Friday, 15 February 2008

We arrived in Sydney after an all night flight. It seemed so different after all the travels across Asia, for one thing almost everyone was speaking English. We weren’t pushed and shoved off the plane. In fact, someone actually held up half the plane to wait for Benji, who was having trouble getting his massive backpack on his back. The bathrooms had no squatty potties, and they did have toilet paper. I kept my eyes peeled for Craig and Rhonda but didn’t think we’d see them until the hotel, since their plane arrived an hour before ours.

We got our bags and stepped outside into warmth. Blessed warmth. We stuffed all our jackets in our duffel bag and I felt the shivering inside go quiet as we crossed the parking lot. We got a taxi, got to the hotel, got our room, and discovered Craig and Rhonda weren’t there yet. Hmmm. We were a little worried, did they miss a flight? Were they lost in Sydney somewhere? All these fears paled in comparison to my joy at finding a washing machine and dryer directly across the hall from us. For a mere four dollars, I could wash and dry a load of wash! No more washer’s thumbs, an ailment I’ve developed when I do a lot of washing in the sink which results in really sore thumb joints.

Nate took up a post near the front desk to watch for his cousins, McKenzie and Brant, running back and forth to give us reports. Clay figured out the internet connection, one of the first things he does when we get to a new place. We all took sips out of the water faucet, just because we could. I opened up the package Peggy and Maurice had sent to us, which we pre-packed back in the States last summer. It held our next round of school, some books to read, and Clay’s scuba booties and bag. Added to it were some goodies from Clay’s parents (new magazines and books and Clay’s birthday present), and an amazing gift bag for Alayna from some friends. We always like those since we usually benefit as well. We quickly located the Girl Scout cookies and declared them community property.

I was heading to the front desk to get some change for the dryer and noticed out of the corner of my eye a family with two kids. I didn’t recognize them at first, but as I got closer I recognized Brant’s moppy head and McKenzie’s cute new ‘do. Craig! Rhonda! We all talked at once, finding out their bag had been lost, we must have been at the airport at the same time. Our kids all ran out to the lobby and we had a big hug-fest while Craig checked in.

Everyone was so excited, especially the kids. Rhonda and I took the kids for a walk to explore the hotel while the men got on the Skype phone to try and find out about their lost luggage. The boys got some brochures from the front lobby and used them to slide down the sloped hall that led to our rooms, running back and forth. Then we all camped out in the hall, waiting for the guys to get off the phone. We were way too loud and excited to be in the same room, and Craig and Rhonda’s hotel room wasn’t ready yet. After the boys finished their brochure skiing, we sat around picking the brochures with things we wanted to do, starting to make plans for the next five days. The girls seemed to favor high adventure like climbing bridges and jumping out of airplanes, Benji liked the ones with animals.

After the phone call was done (not productive, basically there was no information about the bag, nobody knew where it was), we popped across the street for a Subway lunch and then hopped on a train, which was located directly beside our hotel (way to go, Rhonda, she found our hotel). Just a few stops down the line and we hopped out at Darling Harbor. The kids horsed around on a playground as we made our way around the harbor to the Aquarium. We saw our first Australian animal, a shy little duck-billed platypus. We walked through a glass tube while sharks and giant rays glided all around us. The rays looked like black, slow-motion butterflies, and they were really huge. There were awkward cow fish with their big, ungainly bodies and tiny fins flapping overtime to move around, and the always fascinating jellyfish moving gracefully against a black light.

We were all getting tired by five, jet-lagged and ready for bed, so we headed back to the hotel. We grabbed a quick dinner at a Mexican fast food joint across the street from the hotel, and it was really good. I had nachos, mmmm, nachos. I hadn’t had nachos in a long, long time, and each crunchy, cheesy bite was savored. We went back to the room and made our plans for the next day while the kids all played their DS games together, something our boys have really been looking forward to.

I blanched at the thought of wasting any time playing video games when they have only a few precious days with their cousins, but something our preacher’s wife once said has stuck with me. I was talking to her one Sunday, and I was probably complaining about how much time my kids spend watching a screen (or how much time they wish they were watching a screen), and she told me she has such fond memories of huddling up with her cousins, playing “video games” (they’ve come a long way) together on the weekends. I had to stop and think back, and yes, I did remember playing Atari with my friends, or Pong (do I date myself?), or just staying up watching TV late into the night. So, my kids made some sweet video memories with their cousins, sprawled out on the hotel beds with their shoes off, trading games when they got to a tough part and needed help.

In that same vein, about a month ago I began to contemplate getting Clay a DS game for his birthday. The thought occurred to me after my mom showed up with her shiny, white, DS. I couldn’t believe she had one, and neither could the kids. What a cool grandma. They immediately wanted to show her their games and help her on her Brain Age and get it all set up on the screen. Clay would never suspect that I would get him a DS, since I’m always complaining about how much time the kids spend on it, and because I have at times been mean to his phone when he spends too much time on it. I decided to bite the bullet and get him one, I love to find a gift that’s a surprise. I emailed Craig and Rhonda, set up a complicated communication method involving the name “Roger”, and asked if they could buy one and bring it with them. That night, in the hotel, with all the kids already plugged in, seemed like the perfect time to surprise Clay, even if it was a few days early. All the more surprise!

The kids were so excited about getting their dad something they love so much, and Clay was indeed surprised. Astonished. Delighted. He and the kids played a few games, and I found Clay in the bathroom talking to his DS, he claimed he needed a quiet place so make sure it recognized his voice. For a game, I think. We made a few plans for the next day, the main one being we would wake up around 8. We turned off the games, and took all our sleepy bodies to bed.


Saturday, 16 February 2008

Craig knocked on our door at 8, we were all still totally knocked out. We hadn’t set our alarm the night before, we were sure we would wake up in plenty of time, the kids always wake up early. And besides, Craig and Rhonda’s family would be way more jet lagged than us. So there we were, sawing logs at 8 when Craig came a-knockin’. We all opened bleary eyes, and Craig and I went to get some breakfast to bring back for the masses. The hotel breakfast was $20 a pop, so we opted for the bakery across the street, where we found buns with toasted cheese and bacon on top, loaves of bread, chocolate milk, but no noodle soup.

We decided this was a perfect beach day, so we gathered up all the necessary supplies and jumped on the train, then a bus, headed to Bondi Beach. The first thing I noticed as we walked across the sand was the squeak. I don’t remember sand squeaking, but this sand squeaked like tennis shoes on a basketball court, and we were just in our bare feet. I also noticed the lifeguards, in their bright yellow and red beanies. Picture the studs on Baywatch, all tan and strong, with little beanies on their heads. These real Bondi lifeguards are just as famous as their Baywatch counterparts, they are featured on a show called Bondi Rescue. We noticed a camera crew as we found the perfect spot on the beach to set up, and I found out later they were there filming an episode, waiting for an exciting rescue to catch on tape. Also dotted on the beach were red and yellow tents with DHL printed on the back. I’d never seen lifeguards sponsored before.

While Clay got himself and the boys situated on the beach, the girls and I headed to some nearby shops to get a few things. We got Alayna a new swimsuit top that didn’t flip up when the waves came and some beach towels, lamenting the high prices on the popular Bondi Beach strip. We finally made our way back out to the place we had staked, and remembered that none of us had sunscreen on. We had to call the boys in from the ocean and wait for them to dry off, one thing led to another, and it was at least another forty minutes before we finally slathered everyone up. We would live to regret this.

As we were hanging out on the beach, we noticed a girl running up from the ocean, crying. She had just been stung by a blue bottle, a stinging jellyfish-like sea creature with long tentacles and an inflated blue body. There were signs on the beach, warning about these creatures, and today they were out. Alayna was the first victim of our party, she came running in from the ocean, her ankle had been stung. Nate came running to sound the alert and let us know she had been injured. She was already on her way to one of those red and yellow tents, where a friendly lifeguard supplied a plastic baggie full of ice and some sympathy. He advised us to wash it in the shower, he warned it would probably hurt for awhile.

Nate and Brant had a ball boogie boarding together, and then Clay decided to head out with Nate to catch a few waves. Rhonda, Craig and I kept an eye on them, hoping they wouldn’t get stung. Suddenly, Clay started flailing around. We figured he had been stung, but after a few seconds, he grabbed the boogie board and looked as if he was okay, then he started flailing again, even more wild this time. He was way out in the water, and Rhonda and I told Craig to go help his brother. Craig headed out as Clay ran in, grabbing at his stomach and throwing the boogie board. By the time Craig got to him, he had removed most of the blue bottle, which had somehow wrapped its tentacles twice around his torso. Just to add insult to injury, it stung Craig on the ankle.

Clay had big welts in two lines on his back and belly and he said it felt like it was on fire. We all settled on the towels, nobody very interested in getting in the water anymore. The kids started work on a massive sand castle, the boys built booby traps in the sand, and Rhonda and I began betting on who in the water would get stung next, placing bets on strangers. Person after person came running up to the beach, screaming and peeling off tentacles, those blue bottles had no mercy. They clung to young and old alike. We started to feel bad, the people we targeted usually got stung, the little boy in his teeny blue speedo, the blonde girl that had been flirting with the Bondi lifeguard. We stopped picking who would get stung, it was too sad.

We noticed that when the lifeguards found blue bottles that had been washed up on the beach, they picked them up carefully with their fingertips and then wrapped them around the poles of the signs that warned about blue bottles. Rhonda asked how they could do this and not get hurt, they informed her they didn’t hurt the fingertips or the heels of your feet since the skin is tougher. The kids were overjoyed to get this information, and began stomping on the blue bottles as we walked on the sand, savoring the popping sound they made when they got squashed. Better than bubble wrap!

We decided to hike over to some rocks and check out the tidal pools, and got ourselves some ice cream. We hadn’t felt like ice cream in quite a while, China was too cold for ice cream, so this was especially creamy and delicious, piled high and spiraling on our cones. The boys loved using their boogie boards like kites, letting the wind catch them and flip them into the air. Benji would squeal and giggle when he got his going, he would drag it along like a pet on a leash until it caught some wind.

We found a grassy spot to try out the kite we bought in China. The kite didn’t fly very well, but the kids had fun trying, running and tossing it into the air. They played freeze tag and chased each other until it was time to go. We had acquired three towels, two boogie boards, and three blue bottle stings. We had also acquired massive sunburns, which only became more apparent as we took the bus and subway home. Brant lucked out, he wore a swim shirt and didn’t get it as bad. The worst victims were Benji and Nate, their skin was bright, bright red. Their first real burns. I felt horrible, what kind of mother lets her kids get fried in the sun like that? The day had been deceptively cloudy, and our skin was like fresh meat to that sun, all pasty white from our time in freezing China. Clay and I got burned, too, my back was on fire.

Clay made a run to the grocery store to get some aloe vera, and we applied it little by little to the boys as they squirmed and moaned. Their skin was hot to the touch. Poor dudes. Brant spent the night with us and Alayna went down to McKenzie’s room. The boys put their sticky aloe bodies to bed and fell asleep easily.


Sunday, 17 February 2008

Day two of the sunburns, they feel like headaches on our backs, all tight and hot. We applied more aloe and then walked around half undressed until they dried as much as they’d dry. Our shirts stuck to our backs. Today we decided to visit a wildlife park outside the city, where we read we could pet koalas and feed kangaroos. As we pulled ourselves together, we briefly thought about renting a car to drive ourselves out of the city. I ran around the corner and got some information from Avis, we’d have to rent two cars and it would make sense to keep them for three days. That way we could do another trip out of town later in the week to the Blue Mountains. We debated, we studied the map, we weighed the possibilities of losing each other on the way out of town, we calculated the hassle cost, and then we jumped on the train. Getting a car just wasn’t worth it.

It took over an hour to get to Featherdale Wildlife Park, the kids took a deck of cards and played Emperor on their seats while the adults played a few rounds as well. Much better, traveling together instead of two separate cars. The park was awesome, we walked in and immediately were able to pet wallabies, which are like small kangaroos. I played a game with a cockatoo, each time I bobbed my head the bird would bob its head. Back and forth, faster and faster, I think I gave up first. It really cracked Nate and Benji up.

We entered the koala area, where two park attendants stood near a koala that perched on a tree branch. You could walk right up and pet the koala, take your picture with it, scratch it behind the ears. Clay asked one of the guys if they liked being pet, and he said they were used to it, except they didn’t like to be touched close to the face. I stopped scratching behind their ears. They were so soft, so adorable, their big black noses and tiny black eyes, like a live stuffed animal.

When one got tired, the attendants would take it back to its “home” where it perched with two or three comrades, and swap it out with a different koala to let people touch. It was really cool to walk around the ring of koala enclosures. There were no fences, no cages, just a low wall to separate the visitor from the animals. You could get right up close and watch them, as they lounged on their branches, fighting half-heartedly for the best spot. One would slowly climb up to another, swat at it with its paw, or maybe chomp on its rear, until the other one rolled off to find a new spot. Some crunched eucalyptus leaves, others dozed.

The rest of the park gave us a good look at other common Australian animals, including dingoes that looked just like dogs, a neurotic Tasmanian devil that ran a circle around and around its cage, echidnas with their long, pointy noses, and a big, lumbering wombat that looked like a cross between a pig and a rodent. We searched for some bilbys, they were supposed to be in the nocturnal exhibit with the bats, but we couldn’t see them anywhere. Sorry Bilby family, we were hoping for some good pictures.

We got to feed some kangaroos food from ice cream cones, the food looked like little green flakes and some resident emus enjoyed crunching the cones when they got a chance. Within this “petting zoo” of kangaroos and emus, there were safe spots where the roos could get away from eager hands. Inside one of these, a mother rested on her side and a little baby joey peeked out from her pouch. It was impossibly folded in there, its big feet and small front legs, and then its tiny face, all appearing at the same time.

We passed through the gift shop, acquiring a koala and kangaroo with slinky necks and a cute little stuffed koala holding a felt eucalyptus leaf. How could we pass them up? After checking the bus schedule we decided to walk back to the train station, the bus would be another forty minutes. It was a long walk through an old, established neighborhood. It reminded Clay and me of where we had lived when we were kids, something about the cracked sidewalks with grass growing up from the sides, it felt familiar. We passed old people sitting on their porches, we admired well-tended flower gardens, we startled when little dogs jumped up at us from their chain link fence enclosures. I think we beat the bus to the train station but I’m not sure, it was a long walk.

When we walked into the hotel we were greeted with good news, Craig and Rhonda’s suitcase was on the way! They breathed a sigh of relief, they wouldn’t have to make a run to Target to get Craig underwear. We decided to go take a look at the Harbor Bridge and Sydney Opera House by night. We took the train which let us off at just the right spot, it was the most beautiful view I’ve ever seen from a train platform. We walked out and found a restaurant right near wharf number four, feasted on some delicious Italian food and enjoyed a bottle of wine while the kids downed some pasta and sodas. Our view of the water was blocked by a gigantic cruise ship, but it was still pretty. After dinner, we walked down to the Opera House. The roof looked like white sails, forever full, forever anchored. A lighted up train passed overhead as we headed back to the station, even it was pretty. I wonder if people who live here ever come to this spot, look up at the trains, and think the same thing. I wonder what things visitors have seen back in Austin that my eyes have never noticed. We went back to the hotel full and sleepy, peeled off our shirts which had a layer of aloe dried on them, and the boys were asleep before my head ever hit the pillow.


Monday, 18 February 2008

Happy Birthday Clay! He opened his presents, chopsticks from us, shirts from his parents and some books from my parents, and we all sang Happy Birthday. Day three of the sunburns, they aren’t quite as tight, aren’t quite as hot. We’re waiting for the peel. We ate breakfast this morning at the Supreme Court Building for New South Wales with a bunch of judges in robes and white wigs. The guide book said it was a little known secret in town with a great view, and it was right. We ate eggs and bacon seventeen stories up, overlooking the ocean, the Botanic Gardens, and Hyde Park. We were the only people there with kids, we were the only people there in shorts and t-shirts, but nobody seemed to mind, even when Brant concocted a potion in his water glass with salt and sugar and some green leafy thing while our kids cheered him on.

After breakfast, we strolled over to Hyde Park and kicked around the ball, played with the feathered kick toy we got in China, and just sat on the grass a while. Our plan for the afternoon was for Alayna, McKenzie, Clay and Craig to climb the Sydney Harbor Bridge. Not to walk over it, but to actually climb over the top of the bridge, 456 feet above the harbor below. We walked to the bridge climb offices to sign them up, and after an hour they were fitted up with climbing suits and harnesses that would be the only thing between them and death. They had to remove all loose articles, including watches and small change in their pockets, and were thoroughly briefed before they began their adventure.

While those four were busy climbing the bridge, Rhonda and I took the three boys on a walk across the bridge to an old amusement park called Luna Park. The walk across the bridge was a little unnerving at first, when trucks drove by the bridge seemed to shudder underneath us, but it was really a safe walk. A high fence protected us on both sides, barbed wire curling over the tops to protect those with suicidal tendencies from themselves. We stopped at a playground after crossing the bridge, where the boys climbed all over a ropey climbing thing. Rhonda and I sat on a bench in the shade and chatted, finally pulling the boys from their climbing adventures to find Luna Park.

We entered through the mouth of a clown, this amusement park was the perfect size and I could just picture people in penny loafers and poodle skirts roaming around. The park had been recently refurbished, the rides were comfortingly vintage, and the park was clean and fairly empty on this school day. We rode the mousetrap roller coaster, scaring the wits out of me as we hung over the edge and made sharp hairpin turns, then plunged down fast enough to make me scream. Benji, riding between my front legs, loved it. The ride and my screams. They had a fun house with body-distorting mirrors, a giant barrel that spun while you walked through, giant slides that you rode down on carpets, and a turkey walk that pitched you up and down as you tried to walk across. We smashed each other and strangers in bumper cars, and Nate, Brant and Rhonda whirled their guts out on the fast-spinning Tango ride.

We managed to get Rhonda on her first Ferris wheel ride, which she did not entirely enjoy. We got stuck at the top for a while and just swung there, the city of Sydney stretching out all around us. It was a great view, when we were brave enough to look up. When we rounded back down to the bottom Rhonda whimpered that she wanted to get off, but the kids running the ride just smiled and sent us around again. I don’t think they believed her, and after a few times around she was okay.

After sampling almost all the rides, we made our way back over the bridge to find the bridge climbers. They had a successful climb, nobody chickened out, nobody died, and they got a great picture at the top. It was a pretty memorable way to celebrate Clay’s birthday, climbing the Sydney Harbor Bridge. We topped the day off with a great dinner, a bottle of wine, the Happy Birthday song, and six slices of pie that we passed around the table. Clay got first bite of each, since he was the birthday boy. We rolled back home, fat and happy.


Tuesday, 19 February 2008

 We wanted to get an early start this morning, we were heading to the Blue Mountains and it was a two hour train ride to get there. We ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for breakfast and made a mad dash out the door, a little later than we had hoped. The trains to the Blue Mountains left once an hour, and we didn’t want to miss ours. We had two connections to make, and twenty minutes to do it. We ran through the subway station after our first two trains, desperately searching for the right line. Keeping nine people together through a crowded subway station is a feat to be admired. We dashed up an escalator, rounded a corner, jumped on the train just as the whistle blew, and left the station not more than five seconds later.

We heaved a sigh of relief, we made it, then settled in for some cards and dice while we clattered on down the tracks. The two hours were up just as boredom was setting in, we exited the train, hopped on a hop-on, hop-off bus, and headed into the mountains. We did some hiking and stumbled upon some beautiful waterfalls. We picked our way across muddy paths, it was obvious it had recently rained and parts of the path were squishy and squashy. It started off misty (a bonus to our sensitive skins, our burns still hadn’t started to peel), and our views were limited, but as the day wore on the mist lifted and we were treated with some amazing vistas of mountains and forest all around us. At one point we took a train ride that touted itself as the “steepest train ride in the world”. It took us up the mountain, and I must agree with their claim, at least it’s the steepest train ride I’ve ever been on. It was more like a roller coaster, without the restraints. Since we rode it up the hill, we were riding backwards, facing down the hill and not knowing what to expect, and the higher we went the scarier it got. We were practically vertical, I screamed to Alayna for her to hold onto Benji, Benji was screaming because he thought he was going to fall out. I thought he was going to fall out. I thought we were all going to fall out and plummet to our deaths. As we came out of a dark tunnel, I realized Clay had captured all our terror on video. What a guy.

It’s funny, when I was doing the journals with the boys, both of them talked about the fort they made today, the sticks they gathered and broke into bits and threw at the girls. They called them “grenades”. This all went on while the adults were trying to figure out their camera settings at one particularly pretty spot. It took forever, figuring out which setting to use, and I don’t think any of us knew about these grenades and boy-girl dramas going on just behind our backs. The boys made no mention of the views or the waterfalls in their journals until I reminded them of it, what they remember, the memory they relish, is pelting the girls with their grenades. Their memories of Australia will be generously sprinkled with memories like these with their cousins, a thing just a beautiful as waterfalls and mountaintops.

After a day of hiking and grenade-making, we all needed some candy for a little pick me up. We stopped in a small-town candy store and loaded up on all our favorites. It was a great old candy store, glass jars stacked from floor to ceiling with every kind of candy imaginable. Nate got Gobstoppers because they last a long time, he is a practical candy eater like I always was. When I was a kid, I loved to save my Halloween candy, eating just one piece a day and hoarding the rest in a shoe box in my closet so I could pull a piece out in November or even December and eat it slowly and deliberately in front of my sister, Leslie. I knew a girl when I was a kid who kept a gigantic jawbreaker in a piece of paper in her closet, it was the size of a baseball when it was new. Every day she took it out and gave it a few licks. I was so jealous of that giant jaw breaker.

At the candy store, Benji got himself a box of Nerds, which he ate one little piece at a time to try to make them last. Alayna held out for ice cream somewhere else, I got Jordan almonds. I love the way they crunch hard on the outside, and then are all soft and nutty on the inside. Clay got a chewy mint bar and some ginger cookies. Craig won the award for most disgusting candy, eucalyptus flavored hard candies that tasted like cough drops. The only way they can get away with selling those things is because koalas eat eucalyptus and they’re so cute. He redeemed himself with some sweet red licorice and candy coke bottle jellies.

As we waited for the train to arrive that would take us two hours back to Sydney, we noticed some large white birds swooping from tree to tree overhead. They were cockatoos, birds that fly around in the wild in Australia. It was so strange, seeing these birds I’ve only seen in cages flying around free like that. They seemed like escapees, like they weren’t supposed to be there. The bird song didn’t seem real, either. It sounded like kids trying to imitate a bird. I don’t know if the sound we heard came from the cockatoos or not, but it was all a rather surreal experience, eating Jordan almonds at a train station in the Blue Mountains of Australia while cockatoos swooped overhead.

I don’t remember what candy Rhonda got, I just remember the look on her face when we got back on the train. “I ate too many sweets,” she lamented, holding her stomach. I popped another Jordan almond in my mouth, I love those things. We played cards on the way back, hearts, and the games got a little heated. Clay lost his temper, said a really bad word that somehow the kids, with their radar ears, didn’t hear. He was put on silence for the next round. Rhonda won the big hearts showdown, in spite of Clay’s attempts to get the rest of us to gang up on her. “There’s no one loser in hearts, don’t play for second place” he berated us, “Just one winner. Look at her score. Let’s get Rhonda . . .” I won’t publish Clay’s score. I’ll just say he was one of the losers.

That night, back at the hotel, we let the kids stay up late and play DS with their cousins one last time while Craig and Rhonda packed up their stuff and did a load of laundry. Way past bedtime we gave each other big hugs and said goodbye, they’d be leaving early in the morning for Cairns, then back to the states a few days later. Alayna went to bed with wet cheeks, she will miss McKenzie very much. We all had a great time together, Sydney wouldn’t have been as much fun without them.


Wednesday, 20 February 2008

While Craig and family left at 7am, we still had another day and night in Sydney before we picked up our campervan. Our plan for the day was to do a round of school and then hook up with the friends we met back in Vietnam who live in Sydney. They had graciously invited us to their home for a bar-b-cue, and their daughter Bianca wanted Alayna to come visit their school. Bianca’s older sister Ellie met Alayna at the train station next to our hotel and they left early to go to Bianca’s school, while Clay and I stayed behind with the boys to do a little shopping. We scored at a nearby mall, where we picked up the last Harry Potter for Nate (he’s read the first six while on the trip!), got Benji and Alayna socks, Nate some flip-flops, and all of us lunch. Benji had a container of watermelon for his lunch, a little unorthodox but at least it was fruit.

To get to Bianca’s house, we took the same train line we took to the Blue Mountains. Again, we made it with less than 5 seconds to spare. We knew which platform it was this time and literally sprinted through the station. After a short ride, we met Julia, Bianca’s mother, at a train station and she drove us to their charming home near the Olympic Center. We offered Alayna’s Girl Scout cookies for our contribution to the meal, and everyone loved the peanut butter chocolate patties. Bianca said in movies in Australia, Girl Scout cookies are portrayed as disgusting, kind of like fruit cake, the quintessential bad gift. She was surprised to find that she liked them, I was amused that we had unwittingly brought such a potentially horrific gift. Luckily, they were enjoyed. We gobbled up some tea, supplementing Benji’s watermelon lunch with crackers and dip and chips, then Julia and her husband Peter drove us to the Olympic Center, where we also saw several sites from the 2000 Olympics.

The Swim Center was really cool inside, it was huge and held a fifty meter pool with diving platforms, a twenty-five meter pool, and several hot tubs and other play pools and slides for kids. A “swim carnival” was in progress, these take place once or twice a year and are swim competitions within a school. All kids in the school participate in swimming for their PE class, those who can’t swim do other water-related events. Each school is divided into “houses”, kind of like in Harry Potter, and once a student is sorted into one of these houses they stay in them throughout their school career. For private schools that go from grades kinder to senior, these houses are always a consistent thing that keeps the students together and gives them something to cheer for. The houses at the school we saw were all named after Australian explorers. We watched as little boys in their teeny speedos were mounting platforms to dive and swim the length of the fifty meter pool, while their houses cheered from the bleachers with signs and pom-pom’s.

We came back home and participated in a truly delicious bar-b-cue, gathered around Julia and Peter’s dinner table with their two daughters and a friend of the family who had recently visited the States. She asked us what we thought of Australians, and we looked around the table and said we’ve encountered a friendly and laid back attitude we’ve really admired. We hear “no worries” often, from checking out at the grocery store to getting a blue bottle sting treated. We’re regularly allowed to bypass the subway turnstile when we’ve purchased the wrong tickets, and haven’t been required to buy the correct ticket. “No worries.” New friends like Julia and Peter prepare vast quantities of meat, caramelized onions and scoop ice cream with “no worries” emanating from their very beings. What do we think of Australians? We love them. I hope to adopt a little of their “no worries” attitudes as we make our way up the Australian coast.

We stayed out late, Benji fell asleep on the subway on the way home. Of all our kids, he is the most worry free, sleeping where he finds himself, and he finds himself all over the world. I hiked him up on my hip when we got back to the hotel and carried him to the room while Clay managed all the stuff we had accumulated that afternoon. I got Benji in his PJ’s, still no peeling on the burn but we think it’s close. We pick up the campervan tomorrow, driving a large vehicle on the wrong side of the road for 1,600 miles. No worries.