Brisbane

We recently took a trip north to sunny Brisbane to visit our friends Jesse and Aaron.

They were kind enough to host us, and also show us around Queensland’s capital city.

Brisbane is a river city, and it’s highlights seem to lie along the banks of the Brisbane river. Our hosts live in the CBD, but a short walk got us to a free ferry that took us about a kilometre south to the parklands of the South Bank. We were visiting during the annual Brisbane Budha festival, the worlds largest celebration of Buddha’s birthday. Following our trip along the south bank, we walked back to our hosts apartment in the CBD. That evening, we went out for Mexican food with a few other people. The portions were small, but the food, and the company, was fabulous.

Everyone slept well that night, which was good, because the next day we were off to the Sunshine Coast.

Found this fellow sunning himself by the ferry terminal.
Found this fellow sunning himself by the ferry terminal.
Along the river bank there's a rocky outcropping that many people were climbing.
Along the river bank there’s a rocky outcropping that many people were climbing.
We stopped here for afternoon tea. In the background you can see some of the pretty purple flowers that appear all along the south bank.
We stopped here for afternoon tea. In the background you can see some of the pretty purple flowers that appear all along the south bank.
We visited during the annual Budha fair. Hundreds of red paper lanterns were string up along the water front.
We visited during the annual Budha fair. Hundreds of red paper lanterns were string up along the water front.

brisbane5

Art?
Art?
Definitely art.
Definitely art.
Hanging out in the sun with Dad and Jesse.
Hanging out in the sun with Dad and Jesse.

Canberra

The third of six catch-up posts that I hope to get out in February.

Our first of four road trips this summer was to visit the nation’s capital (and a friend of ours). Canberra is about a 3 hour drive from Sydney, and we figured that we could make a day trip out of it. Note to future travelers – you might want to stay the night. The three hour estimate is maybe a little short.

The drive out was quite pretty. Lots of rolling hills (bigger than England; smaller than Ontario) and sweeping tree lines. We were also treated to an ‘act of God’ (as defined in our car insurance) on the way there when the great big freezer in the sky opened up and dumped giant balls of ice all over the highway.

Look at the size of these hailstones!
Look at the size of these hailstones!
Xavier was pretty keen to give them a taste.
Xavier was pretty keen to give them a taste.

Canberra is an odd city, and feels very manufactured. The streets are built in circles, and radiate out from the parliament buildings. From the center point, the city is cut into six parts, each dedicated to a different aspect — markets, museums, parks, and so on. It’s not a super big place, and really feels like it’s just a hub for government. I’m told that it was selected as the site for the Nation’s capital because it was equidistant from the two largest cities in Australia; but, if that’s the case, then Australian geographers cannot be trusted.

During our trip we met up with Jade, a friend of ours from the American Church in Paris, who helped us through a whirlwind tour of the parliament buildings, the gardens near the old parliament buildings, and the War Memorial. We managed to snap a few pics in the gardens, but as you can see, Xavier had a lot of excess energy from all his time sitting in the car on the way up. Thankfully, The space between the new and old Parliament buildings turned out to be an awesome outlet for pent up toddler energy. Had we been there an extra day, we definitely would have hit up the botanic gardens, and some of the national museums.

Jenolan Caves

A couple of weeks back we took a trip out to the Jenolan Caves, in the Blue Mountains; about 3 hours North-West of Sydney.

The cave network is enormous – over 40 km of multi-level passages – and is still undergoing active exploration. The limestone cave network has been worn away over time by what looked like a really tiny river. Several kilometres of the caves have been made easily accessible to visitors – even those with toddlers strapped to their chest.

We ended up visiting two of the caves while we were up there, and going on two light hikes as well. One around the lake (we saw a Platypus! they are much smaller than you might think…) and once up and around the top of the cave network. As far as outdoor trips go, this one was super accessible. You drive right into the caves, and come out into a small valley, with a tourist office, hotel and pub. The caves are all accessible from very near to the parking lot, and lunch is pretty reasonable. It was a bit of a treacherous drive up; with parts of the road being so narrow that we had to back up to let someone else pass, but that’s hardly something worth complaining about as the view from the cliff face was wonderful.

The one thing I regret is that we made the trip with four cameras, all of which were nearly dead by the time we got there. =[ We only managed to nick a quick video of the inside of the largest cave before even the phone went toast. This helps to give a sense of just how big these cave structures were. Also, how much fun Xavier has playing with echoes.

From a tourists perspective, this was one of the coolest things that I think we could have done in the Sydney area, especially for a day trip, with a young child.

Also, this is a good time to mention that we are slowly going through the process of uploading some of our photos to flickr. The death of my last photo hosting service kind of through me, and we’ve been particularly lazy in fixing things up. In any case, here’s the second of two sets that we have up there so far.




Updates from Sunny Sydney

It’s been two months since I last wrote anything – and it seems that so much has happened in that time. I may try to capture a few of the events in more detail, but to start, here’s a very light roundup of what’s been going on, and some quick updates from down under.

First was leaving France. It was a whirlwind for both of us. There was a lot to do, and then a baby on top of that. Overall, the move was swift and relatively well executed (not that we had much to do with that). Over the span of three days we managed to go from having an apartment, to being totally packed and living in a B&B, to travelling 25 hours by plane with 8 suitcases, a baby and a cat, to landing in Nevada. 

We had a very nice Christmas break with our Family. Winter in Reno is interesting. It’s a desert that’s high in the mountains. So, it’s very dry (no snow), but still very cold. It can change in temperature by about 20 degrees between midnight and lunch time.
The view from my inlaw’s backyard
We spent a lot of the holidays eating, and drinking, and shopping. Overall, very therapeutic.

We also managed to fit in a short trip to Vancouver where we got to catch up with some friends, and a lot of family. I even got to say good bye to a few colleagues in person when we were near the old Vancouver office for a drink.

Being able to spend Baby’s First Christmas with family was amazing. I’m so glad we got as much time as we did between jobs (three weeks total) to chill with friends and family before travelling out this way. France felt far away; Australia is much further.
This was a lucky shot – most of the time he was chewing on the boxes

As for Sydney – so far, things are going pretty well. The weather down here is lovely – high 20s and sunny most days. Much of the city is a little on the urban ugly side, but the downtown core, the parks, and the waterfront are all great.  I haven’t learned to surf yet, but it’s still on the agenda. At the moment, we are staying in the center of the city, which looks a lot different than Paris. 

We have a nice view of Darling Harbour from our hotel window
Oddly enough, I’ve been hearing a lot of French when I’m walking around the city. It’s nice to hear it. I realized in the first week we were away that I’d actually forgotten a lot of English. The first time we went into a Starbucks in Reno I ordered “Un Cafe de la semaine s’il vous plait.” The lady just looked at me for a while, until I realized what I’d done. So I instead said “Oh, sorry, I’ll have a cafe de la semaine, please.” It took me another week before I was ordering just ‘coffee’ again.

One downside though is that the cost of living is fairly high. To go out is comparable in cost (maybe a little less when you factor wage into the picture). But things at home are higher priced. Beer, for example, is about 7 or 8 dollars in most bars (which is fine), and 3.50 a bottle in the grocery store (about 3x more than I’m used to). Most things are running about a 20% markup, but some items like liquor, makeup or imported large objects (cars, furniture, etc) may be up to 150% more expensive. That said, there are way more options for things than in France, or even Canada. It’s definitely more free market than any other place I’ve been, including the US.

So, there’s the roundup. X isn’t leaving a lot of time for updates at this point, but I’m going to try to schedule a little bit of time on the weekend for a quick update while he naps. 

Portugal, the first four days

Ahh internet… It’s been four days since I was last online. A lot has happened, and my back is sore to prove it. This might not seem so summar-ary in length, but here’s a shot recap of what’s been going on with us.
Day 1 – Sunday

Sunday was brutal. In order to economize, our organizer booked us the cheapest tickets available with the Portuguese airline. Unfortunately, that meant being at the airport at 5:30, which meant waking at 4:00 am, which meant that most of us were pretty out of it for the actually travel portion of the trip. It’s a two hour flight from Paris to Porto, and another 2 hours from Porto to Braga by train. By the time we hit our hotel, it was around noon, which left us plenty of time to tour the city.

Braga is a city of about 160,000 people. Most of the houses are small townhouse style places with bright colours (either pain or decorative tiles) along the outside. The city center, where we are staying, is quite small (it feels like the downtown core of my hometown) and full of huge open spaces, churches and gardens. There are no sidewalks here, just one cobblestone street that snakes between all of the buildings. Because there aren’t a lot of cars people just walk in the middle of the street, which makes the street feel much wider than it would in most cities.

The other notable thing about this city is the prices. Compared to Paris, it feels like I’ve gone back in time 50 years. Two coffees and a tart? €1.55 (Paris Price: 6.50€). Dinner for two? €12 euro (p.p. 30€). A beer? That will be a €1.20 (p.p. 5€). We later discovered that we paid too much, most people drink beer at about 75 cents a glass. On our first day, we reveled in the prices as we toured around number the “snack” shops of Braga. This is a city that loves having a quick bite. For every Starbucks in Vancouver there is a pastry shop here.

So far, everyone here is loving the trip.

Day 2: Getting down to work

Day 2 marked our first day of work, as well as our first casualty. One of the people on the trip fell ill over night and spent the day sleeping back at the hotel. The rest of us drove about 30 minutes to the work site to get down to work.

The project we are working on is a small piece of a very large tract of land. The entire area is owned by a single family, split between several brothers and their mother. The plot that we are working on is a small percentage of everyone else’s land, donated to one of their brothers who did not have a stake in the farm and was suffering financial hardship.

We met with the receiving family that morning. Jose, his wife and two children (aged 10 and 13) are helping to build the house as well. Habitat requires that the people receiving the donation put in what they call “sweat equity hours” during the project. Jose is working on the site when he can get time off of work. His little boy helps out with some brick laying work when he can, and his wife, daughter and mother are cooking our lunches each day.

Lunch is always home made from their garden, delicious and massive; apparently the people of Northern Portugal are hearty eaters. One of the really cool things that I found out later is that we are actually paying the family for the meals that they cook, which means that they are getting a chance to earn for their work as well. We only pay a little, but for the two weeks we are here it ends up being the equivalent of a months wages at a minimum wage job, or 450€. Considering that the mother would otherwise not be able to work as she has to tend to the farm and kids, I think that this is actually a really great part of the program.

As for the work, well, it was definitely a good introduction to labour.

We are building a 99 square metre brick house. When we got there, the floor, walls, and roof had been roughed out. Our team split into three groups for the days work. The first group spent their morning digging trenches along the back of the house for the second group, who was setting up scaffolding in each of the trenches. The third group was in charge of carrying a pallet of cinder blocks up onto the roof. Sarah split her time between groups two and three. I spent my day digging, and breaking up the people sized chunks of granite that lined the hill.

The hammering work was great as a way to start as it helped remind us of the value of skill over enthusiasm. Our foreman came by at one point in the afternoon and said something to us in Portuguese that roughly translated to “You’re doing it wrong”. After we hammered away at the boulder 12 or 14 times a small chunk would come off. He picked up a hammer and shattered the whole stone in just two swings.

By the end of the day we were all bagged and went home for a shower and an early bed time.

Day 3 and 4: Roofing, flooring and mixing.

We woke up on Day 3 tired, but with still a little energy left. The casualty from Day 1 was feeling much better, but it seemed that the day had claimed someone new. I’m fairly certain that he had just drastically overworked himself – I watched the guy busting boulders for the first part of the day, and Sarah said that he was dead lifting huge bricks over his head all of the afternoon. Between the two, I’m pretty sure he blew out his abs and back muscles. With a little R&R he ended up fine for Day Four.

The rest of the group spent our day building support beams out of bricks on the roof, and pouring concrete flooring into one half of the building, which we finished on the fourth day.

Day four was February-in-Vancouver rainy, and nearly the entire group was inside finishing the floor from the previous day, or applying concrete to the walls. The concreting part was a blast – we picked up a gob of material with a trowel and flung it at the wall as hard as we could so that it would stick. Repeat until done. We were basically having a mud fight with the inside of a box – you’d think it would be no contest, but we all have horrible aim and there were a lot of friendly fire accidents. By noon, we were all covered from head to toe in concrete or freezing rain water. Graciously, the organizer gave us the afternoon off.

That brings us to now… We are heading out for dinner in about an hour with the head of Habitat Portugal. Rumour has that we are going out for Bar-b-q somewhere which will be awesome. Tomorrow is our first day off, and I think we will be heading out to the beach.

More updates to follow at an unknown point in the future.

I think I will build a house in Portugal.

A couple of weeks ago, Sarah heard of an opportunity with Habitat for Humanity that’s coming up towards the end of July. A group from Paris will be heading out to Portugal, I think to Braga, to build a brick house. I didn’t know much about the trip at first; truth be told, I still don’t know much about it, but today I signed up to head out.

From what I can tell, the trip should last about 2 weeks in total, and will involve 9 hours a day ‘on the job’, including time for breaks and lunch. I believe that Monday and Friday will both count as travel days to and from the site, and we don’t work the weekend, so really it’s just 8 days of labour in total, and a pretty cool experience. For that amount of time, I expect that we will get a chance to see the city from more of a residents perspective than a tourists.

It might sound like a strange holiday, but its the kind of interesting thing I like to spend time on when I get a chance. Manual labor is a surprisingly relaxing way to spend a holiday, especially considering the level of activity in my day to day live. (Today, I sat on a couch and used my thumbs to make a person in a video game excercize for me. If I’m making him run, that still counts as Cardio, right?)