Monday, February 20, 2012

Australia Trip, Part 1

The first thing: It's been a while since I took this trip, so I imagine that I'll be editing the posts about it to include forgotten details and pictures from other people's phones. I had expected to have more access to the internet while I was traveling, and more energy to post about the trip while it was happening. The best laid travel plans...

The Preparation
My brother has this very nice (recent) tradition of cycling through family members and taking someone on vacation once a year or so. In 2011, it was my turn--but I hadn't really thought about what I wanted to do. I did know a couple of things: I wouldn't have time to learn or brush up on a language, and I wouldn't have much time to make plans, I didn't have many available stretches of time, and for this trip, I wasn't really up for too much culture shock. I have plans, plans, I tell you, to get some of the last, but I figured I'd be overwhelmed enough, this time, visiting a country that operated much like my own. My brother had visited Australia before, I have a friend there, and so on.

The first order of business: a passport! This was pretty easy, though I decided to take it to a large courthouse in my home state where I forgot my belt and set off their metal detector. (Sorry!) The next was reading up on Australia, and then I was completely overwhelmed. I mean, it's a huge country, and I didn't know what to do first. Luckily, brother C had some favorite spots and some he didn't think I'd mind missing, and took our plans in hand.

As the trip crept up on me, I spent my last hours buying travel insurance, trying to find travel products (mostly unsuccessfully), and trying to edit my suitcase. I eventually got the total weight of my bag, which was pretty heavy even empty, to just over 30 lbs. for a three-ish week trip, and that included the weight of my backpack (I just took my coat and a small bag on the plane), presents, heat therapy items, and stuff like travel-size packets of liquid laundry detergent, as well as the weight of almost-used-up toiletries that I planned to use up and discard along the way.

If I had to do it again:
  • I'd collect more wash-and-drip travel clothes, including pajamas. It's nice to be able to squirt a little shampoo on your shirt, rinse it, and have it be dry in the morning; a couple of the items I took had to be laundered in a washing machine and dried.
  • I'd definitely take along laundry detergent! I had some foil packs of Tide from Target, which meant I saved money and didn't have to worry about allergic reactions to other brands.
  • I'd definitely take along these favorite products: a fold-up windbreaker/rain jacket, which warms you up fast; a fold-up shopping bag, which you can tuck in a purse or pocket and use to collect your purchases or to carry a picnic (especially when a bag isn't otherwise offered); a travel adapter, which was all I needed to run dual-voltage electronics; a dual-voltage e-reader, which, sure, won't work on takeoff and landing, but you probably have in-flight magazines for that, and they don't take up as much space--I'd have needed another suitcase just for the books I read; and a Donner bag, which is big enough for papers, camera, and wallet with two water bottles on the sides, but not so big it's hard to stash.
  • I'd still make room for plenty of pairs of fresh socks and at least one alternative pair of shoes, because that's a way to feel fresh the next day.
So! The weekend before I left, I was running around town because I had to go to multiple stores to get things I needed, my bag was too heavy, I had to print out my itinerary, I had to get another one-way to Los Angeles because I found out that my first leg was late with regularity and I wasn't sure I'd have enough time, etc. etc., and then Qantas went on strike.

I understand the strike to be complicated on both sides of the table, and that's all I'll say. I searched for alternative routes and information; would I need a visa to fly via Guangzhou, Dubai, or Frankfurt? It was probably a useless search, because so many folks had been stranded long enough to get the same idea. In the end, Qantas started flying again about 24 hours before my flight from Los Angeles departed.

The Tuesday that I left, I was anxious. I'd stayed up too late attending to last-minute details, gotten up too early to try to fit in a little extra work before leaving. Once in the office, I felt awful, which was just part of some health issues that started hitting hard about that time. I wasn't sure--go to the emergency room and maybe miss my trip, or hope things cleared up? I don't know what I should have done, but I eventually decided that I had some insurance, and to go to the airport. I was pretty miserable and out of it for most of the trip, but I wasn't going to miss it, either. Once I got in the car, things started feeling peaceful, and that's how I approached my travels. Even the most annoying of annoyances were part of the journey, and melted away within minutes.

I don't remember much of the trip to LAX. I know I spent some time with an agent trying to find out if my return domestic leg would be valid, because I wasn't taking the outbound leg (75% not on time, so no thanks). Both parts were on different airlines. The answer was no, and yes, and no, and I gave up. I'd upgraded and thought I was in line to board at the right time, and the gate agent yelled at me for trying to get on too soon; I blame my mistake both on unclear information about what the upgrade was and the gate agent's inability to use the PA system. I snacked on some fruit and cheese and I think I napped a little.

At LAX, I retrieved my suitcase and--I think--I changed my shoes. I arrived at terminal 7 and was to depart from Tom Bradley International, which is basically terminal 3.5. I was in no shape to pick up my suitcase to get on a bus, and the bus ran the long way around. After passing C, who arrived after I did, we finally met up in the right place.


The Qantas agent, whose name I have sadly forgotten, got us checked in. We then went upstairs to the food court, which is outside security, and I had a 7UP and C had--an ice cream, I think. I was sort of too hungry to eat, and I knew we'd get food on the plane. After a while, with nothing else to do and nowhere to sit, we went through security and all the way out to the end of the terminal. On the way out, I bought some JellyBellys. Obviously, my nutrition at this point has something to be desired. I did feel better with some extra sugar, though.

Our flight was delayed for a time, for something having to do with cargo, I think. I did, but should not have, spend some time on my cell phone. Finally, finally, about 45 minutes past pumpkin time in the middle of the night, we were called to board.

Our original departure time.

C and I were fortunate (and willing to pay) to get two seats together in the back of the plane where it turned into two seats instead of three next to the window, so were were some of the last to board. Our passports were checked again (by the same guy who checked us in), and we were pulled aside so that information could be "added to our travel documents." Others had been pulled aside too, and we had a few minutes' wait in the jetway. Eventually, a beleaguered Qantas employee informed us that the seatback entertainment system at our seats was broken. Obviously, there's nothing that can be done at this point, and both C and I were ready with our own personal entertainment in the form of music and books, so I, at least, was unfazed. After all, I just wanted to eat something and go to sleep, and we indicated that it wasn't a problem, which in turn seemed to faze the manager; I think she'd been getting an earful.

Next, we met a group of TSA agents, who grabbed my passport out of my hands roughly, looked at it (for what, I don't know, because no one compared my photo to me), and shoved it back into my hands. I'm not sure why exit control has been instituted in the U.S., and under whose authority.

Finally! Finally! We were on a plane--a BIG plane. The Airbus A380, back in our group of two seats. We had some overhead space, to our surprise, and the extra seat in front of us. The sides of the top folded inward, and the seatbacks were extra-thin, so there was knee room and neck support and a surprisingly comfortable space. And there were little travel kits and blankets!

A blanket. On an airplane.

We were off--and so were the lights. The problem with the entertainment system extended to the lights and airflow, so C and I started filling out our arrival cards by cellphone light. I think the Qantas crew were horrified, but seriously, it was an adventure. They turned more lights back on to serve dinner because a chunk of the lighting in the tail area wasn't working. And they handled things admirably, because the plane was full of people who'd been stranded overseas due to the strike (and weren't happy, which I understand), and then those in the back were really angry. Crewmembers dropped off some duty-free coupons for our trouble, and checked on us repeatedly throughout the night to apologize, even waking us to do so.

Anyway, we were up and on our way, and I set my watch to Melbourne time, 8ish at night (the next day!). We were served dinner, which was corn/edamame/red pepper salad; a choice of chicken cacciatore with orzo and greens or mahi mahi with fennel and capers, mashed potatoes, and broccoli, and I picked the second and it was tasty; caramel cream cake; a Valrhona chocolate (which got trapped under my entree and was a squashy mess when I located it); coffee, hot chocolate, and regular or peppermint tea. I had a lemon squash, like a 7UP with only lemon and no lime. Mmm. One could also have any of a variety of alcoholic and non alcoholic drinks, but I passed on even the nice Australian wines, because I was too tired and dehydrated during this trip.

It took a while before the carts made it to the back of the plane, because someone had a medical emergency, the sort where they ask if there's a doctor on board, midway through the service. I don't know what happened. I was expecting us to land in Hawaii, perhaps, but we didn't.

Eventually, we ate and were cleared, and the cabin crew brought us little bags of snacks. Coming from the U.S., this was bottled water, pretzels, and little Hershey bars. I stowed mine away, found my sleep mask, and did the thing I never do in the U.S.: tilted my seat back and went to bed.

I woke up only to use the restroom (and when the crew was worried that I might not have been given duty-free coupons), and slept for about six hours, my record for plane sleeping. It was dark when I woke up around 3 a.m. Melbourne time, and I was RAVENOUS. C generously gave me his snack pack when I'd eaten mine, and I drowsed while my stomach growled through to about 6 a.m. (I didn't have much food on the plane because Australia has strict-ish rules on bringing even packaged foods in, and I didn't want to waste anything.) This all went by in a sort of haze, because as I mentioned vaguely earlier, I wasn't feeling well at all. I half-napped, half watched our progress on the in-flight map on someone's entertainment system a few rows ahead. And around 6 a.m., the cabin crew came by to wake us with ORANGE JUICE.

It was so weird. I had a pillow and a blanket and food. I mean, I remember the better days of plane travel in the U.S., but it was weird. I think they brought coffee around too, but fair warning that while the coffee I had in Australia was mostly the most delicious thing I have ever had to drink, on airplanes it was some of the worst instant ever.

Breakfast was juice, fruit salad, a cranberry-orange muffin, yogurt (mine had popped open, which seemed to be the case throughout this trip on airplanes), teas and coffees or other drinks, and a choice of cereal/milk (featuring the first appearance of Sultana Bran) or an asparagus omelette with bacon rashers, slow roasted tomatoes, and button mushrooms. I chose the eggs, and they were great, though I was suspicious because the asparagus were no longer green. C was a bit green, not being a breakfast person and not able to sleep on airplanes. Here's where I mention that the only reason I did was because I took a half dose of sleeping pills, and it was worth it.

We landed--a bit early? A bit late? I've forgotten. As you come into Melbourne, it's beautifully green and open, and you skim over the tips of trees as you hit the runway and taxi to the gate. It took a while for the plane to unload, and it was cheerier; the last couple of hours had been a party, with homebound Australians wandering the aisles, shaking hands, and planning playgroups for their kids. A lot of families had been split up to get on this flight, one of the first operating after the strike, and almost home, there was a party mood. I folded up my blanket and started up the aisle and was horrified--the angry girl behind C had been using the space between him and the window as a trash pile. There were blankets and pillows flung all over the plane, stacks of trash spilling into the aisles, discarded...everything, everywhere. It gave me new respect for the crew who ferried us for 15+ hours without a riot. Ha.

Out of the gate, you follow a maze of shopping (duty-free?) and then the customs lines. It was a bit of a wait to get through, and we were embarrassed to have incomplete cards. I didn't know what state I was visiting! But we were waved through, stopped a couple of times for checks, and went to retrieve our bags. Morning in Melbourne is a rush, and the bag claim area was a zoo. We managed to get our things and get into the end of a line that wrapped around the hall and, eventually, they let us out the door, where we pushed our messy, tired selves up next to a bench and I went to find K. I was looking for someone, possibly with pink hair, and she had black!

Melbourne, Pronounced Mel-Bun

I excused myself to the restroom, having not been able to find one after getting off the plane, and having not brushed my teeth in far too long. I was sleepy and muzzy and I could not figure out the toilet, much to my chagrin. Here was one of the things that had been an attraction--a familiar restroom system--and I can't figure it out. Finally, I read the fine print on the wall, and I learn that there are two buttons--a "half flush" and a "full flush." It takes me longer to figure out that this is not the same thing for every toilet! This isn't the first time I've seen something like it, but it's a good idea, and one I think would be a good idea in the U.S., even when we're not in a drought.

I give K a book that's not out in Australia yet and some champagne I got with the duty-free coupons and we head out. She's been able to park very close to the terminal, and has a very cute, wee car. I manage to confuse the driver and passenger side, heh. It's sunny, then cloudy, and a little cool. It's the time of the Melbourne Cup, a big deal and a local holiday. We drive past the cheesestick and toward Melbourne. Perhaps because I'm tired and perhaps because K is a good driver and perhaps because we're on a divided road, I get used to the reversed driver's side very quickly.

K takes us directly to the Melbourne Zoo, one of the best in Australia. My cell phone has died and I don't own a camera, but C takes some pictures. I pay the entry fee with some Australian money. It feels like plastic (well, it is plastic) and the coins confuse me at first, but after a while, I really like the convenience of $1 and $2 coins. And they mostly have interesting scenes and cute animals on them.

Inside the zoo, there are loads of things to see, and even with some school groups there, it's not very busy. I enjoy the kind but no-nonsense moms of toddlers that I see--you've fallen? You're all right. Up, have a second, and let's go. You stepped in a puddle? Well, your feet will be wet for a while, and then they'll be dry again. It simply strikes me as different from what I often see.

Zoos in Australia are pretty awesome. They seem to let you get closer to the animals without disturbing them, and a lot of them have open spaces, where the people are on a dedicated path, but animals can wander where they'd like to go. Usually, this means that animals like emus and kangaroos can walk right up to you, if they want. I enjoyed watching some very gregarious river otters and a busy echidna, laughed at a pack of African dogs running laps, spied birds in their aviaries, and walked right up to the fence for some little penguins (fairy penguins), who were initially curious, but then found a recycle bin more to their liking. There was a neat orangutan enclosure, too, where an orangutan crawled out of a hole, glared at everyone, and then grabbed a burlap sack and draped it into what some friends of mine call "closed for business," meaning a tight-pulled hood so that you can't see anyone and they can't see you.

What I didn't know at this point is this--well, two things. One, a lot of things in Australia can kill you. Like, kill you dead. Right now. Two, every zoo and animal park you visit will tell you something a little bit different about the animals, including the ones that can kill you dead. The numbers shift, the reasons for behaviors shift, the habitats change, just a little.

After a while, C and I are really drooping, and we ended up at the Lakeside Bistro in the park, which serves possibly the nicest food I will ever eat in a zoo. I have a Pepsi for the caffeine and a Morrocan chicken pie. I do not know what makes it Morrocan, but it comes with a salad and some fries. Two important things: one, your salad comes lightly dressed, and from what I can tell, that means lemon and oil and mixed greens, and two, nothing that is supposed to be greasy will be greasy. Your french fries with be golden, crisp, and delicious, and not oily, soggy, or sad.

I...think what we did next was drive into the Central Business District and go to our hotels, which were just a few doors apart. C and I stayed at the Central Sky Lounge Apartment Hotel, which looks a little spare in pictures but suited us well. We had a great view, we had enough space, and the medicine cabinet was so big, it was better than counter space. We checked in and stumbled upstairs, and after a couple of tries, I got my phone plugged in and charging--and on 220v, that happens very quickly! Also, I don't think we stayed anywhere we weren't required to put a room key into a special holder to activate all or most of the electricity, and there was a while when I, at least, was completely confused. Without C, I might never have figured it out! Or I might have, but I was too tired for coherent thought. It took me so long to organize myself that I'm afraid we kept K waiting a few minutes longer than planned.

Once settled, we headed out, and I've forgotten the order of it all. I know that we took a trolley around the CBD, and it was like a streetcar in New Orleans, and that Melbourne was very cute. We walked along the Yarra River and eventually ended up at the Crown Casino, where there is a density of restaurants, and had fish and chips in the pub. This day, or another, we went to the Eureka Skydeck and looked all around at the Yarra River, and the city, and the cricket ground, and the like.

About this time, we went home, though it was probably only around 8 p.m. Our hotel bed was something I'd always thought silly: two twins strapped together, but the upside of that is you don't feel anyone moving around if you're sharing. I don't know if anybody was wiggly, because I was asleep about three minutes after my head hit the pillow.

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