Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Strolling from Bondi to Bronte

When they heard I was going to Sydney, numerous friends recommended taking the 6 km clifftop walk from Bondi Beach to Coogee. I looked it up in the guide book, and yeah, it sounded good. Well, nothing prepared me for how spectacular it is. It was one of those strolls where I not only had to take pictures of everything, the kids were so engaged in the rocks and sights that they didn't mind stopping often. It was the kind of trail that might actually inspire me to lace up my running shoes and go jogging. (Let me tell you, that thought is rarer than a penguin in Penang.) As it was, we took so long pausing to enjoy ourselves that we only made it partway, and after taking 2 hours to cover what was supposed to take only 30 minutes, decided to stop at Bronte Beach.

New Year's Day was bright, sunny, and perfect for heading to the beach in Sydney. Thousands and thousands of other folks had the same idea. So, when we arrived at Bondi, we found the sand covered in what can only be called "a mass of humanity."

People baking in the sun at Sydney's Bondi Beach

Bondi has so much to offer in addition to the sand and surf. Tons of restaurants and shops line the street leading up to the beach. We paused at a skate park near the water to watch guys glide up and down the cement bowls. Much to my kids' dismay, getting into the surf wasn't in the plans for this hiking trip. Later, we were quite glad about this decision.

From Bondi, we took off on the paved trail -- well, okay, it's pretty much a sidewalk -- down the coastline. First up was the famous Bondi Icebergs Swim Club and Bistro. Being New Year's Day, quite a party was already going on in the middle of the afternoon. Or maybe that's what it's always like. Past that, I began to appreciate the natural beauty of the area. I could see why the aborigines named the area "Bondi" which means "water breaking over rocks." Do Sydneysiders know how lucky they are to have gorgeous beaches, aquamarine water and cool rock formations so close to the center of town?

Climbing up beside the footpath past Bondi Icebergs

Looking back at Bondi Beach with water breaking over rocks

As we started rounding the headlands at Marks Park, we heard a loud siren coming from the beach. Turning back, we saw a bright, yellow and red, Surf Patrol boat moving back and forth along the shore, and people started running out of the water. A smaller boat assisted with the stubborn surfers who initially refused to exit. Up above, a helicopter swooped in and started patroling, too. After a while, a news helicopter joined it. What in the world was going on? When we got back to the hotel, we discovered that a 2 meter long shark had been spotted in the water near Bondi. They suspect that this was the same shark that had taken a big bite out of a lifeguard's surfboard a couple days earlier. Thirty minutes later, the all clear sounded, and people were permitted to get back in the surf. (But seriously, if it were me, that would have been the end of playing in the water. Would you be brave enough to get back in?)

Walking from Bondi Beach towards Marks Park

The next beach is MacKenzie's, named after the nearby MacKenzie's Point. It's one of the smallest beaches in New South Wales and is only accessible at low tide. Because there's alway a rip, swimming is not recommended, but it seemed like many folks didn't really care. A few surfers were also threading their way through the rocky, shallow water.

MacKenzie's Beach is only revealed at low tide.
Tamarama Beach is in the upper, left corner.

Tamarama Beach is only 100 meters past MacKenzie's. We ended up spending most of our time here watching all the sporty action on the beach as well as enjoying the playground in the pocket park. The kids got a big kick using all the fitness equipment set up next to the path, too. After spending the past year in Malaysia where people don't drink the tap water, and you have to buy the bottled stuff at restaurants, I was quite excited to see a Drinking Water station for us to refill water bottles. For free! My admiration for Sydney continued to grow.

Tamarama Beach

Our last stop was Bronte Beach. It is home to the Bronte Surf Lifesaving Club which was established in 1903 and is the oldest surf lifesaving club in the world. After our 2 km trek, the kids were ready for a snack. My friend, a former Sydneysider, highly recommended dining at one of the cafes across the street, but alas, the kids had their eyes locked on the ice cream at the beachside concession stand. Picnic blankets covered the grass of the park behind the beach, and folks busily grilled their holiday meals. I could see another playground at the back of the park, but we were ready to head back to the hotel at this point. We strolled through the tall Norfolk pines up to the bus stop to catch a ride to Bondi Junction railway station and bus terminal. While we didn't make it all the way to Coogee as I had planned, this walk was definitely all about the journey and not the destination.

Bronte Beach

Bronte Beach was much less crowded than Bondi and, as a bonus, had no shark sightings this day.

If you are planning to take this stroll, check out The Bondi to Coogee Walk website for practical information about the trail, beaches and nearby restaurants. While the footpath does include some steep steps, you can carry a lightweight stroller up it if need be.

This post is part of Travel Photo Thursday on Budget Travelers Sandbox, Travel Photo Mondays at Travel Photo Discovery, and Friday Daydreamin' at R We There Yet Mom? Check them out for more around-the-world travel inspiration.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Why My Kids Love The Sydney Opera House

I asked my girl where she'd tell her friends to visit if they ever went to Australia. "The Sydney Opera House!" she exclaimed. To which my younger boy retorted something along the lines of "Duh... Everyone knows you're supposed to go to the Sydney Opera House." So okay, it's not exactly an undiscovered gem that we unwittingly stumbled upon. But still, I'm glad that the kids enjoyed it so much that it's at the top of their Kiddie Fun List. Because when you're taking little ones to visit architectural wonders, you're never quite sure if they'll be bored to tears while the grownups ooh and aah over sweeping lines, expressionist design, and spherical geometry. (Actually, I think my insightful comments were more like, "It's so pointy.") Fortunately, we visited during the local school break when the Opera House had shows and Creative Play activities to lure in the younger crowd.

Making all the sails with the same curvature solved a major construction challenge.

Pick a Tour
The Sydney Opera House has numerous tour options from going backstage (minimum age: 12 years) to the Kids Discovery Tour. We opted for the standard tour, and it worked out just fine with the children. I really liked that everyone was given headsets so they could hear the guide. First, we sat on the foyer steps watching a couple movies about the design and construction challenges of building such an unusual structure. Then, we finally entered the main Concert Hall. While the exterior is world famous, I had no idea what the interior venues look like. As we sat in the smooth, white birch plywood seats, I admired the clean lines and modern aesthetic which, oddly, reminded me of IKEA. Did you know that this hall houses the world's largest mechanical tracker-action pipe organ? I sure didn't. We then crossed over to the Joan Sutherland Theatre located beneath the smaller sail next door. On stage, a crew was busily working out the lighting for Verdi's A Masked Ball which was to open in a few weeks. I loved getting this behind-the-scenes glimpse of what it takes to put on a show.

Sydney Opera House Concert Hall Foyer

Free Creative Play for Kids
After the tour, we headed over to the Creative Play area which they set up during school holidays. I think this was my daughter's favorite part and what propelled the Sydney Opera House to the top of her list. With Seussaphones hooked up to the Listening Wall and making flashlight puppets, I saw tons of young kids falling in love with the Opera House. There was even a master storyteller!

Doesn't this look Fun?

Enjoy a Show
One of my husband's memories of his childhood visit is sitting in front row seats at the Opera House listening to a children's symphony. Apparently, the front row has an awful view and were the only seats available walking up to the box office on the day of the show. So, I planned ahead and bought on-line tickets to ImaginOcean: The Live Glow-in-the-Dark Family Musical which was playing in the Drama Theatre.

The kids and I enjoyed the bouncy music and fluorescent puppets that glowed beneath the black lights and danced around the stage. Hubby, however, has one wonky eye, so he saw people dressed in black holding non-fluorescent puppets with one eye while the other one saw the intended show. Mildly discombobulating to say the least.

Where the outside meets the inside.
These precast concrete ribs support the outer shell.

Dine at The Opera Bar
This restaurant deserves all its popularity and numerous awards. The fantastic view of both the Harbour Bridge and the Opera House combined with deliciously tantalizing food made it a top notch dining experience. The kids enjoyed it as  much as the adults.

The Opera Bar (clockwise): The interior; Linguine with broccoli, chilli, and preserved lemon; Pizza with prosciutto, provolone and rocket; Spaghetti with baby clams, tomato and parsley; Not Pictured: Margarita pizza

Keep an Eye on your Kids in the Gift Shop
At the end of our visit, I made good on my promise to buy my boy a LEGO Sydney Opera House Kit. That's when my girl attempted to straighten up the display of Swarovski Crystal-tipped pencils... and proceeded to knock down the entire thing. Imagine the sound of hundreds of pencils clattering to the floor. Unfortunately, some of the crystals got knocked off, and this mama spent $126 on damaged merchandise. $126!! Ack!

Hop a Boat to See It from the Water
One of the classic views of the Opera House is from the harbour. We took a short stroll over to Circular Quay, enjoying the street performers along the way, (I think my oldest is now considering this as a career choice), and hopped on board the ferry to Manly. It was a great end to our visit.

As seen from Sydney Harbour

This post is part of Travel Photo Thursday on Budget Travelers Sandbox, Photo Friday at Delicious Baby, and Friday Daydreamin' at R We There Yet Mom? Check them out for more around-the-world travel inspiration.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Telling Folks about Malaysia

Blog Expat just posted their interview with yours truly, Malaysian Meanders. I'm really hoping that by sharing my experiences, it will help make the move to Malaysia a little less nerve wracking for other expats. What's my favorite thing? What's the worst thing? How did I meet people and integrate into my new home? What do I find strange about my adopted culture?

The Blog Expat directory is part of the bigger Easy Expat website. It's a great resource if you're planning to move to a new country. Check out the site's country-specific guides, FAQs, forums, employment board and classified ads.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Kyoto Station is Enchanted

The very modern Kyoto Station

You don't really have go out of your way to see Kyoto Station. It will draw you in. You cannot escape it's gravitational pull. It seems like we transferred through it at least 4 times each day while sightseeing around this historic city.

Oh, and by the way, it's enchanted. That is the only explanation that I can come up with to understand how both hubby and I could never figure out where exactly in the station we were. Clearly, someone had cast a spell on us. Each time we'd enter from the street or emerge from a train or subway, it seemed like we were in an entirely unfamiliar section. We'd have multiple maps out, but none of them seemed to show the entire station layout -- just parts of it. Hubby and I stood there trying to piece together which sections of various maps overlapped in order to figure out the big picture. Of course the kids just patiently waited while we tried to puzzle it out... NOT!

We weren't so much worried about finding the right train as figuring out where our luggage was stored.

But to be honest, Kyoto Station isn't such a bad place to be lost. There are tons of women's clothing stores on one of the levels. (Don't ask me which one.) If I was a thousand dollars richer, I would have had quite a shopping spree. Not finding my luggage would be a moot point, right?

The station has plenty of restaurants, too. I think we had four of our six Kyoto meals there. There's even, mon dieu, a Cafe du Monde! Who goes to Japan to eat New Orleans food? Expats who live in Malaysia and long for a taste of the Deep South. We are the same family who went to Singapore for Tex-Mex.

At another place, I realized how authentic ramen soup loaded up with veggies, hard-boiled egg and sliced meats is vastly superior to the plain, instant ramen I ate during my thrifty, university student days. The efficiency of ordering each dish by number and having the waitress enter it immediately into her digital tablet at many restaurants impressed me, too.

By the third day, we finally got our bearings. The spell was broken, but the magic of Kyoto Station still lingers.

The Cafe du Monde is at the top of these escalators.

Related Post:
The 10,000 Torii Gates of Kyoto's Fushimi-Inari Shrine

This post is part of Friday Daydreamin' at R We There Yet Mom? Check it out for more travel inspiration.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Allure of Uluru (Ayers Rock)

The long rays of the setting sun reflected off of Uluru

Ayers Rock or Uluru as it is known in the native, aboriginal language looms large among icons of Australia. I first saw it on a blistering, January, summer day. We woke up that morning in the cool rainforest of coastal Queensland and hopped a plane to take us deep into the Red Centre of the Northern Territory. Gazing down as we soared above the landscape, I could see where it gets its name. By afternoon, all of us were in a car speeding towards the rock. Since the heat was an oppressive 45°C (113°F) at 2 o'clock in the afternoon, this drive was just a quick look-see. No family hike on this day.

Above the Red Centre

At first, I was unsure whether or not to make Uluru a stop on our tour of Australia. What if I journeyed there, took one look at it, and said, "Yup, it's just like the picture." What if I wasn't moved by the experience, and all I got out of it was checking off one more thing on the Worldwide Sights to See List? But I've always been somewhat dismayed that hubby's family made it to Alice Springs on his childhood tour of Down Under but never got as far as Uluru. So, I knew it had to be on our itinerary.

From a distance, Uluru is just a shadowy figure.

In all the pictures I've seen of Uluru, the rock looks solid and imposing rising up from its surroundings. I thought we'd be able to see it from anywhere, but we were only 25 minutes away from the base before it revealed itself from behind the low hills. As we drew closer, the sun cast shadows that highlighted the massive layers of ancient sandstone almost perpendicular to the ground. Caves pitted the surface. It wasn't as smooth as the photos led me to believe.

The pitted, less familiar "back side" of Uluru.

Another surprise is the scrubby brush and short trees that spread out all around Uluru. For some reason, I was expecting more sand dunes or barren desert. The red earth peaks out here and there between the clumps of brownish spinifex grass, but this landscape wasn't as dead as I thought.

A patchwork of controlled burns ensure that animals have a place to forage and take shelter while the burned area recovers.

The first recommended stop is the Cultural Centre to learn about the aboriginal Anangu lore surrounding Uluru. With a few displays and a short film, you can finish it in about half an hour. I thought the Sorry Book was fascinating. It's bad luck to take anything from Uluru, and the book was filled with letters from folks returning pieces of stolen rocks and their tales of woe that befell them whilst the rocks were in their possession. Some people who did the forbidden climb have even returned their shoes. The helpful ranger at the Visitor's Desk had great advice on how to plan hikes in the broiling heat. It was a mere 0.5°C from the highest recorded temperature. A small cafe and gift shop round out the cluster of buildings.

A less imposing side view of Uluru by Kuniya Piti.
See the waist-high sign at the bottom, just right of center.

Later that day, we returned to Uluru to watch the setting sun's rays reflected off the rock face. One popular tour option is the Sounds of Silence where you watch the sunset and then have a feast. But my kids and silence don't exactly go together, so we kluged together our own experience with a tailgate picnic in the car parking lot.  When we left after sunset, the temperature had dropped to 43°C (109°F) at 7:45 p.m.

The sun rising up behind Uluru.

Expecting scorching heat the next day, we hit the hiking trails early. Climbing Uluru with the kids was never in the plan, but the extreme heat closed the climb to all visitors. Both the Mala walk (2 km return, 1.5 hours) and the Kuniya walk (1 km return, 0.5 hour) were easy with the kids, save for them complaining about the early wake up and the already rising temps. These trails could even be done with a stroller or wheelchair. Interpretive signs pointed out sights of cultural significance along the way. The shallow caves with rock art were especially intriguing.

Rock art on the Kuniya Walk. The whirly circles represent water holes. This cave is located near the Mutitjulu waterhole with walls that funnel animals in and make them easy to trap. Boys would watch from the cave to learn how to hunt.

Rock art in the first cave along the Mala walk.

My favorite part was walking among the 7-10 meter (20-30 foot) trees and breathing in their woody scent. I rounded a curve in the trail just as the sun spilled over Kantju Gorge to shine down on the leafy treetops. It's not the image that comes to mind when people usually imagine Uluru.

Approaching Kantju Gorge on the Mala walk. This is my favorite picture from Uluru.

That's when I truly understood that this rock is more than just an amazing geological specimen or famous Aussie tourist site, it is a community's home. Just as my family's church or my children's school holds a cherished spot in my heart, Uluru is sacred to the aboriginal Anangu people. For centuries, they walked along these same footpaths and witnessed the sun creeping over the same gorge. This is where they taught the next generation how to hunt or forage. This is where the elders passed on the traditions of the tribe. This is where boys become men and girls turn into women. And that's why they have fought for so long to reclaim it as their own and teach visitors to respect it, not just swing by to ogle and snap pics. That would be like popping into a church to listen to a famous gospel choir but not sticking around for the sermon.

Layers of sedimentary sandstone turned sideways from the ground.

So, what special significance did this excursion hold for my kids? My oldest one describes Uluru as "wanting to be a mountain, but it couldn't quite make it. It's looks deflated." For the record, it's 348 meters (1,142 feet) high, and a vast part of the rock extends down and sideways underground. As for my daughter, when we pulled up to the second trailhead of the day, she exclaimed, "We've already seen this rock!" I suppose you could say they weren't as moved as I was. But hopefully, years from now, they'll look back and decide that visiting this World Heritage Sight was kind of cool.

The nearby Kata Tjuta (Mount Olga) conglomorate rock formation is only an hour drive from Uluru. We were worried about the car breaking down in the extreme heat, so we skipped it.

If you visit Uluru:
The Ayers Rock Resort is your only option for accommodations and has everything from luxe rooms to dorms to a campground. We stayed in a 2-bedroom apartment at Emu Walk Apartments, and the restaurants and grocery store in the resort made meals and picnics easy.

On hot days, plan your hikes to finish before 11 a.m. then take a drive around the outer road surrounding Uluru.

The park offers a free, guided Mala walk to learn more about Anangu culture and the significance of Uluru. Check at the resort or Cultural Centre for start time.

Bring plenty of drinking water, although there are a few water taps around the park, and wear a hat.

Flynets are recommended. At the resort, they are AUD9.95 for one or AUD15.00 for two. Breaking off branches to swat flies away is highly discouraged.

There are no shuttles or public transportation from the resort to the rock. Hiring a car was much cheaper than joining tours for our family of 5 people. Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park is extremely easy to drive around with good signage. Just remember that the resort is in Yulara. Reserve your car beforehand. All the Car Hire desks at the resort had signs up that no cars were available when we were there.

Stopping your car on sections of the road with a yellow stripe on the side is prohibited. (People used to stop to take a photo, and then the driver gawking at the rock in the car behind them would smash into the car in front.)

Fly in and out of Ayers Rock airport. The departure area has a small gift shop and cafe.

This post is part of Travel Photo Thursday on Budget Travelers Sandbox. Check it out for more around-the-world travel inspiration.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Thieving Monkeys and Tips on Handling Them

Crab-Eating Macaques on Monkey Beach

Traveling and living abroad changes a person. With each experience, you learn a little more about yourself. You uncover things you never knew. I, for one, have figured out that I don't like monkeys.

When I lived in Texas, I thought monkeys were cute whenever I'd see them at the zoo or on TV. Admit it. If you're one of my friends in America who keep Liking my monkey-related Facebook status updates, you probably feel this way, too. The closest I came to knowing someone with up close monkey encounters under her belt was my cousin who conducted psychological studies on whether monkeys and young children rationalize preferences.

Monkeys were adorable. I picked a Monkey Beach theme for my daughter's third birthday party. Little did I know that, one day, I'd live a short drive and hike from an honest-to-goodness Monkey Beach. Have I mentioned that I decked out her bathroom with monkey face towels, toothbrush holder, and bath rug? I loved monkeys.

My naive days before I had experience with wild monkeys
(That's a Rice Krispie Treat monkey covered in chocolate clay. Delicious!)

Then, I moved to Malaysia.

The first time we saw wild monkeys, we were at Penang's Youth Park wading pools. I can hear our squeals of excitement on the iPhone video we shot of them. Little did I realize that while we were filming our wild animal encounter, the other half of the monkey gang was going through my stuff. I glanced up to see them in my beach bag. They had my clothes in their tiny, simian hands. No way was I driving home in my swimsuit! Like a scene, reminiscent of Caps for Sale by Esphyr Slobodkina, I shook my finger and cried out, "You monkeys, you! You give me back my shirt!" Thank goodness they dropped everything.

Caps for Sale
A cautionary children's tale

A few weeks later, the park's monkey thieves got into my friend's purse. They had her cash out of her wallet, her credit cards, and her keys. Frankly, I think they're some sort of crime syndicate. They loot your bags, and the next thing you know, there are unapproved charges for bushels of bananas on your credit card bill. Luckily, my friend did not have to walk home with empty pockets since they dropped her belongings, too.

Tip: Keep your stuff zipped up in a bag too heavy for monkeys to carry off. 

Keeping backpacks guarded on Monkey Beach

Another friend stayed at the Club Med on the eastern side of Malaysia. She hadn't seen her husband in months, so they were in one room, and her girls were in the one next door. Late one night, she heard a knock. Her girls needed her! She threw open the door, but it wasn't one of her offspring. It was a monkey wanting to gain entrance.

Tip: Use the peephole to determine if the knocking is by friend, foe, or monkey.

At the Youth Park
The monkey went after the scooters when we told the kids to grab their shoes before the monkeys did.

When yet another friend's parents were visiting from England, she thought an outing at the Penang Botanical Garden would be nice. But she cautioned her folks about the monkeys. "Don't worry," said her mum. "I'm sure they wouldn't let them out of they were dangerous." Whaaaa?? No one "lets them out." They're wild!

When it saw me, the one on the right took an aggressive stance and looked ready to leap.

Tip: If you feed the monkeys, be prepared for them to throng to you. And ask yourself if that's really what you want.

These monkeys are clever. They know that humans equal food.

This one has just spotted my water bottle and is lunging for it.

While visiting the nearby island of Langkawi, my friends were dismayed to see how littered and trashy the jetty was. As they were getting ready to get back on the boat, their daughter bought a can of soda. One of the monkeys in the area saw the can and decided to have it. After being chased by the monkey for a bit, the girl decided she really didn't need the soda after all and dropped it. That monkey thief guzzled it down then tossed the empty can aside. Ah, that explains the trash. The Green Earth movement hasn't reached the monkey kingdom, yet.

Tip: If you don't want to share your food, hide it from the monkeys.

When I was at Monkey Beach last weekend, I got hungry and bought a bunch of bananas. Then, I spotted the monkey nearby. My thoughts no longer lean towards thinking that they're cute and a good decorating motif. Faced with a flesh-and-blood, wild monkey, my first thoughts are, "Oh man, I just wanted to sit and eat my bananas. Now, I have to hide it from the monkey." Cue resigned sigh. Did these thoughts ever occur to me in Texas? No! Like I said. Traveling and living abroad changes you.

Attempting to sneak the bananas past the monkey while it looks the other way

Tip: Taking a picture with monkeys crawling all over you at a zoo or sanctuary is one thing. Letting wild monkeys climb all over you is another matter. Is it really worth the risk of them biting you and having to interrupt your vacation for rabies shots?

But I still harbor some of my old affection for them. Don't you think these monkey pairs are sweet?

Dusky Leaf Monkeys at the The Tropical Spice Garden
Mamas and babies at the Penang Botanical Garden

Want more Travel Tips? Check out Suitcases and Sippycups and Walking On Travels for Travel Tips Tuesday.
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