Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Flying over the Himalayas

I am rarely so happy to get on a plane. Sure, I enjoyed my time in Tibet, but as the plane door closes and the cabin begins to pressurize, I slowly feel the altitude sickness seep away. My headache clears, and breathing no longer requires conscious effort. It turns out that living beachside on a tropical island is great for many reasons, but preparing the body for the elevation of Lhasa, Tibet is not one of them. As the plane climbs out of the valley and into the air, I marvel at the Himalayas spread out before me.

At first, the snow-capped mountains are far off in the distance. Long after the other passengers on the China Eastern flight have closed their window shades and turned to books and iPads, I cannot help staring outside and trying to shield my eyes from the sun's bright glare. Thoughts of James Hilton's Lost Horizon and World War II tales of hazardous flights over The Hump flit through my brain even if we're nowhere near where these took place. We turn northeast, and I give up any hope of glimpsing Mount Everest out the window.

The peaks start reaching higher and higher into the sky as the cloud cover begins.

Some towering mountains manage to reach above the clouds beckoning us closer for a better look.

But not too close, I silently pray. Signs of life appear in a valley below. It must be so isolated in that town. I have no idea where we are and wish the plane had a TV with a route tracker displayed.

Unexpected sights reveal themselves such as twin mountaintop lakes. Is that what they are? Why aren't they frozen and covered in snow?

The mountain range spreads out below me, as far as the eye can see. For centuries, the Himalayas have captured the public's imagination. It deserves all the attention it gets.

Pinch me. I can't believe I'm here. I'm flying over the Himalayas.

This post is part of "Travel Photo Thursday" on Budget Travelers Sandbox and "Oh the Places I've Been" on The Tablescaper. Check them out for more around-the-world travel inspiration.

Monday, October 28, 2013

The Sunshine Award

It's time to pull the curtain aside and reveal a little more about the woman behind the blog. I'm sure all of you picture me as an omniscient, glamorous, jet-setting, housewife of mystery... or not. Ahem... If you've been reading my blog, you probably know a little about me. I have a family, I'm from Texas, and I'm living in Malaysia. I love to travel.

Thanks to Brittany Ruth over at The Rococo Roamer, you'll learn a little more about me. Brittany tagged me for The Sunshine Award for bloggers who "positively and creatively inspire others in the blogosphere."

The Rules

  • Acknowledge the blogger who nominated you.
  • Share 11 random facts about yourself.
  • Answer 11 questions the nominating blogger has created for you.
  • List bloggers.
  • Post 11 questions for the bloggers you nominate and let them know they have been nominated. 

  • 11 Random Facts

    1. Because of my mother-in-law, Christmas doesn't seem right if the vinegary smell of German Red Cabbage cooking on the stove does not permeate the air.
    2. In high school, I was an extra in the movie A Tiger's Tale starring C. Thomas Howell, Ann Margaret, and Kelli Preston. You can clearly see me for about 3 seconds.
    3. No, I cannot speak Chinese, even if I look like I should.
    4. I like my chocolate with a cocoa content of about 65% and have a ridiculous assortment in my fridge at any point in time.
    5. One of my favorite quotes: "For me, parenting is like dieting. Every day, I wake up filled with resolve and good intentions, perfection in view, and every day, I somehow stray from the path. The difference is with dieting, I usually make it to lunch..." by Marion Winik in The Lunchbox Chronicles.
    6. I've always been a bookworm. My first memory of reading was when I figured out that "r" + "ice" is "rice". Is it a coincidence that my mom served rice at every meal and that I attended Rice University years later?
    7. I rode a bicycle-built-for-two for the first time last week.
    8. I've been married for almost half my life.
    9. My list of what I want to be when I grow up is longer than when I was a child.
    10. My sister passed away after a 19-month battle with brain cancer. She was 17, and I was 19. I still miss her but am grateful for the few months she was in remission.
    11. The lessons I most want to pass on to my children are "Be kind," "Be thankful," and "Remain hopeful."

    11 Questions Asked of Me

    1. What is the first concert you ever attended?
    I vaguely recall going to an Air Supply concert at Six Flags Astroworld because it was free, and I was already there that day. Then, there was that Tony Orlando and Dawn dinner show in Las Vegas when I was a kid. I remember the Wedge Salad more than the performance.

    My first "real" concert where I actively wanted to go was ZZ Top's Eliminator Tour at the Houston Astrodome with Joan Jett as the opening act. My friend lived next door to Frank Beard (the drummer and the only one in the trio who does NOT have a beard), and he had offered her parents free tickets.  I remember wearing a headband around my forehead and leg warmers. We stopped by his room at the old Shamrock Hotel to pick up the tickets for floor seats, and my hearing has never been the same since.

     2. Do you have a pet?  What is it? No pets. Three crazy kids is all I can handle. Before we became parents, I gave hubby a Tamagotchi virtual pet and told him that we could discuss having kids if he managed to keep it alive.  
     3. Name a mini goal of yours and a long term goal that you have or will be working on.
    Mini goal: Learn how to bake bread with a good, crisp crust like the kind you get at a French boulangerie.

    Long term goal: Keeping my marriage as happy as it is now and has been over the last 2 decades. I want to be that cute, little, old Asian lady next to the tall, white-haired, elderly man, holding hands on the park bench. Our first dance at our wedding was The Beatles' "When I'm Sixty-Four." We're still headed in that direction.

     4. Coolest place you've ever traveled to?
    Last week's trip to Tibet. TIBET!!

     5. If you had no limits, what would be your dream job?
    Baker and cake decorator. I enjoy it but take so stinking long to make a cake that I'd have to charge hundreds of dollars to make it worth my time. In Texas, I baked cookies for the Mobile Loaves and Fishes organization which feeds homeless people so that I could use my powers for good instead of evil.

     6. What are the top three qualities you look for in a friend?
    • Not a zombie. I like my brains just where they are.
    • Does not judge me for my love of cupcakes and all things sugar-related.
    • Likes my family. We are a package deal.

    7. What are you obsessed with right now?
    As always, chocolate.

     8. If you could learn to play a new instrument, speak a new language, or instantly fix one of your flaws, what would you choose?
    To quote Jerry Seinfeld: "I never get enough sleep. I stay up late at night, cause I’m Night Guy. Night Guy wants to stay up late. ‘What about getting up after five hours sleep?’, oh that’s Morning Guy’s problem. That’s not my problem, I’m Night Guy. I stay up as late as I want. So you get up in the morning, you’re exhausted, groggy… oooh I hate that Night Guy! See, Night Guy always screws Morning Guy. There’s nothing Morning Guy can do."

    I'd instantly make Night Michele give a hoot about Morning Michele.

     9. What is something you regret that you wish you could change, or do you live your life with no regrets?
    I wished I didn't study so hard in high school and had more fun.

     10. What is a new hobby you've been wanting to try out?
    Stand up Paddleboard. I tried it in Hawaii and loved it. We thought about getting one for Penang since we live on the beach but did not think that it would fit in the elevator.

     11. What is something readers don't know about you?
    I once played basketball while riding a donkey.

    11 Questions for my Nominees

    1. What are you obsessed with right now?
    2. What is your favorite ice cream flavor?
    3. Have you ever been camping? Did you like it? Does that count as 2 questions? Three?
    4. What souvenir did you buy on your last trip?
    5. What was the last sporting event that you watched?
    6. What do you think of when you hear the world "Malaysia" (except for this blog)?
    7. What is your dream trip destination?
    8. If you were not allowed to work and had sufficient money, what would you do with yourself?
    9. If you absolutely had to work but had no limits, what is your dream job?
    10. What's the last new thing you tried?
    11. Would you rather read a book or watch TV?

    My Nominees

    Here are my nominees for those who positively and creatively inspire others in the blogosphere. Play along if you have time and the inclination.

    Tuesday, October 22, 2013

    Was it just a Childhood Dream?

    Looking down from Hurricane Ridge, Olympic National Park to the waters we had traveled the night before.

    I was only halfway listening to my son, then just 6 years old, as I impatiently waited for him to put on his shoes so we could walk to school. Perhaps you are familiar with that feeling of knowing that you could do it faster for your kid, but you're trying to teach them self-reliance. He was chattering away and not really concentrating at the task at hand.

    "The boat was really big. I was eating a hamburger and looked out the window and saw a whale! Then, we went to a log cabin and went to sleep. We went upstairs, not downstairs, and had pancakes for breakfast..."

    "That's a great dream, buddy," I said. "Now hurry up and finish putting on your shoes."

    "It wasn't a dream!" he retorted.

    "What in the world are you talking about?"

    "Don't you remember?" he asked me.

    I still had no clue. After some more questioning, it finally clicked! He was talking about our international ferry ride from Victoria, British Columbia to Port Angeles, Washington State and our stay at Elwha Ranch Bed & Breakfast in Olympic National Park. It sounded so magical through the eyes of a little boy.

    Photo from another ferry ride earlier that day from Vancouver to Vancouver Island.

    What amazed me the most is that we had taken the trip two years earlier when he was only 4-years-old. This was the first time he mentioned it. We had not been reminiscing about it recently or been looking at photos. It was just so special that it stuck out in his mind, although I had no idea at the moment that it was happening.

    My boy is now 10-years-old. I brought up this story the other day, remarking at how incredulous I was that he'd remembered a trip so well even though he was young when we did it.

    "Yeah," he said, "I still remember what I was drinking when I saw the whale."

    "Really?" I couldn't believe it.

    "Chocolate milk."

    To all of you parents out there who include your preschooler in your travels, you may also be surprised one day at just how much they remember.

    The next morning on Hurricane Ridge, Olympic National Park

    Not realizing what a great time my boy was having, I seem to have taken zero photos of one of his best memories. At least it lives on in his heart.

    Related Post:
    U.S. National Park Week: Part 1

    This post is part of "Travel Photo Thursday" on Budget Travelers Sandbox, Friday Postcards on Walking On Travels, and "Oh the Places I've Been!" on The Tablescaper. Check them out for more around-the-world travel inspiration.

    Thursday, October 17, 2013

    Reality versus Expectations on The Great Barrier Reef

    "The Great Barrier Reef! The Great Barrier Reef! We're going to the Great Barrier Reef!" my heart sang out as I began planning our trip to Green Island, off the coast of Cairns, Queensland.

    To say that I was giddy with excitement would be an understatement. I think I have too many images from Finding Nemo floating around in my brain. Perhaps, I thought I'd stick my face in the water and hear mermaids singing "Under the Sea" to me. At the very least, I expected something on par with jumping into a Great Barrier Reef tank on display at an aquarium with a dense population of aquatic life. (Sidenote: If I ever plan an African safari trip, someone please knock me on the head and remind me that expecting a real life version of the opening credits of The Lion King is unrealistic.)

    Basically, I was setting myself up for a big letdown. When something has the word "Great" in its name, you expect it to be really rocking awesome. I set the bar so high that I think the reef never had a chance. So, this isn't the blog post that I'd thought I'd write when we set out for the trip. If anything, it's like me running the game tape over and over in my mind trying to figure out why we came away with an outing that could be described as "a good day" as opposed to "mind blowing, life changing, and the greatest experience of my life."

    Embracing our Limitations
    My daughter and I get horribly seasick. While I was eager to get in some good snorkeling on the reef, I knew that spending all day on a boat or even a floating platform on the Outer Reef was not for us. I wanted to be on terra firma  to settle my stomach. My super skinny boy gets cold in the water easily. When we were in Maui, he'd get chilly despite wearing a wetsuit. Hence, I knew that we'd be spending a good part of the day out of the water to warm up.

    "If you are a nonswimmer, choose a Reef cruise that visits a coral cay, because a cay slopes gradually into shallow water and the surrounding coral."
    - Frommer's Australia
    Based on all this, I zeroed in on taking a boat from the Cairns Reef fleet Terminal to Green Island. We could spend the day on firm, dry land and walk into the water from the beach to see some fish.

    I also booked a 1-hour snorkel tour that would take us into deeper water 1.5 kilometers off the island for better viewing. Guests can book up to three 1-hour snorkel boat tours, but I thought one was enough for my family.

    Great Adventures Cruise
    I bought our daytrip to the Great Barrier Reef from Great Adventures which offers packages for both Green Island as well as continuing out to a platform on the Outer Reef. They were very easy to work with and had excellent customer service. We chose the earliest departure time and the latest return time to get the maximum 7 hours on the island. You can spend as little as 2.5 hours there.

    As we checked in at the Reef Fleet Terminal, I noticed a sign saying that the conditions at the Outer Reef that day were choppy and rough. That made me glad I decided to only go as far as Green Island. The outbound catamaran was big and stable. The attentive crew offered cups of ice to anyone who looked remotely seasick. Seasickness bags were at every seat, and pills were for sale if you needed them. My girl and I had on accupressure bands on our wrists as a more holistic way of addressing our problem. I was also sucking on ginger candies. (Can you tell I was worried?) Videos played on the big screen TVs showing you how to use snorkeling gear and advertising some of the add-on options on the island like the SeaWalker experience which looks like wearing an old-timey diving helmet.

    The ride out took 45 minutes. I walked off feeling just fine and not the least bit ill.

    Cancelling the Snorkel Tour... sniff, sniff
    The first thing we did when we arrived at Green Island was to confirm our snorkel tour later in the day. The blokes behind the counter discouraged us from going, especially if we were prone to seasickness. Although we had not noticed the rough waters while on the catamaran, it would have been easily felt on the small snorkeling boat. Also, the water visibility was rated as poor to mediocre that day. If we canceled right then, they'd refund our prepaid money. If we went out on the boat and were dissatisfied, too bad.  We decided to cancel... sniff, sniff.

    Glass Bottom Boat Tour
    At least we could still see the reef on the Glass Bottom Boat tour. We had been assigned a time to be out on the pier when we checked in at the Reef Fleet Terminal. Once we got there, we climbed on board the small boat and took off. While we never got very far from the pier or island, we saw some incredible sights. I think this came closest to fulfilling my reef fantasies. Giant clams! Schools of colorful fish! Real, living coral! It was wonderful (albeit very green-tinged), and I wanted to jump right in.

    Peering downwards from the Glass Bottom Boat to gaze at the Great Barrier Reef.
    Snapping photos through the glass didn't work out so well. So, no pics for you to view.

    The guide was great at describing and explaining what we were passing over. At one point, he threw chunks of bread overboard. The fish started jumping, and seagulls swooped down to snag a few chunks of doughy goodness.

    Fish and Fowl

    Swimming and Snorkeling from the beach
    There are two beaches on Green Island, and the main one is manned by Surf Lifesaving Queensland Lifeguards. All of us put on our snorkeling gear and swam out together. While we saw plenty of sea grass and even a sea turtle swimming past, there was not much coral and only a few fish. I was glad I did not spend the money on renting an underwater camera.

    After a bit, the kids had enough and returned to the beach to play in the sand and splash in the shallow water. We were greatly amused watching a large Japanese tour group make multiple attempts to take a photo of everyone jumping up from the water at the same time. It involved much yelling and throwing of arms up into the air.

    I thought about swimming out to where the glass bottom boats were. The signs on the beach said to stay between the flags. I figured that if I stayed between the flags but went a mile out, I'd still be okay. Right? Thankfully, I quickly came to my senses. I am not a Half Ironman Triathlete like my friend who I bet could have totally made it out there. Plus, being run over by a glass bottom boat is not my ideal ending to an Australian trip.

    One nice feature was the large, rectangular frames of PVC pipe anchored off shore. I could swim out and snorkel, then go over to the PVC frame to hang on and rest for a bit before continuing. My younger son swam out there to join me and thought that just holding on to the frame and sticking his snorkel mask-covered face in the water was fun.

    Snapshot from the beach. My 2 boys are in shallow water.
    Snorkelers are towards the middle, and the corner of the PVC frame is at the back.

    Other Island Activities
    Even though we were there for 7 hours, we did not get around to doing everything on the island. There was a little place called Marineland Melanesia that looked interesting and purports to have what was once the world's longest crocodile along with croc shows twice daily. Walking between the beaches satisfied our urge to stroll along the interpretive Eco Island trails. It takes 45 minutes to go all the way around, so we probably did just 5% of it. Given a choice between the ocean and the pool, we chose the ocean. Even though we did not take advantage of all these activities, I think they make Green Island a good choice for families where not every person wants to spend all their time snorkeling. You can even just hang out at the dayspa and get a massage! Check out Bubs on the Move, for an overnight trip report to Green Island from a local's perspective.

    Don't worry. The crocs are nowhere near the water you are swimming in.

    A very small part of the rainforest Eco Island Walk complete with educational signs

    Watch the SCUBA divers practice or just go for a swim at the pool.

    Time for Tucker
    If you spend 7 hours on an island swimming and playing, you will need to eat at some point. There were numerous options from a sit down restaurant to a pool bar to an ice cream stand. We chose one of the quick service counters for our lunch and sat at an outdoor table under a large canopy to enjoy our meal.

    Bye bye, Green Island
    At the end of the day, we clambored on the 4:30 p.m. catamaran for our return trip to Cairns. This one was smaller than the first catamaran but still stable enough to ward off motion sickness for me. We reached the Reef Fleet Terminal just under an hour later and strolled past the Esplanade to our hotel.

    Our return boat

    Would I do it again?
    So, that was my one and only experience on the Great Barrier Reef. As I said, it was a good day, but not the great experience I had hoped for. Hubby ranks snorkeling here #3 behind going off Maui's Ka'anapali Beach and off Racha Yai near Phuket, Thailand. I think part of my regret is that I keep reading reports that the Great Barrier Reef is in decline, and that you need to go NOW! If I ever go back, it will probably be in at least a decade as I have many other sites to see higher on my list. I admit that my limitations greatly affected my choice to go to Green Island, but I probably would have had a worse experience if I was vomiting everywhere.

    I really think I would have come away happier if we had been able to do the snorkel boat tour. However, one thing that I've learned in my travels is that you can't control nature. In my dream trip fantasy, we would stay on one of the Outer Reef Islands like the Whitsundays and do short snorkel trips from there.

    Have you visited the Great Barrier Reef? I truly want to know what you thought about it.

    What's your favorite snorkeling spot?

    Well, I'm off to go and pop Finding Nemo into the DVD player and dream of what could have been.

    Related Posts:
    A Visit to Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park
    To Kuranda by Cable, Back Down by Rail
    Snorkeling at Thailiand's Racha Yai Island

    This post is part of Travel Photo Thursdays on Budget Travellers Sandbox and "Oh the Places I've Been" on The Tablescaper. Check them out for more around-the-world travel inspiration (or bring you back down to Earth advice).

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    Thursday, October 10, 2013

    To Kuranda by Cableway, Back Down by Rail

    Cairns, Australia turned out to be a fun, family trip. After our morning at Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park, we next headed up through the Queensland tropical rainforest to the mountain village of Kuranda. One of the best parts was getting there and back. It was a Transportation Vacation! To get up, we took the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway which gave us soaring views over the tree canopy. Our journey back down to Cairns was via the Kuranda Scenic Railway with fabulous views of Barron Gorge.

    Departing on the Skyrail Cableway from Cairns with the Coral Sea in the distance

    We walked from Tjapukai next door to the Caravonica Terminal to board the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway. From there, it's a 7 kilometer ride over Barron Gorge National Park to Kuranda taking about 90 minutes. Don't worry! You (and your children's tiny bladders) aren't trapped in this steel and glass bubble the whole time. The cableway makes two stops on the way so that you can disembark and explore the lush rainforest. Only about 30 minutes is in the air while the remainder is spent walking among the flora and fauna of the area.

    As we passed over the McAlister Range, the Coral Sea and the coastline disappeared behind us. It took us 10 minutes to reach Red Peak Station, and the family enjoyed the view of the vast forest below us. At Red Peak, we got off to take a stroll around the 175 meter boardwalk trail. The trees towering over us are so different than the ones in the Malaysian tropical rainforest. My son especially liked a fern that had attached itself halfway up a tree trunk and surrounded it like an upturned skirt. You may even come face-to-face with a cassowary if you're lucky or unlucky, depending on how you view a close encounter with this large, fierce bird. At the very least, you can examine the cassowary droppings on display at the station.

    Hint: Read this BEFORE you encounter a cassowary.

    After getting back on the Cableway, we once again found ourselves sailing far above the trees that eventually part to reveal dramatic Barron Gorge. This portion of the trip takes about 14 minutes. At Barron Falls Station, you can walk down to a few viewing platforms to enjoy gazing at the falls at your leisure. These powerful falls were harnessed to generate hydroelectric energy back in the 1930s. This stop has about 400 meters of easy trails as well as the Rainforest Interpretation Center. It's not big, but the interactive exhibits were informative and interesting.  Then, it's back in the cablecar for the 10 minute journey to the final stop, Kuranda Terminal.

    Heading over the Barron River to Kuranda Terminal

    From the terminal, it was a short, uphill walk to Kuranda which calls itself the "Village in the Rainforest." There was so much to do up there! If we had a whole day, we may have enjoyed the walking trails, Koala Gardens, Birdworld, riverboat tours, Rainforestation Nature Park or the Butterfly Sanctuary. However, we only had a few hours until our train departed for our return to Cairns.

    First off, we needed lunch as our tummies were growling. The main street of Kuranda has a wide selection of eateries, and we decided on the outside deck of the aptly named Kuranda Rainforest View Restaurant.

    We didn't get to the aviary, but we did see a wild cockatoo at lunch.

    Afterwards, we had about an hour to stroll up and down the street window shopping at all the arts and crafts galleries, jewelry stores, and little stores. It's no surprise what kind of place caught my kids' eyes. We had time for some sweets and treats before heading to the train.

    Kuranda Candy Kitchen

    The narrow-gauge Kuranda Scenic Railway departs Kuranda twice a day at 2 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. We had reservations for the later time and definitely did not want to arrive to see the train pulling out of the station. It takes about 90 minutes to reach Freshwater Station where we got off or 2 hours to get all the way to Cairns. A range of class options are available with the fancier ones offering a dedicated hostess and refreshments. We settled for the budget Heritage Class which was just fine.

    Waiting for the All Aboard call

    The train makes a brief stop so that everyone can get off for a look at Barron Falls. I thought the view at this angle was quite stunning and much better than from the cableway station on the opposite side. A weir at the top of the falls intercepts some of the water and channels it to a hydroelectric power station, decreasing the volume of water that would have otherwise cascaded down the rocky slope.

    Barron Falls cascades down 260 meters to the bottom of Barron Gorge.

    As we listened to the clickety-clack of the wheels on the rails, a commentary on the speakers told us about the history of the railway and the area landmarks. We also received a souvenir guide with more information and a map. I will admit that the recently purchased candy also provided some amusement during the ride.

    The main engine pays tribute to the Aboriginal dreamtime legend surrounding Barron Gorge and Barron River. The story tells us of Buda-dji, the Carpet Snake who carved out the river and its tributaries. This famous snake is depicted on the engine in traditional Aboriginal artwork.

    Buda-dji the Carpet Snake winds down the side of the engine.

    As we made our way down from the Tablelands, we had plenty of time to gaze out the windows that were open to let in air. We passed by smaller waterfalls, saw steep ravines and traversed trestle bridges. Near the end, I was quite excited to see a wallaby hop across the tracks. All my Aussie friends are amused that the rest of the world loves kangaroos and wallabies so much, but I thought seeing this animal topped off our outing nicely.

    Enjoying the passing landscape

    We had gone to Cairns to see the Great Barrier Reef, so spending an excellent day learning about Aboriginal culture and then riding both cablecars and train carriages was an unexpected bonus. I highly recommend it!

    IF YOU GO:
    • Package tours including Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park, the Skyrail Cableway, and the Kuranda Scenic Railway are easy to find. You can do it early online at a discount or at one of the many tour operators with storefronts in the touristy part of Cairns or at your hotel once you get there. They are available both with our without transfers from your hotel.
    • If you drive yourself, keep in mind that the Skyrail Caravonica Terminal in Cairns and the Kuranda Railway Station in Cairns are about 15 minutes away from each other by car. You will need a way to get back to where you parked your car if a transfer is not included in your ticket.
    • You can also go the opposite way taking the Kuranda Railway up (2 morning departures) and the Skyrail Cableway back down. However, you may not have time to do everything at Tjapukai. 

    Related Posts:
    A Visit to Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park
    Why My Kids Love the Sydney Opera House
    The Allure of Uluru (Ayers Rock)
    It's the Great Penguin, Charlie Brown (Kangaroo Island)

    This post is part of "Travel Photo Thursday" on Budget Travelers Sandbox, "Oh, The Places I've Been!" at The Tablescaper, and Sunday Traveler at Ice Cream and Permafrost. Check them out for more around-the-world travel inspiration.

    Tuesday, October 8, 2013

    Expat Luxury and Expat Slums

    Many expats who are moved to Penang by their corporations find themselves suddenly living the grand life. Instead of a middle class house, they are now in a deluxe apartment in the sky. When my friends and I got together for breakfast a few weeks after arriving on the island, we were all still in awe of our new homes. We simply could not believe our opulent, high-rise lifestyle.

    "I live in a place with Palace in its name. I have my own private elevator lobby, a view of the water out one side, and the gold stupa of a Thai temple out the other side," said one gal.

    In fact, a ton of my friends have their own private elevator lobbies.

    As for me, my condo is a whopping 6,000 square feet. Texas-sized! It also has a single-person sauna in the master bathroom. This is a totally frivolous feature. If you spend any time outdoors in Penang, you will become drenched in sweat and tell everyone that it's like a sauna out there. Why in the world would you need an actual sauna inside your home? Best of all is the view of the sunrise and the water from my balcony. It's the first thing I fell in love with in Penang. There have been some school days where breakfast gets on the table a little late because I can't help enjoying (and photographing) the scenery.

    The fabulous view from my balcony across the water to the hilly mainland.

    We middle class, American expats sometimes feel weird getting suddenly upgraded to living the Life of the 1%.  We're not rich. We're just average folks. We feel a bit like the Beverly Hillbillies in our luxury condos. Expat life is like being Cinderella at the ball, and we know it's all over when the clock strikes midnight, our contracts are over, and we move back to our home country.

    Tall towers of supercondos are all over the island. Oddly enough, they seem half empty, yet more continue being built. Most of the occupants are expats, rich locals and foreign investors who keep units as holiday homes.

    A 41-story, residential building started going up next door right about the time that we moved into our home. It's advertised as "sky bungalows," not boring ole condos. A couple times a day, an extremely loud siren would go off for ten minutes followed by a loud explosion. Even plugging our ears and running to the opposite side of the unit didn't help us escape the noise. They were blasting the bedrock to set the foundation for the highrise. The progress was fun to watch in the beginning as the floors began to go up. If my son had been a few years younger, I'm sure he would have spent all his time with his nose pressed to the window fascinated by the busy construction activity below. I've been trying to catch the tall crane at the very moment when it gets a few stories higher but haven't lucked out, yet.

    Watching them build bungalows in the sky.

    After a while, though, all the construction noise really began to wear on me. The constant jackhammering went on from morning until evening six days a week. Any time I saw a concrete truck on the site, I knew that they would be working until 11 p.m. because they don't stop pouring until they are done with a floor. They lashed together a bunch of bins to act as a rubbish chute from the top floors down to the ground. The first time I heard the rumble of it being used, I seriously thought it was one of the fighter jets that sometimes fly by. My friend nicknamed it The World's Largest Rainstick.

    Construction continues late into the night.

    Before we moved, I had imagined myself sitting out on the waterfront balcony relaxing and reading a book. I tried it a few times but had to go back inside and close the windows or risk hearing loss from the loud decibel noise. Once, I tried my noise cancelling headphones, but I feared that I'd fry the electronics with the rivulets of sweat that poured off my head in the sauna-like weather. Sometimes, we have to shout when we are out by the pool to be heard over the construction racket.

    The work lights on the crane are so bright that I could use it as a reading light if I wanted to. It generates so much light pollution that it's extremely rare for me to see stars at night. How I miss a star-filled sky!

    Plus, the unfinished building is really ugly. It lends a post-apocalyptic feel to the scenery.

    In other words, the construction really annoys me! Worst of all, my gorgeous, panoramic view is blocked by the new building. I could weep. This is karmic payback for my residential tower because locals tell me that they considered where I live to be a blight on the landscape when it first went up, too. Apparently, my building was one of the first highrises to be built on this part of the island, and it basically ruined a ton of other homes' views.

    Bye bye beautiful sunrise. This is taken from the same angle as the first photo.

    Then, I give myself a kick in the behind and knock myself off my little diva pedestal. Yes, I am living in the lap of luxury. I have a visa that clearly states "Prohibited from Working" so I find little ways to amuse myself throughout the day. I have a maid who comes 12 hours a week, so I'm certainly not spending all my time cleaning the condo.

    What about the laborers on the construction site? People tell me that they are foreign workers, usually from Indonesia. They are expats, too. They are the ones who are toiling away from morning until night while I sit in my cushy condo. They don't even stop when the wind starts blowing and the sky starts pouring.

    Waiting on a ledge for an elevator to take them 25-stories down to the ground.

    I'm so accustomed to safety-conscious America and their OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) laws and regulations that seeing these worker on a ladder perched on a ledge without a harness in sight gives me the heebee jeebies. I can't bear to look at them for fear that I'll witness someone falling to their death.

    See they guy on the ladder by the window at the top?
    It's a looooooong way down.

    The thing that really gets me is the huge difference in our living accommodations even though we are right next to each other. These men live in shacks on the construction site. As the crew size grew, they've had to build more. Of course, all this is done late at night after they've spent the entire day on rich people's homes.

    Where the workers live

    These shacks have plywood sides and corrugated metal roofs. I cannot imagine how roaring loud it must be during a Penang storm. This is the Expat Slums. I don't know how it compares to what they were living in when in their home country. Perhaps it is a step up? Perhaps they're just happy to have a job and money to send home.

    These toilets are a far cry from my luxury bathroom with a sauna and bidet.

    When the second building started going up, they tore down a few of the rows of shacks, and the men moved into the lower floors of the unfinished towers. Plywood still serves to shield them from the weather since some of the walls aren't up, yet. At least the commute is short.

    So whenever I get cranky from how much the construction is bugging me, I stop and say a little prayer of thanks. Living next to this site reminds me of how fortunate I am. It gives me a sense of perspective. Even though I'm living in a developing country, most of what I complain about can be classified under the popular "First World Problems" meme. The expats next door are not as lucky.

    Thursday, October 3, 2013

    A Visit to Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park

    I remember back in my Texas elementary school days doing a Social Studies project on Australia complete with making a Bottle Tree out of a glass Coca-Cola bottle and masking tape, doing a report on the platypus and loving how the Aboriginal word "Pitjantjatjara" rolled off my tongue. So when we finally did get around to traveling to Australia last January, learning more about Aboriginal culture was high on my bucket list. (So was seeing a platypus in the wild, but no luck there.) An extra day in Cairns, one of the gateways to the Great Barrier Reef, gave us a chance to pay a visit to the Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park.

    Traditional aboriginal paintings in the Magic Space depict the Dreamtime

    We arrived around 9 a.m. when the park opened for the day. On their website, they list an array of showtimes, but we found that the shows are well organized so that everyone just exits one and walks directly to the next without having to worry about start times. They presented a ton of information at each session, but kept us moving to the next one after 20-25 minutes so that no one, not even the little ones, got bored.

    After buying our tickets, our first stop was wandering around the Magic Space while we waited for the shows to begin. This small museum gallery is filled with Aboriginal art work and stone-age artifacts of the Tjapukai people.

    The crowd was then welcomed into the Creation Theatre to hear more about the Dreamtime, their animistic mythology about how the world began. If you want to learn about someone, the beginning seems like a good place to start. A combination of live actors and projected movies introduced us to their spirit world. Headphones at each seat could be set to different languages so visitors from all over the world could understand the stories. Legend says that nearby Barron Gorge was created by Buda-dji who took on the shape of a giant carpet snake and slithered to make the rivers and creeks that run through the land. We learned about societal norms like people being born into their fathers' tribe, categorized into Wet or Dry, and having to marry someone from the opposite group.

    Weika (Quiet One) tells us tales of the Dreamtime and plays a mean didgeridoo.

    In the next indoor theatre, we were treated to a didgeridoo performance combining this traditional instrument with modern Australian music. If you've never seen a didgeridoo in person, it's essentially a hollow log with beeswax around the mouth end. They take about 4-6 months to make. Aborigines would knock on tree trunks to listen if they were hollow or would sometimes just stick a cut-off trunk in a termite mound and let the insects get to work.  Shorter logs make a higher pitch. To play a didgeridoo, blow out through the mouthpiece while vibrating your lips. Moving your tongue up and down makes the didgeridoo's characteristic bouncy noise. Use your voice box to change the tone, kind of like a kazoo, and do cyclical breathing where you inhale through the nose while exhaling through the mouth. Sound complicated? It is! I am totally terrible at playing the didgeridoo, I've discovered.

    A didgeridoo looks like a simple instrument, but I found it takes quite a bit of skill to play.
    This guy's had more practice, fortunately.

    Exiting the building, we made our way out back to the outdoor rainforest amphitheater for a corroboree, an traditional Aboriginal song and dance show.

    Corroboree show

    The performance was quite entertaining, but I'm sure that my kids thought the best part was the fire making demonstration. No matches, lighters or thunderbolts were used, just materials that can be found in nature.

    How to make Fire

    We then made our way over to the Bush Foods and Medicine presentation. One of the performers from the corroboree explained how Aborigines would gather bush tucker, food from the land. Living in the rainforest, the food was plentiful but required knowledge of how to select and prepare the plants and seeds they found.

    The cocky apple (Tjapukai name: "barrdjal") is an edible but bitter and stringent fruit that was easily found in the area. It was quite a versatile plant in that the tree contains a chemical poisonous to fish. So, the Aborigines would crush the leaves and roots then throw it into pools of water to kill off the fish which were then safe to eat. Concoctions from the bark could also be used to cleanse wounds like boils or sores. This type of knowledge was passed down through the generations.

    The very versatile Cocky Apple

    The best part of the park visit was getting to try our hand at spear and boomerang throwing. For spear throwing, we were all led out to a large field with bales of hay covered with Aboriginal drawings of animals native to the area.

    That kangaroo is at a standstill. How hard could it be to hit it?

    Throwing a spear was more complicated than I expected since I first had to hook a tool called a milay to the end of the shaft opposite the point.

    Attaching the milay to the spear

    Holding both the milay  and the spear in one hand, I then had to throw my arm forward while releasing the spear  but keeping ahold of the milay to help propel the spear forwards.

    The spear hunter at work

    I think my hubby was a little miffed that nobody was worried enough to get out of the way when he threw his spear. They just continued walking through the field picking up the other spears. However, let's just say that it's good he keeps the family fed through the roundabout "work job, earn money, buy food at store" method than the more hands-on spear hunting way.

    Learning how to throw a return boomerang was tons of fun, too. Isn't that the classic Australian tourist experience? If you're right-handed, hold it in your right hand at a 1:00 angle (11:00 angle for lefties). Pull your arm back, then whip it around to the front at the 1:00 angle. Let go without snapping your wrist, then follow through. Got that? Now you're ready to go and hunt some kangaroos in the wild. (Or not.) As with the spear throwing, it's a good thing that my family is able to go to a grocery store or market to obtain our meat because we'd starve if we had to depend on our boomerang skills.

    What do you call a boomerang that doesn't come back? A stick

    Our visit to the Tjapukai Cultural Park ended at the gift shop. They had a lot of high quality merchandise available here for guests looking to bring home a didgeridoo, boomerang, painting, CD or just a souvenir T-shirt. Profits benefit the local Aboriginal community. I was dying to buy a didgeridoo but didn't think that one would fit in my luggage. I was so glad to find out they had a shipping service that could send one to me anywhere in the world. I picked out the one I wanted, paid for it, and it appeared on my doorstep in Malaysia a few weeks later. Now that I've had a few months to practice, I'm rather sorry to report that I am still as horrible as I was in the beginning. It's pretty to look at, at least!

    So many didgeridoos, so little time
    I bought the green one on the far left.

    I highly recommend Tjapukai if you are in the Cairns area. After spending a couple hours there, we walked away feeling both entertained and informed. The Skyrail Rainforest Cableway Depot is located right next door. We walked over and spent the remainder of our day taking the cableway up to Kuranda and then the Scenic Railway back down to Cairns. This is a popular itinerary, so it's easy to find a package deal including tickets for all three activities. Tjapukai also offers a Night Tour and Buffet Dinner for visitors who want to squeeze it in after flying in or a day at The Great Barrier Reef.

    IF YOU GO:
    • Arrive at 9:00 a.m. if you want to have time to do the Skyrail Cableway and Scenic Railway afterwards.
    • In order to see everything at Tjapukai by Day, arrive no later than 2 p.m.
    • Tickets for the Day Tour are AUD36.00 for adults, AUD18.00 for children ages 4-14 years, and Free for Children ages 3 years and younger. A Family Package for 4 people is AUD90.00.
    • Their website also offers a variety of combination packages including a buffet lunch, transfers from hotels in Cairns or the Northern Beaches, the Cairns Tropical Zoo and/or admission to the Skyrail Cableway and Scenic Railway.

    Related Posts:
    Why My Kids Love the Sydney Opera House
    The Allure of Uluru (Ayers Rock)
    It's the Great Penguin, Charlie Brown (Kangaroo Island)

    This post is part of "Travel Photo Thursday" on Budget Travelers Sandbox and "Oh, The Places I've Been!" at The Tablescaper. Check them out for more around-the-world travel inspiration.

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