2.14.2012

Highlights from Australia (Part 2)

Hey! Remember that one time when I got to go to Australia and then I promised to blog about it? Never mind the fact that nearly four months have passed -- I still feel a need to finish my account of the trip, for personal history reasons if nothing else (this little blog is my only journal). When I last wrote, I described the flight to Sydney and my first day abroad. Perhaps less written word and more pictures will make it easier for me to wrap it up. Here goes:

Day 2

This was Scott's last day of "work" (does yacht sailing and fancy dinners really count as work?), so I spent the morning on my own. I went for another run in the warmest hotel fitness center ever and had to abandon my treadmill after about 25 minutes because it was seriously so hot in there. There are few feelings more uncomfortable than having to leave a fitness center drenched in sweat then ride in an elevator up 30 floors with a lovely young couple who, unlike you, are not smelly and dripping with perspiration, wishing you could apologize for your grossness. Thankfully I was soon able to make myself look presentable and grab a bite to eat at the hotel restaurant, where I learned that if you ask for oatmeal you will get a blank stare. Asking for "oats" or "porridge" is how you do it down under.

The company hosting the conference that brought Scott to Sydney was having a final hurrah, a boat cruise luncheon through Sydney Harbor. Lucky for me, "traveling companions" were invited to attend. The weather was perfect (we lucked out and had blue skies and sunshine the entire week we were there) and the views of Sydney Harbor were so lovely.

the Sydney Harbor Bridge

That evening we went out to dinner with Scott's boss, James, to a bustling restaurant in Milson's Point, by the Luna Park harborside amusement park. The table we sat at was almost directly above the open air North Sydney Olympic pool, right on the harbor. I had my first taste of the kind of seafood Australia has to offer when I tried barrramundi, and it was delicious.


Day 3

With all of Scott's work obligations over, we were able to embark on our first day of touristy fun! We hopped on a bus and headed out to spend the day exploring the coastline. We began at Bondi beach and did the Bondi to Coogee coastal walk, a 12-kilometer round trip walk along cliffs and beaches. It was beautiful!


We didn't stop to swim, or even dip our toes in the water, but we certainly soaked it all in. We had lunch in Coogee before heading back the way we came. The coastal walk was very pleasant and not too strenuous, though there were some hills and sections with lots of stairs. I was again impressed by all of the runners I saw along the path, though who can blame them for wanting to exercise with such a stunning view along the way? Bondi is also a destination for many celebrities who visit Australia. A few weeks after I visited, Leonardo DiCaprio was there, so he and I have that in common.

Leo and I could totally be friends since we like the same locations
After our time on the coast, we headed back to the hotel and were able to briefly relax before starting  our next adventure: climbing to the top of the Sydney Harbour Bridge! Scroll up to the first picture I posted, the one of the bridge. Look to the far left of the picture and you'll notice some tiny little specs on the lower ridge of the bridge... those are people, making their way to the top. That's what we were gonna do.

This really was my idea of fun, not Scott's. He's not a big fan of being up that high, but honestly, it could not have been much safer than it was. When you first arrive, you participate
in a thorough safety training, complete with a breathalyzer test (wouldn't want to go to the top of a bridge while intoxicated, right?). At no time during the climb did I ever feel like I was in danger, but it was still exhilarating! We were decked out in grey jumpsuits, headphones so we could hear the instructions and historical insights we were being given, and a headlamp for when it got dark (we did the twilight climb where you go up while the sun is setting and come down in the dark). Yes, it was such a touristy thing to do, but I loved it! Scott ended up not hating it, either.


Day 4

Despite feeling exhausted from a busy previous day, we were out early to catch a minibus for a day-long tour of the Blue Mountains. Just about an hour outside of Sydney lies an entirely different world than the one you're used to near the harbor. The Blue Mountains consist of a series of plateaus and gorges. The views were breathtaking and our guide was great.

the Three Sisters rock formation

At one point, we hiked down 1000 stairs to a little rainforest situated deep in one of the gorges, going from a desert landscape to a tropical climate in a matter of minutes. Our guide taught us much about the region, and pointed out all sorts of wildlife and fauna along the way.


When we made it back to the hotel, it was time to find some dinner and then crash, as we were completely exhausted! I ate kangaroo, in the form of a burger, and deemed it to be yummy.

Day 5

We were up and on our way early so that we could catch a train out of the city in order to visit and do a session at the Sydney Temple, which is actually located on a busy street in the suburb of Carlingford. We had to take a train, then catch a bus, then walk a few blocks on foot in order to get there, but it was worth it.


After we got back to the city, we spent the afternoon shopping! I always struggle when it comes to buying souvenirs, because I don't like clutter and have no desire to accumulate knick-knacks. If I'm going to spend money while on vacation, I'd rather have it be for an experience or a fantastic meal. After wandering around searching for gifts to bring back for the kids and my mom, Scott finally convinced me to do a little shopping for myself. I wanted to get something to wear that would help me remember our trip, but I'm not much of a t-shirt wearer and all of the "Australia" souvenir shirts were just not my style. Eventually we ended up in a regular clothing store where I combed the racks for cute stuff, and came up with some great finds! Who needs a commemorative shot glass when you can come home from a trip with a fun new outfit instead?

Cute outfit, right?

We also bought loads of Australian candy and treats for the kids. This turned out to be the best souvenir of all for them. Trying candy from other parts of the world is fun -- some taste wonderful, others are so gross.

Tim Tams are amazing. Turkish Delight tastes like soap
That night we found a restaurant that was like a dream come true for Scott: you walk up to a counter where there are a dozen different choices of meat, you make your selection, then go have a seat on the patio, with grills nearby whereon you can cook the meat yourself!


Day 6

The day started with breakfast inside a chocolate shop/cafe. I had nutella french toast. At that point, it was clearly going to be a great day.


After breakfast, we walked over to the Sydney Opera House and proceeded to take the hour-long tour through that remarkable building. It was informative and fascinating, and certainly one of the highlights of the trip for me. I had no idea about all of the politics and controversy involved in the construction of that building. While the interior could certainly use an update (red worn-out carpets, funky 1960's design) the architecture is truly marvelous to behold.

the cheesy photo we got as part of the tour. we were in front of a green screen that was filled in later with images from the opera house
After the Opera House we made our way over to the Sydney Fish Market, the largest working fish market in the southern hemisphere. Because it was a weekend, the place was packed. We wanted to do a bit of exploring, but we were mainly there to get some battered, deep-fried treasures from the sea.

yummy
fish and chips

Later that afternoon, we wandered through the Sydney Botanic Gardens, which are located right on the waterfront. It was such a beautiful day and we were surrounded by the most lovely flora and fauna that Australia has to offer.

the rose garden

Not to mention the birds and bats! We in the United States consider cockatoos to be quite exotic, but in Sydney they roam around park lawns much like pigeons or seagulls do here. In order to spot a sleeping flying fox bat, all you have to do is look up into the branches of trees that line the garden walkways.

a cockatoo wandering around the botanic gardens
giant flying foxes sleeping just above our heads

We weren't able to stick around long enough to see the bats' nightly awakening and mass evening flyout because we had a dinner reservation and we didn't want to be late.

I've tried not to spend too much time writing about the food we ate, even though most of it was superb, but I must say that our dinner at Boca was my favorite meal by far. Argentinian food is so yummy, and this restaurant was quaint and had a wonderful atmosphere. One interesting thing about most restaurants and cafes we went to in Sydney is that you can pretty much just seat yourself wherever you'd like. The restaurants are laid out differently than what we're used to in the states -- rather than one big room with loads of tables, instead there are several small rooms, many upstairs or on a back patio. We chose a spot on the rooftop patio, and were the only ones up there the entire time.

Boca!

The meal was fantastic, the service was excellent, the ambiance was ideal, and the desserts were to-die-for.

meat
flan

crepes filled with dulce de leche

Day 7

This was our last day in Australia and our flight was scheduled to leave mid-afternoon, so we had time for just one more outing. We hopped on the ferry and enjoyed the beauty of Sydney Harbor one last time as we traveled to the Taronga Zoo. With only a couple of hours to kill before we had to head back, we tried to see as much as we could. There were koalas, Tasmanian devils, emus, wallabies, meerkats, wombats, and of course, kangaroos.

The best exhibit at the zoo was an enclosure where you walked along a path and wildlife including kangaroos, emus, and wallabies roamed freely all around you.

koala hug!

it's a kangaroo!
the view from the ferry on our way back from the zoo

After the zoo, our trip had come to its end as we went back to our hotel to gather our luggage, hopped into a cab and headed to the airport. The flight back was a bit less enjoyable than the trip out had been and I didn't manage to get much sleep. We had a 7-hour layover in San Francisco, so once we got through customs, we settled into United's red carpet club to wait it out. It was mid-day but felt like the middle of the night to my body clock. I struggled to stay awake because I didn't want to have a hard time falling asleep once we got home. Our flight landed in Chicago just after midnight. After being gone for a week I was so happy to sleep in my own bed!

My mom, who had been tending the kids, went home the next day. I was left to deal with massive jetlag and get the kids back in line after a week of being spoiled by Grandma. The hardest part about having a getaway isn't the crazy amount of planning and preparation that goes into being able to leave, it's the feeling you get when you have to come back. Reality is tough to face after a week of being carefree. I am so grateful to my mom for coming to watch the kids, to my dad for letting her come, to all the friends who I asked to help give my kids rides to their various activities. Planning a trip like this is a ton of work, but is absolutely worth it!

That's all for now. I think I might have one more post about Australia coming... with a few more observations about what it's like on the other side of the world. But for now, thanks for reading this lengthy post and for being patient with my inability to get this up before the holidays hit me like a ton of bricks.

Now I'm left pondering where in the world I would want to go next. Not that I think we'll get to take another trip like this anytime soon, but it's still fun to dream.

Where in the world would you go, if you could go anywhere?

12.07.2011

a little ray of sunshine

It's been a rough couple of weeks:
  • I caught a serious cold Thanksgiving weekend that still lingers, even two weeks later. Colds seem so harmless until you get one and remember just how awful they can be. Crappy sleep, fatigue, sinus pressure, painful sore throat, uncontrollable coughing -- all no fun. Getting sick at the onset of the holidays is not ideal. My natural inclination to plan ahead and be super-organized has been thwarted by the overriding need to get what little rest I can. Thus, though my shopping is almost done, I haven't even begun to work on my Christmas cards, mail packages, wrap gifts, or plan my holiday baking schedule. One silver lining, though, is that by some miracle, no one else in my family has gotten sick (knock on wood).
  • What little energy I do have is being consumed by the Christmas Breakfast being held this weekend, for ~350 people, that I am co-in-charge of. I am co-responsible for feeding and entertaining a whole heap of folks. One interesting lesson I've learned during the past few months of planning: everyone has an opinion about how things should be done, and no two opinions are the same. In other words, it's impossible to please everybody. Also, making changes from the way things were done in the past -- even when done with a lot of thought, prayer, and the best of intentions -- will cause backlash that requires very thick skin.   
  • Guess what decided to die last week? No, not the beta fish that has lived, despite total neglect, for almost 4 years in a bowl on our kitchen counter. Our furnace! If you're keeping track, which I know you aren't, that means that in the past 18 months we've had to replace our air conditioner, hot water heater, and furnace. And who doesn't want to spend thousands of dollars on fancy home upgrades no one will ever see and will only notice if it stops working? Home-ownership demands so much more than just a mortgage payment. I love my home, and am grateful for the comfort it provides, but I wouldn't mind a break from having to tap into our "rainy day" savings quite so often.
The little ray of sunshine in what can only be classified as a trying couple of weeks, came in the form of this movie preview, recently released:



I feel better now.

Oh, and I promise Part 2 of my Australian adventure will be posted at some point this month. Try to contain your excitement.

In the meantime, why don't you tell me what you would do to entertain 350 people who don't want to participate in anything and would much rather just talk to their friends? I've considered forcing folks to do all sorts of awkward skits, getting-to-know-you games, or relays (because the pass-the-orange-from-neck-to-neck game would be hilarious). What do you think?

11.16.2011

Highlights from Australia (Part 1)

I can hardly believe that a month ago today I got on a plane bound for Sydney. I don't know how successful I will be at writing posts detailing every moment of my trip, and I don't assume that you have much of an interest in reading them. But, since I don't ever write in a journal, I figure this is my best shot at recording the experience. True to the nature of this little blog, I'm just going to give you random bits and highlights. Perhaps a few pictures, too. And since I am rarely capable of keeping it brief, expect a lengthy post (or two).

Getting There

My Sunday night flight from Chicago to LA was packed. I sat next to two sleepy, harmless women on their way back from a trip to Paris. I was traveling with just a carry-on suitcase, my purse, and a little pillow. Everyone on the flight had a carry-on suitcase, and I was one of the last people on the plane to get my bag in the overhead compartment before they started checking luggage. I was in such a rush to get my bag up and get into my seat that I forgot to get my book out of the front pocket of my suitcase. After all the passengers had boarded, but before the safety information video started, I jumped up to get my book. I had stowed my bag a few rows back, and as I went to open the compartment door I realized that I was too short to reach the pocket at the top of my bag where the book was stored. Being short is really inconvenient. So I looked around, found a nearby handsome aisle-dweller, and casually said, "Excuse me, sir? Do you happen to be taller than 5'2"?" He laughed and said that he was (thank goodness or that would have been embarrassing). I asked him to get my book, he smiled and willingly obliged, I returned to my seat and spent the next four hours buried deep in The Death Cure.

I waited a couple of hours in LAX before boarding my 10:40pm flight to Sydney. Miraculously, my prayers were answered when, on an almost entirely full flight, I somehow managed to have an empty middle seat next to me. The guy on the other side of the empty seat was a 20-something dreadlocked Australian. He was headed home after a week of surfing all day and hitting up "pubs" all night along the California coast. He was very friendly, as I soon learned most Aussies are. I would later be quite jealous of him, since he managed to sleep almost the entire flight. Another Aussie gentleman seated in the row in front of us received a round of applause from everyone in our cabin when he finally managed, after much effort, to cram a very large stuffed animal (like the ones you win at amusement parks) into the overhead bin. Despite the 15 hours of travel that was ahead of us, we were all in a good mood.

Transcontinental overnight flights are like one big awkward slumber party with 350 total strangers. Everyone is dressed in comfy clothes or even pajamas. Passengers kick off their shoes, cuddle up under blankets, use travel pillows, noise-reducing headphones and sleep masks. Once you take off, there's a dinner service then the lights are dimmed and people start to fall asleep. I wanted to wait awhile to fall asleep because I knew I wouldn't sleep long (plane-snoozing isn't easy for me) and I wanted to get my sleep in closer to when we would land, since I would be arriving at 7:20am Sydney time. I read for a bit (this time about a teenage girl in love with a fallen angel), then pulled out my iPad and watched 4 episodes of Downton Abbey, which, due to my love of period dramas, made the time pass quickly.
Mary doesn't deserve you, Matthew.
Eventually, I attempted to sleep. There's something really uncomfortable about sleeping on a plane, and not just because the seats are narrow and upright. It just makes me feel vulnerable and exposed. I think I managed to sleep for about 4-5 hours. Between the showings of inflight entertainment (which I didn't watch because I had no desire to see Mr. Popper's Penguins, Cars 2, or Something Borrowed), the path and current location of the plane is displayed. There really isn't anything but ocean and a few islands between LA and Sydney, so each time that display came up all that could be seen was a plane against a large blue ocean backdrop. Sometime mid-flight they handed out the snack, a sandwich, which was actually the yummiest plane meal I had the whole trip. I watched the last three Downton Abbey episodes, read a little, and was pleased when they started serving breakfast because it meant we had about an hour before we were scheduled to land. It was weird eating what was essentially dinner, lunch, then breakfast all during a time when my body was used to sleeping. I opted for a diet coke instead of juice with breakfast, since I knew I would need to stay awake for another day before I could sleep again.

Sydney

Once I landed in Sydney, I had to get through customs. I was unfortunate to get stuck just ahead of a couple in line who spent the whole time ranting and raving about the flight we'd just taken. Apparently the guy was some big-shot million mile club member, and he hadn't been treated as special as he expected to be. I wanted to turn around and say "Dude, look around. You're in Australia! Get over it!" Getting through customs was no big deal, but passing through the quarantine area is a bit intense. The Australians are rightfully protective of the types of foreign pests/substances/produce allowed into their country. I had to get my bags sniffed by a trained dog, which was nerve-racking even though I wasn't trying to smuggle in anything. Once I passed through quarantine, I was ready to leave the airport, hop in a cab, and head to the hotel.

I arrived at the Four Seasons feeling tired and gross. I knew Scott was somewhere in the hotel participating in the conference that brought us there in the first place. The plan was for me to arrive, get settled, shower (hooray!) and go exploring while Scott was busy working. I picked up a room key from the front desk and went to our room. I had decided before I left for Sydney that I wanted to hit up the hotel fitness center first thing in order to wake up a bit and get my blood flowing after sitting for so long. Scott showed up unexpectedly when he took a quick break from his meetings to come up to the room and dial in to a conference call. It was really nice to see him since we'd been apart for a few days. Arriving on his birthday made it extra special. Soon I headed off to the fitness center and planned to meet up with him again for dinner.

Despite the fact that I was exhausted and smelly, it was really nice to get a run in. I hopped on the treadmill and discovered soon after I began that it was displaying everything in some other language, Italian I think. I fudged my way through programming the settings I wanted. I thought I was having the run of my life until my groggy, jet-lagged mind clued in to the fact that the treadmill was showing my distance and pace in kilometers, not miles. Still, I managed to run 5k before heading back to my room to take a much-needed shower. Clean, mildly tired, but very refreshed, I decided to head out and explore downtown Sydney.

By this time it was midday and the city was bustling. Our hotel was perfectly located right by Circular Quay, close to transportation, shopping, and many popular tourist spots. I walked past the shops and through the business district, and soon noticed something remarkable: Australians are extremely attractive. Like, seriously a good-looking group of people as a whole, and I'm not just saying that because of the accent. There were hordes of well dressed, clean cut Sydneysiders (that what they call themselves -- fun, right?) out on their lunch break. Also surprising was how many people were out jogging through the city in the middle of the day. In summary, Australians are fit and attractive and their accents are really cool.

I knew within my first hour of Sydney exploration that I was destined to love that city. The fact that the sun was shining and the weather was perfect certainly didn't hurt either. I walked and walked, over to Darling Harbor and along the water back to Circular Quay. It was the ideal way to begin my time in there.

That evening, Scott and I went out to dinner with his boss, James. We stopped at a pub with rooftop seating and enjoyed a nice dinner together. Somehow I managed to stay awake, despite having only slept for 5 of the previous 48 hours. After we ate, we walked over to the Sydney Harbor Bridge and had a great view of the Opera House all lit up at night.


I was thrilled when it was finally time to go to sleep! I found that adjusting to the time difference was easier than I expected. All I really had to do was force myself to stay awake during that first day and the rest of the trip was easy. In fact, I was almost too adjusted by the time we headed home.

That's all the recapping I can manage for now. Stay tuned... next time I'll post about some of the fun stuff we did once Scott was free from his work obligations, and I'll tell you observations I had about Australia. There will probably be more pictures too.

11.15.2011

Before and After

Just a quick picture post today to show you a bit of the progress in our basement-finishing project. Here's what this area towards the back of the basement looked like before:

tons of crud stacked on shelves made of plywood, surrounded by more crud


But today something magical happened. Today, this was installed:

empty canvas waiting to be stuffed with aforementioned crud

I am giddy. This is a dream come true for an organizer like me. I cannot wait until all of the toys, crafts, art supplies, and other random stuff is neatly concealed behind those crisp white doors and within those perky wicker baskets. Oh, and there's a mini-fridge! Because sometimes, when you're thirsty, you really don't want to have to walk up a flight of stairs to get refreshment. Know what I mean?

Life is good, my friends. Crazy and hectic, but good.

Oh, and an Australia post is coming. It feels like a lifetime ago that I went, even though it hasn't even been a month. Hopefully I can still remember enough of what we did to make it interesting. It was the best trip I've ever taken and I'll be lucky if I ever get to go back someday.

9.19.2011

I'm Going to a Land Down Under

Are you ready to know about my super amazing awesome surprise? Good! I'm finally ready to reveal what it is: I am going to

Australia

very, very soon. Like, less than a month from now soon. I haven't been ready to talk about it until this moment because I was so worried that plans would fall through and I was desperately trying not to get my hopes up. But it is happening, though I can hardly believe it.

So why am I going? How did this come about? Well, this past spring Scott traveled to Sydney on business, spent a week there, and returned home with nothing but wonderful things to say about that part of the world. When the company he was working with asked him to return this fall, he gladly agreed and vowed to take me with him. I've spent the past couple of months trying to get all the details to fall into place. I've got my passport, airline miles have been cashed in and flights have been booked, and I've made arrangements for my kids. It is real and I am going.

Now I realize that for some of my jet-setting, world-traveler friends, this trip probably seems like no big deal. And maybe, in the grand scheme of things, it really isn't. But for me, it's huge. The last time I traveled across the ocean to another country I was 18. The last time I crossed a border was on my honeymoon, when we went to British Columbia. It's been awhile since I've been off American soil and this will be my first time in the Southern hemisphere.

Scott will head out a few days before I do, so that he can take care of the business that requires him to go in the first place. I'll join him later and keep myself entertained for about a day and a half before he is freed up and we are able to be tourists together.

While in Sydney, I plan to sleep here:

I think I'll take a gander at these:

and maybe some of these:

I want to tour this:
Sydney Opera House

Also, I will climb to the top of this:

I do not plan to eat any of this:

But I might just eat this:
(I hear Kangaroo is tasty)

I will probably spend a day here:

Blue Mountains

And perhaps some time will be spent here:
Bondi Beach

But before I can do any of that, I must endure 20 hours on a plane, by myself, sitting in coach. To that end, I've been on a quest this week to find the perfect cross-body purse for travel. Here are the three choices I've narrowed it down to:



I know they all look similar, but there are subtle differences. I need a bag that can hold all of my stuff on the plane, like travel documents, electronic devices, my book, wallet, etc. It also needs to look cute and be easy to carry since I'll be toting it around Australia for a week. I ordered them all online and plan to stuff each to capacity, wear it around the house, and pick the best one to keep. Such big decisions, I know. Which do you like the best, based solely on the little pictures above?

Here's where I really need your help friends: what advice can you give for international travel and super-long flights? Got any tips or suggestions for what I should do/eat/explore while I'm away? What should I pack for Australian spring weather? Finally, how long do you think it will take for them to kick me out of their country if I greet each person I meet with "G'day Mate!" and ask every waiter to "Throw another shrimp on the barbie!" for me? (I love shrimp, so this is a real concern.)

Truth be told, I'm still in a state of denial about the whole excursion. I don't think it'll feel real until I'm on the flight to Sydney. And don't even get me started on everything that needs to happen between now and then. It's not like I'm in the middle of a major house remodel or anything...

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p.s. Where has all the comment love gone? How have I failed you, loyal readers? Help me feel validated by leaving a little note. Please and thank you. :)