest of my life. I could take care of my sisters, help out friends when they needed it," Walt muses. "Yeah, it'd be great to just hand out a million dollars to friends every now and then."

"You would cause the value of the dollar to decline, therefore causing the American economy to crash. If there was a constant influx of cash from you pumping into the economy, you would render cash obsolete within a matter of years. You would bring about the destruction of the world's economy as we know it," Jeanne declares.

"You would basically bring about the apocalypse," I added.

"I would not ruin the economy. I would not cause the apocalypse!"

"You would, eventually," Jeanne insists.

"What if Walt's wealth was in gold?" I ask. "Not in cash. Or a magical ATM deposit?"

"It wouldn't matter. Walter having that infinite amount of gold would still cause hyperinflation eventually."

"It probably wouldn't be a good idea to have infinite wealth."

"Right. Infinite wealth would ruin the economy."

"Wait a second. We were talking about wishes here. How come you're allowed to be Hugh Jackman's wife without any stipulations? But here I am wishing for infinite wealth, and we think through the global implications of what my wish would mean. It's MY wish," says Walt indignantly.

"I'm just telling you like it is," Jeanne shrugs. "You'd ruin the economy. You would. Okay, so I would want to be Hugh Jackman's wife AND I'd want the ability to teleport. Get me some Chick-Fila and some sweet tea right now. Mel, what would you wish for? You didn't say."

"I'd definitely want to teleport, too." I say slowly. "But I don't think I would ask for anything else that would make my life easier or improve my quality of life. I think I'd want something just unique and fun. Like a pet pegasus!" I exclaim. "Yep, I would definitely want a pet pegasus. Because no one else would have one and it would just be fun to have."

That settles that.

Tonight, we're back in the hostel room. Walt is on his bunk bed, drawing some comic book characters he's invented, some rogue rat who's lost his memory somehow and now flies smuggler cargo ships throughout the universe like Han Solo. Jeanne is curled up on the bed, reading Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dosteovsky.

Suddenly, she sits up and with a smile on her face, she retrieves her Macbook.

I already know what she's doing.

She pulls up the Merriam-Webster Dictionary application and types in: "LANKY."

Definition? "Ungracefully tall and thin."

Yes, thin.

We laugh in triumph and tell Walter how wrong he was. He relents, for once.

Jeanne closes her Macbook and stows it away, and with a smile on her lips, she goes back to reading her book.

I smile, and go back to typing on my laptop.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Byron Bay

"What time is it?"
"What day is it?"
"I dunno...."

And thus starts our Sunday morning, May 17, 2009.

We are currently staying in Byron Bay, New South Wales. We arrived here yesterday after staying at the Lambert Mansion in the Gold Coast for an amazing 4 days - 4 days of feasts, games, and absolutely phenomenal company with Ellie, Jordan, Anne, Kevin, Sai and Jason. It was great.

Byron Bay was reportedly the favorite place in Australia of a couple of our friends, so we were looking forward to spending time there. We had heard it was a really hippy town, although the Aussies have told us now that Nimbin is the 'bed of vice' that we heard Byron Bay to be.

Anyway, back to this morning. We typically have toast and tea - courtesy of Woolworth's - at our hotel or hostel when we wake up. However, we had recently been the unfortunate victims of a BBQ sauce explosion over all of our food, and so , we had no personal bread to toast, or tea to brew.

So, we walked about 200 metres to the cafe directly behind our hotel, Sentori. We sat at a table surrounded by couch cushions on 2 sides, and picked up the local newspapers. We quickly ordered an omelette (for MW) and toast with jam (for me), along with British Breakfast tea.

A (hot) guy sits down directly in my line of sight - we make eye contact. I smile, half-heartedly, as I'm involved in some random ordering decision. Despite the multi-tasking, I take in his ear-length brunette hair, his black hat, his beautiful face, his arm tat, his trendy rings, his Aussie clothing, and his horrible, horrible 80s style sunglasses. Other than those, he's gorgeous.

We order; Mel and i make random conversation as Walt dives into various sections of the regional newspaper. Far from our conversation yesterday (about what we would logically and emotionally do with 3 wishes should we be granted such by a benevolent genie), we discuss LOST theories (we watched the finale, finally, last night! Who is Esau?!) Gwyneth Paltrow, Rugby derelicts, and 'does Stephen Speilberg have to honor the wish of a dead parent leaving their child to him as his godchild?'.

In between these ridiculous conversations, which are slanted by our 'American accent' (as Ellie says), Mel is keeping track of the number of times the hot Aussie looks at me. She casually throws in a 'nine' or 'twelve' every now and then, and each time, I look at her incredulously, trying to figure out what that number means in the middle of the current convo.

But no guts, and no glory, he leaves in his Range Rover without approaching our table (though he potentially gazes from behind those hideous 80s sunnies while saying goodbye to all of his friends at the nearby table), and we bid him adieu.

This town has a good amount of good looking dudes, I comment to Mel.

We order more Earl Grey tea and hang out for another hour or so at this cafe.

After a quick trip to the hotel and the showers, we drive up to the lighthouse at Cape Byron, and trek our way down several trails to the Eastern-most point of the Australian Mainland. We take photos, a boring video blog, and then walk down to the beach below - Main Beach.

We stroll along the cool waters, dipping our toes in and traipsing across the rocks which jut out from the white sand of the beach. Mel runs to retrieve her flops from a rock (we're walking back a different way) and Walt and I stare into the sunny, glittering Pacific Ocean in front of us. We note the surfers (we deemed them 'surfer ants' from far above at the lighthouse) and watch them catch a few waves. A good looking runner with a clear-cut 6 pack runs by for the second time (I smile at him and consider doing the "ECS" move, but shut it down for pride's sake.) I ask Walt, "If there were speakers in the sky, and you could choose whatever song you wanted to capture this moment, what would it be? Mine would be "Beautiful Day" by U2." He thinks for a moment and responds with a song we've recently jammed to: "How far we've come" by Matchbox 20. When Mel catches back up, her response is the very song we left playing in the rental car, "Your Sex is on Fire" by the Kings of Leon.

"What a great compliment that might be from a guy", she repeats, as to a previous conversation we had. I laugh and say, "I've been thinking about if he meant that his ex-girlfriend has the clap... and he said that in retribution." We laugh about that for a few strides, while enjoying the absolutely perfect day.

We take the wrong street and end up walking quite a bit out of the way, then venture back to find the up-hill climb back to the lighthouse. After 20 minutes of hiking, we make it back to the top. I stare at the green-blue sea along the way back, hoping to catch sight of a stray humpback whale (they are supposed to be here in June and July). No luck.

We eat lunch at the Blue Olive - a deli along the main strip of Byron Bay - and then stride down the streets of this hippie town. We stop in several stores along the trek, admiring hats, knit jackets, and various other wares along the way. No silverwares, though. Mel and I enter a store labeled "Cupcake" and I buy a pair of bad ass tan heeled boots for $99 (dear boots of mine, stored in Atlanta, how I miss you so!) We next happen upon a thrift store and I find a rad dress (too expensive) and a rad scarf (perfect). I sigh in appreciation and we wander down the streets a bit farther.

We end up at "Sharky's Tattoo Shop" where Mel has finally (FINALLY!) decided to get her nose pierced. According to her, she's been thinking of getting it done for the past few years, but has only recently decided to actually do it. And today is THE day. So we stop into this tattoo shop (after a bit of searching), and she selects a multi-colored stone (the light pink was unavailable, to her dismay) and he punches a needle through her right nostril. Her eyes tear up, but she swears it didn't hurt. She pays her money and walks out the door with a brilliant stone twinkling like a star in the brilliant blue night.

We head back to the hotel after stops at Woolie's for breakfast tomorrow AM. We grab our Macs (Hughey J, Jazzy H, and MJ - their names) and I shriek with absolute joy as I read my mom's email that she is planning to visit in June. I find a good friend of mine online and chat up about random nothingness, as usual. Whether it's convenience or coincidence, anytime the conversation gets juicy, he has to go. Mel and I run back to the kitchen to chop up the Turkish bread and Tasty cheese for a late dinner, to accompany the box Cabernet we purchased at the bottle shop (please note: box wine does not equal white trash in Oz, or so I'm told). She and I sit down and have a serious conversation regarding several men who have been on our mind as of late. We are eventually joined by Walt, and we immerse ourselves in such a deep conversation that looking back, I cannot remotely remember the entrancing line that began the journey.

And yet, I'm incredibly grateful for this very one, for these two beautiful souls by my side.

I can't believe Walt leaves in 6 days.

How bizarre.

We round out the evening with this blog as they read their respective books before bed. We hope that tomorrow will find us reaching for the sunrise over this Eastern-most point of Oz at 6:20am.

a message for you


Wednesday, May 13, 2009

a much-needed win.

Finally, a win.

Tonight, Jeanne, Walt and I went to the Jupiter Casino in Gold Coast, after a day wandering through Surfers Paradise and enjoying some long-awaited Starbucks drinks.

I'll have to admit, while my previous blackjack/casino experiences (all three of them; read this for a complete recap) had been quite enjoyable, Mel has become weary of losing money.

Lady Fortune smiled at me once at the Hard Rock slot machine in Vegas, but that sweet victory in a casino has become a distant memory, more than two months later.

As a result, I really was hesitant about playing anymore blackjack at all. Having been defeated overall by the Harrah's, the New York, New York of Vegas and most recently, the Treasury in Brisbane, it looked as if my run of blackjack playing was drawing to an end. Playing with Walt and Jeanne is always a good time no matter what, but I was tired of losing money.

And I looked upon tonight as the night that would make or break if I would ever play blackjack ever again, forever determining my blackjack destiny.

Jordan and Ellie came with us to the casino, although they opted not to play. We spent a good while hanging around Walt and Jeanne at the $10 table, while I was doing my best to explain to Ellie and Jordan the basic rules/strategy of the game that I had picked up from two wonderful tutors: Jeanne and Google.

About an hour or so in, a spot at the table opened up, and Walt and Jeanne, smiling sideways at me, pointed this fact out with their sly, eyebrow lifts that ENTJs are famous for.

They are hard to resist.

Taking a deep breath, and understanding that tonight was to forever determine my blackjack destiny, I slid onto that empty chair and put my money down. The dealer Sharron (a.k.a. Shazzo) was the most pleasant dealer we've encountered in Oz so far. She seemed to genuinely be happy for us when we're winning. Dealers don't work off of tips in Australia, so there's not necessarily an incentive to be charming or engaging or even interesting when you're a dealer. So it's was a breath of fresh air to have a dealer with a pleasant personality.

There was an older gentleman from Sydney sitting to Jeanne's left that was good-spirited and also seemed to be doing well at the table. Jeanne explained to him that she was saving up to buy an iPhone. We have been trying to convince Walt and now him that it would be a good idea for them to buy iPhones.

Jeanne vowed that if she won $700 tonight it would go directly to buy an unlocked iPhone, able to be used anywhere in the world, a worthwhile plan should she not end up in the States even after Australia. Jeanne's won at least $700 at blackjack several times in the past, so it wasn't a pie-in-the-sky fantasy.

Ellie cleverly suggested that she name the iPhone BlackJack, should Jeanne's winnings tonight contribute to (or buy) an iPhone. I expounded on this and suggested HughBlackJackman.

Jeanne was sold.

Anyway, surprisingly enough, my chip stack started to grow. And multiply. Like loaves and fishes. It really helped that every time (meaning three times) I doubled my bet on 11 ("always double down on 11," according to movie Swingers and Walter), I miraculously got 21.

By the end of the night, I was $65 richer, a necessary pick-me-up after all the recent melancholia and homesickness.

And as Ellie, Jordan, Walt and Jeanne started to leave and head toward the cashier, the man from Sydney chucked me a $5 chip and said "Give this to Jeanne and tell her it's for the iPhone."

Add on a lovely evening complete with a glass of port, some homemade cake by Ellie's mom, a lovely chat with Ellie's dad about our favorite show Lost, and even a quick Wii-tennis match with Walt, and Voila...

It's a good night;)

I like this Gold Coast.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

books and falling from the sky

We are at Airlie Beach, on the northern coast of Queensland in Australia.

We're staying at Backpackers by the Bay, a small, laid-back hostel that seems perfectly fitted for this breezy, tropical weather. It sits on a hilltop that overlooks Boathaven Bay, a curved shore that hugs the blue and green water which is dotted with dozens of sailboats.

There are stencils of tiny blue fish and sharks sponged around the room. Our sliding glass door is open to bring in the afternoon breeze and I can see a clothesline from the top of my bunk bed. Shirts dancing in the wind.

Walter is reading the English Patient by Michael Ondaatje. I bought this book for Jeanne for her 28th birthday while we were in Adelaide. First she read it, then I read it, now Walt's reading it. The first book of this trip that MJW is reading.

We attempted to watch the film. Jeanne, formerly excited about the movie, was utterly disappointed with the film, calling it a "bastardization of the novel."

That book was like a fine meal that lasted over the course of several days. The words by themselves were compelling to read. Michael Ondaatje has taught me to slow my pace in reading, to allow my mind to slow to the speed of the author's pen. Difficult in my Instant Message, blog-skimming, web-surfing mind, but it's well worth the extra time.

The English Patient is a feast for the senses. So many beautiful passages. There is a stark eloquence to it and I love all the main characters.

On the lower bunk, Jeanne is reading Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. I hear a gasp below me and an barely imperceptible "Oh my God" escape from the bunk below me. I lean over the bunk and look at her quizzically.

"He just had sex with her!" she said incredulously.

"Are you doing okay down there?" I've not read Lolita but I know the intensity of the subject matter.


I return to my book. I am reading Oscar Wilde's De Profundis. Barely 12 pages in but I already love Oscar more than I did when I read all of The Picture of Dorian Gray.

With the breeze, the quiet, and the sudden realization that I can once again use my eyes. And I am grateful.

I remember last week's stay in Cairns.

Cairns initially was not kind to me, but that was mostly my contact lens' fault. I strongly advise against sleeping with your contact lens in your eye, should you ever find yourself on an overnight Greyhound bus trip from the middle of the Outback to the northern coast of Australia...

Just sayin.'

Cairns--originally MJW's El Dorado--was this gleaming haven of our deepest Aussie longings come true: it housed our lofty dreams of skydiving, scuba diving, snorkeling, beaches galore, whitewater rafting.

Unfortunately, that was before bacteria attacked my eye, rendering me incapacitated for a few days. This infection necessitated daily trips to the hospital--I became very closely acquainted with the resident ophthalmologist in Cairns Base Hospital.

Finally though, after Walt and Jeanne's endless patience with my perpetual state of waiting in hotel rooms, hospital waiting rooms, and everything else, Cairns began to unfold to us in all its glory.

Exhibit A: MJW go skydiving. We opted--almost spontaneously--to go skydiving over the city on Wednesday afternoon. I had an 11 a.m. appointment at the hospital, I explained to our tourism booking agent downstairs at the hospital. She told us that we could go that afternoon immediately, or we could wait until Friday morning for a jump over the beach, which was a good 2 hours away.

While jumping over the beach sounded fantastically cool, I was certain I would lose my nerve if we didn't decide to go immediately. The three of us were watching the video overhead that showed happy, crazy people jumping out of airplanes left and right.

Jeanne and I trade information, trying to make a decision about plans.
"We should book the 4:30." "But what about going on Friday? That way we can wait and not rush. Plus doing it over the beach rather than the city sounds way cooler" "But the weather's supposed to be rainy." "Oh good point." "Let's do the 4:30." "How about we do the 3:00 in case you get out of your appointment early enough." "That sounds good."

We ramble on, then make an executive decision. Meanwhile, Walt is sitting in his chair, suddenly very (and uncharacteristically) quiet.

I ask him about this later. He told me he was silently hoping we'd go on Friday instead of today. I laugh at him. I'm just as scared as he is.

An appointment and lunch and phone call later, a dingy white bus pulls up in front of our hostel and a bright eyed, toothy Aussie greets us. "Going skydiving today?"

"Yep, that's us!"

They whirl us just a block down the street to the skydiving office. They pair us up with our skydiving guides and we begin to get suited up. My partner is Jason, a slightly hyper dude with a long braid. All three of us opted for the DVD/handicam option, so our guides are documenting every step of our skydiving adventure.

Suddenly, we're in a plane and we take off and I realize: there's only one way off of this plane. And it's an open door on the side of the plane that says "EXIT."

Walt and Jeanne and I freak out, squeal, smile, laugh nervously and wholeheartedly soak up every second of our ascent.

Jeanne goes first. She's got her arms crossed and her head braced back. She and GJ suddenly just roll and fall out of the plane. Jeanne disappeared. My best friend just fell out of a freakin' airplane, I realize. I look at out the window, hoping to catch a glimpse, but she's long gone.

Before I know it, it's Walt's turn. He's already slid up to the edge of the plane. One, two, he's gone.

I am the last one. Suddenly, I'm sliding to the edge. Jason asks me if I'm ready. He counts, and suddenly we just roll out of the plane, easily and lightly. As we're falling, I'm trying to scream, but I quickly realize when I do that I can't breathe. So I stick with trying to smile and keep my mouth closed at the same time and fully wrap my mind around the reality that I am freefalling through the sky.

Falling is not quite what I imagined it to be. Nothing like a roller coaster.

I'm pretty sure I gulped down part of a cloud on the way down.

Jason taps my arm about a half a dozen times before I realize it's okay to stop clutching my own shoulders and let my arms out, Superman style. I can't believe how much fun this is. Not scary at all once you're falling.

The chute opens and we are jerked back and suddenly we're spinning and I can see all of Cairns, blue and green and shining in the sun.

I smile and I think, this is the city I've been missing, holed up in a hotel room all week. I give a shout out to Chris Slankard in my handi-cam ("Yes, Chris, Mel is in the sky," a tribute to our endless Scattergories debating. Jason lets me grab a hold of chute and lets me steer for a bit. And he tricks me into violently spinning.

"Well, hopefully we don't crash into that powerline."

WHAT? I see Jeanne and Walter below me, turning lazily in the wind with their parachutes. I see the field where they descend. I glide into the field, nice and easy.

I remember one of the guides asking an exuberant Walter (he picks up Jeanne, then me, spins us each around in his excitement) if he would do this ever again.

"I'd do it again right NOW," he says gleefully.

All three of us are glad we got DVDs of our trips, because the moment of freefalling was over too quickly.

I realize, after a week of simply eating, waiting in a hospital room, not sure if I would see out of my right eye again, and being generally frustrated and homesick, that I'm happy to be alive again.

And I like this Cairns.