Monday, January 30, 2012

A Borrowed Country's Celebration

I truly appreciate the good things that my home country has to offer--I go camping to marvel at its natural beauty, This American Life is my favorite radio show, I can make (and eat) a mean apple pie, and heck, I even know all the verses to This Land is Your Land (and sing it to my children!).  I fully acknowledge that the good outweighs the frustration, embarrassment and sheer ridiculousness that comes with the territory (a long list, but everything about Walmart, including the People of Walmart, and The Creation Museum, are the first two off the top of my head).

And although I am particularly fond of the state where I live, I'm still not all that interested in waving a big American flag around; in fact, it is difficult for me to think of a worse article of clothing than a button-down shirt splattered with stars and stripes.  In my eyes, the American flag should be flown but not worn.

All of this was rolling around in my brain as we set out early in the morning to celebrate Australia Day, which celebrates the first fleet of British ships' arrival on the continent.  I didn't have much time to think about the historical significance of the day, however, because I was walking with Jackson, who was headed for the Harbour, armed with goggles.

I had planned on participating in the Aquathon, but between preparing ourselves and our home for this year's travels and the road trip we took when we first got here, I had to face the fact that I simply was in no shape to compete.  Luckily, I'm the mother of a hearty 8 year old that was game for competing despite the fact that he had no time to train, either.  He has done something like this once before, and even though this swim would be 3 times longer (150m) and the run would be more than 4 times longer (2k), he was undeterred.
I felt like I was going to throw up from nervousness for him once I saw the swim out in the harbour, but I was also busy being proud of myself for keeping my tears in check for once.
A mere year and a half ago he wasn't self-conscious about how he looked, but he has now reached the age  where he didn't want me taking pictures of him in his swim cap.

We all watched him until the yellow swim caps were indistinguishable from one another, and around the first turn I saw a small but growing number of stragglers whose forward motion was not so strong and figured he was in that bunch.  We had swam this distance in the saltwater pool, but holding onto the sides and taking a few breaths between each lap is not the same as being in the open water with a gaggle of other kids splashing around you.

I was so thrilled when I saw his familiar stroke and black goggles approaching the shore earlier than I had expected, and tears spring to my eyes when I saw his huge grin.  He looked like he was having a ball.

Swim Stats: 7:51.  He placed 29th out of 49 in his Category of Under 10 Boys.

He set out on the run, and by the time we saw him again crossing the finish line, he still had that same grin on his face.
Run Stats: 9:15, placing 22nd out of 49 in his Category of Under 10 Boys.

Not amazing times, but they are solid and what I'm most proud of is his willingness to compete despite the lack of opportunity to train, and the great attitude and fun he had while doing it.  Later, Jackson would describe the highlight of his experience to his grandparents as being the free fruit he got at the end of the race, illuminating what he clearly sees as impoverished eating conditions in our daily life despite the continual intake of food, especially fruit.  Gotta have something to give them to talk about with their future therapist, right?
There was plenty of merriment to be had at the rest of the Australia Day festival; I honestly found myself wishing I had some Aussie paraphernalia to adorn our family with--their flag looks cooler than ours, and it would be nice to have some things to take back home with us when this whole dream ends next December.

Although I didn't end up buying Aussie merchandise, we still found plenty of ways to spend our hard-earned American dollars to celebrate the fine country of Australia at the carnival that was set up a block from our condo.

We also spent a mind-boggling $15 for the three boys to spend 5 minutes in a bouncy castle.  Yay Australia!

While the rest of my family enjoyed ice cream, I did not--a shocker for anyone who knows me.  I'm not one to turn down an offer for ice cream, but on this day of celebrating my temporary country, I only had eyes for...

freshly squeezed sugarcane juice, with a little lemon and lime tossed in for good measure.

I could live on this stuff; it was more delicious than I imagined it would be.  I watched in awe as the skilled juicing master fed huge stalks of sugarcane through a machine that extracted the juice.  Sorry Vita-Mix, you're playing second fiddle to me now because I want one of these babies!  Never mind that it would take up most of my kitchen, who needs a refrigerator when you have sugar cane??  I looked online and it seems as though there's a business operated out of Hollywood (of course!) that offers cane juice as part of a master cleanse detox-type diet.  Ha!  Healthy?  Who knows.  Thirst-quenching, sweet and delicious?  Definitely!

After dinner that evening, we celebrated with the quintessential Australia dessert, the lamington.  Aside from the fact that it sounds more like a town than a sweet treat, it's pretty good--a square sponge cake dipped in chocolate and rolled in finely shredded coconut.

And yes, you guessed the reason for the absence of a third child's photo correctly if you figured Kenyon finished his before my shutter went 'click'.

A mere 26 days after the New Year's hubub and fireworks, Australians muster up the energy to do it all over again.  We watched the fireworks show from our balcony.

Australia, I like you.  We have so many reasons to celebrate right now but I'm more than happy to take a day and celebrate you and this year we get to spend together.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Road Trip Stats and Moments

1,912: the number of kilometers that we put on our trusty 1995 Toyota Tarago, Ferdinand.  No problems at all, except for the fact that the new battery Sam installed was a little loose, so 80% of the time Sam had to open the hood and give it a little jiggle before the car started.  Now that we're home, a wrench will fix that problem in no time.
I'm no birdwatcher, but the birds we've seen are amazing!  It reminds me of Miami right after Hurricane Andrew, when the exotic birds got loose from Parrot Jungle and could be spotted throughout the city.
1: number of times we had to pull over for a carsick child (Alex).  They all now have concrete evidence that tempting as it may be, it is not a good idea to read a book while their parents drive on curvy roads.
taking a moment to recuperate from carsickness before getting back on the road
it feels good to treat yourself while traveling, and Saxby's ginger beer is something we all enjoyed
5: the number of packages of Tim Tams we bought along the way.  Dark chocolate is the best!

Every time he picks me flowers, he says, "Here you go  Mama, you can keep these forever." I will, in my heart.
6: the number of times Sam put his windshield wipers on instead of his turn signal.  Darn Australia and everything in the car being reversed!
7: the number of times we broke down the campsite, which was always more annoying than the 7 times we set up the campsite.  Two of them went smoothly and were enjoyable.  The rest--picture lots of crying and arguing.  The kids didn't do so hot, either.  Just kidding--Sam and I actually never fought during this whole trip, which is a miracle considering the stress.  It was a learning experience for the boys, and the smiles of pride on their faces during the last tent breakdown will hopefully carry over to the next time we do this.

We were all cold some nights...Sam even broke down and bought himself the flannel sleeping bag he had been dreaming about mid-trip.  When I was cold, I'd curl up next to my own personal heater--3-year old Kenyon, who sleeps in the nude and without blankets.  I don't know what's with this kid's basal body temperature, but I'll bet he's wishing we did a teacher exchange in the Arctic.

The CD Sam impulse-bought at a gas station somewhere in Victoria.  I scoffed, but it actually does contain some gems.  Who knew I would still remember every word to Mr. Big's 'To Be With You'?

A typical hamburger in Australia.  It has the usual lettuce and tomato, and cheese--but packed in there you've also got onions, beetroot, pineapple bacon, and barbecue.  A taste explosion, and so big Alex can't even get his mouth around one.
there's a koala far up in the tree above us!
An unexpected surprise is the fact that some of the best highlights of the trip were ones we learned about by chatting with other people as we traveled, like the koalas at Raymond Island.
Alex said the Yarrangobilly Caves were his favorite part of the whole trip
our first swamp wallaby sighting, at Mimosa Rocks National Park
a stop at a rural primary school playground to burn off energy is as good for Sam as it is for the kids
Alex showing off his must-have possum doll that goes with his book by Mem Fox, Possum Magic 
Road trips are almost never completely smooth; add three kids to the mix and you've got a ton of unpredictability. Sam and Inaturally pitched in with washing up the dishes and broke up the campsite setups and breakdowns without officially assigning duties.  If he saw I was getting a little punchy he knew to start brewing some coffee, which usually took care of my grumpiness.

I honestly don't think a family road trip could have gone any better, and I'm so glad we made this effort to see things that we can't see back in the States.  I am so grateful that Garry and Johanna undertook this exchange with us!

Kosciuszko National Park--and the final push HOME!

We continued our northeasterly inward trek to Kosciuszko National Park, home of Australia's highest mountain (Mt. Kosciuszko). Living in Colorado makes a person a bit snobbish about mountains, so this mountain is somewhat laughable--at 7,310 feet, it is approximately the same elevation as Colorado's town of Estes Park.  Still, it was beautiful winding our way through the hills and over dams to reach our no-cost (again, score!) campsite at Three Mile Dam.
After a stormy night, we packed up our campsite for the last time on this trip (hurray!).  The older boys have now become tent masters, finally by the last day able to break down their tent in record time without even a hint of arguing (not the case in the previous tries, and Jackson has a scratch by his eye to prove it).

We had chosen this campsite for its proximity to the Yarrangobilly Caves, so we headed there in the morning on our way out of town.  A brief but steep downhill hike led us to thermal pools, which was a welcome break and a great way to get us all a bit cleaner after the days of camping.  I had been weary of looking at my grubby kids and knowing I looked the same.
The pool stays warm year-round due to water seeping through porous rocks down 800m below the Earth's surface, where it is heated and forced back up as a warm spring.  The water wasn't warm per se, but it was pleasant and refreshing on a hot day.
Sam upstaging Alex
Sam defying gravity as Alex cannonballs

Then it was time to head to the cave.  The walk there was beautiful in itself.

the aptly-named Glory Hole
We did the self-guided tour, and it was awesome to explore the wondrous sights beneath the Earth's surface with my family.

As we emerged from the darkness, Alex said it was the coolest experience he's ever had in nature.

Then we were off in the car, all anxious to sleep in our own beds that night.  Between hearty naps for the boys and listening to some audio books, the drive was less than torturous.  The New South Wales park office worker that I had spoken with a couple of weeks before had told me about Robertson Pie Shop, a landmark in Robertson, NSW that we would pass on the way home.  I had told the boys about it, and Kenyon asked approximately 5,782 times when we would have pie, was it time for pie, what sort of pie would we be getting, was this the town for get the picture.

We rolled into Robertson at 6pm, the perfect time to pick up some takeaway savory pies as well as sweet pies.

Sam, Jackson, and Kenyon chose cherry, Alex chose apple, and I chose apple with wildberry...all had fresh whipped cream inside.  It was a great feeling to walk back into our condo and celebrate with a sweet reward for the previous couple of week's effort.

It was a long, good trip, chock full of sights, experiences, and we're all ready to have some downtime and recharge before school starts on January 30.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Warby-Ovens National Park--Bush Camping

Phillip Island was the furthest point in our trip before it was time to head home.  Because we took the coastal route down, we wanted to take the inland route home.  Not only was it more direct, but we also wanted to see as much as we could of Victoria as we could before heading back to New South Wales.  After leaving Phillip Island we drove about 4 hours inland and set up camp at the no-cost (score!) Wenhams campground in Warby Ovens National Park.
I use the term 'campground' loosely--while there was a pit toilet, picnic tables, and barbecue pit, it seemed very isolated.  The area was just deemed a national park in 2009 and didn't appear to be used very often.
the boys prepping a fire
stick collector extraordinaire
Kenyon wanted to see if kangaroo poop burned well (note: it did!).  
Kenyon holding his prized fuel, kangaroo poop

Sam is always down for getting in touch with his faux-Native American (or in this case, Aboriginal) roots; he was in his element here.  I, on the other hand, am learning more and more that I get energy from being around others.  I didn't mind the rustic nature of the campsite, but I would have preferred to have a few more people around.  It was certainly a contrast between the social vibe of the caravan park and the stark emptiness of this land.

As dusk neared, we did have a few visitors....

I had also read that this area is home to the endangered Turquoise Parrot.  Soon after we arrived, we spotted a few flying from one tree to another. I'm not particularly interested in birds, but these were gorgeous.

There was no water here; we had stopped to fill our large water container at a well water area used for livestock, so I boiled many pots of water along with cooking dinner.  Sam and I differed on how long to boil it; he said 30 minutes and I said 5.  I boiled it for 5 and crossed my fingers that none of us would contract some horrible water-borne bacteria.
kangaroo burgers and salad for dinner
For the first time on our trip, we sat by the campfire and made s'mores.  They don't seem to sell graham crackers in this country, so we brought out the closest approximation along with Cadbury's Dark Bubbly chocolate bar and happily roasted marshmallows.
Alex perfecting his slow roast method with my s'more in the foreground
Nighttime brought out a spectacular display of stars.  I don't feel very far away from home here, but when I look up at the sky and see the Orion constellation upside down, it suddenly puts into perspective that we really are on the whole opposite side of the earth.  We had a wonderful evening looking at the stars, pointing out constellations and satellites, and talking about how there's so much we don't yet know about space and the likelihood of extraterrestrial life.  Alex declared that he wanted to be an 'astromoner'.

After such an enjoyable time as a family and staying up until 10pm, you'd think we all would have slept great in our tent without a rain fly so the stars were visible.  Everyone fell asleep, and the isolation really got to me.  I wasn't afraid of animals, but I couldn't shake the idea of some crazy person coming in the middle of the night and hurting us.  I've had this feeling before, back before I had kids and I slept in the cabins up at Sam's dad's property in northern California all by myself for the first time while Sam was in San Francisco.

The hours passed and I lay there awake, listening for the sound of a car engine or the crackling of twigs.  I knew where our car keys were, and calculated how difficult it would be to grab everyone and run into the car when the crazy person appeared.

Just by typing this out, it is abundantly clear who the crazy person is.

At some point, I took my phone out of the tent pocket to see how much more of this nightmarish torture I had  left to endure and realized I had cell phone service.  Now, I have not had cell phone service for the vast majority of this trip--apparently, the company I randomly chose upon arrival here, Vodafone, has terrible range.  And here I was, in the middle of nowhere, miraculously with a connection to the outside world.  Thank you, universe, for providing.  Technology is a wondrous thing; I laid in a tent in the middle of the night in rural Australia with sleeping Kenyon's hand draped across my chest and typed real-time conversations back and forth with a friend and my mom.  I felt much better after that, and went on to get a few hours' sleep.

In the morning, Sam took a brief walk down a trail and sat down on a log to write his father a letter.  He heard a grunting and looked up to see a large goanna swiftly making its way down the tree right above him.
He shouted some expletives, and the goanna stopped in its tracks and stayed there for 20 minutes.
can you see him up there, where the branch juts out?
I persuaded Sam to break the 'stay two nights at every campsite' rule again for the second time this trip.  There wasn't a whole lot to do there, and after such a rough night I was really starting to lose my patience with the whole camping thing.  He felt like his Warby-Ovens camping experience was complete after his goanna encounter (thank you, goanna!).