Hello, joey

When my friend heard I’d been in Australia for four months and hadn’t seen a live kangaroo (I’d only seen dead ones along the highway), she took it upon herself to fix my life.

We were going to the Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve, the day after it snowed in Canberra. When I woke up (much later than usual), sunlight was streaming through the blinds I’d drawn the previous night. Jumping to my feet in panic, I coffeed, stretched, and showered in record time. Unboxing my thermal t-shirt that’d been shelved for almost a couple months, I told myself it was time to layer up.

By the time I got out the door, jacket, beanie, moisturiser, and some sourdough stuffed into my backpack, my friend and her husband had been waiting for 30 minutes. 

It was a cold Saturday afternoon, and even though the sun faked bravado, it was no use in the face of gale winds the speed of 50km/h. End-winter sure seemed worse than mid-winter, and I shivered as the breeze nuzzled through my wet hair strands. Apologising profusely, I snuggled into the warmth of air conditioning.

And we were off. All the way to Tidbinbilla to see kangaroos and whatever else we could set our eyes on. And boy, what a journey it was.

Road trips excite me unlike any thing else. While most people would chatter, laugh, and nod away to wonderful music, I’d rather let my aimless eyes wander as we pass by fields upon fields of green and brown smeared trees, peeling white eucalyptus barks striking power poses against the dotted blue skies. Beauty of such kind hits me dumb. And sure enough, as we waded our way through the curving street, weaving through yellowish greenery that defied all rules of winter, bright and nourishing like citrus-infused broccoli, all I could do was stare at the unapologetic expanse of nature.

A sudden “look!” from my friend turned our heads. Two large flightless, fright less, birds, their heads down, mushroom backs protruding, hunted the ground for edibles. I’d only seen emus in pictures before. We swerved out of the street and parked in a campsite nearby. We waddled our way into the wilderness, and I soon gave up trying to avoid squashing the ubiquitous droppings that made up our path. The birds cared naught about the three shivering, decked up, humans that’d invaded their privacy. We watched as one of them stepped over sticks and stones with its lanky feet, webbed toes flipping ever so slightly in the breeze. The other dropped a massive shit storm, thoroughly unabashed by its nakedness.

As we explored our surroundings, we walked into more droppings, some set and square, some round and rolling, some wet, most dry and smashed, blending into the rain soaked grasslands. 

And then we stopped. A mob stared at us from the distance. From no where, kangaroos had galloped over and paused in their pursuit of jumpiness to turn around and offer us a glance. I was elated. I looked squarely into the curious eyes of an adolescent kangaroo standing behind a thin, weak-limbed tree, and it looked back, just as fascinated about me as I was about it. A few others had stopped too, looking around at different directions before hopping away into the trees. But my kangaroo friend held my gaze for a good five seconds before dismissing my interest in a flurry of sand rising from its jumping feet. I swelled in joy—I’d seen a kangaroo at last. And it had seen me back too.

I couldn’t wait to get to Tidbinbilla. I was addicted, craving more.

When we got there about fifteen minutes later, the kangaroo abode was our first stop. Three of them sat in a field of emptiness. What more could they want? We stepped out of the car, snuggled into beanies and rain jackets, and approached the closest one. It didn’t even look up at us. So intent was it on the uninteresting sheen of grass at its feet. Afraid of startling it, we remained still, watching its mundane nibbling. As still as us, the rest if its body stood unflinching, even though patches of its fur flurried in the icy wind. Watching it eat its boring food was less boring than I’d imagined. And so we stood for a good few minutes, observing what was clearly a feast, when suddenly a pink sausage poked out between its feet. Like accidentally putting your hand in hot water, the pink whatever pulled right back in as quickly as it had shot out.

My friend and I exchanged raised eyebrows. Our minds wandered through ungraceful plains trying to discern what that could’ve been. As if to clarify, something rummaged and we realised it was a pouch hosting a living being within. Affirming, a slender tail, like a single strand of rice noodle,  slithered out before it went back into the comfort of its home. It was the most pristine moment of life, and we watched for quite a long time, waiting, hoping, the joey would grace us with its face. And it did. First came the tiny nose, followed by pin pricks for eyes and a dollop of ears. Poking its head through the pouch, it tried to grab a particularly long thread of grass that seemed to tease, just beyond its reach. And all the while, the mother grazed on, unaware or unperturbed by the weight in her belly getting hungry. Unsatisfied with the spread before her, she galloped away to the other side of the field, her joey still protruding in curiosity.

And I felt complete. I’d seen more than a kangaroo. I’d seen life in its most natural form, in its undomesticated, unaltered state. 

For the next three hours, we walked along a few trails, spotting wallabies, a group of koala bears, one of which shuffled about with a joey of her own on its back, a bandicoot, and a few platypuses plopping in and out of the water. And throughout, alternating rain, snow, and a freezing wind brushed against our faces, pushing us forward, testing us, encouraging us, and numbing our bodies and minds with its suffocating beauty.

Having inhaled a cup of coffee, we pulled out of the reserve and were heading out into the open road when another “look!” screeched the tires. The day wasn’t over—for there sat one on a roof and another on a Eucalyptus tree, two kookaburras their yellow and brown stripped tails flipping, blue patches flashing, as if nature, unable to assign a colour to the bird, had thrown in a bit of everything. 

They asked to be gawked at.

We obliged.

It was the best damn day of my life.

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Sydney scenes

When I exited the aircraft, I was so excited to be visiting Sydney for the first time. After a month there, my brother mentioned it was starting to grow on him.

We both hated the idea of living in Sydney. Even before we’d even seen the city. Now, though, he seemed to have second thoughts, and I was eager to find out how I felt.

Long story short—I still don’t like the idea of living in Sydney.

I did like Sydney, however. Contradictory, I know. But as soon as I reached my hotel on Harbour Street, in the heart of the city (CBD), I texted my colleague to see if we could catch up. After all, I wasn’t touring Sydney—I was there to attend a conference, to stay locked up inside the infamous International Convention Centre from 8 am to 5 pm on a Thursday and Friday. I met my team mates at around 5 pm, and after a not-so-great coffee, I left to explore.

Vivid Sydney display
Vivid Sydney display

Not one to linger these wintry days, the sun had set off at around 5. But Sydney city is the Down Under version of the city that never sleeps. Lights glared from every corner, and instead of listening to my colleagues ranting (reasonably, albeit boringly) about office politics, I preferred to wander the streets.

Sydney Harbour during Vivid Sydney
Sydney Harbour during Vivid Sydney

That’s when I realised the sheer volume of people who called Sydney home. I wasn’t far from Chinatown and Koreatown so I ran into thousands of all flavours of Asians. And I don’t mean ran into in a figurative sense either. So many people wandered just as I did, except they were looking at their phones letting their well-practised feet and conditioned subconsciousness guide them through navigating the street signs.

Almost everyone followed street signs. And that made me so happy. But it was also frustrating when a lot of couples clung to each other while walking down the footpath. Dawdling behind them, I had a hard time overtaking them without bumping into another arm-locked couple.

And I won’t even start about the low-burning cigarette butts every other person clung to. It wasn’t that cold. At least not for me—not after Canberra anyway.

But it was all great fun. I stopped by for a hot chocolate and walked over to the Opera House. May-June is a great time to visit this studded bay area because Vivid Sydney is on show. The whole locality lights up, laser shows beam about, special over-priced cruise tours dig gold, and along with the many significant buildings in the neighbourhood, the Opera House takes on a stunning veil of animated display.

The closer I got to the building, the faster I seemed to walk. It happens to me all the time. Excitement and eagerness make me trot without a regard for my knees or my not-good-for-walking Converse. But what the hell, I thought to myself. You don’t always get to see the Opera House for the first time. There’ll always be reasons no to do something—rain, cold, wind, stiff shoes, bad hair days, tired feet, or work night. But nothing beats the sense of accomplishment that comes with pushing through nevertheless. That keeps the spark alive for a traveller.

Nestling in that spark, I returned to my room, ready for work the following day.

Next day—

Work was average, and I wasn’t happy with my contribution. But the spark still triggered me to take a ferry unto Manly. And I saw the Opera House again from a whole different perspective. After all, what’s the point of life if you let work interfere with it?

I protest

Nowadays, it’s ever so common to see crowds gathering in front of government houses, with upheld banners and raised voices, protesting. It doesn’t matter what for—policies, opinions, misspoken words, misspellings on social media—why, some people even oppose the existence of other people. Regardless of the “why” of these protests, almost every rally I’ve seen and heard of has a similar streak: violence. In its core, whenever anyone disagrees or rebels, they use harsh and violent behaviour to make themselves seen and heard.

Of course, in recent years, silent, un-violent, and fasting protests are becoming more desirable. But even today, all the marches and show of disagreement contain angry outbursts, name-calling, and plain spite. What’s sad, though, is that just as a self-fulfilling prophecy, these violent protests get more attention than the others. Even though our generation understands and even professes the effectiveness of the pen over the sword, the influence of weapons in conflicting opinions is far too significant to ignore.

That’s why it feels amazing to come across a different form of protest. Both in movies and real life, we’ve seen governments cutting off funds to public welfare systems like health care programmes, transport services, and university courses. Each time it happens, the government—factual or fictional—faces large mobs of angry citizens, swearing through megaphones and wasting fuel on stick figures and flags.

But then I saw this:

Canberra Museum and Gallery - 1

It’s a necklace. It’s also a sign of protest. When the state government of Canberra (Australian Capital Territory) cut off funds to the National Institute of Arts, teachers and Canberra sponsors together presented this necklace to the Chief Minister at the time, Kate Carnell, as a sign of their protest. What’s unique about it though is that each metal link in the necklace has a tag with the name of a sponsor. So each piece resembles a protestor, and together it makes a neckband for the chief minister of the then ACT.

No hate speech, no blood, an no fasting to death. What a daring rebellion! And what a beautiful necklace it is too—when you take away the historical value, that is one marvellous piece of accessory, won’t you say?

Canberra Museum and Gallery - 2

It made me stop and think about how much has changed in the way we fight for our convictions. Of course, we should stand up for what we believe in, but when our fight costs innocent people their peace, patience, or worse, life, then what good does our conviction do?

The necklace is on display at the Canberra Museum and Gallery. If you’re in the area, stop by and pay a visit—it sure is worth looking at.

Counting dollars

Ever travelled to a foreign country and found yourself converting the local currency to your own? And have you ever had this face when you realised how much everything costs in your own money?

What the hell?!
What the hell?!

It’s the bitter reality for most of us. Although you tell yourself you’re on holiday and it’s ok to splurge once a while, you still can’t fathom the marvel that is currency conversion. But your inner mind is right—it is only once a while, and you should splurge on yourself.

Can’t say the same about me, however. One of the scariest things about moving to Australia—a country well known for its venomous snakes and its well-established economy—is that everything is so damn expensive. And the locals often don’t realise it because, well, they earn well.

The average earning capacity for an Australian is high enough for an average Australian lifestyle.

For me, though, it seemed bollocks. I had fair warning, yes. Expat forums and online resources informed me page after page how pricey life is. But I didn’t understand the real weight of it until I saw that a simple fruit-and-nut bar costs 4 to 5 dollars. A decent meal at a so-so restaurant will cost at least $15—not including drinks. It’s not uncommon to spend $25 on a meal.

What’s funny though, is that I found a good, sturdy pair of shoes for the same price. It wasn’t Nike or Sketchers or any if those high-profile brands, but it was a functional pair of shoes.

And I see that across all products—the pricing structure is so illogical. Coles and Woolworths are two of the largest supermarket brands in Australia. Both have their own branded products for almost everything (like Trader Joe’s). Salt, pepper, detergent, prepackaged meals, chocolate, biscuits, chocolate biscuits—you name it, and chances are they’ll have it. They’re super cheap too—a 2-litre bottle of laundry liquid cost me less than $2. But unlike Trader Joe’s, these supermarkets also carry other local and imported brands which are four to six times expensive. Just for comparison, other detergents range between $7 to $10. And people still buy them.

Most people I’ve seen use a clever combination—they buy home brands for a lot of stuff, but they also spend extra on some other fancier brands. It all depends on the product. I’m still trying to discern how they reason it out, but after spending weeks comparing prices between brands and also between supermarkets, I’ve also started making some calculated purchasing choices.

The most important thing to know, if you’re visiting Australia, is that how items are priced makes no sense whatsoever. Whether you’re travelling from the US, Asia, or Europe, don’t expect logic. Come, explore, have fun and splurge. Don’t try and make sense of the Aussie way because you’ll only depress yourself by doing so. I speak from experience.

The National Botanical Gardens of Australia

I’ve been to quite a few botanical gardens in the past, and it was with that arrogance that I went into the Australian National Botanical Gardens. After all, it’s just a garden, I thought. What could be new?

Australian National Botanical Gardens - gift shop
Australian National Botanical Gardens – gift shop

It turns out that the Australian Botanical Gardens pay more attention to aspects of Australian geography and heritage. As I walked into the gardens, I first passed the gift shop, which—like any other gift shop—carried extensive and expensive trinkets for the tourist soul. Even though I didn’t purchase anything, I spend a good 15 minutes walking around, admiring local handicrafts. I had no idea how much the indigenous people’s artwork and culture permeated the Australian lifestyle. Despite battling discriminatory issues, Australia as a country makes conscious effort to recognise and even promote its indigenous roots.

After shuffling through coasters, notebooks, and bookmarks engraved with local birds and wildlife, I was ready to see the actual gardens.

National Botanical Gardens
National Botanical Gardens

Unlike the other gardens I visited, the Australian National Botanical Gardens appeared smaller by area. Looking at the map, I realised there’s a single main trail that went through the whole garden—ideal for people who just wanted to walk. For the others, the plant seekers, plenty of subordinate trails led from and across the main path. It was great because I could follow any trail to the smaller lawns and picnic areas, and still get on the main trail to continue through the garden. Here and there, leading from the main path were smaller and more concentrated enclosures—like the rock garden, the rainforest gully, the eucalyptus lawn, and the red centre garden.

Each of these gardens had one common aspect. The rainforest gully, for instance, showcases plants and creepers from Tasmania, the coldest and greenest state of the country. Even as I walked through the plants that spread their branches over my head, I could feel the temperates falling and the chilly breeze kissing my cheeks.

When I stopped at the rock garden, looking around trying to find my way back onto the trail, I got lost amidst rocky plants. Weird enough, however, despite seeing nothing but identical rocks, I felt a serene calmness overcome me. I was lost, but happy about it too. My heart skipped with joy looking at the odd plants that clung to the rocks—their life depends on them. Humans are the same. Even though we don’t realise or acknowledge it, we hold on to nature because our lives so depend on their survival.

That thought became even more profound when I arrived at the red centre garden. A massive landscape spread in front of me, its red sand, dry plants, and searing radiance almost blinding my eyes. It wasn’t a hot day—it was the ideal temperature for a day out. However, the moment I saw those desert plants and their habitat, I saw a tiny sample of the real heat that the Outback gets throughout the year. Everywhere I turned redness stared back, reflecting the emptiness of the landscape. To my surprise, though, the garden also featured a massive structure of a lizard native to the deserts. Here and there were also busts of smaller animals that call the desert home. Walking around the garden, I realised that even a lot of Australian children don’t see or experience the Outback—which makes up for almost one-fifth of the entire country.

As I headed back to the main trail, I couldn’t help but wonder at the marvel that is Australia. In a single garden, I managed to observe the various temperatures, plant life, and lifestyles that this country contains. I enjoyed the afternoon exploring the gardens. And each moment will remain in my mind just as pleasant as the herbs and eucalyptus plants, just as incredible as the rancid cacti, and just as beautiful as the chilling rainforests.