Monday, 14 April 2014

India Part 1

This year at school I was given the amazing opportunity to accompany Year 9 students on a two week trip to India. The first week was spent at Daly College in Indore, which is a Round Square school. Round Square is an organization of schools world-wide that share the same goals around learning, called IDEALS: Internationalism, Democracy, Environment, Adventure, Leadership and Service. My school in Mebourne is also a Round Square school.

We left on the morning of Friday 14th March - 18 students and 3 teachers, including myself. We had a fairly horrendous itinerary, a 7 hour flight to Singapore, 4 hour stopover, 6 hour flight to Mumbai, 8 hour stopover, and then an hour flight to Indore. The 8 hour stopover in Mumbai was overnight and prior to landing I was recalling a night spent in an Egyptian airport (Luxor I think?) in 2008 that was probably one of the worst nights of my life: freezing airport, hard metal benches, dusty floor, nothing to eat or drink. Thankfully the terminal we were in at Mumbai was pretty new and clean and there was a small snack bar where we could get tea and pastries, and the night passed without any incidents. We had to take a shuttle bus to another terminal to get our domestic flight to Indore, and then hilariously once we had gone through the gate we boarded another bus to take us to the plane, which was back at the international terminal. Hmmmm, fairly inefficient system I think! I also have never had my bags scanned or my boarding pass checked so many times as in this airport - I suppose since the attacks in Mumbai in 2008 security is extra tight, but man did it feel like overkill!

Once we got to Indore, Vijay, a teacher from Daly college who would be with us for our first week, greeted us and took us to the bus. The first thing I noticed about India is just how noisy it is on the road. I thought people in Melbourne overused their car horns, but they've got nothing on the people in India! However we learned that when people beep their horns in India it means something like "hey, just wanted to let you know I'm here!" rather than the aggressive or annoyed tone it takes on in Western countries. And the longer we were in India the more I was glad that the horn was used in this way, because the driving is insane. It was pretty much how I had pictured it... cars, trucks, motorcycles, bicycles, cows and pedestrians all sharing the same space, all going at different speeds, but miraculously I never once saw an accident the whole time we were there. It was impressive to watch, in a way driving there is an art form.

Daly College, Indore
Finally arriving at Daly College around 8am on Saturday 15th March, about 30 hours after we left Melbourne, we were thrown right into a packed first day. We spent our first 6 days at Daly, where we took classes on Hinduism and other religions in India, Indian festivals, Indian history and Hindu Gods and symbols. As teachers we also sat in on the lessons and had to take tests at the end of each class. I loved being taught again, and learned so many things about Hinduism in particular that I must admit, I was pretty ignorant about before (I supposed my Grade 11 world religions class probably did not feel as interesting or relevant to me at the time!) 

A classroom at Daly College

Yummy Indian food at Daly

We were also there in time for the Holi festival, which is a Hindu festival celebrating love and colours. The eve of the festival starts with a bonfire, and then on Holi people celebrate colours by chasing each other around with coloured powder and water. We celebrated with other students in the school on school grounds so it was pretty tame - unfortunately taking a group of students out into the city to participate in the festival was not in the risk assessment!

Georgia (other teacher) and I after Holi
Bonfire on the eve of Holi



Vijay taught most of our lessons, as he is the religion and Sanskrit teacher at the school, and is also a priest to the royal family in Maheshwar. We went on an overnight trip to Maheshwar and the students were all able to meet Prince Richard Holkar - who turned out to be a pretty down to earth guy! His residence is Ahilya Fort which is also a hotel overlooking the Narmada River, where the students were able to take part in a ceremony to honour the river.

After Maheshwar we went on to Mandu where we stayed the night in a new hotel... so new that it didn't quite look like it was finished! Exposed wires, holes in the walls, and frequent power outages were just a few of the problems we had, however the food was excellent so we can't complain too much! 

Watching the sunrise at Roopmati's Pavillion







We were up at 5:30am so that we could arrive at Roopmati's Pavilion at dawn. The sunrise was beautiful, and totally worth waking up for. In Mandu we also visited the Jahaz Mahal, an impressive palace which included a haram for the 1500 wives of the ruler of the palace!

Jahez Mahel


Once back at Daly College the students also had a chance to do some pottery, art classes and cooking classes. They also learned a traditional Indian dance that they presented at an evening performance where parents of the Daly college students came to watch. The performance was great, a real highlight of the trip, with local newspapers covering the story of Australian students at Daly, and performances from other dance groups including a deaf dance group and the winners of India's Got Talent!

My attempt at Indian art

Temple at Daly College
After our first week at Daly we departed on Friday 21st March to start the sightseeing portion of our trip, starting with a 11 hour train ride to Jaipur. I will write about the second week in part 2...

Garry, one of the other teachers, kept a fantastic blog for the parents which you can read here if you are interested in seeing lots of pictures and details on the trip.
Monkey mom and baby

Who doesn't love a random Monkey shot? This one acted like he was posing for the cameras!

Saturday, 15 February 2014

Another Public Transport Rant

This article by Simon Godfrey in the January edition of the Melbourne Review articulates exactly what annoys me so much about the public transport system in Melbourne. The summary is that Melbourne wants to be a world-class city, and despite the transport issues keeps being voted the most liveable city in the world, however it's rail system is anything but world-class. If you can't be bothered to read the whole article (although its pretty short and much more professionally written than my blog!) here are some of my favourite bits:

"Melbourne's present train network resembles a bicycle wheel, with the City Loop at its centre and the suburban lines feeding into it. The system is fine if your destination is the city and the city alone, or you find yourself in the 1950s and transit to work is your sole transportation concern."

This was exactly my point in this blog post, that you can't easily travel from one suburb to another without having to go into the city and back out again. Godfrey comments that "it's easier to lead an expedition to Mordor than it is to travel from the Northern Suburbs to the Western Suburbs by public transport".

New roads are prioritised before rail expansions, and the author seems baffled as to why this is:

"Metro's inadequate services are universally complained about and anybody who has waited a maddening thirty minutes for a train, probably expecting a steam engine to roll in when it finally arrives, will tell you something needs to be done."

My other recent annoyance with public transport are the fare increases this year. A one-way trip went from $3.50 to $3.58 which is a pretty reasonable 2.3% increase. The weekday cap rate is now $7.16 (from $7), again, a reasonable increase. However the weekend cap rate used to be $3.50, so you could have unlimited travel on weekends for a pretty low price. They have raised that to a whooping $6.00! That is a 71% increase in price - absolutely ridiculous! 

It just seems crazy that in this day and age more isn't being done to promote public transport and cycling - at least as a commuting option. I actually miss Boris Johnson and his love for all things cycling in London. (Hilariously he was caught cycling in Melbourne without a helmet, which is illegal here, while visiting the city in August.) Out of my colleagues at work, I know two others that cycle a few days a week and a handful that take the train, the rest drive despite the school being between 2 train stations and/or living within easy cycling distance of the school. Most think it's crazy that I cycle 11km or, gasp, take the train. I actually met someone the other day that lives about 1km from his work place and drives there everyday! I think this is insane! But this is the norm here. 

Hopefully things will change here. Today we visited the Sustainable Living Festival that is on in Fed Square at the moment, so it's clear that people do want cleaner, greener options. I am happy to report that since going back to school 3 weeks ago I have been cycling more frequently and have had to use the train only a handful of times, so no major train frustrations for me yet this year. But I must admit that if we had 2 cars it would be pretty tempting to drive to school on my non-cycling days, as it would take about half an hour less commuting time each way. So I can see why so many people choose to drive, and until the rail network is dramatically improved this will probably not change. I love so many things about this city, and it is truly a fantastic place to live... better public transport would make it almost perfect!


Dights Falls
Some pics from my cycle to work

Monday, 20 January 2014

Australia's Newest Permanent Residents!

Yesterday we received a very exciting email: Notification that our Permanent Resident (PR) visa was granted! This means we are able to live in Australia indefinitely and have most of the same rights as Australian citizens. We will also be able to apply for citizenship in 3 years time, which is the overall plan at the moment. And, we can sponsor relatives who would like permanent residence here... Hello??? Mom, dad, Mike... anyone want to move out here with us??

The biggest benefit for us at the moment though is that with Andy going back to University to get an Australian teaching qualification in March, it means we don't have to pay international tuition fees. The fees for an international student are around $22,000 (AUD) compared with $6,000 for a resident. We had a deadline of 24th February for paying the first instalment of these uni fees, and so if our PR visa hadn't come through by then we would have had to pay the international fees. This was starting to stress us out as I anxiously checked my email inbox daily looking for something from immigration, so yesterday's news was a huge relief!

For those who are looking at coming to Australia, we got PR through the Employer Nomination Scheme (ENS, Visa Subclass 186). My job as a secondary school teacher is on the Skilled Occupation List (SOL), which means it is an occupation that is in demand. If you have worked in Australia for less than 2 years, you can only get residency if your job is on this list (or a second list, called the Consolidated Skilled Occupation List). You also have to have a nomination from your employer, as the title of the visa suggests. The employer also has to guarantee your job for the next 2 years. I have been extremely lucky as the school I am working for has been super supportive of me through all this. They agreed to sponsor me after only a few months of me joining the school, and also payed for our PR visa. 

The whole process took just over 6 months, with the Nomination submitted to immigration in July and being approved in October. I then applied for the nominated position in October and the approval came in January. The main differences to the 457 Temporary Business visa, which we were on when we first came here, are this:

Skills Assessment
You need to get a positive skills assessment from the assessing authority depending on your occupation. For teachers, it is the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL). This is a whole process in itself, although most of the documents I had to submit were similar to when I applied for registration through the VIT. It took about 3 months to get this, and you can't submit your application without it.

Medicals
We both had to get a medical assessment, including an eye exam, chest X-Ray, and blood test to check for HIV. This is for the low cost of about $350 each. We got these done in December, and thankfully we are both healthy! (Well, healthy enough to stay in Australia). You have to book this through Medibank if you are in Australia, and they submit your results directly to immigration.

Character Assessment
This is also known as 'Form 80' and is the LONGEST form I have ever filled out. Seriously, you need a good few hours for this 18 page form. The most annoying part is a lot of the information is repeated from your actual visa application. And you have to list every country you have visited in the past 10 years. I know, I know, that is the very definition of a first world problem, however it was pretty hard to remember all those weekend trips though Europe while I was living in London! Luckily we only had to fill one out for me, as the main applicant.

We also had to reapply for all our police record checks as they were older than 12 months by this time, and so had expired. For me, this means checks from Canada, the UK and Australia. The Canadian one is particularly annoying as you have to get fingerprints done at a police station and then send them to the RCMP, where the processing time is 16 weeks if you are out of Canada! Ridiculous!

Other than that most of the documentation was the same as our 457 visa. The nice thing is that as long as you scan and upload colour copies of your documents you don't have to get anything certified. I really don't want to apply for another visa for a very long time now (although I am getting pretty good at it - we have never used a migration agent for any of our applications). However, I have just realised that if we want to move back to Canada eventually the waiting time to sponsor Andy is 2 years, so we might needed to get started on that sometime soon... Sigh...

Celebrating PR with a glass of bubbly!

Thursday, 16 January 2014

Happy Australia Anniversary!

As of the 16th of January we have been in Melbourne one whole year! Wow, it has definitely gone by super fast. It's funny as we are in the middle of a disgustingly hot heat wave (this is the fourth or fifth day of temperatures over 40 degrees), and also the Australian Open is back on, so it kind of feels exactly like last year all over again. The only thing missing is the other half of our 'Olympic Dreams' team, who have moved back to London (sad). 

So to celebrate our one year anniversary I've thought of some things we LOVE about Melbourne, and somethings that can be... a bit annoying.

Things We Love

1. The Cafe Culture
Everywhere you go there are independent cafes that are all completely different to each other, with creative menus and excellent coffee. Going for brunch is one of our favourite things (which we've had to cut back on since deciding to save more) and you are pretty much guaranteed fantastic food. Actually you can extend that generalisation to lunch and dinner as well, the quality of food in restaurants here is consistently well above average and worth the price you pay. Also in cafes and restaurants they always automatically pour you tap water which for some reason really makes me happy! I hate asking for water and then specifying 'TAP water' instead of still or sparkling. Some of our favourite brunch places are:
Two Birds One Stone (South Yarra)
Pillar of Salt (Richmond)
Birdman Eating (Fitzroy)
Beach Cafe (Seaford)

View from the Beach Cafe in Seaford

2. Being outdoors more
We both feel like we spend more time outdoors here than we did in London, whether going to the beach, going for a run or bike ride, or just walking through a nice part of the city. Exercise is more of a way of life here and walking around you are always passing runners, cyclists, or people on their way to the gym. Added to that, it seems acceptable to walk around in your gym gear, which our fashion minded friends probably hate, but I love! It also seems like a great place to bring up children as there is a lot to do outside and it is a relatively safe city. 

Going for a run through the City


a
Andy and Adriana at The Colour Run

3. People in the service industry are actually friendly
Sometimes in London if you were shopping or eating out and needed help with something, the sales person or waitress could be a bit less than helpful - you almost felt like you were bothering them by asking a question. But not here, everyone is super friendly, helpful and chatty. It reminds me of Canada in that way actually. And even when you have to phone someone, like the bank or an insurance company, the person on the end is always really nice and helpful.

4. Better work/life balance
Both of us work less hours teaching than we did in the UK, which was one reason we moved out here. I still feel like I work hard planning lessons and managing my department, however there are less top-down performance measures than in the UK which frees up time for actual teaching. There are also less behaviour issues here than in London. The students are of course not perfect here, but there is less of the talking back and disruptive behaviour that can be so draining in London.


Things we wish we could change:

1. Renting an Apartment
The rental process is horrendous. You search for properties online and then look at when they are open for inspection. The inspection time will be a 15-minute time-slot that the apartment is open for people to come and have a look. So you have to inspect the property with every other person who is interested in the flat, and sometimes that is like 40 other people. Then you have to fill in an application form and hope that the landlord picks you. How they choose people is anyones guess, but you have to include your salary and occupation so I'm sure that has something to do with it. Sometimes if it seems competitive applicants will say they are willing to pay more rent than the landlord is asking in order to secure the place. Oh and there is a 'real estate agent' present, who probably knows nothing about the flat and whose only purpose seems to be to open the flat with a key. (In fact, this is the only profession that I have found to be extremely unhelpful, which contradicts number 3 on the list of things I love here. But they are the exception, not the rule.)

2. Public Transport 
Ok, this one may be influenced by the fact that we lived in London, which has excellent public transport. My London friends, please don't complain about TfL anymore, you don't know how good you have it! First of all, there is no underground (subway) here, which is always going to slow things down a bit. Second, the train lines are organised in this way: There is a central loop of 5 stations, called the 'City Loop', which goes through the CBD (Central Business District). From each of these stations are train lines that branch off in different directions. The problem is that if you want to get from a station on a train line in the south, and say you want to go somewhere that is north east, you have to go in to the city and then back out again.  They basically need a few outer loops connecting the outer suburbs. 
Melbourne Train Map. We live in South Yarra
Also if your train is cancelled, well, that's it. You just have to wait for the next one. There are usually no alternate routes except maybe to take a bus which will most likely be very sloooooow. Especially if it is after work at peak rush hour. And if it rains the trains are often cancelled. Wait, rains?! Yes, that's right. Melbourne is one of the rainiest cities in Australia (probably) and lots of rain creates chaos on the trains. I remember laughing at London when the trains were cancelled after a few centimetres of snow. That doesn't seem so bad now!
I could probably go on and on about the public transport system here but so as not to bore you too much I will just write one last final gripe. The Myki system. Myki is Melbourne's version of the Oyster. It's the Oyster system's poorer, less efficient cousin. The main frustrations are it is slow to 'touch on' to the card readers at train stations and on trains and buses. Also you have to touch off buses which is annoying and easy to forget. But the main issue is it is just slow, creating lots of lines at train stations when it is not even that busy.
The good thing about public transport though is that it is air-conditioned which on days like today when it is 44 degrees I am very grateful for!

Beautiful Melbourne!
3. Melbourne is SO FAR from everywhere else in the world.
Well, it is close to like Adelaide, but that is not much help to us. We both miss our friends and families in the UK and Canada so much. We feel very far away from everyone and feel like this would be an almost perfect city to live in if it was just a bit closer to everyone. Although for me it's been over 8 years since I actually lived in Canada, being in London never felt that far away. It would be really great if they could invent a super fast and cheap plane to take us back to the northern hemisphere more often. 

And that's it. So here we are, one year on. The new school year starts in less than 2 weeks. Andy is going back to his Catholic school in West Melbourne where he is doing a maternity cover until June. He also starts his Graduate Diploma in Education in March through Deakin University so that he can be fully registered with the VIT. We are anxiously waiting for our Permanent Residence visa to come through so that we will not have to pay international fees for Andy's course. The timeline is pretty tight, it needs to come in by Feb 24th, but we think we have applied for it in time and all our documents are in order. I am going back to my school as Head of Mathematics, with a team of 25 maths teachers to lead. It will be a challenge but I am looking forward to it. 

Andy's parents are arriving tomorrow so we are looking forward to spending some time with family, along with the activities we have planned including a trip down the Great Ocean Road, the Australian Open, and doing some touristy things in Melbourne over the next 10 days. 

Monday, 13 January 2014

Nice Day for a Tandem Bike Ride!

Last year when we were leaving London we received an interesting leaving present from our teacher friends at The Charter School: A day of tandem bike riding! We finally booked this and had our bike ride last Thursday. Of course, we ended up on one of the hottest days of the year so far (although nothing compared to the heatwave we are about to experience in Melbourne this week - just in time for the Australian Open!)

Starting in St. Kilda, we road along the beach all the way to Black Rock where we stopped for lunch. I was somewhat nervous about the whole experience - a tandem bike seemed like it would be complicated to ride! The tallest person is in the front, which was of course Andy, so he was in charge of turning and breaking. It took me a few minutes to catch on to the fact that if I stopped peddling it would also cause Andy to stop peddling, but once we got that sorted we were on our way. 

Starting the ride in St. Kilda


Taking a break to admire the scenery


I actually didn't realise there was a bike path along Beach Road all the way to Black Rock. We have both rode our bikes down Beach Road before, but on the actually road. This bike path was much, much nicer and a lot less stressful than riding on the road. Also you have a view of the Port Philip Bay the whole way which was stunning. My favourite part was the sunken ship, the HMVS Cerberus, of coast in Half Moon Bay. The ship was intentionally sunk in the 1920s to serve as a breakwater for the bay. 

HMVS Cerberus in Half Moon Bay

We had lunch at True South, an Argentinian tapas restaurant that is also a craft brewery, and then cycled back to St. Kilda, stopping in Elwood for ice cream on the way. 

Thanks to the Charter ladies for such an awesome gift!


Saturday, 4 January 2014

Happy New Year!

Wow, we are already three days into 2014! So of course the beginning of a new year brings with it the desire to improve ourselves through a list of new years resolutions. I know that lots of people don't bother with resolutions as they figure they are just going to break them anyway, but I think its important to periodically reflect on your life and write down some short-term and long-term goals you have for yourself. And the cyclical nature of a year means it is a good time for a bit of life-cleaning, although of course anytime is a good time to think about your goals!

So, here are mine and Andy's for this year:

1. Become financially literate, stop wasting and start saving.

Basically we have realised that we don't save enough money. We constantly live just within our means, no matter what our incomes are. A good test of this was when we first moved to Australia we only had one main income as Andy wasn't working consistently until about July. But we seemed to survive just fine on one salary. We now have 2 decent salaries and, big surprise, we don't actually save that much more money. Where has all the money gone?!

Having to ask ourselves where our money has gone is, in a word, stupid. Like, I could roughly say where it has gone (rent, food, alcohol and going out, travel, clothes) but I don't know EXACTLY where it has gone. It certainly isn't in our bank account! So a few months ago we started tracking our spending using the app 'HomeBudget' (love it) and working out a budget. Then, just recently, we have worked out that even though we now have a budget, we don't always stick to it, and just because we have a budget doesn't mean it is reasonable. (I am a bit embarrassed to say how much we have budgeted for groceries/alcohol/meals out every month.) Since we've been on summer holidays we have been reading a lot about cutting waste out of our budget and being smarter about where we are putting money for the long term.

So far we have done a few small things to cut our monthly expenses down such as:
- Less 'spending money' for us each week.
- Cutting sports and HD out of our Foxtel (cable) subscription. (This killed Andy. Frankly I want to cancel the whole thing but baby steps I guess. Give me a few more months...)
- Researched private health insurance plans we can change to once we are Permanent Residents.
- Shopping at Aldi instead of Woolworth's for our weekly grocery shop.
- Less eating out at restaurants.
- Joining the library. No more buying books and magazines!

We are now looking at possibly moving to a cheaper apartment as well, although we would like to stay around the same area we are living now. 

There is a lot more I could say on this topic but this isn't really the place for it. However if you too are interested in cutting waste and saving enough to become financially independent then I highly recommend the blog mrmoneymustache.com.  The author is a Canadian living in the US who was able to retire at the age of 30 with his wife as they saved up enough in their 20s to live off a passive income of investments. Pretty impressive! Also the thing I love about this blog as opposed to other financial independence sites is he talks about cutting waste but still living 'The Good Life': living in a nice place, eating good food, enjoying going out with friends, but not getting caught up in our materialistic and consumer world.

2. Eat real food, Exercise regularly

Ok this seems like a bit of a cliché but I feel like this is something we have got better with since moving to Australia and I'd like to continue.

First of all, in October we started cutting processed foods and refined sugars out of our diets. I have written a blog post about this one but haven't published it yet, so will link this to it when I do. The goal here is to continue eating 'Real Food', cooking more from scratch and eating less processed food. This has the added benefit of helping with goal number 1 as well!

We're also both better in terms of consistent exercise. I rode my bike to work a lot more this year, but doing so more consistently is a big goal of mine. I need to stop finding excuses: "it's raining/windy/dark/cold/I have too much stuff to carry" and just do it. I feel so much better when I get to work after a bike ride and it takes less time than getting the train. Again, riding my bike ties in nicely with our first goal of saving money.

We both run and swim a lot more here. The nicer weather and pool/gym in our building have helped to make these things easier to do consistently. Andy is also really good at playing soccer and tennis on a regular basis. (And golf, however I'm not sure that one counts!)

I think I'd like to do some sort of big race or event this year but I haven't decided what yet. I do like having something to train for and I haven't done a long run or triathlon in ages. So maybe a half-marathon (or full one???) or a triathlon this year. I feel like I've wanted to do a tri since we got here, and since I've recently got over my fear of swimming in the ocean, maybe I should aim for that. Ok, done. I'm going to do a triathlon this year.

When we were in New Zealand I started jotting down some ideas for resolutions and hilariously one of them I wrote down was 'make Andy meditate'. I'm not sure why I thought coming up with Andy's resolutions for him was a good idea (am I really that controlling?) but I think I just wanted to find a way for him to worry and stress less. Needless to say Andy looked at me like I was crazy when he discovered my list, and I am not sure that one will be getting done this year. I should probably try it myself before I go around making others do it!

3. Learn a New Skill

Now that the Masters is done I feel like I have too much free time at the weekend. Haha... ok so that is not strictly true, however as a teacher I am of course a 'life-long learner' (how cheesy am I?) so it's time to take up something new. There are two areas I'd like to explore (in addition to financial literacy) this year:

Computer Programming - I did some programming in high school and at university, however as with most things I learned at school, I remember very little of it. As a maths teacher in the 21st century though, I feel that programming is a skill I should have, at least at a basic level. My brother is a video game programmer and is going to recommend some books for me that will help get me started. I'll probably look at some free online courses as well.

Photography - A few years ago we got a nice Canon DSLR for Christmas and we used it quite a bit in the beginning. However neither of us really understand 'aperture' or 'F-stops' and whatever else you need to know to get the best out of the camera. Because of this Andy now just uses his iPhone to take pictures (which are not bad considering!) and the Canon hasn't been used since our honeymoon. Luckily our friend Dan works for Canon and he says he can probably get me a discount on a workshop. It would be nice to have better quality photos to put up on our blog!

And there you have it, New Years Resolutions 2014. It's actually been really therapeutic writing it all down, and hopefully having these things here will help to keep me accountable. I would love to hear about everyone else's goals for 2014!




Saturday, 28 December 2013

Christmas in Australia

I'll admit it, I was not really looking forward to our first Christmas in Australia. This would have been only the second time I was not at home in Canada with my family for Christmas. (The first was when I was 17, on exchange in France for the year). With my brother living in California, Christmas is the only time of year we can both get home, and it's always nice to catch up with my old friends in Canada. We also have lots of little traditions we do every Christmas as a family, which have changed over the years, but generally go something like this: On Christmas Eve we go to church in the evening followed by drinks at the St. Onge's, my mom's best friend and my oldest childhood friend. 'The kids' (that's us!) normally watch 'A Muppets Christmas Carole', and the adults chat and drink Bailey's and eggnog (eventually this part also included us). Then when we got home Michael and I would have to go straight to bed so that 'Santa' could come. 



Michael at home in Canada. Only 3 glasses this year :(
Christmas morning is normally just my mom, dad and brother, and now that we are both older it's a lazy and indulgent affair. Bailey's and coffee to start, and my mom's special cinnamon bun bread while we open our stockings. This is followed by a big breakfast, where my dad is 'allowed' to eat as much bacon as he likes! By now we have also moved on to champagne and orange juice to drink, and we fill up on our big breakfast before getting to the main present opening. My mom has 3 siblings that live in the area, and over the years various combinations of aunts, uncles and cousins have come to ours for Christmas dinner. Boxing day is for visiting my dad's side of the family, generally finishing in Burlington with my Aunt Barb and cousins Joanne and Aaron to watch the Canadian juniors play their first hockey match of the World Junior Hockey championships.

My mom and dad have always worked hard to make sure we have a special Christmas and I hope that when Andy and I finally have kids we are able to do the same for them, as I am full of happy memories of my last 31 Christmases.

This year was to be very different, as we were staying in Melbourne with no family to celebrate with. We do have a group of expat friends however, who are in the same boat as us, and our friends Laura and Dan kindly offered to host Christmas lunch at their house this year. 

In the morning we woke up and had some coffee and Bailey's and a FaceTime with Andy's parents. Then we opened a few small presents we had got for each other, along with my parents gift to us. Then we cooked a big breakfast and had our champagne and orange juice and FaceTimed my family. You can see I was desperately trying to hold on to some of my Christmas traditions... well the ones revolving around food and alcohol anyway! After that it was time to make our way to Dan and Laura's for lunch.

Laura's lovely Christmas table
We kicked it off with specially made cocktails by Laura: a beer cocktail for the boys and a champagne cocktail for the girls. Lunch was a BBQ featuring lamb, ham and beef, and after lunch we all went to the Middle Park beach. The weather was spectacular during the day, 31 degrees and not a cloud in the sky. Apparently we were quite lucky with this; our friends that have been here for 5 years said this was the first warm and sunny Christmas they've had in Melbourne!

Laura and Andy testing out the cocktails

Middle Park Beach

Laura, Gemma and me

While at the beach I conquered a big fear I've had since coming to Australia: swimming in the ocean. I don't mean splashing in shallow water, I mean swimming out a few hundred metres and back as a work out. I swim 1km or more regularly in the pool in our building, but get freaked out swimming in water I can't see the bottom of. And I know, Port Philip Bay isn't really the open sea, and it's generally quite calm and devoid of sea life in and around Melbourne (except for the jellyfish). It has just been a mind over matter thing. Anyway, for some reason I just decided that afternoon that I would get over whatever was stopping me from swimming out there and just do it! Dan regularly swims out to the posts that are about 200m from the shore so he was happy to swim out with me, and Andy came along too. And I just did it! It was hard mind you, my breathing was very shallow and irregular (sort of like hyperventilating) and I was pretty shattered at the end even though it was less than 400m of swimming, but  I was super proud of myself! So much so that I went out with Dan again about an hour later, and this time I was calmer and it didn't feel quite so hard.

After a few hours at the beach we went back to Dan and Laura's and played a 'Stealing Kris Kringle' game that we play with my mom's family sometimes at Christmas. At the start of the game everyone was being super polite and not 'stealing' the presents, however by the end of it all pretences were dropped and there was lots of presents changing hands by the end of it! Andy and I also introduced my favourite party game, which friends will recognise as a variation of Taboo and Charades ("I have no idea what this is".... "Versailles!" - An inside joke for the Brixton crew). That too was super fun, and you could see 


some people's competitive side come out at this point! Andy's team beat mine and I think that was down to Andy's superb ability to act out words during the third round of the game.

All in all I had a really fun day with our friends. Did it feel like Christmas? No, not really. But maybe that's ok. I woke up feeling a sad that I wasn't with my family and tried to recreate our Christmas mornings. But really, those are not the things that  make it feel like Christmas to me. No amount of food and Bailey's can replace 


quality with family. Luckily we have Andy's parents coming to visit us soon, and next Christmas my family will be in Melbourne celebrating with us. But still, I am thankful for the friends we have here and that we were able to have a fun filled day with them this year.


Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Tongariro Alpine Crossing

Russ and Lauren picked us up from Wellington in their 20-year-old Nissan rental that has seen better days. However it has got them around the south island of New Zealand for the past 3 weeks for about a third of what it would have cost to have a new rental car, so totally worth it in my eyes!

On the way to our accommodation we had to stop in the nearest ‘big’ town to get some groceries for dinner and lunch the next day, as we were staying in the middle of a national park. Needless to say, it was pretty difficult to find anything healthy, definitely no whole wheat pasta or bread! Lauren and Russ told us they have pretty much survived the last 6 months of backpacking on a diet of pasta, which they must be pretty sick of by now. Our accommodation was called Plateau Lodge, and was $70 per night for a double room, with a communal bathroom and kitchen. We got a taste of the backpacker life, making some pretty bland pasta with broccoli, mushrooms, green peppers and tomatoes (the only nice looking vegetables at the grocery store we stopped at), pesto and shredded ‘tasty’ cheese (whatever that is, it seems to be the go-to cheese in Australia and NZ. I think its like a mild cheddar. It is really not that tasty). 

We woke up at 6am the next day to do the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, a 19.4km hike, which is allegedly ‘the best one-day walk in NZ’. The lodge has shuttle bus that dropped us off at the starting point, at Mangatepopo carpark at 7:30 am. Pick up was from the Ketetahi carpark at either 3:30 or 5pm. If we missed the 5pm pick-up, we would have to pay extra to get them to come out and get us later. Although we are all in pretty good shape, Andy and I were a bit worried as it is recommended you do the hike in proper hiking boots, but all we had were our barefoot running shoes! We briefly discussed the idea of renting some boots from a nearby shop, but decided we'd just risk it. After all, it is summer here so we weren't expecting any snow or ice to trek through. In the end doing it in trainers was ok, but we were lucky that we had pretty good weather conditions with no rain. The only time it was a bit annoying was a shallow river crossing at the end where our feet got soaked. 


The hike traverses an active volcano called Mount Ngauruhoe, which Lord of the Rings fans will recognise as Mount Doom in Mordor. The first couple of kilometers were pretty easy, and for the most part we were walking with lots of other hikers. The first challenging bit is aptly named 'The Devil's Staircase' up to the South and Red craters. This was a pretty challenging part of the hike, and served to thin out the crowds as the less fit hikers fell behind. We managed to get to the top with just one small break, and were rewarded with spectacular views of the craters and volcanos. 



After passing the red crater you descend on loose scree to the Emerald lakes. The key here is to almost 'ski' your way down, and at this point hiking boots would have been welcome as we ended up with lots of little rocks in our shoes by the end. The Emerald Lakes are turquoise crater springs, and their brillant colour comes from various dissolved minerals from the Red Crater. The contrast between the barren volcanic landscape and the lakes is pretty impressive, and we stopped to take lots of pictures before continuing on with our trek.

Lauren, Russ and I making our way to the Emerald Lakes



From the Emerald Lakes you enter the active volcanic zone, and pass steamy bubbling springs as you wind your way through the mountains. The landscape starts to become greener and lusher, until you enter a rainforest for the final few kilometres of the hike. 

In the end we made it in about 6.5 hours including our breaks and stop for lunch. We were pretty pleased with hour time, although we found out later that the record for completing the trek is 1 hour and 45 mins! When we got back we had a hot tub at the lodge to soothe our sore legs which was nice, although the hot tub didn’t have any bubbles which we were all disappointed with. More of a shared hot bath. When we asked the owner if there was a button we needed to push to get some bubbles she replied, rather rudely: “it’s NOT a Jacuzzi!” Ok, then. Andy and I opted to forgo the backpacker dinner that evening and eat out at a nearby lodge, although we nearly fell asleep in our dinner! We had an early night and a very deep sleep before getting up to drive to our next destination, Rotorua.

On the way we stopped to see the Aratiatia Rapids. The rapids are formed four times a day when a hydroelectric dam opens its floodgates to release water from the Waikato river through the rocks. It’s incredible to watch the waterfalls form over about 10-15 minutes, and it really makes you appreciate the true force of water.
Aratita rapids prior to the dam openeing
Aratiatia Rapids after the dam has opened

We also went Jet Boating on the Waikato River from the base of the Aratiatia rapids to the Huka falls. This was the first time I’d been jet boating, and it was pretty thrilling! First of all the sceneary there is spectacular, and whizzing around on a jet boat, doing 360 degree turns  and jumping through rapids is pretty thrilling. It was a bit pricey, $105 for a 35 minute boat ride, but it was worth it!

Our Jet Boat

After that we left the Taupo region, a bit disappointed we weren’t staying in the area longer. I suppose that means we will have to return at some point!