A weekend in Singapore

 

At the end of the Australian financial year (which falls in June for some odd reason) there was a massive sale for flights to Singapore. On a whim, my friend, Aurélie, and I booked tickets for a Friday- Tuesday night trip. It was crazy. A 7 hour flight for only 3 full days? What about the jet lag? What about the weather (30+Celcius), what about….here goes nothing.

As most trips do, this one started off not going as planned. Our little 6 hour hop across the pond, was delayed over two hours whilst we were already seated in the plane. Evidently the flight attendants didn’t match tickets with passengers correctly, and spent about an hour and a half going back and forth through the cabin coating heads, matching tickets, and furiously conversing with each other over the mishap. Eventually, the wheels were up and we were off.

We had planned ahead and grabbed a few Singaporean dollars prior to departure, which served us well when we need to get food quickly upon arrival. The airport alone was a sight to see. So big. So beautiful. So CLEAN. This was probably the most striking thing about Sinapore as a whole…the city was spotless.

As we left from the airport, I quickly learned why this city is sometimes referred to as futuristic. Their public transport system is quite simply supreme. It’s called the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT for short), and it was impressive. There were clear signs (in English, nonetheless), colored lines along the floor, and we never waited longer than about 2.5 minutes for the next train to appear.

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It was also extremely affordable. We used it exclusively for our travels during our stay and never spent more than about 5singaporean dollars per day.

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We had thoughtfully researched our location, and had pre-booked a beautiful Airbnb located in the Bugis district. The place was clean, new, well furnished, and a great launching pad to all the sites we wanted to see. The first evening, however, we were far too exhausted to venture anywhere, and with it already being about 8pm local time (though 11pm to our Aussie time-zoned bodies), we crashed after a quick meal.

 

 

Saturday- Day 1

On our first real venture out, our number one task was to find coffee. Not wanting to waste precious time, we popped into the first shop we saw, paid about 6.5 for an iced coffee (iced is the only way to go when at 9am the humidity is already above 85% and the temperature is hitting 30C). With coffee in hand we continued our walk until we saw a long line of locals queued up in front of a place called “Toast Box” (little did we know this would become our go-to brekky).

Aurélie tried a tradition kaya toast breakfast, while I indulged in what can only be described as the Singaporean equivalent of an egg mcmuffin. Only, this was SO MUCH BETTER. The bread looks like plain old whitebread, but I promise you, it simply isn’t.

Fueled by both caffeine and food, we headed off to China town (our main target for the day). Walking through the streets was a blur of color, people, shops and stalls.

I made notes of the more fragrant food options for our return trip, and we quickly made our way to the Budha Tooth Relic Temple, one of the larger ones in China Town. Our timing was impeccable as the Monks were in the middle of a morning prayer as we entered. It is traditional upon entering the temple to place extra layers of cloth over any exposed skin, and, in some instances, also remove your shoes. Seeing as the temperature was only climbing, we had chosen proper summer attire, and therefore had to add a few layers of cloth before entering. During our time in the temple, we were also treated to our first of many experiences of flash thunderstorms. We spent an hour or two wandering around the many levels of the temple (one of which included a museum), before finally reaching the rooftop gardens, where the sun conveniently reappeared.

For a refreshment, as we were both already feeling dehydrated, despite packing copious amounts of water, we stopped into a Hawker food centre. These Hawker centres are open air buildings that have dozens of food stalls within them. There is a hot debate over which hawker centres are the best in Singapore, so we chose the top rated one in China town, Maxwell Road. Aurélie’s eyes grew three sizes when she saw fresh coconuts (a luxury she has not enjoyed since her time living in Trinidad). Whilst she sipped that down (I never knew how gooey coconuts are), I found this fried shrimp pancake that I convinced myself was the perfect breakfast/lunch option. The meal was fast, cheap, fresh, and delicious. It was also an experience.

 

Did I mention just how HOT and humid this place was? Imagine 50+ food stalls (all with open flames and friers), piled into a relatively small open-air building, with nothing but a few fans helping to circulate fresh air. It’s toasty. Moreover, we quickly learned that napkins are just not a “thing” in Singapore. A very nice gentlemen directed us to sinks in the corner of the building which are evidently used for washing up after dining. Indeed, as the silverware shortage seemed to be similar to the napkin one, and thus after dining with only our fingers, it was quite necessary to have a good wash up. (the picture below is from a very nice indoor eating area at a mall…they had sinks at the hawkers, but they did NOT look like this)

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We continued on through China town, winding our way through the streets so we could pass by temples on our map.

IMG_2560We stumbled across another hawker centre in Little India, and Aurélie found another treat she had been missing, fresh made roti bread. I must admit, it was pretty delicious. Tracking down roti quickly became a theme for the duration of our stay, and proved to be quite challenging as google maps was incredibly unreliable at giving accurate opening and closing times for the food stalls. It seems shop owners here simply do as they please. So, arrive early, or no roti.

Little India had a completely different feel to China town. I must admit, I felt a lot more “watched” in the hawker center here than in China town. It didn’t seem like a lot of non-locals ventured to these lesser known hawkers and two young, female foreigners managed to attract a fair bit of attention. However, the colours and art made this section vibrant and beautiful and well worth a visit.

With a full day of walking under our belts, and our bodyweight lost twice over in sweat, we went home to clean up before dinner.

To say that I went to Singapore for this one meal is probably a bit of an overstatement, but to say I’d go back to have it again wouldn’t be far from the truth. We booked what would be our most expensive meal at Momma Kong’s in China town to enjoy the world-renowned Singaporean Chili crab. The crab was exceptional, and the sweet buns we had with it were straight from heaven. Highly, highly recommend this restaurant. A perfect end to our first full day.

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Sunday- Day 2

Having learned from our expensive first coffee, we had purchased some coffee from a store to make at home, and thus started day two with a much cheaper homemade iced coffee. We ventured over to our local Toast Box, repeating our meal from day 1, before heading off to the docks.

Today, we had decided to venture off the coast of Singapore to a little island called Pulau Ubin. With a population of 38 residents, and a size of about 10 square kilometers, it remains very underdeveloped compared to the mainland. You can only access it via little boats, and the only way to really travel the island is by bike.

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On arrival, we were greeted by 4 or 5 bike rental vendors. The lady we eventually rented from greeted us by saying “would you like a normal bike or a good bike?” I kindly asked what the difference was and she explained that a normal bike would be 8 dollars for the day, is a little squeaky and very old, whilst the good bikes are newer, have more gears, and run for 18 dollars. With the average drink costing around $15-20, we decided roughing it on an $8 bike was more cost effective. What an adventure.

No sooner had we handed over the money than another flash thunderstorm hit. Seeking the only shelter available, we huddled under a nearby tent with a few other travelers.

In true tropical fashion, the raging storm passed through quickly and we were on our way through the trails. Aurélie had mapped out our route, with an end target of the Chek Jawa wetlands at the end of the Island. While the distance wasn’t much (only a few kilometers), the bikes created some chaos. Slipping chains, missing brakes, and squeaky wheels had us very much appreciating our comparatively high-tech bikes back home in Oz.

We eventually made it to the reserve, and whilst the high tide covered some of the coral we were meant to see, the wildlife was abundant. We even caught sight of a swimming lizard ( a GIANT lizard).

Our trek by foot was slow, again, as the sun and heat was taking its toll. We found a seafood restaurant on the water. I enjoyed a small meal (feeling a bit dehydrated and not wanting to tempt my tummy), whilst Aurélie feasted on shrimp. I finished lunch at a coconut stand and finally had my first fresh cut coconut. Delicious.

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We headed back to the mainland and took a quick rest at home before venturing out on the town. We had our eyes on finding a rooftop for the sunset, and 1 Altitude Bar fit the bill. A $30 dollar cover charge seemed excessive, but with the included drink and the towering view of Singapore, it didn’t disappoint. The skyline was beautiful and seeing the shift from day to night, you get this sense that you are watching the city literally come alive from above. While most people opt to see the skyline from the Marina Bay Sands hotel (the one that looks like a boat on top of three buildings), this vantage point offered a beautiful view of the hotel itself.

Once the sun had set, we wandered along the riverbank and ended up stopping at one of the dozens of restaurants along the way. We chose ours mainly because the servers promised 30% off the food and a free drink each (you know the way to my wallet). We tried some calamari (one of my favorite seafood dishes), and the fry on them was superb and unlike any other version I’ve had before. Following dinner, we ended up exploring the Clarke Quay area, and Aurélie indulged my desire for a hearty dessert of sticky date pudding. Delicious end to day 2.

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Monday- Day 3

This morning we decided to break our routine and meander off the beaten path for a local dining experience (at least, this is the way Aurélie sold it to me). She had spent hours researching and had found this highly acclaimed traditional Singaporean breakfast café called Heap Seng Leong. When we got to the area, it took us about ten minutes to locate the tiny little café. The curb appeal was about as non-existent as the workers of the cafe.

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Two locals were having a laugh as we walked around the inside of the building complete confused. There was no front desk, no back kitchen, and no one standing up as we entered. What IS this place? Finally, the braver of the two of us (obviously not me), approached the men at the table and asked how we order. They pointed to a table at the back of the café where an old man and his father sat. We walked up to them, a bit uneasy and apprehensive, and asked for two traditional breakfasts (two poached eggs and a kaya toast) and returned to our seats. While the toast was actually not up to par with the aptly named “Toast Box” café, the kaya spread and eggs were delicious. They serve the eggs very runny (which was a bit of a worry to me), and with soy sauce.

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Amazing. I would have never walked into the place had I just walked by it, and I don’t think I would have walked up to the people in the back of this dimly lit building had I been alone. But this was the perfect example of that old adage about judging books by their covers…the cover was rough, but the story is now a cherished memory.

A little town called Joo Chiat, known for it’s beautiful housing and quirky neighborhood, was next on our list. The colours of the houses was reminiscent of pastel easter eggs.

I required some refueling after the walk (my ridiculously high metabolism was both a hindrance and bonus for the trip as I was constantly needing food, but then this allowed me to try all possible cuisines), so we ducked into a little café where I tried a different type of Bao bun (with pork floss). Bao buns had quickly become one of my favorite snacks in Singapore (think light and fluffy sweet bread), but I must admit, even for my pork-loving self, “pork floss” was a one and done experience.

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After a brief respite at our flat, we went our for the most anticipated destination of our entire trip, the Gardens by the Bay. My oh my, this did not disappoint. On arrival, we first wandered over to the onsite hawker center that some friends had recommended. I enjoyed a feast of satay skewers of shrim, beef and pork, and Aurélie found an oyster omelette and some roti. We seriously ate our way through this city.

We splurged a bit on tickets to the indoor attractions at the gardens, including the cloud forest and the flower dome. Whilst the flower dome was a bit unremarkable, the cloud forest was perhaps my single favorite destination of the entire trip. It contains the world’s tallest waterfall at 35 meters and this waterfall is the centerpiece of the exhibit creating both a calming ambiance and releasing a refreshing mist to the plethora of plants within the dome.

dscf5186.jpgThe tour through the clouds fittingly begins at the highest point of the dome. Escalators within the massive waterfall structure take you up to the peak of the falls, where you then follow skywalks that wind down and around the structure, with each level mimicking the flora of specific altitudes. Words don’t do it justice, and I’m not sure my pictures do either.

Our last stop in the gardens was by the Supertree grove. These are probably the most iconic part of the Gardens by the Bay, and, once again, they did not disappoint. Ranging in height from 25 to 50 meters, these 18 manmade trees tower over the gardens. The supertrees are adorned with over 160 thousand plants, and each tree has different planting schemes.

After we snapped some photos, we headed up to the Marina Bay Sands Hotel. We bought a ticket to the 57th floor and found a table at the rooftop bar Ce La Vi. This floor provided a 360 view of Singapore, but was actually slightly less impressive having already been to the 1 Altitude Bar. We ended the evening out by snapping some nighttime pictures of the Supertree grove.

Our ill-timed meals meant we arrived back to our local neighborhood craving food. We opted to explore local cuisine and found a chain of hawker stalls nearby. We had yet to try a couple local cuisines—Aurélie was set on “fish ball soup” (how that sounded appealing, I do not know), and I went for their traditional chicken and rice. With about a $5 price tag, we both had a massive amount of food to take back to our room. I paired my meal with a local beer from Raffles.

Whilst chicken and rice may sound a bit boring (I almost didn’t go this route for just that reason), the flavoring on both the rice and chicken is very unique and delicately, deliciously simple. Aurélie’s  fishball soup, however, tastes exactly as you would imagine it would. To put it simply, it was not to my taste. She claims she enjoyed it, but would never eat it again. I think that speaks for itself.

And so ended day 3….

Tuesday- Day 4

Today marked our last day and we had honestly ticked of everything on our sight-seeing bucket-list. Thus, we decied our last day would be spent exploring the extensive shopping malls along Orchard street in the Singapore CBD. These malls were massive. I’m talking 7 stories high, with 7-8 buildings spanning multiple city blocks, with underground passageways to go under the major roads and into the MRT stations.DSCF5277.JPG

We didn’t end up doing much shopping for apparel or trinkets, but rather shifted our focus (or maybe I should say “maintained our focus”) on the cuisine. We found a grocery store that had a 30 foot long fridge full of fresh sushi/sashimi/nigiri. We grabbed the most appealing option and then continued through the shop. Taste testing items is not only an option, its practically required. Aurélie happily obliged the attendants, gleefully gobbling down every food item within reach.

Around lunchtime, she found her last “must-try” food (I swear her list grew longer and longer throughout the trip). It was called carrot cake, but there was no carrot and there was no cake. It’s cooked radish with spices, and it was something I would never EVER have ordered myself, but was probably the best thing we tried in Singapore. HIGHLY recommend. Maybe it’s a good thing we discovered it on our last day. I enjoyed a fried Kway Teow. A safe but delicious bet.

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Knowing we had our overnight return flight this evening, and being entirely determined not to eat airplane food, I began accumlating a food stash. Beyond the sushi, I also found some more kaya toast, and discovered the best beef jerky of my life. The jerky, or Bakkwa as its called there, was fresh, tasty and not at all dry. They roast it in the oven before giving it to you, which makes it even tastier. I packed away a few servings for later. Our last food purchase was Pandan cake. Again, I don’t know how we got through 3 full days in this city without trying this, but maybe it’s for the best. It’s a fluffy green spongey cake found in Southeast Asia.

Late afternoon marked the end of our adventure and we grudgingly reported back to the airport for our overnight trek back to Melbourne. The trip was a whirlwind of an adventure and has given me all the evidence I need to confirm you can see an awful lot in just 4 days. I hope to go back to Singapore one day, but I also feel like I saw all the “top things” I wanted to see. 10/10 would do again.

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Mary and Mary…taking on the world one country at a time

While I wouldn’t say that I am particularly “well traveled,” I have had the opportunity to venture to a few foreign countries over my last couple decades. I’ve been to Chile (this only slightly counts since I was far too young to remember, but I heard stories), England, France (x2), Italy and now Australia. I think my European adventures have given me a good start, but I have a feeling I will be adding quite a few stamps to my passport over the next few years.

Perhaps what is more interesting than the number of countries I’ve visited (because, admittedly, it’s a relatively short list), is the people I’ve visited them with, or rather, the two people I’ve visited the most of them with.

My Nana and Papi always loved traveling. Ever since I can remember, they were always planning these grand adventures to new cities, states and countries. At one point or another, they stepped foot on all 7 continents and over 60 countries. Their travel stories and pictures are absolutely incredible. And what’s even more amazing was their passion for sharing the experience.

My first trip abroad (not counting Chile when I was only 2years old) was when I was 13 years old. My Nana and Papi had a plan to take each of their grandchildren in pairs to any two foreign cities of their choice for a week each (European ones preferably). My cousin Alex and I were the first up for the trip abroad, and I must say, I think it’s pretty incredible that my Nana and Papi kept their promise to the other grandchildren after dealing with two teenage girls for two straight weeks in foreign countries. Picking perhaps the most predictable, tourist-ridden destinations, my cousin and I ended up in London and Paris for our two weeks.

The trip was filled with inside jokes, laughter, whining, SO MANY photos, at least two crepes a day (in Paris), and memories that will last a lifetime. We returned to the states boasting to our fellow cousins about how there was no way they could ever top our trip. Afterall, we were the FIRST.

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While I wouldn’t say any of my cousins topped our trip, every adventure my Nana and Papi took the grandchildren on had its own special meaning to the travelers. There was another visit to Paris, along with a river cruise to Amsterdam, a flight to the Galapagos islands, and a couple other countries I can’t remember off the top of my head.

Beyond this initial trip to France with my Nana and Papi, I somehow convinced my Nana to be my travel buddy on a vacation to Italy one summer when I was in college. We spent months planning out our dream Italian adventure, and my Papi decided to let us ladies make the trip solo. We flew into Venice, travelled around Rome, and took a cruise along the Amalfi coast of Italy. On board we wined and dined (thanks Europe for that young drinking age), made friends, did daily tours through Sorrento, Positano, Pompeii, and I even became a certified scuba diver. Another amazing adventure with my Nana by my side.

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My other European travel experience was with my small family unit. My parents planned a month long vacation in France where we did all the non-touristy things by staying in two small towns in Southern Provence. We even rented homes within the towns, and spent our days amongst the locals, and our nights eating bread, olive oil and fresh meats. We traveled all around the South of France for two weeks. Surrounded by people whose English was only marginally better (sometimes) than our French, we endeavored (well, my dad and I did anyway) to speak only French. Since we had all studied French as our second language, having the opportunity to put this learning to use was an amazing experience. A couple weeks into our French adventure, my Nana (of course) and one of my cousins joined the family. We enjoyed another week and a half in France, hitting up Paris for my second time because, well, why not?

So you see, I have been very blessed with my travels. While each trip was uniquely special, every single one had one thing in common….or rather, one person in common. My Nana. Every country I’ve ever set foot in, she’s been there beside me.

Well, every country but one.

Australia has been my first trip abroad without any family, and perhaps more significantly, it is my first trip abroad without my Nana. Thankfully, however, our travel streak will soon be back to perfect. My Nana is due into Sydney Australia September 25th of this year, and I cannot wait.

Ever since I learned Australia was a possibility, my Nana and Papi had been planning to arrange a visit. My Nana’s “mum” was a native Aussie who moved to California for love early on in life, but left behind all her siblings in Sydney, Melbourne, and Tassie. While the older generation has passed on, my Nana has many cousins (my cousins twice removed) who now have children who all live in Australia. So me possibly moving to Australia gave my grandparents yet ANOTHER excuse to hop a flight to Oz. Unfortunately, my Papi passed away shortly after I finalized my decision to move here last year. He was so proud of my decision to pursue a PhD and even more so that I had chosen to earn it while living abroad. While I wish more than anything he was here to make the trip to Australia, I know he’d be so happy knowing my Nana and I are adding another country to our buddy travel check list.

Living abroad is an exciting adventure. It is a learning experience I wouldn’t trade for anything…but on those days when the homesickness hits a little harder than usual, it’s nice to know I only have a few more weeks before I will see someone who encompasses all that my home really is. We have conquered five countries together (counting the US, because, why shouldn’t that count?), and I am so excited to add my new home country, Australia, to that shared list. My friends think they’ve had enough to handle with this American Mary….wait ‘til they meet the American I’m named after!

25 days and counting until the Marys take on Australia. See you soon Nana

American Bubble

Have you ever seen those giant bubble balls at fairs and festivals? They are human-sized plastic bubbles filled with air that you can pay to climb into and bounce around on water whilst staying dry and playing bumper bubbles with everyone else in the pool. Heaps of fun, let me tell you. You can run into people full speed, walk on water, all while staying warm, dry and safe.

I think to some extent everyone lives in their own bubble. We are comfortable and safe within the known confines of our home, city, state, and country. You know that even if you bounce over to a new state, you are still in the same “pool” with fellow countrymen. You become so used to having this unifying connection that you start to not notice it anymore. You don’t notice the small ties that signify home and comfort. You don’t notice the words and phrases that are unique to your country. You don’t notice any of it…until it’s not there to notice.

When I came to Australia, I felt like I was taking my little bubble on a trip. I was going on this grand adventure and everything would be new and exciting. And it is an adventure, and everything is most definitely new and exciting, but I have no bubble. Maybe I lost it somewhere over the Pacific ocean on that 15 hour flight, maybe it was when I landed…in any event, I don’t have one anymore and it is both freeing and terrifying. Ok, let’s step out of this bubbliness for those who don’t handle metaphorical imagery well…

There is no “comfort zone” in a new country. Everything you do is new. Every conversation you have is just a bit more challenging, and every relationship you form takes a bit more work. I find myself thinking so much. Should I say that? What might that mean here? Is that offensive? Does this person get that I am being sarcastic? How do these trains work? Why are all the shops closed?…The list goes on.

I had headaches all the time when I first landed in Australia. I thought maybe I was getting sick, but I never got any other symptoms. A few weeks in, I figured it out. I was over-analysing everything. I spent my days literally playing a really twisted game of Mad Libs with Australians where they would say a sentence and at least two or three of the words were complete gibberish to me (almost worse than having a blank space in Mad Libs). Not wanting to seem completely oblivious, I would try and fill those blank spaces in my head with words I thought meant the same thing, but let’s be honest, I had no idea. I finally gave up. If I was ever going to actually understand what people were saying to me, I’d have to swallow my pride and start asking questions. So I did. My go-to response quickly became some combination of “Sorry, what does that mean?” “Excuse me?” and then, when feeling more blunt, “no clue what you said there.” It was hard at first to always feel like that person that was one step behind every conversation, but slowly over the next few months I started to catch up. Thankfully I’ve met some very patient people willing to not only define their odd slang, but to identify my common-place sayings that have very, errr, “alternative” meanings here in Oz.

I have only met one American since I’ve been in Australia, and she’s actually a friend of a friend from back home. So while it was a new connection for me, I have yet to meet any Americans in Australia free of the connections I have back home. I can honestly say I never expected to be in the minority ANYWHERE. And here, I’m in it every day. When I go out, I’m with Aussies, Italians, Brits, French, but never Americans. Every other country will be represented by multiples, but I’m riding solo from the good ole U.S. of A. On the one hand, you feel a bit unique. It’s a completely fresh start. There’s no one to hide away and discuss back home with. All the conversations you have are brand new. On the other hand, you see complete strangers connecting over a common nationality and part of you wishes you had that too…because that’s just a bit easier isn’t it?

But that’s just me wanting a bubble back. That’s me wanting to be in my comfort zone, and while that’s perfectly normal, I think I need to fight that. A couple months ago I was thinking about how I’ve never had so many international friends in my life. But I’ve been here 5 months now and they are no longer “international friends,” they are just friends. I’m noticing the differences less and less as we share experiences. There will always be some language oddities and cultural differences that we have, but those are just good for a laugh.

I’ve had a night with Australians where they literally spent HOURS trying to mimic the American accent (quite badly…I need to train them better). I laughed the entire time as they parroted back phrases that are directly from the most stereotypical AMERICAN movies ever produced. Every now and then I’d give them some good ole country slang as well. Some of the repeatable favourites of the night were hoedown, throwdown, mightcould, y’all, ain’t, fixin’ and any combination of those words (whether it made sense or not).

I had another night at the Queen Victoria market with three French and one Aussie friend where we spent a solid hour trying to figure out what we were each saying as our accents were so vastly different. Sadly none of that conversation is post-able as, like everyone does when learning about a new language, we pretty much only shared words with dirty double meanings.

Being American with few other Americans around naturally means I get ragged on quite a bit. Like most countries, America has plenty of stereotypes that make Americans a fairly easy target for jokes. While at first it can be a bit exhausting, I’ve decided it’s much more fun to embrace the experience and respond with a shrug and “ ’Murica” or “we da best.” It’s a bit tongue and cheek, and some of the conversations we have do lead to more serious discussions of cultural and political differences, but mostly everyone comes into the chats open-minded, curious, and non-judgemental.

My experience so far isn’t quite what I expected. I don’t think I could have predicted just how out of my comfort zone every little thing would be. Everything I did for the first month or two took so much energy. I thought Advil and ibuprofen were going to become staple “vitamins” in my days. It got easier though. Every day I feel a bit more settled, a bit less aware of my foreign-ness, and a bit more a part of the culture here. It’s a slow process, and anyone who hasn’t moved abroad long term would never quite understand all of the little challenges, but it’s the little things that keep life interesting. I thought I was happy in my bubble back home, and I was, but you can’t truly appreciate how comfortable a place is, until you leave it. You can’t truly understand your limits if you never push past them. And you can never push past them if you don’t step out of that bubble.

On a non-metaphorical note…everyone should try the literal water bubble balls at some point though…they really are fun!

My first weekend out and about in Melbourne

This past weekend was my first real weekend in Melbourne. Not to say that the weekend before to the sanctuary wasn’t incredible (it truly was something I will never forget), but this was my first weekend where I went out and about in the city and my suburb.

Friday night some colleagues at work invited me to come along for dinner and drinks in the Central Business District of Melbourne (I guess technically I’m not sure if they’d be colleagues since they are all staff and a bit older, but that’s what they called me and I’m going with it). So after work (school?) Friday we went straight from the Uni to the train station in Footscray. They had told me I was welcome to tag along on their journey in, or I could just meet them at the restaurant. Having absolutely no idea how to get around, I obviously opted for the former option. Everything was new and overwhelming. They walked through the town with ease, whilst I tried to keep up and turn the right way.

The trip was actually fairly easy from the train station as most of the lines take you right into the city center. I was able to snap one nighttime shot of the semi-well known Flinders Street Station, but other than that I just enjoyed being in the moment and kept my phone pocketed. My companions seemed to thoroughly enjoy my excitement and lead me on the more scenic tour of the CBD.

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I’ve never experienced anything like Melbourne. In the states restaurants are mostly self-contained entities that each provide their own atmosphere upon entering, but in Melbourne (much like some European countries) most of the restaurants had an outdoor component as well (seating, entertainment, etc). This changed the entire feel of the city as each unique dining experience was contributing to the overall buzz of the street life. As we wound through the alleys, I was just in awe of the sheer variety of shops, sweets and restaurants. You’d be walking down a fairly average unexciting alleyway only to turn right into a walkthrough indoor mall strip beautifully adorned with artwork on the walls and mosaic tiles on the floor. Needless to say I am already planning a return expedition into the city in order to truly get lost with my camera.

I was with a smaller group of four, but there were plans for a rendezvous with the larger group for birthday drinks at Myers Place bar. Since we had some time to kill we started the evening at this little outdoor diner for some drinks. Everyone had their favorite drink in mind almost instantly but I had to peruse the menu for a few minutes, not knowing ANY of the drinks listed. I found a word I recognized (lager) and ordered an O’Brien light lager as my first Aussie beer. I’m sure there will be many more to come, but this was a great, light pre-dinner drink. It was light on the alcoholic content and very refreshing.

Luckily I had read enough to be prepared, but for those who don’t know, drinks here (and restaurants in general) are quite expensive. A beer will set you back (outside of some specials you can sometimes find) about $8-10 , wine can be a little less, but for the most part about the same and cocktails seemed to start around $13-15. The other odd aspect of dining out is that the restaurants do not split tabs. It’s just not something that is done. So when you go out, you always bring cash to cover whatever your portion of the meal is. Most places also have a $10minimum charge if you want to use a credit card as well, which also encourages the use of cash (though, you won’t find too much for less than $10 anyway).

One of the women picked up the tab at the first restaurant and refused to be paid back and throughout the night it seemed to me that they kind of work on the principle of I’ll get this one, you get next time, and sometimes they just genuinely want to buy you a drink. We had a quick meal at a little Mexican restaurant (can’t remember the name), and then we were off to the main event. It’s a good thing I rode with them as I don’t know how I’d ever have found the restaurant off some random alleyway.

It was a small but homey venue, and the birthday girl had packed out the place with people from the Uni. I mostly stuck with my group but met a few PhD students (finishing up their dissertation) from Vic Uni. I had some of the delicious Shiraz wine and just enjoyed chatting with the melting pot of friends I had made (one from Adelaide, one form the Netherlands, another native Aussie and a New Zealander. Between the lot of us we had great conversation.

I had my first “oh no” experience with a word that night (thankfully I was around the friends who, after correcting me and having a good laugh, shared their own “oopsie” moments with language). So I won’t go into the details of the reason why the conversation was had, as it would take too long and I can’t remember all the details, but somehow I used the word fanny (meaning it as a person’s backside). The Aussie immediately turned a shade of red and asked me to repeat what I had said and then laughed. He then explained that fanny here meant, um, hmm, a woman’s front side…and it’s apparently quite a dirty slang for it. OOPS. I immediately explained what I had meant and we all had a good laugh. Note to self—never discuss fanny packs.

On the whole the night was an amazing first venture into Melbourne. One of the women drove me home, so there was no stress of which train where and when.

Saturday morning I had made plans with a girl I’ll be doing research with through the hospital here to do a timed 5k along the river by my house. I woke up bright and early, but after a late night of drinking and socializing, I had to drag myself out of the house to make it to the start line on time. I shared hellos with the girl before the race, but then quickly expressed in the most sincere way that she NOT wait for me or try to pace with me during the race. I have not run since October, and even this little 5k kicked my tail. All that being said, the scenery was breathtaking. We ran along the river and saw many other joggers, dog walkers, families, rowers and stand up paddle-boarders along the path.

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I underestimated the sun’s strength even at 8 in the morning so by the end I was a bit overheated. Luckily Catherine (my new friend) and her husband took me out to a brunch to chat and recover. The lunch conversation deserves its own blog post entirely as it was my first real chance to compare life, politics, and economics in the US to Australia. Needless the say the conversation was enlightening for all and a true, honest exchange of culture.

I finished off the weekend with Jason and Sandee and kids at a festival in their neighborhood (it seems there are always festivals here!). I don’t know what I was expecting, but this festival was more akin to a city fair at home. There was live entertainment, free smoothies, face painting, kids activities, rides, food, etc.

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(me blending smoothies)

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(Sandee and I enjoying the spoils of my hard work)

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(goofing off)

It was an incredibly hot day (high 90s—or mid 30s in C), so we had to head home for a break and dinner midday. It was good timing as a small storm popped out of nowhere (as they all seem to do here). Thunderstorms tend to freak me out a bit, and this one was no exception, but as we were outrunning the storm I couldn’t help but look back at the beauty of it all. I’ve never seen rain that looked like that

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We returned to the festival for the fireworks show (which was INCREDIBLE). Seriously guys, the Australian sky is MADE for fireworks. They filled up the entire sky

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This weekend was an important one for me as it really helped me feel a bit more settled in my new home. I’ve got a lot to learn still about the transportation, language (whoops), and culture, but for now I have to say I am really loving every bit of this crazy adventure down under.

 

P.S. I hit a new personal record in steps saturday and accordingly haven’t moved at all today

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Selfies with Kangaroos

This weekend it happened. I finally had my “oh my gosh, I am really in Australia” moment. It may have taken a week and a half for it to hit, but boy was it worth the wait.

This past weekend I traveled to Healesville Sanctuary (one of three zoos in the state of Victoria). I was thankful to have the opportunity to tag along on my Advisor’s (Jason) family trip out there (lucky for me they’ve adopted me into the family fold!) as this zoo is in no way easily accessible to me with only public transport and a bike at my disposal.

As we wound through the country roads, we got out first (or maybe just my first) real look at the Australian landscape, and I must say, I was surprised. We were in no way near the desert outback, but we were out an hour and a half from the CBD (central business district) of Melbourne. I expect to see dry, flat land with a lot of open fields, but where we were was lush and green (well as green as I’ve seen Australia anyway) and there were hills. There were HUGE hills. Hills big enough to cause some ear popping as we wound our way through them.

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(not the best picture from the car, but you get the idea)

As we drew closer to the sanctuary the landscaping only improved as we hit wine country. The vineyards were breathtaking, and we must have passed dozens of them. I made a mental note to find a wine tour that traveled out that way at some point.

Since it was a family outing, we all did our best to find kid friendly shows and activities and keep the little ones entertained as best we could, and luckily much of their interests coincided with mine. My long list of must-sees boiled down to Koalas and Kangaroos. And all expectations of the sightings were surpassed.

The zoo was beautiful. It reminded me of the Asheville Zoo in North Carolina back home in that the animals were, for the most part, in larger pens where they had some room to roam around. Beyond even the animal enclosures though, the walk around the zoo was scenic on its own.

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(walking through the zoo)

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(still within the zoo–incredible)

They had sculptures throughout (and some were interactive water sprayers) and the trees concealed any signs or sounds of human life outside of the sanctuary.

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When we made it to the kangaroos, I could hardly contain my excitement. They were in an enclosed pen that you could walk through. The animals had safe spots behind ropes if they wanted, and for the most part that’s what they wanted, but there was one little roo who was just curious enough to come say hello and I got some awesome shots of him(her?).

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It was a HOT day (95F so about 32C), so going in I assumed  that most of the animals would be hiding out in the shade, and while some were, a lot were out and about. It seemed like we kept hitting each pen at the opportune moment (feeding time). Even the Koalas (famous for their 22 hours of sleep per day) were roaming around when the keepers brought fresh food out. I managed to grab a few decent shots of those fuzzy old men as well.

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The whole trip was a grand adventure and a great kickoff to life down under. I don’t feel “at home” here yet (and maybe I never will, but 2 weeks isn’t enough time to know, give me a break!), but at least I can finally say two things for certain.

One- I am DEFINITELY in Australia.

Two- I got a selfie with a kangaroo!

Cheers!

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New home, new Uni, same old American girl

This week I moved into a townhouse with an American roommate I found before heading over. The story of our connection is semi-long so let’s just say we had mutual connections at UNC Chapel Hill (where we both attended – though not at the same time). It feels great to finally unpack all of my suitcases and feel like I have a bit of a “home” here. This is my new bedroom:
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It’s a fairly average size from what I’ve seen of the homes here and it has ample storage space for my modest amount of personal items. It is in a quieter part of town, but incredibly convenient to a shopping center (one of the LARGEST shopping centers around—and certainly bigger than any American equivalent I’ve seen.

My first night Ashley showed me the way to the shops in order to procure the groceries I needed to make my first mealin Oz. My jaw dropped when I saw the fresh market at this shopping center. It was HUGE.

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So how the shopping centers work here (or at least my experience of THIS one) is that they have EVERYTHING in them. They have clothing, banks, speciality shops (like at malls), produce markets, chain grocery stores, meat markets and pastry shops! It’s setup like a mall, so everything is indoors, but the pure size of this one is incredible. Back to the fresh market though. It is so vast that I literally didn’t know where to start. They had every fruit imaginable (and plenty unimaginable), and whatever they had, they had 10 varieties of. I’ve never seen so many plums in my LIFE.

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And all the fruit looked delicious
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Ashley circled the market like a pro, scouting prices, freshness and quality…meanwhile I fumbled around looking for recognizable fruits and veggies (bananas, grapes and lettuce), before ending up at the plum section. I’m not sure I’ve ever eaten a plum before, but I couldn’t leave the market without at least trying one of the varieties (it was delicious….no, I don’t remember which one I got).

Following the fresh market, we ventured over to Woolworths (the chain grocery store here) to get more of the everyday foods. I thought I was somewhat prepared walking in as I’ve shopped and cooked for myself for years now, but when you go to the deli counter and see every price in AUD$ and every weight in kilos and grams, you realize you are about to really show off your American-ness. Thankfully everyone around was incredibly nice and helpful.

Whilst wandering the store I did see some delicious imported beer….sadly it’s now quite out of my price range

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The BEST thing I purchased by far and above were these little pieces of heaven
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They live up to their hype in every way imaginable. YUM.

Ok, enough on food. I also visited the Uni (University) Monday for the first time. When you first walk up to it, it doesn’t seem all that special. Honestly it’s a bit dull with its old brick exterior, but as you wind through the paths you come across benches and trees and sculptures that make you feel like the place has some character. Beyond that, the building I will be working out of is the newest on campus and is stunning.

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(ISEAL-Institue of Sport, Exercise and Active Living)

I also started setting up my teaching contract. My advisor arranged for me to teach tutorials to Masters students at the Uni. Well, he set me up to teach “Tuts” (pronounces toots). It really is true that Aussies abbreviate everything. It honestly feels a bit like they let loose a bunch of teenage girls and had them shorten every word and then said “Yep. That’s perfect. Let’s all talk like that.” I don’t mind it at all, in fact I kind of love it, but until you know the lingo, it truly feels like everyone around you is speaking a different language.

I also had my welcome to Australia moment. Throughout the day I kept hearing semi-disturbing whispers after I mentioned my new town Maribyrnong. I overheard “river….body,” from one person, and a bit later after the same conversation with another person I caught the words “pieces…floating.” Needless to say as soon as I made it home, I looked up what the fuss was about. Evidently police here identified a body that was found in bits and pieces in the river near my town. OY. Ironically (I don’t know if it’s good or bad ironic, or if it’s even ironic at all) the death was not animal related. So much for the animals being so scary (STILL NO SCARY ANIMAL SIGHTINGS).

I met about 50 people I don’t remember and maybe 3 I do (not bad odds for me, honestly). I tripped UP the stairs in a grand, embarrassingly loud fashion twice (only one of which someone saw), and I got lost trying to find my way back to the room my advisor wanted me to meet him. All in all I’d say I got the full first day experience. Today was slightly less eventful, but I’ll save more stories for next time.

Cheers, Mates!

Living in the Sun Globe

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(View of Melbourne from the Train Station)

I think the weirdest part of my first few days living in Australia has been how NOT weird it has been. Don’t’ get me wrong, this is different, it’s a challenge, and I am definitely NOT in Kansas (the US) anymore…but it still isn’t quite the extreme I expected.

I guess it goes back to Americans’ expectations of what Australia is. We think outback, snakes, spiders, crocodiles—ok,ok, so we mostly only think of everything that can kill you, but isn’t that what Australia IS? Well, no.

So far Australia seems like some weird cross between England, Miami and California. It reminds me of England because they speak English, but not really (more on that later). Miami comes to mind due to the landscape and plants (built for hot weather!), and the cool wind even in the bright sun reminds me of my trips to California. The truth is, it still doesn’t FEEL like Australia, or at least the Australia I thought I was jumping into. I haven’t seen a spider, snake or shark, well, unless you count this big guy.

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(Giant shark slide the kids were loving)

So to all my American friends–Australia (at least in the cities) isn’t as scary as we all picture it to be. I haven’t even checked my shoes for spiders, though I do still look for snakes EVERYWHERE, but that could be due to my past run of bad luck with poisonous critters.

Now for what you REALLY want to hear about…all the weird things I’ve seen thus far! Let’s see, the new words I’ve learned thus far are:

Tasty cheese—seems to be some sort of cheap cheddar like cheese that I believe can pass for “American cheese”…I opted for swiss cheese that day as it looked questionable.

“Give way” signs—these are in place of “yield” signs….Made me smile

Sunnies– I overheard someone say to a friend “I really like your sunnies” and quickly figured out that they were referring to sunglasses. I like this abbreviation and will be adopting that one immediately.

Fairy Floss– Cotton candy’s cuter name…I love it. It reminds me of in france where it is referred to as something that translates to “Papa’s beard.” Personally, I prefer fairy floss….

I’m sure there are many more words I’ve forgotten, but those are the ones that have stood out to me.

Today was my first day out and about in the CBD (central business district of Melbourne) as we went to a Festival at Saint Kilda Beach. Hundreds of thousands of people flocked to the festival and though the morning was overcast (and a bit chilly with the wind blowing off the bay), the sun came out early afternoon and I saw the city in its natural light. It was beautiful. It is much like any other city with it’s large skyscrapers, graffiti marked alleys, and lots of trees. Melbourne has the added benefit of a river cutting through it and a bay up against it. To call it scenic is an understatement.

On the way to the city there are plenty of smaller suburbs (some of which are picturesque and some one would deem “sketchy” to travel through at night). There are also plenty of open patches of land with the wildlife look I expected from Australia. Flat lands with small rolling hills, dried grass next to plants that have seen way too much sun and are too little rain and very small trees. I loved that part of the train trip because it made me feel like I was truly down under.

No matter where I’ve been these last three days, one thing has stood out to me above all else and that is just how BIG the sky is. I feel like the only pictures I have been taking here are while utilizing the panorama setting on my camera because the normal photo simply can’t do the sky justice.

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(Saint Kilda Beach)

I truly feel like I am in a sun globe. I look up at the sky and think that surely this is exactly what someone in a snow globe would be seeing if their snow globe had sun. The sky truly feels like an immersive Imax experience and I simply cannot get enough of it. And the sunsets…oh my those sunsets…

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(Sunset from Jason and Sandee’s House in Caroline Springs)

Tomorrow will be a busy day as I finally get to see my University (I need to get used to calling it the Uni), and I will move into my new townhome, closer to school and closer to the CBD). It has been such a blessing to have this pitstop with my Adviser and his family, as being around friends made the transition much easier…still, I am very excited to finally unpack all of my suitcases (as I’ve been living out of them not wanting to unleash the chaos until I am in my own room).

Wish me luck as I continue this venture, friends. I am sure I will have trying times ahead, but so far I am adjusting well to my new life living in the sun globe.