Friday, June 26, 2009

Day 1 - LAX / Sydney

Day 1 - LAX / Sydney

I forgot what it's like to get to LAX on time without sweating the possibility of missing my flight. During my last trip to the airport, I missed my outbound to Las Vegas. After enduring the shame of pleading with the check-in desk to no avail, I promised myself I would always get to the airport on time, ESPECIALLY for an international flight.

My buddy Bob dropped me off at LAX at about 9pm on Saturday for my 10:30pm nonstop flight to Sydney. I packed two suitcases and a laptop in case I found myself in Australia for an extended stay. As I am normally a light packer, this heavy load was uncharacteristic for me. On top of all this gear, I promised my Uncle Gerry I'd hit Duty Free and grab some gin and tequila for him. It's the least I could do given that he's prepared to put me up for what could be an extended period of time. Since I may work in Australia while I'm down here, I brought my suit, and instead of packing it, I decided to wear it on the plane to help avoid any body cavity searches at customs. In spite of the fact that I hadn't shaved in over a week, I made it through all security checkpoints without incident. I checked in at gate 123 (the absolute farthest one at Tom Bradley Int'l Terminal 4) and grabbed an airport chicken pesto panini from a terminal deli. It actually wasn't terrible given my rock-bottom expectations. Since I wasn't sure if a meal would be served at 11:30pm on the plane, I decided to be proactive and feed myself since I didn't have time to eat dinner. As I mentioned, I'm a light traveler, but this is also because I hate packing, and tend to leave it until the last minute. As a result, that meant skipping dinner. But with the surge of adrenaline from skipping town for an undefined amount of time, I wasn't terribly consumed with hunger at the time I was preparing my luggage. Nevertheless, late-night dinner was served on the plane.

After watching Airplane! once or ten times, I tend to steer clear of seafood entrees served on planes, but I was feeling adventurous, so I ordered the seared tuna instead of yet another round of chicken. Qantas is a phenomenal airline not only because they've never crashed (knock on wood), but they seem one step ahead of their competition with regard to amenities provided to their guests. I dreaded this 14+ hour flight because I forgot to pack reading material in addition to the various magazines I brought on the plane. Instead of only showing two movies throughout this long journey, they had a broad selection of on-demand entertainment ranging from Aussie sports to broad comedy. I watched the Extras Christmas special (which I hadn't even known existed!), three episodes of the Aussie version of Kath and Kim (way funnier than the butchered Yankee version), and In Bruges with Colin Farrell. They also had kids' entertainment including Simpsons and Family Guy, but I didn't get around to that. My aunt provided me with about 15 Tylenol PM, and I only needed one caplet to fall asleep on the plane in spite of the bitch seated in front me who put her seat all the way back so that my personal television was 3 inches from my face while I watched it! Thanks for that - my knees are still most appreciative.

After I landed at 8:10am Sydney time on Monday morning, I was eternally grateful for my Australian passport. The customs line for non-Aussies was about 40 deep, and there were 6 lines for Aussie/Kiwi citizens. I waited a maximum of ten minutes before I was waved through. Even though my suspicious bottle of sleeping medication was clearly exposed, the officer seemed to care more about my pre-packaged roasted almonds and confiscated them instead.

Once I landed, I proceeded to duty free to get Uncle Gerry's requested bottles of Bombay Sapphire and Don Julio Reposado tequila. I was then able to retrieve my luggage from the carousel after getting boxed out by other weary travelers and missing it on the first three revolutions. My mum and Uncle Gerry finally showed up after I looked for them in vain for about 15 minutes. Good thing I didn't run out of patience, as that would have been an expensive taxi to Gladesville! Even though I was a bit tired and didn't get a chance to visit the bathroom after landing, I let Uncle Gerry take us on a quick, impromptu tour of Sydney. We swung by Bondi Beach, drove over the Harbor Bridge, and took the some pictures in front of the Opera House. Afterward, we stopped and bought some groceries for lunch, including deliciously fresh (white – gasp!) bread and razor-thin sliced ham. From the outset, I can already tell maintaining a healthy diet will be a challenge here in Australia.

After lunch concluded, I took a much-needed shower, shaved, and watched some Sunday Night NFL action between the Colts and Chargers at noon on Monday afternoon. They get ESPN here in Australia, and while the focus may be cricket, Aussie Rules Football and European soccer, the NFL still gets love from the global markets. For me, it was nice to not have to go cold turkey on football in the middle of the season. On the other hand, I'm glad I didn't stick around to watch my Broncos lose 31-10 at home to the Raiders. What the hell happened to Denver anyways?!?

It was then naptime for Sammy. What was originally intended to be a 30-minute siesta turned into a three-hour power snooze. When I awoke, my cousin Luke had come over for dinner (and to do laundry), and Auntie Carol had prepared spaghetti for dinner. In addition, my two second cousins, Ethan (age 6) and Cooper (age 4) were being babysat since my cousin Sally (their Mum/Carol's daughter) was at home sick. I enjoyed meeting these boys. Although Ethan and Cooper are both afflicted with mild autism, they seem like happy kids, and eventually warmed up to me, as most kids do.
When I left Los Angeles, the autumn sky got dark at about 5:20pm. Here in Sydney, it's springtime, and there was daylight well past 8pm, much to my delight. After I read Ethan and Cooper "Little Red Riding Hood" before they went to bed, the rest of the family and I watched a couple of episodes of this Australian mockumentary-styled comedy show called Summer Heights High, which I found mildly amusing. Auntie Carol served us some ice cream and tea for dessert, Luke then took off to go home, and I brushed my teeth afterward. Now I'm wrapping up Day 1, and I don't think too much is in store for tomorrow except Monday Night-er, Tuesday mid-day football. I need Pierre Thomas to score less than 10.5 points for me to maintain my tenuous grasp on first place in my fantasy league. I'll have more to type as each day comes here down undah. In the meantime, I hope all is well in LA. I hear it's raining up there?

Day 2 - Dahling Hahbah/Manly

Day 2 - Dahling Hahbah/Manly

My sleep cycle is all screwy as I am still transitioning from LA time to Sydney time (+19 hours). I had a busy day of sightseeing planned today with my Mum, and we had lots of fun together.

I woke up a couple of times in the wee hours of the morning. Since it's almost summer here, day breaks before 6am. Although I seldom wake up before 7am, I was bright-eyed and bushy-tailed by 6:40am. I messed around on the computer here, figuring I'd catch one of you on chat since you're 5 hours later into the day than me. Since my destiny is to turn into a fat fuck eating Auntie Carol's delicious but not-too-healthy cuisine while here in Australia, the only way to get my metabolism going was through exercise. There isn't exactly a gaggle of gyms here in Gladesville, so I took matters into my own hands-er-feet by going for a jog. Unfortunately, the topography here is much different than what I'm used to when I jog back home. After running uphill for a half block, I was immediately exhausted. I ended up jogging lazily for about 15 minutes before I decided to head back to the house for fear of getting lost. The streets here aren't on a NSEW grid, so one either needs to pay attention to where he is going, or one needs to get his hands on a GPS navigation device.

When I got back to the house, I showered and ate eggs and white toast sans Vegemite (I try that stuff every two years, figuring it's my birthright to enjoy it – however, I hate Vegemite more each time I eat it, and wouldn't recommend it to anyone unless you're a fan of bitter yeast extract…yum). My second cousins Cooper and Ethan were getting ready for school – they were chowing down on Vegemite toast, and I think I saw Auntie Carol packing some more in their lunch. Although I find it a disgusting condiment, I don't believe Vegemite can be linked to autism.

After the boys went off to school, Mum and I left for the Ferrie station, located five minutes away in Huntley Point. The ferrie was about to arrive, and we had to park almost a kilometer away. I was able to jog to the dock in time, but my poor Mum was struggling to keep up. Um, let's just say she was wearing the wrong bra for the occasion, but she made it to the ferrie in time.

The first ferrie of the day took us to Darling Harbor (everyone here calls it "Dahling Hahbah"), so I started calling it that as well. This waterfront part of town is situated amidst a bunch of tourist attractions and pricey outdoor restaurants. We walked up to a lighthouse, climbed a set of narrow stairs, took some cool panoramic pictures of the skyline, and chatted with Andrew, the lighthouse attendant. Although I thought he was friendly and knowledgeable about the surroundings, it became apparent that he fancied my Mum. Although she was flattered, he's a tad old for her.

The next Ferry took us to Circular Quay (pronounced "key" – Aussies talk funny, but you knew that already!), where I purchased sunglasses for what seemed to be a reasonable $14.95 AUS (approx $10 US). Circular Quay is located near the famous Opera House, and as we passed it, all the tourists broke out their cameras and began clicking away. There was a palpable camaraderie amongst us, as complete strangers instantly began trading cameras with one another before the Opera House disappeared from the background.

The weather was erratic. I found myself taking my sweater off and putting it back on repeatedly. The sunshine was warm, but when it became shrouded in cloud cover, the harbor winds kicked up, causing my nipples to reappear through my shirt! Two attractive female Swiss backpackers sat next to us on the Circular Quay ferrie, and after we took their picture with their camera, Mum used her camera and randomly took a picture of us together…I didn't even get their names!

The next ferrie ride from Circular Quay lasted about 30 minutes, but we arrived at a charming town on the coast called Manly. Mum and I hopped off the boat, and walked down a gauntlet of tourist traps and overpriced eateries. She suggested we go to this pub near the beach inside the Steyne Hotel she had been to before. It was about 2:30pm, and when we entered the restaurant, my eyes perked up as Monday Night Football was on the TV in the pub. They had a lunch special of $10 steak (served with a fabulous mushroom sauce), chips (Aussie for French Fries) and salad. I shit you not, this was no $10 steak ($6.50 US) – it was divine. I was befuddled how such a great deal could exist in such a picturesque tourist trap. Mum wanted beer, so she told me to order her a "Middy". My dumb Yankee ass thought this was a type of Australian beer, so when I ordered two Middies, the bartender stared at me blankly and said, "Of what?" I looked at the various taps, and instantly realized I merely ordered a size, not a brand. He then suggested Hahn's, which was a fine choice for both of us. Now I was stuffed, but Mum had a hankering for a $.30 McDonalds soft serve cone for dessert. After the dessert, we were taking some pictures on the beach when the tide snuck up on us and soaked my sneakers! Aussies have an old saying: "Never turn your back on the ocean" – now I understand why!

Mum wanted to duck into a discount store to buy a toy or two for Cooper and Ethan, so we walked inside. Of course, I found the exact same pair of sunglasses that I bought in Circular Quay…for $5! As a parsimonious Jew, I begrudged myself for paying triple what I could have paid had I waited a bit longer. However, the glare from the sun made it all the more necessary that I purchase eyewear post-haste, so I got over the ill-advised purchase fairly quickly.

When we left Manly, the sun had all but disappeared, and it started to get chilly. My sweater was on, and we stayed inside the ferrie on the way back. When we returned to Circular Quay, we checked out the train/subway system, and took full advantage of the $16 all-access day passes we had bought. When we got off the train, it was shortly after 5pm, and the station became packed with commuters, so we returned to the ferrie, which took us back to our car at Huntley Point. We drove back to Gladesville, Auntie Carol made us lasagna for dinner, and I watched the rest of the Monday Night Football game which I had recorded on their DVR.

Tomorrow, we are scheduled to catch an early morning flight to Cairns, Queensland. I may not be able to write such excessively long excerpts over the next couple of days since I'll be staying in a hotel, so feel free to breathe a sigh of relief! Today was a great day with Mum, and because we had such fun together, I'll treasure today forever.

Day 3 – Sydney/Cairns

Day 3 – Sydney/Cairns

Before I went to bed last night, I was told to be awake at
5:30am to hop on a 7:30am flight from Sydney to Cairns, Queensland. After a fitful night of tossing and turning, the cab picked us up from Gladesville, and took Mum, Uncle Gerry, and I to the Sydney Int'l Airport. Although Gerry has lived in Australia all his life, he had never been to Queensland until a recent trip to Port Douglas, another popular tourist spot located about an hour from Cairns. Hence, vacationing in Cairns is a novel experience for him. Mum had a credit from Virgin Airlines after she and I accidentally double-booked the same reservation. Only after I sent Virgin a series of emphatic emails asking for a refund/credit, they reluctantly responded with a credit 6.5 weeks later, which we gave to Gerry to tag along.

We arrived at the airport at 6am. Mum and I shared the same itinerary on the same piece of paper. Naturally, the check-in attendant carded Mum, but curiously, I was not asked for identification, yet was allowed to board the plane. Aussies seem to trust in their intra-national travellers more than Americans.

The flight lasted almost 3 hours, and featured crying babies in surround sound. One baby crying behind me, and another one was wailing two rows in front of me. Finally, a toddler running up and down the aisle chased by her dad was incessantly whining. Although Virgin Blue is known as a discount airline, I wasn't fully aware of the lack of amenities until I read the menu that wanted to charge me $9.90 AUS to watch Baby Mama. Um, no thanks. But wait, there's more. The flight attendant asked me if I wanted something to eat or drink. Knowing I would be charged for pretty much anything, I ordered water, closed my eyes, and prayed…nope, that'll be $2.50 AUS, thank you very much. The legroom was shit, and I was thrilled to finally land after a less-than-stellar flying experience.

We landed in Cairns at just after 10am. They don't observe daylight savings in Queensland, so we gained an hour (as if I didn't have enough issues coping with jet lag!). When I stepped off the plane onto the tarmac, I felt a familiar humidity I hadn't experienced since I spent a weekend in New Orleans in August a few years ago – disgusting for a guy who not only grew up in the dry heat of Los Angeles, but sweats more than a tourist in a Mumbai hotel besieged by terrorists. After we got our bags from the luggage carousel, we were picked up by a shuttle and whisked off to Billabong Rent-a-Car. Mum, using her travel agent upgrade, elevated our order at no extra charge to a 4-door Hyundai Getz. Aussies drive some funky cars out here, and although suitable, most of them aren't available in the States. We found our hotel, which was actually more of a resort/timeshare called The Lakes @ Cairns. It was a pretty solid 2-bedroom unit with a full kitchen, cable TV, frigid air conditioning, multiple swimming pools within walking distance, adjacent restaurants, but no wi-fi L. I had to pay $8 AUS per hour to type emails and check up on my choking fantasy football squad in the guest lounge. I would end up dropping around $30 on internet charges during my stay here – ugh.

Given the sweltering humidity, I took the first of several showers today. After I got out and changed, we drove north with Port Douglas as our destination with a few stops along the way. When we first hit Cook Highway 44 (named after James Cook, the explorer who discovered Australia in 1770), we pulled over at a lookout and took some pictures at a deserted tropical beach. The water was soo warm, as if a million kids had peed in the ocean simultaneously! I skipped a few stones off the calm water – not much of a tide here in Queensland with the Great Barrier Reef serving as a natural breakwater. We only stayed at this picturesque beach for a few minutes, as we hadn't yet eaten after getting off the plane.

Our next stop was in Clifton Beach, where we found a shopping mall with a bakery inside. We bought some authentic Australian cuisine for lunch: meat pies, sausage rolls, and apple/blackcurrant juice. We wanted to purchase some groceries for the room to keep our costs in check, but didn't want to leave everything in the hot-ass car, so we said we'd stop here on the way back to Cairns.

When we got to Port Douglas, I could see why this place is popular amongst international travellers. It has that sleepy-yet-touristy vibe about it with a collection of souvenir shops, coffee houses, and palm trees. I purchased a few postcards and airmail stamps to send back home to the US, and some kitschy flip-flops that featured a crocodile saying "G'Day mate" on them (which would later give my feet painful blisters). Similarly to Cairns, there are ferries taking tourists to the Great Barrier Reef, which is 1000 miles long, and runs parallel to the northeast coast of Australia, also known as the "sunshine coast". Mum, Gerry and I took some scenic pics, and continued North to a small town called Mossman that Gerry had always wanted to visit, but wasn't able to the last time he was here.

Mossman is a small town rife with sugarcane fields, tin-roofed houses, and rural barefooted children playing on the side of the road. Uncle Gerry wanted to see the Mossman Gorge, which was an area enclosed within the rainforest region as you drive away from Hwy 44. When we arrived at the state park, parking was scant, and there were many people, young and old, milling about the area. An ice cream truck (more like an ice cream child-molester van) operated by a nice 40-something "sheila" had a couple of customers when I offered to buy ice cream cones for Gerry and Mum. Although the treats were delicious, we had to eat them at a prodigious pace because they were literally melting before our eyes all. We would have ample opportunity to wash off, though.

The water was perfectly cool given the sweltering conditions we were subject to here in northern Queensland. Gerry was the first to jump in the water, and I followed suit shortly thereafter. I would say there were about 30-ish people of many different ages and nationalities sharing a jolly good time together. A river flowed through the gorge, which provided a mild current that slightly concerned some mothers given the large boulders in the water. But nobody was in any significant danger as people from as far away as Germany and Russia shared a muggy afternoon together for a refreshing dip. When I got out of the water, I felt quite clean, as if I had taken a mineral bath. We would then start heading back south toward Cairns.

We stopped at Clifton Beach to grab some food for our fridge back at the Lakes. I saw a Family Pack of Fantales, my favourite "lollies", on sale for $2.50 AUS! By comparison, a smaller normal pack was $2.99…go figure. I bought a couple bags for myself, and vowed to get more before I return to the States. Since alcohol isn't sold at supermarkets in Australia, Gerry and I walked across the mall to grab a 24-pack of Carlton Draught from a popular chain called Liquorland. Booze is really pricey in Australia – now I know why Mum was so emphatic on my hitting duty free before I arrived in Australia. By the way, nobody drinks Foster's in Australia, as Gerry claimed it to be "shit beeyah".

When we finally got back to the Lakes hotel, we took showers, dressed up, and grabbed dinner at a Lago, a fine restaurant located on the Resort where they served everything ranging from fish to kangaroo (affectionately called "Skippy", named after a popular television character from the '70s). Once we finished dinner, Mum and Gerry retired back to the room while I resumed feeding the internet café $2 coins. I, too, would then retire after checking email, Facebook, and my crappy fantasy football squad's most recent rash of injuries.

Day 4 – Great Barrier Reef

Day 4 – Great Barrier Reef

I've become a bit stir crazy with regards to lack of exercise since I arrived in Oz. Although I've been trying to stay somewhat active here during my trip, there is no way in hell I would go for a jog here in Queensland given the 90% humidity – I prefer to save my energy for activities that would take place later that day

We drove to the marina in Cairns, and parked in a public lot with a singular parking meter. We needed enough change for 8 hours of parking, but realized that between Uncle Gerry, Mum and I, we only had enough for 5.5 hours. Since the car rental company slaps an extra $50 "handling" charge for any and all parking citations (on top of the citation itself! Shady, I know), we were reluctant to leave our car parked here in spite of the scant amount of public parking. However, a meter maid happened to be nearby, and Mum asked him if there was a place we could get change. He said not really, but asked where we were from. She told him, in her Americanized Aussie accent, "Los Angeles." The officer then inquired which car was ours, and we pointed to our periwinkle blue Hyundai Getz. He looked at the 5.5 hours on the meter and then replied, much to our amazement, "Oh don't worry, this is my area, and you guys will be fine." Mum and I beamed at each other, shrugged, and thanked the gentleman profusely, still not completely certain if he would regale us with a citation once we were gone.

We arrived at the Great Barrier Reef cruise office, and Mum pulled out her travel agent card. We would then be entitled to save a collective $50 on three passes, including my first scuba diving adventure that I will certainly never forget.

The catamaran whisked us out to sea about 20-25 miles off the Cairns coast. The ship was comprised of three levels, and the conditions (clear weather and still water) could not have been better. Since it was a Wednesday, the boat wasn't particularly crowded - only about 70% full. The water was reminiscent of what one would envision when s/he looks at a postcard: warm, aqua, and inviting.

A collection of tourists gathered on the boat: Half of them were mostly non-English-speaking Asians from Japan, China, Korea and Singapore. I also met tourists from Australia, Sweden, Germany, and the US. The ship's crew was mostly Australian and Kiwi, but a few were also Asian, as a significant portion of the clientele required staff that spoke languages of the Orient.

I was impressed with the setup on the boat: There was free tea, coffee and water available before the boat left the port, and if you wanted soda, juice, snacks, candy, sunscreen, soueveneirs, wine or beer, these items were also for sale. I also spotted three photographers on the boat discreetly running around taking people's pictures. For the most part, the crew on the cruise ship was both friendly and knowledgeable.

I was to report for scuba training at 11:30am. Although I had snorkeled a few times, I had never strapped on an air tank as this requires certification and a grip of $$$ in the States. However, they had a relatively simple crash course available for scuba newbies like me who know fuck-all about the nuances of diving. First, I learned how to breathe through the mouthpiece, and how to clear it out if it came dislodged from my mouth. Second they made sure we could swing our arm in a particular way so if our mouthpiece came dislodged underwater, it would be readily available to put back in our mouth in a pinch. The last two things we learned were: how to clear our mask if it got flooded underwater, and to pinch our nose and exhale to relieve pressure repeatedly during our descent. It may seem like a lot to learn in a short time, but Dawn, the scuba instructor, made it seem really simple. The butterflies in my stomach would soon transform into eager anticipation, as I couldn't wait for 1:30pm, my dive time.

Lunch was served at 12:15pm, and they laid out an impressive buffet: Prawns, salad, chicken, beef, fruit, bread, noodles, and vegetarian lasagna plus more that I can't remember off the top of my head. It seemed as though the boat had something to eat for everyone with a picky palate. I made sure I was one of the first at the buffet, as I had to make sure I ate before 12:30pm. Mum always said not to swim until an hour after I ate…otherwise, I'd get cramps and drown – however, that was when I was six years old.

When I saw her on the boat, I reiterated what Mum had told me about getting cramps in the water. She dismissively waved that notion off as an old wives' tale, and said I could do whatever I bloody well pleased. With that in mind, I decided to go on a preliminary snorkel run since I made sure I hadn't stuffed myself full of prawns and chicken.

I was unsuccessful in finding flippers in my size, and asked Dawn what was the biggest size the boat had. She looked at my feet, walked to a less-traveled corner of the ship, and produced a giant pair that read, "15-17" on them. As she handed them to me, she jokingly told me I probably wouldn't need flippers with feet as gargantuan as mine. I love these guys! They're knowledgeable, AND they have a sense of humour!

When I was snorkeling, I made sure not to exert myself too much so that I would save energy for the scuba dive. I saw some amazing coral, and a colorful array of fish and sea anemones I had never even known existed, let alone seen before. Snorkeling in the GB Reef made the time I went snorkeling in Catalina look like the grimy lobster tank inside a Chinese restaurant by comparison. As I swam back to the boat to return the snorkel for my air tank, I could feel a palpable giddiness starting to creep up inside.

Unfortunately, Dawn took the 12:30pm scuba group out, so our group would be led by a friendly Aussie named Brian. After I squeezed into my size 7 wetsuit and donned my weight belt, Brian taught us the international underwater scuba language. Since we're not Navy SEALS, and don't have underwater radio communication, we would communicate with a short set of logical hand gestures: "I'm okay" (Thumbs up), "everything okay?" (forefinger pressed to thumb with other three fingers raised), "Wait" (hand raised), and the dreaded "out of air" (wave hand across throat). Since we were all supplied with an hour's worth of air for a 30-minute dive, the last signal wouldn't be necessary.

When everyone was ready, we descended about eight feet underwater. The pressure was mildly irritating, but I made sure to keep pinching my nose and blowing. This relieved almost all of the sinus pressure, and I was fine thereafter. We eventually swam to the ocean floor, which was probably 20 feet from the surface, and suddenly, a sea turtle (we would later learn her name was Emily) appeared along with one of the ship's photographers. When Emily swam up next to me, and the photographer snapped the photo, I instinctively flashed thumbs up. We would then play with live starfish, and when Brian whipped out some giblets, we were suddenly accosted by several schools of tropical fish. It was a bit overwhelming at first, but made for a great "Kodak moment."

After we finished our diving session, Brian said how impressed he was with our swimming abilities, and that he usually keeps beginner groups closer together. He then looked at my air gauge, and was flabbergasted to learn that I only had five minutes of air left - my friends don't call me "vacuum lungs" for nothing! I thanked Brian for his help, and was a bit lightheaded after I took the heavy scuba gear off. I would recommend this experience to everyone and everyone that is physically capable of handling it. If it wasn't so damned expensive, I'd go diving more in the future, even though the water in Southern California is colder, and the selection of underwater sea creatures pale in comparison.

I rested for an hour, and made a point of going snorkeling one more time before we headed back to port. They even had showers on the boat to wash off the sea water so I didn't feel icky when we docked.

As we headed back to Cairns, the staff began to lay out pages of photo thumbnails the photographers had amassed during our cruise. Unofrtunately, they charge $20 per photo, which is a bit rich for my blood. However, my benevolent Uncle Gerry paid for four photos, and I was able to finagle a fifth for free by saying my Mum accidentally chose the wrong photo I had wanted. Brian came up to me afterward, I thanked him for an unforgettable experience, and Mum took our picture together. The ship's crew, in general, seemed to genuinely enjoy their job, and had a legitimate sense of camaraderie about them. I think this rubbed off on the tourists, which made the experience all the more fun. Again, if you have an opportunity to visit this Natural Wonder of the World (one of only seven), do it!

After we left the boat, we were apprehensive about whether the parking enforcement officer was pulling our leg. Lo and behold, there was no ticket on our windshield eight hours later! J

We visited Coles supermarket afterward, picked up some steaks, salad, cheese, crackers, and cookies-er-biscuits. Back at The Lakes resort, Mum and Gerry wanted to go for a quick swim and lounge at the pool. As they have a poolside grill, a group of young Asians were having a jolly good time drinking and cooking up a storm across the pool. They looked like they were drinking beer and sake, so I took them for Japanese (most Asians in Oz are Japanese). Mum wanted to know what time it was, so I walked up to one of them wearing a watch, ascertained that they didn't speak a lick of English, and pointed to his wrist. Another one of their crew removed a chunk of steak from the grill and held it to my mouth. I gladly obliged by eating it, and another one handed me a shot of sake. My feeble attempt at a Japanese toast ("kanpai!") drew subdued laughter as one of them pointed to the lot of them and exclaimed "hho-ho - Korean". I immediately slapped my hand to my forehead in mortification and apologized as best I could, and responded with "Consameeda" (Korean for 'Thank You') – one of the girls laughed and retorted with "I rove you!". We all shared a drink, a bite to eat, and a good laugh. A bit later, Mum and Uncle Gerry were done swimming, and were ready to commence dinner preparations, so we dried off, and went back to our room. I bid the Koreans goodnight, and we retired to our suite to cook our supper.

All in all, this was the most memorable day from the trip thus far, but hopefully, there will be many more days as enjoyable as this to come.

Day 5 – Kuranda / Cairns

Day 5 – Kuranda / Cairns

I awoke with a king-sized crick in my neck this morning after a busy day on the Great Barrier Reef yesterday. When I walked from the bedroom to the living room, I could hear sports on the television, but an unfamiliar play-by-play by the sportscaster. It turns out that Gerry was watching a cricket match play between Australia and New Zealand. I had never watched cricket before, and understood the sport only as a very loose comparison to baseball. I found out that it only compares to baseball in a very small way. First, a cricket match could last five days and still end up in a draw! Second, all the players wear white, as this is the dress code at a cricket match. Third, players break for tea in the middle of a match! I imagined baseball players, during the 7th-inning stretch, putting down their bats and gloves to gather around the infield to pour tea out of a kettle into those tiny cups and sip some Earl Grey or chamomile with their pinkies sticking out! This vision brought wrought a chuckle out of me.

Mum cooked up another lumberjack breakfast – something she prepares only occasionally back home. Steak, eggs, English muffin, coffee, and a bowl of all-bran topped with banana as if I wasn't full from the previous courses! Today, the plan was to go for a train ride, so we took our trusty Hyundai Getz to Cairns Central, which served not only as a mall, but also had a train station inside as well. Mum once again used her "Aussie Specialist" travel agent credential to get us a sweet rate on a train up to Kuranda, a sleepy tourist area located in the muggy rainforest a little more than 90 minutes north of Cairns.

I felt fortunate to be inside the car of a train, as opposed to out on the reef today, because we experienced a torrential downpour that lasted almost the entire ride from Cairns to Kuranda. It was nice to have the windows open for a fresh breeze, because the rain made the already humid weather even less tolerable. Days like today lend no surprise to the fact that this region of Northern Queensland receives an ample 75 inches of rain per year, thereby providing the nutrition that sustains the lush green landscape that is the rainforest we saw passing before us.

The public address system broadcast a collection of old-style "bush" music – songs from the 1800s that entertained the miners and people who took on the prodigious construction of this ambitious railway. If you've ever listened to bluegrass music, i.e, the soundtrack to the Coen Brothers' film, Oh Brother, Where art Thou, imagine this music as an Australian first cousin to that genre. However, the music pertained to Australian-centric themes like the plight of the koala bear, and its vanishing habitat, as well as the potential dangers of how a single flood could erase years of dedicated labor toward this massive railroad. The railroad path was built with tunnels that enable the train to not only climb the fairly steep mountains, but to also travel through them as well. Considering the constant threat of flooding and a possible ensuing lack of supplies and food, the construction workers, who were probably undersized compared to similar workers of today, were very brave to take on this task considering they were paid perhaps $4 per week. The train, which was only about 25% filled with tourists, made a couple of stops along the way in Freshwater Station and Barron Falls. The latter stop featured some of the largest waterfalls I had ever seen in person, descending about 1 kilometer to a flowing river below. Instead of seeing beautiful blue water like what we had seen at sea the day before, the fresh rain flowing down the falls created a brown, rushing river that could draw a comparison to a scene from the Amazon: not quite as picturesque, but instead a beautiful jungle.

When we arrived at Kuranda, we were thankful that the rain had finally stopped. I wasn't sure what to expect upon our arrival, as I was too spellbound by the torrential downpour to peruse the brochure that was given to us at Cairns Central. I first noticed a collection of restaurants, pubs, souvenir shops, and unusual tourist attractions like the Venom Zoo and Birdworld. I was also surprised to discover a cluster of aboriginal art galleries that also sold overpriced didgeridoos. As I learned to play it a few years ago, I had always wanted to buy a didgeridoo, but I found the $200 price tag a tad high. Furthermore, I didn't want to have to schlep the large, log-shaped musical instrument back to Cairns, and then back to Sydney, and then have to deal with shipping it back home to the States.

When we stepped off the train at about 11:30am, we were all a bit parched, and Mum was craving a mango smoothie after she saw a sign that advertised "the best smoothies in Queensland". I found the smoothie hut, and purchased three for Gerry, Mum and me. Since we had almost three hours until the train departed for Cairns, we decided to follow our smoothies with a real lunch. We ate a relatively conventional lunch at a stand that sold enormous burgers as well as a passionfruit-flavored soda I hadn't tasted in 22 years. As soon as the cold, delicious refreshment splashed against my tongue, I immediately experienced a rush of memories dating back to my childhood when I practically lived on passionfruit soda during a previous trip to Australia one summer.

After lunch, Mum wanted to do some shopping, and I wanted to see some wildlife. Since I'm not a huge fan of snakes, scorpions, and other venomous creatures, I opted to go to Birdworld. Gerry tagged along, even though he had seen many of the birds on a regular basis. Birdworld is an interactive aviary where customers can see an international array of rare and colorful birds and feed them if they wish. These beautiful creatures must have been treated well because they didn't fear humans at all, unlike birds in a more natural habitat. I saw birds as small as sparrows and lorikeets, and as big as cassowaries. For those that don't know, a cassowary is a bird as big as an ostrich, but has a natural helmet-like growth atop its frontal lobe. It also has giant claws which can be quite dangerous if the cassowary is upset or feels threatened. These flightless birds were kept on the other side of the fence, as opposed to all the other birds. Occasionally, a bird would land on my shoulder or head and just sit there. This made for some opportune moment with photographers. I was only "anointed' by a bird once, and wasn't terribly upset because in certain cultures, this can be considered good luck.

When Gerry and I left Birdworld, we met back up with Mum who had treated herself to a beautiful necklace containing a cornucopia of colored semi-precious stones. The three of us had a pint of beer at the Kuranda Hotel Motel, which looked as old as the bush music we listened to on the train ride up here. When the time came to board the train to head back to Cairns, we were all pretty beat from being on our feet in the relentless Queensland humidity.

I had never slept on a train before, but I passed out as soon as it started chugging back toward Cairns. Needless to say, the train ride back seemed a lot shorter than the outbound ride. When I woke up, we were almost home, and I began performing a childish custom that had always confounded me. Every time the train passed by people waiting at a railroad crossing, I waved to them. Surprisingly, both young and old people mostly waved back even though they had no idea who I was!

As soon as we got back to The Lakes resort, I was the first to hop in the shower, as my sweat-soaked body needed a shower more than Mum and Uncle Gerry. They opted to simply change into their bathing suites and hop in the pool. I met them there via the Hotel Guest center, purchased a few overpriced postcards and airmail stamps, lounged by the pool and wrote simple notes to some friends and family members back in Los Angeles. Uncle Gerry and Mum soon became hungry, so they hopped out of the pool, we headed back to the room, and they showered and changed to go out to dinner. We couldn't decide what we wanted in spite of a collection of restaurant ads and coupons the resort provided for us, so we elected to simply drive around Cairns, get a lay of the land, and act impulsively about our dinner decision.

We saw an ad for a food court/tourist market that looked appealing, so we drove there first. As it was Friday night, parking was extremely scant around the Cairns marina, but after 20 minutes of driving around, we finally found one. Once we were settled with the car, we walked three blocks back to this food court, and of course, I was already perspiring from the sticky weather. I was impressed with the array of souvenirs available, but was a bit perturbed to find the same exact postcards I had purchased at the resort for half the price. Several kiosks offered 40-minute massages for $15 AUS, which seemed too good to be true. As much as I would have loved a nice massage given the crick in my neck that was aggravated by the nap on the train ride back, I wouldn't have wanted to keep Mum and Gerry sitting around while I was lavished with an inexpensive, therapeutic rubdown. We ended up not buying anything there, since it seemed as though a majority of the inventory that was being aggressively peddled by the predominantly Asian merchants would have induced buyer's remorse a few hours later. We decided to leave this loud marketplace, as we preferred something quieter and healthier. Most of the eateries served "takeaway" greasy Panda-Express-type Chinese food. I saw a nice Chinese restaurant closer to the water that Gerry ended up footing the bill for. Mum and I were most appreciative for this, because our dinner was close to $100 AUS for three people! We then walked back to the car after dinner, and passed a massive municipal kids' pool near the beach which was no more than a meter deep, but was almost a 5 square kilometers in total area! A similar pool would not survive in the US, because without a lifeguard on duty, it would only be a matter of time before someone got hurt, and the city got sued. Even though the time was 10pm and nightfall had long since arrived, many kids and some adults were still splashing around in their bathing suits!

Mum, Gerry and I got in the car and recounted our busy day before we headed back to The Lakes. As much as I would have liked to spend a Friday night out on the town in Cairns, I decided I was too tired to roll solo, only to have to finagle a cab ride home later, so we all went back to the hotel together.

Gerry and I cracked open a beer, Mum was the first to bed, and I stayed up late watching a play-by-play recap of the Thanksgiving football games back home which were televised on the Foxtel Sports channel. As much as I enjoyed learning about cricket and other international sports, my heart will always pledge allegiance to baseball and American "gridiron!"

Day 6 – Cairns / Sydney

Day 6 – Cairns / Sydney

By the time I awoke for my fourth day in Cairns, I was just about done with this place. As muggy and nasty as the weather is outside, the air conditioning inside our suite makes the conditions bearable albeit chilly by comparison. As I shuffled from the bedroom my Mum and I shared, cricket was on the telly when I dragged myself into the living room. A cricket match is played over the course of five, sometimes six days! Hence, the telly was playing only day 2 of the contest between New Zealand and Australia. We were just about out of food in the fridge, so I ate a comparatively small brekky of cereal, coffee, and an orange. We then packed up all our stuff, as we were about to check out of The Lakes. Since our flight wasn't until 6:15pm, we had virtually the whole day to spend in the lovely outdoors until we had to take off for the airport around 4:30pm. Mum suggested we drive down the street to a botanical garden that we saw advertised in a collection of brochures in our suite. Although the garden was just down the street from The Lakes, there was no way in hell I was walking anywhere unless it was to another air conditioned room. Mum took yet more pictures of us in the lush garden next to a pond replete with lily pads and jacaranda blossoms that fell from the trees above. Mum took out her camera and (sigh) snapped away. She's acquired a bit of a reputation around the family as an obsessive-compulsive shutterbug since she arrived down under. Regardless, I posed and put on the requisite shit-eating grin next to Uncle Gerry in front of the lilies - whoopee.
We didn't want to drive anywhere too far before we had to turn in the car. We were going to drive to another rainforest area an hour away that Mum wanted to visit, but I objected, maintaining I had had my share of lengthy drives and rainforests. We decided to drive to a park in rural Queensland that was supposed to be 20-30 minutes away. Although the place was actually 40 minutes away, it was a mildly interesting attraction called Paronella Park. A Spanish count moved there after being exiled from Spain seventy years ago, and by the time he snuck back into Spain eight years later to bring his true love back with him, she had remarried. However, her younger sister was single, so he took her to Australia instead. Anyways, inside the park were dilapidated ruins of a castle that once had a movie theatre, concert hall, swimming pool and changing rooms. Only concrete chunks resembling anything but the aforementioned locales remained, which made this afternoon adventure, as I had mentioned, mildly interesting at best. However, before the tour, we were each given "brellies", Aussie for umbrella. They came in handy because by the end of the tour, we would have been soaked, as the tour guide, who didn't have a brelly, was fortunate she wasn't wearing a white t-shirt. On a side note, I've picked up quite a collection of Australian colloquial phrases I will share in due time. Lunch was served after the tour, and I had a chicken satay wrap which was about as bland as the tour, given the price they charged visitors. The tea was good, though – but it's pretty hard to mess up tea.

As it was now about 2:30pm, we decided to head back to Cairns to turn the car in. As we drove down a fairly deserted two-lane highway, Gerry and I noticed a sedan that was stuck in a ditch on the other side of the road. Since there were no callboxes in the vicinity, Gerry took the initiative and pulled a U-turn a half kilometer up the road, came back, and made sure the guy was okay. Turns out it was just some young "punter" who crashed his car. He was fine, and said a tow truck was on the way. He spun out on a turn that he took at too fast a speed, and it was pretty much his fault. Nonetheless, I was impressed with Gerry's attempt at being a good Samaritan.

When we arrived back in Cairns at around 3pm, Mum, for some reason, wanted to visit the Reef Hotel & Casino. She's not much of a gambler, and Gerry quite dislikes gambling. However, I knew full well that he had taken a beating in the stock market recently, and compared investing in the market with gambling. I basically told him it was all, to a certain degree, risk management.

When we walked in, I bought us three a pint of beer. They had slot machines and "pokies", as well as a few table games. Although the casino was kind of dead considering it was a Saturday afternoon, one could still play blackjack, pai gow, roulette, and some other games I was unfamiliar with and can't remember the names of. The minimum bet at blackjack was $25, and I decided to spare a tongue lashing from Mum and Gerry, and abstained. They played the nickel slots and lost their investment in about 5 minutes. After they tore through a whole $1 AUS, Gerry caught an update on the cricket match, which was still going on. Australia, the favorite, was killing the Kiwis, as expected. Gerry became intrigued with the roulette table, and I explained the odds of betting to him, and reiterated what I had told him about risk management: betting on black/red, odd/even, or simply individual numbers which paid according to the probability of success. He found this fascinating, but didn't bet anymore $.

After we left the casino, we needed to gas the trusty Hyundai before we took it back to Billabong Rent-a-Car. Gerry did something at the gas station that blew my mind: he pumped BEFORE he paid! He found my shock amusing, and said that although petrol theft had been on the rise recently (especially by gas-sniffing "Aboes"), Aussies were generally trustworthy enough so that service stations didn't require patrons pay before they pump. I assured him that, in this economy, that practice would rightfully bankrupt gas stations in the States.

Although we stopped at the rent-a-car office, they told us to drop the car off at a specific parking spot at the airport with the keys locked inside, and they would pick it up later. After we checked our baggage in, we were informed that due to inclement weather down south, our plane would be delayed 25 minutes. Fortunately, once we finally boarded our Virgin Blue flight, we were told that films and TV entertainment would be free because their credit card processor aboard the flight was malfunctioning. Serves them right for charging already-paying customers to watch mediocre movies and sitcoms!

Once we landed in Sydney, we waited about 20 minutes in a rainy taxi line. A friendly, knowledgeable cabbie from Kuwait finally picked us up, and told us that since Sydney airport is privately owned by Australian financial powerhouse McQuarrie bank. Furthermore, McQuarrie allowed Qantas Airlines to bribe them into giving Qantas customers preferential treatment with regards to taxis. Thus, if you fly anything but Qantas into Sydney, you'll expedite your wait for a cab by walking over to the Qantas terminal and waiting there instead. Dodgy, I know…

We finally got home at 11:30pm since we lost an hour travelling to a time zone that actually observes daylight savings (Queensland doesn't). The Great Barrier Reef was awesome, and I'd love to visit it again, but the humidity made Queensland a tough place to enjoy in spite of the many beautiful locales it provided. That said, you should check it out; just make sure you prepare to switch wife-beaters- er, singlets, up to three times per day!

A quick recap/lesson of Aussie terms I've picked up thus far:

Brekky – breakfast

Telly – television

Pokie – Video poker machine (can also refer to slot machine)

Boot – trunk of a car

Bonnet – hood of a car

Windscreen – windshield

Petrol – gasoline

Punter – average bloke/patron of a restaurant or pub (more commonly used in Melbourne)

Power box – surge protector

Bugger – PG-13 cussword: Can also refer to a person as a term of endearment, i.e. 'a cheeky little bugger'

Aboe – Aboriginal (singular), indigenous tribes found mostly in northern Australia.

Bloody – PG-13 adjective or adverb - substitute for "fucking/damn"

Dodgy – shady/sketchy

Straight past the keeper – term stemming from cricket meaning 'in one ear, out the other', i.e. "I tried to drop a hint to Mum to ease up on taking pictures every five minutes, but I think my comment went straight past the keeper"

Splash my boots – euphemism for urination

Take the piss out of – to disparage, to mock, i.e. "Uncle Gerry took the piss out of my constant desire to check my fantasy gridiron team"

Day 7 - Sydney Hahbah

Day 7 - Sydney Harbor

I woke up at 6:30am, thinking it was 8:30am. Damn time change! Uncle Gerry's house alarm is equipped with a motion detector, and although Mum had told me the security pass code the day before, a combination of being half asleep coupled with a sense of panic flustered me, and I forgot the code within the 30-second timeframe I was allotted to enter it into the keypad. Next thing I know, this awful shrill noise filled the house. I grabbed my hair, and a zombie-like Uncle Gerry exited his bedroom half asleep, entered the code into the keypad, and shuffled back into his room, oblivious to my obsequious apologies. At least he didn't seem pissed! Anxious from the loud alarm, I was unable to go back to sleep immediately, so I typed another journal entry. At around 8:30am, I went back to sleep. When I awoke around 10:30am, Gerry, Mum and Auntie Carol were sipping tea in the kitchen. After I wished everyone a good morning, I again apologized for the earlier disturbance. Nobody was particularly upset, as it had happened before with previous guests. Carol did mention, however, that they received a snide comment from one of their neighbors about "Oh by the way, thanks for the wake-up call."

Today, Mum and I were in for a real treat. As we are both big seafood lovers, Gerry and Carol took us to Sydney's fish market on the Harbor. We got there at about noon, and the place was hopping with local families, tourists and fishmongerers. The place was comprised of a myriad of individual stands that sold similar items at slightly different prices, but it all looked so fresh and delicious (conversely, if you hate seafood, you would want to vomit). I wish I hadn't eaten breakfast an hour later than everyone, but after viewing the selection of gigantic king prawns, lobster, scallops, crab legs, and oysters, and many other types of seafood I was confident I would be able to make room in my belly for the forthcoming feast. We purchased a kilo of king-sized prawns, half a kilo of oysters, a quarter kilo of scallops (Mum's absolute favorite!), and some freshly baked bread rolls, all for under $60. I had been trying to cut out white bread from my diet, but there was no abstaining from white flour during my time in Australia! As we sat down, I realized we had nothing to drink, so I took everyone's order, and fetched us some soft drinks. Coke zero for Gerry and Carol, Passionfruit soda for Mum, and I enjoyed a mango soda. Although the facility had a few dozen tables, we were lucky to chance upon one as another family was leaving. After all, it was Sunday afternoon, and a picture-perfect one at that. A combination of a cool breeze, warm sunshine, a few hopeful, hungry pelicans and a keen anticipation of the upcoming holiday season made for an altogether festive atmosphere.

After our sumptuous lunch, we drove around to Vaucluse, arguably the ritziest residential neighborhood in Sydney. In fact, you could call it the Beverly Hills of Sydney, what with the prevalence of beachside houses ranging in the $5-10 million range. Gerry does pretty darn well for himself and his family, but I could sense a slight inferiority complex as we drove around this part of town. After all, the Mandersons weren't born rich – they didn't have a brass razu growing up (Aussie for pot to piss in). But Gerry attained substantial wealth through hard work and kicking ass in the business world. On top of this, his humility about his success makes him that much more likeable, as he can still identify with working class folks and their struggles in this troubled global economy we are mired in.

We stashed Gerry's Lexus alongside a park near Bondai Beach, walked around, and took some pictures. I saw some blokes tossing a yellow rugby ball around, and approached them to look at the ball. They told me it was actually an authentic game ball used in Australian Rules Football. In a game situation, it's not to be thrown, it's instead punted with your fist, similarly to an underhand serve in volleyball. I tried a couple times, failed miserably, and then showed them how "gridiron" players in the States throw a football. Although the shape is similar to an American football, it's bigger and rounder, so throwing a spiral is much more difficult. Regardless, I showed them the grip, and how to throw, although I'd be lying if I told you I threw a tight spiral. We tossed it back and forth a few times, I thanked them for sharing with me, and I rejoined Carol, Mum and Gerry. I actually had to make a trip to the loo, and I noticed something that is quite common in Australian bathrooms: a yellow metal box that is a receptacle for needles. I asked Gerry if there was a significant number of diabetics in Oz. He replied not really, and asked why. I then mentioned the yellow boxes in bathrooms I had seen (this wasn't the first one), and he said that they're there to encourage junkies to dispose of dirty needles. My response to him (and the government for installing these yellow boxes) was, " If you're a junky, do you care more about hygiene or keeping your needle so you can get high again later?" I dismissed this as a lame PR stunt by the Aussie government, who can thump their chest and say they're preventing sharing of needles and, subsequently, disease. But I'd be curious to know how many needles are actually collected, and if this warrants the cost of the government footing the bill for the installation and maintenance of all those yellow receptacles. My gut tells me that money could be better spent elsewhere. But enough about junkies and needles…

Nearby was a picturesque, precipitous seaside cliff called "The Gap" (no, they don't sell denim there), which was the scene of a famous crime that took place 13 years ago. Gordon Wood is a man who worked for an Aussie billionaire, and had broken up with a girl he was afraid would expose his boss' dirty laundry to the media. Wood was just last week convicted of pushing this ex-girlfriend off the cliffs at The Gap to her death. Problem is, the dumbass helped the cops locate her body, claiming she committed suicide (The Gap is also a notorious place where people leap to their death). Since there's no way cops could have found her body without his help, they surmised that he had to have had a hand in her death, and he was convicted to 17 years for second-degree murder (on top of the thirteen he had already served behind bars). It's been front-page news here in Sydney. Go ahead and Google "Gordon Wood murder."

After we left Vaucluse, we headed to the Harbor area near the Opera House called Circular Quay (pronounced "key" – I took a ferry there with Mum a few days earlier),and a touristy section rife with expensive pubs/restaurants called The Rocks. We took some fine pictures in the setting sun in front of the Opera House and the famous Harbor Bridge, had a drink on the water at a classy bar, and upon the conclusion of our fun afternoon/evening, ate yummy dinner at a quaint, tucked away restaurant in Gladesville called Paolo's. I had beef ravioli, and the food was better than the modest décor of the restaurant.

When we got back home, we flipped channels on the TV. I saw that an episode of The Tudors had just begun, and told everyone how this show was a huge hit back in the States. Neither Gerry, Carol or Mum had seen it before, so we watched it. Since Gerry liked the show, he proceeded to put the series on "Season Pass" on his IQ (Aussie for DVR/TiVo) . Remember: Aussies are about a year behind on American TV from American audiences. Afterward, Mum showed me the video of when I went to Birdworld with Gerry in Kuranda in Queensland, and although hearing my recorded voice makes me cringe, the video was fun to watch. Before I went to bed, I double checked my fantasy football lineup, made sure there were no last-minute injuries, and shut out the lights, envisioning total domination in my last week of our league's regular season before the playoffs begin.