Thursday, April 26, 2012

Observations on Oz

We've been here two months now and I haven't done a random observations brain dump post in a while.  I have observed many random things so here we go with more:

- Geyser is pronounced geezer

How this
Came to be pronounced like this

Will forever be a source of entertainment for me.

- Liquor stores are Drive Thru, kind of
I don't really get the logistics of this, since those parked cars will block the passage of any cars behind them.  You don't get service at your window, you still have to get out of your car and in to the 3-walled store to make your purchase.  I don't really get the purpose of the drive thru besides it being an ill conceived parking lot.

- You can get sunburned when the sun isn't even shining

And shocking to most, that sunburn has actually turned into something resembling a tan on my shoulders and arms!  You almost have to see it to believe it.  Heidi has a tan!

Oddly enough, however, my legs do not tan AT ALL.  Even if I'm out all day with bare legs and no sunblock on them they're still white as a sheet.  A few years ago I was tubing down Red Lake River, got drunk and fell asleep on my tube for god knows how long.  My legs burned really, REALLY bad (so bad that it felt like my shin bones were splitting when I tried to walk) and they've been ghostly white ever since.  Is it possible to burn the pigment out of your skin?  Somebody alert medical science.  I need to be studied.

Don't cry for me, though, it wasn't all bad.  It was a really good nap.

- If you work at a classy place a pianist will greet you as you arrive at work every day

Martin's building has a grand piano in the lobby and a pianist plays every morning as people arrive to work.  Fancy!

Mmm, quite.

- Australians freaking love their schnitzel

They LOVE it!  It's everywhere.  I want to believe it has something to do with their love of TV cooking competitions, but there is no culinary excuse for schnitzel. It's deep fried meat.

- They have fruit you didn't even know existed

As I was heading to the fruit and veg market one day Martin demanded that I pick up some exotic fruits for us to try.  It's a good cultural experience, I agree, but I was apprehensive about how to actually eat these freaky looking things.

Have you seen such crazy things before?


(These could totes be used as 'eyeballs' instead of peeled grapes for Halloween parties)


They were all edible enough, creepy texture notwithstanding, but the persimmons were the tastiest.  After we'd eaten most of it we noticed a huge-ass caterpillar waltzing all over it, so that's where the fruit tasting session came to an abrupt end.  Nasty, but 'tis better to find a whole caterpillar than a half caterpillar, I say.

And that's all for today in the whacky world of Oz!

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Easter on Fraser Island

Due to a lack of vacation days during our (ahem, Martin's) first year of work, we really have to utilize any and all long weekends for travel. Lucky for us, Australians actually care about time off at Easter (more so than Americans, but less than Norwegians), which has resulted in an extra long weekend with Good Friday and Easter Monday being public holidays. We seized this opportunity to travel to Fraser Island, just off the coast about 5 hours north of Brisbane.

Fraser Island is the largest sand island in the world (remember the second?), and when they say it's made of sand, they mean it. There are no roads throughout the island, just bumpy, bumpy sand paths. The island contains "rainforests, eucalyptus woodland, mangrove forests, wallum and peat swamps, sand dunes and coastal heaths" - all sprouting out of the sand.

I had this vacation planned booked before we even got on Australian soil. In fact I had the whole thing planned before our visas were even granted! I am an eager beaver. Eager to see this country with the time and money we have available.

To get to Fraser Island you first need to make your way to the mainland that's closest to the island, then take a ferry over. The town closest to the island is called Hervey Bay, but make no mistake, it is pronounced Harvey Bay. I made a fool of myself plenty before learning that fact, so I'm warning you in advance. You can fly from Brisbane to this area but at $200 per person air travel was a bit rich for my blood. So what's the next best option?
Greyhound, baby! Nothing but the fanciest for us.

Two things of note: One, that big grill on the front of the bus. Martin told me it was to deflect kangaroos that get hit on the road. I don't know if this is true or not but kangaroos do get hit by cars frequently. That makes me sad, especially since I have yet to see a 'roo. Second thing: Check out the final destination of this bus. Cairns, 1,058 miles (1,750 km) from Brisbane! That's over 30 hours of Greyhound bus sitting! Hoooooly crap.

There's lots of stops along the way so most (or all) people don't travel that far or take the whole journey in one fell swoop. Still, that is a long way. Our 5 hour, 15 minute journey was surprisingly pleasant and arrived right on time. So far I am down with the 'hound.

There are several departures from Brisbane per day, and we decided to take the earliest one so we could have the whole afternoon to see Harvey Bay (we wouldn't get to the island until the next day).

Big mistake. Biiiiiig mistake.

It was Good Friday, which despite being a "public holiday" shouldn't mean much in a town that exists solely to cater to tourists. Not for Hervey Bay, though. Oh no, it was completely shut down and deserted. Well, it wasn't entirely a ghost town as there were other tourists like ourselves walking around wondering "Why am I wasting my time with this town?"

We sat down for lunch at a restaurant that is, most of the time, sea side. At 2 p.m., though, it's more like a you-can-kinda-see-the-ocean-from-here restaurant. The tide was way, WAY out.

It's not like you can be mad about this because then you'd have to be mad at the moon. And then you'd just be a crazy person. This allowed you to walk way, way far out (half a football field I'd reckon) and see some coral-like plant life that normally would be buried under many feet of water:
There's only so much ocean looking one can take before it's time to move on. So we headed out farther into town in search of alcoholic refreshment. Our "sea side" restaurant didn't have a liquor license. If they did, we would've stayed all afternoon to see if the tide ever came back in.

So we find a pub, have a seat and order some beers. We are told, soup nazi-style, "No beer for you!" Why? Because it is Good Friday. Because JESUS, that's why.

Actually, you can get beer, you just need to order a meal to go with it. Not an appetizer, not a side dish (this was explicit), but a meal. Why? I already told you, BECAUSE JESUS!

WTF, we have stepped into the Twilight Zone with a façade of the dullest town ever. So we order nachos to go along with our beers, roughly 10 minutes after we just ate lunch. Nachos are considered a meal, you see, so sayeth the Lord.

We eat our nachos (not bad, by the way, and I know bad nachos after years of living in Norway) and drink our beer. We leave after one round because I don't know if we'd have to order another meal to get a second round of drinks, or what Jesus's policy is on that. Kidding aside, it is the state or the city council's policy, and I deem it a shitty one. Hervey Bay will forever be considered Dullsville in my mind because Good Friday was too precious to cater to tourists, the one and only reason it exists.

Maybe it's a lovely place to be when things are actually, uhh, open, but from my vast experience with boredom in Hervey Bay I cannot recommend this destination. Unsurprisingly (and not uncharacteristically, I must add), we spend the afternoon napping, but this time for lack of anything better to do. Our 7:20 a.m. departure out of town couldn't come fast enough.

Bright and early Saturday morning we are picked up by bus at our hostel (hey, Australia is expensive and I'm unemployed, no judging) and pick up others on our way to the ferry that will take us to Fraser Island. Freedom from this town is imminent! I haven't felt this way since high school.

On the ferry over we are warned, warned and warned again about the HuGe RiSk that dingoes present to humans.
From what I could tell there was a 99.9% chance that dingoes were going to EAT MY BODY AND SOUL, and there was nothing I could do to stop them. Note the first one says negative dingo encounters are expected especially over Easter weekend. Yep, we're screwed! Though I'd much rather get mauled by a dingo than stay in Hervey Bay!

As soon as we get to the island we hit the ground running with the tour I booked. This being a sand island the only vehicles allowed on to it are 4x4's. You have 2 options for seeing the island: Take a tour in somebody else's 4x4 or bring your own, get stuck frequently in the sand paths and have to dig yourself out. We chose the former. Gladly.

Look at this tour "bus" (more like a tank), including me for scale:

That thing is a beast! It tore through deep, uneven sand like a hot knife through butter (though very bumpily). We were delayed by a half hour that day because some rinky dink Mercedes "4x4" kept getting stuck on one of the paths, disrupting all traffic behind it. The jerks in that Merc had 50 annoyed people stuck behind them, shooting daggers with their eyes and laughing that they sent a fluffy little bunny to do an ox's job. See why we chose a tour instead of going it alone? This is what the "roads" looked like:

This shot actually looks quite smooth and bump-free. Trust me, it wasn't.

Our first stop that day was Basin Lake:
It's a freshwater lake (one of many), that you aren't allowed to swim in. You used to be able to but so much sunscreen washed off into the lake that it was killing off the wildlife. Oops. And who would want to kill off this little guy?

We spent a good chunk of that day hiking through the forest, seeing nifty sights like this:
After a picnic lunch and more jungle walkin' we arrived at our leisurely afternoon destination, Lake McKenzie:
Another fresh water lake, and this time you can swim in it! The water was crystal clear (at least in the shallow parts) and we spent several hours lounging on our beach towels, swimming and eating cookies provided by our tour.

If you found this blog post by Googling "Cool Dingo tours" I must advise you: The cookies alone are worth choosing this tour over others. Christ on a bike, they were good! Totally worth getting diabetes for.

The next day was another early one, especially for Martin who was feeling a bit rough after a long night at the local Dingo Bar with his newly made BFF. There's no rest for the wicked, though, we had a lot of ground to cover today!

It was pouring rain when we got up which, surprisingly enough, flattened the roads down and made our drive much, MUCH smoother. It only ever seemed to rain while we were inside the bus and not outside exploring so we really got the best of both worlds.

Our first stop was a lookout point to the sand blows, an area of forest that is being overtaken by sand blown inland from the beach.
This huge chunk of forest was just being buried by sand, more and more each year. The picture doesn't seem like it but it was actually pretty cool and sand dune-y. Also cool, near the lookout point:
Eek! We saw quite a few gigantic spiders chilling in their gigantic webs. We were always a safe distance from them, though, thankfully, as they were freaking huge and scary.

We then headed to 75 Mile Beach, which is the beach that runs along the eastern coast of the island (along the Pacific Ocean) but is a highway. A real, functional highway of just beach:

There's tons of different sites along the beach highway so we spent the rest of the day driving down it, stopping at the cool things to see, my favorite being Eli Creek:
Eli Creek is a freshwater creek that varies in depth and has crystal clear water that you can swim in. It reminds me of a natural "lazy river" floating pool that you find at water parks. The ocean is right next door but it is not recommended to swim in since there are jellyfish, sharks (srsly) and very huge waves and dangerously strong currents. So people who value their lives and limbs swim here instead.

Then we went to the Maheno ship wreck.
"The most photographed piece of rust in the world." About three-fourths of the wreck is buried under the sand. She used to be a luxury ship, but she ain't any more! I never understood why ships are referred to as "she"...

Throughout the day Martin had been drooling over the little single-engine airplanes that were flying overhead. Word on the street is that they take off and land right on the beach highway, among the traffic. As soon as the pilot came on to our bus to offer a 15-minute tourist flight for $70 a head I knew I couldn't fight it. We had to go, according to Martin.

$70 is hard enough to swallow, but $140? Not going to happen. She who does not work does not go on wildly expensive tourist flights, either. So I convinced him to go without me. It worked out really well because the plane could only fit 7 passengers and 6 of our other bus mates wanted to go. Perfect! I didn't want to take up the seat of someone who really wanted to go (I was very meh about the experience, regardless of price). And even more perfect: Since Martin was going up solo he got to sit right next to the pilot!
There is nothing in this world that Martin loves more than aeroplanes and flying. He said "That pilot has the best job in the world" approximately 200 times. It wasn't until much later that he found this article, detailing how one of these little planes flipped over upon landing. There easily could've been deaths! Scary. Oh, and the planes totally do take off and land right on the beach highway!
Here are some aerial shots he took:

We were reunited just up the road at the Pinnacles Coloured Sands, which I can only assume are rock, otherwise the wind coming off the ocean would blow them away.
Then we hiked up this little mountain, Indian Head, where you can supposedly sometimes see sharks out in the water.
No sharks were spotted off the top that day. Disappointment, disappointment.

And finally the Champagne Pools which, false advertising alert, are not made of champagne but sea water that is trapped behind the rock wall once the tide goes down.
The rocks protect you from the treturous sea that lies behind, and the jellyfish and sharks don't make it over, so you can swim here.
Speaking of jellyfish, we saw a few dead/dried up ones along the beach.
But sadly this is the closest we came to deadly wildlife. This means we saw no dingoes. I was all but promised to be attacked by one, damn it, I want my money back! I'm not surprised, though, since we were always in a big group or in our huge, loud truck. People who camp on their own are probably the lucky ducks who get to be mauled by them.

This concludes our jam packed 2-day tour of Fraser Island. That evening it was time for us to return to my worst nightmare: Hervey Bay. We had one more night there before our return bus back to Brisbane the next day, on Easter Monday.

It wasn't as bad as Good Friday, but it wasn't good, either. Now before the Hervey Bay tourist board comes banging down my door I will defend them by saying this: It is a huge starting point for whale watching tours and it is months until whale season begins.

Still, I bet few people in this world have been so happy to see a Greyhound bus pull up to take them far, far away!

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Norsk Mat - Norwegian Food - Part 3

Hey, remember Norway?

Now that we've been Down Under for 7 whole weeks I figure I should revisit my Scando-culinary adventures since I was so adamant about photographing our food while we were there. Feast your eyes and stomach on my previous entries here and here.

Dish 1: Fårikål

Oh man, this picture does not look appetizing. But trust me: It is. Fårikål, pronounced four-E-coal, literally means "lamb in cabbage" and to me it is the quintessential Norwegian dish.

The beauty of fårikål is its simplicity. The only ingredients are lamb meat, cabbage and whole black peppercorns cooked for hours and hours in water. After that amount of time the meat is falling off the bone, and the flavors meld together to make a super tasty, super easy, super cheap (cooks for hours = use cheap meat) meal.

I do have one complaint about it, though: Eating around those black peppercorns is fraught with danger. Have you ever bit down on one before? I imagine it's similar to chomping down on a stone that's been infested with ants. It ain't pleasant. Luckily I'm not the first one to have felt this way so butchers now sell tea bags full of peppercorns, to keep the flavor intact while removing the danger of them floating around and getting into the good stuff. Norwegian ingenuity where it counts!

I implore you to make fårikål at home. It is, in my opinion, Norway's crowning culinary glory.

Dish 2: RisengrynsgrøtHow does thick rice pudding covered in butter, sugar and cinnamon sound to you? Delish, right? Well how about for dinner? Eeeew, gag me!

Risengrynsgrøt literally means "rice grain porridge" but I always just call it risengrøt. Not sure how ignorant I sound by calling it that.

I don't know how a rich, sweet dessert-like dish turned into a meal for Norwegians, but somehow, somewhere it did. Don't get me wrong, it's delicious, but too much is definitely not a good thing and a meal-sized portion is way too much of a good thing.

There is a similar dish called rømmegrøt, which is sour cream porridge, again served with butter, sugar and cinnamon. Just thinking about that version puts me into a diabetic coma. Again, it's very tasty but not large quantities- or meal appropriate. Everybody makes it from a package (or buys it pre-made) nowadays so it's surprisingly difficult to find a Norwegian recipe for it, so here you have it from the good old Sons of Norway.

Dish 3: KlumperKlumper literally means clumps. Clumps!

Um, appetizing...

These go by many different names in Norway. The more I Google the more I realize that the word klumper is actually not one of those names, so can I only assume it's just my in-laws that call them that? Or perhaps I am mistaking it with komper, which is one of the actual names used for them. Hey, I never claimed to be fluent (or even marginally competent) in the language.

Another name they go by is rasperballer which - I shit you not - means "grating the balls" according to Google Translate. Which is actually a pretty accurate, albeit disturbing name. These things (I won't even bother trying to use a name from now on) are grated potatoes mixed with flour to hold them together, then boiled. On their own they're pretty meh but it's the accoutrements that really make them special:

Melted butter and bacon!

What a glorious, glorious combination! Somewhere in the history of Norwegian cuisine hot dogs have also become a side dish, and I've always seen them served on the side of these things. Anything smothered in melted butter and bacon gets an A+ from me, and these balls of many names are no exception.

Dish 4: MakrellThese are mackrel. Nothing to really expand on here, except that these were caught in the ocean just out of town and given to us by a neighbor. Yay for being a localvore!

The reason I wanted to bring them up is to tell the tale about Norwegian children eating makrell i tomat saus (mackrel in tomato sauce) as a sandwich topping. Considering the fact that canned tuna is a pretty normal sandwich topping, it doesn't really seem all that interesting. Except the mackrels in Norwegian kids lunch boxes aren't finely shredded, unidentifiable pieces of meat like tuna is. They are nearly whole, sardine-looking, identifiable fish. In thick tomato sauce. That smells like cat food met death on a hot tin roof. And kids love it!

Nowdays you can find it in stores, but kids in Norway just don't grow up with peanut butter the way I did. Because of this, many find peanut butter vile. And that's just insanity because everybody knows PB&J is the ultimate sandwich combo. They also love leverpostei on their sandwiches, which is liver pâté. Spreadable, ground up liver as a sandwich topping. And kids love it!

Norwegian kids get fish and pâté. American kids get high fructose corn syrup in a jar. Think that has anything to do with the difference in obesity rates between the two countries?

[editor's note: After consultation with my mother-in-law I was indeed wrong about klumper vs. komper. I don't know where I got the idea that they were called klumps. She would also like the world to know that she makes her sour cream porridge from scratch. She's the Norwegian Martha Stewart, I'm telling ya!]