Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Australia Part I

Sydney Day 1 (Sunday, Nov 21)

I slowly trudged up a steep, narrow stairway in The Rocks, Sydney’s oldest neighborhood, burdened by a brand new over-stuffed Gregory backpack and a weighty suitcase thumping each stair as I ascended. Short of breath with sweat pouring out across my already greasy face, I resembled a newbie contestant on “The Biggest Loser” suffering the agonizing shock of exercise to the unconditioned body. For the past several months I had completely ignored my preparatory fitness goals, always deferring them to the near future. For the first time in my life, a budding gut constantly poked and prodded my T-shirts while underneath miniature love handles in the making were hugged tightly by the waist of my jeans. I had planned an ambitious, physically exacting trip and knew that my now-soft body was in for a shock. Even though the morning was warm I wore a sweatshirt to mask the potent stench that surely had accumulated beneath as the result of a 13 hour plane ride and subsequent physical demand of hauling my luggage across the central business district on a warm summer morning. I arrived at my hostel a sweaty, exhausted mess. I dropped off my bags, cleaned up and headed out to play tourist.

As I walked to the Circular Quay where the Central Business district meets the water I quickly realized why Sydney’s Opera House is the international icon that it is. It’s absolutely gorgeous! Located on a small but prominent outcropping of land in Sydney’s Harbor, its bright tiles reflect the mood of the sky, its distinctive white sailed shape accentuates the city skyline behind it, creating one of the most picturesque urban scenes I have ever witnessed. The Opera House’s asymmetrical architecture ensures that each vantage point from a variety of harbor spots and ferry routes reveals something new, which had me, a typically restrained photographer, feeling like a trigger happy Japanese tourist at Disneyland. Two rules sum up photographing the Opera House around Sydney as a tourist.
  1. It’s nearly impossible to take a bad shot. Each photo will leave you feeling like a professional photographer.
  2. Considering rule one, you can never take too many shots of the Opera House, even with the strong risk that they will all look identical when you get home.

The cities other icon, the Sydney Harbour Bridge, consists of an absolutely massive steel arch bookended by imposing grey brick pylons. While not as photogenic as the Opera House, the imposing size of the bridge makes for an equally surreal sight, more likely to be appreciated in person than on film. I spent my first afternoon in Sydney tackling the pedestrian path across the bridge. I paid an exorbitant amount of money (my only, but frequent complaint about Sydney was the prices) to climb up the interior of one of the bridges pylons to one of the cities better vantage points.

While planning my trip, as a bit of a foodie, I had envisioned sampling some of Sydney’s finer restaurants. My parade was rained on after glancing at several sidewalk menus. A good rule of thumb is that everything in Australia; food, gas and boarding is twice as expensive as I am accustomed to in the states. Indicative of how un-thorough of a planner I am, the egregious cost of everything came as a completely unexpected revelation to me. The creature comforts I had planned on for my vacation, nice hotel rooms and fine dining were quickly downgraded to sleeping in hostels, and relying on fast food for sustenance.

All of this walking has gotten me hungry. Deterred by sky-high prices, rather than eating at a sidewalk café I opted for Hungry Jack, Australia’s version of Burger King. My jaw dropped as I was handed the drink to my whopper value meal in what might as well have been a Dixie cup with a lid. It took all of about 5 sips before I was slurping ice. One thing that travelling has made me appreciate about America is how we embrace the concept of “unlimited”. We like free refills, unlimited minutes, data plans, etc. I rarely get refills at restaurants, but am comforted knowing that the option is there. It has been the case in both Australian and South African restaurants that no small amount of discipline is required to ration a 12 oz. soft drink throughout a meal so that enough liquid remains to wash the last bite down.

Winding down the afternoon, I mosey down to Royal Botanical Gardens which affords me a completely different view of the city and Opera House. Dozens of photographers, most with fancy equipment and tri-pods, line up along the waterfront capturing the Opera House Vista. Although I have already taken dozens of pictures of the Opera House from various points around the city I continue snapping away. Without any plans for the rest of the day I decide to hang around the gardens a few hours until sunset. The gardens, water and the skyline are reminiscent of Chicago’s Grant Park. Of any city I’ve been to, Sydney most reminds me of Chicago, with the added perk that its weather is similar to Southern California’s. Although I have already captured dozens of pictures of the Opera House, what are a few dozen more? I join the throng of photographers capturing the Opera House backed by a variety of brilliant colors of the sunset perfectly framing the scene.

I walk back to my hostel through the hypnotizing lights of the city feeling a bit lonely. I was accompanied on my last trip to South Africa by some of my best friends, who I frequently reminisce with about it. Without any travelling companions this time, my trip will be much different in nature than my previous trip. In a similar vein as the philosophical riddle “if a tree falls in the forest and nobody hears, does it make noise?” I begin to wonder about the value of experiences shared with nobody. If I’m going to get bang for my buck it will have to come in the form of introspective moments afforded by solitude, from the blank notebook I’ve brought to dabble in some creative writing, from the 1500 pages worth of books weighing down my bags, and perhaps some inventive photography.

Sydney Day 2 (Sunday, Nov 22)

I’m slowly awoken at 2am by the muffled but relentless drone of one of my hostel roommate’s alarm clock. I’m clearly the only one whose sleep has been disturbed, as there is not so much as a rustle from any of the other beds in the room. My agitation increases with each bleep of the alarm that the guilty party peacefully sleeps through, my temper ready to boil. At this point I am coherent enough to do some math. 2am Australian time would be 7am pacific time, the time I routinely wake up for work in the morning. On second thought, that alarm sounds awfully familiar. Damn…Right as I have the epiphany, someone in a neighboring bed rolls over and grumpily demands that someone turn the #@$% alarm off. I hop down from the top bunk and frantically fumble around my luggage looking for my phone, the room getting restless as I finally silence it. I climb back up into bed with my tail between my legs.

First thing in the morning, I’m eastward bound on a train for a day trip to the Blue Mountains. Given the underwhelming state of my fitness, I am hoping todays 10-miler will kick start my body in preparation for Tasmania. The sand stone cliffs, dense eucalyptus forests, and numerous waterfalls make for a pleasant afternoon. As a connoisseur of good swimming holes I find myself in heaven, with significantly more deep, waterfall fed pools alongside the trail than I have time to sample. Even better, for the most part I have it all to myself.

The euphoria of the morning’s novel scenery and swimming stops quickly wears off down the home stretch of the hike as I ascend an endless of barrage of stairs over a thousand vertical feet to exit the valley. My complete lack of fitness is painfully exposed as I climb 15-20 stairs at a time, until I am short of breath, and wait a minute to climb a few more. By the time I reach the top, I am completely winded and feel like I just did a bunch of squats.

I’m feeling ravenously hungry after my hike and I peruse the town of Wentworth Falls small Main Street for a food joint, finally deciding on a Fish and Chips take-away shop. My fish and chips are accompanied by some curious looking ketchup packets, the likes of which I’ve never come across before. Think McDonalds chicken nugget dipping sauce packets, except the bottom plastic portion is divided into two equally sized regions and instead of the thin foil covering, a thick plastic seal with a small but stiff peak in the center. I’m sitting at the only table in the place, when a cute twenty-something blond approaches and asks if she can share the table with me. I acquiesce with a smile, and continue trying to crack the impossible code of my ketchup packet. I try everything from pealing the top, to puncturing the packet with a fork. I bring the packet close up to my face to examine it, squeezing the packet in half from the bottom. A Jetstream like blast of ketchup sprays across my face and I immediately feel the sharp sting of its spices in both of my eyes. Momentarily blinded, I fumble around the table for my napkin and quickly relieve my eyes. I sheepishly look up across the table at my neighbor, who didn’t appear to notice a thing. I strike up a conversation with her.

“Excuse me…Do you have any idea how to open these ketchup packets? I’m completely baffled.”

She picks up a packet and stares at it curiously. “I’ve never seen one of these before,” she says in a European sounding accent. She picks at the plastic top, tries to peel it off and then squeezes it down the center in the exact same way I had done moments earlier. A bullet like stream of ketchup shoots across her low hanging tank top, bra and cleavage.

“I am SOOO sorry,” I say with a look of shock on my face, trying incredibly hard to stifle a laugh. She looks up at me, clearly turning red with embarrassment, and starts to laugh. I can no longer hold it in, and I break down and start laughing uncontrollably. I get up and grab her some napkins. We continue laughing, as she cleans herself up. I offer the only thing I can think of to say, “You just made my day!”

Riddle solved, thanks to my new French Canadian friend. I grab the sauce packet and squeeze it seal side pointing down at my fries, and dispense ketchup on my food. We talk over our early dinner for a half hour, and I eventually reluctantly decline her invitation to repeat the hike to the falls due to pure exhaustion. I sleep most of the train ride back to Sydney, arriving back late at night and proceed straight to bed.


Ken Lawrence said...

Fantastic writing, very interesting and I laughed out loud!

Ken Lawrence said...

This was Tristen, by the way... didn't realize Ken was signed in...

Rachel said...

Amazing photos, awesome story (so far) and funny. =)

Darrel B said...

Looking forward to the next installment.

PFN said...

great photos, Nate! especially the skyline at night where all the buildings look metallic and go from straight and edgy, across to the curved and pointy silhouette of the Opera house.
i always wish i would write more stories about my travels. i guess it's never too late to start.

Nate said...

Hey Pete. Travelogues are a great writing exercise. Your blog could use a few of them.