Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The Oz Files, #2

I spoke too soon about the weather.

In my defense, the forecast called for 69 degrees and sunny, at least when we checked this morning at 6:45 am, when we got up. We were smart enough to layer up, including coats, for breakfast, since it does get cold in the mornings. Today we went down to Victoria St, which is parallel to the street our hotel is on, for breakfast at Latteria. It’s almost literally a hole in the wall --- an extremely narrow cafe with metal tables that fold up against one wall for extra room and refrigerators stacked up to the ceiling on the other wall, with a narrow walkway between. It’s a real locals’ place, and for good reason: The coffee is awesome, and they have a great selection of pastries and savory things. We had one of each, to whit, a spinach/tomato/cheese panini and a toasted slice of banana bread. Then we dropped our coats off at the hotel room for the day, and Michael, in an act of supreme optimism, decided not to take his regular glasses at all, just his sunglasses. (The good news about that one is that I now get to say “I told you so.” Repeatedly.)

Okay, so it wasn’t all that cold --- maybe in the low- to mid-50s or so --- but it was rather breezy and definitely not sunny at all. Luckily, the day’s itinerary included lots of walking, so we were able to keep pretty warm anyway. We went down to the Royal Botanic Gardens, which extend from the center of the city out into the harbor, and took a lovely walk around, including an hour and a half walking tour from a great guide (Toni), who showed us around the native flora and fauna in the park. The flora part included mostly native plants, like eucalyptus trees (did you know there were over 800 species?), paper-bark trees, various varieties of wattles (the national plant), a species of native spinach, fig trees, macadamia trees (nope, they’re not native to Hawaii), and a huge-trunked bottle tree that stores water like a cactus. By far the coolest specimen was the Wollemi pine, which was around in the time of the dinosaurs and known from fossils. It was thought to be extinct for about 2 million years until a hiker found a stand of them in Wollemi valley about ten years ago. There’s been an aggressive effort to replant them all over the country, and they seem to be taking to it rather well. Last time we were here, there were cages around all of the pines in the gardens to prevent people from stealing them because they were so rare. But now they’ve been released from their captivity, and you can even buy seedlings at the gift shop if you want to have a “dinosaur tree” in your own backyard.

There were also plenty of non-native plants, including a fantastic begonia garden donated by a Japanese begonia fanatic (really), and many of the plants that the original British settlers brought along, most of which failed miserably. I suppose one can’t really blame them for failing to do research about the climate and growing conditions before they arrived, but still, they might have known better. They brought with them all the stuff that they thought they’d need: wheat, barley, a few types of chard, citrus trees, olive trees, tobacco, and coffee. The convicts couldn’t get by without their smoke and caffeine, apparently. The irony is that the tobacco and coffee grew rather well, but the grain crops were a miserable failure. The soil around Sydney is very poor, and to make matters worse, the settlers arrived in the middle of the summer, which is a bad time for planting anything. Also, as soon as the first shoots came up, the wallabies and possums ate the whole stock. The Gardens has a pair of plant beds, one with the native stuff and one with the stuff that the Brits brought, and our guide told us that they can barely manage to get the wheat to grow even with regular watering and fertilization. At that rate, it’s really a wonder that the Brits ever managed to colonize anything.

Fun flora fact of the day: The name eucalyptus comes from the Greek for “well-covered,” and refers to the way that its flowers grow. Rather than coming in buds that open, like most tree flowers, eucalyptus flowers have a hard covering over the top that pops off to reveal the flower. So now you know.

As for the fauna....those of you who tuned in for my last Australia updates three years ago will no doubt remember the flying foxes, gigantic fruit bats that nest in the botanical gardens in a colony of 10,000 strong (up to 20,000 in the summer). From walking around the Gardens, it’s hard to believe that they’re an endangered species, but they are --- they should be living in more tropical climates, but the Australian rainforest is being cut down, and they’re quite happy in Sydney. Unfortunately, they’re destroying the trees that they nest in; they tend to rip the bark and leaves off with their claws when they perch upside down. However, they are awesome. And big: probably about the size of a small house cat, but with wings. And quite loud too: you can hear them all over the park. We took some video, which I’ll try to post soon. The rest of the fauna mostly included birds of various types, such as the cockatoos, which were very nice about posing for pictures, and the afore-mentioned ibises. And some truly huge golden orb spiders, which I wouldn’t ordinarily call “fauna” except that they were fuzzy. Ew.

After our Gardens tour we caught the ferry across the harbor to Manly, a very posh district located between the harbor and the ocean. We got lunch at a Thai stand inside the Manly ferry terminal and then took a walk along the beach on the ocean side. To our absolute amazement, about halfway along our walk we ran into Michael’s graduate advisor (Peter Godfrey-Smith, known as PGS) having lunch with his wife (Jane) at a seaside cafe. He now lives in Manly, which we knew, but we hadn’t exactly expected to find him directly in our path! So we stopped and chatted a bit. PGS was spending the day going scuba diving in Manly cove in search of octopi, and Jane is rehearsing for a performance of two Baroque operas at the Sydney Opera House this week --- she’s a singer and has a role in the chorus. We’ll try to see if we can stop by to see her, but the tickets are, according to PGS, “bloody expensive.” Maybe there will be a few left at rush?

As we were coming back from our walk along the ocean beach, at little past 3:00, the sun finally came out. It made up for its lack of appearance the rest of the day by turning the rest of afternoon into a spectacular success. The light glinting off the water and the clear air and drifting clouds made for a perfect backdrop to the trees lining the harbor. The water was so absolutely clear we could see the rocks on the bottom and even some fish swimming lazily around. I insisted on getting hot chocolate from Max Brenner (tagline: “chocolate by the bald man” --- not as good as Michel Cluizel, but still decent), and we sat outside drinking it and swinging our feet off the pier. I think Michael would have preferred a beer or a glass of wine, but I’m still not feeling entirely adjusted to the time and wanted to skip the alcohol. Next time, sweetie --- promise.

By this time it was getting dark already (stupid winter) so we headed back to the hotel to rest up our tired feet a bit. Then we went down to Oxford Street, which in London is a shopping district but which here is the gayborhood. We weren’t all that hungry (probably something to do with the fact that our bodies thought it was 5 am), so we stopped at a little Vietnamese place for soup and an appetizer to split. And now it’s an easy night in the hotel, which I feel that we’ve earned after all that walking. Breakfast tomorrow will be self-catered --- we bought some provisions at a local grocery store so we don’t have to eat out every meal. After that, the plan for tomorrow is to take the train out to the Blue Mountains, a national park about two hours to the west of Sydney. Or maybe we’ll take a break from the walking and do something a little different. Stay tuned!

Monday, June 29, 2009

The Oz Files, #1

Greetings from Sydney! Michael and I left Philadelphia on Saturday evening, arrived in LA later that night, and landed in Sydney around 6 a.m. local time for a total of approximately 24 hours of traveling, including 19 hours of flights. The trip was uneventful, except that for some reason my special-request vegetarian meal hadn’t made it onto the itinerary of the LA-Sydney leg of the flight (um, United Airlines --- WTF?). But we were able to make do with a leftover one that someone else hadn’t claimed. We took the train from the Sydney airport to Kings Cross, which was a bit of a hassle with the luggage but much cheaper than a cab. Plus, we got to take in a glimpse of the local fauna: When we got to our station, around 7 am, a young woman was climbing the escalator stairs ahead of us wearing an impossibly short skirt and no underwear. I suppose this would be a good time to mention that the neighborhood our hotel is in, Darlinghurst, is steps away from the rather seedy, nudie-bar type neighborhood of Kings Cross, so the young lady in question was most likely, in fact, a prostitute. She got into a bit of a dust-up with the transit police over something, which escalated into a screaming match, which resulted in her eviction from the station. Well, good morning Sydney!

It was too early to check into our hotel when we arrived --- so early, in fact, that the doors were chained shut. Luckily, we were able to drop our baggage off at their sister hotel a few doors away (where we’d stayed last time we were in Sydney) and were able to wander around the area a bit. It felt a bit like coming home, actually...we got reacquainted with all the little restaurants around the block, trying to remember which one we’d eaten at when, before heading to bills for breakfast. (Yes, bills. No capitalization, no punctuation. It’s driving me crazy.) It’s owned by Bill Granger, one of the pioneers of what’s known as “Mod Oz” (Modern Australian) cuisine, and it’s tucked into a corner location just a few blocks away from our hotel. The breakfast there is legendary. I had creamy scrambled eggs with thick Ozzie toast and roasted tomatoes, and Michael had their fresh corn cakes with avocado relish (guacamole, really, but we’re a loooooong way from Mexico). We got a table to ourselves, but one of the features of the place is a large communal table in the center, with magazines and newspapers for sharing, so if you’re eating alone you don’t feel quite so isolated. It was pretty empty when we first got there, since most sane people were still asleep, but it had filled in quite a bit by the time we were done with the usual hipster/artsy/fashion crowd. So, you know, we fit right in. :)

After breakfast, our room still wasn’t ready, since as previously mentioned most sane people were still asleep, so we decided to take a walk down to the harbor to stretch our legs and get some fresh air. The weather was absolutely perfect today: bright sun, close to 70 degrees, fresh breeze off the harbor...it doesn’t get any better. You’d never know it’s the dead of winter. We started off by walking from Darlinghurst down to Hyde Park, past a strange array of car/campervan dealerships. Someone at some point must have decided that this area of Sydney needed a huge collection of rental car agencies, campervan show rooms, and luxury car dealerships. So on our way into town from the hotel we got to pass the latest in car-camping technology as well as a Ferrari dealership, a Bentley dealership, and a Maserati dealership. Seriously, how do these palces stay in business? From Hyde Park we headed diagonally north to Mrs. Macquarrie’s Chair, which is an outcropping into the harbor (sorry, harbour) just across from the opera house. Easier said than done, though; I was still wearing my boots and my feet were pretty tired by the time we walked there and back. But it was well worth it, with the beautiful weather and the sun glinting off the water and the fantastic birds: mynas, magpies, rainbow lorikeets, sulfur-crested cockatoos, a kookaburra or two, and gigantic white ibises. Strange fact: Basically the same ecological niche filled in American cities by pigeons is filled here by ibises. Just as dumb, but ten times the size. No photos yet, since we hadn’t gotten the camera out of the luggage at this point, but I’ll post some later.

Back at the hotel, we checked in to what is inexplicably called the “Loft Suite,” which is (you guessed it) neither a loft nor a suite. But it’s quite roomy, with big windows, high ceilings, and plenty of room to unpack. Apparently Mick Jagger once stayed here, but I’m informed that they’ve renovated since then. After unpacking, we got lunch from the little Japanese place across the street, then showered, then a quick nap. Ahh, it’s so nice to sleep lying down. We woke up around 4 pm local time and headed off to the shopping district to catch the last of the afternoon light and buy Michael a new pair of Ozzie boots at R. M. Williams. I also got a pair of pure merino wool socks (Icebreaker!) at one of the myriad sporting goods stores --- they don’t come in size extra-small, so I’m trying out a pair in size small to see how they work, and will pick up some more if I like ‘em. We had dinner in Chinatown at Mother Chu’s Vegetarian Kitchen, which sounds sketchy but which served delicious greens (yay vegetables!) and a tofu sizzling platter (yay protein!). It got a little chilly tonight and we were pretty tired, but to force ourselves to stay up, we walked down to Circular Quay to see the opera house lit up at night. I was tempted to stay and have dessert at one of the many seriously overpriced but very charming restaurants along the quay...well, maybe tomorrow.

And now, since I consider it a rather amazing feat to still be awake at 10:00 at night, I am going to sleep. Odds are good that I’ll wake up at around 4 am, wondering where breakfast is --- well, that’s why the Good Lord invested Lunesta.

Australia, encapsulated: About half of the streets / sites in Sydney are named after various British thingies: Hyde Park, Kings Cross, George St, Elizabeth St, Paddington...it’s freakin’ confusing, frankly. The other half have native names: Barangaroo, Taronga, Woolloomooloo, etc. And that’s the country in a nutshell: half afternoon tea with scones, half beer and barbies and koalas. Love it.

Hello, world.

Well, it's finally happened. I have a blog. Welcome. This poor, unenlightened world has gone long enough without knowing my random thoughts about random matters --- no more!

To be fair, I'm only here because I'm sick of using mass emails to update my travel journal (they're soooo 2006). It's also a touch of cousin-rivalry, if such a thing exists. You see, my cousin Ben has had a tendency to follow me around. We both went to college together, so it was a little hard to tell who followed whom, but just this year he started his medical residency at the same place I'd completed my graduate work the year before. So clearly he's taking his cues from me. But. He put up his travel blog first, and so I feel obliged to play catch up.

It's also the case that whatever I do, Ben has done it first, and worse. Example: In college, I bleached a streak of my hair and then dyed it bright pink. Ben pierced his eyebrow. Example 2: At the moment, I'm in Australia, and I will be posting about my travels here for the next month or so, mostly involving touring around, snorkeling, and hanging out with philosophers at various conferences and universities. Ben has been in Africa, contracting rabies. Thanks, cuz, for making me look good by comparison.

On with the show!

Update: A shoutout is also due to Jessica Charlap, who first introduced me to the poem from which this blog takes its name. Thanks, Jess!