Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Making tracks in Sydney: Part 1

I am surprised every time exactly how long a 14-hour flight is. That is to say, I haven't done it too many times (back and forth to China twice; back and forth from New Zealand once), but every time I am surprised exactly what it feels like when you have been in a plane for 7 hours and you know you will be in that same plane for another 7 hours. And then when you leave you will be in an entirely new place very far from where you started. Such is the miracle of air travel.

To be fair, Qantas made it as enjoyable as possible to sit in a tin box for that long. They have an absurd selection of movies, TV shows, even video games and CDs, all available for starting on-demand whenever you want. I watched a funny Indian sitcom called "Mumbai Calling" about a call center, "In Bruges" (which, sorry, I don't really see the big deal), some standard American sitcom fare, and two tourist videos about Sydney and Brisbane. Qantas served a couple of quite passable meals, I managed to procure some Australian wine to help me fall asleep, and I woke up in time to help the Greek Australian woman next to me with her immigration card.

Customs took forever, as usual, but then I was wandering out into the bright light of Australian morning. The humidity even in the arrival hall was palpable. Without really understanding what I was doing, I used my AAA travel card to get some money from an ATM and bought myself an Australian SIM card, marveling at this brand new place in which I could function, even delirious from air travel. I took a long, sweaty bus ride from the airport to Burwood, the suburb where I would be staying for the next five days. I watched the Sydney streets crawl past and all I could think was “This is real this is real this is real.” For so long I had been looking ahead to this morning, and it had arrived.

As it turned out, Burwood was a nice medium-sized suburb/village with a huge Chinese population, obvious in the foot traffic on the street, the Chinese language signage, and the multitude of yum cha/dim sum restaurants lining the main street. This street also featured coffee shops with doors closed until after the New Years holiday week; several Adult Book stores; a grocery store; a fruit shop called the Fruit Bowl; a couple of Chinese-style bakeries (my favorite of these was called "Leanly Hot Bread"); and trinket shops of the kind I got used to in Kunming that sell plastic shower shoes, $3 hats, and a world of other non-necessities. It was a fairly quiet, safe town except once, late at night, when a couple of drunk boys yelled so loudly and suddenly out their open windows that I stopped short and then hurried back to my host's house.

The Rs were a lovely first-time couch surfing host family. The father regarded me suspiciously but was friendly (he once made a half joke about my stealing all their money.) The mother was rotund and looked vaguely like an ex-nurse although I never found out what she did. She spent a lot of time kindly lecturing me on wearing enough “mozzie spray” and sunscreen and was less than helpful in a friendly way about figuring out train tickets-- she was in short a nice stand-in for a mom. James, their son and my connection through couch surfing, was in his late 20s or early 30s, a science teacher and avid traveler, in great shape and fairly handsome. He was in the habit of raising his eyebrows a lot while he talked, so I could never tell if he was amused by something I said. As a teacher he was in the midst of summer holidays and had just bought a motorbike, so he was often off helping his father learn to ride or taking a spin down to various areas of the city, most often Bondi Beach (pronounced Bond-EYE, not that I knew that until I heard someone else say it) where I think he had something going on with a French couch surfer. That meant my Sydney time was mostly self directed.

The foyer of the R House; James, looking amused as usual

Dazed from the 14 hour flight, unable to believe I had really arrived, and feeling as if I were in another world, I dropped my bags at the R's house, walked 10 minutes down to the train station, and in half an hour was goggling at the Opera House. The building is pure poetry. You’ve seen pictures, but I have to say that nothing is quite like being next to it. It is breathtaking. The two partners, opera house and bridge, make for a fantastic view. You walk out of the subway stop at Circular Quay (you say it "Key," another pronunciation obstacle for me) and boom. There they are.

The sights of Sydney Harbor

It was incredibly hot and I found myself in a torpor of epic proportions. I ordered an ice coffee along the Esplanade, only to find that that meant ice cream and coffee rather than coffee made cold. I drank it watching tourists of all colors come and go, the ferries from all over the harbour fill and empty. At one point in the afternoon I visited the Museum of Contemporary Art--hooray, free admission!-- which had some really interesting exhibits. But jet lag hit big just then, and I spent the last part of the museum barely looking at the art, wandering from room to room, and trying to decide if it would be acceptable to lie down on the lawn outside the Museum with all the tourists going by. Luckily, within an hour or so the feeling passed.

Just outside the museum I met Graheme, a great-looking character busking on the Quay for the tourists passing by. I got into a conversation with him in which he revealed that he was a milkman by trade until about 10 years ago, when milkmen finally lost out to supermarkets. Now he sits on the Quay day in and day out playing Bob Dylan and traditional folk Australiana and trying to convince people to leave him tips. I sat and listened to him for awhile. He played some great old Dylan and “Waltzing Matilda” (which might as well be the national anthem here), as well as another song whose chorus included the worlds “tie my kangaroo down, boys.” I really loved having a chance to talk to him. That sort of interaction with interesting, real people, however brief, is one of my favorite parts about traveling.

Graheme in action

Before dinner I was supposed to meet James at a bar to watch salsa lessons but got hopelessly lost in the business district. It was a nice way to see a bit of the city, but I ended up having to buy a meat pie from a fast food purveyor (meat pies are left over from the British influence) and after a brief stop at said bar (where they were just finishing off the salsa lesson) jet lag called me back to Burwood.

Although exploring the city alone had its own merits, I decided to try and meet up with some couch surfers also traveling in the area for the next few days. The next morning I found Wil, from Sussex, England, in a coffee shop in The Rocks, which is the oldest part of Sydney, and later on we met up with Sonia, who hails from Brookline (Massachusetts) and with whom I had friends in common back in the US. The Rocks is a great tourist draw that has been heavily preserved, and it is very charming, with lovely Victorian architecture. As I remarked to my companions, I was very aware that the neighborhood was engineered to appeal to me-- and it quite succeeded. We spent the morning wandering along cobblestone alleyways past at least three bars claiming to be the Oldest Pub In Sydney, and divided our time between a neat historical museum, a honey shop (who knew there were that many kinds of honey? I could even taste the difference), and an amazing puppet store located in an old basement.

The puppet shop

After the Rocks we headed to the Australian Museum, which was a nice diversion that included interesting bits about Australian history (a subject about which I have learned a great deal since I arrived here) and some funny exhibits about weird Australian pets. We wandered from there through Darling Harbor, a very ritzy area chock full of fancy boats and fancier bars, through to the area of the city known informally as Chinatown. The street was lined with yum cha shops and tea houses, but we walked past them to Market City, a massive Asian-centric mall filled with internet cafes, cell phone bling shops, Hello Kitty outlets, fully stocked arcades replete with sweaty DDRing coeds, and an enormous food court featuring most Asian delicacy you can think of. As I rested our feet and relished my cheap, rich miso ramen, it was easy to forget where I was. Sitting in Market City was like landing on a piece of an entirely different continent. I saw maybe two other Caucasians in the entire mall, which is remarkable considering that Australia is something like 95% white.

It was raining by the time we'd finished, and we made a dash to the train station to go our separate ways. But not before Sonia and I decided to take the plunge and meet up at 7 AM the next day to go to what was said to be the best and most extensive fish market outside of Tsukiji in Tokyo.

An Aboriginal man in traditional dress and paint sells his techno-didjeridoo CDs to the throngs on Circular Quay. I had mixed feelings when I saw this, and still do, but having witnessed the poverty of many Aboriginals living in Australian cities my perspective is a bit different. I especially like this photo because of the bridge acting as a frame.

1 comment:

Lilly said...

"Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport" was one of my favorite songs when I was a kid!!! Awesome.