Once a jolly swagman camped by a billabong
Under the shade of a coolabah tree,
And he sang as he watched and waited 'til his billy boiled
"You'll come a-Waltzing Matilda, with me"
-Banjo Paterson, 1895 

Day One Hundred and Sixty Nine to Seventy Two December 4-7th

These four days are at the tail end of our week in Langkawi, Malaysia.  As I said in the last post these days pretty much blended together into one long glorious week of rest and relaxation.  The setting was so amazing that we did not leave the hotel grounds except for a short trip by Teri into town for supplies and a bit of a break.

We are at the Andaman hotel.  The property is set in the jungle, cascading down a hillside, looking out onto a beautiful protected cove.  The white sand beach is filled with shells and coral and gentle rolling waves. 

We are just down from the big resorts in Thailand and sitting off the coast of Malaysia.  It feels like we are in some undiscovered paradise: like we somehow stumbled upon a well-kept secret known only in this part of the world.  Forget Phuket: come to Langkawi.

A few highlights from the week:

Monkeys.  There are two types of monkeys here: (1) the black tailed ones that are harmless and go about their business of chasing each other around the three tops, and (2) the brown tailed ones that cause trouble.  What kinds of monkey business can they get into?  

When I arrive back at the room from an afternoon swim Teri is next door yelling and screaming with our neighbor.  I can hear them as I come down the hallway and approach the room.  When I arrive our door is door ajar and the kids are huddled on the bed, wide eyed and talking non-stop.   Excitement and fear are thick in the air.
There is a sign on the doors leading out to our balcony that says you should always, that means ALWAYS, lock both the top, bottom and side locks to keep out unwanted visitors.  You never really take these things seriously, I mean how much damage can a monkey do anyway?  Plenty.  

The room next door is trashed.  Apparently the monkeys found a way in even though two of the three locks were fastened.  They raided the mini bar, went through all of the suitcases, closets and draws, general trashed everything and escaped with a big can of Pringles and perhaps some jewelry though it is hard to tell with all of the drama and hysterics (understandable of coarse).  They could teach a rock star a few lessons on room trashing.

This is Vincent’s worst fear come true.  He has been dreaming about “bad monkeys” now of weeks.  He wakes up in cold sweats from nightmares talking about them: we have no idea why or where it is coming from but this turn of events certainly does not sit well with the big guy.   He is down right terrified; you can see it in his eyes.  

For the rest of our time here Vince hides all of the food and anything he considers valuable under the bed so the monkeys don’t see it.  He also stays within half a step of us at all times: any rustling trees sends him into a tizzy.  
Sand dollars and seashells.  When was the last time you saw real sand dollars washed up on the beach?  They have them here if you look carefully.  We found several whole ones, washed up at the tide line with perfect five point patterns.  And seashells?  There is a perfect collection here for making bracelets and necklaces.  We spend an hour or so each day walking the tide line and scouting around for the perfect shells. 

Jingle Bells.  There are three guys with guitars that roam around the dinner tables down at the beach taking requests.  When they come our way we get “Puff the Magic Dragon” on the first day.  Why do they call him puff Adele wants to know?  All I can think of is Robert Di Nero’s character in Meet the Parents.  

Then Vince puts in a request for Jingle Bells.  They pause at Jingle Bells, suggesting that they may need some help with the words.  I am standing off to the side with Adele and mention to her that I thought everyone knows the words to Jingle Bells.  Adele, always thinking and every insightful, rolls her eyes and says, “Dad, this is a Muslim country!” Lot’s of brainpower under those blond curls.  I can’t tell you have great it feels as a parent to hear all of the travel lessons coming back to you at the most unexpected times.    

Swimming beyond the break.  Anyone can wade at the shoreline.  The real fun starts out beyond the break.  For the first time Adele is able to swim in the ocean, and I mean really swim.  She can do the crawl with bilateral breathing!  She will run down the beach, dive into the surf, come up on the other side of the waves and then swim out beyond the chop.  It’s fun to watch her confidence and comfort levels soar.  

Vince, the ever-watchful little brother, follows her every move.  He runs down the beach after Adele and jumps in belly first, splashing and rolling in the waves.  His face is in the water and he will come out and float some if we promise to catch him and hold him tight.  I give him another few weeks of beach time and then expect he will be out here with the rest of us. 

Bugs.  The bugs are very loud here in the jungle.  Not “Oh, listen to those nice bugs” loud, but more like a  “CAN SOMEONE TURN OFF THE BUGS!” loud.  They are DEAFENING.  My ears HURT.  What? Then all of a sudden you stop noticing them. They seem to be gone!  It is odd but after a few hours they blend in to the blur of background noise.  In fact, you notice when they are not there.  It is a constant buzzing sound; like the engines are gearing up to lift off and you are all about to fly away.

Beachfront.  When you wake up from a “short” nap by rolling off your beach chair as it slopes to one side due to the waves eroding the sand beneath, you know you are in paradise.   You can sit for hours under the shade of enormous trees and have the waves wash up around you feet.  The bay is picture perfect: like living in some sort of surf movie.  Plus, they will bring you Diet Cokes whenever you raise your hand.

Storms.  It rained last night.  Hard.  I mean very hard.  So hard it woke me up.  With the rain pounding into the windows and the surf crashing onto the shoreline it felt like the end of the world.  When you are staying a few yards, essentially sleeping right next to the ocean, on an island that has a history with big waves, and it is very late at night or maybe very early in the morning, and it is raining, pouring, your thoughts naturally go where they should not, to a tsunami.

Lying in the darkness you can get a bit freaked if you dwell on it.  Are the warning buoys in place? How much time do we have? Can we scramble to the stairs fast enough?  Is the top floor high enough?  The rain rages on and the waves sound bigger and bigger with each set.  They crash with thunderous booms.  Maybe best to stay awake for a while to make sure everything is OK.  I get up and peer out the window into total darkness and a driving down pour.  All right then, no choice but to stay awake for a while, at least until the waves stop, just in case.

The Spa.  Teri goes for a “treatment.” Apparently it must be quite something.  She comes back totally relaxed, mellow as can be, mumbling something about the “treatment” rooms perched on the mountainside with outdoor showers and sitting areas and bathrobes worth buying and flowers and incense and fresh juice and herbal teas.  Phew, and to think all she had was a facial.  

Langkawi.  Come here for a while when you need a break.  Stay at the Andaman; don’t bother to leave the property.  Be careful or ten years may slip away before you know it.  

Day One Hundred and Seventy Three December 8th 

Boy it is hard to leave this place.  We celebrate with our last buffet breakfast and grab a cab back to the airport for our 9:30a flight to KL.  This is a big travel day, not so much in terms of distance but in terms of time.  We leave the hotel in Langkawi at 8a and get into the hotel in Darwin and 4a.  That is a lot of travel time, even by our standards.

Not much happens along the way. At least not much to us, our bags however seem to have their own separate adventure.  You can’t trust those bags to fly solo. Give them and inch and they will hop off in Singapore for a night of revelry.  At least that is their last known whereabouts.
We get stamped out of Malaysia by passport control and stop down in Singapore to pick up another flight to Darwin Australia.  When we checked in they tagged the bags to Singapore and mumbled something about getting them between flights and transferring them ourselves or then again maybe it was checking in with someone else that may say don’t worry them, blah, blah, blah.  It was all a bit confusing.  It’s a five-hour lay over so we have plenty of time to sort it all out.

When we do stop by a JetStar desk in Singapore the lady tells us not to worry, no need to fret that they bags are only tagged to here, JetStar will pick them up and send them on our flight to Darwin.  She looked legit and was wearing a uniform, standing behind a little JetStar desk.  Mind you this JetStar think is sketchy at best.  It is some kind of low cost charter and they use other airlines counters and put paper JetStar signs up so you know it is them.  

Are we going to Darwin?   Not with out Visas.  Visas? We need Visas for Australia?  Did I mention that we are Americans! How much?  Book and pay online? Really, are you sure? Bags? What bags?  Oh, no need to worry about the bags? Excellent.

When we get off the plane in Darwin at 3a security is tight.  They search us with sniffing dogs.  They almost take the kids away because Vince had a banana and the smell is driving the sniffing beagle nuts and they think maybe we have another one somewhere, and the kids are fruit smugglers or something.  They would have searched our bags but it seems that they forgot to get on the plane.  Easy enough to forget with all the distractions, just like I forgot to enter my middle name on the Visa application.  Apparently they want to know why I forgot my middle name so now I get held back while the rest of the family clears through.  Explain that to two exhausted children, why daddy needs to stay behind with the policewomen and he cannot come into Australia just yet.  This is all happening at 3a mind you, now it’s almost 4a.

Eventually we hail a cab.  They drive on the wrong side of the road here.  When I point that out to our Indian cab driver he looks a bit nervous and eyes me like I am certifiably insane, which I may be at this point, after almost twenty hours of travel, sans luggage.  I did not mean to upset the man: he seems to be having enough trouble driving without being nervous about some crazy American with family in his cab. He must be new, maybe a bit of small talk will calm him down, “Sorry, we drive on the right side back home in the States, so, where are all the kangaroos?” No answer, he laughs nervously.  “I thought they would be hopping all over the place.  You know, boing, boing, boing, so, do they sleep at night?”  He is totally confused, “Five minutes Mister, five minutes to the Novotel, very fast!”  He speeds up. That’s five minutes Australian time: a half hour later we arrive at our hotel.

Day One Hundred and Seventy Four December 9th

Why bother to get out of bed when your bags are MIA and it is about a thousand degrees outside?  Because we are finally in Australia!  At long last we are actually here, finally on what may be, at least we hope it to be, more seemingly familiar soil.  Darwin is on the Northern tip of this great land and today is the start of our months long journey to explore some nooks and crannies.

First up is breakfast/lunch, food of some sort, any sort, preferable from a place called Duck Nuts. I like is here already.  They call “one of the best places to eat” in all of Darwin, Duck Nuts.  I have no idea what it all means but sign me up.  It’s a dark bar playing bad 80s music, somehow I seem to know every word, much to the amazement of the kids, Hey Mickey, He’s so fine, Go Go’s circa 1980 something, Hey Mickey, Hey Mickey! 

One of the first things you notice when you leave the air-conditioned hotel is just how hot and oppressive it is here.   The temp reading says 33 degrees and beyond humid.  Not that 33 means much to us.  All we know is that it is hot.  And we just came from the jungle so we know hot.  

The humidity does break on occasion with short bursts of torrential downpours that no one seems to notice.  In fact we are the only ones sitting inside for lunch, the locals seem to think it is down right balmy and they are all sitting outside enjoying the “fine day”.  They are all giddy with the “cool” front.  The funny thing about the rain is that they just seem to ignore it and walk around wet and soggy.  Probably with good reason since you dry out in no time and it is way to hot to ever get a chill. It is a good life lesson. 

We are all pretty excited to be here, after all Adele has been planning every detail of this part of the trip for months and at long last we have touched down.  Our first stop after lunch is the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory.  Before we head in we make a quick fly by the bay to check out the Indian Ocean in this neck of the woods.

The tide is out.  Way, way, way out.  There is a paved boat launch that runs down towards the sea but never reaches the water.  We walk down a good long ways before we get anywhere close to the waterline.  At the end we meet a guy and I think maybe his daughter, hard to tell, with cameras mounted and pointed at a storm a brewing out over the bay.  The cameras click automatically wherever there are lightening flashes.

These guys are real storm chasers, like the ones on the Weather Channel.  To be honest I am not sure what to think.  Is the brewing storm really going to become a cyclone?  The rumors are everywhere in town and a warning is posted starting the day we fly out to Alice Springs.  Sure, that will be a nice smooth take off.  If these people are passing an afternoon at the off chance of snapping the perfect storm photo shouldn’t we be nervous?  Talking to them doesn’t really calm the fears.  They seem genuinely excited at the prospect of another big one.  

We end up talking with them for twenty minutes or so and they are the nicest people you will ever meet.  Turns out they come out here a lot to stand around and take pictures.  Not a lot to do here in Darwin.  The constant camera clicks are driven by a high tech light sensor that is attached to the tripod that automatically trips the shutter whenever there is any sign of change in light.  Very cool.  They tell us the tide is always this extreme, that the salty crocs are around but not to worry since they have twenty eight traps set out around the bay, that the box jellies really are something to fear and generally give the impression that there is not reason whatsoever to go anywhere near the water.  Not that we are nervous mind you.

We retreat to the museum and it is excellent.  They have an interesting display by contemporary Aboriginal artists, lots of history on the wildlife both land and sea and an unbelievable exhibit on Cyclone Tracy.  The timing is good: we are in the midst of a cyclone warning as we speak.

In 1974 Cyclone Tracy hit land on Christmas Eve and literally destroyed Darwin.  I had no idea.  When I say destroyed I mean it wiped out an entire city of forty five thousand people.  The damage was so bad that only a quarter of them stayed on, the rest fled never to return. That would be like total and utter destruction of a city the size of Annapolis back home.  Can  you imagine?

The winds were so strong that they broke the measurement instruments.  Lots of people died and almost every house and building was blown away.  The photos of the devastation are hard to take in.  

In the back of the exhibit they have a little room sealed behind a heavy door.  On it hangs a sign that lets you know it is raw audio of the storm recorded first hand by one of the survivors.  The sign warns people that may have lived through the event that going in and listening may be too much for them to handle.  Heed the warning.  It is so loud and disturbing that I cannot get fully inside.  

I am afraid to enter.  The recorded winds were overwhelming, so incredibly loud and sound so powerful.  You could here pieces of buildings flying by and scraping the ground around you.  The room is totally black so you cannot see anything, just like the night the storm hit.  My thoughts ran back to the clean up efforts I did in New Orleans after Katrina.  I was the same sort of feeling, the same kind of devastation.  It is a lesson well taken, never, ever underestimate the powerful force of nature.

On the way back to the hotel we do a quick shop so we can dine in.  The hotel has a kitchenette and we are way too tired to sit out and eat.  I pull the short stick and do the shop.  There is a guy in the beer store that is a typical outgoing Aussie:

Guy in the beer store:  Where you from mate?
Me: California
Guy in the beer store: Aw excellent mate, been to Seattle and Virginia once in the early 80s.
Me:  Next time come to Cali.
Guy in the beer store:  Love to mate, but I can’t, bit of a record now you know, minor thing, nobody was hurt, well not really, anyway mate, they want me to stay in country, its been years and all, you know how it is.
Me:  OK, so, well, cheers then.
Guy in the beer store: Right at you mate, cheers, good on ya!

Still recovering from that conversation I head into the pharmacy to pick up some saline solution.

Women behind the counter: American then?
Me: Yes, California
Women behind the counter, in a hushed whisper, leaning across so no one else can hear: ARE YOU WITH OPRAH?  
Everyone in the place sneaks a glance in my direction and leans into listen.
Me:  Who?
Women behind the counter: OPRAH, RUMOR HAS IT SHE IS HERE IN DARWIN!
Me (hysterical):  You have got to be kidding me.

No joke.  Oprah.  You miss something when you don’t watch the news.  Apparently Oprah is in Australia tapping her last shows and she is travelling around the country to take in the sights with three hundred fans.  Can the world get any stranger?

After dinner we decide that I need to go discuss the bag situation with the JetStar people in person so I trek back up to the airport to interview the seventeen-year old baggage clerk on the whereabouts of all of our worldly possessions.  He has no idea and takes no responsibility.  Excuse me? I move on to the nineteen-year old supervisor.  She is even worse as she adds in a twinge of sarcasm to our discussion.  I leave before I get arrested.  

Sans bags for another day. 

Day One Hundred and Seventy Five December 10th

New day, same clothes, no bags.  This bag thing may become an issue if they do not arrive in the next few hours.  Luckily we get word that they are in the house and ready for pick up at the airport anytime.  We stop by on the way out of town to change in the parking lot.

Today we are off to a wildlife park to look for kangaroos.  You never really think about it back home but Australia has pretty much been an island unto itself forever.  The result is an astonishing range of wildlife, much of it deadly, and almost all of it unique to the territories they live in.  The same goes for the trees and plants.

This wildlife park is a great way to get introduced to it all.  It’s raining again, pouring actually and we are the only ones here.  Thus far Australia is empty.  It is supposed to be high season but we seem to be the only ones out and about.  If this is crowded I can’t imagine what empty is like.  They only have something like 20 million people total, about the size of Cairo, in a country the size of the States.  For comparison, we have almost 300 million people.  

I guess that is how you can end up being the only ones at the wildlife park.  For some perspective, Darwin is a major city, something like fourth in size so this is like showing up and being all alone at the LA Zoo. 

They have a really big sign warning you about crocs.  Basically it says stay VERY far away at all times, they will kill you.   Nice welcome note.  We stick to the paths.  

At one stop they have a simulated rainstorm with thunder and lightening and a spider that may be real or may not be, doesn’t matter, it freaks out the kids (and the parents as well to be honest about it).  We run in the other direction.  All the spiders here can kill you and this one is huge.

Wallabies look like giant rats.  While we sit inside eating a snack one comes hopping into the building only to be picked up by the tail and removed by a ranger.  They are nutty.  We get a chance to see them up close and feed them carrots and veggies.  They are like hopping dogs and a strange site to the uninitiated.  

The heavy rains are kicking in so we lay low for the afternoon, do some laundry and call it an early night.  It is so nice to have our bags back! 

And to be in a land where everything seems familiar but is actually different than what you perceive it to be…