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.


At 3:07 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sounds like your adventures have only gotten better since you left us here in Europe Yankee ;O) Each visit you take and blog you write leaves me with yet another place added to my to-do list of travel for next year. I guess I'll keep my fingers crossed your travel will bring you to my home, the UK, sometime soon (although i know that it fails to compare to places like Aus). Take Care, C

At 7:45 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello. I apologize if this sounds crazy but I happened across your blog by total chance - found the picture on google images and clicked the link.
Regardless, your post really struck a chord with me. I grew up in Australia, in Sydney, and have recently moved to Berkeley, California. I love it in Berkeley, I really do, but I miss Sydney like crazy. Your post made me happy and sad, reminding me of why Sydney is the best city on earth, and why I was lucky to have lived there as long as I did. So thankyou, so much, for lifting the spirits of a homesick stranger. Cheers.


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