Apologizing for the long delay between posts, here we are in Tasmania at our first ever work exchange. So far it’s been very enriching, enjoyable and delicious. Briefly put, our hosts Anne and Bill are perhaps the most generous people anywhere on the entire Workaway.org program and that says a lot since there’s over 30,000 different hosts worldwide. But more on that later. Time flies by and the hours slip away so I’m sneaking in a quick post on our first week in Australia and I’ll post much more about the work exchange after we get back to Penang. Lucky enough to have an old friend of Diane’s living in the southeastern Melbourne suburbs, we landed at Melbourne for a week of exploring the big city before heading to Tasmania. Not the best Air Asia experience, for some reason they use the oldest and crappiest looking planes in the fleet to fly the longest haul routes. Cramped seats and an annoying staff that seemed irritated made the seven hour flight overnight flight acceptable but nothing like a transcontinental flight on Cathay Pacific where everyone sleeps and the crew doesn’t make announcements every hour telling you how much longer the flight will last. But since the other options like Quanta or Singapore Air fall outside our budget, we settled in and slept as much as possible before arriving in the strange and fascinating continent known as Australia.
The first ting we noticed about Australia jumped right out at us upon arriving at the amazingly modern but very busy airport in Melbourne. Australians are friendly. Very very friendly. And polite. Thrown by this strange attitude that conflicts drastically with much of the large British expat population in Penang, I’d say they’re so friendly they make Canadians look rude. And that’s saying a lot. Going out of their way to help you, everyone volunteers to help in any way they can, they strike up conversations on the long line to get out of the airport and the only way to annoy an Aussie is doing something rude like jumping the queue which elicits a firm but non threatening reminder that this isn’t America and everyone should obey the rules. Politely of course. Oh yes, don’t even attempt to bring anything that even resembles food into Australia from a simple bag of chips to fresh fruit and that includes packaged and processed goods from your home country unless you enjoy heading to a separate line where they train food sniffing dogs to catch violators. Do what we did and bring your friends a Malaysian cookbook or some other local souvenir.
Four other things stood out as we enjoyed a week of sightseeing and touring around the hippest city in Australia. Kicking you in the face as soon as you arrive, you’ll notice everything in Australia is expensive. And I don’t mean Canadian expensive. Sporting federal minimum wage of $17 an hour, the good part is GST is already included in the prices and there’s no tipping but they make it up by charging $12 for a bowl of Laksa that costs us about 4 Ringgit (about $0.90 USD), $15 for a bowl of Vietnamese Pho and at least ten bucks for sandwiches made on incredibly delicious artisan bread but severely under stuffed with whatever proton you order. On the bright side, the current state of panic in world financial markets continues to send the USD to record high levels against all Asian currencies including Australia which hovers near $0.68 in fact, it’s gone up steadily in the 10 days since we’ve been here so it turned out to be smart only buying $1,000 worth of colorful Australian cash. Citing a perfect example, today we had an unexpected day off from our work exchange so we took the local commuter bus service from the town of Woodbridge to Hobart. Traveling 38 kilometers was an exorbitant $21.70 round trip. By contrast, travelling by train from Penang fo Hua Hin, Thailand is 957 kilometers and costs only $24.00.
Driving through the perfectly paved network of toll roads that surround the Melbourne region in a rented car, we heard the annoying beep of the automated tolls every few kilometers all weekend and cringed at the separate credit card charges totaling over $25. Cans of Coke Light that we pay less than $0.50 for costs somewhere between $3 and $4. And if you want to enjoy a day trip to one of the beautiful surrounding areas, don’t even think about private tours (which we always did in Thailand, Ecuador and Borneo at reasonable prices). Instead, use the company called GoWest and enjoy one of three great day trips covering scenery, wildlife and wine country. Summarizing, work exchange programs make a lot of sense financially speaking and one week in the big city is a treat addition that won’t bust the monthly budget if you stick to less expensive options like Vietnamese food but we do recommend treating yourself at least once to a nice dinner especially if you’re used to life in a “developing nation”. As lovers of Greek food that’s simply not available in Southeast Asia, we recommend Gazi, one of the best “nouveau” Greek restaurants in the CBD (central business district). Owned by a one of the judges on the TV show Master Chef Australia, this place fills up quickly and only has two settings per night so reservations are essential. Running about $130 AUD, it’s pricey but definitely worth it as the pictures below illustrate.
The second thing that’s most noticeable in Australia (or Maybe just in Victoria) is the insane weather in Melbourne. Thinking we lived in the most changeable place on earth, Calgary’s famous chinook winds (warm westerly winds during the winter) often melt the snow and raise the temperatures overnight from below freezing to plus 10. Making this look tame, try this on for size. The first few days were seasonably warm and even a little hot but typically what you’d expect from a summer day in the Southern Hemisphere. Then one day it got sunny and really hot. Not Las Vegas hot but Saudi Arabia hot with afternoon temperatures peaking at about 44 (almost 110 Farenheit).
By itself, the fact that nobody bats an eyelid or even changes into warmer clothes is unusual enough and the streets of downtown are just as crowded as any other day. But in the course of 12 hours the winds shifted and the temperature miraculously dropped almost 30 Celsius degrees and we woke the next day to clouds, wind, rain and 16 degrees. (About 60 Farenheit). Explaining this phenomenon takes an understanding of weather patterns on a flat continent. There’s nothing south of Tasmania except Antarctica and the outback lies only a few hundred kilometers north so the weather is a never ending battle of arctic air from the south and wicked hot outback air from the north constantly colliding with each other. If you’ve ever heard the expression “if you don’t like the weather wait a few minutes” and thought if applies to your home town you’d be dead wrong. Come to Melbourne with warm shorts and fleece jackets.
The third thing we noticed about Australia are the animals. They’re big. And unusual. At Healesville you can tour the animal conservation center although we found it quite disappointing after visiting such hands on places as the zoo in Chiang Mai and having recently seen monkeys swim and the last swath just of wild elephants. But the animals we did see are larger than urban creatures we’ve seen and include sheep the size of small cows, pelicans so big their wing span exceeds ten feet, magpies so big and fat it looks like somebody fed them a steak dinner and of course wallabies which are much cuter and smarter than kangaroos. Here in Tasmania, the cornucopia of strange animal sounds keeps us entertained every morning at daybreak and includes strange-looking wild hens, crows that make sounds that make you them they’re constantly mating and gulls so loud they practically scream at you when you eat seafood around the harbor.
Finally, there’s the coffee. Unlike many other nation on earth, Starbucks has not penetrated Australia and with good reason. Blowing Seattle, Portland and even most European cities off the map, Melbourne has the most delicious coffee we’ve eve tasted. Needless to say there are coffee houses all over and people file into them at all hours of the day. Unlike places with dreary weather, it’s apparently the Italian and Greek influence that gives this area it’s robust and flavorful coffee. Stuck with mostly Nescafé in Penang, we plan on taking home about 10 kilograms. Make sure you have some if you visit. Having now shared the things that stood out the most, you might ask what we did for seven days before coming to Tasmania. Sharing a few things briefly while we have this off day from our work exchange duties, please remember I’m back on the IPad so once we return I can post a lit more. One other point of interest: Data plans are strangely cheap in Australia and even though we read how the nation lags behind most of the world, we’ve found the 4G service offered by Telstra to be better than average. Simple SIM card start-up plans and a one month activation plan come with 5 Mb of extra data giving you all the data you’d ever need in one month and edit even comes with over 200 minutes of local calls and inexpensive international calling.
Melbourne’s architecture stands out as modern and quite different from anything in Asia or North America. Like many cities founded by a river, it has an attractive vibrant waterfront with various places to eat, relax, party or just enjoy the views. Unlike other Australian cities, however, it was not founded with convicts but was actually the world’s wealthiest city during a gold rush in the mid 1850’s. With 40% of all the world’s gold being found on the banks of the Yarra River, Melbourne’s population increased quickly and many of the stately old buildings and churches built with all the cash remain today creating an interesting blend of old and new.
Possibly the world’s best free art gallery, the National Gallery of Victoria sits right downtown next to the iconic Federation Square and sports three floors of really interesting stuff including an entire floor dedicated to the history of Melbourne and its famous artists. Spending almost four hours, the gallery closed before we could finish. Normally not art people, this one is so great even the Un-artsy will appreciate it.
Blessed with beautiful coastline, the beautiful Mornington Peninsula lies an hour or less away from the central business district and has some of the nicest coastal scenery we’ve ever seen. Almost like a combination of Malibu, Monterey and Vancouver Island, we visited a place called Cape Schnack that easily rivals any of the world’s picture postcard coastal scenes. Naturally the beaches were freezing by our standards since we’re used to tropical waters but that doesn’t stop anyone here and we highly recommend spending some time in the beautiful sand. Even during school holidays there’s more than enough places to choose from.
Although not as full-bodied as Napa Valley, the Melbourne area has popular and thriving wineries to the north (Yarra Valley) where the hotter climate produces certain vintages and to the south (Mornington Penninusla) where cooler weather produces grapes closer to what we’re familiar with. Of course living in Malaysia means wine is mostly out of our budget since Muslims can’t drink and sin taxes bring the cost of even crappy wines to the point of ridiculous. So we thoroughly enjoyed wine tasting in both regions and especially noticed the difference between the friendly and genuine Australian servers and the mostly cutthroat Napa Valley types who rarely have time for anyone who won’t buy a case or two. There’s also some local goat cheese shops in the area that have moderately priced tasting menus. Highly recommended for an enjoyable day trip.
We’ve intentionally left off the best and most interesting day trip from Melbourne which is a visit to Phillip Island to see the fairy penguins come ashore. Realizing this post is dragging on and I haven’t even finished sharing the seven days as tourists in Melbourne I’ll save the best for last in another post with lots of cool pictures. Also known as “little penguins”, they’re the smallest species in the world and every night of the year they return from swimming and fish hunting once they feel it’s safe and make their way onshore. For and extra $25 each, you can take a guided ranger tour and sit with small groups on a special boardwalk that gets you much closer to the action. Well worth it, it wasn’t as great as the Galápagos Isalnds but it was a very unique animal experience that’s worth your time. Watch for details soon.
So it’s Day Five of our first work Exchange program here in the small village of Woodbridge, Tasmania. We’re spending two weeks with Ann and Bill, the proprietors of a small business called TassiesTasteBuds that produces jams, jellies, and other condiments. Helping mix, prepare, package and sell weekly at the largest pop up market in the Southern Hemisphere, we’ve already gained a new appreciation for people who choose self employment as well as all the vendors farmers markets. And oddly enough we are very tired even though the work is fun and not really that physically demanding. Staying in a small cottage, our hosts are treating us like royalty and they cook us incredible dinners and even bought us stuff to cook for breakfast. Signing off for now, we’ve got a full day ahead so I’ll call it a night and share the work experience and Tasmania’s sights in the weeks to come.