Monday, February 27, 2012

Birthday Outing to the Taronga Zoo

My littlest one turned 4 yesterday.  It has been four years since Kenyon emerged into the world sunny-side up, with the doctor exclaiming that he had the longest eyelashes she'd ever seen on a newborn.  In that moment, our family became complete and Kenyon has added something wonderful to it.

Back in Denver while we planned this year-long exchange, we talked often about how Kenyon was going to be the first one in the family to celebrate a birthday in Australia.  To celebrate the occasion, we decided to head to Sydney and spend the day at Taronga Zoo (thanks, Nana and Papa!).  We are well-versed in the best of what the Denver Zoo has to offer, so we were all looking forward to checking out a different city's take on the animal kingdom.

I don't enjoy partaking in the futile and painful exercise comparing the cost of living in Australia, but friends in Denver, consider this--a day pass to the Taronga Zoo for our family was $112.20 (and this involved craftily being on Denver time to make Kenyon still 3 years old, or the cost would have gone up another $22).

For $2 LESS, we could have bought a family membership to the Denver Zoo and enjoyed countless outings over the span of a year.  Laugh or cry, right?  I laugh, with empty pockets gritted teeth.

Granted, the Taronga Zoo is beautiful, and we enjoyed the ferry ride over and the gondola ride up to the top.

an aerial view of the elephant enclosure as we  headed up the hill in the gondola
photo credit: Taronga Zoo
The Taronga Zoo offers a camping experience that sounds absolutely amazing--sleeping in safari tents with real beds, up-close animal encounters, and behind-the-scenes access to the zoo experience such as feeding giraffes and petting seals.  It is wildly popular, already booked through March and much of April, so as I planned our day trip I excitedly checked the booking information to see if we should camp there as well.  Well, the fee would be $1120 for the five of us, so unless the Taronga Zoo is providing scholarships for an earnest, animal-loving family visiting from overseas, the above picture will have to suffice.  Looks pretty spectacular, though, doesn't it?

The Denver Zoo has all the animals you'd expect at a good quality zoo--tigers, lions, elephants, giraffes, penguins, chimps, what we enjoyed the most about Taronga was seeing animals we don't see at home.

Not only had I never seen a tree kangaroo, I'd never heard of one, either.

Of course, I had already seen the cutest animal to ever grace the Earth (discussed in this post), but you can never have too much wombat, can you?  The one at the zoo didn't look quite as fluffy and adorable as the one I almost snuggled at Wilsons Prom, but this one did look pretty darn endearing looking up with little corn bits stuck to his nose.
The free-flying bird show was amazing--firstly, with this view as a backdrop, it couldn't be boring--
but with an Andean condor, red-tailed black cockatoos, a Brahminy kite, and an owl among many others, the show was entertaining and really impressive.  I didn't know Australia was called the Land of Parrots, but it makes sense because what kind of paradise has gorgeous parrots and cockatoos flying around the neighborhood?  This here paradise does, folks.

A cassowary is alternatively one the most striking and imposing creatures, clearly a remnant of the dinosaur age.
I could live at the gorilla enclosure, looking into the eyes of our distant relatives.  The silverback was exceptionally massive, even when he daintily bent over and scooped up a carrot nubbin during feeding time.
He sat with his back towards us as he ate as if he couldn't be bothered to engage in any niceties with his houseguests.  None of us were willing to call him on it, either.

The momma gorilla had a curious one-year old baby that repeatedly tried to wander out of her mom's watchful eye and explore a bit, but each time that momma immediately outstretched her long arm and scooped that baby right back onto her lap.   I mentally cautioned her about helicopter parenting and suggested she might have a look-see at Free Range Kids.  Look, lady, nobody was hovering over me and intervening when I was cruelly and unfairly made to be Boss Hogg every single time we played Dukes of Hazzard growing up, just because I was the youngest, and I turned out ok.  Whether she was a protective helicopter gorilla or a Tiger gorilla not wanting her daughter to be engaged in a frivolous activity such as frolicking when she could be learning the apeviolin, I could tell she was not the kind of mom I'd want to be stuck with at the playground.  But I digress.

Later, I was admiring the stout adorableness of Kenyon the pygmy hippopotamus.  When we are around various animal species in the wild or in captivity, we inevitably wind up having the 'if you could be any animal, what would it be' discussion.  While different animals come up now and then, the longstanding popular answer is a seal or otter, because they are always having heaps of fun and are so effortless in the water (although for Sam it's also a toss-up with a bird because of the ability to fly factor).  Looking at the pygmy hippo lazily relaxing its bloated body in the water, I thought that wouldn't be such a bad life, either.  And then just as I was thinking that, the hippo made some sort of explosive bowel movement in the water (the nearby ducks wisely moved away quickly) and continued to lie in it.  Ok, I changed my answer back to otter.
Before the poop explosion, my eyes glazed over a bit as I dreamed of my next incarnation as a pygmy hippo, and when they refocused I happened to see this:
A golden orb spider.  While I do appreciate the interesting yellow web they weave, he clearly didn't read the memo that was sent out after the visit from the monster beast from hell huntsman spider, which forbade any spider from coming within a 10 foot radius of me.  What's that you say?  I came into his territory, not the other way around?  Don't bother me with these pesky specifics, all I know is I don't want any of these things near me, period.

Kenyon was able to choose something fun from the gift shop from Nana and Papa, and I used every tactic from my undergrad Psych courses (that degree has got to be useful for something!) to get him to choose the wombat stuffed animal, to no avail.  He is the proud owner of a koala mom and baby (named Climber and Eucalyptus--I'm guessing he gets his naming creativity, or the lack thereof, from his mother), and they have been inseparable ever since.
On the way home, Kenyon fell asleep on Jackson and Jackson said he was keeping still even though it was uncomfortable for his arm, because he wanted Kenyon to rest peacefully.  That's true love right there, buddy.
We capped off the day with the standard 'Happy Birthday To You' and, as requested, a cake with berry frosting and blueberries on top.
Kenyon, as you enter this next year of life, you are feisty and sharp as a whip, smoothly reading BOB books as long as you're in the mood to do so.  You've resisted writing until last week at school, when a successful 'K' on paper led to a flurry of workbook letter practice at home until your father came through the door from work.  You have the biggest internal woodstove, and excitedly strip off all your clothing before any nap or bedtime.  This makes for delicious snuggles, and I'm soaking it all in because your brothers don't do that sort of thing anymore.  You recently said you were going to cut your eyelashes because they were too long and got in the way.  I know sometimes when you cry and rub your eyes, your upper lashes are so long that they do fold down and get caught in between your eye and your lower lid until I carefully help you extract them, but like a male peacock strutting his gorgeous train, be proud of those eyelashes that strangers comment on every single day.  While you still do inexplicable toddler things like fling toys at your brothers for no reason, you also are equally as thoughtful when you want to be.  With the confidence of having your two older brothers leading the way, I am so enjoying watching you grow.  I love you more than life itself, kiddo.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Culinary Adventure Series--Rabbit Stew

When I picked the boys up from school, Jackson asked the question I hear every day from at least one of the kids: what are we having for dinner tonight?  When I was a kid and asked that question, my mom would answer, "Poison."  (love you, Mom!)  That annoyed me as a kid, but now I can totally relate.  Today, when I said we'd be having rabbit stew, he said, "What does that mean, is it stew that has lots of carrots in it?"  I told him no, we weren't alluding to rabbits by having a carrot-filled stew...we were actually having a rabbit in our stew.

Prior to living here, I had never thought about eating rabbits; I had a grey lop-eared rabbit (aptly named 'Fluff'--I was quite the literal child, and clearly lacked creativity) as a pet when I was 8.  I'm not particularly fond of rabbits per se, and in my mind, meat is meat is meat, so if you're going to be eating one you might as well eat the other (with some exceptions--I'm not keen to eat a squirrel or a rat).  I really had no idea people even ate rabbits, until I happened upon a whole, skinned rabbit in its package on my first trip to an Australian grocery store.  Even though rabbits are not a quintessentially Australian animal, I do want to spend this year eating as many new foods as I can, so rabbit stew hopped (ha! see the creative pun!) its way onto our weekly dinner menu.

I like the fact that both kangaroo and rabbit are wild-caught; no kangaroos or rabbits spend their lives in terrible, cramped conditions with the sole purpose of being killed for food like the vast majority of cattle used for beef sold in grocery stores.  That alone makes it worth trying, in my book.

Armed with a few different recipes that I took a little bit of this and that from, I set to work.  And work it was, in the beginning--I've never dealt with the dismembering of an animal before (other than peeling and deveining whole prawns), and it's a bit uncomfortable and awkward to hack with a knife, tear at joints and separate vertebrae and ribs, etc.  I'm saying this, even though I spent a semester in college fully dissecting human cadavers, examining every inch of the bodies, inside and out.

ANYWAY; that is a whole other blog post.  This introduction has surely whet your appetite, so let's get going.  I've included my recipe just in case you find yourself with a whole, skinned rabbit anytime in the near future...
Chop carrots, onions, and bacon (I would have also used celery but I didn't have any)
*side note--Australian bacon isn't nearly as tasty as American bacon; it's one of the things that all of us miss here.*
Cook the bacon, and then sear the rabbit until browned.  Remove from pot and set aside.
Add the vegetables and some garlic and cook, stirring, for a few minutes until softened.  Add about a cup of red wine and deglaze.
Place the meat back into the pot, along with a bundle of fresh thyme, marjoram, a bay leaf, and a cinnamon stick.  I also added about a cup of chicken broth because Sam likes his food saucy.

I left it to simmer, covered, until the meat was cooked through, about 45 minutes.  Add salt and pepper to taste.  Meanwhile, I made polenta for the base.
A scoop of polenta, a scoop of stew, and dinner was served.

The verdict?  The stew was amazing; delicious, flavorful...the rabbit meat was great where the meat was thicker, but a little chewy on the thinner parts by the ribs.  Not gamey at all; it really resembled chicken and I think if the meat was off the bone I wouldn't be able to tell the difference between the two.  I loved the polenta.

Sam ate the meat--he's no animal activist but couldn't quite get past the cute rabbit side of things, so although he thought the stew was wonderful, he'd prefer to have it with veggies only or with chicken.

Jackson, who is thrilled by free airplane breakfasts, ate his whole portion.

Alex ate the meat and stew but wasn't a fan of the polenta.
Kenyon wasn't a fan of the polenta either, but man, he knows how to put away the meat!  A massive rabbit boneyard was heaped next to his bowl.  And I'm guessing he didn't have a problem with the fact that ate an adorable, fluffy little creature, either--while brushing his teeth tonight, he said, "Mom, there's bunny between my teeth that won't come out!"

If that isn't a ringing endorsement for this dish, I don't know what is!

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Double Rainbow!

photo credit: Matt Scott, illustrious frisbee golfer and photographer
We saw this double rainbow from our balcony, which of course prompted a discussion and viewing of the infamous Double Rainbow video.  Sam and the boys had never seen it until now--if you haven't seen it before, grab some tissues and click below, because it's a must watch.

Whoa.  I'm emotionally exhausted.

My reaction to watching it was to question the guy's mental health; meanwhile, Sam was totally lit up and exclaimed that he wants to feel some more of THAT in his life.  How's that for a balanced partnership--Ha!

Here's wishing you all a double rainbow experience. :)

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Straight Out of a Horror Movie

Sam came home from school toting a plastic container nicely outfitted with leaves and twigs.  He'd spotted a spider in his classroom, and as he began an attempt to use the lid to brush it into the container, a student suggested that Sam just use his hands and grab it. In his infinite wisdom, Sam countered that the student would be welcome to use his own hands and grab it.  As the kid was reaching, arms outstretched to capture the specimen, the spider jumped down on the top of his ball cap-adorned head and frantically ran around in a few circles (the spider, not the kid) before falling into the container.

I didn't bother going out on the balcony to have a look at the spider, because the story was enough for me.

The next morning, Sam said we'd release the spider (sufficiently far from our building) along our walk to the beach.  I took a look at the previous evening's houseguest, and this (and I swear there has been no Photoshop alteration), is what I saw:
Huntsman spider
Huntsman spiders are sometimes confused with tarantulas, and adult males can reach a legspan of 10-12 inches.  Yes, I said inches.

Hear that?  What you hear is the sound of my father deftly dialing the airline to cancel his ticket to visit me.

One of the few stories my father has shared about his experience in the Vietnam War was one night when he had the opportunity to go to a nice restaurant on his own.  Looking forward to treating himself, he ordered his food, and looked up to see a tarantula on the ceiling above him.  He spent the entire meal with his head upturned, somehow eating with his eyes never leaving the creature that could drop down on him at any moment.  So much for treating himself to a nice evening.  Needless to say, he's not a big fan of the Arachnid family.
our goodbye photo, upon releasing him

So, that was in Sam's classroom?  What's more shocking, I have heard exchange teachers say that they have found these in. their. homes.


After making a quick mental note to never visit Sam at his school, I also made a silent prayer to the Australian spider gods to please have mercy upon me and let me make it through the year without happening upon one of these in my bathroom.

Meanwhile, I'm aleady walking around feeling like the guy in the opening scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark with the tarantulas all over his back.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Here Comes the Sun

I'd like to say that we had glorious weather all week. I wish I could complain about having to wear sunglasses, that I was getting little indentations on the sides of my nose from wearing them so much of the day. I'd like to announce that I'm sick of the color blue, that the skies had just been throwing their color in my face for days on end and I'm over it. I wish I could post some obnoxious status update on Facebook, something like 'Is it possible to wear a hole in a sand castle bucket? Picked up the kids from school and spent yet ANOTHER afternoon at the beach! Whew!'.

I wish I could say those things, but I heard today that it's supposed to continue to rain for the month of February. It's laugh or cry, right? Hahahahahahahaha (as I slip on my rain jacket, grasp my umbrella, and watch as the plumbers drain my building's flooded garage).

Even though the weather has been less than desirable, this week has in fact been glorious. Remember Alex, who hated his new school? One week ago today, he cried and told me he didn't want to go to school for the rest of the year. On Sunday night as we rode the high from our awesome beach and Sydney weekend, I asked him what his goal was for the upcoming week--he said to not complain on the walk to school. I thought that was great, and added that it would be nice to make a friend as well.

Well, I'm happy to report that not only did Alex meet his goal of not complaining on the walk to (and from) school, he also made a friend. Ahhhh, the clouds are parting.

AND--he was named Student of the Week for his 'enthusiasm and good grammar'.

AND--he got 100% on his spelling test today.

Jackson didn't have a shabby week, either--he earned WOW awards for various achievements, was notified that his 1st place in 50m butterfly earned him a right to compete at the regional swimming carnival against different schools, got 100% on his spelling test...

AND to top it off, he was voted one of two class representatives for Student Representative Council.

It may be raining outside, but somehow I'm only seeing sunshine at the moment.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Because Weekends Were Made For Fun

**Any of you very few readers who had the distinct pleasure of roller skating at Hot Wheels in Miami in the mid-80s catch the song reference in the title??**

By Friday of last week, three out of five of us were in a downward spiral.  As you recently read, Jackson was solid.  Kenyon rocked his first week of school and was doing great.  Sam was okay but even his wake-up-and-stretch-and-meditate routine that had armed him with Zen grooviness the first part of the week was starting to wane.  Alex was actively despising school and everything related to it, and between absorbing Alex's stress and the rainy weather, to say I was on edge would be very kind.

The universe smiled upon us in the form of sunshine Saturday morning, and we eagerly packed up a lunch, gathered our beach gear and ran out the door.  The stress of the preceding week was left in the wake as we practically skipped towards the beach.

We all were reborn with a renewed giddiness, and had a lovely time walking to City Beach.  The water in the harbour was smooth as glass, and we could see straight to the bottom.  We paused and pointed out different types of fish, and Jackson spotted a jellyfish lazily making its way through the water.

As Alex and I jumped waves, he was gleefully exclaiming things like "I feel like tip-tapping!" and "I'm so so happy right now!".  I smiled and laughed, all the while silently hoping he could bottle up this joy and enthusiasm to help get him through this next school week.

On Sunday, we woke up bright and early to catch the train to Sydney, although trackwork on our line meant we ended up on the bus this time.  Sydney and surrounding areas have Family Funday Sunday, which means that for a mere $2.50 per person, there is unlimited travel on trains, buses, and ferries in the greater Sydney area.  A bargain in Sydney?  It looks like this is the only one, so we're going to take advantage of it.  I wanted to do something special to celebrate surviving the first week of school, so I bought tickets to the Harry Potter Exhibition at the Powerhouse Museum.  Alex was chosen to be assigned to a house by the Sorting Hat; to his delight, he is a Gryffindor.  No pictures were allowed, but the exhibition was an amazing display of Harry Potter film artifacts and the kids were enthralled by the entire thing.  In fact, they loved the whole museum and were exclaiming that it was the coolest museum they had ever been to, even though much of it was under renovation construction.

We headed to Sydney's small Chinatown area for lunch and gorged ourselves on absolutely delicious dim sum.  Dim sum is such a fun culinary adventure, and everyone loved it.
these sesame prawns were my favorite, although Kenyon enjoyed them as well

Alex loved the jasmine tea (cha), and specifically asked me to take a picture of him and his cha.
Jackson made friends with the man selling silhouettes for $2 and got one for free (although we tipped him $1).  While it doesn't necessarily look like Jackson, it was pretty amazing to watch him cut out a silhouette so swiftly.
With full bellies, we headed to the Darling Quarter, where a massive playground with water features was beyond the kids' wildest imaginations.
Unfortunately, it was also beyond 563,295 other kids' wildest imaginations--and they were all at the playground as well.  The simple math of 2 parents + 3 children + massive crowds + playground equipment=a casual father but a stressed-out mother; the risk of losing a child was scientifically calculated (by me) at 1 in 3.
the older boys hard at work at the water scoop...
...while Kenyon chillaxed in the bowl.

We managed the chaos until they had sufficient time to cool off and then called it quits, using Clever Parenting Trick #112--the vague promise of returning 'next time' so they can explore the rest of the park.  To avoid the crowd factor, I'll have to make sure 'next time' is either during a severe hailstorm or at 2am, because it was if we had inadvertently used the Floo Network and found ourselves at Disney World.

Now ready to relax, we looked forward to a ferry ride for a little tour of the Sydney Harbour.  On the walk over, we spotted this...

Words and my pictures don't do the Sydney Harbour justice--it's truly gorgeous, and we all loved every minute of the ferry ride.
I made a mental note to begin buying lottery tickets when I saw some of these estates with their private docks.

the entrance to Luna Park, Sydney's iconic amusement park
The Sydney Opera House is so fantastic.

A man playing the didgeridoo set to some background trance music occupied us during the wait for the bus home...

...and we all felt just like Kenyon did.

An epic weekend was had by all, and here's hoping it will carry us through the week until the next one.  Looks like it's working so far--Alex met his goal of not complaining on the walk to school, and even made a friend!