Sunday, April 10, 2011

A Whirlwind Tour: Ready, Set, Go!

I arrived at Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi International Airport
last night.
Photo Credit: JoeDuck, Creative Commons
Oh boy. Oh boy, oh boy, oh boy, oh boy, oh boy. Ridiculous, but as of noon yesterday, this was what had been going through my head pretty much non-stop for the previous 48 hours, since my last class before April break (fall break, down here in Australia) ended on Thursday afternoon. I felt like a little kid on Christmas Eve, or on the day before a trip to Disneyland: I couldn't think about anything else and felt like I was revving in neutral, burning off excited energy by bouncing around in my seat. Why all the hyperactivity?

I landed in Thailand last night.

Just typing that sentence sets off another round of internal squeals of excitement. We have a little more than two weeks off, which I'll be spending in Bangkok, Chiang Mai and Koh Lanta, with a couple of days across the Cambodian border in Siem Reap and at Angkor Wat. It's going to be a bit of a whirlwind, especially at first, since I'll be going somewhere new about every two days, but I didn't want to regret not fitting in the trip to Angkor. I'll have a little longer in Chiang Mai and nearly a week in Koh Lanta, where - if the weather cooperates - I'm hoping to get my dive certification.

When I was growing up, I was so enamoured of France and then of Europe in general that I had very little interest in Asia. Not to mention, as a young teenager the idea of going somewhere that seemed so utterly foreign was more terrifying than exciting. But, on a whim my sophomore year of college, I picked up a compilation of travelers' stories about Thailand and my interest began to grow. By the time I returned to the States from my year in France, Southeast Asia was firmly on my travel wishlist - for some time in the hazy future.

Choosing an Australian postgraduate program turned my world upside in more ways than one. Oceania and Asia, which had been filed under "someday" in my travel plans, jumped to the top of the list overnight and I discovered an enthusiasm and anticipation for Southeast Asia in particular that were far stronger than I had realized.

With a larger-than-usual tax return due to having paid most of the costs of my first year of grad school in early 2010 and a two-week break scheduled for April, visions of Thai street food and markets began to dance in my head and I started to look at fares from Sydney to Bangkok. When I started to plan out possible itineraries, I surprised myself again when I realized that I already knew exactly what I wanted this first trip to Asia to include: Bangkok, Chiang Mai, dive certification at one of the southern beaches and a jaunt into Cambodia to visit Angkor Wat - if I could work out the timing to fit it all in.

After some agonizing about whether to include Angkor and destination-hop every few days for the first part of my trip or to leave it out and spend more time exploring Chiang Mai and southern Thailand, I decided to include a few days in Cambodia. I know myself well enough to be sure that coming so close to such a major site without going to see it would drive me crazy.

I arrived in Bangkok late last night and, after a few hours' sleep, am ready to dive in. First up: Chatuchak Weekend Market, followed by some temple time.

So it's Bangkok, Siem Reap, Chiang Mai, Koh Lanta and me for the next two weeks: ready, set...go!

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Upside Down and 17 Hours Ahead

Three of Sydney's cultural icons in one shot!
Photo credit: S Baker, Creative Commons
I wasn't sure what to expect in terms of culture shock in Australia. I didn't expect it to be particularly shocking, both because Australia is a developed, English-speaking country, like the U.S., and because for me it's generally reverse culture shock that really trips me up. So, while I didn't expect moving to Australia to throw me too much off my stride, I was curious to see just what differences would stand out.

After two months, I'm feeling pretty at home in Sydney (despite my dad's ongoing assertions that I'm upside down - thanks, Dad), but there's a random assortment of little things that are just different enough to remind me that I'm on the other side of the world. Here are some of the highlights:

  • Everything is on the left. Having spent a few days in London, I wasn't a total stranger to the idea of cars with right-side drive and traffic on the left-hand side of the road but somehow the fact that the same rule might apply to things like sidewalks completely escaped me. After screeching to a halt at the foot of an escalator in Melbourne's Tullamarine Airport and blearily wondering why the right-hand escalator was the down escalator from the floor above, common sense pierced the veil of jet lag and I figured it out. It took a few days in Tasmania to really get walking on the left into my head, but I eventually got it. (It's not as noticeable in Sydney, where the number of residents and tourists from other countries sometimes makes it a walk-where-there's-space free-for-all.) For the past couple of weeks, I've started to look to the right first when crossing the street, rather than looking left and quickly whipping my head right, sincerely hoping I'm not about to get flattened by an oncoming car. (This is one habit I expect to have issues with back in the States!)
  • The local lingo isn't that far from American English, but it's enough to throw me completely off sometimes if I'm not paying close attention. Things like "Any cash out?" (instead of "cash back"), "ta" for "thanks" (although that's another one that doesn't seem as common in international Sydney) and "How're you going?" ("How am I what...? Ohh...I'm doing well, how are you?") are just different enough from what we say in the U.S. to occasionally give me pause. (Then there's Australian vs. American terminology and spelling when it comes to writing papers, but that's another story.)
  • Australia is expensive. Crazy expensive. $2.80 per banana expensive (granted, they're not always quite that bad). I ignored the first couple of high grocery bills, figuring it was just the necessity of stocking up on basic household goods like laundry soap and pantry staples that was making them so high, but as I've gotten more used to seeing prices in kilos, grams and liters I've realized that, no, it's just really expensive. My grocery bills are about double (if not closer to triple, depending on what I buy in the way of produce) what they were in Washington, DC. And it isn't just food that's expensive - books are the first place I noticed the price difference, and it was a huge shock. A popular new release can easily cost $50, with more "normal" paperback prices ranging from $20-$25. I asked for a Kindle for Christmas to help keep books from eating up most of my luggage allowance but once I arrived, I was even happier to have one!
  • One of my ongoing fascinations with Australia is its outlook on energy usage. It was in the high 80s and very humid when I arrived and I groaned when I walked into my apartment and realized there was no air-conditioning. From what I've seen, it's par for the course here and even larger buildings have coolings systems that are regulated much differently from the U.S. Rather than have the air-conditioning running at all times throughout an entire academic building, as we do in the States, each classroom has its own controls, the most common of which involve turning the a/c system on and having it automatically shut off after three hours. Hallways, as far as I've seen, are never air-conditioned. There were only a few days in February that were really uncomfortable and I've gotten used to making the most of cross-breezes and fans, rather than relying on central air. Considering that Sydney is just about as hot and humid as Washington, DC (although it does usually cool off more at night), where a lack of air-conditioning is viewed as an unacceptable, completely unlivable state of affairs, it's an interesting contrast.
Not the prettiest picture, but still pretty cool:
since that little switch to the left of the outlet
isn't turned on, no power is being used, despite
the number of things plugged in.
  • Then there are Australia's electrical outlets. (I know, this technically belongs under the last bullet point, but they're just so cool that they deserve their own.) I was baffled by the switches on the outlet plate covers when I first arrived, but ignored them. After plugging in a fan and wanting to cry when it wouldn't turn on and get the air moving in my room, I flicked the switch next to the outlet just to see what happened and - ta-da! - the fan started whirring. You can shut off power to every single electrical outlet in Australia when it's not in use. How cool is that?! Not only does it help keep the electricity bill down, but it stops the slow leak of electricity through appliances that aren't in use, without the hassle of unplugging them. Green and practical!
  • The Australian government is serious about cracking down on skin cancer. Unfortunately, given its location and climate, it's probably not surprising that Australia has the highest incidence of skin cancer of any country in the world. (I can't sit in the sun for more than about twenty minutes without sunscreen on without risking a burn - so I'm going through a lot of sunscreen!) The government is tackling the problem by inundating the media with PSAs and publicity campaigns, promoting slogans like "Slip, Slop, Slap" (slip on a shirt, slop on some sunscreen, slap on a hat) and "There's nothing cool about a tan." This actually reminds me a lot of the anti-smoking campaign the California government launched when I was a kid that was, over time, pretty amazingly effective. Fingers crossed the same will be true in Australia.
This Tasmanian kangaroo's favorite thing about Australia?
Tourists who feed him (her?)!
  • The wildlife! I have yet to see a kangaroo outside of a conservation park, but even the everyday wildlife is pretty impressive! The spiders are enormous (yikes) and all over the place at this time of year, but the birds more than make up for them. (Well, most of the time. No number of encounters with cool birds could make up for the morning last month when I woke up just in time to see a large, leggy black spider start crawling toward my bed across the ceiling. Great for my reflexes, not so good for my nerves.) The day I arrived, I saw what looked like a cockatoo fly past my window but thought it must be the jet lag. The next morning, I realized that, no, there actually were cockatoos flying around - lots of them. It turns out they're about as omnipresent in suburban Sydney as pigeons are in Central Park. Ibis and green parrots are pretty common too, not to mention some of the most mournful sounding ravens I've ever heard. There are also some birds with beautiful calls that I haven't been able to identify yet, but I love listening to them.
Despite being 15 to 17 hours ahead of most of my friends and family, between Skype, Facebook, Twitter, ready access to my email inbox (which I didn't have the last time I lived abroad) and the many parallels between Australian and American lifestyles, I usually don't feel all that far from home. But it wouldn't be an adventure abroad without some cultural quirks, and I enjoy taking note of them. What are some of your favorite quirks from your travels?