Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Adventures Down Under

My arms ached with each stroke, straining to propel myself forward, as my legs remained fully engaged to make sure I did not fall. The water below me was murky, cold and filled with huge jelly fish...intensifying my incentive to stay standing. The sandy beach front glimmered in the distance, slowly approaching as my body exterted all its effort to paddle through the steady current of waves. But as I inched closer to the shore, the burn in my muscles gave way to relief and elation, knowing that I had accomplished my goal: Navigating a paddle board nearly a mile across Pittwater Bay.

For a long time, I had wanted to try paddle boarding, and what better place than Sydney? My recent vacation--just under two weeks--was not nearly long enough to see everything I wanted and still have plenty of time to spend with my family. Even so, it was wonderful to get away for a little while, and visit a side of my family that I rarely get the chance to see. Not to mention getting the chance to venture around New Zealand and check another location off my vacation bucket list. But before I headed off to meet with the Kiwis, I enjoyed a couple blissfully warm days in Australia.

I left Chicago on March 8, prepared to face a long flight to Los Angeles and then onto Sydney. (Luckily, my seatmate on the first leg was a native Aussie, so it was nice to have a companion along the way.) The flight was relatively painless for the most part; although, even with a seat that converted all the way into a bed and a sleeping pill, I could not manage to get as much sleep as I wanted. But the food and movie selection made up for the length.

Doors out to the pool at my aunt and uncle's house
Upon arrival in Sydney, my parents and Aunt Kathy greeted me and sped me off to Manly, a neighborhood just north of the city where most of my family lives. The last time I was in Sydney was when I was fourteen, so some things looked familiar, but it was tough to remember it all. My aunt and uncle's house was absolutely beautiful, with floor to ceiling glass, roll away doors that opened right out to a patio in the front--with a pool--and one in the back with a small yard and grilling area. This would be the scene of the family get together my aunt arranged in honor of my arrival. But before the party began, I needed to shower and change, since it was 80 degrees and sunny, and I had not dressed for such weather. My cousin, April, played tour guide for a couple hours, taking my parents and me down to Manly Beach and showing us the stores and restaurants along the beach front, where we bought our first souvenir. There was no shortage of activity on the beach, as the Aussie's enjoyed their Sunday afternoon surfing, sunning, and swimming. Not too shabby.

Manly Beach
After another quick outfit change, we were ready for the barbecue. But knowing my dad's family, no one actually showed up on time...perpetually 30 minutes late. When all the cousins started showing up, the first thing out of most of their mouths was, "you probably don't remember me..." It had been over ten years since my last visit, but I knew most of them, though names and faces were a little fuzzy. As incredible as it is to have family all over the world, it is sad going years without seeing them. How is it that I let this much time pass between visits? Oh yeah, life, school, work, all got in the way. Still, I was not about to dwell on that, I wanted to soak up every moment I had with them. I spent the afternoon catching up with all my dad's cousins and then all their kids, who are around the same age as I am. And, of course, we enjoyed some delicious food prepared by my Uncle Martin, who cooked up a chipotle and goat cheese sausage that I could not eat fast enough. After most of the family left, the younger cousins and I went out around Manly to continue the party at a couple bars. Despite my desire to stay out and show them that I could last, the jetlag was setting in hard core, and I had to turn in around 9:30...not too bad, if you ask me.

Palm Beach
The next morning, my aunt, cousin, parents and I headed up to Palm Beach, where we hiked up to the lighthouse and took in the incredible views of the ocean and Whale Beach. It was there that my dad spotted the paddle boards, and we decided today was the day we were going to try it, after grabbing a quick bite of course, since we were all starving. We ate lunch at this adorable restaurant nestled right on the water's edge, complete with wonderful views from the dock, eclectic decorations emulating local nature, and, of course, delicious, fresh food.

Once we had fully digested our meals, we headed over to the rental office and got our paddle boards. At first, we thought we would stay relatively close to the shore, but before I knew it, my aunt spotted a secluded beach across the bay and we headed straight for it. It did not look that far at first...but we were clearly deceived by our blind ambition to take on the challenge. It was difficult at first to get into a rythm, at least for me, and the task was made even more difficult when I spotted a massive jellyfish just ahead of me. I was sure I was going to hit it with my paddle--or lose my balance and fall right on top of it--but luckily I passed it without any problems. But before my heart could stop pounding, I spotted three more, and then a whole cluster of them seemed to rise to the surface of the water out of nowhere. It was all I could do not to scream and turn around right then and there. What if I fell in? What if I got stung? I'll be the first to admit, jellyfish are not the scariest thing I could have encountered, far from it, in fact. But for me, it was terrifying, at least momentarily.

The terror was short-lived, as the colony appeared to be concentrated to one location in the water, and the rest of the course was jellyfish clear. The next challenge became the increasing intensity of the waves. For the most part, they were pretty calm, but every once and a while, a large swell would tip the side or back of the board, and every muscle in my body would activate to keep me standing. I am sure I've never focused so hard on engaging my muscles, and, as someone who works out regularly, that seems odd. But this was completely different than what I was used to, and it felt great to test myself in a new way. My efforts--and pain--were finally rewarded, however, when we reached the practically untouched beach and enjoyed a nice swim to cool ourselves off.

I have to say I was on a personal high, and my confidence was soaring. Even though the winds were against us at first, I found a great rythm on the return trip, powering myself forward with unknown force. Going back was not nearly as intimidating, and seemed to go by much quicker, but perhaps that was because we were all seasoned paddle boarders now. Even though my arms and legs burned as we stepped off the boards and headed back to the car, I felt invigorated and achieved.

That evening, I went to watch my cousin Jessie play basketball; a nostalgic moment in that it reminded me of my middle school days and competing for my team. Part of me wanted to jump out of my seat and join the game, but obviously that would not have been allowed. Cheering for my thirteen-year-old cousin, whom I had last seen as a baby in a high chair, felt strangely normal, even though I barely knew her. It was nice being able to support her for just that moment, since it is probably something I will not get the chance to do again. I was even more pleased when she seemed genuinely happy that we had come to watch--though most teens love that kind of attention, knowing pretty much everyone in the crowd is cheering for them.

I had dinner that evening with my parents and my Aunt Lizzi and Uncle James. We had a nice spread of pork, cheesy potatoes, green beans and baked apples, and of course, lots of crisp, satisfying white wine. The conversation flowed steadily from topic to topic, reminding me that, when it comes to family, it's easy to pick up right where you left off, as if not a day has passed--even though it's been years.

My Australia trip had to take a slight hiatus as my parents and I ventured to New Zealand for a week--which is a whole other story. When we returned, we were welcomed back with a lovely dinner at my Aunt Kathy's and Uncle Martin's, where my second cousin Jono joined us, as he was in town from Melbourne. The evening was enjoyable, fun and comfortable, as usual.

My last day in Sydney, my cousin April and I woke up early and went for a lovely run on the beach, completed with five sets of stairs on the way back to the house--all totally barefoot. That was very foreign to me, as I am accustomed to the comfort of my running shoes, and solid cement surfaces. My legs burned as my feet sunk into the soft sand, but it was a welcome pain, as I had not really physically challenged myself since paddle boarding.

Shelly Beach
After the run, my dad and I went for a bike ride over to Shelly Beach, where we laid out on the sand and went snorkeling. It was relaxing and gave me a chance to get a little color, and check out some of the local marine wildlife. Afterwards, my parents and I caught the ferry over to downtown Sydney, a must-do experience for anyone who wants a good shot of the Harbor Bridge and Opera House. I took the typical postcard-like shots as the boat made its way into the docking station, and then we headed over to one of the waterfront restaurants for a bite to eat. We shopped around a quaint area called The Rocks, which has a number of galleries and boutique shops to browse. I bought myself some Aboriginal artwork, and a boomerang--or three.

After an afternoon in the city, we caught the ferry back to Manly, where we headed straight over to my cousin Joe's basketball game. Yes, another one. Joe is Jessie's younger brother, so this was my first time meeting him, as he was not born yet when I last visited. He is a natural athlete; very competitive and absolutely loves sports. He could talk about rugby and basketball all day if you let him. When the game ended, we headed back to the house to change for my last dinner in Sydney. We went out to a nice restaurant along Manly Beach, known for its steaks. Not being much a steak fan, I opted for a version of Chicken Tikka. My cousin Joe went for the seafood platter, and nearly finished the entire thing all by himself. I've never seen anyone who loves seafood as much as that kid.

After dinner, we met up with the other cousins at one of the local bars to finish the night with celebratory/farewell drinks. It was nice to be able to see them all one last time, and have a memorable time with my family. The whole night, though, I did my best to persuade them to make a trip to the U.S. so I could show them around Chicago, give them a taste of my life.Because I feel like the foreigner to them, and it would be nice to give them a glimpse of what it is like here. Most of them have been to America, but not for a long time, and not to Chicago. I think it is about time.

Sunrise over Manly
I woke up the next morning, and took one last run on the beach, my personal goodbye to Sydney. My parents and aunt and uncle headed off to Perth early to see my dad's cousin Marisa who lives in Western Australia. My flight was a little delayed, so I was able to spend some extra time with my Uncle James, who came by to keep me company and help kill some time before my cousins Jono and Andrew picked me up to go to the airport.

As I sat in the car, listening to them fume over the state of the Australian government, I felt a wave of sadness come over me. I was leaving just as I was getting closer to my family, really feeling like I was a part of things. It is a blessing to have family all over the world, I realize that, but also an affliction. Even though I am related to them, they are blood relatives, there are times where I feel like a complete stranger to them. Social media and technology has helped boost communication between all of us, keeping us connected across oceans, and I am grateful for that. But face time is incredibly important to maintain strong family ties, and my cousins understand that, which is why they travel so much and try to see family as often as possible. But, being an American, our culture does not exactly encourage that kind of lifestyle, so two weeks is the most I can dedicate to them.

I hope one day I can spend more time with them, either on a future trip to Australia or when they come to visit me. No matter what, I am so thankful that I have such a big family, and that they live in an incredible place like Sydney...and are always willing to let me crash for no cost!