Monday, December 30, 2013

December (Beaches and Bars)

December hasn't been my best month here. There is just something about being away for the holidays that makes a person lonely. It helps that the weather here is closer to Fourth of July sun than Christmas snow. But there are still Christmas lights and music everywhere you go.

One evening in early December, I walked out of my apartment and heard music coming from the park across the street. I wandered over to find a Christmas Caroling concert. Now, keep in mind that this was outdoors and it was over 80 degrees. The grass was covered with picnic blankets. Parents intently watched the caroling, occasionally singing along, while their children impatiently waited for balloon animals and ice cream. I watched the concert for a while, but left once little kids began singing Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer. It reminded me a bit too much of singing that song with my little sister Evelyn when she was a toddler. I stretched out on a bench far from the crowds and began reading. After a good half hour, a young teenage boy came up to the bench and shyly asked if I would go out on a date with him. He couldn't have been more than fourteen. I kindly informed him that I was much too old for that and continued reading as he walked away, as to not call too much attention to the hugely awkward moment that had just occurred. There is no way I look THAT young!

My roommate Hayley talked for weeks about getting a Christmas tree. She was working all day nearly every day, making it difficult to get to the store to buy one. There was no way we could get a real one with budget and time against us. I didn't have the money to spare for a tree. Last year I sold my own white tree in order to begin saving up for this trip. Eventually, we got one. I helped spread out the wire branches to make the tree look a bit more lively. Other than that, I left the decorating completely up to Hayley. She had that look of determination for perfection in her eyes that says, if you try to help me, I'll probably have to fix what you do anyway. She did, however, allow me the privilege of placing the star atop the tree. The most exciting part what the fact that I could easily reach the top of the tree.

As a Christmas present to her family, Hayley decided to give backpacks filled with useful items and presents to homeless people in Melbourne. That way the money she would have spent buying gifts for people who didn't want anything could be used to help people who might need it. I agreed to go with her for moral support. I felt like everyone around me thought I was a terrorist. Why is that lady holding so many full backpacks on a train? I was waiting for security to ask me to step aside for a random search at any moment. That moment never came. Apparently, it isn't concerning to Australians in the least to see someone carrying an excess of odd luggage into large public areas. Hayley and I stepped into the city determined to find homeless people. We found one in all of Melbourne. I stood back a bit while Hayley gave the backpack. I kept my distance mostly because I was a big fat chicken, nervous of what response Hayley might get. The man she gave it to seemed genuinely appreciative. He even dug out a Santa hat from the backpack to put atop his head as we left. We wandered around the city for a few hours looking for more homeless, but there were none to be found that day.

A few days later, after eyeing a Japanese language group online for some time, I finally got the nerve to go see what it was about. I loved taking Japanese in college, but haven't had much opportunity to practice since. Now I am in that horrible point of beginner language skills where I recognize words that I used to know, but can no longer remember what they mean. The group was meeting at a bar and grill. It was expected that each person would buy something from the restaurant during the meeting. Most people bought alcohol. I ordered a coke. My Japanese was rusty enough being sober. Thankfully, most of the group of thirty or so people were from Japan and wanted to practice English. There were definitely some uncomfortable language and cultural barriers, but the evening went pretty well. 

Hayley worked in the same mall that the bar and grill was in, so I met up with her and a couple of her friends after the event. We decided to all meet up at a dumpling shop in the nearby China Town. Hayley gave me confusing directions over the phone which I vaguely followed with the help of my phones GPS. You never realize how hard it is to understand someone's accent until they are listing oddly named streets for you to find. I finally located the shop in a dark ally way, which is where all the best places in Melbourne seem to be found. Inside I found my group being told that they only had five more minutes until they would have to order or leave. I quickly sat down and chose my order of veggie noodles. (Actually the waiter chose for me because I was taking too long.) They were so good! For some reason, everyone here seems to really like wine. I don't. Near the end of the meal, the owner of the place began filling and refilling everyone's glass with wine to get us to leave faster. I chugged down my tiny portion and chased it with coke so we could head out.  

We went farther down the ally to an outdoor bar of sorts.There was music, but I wasn't sure if people were dancing badly to it or swaying uncontrollably from their own drunkenness. I went to use the restroom and found myself in a room wallpapered with little disturbing and trippy looking pieces of art. We didn't stay there long. Instead, we moved to a bar a few blocks away. This one was indoors, with coherent people and the expected artwork of beer logos. We set up a pool table and began playing, occasionally stopping to watch karaoke. Even though I've never played a full game of pool in my life before that point, I won the game! Hopefully, this was due to the natural skill I possess and not the large amount of wine everyone else consumed. Before leaving, we all sang a lovely out of tune version of "Tonight (We Are Young)" which Hayley snapchatted halfway through while on stage. Well done, Hayley.

Several nights later, I met up with a Japanese girl from the language exchange group. I had mentioned at the group that I was thinking of going to a Nightmare Before Christmas Party I had heard about. She was interested so I invited her along. I later discovered that she originally thought I had invited her to see the movie. She was a great sport finding out that it was a costume party in a bar. I wore a purple and black outfit with my Nightmare Before Christmas socks. It wasn't a costume, but at least went with the theme a bit. Not everyone dressed up, but many did. We were surrounded by Sweeny Todd, Edward Scissorhands, the Mad Hatter, the Pincushion Lady, the Cheshire Cat, and even Batman and Robin. The place was packed and most of the night was spent talking to other travelers and dancing. One guy tried to tell me that we were basically from the same place because he was from Columbia. I wasn't sure how to respond to that. Most conversations went like this... Where are you from? Why are you here? What do you do? Oh, you like animals! Look at all these pictures of my dog! I swear that happened with nearly every person in the building, except for one rude guy who claimed that the animals I've worked with aren't dangerous enough to be considered wild animals. I also wasn't sure how to respond to this.

Throughout the month I went to the beach whenever possible. I had a great misfortune of always arriving as the weather changed from beautiful to horrible. At least when it rained there weren't as many flies. It seems like there are flies no matter where you go, but they are the worst near beaches. Imagine twenty flies all bound and determined to fly into your eyes, nose, mouth, and ears at once. Picture them doing this constantly for hours on end and only getting more persistent with each swat at them. It's torture. Dispite the annoyance of flies, the beaches are beautiful. Each looks the same as the next with few exceptions. Brighton Beach was one of those exceptions. The shore is lined with colorfully painted houses. The rocks along the edges are unique to anything I've seen before, ranging from porous to slippery. I took R2D2 along but the hot weather here is slowly smearing his colors.

About halfway through the month, I decided to go to an ugly sweater party by a group of Americans. (The same group I had dinner with on thanksgiving.) Australians don't have ugly sweater competitions, as December is basically their June. I didn't own an ugly sweater and didn't feel like it was worth buying one for this single occasion. This event was on the beach. There is something I am slowly coming to realize about gatherings in Australia. They are pretty much always at either a bar or a beach. Even on the beach in Aussie summer, it proved to be perfect sweater weather. The waves crashed icy salt water as the wind picked up speed around us. I completely guessed where the group might be, which was proven correct with the sight of a giant American flag waving in the cold wind. Most of the group I had already met at Thanksgiving. I introduced myself to the few new people and offered some gluten-free snickerdoodles made the night before. (My roommates are dietary weirdos, but I feel it is important that every person in the world has the opportunity to taste the the deliciousness of a snickerdoodle, even if it is a slightly mutilated version of the recipe.) While most of the group had, like myself, decided against ugly sweaters, a few brave souls went for it. And boy, were their sweaters fantastically hideous! Great work you all! At some point in the afternoon, sunburns began to show on the skin of my fellow Americans. I distinctly remember thinking about how they must have very fair skin to burn so easily in such cold and overcast weather. I thought about offering up the sunblock in my purse, but then saw that they already had some out for people to use. I didn't even stop for a second the wonder whether I should be wearing some myself. (The picture was taken when the sun came out a bit.)

A few days later, I began my first official petsitting opportunity, accompanied by a face that closely matched the color of Elmo's. Petsitting is the perfect travel method for me. I get to stay in beautiful homes for free and take care of pets of families on vacation. It is a win on all sides! I decided to start petsitting in Melbourne, while I still have an apartment to live in between sits. This would help me grow some references and meet more people within Australia. The first person to contact me was an American lady living about 40 minutes away from my apartment. She had a black and white dog by the name of Harry. Harry took to me right away. He was so cuddly, and I loved it! A retired couple had been watching Harry for a couple weeks, but now had to go to their next housesit in Sydney. I spend my first day at the house with the couple. They had sold their own house four years ago and had been traveling around the country ever since, relying solely on house and pet sitting. They loaded me up with advice on every do and don't you could imagine for traveling based on their experiences. It was all amazingly helpful and it was so sweet of them to take such an interest. They even drove me to the next town over to see more of the area. Unfortunately, the entire time they saw me my face felt like a marshmallow being pushed much too close to a hot fire. I slathered it with aloe, moisturizer, vinegar, insect bite numbing gel, and even mustard on the really bad parts as I became more desperate. (The internet told me that it was a good idea! wasn't.) I looked like a fool when we went outside. I wore so much sunblock that my non-burnt skin looked three shades paler. I wore long sleeves dispite the hot weather, and a hat to block the sun from my face. Since the hat rubbed painfully across my forehead, I propped it high on my head, just at the hairline, giving my forehead a never ending appearance. A few days after the couple left, the sunburn finally disappeared, leaving a serious respect for the Australian sun. 

Harry and I settled into a great routine, mostly consisting of daytime tv, tug of war, and walks. There was a shopping center close by to get food and basics. I'm sure I've mentioned this in previous blogs, but I am getting really good at walking! In America I would go to the grocery store once or twice a month. I would drive there and back, only carrying groceries from the garage to the refrigerator. In Australia I have to walk to the store, buy a small amount of food, and carry it all the way home. This is repeated every day or two. I never realized how much I didn't walk in the States until I had to walk everywhere in Australia. When I needed to get to the city, I had to walk to the shopping center, take a bus to the train station, and a train into the city. Two busses stopped at the shopping center. One took me to the closest train station so I always took that one. Eventually I learned that the other bus took me to a train station closer to the city and saved me a load of time. This was discovered through the happy accident of getting on the wrong bus. 

On Christmas Day I awoke to a broken ipad. It was running slowly, and kept crashing each app that I opened, eventually giving me a blank screen. I tried to log back in and it told me my passcode was incorrect. I knew it was correct. The screen stopped responding at all less than an hour after I began using the ipad. I tried several times to shut down and do a hard restart, but the ipad was completely unresponsive. This was devastatingly disappointing since I use the ipad primarily to communicate with family. I wanted to see everyone and hear about all the presents they recieved, but I had no way of doing that. I had planned to meet a group of Christmas Orphans (travelers with no family or friends around) at the beach in the afternoon, and I decided it was best to stick to that plan. Upon getting on the bus, I discovered that my phone was dead. I had charged it all night, but apparently I never turned on the outlet/powerpoint, so it never charged at all. It was too late to turn around. I continued to the beach and began searching for the group. While the beach is a common meetup spot on any warm day, it is THE place to go on Christmas. It was packed! After a while of having no luck locating the group, I decided to aim my search toward finding a phone charger. This search involved going to two grocery stores, two phone stores, and one convenience store, only the last of which was open. I browsed the store for a phone charger to no avail. In desperation, I asked the clerk if they had any. They had one chager left, but it was for a car. Zero help to me. I returned to the beach in search of the group once more. This time I began going up to each large group I saw and asking if they were the group I was trying to find. None of them were. After a couple hours, it was time to go back. On the night of Christmas Eve I had ordered two pizzas with a good deal from Dominos. I returned to the house, let Harry cuddle under the blankets, and began watching the Christmas TV movie of "Jaws" while stuffing my face with left over pizza. After such a bad day, there couldn't have been a better movie to watch.

The next day, I walked three miles uphill to a large Apple store. I would've taken a bus, however, that one bus had switched its route for that one and only day. Upon walking into the store, the employee did a hard reset on my ipad and it worked beautifully. It was the same exact thing I had already tried without success. I swear the employees there have some secret nobody else knows to make the rest of the world look incredibly stupid when trying to fix their technology. I never got to see any of my family on Christmas, which was quite difficult, but at least everything was working once again. I also lost around half of my pictures, so some of my blogs may be short of visual proof.

At least once a week, I would visit my apartment to make sure everything was going well. Shortly after Christmas, I checked my mail to see a Christmas card. I cheerfully opened it to see who had written me. Inside were the words "To dear Chris, Bridget, and Max, Love & Best Wishes from Ricky and Geoff XX" I don't know who Ricky and Geoff are, but I would like to say thank you for the lovely card! The next day I recieved a second Christmas card which was actually meant for me. It was from Annie and Jess, the couple I stayed with when I first came to Melbourne. Thank you for the card! It was very sweet!

For New Years, I decided to go to a couch surfers event on the beach. Before I begin, let me clarify the term couch surfers. When I first told my mom about this, she pictured a group of overwieght people who sit on their couches 24/7 watching tv. When I told my dad of this event, he pictured people literally surfing on couches in the ocean waves. In reality, couch surfers are people who travel by sleeping on the couches, or occasionally in spare bedrooms, of other people who are usually couch surfers themselves. I joined this group as another option for free housing if needed. There was a strict no alcohol policy on the beach so it was rather clear of people. The large group was easy to spot, unlike it had been for the Christmas event. I arrived in the early evening and sat in a large circle of people. Everyone introduced themselves and where they were from: France, Hungary, America, Spain, Australia, Thialand, etc. There were a couple countries I had never heard of and could hardly pronounce, but I tried not to call too much attention to those details. Before much conversation occurred, a man walked up and began selling pot to a couple people. The guy from France and I both decided it was a good time to join a different circle. I was told I was "one of the guys" by an Asian Australian and his friend from England. I had a conversation with an inebriated guy from Sweden about the ignorance of Americans. I watched a heated mini chess game between a man from France and a couple from England. A German girl sitting beside me shrieked each time a large beach ball came near her. I'm not sure what it would have done besides possibly mess up her hair. As it began getting a bit darker the group dissipated to different places throughout the city. Some people went to a rooftop party while most went to a park that was supposed to have a lot going on that night. The Asian Australian decided that I was part of his group along with his English friend and every other Asain person at the event, including an Asian guy from America, a Vietnamese/Irish Australian girl, and her friend. The park was much farther away than expected. When we got there, we realized that it was a DJ, several hundred drunk people, and not much else. We watched the fireworks from a distance and then left the park. The taxis were packed so we walked back to the city, had some icky pineapple pizza, and called it a night. 

I don't feel like I did much in December, but looking back on it, I guess I did do quite a bit. I'm growing tired of Melbourne and have seen most of the sights here, so I am planning to travel to Sydney by March. In January, I'll take a little Birthday break to see my aunt and cousin in Hawaii, before returning to Australia to continue travels. 

Btw, these are my roommates... Kev, Lorna, and Hayley

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