Sunday, November 9, 2008

Sydney: The Tourist Stuff

Sharon, my very nice Sydney host, had been helping me schedule visits with various people in the area but had left this day, Wednesday November 5, free so I could go see the sights of Sydney. (No meetings! Amazing!!!!) I’d received various bits of advice on what to do and see, and decided that I wanted to go to the following: the Harbour Bridge, the Rocks, the Opera House, the Royal Botanic Gardens, the State Library and the Hyde Park Barracks. Hmmm, what else? To be decided on the way!

First, the US elections were getting under way (Sydney is 16 hours ahead) and so I spent twenty minutes scanning for news. Result: blahhh, people were about to start voting.

So I busted out of Sharon’s house and after some to-do buying a ticket (wasn’t pressing the right buttons), got on a train down to the Circular Quay, which is a U-shaped pier area on the water which functions as Sydney Tourist Central. All the buses and the ferries and the cruise ships and the trains stop here, and so there are people milling around wearing Western dress and Buddhist robes and saris and almost nothing, if you’re one of the Aboriginal people playing your didjeridoo for dollars from the tourists (I noticed one had a CD for sale).

Oddly enough, for reading on the train I’d borrowed a book from Sharon’s library called Cave in the Snow, which is the story of a Buddhist nun named Tenzin Palmo, who happens to be a British-born woman and one of the most senior Buddhist nuns living. She lived in a cave by herself for 12 years on a spiritual quest for inner perfection (which is one way to phrase a very complicated journey). Obviously, it was a bit disorienting to be totally mentally engaged with this book while in the hubbub of tourism in a major city.

Once at the Quay, I went right up to the water and took a look. Sydney Water Report: light greenish blue. Very pretty. Swimmable looking. The Quay itself is one of the last convict-made projects from Sydney’s days as a penal outpost. Lots of the convicts had valuable skills (or learned them under duress!), such as masonry.

I wound my way along the pier up to the Rocks, which is the name for the cluster of original Western settlement at Sydney Harbour built on (duh!) the rocks---the birthplace of colonized Australia. Sydney, I should say right here, is built on land which rightfully belongs to the Cadigal, an Aboriginal tribe (and I would like to reiterate for readers that progressive public gatherings in Australia always start with a thanking of the traditional owners of Australia, preferably done by Aboriginal people themselves I think).

Original buildings at the Rocks include the Sailor’s Home, shops, and Cadman’s Cottage, where the harbormaster stayed and kept his office. Today many of these buildings house very nice shops and boutiques which cater to the tourist with a few more bucks. In the midst of the Rocks is one of the pilings for the Harbour Bridge, and you can walk out across the Bridge and take pictures (for a fee). I took pictures of the Bridge but decided to save my legs for the Opera House and Gardens.

I retraced my steps back towards the Opera House, on the other side of the U of the Quay, and while I was in the end I heard my first didjeridoo. VERY COOL. Deep, which is in a range I can hear with my aids. (Forget flutes and piccolos!) There is also a Writer’s Walk leading over to the Opera House, with round brass plaques commemorating famous authors and quotes.

Just a short walk on is the Opera House, which is pretty much the first thing anyone around the world thinks of when they think of Sydney. It really is pretty darn cool, its shapes being wedges taken out of a globe (pie-ball slices?). It's also undergoing an access renovation! I found a sign out front with a quote from the Opera House architect talking about how the building should be accessible for all.

Right next to the Opera House are the grounds for the Royal Botanic Gardens, right on the waterfront. HUGE fig trees. Views of the harbor. Invitations to "walk on the grass!" Palm and fern and succulent conservatories. Yay! And....BATS!!! Yes, there are flying foxes/bats that roost in trees in the Gardens, and I took pictures of them hanging from the boughs in the daytime. I think when they fly they are maybe 2 feet across. They are big enough that even I---and I am only a sort of average wildlife spotter---found them really, really easily. Anyhow I really liked the Gardens and remember, it is spring here so lots of plants are in bloom (and I am totally depending on my allergy pills).

After lunch, I headed over to the State Library, which is undergoing some renovations but has a very nice display on wisdom as collected from various (famous) people all over the world, such as Nelson Mandela and Nick Nolte (?!?).

OK, slice of Australian life---as I sit on Sharon's couch typing this up, the Australia vs. Papua New Guinea rugby match is starting with masked dancers.

The State Library was ok, but then I hit the New South Wales Parliament (small, legislative-ish), passed by the Historic Houses Trust (this is all on the same avenue, Macquarie Street), and then visited the Hyde Park Barracks. This is where the government used to park the convicts way back in the day, and they have reconstructions of rooms where the convicts used to live and sleep. After gross (and I mean, really gross) abuses of authority were exposed, the barracks were abandoned as a jail but then later used for various purposes, such as housing female Irish orphans who came over during the potato famine and also as an "aged and infirm home." Today the barracks area reminder of social history---oh, and they also have a cool exhibit on the prison ships whereby many convicts came to Australia. Depressing as hell, but interesting.

At this point, I'd come to the end of my plan, so I decided to wander around and find something to eat. I ended up in the very upscale shopping district, but the good part about that is I stopped in a pub and found out on the tv that OBAMA IS THE NEXT PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES!

I felt so relieved.

Very relieved. A world without Bush!

Then I went and got lost on the Sydney trains, ate too much fried calamari for dinner, and went home. Oh, I shopped. Mom and Dad, guess what I'm bringing home?

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