Australia journal - June 1999

Sydney: tourism

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Mmmm, dinner Saturday night! Lara (whose wedding in Brisbane next week is our reason for being here) had told us about two restaurants in our area, and at around 5:00 we set out on foot in search of them. We found one Japanese restaurant in the general area we had been sent to, but we were three quarters of an hour too early for dinner. The other Japanese restaurant we tried was closed. So off we trudged, back up Oxford Street, in search of the Black Bayou. We walked and walked and walked, past dozens of inviting eateries, but we could not find the Black Bayou. Exhausted and getting cranky (I was getting cranky, anyway), we finally settled on The Balkan, whose menu featured many inviting grilled dishes and several dishes whose Slavic names meant nothing to us.

I ordered Balkan prawns, and Rita ordered Pepper prawns. Both dinners were huge and excellent. Mine had many large prawns cooked in rice, with small bits of vegetable and maybe egg; Rita's was in a greenish sauce, very tasty, served with the same style of rice on the side. Restaurants here are either "licensed" or "BYO," and since this one was BYO we did not have wine with our dinner.

We stopped in a bottle shop on our way back to the hotel to buy a nice Australian red. Rita drank a glass while we struggled to stay awake for a while, watching a weird game show called Pluck a Duck which featured a spinning prize wheel and a man in a duck suit. We were trying to stay up so we wouldn't find ourselves up and around at three or four in the morning. Rita cakked at around 9:30, while we were watching an odd cop show/soap opera from England. I lasted until the show was over and caught a bit of the news before I gave up the ghost. We were both awake by 5:30 Sunday morning.

The Australian Museum is very thoughtfully designed for families. Just about every room has attractions for kids as well as sophisticated displays of information and artifacts for adults.

We began our visit in the skeleton room, with an impressive variety of animals and informative placards. There is a human skeleton astride an exercise bike, and on the outside of the glass is another exercise bike. When you sit on this bike and pedal, the one inside operates as well, showing how the various joints in the human skeleton move.

There was a photo exhibit, "Eye to Eye: Observations by FE Williams, Anthropologist in Papua 1922-1943," a collection of enlargements made from his glass-plate photos, with excellent captioning throughout. I sat down at a desk with an old phone, beside which was a keypad that allowed the museum-goer to listen to several re-creations of spoken remarks by Williams, followed by comments from a curator.

We visited Kids' Island, a brand new room designed for exploration by infants and children. My wife, the teacher, was highly complimentary of the facilities, pointing out all the ways it engages young minds in play that pay off in knowledge and reward the natural curosity of kids.

There was a "Not Just Dinosaurs" exhibit showing the formation of the universe and the origins of life on earth. Again, there were things for kids all along the way: near the stegosaurus skeleton was a sort of 3-D jigsaw puzzle of a stegosaurus which was available for kids to pull apart and reassemble.

After leaving the museum we walked across Hyde Park  into the shopping district, where we found acceptable fare in a food court (I had a nice chicken crepe) and did a little more observing of the similarities and differences of Australian retail merchandising. Heading north, we wandered into The Rocks, an arts and tourism district.

Dawes Point Park, under the Sydney Harbor Bridge, seems to be a very popular spot for wedding photographs.  We encountered six or seven wedding parties, all in full regalia, standing around in the wind getting their pictures taken.  One little girl of about five (I heard her auntie call her Felicity), wearing a huge chiffon dress and a fleecy white jacket, was literally blown over by the wind!  She wasn't much interested in standing still, anyway: she and a tuxedoed boy of about the same age spent the entire time charging about on the huge lawn, eluding the various parents and aunties who tried to round them up.  We heard many languages, saw many very expensive hairdos standing up to the stiff winds. Two hardy young boys pretended to try to push over a palm tree that was thicker than both their grandparents put together.  There were families holding flutes of champagne while the photographers and videographers struggled with their setups; frantic assistants trying to keep the kids in line and the brides happy.  Troops of groomsmen stood around bullshitting in their expensive suits.  There was a mid-'50s Cadillac convertible parked in the street by the big lawn, with a happy-looking middle-aged couple in the back seat and a bored-looking driver (rught-hand drive) fondling a mother-of-pearl steering wheel.  Big fuckin' fins.  Huge.

All those wedding-cake hair dos seemed to have been glued pretty strongly, and those wedding pictures, with the Sydney Opera House in the background, probably came out great.

We watched several groups, all in identical jump suits, walking up to the top of the Sydney Harbour Bridge.  Apparently this is a dare available to the general public, but as cold and windy as it was on the ground, we were not even slightly intersted in trekking a couple hundred feet up in the air on a narrow steel path - tethered to the rail or not! - up to the top where the Australian flag  stood fully extended in the high wind.  I'm sure the view was breathtaking, but still.

At the Circular Quay (formerly the Semi-Circular Quay), we took a good long look at a full-scale replica of HMS Bounty. It was built in 1979 for The Bounty,  with Mel Gibson and Anthony Hopkins. Alongside is a replica of the longboat on which Captain Bligh and his 18 castaways sailed for 43 days to safety -- an amazing story.

In our two days of walking in the tourist zones, we saw two different guys in donkey suits. Didn't hang around long enough to see what the schtick was. We also saw a guy with his "amazing singing dolls," a sort of terrarium filled with dolls modified so their jaws moved via rods manipulated from above by the performer, who stood deadpan in his ruffled shirt and bow tie while his puppets did all the emoting. Female dolls of various types on the left, male on the right, singing along with recordings of cheesy pop tunes arranged with multiple male and female voices. A sign on the ground in front of him read, "Please help - pregnant Barbie to support," with the evidence on display beside. We saw him in the mall Saturday and up at the Quay on Sunday.

The Quay was very much like Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco, with lots of indoor galleries and souvenir shops as well as outdoor art and craft booths, and lots of buskers (a Statue of Liberty guy who painted his arms and face silver, dressed in a silver gown with headgear, book and torch, posing and occasionally stooping to give candy to a child. A sign said "Thank you" in a few dozen languages). Many of the bars had live music in the afternoon.

We bought a delicious ear of corn on a stick from a booth on the street for $2.50. A huge ear, slathered in butter and rolled in salt, with perfect tender kernels that just about fell off in our mouths. Splendid!

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