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Sunday, 15 September 2013

Frad Lab World Tour: One Year On, Itchy Feet Set In

Here in the UK, summer's given way, rather abruptly, to fall (as in falling temperatures), and so my thoughts have naturally turned to warmer climes recently. Although in fairness, I've been haunting the travel sections of Big Waterstones and other bookstores since about August, possibly because September is when I've gone on my big, exciting trips to Asia/Australia.

About this time three years ago I was newly returned from Phuket, and this time last year I was still in Queensland in northern Australia, as part of my epic trip to Hong Kong, Sydney and Cairns (well, epic for me). I wrote about the Hong Kong portion of the trip when I got back, because I've long had pretensions of being the next Bill Bryson or Paul Theroux, but I never got around to posting the bits about Sydney or Queensland.

I kind of regret that, of course - I think I had some mordantly witty insights about both places - but I figure I can use this week's post as an excuse to dig out some photos from that trip, and maybe indulge in the time-honored tradition of boring you, my interlocutors, with them. Also, since I took the pics myself I don't need to worry about getting yelled at by rights-holders (a remote possibility, it's true, but still one that concerns me in a vague way).

So, yeah, Sydney:
Nice thing to see on your morning commute, eh?

It's kind of a shame, but this was actually the sort of disappointing part of my trip. Not because there was anything wrong with Sydney - as you can see from the picture above, the weather was amazing and the city itself (at least around Circular Quay) is gorgeous.

But it was disappointing because I only had two days there, and I was on my own. My exploring time was also curtailed by the fact that I desperately had to do some laundry when I landed that first day, and by the fact that I was so worn out by jet lag and overnight flights that I slept until 11am my second, and only full, day there.

But in compensation, I was amazingly excited by being there. On my flight in from Hong Kong, I essentially spent the approach, which goes over the harbor, with my face pressed to the window. And when I finally got into the city, I was struck by Bill Bryson's point in In a Sunburned Country (which the Brits rather unimaginatively style Down Under) that one of the most exciting things about Australia is that it's there.

The obligatory Opera House shot.

He says that after traveling so far and so long, you expect at the very least to find yourself someplace where they ride camels and stuff. And it's true! Ignoring the fact that the Australian interior is apparently the only remaining place that dromedaries, the one-humped camels, live in the wild, it's kind of odd to pass over a profusion of names you've never heard in the Philippines, Indonesia, or Malaysia, and end up somewhere that looks like a mixture of New York, LA, and London. In fact, when I was in Sydney I was probably closer to their Newcastle than I usually am to the original when I'm here in London.

The other thing that strikes me now, a year after I went and in the midst of a re-read of In a Sunburned Country (told you I was nostalgic) is how enjoyable it is to read Bryson's description of Circular Quay and realize that I recognized it perfectly, even about 12 or 14 years later. The Harbor Bridge is on your left, the Opera House on your right, and before you is a dazzling expanse of water, bounded on three sides by a concourse filled with shops and street entertainers and people going about their day, just like I would in London but on the complete wrong side of the planet.

Circular Quay from the water

To be brutally honest as well, Sydney was a welcome relief from all the noodles with meat I kept having in Hong Kong. In my three days there, I had Western food exactly once: a kebab at the Big Buddha on Lantau, and the rest of the time I ate so many noodles I could have been training for a marathon. Which, come to think of it, I kind of was. So wandering around the streets between Circular Quay and Darling Harbour, I was delighted to find prawn and chicken skewers and pizza and burgers aplenty.

I don't want to denigrate the fine food in Hong Kong, but I like a bit more variety, and it's a well-known point that in Asia, the Western-style food is usually not particularly good. I learned it in Phuket, and so I wasn't going to risk it in Hong Kong. Although that kebab sure hit the spot.

Anyway, one more picture from Sydney before I move on to Queensland:
Bondi Beach

Bondi turned out to be my big excursion for the second day, because, as I mentioned earlier, I woke up too late to really make the most of the day. I'd been assured at the hotel's front desk that there was a bus stop that went directly to Bondi, so I dutifully trooped up and waited. And waited. And waited some more.

It was Sunday, of course, so buses didn't run as often as normal. Eventually one did show up, and I settled in for what turned out to be a very long ride indeed through Sydney's suburbs. I think there were two complete exchanges of bus passengers in the time I was there.

In compensation, I gained a new perspective into exactly how similar suburban New South Wales is to the suburban Bay Area. Specifically, it looked exactly like Menlo Park or Mountain View or one of the leafier suburbs near where I grew up, right down to the road signs at each corner. The only things that suggested I wasn't back in the Peninsula were the pubs (in particular their Wild West-style gables, so characteristic of Australia, I was to learn) and the local birds, which are way more colorful than anything we get back in Northern California.

Another key difference I was going to mention was the very large Pacific Islander man who sat in front of me late on in the trip, but thinking about it, Pacific Islanders aren't that uncommon in California. So it just made me feel a little more at home.

Anyway, when I did eventually get to Bondi Beach - which in the event did involve a change of bus - I found it full of people enjoying their Sunday. The Aussie guy I'd walked around Hong Kong with that first day had suggested the Breakers for lunch, but in the end I opted for fish and chips at a sandy, loud place right on the beach. I'd seen a fish called barramundi on the menu the previous day, so I wanted to give it a try, although it turned out to be not that different from cod in an English chip shop.

Still, it was nice, and after lunch I walked around, before catching the bus back into the city, where I arrived too late to catch the Australian museum, so I went for a walk around Farm Cove instead and got a bunch more pictures of the water and the Opera House.

For dinner I fulfilled a promise I'd made to myself, to have something you could only get here in Australia, which turned out to be a local variant of surf and turf: kangaroo plus Moreton Bay bugs and other types of local crustaceans. I ate in a restaurant right on the water in Darling Harbour, which was very pretty indeed, although (like Bondi) would probably have been more fun with a traveling companion.

Anyway, this has gone on long enough, so I'll leave Cairns and Queensland for next week or something. But as a parting thought, I've decided I really need to do Sydney properly - my big idea is to rent an apartment there for a month, and use it as a base to explore the southeastern corner of the country. But I figure I'll have to save up, because Sydney was ridiculously expensive (odd to say after coming from Hong Kong, but there you go).