Panning for Gold

I am currently huddled under covers in my brisk jail cell. Yes, I said it jail cell. NO, I did not commit any unlawful offenses I am simply staying at former prison operating from 1830 to 1999, which was turned into a hostel in Christchurch, New Zealand.  It is by far the wackiest place I have ever stayed at. Coincidentally enough, it is also the nicest hostel I have stayed thus far. The rooms are pristinely clean, the common areas are warm and inviting they have a lot of amenities perfect for backpackers’ needs that other hostels do not have. Plus, the staff has a lot of fun with the whole jail theme as they wear orange shirts with prison numbers. With the exception of the lack of free Wi-Fi (a problem that has plagued me everywhere in Australia and NZ) Jailhouse is the perfect introduction to New Zealand.  I paid for Internet but apparently I have already used the memory already- go figure (I paid for a whole day and it lasted me 3 hours. One of the things I am most looking forward to going back to the States is cheap unlimited internet, none of this 8-10 dollars a day crap). Tales from NZ will come soon.

I finished my last week of classes at Deakin this week and have exams coming up next week. With all this last minute schoolwork, I have yet again neglected catching up from some of my recent exploits.  I am embarrassed to say, but I still have not shared a road trip that I took over a month ago. Fear not, since my Internet has expired, fate is literally forcing me to write some updates.

Where to start? Ah, yes….

After my autumn break, two of my roommates and I went on yet again another road trip. This time it was in the opposite direction towards western Victoria.  Our destination was Ballarat and the Grampians National Park. We wanted to camp again because I just cannot get enough of this fresh Australian air and views of the night sky.

I was chief navigator and luckily for me I inherited my mother’s inner compass and knack for directions.  I did my job quit well, but I cannot say the same for the rest of the group’s skills of remembering essential items. We finally managed to maneuver the diagonal, zigzag, and just plain complicated streets from Burwood to Melbourne’s CBD when I asked if anyone had grabbed the tent. My question was met with blank stares and “I thought you brought it.”  Needless to say, the trip was off to a comical start as usual, but no worries, it’s Australia; nothing bothers the Australians or those of us who currently call Australia home.

We first headed towards Ballarat because we wanted to go to Sovereign Hill, which is a mix of interactive museum and live demonstration village. For any Wisconsin readers, it is like Old World Wisconsin- where every child by the age of 12 has gone to at least twice for field trips to learn all about the history of the state. Ballarat is a city that was founded after gold was discovered in the area. Sovereign Hill is a model of how Ballarat looked like during the Australian Gold Rush. It has models of buildings, streams to pan for gold, tour guides donned in traditional early 19th century garb, farm animals, mine simulation, and much more.  As I always say, I am a bit nerdy, and the history nut really came out, as I was more excited than the dozens of school children there and they get a day off of school.  We learned how to pan for gold, and my friend, Lana actually managed to find a few flecks, which she kept.  If you are doubting the plausibility of there still being gold in the stream, the staff dump gold flecks into the stream everyday for tourists to find when they practice panning.  I was unsuccessful, but then again I always figured that I would do a better job at wearing gold than panning for it.  We spent a few hours in Sovereign Hill, got a history lesson, and also went to a gold museum.

Next, we continued west towards the Grampians.  We knew we were getting close when we saw a gorgeous expanse of forested mountains and hills in the distance.  The sun was setting and we stopped to take in the beauty of the setting sun over the mountains. As always, I am not much of a planner so of course I did not have any real plans once we got there and with the tent mishap we now had to find a place to stay. As I am incredibly money conscious because Australia had drained me of all of my funds, we decided to sleep in the car, which was comical in its own right after hours of shuffling around blankets, bodies, and seats. We did end up getting a pretty relaxing sleep if you can believe it or not.  At one time, there were kangaroos surrounding our car and we just watched them as they lounged and eventually hopped away.

Field of Kangaroos

Almost to the Grampians.

Pit stop. Gotta love Redhead Firelighters

In the morning we hit the Grampians visitor center and picked out a few spots that we wanted to hike to and see. We started with Mackenzie Falls.  We adventurously decided to hike to the bottom of the falls and climb over the safety barriers.  Nothing will happen right? I should have known that I would jinx myself because as I was jumping from one rock to the next, I tripped and fell flat on my face. I instinctually put my hand down to break my fall so that I would not smash my face on the rocks. My sunglasses slid into the water and I lay flat for about a minute. I was shocked more than anything because I am not a klutz (that role belongs to my sister).  I quickly got up, not thinking anything was wrong but then I felt shooting pain right around my thumb to my wrist in the hand that I braced myself with. I could feel a bruise already forming on my knees and my left right shoulder was also sore.  Luckily, my friend Ann is studying nursing and her dad is a doctor so she quickly assessed the damage.  My hand and wrist swelled up quickly and was all purple.  I could not move my wrist or my thumb.  Ann came to the conclusion that it wasn’t broken but I had a deep bruise and strained the muscle that connected the hand to the wrist. Uh OH!!

I didn’t let the mishap stop me, that’s for sure, as I continued jumping on rocks, climbing back up the falls, and then hiking some more in the mountains overlooking various canyons.  I needed a bit of assistance because it was my right hand and I was a bit clumsy with it. However, we spent the rest of the day hiking and seeing all the beautiful views of the Grampians.

The Fall

Mackenzie Falls

This trip was short because we all had work we needed to do before Monday. It was yet again another successful road trip, which provided more fantastic views of Victoria.

Again, I cannot stress enough how beautiful the country is and the best way to see it is by taking a road trip. Regardless of what state or terror you are visiting in Australia, once you get outside the cities, the nature is truly phenomenal.

Cheers!

Gluten Free Traveler

I am gluten intolerant. Usually, I get the response “oh, that is unfortunate, it seems so hard.” It can be extremely difficult when all I want is to to order a pizza from the joint down the street or a eat a cookie that my friends just baked.

Initially, gluten intolerance and travel do not seem like a good pairing. They can actually seem like a nightmare if you think of all the things you cannot eat. Often times, they require more planning, reading labels, printing out cards in various languages explaining your condition, and attempting to ask the waiter in their native language if there is anything without gluten in their restaurant. However, the more places you travel the better you become at finding options that are  satisfying and allow you to experience some of the local flavor.

Some cuisines are better than other. I have to say that in my four months in Prague I was unable to eat about 90 percent of  Czech food because they love their wheat flour. I was able to eat most of the meat they prepared and their potatoes. However, most of their sauces were thickened with wheat so I would often have to ask for them to hold the sauce. Their most famous dishes knedliky (bread dumplings),  smazeny syr (fried cheese), bramboraky (fried potato pancakes), kolache (sweet fruit pastry) and of course beer are needless to say not gluten intolerant friendly. I struggled in Prague when I went to restaurants.  I was able to cook my food fairly easily. The local Billa had gluten free pasta, bread, deserts, chips, etc. I eventually found a gluten free beer and an entirely gluten free restaurant. Plus, my favorite food of all time is Mexican. Mexican is very easy for gluten intolerant people because of good old corn tortillas. I managed to find the one restaurant and it became my favorite place in the city.

Paris was particularly difficult as well because all I wanted to do was grab a baguette at a bakery and smear brie cheese all over it.  Every morning I met my friends in Montmartre and they would pick out their pastries, crepes, and croissants. I’ll be honest, it nearly killed me.

In the Netherlands and Belgium, I ate my fair share of frites. They were naturally gluten free as long as they did not use the same oil to fry them and other bread products. I ate a modified version of Wiener Schnitzel in Austria. I had the best spicy goulash in Hungary. In Germany, due to their diversity I had Thai, Indian, and Vietnamese food.

Surprisingly, Italy was the best country for gluten intolerances. Because their diet consists almost exclusively of wheat products, young children are tested for gluten intolerances and celiacs disease. There are tons of restaurants that offer wonderful gluten free options. Rome was my best food location and I felt like I gained 10 pounds in 4 days being there. I visited with my friend studying in Rome who is also gluten intolerant. I had an amazing time eating pasta, pizza, gelato in gluten free cones, cakes, and biscotti. It was gluten free heaven.

Due to my initial struggle in Prague whenever I met an Australian backpacker, I immediately hounded them if they know about gluten intolerances and the accessibility of gluten free food in Australia. I met one girl in Krakow, that was actually gluten free too. Although she was from Perth and not Melbourne, she insisted that it was fairly easy to be gluten free in Australia. Hallelujah!!

When I arrived in Melbourne, I went to the local grocery store, Cole’s, and found half an aisle of gluten free products from brownies to crackers. At least I knew I could cook gluten free foods, but how about the restaurants. Nearly every restaurant has at least one gluten free option. It is fantastic. Even fast food pizza chains Dominos and Pizza Hut have gluten free crust. WIth the exception of one cafe, I have been able to eat anywhere my friends wanted to go.

I reently got back from a road trip in the countryside. I stopped a a tiny local grocery store, not expecting to find anything. Much to my surprise, they had a tiny but mighty gluten free section. Australia is wonderful for individuals with gluten intolerances.

With that being said, being gluten free is not cheap. While there are many options here, restaurants usually charge anywhere from 3 to 6 dollars extra for the meal to be gluten free. Thus, on a student budget I opt to cook the majority of my food at home.  Even in stores the products can be a bit of steep. I was craving brownies last week so I purchased a mix for a whopping 6 dollars. It really killed me to buy it, but I had such a chocolate craving, I caved. I made them and while at home I have made many GF mixes, the final product was awful. Not only was my chocolate craving not satisfied but I was irritated that I had spend a bloody fortune on them. I complained for about a minute before I googled the company online and sent them a email politely notifying them of their less than stellar product. Now, I am not usually a complainer, but what can I say? Do not mess with me and chocolate. I received a prompt email asking for my home address and within 2 days I had a package of gluten free products to make up for my dissatisfaction. Lesson learned: do not be afraid to give the company feedback on their product. They will send you more free things to keep you satisfied and happy.

I made a quick list of the countries that were good/bad/ok for people with gluten intolerances. These are just based on my opinions and experiences so some people may have different ideas and disagree.

Fantastic: Australia, Italy

Good: Ireland, Scotland, England, Germany (Schar is a German Gluten Free company that sells their products all across Europe), Spain

Just All right (had some difficulty with traditional dishes): France, Austria, Croatia, Montenegro,Netherlands, Belgium, Hungary

Poor: Czech Republic, Poland (hard when eating out, ok in stores), Slovakia

To all of my fellow GF travelers: I wish you the best of luck. Happy eating!!

Beauty in the Mundane

I apologize in advance. I do not have any beautiful photographs of escapades in the city or any batty anecdotes to tell you right now. I do have some amazing road trip and camping stories coming up shortly along. Rather, this long-winded post is more of my way to unwind and release some of the tension that I have built up over the last few weeks. The weekdays have not been the most invigorating to say the least. In fact, they were practically lifeless if we compare them to preceding weekends. Honestly, the days merged together as they were a mash of assignments, clashing personalities, presentations, frustration and a nuisance of a head cold.

I have experienced problems with housing and my landlord (s) that were hopefully settled today after a month of back and forth negotiations (*crosses fingers). I was kicked out of my house due to faulty building permits. It was only due to my friends that I had a place to live.  So in dear Melbourne, I have been homeless twice. Balancing my finances has also been particularly challenging this time around; Australia is very expensive in comparison to Central Europe. I have done side jobs in both places just for extra cash, which has supplemented me quite well. However, I will be going back to the States with practically nothing to my name and I am entering my final year of undergraduate studies, which means that I need to think about the future (a terrifying thought). Tell me why I cannot be a professional student, please?

Most of the time I can barely contain my joy for the opportunities I have been given and sought out for myself.  Of course, I am incredibly grateful and wouldn’t change a single thing but it’s not all fun and games that everyone seems to think. Life still goes on back home despite your distance and just because you are on a different continent, it does not mean that you are not affected by occurrences back home. Similarly, just because you live somewhere else does not mean that everyday problems won’t affect you. In, fact, sometimes the smaller things seem worse because you don’t have the comfort of the familiar and the support system that you have back home.  Nor do I have the means to fix things from afar.

Living in Australia has challenged me in different ways than Europe did, and I will be coming back with yet again a changed worldview (There’s no language barrier, but don’t let that fool you).  I feel stronger than ever and I feel confident imparting a little wisdom to other young, eager, and hopeful travelers.

You need to be resilient, robust, and a little bit more optimistic than most.  More importantly, you also need to stick up for yourself. Be a force of nature.  Demand the most out of your experiences.  Appreciate the people who you meet but don’t get bent out of shape if some bother you (its not a popularity contest). This is also applicable to long-term life lessons, but is particularly true when traveling. It is those who greet challenges head on, who move on when things don’t go the way they were planned, and who pick themselves up to greet each new day with abundant energy, spunkiness, and passion that truly know how to travel right.

If you focus on the little problems, they will eat away at you. Every time I swipe my credit card, I wince. I think about how much interest I will incur at the end of the month and how long it will take me to pay that off. However, when your eyes see the sunset over the ocean, or hike to the bottom of the waterfall, all is forgotten and you cannot help but be in awe of the earth’s beauty.

I am a born traveler. I am convinced that even if I did not start now, I would have found my calling later on. I love travel for many different reasons and clearly the endless possibility for adventure has stolen my heart. It is in the still moments, the mundane, the tram rides, the nighttime walks home, the laughs shared with my housemates, and even times when I am so frustrated that all I can do is turn on music and dance that I really appreciate travel and change.

I often underestimate that ability. There are in fact some people who do not exhilarated by getting on an airplane and being alone in a new place. I thrive in it, while others detest it. For others, there are limits as to what they will take. I have seen my housemates hit their breaking points and they are slowly making their way back.

One of my good friends withdrew from the university and left due to plethora of personal reasons.  I understand her reasons and she is much happier now that she is at home and I am glad that it all worked out for the best.  She hit her limit. I, on the other hand, continue to be tested and say keep them coming. It will take a lot more than being homeless twice, being broke, and being injured to dampen my wanderlust.

One more thing, I suppose I lied; I do have one photograph for you. It’s from my little porch during an exquisite sunset. Even the sky can brighten my spirits when I am down.

So cheers to the mundane. It makes us appreciate how special movement and travel truly is. I do not take anything for granted, even the low points because they make the rest just that much better.

Urban Canvas

I  desperately need to update, but I have many legitimate reasons as to this long hiatus which includes both getting sick and being kicked out of my house/homeless/moving into new house. See, I promised they were legit.  Stories will come later. Thus, a short post about some graffiti/street art snooping  filled with artsy photos will have to suffice.

The one thing I did do last week amongst all the chaos was a little scavenger hunt throughout the city looking for graffitti. Melbourne is quite renown for its street art attracting famous artists such as Sixten, Vexta, Miso, Prism, plus hundreds more and even the British Banksy went across the pond to liven up Melbourne’s streets.  While their names leave much to be desired which is part of the art’s exhibition, they are a talented and eclectic bunch of people. Look them up, their creativity is inspiring.  I personally love street art and although there are those city council members that will attempt to distinguish tagging and graffiti from street art, I simply enjoy others creativity and abstain from the political jargon woes that plague it.

There a a few alleyways in the CBD that are entirely covered in art, but there are also some area further out that have large clusters. I primarily wandered in Fitzroy and Brunswick.  There are some more neighborhoods that I need to check out as well and I am sure to do so in the near future. The images will speak louder than words so instead of a long winded post I will simply post them.

Happy Reading (or should I say viewing?)

Bring out the earplugs; it’s race weekend.

This past weekend, the Formula 1 racing season commenced in Melbourne’s Albert Park.  Seen as the pinnacle of racing sports in Australia, the Grad Prix is the oldest surviving motor race in the country and the start of the F1 championship. Guess which redheaded race loving, sports enthusiast was there? Yes. ME.

If you know me, this isn’t really that much of a surprise considering that I follow stock car racing back home. For those of you that don’t, yes, I am a speed junkie. Admitting you watch Nascar automatically gives people incentive to tease you incessantly. I have heard many times, “but you do not seem like the stereotypical fan” ( which really means, that I do not adhere to the stereotypes of a beer chuggin’ redneck that many associate with the sport). Not only do I follow the sport, but I have also attended  multiple races in Indianapolis and loved them every time. Kasey Kahne baby! Granted, Nascar and Formula One are alike as apples and oranges. However, the adrenaline rush, enthusiasm and camaraderie among race fans are nearly identical despite the differences in car models, mileage, speed, and track.

Luckily for me, my two closest friends here are also race fans and wanted to go to just as desperately as I did.  We purchased concession general admission tickets which were fairly reasonable (can I please be a student forever?) and were prepared to make a day of it at the race circuit.

I scoured the city for earplugs which apparently are a rare item because I went to every supermarket  and convenience store in my neighborhood, Kmart, Target, and multiple pharmacies before I found a pair.  I consulted a few people back home who actively follow F1 racing and learned about some of the drivers and made my decision of which team and driver to cheer for.  I decided on team Red Bull and drivers Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber (an Aussie).   They made me quite proud in the end, way to go boys!!

On race day we headed into the city, luckily, due to high race traffic the city set aside trams just to bring passengers to and from the circuit.  We were prepared with folding chairs, snacks, water,  ear plugs and of course cameras. I am a bit of a photography freak so I brought two of my three cameras with me, you never know when you might need more than one.  We toured the grounds, scouting for the perfect spot where we could see the cars zoom by and shopped around for some gear. I settled for a F1 Grand Prix baseball hat because my team’s gear was a bit pricey. When I say a bit, I mean I could buy  10 shirts for the price of the one they were selling. As much as I wanted one, prudence outweighed desire and I decided to make the fiscally responsible choice. Not to mention, I do have a sort of fascination with baseball hats; my collection has since doubled while being here and I wear them all the time.

The grounds were swarmed with people and held a plethora of events and activities celebrating racing and cars in general.  Old race cars as well as other beautiful models lined the paths and it was neat to see cars from all around the world including some classic American muscle cars. I felt like I had stepped foot in a new Fast & Furious movie. We finally found our spot on a slight hill in between turns 10 and 11 which had a perfect view of a straightway.  As the clock ticked down, we admired the fighter jets performing their aerial show and took bets( being poor exchange students, they were more hypothetical bets than anything) on who was going to win. My friend, Ann is F1 obsessed and she was proudly adorned in her Jenson Button t-shirt while she taunted me that Vettel and Webber were going down.

Good thing there was no money on the race, otherwise I would have had to swallow my pride and pay up. Button won, Vettel finished 2nd and Webber just missed the podium by finishing 4th.  The hum of the engines were so loud as the cars zoomed by us. It took me most of the race to take decent pictures because half of them I either clicked too early or late and got an empty track.  I cheered, snapped photos, listened to the announcers, witnessed a partial crash, and finally settled on taking a video of the cars racing by as I was having trouble taking pictures ( I guess my reflexes could use a little work). The energy of the fans were contagious as they rooted on their favorite team and drivers.

When the race was over, unlike in Nascar where they usher you out, they let the patrons walk all the way around the circuit. After celebrating on the track where we were photo-bombed by various crazy Australian guys, we took one last look at the circuit and headed home after a day full of sun, laughs, and excitement.

It was a once in a lifetime experience and I am so glad that I went to my first but certainly not last F1 race. I already checked, they have the US Grand Prix in Texas in November this year. Hmmm…. roadtrip?

Happy Reading!

Hitting the Streets

Whenever I travel somewhere new, one of my favorite things to do is to take public transportation into the city, hit the streets and explore. I try to do this before I come up with any major conclusions about the place itself. I listen, smell, taste, see and breathe in everything the place has to offer.

Although school has started, I have gone into the CBD (the central business district or downtown as I would call it back home in Chicago) frequently.  Due to my rocky start, I was not able to explore as much in the beginning because I was concerned with my living arrangements so now that I am settled I have been able to do what I truly love and that is exploring.

Let me first say that I am not the guidebook type of traveler. In fact, I surprised myself by doing something I never do. I actually did buy a guidebook for Australia but left it at home because it was inconvenient to pack. Yes, strange I know, but when it comes down to that last dress or a guidebook, I will always choose a dress.  While I respect those that are very prepared travelers, I prefer to learn on the fly. It is my style to learn about a place through word of mouth, asking strangers on the street (which in my experience has always led to amazing places), flyers around town and the occasional quick google search. I find that I am more flexible if I go in with no exact plans and just find things on my own. This works particularly well for me because I usually have extended periods of time that I am in places, so for most people who have a day limit on a vacation I see the appeal of having their time planned.  Thus, in typical fashion whenever I have gone into the city, I usually get off at a popular stop and simply explore that way.

Now to describe Melbourne’s streets is a bit tricky. The city is pretty well laid out located on Port Phillip Bay with its city centre hugging the Yarra River.  While the city centre has typical wide streets with bustling traffic in amongst skyscrapers, there are pockets of the city that look as unique as the stores that line the streets and the people that inhabit them. My favorite streets as of now in my early explorations are Chapel Street which is located a few kilometers north of the city centre, and Bourke Street which Melburnians  ( yes, I just used that word, I like the way it sounds despite the spelling that throws me off ) like to call the “second street” after the main Collins Street. Chapel street is  unconventional in the way that it is not strikingly pretty for a city street. The stores, pubs, and restaurants are just a bit too crowded and varied to give any semblance of smooth aesthetics. However, it is the quirkiness  and controlled chaos that hold the appeal for me. If any Chicago folk are reading this, it very much reminds me of Belmont and the surrounding streets. If you know me at all, Belmont is perhaps my favorite street in the city so Chapel scored high marks for me.  Bourke St is similiar in that it is definitely varied; however, because it is downtown there is a cohesive identity to the buildings in a way that differs from Church St.  I have come to love Melbourne’s CBD and as is my usual reaction to most cities because I am the epitome of a city person, I am truly pleased and satisfied every time I visit the CBD. One of the things I truly appreciate about Melbourne is that like its people, the city is so varied as well. There is Chinatown, Little Italy, Docklands, City Centre and so on and so forth. It is a gentle blend of a very contemporary city with the feeling of an artistic culture mixed with individuals from all over the world. In a nutshell, this is my kind of city.

My school and house is located in the eastern suburb of Burwood so in order to get to the CBD I take the tram in. First let me just say that I have ridden a lot of trams; I took them everyday when I lived in Prague and everywhere all over Europe. I usually consider myself a train person alas due to my love/hate relationship with the infamous Chicago ‘L.’ However, Melbourne’s tram system is phenomenal and quite extensive. Melbourne is the proud owner of the largest tram network in the world and it runs smoothly every time. It almost puts the ‘L’ to shame, but I loyally love the rattling noises and persistent technical errors of Chicago’s elevated trains.  I simply take one tram, the number 75, in case anyone is planning to visit and voilà I am smack dab right outside Flinders Train Station and within walking distance of Federation Square (the main square in the city). Flinders Station, I might add, is a gorgeous cultural icon for Melbourne. Despite not being a local quite yet, I have found myself saying the popular phrase “I’ll meet you under the clocks” which refers to the multiple clocks that line the inside of the station by the main entranceway.  I am partial to the nighttime view of Flinders where the oddly colored yellow building glistens gold against the nighttime sky highlighted by the streetlights.

Nonetheless, I have found some fantastic spots in the city and have had some great fun venturing into the CBD. I have kowtowed to my weakness for clothing and found a few shops that catered to my budget and style.  A few friends and I are planning on visiting Parliament, Victoria Market, and anything else we can find later this week. I cannot wait.

Happy Reading!