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This tree is made from shells and it's small and fabulous. Photo by Nellu

I know that we’ve only gotten to Australia with this blog but the truth is we’re in New Zealand and we’ve been here for weeks. We’ve been working to catch up and actually be where this blog says we are. But it’s going to take just a little more time and I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to put up a note on Christmas. See, I’ve been noticing a few things…

Wandering around downtown Nelson, New Zealand on the Sunday before Christmas many stores, including the town’s authorized Apple store, were closed. This would never happen in the States. Mostly because the holiday season is the when most of our retailers will do anything to make just one more sale, especially in a year when the words recession and unemployment dominate headlines.

We also went to the Christmas Tree Festival here. The church in the central square was filled with more than two dozen trees decorated by different community groups and businesses. On the way out, Nellu asked what I thought.

“I am a little disappointed,” I replied.

“What did you expect?” he asked.

“Bigger trees.”

A church filled with four-foot high trees is nice but one with trees that tower over your head is magical.

Don’t get me wrong, we’re enjoying spending Christmas in a land where palm trees sway. Nelson is known as the city with the most sun in New Zealand. And we’ve decided to park ourselves here for 11 days. (Who would have thought that all I want for Christmas is to stay in one place.) We have a small group of friends here including Kaitlin and Brian a couple from the U.S. who we met at our cooking class in Thailand. You can see more of their adventures at Two Backpacks One World. They’ve also introduced us to their circle of friends and we’ve enjoyed sitting by the light of their curious Doctor Seuss-like tree and listening to Christmas music.

Our friends' Doctor Seuss Tree. Photo by Two Backpacks One World. Click on the pic to see their Facebook page.

We plan to go swimming on Christmas Day. It’s Kaitlin’s idea because we never get the opportunity to do it at home. We’ve been more domestic than ever before making my family’s traditional Christmas Tree cookies and bringing the joy of egg nog to those who’ve never tasted it before. (We had to make it from scratch because you can’t find it in stores.)

But I’ve noticed something been missing – the constant bombardment of Christmas ads. It really didn’t register until I was watching videos online with U.S. commercials playing between breaks. They just don’t have the same level of Christmas hype here and it just doesn’t feel the same. Without Macy’s reminding me that I am in the final days of shopping, there’s no anticipation, no excitement build-up.

I never thought I would make this connection but it seems that Christmas commercialization does do a good job of drumming up Christmas cheer. Retail promotions, bigger trees, and more Christmas lights than our ancient electric grid can possibly handle have nothing to do with the real meaning of Christmas, but they certainly shine a light in its general direction. Yes, that light might actually be a thousand bulb display highlighted by a six-foot tall, light-up plastic Santa. But even so, I think it just might keep the idea of Christmas alive and beating with anticipation in hearts around the world. That’s our modern-day Christmas miracle.

~ Molly


Our Stockton Beach crew tries out dune surfing.

Just over 24 hours after we’d left our friends in Japan, I wake up in a sleeping bag somewhere in Australia in the middle of the night. I remember that we’re sharing a tent with another couple but I can’t for the life of me remember what the woman next to me looks like. If she wakes up she’s really going to be freaked out if she sees me staring at her…

We decided to try couch surfing for the first time in Sydney. We had our doubts about how this would work for us, mostly because there are two of us and we’re old. It’s one thing to be a 24-year old crashing on strangers’ couches. It’s another to be a married couple both in our 30s doing the same. But we lucked out running into Art and the rest of the Sydney crew. Before he had met us in person, Art invited us to come on a two-day camping trip to Stockton Beach.

Stockton Beach is a place you can only get to if you have a 4×4 (or really don’t care about your car), two and a half hours north of Sydney. There are spots you can drive to where you are surrounded by towering sand dunes in every direction.

There were three cars that made it out to Stockton Beach that weekend. Nellu and I traveled up with our host Art and Ryohei, a fellow traveler from the New York City area who had come to Sydney for work and spent a few days getting to know the place. We were the first of three cars but we were still running behind schedule. We got up to Stockton Beach around dusk. We were carting a ton a gear so it was decided that Ryohei would stay behind at the entrance of the beach with the flat bed of wood so we didn’t risk getting stuck in the sand. He would also wait for the other two cars coming out so Art could direct them to our spot. With the sand dunes as high as they are it would be easy for someone to drive around all night looking for their party.

Art, Nellu and I drove into the darkening night looking for a camp spot. When we found a good site sheltered off the main drag of the beach by a towering dune, we unloaded all the gear from the jeep and and the roof. Art then hopped back in the driver’s seat with a few parting words.

“You guys could probably start setting up your tent,” he said, “It’s not brain surgery.” And he drove off into the night leaving Nellu and I with all the gear (and beer!).

Confession time: while Nellu and I have been camping in the last year, we haven’t set up a tent on our own in decades. On the Inca Trail, our porters would faithfully run ahead of us up the mountain side and have not only our tents pitched but a fully cooked meal waiting for us when we finally emerged hours later.

The tent Art let us borrow was a monster. It was made for six people and when we stretched it out, the top layer was roughly the size of our old apartment bedroom. So we stood there in the dark with Nellu’s head lamp and my failing small torch (torch – Australian for flashlight), with the wind whipping around, trying to make sense of the complex geometric shape in front of us.

By no means could we fail. We may be city kids but we couldn’t let our new friends know that we couldn’t even set up a tent.

The base was fairly self-evident or at least it was rectangular. We chose our spot and drove the stakes into the ground. We put it at a slight incline up the sand dune figuring our heads would go at the top and not realizing that even a slight incline will leave you sleeping at the foot of the tent by the end of the night.

But when it came to the top rain layer, we were clueless. We would stare at the diagram directions sewn inside the tent bag and then stare at the rain sheet in front of us. “That’s not helping,” Nellu would say.

We were rescued though. Art came back for Nellu to help with the flat bed of wood that had gotten stuck in the sand. So for about a half and hour it was just me and Art’s German Shepard Rani sitting in the dark with all the beer and Art’s cellphone just in case they had trouble finding me. A few trips back and forth and they recovered all the wood and the two other cars arrived as well.

Can you guess which one is our tent? Photo by Nellu

No one gave us any trouble about not having the tent completely set up. I got help from our new friend Sheridan with the rain layer as Nellu was already busy working to get the fire started. We did get a little flack for setting the tent up on an incline but not from the Heather and Dave who ended up sharing it with us that weekend. But everyone was mostly interested in dinner and digging our heals into the sand with one of those cold beers in hand.

Art, Dave and Heather prepare dinner at sunset. Photo by Nellu

~ Molly

This is my - what did I get myself into - face.

The title of this piece should really be “Karaoke…Schooled,” because that’s what happened when our friends in Tokyo so graciously treated us to a private karaoke night. But I am sort of in denial about being such an awful singer.

I guess I have been my whole life. I should have gotten the hint when my older sister Tricia would scream from the basement for me to stop singing the Little Mermaid’s “Part of Your World,” while washing the dishes. I would sing really, really softly. I can’t imagine how she could hear me from all the way downstairs. But sure enough, as I worked my way up to the line, “I want moooOORRREE,” I’d hear “STOP SINGING!” reverberating up through the floor boards.

And for the first 11 years that I’ve known Nellu, I had him convinced that he was the tone-deaf one. When we took long car trips, he would start singing along to the music and I’d say, “You know what would make this song better…If you stopped singing.” I know. Most of you reading this always thought I was the nice one. It’s not true.

Noriko & Kengo. Watch out for this duo in a karaoke booth.

To be fair, this time we didn’t go up against beginners: Noriko, Megumi, and even 2-year old Kengo – all pros. We knew we were whipped when Kengo controlled the mic to some of his favorite kids songs,  but we really found out what we were up against when Megumi logged in the code for Mariah Carey’s “Hero“.

Megumi showing us how it's done.

I tried to bring it in my own way with a song I used to make my roommate Brigette sing and appropriately named for our trip, “Leaving on a Jet Plane.” But it was the Peter, Paul and Mary version, which was a lot slower than I was used to and really long. Don’t you love the moment when you realize that the song you’ve picked to sing never ends? Nellu tried to rescue me by joining in for a duet. On his own, he rocked with the Tom Jones he’s been practicing in the car for years and doing a superb rendition of Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game.”

Nellu does his part for Team Cantagallo

And of course, Noriko, the consummate hostess, chose several crowd pleasers, “New York, New York” and “Piano Man” among them.

Now when Nellu and I take long car trips, I encourage him to sing. Mostly because I also want to sing too. I look at is practice for our next karaoke showdown.

Thanks for the lesson, guys! Our trip to Tokyo would have been incomplete without it.

~ Molly

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