The Best Part of Waking Up

No, its not Folgers in my cup.  It’s Melbourne Breakfast tea.  I might not be in Melbourne anymore but at least I have something with Melbourne’s name on it that I get to drink every morning while I wish I was back in Australia.  Too bad my tea mug isn’t a magic lamp or that wishing would actually be useful.

A good friend of mine let me in on his secret tea blend right before I left and I knew I had to bring some home with me.  Well its not exactly a secret blend, any T2 store in Melbourne carries it, but unless your a tea-holic you won’t know about the blend.  So I’m just putting it out there for any fellow Melbourne fanatics that are only leaving  because their visa is expiring, go to T2 and for $25 get yourself a box.  It will alleviate some of the more severe symptoms of the Melbourne blues after you have left.


The Unofficial Australian National Anthem

During one of my first weeks in Australia we were at an orientation party held by our residential college when a song came on that had everyone on their feet singing along.  Megan and I stood there surprised and confused for a second.  I thought that it was maybe a new song that I had somehow missed but she said she had never heard of it before.  It seemed that everyone else in the room not only knew the song but knew every single word in it.  In the chorus of the song there is a very catchy repeated “oh oh ohhhhhoh.”  By the end of the song Megan and I had at least gotten that part down.  We asked for the name of the song and was met with an astonished stare before getting our answer: You’re the Voice.  Apparently everyone in Australia knows and loves the song so much so that there was a movement to make it the official national anthem of Australia.  It didn’t pass but it goes to show just how much Australians love it.  I still haven’t learned all the lyrics but at least I recognize it now and smile because it reminds me of the country I miss so much.


The University of Melbourne Hunger Games

Candidates,” the voice boomed into the speaker system echoing across the high ceiling of the convention center.

“Reading time begins…now.”

I felt like I was in the Hunger Games.

3,000 final exam test booklets were flipped over in almost complete unison as students started trying to memorize and work through the test answers in the special 30 minutes allotted to them before the exam time actually began.   Special instructors had been hired to continuously walk up and down the aisles to make sure no one had a pen or pencil in hand- reading time is only for reading.  Get caught writing and its the equivalent of cheating.  Their presence had freaked me out.  They held their hands tightly against their backs or held clip boards to their chests as they peered over shoulders or would momentarily stop to watch a student work out a problem to ensure they were doing their own work.

For one moment before I began reading my own exam I allowed myself to take note of my surroundings.  I was sitting at a desk that had a perfectly measured distance between it and the surrounding desks; precisely enough of a space that no one could sneak glances at some one else’s exam.  The rows of desks seemed to extend indefinitely and at each one a student was hunched over an exam.  Besides the sound of pages turning there was complete silence in the cavernous convention center. I had seen the building before and had wanted to explore inside it but taking my final exam for my most hated class was not the way I had wanted to experience it.  Too bad I did not have a choice.

I looked down resignedly at my 43 paged Logic exam, it seemed as a thick as a textbook.  I had struggled all semester with Logic knowing I needed this math credit in order to receive my diploma from GWU in May.  And after all the pain and struggling I sat in this room worrying the same thing I had heard many of my other class mates worry about: Thanks to the bell curve, we did not know if we would pass the exam let alone pass the class.  It had been a much harder class then many of us had anticipated and although there were some star students destined to become mathematical geniuses my friends and I were not among them.

I sympathized with Katniss Everdeen as she stood on her platform waiting for the announcer to countdown the start of the Hunger Games.  If Katniss jumped off the platform too soon she would be blown up into tiny pieces.  If I had so much as bent the edges of the exam towards me before reading time officially began I would have been booted out of the exam hall with a big fat zero to fill in the space of my exam score.   Katniss stood there not knowing if she was going to live or die in the next few moments.    I too sat there uncertain of my near future.  Once I opened my test booklet and started scanning through the questions I would know whether or not I had a shot of passing the exam.  And if the exam was impossible I may as well be good as dead.  I was already going to just make it to graduation by overloading on classes during my senior year in order to fulfill all my graduation requirements.  Without this credit it might just tip the scales out of my favor to graduate in May.

I started scanning through trying pep talk myself that I knew the answers.  I got to a page that I had a question about and tentatively raised my hand.  A serious looking man with a clipboard came over and noted the time and my desk number on his paper.  Then he asked me what my question was.  In whispered tones, I explained my confusion about one of the questions and he jotted down notes as I spoke.  When I was finished talking he summarized my question and asked me if he had recorded it correctly.  I said yes.  He then told me he would confer with my professor to see if he could answer my question and, if so, to what degree he could answer my question.  I thought it was a bit over the top that my professor could not just come over and answer my question directly but agreed to wait until he returned with my professors answer.  In the meantime I continued scanning through the rest of the questions until the man with the clip board returned 5 minutes later to inform me he could answer my question.  It seemed I had timed it perfectly because no sooner had he left my desk when the voice came back on through the loud speakers making me jump in my seat.  ”Candidates,”  why the hell can’t they just call us students? I remembered thinking.  ”Your exam time begins now.”

Now I was allowed to touch my pencil.  I grabbed at it and started writing as fast as I could hoping three hours was enough time to get through the 43 pages of the exam.

Camping in The Grampians National Park

Camping in the middle of the Australian winter probably wasn’t the best idea I have ever had but I did not have the option to wait until the weather warmed up again.  Thankfully our local friends who brought Megan and I down to the Grampians were well versed in the art of Australian camping.  They provided us with all the necessary camping gear as well as “swags” which we later found out is a special Australian style sleeping bag.  The drive from Melbourne into The Grampians did not take long at all.  If my memory serves me right the drive was not more than two hours (although Google maps disagrees I am not ).  When we officially entered into Halls Gap, a specific area within The Grampians,  we more or less randomly chose a road and began to drive down it.  We finally came to a fork in the road where one of the roads was the blocked off by a small gate warning against flooding; beyond it were fallen leaves, a few big rocks and some fallen branches:

The other road was free of warning signs and road blocks so naturally we decided to take the road less traveled.  This included squeezing the car between the gate and a random post not far from it.  Our side-view mirrors just cleared the wooden posts on each side.  Then we bumped along the road until we found a decent spot to park, climbed out and scavenged for a good camping ground.

After clearing a sizable area and erecting our tents we attempted to cook.

The boys clearing out the area:

Cooking ended up being a more tedious task then we anticipated because we had forgotten to pack any kind cooking implement.  We tried a few different techniques such as making a “frying pan” out of a cut up beer can and some sticks but the metal melted and warped before we could properly cook the meat.  We ended up getting so desperate from hunger that we just speared our kangaroo steaks with some skewers, the one thing we did bring, and roasted it that way.  For dessert Megan and I had brought an American campfire specialty to share with our Australian friends: smores.  It was funny listening them repeat the word in confusion because they had never heard of it before.  We made each of them a gooey chocolaty sandwich and they loved it!  Around bites of melted chocolate and marshmallow they kept repeating the word “smore” in their accented English trying to commit the word to memory.  Next came the campfire stories but as we were doing this camping trip “Aussie style,” as the boys referred to it, there were certain requirements that needed to be fulfilled.  One of which was to listen the to the renown Australian poem A Man From Snowy River (if you would like to see the whole poem:  No one had brought along a copy of the poem but thankfully that wasn’t a problem because one of the boys knew it by heart.

The next morning we had a bit of a sleep in before cleaning up and heading to a few of the famous sights in The Grampians which were absolutely gorgeous!

**Note- I did not take any of the photos in this post.  Photo credit goes to my friend Scott Hodges.**

Weeding Out The Tourists Even More

Melbournians might know how to pick out a tourist from the way they say their beloved city’s name but it seems that everyone in Australia knows one sure fire way to pinpoint a tourist.

I have recently been in formed by my local Australian friends that I as much as I would like to consider myself a local I cannot earn that title until I say “Australia” correctly.  I did not even know I was saying it wrong until I payed attention to how they said it.  True to typical Australian speak they manage to drop as many consonants as possible.  When Australian says the word “Australia” it sounds like they are actually saying “Strayia.”  I will have to work on my pronunciation!


Phillip Island

Phillip Island is a popular day trip destination from Melbourne and I was determined to experience the little island before leaving Australia for good. A month ago when my grandmother came to visit me in Melbourne to run the Great Ocean Road Marathon I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to finally visit Phillip Island.

I had been advised by friends who attempted the trip on their own with a rental car that a day trip tour is worth the splurge because there is so much to do on the island in one day. I booked a day trip with STA travel because they had an office on the Uni campus. I thought I was being smart because I thought by booking with the specific STA branch it would ensure that we were picked up close to campus. It turns out I was very wrong. What made matters worse was that I thought I knew where the pick up place was only to get there and be told we were at least a 3o minute walk away from the pick up point and we had 20 minutes to get there or the bus would leave without us. So Nita and I did what Barrera’s do best- we ran. And ran. And ran. Keep in mind this was at 8am with a slight hang over, without breakfast, while everyone else is trying to get to work and its lightly raining outside. I got to the office winded, red in the face and fighting the urge to spew on the freshly cleaned office floor. My grandmother, the marathon runner, walked into the office barely winded and with a bounce in her step. It is then that we found out the bus driver was running an hour behind schedule.

When we finally got on the road we were briefed about our busy schedule for the day. Our first stop was an animal reserve where I finally got to meet the national symbols of Australia- the emu and kangaroo. I also got to cuddle a koala and feed wallabies, something I have been dying to do since I first arrived in Australia. The emu was not a very polite creature. It violently pecked at my out stretched hand spilling most of the food on the floor while giving my hand a wrenching pinch. Nita was too scared of it to even feed it.

We moved on the Dingo enclosure where I found my new favorite Australian animal. The Dingo looks very much like a North American wolf, one of my favorite animals, with its regal face canine features. There is a particular dog breed from Australia called a Kelpie which allegedly is a descendant of the Dingo. I am planning on owning a Kelpie when I get a house.

After the Dingoes we met the resident Victorian Koala. Apparently Victorian koalas are significantly larger than normal koalas. As such Victorian law mandates that unless a Victorian koala is born in captivity it cannot be held by humans. So I didn’t actually get to physically hold the koala but I did get to put my arms around him while he placidly munched on Eucalyptus leaves.

After the koala cuddle we went through Wallaby Walk with three full bags of corn feed in hopes of hand feeding wallabies. The moment we started on the path the wallabies heard our foot steps and started poking their heads out from behind trees and bushes and tentatively made their way towards us. When they realized we weren’t threat and a source of food we were surrounded by wallabies. It was amazing! They ate of my hand so gently and would then just look at me with their soft brown eyes while they chewed thoughtfully on the dried corn. And if I offered my hand to another wallaby when one wasn’t finished it would reach out it’s surprisingly human-like claws and gently hold my hand in place while it continued to eat from my hand. I don’t know why I thought feeding the wallabies was so magical but maybe it had to do with their sweet and gentle demeanor. What ever the reason I couldn’t tear myself away from them and Nita and I almost missed the bus!

From there we drove to a koala sanctuary and saw a few koalas snuggled up in the tree tops blissfully asleep. After the Koalas we moved on to a farmstead and watched a sheep herding and sheep shearing demonstration. I of course made friends with the huge Clydesdales on the farm. Once people saw that the horses were eating the grass I offered them they all started tearing at the lawn to feed the horses.

We made a quick stop at a delicious chocolate factory where we ordered a hot chocolate and bought some nibbles for the road.

And then we went to the night-time penguin parade, the event for which Phillip Island is known for. Unfortunately we were not allowed to take pictures. Apparently these Australian penguins’ retinas are so sensitive that after a few camera flashes go off in their faces they go completely blind. It was really entertaining and fascinating watching all the little penguin families swim up to shore and then getting the whole family together before embarking across the sand to the safety of the tall beach grass. Their was structure to how they traveled and if there wasn’t enough penguins in their group they would not risk the long journey into the grass. They would wait, swimming in the shallow water until enough penguins swam up and then they would join them.

Phillip Island was a wonderful action packed day trip but by the end of the day I was absolutely knackered. I passed out only moments after sitting down on the bus for the hour drive back to Melbourne Central.

A Walk on the Wild Side

Today was my second day in Sydney.  I had been told about the coastal walk, a scenic two hour walk along the coast from Bondi Beach to Cogee Beach, and decided that with the beautiful weather today would be the day to do the walk.  I had a late start and ended up finally getting off the bus at Bondi Beach at about 2:30pm.  On the bus I met some uni students from Melbourne who were also on their way to Bondi Beach.  As we got off the bus together the girls started squealing and getting really anxious to head directly to the beach itself.  I didn’t understand the almost Justin Bieber-fan type of excitement emanating from the girls but I brushed it off and continued talking to one of their friends.  It was then that she asked me if I had ever seen the Australian TV show Bondi Rescue.  I had never heard of it and the girls just looked at me like I was some poor deprived child.  They explained that Bondi Rescue is a reality TV show based on the lifeguards at Bondi beach and that these lifeguards just happen to be extremely good looking.  So the gaggle of drooling girls went off to the main lifeguard tower, obviously featured a lot in the show, to undoubtedly stalk some unassuming lifeguard.

If you’re curious about those infamous Bondi Boys:

Unfazed by the fact that I was apparently at famous TV show location, I was to enjoy and fully take in the breath taking scenery.  Today was my definition of a beautiful, peaceful and generally perfect day.  I was travelling by myself (which I do not normally prefer), the weather was beautifully perfect; it was sunny with not a cloud in the sky, my camera and iPod were both fully charged and the landscape was so amazing I could not take my eyes off of it.  I felt so totally at peace with myself.  I put my iPod and listened to all the music I had deprived myself of when I was in the outback in the hopes of conserving my battery power.  Some of the music seemed to match the scenery so well like Coldplay’s Paradise which I must have played on repeat about ten times.  The walk accompanied by the beautiful ocean breeze was deeply  rejuvenating after being trapped so deep inland for the past three weeks.


My Outback Love

He is tall and very handsome with sleek glistening muscles.  He is also so very sweet and joined me on a lunch date twice under the bright outback afternoon sun.  He is so affectionate and constantly showered me with kisses whenever I was near him.  He has the cutest personality: the perfect mix of confidence and cheeky curiosity.  He might be a bit young, he is only four years old, but Kadaycha already has the makings of an amazing horse and I fell completely in love with him.  Besides his sleek shiny black coat and the white star on his forehead he is by far the most affectionate horse I have ever met.  When I had to walk from the city to a property where we were keeping some of the horses after the truck broke down I brought my lunch with me to eat by the horses.  I decided to eat in the paddock with them so I could be closer to them and enjoy their company.  Upon seeing me Kadaycha came over and starting curiously nosing me and my chicken sandwich.  He was so curious that I finally broke off a piece of my sandwich bread and gave it to him.  He showed his enthusiasm for the bread by violently throwing his head back and forth and showing me his teeth.  I laughed and gave him a bit more and he ended up gratefully licking my hand and face like a little puppy dog.  When I finally stood up he gently placed his face on my shoulder as I brushed his silky neck.

I have always wanted a black horse with a star on his forehead that was a sweetheart so that I could name him Casanova.  Unfortunately this horse already had a name and an owner but I realized that he was exactly the kind of horse I have always dreamed of having!

The Luck of the Irish

Sometimes the best experiences come when you least expect them.  These are the ones I enjoy and cherish the most.

If you would have talked to me a week ago I would have told you that I hated Walgett, the town in which I was staying, and my so-called Jillaroo experience.  I was disappointed and bored out of my mind and consequently very frustrated about wasting my precious last days in Australia out in the middle of no where.  And then one day everything fell into place, just not in a way I was expecting.

The reason I was disappointed with the jillaroo experience was after my first day working with the cattle I never worked with cattle again.  I did get to ride though so I was more or less content.  The horses were great and the landscape was beautiful.  But even after a few days of camping out with Wayne and taking care of his horses the isolation was began to grate on me.  Then disaster struck, or at least that is what I considered it to be when it first happened.  Wayne’s truck broke down on the way into town one day leaving us stuck in Walgett, the town 45 minutes from his property.  Then it started raining and never stopped.  Usually I don’t mind a little bit of rain but out in the country when it rains everything shuts down.  Because I was supposed to be exercising the horses the rain condemned me indoors, with the most of the population in town.  As a reader this would not normally be a bad thing except that I had not brought a good selection of books.  Having nothing to do all day coupled with annoyingly boring books left me wavering on the edge of insanity.   On the fourth day I woke up at 11am, took the longest shower I possibly could, ate breakfast as slow as I could and then sat on my bed staring at the wall for about 20 minutes.  It occurred to me then why prison is such an effective cause of punishment.  I ended up going back to bed and watching movies all day until 7pm.

It seems that life never gives you too much of a challenge that you cannot handle it.  When I was nearing my breaking point I was in the kitchen trying to read one the books I had brought with me.  I had known that there were some Irish people around my age staying in the hostel that I was staying at but I had not really hung out with them.  It was then that they had happened to come in with a slab of beer and offered me a stubbie.  Although I did not accept their offer of alcohol it was the small spark I needed to remedy my isolation.  I started hanging out with the Irish group for the next couple of days.  The one girl in the group was working as a waitress across the street at a small cafe and I ended up being able to land a job with her.  The best part?  Wages were $25.50 on the weekend and $20 on the weekdays.  I was able to make $500 in four days!

The other best part was meeting Lee, my Australian mother.  She was also the owner of Lee’s Kitchen, the café in which I worked.  She made us a hang over breakfast the morning after she knew we had went to an Irish house party.  She gave us medicine when we didn’t feel well and sent me home every night with a delicious dinner coupled with dessert.  She is just one of those truly good hearted people who likes to make the people around her happy if she can.  She has owned the kitchen for the past two years and for that long has been employing backpackers looking for some temporary work in the outback.

Besides being able to make some money and occupy my time in Walgett knowing the Irish group ended up being such a blessing because they introduced me to all their other Irish friends in the area.  I ended up becoming friends with a lot of them.  It is random and I am not sure what the allure was but there ended up being about 12 Irish people working in Walgett.  And I could not have been happier to know them.  They took me under their wing and included me in their group.  After the first week and a half of boredom I was so grateful for that small act of kindness.

So I may not have ended up being a cowgirl but I ended up having a great time in Walgett anyway.  Not in any way that I had planned or expected but I feel like that just made it more fun.

Outback Adventures

July 3, 2012

The only cows I have ever had the pleasure of meeting are the one or two mild-tempered, doe-eyed cows in children’s petting zoos. These cows stare at you with an almost bored expression while they sweetly lick your hands clean of the food you offer them. Today I met an entirely new breed of cow. The cuteness factor of standing in front of one sweet timid cow completely disappears when it is replaced, along with any kind of dividing fence, by an entire heard of snorting, half-scared half-angry cattle. As I stood in the iron-fenced cattle paddock today, all the cattle pressed together on the opposite end of the paddock wild-eyeing me and as tense as coiled springs, I realized I was scared. Of course, I wasn’ t allowed much time to worry about the heard of cattle on the other side of the paddock when every five minutes four or five more cows would come hurtling in my direction through a gate I was told to open and close.

We were “marking cattle” today. When Wayne first told me we would be “marking cattle” a hollywood vision of a bunch of tanned, jean clad men with Stetsons wrestling calves to the ground to brand their flanks came to mind. It turns out that this vision was far from true.

First of all we had to sort all of the calves from the rest of the heard. This involved running small groups of the cattle through a series of interconnecting paddocks. This is what landed me in the iron-fenced paddock facing the snorting heard of cattle. I was the official keeper of the Baumen cattle gate. If the small group of cattle let into the series of gates were Baumen cattle then I was to open my gate and let them through. If they were Angus cattle then the guy across from me opened his gate while I kept mine closed. It was in this way we were able to slowly segregate the one giant heard into the two different types of beef. From then we did the same tedious process until we were left with a group of ‘weaners.’ At first, when the head farmer said this I thought he was referring to them as ‘weiners.’ I thought that was his G-rated version of referring to the little cattle in a crude way. I found out later on the was referring to the calves that were ready to be weaned from their mothers. Hence weaners.

Obviously, stirring up the cows to run them through the series of paddocks didn’t put them in the best mood. As I stood in the paddock with a growing number of stamping, snorting, and generally pissed-off cattle I was told to be ready to open my paddock’s gate to let in more stampeding cattle while watching my back for any vengeful chargers wanting to put their horns in my back. After we had successfully gotten the ‘weaners’ into one paddock we had to mark them. As I saw no lit fire or branding irons (or jean-clad, Stetson-wearing men) I came to the disappointed conclusion that hollywood had completely led me astray in my expectations of the whole cattle experience. Instead I was set up in an empty paddock in front of an upturned iron barrel. The farmer set up three metal devices on top of the barrel as well as two clear plastic baggies filled with plastic chips and one plastic container. The farmer showed me how to load the chips into the two different devices. Then he went over to the first calf that was restrained, took its ear between the device and squeezed it closed. The little calf had an instant plastic earring. Ah, the light bulb finally went off over my head. Marking calves- got it. Then the farmer returned to me and picked up the last device and opened the container. Inside the container were things that looked like little green Cheerios. The farmer explained to me that they were rubber bands. I had read a book recently in which a woman castrated her pet coyote using a rubber band. The book never showed any pictures or really described the process so I don’t know how it clicked in my mind but I immediately looked over at the small heard of waiting ‘weaners’ and sympathized with all the males present. Sure enough, after loading two impossibly small rubber bands on to the device the farmer fixed the device between the hind legs of the restrained bull. The poor thing just stood there stupidly unaware that in a few days time his testicles would swell up to the size of softballs before slowly drying up and completely falling off like a pair of dried prunes.

After the marking was finished we did something I have always wanted to do- we drove the cattle. We did it with a bit of a 21st century twist though. Instead of using horses we used two dirt-encrusted quad runners. It got the job done but once again left my hollywood impressed mind a bit wanting.