28 January 2008

Travel: Australia, Part 4 - Harbour Bridge

New Year's Eve! This is why I first planned my trip, to experience Sydney and its (nearly) first-to-celebrate status (New Zealand actually welcomes the new year two hours earlier, and I think you would find small Pacific islands that are really the first). For years, I had seen footage of celebrations at Sydney Harbour, and that is where we would go. Jeff got up early to take the car into the city to park, so we wouldn't have to fight the crowds at the train station on the way home. He staked out a place for us around 10 am, dropping off some of our gear, and then trained back to the house. At around 2, we were back at the train station with several other family friends, and it was just about 3 when we settled into our spots.

We actually staked out two spots, one on a hill adjacent to the bridge, and one underneath the bridge in the shadow. The temperature difference was drastic. The hill was nestled up next to a set of apartments, in the sun, with little breeze. Underneath the bridge, in the shade and open to the harbour breeze, it was 10 degrees cooler (Celsius). The large grassy portion between the two areas was a perfect spot for the paddle ball, soccer, and cricket that would keep the boys busy for hours. Which was important, as we would wait until 9pm for the first fireworks (the "family" fireworks) and another 3 hours for the midnight show.

The place was starting to get crowded as we arrived, but it got jam-packed as the evening wore on. Jeff and I made a trek back to the car at one point, returning along the harbour front path, and it was like walking through a refugee camp, with so many people camped out with blankets, books, sport equipment, food - you name it.

But, it was all worth it. The first fireworks show was good. The second, deserving of the worldwide attention it gets. The fireworks are launched from two locations in the harbour on either side of the bridge, from the bridge itself, and from several skyscrapers in the city centre directly across the water from us. The bridge fireworks include a cascade that looks like a waterfall of sparks. It was beautiful. Of course, my camera ran out of battery power sometime before the first show, but I have included pictures here to show you our proximity.

After the show, we were all exhausted. But, bringing the car down to the city was the best idea, as we were able to avoid the crowds at the train station and get home earlier that we would have, which was still around 1.30am.

The next day we had planned to go back into the city for the Harbour Bridge Climb. I was exhausted, as my travels were catching up with me. It was to the point that when I awoke the next day at around 7.30, and the house was silent, a little smile crossed my face at the prospect of several more hours of sleep. But, then I heard footsteps - no dice. Which ended up being a very good thing. We drove down to a deserted city centre for our bridge climb.

Now, I thought this was just a simple climb up some steps with a couple of photo ops. But, this was serious! We all had to watch an instructional video, sign waiver forms, and take a breathalyser test before going. After that, we put on our uniforms (these are bridge-colored jumpsuits with sunglasses and hat hooks to make sure nothing falls off) and harnesses (part of a unique system that attaches you to the bridge for the entire time you are up there). After a quick test to make sure we were okay with climbing up and down, we were off.

The climb takes you out about 25 metres over the ground to start, with a long narrow walkway connecting the bridge tower to the start of the stairs. The first portion includes very steep, narrow stairs, on which only one climber is allowed at a time. Once you climb the four sections of these stairs (which takes you past the actual roadway, where cars and trains buzz by you at highway speeds), the climb gets less steep, as it moves to the top of the bridge structure. The colors of the suit need to match the grey of the bridge so the climbers are a distraction to the motorists below.

It actually is a pretty easy climb, although those with a fear of heights should probably stay away. The view from the top is stunning - Sydney from 130 metres (430 feet) in 360 degrees, from north Sydney to the Opera House and Botanical Gardens to the City Centre around to the harbour inlets. To top it off, a rainbow appeared, but of a type I had never seen, or even heard of - it formed a perfect circle around the sun, which was directly above us.

After that, it was time to wind down my three week holiday. We went back to the house and whiled away the rest of the day, and I was off the next morning. Not before helping Jeff push his dead car back up the hill that was the street in front of his house, which was more of a workout than I had gotten in my entire time away.

The Kays family is now back in the U.S., and I am glad I could share a few of their final days in Oz. Good on ya, Mate!

22 January 2008

Travel: Australia, Part 3 - Palm Beach

After the cricket match and a game of Marco Polo in the pool, we loaded up the family truckster and headed for the beach. This meant putting towels, blankets, surboards, sports gear, clothes, and everything but the kitchen sink and Lenny and Leon in the car, including eight people.

The drive to Palm Beach, located 40 kilometres north of Sydney, is beautiful. The divided highway gives way to a winding two lane road high above the inlets and coves that lead towards the sea. Palm Beach is a quieter, more isolated stretch compared to Bondi, but it is stunning. It sits in a cove, surrounded by hills and cliffs. It has a more laid back feel to it, except that the surf that day was brutal. It was perfect for a little surfing (for Joseph) or body surfing (for Eric and Jeff). In fact, it was almost too much, as one left the water out of breath and dizzy after one too many spin cycles.

Sport plays a big part of Aussie life, and it is no different for expats. If we weren't surfing or swimming, we were playing paddle ball, rugby, or beach cricket (see previous post). It is all action, all the time.

Which is good, since - like all good Aussies - our return home included a stop for refreshments. The Newport Arms Hotel Beer Garden and Bistro, down the road towards home, boasts Australia's largest beer garden. It overlooks a scenic inlet, has dozens of picnic tables, a grassy area in front of a big screen television playing surf videos, and plenty of food and beer. The place was packed on a Sunday night, and it was another example of how Aussies really enjoy themselves. Everyone was laid back, having a bite to eat or a pint of a very tasty, very cold beverage, and enjoying a perfect summer day. We ate the biggest prawns I have ever seen and washed them down with local grog such as Toohey's New.

What a perfect ending to a perfect day! (Along the theme of perfect, all of this was preluded by a viewing of the New England Patriots' victory over the Giants, for a perfect 16-0 regular season record.) I had been in Australia less than 48 hours, and I couldn't wait to move there! And I had still had two more days, including New Year's Eve, to enjoy.

20 January 2008

Front Yard Cricket

Being an Anglophile, I am drawn to cricket. I don't pretend to understand the intricacies of the game or its special jargon, but there is something about a sport where participants wear formal white uniforms and break for tea that makes it seem so civilized.

So, I jumped at the chance of playing cricket in Australia. This wasn't a full-on game, however, but an amended version called Front Yard Cricket. Essentially, it is cricket, only you play it in the Kays' front yard, which is significantly smaller than the pitch at a regulation cricket ground. The rules are tailored for the size of the front yard, and it is loads of fun.

I told the boys that I was called "Mr. Six" back home. A "six" occurs when you bat the ball over the boundary on the fly. Essentially, it is a home run, and you are awarded six runs for it. Of course, I had never played cricket before, so my claim was not true, but I didn't think a little gamesmanship would hurt. And I lived up to my nickname. Joseph is an accomplished cricket player in his local league, but in my first ever cricket match, I hit two sixes (the ball must clear the swingset on the fly; if it is just left of the swingset, over the fence, but stays on the grass, it is a four. If it rolls into the street, it is an out. If it goes over the street on the fly, it is an out, but it is also a six. I tell you, you needed a spreadsheet to keep up with all the front yard rules!) on the way to a first innings total of 24 runs for the Jeff-Eric juggernaut. That would be enough for the victory, as Joseph and Michael each surrendered wickets to the first-time bowler Eric and batted out in both of their innings without nearly approaching the benchmark the two elders put up.

I won't go into the details of the rules of cricket or how difficult the game can be, but I can say the following about my performance in my first game, without hyperbole: it would be like hitting back-to-back home runs off Curt Shilling and Josh Beckett, and then striking out Albert Pujols, all in the first day you picked up a bat and ball.

Sadly, that was to be my last victory. Twice the younger ones defeated us going forward, and then Michael and Jeff put a pasting on me at the beach. The attached picture of me shows pretty good bowling form. Unfortunately, the one of me dashing into the surf was taken immediately after as I chased yet another batted ball far into the sea.

All in all, it was great fun, and I have a better understanding and respect for the sport. I just wish I could have stayed a few more days for the India-Australia Test Match in Sydney.

Travel: Australia, Part 2 - Bondi Beach

We had some time left before our trip back to the airport, so it was off to Bondi Beach. Located to the southeast of the city, this long, crescent-shaped beach is a popular spot for Sydneysiders and visitors alike. It can offer world-class surf and attracts enthusiasts from around the globe looking for good waves.

The waves were not spectacular when we visited, and few surfers were out. Being the first summer-like weekend day of the season, however, the place was jam-packed. Free stretches of sand were few and far between, and it took us several frustrating minutes to find a parking spot, which we did a few blocks away from the beach-side parking area. I did not have my swimmers with me, so I went only ankle-deep into the water. We did walk the length of the beach and enjoyed the weather and watching everyone have fun. There would be more opportunities for the beach in front of us.

After that, it was off to the airport to pick up the other two visitors to the Kays home over new year. The couple had just made the transition from boyfriend-girlfriend to fiance/ees over the previous few days, so that set a festive mood for the entire holiday. Congrats to Sean and Kristen!

We headed back to the Kays home, located in the leafy suburb of St. Ives. Kimmy and the boys were there to greet us (Andrew, Joseph, and Michael), along with Leon and Lenny, two cute dachshunds with nervous bladders. I learned to approach them slowly and not hold them too close. Kimmy, true to her reputation as a top-notch hostess, made her famous margaritas, and it was time to relax. After so much hustle and bustle, it was nice to sit on the back patio, watch the boys enjoy the pool, and relax with good friends.

It wasn't too long after dinner, however, that my three nights of traveling hit me - hard. While I had slept some on the airplanes, I had not actually been horizontal in approximately 70 hours, and I was whipped. Joseph had been nice enough to give up his room to me during my stay, and his little twin bed was the most comfortable thing in which I had ever lain. I think I was out before the lights were off. Which is a good thing, as the next day was to be full of activities.

16 January 2008

Travel: Australia, Part 1

So, there I was back at Changi. I had an overnight flight to Melbourne, where I caught a Qantas CityFlyer to Sydney. Australia allows non-passengers past security, and it was nice to see the friendly face of Jeff Kays at my gate when I stepped off the plane.

My arrival coincided with what was apparently the first nice day of summer weather in Sydney. It was hot, but not the tropical hot I am used to. Just plain, nice summer hot. We headed straight to Sydney Harbour for a look around before we would have to go back to the airport to pick up Kaysie's brother in law. Our first stop was The Rocks, an old area adjacent to Circular Quay on the harbour. One of the first areas settled in Sydney, its buildings were constructed around the existing rock structure, with little planning done beforehand. It was only later that roads were added. This gives the area its random, cozy feel. It houses all kinds of restaurants, pubs, and retail, as well as a street market on the weekends. I browsed among the stalls, which included everything from a seller of cool old travel posters and to a spray paint artist creating an amazing space-themed painting as a crowd looked on.

Next to The Rocks is Circular Quay, named because it encircles Sydney Cove. Restaurants and bars line its walkway, and, the Sydney Opera House sits majestically at its end. At the other end of the quay, directly across the mouth of Sydney Cove, is the Sydney Harbour Bridge, the massive structure that connects the city centre with North Sydney.

There is something about a city where a large body of water plays an important part of everyday life. Hong Kong and Sydney share this trait, as I suppose does New York City to a certain extent. Here, ferries depart from five different terminals on Circular Quay, taking passengers across the Harbour to a number of destinations. All kinds of other crafts take off from here too - harbour tours, jetboats, even cruise ships. And you will see the big container ships steaming by, as well, on their way up the harbour to drop off their cargo.

We took a view of the Opera House from the bridge side and then headed across for a closer look, on our way to the Royal Botanic Gardens. The opera house is beautiful, perched on its promontory at the head of the quay. It is as impressive close up as it is from afar. It also gives a good view of the homes of the Governor General and the Prime Minister across the Harbour in Kirribilli.

Down the steps of the Opera House are the Botanic Gardens, with their lush grass and greenery running up to the pathway that borders the harbour. The sign at the entrance to the garden seemed to sum up the Aussie's way of enjoying life in a laid back manner - "Please walk on the grass."

The Botanic Gardens offer a nice contrast, a lush green space between the brilliant waters of the harbour and the gleaming buildings of the city centre. The border pathway meanders along the harbourfront, and we followed its curved path down to the famous rock known as Mrs. Macquarrie's Chair, a seat carved into a rock named after the wife of an early 19th Century governor of Australia who loved to sit on the rock and look out at the harbour. We didn't have time to tarry, however, as we were in search of sustenance.

The Botanic Gardens border an area called Woolloomooloo, where several Australian Navy ships are docked. In the shadow of these ships is Harry's Cafe de Wheels, a little streetside food stand serving wonderful meat pies. These consist of a pot pie-like crust filled with meat, then topped with mashed potatoes, mushy peas, and optional cheese sauce. I ordered the tasty Curry Tiger pie, which was heavenly. And it wasn't quite enough, as I went back for a cheesy dog. That, however, was too much.

Harry's Cafe de Wheels has a long and illustrious history, and it is now listed in Australia's National Trust Register. Instead of filling this page with stories of its past, I will leave that to the experts at the following: http://www.nsw.nationaltrust.org.au/harryscafe.html.

After our delicious break, we headed back to Circular Quay and succumbed to the biggest ripoff there, the Minus-5 bar. You pay $30 to put on a parka, gloves, and boots and sip a vodka drink out of a glass made of ice amidst a dozen or so ice sculptures in (you guessed it) minus-5 temperatures. I don't have any pictures of this, as cameras were prohibited. They, of course, would sell you a picture of yourself paying one dollar per minute to slowly freeze, but we passed. It was time to leave the cold behind and head to a place close to the hearts of Australians, the beach.

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year to everyone. I am back in Singapore after a much-anticipated trip home that saw me go through 11 airports in 16 days. It was great seeing colleagues, friends, and family from California to Houston, Dallas, and Amarillo. I even got a dose of Panhandle snow during my stay.

My trip back to Singapore was testament to how far away Asia is. Wheels up in Amarillo to wheels down in Singapore was 28 hours (December 26 to 28), and that is by going the most direct route and arriving an hour early here. But, there was no time for rest. I was able to get home, re-pack, and get in a day at work before heading back to the airport for my new year's trip to Oz.