Monday, March 31, 2008

Whole Lotta Hoopla

Last Monday, two friends and I went to Darling Harbour for the last day of the annual Hoopla Festival, which included street performers and acrobatics.

These guys who played movie themes and classic rock as they flew, spun and flipped were maybe my favorite.

But the breakdancers on stilts were awesome too. (The photos didn’t just come out as good.) That's two people doing some sort of crab-walk together.

These two women were incredibly strong and graceful. They would climb the rope without any safety net or harness, then entwine themselves in the rope and twist around.

My friend and I were inspired on the playground. But without the same finesse, we didn’t draw much of a crowd.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

A Long Day of Exploring Part II

After a few hours hiking in Palm Beach, I wanted to jump in the water, but decided to wait until Part II of my excursion so I wouldn’t be sandy and saltwatery on the bus. (Sweaty was ok for some reason.) So when I got to Avalon, which is about 5 or 6 km from Palm Beach, it was time for a dip. I swam a few laps in the rock pool to cool off before my next hike.

A 10-15 minute walk from the beach is the Angophora Reserve, named for angophora trees, which are related to eucalyptus. The reserve comprises about 45 acres of vegetation and walking trails. Actually, I learned about it after looking at the city bus map and wondering what that section of green was. After some googling, I found out Avalon is one of the only suburbs in Sydney where koalas are still found naturally so I knew I had to go. Unfortunately I saw more signs warning of koalas than actual critters, but I figured it’d be a long shot I’d actually see one in the wild.

Even without koalas, the walk was incredible. It felt like a rainforest — dark and humid with palms and fern growing below trees filled with cackling kookaburra and squalling cockatoo.

But when I set out on the trail in the late afternoon, I forgot to make any efforts to find out where the hike would go and how long I’d be on it. I ended up in a residential area and decided to take to the streets instead of wandering the isolated nature path. It was about the time the thunder started to roll that I admitted I didn’t know where I was or where I was going. When the drizzle began, I realized I was on the opposite side of the valley I needed to be.

I kept walking, declining a ride offer from two guys in a truck and finding a stray dog who followed me to the convenience store I eventually found to confirm my way back to the bus stop. It turned into a 35-minute walk in light rain, but I made it. And hey, the whole premise of this blog was for me to get a little lost, so the day was a success. (I then came home, passed out by 9ish and slept for 12 hours.)

Friday, March 28, 2008

A Long Day of Exploring Part I

That’s right, this was such an experience it requires Roman numerals.

I decided to use my weeklong holiday to travel out of the city center and get to know different aspects of Sydney. With most of my friends in New Zealand or other states in Australia, they would have to be solo adventures, but I didn’t mind. It’s nice having full control over your experience.

My first trip was an hour-and-a-half bus ride north to Palm Beach. The beach is on the hammer-shaped Barrenjoey Peninsula, which means there is shore three minutes apart to the east and west.

I started at the south end of the beach, but decided I wanted to get to the lighthouse. It’s that speck atop the headland.

I trekked through the sand and up, up, up the mountain, but eventually reached it.

From there, I explored the trails down the sides of the peninsula with incredible views of Broken Bay and the Tasman Sea. This was probably the greatest spot I’ve ever eaten a sandwich.

Palm Beach one of the wealthiest suburbs of Sydney and a prime spot for a second beach home. It’s also the location where they shoot the long-running Aussie soap opera “Home and Away.” Of course, I happened to find them doing just that on my roundabout route back to the bus stop. Based on my research, I’m guessing that actress is Indiana Evans, if anyone is interested.

But my day wasn’t over. I was off to Avalon for another hike, which will have to be saved for another post.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Aussie Animals Up Close

On Easter Sunday, Jane and her daughter Kirstie took me on a drive in their area of Sutherland, about a 45-minute train ride southwest of where I am in Sydney. We stopped at Sublime Point Lookout, and it was a bit hazy but sublime nonetheless.

We drove along the coast and then up to Symbio Wildlife Park, where I saw my first true Australian koala. We were lucky to arrive just when this one was sitting on the ledge against the fence. I was able to pet him, and lemme tell you they’ve got the cushiest fur.

You just want to nuzzle ’em...until you spot these bad boys.

Then we were able to feed some kangaroos. When everyone is carrying a bag of food, you don’t have to be as stealth as I had to be the first time I saw roos.

One did grip my hand a little too hard, turning my part of my pinky purple for a few minutes. But that’s what I get for eating his cousin in a kebab last week.

And for one last aww, here’s another koala, just hanging out.

Monday, March 24, 2008

A Playdate at the Sydney Easter Show

Remember Jane, the woman I met over scones? Well, as promised, I gave her a call last week and she invited me over. She set me up to go with her daughter and friends to the Sydney Easter Show on Saturday and then come back for dinner and stay the night. I took her up on the offer, especially since my house of 30 people dwindled to a quiet 10 during this week off school.

Anyway, Kirstie took me along to the Easter Show, which is like a big county fair with animals, games, rides and fried food. The show was at Olympic Park, the site of the Summer Olympics in 2000. As I was photographing the ducklings, this curious little guy came right up and poked his beak through the wire. I was able to refocus and get a shot in before he scuttled away.

Not far from the baby chickens was the egg competition, begging the obvious question, which came first?

I imagined the guys setting up the tables of eggs arguing with the guys setting up the cages of chickens over who arrived before whom.

The scene would make a good one-panel comic if I could draw.

...The award-winning rooster is not amused.

There was also pigeon judging and other bird competitions. This one was one of my favorites because it reminded me of someone in a frilly Victorian dress with an exaggerated backside and perhaps carrying a fancy umbrella. I can't find an exact image like I'm picturing in my head, but it's something like this or this.

After seeing all the animals, we enjoyed many, many free samples on the Food Lovers’ Walk. Kirstie and I were great at making small talk with the purveyors who offered us juices, teas, wines, salsas, spreads, oils, jerkies, nuts, chocolates and other goods. Naturally, I was busy talking and tasting, so I don’t have any photos.

Then it was time for rides, show bags and fireworks before a long bus ride back for a late-night dinner Jane saved for us.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Nothing Says ‘Easter’ like the Easter Bilby

The theme around here seems to be, if it’s not a marsupial, Australia wants nothing to do with it. Therefore, instead of the Easter Bunny, you get the Easter Bilby, which looks to me like a rat wearing bunny ears.

In 1991, the Foundation for Rabbit-Free Australia started a movement to change the Easter symbol from bunny to bilby because apparently rabbits are feral pests that have wreaked a lot of havoc on the environment here. Not everyone fully embraces the bilby though. A guy about my age told me the Easter Bilby hasn’t completely caught on, and he seemed to think of it as a lame imposter.

I’m not going to knock anyone’s culture, but I’m going to have to give this round to the Easter Bunny. On the other hand, most of the chocolate eggs here seem better than back home. Still, I miss me some sour Starburst jellybeans.

Happy Easter... however you celebrate it... and even if you don't.

Friday, March 21, 2008

What’s Sydney Without Its Opera House?

During my first two weeks in Sydney, I must have been within a digital zoom of the Opera House at least eight times. My friends and I thought about dedicating an entire Facebook album to the structure. Seeing the Opera House was an affirmation that we really actually were in Sydney...and I think we needed that daily reminder.

But since going to a play there a few weeks ago, I don’t think I’ve been in Sydney Harbour. Now that classes have begun and I have more routine in my life, I feel more like I live here. Still that’s no excuse to deprive you of touristy photos of the great Sydney Opera House. I realized I hadn’t posted any besides a small one here.

This was my first view of the Opera House. When we stumbled upon it our second day in the city, I actually made the operatic “Waaaaa” noise like the shape-shifting group of fish in Finding Nemo. What you can notice here that I didn’t realize before is that the roof is made up of different tiles that are actually a cream color. It usually looks solid white.

Danish architect Jorn Utzon designed the structure in the late 1950s and it opened in 1973. The “shells” house different stages, which I also didn’t realize until coming here. I thought it was The Opera House, ie. one big opera stage. Really it’s more of an Opera Condo with an opera theatre, concert hall, drama theatre, playhouse and studio theatre.

We went to see As You Like It in the playhouse at the beginning of the month. With 398 seats, it’s a lot smaller than the 2,679-seat concert hall, which has a huge organ with 10,000 pipes or something ridiculous. Still, I got to see Shakespeare in Australia’s most famous landmark, and I think that’s pretty nifty.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Happy Holi-Days

On Sunday I stopped by the Indian Festival of Colors, Holi-Mahatsov, in Darling Harbour. Holi celebrates the start of spring in India. Though it is soon to be autumn in Sydney, this week it has been in the high 80s, maybe even 90s. I still haven’t figured out that whole Celsius thing. Multiply by five-ninths? Yeah, just after I finish listing pi to 38 decimal places...

Anyway, as part of the festival, people throw colored powder, which is actually made of medicinal herbs, at each other. The significance of this goes back to Indian mythology when Krishna put colors on his love, Radha. But on Sunday, the color throwing had more the feel of a snowball fight than expression of love.

Apparently on the first night of Holi, people light bonfires to symbolize burning the demoness Holika and the victory of good over evil. The festival is supposed to promote friendship and good health.

It was fun watching these boys, who set out to wash the pink powder off themselves, move into a full scale water fight.

It was bound to happen.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Scones and Going Where You’re Not Supposed to Go

I approach life as if I’m always carrying a press pass. To find the story, you just gotta get in and start talking to people.

Yesterday Becca and I went up to the Great Hall on campus hoping we’d find a wedding in progress. It’s this beautiful Gothic building commonly used for receptions, and we’ve got this little project going on involving wedding photos. We see a man out front in a suit and tables of scones and tea behind the building. The organ swells and we wait for the happy couple to exit. But there’s no bride and groom, and we notice some people don’t seem to be dressed for a wedding. We're still very curious about the town car out front bearing an Australian flag and the royal crown instead of license plates.

As people clear the hall, I move closer and closer to the door trying to figure out what was happening. Becca is hanging back and I’m on the steps peering into the Hall. An usher, uh, ushered us in and handed us programs. He explains this was a reception for Dr. Catherine Hamlin, who founded a hospital in Ethiopia to provide free operations for poor women who have suffered injuries from giving birth. The fancy car was for Marie Bashir, the governor of New South Wales and chancellor of the University of Sydney. She’s the first woman to govern NSW and the first Australian governor of Lebanese decent.

The usher tells us this was a charity event with $50 tickets so he couldn’t “formally invite” us for refreshments. Of course, in my opinion, cordial invitations are optional. Becca and I began fanning ourselves with the glossy programs and moseyed on over to the scone table.

Wiping the jam and cream from the corners of my mouth, I suggest to Becca that we talk to some of the other guests. I don’t think she knew I was serious. (She’s only known me for a month.) The fact that we hadn’t been to the reception and couldn’t tell you a thing about the woman in whose honor it was held wasn’t going to keep me from conversing.

I turn to a little old lady and ask if she knew where we could set our finished plates. She didn’t know either but, noticing our accents, asked where we were from. We got to talking and a few of her friends joined in. The women all went to the same church, which raises money for the surgeries at Hamlin’s hospital. When they asked why we were at the event, we offered something vague like, “Oh, we just found out that it was one of the things going on around campus and thought we’d check it out.”

One woman, Jane, told us about her dessert parties that have provided funds for 19 surgeries. After hearing that we were studying abroad from the States, she said she we should talk to her daughter who will be spending next semester in Montana of all places. Before we knew it, Jane was explaining how to take the train to her neighborhood and saying if we called her when we got to the stop, she’d pick us up and bring us to the house. She mentions dinner or bbq, and all of her friends tell us what a great cook she is. Another says, “When Jane invites you over, she means it.”

Well, when an Australian invites me to a new part of town for dinner, I’m not going to turn her down. We get Jane’s information and make tentative plans to go to her house near Royal National Park, which I imagine is pretty classy.

And I thought the scones would be the high point of crashing the reception...

Monday, March 10, 2008

Land of the Free

I love free stuff the way a fat kid I love cake.

I like to sift through newspapers and magazines in search of festivals, shows and other events gratis. On my second day in Sydney, I hit up the Chinese New Year Dragon Boat Races, exhibits at the Maritime Museum, Gay Mardi Gras and a short film festival at The Domain — all for free.

The best part of free festivals is that they usually involve more free stuff. I’ve accumulated seven free beach bags, five tins of orange Eclipse mints, four Schick Quattro razors, Vitamin Water, green iced tea, a ball, a Frisbee and a medley of pens. But best yet, surfing lessons.

This week (in my free copy of Time Out Sydney) I heard about a free surf class in honor of International Women’s Day. This Southern California girl has never tried to surf before, believe it or not, so I called up and reserved the last free spot.

We got an hour of instruction and surf time, with boards and wetsuits provided, at Dee Why Beach. Saturday was my first time on the other side of the Harbour Bridge. I liked the atmosphere better at Dee Why than Bondi or Coogee, but they each offer something different.

After our surf lesson and a good hour of recovery, we explored the tide pools, where we spotted two octopi.

We also found a dead blowfish, which was interesting, but hardly aesthetically pleasing. I’ll spare you and offer this starfish photo instead.

Then we took a short walk through the Dee Why Wildlife Reserve along the lagoon. And who doesn’t love lagoons?

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Look Right

As my friend Colleen pointed out, cars driving on the opposite side of the road can be confusing, but luckily for us, Dublin and Sydney point our eyes in the right direction.

Now, if I can just get a sign to remind me to run straight ahead after I hit the ball in cricket instead of 45 degrees to the right like in baseball, I just might pass for Australian.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Scarier than a pigeon and just as dirty, it’s the ibis

Not long ago, I sang praises of Sydney’s parks. What I didn’t mention were the parks’ primary residents: Australian white ibises.

I first saw these birds when I was checking out Victoria Park within an hour of arriving in Sydney. They seemed pretty exotic to inhabit the area between Broadway and City Road, but soon I started seeing them everywhere. On campus, in Darling Harbour, Hyde Park... I’ve seen more ibises than pigeons.

Just the other day I realized they sleep on one leg like flamingos.

I did some research and learned that Australian white ibises began to flock to the city during the 80s because of droughts and other problems in their natural habitats. At their urban peak, more than 10,000 ibises nested in Sydney. The population has diminished because they do not seem to be reproducing as before and because governments started taking action. The main culling method is to apply canola oil to the eggs so the embryos can’t get air, rather than killing live ibis.

The birds can be quite a nuisance, especially when you try to picnic — a band of them surrounded my friends and I as we ate lunch in The Domain. Ibises typically eat bugs and small water animals, but have taken a liking to Sydney garbage as well. A lot of people would be glad to be rid of the smelly, dirty birds, but there are also movements to protect the species in the city since they cannot be sustained in other environments.

I’m sure if they just started eating shrimp and turned pink like flamingos, they’d have a lot more supporters.