New South Wales: Lovely Yet Already Familiar
From my vantage point, and save for a few exceptions including the ubiquitously cool & novel accent, Australia’s southeast province often felt like we may as well have been anywhere in the US.
Our last few days in New Zealand were uneventful. Wanaka was everything it promised to be: a pristine and picturesque city perched on a beautiful lake. And like the rest of New Zealand, it was pricy. The first morning I managed to find a breakfast of pancakes for $161. At this point we were just tired of traveling about, and so during our 48 hours we didn’t venture far from the rather nice YHA hostel beyond grocery store runs and a few meals out.
We’d been in travel/tourist mode for just over three weeks, and were looking forward to having a more regular home.
Our laying low at the YHA made a good proxy for this. The kitchen was well-above-average impressive. With its island containing no fewer than 5 burner stations and a comparably well-equipped perimeter it could’ve passed for the kitchen of a happenin’ restaurant. From around 6 to 8pm it positively hummed with groups of travelers of many cultures all working to prepare meals that were way more involved than what you’d expect in a hostel kitchen2.
The common space was pleasant and spacious, like that of an alpine lodge and complete with a Christmas tree, that handy reminder of the so easy to forget fact that Christmas was, yes, next week. In the evenings they put on a movie in the separate TV room. One night we caught “Mao’s Last Dancer”, a biographical film about a Chinese ballet performer who visits and subsequently defects to the US. In this film the US is portrayed as a bit excessively decadent as well as a super awesome alternative to going back to communist China. As with the Hopkins film the week before, it’s fun to see how different cultures view the US and which points of contrast stand out.
It’s probably worth noting and remembering how well it worked to have a TV not in the main room of socialization and gathering. At the Wanaka YHA the television is situated in its own [sound] space, a dedicated & closed-off room with comfy couches arranged to mimic theater-style seating, and dark-lit ambiance to match. We’ve been in countless places where the TV is an unavoidable presence in the common space, and whether it means to or not it kinda dominates the space. When turned on, it has to be loud enough so as to be heard, so it necessarily drowns out normal speaking voices which relegates (again, whether it means to or not) actual communication and conversation among fellow travelers to second class status. This effect is largely invisible until you experience a common space without it–without a TV contending for attention, I couldn’t help but notice a lot more meeting and mingling among travelers was happening.
That and you can really just enjoy the movie when it’s movie night. Brilliant use of a second room.
When it was time we caught our bus back to Queenstown. One more night before our flight on to Australia and our house sitting gig.
On the whole I am just so struck with how good natured the whole of the New Zealand population again and again showed itself to be. I adore their mannerisms, which may be the only thing that explains and/or excuses why I’ve been incessantly quoting lines from Flight of the Concords.
One instance stands out in memory. During the bus to the glacier towns we had a stop in a park and I hit the restroom. As I came out an older fellow, a member of the parks department with this huge grey beard called out to me. “On holiday, are ya’ now? Gonna see the glacier?” “On holiday? Yeah, I guess so: my wife and I are traveling for a year and have some time here in New Zealand, it’s beautiful here.” He beamed back “Right-o, then, good on ya!3“. And they he merrily went about his task of polishing the metal on an outdoor garbage receptacle.
I don’t know for sure, but I feel like I come from a culture where cleaning a trash can would overwhelmingly be viewed as draining or menial work. Yet here was this fellow, cheerfully chatting with tourists while contributing to the very pristine quality that makes the area/country so endearing4. I’m not saying you can’t find similarly cheery retirees doing basic manual labor in the US, but I’d wager you won’t on the first try.
Though I certainly wasn’t among 100+ other passengers, I felt like a VIP as we walked some 50 meters on the airport tarmac towards our plane, all nestled in mountainous beauty. I’m walking along the cordoned off path, summery blue skies above, the outdoor terrain looks like this, and I’m about to fly to Sydney on a Wednesday afternoon. I feel blessed.
A few hours later we landed in Australia’s world class capital. Through no fault of its own, our first glance impression was strikingly lackluster. New Zealand is a tough act to follow: suddenly in the streets of the city we saw regular bits of graffiti, a few pieces of litter, and less than perfectly lush and splendorous nature. It looked like hell.
It wasn’t, of course: that impression is just a function of what our eyes were accustomed (and not accustomed) to seeing the last 11 days. It’s totally unfair to be the destination city of a flight that originated in New Zealand.
Onward we navigated the bus system to the Sydney suburb where our charge lay, Mustard the dog and our hosts Tatiana and Simon. Tatiana (or Tash for short) had provided immaculately detailed instructions and we made it straightaway. We were invited to stay a with them a few days before they headed off for holiday in Thailand, so that we could get settled and to give Mustard time to get used to his new caretakers.
Tash’s hospitality was stellar. On arrival we were greeted with homemade laksa, a spicy noodle soup from Malaysia with a coconut milk base. Tash isn’t Malaysian, but Japanese in ethnicity and born and raised in Brazil. That plus her cooking prowess makes her all kinds of worldly. Being done with school and off from work, she pulled out all the stops to show us around her proud city during the next two days.
Our first stop was down to her place of work: Captain Cook Cruises. She scored us some free tickets for a boat tour of the harbor. Aside from featuring the legendary (and deservedly so) Sydney Opera House, Sydney’s harbor boasts the rightly famed Sydney Harbor Bridge, a kickin’ city skyline, sandstone cliffs, beautiful beaches, and collections of $10+ million dollar houses. See the photos here. If there was ever a good way to be impressed upon the world classiness of a city, this was it.
When we got off the boat, Tash led us on a surprise run along the harbor to the Opera House. Turns out she bought us tickets for the tour, and we had to hurry to catch the 12:30pm. At $28 a piece, Tracy and I left to our own devices might well have skipped it, contenting ourselves with a walk around the outside and popping our heads into the foyer. It’s ridiculously beautiful up close and personal, well worth the price of admission. Many thanks to Tash for treating us to an experience we might otherwise have let slide.
We rounded out our adventurous day with walk along a harbor inlet through the Royal Botanical Garden, lunch at a mall food court at which I cemented my new love for laksa soup, a guided tour of the Susannah House (an historic neighborhood building of 5 apartments built in 1844 and stylistically still quite in tact), and a delicious pint of beer at Fortune of War, Sydney’s oldest pub which dates back to 1828.
It was quite the day arranged graciously by our hostess, a perfect sampling of Sydney at its best.
Ah, if that weren’t enough, the next day she took us to the Bondi beach, one of Sydney’s finest.
By day three of our stay we were well acclimated and feeling right at home. In the afternoon Tash and Simon were off for their flight, so for the next two weeks the house and all its dog-tending duties were ours to manage.
Mustard is about 75 pounds of muscle, built no doubt in part from devouring 2 chicken wings whole in the morning every day, and then 2 again at night. Shaped like a bouncer with a barrel chest and slender waist, about 90% of the time that he’s looking at you he’s got this big, loving smile on his face. It’s super cute, he’s a good looking and friendly dog and that grin just gives you the warm fuzzies inside. During walks and between breaks to smell things, he’ll get you up to a sprint if he can by toting you along on the leash. And if he spots another dog within 100 feet, there’ll be a lot of barking and a mini tug-of-war as you pull to prevent a doggie altercation.
From Mustard I learned a very important and subtle distinction about me: I am a dog liker, but it turns out not a dog lover. As a dog liker I love to pet and generally love on any dog whose path I cross, be it my Mom’s dog when I go home to visit or stray dogs running around the square of a city in Central America. But I am not a dog lover in the sense of wanting to sign up for the ownership gig with its years-long haul. For me the novelty wears off, leaving me with substantial daily responsibility and an upper limit on cleanliness that all that slobber and hair puts on your home5.
So we are lovingly tending to our Mustard duties and even get a lot of enjoyment out of the excuse for early morning fresh air and the games of catch in the backyard, and at the same time we take comfort in the fact that we won’t have to do so forever6. What is so great about learning this here and now over a mere two weeks in Australia, is that we’re getting effectively inoculated against the premise of owning a dog now, well before our hypothetical children fall in love with a dog and bring impassioned pleas for us to get one. Now that Tracy and I have a clear picture of the experience, we’ll be better equipped to quell such requests, and less apt to fall for innocent lies like “I’ll take care of it, it’ll be my dog!”.
Christmas was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. By that I mean it was the first, and most likely the last, time the Christmas was a strictly just-Tracy-and-I affair: no family, no friends, just the two of us with literally zero fuss on our part about gifts, decorations or other such preparations. It was chill and low key, yet had a certain decadence about it.
In the morning we made egg sandwiches with fresh fruit atop yogurt and meusli. Then we drank beers and played cards in the backyard. Then we had a 30 Rockin’ around the Christmas tree marathon of watching 30 Rock, drinking wine, nibbling on cookies, all while our feast cooked: twice baked potatoes and a beef roast on a bed of veggies. You get the idea.
My laptop’s hard drive has been in slow decline since Nicaragua and the situation has now come to a head. Australia (like I imagine most countries that are not the US) totally closes down for holidays, which is most inconvenient when you need specialty parts to do surgery on your computer. Today around noon I realized to my utter chagrin that my next-day shipping for an order I placed online wouldn’t ship until the first or second week of January. With that plan out, I managed to find a store that was open until 2pm, and then not again for 5 days. A $94 one way cab ride across town ensured I got there on time to make my purchase, saving me from another week of idling, work-wise. No regrets, but youch, I wish I’d known an hour earlier that I might spend more like $7 on public transportation to get me there.
Right then, on to computer surgery.
- Though in the pancakes’ defense they were uncommonly deluxe, featuring fully 5 distinct types of sweetness: maple syrup, a sweet butter cream spread, sweet raspberry sauce, the pancakes themselves, and sort of candied like molasses that was melted and hardened into an artful formation, anchored in the cakes to rise 7 inches above my plate. So, you know, no regrets. ↩
- You could argue that Tracy and I, with our spaghetti and PB&J’s, did our best keep the average culinary complexity more in line with that of your typical hostel. ↩
- “Good on ya” is like a standard verbal blessing that Kiwis give generously. Entirely secular, I take this blessing as a shorthand for “I dig you and your style, may good be upon you as you go through your days.” What a great phrase. Make your world more awesome and say it to someone you love (or someone you just met) today. ↩
- I didn’t ask the guy, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this was an instance of the Zen concept of finding joy & satisfaction in the small and seemingly inconsequential, because it contributes to and is part of something much bigger. ↩
- We made a habit of wearing socks around the house at all times. ↩
- Especially because Mustard goes nuts with barking and jumping whenever I show even the slightest affection towards Tracy, be it a kiss on the cheek or a hug from behind. He’s like the most strict chaperone imaginable, and pleas that “dude, it’s okay, we’re married!” fall on deaf doggie ears. ↩