One month away, one month here

It is hard to believe we’ve been in Melbourne for a month! We left our house, our friends, our family, and our pups over a month ago. Coming home to a cold and empty apartment leaves things feeling very unsettled. I suppose it takes a while to rebuild everything we had back home, but I wish there was an easy way to pop-up our life, like one of those self erecting camping tents, but just in a different location.

Our shipment should arrive in another couple weeks, so I’ll have my pots, pans, and picture frames to make our new place feel a bit like our old. Living without the material comforts of home and being away from our families (friends included) means it’s just us… the hubs and I to bother each other, lean on each other, and grow closer as we figure out our new life. I am incredibly lucky to have my best friend beside me through it all and experience the frustrations and excitements together… and skype and google voice (p.s. U.S. friends, you can text my old number for free!) to stay connected to home.

 

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Diving and danger in Queensland

From Sydney, Amy and I flew to Cairns (pronounced cans). Word of advice while traveling within Australia… JetStar is an inexpensive no frills airline (similar to Southwest Airlines in the States) but don’t expect it to run on time or get on with free luggage. Apparently you need to pre-book your luggage when you book your flight while traveling within Australia to avoid excessive baggage fees (and you’ll have to stay within the strict weight limit as well). One domestic travel aspect that works in a light traveler’s favor is that there are no liquid restrictions on domestic flights, but aerosols need to have a cap, otherwise they will get tossed (R.I.P. foaming sunless tanner).

After an incident at security (may or may not have had anything to do with Amy being scanned for explosives…twice) and a flight delay due to an airport fire in Cairns, we arrived at the much awaited Great Barrier Reef! Well, to the Cairns airport at least. We flew into Cairns and took a shuttle from the airport to Port Douglas (about 1.5 hours north), where all the boat departures and most area tours are based. Port Douglas is a cute beach town with no traffic lights and a main strip of restaurants and bars that entertain both locals and tourists at night. The area was not filled with the white sandy beaches I was expecting to relax on. The ocean water was a murky home to crocodiles and jellyfish. To experience the aqua blue waters you would expect to see, you have to travel about 2 hours by boat out to the Great Barrier Reef. The sights above and below water are more than words (or pictures) can eloquently express.

Scuba Diving in the Great Barrier Reef

After a lifelong dream of experiencing the land under the sea (did the Little Mermaid soundtrack play in your head too?), I finally got to scuba dive for the first time! Not certified? Don’t fret, you can dive through an introductory open water course. I felt a little more prepared since Joe and I went through an intro pool dive five years ago when he was in the rehab hospital in Denver. The pool intro definitely prepared me for what to expect in the open ocean. However, most in our group had never strapped on scuba gear before. On the ride out to the reef, a scuba instructor carefully explained the breathing technique, hand signals, and ear equalizing to the group.

I highly recommend taking the Poseidon Reef Snorkeling and Dive tour. I went on three introductory dives on my first time out! My first time down I was purely concentrated on three things: breathing in, breathing out, and not losing the scuba instructor. I’m not sure why I thought if I took my eyes off of him I might get lost in the great ocean. The next two times down I was really able to take it all in. Sitting on the ocean floor, getting kissed on the goggles by a big orange fish, and touching a purple clam the size of our bulldog, Gouda (oh, how I miss those girls), was surreal. Next up, scuba certification!

I didn’t get any pictures of my dives, but just imagine the beauty under here:

The Daintree Rainforest

Just about 40 minutes north of Port Douglas you can explore the Daintree Rainforest, the oldest rainforest in the world where the tropical plants grow straight out to the Australian shore. The Daintree is home to some pretty impressive species of plants and animals, including some crazy venomous snakes, cantaloupe-sized spiders, and killer birds.

As our tour guide described how almost everything that lived in the forest could cause possible human death, Amy and I kept guard out for lurking spider webs and thorny plant vines swinging overhead. What we didn’t expect was to encounter a rare and endangered prehistoric flightless bird called a Cassowary. As we strayed from our tour group to listen in on interesting forest facts other tour guides were sharing with their groups, a gigantic animal resembling a turkey, but with a blue head and dinosaur feet jumped out in front of us on the trail! “A cassowary!” I shouted. I only knew about this bird because about 15 minutes prior, our guide pointed out a Cassowary Plum, a seed that grows in the rainforest only after being digested and excreted by the Cassowary bird. The seed is toxic to any other animal that eats it, but the Cassowary bird and the Cassowary Plum have this interesting symbiotic relationship going that allows both of them to benefit off each other. The bird came and went, and our group missed it, walking ahead of us eager to get back in the car. A different tour guide, panicked by the surprise appearance of the bird, warned his group to stay away from the bird since they have been known to attack by jumping on people until they puncture the person’s jugular with their deathly claws if they feel threatened. We got to see it (and get a good picture)!

  

The Daintree is filled with Jurassic-age species of plants, gravity defying vines, and other interesting mosses and fungi:

  

  

The rain started to come down as we explored, but only a few drops of water hit our heads since the dense, multi-layered canopy was acting as a natural umbrella from the rain.

While lunch was on the barbie, Amy and I ventured out in a canoe down the river by ourselves. I’d like to say that we braved grand rapids (although we were the only two in the group who made it out of the small wading lagoon into the river), wrestled crocs, and fished for our lunch, but the ride was pretty uneventful… well, except for that large Eastern Water Dragon that plopped in the water in front of our canoe. Before heading out for our official river boat tour, I picked up a rainforest rock for my nephew, Tyler, who is fascinated by geology.

To wrap up our time in the Daintree Rainforest, we headed on a river boat and set out to see the mangroves and some Aussie crocs! We spotted 5 – 2 males and 3 females! Since it is the beginning of winter here, the crocs are pretty sedentary. They come in from the ocean and practically hibernate on the mudbanks. The mangrove-lined river displayed an intricate web of mangrove roots, home to spawning fish before they head out to sea. We were on the river at low tide, so we were able to really appreciate the shallow rooted trees.

  

We ended the forest tour with a stop by the famous Floravilla Ice Cream Factory, a biodynamic, organic and very tasty ice cream treasure in Daintree. It was a great way to rattle our taste buds and cool off with flavors like black sapote, pumpkin cinnamon, rhubarb, goji berry, avocado, and chili chocolate.

And then it was time to say goodbye… to beautiful Queensland and my friend. My first Aussie exploration would not have been as memorable without a partner in crime. Amy, thanks for being our first visitor and for being the best crazy repeller, dessert eating, spider killing, dolphin stealing travel buddy I could have asked for!

Look out on top of Mount Alexandra in the Daintree Rainforest

Sydney, sunny and delicious

Homesickness struck during my first trip away from our new home in Australia. Sydney reminded me so much of Los Angeles. The sunny weather, the beautiful beaches, and the endless supply of fun and active things to do made our time in Sydney pretty amazing.

We stayed near the Darling Harbour, a central and convenient location to most things in the city. Unlike Melbourne, Sydney’s public transport didn’t seem very popular (remind you of L.A.?), so the central location made it easy to get around the main areas of town. You can also find the best lunch deal in Sydney (and questionably in all of Australia) at Darling Harbour… A main (entrées here are actually appetizers and mains are their entrée), wine, coffee or dessert, and a nice view for $20!

The Sydney Harbour and view of the Sydney Opera House

Pictures you have seen of the Sydney Opera House don’t do it justice. It is an architectural marvel! I didn’t get to do the indoor tour, but Amy recommended it as a must! The multi-venue performance arts center was designed in 1957 by a Danish architect, Jørn Utzon, and finished in 1973, ten years late and more than fourteen times over budget, costing a total of $102 million.

  

  

Sydney Botanical Gardens

The Sydney Botanical Gardens is an incredible place to see some of the impressive birds of Australia. A walk (or healthy jog) through the gardens unveils Rainbow Lorikeets (see it hiding in the tree?), Sulphur-crested Cockatoos, flying foxes (aka bats), other wildlife and native Australian plants. I wanted to take a cockatoo home with me!

  

Taronga Zoo

Besides the great Harbour views on the ferry ride out to the Taronga Zoo, our trip out to the zoo fulfilled our need to see Australian wildlife (even if it was outside of the wild). My highlights: koalas, wallabies, (lazy) kangaroos, and cute meerkats.

  

  

Sunset bike ride at Manly Beach

We hopped on a ferry to Manly Beach, a fun surfing town across the Sydney Harbour. We arrived close to sunset and rented bikes near the ferry port and took off to bike along the coast into one of the national forests and then down to Shelly Beach.

Dine and drink musts

Manly Wines: On the Esplanade with a beach view. Don’t go without ordering the stuffed mushrooms, squid, bikini salad (prawns, beets, zucchini, and blood oranges)!

Ms. G’s: in Pott’s Point this modern Asian fusion restaurant is worth the nearly 2-hour wait! I don’t think they take reservations, so make your way up to their bar area for a cocktail or two while you wait for oen of the best dinners of your life (bold?). You can’t go wrong with anything on the menu, but order the Stoner’s Delight for dessert if you want to blow your brain with flavors that confuse your taste buds into thinking you are in food heaven.

Tio’s: A dark and hip tequila bar with free “spicy” popcorn… although our bag seemed to be missing the kick.

Baxter: An underground spot with 360 different types of whiskey! Vintage trendy scene.

The Ivy: Awesome vibe with cool décor by the same owners as Ms. G’s. An indoor/outdoor bar filled with beautiful people.

A trip back to this city is definitely in order!

The Great Road to the Ocean

We moved in to our apartment and not a moment too soon… Amy, one of my best buds and roomies from Notre Dame, made the trip down under to visit and win our first visitor award! Our first adventure together took us just outside of Melbourne down the Great Ocean Road. Our day-trip destination: Twelve Apostles, a collection of eight (not twelve as the name would lead you to believe) limestone rock stacks just offshore in the state of Victoria along the Great Ocean Road.

The Great Ocean Road is indeed great… once you finally reach the ocean. As Joe as our navigator (I drove again!), we headed out of the city with an expectation of driving along the beautiful southern Aussie coast to the Twelve Apostles.  The drive to the Twelve Apostles on the Great Ocean Road took about 5.5 hours on a windy freeway in the rain. We were excited to see the sign, “Welcome to the Great Ocean Road” but dismayed to wait another 45 minutes before actually catching a glimpse of the great ocean.  We came to a consensus that the freeway might be more appropriately named the Great Road to the Ocean for the portion that takes you through a beautifully lush rain forest before hitting the coast. Well worth it nonetheless.

  

The Twelve Apostles are quite a breathtaking sight. Eight large limestone rocks stand in the middle of the ocean as if they were art pieces placed there by a designer. Harsh weather conditions eroded the limestone off the coast to form caves that eventually became arches, which then collapsed and left impressive rock formations standing up to 45 meters high (there’s that metric system again… about 150 feet).

In great Australian fashion, extreme hazard signs warn visitors of the dangers of unstable cliffs and falling to your death (they’re big on public safety here). I promise to blog on Aussie warning signs in the near future!

Our way back to Melbourne was not as great as our way out. We took the back road through the farmlands of Victoria. The cows and sheep seem happier here for some reason… must be all the lush grass and no cage thing they have going for them. A quicker way to make it back for another great dinner in the city.

Our bags are packed, we’re ready to go (again)!

You thought finding an apartment in NYC (well, no I’ve never had to, but I’ve heard nightmares) or LA was hard. Forget the hopeful hunt for a pet friendly place or reasonable lease terms… We just wanted a roof over our heads! And preferably before our first visitor arrives (can’t wait for Amy to get here)! Apparently finding the combination of a wheelchair accessible apartment (or house) close to an accessible tram stop with accessible trams in a desirable inner-city location was just as hard as it sounds like it would be. Melbourne is working hard on improving the accessibility of the public transit, but the city is still in transition so you can find stops that have been updated with platforms for access but not all of them will have low-floor trams (trams with no steps). We looked all over the inner suburbs… St. Kilda, funky style close to the beach; Albert Park, quiet, cute and quaint (reminded me of Pasadena if it were right on the coast); Fitzroy, trendy and has great cafes and nightlife; South Yarra, nice shopping and fancy cars (some might call it L.A.’s equivalent to Beverly Hills); and the CBD (the central business district, or downtown), close to Joe’s office but right in the middle of the hustle and bustle of the city.

We weren’t being picky, but the challenge here is that there are so many renters and few available properties. Jumping from suburb to suburb in hopes of finding “the one” was a great way to learn my way around the city! The pressure was on to find and move into a place to call home before getting kicked out of our company sponsored hotel (luckily the nice people at Joe’s company extended our stay for an extra four days until we got things sorted out). Some were great but totally not wheelchair friendly, others were wheelchair friendly but nowhere near an accessible tram or train stop, big fancy buildings with small apartments, or small buildings with dingy old apartments… you name it, I saw it! I wish I had a few words of wisdom for people looking to move to Melbourne, but apparently this is just one of those things that you put up with to live in a great city. The Domain website was a saving grace though… it has most all the property listings in the city and surrounding areas!

When you know, you know… we found a place! After finding an apartment you think you might like to live in, you have to apply, wait a week, and hope that the owner likes your application. We saw the place on a Thursday and wondered if we’d have to endure another Saturday of frantic 15-minute inspections. After applying, we heard from the real estate representative the next day who said that he still hadn’t heard from the owners and that we would likely not make our Tuesday move in day (the original day we were slated to check-out of the hotel). He said, “Things move slower here in the colonies.” Something that we’ve come to understand very quickly. He also gave us hope by saying, “Continue searching, but don’t sign anything unless you talk to me”. He couldn’t tell us that he thought our application would go through, or that he would put in a good word for us with the owners, but he made it as clear as possible that we should expect to be moving into the place soon enough.

What a sign of relief! Our application was accepted and we got the keys to our new city apartment (it only took 8 days from the time we saw it and applied to having the keys in hand)! And all we had do was sign four copies of a 50 page document with about 320 pictures (literally) of the pre-move-in state of the unit! They are not messing around here! With every initial and signature, I felt like I was signing my life away (reminiscent of our mortgage signing day).

  

This time the move isn’t so far… about 500 meters to be exact (yes, I’m making the switch over to metric… 0.31 miles for my standard system users) and it only took three trips down the hill from our hotel (home for 18 days) with a luggage cart full of our stuff to move into our new place.

Besides the interesting smells in the hallway and the chatter of business professionals outside my window enjoying happy hour drinks at one of the oldest pubs in Melbourne, the Mitre Tavern, the apartment is glorious! It is spacious and filled with light! I think it might actually be larger than the cute bungalow we left behind in Pasadena. The historic building, built in 1925 (coincidently the same year our house was built), was renovated 10 years ago into modern industrial apartments. The two bedroom, one bath, and tiny kitchen apartment will soon be home to many memories and design experiments. Can’t wait!

Here are some “before” pics of the empty space:

  

  

  

I’ll be furnishing and decorating in the weeks and months to come. I’m feeling a modern, vintage, industrial vibe in the space. It’s a blank canvas ready for some flair. Stay tuned for some “after” shots!

Left side is the right side

Learning how to drive on the opposite side of the road was like reprogramming my brian to do the exact opposite of what I have done for the last 14 years of my life. We ventured out into the city in Gerardo’s manual car (thanks G!) to survive the dreaded apartment inspections around the city.  Something everyone moving to Melbourne should be prepared for is that apartment/house hunting is different here. Unlike other places where buildings have leasing offices open during business hours, or a private landlord who will meet you at a mutually convenient time to let you check out a property, here in Melbourne the renter is at the mercy of the real estate management companies. Agents schedule 15 minute windows for the inspection of their properties. Meaning, that you have to run from house to apartment to apartment within a matter of minutes, sometimes across the city only to find that the inspection was canceled with no previous notice. You can imagine how having a car might facilitate this process!

So back to the left side of the road. This might seem obvious, but the stick shift doesn’t move, you do! So now, not only do you have to concentrate all your energy on not hitting the curb on a left hand turn, hook turning right (this challenge unique to Melbourne streets), changing gears with your left hand, turning the blinker (not the wipers) on with your right, but you also have to figure out where in the world to go! Feel free to take pleasure in my inability to turn the blinker on (yes, it happened many times). Check out the video of my first time driving in Melbourne!

I think I got the hang of it by the end of the day (although it was mentally exhausting!). After 7 or 8 house and apartment inspections  there were still no promising housing prospects. But how bad can it be when this is the potential backyard:

Taken at St. Kilda Beach, Victoria, Australia

A day full of apartment inspections and driving (with no incidences) on the left side of the road deserved some celebration, so Gerardo and Diana (not pictured) came to the rescue again. Pop the bubbly! We’re in Melbourne!

 

Milk, eggs and blisters

Calling all New Yorker’s, San Franciscans, Bostonians… basically any of you most walkable cities residents! HOW DO YOU GROCERY SHOP??? No, seriously… how do you do it? A trip to the grocery store for me in LA consisted of driving my car to Trader Joe’s, walking out of the car, seeing the “Don’t forget your bags!” sign, walking back to my car to get the bags and then heading into the grocery store only to wheel out my cart full of goodies, put them in my trunk (or boot as the Aussies call it) and then drive home. Minimal bag carrying involved. Minimal steps involved. I would often challenge myself to carry all of the groceries into the house in one trip. That’s about as difficult as it got friends!

Melbourne is much different. Boy was I schooled on the grocery shopping technique sans car! I picked up as much as my little basket could fit thinking that if I could carry the basket around in the store my muscles could easily handle the walk back to the hotel.  Picked up some milk, eggs, bananas, some other essentials (yes, of course taking advantage and exploring the range of regional wines!)….

Checked out at the self check out stand (yikes these prices are painful), bagged my groceries (still have to get myself some reusable bags here) and walked to our temporary home in these cuties:

My shoes aren’t always the most comfortable, but I thought I’d change that since my new city requires a lot more walking than car dependent L.A. Look at that cushioned insole! Don’t they just scream comfort? Perfect for a cute but casual errand running trip? I thought so too, until 5 blocks later when I arrived back at the hotel waddling into the room with killer blisters on my feet and four plastic grocery bags cutting into my hands. I dropped the bags on the counter, kick the shoes off and collapsed on the floor. Ok… sorry for the drama. But I seriously remember whispering to myself “you can do it!” when I was only half way to the hotel. I eventually did manage to get it together and whip up the ingredients that had cause so much pain into a descent meal. I might need a granny cart after all.