Australia Part 1 – Sydney

February 18, 2008 at 9:31 pm | Posted in Australia | Leave a comment

We were nervous due to our pessimistic thoughts that somehow we would not make it successfully to Sydney for Christmas. We loved Africa but we wanted to be somewhere more…familiar for the holidays. We imagined Australia to be more like home…but warm. Afterall, both countries originated from England. Maybe they’ll have plum pudding? Maybe there will be Salvation Army Santas outside department stores. We had missed our flight 7 weeks earlier when trying to get from Madrid to Africa due to our own negligence and flew standby on a flight the next day by the skin of our teeth. After we heard about the hundreds of flight cancellations in Chicago due to snow and ice, we got to the airport 5 hours before the scheduled 6:00pm flight to ensure we would take into consideration any unseen events which, in the end, did not occur.

We arrived safely and on-time aboard our lovely and comfortable Qantas flight. We had our choice of several movies, good food and Wiggles treat bags for the boys which were a big hit and slept most of the 11 hour flight. We love Qantas! Despite not having internet access in Bostwana, we had slipped into an internet cafe and quickly googled a few hotels in the Sydney area. We phoned Radisson and secured a nice room right in the center of things at a reasonable (for the city) price. So we landed, boarded a train for a quick ride into the city, walked a few blocks to our hotel and relaxed. We had made it literally halfway around the world and in a place where we wanted to be for Christmas – this was all we could ask for.

Our nice hotel was located right beside Darling Harbor which is one of the major stomping grounds in Sydney. It was a great place to be. We were so excited and feeling so fortunate to have landed such a great spot with little planning and a lot of luck. We originally hoped for a homey guest house decked out in holly, garland, gingerbread spices wafting throughout and a cozy place to celebrate the holiday. However, our standards have adjusted accordingly and we are relieved to simply have a place to sleep. Christmas would take on a new flavor for us like our lives these days, it would be a bit spontaneous. This is normally NOT our lifestyle – usually we try to plan things out. Now, we are landing in cities without even a guidebook in hand and simply figuring out how to get around by the seat of our pants as well as figure out where to go Christmas shopping with 2 days to spare!

Our arrival started out in a jolly way. Sydney was celebrating the holidays with its annual ‘Carols in the Domain’ concert. The Domain is Sydney’s “Central Park” and everyone gathers on the lawn one evening a few days before Christmas for a televised concert. We squeezed in among the throngs of Aussies and one family was nice to offer a section of their oversized blanket to us. This nice family shared masks, candles and cookies with us too. The mother was still glowing from spotting Russell Crowe earlier in the day. It was great as we listened to Christmas carols, watched Santa make a helicopter landing and got an unexpected visit from the Wiggles. As it got darker we were shocked to see hundreds of seemingly giant bats (aka flying foxes) take to the skies for their evening flight. While everyone else was unfazed, we didn’t know whether to be frightened or in awe. We weren’t sure how to accept bats into our Christmas mood and it emphasized for us that although we expected Sydney to be more familiar, it would still be different.

Although we were only a few hours hence on the global timetable, we were somehow very jet lagged and were sleeping until close to noon (the comfy beds at Radisson may have played a part). We only had a couple of days to hunt down the few and far between toy stores for the boys to make their “wish lists” and find wrapping paper, stockings and a few items to make our humble abode festive. It was odd seeing people Christmas shop with their hair still wet from the morning’s surfing, flip-flops echoing in the Victorian archways and red and green garland on the lamp-posts glistening in the hot, hot sun. Perhaps California is the same way. We thought to create a paper Christmas tree from green wrapping paper. We went back to the hotel and cut it out and stuck it to the wall. Then the boys colored paper ornaments and stuck them on. They were so incredibly proud – more excited than we expected. We played Christmas music on the laptop that we had loaded before we left Marblehead. We couldn’t find Christmas stockings so we bought colorful small gift bags and placed them by our paper mantle and yule-log (we pretended to need a fire in the balmy Sydney weather). A woman on the airplane had reminded the boys to leave a magic key for Santa so he can get in when there is no chimney. So we cut out some magic keys and stuck them on the wall outside of the hotel door. The children were assured that Santa would know where they were in the world and, alas, that theory was proven correct when the boys awoke to a small pile of treasures “beneath” the tree. With our “Do Not Disturb” sign on our door, we remained inside our hotel cocoon and called our family, watched the boys play Lego and watched “The Grinch” which appropriately reminded us that the spirit of Christmas is within the heart and not under the Christmas tree. With their modest gifts, the boys were very grateful and happy to have created their own “home away from home” and we felt that they really understood that concept of Christmas in our hearts, as did we. They also seem to understand that the abstract benefits that we are gleaning from our adventure are a gift that will stay with us and that is what we are thankful for. But you still need a good meal so we ventured out for Christmas dinner and found a restaurant overlooking the Sydney Opera House. They handed out Santa hats to everyone and there were crayons and champagne to keep everyone happy.

We knew we were staying for the New Year’s Eve celebration so we relaxed for 10 days in Sydney – the longest in any one place. Darling Harbor was full of life and full of kids activities. With Australia being a part of the British Commonwealth, Sydney was the perfect blend of British influence, architecture and finery with Aussie character – rough and relaxed. Think tea at the Ritz and a stroll in Hyde Park with a barefooted cowboy adorned with various tattoos. It is a place where you don’t have to be a patron to use the restrooms, you see more surfboards than dogs, you can shop for groceries barefoot, there is a recycle bin on every corner, no cigarette butts in the gutters, and the most spoken phrase is, “No Worries” (Aussie for “You’re Welcome”). We were happy to stay for a while.

We saw an Ice Man exhibit about an ancient man buried under ice who was found in the Tyrol Mountains a few years back. We took in a movie for the first time in months (The Bee Movie), enjoyed a cruise around the harbor and got our first glimpse of the Pacific Ocean from the “other” side. The city is friendly, easily walkable and very inviting. It`s clean as a whistle and seems to have the latest of all a city could offer – monorails, high-speed ferries, gleaming skyscrapers, fumeless buses, efficient trains, international foods, IMAX theater, museums, botanical gardens – we suppose it is what you would expect from a young country who learned from everyone else’s mistakes.

We headed to famous Bondi Beach to soak up the sun and watch some serious lifeguarding. The seas are rough along the coast and there is dangerous marine life to watch out for. The lifeguards earn their paycheck. They monitor the swimmers via Skidoos, dune buggies, surfboards, motorboat and from the chairs and control tower. Helicopters buzzed by constantly and whistles were blowing reminding swimmers to “Stay between the flags”. We later tuned into a reality show entitled “Bondi Beach” depicting the stressful life of a Bondi lifeguard. Aussies also take the sun very seriously and posterboards and newspaper ads continually remind everyone to reapply their sunscreen as Australia has a skin cancer rate of 1 in 3 – one of the highest in the world.

One of the administrative things we needed to take care of was to secure our visas for India. We could not obtain them before we left home as we did for some other countries because the visas we need for India are only good for six months from the date of issue. So we had to wait until it was closer to our Indian adventure to apply. This meant leaving our passports with the India consulate and, adding Christmas and Boxing Day to the mix, they would not be ready for 7 days which was 5 days later than we planned on being in Sydney. This meant having to venture around Australia without our passports until we returned to Sydney in early February. Yikes. Travelling without passports seemed like travelling without your wallet or your glasses. What if something happens like an accident or a national emergency? Alas, we had no choice and had to leave them if we wanted to go to India.

We had to gear up as the New Year approached. We had scoped out the city and identified the best spot for viewing the fireworks display. Fireworks is an understatement in Sydney as it was to be a dazzling spectacle so we were willing to do whatever it took to see it loud and clear. First, it involved paying a premium for our hotel room for the 2 nights closest to New Year`s. Ouch. Next, it involved getting to the city park early enough to grab a spot. So we grocery shopped (with shoes on) for the day’s picnic essentials and stuffed them in our packs along with essential toys and reading material and a sheet from the hotel’s unmonitored linen closet and headed toward the park at 7:00am. We arrived at the park’s entrance gate and they told us that the gates would not open until 10:00am! We queued up with the 200 other people crazy enough to wait (who were all, by the way, between the ages of 17 and 28 – our little family made up the oldest and the youngest in the crowd). The sun was beating down on us even at that early time of day so we pinned our sheet to the railings and created a little tent, munched on muffins and played with our newly acquired army men and tanks. The crowd hit a beachball around and if you failed to keep the beachball off the ground you were berated by the crowd so we all had to pay attention which kept the boys entertained for a while. We hadn’t done this since college (sans the army men). Finally the gates opened at 10:00 and Peter ran ahead to secure a spot. He nailed a spot at the furtherest tip jutting out into the harbor with an unobstructed view of EVERYTHING – harbor bridge, opera house, skyline – perfect. We continued our vigil for another 14 hours in the hot sun for a total of 16.5 hours. Our children were unbelievably patient – they always rise to the occasion but this was a new threshold. They played army, ate ice cream, read books, and waited and waited. These are the same children who on the one hand can race uncontrollably through a department store like a couple of Tasmanian Devils and on the other hand, wait in harsh conditions for an event they don’t even fully understand the importance of or appreciate the once-in-a-lifetime aspect of. The killer for us was that all this waiting was for a mere twelve minute show at midnight. Back in college at least Bruce Springsteen put on a two hour show!

During the day they had aerial shows, fire boat geysers and the harbor filled up with all sorts of marine vessels. The Sydney Harbor bridge was outfitted with an illuminated hourglass that dropped giant grains of sand every five minutes to help us countdown (and remind us how slow time was going). There was a 9:00pm family fireworks show that was fantastic. Then an electric boat parade followed where tallships were outlined with illuminated garland and sailed in procession around the harbor. Finally, midnight arrived. The harbor exploded and was lit up from the light of six separate barges shooting off identical fireworks from various locations a mile long. The harbor bridge exploded upward as it had been planted with loads of fireworks which turned the infamous roof-lines of the Sydney Opera House shades of red, green and blue. Our little hotel sheet had been encroached a bit by an international melting pot of people just like us who were there to see the spectacular show. One desperate woman who barely spoke english had asked if she could leave her children on our blanket with us so they could see the show (we declined). Everyone else just sat tamely, politely and enthusiastically and we all watched together as a cohesive group of spectators. There was no chaos, no unruly behavior, no pushing – it was New Year’s Eve Aussie-style, no worries.

After a bit of recouping and resuming our “sleep till noon” routine, we rented a car and headed out of Sydney for our adventure along the east coast of Australia.

(click picture for slideshow)


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