Thursday, June 07, 2007

Sydney Redux

Here it is! I wasn't lying when I promised I would get to it eventually! The final installment! That said, this won't be the final post on the blog. I'm slowly working at geotagging all my photos, and once I've done that I'll make a post letting you all know, and highlighting some of the more interesting points to browse.

Pictures are here, at the end of the of the rest of the Sydney photos. The new ones start at this one.

As I mentioned at the end of the Tasmania installment, I had to get up at the lovely hour of four in the morning to catch my plane back to Sydney. I had three days to kill there before my plane home to the US (plane tickets out of Tassie were over a hundred dollars cheaper on Thursday than the weekend).

Arriving back in Sydney, I circumvented the stupid subway service, who thinks it's acceptable to add a $15 surcharge when you use the airport station, by taking a bus to the next station on the line and going from there. Ha! After dropping stuff at the hostel, I set off for the Circular Quay. The Quay was busier than the last time we had been there, maybe because the weekend was approaching (this was on a Thursday). The downside of this was that there were crowds to contend with, but the upside was that there were a lot of street performers out doing their thing, and some of them were pretty interesting. I stopped by the Opera House to buy a ticket for a show at one of their smaller venues (more on that later). On a whim, I visited the Museum of Contemporary Art, which had a pretty interesting exhibition by an Aboriginal painter that mixed their traditional dot painting with modern aesthetic ideas.

I stopped again in the Botanic Gardens for lunch, where I was harassed by birds looking for a handout. When I dropped the last of my bread by accident, it was immediately snatched up a bird with a crazily long, curved beak. The seagulls, usually annoying and aggressive, all seemed to be afraid of this bird, and got out of the way when he walked toward them, so I decided to let the issue drop.

After that I took a ferry up to Manly Beach, Sydney's other famous beach (recall that we visited Bondi the first time we were here). I had a super-duper day pass that got me onto all the bus, train, and ferry routes I wanted, which was pretty sweet. The surf at Manly wasn't hugely exciting, so after about an hour there I hopped on a bus to an area called Palm Beach, recommended to me by Hedley, one of our program advisors. It's on a little peninsula north of the city, and seemed to be a well-to-do neighborhood. The beach was gorgeous, making me wish I had come sooner, since dusk was starting to fall at this point. The lifeguard was no longer on duty, so I decided swimming maybe wasn't a good idea, but the surf was inviting enough that I waded up a good stretch of the beach.

After climbing around on some rocks on the shore at the far end of the beach, I walked back into the water to wade some more, but after a few steps something leaped out from the sand right where I was about to step and skittered away underwater. That was enough to convince me to stop wading, but when I walked back to the sand, the waterline was scattered with Man O' Wars. These lovely jellyfish have a little sail that takes them wherever the wind blows, so if it's blowing the right way they will wash up on beaches (in a neat evolutionary trick, half of them have sails facing the other direction, so the whole colony won't get beached at once). While not deadly, their sting is very, very painful. And since these little guys were definitely not all over the beach when I got there, that meant they had been washed in while I was in the water. Awesome.

Walking well away from the water now, I wandered back down the beach, enjoying the sunset, and caught the bus back to Sydney for dinner and sleep.

The next day, I had signed up for a "Learn to Surf" camp for a change of pace, and because, well, why not? They picked us up in a van, then transferred us to a Land Rover to take us over sand dunes to the beach we were going to use. Our guide for the day introduced himself with "Hi, I'm your instructor. My name is Ecca, and I'm totally mad." He then proceeded to illustrate this fact on the drive out by veering into the surf from time to time just for fun. The company provided everything we needed, and Ecca worked with us to show us how to do the basics. I stood up on my board successfully, but didn't try any turns because the surf wasn't great that day. I also saw another Man O' War, this time just floating in the water about three feet to my left. And I managed to offend Ecca by saying surfing wasn't a sport (or, as I clarified, no more of a sport than, say, mountain climbing).

That evening, back in Sydney, I went to a show at The Studio, a small theater tucked into the side of the Sydney Opera House. It only cost $20 AU, as opposed to shows on the main stage, which I believe start at around several hundred dollars. The show, Paradise City, was very, very cool. It featured a bunch of performers: a gymnast, a dancer, a skateboarder, a singer, a breakdancer, and a BMX biker, all performing on a tiny little stage with two ramps, and some plastic traffic barriers as props. At times all the performers would be on stage at once, weaving in, out, and over each other. It was incredibly tightly choreographed and a lot of fun to watch. The skater and biker moved in a very dancelike fashion, which seemed very original and gave the whole thing an aura of fusion. All in all, very worth going on its own right, plus now I can say I've seen a show in the Sydney Opera House.

Saturday was my last day in Australia, since I was leaving early in the morning on Sunday. That morning, I went to "The Rocks", a neighborhood on the west side of the bay that has a large open-air market on weekends. I shopped for presents for various people, and got a present for myself: a didgeridoo, made in the traditional fashion by Aboriginal artists (I'm slowly learning to play it).

I ate lunch on a pier looking out across the bay, and wandered around for a while trying to find an open post office to mail postcards. Apparently a city of some millions still doesn't have any post offices open on Saturdays. I saw a movie at a theater, and walked through Hyde Park a several square block area in the middle of the city. Besides lots of nice landscaping, the park contained a fascinating mix of people. Besides the old folks and young couples walking around, there were bored teenagers, school groups, and a group of goth-metal people making crappy music on the grass. Further down, there were BMX bikers practicing tricks on the plaza in front of a war memorial, with passing families stopping from time to time to watch them.

And that was it! I ate a last meal at the hostel, and spent the night repacking my stuff so that I could both carry it all through the airport by myself, and not get fined for having overweight baggage. The trick is to make your carry-ons as heavy as possible without taking up too much volume.

The next morning, I was up early again for the trip back home. It's not really part of the Australia tales, but I'm going to tell you about it anyways because it was a minor odyssey in itself.

The airport was pretty crazy: no liquids were allowed on the international flights, they brought a sniffer dog through the check-in line looking for God knows what, everyone's bags were searched, and everyone got patted down at the security checkpoint. Isn't flying fun? On the bright side, I was time traveling on the way back. My flight touched down in LA about an hour before it took off from Sydney. We were about an hour late getting in (a recurring theme with Qantas), and then stood in lines for another hour or so to get through customs and about ten security checkpoints. It was nice to be reminded that as annoying as security at Sydney had been, the good old U.S. was still way worse. After dragging all my bags across what must have been half of the LA airport (and if you've ever been there, you'll understand that half the airport is not a trivial thing), I made it onto my flight, my three hour layover now completely gone.

The last stop before Minneapolis was an hour layover in Phoenix. Right when boarding was supposed to start, the flight board changed from "On Time" to "Cancelled." CANCELLED. I made it twice across the ocean, not to mention all over the Australian continent, without any travel disasters, and then the very last flight I need goes KA-BLAMMO! At the customer service desk (after an hour of waiting), I got my first taste of just how much airlines in this country really suck. They informed me that the earliest flight available was at that time tomorrow. When I asked about compensation, they offered "a voucher for a meal in the airport and a room in a hotel nearby." What?! You just canceled my flight for no discernible reason, and you aren't even going to give me a voucher for a discount on a future ticket, assuming I ever wanted to trust US Airways again? I already have a meal and a bed, they are waiting for me at home, where I should be right now instead of standing in this airport talking to you. I didn't actually say all that, because it pretty clearly wasn't the poor service agent's fault, but oh man.

Because I was more patient and less cranky than most of the travelers, the agent, who was actually very nice about the whole thing, looked around some more and discovered that she could send me to Nevada, and then on the red-eye home. So that's how I ended up in the Las Vegas airport in the middle of the night. Obnoxiously, you actually have to be 21 to play the slots there, so the one possible reason to appreciate the airport was unavailable to me. Granted, I was only going to spend the 35 cents of change in my pocket, but if I'm in the Las Vegas airport, I should at least gamble once. I finally made it at home at 4am, where my eternally patient parents kindly picked me up.

Well, that's all, folks! Hope you've enjoyed it. Like I said at the top, check back later for more geotagged photos, especially if you get excited about things like Google Maps.

To answer a few questions before they are asked:

Would I go back? Absolutely. The current pipe dream is get a job in Adelaide, and vacation for months at a time in Tassie. Being more realistic, I have no idea when I will have both the time and money to go back, but I think I will, sooner or later. It's a beautiful country.

My favorite part: I honestly can't name a single thing that I liked the best. I loved traveling, I loved playing ultimate with a great group of people, I loved the city of Adelaide, I thoroughly enjoyed most of my classes... I can't reduce everything down to one best event. Some of the moments that stick out:
  • Trying to steal a koala with Cassie.
  • The ghost tour at Port Arthur.
  • Hiking down Tunkalilla Beach on our second excursion along the Heysen Trail.
  • Sitting around with Cassie, Emma, and Kather, drinking wine and looking at pictures.
  • Sunrise at the Mt. Conner station with our host, Ian.
  • At frisbee practice, Huy's pathetic attempts at skier plios, and seeing Dave fall off his bike.
  • Emerging from the blizzard on Mt. Rufus to a breathtaking panorama in Tasmania.
  • Eating lunch with Katherine on a hill in Sydney, watching ferries pass under the Harbor Bridge, between the Opera House and Luna Park.