Tuesday, August 31, 2004

Tired of Sydney? ... Me Either

Sun Sets on my Visit to Sydney

I’ll be honest, it was hard to get on that plane on Monday and leave Sydney behind. Even though I had extended my stay to include the weekend, I just couldn’t seem to get enough of that place. There was a resonating force about Sydney that struck a true chord with me. There was striking differences that caused curiosity within me as well as uncanny cultural and historical similarities that brought understanding and a sense of kinship.

My business endeavors had turned out reasonably well during the week, so rather than rushing back to Singapore, I decided to stay a little longer and enjoy my Australian surroundings. On the recommendations of one of my Aussie co-workers, I checked into a new hotel called the Uni-Lodge. I found it to be a strange name, but assumed it was short for “universal” in the sense that it had universal appeal for guests from around the world. I learned later that the name had a totally different connotation.

I approached the reservation desk and received my key and directions to my room. I was on the 4th floor, which was the highest floor in the hotel, since the 5th floor was dedicated to a massive sun deck that overlooked the city skyline of Sydney. The structure was originally a department store that had been converted into a hotel along with restaurants and retail shops on the main level. A very interesting idea within a historical district that was once known for warehouses but which were now being converted to trendy loft spaces and hip office buildings.

I noticed that many of the guests were very young in age, and at first thought maybe I had mistakenly checked into a youth hostel. As I walked through the lobby with its plush leather over-stuffed chairs and couches I caught a glance at a girl who was reading a large book. Nothing remarkable until I looked again and saw that she was wearing a pair of pajamas! Before I went to my room, I wanted to check out the other facilities. The hallways were like an endless ensemble of corridors and passageways. I walked by meeting rooms and offices, an Internet computer center, and then a large game room that was packed with arcade games and pool tables. Another hallway took me towards a sign that read “Gym & Pool”. Once I reached the end of my maze, I found a large room that possessed two ping pong tables, and old 1980’s style gym machine and some sorry looking exercise bikes. More impressive was the narrow 2-lane indoor lap pool and Jacuzzi. This place truly had all the amenities covered. And in each area of the hotel I was encountering more and more young people in their early 20s. How did they know about this place I wondered?

I found my room, which was no easy task. It was very small, but at least it had a T.V. and nice shower and bathroom. I was only going to sleep there, so who cared. I decided to check out this sun deck for which I had read so much about. The entire level was covered in green astro-turf and had benches for relaxing. The Internet site did not lie about the view, which was amazing from up there. I came across a young guy who was enjoying a cold malted beverage as well as the spectacular view. He was a friendly Aussie named Philip and we immediately struck up a conversation. I remarked about how unusual this hotel truly was and asked him whether he had stayed here before. He replied by saying, “Oh, I am not a guest. Actually I live here.”

As it turns out, the “Uni” in Uni-Lodge stood for “University” and all the young people I was running across were students at nearby University of Technology Sydney. The Uni-lodge offered guest rooms on the 3rd and 4th floors while the 1st and 2nd floors were used for student housing. Talk about a multi-purpose structure.

I thought the idea was great. I would have loved to have lived in a cool place like this when I was in college with all of its amenities. And the fact that I was staying here now as a guest made me feel like I was re-living a few days out of my own university experience. It was fun and talking to some of the students was great. Philip told me that he actually worked mornings in the restaurant downstairs and that if I wanted some breakfast that he could help me out. I asked if there were a lot of international students that lived here and if so, who threw the best parties. He grinned and said that there were a lot of Americans and that they were a fun group to hang around. He commented that the Americans come over for a semester on a “cultural exchange” to Australia. I found that amusing at best. These Americans come over and take feather-light classes, travel all over the country, drink tons of beer and party like rock stars, and then return home to the U.S. when it is all over. I asked Philip what was the actual cultural exchange that the Americans leave behind, because it sounds like they suck up a lot of Aussie culture, but don’t leave much behind. I mean come on… you don’t even have to learn a foreign language to survive.

I actually encountered one of our Cultural Ambassadors having breakfast downstairs at the café were Philip worked one morning. Decked out her sweat suit, flip-flops, and pony tail; this young lady from the University of San Diego began to explain to me, with a straight face, her rigorous class schedule that she was taking while in Sydney.

How are the classes here? Do you just show up for the exams and spend the majority of your time traveling and having fun”, I asked.

Oh, no, the classes are really serious here and they take roll and everything” she replied.

Sounds brutal”, I played along. “What does your schedule look like?”

Well, I am taking photography, English, a P.E. class… oh and Spanish”, she said with a furrowed brow.

I almost lost it at that point. She said it so seriously that I couldn’t burst her bubble of cultural exchange and academic rigor with a sarcastic laugh. Instead I just stared back and said, “Wow, that sounds rough.”

Philip was washing down a nearby countertop and flashed an all-knowing smile.

I think the reason Americans and Aussies get along so well is because we understand each other. Some would argue that we speak a common language, yet we also share historical and cultural elements that make us very similar.

We share our origins with Mother England. Our nations grew up in relatively isolated geographic environments and were often perceived as lands of castoffs and malcontents. We both deal with a painful legacy of how we treated our indigenous populations. We are melting pots of cultures and national origins. We are an active culture that has given birth to great explorers and fantastic athletes.

What is even more amazing about Australia is that they are also an incredibly small country when measured by total population. Sydney, a city of almost 4 million people, itself represents close to 25% of Australia’s total population. Although a massive country in terms of landmass, most of Australia’s interior region is nearly uninhabitable, as almost all Aussies live within 25 miles of the coast.

When you look at things in those terms, it is truly amazing to watch their performance in the just recently completed Olympic Games and see how many medals they brought back. Every event was carried on Australian television. This nation is passionate about sports and Aussies followed their hometown heroes all the way to the end.

The city bus service of Sydney has a special route that is designed especially for tourists. For a flat rate, you can buy a ticket and get on specially marked buses that complete a loop around Sydney’s 29 top attractions. The buses run on a 20 minute schedule, so you can get off at any stop, enjoy the attractions, and then jump back on another bus for the same original fare.

I grabbed this bus, called the Sydney Explorer, at Circular Quay which is the main ferry terminal and central hub of the city’s sea, rail, and bus services. From there, the bus took me to the famous Sydney Opera House which took over 14 years to construct and was finally opened in 1973. From there we headed to Wooloomaloo Bay, which is the navy ship yard district of Sydney. This is also the now trendy address of Russell Crow who makes Wooloomaloo his Sydney home. The key attraction here however (sorry Russell) is actually a guy named Harry. Harry’s Café de Wheels is a famous food stand that sells meat pies to navy shipyard workers, tourists, locals, and hungry late night patrons. These pies come equipped with a healthy helping of mashed potatoes and mashed peas along with ketchup and gravy all piled right on top.

From Harry’s, I then hopped onboard the Bondi Explorer which took me to several beach cities within Sydney’s suburbs. Along the way, we stopped for fantastic views of Sydney’s famous skyline amongst its sparking bay. Sydney Bay soon opens up to the Tasman Sea and its shear cliff walls open up like jaws to the open sea.

Bondi Beach is probably the most famous of Sydney’s suburban beach retreats. Even though it was the last week of winter here in Australia, I could still find eager beach goers that appreciated the white sand beaches and powerful surf. The tiled rooftops gave the place an almost Mediterranean feel.

I returned back to Circular Quay just in time to catch sunset. Sydney is a spectacle during the day, but as the sun falls beneath the horizon, the delicate hues and after glows emit an amazing show all their own. Night time gives even the most well known landmarks a completely new aura.

Maybe I saw a little of myself in Sydney and that is what made it hard to leave. I surely encountered some friendly people that were engaging to talk to and lean from. And the sites and attractions never failed to keep my attention or inspire awe. It’s true that in order to come back, you first have to leave. I can take comfort in knowing that my leaving was hopefully the first step in the process that will lead me back to Sydney again.

If you liked some of the photos in this entry, check out the Sydney Slideshow. Once again, this is a large pdf file (2.9MB) and will take several minutes to download with a broadband connection. Your patience (approx. 4 mins) will be rewarded.

Or if you can’t wait for the slideshow, you can always click on the “Photo Archive” link at the upper right hand side of this blog. You will be presented with a photo directory. Scroll down and click on any of the photos with a “Sydney” file name.

Thursday, August 26, 2004

Seductive Sydney

Sydney Harbor Bridge, Skyline, & Opera House

Arrived in Sydney, Australia, on Monday morning at 5:30AM after taking the "red eye" from Singapore on Sunday evening. Expected to get some solid sleep on the plane during the 7 hour trip, but got caught up in the movie, Passions of the Christ. Only slept about an hour the entire way.

People had warned me that I would freeze my butt off in Sydney, since it is currently their Winter in the southern hemisphere, and since I had probably become use to the warm tropical climate of Singapore. In actuality, when I landed the cool crispness of the air felt refreshing to me. Reminiscent of clean crisp Fall mornings back in Oregon. It felt good to go outside and not sweat for a change. I think this change in climate will do me good.

Arrived at the hotel, located right on Darling Harbor, at about 6AM. Because it was so early there was not a room yet available, but the capable staff assured me that they would quickly prepare one and asked if I would take a seat in the lobby. Because I had not got much sleep that night, I completely dozed off on the couch in the lobby and was only awakened when the reservation agent informed me that my room was now ready. He half-way apologized when he said that the only room they had available this morning was an Executive Suite. Ah, shucks... I guess I'll have to suffer and take that one.

My meetings on Monday were beneficial and successful. I think my Aussie Teammates are some of the finest I've worked with thus far. I hope to make Australia one of the shining examples of success for my programs.

Monday evening, I took a night time stroll around Darling Harbor, which is a collection of shops, restaurants, and attractions set along the water. You can take a bridge or even a mono-rail across to the harbor area. Seafood is plentiful here and one can enjoy their fresh catch at one of the many outdoor cafes, which at this time of year are heated with gas heat-lamps to keep patrons toasty.

Its been three years since I was in Sydney, but once I arrived all the reasons that attracted me to this beautiful city came rushing back. It is near impossible to find a bad view of the city, as it has one of the most scenic harbor fronts in the world. Taking the Harbor Bridge into the office each day, I can gaze down at the famous Opera House, the city skyline, and the rest of the harbor way as it stretches towards the open sea. The temperature has been perfect, especially for the end of their Winter, at around 58-60 degrees.

I was asked not too long ago by someone what my favorite city was outside of my hometown. At the time, I could not think of an answer. Several continents, an array of countries, yet I couldn't answer the question. After arriving back in Sydney, I now believe that I have my answer.

Sunday, August 08, 2004

Business, Buddha, and a Birthday

Singapore celebrates its 39th birthday August 9th
on National Day

Apologies first and foremost for the sporadic postings. Activities at work and the relative intensity have really cranked up several notches recently. My local Singaporean teammate, who I was suppose to buddy up with and share account responsibilities, has decided to resign from the company. I knew he had become frustrated, but I had no idea he was this close to leaving when he told me over dinner in Taipei on a recent business trip. I got two days advanced warning before he turned in his formal resignation letter, as he wanted me to be the first to know, since I was the most impacted by the decision.

Singapore labor laws protect the employer and ensure a lengthy transition. Two months is the required transition period for employees who resign, so my teammate will be here through the end of September and our fiscal quarter. We have already laid out a transition roadmap of responsibilities from him to me, but I know time will rush by and he will be departing soon before I know it.

I am now the sole person in our entire APAC region driving our alliances with these software companies, and unfortunately due to cost cutting policies recently enacted, all headcount requisitions for new and replacement positions have been frozen. This means my co-worker will not be replaced for the foreseeable future. So its time to lace up tight, hunker down, and do the best that I can with the resources that I have available.

I spent a week in Bangkok the last of July attending our APAC regional face-to-face event. It was a great opportunity for me to personally meet a lot of the individuals with whom I will be working. Many of these folks were just names in an email or a voice over the phone before this meeting in Bangkok, so I found it extremely helpful since I am so new to the region. Oh sure... and having a week in Bangkok was not so bad either!

Even though we were located at a 5-star hotel with a fabulous view of the main river artery of the city, we were all locked away for the entire day and evening for classes and group dinners throughout the week. Knowing that the week would be tied down with work, I planned to stay the following weekend, so that I could visit my friends Gene and Minnie once again.

That weekend was a very special occasion in Thailand, as it was Buddhist Lent. 95% of Thailand's population is Buddhist, so this special religious holiday is very important in Thai culture. On this weekend each year, people return back to their hometowns for special religious activities with family and friends. Bangkok is near deserted as Thais jump on the bus to head back home to take part in the special prayer ceremonies at their local Buddhist temple.

I was leaving Bangkok along with the other Thais that weekend, as I was heading to Nakornsawan, which is the hometown of my friend Minnie. Gene and Minnie were spending the holiday weekend in Nakornsawan with Minnie's parents and younger brothers. I was invited to join and see first hand the sites of this central Thai town that lies on the convergence of five key rivers.

Since Gene had already left on Friday for Nakornsawan, I decided to take a bus "up country" from Bangkok. Demand for buses was extremely fierce that weekend, with everyone headed home, but I was able to land a ticket on a 2nd class bus. Now, I have traveled by bus before in Thailand, so I knew what I was getting into. Unfortunately, I was not disappointed in my very low expectations. The bus was crowded and hot, and even though it was air conditioned, the refreshing coolness coming from the air duct over-head remained cool only about an inch from the source, so the replenishing wisps of chilled air never successfully made it down to where I was sitting. Being Thailand, all the buses were designed with local passengers and their small frames in mind. There was little room for my six-foot frame and long legs, as the seat in front of me felt like it was literally in my lap. Instead, I had to angle my legs sideways out into the aisle so that I could stretch them out. The trip from Bangkok to Nakornsawan took about 3 ½ hours, so you better believe I was excited to see Gene and Minnie at the bus station at the end of my journey with a fully air-conditioned Mercedes with plenty of leg room.

From the bus station, Minnie drove directly to a temple that over-looked her city. From here you could see the main rivers of Thailand come together to create one massive flow towards Bangkok in the south. That evening, Minnie drove us to the temple for a special night time prayer ceremony. Beautiful by day, these temples (or Wat in Thai) take on a golden halo effect at night. Devotees light candles and listen to the monks recite prayers. Special offerings are collected, wrapped, and presented to the monks. Most of these items are personal effects, like toothbrushes, shampoo, or books; but almost all include food as well. Special donations are made to the temple as people can place money into differing offering statues representing different poses of Buddha. The most significant event occurs when the locals carry candles, recite prayers, and circle the perimeter of the Wat three times. The significance of the number three is represented by 1) Buddha, 2) Teachings or Buddhist scriptures, and 3) the Monks.

Minnie and her parents were so warm and friendly. Even though our respective grasp of each other's languages was not the best, you need no translation for a caring smile and hospitality. Minnie and her family showed all of these things during my visit. Her mom, like all moms across the world, was most concerned that Gene and I were eating enough. Before we knew what was happening on our visit to see her, she had run back with two plates of steaming Thai food for us to enjoy. She delighted in the fact that we were loving her cooking.

Minnie's father hosted us in his home and took us out for dinner one night. Being that it was Buddhist Lent, none of the restaurants, bars, or hotels were serving alcohol. Minnie's dad however couldn't have his guests going without a cold beer however, so when the waitress reminded him that they could not serve us drinks, he got up from the table and went over to a 7-11, where he bought 3 bottles of beer and then brought it back to the outdoor restaurant where they were promptly served. Minnie's dad is a man of action, and it was totally apparent in his quest to make us all comfortable.

Nakornsawan was a great town that keeps its small town charm. There is a night-time market that has an array of local and tasty treats. Right along the food stalls are ridiculously cheap clothing and pirated music and DVDs. Take note ladies, stylish shoes for only $9. And for the fellas, DVDs for a couple of bucks. But the thing that Gene wanted me to see most of all in Nakonsawan was a special Wat on the outskirts of town that had completely and utterly been taken over by monkeys.

When we pulled up alongside the Wat, there was a local enterprising business man who was selling food to give to the monkeys. Gene bought us all our own bag of chips and then we got out of the car only to see literally hundreds of monkeys converge onto our location. They knew that it was feeding time and no one wanted to be late for dinner. Many of the monkeys were female and had their young ones in tow. Others felt content to just hang out.

The weekend in Nakornsawan was just what I needed: Slower pace, smaller, and focused around family and simple fun. Gene spared me a return back to Bangkok on the bus, as he drove us in his car. Thailand has the highest traffic fatality rates in the world, and I can see why after traveling back to Bangkok on this holiday weekend. Gene and I saw five wrecks (luckily no one was hurt) in the 4 hour drive that usually takes Gene a little over 2 hours to complete during normal traffic. I was glad to finally be back into the safe confines of Gene's house in Bangkok and off the roads after the tiring journey.

I returned back to Singapore just in time for this weekend's festive National Day celebration, as this young country celebrates its 39th birthday on August 9th. Special parades, speeches, and firework displays are marking the occasion. I'm most pleased with the day off today and have thoroughly enjoyed my 3-day weekend. Even though Singapore leads the world in crazy signs, there is diversity in its local heritage. For example, I recently strolled through one of the city's most famous Hindu temples. When I first approached the temple, I had no idea how detailed the personas were that created its structural shape. Inside, local Hindus were enacting a ceremony with music, candles, and chanting. Just blocks away from the religious themes was Singapore's attempt to preserve what few vestiges are still left of its colonial past. Club Street comes alive at night with its unique color schemes set against its colonial shop-front exterior.

Singapore is definitely a blend of cultures, flavors, and ideas. Happy Birthday to my new Asian home!