Wednesday, August 19, 2009

My Outstanding Odyssey to Oz, Part 1: Story Telling

I never knew “Oz” meant “Australia” until 2 or 3 weeks ago. Either way, our story begins some 4 or 5 weeks ago. Summer was approaching and I had no plans. Not so surprisingly, I was quite fine with this; I tend to keep myself too busy and respite, no matter how brief, is a breathe of air. I emailed my quickly-becoming-friend in Tokyo about any “seat sales” of the sort. Small story short: I was to fly Thai air to Australia for 2 weeks. Since it’s Thai air it stops in Bangkok, so I asked for a couple days layover to see Lily and Anna again.

I left Nagoya, Japan at 10 in the morning Monday. A 6-hour flight to Bangkok, 4-hour layover there, then a 9-hour journey to Sydney later, I arrived around 7 in the morning Tuesday. (I know the math doesn’t add up, but sue me) I suppose it’s easy to overlook just how far away Australia really is; at least I don’t have to deal with jet lag at all.

I got to my hostel, “The Funk House” which coincidentally is right in the red light district of Sydney. I paid $100 to stay 5 nights, which I think is pretty awesome. They gave me something of a welcome package full of brochures, discounts, and travel ideas. I gave it a read, and with the dude Ben at the front counter, we made a stellar game plan for me for the next week.

Many museums closed around 5 though, so the first day I mostly just walked around. I saw a breathtaking cathedral, I saw beautiful parks, I saw interesting architecture, and much more. The cathedral was huge, and the stained glass inside was nothing short of amazing. Eventually I’ll get to see one of these in Europe but until then I was rather humbled by this one’s majesty. Outside I also got to eat, which became the first of many: Australian Pie. These things are wonderful little snacks, and most are packed full of meat. I now understand when I hear Australians talking about their homesickness, and missing these beautiful little treats; I miss them now too!

I also learnt that drinks are super expensive in Australia. A can of pop in a convenience store is $3. A bottle, regardless of size or flavour, is $3.50. You almost should just buy a beer! I don’t know why it’s so expensive, I haven’t seen much for recycling, so maybe it’s some hidden plastic tax or something to discourage consumption.

Ya, I guess there isn’t too much to write about that first day. I walked a number of kilometers and saw all kinds of beautiful sights downtown. Outside the cathedral was a newly wed Japanese couple getting photos in front of the chapel. There are many Asians of many descents there, but even stranger so, so many people bear striking resemblance to people I know. I kept thinking I saw old school mates, co-workers, and even my grandpa at one point. Maybe being in the southern hemisphere has some weird bizarro-world effect on people here. I then kept looking out for my double…

My hostel had parties/events every night. The first night we went to “The Gaff”, a nice little bar. Anyways, we got free transport, free entrance, 2 free drinks and a free meal there. Good value I think. They tried to do something like a coyote ugly with girls dancing on the bar. I wanted to get lots done the next day though, so I wasn’t out too late.

I hopped on a city tour bus in an effort to cover as much of the city as possible. You pay for a day pass, and you can get on and off as many times as you’d like throughout the route. I was fully planning to see a couple of the main museums that tickled my fancy. I rode it for a little while, but soon enough we went down to a little sweet spot where the majestic opera house came into view with the fabulous bridge in the background. I was speechless and knew I had to get off the bus no matter what.

You see these famous landmarks in pretty much every photo ever published of Sydney or Australia, but it’s something else entirely to be up close and personal with them. When I got my composure back, I made a booking to see a show that night. They had different plays every night, usually on a 2-day cycle so that the performers could get a day break instead of going out every single night. I ended up buying tickets for a Shakespeare play: Pericles. Since I was 26 (or younger) I got a huge discount too, and the ticket cost me $35 after taxes. I think that’s an amazing deal, and the first time being 26 was worth something.

The name “opera house” is a bit of a misnomer. Inside there are actually 4 stages (possibly more) for different performances. There was a small stage for stand up or one act plays, there was a larger stage for plays like what I was seeing, there was an even bigger stage in one of the huge fans you see where they have actual opera, then in the largest stage in the fins closest to the bridge is where the symphony plays.

That night there was a stand up comedy show that was already sold out, this Shakespeare play, and there was an opera that I decided to pass up on because it was all in Roman, with English subtitles telling you what was going on. With Shakespeare of course I still wouldn’t completely understand, but it would be better than listening to Roman songs. Tickets can be quite expensive of course, with “prime” spots in the opera house running at around $150. One guy I was talking with said he went to buy tickets, and the nice lady at the ticket booth told him to come back just before the show opened because it was going to be empty that night. He ended up getting one of these prime tickets for $30.

Good times I’d say, although he confirmed reading the subtitles at the top of the stage was a bit strange. I had to go on a tour of the place, because I felt it to be a crime not to, and she spoke of how opera purists hate the subtitles, and as such there is special seating where they are blocked out; either close to the stage or near the back where the overhang effectively blocked them.

It’s odd too that opera, which is suppose to be the main draw of the place, ended up playing second fiddle to the symphony getting the largest stage. Politics plays a role at muddling up everything of course, as we learnt some of the sad history of the place. It cost and took at least 4 times what was projected, and is a miracle it has even been completed. I found it to be quite an engineering marvel, how they overcome the challenging design with something intuitive that “saved countless time and money” even though the whole place was terrible expensive and late as it was.

Anyways, I needed to take advantage of that all day bus ticket I had, so I kicked my butt out of that place to see more of the city; I’d be back later anyways. The bus had audio playing that gave interesting tidbits to stuff as you passed it. Like how the currency of the early settlement was rum, and how a guy was paid 45 gallons of it to build the main road, which “miraculously came out straight despite all that rum” :) I found it amusing. Other neat tidbits like how an older part of the town survived being demolished and rebuilt due to it being a slum of prostitution and crime or whatever.

I made it to the museum, which big draw for me was the space and Star Wars exhibit inside. I was a bit disappointed when I first got in, not only because the Star Wars exhibit was closed, but because of the fashion and pottery on display. It was bit and a bit hard to navigate, but I did discover it eventually in the far reaches of the center. They had model satellites, rocket engines, scale sized pioneer moon landers, spacecraft and all kinds of cool stuff. I got to go into the nose of a shuttle, and then to a replica of a space station wing. Once inside, the whole place would rotate to give you a feel of the confusion and vertigo experienced by the astronauts daily. It was quite crazy, but really cool.

I spent a lot of time here, but was getting tired and didn’t care much for the rest of the museum as much as I should have. It was one of those moments of “this is what I do when I travel” and reflected on it. I shouldn’t go to see stuff because it’s famous or whatever like I’ve done before, I should go see it if I want to. That being said, my trip took a turn towards the nerdy a bit, but it was still great. It was about my 3rd day in when I realized that one week just wasn’t enough time to see Sydney; and there was a ton of Australia outside of Sydney to see and do. But I digress

I was tired from 3 hours or so at the museum, and just rode out the remaining length of the tour bus trip until I was back at the hostel. Of course I saw lots of cool things along the way and took neat pictures; including the underside of the famous bridge. I rested up for a bit and headed back to the opera house to see my show.

One thing I did wrong was I underestimated Australia’s winter. Sure it was like 20 degrees when I was there; plenty warm right? I mostly just packed beach clothes. When I got there and felt the atmosphere, I had to wear my under shirt, shirt, coat, hat and jeans in an effort to keep warm. I must bring shame to Canadians, being cold like that.

I was a bit early, as I wanted to take the tour bus before it stopped for the night and since this was a highly touristy area the choices for food was quite expensive. I ended up eating some kangaroo steaks while enjoying a fabulous view of the illuminated bridge. The opera house was some magnificent itself at night, I snapped up more photos.

The play was pretty good, although I found it odd they gave you a summary of the entire plot. I read through half of it, but wanted some of it to surprise me still and stopped. During the play I realized how much of a necessity it was though, as I relied on it to understand what was going on. During the half time break I studied it properly so the rest of the play would be a breeze. The audience would laugh often and not everyone died so it wasn’t a traditional Shakespearean play I guess; I still enjoyed it. It weird how it is English, yet mostly incomprehensible.

I didn’t want to take a taxi home, so I walked back. I enjoyed the lovely sights again, including the illuminated cathedral and park at night. I figured out that if you are carrying food, then the prostitutes in the King Cross district where my hostel was won’t bug you so much. While prostitution is apparently legal in Australia, advertising it isn’t. So the girls would say stuff like “do you want a dance” or “love” half-heartedly while you walked by.

Cops patrol constantly, and there were signs up advertising that open alcohol is illegal. The parties here would go on late, and in the morning there was a massive clean up effort to get all the garbage and stuff off the sidewalks and make the place presentable. Walking is pretty good there; most people seem to jaywalk. At the cross walk, there is always a message painted on the pavement: “look right” so you double-check that you won’t get run over.

Well that was a random, and really fun first 2 days I’d say.

“Never take a vacation that you can afford” – Sung Lee; a cool guy I met in Sydney


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