Monday, August 03, 2009

Shopping in Stanley

I reached my hostel just before noon, and checked in without difficulty. When the hostel manager checked me in, she indicated a bed and said "ah, one other person. You have a girl this time." Ah Shan's mixed dorm is the kind of arrangement that--in my experience--is limited almost entirely to single men on their way between other places in Asia or taking the long hop between Asia and Europe. It's a bit rough and tumble, and not the sort of place you see a lot of womenfolk.

In fact, womenfolk in hostels tend to be a mysterious curiosity. Admittedly, I've had some great luck along the way, meeting good traveling companions like Melanie, but there have also been the odd girls that will check into mixed dorms but then never say hello, leaving an awkward silence in a room for an entire evening and the following morning, making you wonder if you really look that scary or if maybe they just assume that you won't speak a common language or perhaps they're mute?

Judging by the twinkle in the eye of my host this girl was the sort of likable person I would probably get along with, so I looked forward to meeting her.

So it was that even though Roger turned out to be a very nice guy, I'll always think of him by the nickname "disappointment". It turned out the girl had checked out that morning, and Roger was the only remaining guest. He was a pleasant, softspoken fellow with a soft torso and hair cut very short to mitigate a receding hairline. The oppressive heat had done a number on his UK sensibilities, and so he returned from his morning's excursion shirtless, making him look like the quintessential western victim of Hong Kong's heat and humidity. A sort of white gumby, slowly deforming in the pressure-cooker that is Hong Kong in midsummer.

If he's good at reading expressions, I'm sure he's wondering why the American stranger's face fell quite that far when he walked in the door. Ah well, win some, lose some.

We struck it off well enough, and I gave him a little advice on the easiest way to get back to the airport (bus, from where we happened to be) and headed out. I was hungry, and I had shopping to do.

I had intentionally resisted the urge to buy some things along the way, knowing that I didn't have the space or weight to carry souvenirs, and so I specifically managed it so that I could wait until my last day in Hong Kong to do much of my shopping.

I took the MTR out to the very end of Hong Kong Island, and from there a Green Minibus across the island to the tiny seaside village of Stanley, a tourist's village with a pretty well known souvenir market. There I bought gifts both small and large for several friends, and many of you will be receiving them as Christmas and Birthday gifts over the coming six months.

But before I did most of my shopping, I went hunting for food.

There is a long strip of tourist restaurants with names like "Cafe De Paris" and signs advertising Carlsberg and Heineken, all facing the waterfront. I walked along them glancing incredulously at prices and shaking my head. I suspected there was a place near here where the locals ate, and there was no way I was paying HK $100 for a dim sum sampler plate. At the end of the long line of tourist trap eateries I found a grungy instant noodle house nesting in a hole in the wall, and there I had vegetable and meat wonton noodle soup for $18--about US $2.50. It was delicious, though simple, and I felt a little better about my chances of succeeding in the market.

Hong Kong markets don't really do that much haggling anymore--I mean, some do, but most of the prices are already low and there really isn't much room to negotiate, so I only asked for small discounts when I bought several things together, and while this always resulted in some savings, it was usually only between 5 and 15 percent. I suppose I could have struck a hard bargain, played the difficult sell, and tried for more, but I liked the laid back, relaxed attitude of the shopkeepers and was more than comfortable paying the asking price in almost every case. I found most of the gifts I was looking for, although a couple of artists I had seen on my first visit to Hong Kong whose work I really liked were not represented there, and several pieces that I loved were far, far out out of my price range.

As I wandered I took time to view the waterfront. Stanley faces out towards the open ocean, on the far side of Hong Kong Island from the major city, and it's blatantly obvious at any given moment that Hong Kong's role as one of the major shipping centers of the world is still quite strong.

Eventually the afternoon's torrential downpour settled in, and I moved slowly from shop to shop, thankful for the tightly woven roof made of awnings and fabric and plastic that the shop owners string up to keep the sun and rain off their customers. Around six I finally headed back to town, waiting until a thinner band of the storm came through and the rain reduced to a light drizzle and I could make it to the bus stop at a dead run. I must have looked an awkward sight, with a road-weary face and worn clothing, two cardboard art tube rolls and a severely anachronistic samurai sword protruding from the bag slung over my shoulder.

I headed back to town, dropped my bags at the hostel, grabbed a few pastries from a bake shop for dinner, and took the MTR down to the waterfront for one last view of Hong Kong's incredible skyline. The rain had dispersed by then, and I happened to accidentally arrive just before 2000, which gave me the chance to wade through the crowds of tourists and watch the Hong Kong lightshow again.

The show was nice, but I found it better the second time around, since I decided to block out the Movie-Theatre-Introduction Music with Oh Dorian, which actually seemed to match the light show a little better than the stuff blaring from the Public Address system.

I headed back to the hostel around 9, did a bit of research and caught up on my internets, then turned in around 11.

Tomorrow was going to be two very short days.

Red Eye to Asia

One way tickets from Perth to Hong Kong are inexplicably expensive, and so I had booked consecutive (but cheap) flights from Perth to Singapore and from Singapore to Hong Kong, spending the entire night traveling. I've done it before, and since I wasn't changing time zones, as I was going almost due north for much of it, I knew it wouldn't be too bad.

I arrived in the Singapore airport just before 0300, and spent almost two hours finding out which terminal I was to be in. Allow me to gripe: Singapore has an absolutely ridiculous airport. It is a massive, sprawling thing that has four totally independent terminals, named 1, 2, 3, and Budget. There is a free shuttle bus from the Budget terminal to Terminal 2, which I took, and when I arrived there I discovered that the normal train between those three terminals was shut down, so I had to find out that there is another shuttle that runs overnight, then find it, then go to the wrong terminal, discover that my airline departed from somewhere else, and then go there. All told I probably walked five kilometers and spent an hour riding buses and going "well, where the hell is my flight then?" before I finally found it.

Thankfully, the layover was four hours long, so I had enough time to check in, grab some breakfast (a sort of Singapore Signature dish -- noodle soup with curry seasoning, Prawns and Tofu. Not bad, but it felt like airport food), and head to my gate.

There, I found my second complaint against Singapore's airport.

One of the things I've made a habit over the past couple of years is to always carry an empty water bottle through security with me, then fill it from the water fountains inside the departures area. It saves me the several dollars that water inevitably costs inside the airport and helps me feel a little less like I'm getting fleeced. I used to carry a full one, but of course the modern regulations have done away with that option.

Singapore has a holding pen at every gate that is entered by going through security. This is kinda nice in the sense that security is widely distributed and you're less likely to miss your flight because you're standing in line, but a PITA for me, since it means that my empty water bottle does me no good, as there are no water fountains in that tiny seating area between metal detector and causeway.

I realize this is a really small thing, of course, but it irked me, and so it stuck in my pre-dawn mind and I decided I'd gripe about it here.

I caught my flight with plenty of time to spare and reached Hong Kong in the midmorning.

Also: interesting bit of history and politicaly geography. I'm skipping across the surface of the western hemisphere like a stone, but every place I strike lately is a former British colony. Weird, huh?

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Parkour, Kung Foo, And Kangaroo

The next morning we rolled out of bed around 10ish and chatted about politics and religion over breakfast. If you're as controversial in your views as people like Geoff and I tend to be, you get used to not minding when the disagreements are thorough as long as they are reasoned (if not rational) and polite. I learned long ago between being the Christian on the Smoker's porch and being the drinking, cursing outspoken critic in my bible study groups that pleasant disagreements are not only feasible, but desirable, and it's obvious that along the way Geoff has learned the same lesson through his own experience. Thus we could broach topics where we differed wildly and still find plenty of common ground and move on.

After breakfast, we wandered out to the back yard. The objectives of the day were (1) show each other stuff to give an idea of what training had been like (2) teach Daniel (Joe's son) how to throw his new football American-style, and (3) maybe do a little parkour at one of the parks in the area.

So it was that Geoff and I spent an hour or so showing different applications, working muscles long left to atrophy and mindsets covered over in the dust of forgetfulness. We talked about lessons we'd learned, and I tried to remember enough of one of my old forms to give him an idea of how nasty and full of applications they had been. It was a rough approximation but he got the idea. For his part he showed me a few of the more obscure strikes and some of the cool stuff he'd always liked from his art. Along the way I took a few photographs that weren't of him kissing his knees. That is probably the best one, there.

At some point Joe wandered out into the backyard and the conversation moved to Gymnastics for a while, a subject at which I have always been terrible. Joe on the other hand is pretty damn good, and would occasionally tease us in our stiff-old-man movements by throwing a cartwheel-handspring or somersault into our peripheral vision. Eventually Daniel came out and we went through the very very basics of punches before he lost interest and we sent him to find his football.

Due to a fellow named Scott, that I knew long ago, back before I was in college--(when dinosaurs ruled the earth, as I would say to my Mercerian friends)--I've always had a halfway decent spiral throw, at least over short distances. He decided one day (with Scott's usual mixture of singlemindedness and decisive action) that I should know how to throw a football, and he taught me the entire mechanic in just a few moments and drilled me on it until it was ingrained.

So it was I found myself halfway around the world in an Aussie's backyard, teaching a five year old the same basic rules. Fingers on the laces. Hand behind your ear. Let it roll out straight.

I'm a pretty good teacher. I know that sounds arrogant, but I've been tutoring, guest lecturing, and assisting in and out of classrooms for almost a decade and I base my opinion on the feedback I've gotten and the results I've witnessed. Still, this kid has to be a natural. In five minutes he was throwing a nice spiral at least five yards with decent accuracy, and could catch the return throw 9 times out of 10. It's a pity you can't use such a throw in Australian Rules Football, or he'd make quite the quarterback someday.

Since we'd been mixing in discussion of another physical activity we enjoyed, a sort of casual parkour sidebar turned eventually into a sojourn to the public park, Joe drove and the four of us wound up on the grounds of one of the local schools, quiet on a Sunday save for the handful of family samplers out letting their kids play on the various playground gear.

We made an odd quartet, Geoff dressed like a Bogan (the Aussie equivalent of a redneck, as best I can tell), Me in baggy surfer shorts, Daniel running from place to place whenever we looked away, usually to be found doing something challenging or a facsimile of whatever we'd been doing a few moments before, and Joe dividing her attention between making sure her son wasn't in any real danger and keeping up with us, a challenging grin on her face and "anything you can do I can do better" attitude that proved absolutely correct when it came to the gymnastics part of our adventure.

We spent some time on various jumps and climbing things, and eventually found a sort of handleless, sharply angled carousel in a big sandpit that made for a half hours entertainment as we screwed with each other while each person tried to walk on it as if it were a mouse's exercise wheel. That devolved into tussling, which became Joe having a go at choking me out. Historically she's always hung pretty tough with Geoff's friends, and has incapacitated a few of them along the way, leaving behind a wake of embarrassing injuries and submissions. Geoff tells these stories with the glowing pride of an older brother, and they are pretty hilarious. She's strong and quick and knew the basics, and went straight for the throat as best she could. However, but I've been mangled by Jujitsuka, Aikidoka, Judoka, Kuk Sool Instructors, and plenty more besides, so I wormed out of the choke and cheated.

One thing I've learned more and more as my knowledge of Martial arts stagnates with the absence of training and slowly ferments is that certain arts have certain mentalities, and the arts I have studied have a certain devious grace to them. So when I got a free hand and had my throat protected, I brought it around her shoulder and, with it still covered in sand, shoved it across her jaw, getting sand in her face and down her shirt simultaneously.

She coughed and spat and let me go, and I scrambled to my feet laughing and helped her up, thinking of Aaron performing a similarly dastardly attack by merely smothering me (something I had never expected or considered until he did it) during a session at Knoxville fest about five years back. Geoff laughed at us both, me turning my pockets inside out and his sister shaking sand from her hair, and I laughed and said "See? What did I tell you? K. S. uses whatever is available." Years later, it seems I haven't forgotten that simple lesson, at least.

We found a couple of really cool playground items that rotated in bizarre and interesting ways, allowing you to form a sort of spinning swing, the momentum of which you could control yourself by how you moved within them, and spent a significant period playing with them as well as climbing them and performing various jumps and talking about life and how to whistle. I showed Joe the whistle my mother and sister and I learned, and it brought back memories of sitting on the top of our giant van on the fourth of July in Texas, many years ago, and picking up the trick by experimentation and spending a quarter of an hour making ridiculous noises before if finally clicked.

Eventually, we headed back to the house, because Geoff had plans to make dinner.

I took a shower and repacked my bags while he did prep work, then I came in to help finish preparing the Mashed potatoes.

The meal was Mashed potatoes, Broccoli and Cabbage salad, and Kangaroo.

As he cooked Geoff explained to me that most people's misconception that Kangaroo is inedible and tough is based on the fact that it's almost always overcooked. The only real way to eat it is seared, and completely rare (for those in need of a definition: the center is still cold and the meat is almost blue).

He had marinated the 'Roo in Wine, Pepper, and a splash fo beer, then made a reduction of the remaining marinade, and the flavour was fantastic. The texture was perfect, soft and smooth and incredibly tender. I couldn't have asked for a better last meal for my time in Australia.

After dinner, I said my goodnights to Daniel, and my goodbyes to Geoff, and Joe took me to the airport, as she was headed off to meet Peter afterwards and Geoff and I had both been drinking with dinner.

I arrived in plenty of time to check in, read a bit, and then climb on board my flight to Singapore. The next thirteen hours would be spent in transit, and at the end of them, I'd be back in Hong Kong.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Marine Museum and a Missed Flight.

Every hostel stay seems to have it's moments, and that night was no exception.

I turned in around 11, and walked into my dorm room to find a very undressed (she was left in pants and a camisole) English bird standing in the center of our room. Sometimes a little bit of curmudgeonly behaviour is rewarded by a glimpse of beauty along the way for no particular reason, and this was one of those moments. I tried not to raise my eyebrows too highly and instead gathered my things for rituals of tooth brushing and preparations for bed. It turned out she and her traveling companion (whose names I forget) had just arrived from Cannes a few minutes before.

Mark and Dominic, two fellows who were staying in (Dominic because he didn't feel like going out and Mark because he was hugely jet lagged from having just arrived from the UK 24 hours earlier and going out to the pub the night before) turned in shortly thereafter, and the five of us chatted for twenty minutes or so before we all decided that we were invested in the sleep aspect of things.

Of course, we were awakened by the returning revelers around 3AM, most specifically a fellow who had apparently been pranked by having a fridge put in his bed (?!). Of course, when you're that hammered everything is as serious as the afterlife and he stood in the hallway and bawled bloody murder for probably ten minutes while his friends tried to calm him down and get him to bed.

After an hour of tossing and turning I fell back asleep and woke up around 9.

Dominic and I finished off most of the remaining breakfast ingredients I alluded to earlier, and the resulting mushroom and onion omelet and hash browns were damn tasty.

I did laundry, repacked my things and dropped them in the storage room, then headed for downtown. I had one last day and the wildlife exhibit and marine museum had my curiosity.

I wandered down the wharf and passed the wildlife exhibit with only a pause to confirm that it was about $32 AU and I hadn't little interest in paying that to go to a miniature zoo, even a neat one. So it was that I didn't see a Koala or (live) Kangaroo during my time in Australia, but that just means there's more reason for me to come back, I suppose.

However, I crossed over the Darling Harbour bridge and discovered a gem in Australia's National Marine Museum.

It was a mammoth building with it's own docks outside, with decommissioned battleships and submarines and a replica of the Endeavour (Captain Cook's ship). For a price, you could tour the ships outside, but the museum itself was free. I threw $3 AU in the donation box and wound up spending nearly 5 hours there, I felt like I should have gone back and donated more before I left.

Among the many permanent exhibits of Australian Sailing and Longshoreman history, there were several really fascinating displays and a couple of great temporary exhibits as well. One of the cool things in the extensive exhibit on the history of the Australian Navy, and how it's evolved over time largely independent of the British Navy which was content to withdraw when it had business elsewhere and leave the colony to shift for itself, which made the Australians naturally uncomfortable, and so they basically hand-built their own fleet.

In fact, the government of Australia actually invited The Great White Fleet--Teddy Roosevelt's personal "Fuck you" to Japan--to come visit and tour Sydney harbour, and the government made a huge celebration out of the visit, and used it to drum up public support for their own Naval ambitions, which they would proudly tour through the same harbour themselves five years later, and which would prove invaluable during the first world war just a few years after that.

One of the intriguing visiting exhibits was "Exposed--the History of Swimwear" which I have a twofold interest in. On the one hand, I swam quasi-competitively as youngster, and rather enjoyed the experience, and find the current "Fastskin" controversy intriguing. On the other hand, I'm also a human male over the age of 12, so a fitting bathing suit on an attractive woman will always be a visual I appreciate. To quote Garrison Keillor (who was quoted in the exhibit) "A girl in a bikini is like having a loaded pistol on your coffee table - There's nothing wrong with them, but it's hard to stop thinking about it."

I was surprised and impressed to note that the human body factored into the exhibit to the extent that they included the iconic William Claxton photograph of Peggy Moffitt modeling Rudi Gernreich's famous "monokini" of which 3,000 were sold and only a handful ever worn. I was to realize later in the other exhibitions on swimming that the female breast is apparently not something that the museum felt should be avoided if it factored into an exhibit, and spotted several other images (mostly Australian beach-and-swimming-related-art) that also had nipples a plenty. I've dutifully reprinted a low quality image of the monokini photo (which is a fantastic photograph from a technical and asthetic POV as well) here to voice my support for this mentality. What I've come to realize is that I think nudity and alcohol are in the same category here. If they are treated with respect, but also with a casual admission that they are facts of life and not to be considered shameful or unhealthy, we'll probably be a lot better off as a society.

Other intriguing displays included the Darwin Exhibit ("Journeys and Theories" or somesuch) which was a really fascinating overview of Darwin's travels around the world aboard the HMS Beagle. One thing I found fascinating was that the captain of the ship for that voyage would go on to become one of the first proponents of using barometers to predict the weather, and to advocate their use by ships at sea.

There is a "United States of America" gallery that contains a bunch of gifts from the Smithsonian, most interesting of which is a display of journal excerpts and photographs from a 19 year old Yankee that sailed to Australia from New York on one of the last tall ships near the turn of the 20th century. His photography is remarkable (though occasionally out of focus) and his writing is blunt, simple, and fascinating, and these materials provide a compelling view backwards into a world now long gone.

There is also a boat built out of beer cans, which is seaworthy. Turns out that Darwin runs a beer boat competition every year, and it's encouraged some really remarkable creativity over the years.

I finally left the museum around 4:30, took a train back through town, swung by Harries for another delicious meat pie, this time with mashed potatoes AND mashed peas, and the collected my bags and headed to the airport.

I walked up to the Virgin Blue counter around 6:15 and told the lady I was checking in for the flight to Perth. She had my passport by then and said it was odd that she wasn't finding me on the passenger manifest. I asked what day it was (that always being my biggest fear) and she laughed and said the 1st. Ok then, I wasn't completely wrong. She said the flight was at 7:55 though, and tha concerned me, because I thought I remembered it being at 7:30. Finally she searched for my flight details and found my original booking, and discovered that I'd been on the 5:30 flight (now, of cours, long gone).

"Oh, shit" I thought to myself. "Really?" I said, trying to play the innocent passenger card while I wracked my brain for how I'd managed that one.

Then I hit upon it. Throughout this trip I've been drilling my use of Military time, which has served me very well throughout, but in this case it had sunk me. The flight I'd thought was at 7:30 (and had converted in my head to 19:30) was actually at 17:30, and I'd simply misread the booking. I'd made an assumption based on the duration of the flight and the time changes and the fact that I knew when I landed, and assumed that 7:30 made perfect sense. In fact the flight time was two hours longer than I expected. My face fell but the very helpful girl pointed across the concourse to a customer service desk and said I'd be able to change my ticket there for a $50AU fee.

Well, $40 US wasn't too bad, and in fact was easily absorbed by my budget, so I schlepped across to the desk and explained my plight to the girl there.

She pulled up my flight details and looked concerned. "oh, actually. . .the kind of booking you had can't be exchanged once you miss the flight. . ." (OH SHIT. RED ALERT.) "I mean, if you'd been here but not had time to make it to the gate. . ." she trailed off, not wanting to say "you're about to have to buy a new $250 (or god knows how much more) ticket if you want to fly tonight".

I played the innocent traveler card again and pointed back at the check in desk from which I'd just been sent. "Oh, I didn't realize. I mean, I just talked to her and she had said that I'd be able to transfer to this flight for a $50 fee since there were open seats. . ."

They played phone tag, waving at each other across the concourse and talking briefly and the customer service girl (who obviously wanted not to charge me an arm and a leg) confirmed that I was some TLA that basically meant "was here on time but couldn't make it" (a complete fabrication they were both happy to maintain for my sake, thank the maker). As a result, I was on the next flight to Perth with very little economical pain or inconvenience.

I phoned Geoff to explain and he laughed at me. "How the hell did ya manage that?" and I told him briefly and said I'd call when I landed to find out if he was still at work or back at the house.

While I waited for my next flight, I sampled a local treat: Arnott's. The big seller are "Tim Tams"--a chocolate coated cookie that is the common companion of tea. In this case though, it was a mint cookie not unlike if a Devil's Food Cake cookie and a York peppermint patty had mated. Imagine a grown-up version of a Girlscouts' thin mint and you've got the idea. They were great. I ate the entire package before I reached Perth.

When I landed, I found him at home. We sat and talked and drank for a bit, then went to sleep with plans to spend a little bit of the next day at least sharing technique, doing a mini-Knoxville-fest, both knowing we'd be frustrated by the experience since it's been so long since either of us trained, but wanting to get the chance to convey at least the vague outline of what had, once upon a time, been conveyed to us.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Manly Ferry

I woke up the next day in fine form around 10AM, having slept well, and went to make myself breakfast in the hostel kitchen.

A cheerful Irish girl named Elizabeth made me breakfast, on account of a series of strange circumstances that had involved missed breakfast and provided ingredients the previous morning. Over breakfast I chatted with her and a very sweet young Korean who had moved to Sydney on a work Visa with an eye towards waitressing, improving her English, and traveling around the country.

In the end, I scrapped my intentions for the Wildlife Expo and Maritime museum, and went along with them on a Ferry ride to Manly. We took our time on the walk, enjoying the sites and the company of fellow travelers.

Sydney is built along a river leading to the Sea, and Manly is the tiny seaside town at the mouth of that river where white men first landed in the Sydney area in 1788, and now has a beautiful European seaside feel, but with a much better beach and a good surf.

We walked down to Circular Quay, the main ferry port, and caught a ferry around 1PM. Elizabeth was quite the talker, while Niki was the sort of somber Asian girl that is eternally listening to what everyone else says and about once an hour asking a random question.

So it was that I spent the day in the company of a shadow of the east I'd so recently explored, and a chattering Irish lilt that told stories of travels to India and Turkey and the adventures of living in London as a teacher.

Our ferry provided us the best possible views of the Opera house as we pushed away, and we got a few fantastic photographs on the way out of the city. Elizabeth commented on how pretty and surreal it was, like "it'd bi'n maed by aliens!"

Manly is really just a far-flung suburb of Sydney at this point, and the ferry ride was less than an hour. We arrived in high spirits and wandered down to the beach, where a dozen men in wet suits were practising their surfing skills and a few women and children wandered the sandy shoreline. We sat for a time and chatted, and took a few pictures along the way.

The architecture of Manly is actually quite pretty, and when we'd done with the beach we wandered back through the small town and found a place that made pies and coffee. I had English Breakfast Tea (courtesy of Elizabeth) and a wonderful Pumpkin and Feta and Coriander pie with a flaky crust and an incredible flavour. It was really yummy and I would love to figure out how to make it when I get home.

Around four we caught a ferry back to Syndey, taking more pictures along the way. Niki is at the very beginning of a year's work here in Australia, and desperately concerned about improving her English, and so I pestered her a bit and we taught her a few new words on the ride back, while Elizabeth would randomly derail the conversation to topics like music, politics, interesting places she wanted to go, or the adventures of her gay friends.

When we returned, we walked out to the end of the point where the opera house is located. As we approached, Elizabeth's mind changed like the wind in Manila.

"Y'know I rather think it's really ugly!"

I laughed at her. "not two hours ago you said it was pretty!"

But she insisted that the tile roof and modern feel of it looked horrendous up close and the view of the city from in front of the opera house was better than the view if you turned around and looked at the building itself. I laughed at her and told her I thought it looked pretty, and I walked around it hunting for one of those photographs that will someday make a really great desktop background (yes, it's an odd way of thinking about photography, I realize, but the results are often remarkable).

She and Niki stayed and chatted at the corner while I hiked the 300 meter square around the building, and on my return we walked up to the entrance so that Elizabeth could check the prices to satiate her curiosity. As we climbed the steps she looked at the glass entrance. "Well, now that's quite nice! It's like sem soart of noo chaurch!"

I laughed and shook my head. The fickleness of most women knows no bounds, of course, and I should be used to it by now.

We walked to a nearby train station in downtown, and Niki caught a train to visit a Korean friend of hers. Elizabeth and I went back to the Hostel so that she could pick up her bags, and she was off to visit a friend of her own, and I settled in for a very entertaining evening.

As it turns out there's a local dance bar that does a big celebration on Friday nights, and so our hostel does barbeque around 7PM ($5 AU, for a beer and a plate of fantastically good food and seconds if you want them) and then everyone hangs out in the courtyard for three hours and then heads out at 10PM to the club. This helps quiet down the hostel and keeps people from partying in the courtyard and keeping everybody awake.

There is some sort of prize for the most brightly dressed person, so after the barbeque had been finished and the drinking was properly kicked off, people started disappearing and showing back up in neon dresses or sequined skirts. Several people were wearing glowsticks as jewelry, and a couple of guys disappeared and came back with reflective safety vests. One of them was sporting a neon afro and bright yellow arm warmers. It looked like some sort of rave-slash-carnival.

Through all this quasi-drunken revelry I am sitting in the kitchen area, finishing writing this and shaking my head. The club scene has never really been my thing, but if I knew a few more of this garrulous, lighthearted crowd I'd probably go along to watch the train wreck that I'm confident this evening will turn into.

Truth is though, that I know it would be just another deafening club full of people wasting time shouting small talk in the sides of each other's heads like seals with ear fetishes and trying to make a great time out of developing hearing loss and getting slowly pissed on crappy drinks. Admittedly there will probably be loads of attractive, scantily clad women out tonight, and while a little girl watching sounds like (frustrating) fun, I am going to pass on that as well, and read a bit instead, then turn in early.

Egads, I'm a grumpy old man at twenty six.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Tashka and the Blue Mountains.

The next morning I was inexplicable awake at 0440, and tossed and turned until around 0730 when Tashka texted me and asked if we could meet up and do a day trip out of Sydney to the Blue Mountains.

The Blue Mountains area runs north and west of Sydney in a series of rolling hills that are a mixture of sandstone and eucalyptus and jungle and little towns along the railway. It was something we had both been considering as a day trip, her with her dad, me with a group trip the hostel can organize, but when her dad's schedule for Friday went to hell and confined him to the city, she decided to see if we could do a bit of the adventure together.

We arrived a few minutes late and missed the first train, so we wandered through Sydney's picturesque downtown and made small talk, telling stories about our backgrounds and the places we'd lived and loved. An hour later, we caught the next train to Katoomba, a small town with some of the best views of the mountains.

The trip took about two hours, and we made discoveries as we went, figuring out that the hop-on-hop-off bus was frivolous and we could walk through town to Echo Point, where we took a few photos and had a look around. The scenery surreal and beautiful, and afterwards we hiked around to a viewpoint that should have given us a nice view of one of the cascades, but by then it was dark and the cascades weren't too amazing from several hundred meters up. I did get a nice picture of a Cockatoo though. He's caught in the sunlight and it makes him look rather surreal, I think.

Along the way we played on the cliffs and took a picture or two. Tashka told me about what it was like growing up in South Africa, attending an overbearing Christian American school, and wandering in the mountains a few hours from her house every chance they had. The mountains there, it seems, were actually very similar to these, with foliage and half-caves that reminded her of 'home' at every turn.

After we'd finished our hike, we wandered back into town and checked for a train home so she wouldn't get back too late. We settled on a train running at 1724, so we had about an hour and a half to get lunch/dinner and then make it back to catch the train.

We settled on a Turkish place that served Kebabs and Pide. Pide are the curious Turkish Calzones I'd discovered in Fremantle a few days before, and we had a really wonderful meal of Doner Kebab and Pide that ran relatively cheaply and left us both pleasantly overfull. While there she modeled the Australian coke bottle for me, which is inexplicably marked with "Buddy." It was about the only way I could convince her to let me take her picture.

Unfortunately for our stomachs and waistlines, we'd seen a cake and pie shop on the way to the Kebab place, so on the way back we stopped in there and neither of us could resist getting two things. Each. She got Chocolate custard and I got crème brûlée (they made it with a Graham cracker crust, which was surprisingly better than I expected) and we each bought a slice of their chocolate cake, which looked astounding. We headed back to the train and ate our first desserts en route back to Sydney, but found ourselves so stuffed by the first that we had to save the cake for later. I'll probably have it for breakfast tomorrow.

We parted ways at the train station that evening, and I headed back to the Hostel.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Sydney Downtown and a new South African Friend

The next day, I decided I would spend wandering the city. The interesting parts of Sydney's downtown are spanned by less than two kilometers of walking, and so when I awoke late in the day I took a brief shower and wandered down to Roy's. Roy's is a local pub with free internet and great (if slightly pricey) food. Ignoring the price though, it was enough breakfast for two. For about $12 US I had coffee and the best damn eggs benedict (with really fantastic Ham and perfectly poached eggs) that I've had in ages. After breakfast I headed into the city on Sydney's metro system, which spat me out in the heart of their downtown district on the waterfront.

From there I wandered, through parks and gardens, past fountains with brilliant rainbows made by misty water and minotaurs being defeated by naked greeks. Eventually I wandered my way to the Australian museum, which is a fantastic mix of science and lifestyle evangelism and history and culture.

The museum had some really incredible biology exhibits. One of the more intriguing ones was the skeletons exhibit, which spent a lot of time on the more obscure things about bones that we don't really consider. For example, check out this photo. It turns out that "unhinges it's jaw" is too simple a term to describe what a python does when it swallows food. A better expression might be "explodes it's whole friggin' head"

They also have a great mineral collection (though I think Perth's might be better), a really remarkable exhibit on dinosaurs and Austalian wildlife (ancient and modern), and an amazing exhibit on the indigenous people's of Australia and their struggle with the government over the past 100 years. It even spent a good deal of time talking about the criminal behaviour of the government that resulted in the programs that generated the lost children, which I'd only recently learned about through conversation with my mother. It was a really amazing exhibit.

The lifestyle evangelism came into play in a very meticulously created exhibit on climate change, and how humans must change their behaviour (by lowering our carbon footprints and transitioning as much as possible to renewable energy based on external sources like tide capture machines, hydroelectric dams and solar energy). It was very carefully worded, explaining how scientists might disagree on timing and severity but were still in the main convinced that the shifts in climate that are coming in the next few hundred years were primarily the result of human actions, and could be reigned in by us exercising restraint. It was actually a pretty cool exhibit, and did a decent job of talking about how we can become more responsible citizens both of our countries and of our planet.

In addition, it made use of some really badass technology that included microprojectors, recycled cardboard alternatives to drywall, and a giant, projector-based touch screen technology which let you play a "lead a country to ecological responsibility" game. Granted, the game was typical liberal bullshit, rewarding you for implementing programs that would waste money and resources, but the system itself was pretty badass, and I must say I'm tempted to build one when I get back home. If only I had time amidst the million other projects I want to start once I knock the dust from my boots and have a little free time again.

When I left the museum, I wandered across a few parks and into the Art Gallery of New South Wales, which turned out to be a pretty decent Art collection housed in a really gorgeous building.

The gallery spanned multiple floors and included art from Australians and international artists. The classical art was mainly paintings, even the best of which photograph poorly, so I'll have to apologize that my pictures are from the modern art selection, which I largely wandered with my normal squint and mutter. Still, that wall spanning "light" sculpture--made poetically of neon, was stunning and I thought my mom would appreciate it. And "innapropriate shapes" made me stop and give pause to a very real question: why do we look at those six images and assume the bottom three are the ones with flaws?

In any case, a few of the pieces were really quiet remarkable and not half bad, and it was over one such piece (a giant installation of concrete and rebar) that I struck up a conversation with a young South African lady.

She was a pretty, heavily-freckled bottle redhead in tight jeans and a top to match, and despite her obvious admiration for modern art, I couldn't resist starting a conversation. It turned out her name was Tashka. She was smart and well-traveled, a recent grad with a mother in Singapore and a father here in Sydney, and we told each other stories of places we'd been and eventually settled on getting together the next day and spending some additional time getting to know each other and the city. Here's hoping it works out well.

After we parted ways I walked down to Mrs. Macquaries Point, which affords one of the most remarkable views of the Opera house and the dual downtowns of Sydney. I was lucky enough to arrive just after the sun had gone down, and so I hung around for a time, first getting the requisit picture of myself. See there? Now I have proof that I've been to Australia, and seen one of the world's most iconic buildings.

After I had it though, I did manage to take a few somewhat more artistically valuable shots of the view.

On the way home, I stopped at a great little place on the warf called "Harry de wheels" which is a pie shop chain strewn throughout Sydney. Ironically the night before had involved viewing the last two thirds of "Sweeney Todd" and yet I wasn't thrown off at all. I wound up with a really great beef Pastie and mashed peas, and it made a delicious dinner, with a great Australian Lemonade called Solo (and sold as "Lemon Tang") thrown in, the whole dinner still cost less than $6, so the Australian food choices aren't all overpriced.

So that's my dinner, and a damn fine dinner it was, too. I'm going to learn to make these mashed peas when I get home, and Beth (and anyone else who makes a face when English peas are mentioned) will just have to avoid my house on certain nights of the week. No worries though, there's plenty of other good food for which I'm bringing home the passion, and I'm sure all and sundry will be more than happy to visit me on those nights.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Idiot in Reverse

At 9 the next morning Geoff and I were up and moving, Geoff made breakfast for us (egg and bacon toasties, how I love thee) since he was starving and I was about to board a low-cost airline where food would cost me my firstborn child and maybe one of my appendages.

I climbed aboard a Virgin blue aircraft at 1000, and landed in Sydney around 1630. The flight across Australia is about the same length as the one across the US, and you transition through two time zones in the process.

I often take these night shift walks when the foreman's not around
I turn my back on the cooling stacks and make for open ground
Far out beyond the tank farm fence where the gas flare makes no sound
I forget the stink and I always think back to that eastern town

The views were fantastic. I flew over Kalgoorlie, the place I hadn't bothered to go, and it was as boring and brown as Ash and Geoff had described, then we skipped along the coast, between the Australian bight to the south and the Nulaboor plane, and I (looking out the north side) could see the vast desolate emptiness that is central Australia. The clouds hung in little puffs immobile and cast little black dots upon land that was an otherwise featureless morass of brown and orange. It was like flying over 2500 kilometers of Texas. I think this place would drive me pretty bonkers if I ever had to drive across it alone.

I remember back six years ago, this western life I chose
And every day, the news would say some factory's going to close
Well, I could have stayed to take the dole, but I'm not one of those
I take nothing free, and that makes me an idiot, I suppose

I became absorbed in my Rudyard Kipling book during the flight, and the next time I looked up we were only twenty minutes from landing, and the landscape was entirely different.

The hills were rolling and green, with orange only peeking through on a few cliffs in the otherwise unbroken lushness of New South Wales.
The green was a sharp contrast to the dusty brown of Perth, and the vast emptiness between the two.

I thought about Stan Rogers and one specific song of his called "The Idiot" written about Canada many years ago. In Canada the land and the economics work somewhat similar to the way they worked out in Australia, with the hard work and independent lives being lived in the dust of a newly industrialized and heavily mined west, and the work drying up in the beautiful and picturesque eastern towns until many of them were left with rolling green hills and a dependence on government money.

So I bid farewell to the eastern town I never more will see
But work I must so I eat this dust and breathe refinery
Oh I miss the green and the woods and streams and I don't like cowboy clothes
But I like being free and that makes me an idiot I suppose

I've always loved Mr. Rogers work and especially his narrator's voice in the Idiot. That narrator sings with an impassioned insistence that no matter how bad things are, he'll always scrabble for his independence and give a finger to the handouts of a corrupt and mollycoddling government. I could see now the nightmare that the sacrifice must have been for the miners and factory men that chose to leave NSW and move west and build mines and factories and farms. It is not a decision to be made lightly, but it is one I'll always respect.

Coming in I had a remarkable view of the city, and I wish I had had the good sense to have my camera in hand, even if they would have been shots through the plane window, which I typically hate and avoid taking. The Opera house and the waterfront were bathed in a the stark gold of late afternoon in winter, and the city looked like a thing touched by divinity--a shining glimmer descendant upon it in the waning light of day. Brightly illuminated clouds seemed to cling in the sky, reluctant to wander far from the site, as if they might evaporate outside the radius of its influence. It was a view worth savouring.

So come all you fine young fellows who've been beaten to the ground
This western life's no paradise, but it's better than lying down
Oh, the streets aren't clean, and there's nothing green, and the hills are dirty brown
But the government dole will rot your soul back there in your hometown

I called my hostel when I arrived, and they told me a shuttle driver would pick me up, and I climbed into a small van with a curtly polite mid-eastern driver who barreled through the streets of Sydney like a man who has just learned his mother's been hospitalized. Two other girls, a Perth native and a girl from Redding, UK, were also staying at this place, and they said it came highly recommended.

When I got there, I found it was the kind of meandering, interesting building that makes a really great large hostel, with a huge kitchen and open courtyard and PAY BY THE HOUR WIFI.


But aside from that it was actually a really neat place, and after going out for a bite to eat and a couple of beers (an absolutely top-hole steak sandwich and some draught of which I didn't catch the name, at a local place called Roy's) I spent the remainder of the night relaxing in the common areas, washing clothes and reading. Tomorrow, I plan to wander Sydney for a bit.

So bid farewell to the eastern town you never more will see
There's self-respect and a steady check in this refinery
You will miss the green and the woods and streams and the dust will fill your nose
But you'll be free, and just like me, an idiot, I suppose.

lyrics: Stan Rogers - The Idiot