Friday, May 29, 2009


I knew Australia had wacky wildlife, but here’s a creature I didn’t know about: The dugong. These look like manatees, and I never did find anyone to tell me if they’re the same creature we have in North America. In any case, I’ve never seen a manatee with my own eyes, so this was a new experience.

These dugongs live in a deep tank in the Sydney aquarium. You can look down at them from a walkway around the edge of the tank, or you can walk through Plexiglas tunnels at the bottom of the tank and watch them swim above you.

That might sound scary, but even small children seemed to love it. Dugongs are the size of park benches, but so roly poly that it’s just hard to take them seriously. They look like they’re smiling as they happily Hoover up romaine lettuce left on the bottom of their tank in an approximation of the naturally growing sea grass they would normally eat.

(Lettuce! They got this big on lettuce! What in the world do they eat when they’re dieting?)

The aquarium has two large tanks. The dugongs live in one, and Great Barrier Reef creatures live in another. In one part of the second tank I saw a coral shelf surrounded by lots of little dentist-office fish. That was nice but we’d seen so many angelfish by this time that I was ready to move on pretty quickly. Just as I was about to walk away, a giant potato cod (“sofa cod” is more like it) drifted out from under the shelf and scared us half to death. Pipi and I both sort of shrieked, and as we looked around nervously to see who’d noticed, it slunk back under the rock to wait for the next victim. I almost think it was doing this on purpose. I guess it probably gets pretty boring swimming around the same tank day in and day out.

On an unrelated note, I want to apologize for being out of touch. Everything’s fine; it’s just kind not as easy as I’d hoped to get an internet connection and, as I think I mentioned, I’m on vacation! I won’t be for much longer, though, so posts should pick up soon.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Taronga Zoo

The zoo here is amazing, probably the best I’ve ever been to. It’s not just the scenery. The zoo also has great shows, like a ranger talk about birds punctuated by actual raptors and parrots swooping over the audience on cue. And there is a large Australian animal area that comprises almost half the zoo.

I have always had a particular love of koalas, so a highlight for me was getting to go into a cage with two of them. This one was named Katy, if I remember correctly. It might have been Katy’s friend Trevor. It’s kind of hard to tell them apart.

You can’t touch the koalas here, or anywhere in New South Wales, for that matter. Koala cuddling is only legal in a few states, and yes, there actually are laws on the books concerning koala cuddling. It’s a different country. So I don’t know what they feel like, but I can report that their fur looks very soft and plush, but maybe not so clean.

An interesting note about Australia: As anyone who has read Bill Bryson’s In a Sunburned Country knows, almost everything in Australia can kill you. It has toxic snakes, spiders, jellies, crocodiles, fish, and even seashells that can bring down a grown man. But the bears? Sleepy, stoned, and perfectly harmless.

(Yes, I know koala bears aren’t really bears, but I still think it’s interesting.)

Here is a link to more photos. I apologize if some of them don’t have captions yet. I’m on vacation!

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Tomb With a View

I expected to like Sydney, so I wasn’t a bit surprised that it has turned out to be a friendly, sunny, agreeable city. What surprised me a little bit was the discovery that it is also an attractive city. I knew the harbor was supposed to be pretty, and I knew the weather is good, and I knew that the Opera House is one of the worlds’ most striking buildings. But I also know that Sydney is a relatively new city, as world capitals go, and that it grew enormously in the last 50 years. I worried that this would mean a lot of bland, hastily built post-war sprawl.

In actuality, Sydney has a really interesting mix of old and new architecture. There’s no old district; instead you find solid sandstone Victorian-era government buildings right next to light glass skyscrapers. I find the variety nice to look at, and I can’t think of another city where old and new are integrated in exactly this way.

But far more striking than the architecture of Sydney is the setting. I know that everyone says this about the place, but I guess everyone has to discover this for his- or herself. What really drove it home for me is the observation that harbor views are so plentiful here that they are actually giving them out to dead people and animals.

On our first day, we visited a cemetery near Bondi Beach that stood on a bluff overlooking the open ocean. (It was a setting for some movie we’d never seen.) This was a spectacular setting, but it had nothing on what we saw yesterday at the zoo. The Taronga zoo is situated on top of a hill across the harbor from downtown Sydney. On a clear day, which we had, you can see the above vista from much of the park. It’s a little distracting. At one point, I couldn’t decide if I wanted to look at the giraffes in the foreground or the Sydney Harbour Bridge in the background more. I’m sorry if I’ve offended anyone by not automatically prioritizing God’s creatures over man-made constructions, but please keep in mind that they have giraffes at the zoo in my hometown, but I’d never before set eyes on the Sydney Harbor Bridge.

Here is a link to photos. I apologize if some of them don’t have captions yet. I’m on vacation!

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Greetings From the Land Down Under

Pipi and I are in Australia! We arrived in Sydney at 6am this morning, and hit the ground running, immediately embarking on a narrated tour of Sydney movie locations.

For most people, the highlight of this tour would have been driving very slowly past Nicole Kidman’s house, hoping she’d come out (no luck there); lunch on Bondi Beach; or getting the dish on where celebrities hang out in Sydney. But Pipi and I are not most people. Our favorite part was the very first stop on the tour. This was the Harbourview Hotel (pictured), which was featured in our favorite Australian movie of all time. We want to make our Harbourview stalking experience complete by going back for dinner or a drink (it’s one of those hotels that’s not for sleeping), but this will do for now.

After our tour, we stopped by a chocolate shop near our hotel that we saw from the van. This turned out to be Max Brenner’s Chocolate Bar, which offers chocolate bonbons, decadent chocolate desserts, fondue that is nothing more (or less) than a melted chocolate bar, and the best hot chocolate ever, in flavors like toffee and Dutch orange. I thought our hotel, at the edge of the Central Business District, was well located when I booked it, but now I know I made exactly the right accommodation decision.

Our day has been very long. We haven’t slept in a real bed since Sunday morning, and as I write, it’s Tuesday night. So we’re a little delirious, and it’s not just the cocoa taking. Tomorrow will probably be a long day, too, because I expect to be up around 4am with jet lag. The plan is to take a ferry across the harbor to the zoo. I wonder how early they open?

Here are some photos of our first day.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Waking up Canadian

Here’s an unsettling thought: You may be Canadian and not even know it.

If you’ve suddenly found yourself putting vinegar on your French fries, listening to a lot of Rush, or getting uncharacteristically excited about hockey, there’s a possible explanation: You may have become Canadian on April 17.

Probably you didn’t, though. My understanding is that the new laws apply only to people born outside of Canada to Canadian parents. So if you have no known connection to the great white north, it’s unlikely that you are now from there.

Still, if you find yourself seized with the sudden desire to smother perfectly good potatoes in cheese and gravy, you might want to check out this link to see if it is possible that you are Canadian.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

On a Different Note…

…So to speak, is the music of New Zealand opera legend Dame Kiri Te Kanawa.

Strangely, Ms. Kanawa has been in our local news lately because an employee of a bank in Alameda, California, is accused of embezzling a large sum of money from her.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Play it Strange

New Zealand tends to get overshadowed by its bigger, louder neighbor across the Tasman Sea. This has certainly been the case for me lately. I’ve been getting myself in the proper frame of mind for my upcoming trip to Australia by watching a lot of Australian movies and listening to a lot of music from down under.

My neglect of New Zealand’s contribution to popular culture is especially egregious right now, as May is officially New Zealand Music Month. (Well, it is in New Zealand, anyway.) This inspired me to put together a tribute to some of the strange, beautiful, genius music from the Land of the Long White Cloud.

Split Enz: Six Months in a Leaky Boat
Tim Finn’s New Wave paean to the rugged individuals who settled New Zealand.

The Swingers: Counting the Beat
Led by the mad genius Phil Judd, the Swingers were the most famous band to come out of Split Enz that wasn’t Crowded House.

Neil Finn: She Will Have Her Way
Here’s another Split Enz alumnus, Neil Finn, at his Beatlesque best.

Tim Finn: Fraction Too Much Friction
And here’s his brother, Tim. I saw him open for Suzanne Vega when I was in high school. At the time I hadn’t really heard of him, and was impatient for the main act. Now I wish I had been paying more attention.

Topp Twins: Untouchable Girls
Long before there were Tegan and Sara, there were the Topp Twins. This song might be better with the just the audio because the clothes and the hair are, frankly, a little distracting. But acoustic sister jams don’t get much catchier than this.

Flight of the Conchords: Business Time
Proof that New Zealand zaniness is alive and well in the 21st century.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Better Than a Boomerang?

I’m going to ask if I can’t pick up a copy of my thermal image on my way out of Australia. That would make a truly unique souvenir of my trip.

Friday, May 01, 2009

Are You Hot or Not?

I’ve been emailing a wonderful woman in Australia named Janice who organizes and conducts tours of movie locations in Sydney. Because Australia aside, I love Australian movies so much, I scheduled this tour for our first day in the country. In our emails, we’ve been trying to figure out exactly where and when we should meet.

In the course of figuring out how long it will take Pipi and me to get downtown from the airport, Janice has informed me that because of swine flu, there will be one brand-new immigration hurdle to jump through at the airport: a thermal imaging machine. These machines scan a traveler’s body and report his or her temperature down to a fraction of a degree. These machines can’t say for sure if a person has the H1N1 virus, but they can at least flag visitors arriving with a fever.

This seems like a pretty good idea. What would make it a great idea would be if they performed this screening before we got on the plane. They way they do it now, they can stop one infected person from bringing down a whole continent, which is good. But speaking selfishly, I’d really like it if they found a way to keep that one infected person from sitting next to me for 15 hours.