Thursday, September 22, 2005

Competitions in Cairns

Overall, I had a fantastic time in Cairns, although I wasn't super impressed with the city itself. It is clearly a tourist mecca, and at times I felt like I was crashing a frat party (especially on Friday and Saturday night at the hostel). However, I did meet several cool people and had a few adventures.

One really nice girl that I met is An from Belgium. We decided to go out and watch the Cane Toad races they were having at a bar one night. We each put a wager down on a toad, and then the fun began.

The host called everyone up who bet on a toad, and we had to hold them as they squirmed and peed.

I'm preparing to hold my Cane Toad competitor.

The Cane Toad race

Despite our cheering, neither of our toads won.

Following the race, the host said we were going to have another competition, and pulled 5 girls out of the audience. These five included me and An. He sent us backstage where there was a box of wigs and other costumes and said that we were having an international fashion show (we had representatives from US, Belgium, France, Germany and Switzerland).

The International Cane Toad Fashion Show

We had to do a little cat walk thing and were judged by our applause. Sorry to those of you in the United States, but I didn't win. However, my friend An did!

An, as the Cane Toad Fashion Queen, holding her bag of Australian treats.

Her prize was a bag of Australian candies and cookies, as well as a fantastic tiara.

A few days later, the hostel was having a barbecue to celebrate International Peace Day. As part of the celebration they had an Australian Trivia contest. We started out in teams (my team was named Crocodile Dundee - not my choice), and our team tied with another. We had a sudden death question, and got it right. At that point, we had to split up and play against our teammates. Much to my surprise, I won! The prize was a reef tour worth $140. I was leaving in the morning, meaning it wasn't much use to me so I gave it to one of my teammates who hadn't been out on the reef yet.

An and I are planning to meet up again in Sydney, and we hope to find more contests to win there. We seem to be a good team.

Great Barrier Reef

I took a two-day cruise on the Great Barrier Reef. I have never actually been on a ship before, so that in itself was pretty exciting. We spent two days doing basically nothing but eating and spending time in the water. Here was the view from the ship.

The ship was quite nice. It had one big main room with a dining area, lounge and bar. The ship was made to house 50+ people, but we had only 10 passengers on our trip. There were more staff than passengers! We got to spread out and take over the whole place, each of us taking our own room and bathroom. It was a really nice group on the trip, too. Three guys from Austria, two girls from the UK, a couple from San Fransisco who were on their honeymoon, a guy from Switzerland, a girl from Japan, and me.

On my first go out in the water, I tried snorkeling and it was really cool. Even just with a snorkel I could see a lot of interesting fish and coral. On my second time I decided to try scuba diving. Getting suited up and learning the basics was a bit complicated, and on the recommendation of another passenger I wore two wet suits since I had been really cold while snorkeling. Great idea, by the way. I was so much more comfortable and felt like I could stay in the water forever.

The first time I got suited up, I nearly fell over backwards - that scuba tank is heavy! They gave us a lesson about all the things that can go wrong and how to deal with them. One of the things you have to watch out for is allowing too much pressure to build up in your ears as you dive down, as this can make your ear drums burst. To prevent this, you have to frequently plug your nose, close your mouth and blow out. This is called the Valsalva manuever (there's a little shout out to my friends in the autonomic lab).

After all this preparation, I finally got to dive into the water. The sensation was amazing. I love swimming anyway, and the ability to dive down without ever having to come up for air is so cool. It was almost like flying. Suddenly all this heavy gear weighs nothing. And all of the things I saw! I was like being on another planet. I saw a huge turtle, all sorts of coral, lobsters, anemone, sea cucumber, a giant clam, hundreds of fish, and three white-tip reef sharks (apparently these are not dangerous to divers).

In addition to a few daytime dives, we took a night dive and a dive at dawn. For the night dive you carry a waterproof flashlight, and that was even more amazing. To be surrounded by total blackness, then suddenly reveal a whole world going on at the bottom of the ocean was indescribable. I felt like I was discovering things for the first time in the world. There was a full moon that night, too, which made it even more beautiful. The ship had a hot tub to warm up in after the dives, adding to a fantastic night.

The dawn dive was great, too. Waking up and putting on a cold, damp bikini was no fun at all, but once I got in the water I wouldn't have traded it for the world. I got to see the world waking up, with sting rays still half buried in the sand, and the whole pace of things much slower.

I would love to go diving again. I hear that Belize and Fiji are great places to dive. Maybe I will get my certification and head to those places one day.

The Rainforests of Northern Queensland

It was so good to be out in the trees again. I used to think that there was nothing that could rival the Redwood Forest in California, but even those grand trees have some competition from the rainforests in Queensland.

I took the skyrail from Cairns to Kuranda (a small town about 1-1/2 hours from the city), so I got an aerial view of the trees. Pretty magnificent.

Kuranda definitely caters to tourists, but I read that if you can avoid the crowds, it is a beautiful little town out in the rainforest. I did the reverse of most tourists who do day trips to Kuranda, and instead took the last skyrail into the town and spent the night there. I booked a room at the Rainforest Park (only $20 for the budget accomodation - cheaper than the hostel!). When I got into Kuranda I had a quick look around, then decided to head out to find the Park. I picked up a map and it looked pretty easy to find so I started walking. I walked for what seemed like a really long time, at least an hour or more, which surprised me since the Lonely Planet said it was just a 10 minute walk from town. I got a little worried when I passed a sign that said, "Thanks for visiting Kuranda!" The walk, however, was really nice despite the light rain falling, so I kept walking. Eventually, I saw a tiny sign that directed me to Rainforest Park.

I found the registration office right at the edge of the park and went inside. As I was talking to the lady, she cocked her head to one side, looked me over and said, "You took the shortcut, right?"

"Uh, shortcut?"

Apparently, there is a shortcut that takes you right into town. But despite being rather damp and cold, I was happy to be in such a nice environment.

Not a bad place to wake up, huh?

Here is the cottage that I stayed in. The accomodations were simple, but actually pretty perfect.

There was only one other person staying at this cottage. She was a volunteer with WWOOF (worldwide workers on organic farms) from Switzerland. It sounds like a great program. She does 4-5 hours a day working on the grounds in exchange for room and board. She was on a 6-week holiday from work as a social worker. This was the shortest holiday of anyone I had met; most were travelling for 6 months to a year. I thought 2 months was a long time to travel! I guess that is the difference between the US and most other places. I met a woman who was a CPA and just promoted to the step before partner in the firm, so she took a 6-month around the world trip since she knew it would be a while before she could do that again. Her company totally supported this idea!

The Park was great, and I was awakened by kookaburras laughing. Both charming and very loud. I spent most of the day hiking around the trails. Also, I tried the shortcut into town.

Oh, just follow the tracks. It is so obvious now.

It was impossible to photograph, but here is an idea of how lush it was. Because it had rained the night before, whenever the wind blew and the trees swayed, it would feel like it was raining. Awesome sensation, as it was a really sunny day.

I saw this little guy crawling around in the leaves.

On the way back into Cairns, I took the Scenic Train. It was pretty cool, but it was a shock to go from the peace and quiet to a crowded train of people snapping pictures out the window.

Here is a picture I snapped out the window of Barron Falls.

Again, I have a place that I need to return to one day. That is happening so much on this trip. If I had known how beautiful Rainforest Park was, I would have spent more time there.

Saturday, September 17, 2005


I went on an Eco-tour today around Cairns. I was a bit hesitant about taking a tour - I'm not a huge fan of piling into a bus and being told what to look at - but overall it was a worthwhile experience. I got to see a huge amount of stuff that I probably would not have gotten to on my own, though I didn't get to spend the time wandering that I would have liked. I'll have to do some of that on my own later in the week.

Wildlife in Lake Barrine, a volcanic crater lake.

Milla Milla Falls

A Curtain Fig Tree (it has aerial roots!)

The World Heritage Rainforest on the edge of Mungali Falls Village

A really cool tree

The Babinda Boulders

Did you know that Queensland has the oldest rainforest in the world? I didn't. There are some amazing things to see in Australia. I think I will just barely scratch the surface during my 6 weeks here.

Jazz-ma-tazz! or Switching Hats from Adventurer to Doting Aunt

My nephews had their all-school music recital this week. The concert was called (in good old Aussie style) Jazz-ma-tazz! (Caleb told me that his friends called it "Jazz-ma-spaz!")

Caleb (the 8 year old) was very excited for this recital, and insisted on putting his recital clothes on three hours before the concert. Of course, disaster was imminent. He was playing outside that afternoon (in his nice outfit) and Rachele's husband Russell was tidying the yard and pulling leaves out of the pool. Caleb was following him around, chatting constantly as usual. Russell turned around just in time to see Caleb take a mistep and fall right into the pool. He came up to the surface with a huge gasp - it is still pretty cold in Australia - and immediately started sobbing. He wasn't hurt, just devasted that he had dirtied his Jazz-ma-tazz! outfit. No worries, though, Rachele put it in the dryer and we were able to hold off our laughter until he was in the shower.

Here are some photos from the concert.

Michael (grade 6) doing choreography as they sing.

Caleb (grade 2) playing the tapping sticks.

Michael posing in his nice outfit.

Caleb being a Jazz-ma-spaz!

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Expo 2005

Expo 2005! A chance for all the countries of the world to present something at a giant festival where we can learn about each other and the environment (the 2005 theme).

Expo at night.

Expo was cool, but totally crazy. The lines were insane. Some pavillions had lines with wait times of over 3 hours. Needless to say, I did not get to see all of them. Some of my favorites:
- UN Pavilion which had a fantastic photo exhibit from around the world (I have snapshots of some, but due to technical dificulties I can't put them up right now. Perhaps I can fix that later.)
- The French Pavillion had a great movie which took a very honest look at what everyone (specifically France) is doing that is harming the environment. Really well done.
- The Lithuanian Pavillion had great beer and really cool people working there.
- The Korean Pavillion had a poignant animated movie about the destruction and rebirth of the natural environment
- The Turkish Pavillion won the coveted Tori Low Prize for Best Design.

The Turkish Pavillion

- And of course, the Toyota pavillion where James was performing.
Tickets to get into that show are an incredibly hot commodity. James was able to get tickets, but it had to be done in secret. We had to meet at a certain location at a specific time for the drop.

On Tuesday, I went to that secret location.

A young woman sidles up next to me.

"You are, perhaps, a friend of James."

"Yes, perhaps I am."

She slips me an envelope with the tickets and walks away.

The show was pretty entertaining, with robots that can dance and play instruments. Plus there is a fantastic aerialist (James) who flies around above the dancers looking pretty cool (though James thinks the costume makes him look like a chicken).

Finally, I will offer you my experience with the Linimo.
The Linimo is an elevated train that is powered by magnets. The train itself hovers slightly above the track because of the like charges. As a result, you have an incredibly smooth ride. This train line is what you take to go to and from the Expo site. Expo, as I have mentioned, was packed. Taking the Linimo home at the end of the day was an intimate experience in squishing together with a bunch of strangers. Fortunately, the train is air conditioned because it was stinking hot and humid in Japan.

On my last day at Expo, James and I stayed until closing then joined the thousands of other people who wanted to go home. There we were riding along, packed in like sardines when all of a sudden - - - whoooooom - - - (you know that lovely sound that happens when the power goes out), and the lights go out, the fans stop, and the train DROPS. Not far, just an inch or two, but enough to make everyone in the train gasp and go totally silent. We sat in that heavy silence for about 30 seconds, then people began murmuring things to each other. What was going on? What happened? How can we get out of the train? We are several stories up, what happens if we fall?

There is static and the train conductor comes on. He says something in Japanese. We sit and wait. It is getting really really hot and stuffy. Finally the train starts up again. We start going, and just as suddenly it happens again. Whoooooom, drop. More waiting, more silence, more tension, more announcements. We start up again, and eventually make it to our stop. I have never been so happy to get of a train before.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Hiroshima and Nagasaki

. . . . .

What is there to say? Anything I write attempting to describe what it was like going to these cities sounds trite.
Perhaps I should just tell some of the things I saw.

There were displays of the remnants.
The tricycle that a 3 year old boy was riding.
Pieces of glass that, 30 years later were still working their way out of the bodies of the survivors.
A schoolgirl's metal lunchbox and the charred remains of her lunch inside.
A rooftile on which a mother had written a note to her missing son. "Father - dead. Mother - burned. Brother - missing."
The image of a man carrying a ladder, forever burned into a wall.
A man's helmet with fragments of his skull fused to the inside.
The wall of letters that the Mayor of Hiroshima had written to the leaders of nations who still test nuclear weapons. The letters pleaded with them to stop these tests, that they showed "utter contempt for the survivors."

And there were the photographs.
The woman trying to nurse her infant who was too weak to suckle.
The young boy who was carrying his badly burned little brother as they searched for their parents.
The young girls, faces blank with shock, standing among corpses.
The people with their skin falling of in strips.
The boy whose entire back was one open wound.

The A-Bomb Dome.
The A-bomb Dome is the ruins of the former Hiroshima Prefecture Industrial Promotion Hall which was destroyed by the first atomic bomb ever to be used in the history of humankind on August 6, 1945. The atomic bomb was detonated in the air at an altitude of approximately 600 meters almost right over the hall. The explosion by a single bomb claimed the lives of over 200,000 people and the city area of about 2-km radius was turned to ashes. In order to have this tragic fact known to succeeding generations and to make it a lesson for humankind, the reinforcement work of the ruins has been done by the contributions of many people who desire peace within and out of the country. The ruins shall be preserved forever.
August 6, 1967 Hiroshima City

Children's Peace Monument
This monument stands in memory of all children who died as a result of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. The monument was originally inspired by the death of Sadako Sasaki, who was exposed to radiation from the atomic bomb at the age of two. Ten years later Sadako developed leukemia that ultimately ended her life. Sadako's untimely death compelled her classmates to begin a call for the construction of a monument for all children who died due to the atomic bomb. Built with contributions from more than 3,200 schools in Japan and donors in nine countries, the Children's Peace Monument was unveiled on May 5, 1958. The inscription reads: "This is our cry. This is our prayer. For building peace in this world." On the surface of the bell hung inside the monument, the phrases "A Thousand Paper Cranes" and "Peace on the Earth and in the Heavens" are carved in the handwriting of Dr. Hideki Yukawa, Nobel Prize Laureate in Physics.

The Flame of Peace
The origin of the Flame of Peace dates to August 1983, when the Greek Government granted special permission for the Flame to be taken from Mt. Olympus and sent to Nagasaki. It is said that in ancient Greece, all warring parties stopped fighting while the Olympic Flame was lighted during the Olympic Games. Thus, the Olympian Flame is also a symbol of peace. The Flame will be kept burning until all the nuclear weapons in the world are abolished. As long as the Flame burns as a symbol of peace, we pledge that we will never allow a nuclear war to break out anywhere in the world. Within this Flame is borne the pledge that Nagasaki will be the last city to suffer an atomic bombing.

The One-Legged Gate in Nagasaki

Camphor Trees in Sanno Shinto Shrine
These two huge camphor trees stand out among the trees surrounding the Senno Shinto Shrine, sinking deep roots on both sides of the entrance and creating a thick canopy of greenery with their tangle of branches. The ferocious blast and heat generated by the explosion of the atomic bomb at 11:02 A.M. August 9, 1945 destroyed the buildings of the shrine, which were located only 800 meters southeast of the hypocenter, and slapped down one of the pillars of the second gate. These two trees were instantly stripped naked and split down the trunk by the blast and scorched black by the heat rays. Although considered dead at the time, they came back to life and are now natural monuments designated by Nagasaki City. August 1995

As we were standing at the entrance to this shrine, we noticed some young boys practicing kendo in the yard. We watched for a while, and I took this picture as two of them walked off together, arm in arm.

Touring Japan

In the combined desires of seeing as much of Japan as possible and trying to get the most out of my rail pass, we spent several days city-hopping. Here are some pictures from Osaka (which James describes as "Tokyo's son" because of its nightlife and younger feel) and Kyoto ("Tokyo's grandfather" because of its classical architecture and the Gion district).

First we went to Osaka and saw some of the sights, then ended the day with some fantastic drinks at a little absinth bar run by a very charming couple.

The candyland-esque trees that line the path up to Osaka castle.

Osaka castle, where we ate fried octopus (takoyaki). It was pretty good, but kind of hard to chew. Earlier in the trip, James came across a piece that he said he could neither chew nor just swallow whole, so he spit it out and hid it in the cuff of his jeans. It was disgusting.

Then it was off to Kyoto.

A picture of some houses in Kyoto.

One of the most beautiful places I have seen in my life was the Tenruyji Temple in Kyoto, which had a Zen garden and a bamboo forest.

The Geisha quarter (Gion), where some of the older style of Japanese life still exists, though fairly well hidden. We wandered around there for a while in the hopes of catching a glimpse of a real live Geisha.

We had no luck and decided to give up and get on the Shinkansen back to Nagoya. Ironically, we saw a Geisha getting on the train.

The picture is blurry, but it is a real Geisha, I swear!

Looking For Love in All the Wrong Places

Across Japan there are places called "Love Hotels." They are rooms that you can rent for blocks of time for, well, you can figure out the rest.

According to the Lonely Planet guide to Japan, they are also a great deal if you are looking for a cheap place to sleep, as they have an all-night rate of roughly 60 US dollars. Not bad for a nice hotel room, and as a bonus they often have "themes."

Well, we decided that since it was my last night in downtown Nagoya we should try out one of these places. It would be as cheap or cheaper than a regular hotel and would make a better story.

We walked around Nagoya for a while, passing several that were full. I was getting tired of walking (it was almost 1 am), so I suggested we go inside and wait for a room to open up.

Inside, they had little cubicle-style waiting rooms which included a loveseat and a tv. We put our names into the cue and settled in to watch some Japanese television.

Time ticked away and before long it was 2am. We decided that maybe we should give up and find some other place to stay. James went to use the bathrooom and I stayed in our waiting room watching tv. James returned from the bathroom and when he came around the corner, there was the largest spider I have ever seen climbing the wall right next to him.


James slowly backed away from the wall.

I slowly reached for my camera.

I am preparing to take the shot when James suggests that he put his hand next to it, so we can see how big it is in comparison.

"Don't do that, you'll make it mov-"

But he is already reaching his hand toward the spider. The spider immediately jumped OVER the television and landed on the couch next to me with a THUD. I tell you, this was a really heavy spider. I'm not usually squeamish, but this thing freaked me out.

I took this as a sign that we should get out of there. No way that I was going to sit back on that couch with the spider stalking me.

I snapped this picture (see how the spider is almost as big as the coke bottle?!?!) then picked up my backpack and headed out into the hall. As I did so, ANOTHER spider, even bigger than the first ran toward me from the far end of the hall. I jumped as it ran under my feet and, I hate to admit it, I screamed.

I bolt out in the direction of the exit. James is kind enough to inform the other couple that a giant spider has just run into their waiting room and is now under their couch.

Or at least that is what he thinks he said.

What he actually told the man was, "A giant bee just ran under your couch." (James still makes a few mistakes in Japanese.)

The man looks at him quizzically. "A giant . . . bee . . . (pausing thoughtfully). A giant bee you say. And it just ran under the couch. (again, he pauses thoughfully, as though really trying to imagine this picture.) Hmm. Thank you."

I'm already halfway down the hall when James catches up to me. We decide to get a cab and when we tell the cabbie we are looking for a love hotel, he informs us that you can spot one with available rooms because it will often have a young woman standing out front looking around for a "date."

We eventually find one and it is a pretty nice room, though without a special theme. Just lots of adult movie channels and a catalogue of costumes you can rent.

But as a bonus, it was spider-free.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Ah, Tokyo

What a city. Such a huge range of things to do and see. I would need weeks to get a real sense of the place. As it was, I got an overview and a strong desire to come back again one day.

A view of Tokyo from the top floor of St. Luke's Tower.

James' old Japanese teacher Michiko and her husband Hiroyuki showed us around Tokyo.
Some highlights:
We had a dinner of Okonomi Yaki, where they bring you a bunch of ingredients and you cook it right at your table any way you like it.

At the Edo-Tokyo Museum they had a replica of Tokyo as it was during the Edo period.

This was a replica of a Kabuki stage.

Meiji-Jingu is one of my favorite places in Tokyo.

The archway that marks the beginning of the pathway to the shrine.

The path to Meiji-Jingu.

The shrine itself.

James and I did a lot of wandering around Tokyo. We were walking through Yoyogi Park when we heard music in the distance. "Something cool is going on over there." We headed out toward this plaza area and sure enough, there was a hip-hop festival going on with music and - best of all - a break dancing battle.

This was right by Harajuku, which is where the goths and punks hang out. There were some totally fabulous outfits, like a goth girl wearing this long white fur coat and huge fur hat thing. Uh, I'm not describing it well but I was not game to try to take a picture after my subway incident.

Late one night we went to Shinjuku, the red light district of Tokyo. What a place. Historically, this was where the black market sprang up after the end of WWII. People could come here to get anything they wanted. Strange how it has kept that element throughout history. Now they have really stylin hosts and hostesses, I believe they call them. Dressed to the nines and walking around the street trying to encourage people to go into the bars, have a "date", etc. It was a cool place to see with awesome looking people everywhere. As a side note, the majority of the really hip looking people appeared to have their hair done by Jen LaMastra. I guess her teacher was right when she told her she had a very Asian sense of hair design.

Speaking of which, I decided to get my hair cut while in Tokyo. It was a cool experience with lots of pampering. The shampooing was very different. To rinse they used a dish and sort of scooped the water over they hair, and the water was oh-so-hot that if it were one degree hotter it would be too hot but it was absolutely perfect. This reminds me of something I've noticed here. There is such attention to detail. To give an example, we were sitting in a coffee shop and I reached for the sugar bowl. When I picked up the spoon, the way it fit in my hand made it feel like it was created just for me. The balance was perfect, the angle of the spoon exactly right. It seems like such care is put into everthing from the design of a room, to way someone hands you something, to the placement of the piece of tape on a package.

Anyway, the salon was great, and they brought me tea while they were cutting my hair. Here's a picture of my new haircut.

Back when I lived in Boston my favorite restaurant was Roka. Wheneven I talked about how great their yakisoba was, James would tell me that I haven't had REAL yakisoba until I tried it from a street vender in Tokyo. Well, now I have. And it IS really good (though I still think Roka's was pretty good, too).

James eating yakisoba.