I Lost My Cynicism in Sydney
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia
Before I get to how much Sydney rocked my fanny, since Sydney is inevitably everyone’s introduction to Australia, I’d like to follow suit here and provide a short, random preface on facets of life in Australia.
One thing that becomes immediately clear about Australians, after their disarming friendliness and unusual good looks, is the unfortunate fact that their lifestyle and exposure the some of the harshest sun conditions on earth tends to encourage the onset of wrinkles at a frighteningly early age. Anywhere else in the world, people routinely guess my age (35) at being 25-28, but the with the foundation that Aussies use as a benchmark, my age was being low-balled like never before. At first, I took this as the usual fawning compliments, usually preceding a solicitation for spare change, but after the tenth guess that put me at 22-23, looking around at the creased up condition of people of my age, I realized that these summations were sincere. At about the same time, I made the observation that, despite the advanced wrinkles at such an early age, young Aussie women nevertheless frequently opt to date men 10 years their senior and more. Apparently young women in Australia have been turned on to the usually hard-won knowledge – at that tender age at any rate – that older men are infinitely more mature, witty, reliable and all-around less of a pain in the ass. Then it occurred to me that my comparatively youthful mug would pigeonhole me as a typical, lower 20s halfwit and that I’d be summarily ignored by the ladies, despite my blatantly superior allure. Yes, woe is me.
Everything is backwards in Australia. They drive on the left, the water drains counter-clockwise, they seem to thrive on, and even seek out, easily avoidable discomfort simply for the purposes of bragging rights and finally they often invent new and exciting ways to enunciate common letter combinations. The Aussies have an irksome tendency to randomly dismiss English phonetic rules and assign unlikely pronunciations to arbitrarily selected words. Within days I learned that the word “quay” is pronounced “key.” Additionally, I was schooled about the Aussie pronunciation of the cities of Mackay (“mah-kî”) and Cairns (“cans”).
Similarly, another language aspect that will keep you on your toes is the partial vocabulary adjustment. Aussie’s not only have wholly new and perplexing words that exist only within their borders, but they also have a trying habit of taking standard words and abbreviating them to the benefit of speaking efficiency. A few of the more common words that I learned during my first week included: “chuck” (throw, get rid of), “trolley” (cart or baby carriage), “concession” (discount), “bottle shop” (liquor store), “bathers” (swimsuit), “arvo” (afternoon), “rock up” (arrive), “crack the shits” (get upset), “how ya goin’?” (how are you?), “lollies” (candy), “bastard” (good guy, said with an appropriate tone of admiration), “root” (to have sex), “whoop-whoop” (outback, far from civilization) and “rupa-dupie-doo” (toenail). Just kidding on that last one, but I wouldn’t be surprised…I could go on like this for pages, so I’ll just stop here and let you know that when you come to Australia be prepared to relearn a fair portion of English.
There is a type of black fly in Australia that demands attention here, because the only way to ignore them is to bash yourself in the head with a mid-sized car. I don’t know the true name of this type of fly, so I am hereby deeming it the “Australian Lip-Shitting Fly”. These are the most persistent flies I have ever encountered. From what I have been able to personally ascertain, these flies have three committed duties in life; shitting on your lip, laying eggs in your nose and burrowing into your ear to die. They stubbornly pursue these goals in the face of any and all discouragement. Flailing at them does nothing. Flies in the U.S. will depart if you just wave a hand near them. Lip Shitters do not budge unless you actually make contact with them, meaning you spend a great deal of your time outdoors smacking yourself in the face. And even when you connect, you can only count on about half a second of relief while the fly does a lap around your head only to land again on the exact same spot on your lip. Downtown Sydney is full of business people walking down the street operating cell phones in one hand and swatting the air around their faces with the other. These flies also have a tendency to latch on to one victim and stay with them, no matter what, like a venereal disease. A single fly once followed me for about 12 city blocks, before I deftly buzzed closely past a heavily perfumed woman and succeeded in passing the fly off onto her. Sly maneuvers like this or suicide are pretty much your only options for ridding yourself of this annoyance.
One of my first forays into Sydney was a visit to world famous and perennially fashionable Bondi Beach, where I walked right past the inviting sand in favor of the even more inviting annual seaside event entitled “Sculptures by the Sea.” For several weeks a year the coastline path leading away from the south end of Bondi is decorated by the sculpture works of an assembly of international artists. Among other enticements, the lot I saw included an elephant made out of old televisions, an army of giant, metal crabs invading from the sea, a 20 foot tall bottle decorated with flip-flop sandals – or “thongs” as the Aussies call them, needless to say when someone blurted out “Oh look! A giant bottle made out of thongs!” my head whipped around so fast that I lost two fillings – and a pack of demons cruising downhill on bicycles. The work was inspired, fun and made for a very enjoyable afternoon diversion.
I set out the next day for a ferry trip around Darling and Sydney Harbors and then out to Manly Beach to assess the bikini situation (Freudian slip intended). Sydney has a wonderfully robust public water transportation system. The bountiful ferries and the cute, toy-like harbor taxis crisscross the harbor areas, carving intersecting watery slashes as they convey locals and camera toting travel writers alike to their respective destinations. First, for the sake of orientation and a well-earned ass rest, I took the round-trip journey from Balmain East dock, across Darling Harbor and back to Balmain again. The same ferry then continued on to Sydney Harbor, passing the Australian National Maritime Museum, stopping at Luna Amusement Park, chugging under the gigantic Sydney Harbor Bridge and then rolling into Circular Quay, the nexus of central Sydney. This is where you can transfer to just about any Sydney ferry available, but more importantly, as you slide in and out of the Quay, you have the opportunity to take a jillion pictures of the Sydney Opera House from dozens of fractionally different angles. The day’s various ferry trips took me past the Opera House four separate times, with the sun providing varying degrees of righteous lighting for each pass. Thus, I was left later that night to upload and process enough king-sized digital pictures of the Opera House to take down a Yahoo server. After a brief wander around the Circular Quay area, I caught the ferry to Manly.
Manly is a tourist infested neighborhood featuring a collection of tacky gift shops, food stalls selling the worst, overpriced food in Sydney, as well as being the staging area for several scenic walks and boasting a comely beach with disappointingly few topless women. Though if you hang around the adjacent Shelly Beach area long enough you will eventually be rewarded with the sight of a German tourist brazenly stripping to her bare ass while changing out of her wetsuit, as I was later on. While one can reach Manly by way of several bridges in a wandering, overland manner, the lazy ferry ride from Circular Quay takes a mere 30 minutes and is infinitely more scenic. I took some time to case the wharf area in Manly and ventured a small distance into the 10 kilometer Manly Scenic Walkway, before backtracking and cutting through the wall-to-wall retail pedestrian streets to Manly Beach.
Having only just re-read Bill Bryson’s Australia travelogue “Down Under,” and vividly recalling his close encounter at Manly with “blueys” (bluebottle jellyfish, A.K.A Portuguese man-of-war), I chose to tour the beach from the safety of the roadside walkway. Additionally, although I had a hat, I had not brought along sun screen and with the sun’s UV rays slicing through Australia’s diminished ozone layer and battering my delicate Norwegian skin, exposure was starting to become a concern. After admiring the alfresco German woman, I continued beyond Shelly Beach, through a tuft of “bush” (by Aussie definition, anything that’s off paved road and surrounded by trees and scrub would be “bush”, but we all know what goes through the mind of an American male when someone mentions this word in virtually any context, tee hee!) and out onto a panoramic, rocky lookout perched over the Pacific Ocean. This provided a good 90 second distraction, before I again, ahem, penetrated the bush, heading back down to the Shelly Beach to see if any more German women were wrapping up their day in the surf.
The Australians have an affinity for ocean-side, salt water pools. Bondi has one. Manly has two, both of which look as though the water is in desperate need of recycling. I puzzled over this potential attraction for a moment before resolving to make the courageous trek up the length of Manly Beach in ankle deep, possibly bluey infested water. Aside from testing my icy nerves of steel, I had an ulterior motive for this hike. By this point I knew that some color had gotten on my neck and shoulders, offset by the two white strips of skin covered by my tank-top. In my usual ill-conceived approach to tanning, I thought that a leisurely walk in the sun, minus the tank, still sun screen-free, might even things out. Strangely, this bumbling only succeeded in making the colored parts full-on red and seemingly doing nothing for the skim milk white parts. Once my feet had acclimated to the surprisingly cold water, the walk was a pleasant and relaxing way to end the day.
After a day to let my mild burns fade, I again ventured into the city, this time for a tour on foot. Starting at Circular Quay, I made my way around to the Opera House, though I quickly realized that the photo opportunities from the rear were scarce. As I approached the Opera House, I experienced a common phenomenon with large attractions, being that they have a visual appreciation sweet spot that usually zeros out while you are still a fair distance from the structure and as you close in from this point, the attraction gradually loses its appeal. The Opera House suffers from this effect. When this became clear to me I veered off suddenly and plunged into the neighboring Botanical Gardens which are attached to The Domain and Hyde parks. These were pleasing, green and quiet getaways within the city, but I had barely been in the city long enough to want to get away from anything. I swung out and delved into the neighborhood of Woolloomooloo (say that three times fast, hell say it once correctly and I’ll give you a quarter). I actually had an appointment here. After getting thoroughly lost twice, I reeled up to my appointment 20 minutes late to meet a fellow traveler that I had met in the BootsnAll travel discussion forum.
I wanted to write a traveler profile on Shira the moment that I became familiar with her situation. With the U.S. media making a habit out of regularly scaring the bejesus out of anyone with the inclination to leave the safe confines of our country, particularly women, I felt that an encouraging article was in order. Women are forever joining the BnA discussion group and starting their posting legacy with questions like “Is it safe for a solo female to travel in ‘X?’” The ‘Xs’ in these queries have run the table from Thailand to, of all places, England. Knowing this, I wanted to write a piece that would put some of these aspiring female travelers at ease. Shira, a New Yorker, was not only special in that she was a well-traveled, lone female, but she also had the added disadvantage of being deaf. And barely four feet tall. This woman’s determination and fearlessness captivated me immediately. I made contact and by some miracle it turned out that we would be in Sydney at the same time. We arranged to meet and here I was, breathless, bathed in sweat and unforgivably late. Shira was perched at the top of what seemed to be a towering bar stool, digging into a sandwich when I rocked up (dig the vernacular!). I had never had more than a few moments of interaction with a deaf person before and quite frankly, I was a bit nervous about how our afternoon was going to progress, but being a grizzled veteran with these situations, Shira broke the barrier in seconds. Initially we interacted partly through lip-reading/pantomime and hand written notes in her notebook, but after the sandwich we went walking and animated lip-reading was all we needed. It was surprisingly easy. As we parted, I wanted more than ever to write a profile on her, but my workload of both paying and non-paying projects at the time forced me to shelve the idea.
I had planned to head into the nearby Blue Mountains for a two day cycling foray, but Sydney was hit with consecutive days of very unsummer-like, cool and rainy weather and the plan was scrapped in favor of a well-deserved listless day followed by a spontaneous trip out to the Featherdale Wildlife Park, featuring 2,200 native Australian animals. I fed, petted and played with kangaroos, wallabies, koala bears, parrots and wombats, while observing crocodiles and Tasmanian Devils from a safe distance. There were emus, lizards, echidnas, penguins, cassowaries, some of the world’s deadliest spiders and snakes and a who’s-who of the brightly colored, unlikely shaped and “fowl tempered” birds of Australasia. We were even treated to a small but impressive stampede in one of the petting courtyards that appeared to have been sparked off by a bored, ornery wallaby. I was like a kid, surrounded and dumbfounded by these new and strange animals. Well, they were new and strange to me anyway.
While the wildlife park was a huge bonus, I often found myself slowing and starring at free-roaming urban animals in a similar state of awe. On a whole Australia is very much like being in the States, or more appropriately England, but there are small things that confront you each day that jar you out of a general sense of normalcy. The birds for example. There are birds at large in Sydney, just every day birds on any street, that are of the kind that people pay a thousand dollars for as pets anywhere else. Exotic birds with stupefying deep and stark colors just hang out, like pigeons, tormenting the neighborhood with shrill cries that can liquefy your brain stem. Some of these birds emit noises that I had not previously heard outside of a Godzilla film. Loud, whooping, whistling and screaming noises, that sound like someone is being murdered, sometimes directly outside one’s bedroom window, which is not a pleasant way to wake up at 6:30 a.m.
Then there’s the spiders. While there are a few poisonous spiders to look out for in urban Australian cities, the disquieting and astonishing size of some of the every-day spiders is what will invariably seize and paralyze you. While most of the big guys can’t kill you through any venom delivery mechanism, their ability to jump great distances and indiscriminately go for you if they have the notion could easily result in spontaneous fright-induced cardiac arrest. Ultimately, just walking down the street surrounded by strange, unfamiliar noises and occasionally sighting something like an unusually large garden lizard or a spider the size of your hand is an irregular reminder that you are indeed on the other side of the planet and despite general appearances, it is a genuinely different place, which brings us to the state of Sydney tourism.
Sydney is overrun with tourists. These invaders are mostly Asian, but the Canadians and Germans are also well represented with disappointingly few Americans (apparently the bulk of my countrymen and women are still cowering within their borders, under the onslaught of the newly elected Bush Administration’s vague, random, yet ominous warnings about our safety abroad). There were times in central Sydney when I was the only Caucasian in sight. I didn’t mind this so much, in fact, I considered it a warm-up for my foray into Southeast Asia in the coming months, but the effect of being on a busy street in an English speaking country, without a single soul in earshot actually speaking English at any given moment didn’t help my ongoing culture shocking issues.
Lastly, I need to address the food. Australians, Sydneysiders in particular, expect, nay demand a superior quality of food, whether they are eating in a pricey restaurant or digging into a five dollar steak at a dive bar. This universal mindset resulted in virtually all of my Sydney eating experiences being drooling homeruns. Even a visit to a suburban shopping mall food court yielded a shocking level of quality and dizzying options including Greek, Thai, Japanese, Indian, Italian, French and Chinese. It was breathtaking, particularly knowing that the same situation in the U.S. would have left me with little more than a gagging, cholesterol infused plate of fried and salted gruel.
Despite heading off to numerous untold adventures, I was very sorry to leave Sydney. With a few more English lessons and a bucket of SPF 106, I was confident that I could find a very content life there among the people, attractions, food and the odd naked German.