On to Indonesia

All right folks, we’re off to the next country! We’ve picked up our passports from the Russian Embassy, now with shiny new visas. We’ve said goodbye to our friends and packed up our backpacks once again. It’s time to go.

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Saying goodbye to Hugh. We’ll miss you!

We tap onto to the Sydney metro system for the last time, bound for the airport. Since we’re heading into the city when everyone else is heading out, our train is pretty empty.  The airport is likewise quiet, unsurprising when your flight is the 11 pm redeye.

 

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Packs donned and out on the road again.

Our first flight takes us from Sydney to Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, where we’re laid over for six hours. In the usual sleep-deprived state, we find restrooms and food, and settle down for the wait.

 

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Good instructions for restroom use.
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McDonald’s in Kuala Lumpur, serving up versions of the local cuisine.

Despite being a budget airline, AirAsia serves us food on both of the flights. On our Kuala Lumpur to Jakarta leg, we get these tasty little pocket-pies filled with curry. They taste great for airline food.

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AirAsia’s snack food–I’d eat this even not on a plane.

We land in Jakarta and deplane to face the first country where we DEFINITELY don’t speak the language. Before leaving, we downloaded Google Translate’s Indonesian dictionary, but we’re not sure how much it’s going to help us. Thankfully, immigration doesn’t have many questions for us and they speak English, and they’re more excited than anything else that we’ve come to Java as part of our year around the world.

After clearing customs and finding the ATM, it’s time to find transportation into the city. We’ve heard that taxis here are affordable, but we still prefer the bus. The station is outside the terminal and to the left, a collection of kiosks surrounding rows of plastic chairs that serve as waiting area. Through Google Maps, our gesturing, and the patience of the ticket-seller, we get tickets and soon we’re bound for Jakarta’s district of Glodok.

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The bus into town. The only seat with enough room for Stoytcho was at the very back, so that’s where we get to sit!

Australia, the foods we’ll miss.

Sushi.

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Sushi is not what we thought we’d be eating when we got to Australia – it’s expensive, slow, sit down dining. Australia has fixed all of these problems, and sushi-to-go shops sell rolls of every variety for a dollar or two. Not tiny slices of a roll, but full length, half-a-meal rice and seaweed wrapped slices of fish. It’s good sushi too. Not master-sushi-chef good, but on par or better than a nice sushi place. We loved getting our fish fix this way, and any time we were out sushi inevitably made it into our diet. It was just a super convenient way to get fresh, light food, and we really, really hope these things make it stateside by the time we get back.

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Kangaroo meat.

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We forgot to snap a picture of the raw meat, it’s very red and very lean. This is kangaroo chili.

In the US kangaroo is an unheard of meat. It’s expensive, hard to find, and not super fresh. Once again, Australia to the rescue. Kangaroo are a pest in this wonderful land, and the government gives out licenses to hunt them. In fact, the entire population suffers if they’re not kept under some check, since they have only dingos and humans as natural predators. Hence, plenty of kangaroo meat to go around – just don’t be surprised if you find a bit of bullet in your slice. The only kangaroo you can eat is wild hunted – farming the national symbol is unsurprisingly not allowed.
The meat is lean and the taste is gamey, somewhere between really meaty beef and buffalo. It’s easy to cook, goes well in all sorts of dishes, and is very often on sale. The iron-rich aroma and slightly tangy taste will live long in our memories.


Vegemite.

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An entire aisle of savory flavor goodness.

Delicious salty malty tangy bread in a jar, or vile sour yeast paste. I love it, Natalie hates it. It tastes like concentrated russian kvas or some sort of soy sauce paste. I like it on toast, plain. Most Australians seem to prefer it with butter. My initial steps were something like half a teaspoon for a slice of bread, if that. I wound up going straight to a full teaspoon and up once I got a hang of the flavor. There is definitely such a thing as too much vegemite, so a tiny jar of it lasts a good long while.


Doughnut Time

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Unique to the east coast of Australia is a small chain of donut shops that serve a small but very interesting selection of donut creations, including a set of vegan donuts. If you’re in the area they’re worth a stop, and have very cool toppings like strawberry cheesecake, honeycomb and crumbcake, and strawberry and passionfruit. The picture is worth way more than these words, the donuts are decidedly creative and delicious.

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My favorite, light and fluffy with a tart passionfruit flavor.
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Minimal selection, tons of flavor.
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Doughnut time, come on and grab your friends…

San Churro.

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With whipped cream or without. But definitely with.

Once a single store serving fresh, plump churros and thick hot chocolate, the San Churro store has expanded into a chain. We visited the Bondi Beach one regularly, mostly for the chocolate pick-me-up after a long swim. The churros feel like a necessary part of the experience but have gone a bit thin and crunchy compared to the olden days. The hot chocolate is as thick and delicious as ever. They offer a spicy hot chocolate which I accidentally got once – it’s not my cup of chocolate, but the mild kick was an interesting sensation. For me, the really amazing trick is the spoon standing straight up in the chocolate. I’ve never seen chocolate like that before, and I would really like to have it around during winter or, really all the time.


Bundaberg.

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It’s true that the US has Bundaberg, mostly the original ginger beer flavor. The products not available are the rest of the lineup, including the hard-to-find winter ginger beer which is full of christmasy flavor goodness. Bundaberg is nigh omnipresent in Australia. Available in almost any store (at least where we looked) where it takes up a whole chunk of the soda section, it’s also found in most eateries in the drinks fridge right next to the Coke and Fanta. It’s not a great idea to go overboard on it since it’s still a sugar filled soda, but any flavor whenever you want? Australians (and New Zealanders) have it made.


Tim Tams.

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The brown ones are the originals, there are a ton of different flavors now.

Milk chocolate covering two malt biscuits with chocolate cream filling in the middle. They’re very good, and they’re apparently iconic for Australia. Sold since 1964, they have a wide following in Oz and now come in a variety of flavors. The black forest cherry or caramel versions are pretty good, but I think the original is the best. We stocked up during a sale – about two dollars per pack of six. Otherwise they’re a bit pricey at three to four dollars. The famed “Tim Tam Slam” is something I thought our friend made up as a joke, but apparently it’s a real thing. Take a Tim Tam, bite off both ends, and use it like a straw to suck up your favorite drink, usually tea, coffee, or milk. It’s great silly way to drink your milk. I’m not sure the slam method is any better tasting than just eating the thing, but it sure is fun.


Meat pies.

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They’re iconic in the UK, but Australia and new Zealand also have a claim to meat pies, available basically everywhere, all the time. Australia gets the final credits for this one, since it was the last place we ate them and they have a kangaroo filled pie. In general though New Zealand seems to have a slightly larger variety and higher availability.

Synthetic Biology and Social Discomfort

On the way home from mushroom hunting, someone in the foraging group asks what I do for a living. That’s a tricky question. I could respond with the research I did for my PhD, which would be something like “biology” or “bioengineering” or “synthetic biology”, but none of these answers hold much meaning for people. So I go for the simplest answer that’s interesting. I tell them, “I built life.”

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Some of the living things I’ve built. 

I’m not exaggerating. My PhD was five and a half years working on engineering organisms that would improve human lives while using less of Earth’s resources. That goal is hundreds of separate projects in several lifetimes of work, so I focused on the part that serves as a lynchpin to them all: if we create a living thing with a function, how do we ensure it works as intended in complex environments? Like the plastic insulation protecting electrical wires, engineered life needs an isolating barrier protecting it from the surrounding natural life that could cause a short-circuit and stop working. Physical isolation tools exist, but they need to be maintained and have limited use. So for my PhD I engineered genetic isolation directly into cells, an insulation that they always carry with them. This genetic insulation protects the engineered cells from nature and vice-versa. And it means that we can one day use these engineered cells to create medicines, renewable energy sources, and environmental protection and repair systems.

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A forest in Australia. It’s one of the many ecosystems I hope to preserve by creating living tools that help people live with more while taking from the environment less.

Back in the car, the response I get from the group is a mix of awe and horror, which is normal. Because I’m with a group of foragers, I can accurately predict the next step in the conversation. “It is just my opinion, but I don’t think we should be changing life, messing with it,” says the man beside me. I nod politely. Though the old knowledge of traditional cultures and new knowledge of academic research are entirely compatible and built on the same scientific methods, a mutual distain keeps the practitioners of these two camps aligned against each other. As scientist of academic research, the key here is not to respond with my first instinct, which is defensiveness and exhausted exasperation. I’ve lived this conversation a thousand times already. But it’s an important one, and it’s not about me convincing this guy that his opinion is wrong. It’s about understanding why.

By and large, people are uncomfortable with engineering life because they consider it special. We divide the world into living and non-living, and then spend much of our memorable lives interacting with the living: family, friends, pets, nature, food. We consider there to be some mysterious spark to life that we haven’t figured out, both philosophically and scientifically (although we’re getting closer – Wired Linkout). To say you’re changing living things naturally raises hackles; the assumption is that in order to do that, you must have sacrificed your belief in the sanctity of life. That you don’t care about the consequences. Or, as quoted from Jurassic Park: “so preoccupied with whether or not [you] could, [you] didn’t stop to think if [you] should.”

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Life is pernicious and controlling it can be hard: here, algae grows on the inside of a plastic cup on the beach.

But the truth is that we scientists think constantly about “whether you should.” It is the undocumented part of our lives, the part spent away from the laboratory equipment that everyone associates with us. In this time, four sources prompt us to consider the meaning and significance of our work. The first is from ourselves; as we’re naturally inclined to think (and overthink), we find ourselves imagining scenarios in which our research could be misused or go awry. The second is our peers and colleagues, who carry a mandate to question our work and ensure it is safe. The third is in grant proposals, where we meet the scrutiny of scientists and policy-makers who fund our work. And the fourth is in scenarios like the one occurring right now in the car, questions from our communities. Every one of these sources drives us to think about the impacts of our research and what could go wrong.

Yes, the conversations I have with people about my work “building life” can be uncomfortable. It’s not fun when someone tells you that your life’s work is objectionable, distasteful, an affront to society, or a one-way ticket to hell. But these conversations are important. They tell me what people are worried about, and by extension, what I should worry about in my work. These conversations are also a brief chance for me to explain how much we scientists care about the impact of our work, contrary to the scientist stereotypes. It’s not easy, but somebody’s gotta do it.

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My research on creating genetic insulation for engineered organisms. If you leave here with one thing, know that we scientists hear and share your fears. It’s why we do research.

 

Mushroom hunting in Australia’s pine forest

Intro: We’re stuck in Australia for two extra weeks, waiting for Russian visas. Here’s one of the things we did in the meantime!

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My box full of pine mushrooms (Lactarius deliciosus).

We’ve been trying to find things to occupy our time (besides catching up on the nearly 50-strong backlogged blog posts), and last week I found out about a foraging and wild food workshop led by Diego Bonetto. He offers tons of plant foraging workshops, but the one that caught my eye was a mushroom foraging workshop—the first of Australia’s season, thanks to the overwhelming abundance of rain in the last two weeks. I signed up and got my wicker basket and kitchen knife ready.

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I board the train in the pre-dawn darkness to be at the meeting point on time.

The workshop takes place in state forests two hours outside of Sydney, so Diego offered transport to those of us without cars. I’m up at 5:30 am to catch the train to the meeting spot at 6:45 am. Diego meets us cheerfully, and all of us pile into a van and drove out of Sydney on the M31 highway. After half an hour, the city gives way to countryside. Diego points out plants from the car. “That’s fennel. It’s a good food and medicinal herb. Those trees there are wild apples. They grow from discarded apple cores.” It’s amazing that he can recognize the plants at a glimpse from the highway.

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Chestnuts that Diego found on the ground within minutes of arriving.
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Diego cuts the first mushroom from the ground.

When we arrive at our first foraging ground, we meet the rest of the attendees and gather around a table to begin the workshop. He first gives thanks to the original Aboriginal tribe who once inhabited the land and acknowledges previous generations who carried the knowledge of the environment to the present day. “Knowledge doesn’t belong to one person, or one group. It belongs to everyone. That’s why I’m sharing it with you,” he told us. Then he gives us the first assignment: go into the woods and pick everything we see that looks like a mushroom, put it in our baskets, and bring it back to the table for show and tell.

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Finding a tiny jumping spider along with the mushroom.

I experience a brief pang of trepidation at the thought of putting any mushroom into my basket. Many species are inedible or poisonous, and the thought of them jostling around in my basket isn’t a comforting one. Still, we trudge into the forest and start picking mushrooms—a slimy orange-capped one here, a lemon yellow one with brown “fur” there, and a thin-stalked tiny thimble over there. In fifteen minutes I’ve gathered at least 10 different species, and I’m still finding more. The prolific rain has produced a bounty.

Near the end of my collecting I stumble across what appears to be an all-too-familiar mushroom – the fly agaric, Amanita muscaria. I’m hesitant to cut one and put it in my basket. A. muscaria shares a genus with the famously deadly Amanita phalloides, the death cap, and Amanita bisporigera, the destroying angel. A single mushroom of either of these species is often enough to kill a person. While A. muscaria is nowhere near as toxic, it can still induce nausea and vomiting. And as one of the most cosmopolitan mushrooms in the world, it would be a good one to teach others. I cut three specimens in various stages of development and place them in my basket.

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Our mushroom finds, spilled out onto a picnic table.
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A mysterious fur-lined mushroom cap, potentially Tricholomopsis rutilans, also known as Plums-and-custard. Don’t try to eat it.

Back at the table, Diego instructs us to put the mushrooms we’ve found on the table. “Pick out the unique ones, especially ones not on the table yet,” he suggests, as we pile dozens of mushrooms before him. Once most of the mushrooms are out, he begins sorting them into groups based on similarity until we have more than a dozen piles of different mushrooms. He points at two piles and says “Look at these two. These are the two species that are edible and you want to collect. This one,” he gestures to a pile of dark, slime-capped mushrooms, “are Slippery Jills. Edible and good. They’re usually later in the season, so we won’t find many now. And these,” he gestures to another of orange-white capped, hearty mushrooms, “these are the saffron milk cap, also called the pine mushroom. Also edible and delicious. This is what we’re here for today.”

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Our mushroom collection, after Diego guides us in sorting it.

One of the attendees pipes up, “what about the rest of them?” Diego grins and responds, “What about them? I don’t know them, and I wouldn’t trust myself to identify them safely enough to eat.” Then he picks up a saffron milk cap and a similar-looking orange mushroom and asks, “What differences do you see?” We spend several minutes examining our piles of mushrooms and I realize how brilliant this exercise is: it teaches you not only the mushrooms you’re looking for, but also how to distinguish them from other mushrooms around at the same time of year. It’s a physical exercise of the mushroom forager’s mantra “When in doubt, leave it out.”

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Amanita muscaria, the fly agaric. It’s mildly poisonous, although there have been some reports of use in traditional medicine and even as food.

We pile back into Diego’s car and drive down to our main foraging ground: Belanglo State Forest. While historically known for more sordid things, Belanglo is primarily planted pine forest and so ideal for finding pine mushrooms. Around this time of year it becomes an epicenter for Polish visitors because of the huge number of pine mushrooms that sprout every fall. When we arrive at the forest, we find campers there already busy with collecting.

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Diego prepares pine mushrooms for frying.

Diego sets up his cooking equipment at one of the picnic tables and sends us into the forest to find mushrooms. If we had any worries that we would have to compete with the campers already there, they disappear as soon as we step between the trees: hundreds of pine mushroom caps dot the landscape, as far as you can see between the rows of trees. They intersperse with clusters of fly agarics and a plethora of other mushrooms I don’t recognize. I ignore these and focus on collecting only the best quality pine mushrooms: firm fleshed and not wobbly (wobbly means the inside has been eaten by insects), brightly colored with no bruising. With the panoply of pine mushrooms at my feet, I can afford to be choosy.

 

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Pine mushrooms poke their caps through the pine needles on the forest floor.

 

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Unloved: a pile of pine mushrooms past their prime, dumped by someone else. At least they return to the ecosystem here.

I fill my basket half-full with mushrooms, reluctant to take more than I can eat in the next few days, and return to the picnic table where Diego is frying a few pine mushroom caps. In the meantime, he passes around a pickled version of pine mushrooms for us to share, and someone starts slicing bread. We stand around eating pine mushrooms and share stories. We talk about what it is to forage food from the wild. One person is here to learn about the land. Another is an aspiring chef who worked in a wild food restaurant and got hooked on the idea of foraging his food. Others are people who just want to know, to have the knowledge of their surroundings.

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The picnic basket.
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We listen to Diego talk about pine mushroom recipes and the significance of foraging.

Back at home, I clean the mushrooms and prep them for cooking. I’m personally a fan of drowning them in cream and serving them on pasta, but there are so many that I’ll have to branch out. I cook a hearty serving of the aforementioned creamy mushroom pasta, then turn the rest into a tomato and mushroom stir-fry known in Turkish as sucuk. It’s all delicious (and, regrettably, I photographed none of it). As I’m cooking, I remember one of the things Diego mentioned at our communal meal: “The food here isn’t free. You’re taking it from nature, and even if it sounds hippie, you should give respect and thanks in your own way.” I have my own ritual of giving thanks – bowing three times and remembering where my food comes from.

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Pine mushrooms, with kitchen counter to scale.
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And now, more up close and personal.

Signs from Australia

We’ve seen some really funny signs here in Australia. Most of them are advertisements, some of them are clever, and some of them are pretty cheeky:

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A campaign to clean up rubbish in Sydney’s trainsit systems via insults.
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Cute, but it doesn’t deaden the pain of Australia’s exorbitant internet fees.
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Yeah, I don’t think an advert like this would ever make it to print in the States.

Then there are the traffic signs, which are hilarious only because they’re overbearing and detailed to the point of making no sense:

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When can you park? For how long?! The mystery only deepends when you realize there’s a parked car under the sign.

The sign above isn’t unique. We saw tons of signs like this as we drove from Brisbane to Sydney, with so much detail it made them impossible to read as you approached. And if the sign content wasn’t overload, then the number of signs was. We didn’t get a photograph of it, but out near Oberon we found a series of three signs to warn of a bend in the road. There were several yellow arrows (like those used to denote a curve in the road), a sign with ‘TURN’ printed on it, and a caution sign, all clustered together in 1o meters. How do you even process that many signs at once while trying to concentrate on the road?!

We aren’t alone in noticing Australia’s road sign clutter and you can see a plethora of Australian road signs here. So give us a sign, Australia. But just one.

Sapphire fossicking in Oberon

ntro: We’re stuck in Australia for two extra weeks, waiting for Russian visas. Here’s one of the things we did in the meantime!

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Fossicking finds next to an Aussie $2 coin

I love searching for things. I’ve been on fossil digs around California, used to trawl estate sales in college for rare books, and spent my spare time in grad school foraging for edible plants and fungi. This also worked out pretty well in my graduate research, where there was a lot of searching how to do things, trying the things, and then searching for new ways to do things when those things failed. Five and a half years of that gets you pretty good at searching.

Wonderfully, Australia is one of those places where you can search for precious stones and minerals and keep them, which they call fossicking. Several parcels of land throughout the country are open to fossickers to collect everything from gold to opals, sapphires, rubies, zircon, and diamonds. Rules for fossicking vary by state, but in New South Wales you can purchase a permit ($27.5 AUD a year) to go fossicking in State Forests. They even have State Forest areas where you’re allowed to fossick without a permit. Update: I can’t find information on the permit-free fossicking areas, so the rules might have changed.

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A bonus of fossicking: it gets you outside! Sunset on our way back from fossicking

Located 3 hours from Sydney (without traffic), Oberon is a little town on the other side of the Blue Mountains with several locations for fossicking without a permit. Though it’s accessible by public transit, the fossicking site aren’t: you can take a regional train out of Sydney to Bathurst and a bus from Bathurst to Oberon, but the fossicking sites are located 20 km or more south of the town. If you go by public transit, you’ll have to hitchhike or walk the rest of the way. Thankfully, I have awesome friends in Australia. Hugh drove all the way from Lake Cargelligo to come visit us in Sydney, and when we explained our fossicking plans he happily joined us. Transit solved!

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The Three Sisters, a worthwhile stop on the way to Oberon.

Then we had to come up with fossicking materials. The standard fossicking kit comprises a shovel/trowel for moving dirt, a set of differently-sized strainers for separating stones, and a wide shallow pan for panning. We weren’t keen on spending a lot of money on these materials, so we went to the local Vinnie’s (a thrift store) and picked out the following: a colander and a large ceramic bowl. To that we added our aluminum pot from our camp stove kit for panning and the trowel from our camping kit.

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Our fossicking kit, courtesy of Vinnie’s

We left Sydney late, so we camped one night at Millionth Acre and nearly destroyed Hugh’s car. It turns out that the main campsite is really only accessible by 4WD, but this is what you get when it’s late and you just look up the nearest campsite in Australia. After nearly getting stuck driving down a hill, we pushed the car out of its rut and found a flat-ish site to pitch the tent. In the morning, were greeted by kangaroos and jumping jacks, a type of venomous ant (Stoytcho says: Thanks, Australia). We decamped and drove on to Oberon.

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The night’s campfire
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The campsite in the morning
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Little unfriendlies: slightly venemous jumping jack ants.

Our first stop in Oberon was for coffee, and our second was at the tourism office for fossicking information. A woman there provided us with maps, plenty of advice on the different fossicking sites, and the recommendation that if we see an older gent in a white truck, we should say hello because he’s been fossicking down there forever. (Note: This guy is apparently well-known and famous). Armed with information, we decided to try Sapphire Bend for two main reasons: it was the closest, and it had a water supply in a nearby dam that we could use to wash our finds. We also had a pretty sweet hand-drawn map of the location:

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The map of Sapphire Bend, courtesy of the Oberon Tourism Office.

Sapphire Bend wasn’t hard to find—we drove south from Oberon on Abercrombie Road for 20 km, then turned left at the first campsite we saw (Black Springs), and then made the second left onto a dirt road (River View Road). Though there was a lot of dust, we could manage the road in Hugh’s non-4×4 car. We drove past endless stands of pine trees, the remnants of pine plantations from a logging company. A few km down on the left there was a huge sign displaying the words “Public Fossicking Area”. Surrounding it were dozens of shallow holes, remnants of fossickers come and gone.

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Hugh investiagates a wombat hole.

We started off by hiking, following the foot trails laced through the public fossicking area to figure out where would be best to search. Our first sapphire is a lucky find on the tailings of someone’s hole. It had a sheared face that glinted like a mirror in the sun, making it easy to spot. Holding it up to the sunlight, it looked like a piece of blue glass.

After pocketing the first sapphire, we loaded a few pails of dirt into our pot and bowl, then returned to the car and drove to a nearby pond to begin sifting through it. We’d put a small handful of dirt through the colander with a bowl underneath, then dump water on top of it to wash the smaller rocks through. After picking through the big rocks (which inevitably had nothing), we’d discard them and look through the smaller rocks and silt collected in the bowl below. We found a couple more sapphires and a lot of quartz crystals.

Stoytcho and I returned to Sydney but wanted to do more fossicking, so we booked a car for a couple of days the following week. I also did more research on fossicking forums to help us identify good places to search, which mostly came down to learning to identify the wash layer; it’s the layer with all the pebbles/rocks deposited by a stream bed, and the most likely place to find sapphires. To improve our gear, we visited a local hardware store for mesh and scrounged up a bucket to make a strainer with a finer mesh size than the colander:

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Our homemade sieve from door mesh, gaffer tape, and a pant bucket.
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Driving to Oberon in the rain.

On our second trip out to Sapphire Bend, we camped at Black Springs Campsite up the road. This worked out perfectly, because the site was quiet and had water and restrooms. Heavy rains from the last few days had filled many of the fossicking holes with water, meaning we didn’t have to drive out to the pond to get water. We looked through less filled holes for a wash layer, started fossicking, and managed one more sapphire. The old guy mentioned by the Oberon Tourism Office even stopped by for a chat and with a wink, he pointed out a few “good” holes. He knew his stuff.

By day’s end, we’d collected a dozen potential sapphires and zircons (including one huge chunk of sapphire), as well as a couple dozen small pieces of potential black spinel. Fossicking was hard work, much less standing and moving and much more sitting, patiently sifting through bits of rock in search of glassy glints in the sunlight. But there’s nothing like the excitement of searching for something and finding it.

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Our finds next to an Aussie 5 cent coin, including one pretty big sapphire chunk

Want to fossick yourself? You can rent a kit from Oberon’s tourism office.

Fossicking with a permit and want to know what’s around? You can find a great map (maintained by local NSW fossickers) here.

Fried banana crepe cake

Intro: We’re stuck in Australia for two extra weeks, waiting for Russian visas. Here’s one of the things we did in the meantime!

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CAKE. If it’s not clear from the photo, I don’t have a whole photography studio at my disposal for food pictures while on this trip. 

For the first time in months, I have a full kitchen at my disposal. Australia has a lot of bananas—markets here are crammed with bananas, including the somewhat forlorn-looking, past their prime bananas that find their way to the discount cart.

Banana-bread was inevitable. But it turns out my tolerance for making banana bread is about once a week and after my first round baking Saint Deb of Smitten Kitchen’s Jacked-Up Banana Bread (https://smittenkitchen.com/2006/11/jacked-up-banana-bread/), we still had 4 more bananas languishing in the kitchen. I returned to Smitten Kitchen for another banana recipe, but the only recipe that wasn’t banana bread was a banana crepe cake recipe that used only one banana. If readers wanted more banana, Deb suggested layering the cake with sliced bananas. That was a no go, since at the time we thought Stoytcho was allergic to raw banana.

 

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Enter a caption

 

But what if I filled it with fried sliced bananas? I googled around until I found a recipe I mostly liked. I subbed the white sugar for brown sugar, because that just seems right when you’re working with bananas. The final cake was a 3 hour process of making crepes, frying bananas, making filling, assembling cake, and finishing up with the butterscotch topping. But it was TOTALLY worth it—with a combination of bananas, brown sugar, and cream cheese, this cake takes the cake.

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Sources:
Smitten Kitchen’s Banana Crepe Cake with Butterscotch
Fried Bananas

Ingredients:

For the crepes:

  • 4 tbsp butter
  • 1 large speckled brown banana
  • 1 to 1.5 c milk
  • ¾ all-purpose flour
  • 4 large eggs
  • 2 tablespoons brown sugar
  • ½ to 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • ¼ tsp salt
  • ¾ tsp freshly ground cinnamon
  • ¼ tsp freshly grated nutmeg
  • 1/8 tsp freshly crushed cloves.

For the filling:

  • 1 8 oz brick of cream cheese at room temperature
  • 1.5 c plain greek yogurt
  • ¼ to 1/3 c granulated sugar (to taste)
  • ½ tsp vanilla extract

For the fried bananas:

  • 4 overripe bananas
  • 3-4 tbsp brown sugar
  • 3 tsp freshly-ground cinnamon
  • ¾ tsp nutmeg
  • neutral oil to fry the bananas

For the Topping:

  • ½ heavy whipping cream
  • ¼ c light brown sugar
  • 1 tbsp (15 g) unsalted butter*
  • ½ c chopped, toasted macadamia nuts**
  • ½ to 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • ¼ tsp salt

Process:

I simplified Deb’s recipe a lot because I’m in someone else’s kitchen without access to a mixer/blender/spatulas/etc. It did have a mortar and pestle and whole spices, so we did fresh grinds of all the spices, which was simultaneously better tasting and a huge pain in the hands. The kitchen also lacked standard measuring cups and spoons, but it turns out our camping kit has measurements for cups on the side (yay!) and we just fudged the spoon measurements with silverware in the kitchen. So take all of the smaller measurements with a pinch of salt.

    1. Make your crepe batter: In a bowl large enough to hold all the crepe ingredients, mash banana with a fork until whole thing is wet and there are only a few small chunks. Add melted butter and mix. Then mix in 1 c milk and all of the flour, eggs, brown sugar, vanilla extract, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves. Cover the bowl and put in the fridge for an hour or more to chill. (Deb recommends overnight and up to two days).
    2. Fry banana slices for filling: Slice overripe bananas to a thickness of 2 cm (~3/4 inch) and prep a plate for the fried bananas with a paper towel on it. Fill the pan with enough oil to cover the bottom and start it on medium heat. Mix brown sugar, cinnamon, and nutmeg in a bowl. When the oil in the pan begins to shimmer, dip the banana rounds into the sugar-spice mix and then drop in the pan. Fry for 2-3 mins on one side, then flip and fry 1-2 minutes on the other. Then transfer to prepared plate with paper towel. Repeat frying process, adding more oil as needed, until there are no banana rounds left. Let cool while you make the crepes and rest of filling.
    3. Make the crepes: Heat neutral oil or butter in a skillet over medium heat and pull out a plate for the finished crepes. Pull the batter out of the fridge—if it seems too thick, add an extra ½ c milk to thin it. When oil begins to shimmer, spoon ~1/4 c of batter into the skillet and tilt the pan so it covers the bottom. Cook until it browns on one side 3-4 min, then flip and cook the other side. Repeat until all crepe batter is gone. (Or better yet, get your boyfriend to do it since he’s an expert at making crepes.) Set crepes aside to cool.
    4. Make the filling: Beat room temperature cream cheese with a spoon until fluffy, then add yogurt and mix. When there are no more lumps of cream cheese, add sugar and vanilla and beat until combined.
    5. Assemble crepe cake: Put first (ideally biggest) crepe on what will be your serving plate—this cake isn’t moving once you make it. Spread ~1/4 c of the filling onto the crepe and add 15-20 slices of fried banana onto the filling. Add a second crepe and spread another ~1/4 c of filling, this time with no fried bananas (we had structural integrity concerns with a full banana stack). Repeat process, alternating between fried-banana and banana-less layers until you run out of crepes, filling, or both. Do not put filling on top of the last crepe.
    6. Make topping: Mix cream, brown sugar, and butter in a small pot over medium-high heat. Bring to boil, then let simmer for 10 minutes while stirring frequently. It will thicken and smell like caramel when it’s done and in my case, some of the butter separated from the mix. If this happens to you, just dump the extra butter off. Remove the topping from heat and mix in the vanilla, salt, and nuts.
    7. Pour topping over the cake and serve. We also found letting it sit in the fridge overnight improved the structural integrity, but it’s not a huge deal—it’s going to end up a delicious mess on your plate anyway.

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Abbreviations:
c = cup
med = medium
min = minutes
tbsp = tablespoon
tsp = teaspoon

Notes:

* – As mentioned in step 6, we had some issues with the butter separating from the topping. This could be due to overusing butter (we eyeballed 15 grams from a huge stick), or some other condition. Even if you use too much butter, you can just dump it off.

** – Deb’s original recipe called for walnuts, but we only had macadamia nuts foraged from a nearby orchard. These lent the cake a decidedly more tropical flavor.

Bondi Beach

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Surfers catch a wave at Bondi Beach

Intro: We’re stuck in Australia for two extra weeks, waiting for Russian visas. Here’s one of the things we did in the meantime!

The kilometer-long sandy stretch at Bondi is probably Australia’s most famous beach. If you’re visiting Sydney, people will tell you it’s a must-see. And with changing rooms, coin lockers, and showers, why just see it? If you visit in the summer, slip on a bathing suit and lounge around in the sand or go for a swim. The ~$4-6 USD round-trip price for transit makes Bondi an awesomely cheap way to pass time if you’re stuck in Sydney with a tight budget.

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A woman casts her flip-flops into the sand.

Bondi has two main types of water recreation: surfing and swimming. Surfing is king here, and most of the beach is open to people with surf- or boogieboards. This is the perfect place to watch surfers of all skills hang ten, from the dude just starting out (you can rent a board at the beach), to the guy that makes every wave caught look effortless. They’ll cluster on the south side of the beach, where a strong rip current dominates.

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The beach’s warning signs and rules. The “open borders” graffiti is probably a reference to Australia’s immigration policies.

The swimmers are a little less lucky; the lifeguards have to herd all non-boarders into one tiny strip of beach about 100 meters across. Marked by two signs, it encompasses swimmers, bodysurfers, and anyone splish-splashing around in the waves. And it gets crowded: hundreds of people cram into this “swim-safe” zone on busy days, making it nearly impossible to move without smacking someone. Lifeguards patrol the edges, herding anyone that strays outside the signposts back into the little box. It’s a bizarre ritual that as a Californian seems hilariously unnecessary; we do none of obsessive management at our beaches and everyone gets by just fine.

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Two guys watch the lifeguards patrolling the waters via boat.

Waves at the beach vary. Some days the waves splash ineffectually on the shore, hardly enough to move you as you stand waist-deep in the clear blue water. Other days the waves are a force to reckon with, dragging at you with every step and knocking down anyone caught unaware. Those are the good days, when a wave caught has enough power to propel you all the way to shore. If there wasn’t a human obstacle course in your way, that is.  Sometimes you bail early to avoid hitting someone. Sometimes you get dragged under and jostled against sand and human legs. And sometimes you just crash into people. You make sure they’re okay, you’re okay, and swim back out for another round.

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The north side of Bondi Beach. See that cluster of people in the water? That’s the swimming area.

You end up ravenous after hours in the water, and the boardwalk next to Bondi doesn’t disappoint. It’s filled with fancy restaurants and bars, interspersed with swim shops in case you’ve forgotten anything. Most were out of our price range as backpackers, but two we fell in love with and are worth mentioning. The first love is a tiny, no-frills Chinese restaurant called “Handmade Noodle and Dumpling Kitchen” at the corner of Campbell and Hall. The food (especially dumplings) is cheap, delicious, and pretty legit—it tastes like my dad’s cooking.

The second love is the San Churro. Okay, it’s not cheap and it’s mostly dessert, but I’ve loved San Churro since my first visit to one back in 2010. They don’t exist anywhere in the Western Hemisphere either, so I’ve had to wait seven years to have their delicious fresh churros and thick Spanish hot chocolate again. We stopped by here every time we visited Bondi, and there’s nothing like huddling over a cup of hot chocolate while still damp from a swim, breathing in the vapors mixed with the salty ocean breeze.

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A cup of thick Spanish hot chocolate and churros after a day at the beach.

Getting Russian Visas in Sydney

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We visit the Russian Embassy! Please don’t block us from the country for taking photos, we were just excited. 

When we started on this trip, we knew we’d have to stop somewhere to get visas for Russia and China. Both of these countries require visas for U.S. citizens, but both prohibit you from applying more than three/six months before you intend to enter the country, so we couldn’t apply for them before we left the U.S. Because neither of us speaks Russian and I’ve heard you can get a Chinese visa fairly easily in Hong Kong, we figured Australia would be our chance to get the Russian visa squared away—in a country that speaks English and has a Russian Embassy. For those of you looking to do the same, here’s the short of it: you can get a Russian visa with a U.S. passport from the Sydney Embassy. It can be a visa for any duration (we got 3-year, multi-entry visas). BUT they cannot do express processing, so it will take two weeks and you’re subject to the fees charged to U.S. citizens, not Australian citizens.

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The Russian Embassy in Australia, nestled in a green, tree-lined neighborhood in Sydney. 

A few days into our Sydney stay (after we had settled into an apartment we decided to rent weekly), we visited the Russian embassy to ask about the visa process. We arrived around 11:30, which was late in the day for them—they close at 12:30 pm. After taking a number in the front office, we sat down and passed the time in reading and work under the watchful eyes of a framed Putin photograph. 12:00, then 12:30 came and went. The number of people dwindled. Though closing hour had passed, the embassy employees stayed and worked through all of us. We came up near the end.

When our number was called, we walked up to the counter, showed our passports, and asked what we needed to do for visas. More specifically: how long would visa processing take? Which application form (U.S. or Australian) would we need to fill out? What length of visa could we apply for? How many copies did we need? The employee’s English was fairly good, but it took us a while to get all of it sorted out: We could get expensive express service and have it done in two days. The visa could be for any possible duration or number of entries. We should fill out the U.S. application (though it turns out they’re all the same form). One copy of the application each.

Given that info, I took my time in filling the forms out and we didn’t return until a few days before we were due to fly to Indonesia. We handed over the forms to the same guy we talked to last time. But he looked over the forms and shook his head. “We can not make express service for non-Australia passports here,” he told us. Oops!

He hadn’t realized last time that we don’t have Australian passports. There wasn’t much we could do about that, so we opted for the regular service. The employee handed us a receipt and told us to come back for our passports in two weeks. We went home, paid some fees to reschedule flights, and extended our apartment rental. Thank goodness we’re staying with some friends of a friend. They were awesomely accommodating about the situation.

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The Russian visa, at the end of all this work

Creepy campsites and another rainy hike

It’s our last night with our relocation rental vehicle and at 8 pm we’re looking for a place to camp. Internet sleuthing has revealed that the free camping options further south (nearer to our destination of Sydney) are sparse. The furthest south we can find a free campsite is in Olney State Forest, a 30 minute drive inland from the M1 highway, so just before Morriset we pull off and navigate a maze of dark roads into the forest. We make a few wrong turns, so it’s nearly 9 pm and raining heavily by the time we’re at the campground. Its presence is only confirmed by what appears to be a path through the trees and a couple of picnic tables we spot with the headlights.

I want to be a rational person, but this place is absolutely creepy. We snuff the engine and when the SUV’s headlights go out, it’s pitch black outside. The sound of rain is mixed with occasional plinks from eucalyptus seeds falling onto the roof. We jump at it the first few times. After a brief meeting on the situation, we decide we’re sleeping in the car and after dinner, we make nervous dashes to the corrugated aluminum bathroom stall outside.

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Leftover meat pies, for (hopefully not our last) dinner.

 

This might all sound hilarious and paranoid, but I know of a few murder incidents in Australia’s forests. I’ve got a friend who grew up near the infamous Belanglo State Forest, site of the Backpacker Murders. Back in the early 90’s a local guy named Ivan Milat used to pick up backpackers and drive them into the forest, where he shot or stabbed them to death. He killed at least seven people. Then in 2010 a group of high-schoolers, one of whom was Ivan’s great-nephew, drove a classmate celebrating his seventeenth birthday into Belanglo and killed him while filming it. My friend knew some of these kids from school.

Well, it’s off to sleep! Hopefully we wake up tomorrow, though it helps that we’re sleeping in an SUV as large as a tank.

It’s the next morning and we’re not dead! We decide to celebrate with a hike, even though it’s still raining. We don’t even like hiking in the rain (we figured this out in New Zealand).

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The falls we found. Maybe there’s a better waterfall elsewhere on the trail?

We find the nearby Abbotts Falls Walking Trail and follow it for an hour, trudging over soggy leaves and fording streams. We’re wet in minutes, and despite the rain overnight the falls are nothing but a trickle.  But it’s nice to be out in the trees with the smell of pines in the rain. We even encounter a tenacious tree growing in the middle of the trail, sprouting a new branch from where its severed trunk once stood.

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This tree isn’t interested in your suggestion of not growing in the middle of the path, thank you.

 

Back in the SUV, we lay in coordinates for the rental dropoff and head back out toward the highway. Today’s agenda is dropping off the car and then checking into a hostel in the downtown area. Since this is our last English-speaking country for a long time, the next step on our trip is to try getting our Russian Visas here. Wish us luck!

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The pattern of moss and wet bark on a tree trunk in the forest.