Christmas in My Thongs (aka, Flip Flops)

Climbing a tree on Christmas Eve

(Disclaimer: I know I already posted about Christmas, but there’s so much to say about say about the Aussie holiday season that I thought I’d indulge one more time).

I woke up on Christmas morning a blurry mess, knowing I was supposed to do something. Oh, that’s right. I’m supposed to celebrate Christmas with my family over Skype. I flipped open my screen, to my brother’s cheery face. I put a piece of paper in the corner of the screen to hide my disheveled mess staring back at me. The 16-hour time lag had struck again, and I had found myself on the short end of the stick. My mom, dad, and sister popped onto the screen. They looked fresh and ready to go to their Christmas Eve service. We exchanged Christmas greetings for about an hour, then I closed the screen. It was time to open presents with my adopted family.

The Honors are one of those families you feel like you were always supposed to be part of. They’re tremendously close and even more tremendously fun. Many families might play a board game together for fun. The Honors play pranks together.

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Meet (the Real) Australia

Crimes that could send you to Australia

Australia is a land of impressions. These impressions usually involve crocodiles, kangaroos, cool accents, and Finding Nemo.

It is generally decided that Australia is an agreeable country and fairly innocuous—minus all of the dangerous animals it claims. There are few who despise it (it is really much too far away from everything to cause much trouble) and even fewer who really take the time to get to know it (except for the occasional fascination with its cult classics like Crocodile Dundee and The Man from Snowy River). If we’re like most people we tend to think of Australia as a quiet little nook on the other side of the world that we’d all like to visit someday, but probably won’t.

This is how the hilarious travel writer Bill Bryson describes the country:

“Australia doesn’t misbehave. It is stable and peaceful and good. It doesn’t have coups, recklessly overfish, arm disagreeable despots, grow coca in provocative quantities, or throw its weight around in a brash and unseemly manner.”

In short, Australia doesn’t do much.

In reality, however, Australia is quite a brilliant country. Here are some fascinating factoids about this famously sunburnt nation.

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Christmas in Oz

Sydney Harbor (the view from my deck)

You know you’re in Australia when it’s December 17th and you’re wearing your bathing suit and eating squishy mangoes. I must admit, it doesn’t feel much like Christmas here on the other side of the world.

I arrived into Sydney on Monday (after a delightful week of chasing cows in Wellington), and immediately ripped off my sweater, wishing I was wearing shorts instead of jeans. Crossing the Pacific Ocean from New Zealand to Australia is like crossing into another season. Although it’s summer in New Zealand as well, it’s the jacket and trousers kind of summer. Not so in the Land of Oz (aka Australia). (Side note: I’m not really sure why they call it Oz. There aren’t yellow brick roads or anything).

So while everyone in the States is probably baking Christmas cookies and dusting off those first layers of snow from the windshields, I’m here lathering up the sunscreen and wishing I brought more tank tops.

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Chasing Cows and Hatching Chooks

Zoe and a "chook"

This morning I woke up thinking I would be going to a prison to do interviews. I found myself instead chasing cows through a New Zealand paddock.

Since Tuesday I’ve been staying with the Taylors, a lovely family who live on a farm outside of Wellington. The couple (Graeme and Mary) used to work for Prison Fellowship in New Zealand, so we have many mutual friends, and they graciously offered me a bed for a few days. After a week of tramping, whale-watching, and glacier walking, I was ready to take off my tourist hat and taste a bit of local flavor. I don’t think it gets more local than what happened to me today.

I was driving back from town with Graeme today (I was sitting on the passenger side, the left side, of course). As we approached the turn-off for the Taylors’ rural road, I saw five large blobs of black and white blocking the entrance.

“Oh, hello?” Graeme said quietly (but I could tell something was wrong). It was “the boys” (the Taylors’ five Hereford cows), who had apparently escaped from their paddock and were making good progress toward a dangerous intersection. “Gramps,” Mary’s father, had arrived on the scene just minutes before us, and was doing the best a 91-year-old man could do at rallying a small herd. Graeme whisked his white pickup alongside the escaping fivesome, threw on his gum boots, and began chasing the cows back down the road.

"The Boys"

He soon realized that he couldn’t do it alone, so he instructed Gramps to drive ahead and close off the neighbors’ gates, while he drove the truck behind the cows with the intent of encouraging them to move in the right direction. Feeling a bit out of my league, I offered to chase behind them on foot. Graeme thought that would be lovely. So, out I jumped, into the wet field with my nice blue jeans and new shoes. I wasn’t quite sure what was involved in moving five breathing objects, all four times my size, but I figured yelling and clapping would do the trick. So off I went, running through wet grass up to my waist, clapping away.

Surprisingly, the big boys took the hint and began galloping (as much as two-ton mammals can gallop) down the road. After several detours (at one point, two took off up a side road), quite a few laughs, and one soggy pair of jeans later, Graeme, Gramps, and I had herded “the boys” safely into a new paddock (one broken fence showed us how they had escaped from the first one).

But the rural excitement was only beginning. This time in the hen house.

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Tramping through New Zealand

There are few things more quintessentially “Kiwi” than “tramping.”  And it has nothing to do with selling oneself on a street corner or sleeping in a cardboard box. Rather, it has everything to do with strapping a bulky pack to one’s back and spending the next few days becoming incrementally dirtier.

Last Tuesday, Shannon (my traveling buddy) and I ventured into the world of New Zealand tramping—essentially backpacking, but sleeping in communal huts instead of tents—in what could be considered the most mouthwatering vista in the known universe (aka Fiordland National Park in New Zealand’s South Island).

Not a half hour into our “tramp,” I discovered that it is one thing to climb up a mountain; quite another to climb up a mountain with a 20-pound pack on your back. It wasn’t so much the weight, as the inertia. Lean forward, and you’re bound to lean forward all the way off a cliff. Lean backward, and you’ll land your rear side on that perfectly placed rock with a thousand sharp angles.

I also found out my pack liked to play this little trick of hiding the very thing I was looking for—whether it was a granola bar, my sunglasses, or some toilet paper. I eventually found them nestled among the bulging curvers, but not until I had emptied all of my belongings across the track, winning myself the title of the most inexperienced backpacker (or should I say “tramper” on the trail).

But this was nothing compared to the enemy I encountered that evening. After downing a bowl of soup with fellow sojourners at the Routeburn Falls Hut (a shelter with bunks, and a kitchen with stoves and running water), I was excited to nestle into my dry bunk for what I hoped would be a good night’s sleep. Not a second after I had crawled into my sleeping bag, I heard him.

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