Around the World With a Vagabond

Saturday’s Highlights February 19, 2011

Filed under: February Doesn't Suck,Saturday's Highlights — christynichols @ 11:18 am
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Today was a day of online meetings, polar bear greetings, and a swag roll competition.


The first failed, due to a technical glitch, but an organized meeting on a Saturday was inevitably doomed anyway.


The polar bear was dancing in the sun and passing out chocolate coins at an expo.  I gave him a hug.  That’s what you’re meant to do with dancing polar bears, right?  A big bear hug.


The swag roll competition went like this:  whoever could pull on pajama bottoms, unfasten, unroll, and unzip a swag, get in, lie down, then jump out and re-zip, re-roll, and re-fasten the swag the fastest won a wine tour.


When the countdown started, I went for it. . .the fastest time was 19.something, and I did it in 23.something else.  Second place, and 4 seconds from winning!! So close!


And those are the highlights of my Saturday.


Another Thanksgiving Abroad December 8, 2010

Filed under: Another Thanksgiving Abroad,What Happened in Australia — christynichols @ 6:30 am
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I don’t know exactly when, or how it happened, but it turns out I’ve become a heathen. Perhaps I always have been, and it only takes attending a Charity Thanksgiving Sunday dinner for me to realize this.


Thanksgiving isn’t celebrated Down Under.  Why would Aussies celebrate a holiday that came about because a group of musket-bearing Quakers diseased the natives, pillaged their land, and ate their turkeys? That’s what I used to tell my British students anyway, much to my mother’s chagrin.  (It’s closer to the truth than anything I was ever told as a kid.)


Nevertheless, a charitable cause is a charitable cause, so off I went to the Thanksgiving dinner. I had ventured out on my own, seeking what I assumed would be some nothing-special venue, springing along to whatever folky-happy music my ipod chose. But the place where the dinner was held was so fancy, that I almost missed it.


Walking from the station, I came upon a columned building somewhat set back from the main street. Brightly bopping balloons tied to pillars decorated the curved driveway as ladies in heels and men in suits and sunnies mingled in the open double doors.   The International was luxuriously scripted across the front of a large slate grey stone.


“This can’t be it,” I thought, and sauntered past in my flip-flops, sure my destination was the crumbling-down building on the next corner.


Moments later, having walked too far, I turned around and was again in front of The International. This was it.


I walked up the steps of the building and into the lobby, already feeling a little out of place.  It was a very nice lobby, walls bedecked with large paintings and hollowed corners filled with sparkly Christmas trees, all being admired by people dressed in their Sunday best.  I looked down at my plaid yellow country button-up shirt, my flair jeans, and my flip-flopped feet with chipped toenail polish.


I’ve been told that it’s always better to be overdressed than underdressed. But I just can’t always be bothered to make that kind of effort. So if I am underdressed, it’s better to at least be with other underdressers.   When alone, I scan the crowd for people even more embarrassingly underdressed than me.  I can almost always find someone of this description, but it’s usually a small dirty child. Today, even the children looked better.


I tucked my ipod away, and went to search for my name on the lists of table assignments posted on a nearby board.


The tables were listed by number. There I was, listed under the very last table at the very bottom of the board, and not only was my table numbered Table 25, but, making me feel more out of place, this particular listing also pointed out the unfortunate location of my table: Table 25 – back of room. See:



None of the other tables had that snubbing addition.


I wandered over to where I was told to go, to a very nicely set, but very empty table and sat down.  I looked around the room at the other tables filling up with laughing children and smiling families and chirpy conversation. Some shitty Thanksgiving Day parade was playing on a big screen at the front of the room.


This wasn’t doing too much for my homesickness so far.


Nevermind, I started to pour myself a glass of water from a glass pitcher into the stemmed water glass. My aim was off, and I poured the water straight onto my plate, all splashy and cold.  No one was paying attention to the cowgirl in flip-flops at the “back of room”, so I just swapped plates with one on the far side of the table.


I sat for about ten minutes, then, out of boredom, I scanned the menu/agenda.   Then I noticed that during the “prayer” time the bar would be temporarily closed.  Bar?  Where bar?!


A brimming glass of Shiraz later, I sat back down at my empty table.


Then, finally, an old woman and her partner circled towards my table at the back.  The old woman was balding. She looked at the chair next to me and politely asked, “Is anyone sitting here?”


“Nope!” I said.


Except, it wasn’t a simple “nope”, but a drawn-out, especially plosive “nope”. Hold the “p” down, and let it go . . . . .  like the girls do with “lollipop” in that one song.




I don’t know why I did this, having had only a slurp or two of wine. It was the first conversation I had had with anyone in 45 minutes, and I nearly ruined it.  I should have said, “Hey! Yeah, please sit! Go right ahead!” And smiled in my normally bright and friendly way.


But all I had was, “No-pahh!” And then I stared at her.


It seems I stopped trying before the dinner even formally started.


I watched as the old bald lady sat down and started to pour herself a glass of water.  Her aim was bad, and cold splashy water puddled up her plate and napkin.


Here was my chance to redeem the “No-pahh”.  I handed her a dry napkin from someone else’s seat and told her I had spilled all over too. She smiled.


And then the dinner was served.  Turkey. Stuffing. Cornbread. (CORNBREAD!!) Cranberry sauce.  It was alright!  As I dug in, I realized why I had thought it was perfectly normal to rock up to a Sunday Thanksgiving dinner in jeans and flip-flops and a cowboy shirt.


Not only had I not been home for a decade’s worth of this particular holiday, but my family has always celebrated it differently:  off-road style!  We (usually a caravan of 4 or 5 families) drive hours out to the desert towing trailers, fifth wheels, jeeps, bajas, quads, dirt bikes, RZRs, and sometimes shotguns to shoot up leftover Halloween pumpkins (not natives).  We bring food for Thanksgiving, but we cook it in the ground.


A big ol’ hole is dug in the ground, the bottom lined with stones that usually the kids are sent out to find, and a fire is started.  The fire is manned through the night, with campers taking shifts to add the wood and get the fire and the stones oven-hot.  Then the turkey is seasoned and wrapped and encased in a pot or something (I am usually playing in the dirt or getting people and myself beers at this point, so I don’t really know what happens between the digging of the hole, and the digging up of the turkey) but the turkey is buried and left to cook in the heat of the stones. Then we ride around on bikes and in jeeps all the next day. Once someone remembers where the turkey was buried, we dig it up and dig in.


And. It. Is. AWESOME. But yeah, we are dirty, sitting in lawn chairs around a fire, beer in hand, turkey on paper plate, and we all sit around feeling fat and grateful like the heathens we are.  This is what I remember when I think of a family Thanksgiving.


Those memories are a far cry from the situation I found myself in this year. No family. No off-road bikes. The turkey had been cooked in an oven. And any dirt in the place I am sure was brought in by me. But I felt a little more comfortable than I had when I first arrived.  Food and wine will do that.


Feeling conversational, I began to chat with the bald woman. Turns out, she was lovely.  And from LA.  Thirty years ago, she told me, she was traveling Europe when a rugged Aussie struck up a conversation with her over a cold beer in some 17th century building.  She followed him to Melbourne and never looked back.  She told a few stories and I, enchanted, listened to every word.


I took another bite of turkey, and then it occurred to me that I too had met an Aussie, who, over a beer in a 17th century building in Colombia, I realized I would be following to Melbourne.


Then I remembered how I had splashed the water all over my plate, as had she. We had both been sent to sit at the “back of room” table. In forty years, I thought, it could be me who was the bald lady sitting at the table telling travel stories to strangers.


I think I will be okay with that.


I just hope there’s a flip-flopped heathen sitting next to me then too.


The Great Ocean Hiking Trip That Almost Was October 15, 2010


If anyone has ever read any of my travel stories before, then they know that each story begins the same: with great enthusiasm and high ambition, and not much else.


This story is no different.


The Planning


Even though I am a seasoned traveler and wandering adventurer, I still can never get the planning and preparing part quite right.


In the past, I have forgotten basic things that most people would never forget. Things like water and first aid or a phone and map. Forgetting to pack these items on an overnight hiking trip is like forgetting your shoes. Although, Chris actually has forgotten his shoes before, so between the two of us, we didn’t stand much of a chance.


Still, when Chris and I decided to spend 3 days hiking the Great Ocean Walk, the first things I put on the “To Pack” list was water, first aid, a map, and a phone.


The Great Ocean Road trims the bottom of Australia, rolling through about a 100km stretch of rugged coastline and lush rainforest. The track is dotted every 10 km or so with fishing villages, lighthouses, koala bears, and not much in the way of services.  There are no toilets or showers at any of the hike-in campsites, and only rainwater is available. Between the paved Great Ocean Road and the pounding ocean waves, the rainforest trees grow tall and canopy the wet ground.


We hadn’t had a good weekend away in ages, and so I wanted to pack as much adventure and relaxation and sightseeing as I possibly could into our three days.


To appreciate this story, it is import to understand how high my expectations were.


I was very excited. As in, small-child-on-Christmas-Eve excited. The plan was to rise early Saturday morning, travel south by bus and train for a four-hour journey to the coast.


We would arrive at Apollo Bay, and start walking west! Everything we needed was in a pack on our backs! We would hike along the ocean and through forest all afternoon until we reached our campsite by sunset!


After a peaceful sleep, we would pack up, and hike 22km over scenic terrain to our next campsite. We would admire the beauty of untouched nature, and talk about how nice it was to finally get away.  Perhaps we would see a koala.


On the third day we would wake up bright and chirpy at about 5am, and hike another 15km over rocky beach cliffs and steep hilly forests.  Here, we would wander off the Great Ocean Walk onto the Great Ocean Road, flag down a bus or hitchhike, or something, and find our way back to Apollo Bay so we could catch the bus back to the city. It would be three awesome days of hiking in the Australian bush, covering 45km!


But that’s not what happened.


The Problems


Problem 1: Instead of arriving in Apollo Bay happy and exuberant, we were exhausted and carsick.  This was a last-minute trip, and so the grocery shopping had been done at 10pm the night before. We mad-rushed through the grocery store and bought only canned food, 8 bananas, and wine. We then started packing our bags at midnight, and went to bed by 2am.   Five hours later, we began our train and bus journeys down twisty-turny roads and by the time we arrived it was all I could do not to throw up.


But off we went, each with a pack on our back. Chris also carried the tent. I carried a plastic bag full of our bananas.


Problem 2: Chris’s bag. In our haste, Chris had grabbed a bag that he had forgotten he hated. A kilometer into our hike, the straps broke and had to be tied.  We were only hiking for three days, but had somewhat bulky supplies.  But all of this weight jumbled into two crappy bags takes a toll on a person’s shoulders and back and general hiking spirit. Chris was no exception.


After fumbling with the straps, I discovered that the first aid kit came with safety pins.  I safety-pinned the straps together and this way Chris could hike with less hindrance, the weight of the bag now secure.


Problem 3: About 2 hours in, it began to rain. I had my handy-dandy waterproof jacket and stayed mostly dry. Chris had no such thing, and he and his safety pins were rained on for about 20 minutes as we hiked through what was now mud.


Which brings me to Problem 4: There was SO much mud. The thick gloopy kind of mud that suctions your shoes off as you walk through it.  Clinging to broken branches and scratchy foliage along the edge of the mud pits, we did our best to maneuver our way around them.  Chris made it okay, but I slipped twice.


Problem 5: After about 4 hours of trekking, we realized it was taking us longer than expected to find our camping site. Chris’s bag constantly needed readjusting, our clothes were wet and muddy, and the bags were very heavy. I pulled out the map I had picked up way back in Apollo Bay.  It turned out to be the wrong map. It was a map of the right area, but different places of interest were marked on it.


Our campsite was not one of these places of interest.


It was a moment of defeat. Tired, hungry, muddy, rained on, and lost in the approaching darkness with our broken bags and bananas, I decided to call the Great Ocean Hiking Rangers and ask them how long until I found my campsite.


Problem 5.  I discovered that my cell phone did not have reception way out there in the outback.




We trudged on in tense silence for about ten minutes. And then, rounding a bend in the thick clustered eucalyptus trees, we walked smack into our site. Hurray.


Problem 6. I don’t really know if this next problem really is one, but it is bizarre and so worth mentioning.


As we were setting up our tent, out from the deep, dark, damp forest came this strange sound. It wasn’t very far off.  It lasted for several seconds, and stopped us mid-conversation and mid- unpacking. It sounded part snarl, part motorcycle engine, part growl, and it sounded like it came from something big. The sound was something of a cross between a lion and a velociraptor.


I went through a checklist in my mind of dangerous Australian wildlife:

  • Spiders
  • Snakes
  • .  .  .  .  .
  • Spiders


I had no idea what could have made that noise.  Then we heard it again. We didn’t know what to do. We were alone.  I had forgotten to pack my knife, but, really. Me with a knife? I would have only lost it in the forest as I fled screaming.


Chris said maybe it was a boar. Or maybe it was a rabid kangaroo or koala.  Or maybe it was a rabid hybrid of the two.  The Great Rabid Koalaroo scaring the shit out of hikers in the forest.


We decided to eat our canned food and just go to bed.


Problem 7: That first night will go down as one of the most uncomfortable nights we have ever tried to sleep through.  As we set up the tent, the skies opened and the rain came down. We didn’t pack sleeping pads because we didn’t want to carry them, and we only packed one sleeping bag for the same reason – minimizing weight.


This was a case of bad judgment. Because we were only bringing one, Chris picked the warmest feather-down bag he had.  Unfortunately, this also made it the heaviest sleeping bag, weighing down his backpack and breaking his backpack straps.


Our clever plan was to unzip the entire thing and use it as a blanket for us both. But doing this meant we slept on the hard, cold ground, tug-of-warring for the cover all night, and because it was unzipped, most of the warmth escaped anyway.


So in our attempt to be efficient, we only made our experience heavier and colder.


That night, I tucked in with a feeling of hope.


Hope that the next day our bags would hold.


Hope that it wouldn’t rain anymore.


Hope that I would fall asleep soon because I was so cold and the ground was so hard.


Hope that the Great Rabid Koalaroo was not growling at us and would not eat us in the night.


Hope that the night would just end.


The Beach


It only took half a day and 10km of the Australian wildlife to beat us down. Instead of doing all the awesome hiking things I had planned, we decided to retrace our steps to a pretty little beach we had passed through before, and just chill out for the day.  Then, we could flag down a ride to the nearest hostel for the night. No more safety pins. No more mud. No more lost.


That didn’t happen either.


If torn and muddy jeans and safety-pinned bags weren’t enough to make us look like a couple of homeless people, the bag of trash we now carried with us certainly did.


There were no trashcans anywhere along the trail. Hikers are meant to take all of their rubbish with them when they leave, so, being good people, we kept the empty cans and wine bottles and carried them the entire trip.


An hour into Day 2, walking back the way we came, we found ourselves on one of the prettiest beaches I have ever seen.  The sand was soft and crumbly. The lush forest rose around the hills hugging the beach.  Craggy black rocks decorated the shoreline, and turquoise waves crashed and tumbled, and shot up foamy spray over and over against the rocks. The sun was warm. We were happy.


We dropped our bags and trash on the sand and ate our breakfast, lunch, and snack for the day all in one go. Lying on our backs, we soon fell asleep to the sound of waves and birds and the occasional Chinese tourist that wandered down from the trail.


A little later Chris suggested that we just set the tent up on this beach for the night instead of bothering with a hostel.


At first I was like, “No! The rules! There’s no campsite here and there’s a ‘Danger High Tide” sign! We can’t break the rules.”


Then I remembered that most of the time I think this, I end up breaking the rules anyway, and nothing bad happens.  Nothing really bad, anyway.


So we did! We set the tent up just next to a protective rocky cliff face, and just safely up from where highest point of tide would reach. We could tell where the high tide came in because of the ribbon of broken shells and seaweed pieces that arched across the sand.


The ground slanted a little, so we arranged the tent in a way that would hopefully prevent our bodies from sliding sideways, and slumping our heads into the same small corner while we slept.


Sometime in the night, I awoke to strange splashing noises. I nudged Chris, who poked his head out of the tent to investigate.  I waited in the dark tent.  And waited.




He was looking for what seemed like a long time.


Carefully, he came back in and zipped up the tent. “I think it’s fine” he said.


I would like to add “with confidence” to that last sentence. “I think it’s fine” he said, with confidence.


But I think it was more like “tiredly”, as in “I think it’s fine” he said, tiredly.


A bit later I woke again to louder splashing, gurgling, and water-rushing noises that sounded alarmingly close to my head.  I don’t know why I didn’t check myself, but I didn’t.


I think it was one of those moments where I just closed my eyes to the problem.  The day before had been so hard, and today had been so good! I just didn’t want the good day part to change, so I went back to sleep.  Later, I found out Chris had also woken up the second time, but for similar reasons, ignored the rushing water at our tent.


In the morning, as we blinked into the morning sun shining on our illegal campsite, we saw that the nighttime tide has rushed well past our tent, and well past the ribbon of seaweed that I thought had been a good indicator.


Luckily, the tide rushes in as an arc, and not a full slate of tide wiping out and pulling away everything in its path.  Our little tent was 2 feet away from where the tidal arc sloped back towards the shore and, except for quite a bit of splashing, we stayed dry and were not swept out to sea in the night.


The End


In the end, we hiked 10km in one direction, and then back again to where we had started.  The 45km hike sighting koalas and lighthouses was not to be.


However, we headed back in good spirits. I had 3-day-old mud stains up to the ripped knees of my jeans. We had not slept well or showered. Chris’s bag was barely holding on with 5 safety pins and 4 threads. We had eaten through the cans and every last banana and drunk all the water.


We were tired, sweaty, carrying a massive see-through bag of trash, and getting sunburned.


But we had not starved, drowned, been lost, injured, or attacked by the Great Koalaroo.


It might not have been the Great Ocean Hiking trip I had imagined, but by the last day, we had adapted. It was a beautiful day.


The Bar Fight September 4, 2010

Filed under: The Bar Fight,What Happened in Australia — christynichols @ 4:08 am
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So I was having a bad week. I was in a yucky mood because of, like 18 different frustrating things.  I was waiting in the train station bar placating myself with red wine, and hoping to avoid alienating Chris when he joined me later, he being the only person around who would actually feel sorry for me.


So there I sat in the bar, book and wine at the table, and I hear over the din of Beyonce songs some punk guy screaming and shouting at some punk girl. They were probably about 20.  You would call these kinds of people “chavs” in England; in America they would be “white trash.” I don’t know what they are called here.


These two began to shout and swear and actually push each other, but they did this as they were leaving.  Myself and a few other lone patrons of the busy station bar turned our heads and watched the shouting match move itself towards the sliding glass door and out onto the main walkway of Southern Cross Station.


Ok, breathing out, tension gone, we all returned to our drinks and books and conversations.


But the calm was not to last. The two punks in hoodies shouted and swore their way back into the bar and carried on, showing little regard to anyone else.


I was busy bitching out things and people in my head. I didn’t need these two idiots doing it out loud right next to me.


They had moved their rowdy quarrel behind me when over the swearing and over the Beyonce came this BOOMING voice:


“GET OUT!!!!!!!!!”




The guy punk responded in a string of low-key mangled obscenities.  I turned my head and looked back. The booming belonged to a large powerful-looking man in a heavy beige suit. He was either late fifties, maybe early sixties, and huge. Not fat. Just big.




. . . . .. . . . . String of mangled obscenities from young punk . . ..


“PISS OFF!!!,” yelled Mr. Booming Voice with his large arm pointing towards the exit. And with that, the large booming man stormed towards the skinny angry punk and grabbed the front of his hoodie.  If the punk had been wearing a shirt with a collar, I guess the booming man would have collared him.


The angry little punk writhed and tripped over his own feet as the booming man literally dragged this guy out of the bar and threw him onto the platform.


The punk did not know what to do.  His stance was defiant, and the small bag he had been carrying he threw to the ground.  So . . . . . I guess he threw down.  They stood there, facing off.  It was a face off.


It was so  . . . . . EXCITING!! Every head in the station bar was turned! It was young verses old, punk verses class, scrawny verses brawny…  It was going to come to blows!!!  We all watched through the glass as Mr. Booming Voice towered over the scrappy little hoodie.


But then, even though the mangled obscenities carried on and the booming voice overpowered the busy station noises, the confrontation seemed to stop. I think the punk only could stand there with the F-word as his weapon.  He had nothing.  The booming man came back in to finish his beer.


He all but received a standing ovation. The people in the bar around me thanked him, nodded a smile at him, and complimented him on his powerful voice and physical initiative to throw out troublemakers.  It was awesome!!


I wanted to give him a double thumbs up, but then I thought that was the kind of thing a loser would do, so I exchanged smiles with the older guy at the table next to me instead.


If this was the old west, Mr. Booming Voice, as he returned, would have pushed past the swinging saloon doors, dusted his trousers off, and returned the smoking barrel to his holster. Then the mustachioed bar owner would have slid a glass of whiskey down the wooden bar towards Mr. Booming Voice and give him the ol’ nod.  The piano player would break the silence and we all would get back to our poker. There’d be a dead man left in the street, probably, but hey.


People don’t take care of business that way anymore.  Bar fights are usually one piss-head fighting with another, and usually patrons want them both out. Where’s the fight for honor? For peace? Where’s the chivalry?


Maybe it’s barbaric, but what the booming voiced man did by dragging that punk out of the bar completely impressed me. He handled the situation with his bare hands, and restored peace to the bar!


A guy who can pull that off will always be a good guy in my book.