Australia journal

June 1999

by David Gans

most photos by Rita Hurault

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Sydney, June 12-19

There is something mildly exhilarating about walking around with no keys in my pocket. A small symbol of freedom, I suppose. My hotel key is a plastic card, stowed in my wallet. No car key, no house key. This is a special time.

We arrived in Sydney at 6:30 am Saturday (losing one entire Friday en route) and took a bus directly to the hotel. It was way too early to check in, so they locked up our belongings and led us to the pool/spa on the second floor to change out of our formal travel clothes. We walked and walked, checking out the district, and decided we had come to exactly the right place for us. The guidebook says this district is heavily gay and lesbian, which may be a problem for some visitors; for us, it means lots of great restaurants, weird shops, a surfeit of Internet cafes, and a really interesting street scene.

The Olympics are the reason for major development and redevelopment everywhere, starting at the airport. Because the concourses are under construction, we had to leave that 747 the old-fashioned way, down a rolling staircase. We jumped onto a large bus whose rear wheels were hidden, entering via side doors but disgorged into the terminal via a double door at the end of the bus.

Immigration and customs were a breeze, even though Rita's carry-on bag was an object of interest to the cute little beagle whose job it was to sniff for contraband. The customs agent asked Rita if she had any food, which she didn't, but the bag was searched anyway. This was not an unpleasant, insulting, frightening ordeal by any stretch of the imagination -- the inquisition was more akin to the agricultural inspection station on I-80 coming back from Reno than "Waiting for the Electrician." Nothing was found amiss, everyone smiled, I petted the sweet doggie, and off we went.

The day we arrived, we popped into the Roobar, one of zillions of Internet cafes scattered around this district. The atmosphere was quite pleasant, bustling with people but not thick with cigarette smoke. We went back the next morning and had a delicious breakfast, and the Roobar became our breakfast place and a regular stop in our daily peregrinations.

They charge an extra dollar for "free range" eggs, and what lovely eggs they are - such bright orange yolks! Thick toast, fig jam and Vegemite on the side, and all egg dishes come with a broiled tomato. Hash browns and steamed spinach are a dollar extra each.

After stashing our bags and changing clothes at the hotel, we walked up Oxford Street in search of a weekly bazaar Cynthia Heimel had told us about. Along the way we took in the happy, busy street scene and stopped in various shops. One of the things I like to do on the road is check out products, advertising and media, noting the differences between national styles of marketing and consumption. We visited a grocery store, noting that the shelves are dominated by products with brand names nearly identical to those at home.

Everybody we encountered was pleasant, without exception. There is a very upbeat feel to this town, and the streets are mostly very clean. We saw a few of what looked like homeless people, and we were panhandled once or twice, but there was none of the aggressive street action and obvious mental illness we see at home. This was true of the very touristy area we saw on Sunday as well as the Castro-like neighborhood we're staying in. At first look, this feels like a safer and more civilized place than our American stomping grounds.

The bazaar was a maze of booths, featuring food, fashions, jewelry, Western and Aboriginal art, kitsch, hemp clothing, novelties, and so on. We got there shortly after it opened, and by the time we left 90 or so minutes later, it was jammed with people. I bought a nice long-sleeved t-shirt with designs on the front and back. Rita bought a delightful half-mask, a monkey face that flexes expressively as you move your jaw inside it, from a very friendly chap who gleefully demonstrated a number of his designs. We sampled chutneys and jams and breads and chocolates, all handmade and sold by their manufacturers as far as we could tell. For lunch I had a delicious and very reasonably priced middle eastern plate. I bought myself a new leather wallet. We checked out a vast array of jewelry and apparel, and we also checked out the people. All the vendors were friendly without being aggressive, and the customers were a great mix of ages, sizes and shapes. Overheard conversations and small talk with the people we bumped into were a pleasure. We felt right at home right away.

We walked back to the hotel to check in, and were very happy with our thirteenth-floor room (yes, it is clearly labeled "13" -- none of that superstitious bullshit of Stateside buildings). At first, the hotel reminded us of the place where we stayed in Paris, with a compact lobby and narrow, twisty hallways -- but the room was another story altogether. It was huge! A grand view through a wall-wide window with a sliding door leading to a terrace; a kitchenette with an instant-boiling pot and a small fridge; a bathtub with plenty of very hot water and excellent shower pressure; a comfortable couch; plenty of closet space and almost enough hangers; dresser drawers in the nightstands on either side of the Texas-size bed, which stood on an irregular pedestal that might trip us up on late-night trips to the bathroom if we forgot the irregular contour of the ledge.

Rita brought snapshots of Groucho and Hugo in plastic frames, which stand on the night stand on her side of the bed. Cute kitties! We miss them already!

The view was to the less-interesting west, not nearly as amazing as what we saw from the AMP Tower (1000 feet up) later, but it was nice to have a lot of sky available. From our terrace I could see half a dozen cranes, indicative of the growth going on in this city. The Summer Olympics will be held here next year, and the usual contradictions are in evidence: the economy is thrilled, the citizenry skeptical. At the bazaar, we had seen "FUCK THE OLYMPICS" key rings; at dinner Saturday night, we chatted with the couple at the next table about the stresses on the infrastructure that will drive many locals to escape the region for the duration of the festivities.

The power adapter I brought with me was not the right tool for the job, so I got out the Yellow Pages and called an Apple store. They would be happy to sell me an Aussie-style Powerbook power converter for $245 Australian, but the gent suggested I visit an electronics store and buy a generic converter instead. He told me I would find what I need on York Street, near the Queen Victoria Building, in the downtown shopping district.

So off we went, walking through Hyde Park on our way.

The shop we went into first didn't have what we wanted, but the salesman told us exactly where to go for the right thing, and Dick Smith did indeed have it. For $99 (no sales tax here), I bought a white metal box with a handle on top, a US-style electrical socket on one end, and an Australian power plug on the cord, and now my G3 was very happy indeed.

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