28 December 2007

Life at Sea

Aboard the Anaconda IIIAfter leaving one suitcase at the hotel in Sydney, and nearly everything else at a hotel in Airlie Beach, Chris and I packed a beach bag with a few essentials and headed out for a 3-day sailing adventure around the Whitsunday Islands...

MeThroughout the trip, we did lots of swimming and snorkeling in some of the bluest, clearest water in the world. It was our first experience with an underwater camera, which turned out to be a lot of fun. The underwater housing protected the camera from water and sand, and it floated!

Whitehaven BeachWith the exception of soft white sandy Whitehaven Beach, where we spent most of Day 3, the majority of Coral Beachbeaches were made of coral and rock, which are beautiful and a little painful. We learned very quickly to walk (more like waddle) backwards in our snorkel fins from the beach to the water, rather than suffer the barefoot-on-coral alternative.

MeNeither Chris nor I had ever gone diving before, but after a practice dive in a protected area near the beach on Day 1, we were able to dive the Great Barrier Reef on Day 2. It was my second Wonder of the World for 2007 (remember the Great Wall of China?). We've both now been sufficiently inspired to get our dive certification.

The passengers on the ship included people from England, France, Germany, Holland, Italy, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the US. The only Aussies were members of the crew. The diversity made for interesting conversations, and it wasn't uncommon to hear three or four languages in the same discussion.

Sailing in the WhitsundaysTo say we were living in close quarters on the ship would be a gross understatement. We never got around to taking a picture of our cabin, so you will just have to imagine. It was the smallest living space I have ever seen.

There was a narrow passage leading from the cabin door to the bed, with a small sink and mirror on the right and a bathroom on the left. When the cabin door was open, it blocked access to the bathroom, and when the bathroom door was open, it blocked access to the sink and the bed.

Great Barrier ReefThere was a small shelf above the sink, so in order to spit toothpaste into the sink, you had to bend down and fit your head sideways in between the sink and the shelf until your nose almost touched the back wall. Even so, it was hard not to dribble toothpaste out of the corner of your mouth onto the carpeted floor.

Me, floating off Whitehaven BeachThe bathroom consisted of a toilet and a small spray nozzle. We had been sternly warned by the crew not to use more than 1 minute of water from this nozzle each day, lest we run out of water and have to return to the marina. So at the end of each day, coated from head to toe in alternating layers of sunblock, sweat, sand, and salt, I had to decide whether I would have enough water in my daily allowance to shampoo, rinse, and repeat (no way) or use conditioner (if I didn't rinse it out all the way) or maybe even shave at least once during the trip (ha!).

The room ended in a double bed, which was essentially a piece of plywood attached on 3 sides to the wall, about 3/4 of the way between the floor & ceiling. Whoever was sleeping on the back side had to climb over the person on the front side to get to the bathroom during the night.

Sunset at SeaWe were actually lucky to have only two of us in the room. There was a little space below the bed that could have been fitted with a bottom bunk to accommodate more people, but we were able to use it for storage. Many of our shipmates were living coed with 3-4 people in a room, many of whom had never met before they came on board.

Sunrise at SeaThe living conditions were much more amusing than annoying, and a small price to pay for three days on the High Seas. The food on board was freshly prepared and not too bad, but the portions were small and there was nothing to snack on between meals. Combined with swimming, diving, and snorkeling all day, it was a great way to lose weight.

In addition to the captain, there were 3 crew members on the Anaconda III, Jellyfisheach of whom brought a girlfriend. Two of the girls doubled as cooks, but the third didn't seem to have any particular responsibilities other than to wear the crew t-shirt from time to time. To be fair, I should mention that she did lose her bikini top once while trying to escape a jellyfish, which was pretty well received by the crew and passengers.

There were a lot of interesting people on board, and everyone was friendly and understanding of each other's differences. At any time, you could choose to socialize with shipmates or find a quiet corner of the deck for yourself.
At the pub with shipmates after the tripOn the first day of the trip, we had introduced ourselves to each other and talked about where we were from. At the end of the trip, something came up in discussion about where Chris and I were from, and all around us we heard gasps of "American?? We thought you were Canadian!!" I wasn't quite sure what to think about that, but we were mistaken for Canadians at least three more times before we left Australia. I don't think they're used to seeing Americans in Oz.

Click here for more pictures of Life on the Boat

Click here for more pictures of Life off the Boat

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27 December 2007

Summer in December

SydneyAfter finishing the second (and final) part of my project in China, I flew to Sydney to meet up with Chris for vacation. It was our first time to the southern hemisphere, so it took a little while to get used to the idea of a "Summer Christmas Sale"...

There were brightly colored metal Christmas trees all around, shining in the summer sun, and kids waiting in line to sit on Santa's lap, in a dusty outdoor sandlot surrounded by palm trees.

Wildlife WorldI had a little bit of work when I first arrived, to prepare and conduct a best practices workshop in loyalty marketing, segmentation, and analytics. The couple days I was working turned out to be the only days it didn’t rain while we were in Sydney. Wildlife WorldHowever, the city desperately needed the rain, so it was hard to complain. In between rain drops, we managed to do some shopping and sightseeing, including visiting Sydney’s Wildlife World, where we saw wallabies and koalas up close.

After a few days in Sydney, we took a 2-hour train ride to the Blue Mountains in nearby Katoomba. It was similar to any number of sleepy little mountain towns you might find in the U.S., except the mountains weren't as high and the bushwalking (hiking) trails were peppered with rainforests.

Fog in KatoombaThe afternoon we arrived in Katoomba, it was raining and cold, but we found a warm, dry place to stay the night. The next morning, we were able to squeeze in a short bushwalk during the three early morning hours when it wasn't raining.

Fog in KatoombaA thick layer of fog blanketed everything, making the empty rainforests even more eerie and mysterious. Adding to the mystique were the many powerful waterfalls rushing down the mountain side, which you could hear all around you.

Fog in KatoombaWe saw lots of Cockatoos and even spotted a lyre bird in the bush. Unfortunately, it didn't open its tail for us.

After a few hours of exploring the spectacular, soggy, muddy rainforest, it started to rain. We tried to find a shuttle bus or taxi to take us back to the center of town. However, we had just missed the tourist bus and it wouldn't be back for an hour. We started walking toward town--up a steep hill, in the cold spitting rain--hoping to find a taxi along the way.

We never found an available taxi, but about 30 minutes into our uphill climb, someone who had reserved his own taxi (apparently one of only two Chris on the train to Katoombataxis in all of Katoomba that could handle a wheelchair) stopped and offered to give us a lift.

This was very fortunate because, in addition to being cold and tired of walking, we were also in danger of missing the train back to Sydney where we would catch our flight to the Whitsunday Coast a few hours later.

Click here for more pictures around Sydney.

Click here for more pictures from Wildlife World and Katoomba.

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18 December 2007

Best Bucket of Chicken in the World

Bucket of White ChickenOne evening, just before I left China to go home for Thanksgiving, a few of my Chinese colleagues took me to a restaurant they referred to as the “fancy chicken" place. Although I had heard many good things about the restaurant before we went, I was wholly unprepared to discover the most delicious chicken I’ve ever tasted…

I should qualify this just slightly. You may have read in an earlier post how I found the most delicious crazy chicken parts (organs, tail, knee bone, etc.) at a Japanese Yakitori place in New York. To be fair, Yakitori Totto is still in the lead for crazy chicken. At Fancy Chicken in Shenzhen, it was the normal chicken parts that were truly remarkable.

Eel SoupAs with most restaurants where I dined with my Chinese colleagues, I didn’t have many decisions to make. I only had to help them choose whether to order a white chicken or a golden chicken (I eventually convinced them to order one of each), and to confirm I was willing to try the restaurant’s famous eel soup. They negotiated amongst themselves to work out the remaining details and then took care of all the ordering.

Eating Chicken with Plastic GloveEventually our bucket of chicken arrived, along with a few other dishes for us to share. In the Chinese tradition of not eating anything with your bare hands, we were each given one plastic glove to aid us in devouring our chicken parts. For me, it was a little tricky to eat chicken off the bone with only one slippery plastic hand, although it was certainly easier than when I first tried eating bite-sized bone-in chicken with only chopsticks and my teeth (see Chinese Food - The Bad).

Competing for the Best Chicken PartsTypically when we share dishes, everyone has an opportunity to take whatever they want as we spin the center of the table around. In the case of Fancy Chicken, we decided whose turn it was to take a piece from the chicken bucket via rock-paper-scissors. Luckily for me, no one cared about the breast, which is my favorite part. I was able to claim all the breast meat I wanted, unopposed.

Golden ChickenIt had actually been against my colleagues’ best judgment to order the golden chicken, but the picture on the wall looked to me so much like a familiar whole roasted chicken that I wouldn’t give up until the group conceded to order one. As it turns out, it’s pan-fried in hot oil to get the golden color and crispy skin, so it tasted like a fried chicken.

In the end, it was the pale, soft-skinned, unappetizing-looking chicken that really stole the show. It had been steamed whole, without any spices or seasonings except a touch of salt. The result was a chicken breast more juicy and flavorful than anything I had tasted before. They must start off with fresher, more delicious chickens in China. Otherwise, I don’t know how they could get this result with such a simple preparation.

When I returned to China for my final two weeks on the project, I tried to make it back to the Fancy Chicken place again, but we had such a busy schedule that it didn’t work out. Fortunately, I still have the delicious memory of this lovely pale chicken, which turned out to be my third favorite thing in China.

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