Tag Archives: Australia

The Night Of Couchsurfing That Turned Into Two Weeks

14 Nov

“Just to let you know, I collect body parts,” said Kimmii, shortly after greeting us.

My boyfriend and I just finished a long weekend of camping up at the Dorrigo National Park and hadn’t had a real shower in days. We swam in rivers, took sponge baths and wore hats but something had to give. When we drove down the windy mountain road back to Coffs Harbour we had two choices: check into an out-of-budget caravan park and have a shower or send out a last-minute couchsurfing request and hope that someone would invite us in.

I sent out two couchsurfing requests explaining that all we really needed was a shower and that we had a van to sleep in. After waiting for half an hour, our impatience got the best of us and we decided to have an ice-cold shower in the public bathrooms of the local surf club. As we got back into the van, our teeth chattering and our hair soaked, I had a message. Two empty nesters with a couple of spare rooms offered to let us stay and insisted that we sleep inside.

When we pulled up to the house Kimmii came to greet us at the front door while Paulie prepared the pizza dough for our dinner inside. Kimmi was in her mid-40s, a half-Aboriginal bipolar woman whose manic episodes led her to $3,000 shopping sprees on ModCloth for her 20-something daughter. She was short and overweight, outspoken, jovial and completely comfortable in her own skin. Paulie was a balding ex-surfer whose music and book collection filled me with envy. He was a talented cook but rarely ate his own creations, preferring a simple meat and potatoes meal instead.

Within minutes the wine was flowing and we were already telling deeply personal stories and laughing our asses off. Kimmii had this incredible story-telling ability and a wit about her that left Matt and I in stitches (even when she was only explaining what she did for a living!). We told her she should do stand-up and Paulie shouted from the kitchen, “Oh no, don’t encourage her!”

As we dug into the homemade pizzas Kimmii told us we were her first couchsurfers and that she signed up because her daughter would be backpacking across South America in a few months and she wanted to give back in the hopes that someone would do the same for her. She told us that after their four children had moved out they’d had several guests come and go. Some stayed for a few weeks and others for up to 9 months. When Kimmii invited us to stay as long as we wanted I thought it was such a tempting and generous offer but never expected that we’d actually take her up on it.

In a warm, wine-induced haze we said goodnight and crawled into our respective beds. Matt and I wanted to pinch ourselves when we felt the thread-count of the sheets and prefect firmness of the mattress.

A woman after my own heart!

“I really like them,” said a half-asleep Matt.

“Me too. I love it here,” I said in a daze.

“Someone stayed here for nine months!” said Matt.

“I know, but we’re not going to take advantage of their generosity. We’ll keep looking for jobs in the morning.”

And we did, but the day turned into two and then three. Then Kimmii left for a business trip and encouraged us to stay with Paulie while she was gone. He had a serious lung condition that often left him gasping for air and she felt more comfortable knowing someone was there with him. We happily stayed, mowing the lawn, doing the dishes and scrubbing the tubs to contribute.

Paulie made us amazing food every night: Moroccan, Mexican, Greek, and Lebanese. Well-fed and well-rested, we continued the job search with new enthusiasm. I attended an RSA (responsible service of alcohol) certification course and Matt contacted all his old rigging buddies for information on current projects.

At night, Kimmii and Matt talked politics while Paulie and I talked music and watched concert DVDs. I copied all his CDs to my hard drive and he’d pull out biographies of my favorite bands and tell me obscure facts about the members. We became a family and we got used to our routine.

When Matt received a high-paying rigging job offer, the news was bittersweet. We packed up our van the last night and Paulie made pizza for us to take on the road. Kimmii and I watched a documentary about Obama and Mitt Romney before she went to bed and Paulie and I talked about Jimmy Page and Jim Morrison one last time. We hugged goodbye, promised to stay in touch and when we locked up the door behind us in the middle of the night, Matt and I turned to each other and said, “I’m really going to miss them,” almost in unison.

Not every couchsurfing experience is like this but now my Australian family feels larger. We still keep in touch and if we ever make it back to NSW, we know where we’ll stay.

Kimmii also loved collecting sea shells.                                                                                                    I left this one in the guest room so they’d have something to remember us by.

Watch the Australian Total Solar Eclipse Online

13 Nov

In less than 8 hours there will be a total solar eclipse of the sun in Cairns (pronounced cans) in tropical northern Queensland. The rare event, where the moon temporarily comes into perfect alignment with the sun and blocks it from view, won’t happen again in Australia until 2028. Some Australian cities outside Cairns will still see the eclipse but will lose total blockage. Here, in Brisbane, the moon will cover just over 80% of the sun at one time.

The last total eclipse was in 2010 and the next total eclipse won’t occur until 2015. If you’re like me and haven’t properly prepared for this cosmic rarity (or if you happen to be anywhere else in the world besides Queensland) you can stream a live viewing of the eclipse here. Even if you are in Queensland, it’s advised not to look directly into the sun because the irreversible retina damage leads to blindness and watching the eclipse online might be your best option if you haven’t done your research.

Since I waited too long to buy the protective welding glasses that allow you to witness the total eclipse firsthand, I’ll be watching the live stream as well. Also, I don’t really think the pinhole-viewing option, where you have your back to the sun and watch a homemade projection on a piece of cardboard or paper, will really compare. Who knows maybe I’ll make it to Spitzbergen in 2015, Indonesia in 2016, America in 2017 or Chile/Argentina in 2009! Sounds like the perfect addition to my bucket list (and another excuse to travel)!

Halloween Came And Went in Oz

1 Nov

Halloween 2011 – Me as a tourist, Jessica as a porcelain doll, Karen as a ghoulish demon and Lluvia as Frida Kahlo.

I look forward to Halloween all year round and by August I usually have a few ideas about which costume I’ll wear. But this year, half-way across the world from my Californian home, Halloween came and went. I sat on the couch in Brisbane having a few beers with my boyfriend and his friends. We watched TV, but nothing Halloween-related: no horror films, slasher flicks or classics to get us in the mood. Not one trick-or-treater rang the door bell, though I’m sure that even if there were trick-or-treaters they would have passed this house – there weren’t any decorations, all the front lights were off and the only candy on the premises was my chocolate bar in the van.

The changing leaves didn’t fall to the ground and decorate streets because it’s springtime here. Carved pumpkins weren’t on front porches because Australians eat pumpkins all year round – it isn’t an autumnal thing like it is in the States. The few Halloween parties you hear about are in backpacker areas or at bars and most Australians I talk to say locals have only been dressing up for the last five years or so. And if you talk to older Australians they’ll tell you how annoyed they are that this ‘American’ holiday has made its way to their country. When they head to the grocery store and see Halloween decorations for sale they scoff at the idea and consider Halloween another example of America’s consumer culture.

My best friend Kelsey’s pumpkins this year.

From the outside looking in, I think the fact that Americans celebrate Halloween shows our enthusiasm for life, our creative drive and our love of, and unique grasp of, entertainment. So what if we spend a few extra dollars on synthetic cob webs and plastic spiders?  So what if our neighbor wants to spend an entire day converting his front lawn into a haunted house? I don’t see anything wrong with getting excited about a holiday and Halloween is one of the few that people of all religious backgrounds can enjoy. It brings people together in a way that Christmas can’t. It lets you become another person for the night: a shy girl can become a vixen, a nerdy dude can show his sense of humor and people can express their political views through thought-provoking costumes. Everyone gets to show their artistic side and it’s good clean fun (except for when you make out with batman and can’t figure out his real identity the next day).

My best friend Kat dressed as disappointed olympian McKayla Maroney.

I missed Halloween this year. I missed my family and friends. I watched as they posted photos to Facebook and Instagram and for the first time since I came back to Australia two months ago, I felt homesick. And though it doesn’t happen often, especially whilst traveling, I was proud to be American. I am proud to be American.

Entering Our Van in a Kombi Fest

13 Oct

One morning a few months back Matt slid open the van door to grab some juice out of the fridge just as a middle-aged man was walking by. He saw our set-up and excitedly chatted our ears off about all things Volkswagen and reminisced about his days of living in a van. Matt proceeded to give him a tour as I lay in bed trying to hide that fact that I was only wearing a skimpy tee and some panties. He oo’ed and awed over our queen mattress, the solar panel on the roof and our pull out fridge.

“Have you ever entered in a Kombi fest?,” the man asked and then told us about the annual festivals in NSW where Volkswagen Kombi or Transporter owners get together to do a ‘van’ show and compete for titles like “Best Presented” and “Furthest Traveled.” He was convinced that if we entered we’d win something and told us it was a great place to get ideas and meet other van owners. Since the festivals weren’t coming up for another few months we put it in the back of our minds and it wasn’t until a few weeks ago when we were driving down New South Wales’ coast that we remembered to look it up.

We happened to be housesitting in Coffs Harbour, just a few hours north of the annual Old Bar Kombi Fest, which tries to break the record of getting the most Volkswagen vans in one spot, and though we really shouldn’t have, for practical money-related reasons, we made the drive down.

We registered at the very last-minute, drove onto the giant field that early Sunday morning and parked in our assigned spot. Disappointed with how plain our van looked next to the retro brightly colored ones, we knew ours had its beauty on the inside. Admittedly, we weren’t prepared at all – halfway through our drive down we decided to give the van a quick wash and the morning of the event we scrambled to organize all our things so the van looked somewhat presentable. I was so sad that Matt left our ‘love child’, Twiggy, a Bonzi tree that we kept on the dash, in Mackay at his parents’ house. I knew he would have garnered some attention.

We left the van doors open and strolled through the lines of Kombis and Transporters, noting how ours could improve but generally feeling very proud of how functional ours was. People had trailers with beds, pop-tops tents in the roof, tents that attached to the outside and some had sleeping pads in the back, but no one had a queen mattress and they certainly weren’t living in their vans full-time.

When we’d had our fill we walked through the markets, had a beer and some festival food, and listened to the live music. Later that day when they announced the winners we accepted that the van didn’t win because we knew we’d be better prepared next year. And next year, you better believe Twiggy will be on the dash where he belongs.

Aussie Speak 101

17 Sep

Yes, we speak the same language but as an American living in Australia I find myself asking for linguistic clarification all the time.

“Can I pass the, what?…What did you just call him?…”

Aussie English is much closer to British English than American English is, but like us they’ve put their own spin on things, often truncating words by adding an -o or -ies at the end.

Here are some of the words or phrases I commonly hear:

Aussie – American

How ya going? – How are you doing?, How are you?

good on ya – well done, good for you

have a yawn – talk

she’ll be right – it’ll be okay

that’s alright – response to thank you

heaps – a lot, a bunch

mate – friend

reckon – think, agreement

piss – beer

get pissed – get drunk

have the shits- get upset, get pissed

too easy – that was simple

ratbag – trouble maker

root – fuck

rubbish – trash, bullshit, not very good

partner – boyfriend/girlfriend, fiance, spouse, same-sex lover

legs eleven – long, sexy legs that go all the way up to heaven

arvo – afternoon

whinge – complain

duner – comforter, blanket

i’m shouting  –  i’m buying, my treat, it’s on me

skull – chug (a drink)

boot – trunk

bonnet – hood

rego – register (car, etc.)

stuffed – messed up, full, fucked up

sunnies – sunglasses

uni – university

DNM – deep and meaninful (conversation)

tea – supper

lift – elevator

chemist – pharmacy

bottle shop – liquor store

serviette – napkin

takeaway – take out, leftovers

lolies – candy, sweets

gone 0ff (food) – spoiled

Maccas – McDonald’s

feed meal

esky cooler

flake shark meat

avos – avocado

holiday vacation

ambo – ambulence

cozzie – swimsuit

bikki – biscuit

brekkie – breakfast

billy – bong toke

bloke – guy, man’s man

Brizzie – Brisbane

chook – chicken

jumper – sweater

doodle – penis

doco – documentary, document

sheila – woman (derogatory)

The postcard I sent my mom during my first trip to Australia. Her name is Sheila.

footy – league rugby

old lady – mom

old man – dad

oldies – parents

pokies – poker machines, gambling slot machines

missus – wife, girlfriend

grouse – good, cool, awesome

joey – baby kangaroo

chubby – boner

journo – journalist

knock – criticize

mozzie – mosquito

no dramas – no worries

op shop – thrift store

petrol – gas

servo – gas (petrol) station

carton – case of beer

spunk – stud, babe

stickybeak – nosy person

tinny – small aluminum boat

ute –pickup truck

knackered – tired

grog- alcoholic drink

tomato sauce- ketchup

poof – gay man

nic- condition

Water and Bathing On the Road

17 Sep

 

No matter what kind of hygienic ritual we’ve become accustomed to most of us can forego hot showers, proper toilets, sinks and washer machines for a week or so when we’re “roughing” it outdoors or backpacking on a budget. But when it becomes a way of life, as it has for my boyfriend and I, you start looking at things a little differently.

When you’re camping, it’s easy to take cold showers for a week and let your leg hair grow out longer than usual because you know it’s only temporary and you’ve got that hot shower waiting for you back home. But when the road is your home, any shower or clean bathroom you come across feels like a trip to the spa and running water is viewed as an invaluable resource for washing dishes and clothes, brushing your teeth, bathing, and even drinking – if you’re so daring.

I come from a world of designer water bottles and giant wholesale markets where people can buy their fancy water in bulk. Now, I drink from whichever faucet is available as long as it passes the clarity and taste test. (And I’m basically living off tea because once the water boils I no longer worry about it.) Blame it on the three months I spent backpacking Asia or my trips to Mexico but now I look at water differently. If I’m in a first world country and there’s no sign that tells me not to drink it, it’s fair game.

The same goes for bathing water. If we stumble across a lake or find an outdoor shower by the beach and haven’t had a proper shower in days, we thank the heavens and muster up the courage to face the cold water. It’s not so bad in the summer months but in the winter it’s a whole different animal. That’s when we heat some water in a pot over our portable stove, squeeze in our minty shower gel and use a tea cloth to give ourselves a sponge bath. If it’s cold outside or if we’ve got neighbors, we’ll bring the pot inside the van, shut all the doors, lay a towel down and be careful to drip as little water as possible as we take turns wiping each other down. We’ll even drape a blanket over the two front seats to block the windows and give us some semblance of privacy.

Other times, like mostly recently when we camped by the Clarence River in Grafton, NSW (which you can read about here), we’ll own the fact that we’re dirty hippies in need of a scrub. One early morning, after my leg hairs had gone particularly feral, I set up our bathing station on the public picnic table under the gazebo we’d camped next to and shaved my legs. When I was mid-shin boaters towing water skiers drove past and I shamelessly waved right back with a giant smile on my face.

Once finished, I put on a new pot to wash our clothes and hung the freshly laundered garments on the rack on the front of the car and on our camping chairs. Then Matt proceeded to give the van a scrub down and we both felt accomplished and grateful to have found “free” running water. It was certainly a step up from our campsite on the beach where the only water came from the ocean.

Later that day, Matt and I decided three days of salty beach hair was enough and we jumped off the jetty and into the cold, murky river water to wash our hair. When I was alone in the water I stayed as close to the surface as possible because I was terrified a croc would swim up at any moment and take me down with him. I could hardly see a foot in front of me and my mind kept playing scenes from really bad horror films where unsuspecting lovers were suddenly attacked by piranhas, sharks or some other unknown mythical creature. But then I’d see children fly past us in their inner tubes, towed behind the family boat and I’d relax and be thankful I was finally washing my hair.

When you’re on the road for a year and every penny counts, you find yourself becoming a bit of a schemer. You scope out locations based on proximity to free public amenities over beauty and you’re always thinking about your survival or how to stretch that dollar. While sometimes I wish we didn’t have to resort to drinking water from a dodgy faucet (we’re working on installing a water filtration/shower system so don’t worry too much!) living this simple life makes me appreciate the little things more and that makes every cold shower worth it.

In a Van, Down by the River

14 Sep

When I went home for a Californian summer before moving to Australia I tried to explain the concept of living out of a van with my boyfriend to my friends and family. Most people looked at me with horror and asked, “But, how do you shower?!” or “What if you have to go to the bathroom?!”

Others quoted Chris Farley’s famous Saturday Night Live skit where he plays Matt Foley, the 35-year-old motivational speaker who tries to scare kids straight by telling them they could end up like him, “living in a van, down by the river.” I had to laugh to myself when within days of arriving in Australia, that was my exact living situation.

After a day in Brisbane, we started the trip in Minnie Water, NSW, where we discovered a gorgeous beach with clear water, surrounding headlands and not a person in site. We tanned naked and felt as though we’d washed ashore to our own private island. It was pure bliss. Fortunately, time was on our side because after we climbed the wooden steps to the top of the beach access for lunch, car after car drove up and our “private” beach wasn’t so private anymore.

The next morning we had a medical emergency and left our perfect camp spot to drive an hour to the nearest town and find a doctor. We ended up in a quaint little place called Grafton and after the emergency was sorted we decided to make use of our unexpected gas consumption and explore our new surroundings.

Once  it was dark we searched for a place to camp and found a park right on the banks of the Clarence River. We parked next to the public gazebo and made dinner in the picnic area with our portable gas stove. We had free power, free running water, a kitchen, and bathrooms within walking distance, so the fact that overnight camping wasn’t allowed wasn’t much of a deterrent. 

The next morning as we watched the sunrise over the river from the open “boot”, we knew we couldn’t leave. It was the local watering hole and a town favorite picnic spot. Over the course of the next three days locals parked all around us and launched their boats or set up their lawn chairs for lunch and beers while the kids splashed around in the water. Every few hours we had new guests join us under the gazebo for tea, breakfast or lunch. When we got to know some of them we’d tell them how we’d been camping there. They’d reply with, “Is that right? Good on ya!” and we’d tell them how we’d been taking our showers in the river.

On the second night, Matt and I fell asleep early since we’d been waking up for sunrise nearly every morning. We had the trunk of the car wide open, facing the river and just as I was dozing off a security guard woke me up to let me know if we didn’t leave now they were going to lock the gates and we wouldn’t be able to get out until they opened at 5a.m. In my haze I told him that was okay, we’re sleeping here and he just nodded and left.

This is what I love about Australia. The rural small towns, the slow pace, the natural beauty, the wildlife and the lack of crowds. Everyone seems to understand what we’re doing here. They’ve either done it before or wish they could. Most want to hear what we’ve done and where we’re going and they give us inside tips about the best beaches or places to find jobs, but a few look at us like we’re the dregs of society. I feel sorry for those people. I wonder if they’ve ever made love on a beach in broad daylight or if they’ve watched the sun rise over the ocean, with sand between their toes. I wonder if they really appreciate their daily hot showers, washer machines and microwaves or if it’s all become background.

This lifestyle isn’t for everyone and at times I’m shocked that I’m so okay with it being mine. I laugh when we do come across the people who think we’re a couple of strange hippies but, to me this is living and I feel more alive than I ever did in Orange County. Every day is a challenge because we don’t know where we’re going to sleep that night or when our next proper shower will be. But the freedom that comes with this lifestyle isn’t something you can put a price on and it’s not something I can fully explain. So though I spent several days “living in a van, down by the river” it wasn’t a low point in my life as it comically was for Chris Farley’s character.  It was a high one.

Letters to C: Home

15 Aug

July 3rd, 2012

C,

I’m on my way to Arizona, to stay at my parents’ lake house for the 4th with Kat and Lluvia. Last week I took 4 flights, saw 8 cities and have been slowly reacquainting myself with California.

I went to Napa for my mom’s 50th birthday then hung out with Kat in SF and Santa Cruz and did the drive down the coast to her beach house in Huntington, where we stayed last night. And now I’m heading to Arizona…

I live a charmed and blessed life and believe me I’m taking full advantage of my time back here, soaking in this beautiful place before I leave it all again.

It feels so strange to be “home”. What is home when a part of you feels like you don’t fully belong anywhere? Or that you’ve outgrown the places you did? I love this state, I love my friends and family but I see this place for what it is and what it does to me.

I’ve been so fulfilled with my “hippie life” where I’m living out of the van and I don’t know when the money will run out or if I’ll have work. The stresses are there but they’re over real things. It was pure.

Now, in the states, I’m anxious. My chest is tight and I’m insecure about my looks. I care how I dress or what I say and how I say it. It’s like the environment here causes me to doubt myself and all the gossip I keep hearing from everyone just reminds me of how I’m constantly being judged.

It’s a really strange feeling and I’m worried all the growth I’ve done is going to unravel in my few short weeks here. I see myself slipping into the habits I’ve happily rid myself of. It worries me a bit.

These are the people I know and love and this my home country, but now I feel like I don’t belong or that it’s best for me not to belong. I guess what I’m saying is I think I’m making the right decision by moving to Oz and I think you did by moving to NYC.

Take Care,

Alex

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