Monday, November 5, 2012

Rocking the Vote from 8500 Miles Away

(Vox Efx; BY 2.0)

Tomorrow is Election Day in the United States.

Obviously, we can't transport ourselves home in order to vote, so just how does the system work for an expat?

I'm glad to say that it's incredibly easy. First up, we did a bit of online research and found out that our voter registration is based on our last county and state of residence. For us, that was Boulder, Colorado. From there, it was easy to jump on to the Go Vote Colorado website where we were able to download an Email Ballot Application and a FPCA form (necessary for citizens living overseas).

A few days later, we received our ballots via email. (How cool is that?!) We printed them off, filled in the bubbles next to our candidates, gave it our John Hancock, scanned the signed documents, and sent it back to Boulder (via email!!).

We are living 8,500 miles away from where our votes will be counted. However, that doesn't mean that we aren't aware of the issues and challenges facing the next President. This election is covered in all of the major Australian newspapers. Our friends and colleagues ask us on a near daily basis about the candidates and about our stance on various issues.

It's an important election. The next president will guide the nation on decisions about women's rights, healthcare, gay rights, and the appointment of Supreme Court judges. I'm very glad that we were able to vote.

...even if we didn't get a sticker.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

A Beautiful Place to Be Sick

In keeping with our goal to take a vacation every few months while in Australia, we recently traveled to the Whitsundays in Queensland for a week of snorkeling and lazing around on beautiful beaches.

We did just that for about 24 hours before I was stricken with a stomach flu that Drew had just gotten over and I had been convinced I was immune to. (They call it "gastro" here which sounds so much worse to me.)

For the next three days, I stayed holed up in our rented apartment while Drew did his very best to take care of me. Luckily, I had this for a view.

I was able to rally for our last two days. The first day I felt better, we went snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef. I have to admit that out of all our Australia snorkeling trips, this one was our least favorite. We went on a very large ship with lots of other tourists and the whole day felt a bit too Disneyland for our tastes. When we got to the Reef, we docked at a pontoon platform called Reefworld. The double decker platform had a huge waterslide, hence the Disneyland feel. The waters around the platform were roped off, making it hard to venture very far along the Reef while snorkeling. Plus, the company had an underwater photographer who kept trying to take our picture despite the fact that we just wanted to swim and look at the beautiful fishes. The highlight of our Reef trip was when we sat next to a Minnesota couple at lunchtime. They were on a three week snorkeling trip and had been to over 14 snorkeling destinations in Australia. It was wonderful to trade stories with fellow Americans and they also gave us several good recommendations for future snorkeling trips.

For our last full day at the Whitsundays, we hopped aboard a chartered boat and headed to Whitehaven Island. Whitehaven is famous for its 98% pure silica sand beaches. What this means is that the sand is super fine and very white. Almost like baking soda, actually. And best of all, the high silica content means that the sand does not retain heat so no burnt toesies! Cool Australia fact - when scientists needed to craft the lens of the Hubble Telescope, they chose the ultra pure sand from Whitehaven Beach.

Below are some photos of Whitehaven. As you can see, it was lovely. Despite feeling terrible most of our vacation, the final verdict, as declared by Drew, was "Well, it was a beautiful place to be sick!"

Goana on Whitehaven Island

This placard tells the Aboriginal story of how the Whitsunday Islands were formed.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Birthday Wishes

This week was Drew's birthday and I wanted it to be special.

So I gave him some books because you can never have too many books.

And this fun card that I bought in Portland in August when I was in the States. I framed it when I got back to Australia.
I'd climb anything with you.

Both of those gifts were much appreciated, as was the banana bread with cream cheese frosting that I made. FYI - cream cheese in Australia is NOT the same. It smells slightly off and the consistency is different. But Drew couldn't tell the difference.

I saved the best gift til last though. A trip to the zoo to hand feed the red pandas. Drew has been a fan of red pandas ever since we discovered Zooborns, a website devoted to pictures of zoo babies.

This is Eilish, she's the only female at the National Zoo.
We arrived at the zoo at 8:15am and were led to the red panda enclosure by Zookeeper Brendan. He told us a bit about the red pandas, including a warning that they usually nap during the day so we might only see them sleeping high up in the trees. Luckily, the two red pandas were awake and curious about the new visitors.
Eilish, the zoo's female red panda, was very keen on the fruit the zookeeper brought her, especially the grapes. We had a great time feeding her and petting her. Her son, Makalu, was a bit more timid and stayed up in the trees while we were there. He did clumsily scamper down close enough so we could see him though.

This is Eilish's son, Makalu. He was born in December 2011.

 (Video embedded above. If you can't see the video, click here.)

After 30 minutes of feeding and petting, it was time to say goodbye. Mealtime wasn't over though, as Makalu and Eilish scurried up into the trees to nibble on some fresh bamboo.

Included in our adventure was a day pass to the zoo, so we came back at 10am when it opened for visitors. When we walked by the red panda enclosure this time, the two were waaayyyy up in the trees, sleeping soundly.

It was a great experience with the bonus that we were able to contribute to the conservation of an endangered animal. Red pandas are endangered in the wild and the National Zoo is part of a breeding program to ensure that these incredibly cute creatures stick around for a long time to come.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef

If you had asked me two years ago about my top ten travel destinations, the Great Barrier Reef would not have been on it. Instead, places like Russia, Paris (x a million!), Machu Picchu, and the Pyramids would have topped my list. It's not that I didn't want to visit the Great Barrier Reef—I just thought it was too exotic, too far out of my world of possibilities.

Flash forward to last month and we're snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef, amazed at the vast number of fish and coral species that coexist in this maritime wonder.

The Great Barrier Reef is the largest reef system in the world. There are over 2,900 individual reefs and they span across 16,000 miles. You can even see it from space! It's actually considered the world's biggest living organism because all of the reefs are connected into one system.
A bird's eye view - looking down on the reef from our plane

The reef system is estimated to be between 6,000 and 8,000 years old. The sad news, though, is scientists speculate that within 90 years, the Great Barrier Reef will disappear due to coral bleaching caused by global warming. The optimum water temperature for corals is 79–81 °F—too much higher or too much lower and they die. It is a sobering thought and I am very conscious of how lucky we are to experience Australia and the rich diversity that it offers.

Below are some more of our photos from this amazing trip. Be warned - if you visit us in Australia, we might just drag you to Queensland so you can see it, too! :-)

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Is that a....?
Hello there, Mr. Shark. Not to worry - this big beautiful guy is a white-tipped reef shark which is not aggressive towards humans.

A nudibranch

So many little blue fish!
Not sure what these little guys do, but I love their pipe cleaner shape!
Some of the fish were bigger than my head!

Several of the fish could be seen feeding on the coral

My favorite sea creature - Drew, tuckered out after a long day of swimming

Friday, June 29, 2012

Here There Be Crocodiles

Here Be Dragons was a phrase used by cartographers to denote dangerous waters or uncharted territory.

Warning: Crocodiles may be present in these waters.

Would you go swimming after reading that sign? We did. :-)

Luckily, the only crocodiles we spotted on our recent trip to Cairns were at Hartley's Crocodile Adventures, a farm/zoo that offers tourists a close up look at Australia's saltwater and freshwater crocodiles.

These "salties" and "freshies" can grow to massive proportions. A crocodile shot in the area in the 1950s was reported to be 23 feet long!
This croc looks like he just gulped down a human...or two.
In addition to the crocodiles, Hartley's also boasted an array of other native Australian animals in their zoo. We saw cassowaries, kangaroos, goanas, koalas, and quolls to name a few.
This photo answers the age old question, 'What does a wallaby do with its tail when it sits down?'

After a couple hours of walking around the zoo, we decided it was time for lunch. Drew chose the Dinosaur Burger—grilled crocodile—with a side of chips (fries!).

For a palate cleanser, we sampled some ants that happened to be marching nearby. These Green Tree Ants had a refreshing citrus flavor. Drew has become quite the ant connoisseur here - his research area has ants that taste like coconut!
Heather & Ian - this one's for you!

Lest you think that all the crocodiles were at Hartley's...
On our trip to Cairns, we also went whitewater rafting on the Tully River. It was gorgeous—a day full of Class IV rapids in the middle of the rainforest. Waterfalls cascaded into the river all around us and Ulysses Butterflies flitted around our helmets and paddles. As we got closer to the take-out and the water became calmer between rapids, our guide warned us, "If you fall out during a rapid, get back in the boat as quickly as you can before we come to another flat water pool."
Apparently, the crocs don't like rapids but they do hang out in the flat water areas.  You can bet that I was hanging on to the raft for dear life after that warning.
Neither of these are photos of us, sadly. Pics are from the Raging Thunder website, the outfitter we rafted with

As if the crocs weren't dangerous enough, box jellyfish also visit the Australian coastline. These jellyfish are one of the most venomous animals in the world. The public beaches often have nets in place offshore to keep the stingers from washing into the swimming area. Children wear 'stinger suits' (swim shirts) and beaches will usually have a bucket of vinegar to pour on unlucky victims. The vinegar helps to neutralize the venom but it still leaves a wicked scar. Ouch!
I hope we're not scaring you too much, though. The beaches felt very safe and people were frolicking in the water everywhere we went. Really, the only thing we worried about was staying warm in the cold water.  But more on that in the next post.

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Thursday, June 28, 2012

A Walk in the Rainforest

While in Cairns, we rented a car for the day and drove an hour north to Daintree Rainforest. It was definitely a highlight of our trip.

Daintree Rainforest covers roughly 1,000 square miles and is home to a wonderful array of plants and wildlife.
Learning about the different types of rainforest timber

We started our day by visiting the Daintree Rainforest Discovery Centre. The Centre has a guided tour that zig zags up elevated walkways and enables you to see all levels of the forest, from the ground to the canopy. We quickly discovered that the ground level contained some amazing ferns, odd looking fruits, and lots of mosquitos.
Stinging Tree - DO NOT TOUCH.  Why did this make me want to touch it??

Up in the canopy, we were surrounded by song birds and butterflies. The air was warmer and we could even see some flowering trees in the distance.

As we walked around the Centre's paths, it was easy to see how Aboriginal cultures lived off the land in the rainforest. Massive fruits littered the ground and little marsupial critters scurried from tree to tree.  Our guided talk taught us all about the 'bush tucker' that was available to eat in the area, like sapote and Davidson's Plum and jackfruit.
Ehh, not sure if this one was edible...

The people at the Discovery Centre were so friendly and very helpful in suggesting nearby hikes where we could spend the rest of our afternoon. They also clued us in to the Daintree Ice Cream Company, a local farm that grows all kinds of rainforest fruits and then turns them into delicious ice cream.

Each day, they prepare 4 different flavors of ice cream. A cup of ice cream comes with a scoop of each flavor so you can try all four. The flavors of the day were mami sapote, passionfruit, wattle seed and macadamia. Yum!

No rainforest story would be complete without a cassowary. Cassowaries are large flightless birds, native to Australia. Though rare to see one in the wild, we were warned several times to be wary if we did see one. They have been known to charge people and their sharp claws can do serious damage.

There are two interesting facts about cassowaries that I find fascinating.

The first is that cassowaries have a funny looking calcium ridge on their heads that is filled with a honeycomb like substance. When an interpreter at the zoo mentioned that scientists have a few theories but no one has confirmed what the exact purpose of the ridge is, Drew leaned over to me and said, "I bet it has something to do with picking up sound vibrations." Sure enough, we looked it up when we got home and that is one of the three popular theories

Before & After art. Someone painted the bottom sign, normally a speed bump, to look like a dead cassowary.
The other interesting fact is that cassowaries eat the large rainforest fruits whole. They just gulp them down. The outer layer of the fruits will break down in the bird's stomach acid and then they just poop out the rest...which is an almost intact fruit. Needless to say, they have to eat a lot of fruit to get enough nutrients and calories from the skin!

I was so excited to see this Cassowary poop.
Cassowaries also make a low whumping sound. Check it out. It looks like they are about to hock up a hairball when they do it.

And no rainforest post would be complete without a cool tree picture...

Drew, ever the climber