Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Friday, August 20, 2010

Travels and Trevails of August - Pt. I

On the first of August I departed for Australia together with twenty students and three other teachers from Ye Olde Academy for what would be an 11-day sojourn. (Well, if you eliminated days spent only in transit, it was really only a 9-day trip, but whatever.) It was my second such journey, but although the itinerary was essentially the same as before, the schedule was very different. It also wound up being a very different experience.

(Due to the weird scandal that happened a year after my last Australia trip, I can't post any photos that show members of our group or of our sister school, nor can I give many specific details, so I'll just give the general rundown.)

We left Narita Airport in the evening of August 1st aboard a JAL Airlines 767-300. It was a comfortable plane with new, individual entertainment systems. It was also a nice, smooth flight. If it weren't for the fact that I wound up seated next to two boys on an indefinite sugar high, I probably would've slept all the way through. We arrived in the morning of August 2nd at Brisbane Airport and cleared customs without incident.

The first stop after leaving the airport? A big Woolworth's supermarket. Faculty and students alike were like little children at Christmas running around in those big aisles piled high with exotic (read "local Aussie") goods. As for me, I was able to get my required Cadbury Crunchie bar.

After that we headed for the Australia Zoo, made famous by Steve Irwin the "Crocodile hunter" (by crikey!), but now owned by his widow, Oregon native Terri Irwin.

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Not surprisingly, crocodiles were a very big part of the show there. Actually, there were a lot of uniquely Aussie beasties there, like wombats, cassowaries, monitors, and so on, and I would have liked to see some of the less well-known ones, but the group I was with definitely wanted their koalas and kangaroos.

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Yes, there were plenty of those.

Once we pried ourselves away from the Australia Zoo, we got back on our bus and headed to our sister-school in the sleepy-but-rapidly-growing town of Caloundra, part of the Sunshine Coast.

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(Looking toward downtown(?) Caloundra from Bulcock Beach.)

There our students were introduced to their host families, with whom they would be staying for the following week. Meanwhile, our 2-man, 2-woman (more like 3-Japanese, 1-gaijin) teacher team was checked into the Rydges Oasis Resort Hotel. (Hmm...the linked home page says the hotel is near "the restaurant strip of Kings Beach", which is wrong. Kings Beach is at least a couple of miles away. It's near the restaurant strip of Bulcock Beach. Yet another gripe against that hotel? More on this soon.) We stayed at the Rydges the first time we came to Caloundra, when it was a teachers-only trip back in 2005, and the place hadn't changed a bit. It's a beautiful, comfortable facility with nice rooms, a lovely bar/restaurant next to a pool and lily pond, lots of privacy, and the overall atmosphere is nice and relaxing. In other words, it's exactly what you would expect from a hotel rated with 4 stars.

On the other hand:
  1. The main ceiling lamp in my room didn't work.
  2. The plumbing in one wall was either leaky or poorly insulated; every time someone in the room above me used their sink there was a loud trickling sound that woke me up more than once.
  3. They charged me for calling a toll-free number (which no other hotel I've stayed at in Australia has ever done).
  4. They had wi-fi access, which I used for the first time outside Ye Olde Academy, but it was expensive and slow.
  5. The customer information provided in the rooms was outdated and inaccurate to the point of causing inconvenience. For example, it said traveler's checks could be cashed at the front desk. (Nope; I was told I had to run to a bank several blocks away before it closed in ten minutes.) Also, the "exact change" price given for their coin laundry was totally wrong (i.e. I had to leave and come back after getting a different coin combination at the front desk, which was NOT near our rooms).
  6. Although the front desk staff and other key personnel were really courteous, helpful (to a point, see above), friendly people, the regular restaurant crew could be pretty pushy, even to the point of being rude. For example, I'd set my bread knife down for a moment while still in the process of buttering my toast, and a busperson would immediately snatch it up and hustle off, ignoring my call to return it (i.e. "Get the f*** out of my restaurant, already!").
  7. On more than one occasion we arrived at the restaurant several minutes after it had opened for breakfast to find that the food wasn't really ready yet.
Other than that, it was a very nice hotel. And I definitely appreciated its location near Bulcock Street.

Then there is our sister school itself. (Should I call it "the colorful college"?) It is considerably smaller than Ye Olde Academy, but it's growing. Not only that, but as a very new school that is still very much a work in progress, it is far more modern than us. It's something you can see as soon as you walk into a classroom; whereas Ye Olde Academy is still mainly based on the traditional chalkboard, the colorful college has not only whiteboards, but smart whiteboards (i.e. ones that are also computer displays), not to mention wi-fi access in virtually every room. There are computers everywhere you look, even ones that are ported from class to class on nifty carts that are also plug-in mass rechargers. My use of PowerPoint and videos as lesson tools is still considered rather revolutionary at Ye Olde Academy, whereas at the colorful college it's simply par for the course. I'm also impressed with the amount of individual research and instruction possible at our sister school; we have been trying to do something similar at home, but resistance on both the personal and cultural levels is still considerable. We definitely have a LOT to learn from our smaller, younger Aussie friend!

The faculty and students at the colorful college are also the best. They're just good people on the whole, always going out of their way to make us feel welcome while at the same time impressing us with their ability and their spark...even coupled with their refreshingly stress-free "no worries" Aussie nature! They seem to be almost the antithesis of everything the Japanese stand for, and yet they never seem to fail to get the job done. This was my third visit to their campus, and so far it has been a joy every time. I hope I'll be joining the team when they head there again in two years.

Not that I'm very confident about that right now. There were definitely some problems, and it had nothing whatsoever to do with our hosts. You see, when we visited the colorful college back in 2005 and 2006, my usefulness to the team was never in doubt. I was the one who understood native-spoken Aussie English and could interpret. I was the one who understood Aussie culture and could help keep my Japanese colleagues out of trouble. Heck, even our Japanese tour guides often asked me for help! However, in 2008 the death of my mother-in-law forced me to drop out of the trip that year, and something totally unexpected happened to the Japanese-only group that went: absolutely nothing. There were no problems at all. The repeat travelers realized that now they were able to understand the Aussie English without difficulty, and they had the local culture more or less figured out. In other words, I was no longer needed. That point was driven home firmly this time in that I was pretty much shoved to the back and dragged around like a spare tire. The trip centered around the new chairwoman of the International Affairs Committee (who was passive-aggressively hostile to me the entire trip) and the former chairwoman of the same. The two of them pretty much decided everything. With them was our token administrator, the Chief of Curricular Affairs, who was treated as a special guest. That left me as the unneeded odd man out, and it got old fast. Both my questions and my opinion tended to be completely ignored, as in not even acknowledged. Everything I said was wrong by default, even when proof I was right was right there in plain sight.

The whole scenario was summed up by our breakfast on Saturday the 7th. I finished at the buffet before the others, so I looked for a table for us. I found one that was in a nice, quiet place near the window, affording us privacy and a nice view. However, when I sat there, the next teacher in line, who was the former chairwoman, paid absolutely NO attention to what I was doing (and said nothing to me) and sat at a different table. The other two teachers naturally followed her. That left me with the option of either sitting off by myself and missing the morning discussion or getting up and moving to their location (which is what I wound up doing...not that anyone even noticed). That served as an ugly metaphor for the entire f*****g trip.

It got to be awfully stressful, but I tried not to let it bother me too much. After all, we were in a wonderful location with even more wonderful hosts. Naturally, we ate well, too. I got my required Crunchie and Lamingtons. I also had some awesome dinners.

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This is what I had for dinner our first night in a pub restaurant compliments of our hosts! (The steak weighed a full pound.) We also had dinner at a pretty good Chinese restaurant and a much better Indian one, both on Bulcock Street. (My Japanese colleagues also went to a really famous Thai restaurant there one night, but I opted out, partly because my stomach was wearing out and partly because their company was wearing thin.) I also had a few great meals at various beachfront cafes and got my fast food fix at Subway and "Hungry Jack's" (Burger King).

The very appropriately-named "Cafe by the Beach" by Moffat Beach was especially nice.

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Moffat Beach itself wasn't bad, either.

Speaking of beaches, on Saturday we got together with some teachers from our sister-school and headed to the world-famous Noosa area.

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The beaches and forests in Noosa National Park offered views that were often as exotic as they were spectacular.

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Finding wild koalas there, especially ones that were doing something other than sleeping, was kind of cool, too. I think the others probably enjoyed the stroll in the high-class Hastings Street shopping area more than I did, though the pub-restaurant where we had lunch was something right out of a dreamy tour brochure (meant in a good way). Incidentally, Bluetongue Lager is really nice, especially on tap, and Cascade Pale Ale has a refreshing tartness almost like a hefeweizen. (Make no mistake; I also got plenty of Crown Lager and XXXX Bitter on this trip! I also had a few great NSW wines!)

On Sunday the 8th Bulcock Street was closed to traffic and turned into a giant street market with all kinds of tent stalls. It was packed full of people, something I'm not keen on, but it was still fun. Luggage weight was an issue, so I had to restrain myself, but I still came away with a used book, a couple of scented candles, and a new ocarina to add to my collection. There was some great live music there, too; I was especially impressed by one solo artist who alternated between (or sometimes played simultaneously) a guitar, a small Korg synth, and a couple of different didgeridoos plus a Native American flute (like what I intend to get!), all the while keeping a synthdrum beat going using footpedals!

Speaking of music, that evening was when we were given a "formal" dinner party at the home of one of the teachers from the colorful college. A lot of the faculty was there. We had good wine/beer, some great barbecued cuisine, and good company. What was even more amazing for me, however, was the pair of Irish folk musicians that were performing. (I understood that the violinist is a teacher at the college, while the guitarist/vocalist is known to several of them. Or was it the other way around?) They were really quite good, and I enjoyed listening to them...but it was a bit of a shock when I was handed a tinwhistle and asked to sit in with them! You have to understand: tinwhistle is one of the instruments I play to some extent, and I have performed on it alone and with bands on numerous occasions, but ironically enough, this was the first time I'd ever played genuine IRISH music on it anywhere except in my own bedroom. My confidence was about zero, and I felt both hopelessly rusty and totally lost, but they let me in, and I gradually warmed up to it. At one point, during a break, I started playing the old American tune "Shenandoah" for no apparent reason...and next thing I knew we were jamming on it! It just felt great, and it may very well have been the high point of the entire trip. It was definitely an experience to remember! I was also given the tinwhistle...and a glass of Tullamore Dew (Irish whiskey). :) Hats off and Cead mi faille to some really excellent people!

(I couldn't help noticing that, when I joined in the playing, my Japanese colleagues abruptly disappeared. Not sure what to make of that...)

The next morning was Monday and time to say farewell to our hosts. It's never an easy thing to do, and there were lots of tears. It also took forever to get our kids on the bus, but eventually we did, and soon we were on a Qantas 767-300 bound for Sydney.

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We did mostly regular tourist fare, visiting the Opera House (though unlike last time we were actually able to go inside!) and hitting a famous shopping spot or two. On the second day we went to Blue Mountains to do a bushwalk like last time, but this time it was cold, rainy, and misty, so we couldn't see much of anything.

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There was still color to be seen here and there in that remarkable rain forest, however. We also took a different course from last time, seeing the ruins of the 19th-century mining operation and how they've become part of the local environment.

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Fortunately it wasn't raining (much) when we went to the waterfront near The Rocks that night for our last dinner in Australia.

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We had it at the same excellent Chinese restaurant as before, the one under the sailing ship, with the Harbour Bridge in the background. This time we were out under the awning rather than inside the building, so it was even better. I stuffed myself silly for probably the fifth time that trip. (Remarkably, though I gained nearly 10 kg when I came in 2006, this time my weight changed little if any.)

The next morning we got up bright and early, went to Sydney Airport (where I got grabbed for a random pat-down and luggage scanning), and were soon on our return flight. This time it was a JAL 777-200, said to be the world's largest twin-jet, but we were packed in like sardines; I literally had my knees pressed against the seat in front of me the whole time, and getting up to go to the restroom took a special kind of gymnastics. It was also a very bumpy, turbulent flight. I practiced my Zen meditation for most of it just to keep myself calmed down. Luckily, the modest selection of souvenirs and gifts I'd bought came through okay.

When we got back to Ye Olde Academy, the new chairwoman told our vice principal that she thought we'd all gotten along with each other really well during the trip. That surprised me, since while we were in Sydney I'd finally had enough and had confronted her about her lousy attitude toward me. Oh, well. I guess we'll see what happens when classes start up again.


  • You got some nice pictures and that steak looked very nice (maybe because I don't get a lot of them nowadays).

    Bummer about the weirdness, but it seems as though you weathered it.

    Welcome home.

    By Blogger Don Snabulus, at 10:40 AM  

  • Beautiful pics - especially of the shores.

    The picture of the Bounty rigging reminds me of my trip to Australia - all too long ago.

    The 777 is big, but that just means they can cram more seats into it. Somehow the improvements never trickle down to the passengers. Maybe the 787 will be a little different in that regard, since it is built of composites, it is able to have bigger windows which will allow one to see the horizon (a pet peeve of mine) and to be pressurized to a lower altitude, meaning you get more oxygen and a great deal less fatigue. Seating, however, will probably not improve. Zen...

    Noosa National Park must be super.

    By Blogger Pandabonium, at 6:43 PM  

  • MM, 9 days in Australia! What a trip! Very nice pictures, indeed. Thanks for sharing them.

    By Blogger HappySurfer, at 3:56 PM  

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