Saturday, December 31, 2011

Kiwis, Koalas, and Kava... Oi, Mate!: The Epilogue

I left Fiji at 10 PM, Thursday, October 27.  I landed at LAX at 1:30 PM, Thursday, October 27.  I know... crazy, right?

It was a beautiful, mild day in LALALand, and I was glad to be back in the US.  I picked up my bags and my rental car and beelined to the Westwood apartment of my childhood friend Dr. Roberto B. Vargas III.  I took the next two days to reacclimate to US time (albeit Pacific), remember how to drive, and reconnect with my people, including my "boy" and collaborator Andre "Black Nerd" Meadows aka Arnie Sykes.

By Friday night, the weather on the East Coast threatened to preclude my return to Philly on Saturday.  Once again, I was joined in first class on my way out of LAX by a celebrity, this time Jane Lynch, best known as Sue Sylvester on TV's "Glee."  To make matters worse, had I not changed my seat when I checked in for the flight, she would have been sitting next to me.  In other words, I missed the chance to learn how "Sue Cs it!"

I made it home, safe and sound, and with that, my "Kiwis, Koalas, and Kava" adventure came to an end.  As I finish this epilogue, more than two months have passed since I returned.  The passage of time has confirmed a few things for me. 

1.  This is an amazing World we live in and there's far too much to see, smell, taste, and experience to stay at home. 

2.  As different as languages, colors, and cultures may be, we all share the desire (and right) to live and be as happy as possible.

3.  Milford Sound is THE most beautiful, peaceful, and gracious place on this planet.


Kiwis, Koalas, and Kava... Oi, Mate!: Chapter Eight, "Fiji, 'Ni Sa Bula Vinaka... Y'all!'" (Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, 23, 24, 25, 26, and 27 October 2011)

If you think Daylight Savings Time is rough, imagine landing in an exotic locale in the early evening only to learn it's an hour later because DST just kicked in that day!  (It's the Southern Hemisphere, so it's "Fall forward," kind of like the aftermath of a drinking binge.)  Such was my arrival in Nadi, Fiji.

Immediately upon landing and entering the terminal at Nadi (pronounced "Nan-DEE") International, I was struck by the beauty of this island country: the people, the culture, the language, the lifestyle, the landscape.  I cleared customs, grabbed my bags (each of which weighed roughly 3500 kilograms (400 tons) by now), and was met by the driver sent by my resort in Sigatoka (pronounced "Sing-ah-TOE-kah").  It was pitch black as we emerged from the terminal and found the car, and it was an incredibly dark, bumpy ride on barely paved roads  as we traveled 1 hour and 15 minutes Southwest to Sigatoka.

The Outrigger on the Lagoon is a sprawling, funky resort on the Pacific Ocean with fantastic restaurants, shops, and Fiji's best spa, perched high on a hill above the resort with panoramic views of the Ocean.  The festive sounds of a wedding reception filled the giant lobby as I checked in, and the bustle of "Sunday Night in Paradise" surrounded me as I was escorted from the lobby across the resort to my oceanfront room.  Everywhere I turned, I was met with a spirited "Bula!" (pronounced "MBU-lah"), the standard Fijian greeting.

I arrived at my room just in time to catch the second half of the Rugby World Cup finals between the New Zealand All Blacks and France.  (Sunday night... Rugby night... In Fiji...!)  Who won, you ask?  "GO THE ABs!!!" (See Chapter One.)

The next morning, my first full day in Paradise, began with buffet breakfast at the resort.  It was then that I realized I was thoroughly exhausted from weeks of packing and unpacking, getting on and off the coach, taking off and landing, and enjoying almost no downtime.  And it was then that I decided Fiji would be all about downtime.

SPOILER ALERT: My three full days in Fiji were comprised of walking the beach (actually a coral reef), enjoying tasty meals, catching up on movies and blogging (really!), and TWO FULL DAYS at the Bebe (pronounced "BEM-beh") Spa.  That's it.

Exciting, hunh?  Maybe not, but possibly the most relaxing three days of my life.

On my last day in Fiji, my flight was not leaving Nadi for LA until 10 PM.  Checkout time was 11 AM.  When I inquired about late checkout the day before, I was told to call the next morning and speak with the room coordinator.  I awoke bright and early, called the room coordinator, and she said... "NO DOGS ALLOWED!!!" (or something like that).  So I crammed everything into my already overstuffed bags, arranged a driver, and left the Outrigger.

The drive from Sigatoka to Nadi in daylight was the perfect punctuation to my four days in Paradise.  The island is rough and refined, dirty and pristine, ugly and immaculate.  It is unspoiled and real and special.  Fijians love their home and for good reason.

At the airport in Nadi, I learned two things: (1) I couldn't check in for my flight until 6:30 PM (it was 1 PM) and (2) I left my ultra-cool All Blacks hat in the car from the resort to the airport.  DOUBLE BUMMER.  I set up shop in a coffee shop in the airport, where I was "that guy in the airport with all his electronic devices plugged in" and I was able to get a wireless signal so I could continue blogging (really!).  I made the mistake of continuing to blog (really!) at 6:30 when check in for my flight opened, so when I packed it all up and went to check in at 8 PM, it looked as if the island was being evacuated.  I'm still not sure how 15,000 people managed to fit on a plane that seats 500, but we did.
Vinaka, Viti Levu! Moce! 

"I'm going going, back back, to Cali Cali...!"

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Kiwis, Koalas, and Kava... Oi, Mate!: Chapter Seven, "Sydney, 'Oprah Likes It, So....'" (Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, 20, 21, 22, and 23 October 2011)

It was late in the afternoon when we landed in Sydney, Australia's answer to New York City, and I was still scratching my head over Woody Allen's "Midnight in Paris," which I watched on the flight.  We were introduced to Australia's biggest city with an afternoon rush hour coach ride to The Grace Hotel, a restored Art Deco, boutiquish hotel nestled between Sydney's Darling Harbour and the Opera House area.  We checked in at the hotel and the night was ours to enjoy.

I had a decision to make.

"C'mon C'mon." Who am I "Foolin'"?  It's time for me to "Stand Up," "Breathe a Sigh," and decide if I'm going to see the "Rock Brigade" "Tonight" or spend the evening "Alone."   If I succumb to "Hysteria" and become an "Animal" or a "Barracuda," my night will be "Wasted" and "Women" won't take a "Photograph" with or give me any "Action."  Alas, "Love Bites"... and it's a "Four Letter Word."

I decided not to go to the Def Leppard/Heart concert.

We got an early start the next morning to tour this amazing city.  Our first stop was Rose Bay, a picturesque cove near the mouth of Port Jackson (the proper name of Sydney Harbour), after which we crossed the peninsula to check out the famous Bondi Beach.  (Imagine Venice Beach if it wasn't in California.  Or Italy.) 
The immortal Sydney Opera House was next.  I've never been to a building that compels you to take pictures of it from every angle, a building that morphs before your eyes with every step you take.  It goes without saying that there is no other building like it anywhere in the World.  But the Sydney Opera House is as miraculous as the human body, the corridors its arteries, the people its blood, the performance halls its heart.  It is a living, breathing work of art.  It is all things to all people... unless, of course, you're one of my tourmates and you are livid that the architect had the NERVE to put STAIRS in the complex!

When the tour was over, as my tourmates bobbed for tchotchkes in the obligatory end-of-tour gift shop, I found the box office.  A certain frontman for a certain pioneering Seattle grunge band and solo artist was doing an acoustic show in the Concert Hall of the Opera House the following night and this was a tough ticket to get.  The kind lady at the box office informed me that there were only two tickets left in the entire house and they were premium seats in the stalls.

The Sydney Harbour lookout point "Mrs. McQuarie's Chair" and Circular Quay on Sydney Harbour were our next stops.  We boarded a boat at Circular Quay and enjoyed a lunch cruise on Sydney Harbour, garnering an entirely different perspective on the city.  There was no gift shop at the end of the cruise... so naturally, we went to an opal museum!  But not just ANY opal museum: The National Opal Collection.  Did you know that opals come from dinosaurs, Hugh Jackman is a dinosaur, and Wolverine is a kind of opal?  If not, you need to visit the National Opal Collection.

How's this for serendipity: while I was at LAX waiting for my flight to Auckland, I received an e-mail from a former pro bono screenwriter client and friend.  About the same time I left Austin to move to Philadelphia, my friend, a native Texan, moved to Australia to be with his wife, a native Aussie, as they prepared to welcome their first child.  He happened to e-mail me about the development status of the indie film he penned and I was reminded that he lives in Sydney.  Long story short, I spent the better part of my last full day in Sydney getting an "insider's tour" of city, including the ferry system (and a failed trip to a supposedly killer fish and chips joint) and the Darling Harbour complex.  The rest of the afternoon was spent shopping for souvenirs.  Why is it that picking out crap for your family and friends is so much fun?

As this was the last night of the tour, it was time for the Farewell Dinner.  (See Chapter One for a recap of the Welcome Dinner.)  Tonight was also the solo acoustic show at the Sydney Opera House's Concert Hall by - wait for it! - Chris Cornell.  It would be a night of contrasts.

I met my tourmates in the lobby and we walked en masse to Casa di Nico, a snazzy Italian eatery on the water in Darling Harbour.  There are no photos to confirm this, but I have to imagine we looked like a cross between a retirement community field trip and the Bataan Death March... but I digress.  The vino flowed quite liberally and dinner was tasty.  As hard as it was to bid adieu to my new friends, I had a show to catch. 

Within 30 seconds of leaving my seat at the table, I was in a taxi bound for the Opera House.  It was a decidedly hipster crowd ignoring the opening act and imbibing in the lobby when I entered the Concert Hall.  My seat was almost perfectly center, just to the right of the soundboard.  The opener was an entertaining singer-songwriter, but there was not an empty seat in the house (including the seat next to me, presumably THE last seat available for the show) when Chris Cornell came onstage.  Over the next two and a half hours, he played every Soundgarden hit, a few deep tracks and b-sides, and all of his solo gems.  His performance was flawless.  Acoustically, it was as if I was sitting on a stool next to him onstage as he played.  It's official: this visually stunning building sounds as good as it looks!

I met the newlyweds for breakfast the next morning to say goodbye, then tackled the task of repacking to accommodate all of the new stuff I acquired.  (If you ever need to pack a 10 foot long djeridoo into a backpack, hollatcha boy! I shuttled to the airport with two of the couples from the tour and said goodbye to them as they checked in for their flights back to the States.

It's Fiji time!

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Kiwis, Koalas, and Kava... Oi, Mate!: Chapter Six, "Cairns, 'GOD Save the Queensland'" (Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, 18, 19, and 20 October 2011)

The disappointment and utter humiliation of my "Krispy Kreme FAIL" on the Queenstown to Melbourne still stung like a thousand hornets as I passed through security and customs at Melbourne Airport on my way to Cairns (pronounced "Cans") in the Northeast Australian State of Queensland.  I descended a stairway and rounded a corner in the shopping concourse and WHAM!!!... like a punch in the face, there it was: a Krispy Kreme stand!  Was this a cruel joke?  A flippant callback?  A bold slap across the face?  Or was this justice, the natural balance that exists in the Universe, a reward for my patience and perserverance?

NEH... it's just doughnuts, y'all!  KRISPY KREME DOUGHNUTS!!!
I won't bore you with the details.  If you know me (or if you simply like Krispy Kreme doughnuts), you can figure out what happened next.  (In Latin, "Nom nom nom.")  I watched "The Green Lantern" on the flight, and while I'm not quite sure what to say about the movie, I'm pretty sure I know why Ryan Reynolds and ScarJo aren't together anymore....

It was raining cats and dingos when we arrived in Cairns in Australia's tropical Northeast.  Our first stop was Rainforestation, a cultural and wildlife park nestled in a rainforest high above Cairns.  We enjoyed a tasty lunch before making our way to an outdoor amphitheater for an Aboriginal dance and djeridoo exhibition, followed by spearhunting and boomerang demonstrations.  A walk around the wildlife park lead to encounters with two kinds of crocodiles, lizards and other reptiles, assorted native birds, and up-close interaction with kangaroos and wallabes.  And, in an ironic twist, dingos.  (To my knowledge, and Meryl Streep's chagrin, they had taken no one's baby.)  The highlight of the Rainforestation visit was the opportunity to hold and be photographed with a fluffy, cuddly koala.  (We are presently in negotiations with the koala's agent to license the photo for inclusion in this blog.)

The rain and generally crappy weather did not let up overnight, and things did not look good for our excursion to The Great Barrier Reef the next morning.  Nevertheless, we braved biblical rains, "Perfect Storm"-like waves, and 30 knot winds on our "cruise" out to the Reef.  It was to be a six hour tour.

A six hour tour.

Instead of shipwrecking on a desert island, virtually everyone was sick and miserable by the time we docked at the giant pontoon floating over the Reef, from which we could snorkel, dive, and board a submersible to view the natural wonder.  But the inclement and overcast conditions precluded even those who got in the water from seeing much of anything.  Those who stayed on the pontoon were pelted with stinging rain and unrelenting winds, while desperately battling to hold down their breakfasts and consume their lunches.  Sadly, some sailors lost that battle.


Ochre is a restaurant in Cairns that features authentic native Australian fare and I joined the newlyweds for dinner there.  Our "Taste of Australia" tasting included wattleseed, ocean trout, kangaroo terrine, crocodile wontons, fried crocodile, grilled wallabe and kangaroo, wattleseed pavlova, and Davidson plum sorbet.  ("So THAT's what Australia tastes like....")  On the way back to the hotel, I stopped off at the casino across from the hotel.  I emerged victorious this time.

I returned to my room around 1 AM after the casino and was greeted with an unsettling surprise.  While we were in Melbourne, I booked what I thought would be a picturesque sunrise hot air balloon ride over the Great Barrier Reef.  Upon arrival in Cairns, I took it as a given that the horrific weather would wipe out any hope to ballooning while in Cairns.  You can imagine my surprise, then, when I returned to my room at 1 AM and discovered a note telling me I would be picked up at 4 AM to go hot air ballooning.

Excuse me?

Less than 3 hours later, I was waiting in the hotel lobby and was picked up by a shuttle bus, which made several more hotel stops before the 75 minute drive to Nareeba.  As it turns out, Nareeba is on the other side of a mountain range from Cairns and the Northeast coast of Australia, and the wet weather and winds pelting the coast had little or no impact on the weather in Nareeba.  (So much for ballooning over the Reef.)  Two bright yellow hot air balloons, each with a 20 passenger gondola, were being inflated as we arrived at the launch point.  Within 15 minutes, we were airborne... and it was beautiful.  Nareeba is no Milford Sound, mind you (See Chapter Four), but the very concept of surrendering to the mercy of the four winds as you float over virtually unspoiled rural terrain in tropical Australia is nothing to shake a spear at.

A half hour later, we drifted to a gentle landing in a field of brush on a private ranch.  I jumped out of the basket and accompanied a small crew of "manly men" as tugged on a massive rope and pulled the balloon down onto its side so it could be deflated.  Everyone, women and men alike, assisted in deflating, then folding the balloon and placing it in a bag (a very BIG bag) that was lifted by crane onto the bed of a truck along with the gondola.  We boarded the shuttle and returned to Cairns. 

I was back at the hotel 45 minutes before we were to depart for the airport. Ready or not, here we come, Sydney!