Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Tales from the Great Barrier Reef

As I've written the past few blogs all in one go, I've kept realising so many stories and amazing experiences which didn't make it into the blogs. Rather than go back, I'll simply blog a mess of memories as they come to me.

I mentioned the dinosaur egg Mereta and I purchased. Upon waking up day 2, we checked to see if our egg was hatching, and discovered someone had written on the side of the bucket "Godzilla eats liveaboard boat on Great Barrier Reef - No survivors" Turns out the skipper of the boat had discovered our egg and got a big kick out of it. Denvis became the hit of the boat, numerous times throughout the day all the instructors, crew and passengers would check up on Denvis' hatching progress and excitedly tell me as new progress was made. Denvis is currently halfway out of his shell and continues to grow. Obviously, Denvis remains on the boat, he is at home there on the GBR and has many loving persons watching out for him and his development!

There are so many beautiful sea creatures which I have seen and haven't been able to mention in the previous blogs. During the 8am dive that I couldn't participate in I watched a group of trumpet fish and flute fish near the boat. The last night dive, just as I was about to jump in, a sea snake swam past. The next morning as I was about to jump in a puffer fish swam past. I saw on one of my morning dives three sting rays beneath me, one even swam into a nearby patch of sand and dug himself in, then a fish came and bothered him so he swam off. I saw and held numerous sea cucumers. During my night dive with Scott I saw 3 foot long black and white sea snake beneath me - I discovered later it is extremely venomous and am glad I didn't know that at the time. I saw many different coloured Nemo's but not the Nemo from the movie. I saw angelfish, parrotfish, surgeonfish, moorish idol's, barracuda's, so many fish. I stuck my hand in numerous clams for the joy of watching them shut and try to eat me. I scratched the back of a sea turtle. In the dive with Taka I saw a nudibranch.

I saw dolphins from the sundeck one day, and also a whale breaching in the distance. On the day boat on the way home I saw 3 whales breaching.

After every dive we would all compare what we saw, and I was one of the luckiest divers. A few of the things others saw out there that I didn't was the Nemo from the movie, a squid, and a black tipped shark.

I have a few physical reminders of my adventures. My legs are quite tight from all the swimming and I can feel my abs tightening :) I also have blisters on my feet from the fins, and scrapes all over my legs from the coral. I've been disinfecting my scrapes regularly as there are many bacteria in the ocean and it could easily become infected. Apparently coral scrapes take forever to heal, and are quite painful and itchy in the process, from the white dots surrounding a few of the scrapes I definitely bumped into some poisonous coral species.

And yet, what I wouldn't give to be out there diving right now! I shall return, and in the meantime I will live off the high from the last few days and the incredible adventure and experience it has been.

Great Barrier Reef: Last day :(

6am wake up call on Wednesday was my last day of diving. I dove with Owen and Anders who were the volunteers on the boat. Daniel gave me another camera as mine had died previously and I attempted to take some pictures. I haven't seen them yet, they're likely quite awful, but it made me realise which skills I still really needed to work on. Specifically maintaining buoyancy and rapid turns. I also for the first time inspected the sand for myself, for venomous creatures, before kneeling or standing to take certain shots. I chased one parrot fish around for a number of minutes before I realised both my buddies were quite a ways in front of me and caught up to them.

8am dive was also a fun dive, I buddied up with two older guys named Fernando and Robert. Fernando was a solid diver but Robert was much older and all over the place. I ran out of air so quickly on that dive as I couldn't stop laughing the whole time. Fernando would be hauling Robert down as he bobbed to the surface, or holding onto his first stage to make him swim in one direction or another, or just manhandling this dude to generally get him to go in any sort of reasonable direction. Most entertaining dive ever! I tried to take a number of pictures of fish and coral but had to keep catching up to Robert and Fernando as they bobbed and weaved all over the place.

11am dive was my last dive! It was also the dive I'd chosen to do a boat drop for my last skill to complete my advanced adventure course. I needed a buddy for this dive and asked Dana, a girl I'd met on the boat who had just become certified if she would go with me. She agreed, then Owen and Anders decided they also wanted to do a boat drop with us. Then another guy whose buddy was ditching him asked to join our group, then one of the instructors, whose last dive it also was volunteered to go with us. So our group of 6 set off in the boat for the boat drop. Dana and I both had large tanks still from our deep dives and they are SO heavy. We both had a great deal of difficulty balancing in the boat and our back and shoulders ached by the time we arrived to the Bommi we were going to dive at.

I was determined not to be the first one to run out of air on this dive, as I was the one who had instigated the whole deal. Daniel had told me to hum underwater as it forces air regulation to keep an even sound. I hummed from the first moment I entered the water and achieved my goal, I was not the first to run out of air, I surfaced at 80 bar! Dana asked afterwards if I had heard the whales singing, I had to burst her bubble and tell her it was me humming, sorry.

That final dive was the most incredible dive ever! Even Taka, the instructor, was on a high afterwards it was so great. We went down and swam around the bottom of the bommi for a little while, then we went through numerous tunnels through the coral reef from one side to the other. It is so difficult as the spaces are typically quite small and you can barely fit through with all the scuba gear. You're also not supposed to stir up the sand so the one behind you can still see, and also not to touch the coral as you can damage it, and it can be poisonous.

I hadn't seen a moray eel, and the whole time swimming through I was peering into every hole hoping to see one, still haven't seen one and so have extra incentive to dive again! A number of times I got stuck swimming through the tunnels. I bumped my head once, and my scuba tank kept getting stuck on coral overhangs. At one point my regulator cord was also stuck and I had to swim backwards and upwards slightly to unhook myself. I definitely scraped myself a great deal on my legs swimming through the tunnels and each time I emerged I checked to see if I was bleeding to ensure I wouldn't attract any sharks. Thankfully the water pressure also keeps the blood inside your body so I didn't bleed until I climbed out of the water.

Swimming through tunnel after tunnel and around the Bommi was the most incredible dive, I finally realised that I could in fact dive and had acquired so much control and confidence in the water. Plus, if I had done that dive on my own I would never have swum through the tunnels as you never know if they will emerge on the other side. Having Taka down there with us showed us so much more of the reef than any of us had discovered before.

We surfaced, swam back to the boat, took some pictures and put away all our gear. I then went up onto the sundeck for my last hour of sunbathing before we left the boat for the day boat to go back to shore.

Going onto the dayboat was such a sad moment, I felt like crying as we pulled away from the reefs and scuba gear. I am completely addicted and would love to return for a number of months to become dive master or just to continue diving.

Arriving to shore, Dana and I realised we had acquired sealegs, we kept tilting from side to side on the dock and it took me a good hour before I could walk steadily on land. The instructors threw a party for us last night and after a quick shower we all met up again and hung out. So much fun! I'll be meeting up with many of them again this evening :)

I still am not used to shore. Every time I shut my eyes I feel the rocking of the boat, and laying in bed last night I felt as though my bed were still swaying from side to side. I also woke up in the middle of the night convinced I had mask squeeze and had to feel my face to ensure that I was not underwater wearing my mask.

I don't want to become accustomed to shore, I slept in this morning to 11 after so many early morning wakeups and dives and when I awoke the first thing I thought of was that I should be in the water right now for my third dive of the day, or relaxing after having already completed two dives.

Cairns is still beautiful and warm, I miss the ocean and all the beautiful fish and corals and amazing creatures there to see and admire - and touch :)

Great Barrier Reef: Day 3

6am wake up call, no less painful than the day previously! This 6am dive was my first deep dive, which would qualify me to dive to 30 meters rather than 18. At 30 meters, the nitrogen in the tanks dissolves into the blood at such a high rate, that it is possible to suffer from nitrogen narcosis. It is also possible to get "the bends" if one surfaces too quickly, which can cause paralysis, brain damage, and even death, depending on the severity of it.

As we began our descent, I again had difficulty equalising my ears, I swam along on top of Rhi at a level I was able to equalise however, and little by little was able to descend - I had learned from my difficulties the day before :) We touched down at 29.5 meters. Rhi had brought along a couple eggs, she cracked one to demonstrate the pressure of the water as the egg remained intact as though it were still in it's shell. I played with it for a little while as some fish were circling around us until one darted directly at me and ate the egg. I jumped backwards and Rhi laughed. She then cracked another egg to give it to the other diver, who had accompanied us, to play with. He had apparently learned nothing from watching me as he also played with the fish, and we had to warn him to move his hand while another fish went in for the kill. We also looked at a red colour which appeared much browner at that depth since colours begin to fade underwater with the rays unable to penetrate that deeply. She then had me touch the numbers 1 through 12 in order while touching my nose between each number. This measured my reaction time and also indicated that I did not suffer from nitrogen narcosis so that I can safely descend to that depth in the future :)

We ascended slowly and at our 5 meter safety stop (5 meters underwater for 3 minutes to enable the nitrogen to slowly emerge from the blood at a lower pressure to decrease risk of getting the bends), I was running low on air and used Rhi's occy (second regulator called the octopus as it is yet another rope to carry around) so I wouldn't run out before emerging onto the surface.

Second dive of the day was the Navigational Dive. During this dive I had to navigate underwater first using a compass, to find my way away from and back to Rhi. Then she got us lost, and I had to lead us back to the boat. Didn't see to much that dive as I was very much focused on the compass and then on remembering the route we were taking. We did see a shark that dive, my first white tip shark. The goal for every diver is to sneak up on the shark and grab him around his body before he swims away. I remained behind Rhi and calmed my breathing to not disturb the shark, while we both inched along the ground. We got to about 15 feet away before he swam off. We then returned to the boat. Again, I ran low on air while returning to the boat and shared Rhi's occy for the last couple minutes of the swim back. It actually was good for me, swimming next to Rhi I attempted to match her breathing and became aware of why I was using so much more air than she was.

Third dive of the day was my photography dive. I took a camera underwater with me, which subsequently died about 30 seconds into the dive. Instead I swam around and practiced breathing slowly and maintaining neutral buoyancy. That was my first dive without an instructor. My buddy was a guy named Daren, and he followed me around underwater. We saw a white tip shark! I immediately slowed my breathing and attempted to sneak up on the shark. He first swam away then returned to a spot in front of me and lay in the sand, I got to about 10 feet away before he swam off!

Fourth dive of the day was my second night dive. I went with a guy named Scott who is working to become a dive master. I followed him around and we didn't see much, we did blackout our flashlights at one point and wave our hands in front of our face to see the bioluminescent algae. As you wave your hands around, it kills them and they fluoresce as they die, it's a beautiful sight and actually lights up the water quite a bit. We had a quick dive as Scott was freezing. When you want someone to see something, you shake your flashlight's beam close to theirs and then direct your flashlight to where you want them to look. For a few minutes I was peering closely at different corals trying to figure out what I was missing until I realised he just couldn't hold his flashlight still he was so cold. So we surfaced and were too cold to even stargaze that night.

Great Barrier Reef: Day 2

We were woken Sunday morning at 5:50 to prepare for our 6 oclock dive! The videographer was also up filming us as we woke up and joined everyone in the saloon for hot tea before we got into our COLD, WET wetsuits.

We geared up, jumped into the water and headed out to explore the reef. Around 8meters under, I had difficulty equalizing my ears, my left ear was in a great deal of pain. I swam upwards slightly and kept trying to equalize. After a few minutes, it wasn't fair for me to hold up both Rhi's and Merete's dive simply because I couldn't equalize my ears so I returned to the boat while they continued their dive. Upon returning to the boat I couldn't bear the thought of getting out of the water. I asked the guy on watch if I could just dive a little around the boat and he could watch out for me. He said yes, assuming I would be snorkelling, I dove around for a little while and then surfaced. I realise now, with a little more experience, that what I did was stupid and I'm lucky I remained shallow and close to the boat, and that nothing went wrong.

8am, our second dive of the day - my ears still hadn't equalised from the 6am dive and I remained on the surface, boo! The videographer agreed to film us at our 11am dive so both Mereta and I could do our skits and skills together.

11am, my ears had equalised! I jumped into the water so happy to finally be back in. We went underwater and performed the skills. The videographer, Daniel, had brought down an empty beer can so as we took the regulator out of our mouth we could pretend to drink beer underwater. He'd also brought down a pair of sunglasses, sunnies, so as we took our masks off we could put them on and pose underwater. Had a lot of fun with the beer, but again got nervous to remove my mask and didn't. We had bought some props for our skit. I won't tell you about it, as I purchased the video and hope to be able to post it in a few weeks once I'm back in NY, you need to see the corals, the fishies, its too incredible to describe even though I am trying...

Once out of the water, as I had chickened out, I had one last dive to complete my certification and also had to remove my mask 3 times in that last dive to become comfortable with the procedure. I joined the new group of open water divers for the 4pm dive and realised I had actually progressed in my comfort level, watching them perform the skills made me realise I had already improved quite a bit! It also made me confident enough to remove my mask and clear it three times, whew, done!

Then, I did my first night dive! It also counted as my first dive towards becoming an advanced adventure diver. Completing diver certification, mostly makes you realise how much you still need to learn to become a confident diver. How to remain calm underwater should anything go wrong, how to learn what can and cannot be touched, how to maintain neutral buoyancy, how to breathe slowly to maximize your air, etc. I didn't feel at all ready to become qualified as an advanced adventure diver.

My first night dive was guided and I didn't see too much, no sharks, no crustaceans. I did see many red sea bass who use the light from our torches to hunt small fish. It's so much fun to find a small ugly fish, so as not to kill the pretty ones, and keep your torch on it and watch the red sea bass trying to eat them! I did see a sting ray buried in the sand beneath me at one point. I really wanted to disturb the sand and watch it swim away, but I remembered Steve Erwin and resisted.

Day 2 ended with me as a certified scuba diver and ready for bed by 10pm. The stars out on the ocean, on the boat are so beautiful, so bright that a few of us went onto the bow of the boat and stargazed for an hour. I've never in my life seen stars like this, in under an hour we saw easily 20 shooting stars, a few of them were like fireworks, you could see the tail blazing as they burned up in the atmosphere! The milky way was so visible, and as none of us were astronomers we invented our own shapes for the stars, like the manta ray :)


Last Thursday I began instruction for scuba diving. The day began around 730 and I was nervous! Somehow in planning this trip I had been focusing on how much I wanted to see the Great Barrier Reef and all it's wonders and beauties and it didn't occur to me until scuba instruction began that this is, in fact, a rather technical, and potentially dangerous activity! My instructor was named Rhiannon, Rhi, and there were 6 other girls in the class. Apparently it was the first class ever to be all girls. Beginning the process of learning about and assembling equipment it all seemed so complicated and overwhelming so much to remember, and if anything goes wrong underwater there are so many complications and hazards in which the best decision needs to be made for safety.

We first did a number of laps around the pool and treaded water to be sure we could all swim sufficiently well, no problems there. Then we put on fins and snorkels and practiced duck diving and comfort with breathing. Then we put on scuba gear... it is SO heavy, and also quite buoyant in water which means on top of all the equipment you also wear a weight belt to ensure when you want to sink deeper, you can. On to the underwater skills, we needed to practice removing our regulators (what the air comes out of) and finding them again underwater so in case they fall out or get yanked out underwater we can put them back in safely. We also practiced removing and clearing our masks, this was the one skill I had great difficulty with. I always seemed to breathe in through my nose once the mask was removed and consequently would swallow a great deal of water which doesn't help with performing the skill or remaining calm throughout.

It turns out that I am an airpig... the first day as I had one final skill to perform, removing and clearing my mask and replacing it, I ran out of air. So, day two once we performed all our skills under 4 meters I ended up trying that skill for the first time. I did it, with a great deal of difficulty, and once our training was over for the day spent a while practicing it in shallower water.

Of the 7 of us in the course, two failed. We had a Chinese mother and daughter in the course and the mother spoke no English which made it quite difficult for her to understand the instructions or what she should do. Consequently she did almost everything wrong and held the whole class up in learning and practicing skills. On the second day as we were practicing removing our weight belts and replacing them underwater. She took off her weightbelt and let go, so started floating up to the surface butt first while vainly attempting to swim back down and grasp her weight belt. She looked so funny floating upwards butt first grasping around I started to laugh so hard. I could barely catch my breath and was crying so hard, afterwards I asked Rhi what I should do if I started laughing in the ocean and had difficulty catching my breath and discovered regulators are delightful, you can do anything into them; laugh, cough, spit, puke, whatever needs to be done underwater can be done into them, whew!

Day 3: first day on the boat, we left on the day boat to meet up with the boat which remains out on the ocean around 9am. The sea on the way out was perfect, aqua blue like in the postcards, glassy, calm, barely any wind, sunny, all the instructors said it was the most perfect weather and conditions they had ever seen :) We also saw 4 dolphins on the way out leaping in the boat's wake!

We arrived to the boat, had lunch and prepared to jump into the water for our first dive. It was so much fun to really dive! We went under and swam around for a bit, then found a patch of sandy bottom to practice our skills in the ocean to ensure we were comfortable enough to pass. I had no difficulties with any of them, but got extremely nervous to remove my mask at 10 meters under the ocean and refused. Had a lovely rest of the dive, we were told over and over again not to touch anything underwater as there are venomous fish, snakes, corals, all sorts of deadly creatures underwater and unless you know what you are doing should never touch. Rhi picked up what looked like a large piece of spiky, maroon, rectangular styrofoam and handed it to each of us to touch - sea cucumber. There are also plants which grow out of certain corals called Christmas Trees as they look like tiny red or blue Christmas trees. These plants, if you snap your fingers close to them or wave your hand, will jump back into their holes - so much fun! Upon surfacing, I was told that in the next dive I would have to remove and clear my mask three times!

Second dive at 4pm; this time I felt so much more comfortable jumping into the water, got down and practiced our skills. I removed my mask once, removed it a second time and nearly panicked, was about to swim up to the surface and then just reminded myself to breathe, remain calm and completed the clearing. Rhi took pity on me and we swam around for the rest of the dive until we needed to return to the surface at which point I cleared my mask for the third time. At the surface I was told that in the next dive as well, I would have to remove and clear my mask three times until I was comfortable doing so... Swallowing ocean water makes you quite gassy, I spent the rest of the dive burping into my regulator to clear my air passages. Upon climbing onto the boat, I had a little difficulty breathing until 5 burps later I was good to go!

I didn't dive again that day as for the night dive you either need to hire an instructor to take you, or be certified. The next day, during our 8am dive, Merete and I (the only two to spend overnight on the boat from our class) were going to be filmed by the ship's videographer performing our skills and had also been told to bring props for skits. One prop we had found was a dinosaur egg which hatches after 12 -24 hours in water. We forgot until the evening to put it in water, then stuck a large egg into a plastic bucket on the saloon bar. All the instructors and other divers thought it was hilarious and names were thrown around for the new ship's mascot. Clare, one of the hostesses started singing a song from some childhood tv program about "--- the last dinosaur" and couldn't remember his name - she was convinced that it was Denvis. Croccy and Peter were the other two front-runners. I relaxed on the boat and went to bed early.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Cairns, no worries...

The last couple days in Sydney were wonderful for WYA, we met with a number of potential friends, members and supporters who were all so excited to hear about WYA and committed fully with all their contacts, resources and support to build WYA in Sydney. Yay!

This morning I flew to Cairns. As we began our descent, appeared hundreds upon hundreds of lush, tree covered mountains. We then circled out over the bluest, greenest water imaginable - just like in a movie - I half expected Matt McConaughey to meet me in board shorts at the airport and take me on a cruise to be chased by James Bond type bad guys. Through the water were darker and lighter patches dotted with little islands and a strip of beach along the coast. I think it is the only plane descent in my life where I could not stop smiling... Cairns is a delightful 26Celsius with a breeze. I could so easily be fooled into thinking sunscreen is not needed but for the knowledge that the hole in the ozone layer is directly overhead - that and I went for a 20 minute walk and came back as pink as though I'd been sunbathing for an hour.

I've spent today relaxing and getting settled. I get picked up at 9am tomorrow morning to begin my first day of scuba diving lessons!!! I'm in a room with 7 others at the hostel, hopefully they'll all wish to sleep tonight, but thankfully even if they don't they won't wake me :) I finally found a power converter and am charging my camera battery so I can FINALLY take pictures. I also found a digital underwater camera for $40, not bad eh? I realised yesterday that although I am spending almost three weeks in Australia I will likely not meet too many Australians. During WYD I met people from all over the world, and of course the people I'll meet at the hostel and on my dive course will also not be locals... how am I ever to meet my beautiful, funny, Aussie friends?

Once my battery is charged, I will post a picture of the beaches I am surrounded by but cannot swim because I could get eaten by a... crocodile, that's right! There are Danger, Crocodile signs posted along the beach and swimming is not encouraged unless you enjoy losing random body parts - some which may be more or less vital than others. All my dreams of swimming in Aussie waters? I'll have to wait till I jump in over a coral reef and come face to face with grinning sharks and Nemo.

I shall keep you all updated as this next round of adventures begins, wish you were here with me! I'm all alone and must now leave to try and make friends :)

ps. All those Aussie phrases which are on postcards or tourist T-shirts that you think for sure nobody would ever say? They are said! In daily life! I've even heard "fair dinkum"! no worries, cheers, g'day, mate, all are common also. I've heard others which completely threw me off guard and am trying to keep a tally in my head of unique, Aussie phrases.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

World Youth Day

The last two days have been absolutely amazing! Saturday morning I travelled to North Sydney to meet up with the Filipino contingent of WYA so we could walk the 10km pilgrimage to the site for the overnight vigil. Taking the train across the bridge we saw out the windows thousands of people from around the world streaming across the bridge. There was not an empty foot of space along the entire bridge crossing Sydney Harbour. Arriving to North Sydney station every person on the train exited to begin the pilgrimage.

It took an hour for us all to find each other and begin, in that time the road exiting the station didn't empty or even clear for a minute. Trains arrived one after another, all filled to the brim. Some of the people walking were incredible; people being pushed in wheelchairs, families with small children, old people, I even saw one man of about 60 who walked with the assistance of two crutches get off to begin a 10km trek!

It was also fun to hear all the songs and cheers from the different parts of the world. Mexicans singing, Italians cheering, a group from some country in Africa (I didn't recognise their flag) walked by and all the cops turned to stare and listen as they were singing a traditional song which sounded straight out of a movie. By the end of the day all the police, security personnel, any city people recruited to keep the peace had completely relaxed - probably the easiest security job they'd ever had... They would approach different groups or individuals and just start chatting, some even started showing off different pins or souvenirs they had been given while others cheered and waved and encouraged us onwards.

The hardest part of the walk for the Filipinos was the last couple kilometres as they started to get tired and wanted to arrive and relax. The hardest part for me was the speed. Smaller legs means smaller steps and I had to keep shuffling my feet, walking backwards or finding other ways to maintain the Filipino pace. I discovered a little over halfway there, that if I held the Philippines flag, I also got to set the pace, from that point onwards, the flag was mine! So many people stared to see a tall, blonde Filipina... One woman who lived in Australia but was Filipina saw the flag and came running over to get her picture with it, and nearly tripped and fell backwards when she saw me carrying it. Then she cracked up and got even more excited to have me in the picture with her.

Many locals hung out on their balconies or rooftops to watch us all walk by. At one point, while I was waiting for everyone to catch up, some guys on a rooftop asked what flag I was carrying, then they asked where I was from and learned all about WYA as they were trying to figure out why a Canadian would be travelling with 12 Filipinos and be the one carrying the flag. Another time, as I was speaking to Ren, some people who passed us were overheard very confused that a white girl and a Chinese girl had a Philippines flag.

The vigil itself was so much fun. We arrived around 3pm and quickly settled ourselves to ensure we had a spot to sleep that night. While hanging out, I started to throw a frisbee around with some Lebanese who were surrounding us. It was great fun as people came in and out of the game and lots more looked like they wanted to join but were too shy. Until at one point, the frisbee wasn't caught and nearly hit a French woman. She was so angry so I quickly pointed to myself to take the blame and she marched over to me and threatened to steal it until I reminded her that wasn't the right thing to do at WYD, then she ordered me to put it in my bag since, if she saw it again, she would rip it in half. I didn't think she looked that strong, but didn't want to test her aggression and put it away. Within the next 30 minutes everyone who had disappeared at the woman's wrath trickled over to me so disappointed our game had been cut short. I even met an Australian woman from Melbourne who plays competitively, as she came over to introduce herself afterwards.

We settled down then as the Pope arrived for a couple hours and spoke to us. After he left a few bands came on to keep the crowds awake and warm. I snuggled into my down sleeping bag (good till -7C) and slept peacefully and warmly till morning. I'd offered the day previously that if anyone froze they should let me know and snuggle in with me, but I don't think they understood what a difference a sleeping bag could make as they all shivered in their sleeping bags all night and not one took me up on my offer. When I demonstrated its warmth the next day a few felt quite sad they'd missed out. We hung out in our sleeping bags all morning till the portapotties called with undeniable appeal then grouped together for mass with the Pope.

While waiting we handed out WYA charters and stickers to passersby, hopefully we have a few hundred new members from our efforts. Many people were trading local paraphernalia and a number of us were given gifts from various parts of the world for spreading our message of dignity, win-win!

The mass with the Pope was beautiful. We all sat or stood in the early morning sunlight, or lack of at times, surrounded by a few hundred thousand young people from around the world, in silence or singing. The Pope's homily was quite catechetical and I have to admit I've already forgotten what he said. I do remember though, being quite enraptured in the moment and thinking that I absolutely must find a copy of it when I return to NY. Hint hint to all you who weren't there or have memories like goldfish as I do...

Upon leaving the grounds, security had decided to reduce congestion by blocking people at certain points. At three places upon leaving we were forced to wait for upwards of 20minutes until they opened a barrier or the gates to allow us to leave. Lucky them, they knew their clientelle and had no need to worry about brawls or anger ensuing as a result of this. Everyone waited patiently and cheered each time we were allowed to move on.

It was so nice to return to Mike and Jenny's, I joined Mike outside and I think we went through 3 or 4 pots of tea just relaxing and then had dinner altogether after watching "the Chaser's War on Everything". It's Aussie political/social satire and is absolutely hilarious! Definitely check it out if it exists on youtube or somewhere. And today? Today I have relaxed, caught up on work, delightful day.

Thursday, July 17, 2008


Day two in Sydney begins. I arrived yesterday and dragged my suitcase for over 30 minutes as I was unsure which stop was closest to my friend's house where I was staying. I chose wrong. Arrived at 730am, was lucky to catch Mike and Jenny before they headed off to work and then, oh joy oh rapture, I had 3 full hours to unpack, shower, and get lost (on purpose of course) en route to meeting up with all the WYA people.

Wandering through Sydney was a rather strange experience. Normally when I travel, its to a place where English is not the primary language. Talking to people in Australia where all the signs are in English, I kept being surprised by how many people had Aussie accents! Until I reminded myself that I was the foreigner... Sydney is quite a lovely city, small enough to walk everywhere in the downtown but large enough also to provide surprises upon turning a corner and encounting a park, the harbour, or one of the backalley crime-filled streets :)

Pilgrims for WYD are everywhere, there are seas and oceans and rivers of orange-red-yellow backpacks. Each group has its own flag so that it feels like wandering through a moving, young United Nations. I met a group from Papua New Guinea yesterday and have added a new flag to my country repertoire. Its so much fun, everyone here wishes to meet people and discover as much as they can, being with a group of Filipinos we're meeting expat's from all over the world and I'm desperately seeking a Canadian flag now to distinguish myself.

Everyone is incredibly friendly. I'd heard customs could be quite tough but upon arriving at the airport the customs official had just papercut himself. I suggested he get his buddy to kiss it better and then asked him not to touch my passport or I would get accused of murder next time I travelled. He didn't ask any questions. Then while waiting for my luggage I thought I'd better eat my banana before it got taken away from me, and security approached me and told me to be sure I ate all my fruit before claiming my luggage as I shouldn't have any at this point. People on the streets also have all been exceptionally nice and gone out of their way to provide me with directions in my chronically lost state.

Yesterday evening we travelled to Sydney Harbour to greet the Pope. He arrived and spent quite some time waving to all the youth before getting in the Popemobile and driving to the stage. Once there he gave an incredible talk about environmentalism and the importance of stewardship, and linked destruction of the environment to many other problems in the world today due to selfishness and greed. It was quite relevant to the problems faced by young people worldwide and I'll definitely be searching for a copy of the speech upon my return.

By 6pm jetlag had hit, and hard. Once the rally ended we walked back to the downtown, stopped for some chinese food in Chinatown and then I left for home. Had a quiet evening with Mike and Jenny and then crashed, till now as I prepare for a new day of WYD and head out in a couple minutes.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Glass is Half Empty/Half Full/Not on Fire?

The last 5 days of my life have been an exercise in defining whether I am unlucky or lucky, is it necessary for unlucky to precede lucky? I type this portion of my next series of adventures from the business lounge in the San Francisco airport. Before I go further, I must backtrack. Last Thursday Anna, Clare and I embarked on a sisters' roadtrip to Ohio for Annie Seabright's wedding to Brett Bonowicz. A friend of ours, John Budnik, braved the sisters' roadtrip, our stop at some delightful outlets en route, and even found Clare's jokes funny by the end of our 8 hour drive. (Clare's jokes are very funny, some would say hilarious, we just weren't sure for the first 7 hours if John found them funny...)

Ohio... we stayed at Bissie Seabright's home, Annie's older sister and a good friend, who has a beautiful view of Lake Erie from her living room. Friday Clare and I went tanning on the beach and underestimating the sun's strength we both fried. So worth it though, the day was delightful, the water was just the right temperature and the beach was empty. Saturday afternooon we made ourselves scarce as the bridal party dressed in said living room. Maria Grizzetti and I wandered down to the beach amid a sand storm which was shortly followed by a rain/hailstorm. There is something so beautiful about being in the middle of a storm, on a deserted scrubby beach, in front of a lake that stretches in every direction. I dove right into the waves and we both could not stop laughing and screaming into the wind.

Annie's wedding was beautiful, she was married in a traditional Byzantine ceremony with the chants, wreaths, a cup and some other symbols for their life together. The reception afterwards was held at an arboretum which obviously had incredible views and paths to walk along. Later in the evening, the dancing got started, and her cousins can dance! I've never been to a wedding with such a large majority of wedding guests on the dance floor, completely drenched in their own sweat and so much fun! We danced till midnight then returned to Bissie's place where a small after party continued down on the beach. This time, the night was clear with a storm approaching so the night sky alternated between clear and wild, with grey clouds above us and a midnight green horizon approaching.

Sunday we all drove back to NY, encountered terrible traffic so that I left the WYA house at 910 for an 11pm flight. I may have a future as a NY taxi driver, I made it to the airport, while stopping for gas, by 945! Thankfully my flight was also delayed since I made it to check in at 1020... I arrived to Vancouver at 330am and discovered a quiet corner just past customs. Apparently sleeping by customs is not allowed since I was kicked out after an hour's sleep. I wandered through the airport in search of a quiet corner and had a number of maintenance people try to direct me towards a taxi. What part of "I'm sleeping here" is so confusing, doesn't everyone sleep at airports?

Vancouver is a lovely city, I took a bus downtown, which was in the midst of a freak power outage from a freak windstorm the day before, which may have made my wanderings even more beautiful with the absence of neon lights and tacky music. I discovered a free bus through Stanley park which was so beautiful, to sit and enjoy the skyline, the trees, the gardens, in my jetlagged stupor and then return to the airport made for a great day. I flew out from Vancouver to San Francisco for what should have been a quick layover and on to Australia.

Upon seeking a seat to Sydney, Australia, it seemed United had overbooked the flight by 60 people! They were asking people to give up their seats to leave on a flight a day later and in return get bumped up to Business Class. So after waking up Anna - thanks Anna and sorry! - I called Des to see if it were possible for me to arrive a day later. Whoop whoop to a night in a hotel, a shower!!! and chillaxing for a day in the business lounge. LOVE IT!

I arrived to the airport today around noon and couldn't get to the business lounge with all my luggage as it is through security. When I went to store my bags, my little rucksack was oversized. Yes, a rucksack, according to SanFran luggage storage people is an oversized suitcase, and comes with an oversized fee! I was not pleased and asked how small a nonoversized suitcase was and was shown the smallest backpack I have ever seen. You know those backpacks made like teddybears that 5 year olds wear? picture that plus plus an extra 3 inch diameter. That, my friends, is a suitcase... I first asked them to take pity on me and not charge me such an exorbitant fee, and then I got mad and told him he was a jerk, and left.

Mom calmed me down, reminded me that sitting for the next 6 hours in the airport was probably not worth $15, so I returned and asked a different guy how small my rucksack needed to become for me to be charged $8 rather than the oversized fee of $15. He asked another girl, who negotiated with the guy to only charge me $10, no repacking necessary. A small victory which made me very happy. Especially as, in business lounges there are snacks, free wifi, a tv, free cocktails, and comfy seats. Luxury! So glad Mom talked sense into me :)

And here I am, my flight to Australia leaves in 7 hours, and I then spend 19 hours of my life in business instead of economy!

Quick sneak peek at what is to come... Sydney, Australia for a week: World Youth Day and then various meetings, I'll manage to sneak in touristy adventures. Cairns for a week - scuba diving in the Great Barrier Reef!!! and then back to Vancouver for another week. So excited!