Austr-alien, Australia Comment, Impressions of Sydney, Off-beat Sydney, Sketches of Sydney, South African in Sydney, Sydney on the Side, Sydney through my eyes, Trip to Sydney - Sideways, What Sydney can be like
Sydney Travel Stories
This is an account of my trip to Sydney in April 2014, with a quirky focus as always.
- Engela, the woman next to me on the Johannesburg-to-Sydney flight, prattles on in Afrikaans. She’s from Pretoria. Her husband has decided to emigrate. He has a job in Brisbane. He can no longer stand blacks etc, she winces. But she doesn’t want to emigrate, that’s the problem. It’s her third trip to Australia. Has married children in Pretoria she doesn’t want to leave. Was I also on this flight to emigrate? No I say. Neither do I intend to. All I want from Australia is to sing at the Sydney Opera House, to be exact just outside, actually, not on the stage or anything. Then I want to go back home, to Cape Town, I say pointedly. “You’re not intending to emigrate? Hell, there’s always one exception on the Johannesburg to Sydney flight”, she marvels. A rarity, I am.
- I’m hardly on the flight and I’m already upshirassing. Australian Shiraz. They’re known for that. Cookoothama Darlington Point 2012. Air Qantas economy class fare. Nothing to write home about. Worth upgrading to business class for something better.
- One of the questions one has to fill out on the incoming passenger card for immigration is: “Do you have a criminal record?” Given the convict foundations of Australian society, I wonder whether answering “yes” fast-tracks one to full citizenship.
- Upon arrival at Sydney airport, order a large cappuccino. The coffee doesn’t wake me up but the price does. 5 USD. At Giovanni’s in Green Point, Cape Town, a much better brew sets you back 2 USD. In Sydney, how much? 5 USD. I’m wide, wide awake.1
- On my way to the hotel, cast my unstatistical eye over swathes of Sydneysiders from the elevated vantage point of my bus. Notice that there’s a disproportionately large number of ethnic Asians among the populace. There are many, many Asians. Sydney, I conclude, is an Asian city.
- Remark to a taxi driver of Anglo-Celtic origin that his was the first of five taxis I had taken that day not being driven by someone of Asian origin.2 “Yes mate. It’s the third time I’ve heard this today. Asians are coming here in droves, buying up the place. We locals are struggling to manage, to afford places in our own home town. And the Australian government is doing nothing about it. Nothing. So, what does it feel like being driven around by Australian white trash for a change?” he asks.
- The person at the reception of my small hotel in Potts Point at first can’t discern my accent, then she can. She’s married to a South African from Durban, she says. They’ve been meaning to visit Durban for years and years but somehow something intervenes and they don’t get it together. “For years and years and years. I mean is it eighteen years? But one day we’re going to go. We are. I hear it’s beautiful out there”.
- “No worries mate” is a refrain I’m hearing all the time. It’s slang for “it’s OK”. I’ve heard it ten times in three hours. Am now using it myself. “No worries mate”, I chirp to people who accidentally jostle into me at Darling Harbour. “No worries!” I try to get the twang right too.
- Meet Saghar from Travelbuddy for coffee. She’s Iranian. Has been nine months in Sydney. I’m supposed to get information about Sydney from her. She’s not quite on the ball about some locations I question her about. Instead, get ardent recommendations from her to visit Iran. Iran is a really fabulous place to visit, she assures. Australia bores her. Unlike the Middle East, nothing ever happens in Australia, says Saghar. Listen up everyone: Iran’s the place to visit.
- The most unsettling jet lag sets in on my first night. Continues for the next two. The eight hour time difference takes its toll. It’s 3AM in Sydney, 7PM in Cape Town. I toss and turn trying to force sleep into myself, but it doesn’t come. Despite that I’m dead tired. “Sleep, sleep damn it!” I actually shout. Try counting kangaroos. Doesn’t work. Then I see Shane Warne. I see Shane Warne followed by a mob of kangaroos dressed in cricket whites, grunting and clicking, coming in to bowl. Not an edifying sight. Get even less sleep. Buy sleeping pills on the third day. Want to gulp down the whole packet, but mustn’t, mustn’t… Take one and sleep for ten hours. Am whole again.
- Bondi beach? Flat, full of surfers, no mountain. Forget it. Try Clifton. There’s now a beach for you!
- To the Art Gallery of New South Wales. The most guarded painting there is not the iconic Australian painting The Golden Fleece by Tom Roberts, but indeed Woman Lying on a Couch (Dora Maar, see pic No. 3). Every time anyone got close to it, the guard would step in firmly with outstretched hand and guide them away, nervously. Why? Because it’s worth tens of millions of dollars. Who painted it? Pablo Picasso, that’s who. Now Pablo is not from the Commonwealth of Australia, but indeed from España. That’s the Kingdom of Spain to you. Of course, my friends Paul, Peter Paul, John, Vincent and Camille among others were there waiting for me, as they are at all major art galleries throughout the world. To you, they’re better known as Cézanne, Rubens, Constable, Van Gogh and Pissarro. Loved that place, went right back two days later.
- Booked a climb of Sydney Harbour bridge. At around 260 US dollars, not for the poor. The climb is extremely well organised, you’re breathalysed, given a thirty minute debriefing and safety drill, put into a jump suit, tied to a cable… If not overkill, safety levels way in excess of anything you’ll get in Africa. Marvelous engineering, fabulous views, better than from Sydney Tower. No cameras allowed excepting for the tour guide’s. Graeme, our young, ginger, curly-haired tour guide, is very ‘funny’. This is confirmed by other tour guides who, on the bridge, say “Graeme’s a funny guy, there’s one heck of a funny guy for you! Ha-ha-ha!” Perhaps too funny? He knows it too, saying his humour will be better appreciated by his grandchildren, when his yet-to-be-born children have them, etc. The Tower Bridge company employs tour guides on personality, he says. He bribed them to get in, he says. Keeps up a continual stream of jollity. Takes photos of everyone at various stages along the climb. When your climb is over you can buy a photo of yourself on the bridge for 25USD, or four for around 69 USD. One side of the transaction clearly benefits. Luckily buying the photos is optional. I decline my side of the bargain, leaving my rather fetching features behind for the staff to admire.
- Taronga zoo very fine, worth the trip by ferry. But as an African, didn’t spend jet-lagged energy visiting its massive plot; concentrated on Australian marsupials etc. Saw red kangaroos lounging around and a koala bear sleeping in a tree. And a Komodo dragon and salamanders and iguanas, and some very venomous snakes indeed. Australia has eleven out of the fifteen most venomous land snakes, the most venomous of which is the very docile looking Fierce Snake.3 But being from Africa, yawned at my fellow denizens the gorillas, giraffes, lions etc.
- The Opera House is a world icon. Sing there I must, as I said I would, so let rip with a bar of ‘O Sole Mio’ in its precincts. Not one round of applause. Not one. On the whole, an unappreciative lot they were.
- Lose the key to my hotel room. Big mistake. They must call out a blacksmith to replace the whole lock at a combined cost of 267 USD to me and the guest in Room 3, who luckily for me also lost his key, else my bill alone would have come to 200 USD. They can’t replicate the key only, it’s a security risk, so must replace the whole lock as well they say. Please don’t lose yours.
- Wherever in the world I go, I look to buy an original piece of local art. Ask an Indian taxi driver to take me to an art shop in Woollahra. “Are you an artist?” he asks. No, I say. “Then why do you want art?” “Because you don’t have to be an artist to like art.” “Oh”, he says. “A word of adwiizzz. Don’t buy art here. It expensive. Just walk into a shop a take a photo. It’s cheaper. Believe me, you’ll save money that way.” I thank him for his advice, alight and enter the Shapiro Gallery. Immediately take a shine to a jazz-themed piece (see pic). Make enquire of the Japanese Australian sales lady. “Oh, that’s ‘Jazz at the Windsor Castle’, by Donald Friend, one of Australia’s recognised artists. We estimate it’ll fetch between 30000 and 50000 USD on auction.” “Ahem, nice, but it’s a little out of my price range. Do you know where I can go in search of an unrecognised Australian artist? Or better, a yet-to-be recognised Australian artist?” She gives me a look and hauls out a Sydney art map to explain where I might go. “You’re presumably getting around by public transport?” “No, by taxi”, I reply, returning her look. “I’m looking for the works of unrecognised artists, not down-and-out ones”. I eventually got my Australian piece from Gallery Platform72. It’s ‘Sins of the Flesh’ by Jacinta Howard (see pic). Perfect for a boudoir. Like it? Too erotic for you? Remember, de gustibus non est disputandum.
- Walking down Newtown main road one night, notice two girls holding up a placard sporting ‘Free Hugs’. I look at them. They look at me. Sensing fragility, one asks “Do you need one?” “More than anything!” These are really nice girls, literally of the English peaches-and-cream varietal. She gives me a hug, then as she pulls away, I hold on. Sensing I need more, she hugs me again for a few seconds. I so needed it.
- If you’re a premium membership holder at Virgin Active Gymnasiums, they give you a 21 day ‘passport’ which allows you to use any Virgin Active gymnasium in the world when you’re abroad. In Sydney I make use of mine at the Pitt Mall Arcade Virgin Active. Very upmarket. Gym people are the same everywhere. So is the equipment. There are the stragglers and the fit. People who gym constitute a universal community, like musicians or chess players. Going to the gym anchors my abnormal routine in Sydney, making me belong to the city in a sense. Fabulous jacuzzi they’ve got in Pitt Street, and an impressive rock climbing wall, but the swimming’s rather poor. Now; the Virgin Active Pitt Street Mall, Sydney, gives prize to body culture and a modicum of vanity. Please don’t wear your Woolworths underpants there. Nor your Jockeys. They’re non-premium and infra-dig. Wear your Calvin Klein briefs, with the label firmly brazened on the elastic band. You can then contribute to the general upmarket Australian homoeroticism as you undress to shower, blending in with the wonder-of-the-locker room wearing his Aussiebum Lockerboy hispters™ and the smoothie gyrating out of his Tommy Hilfiger micro hip briefs.
- In the late evenings, tired from touring, I sit on a low wall next to the pavement in the gloom of my hotel’s roofless balcony, in the diffuse lamplight shining through the poplar trees, with a little cigar and a glass of wine. My hotel, or rather, accommodation, is in the quiet part of McCleary Road, Potts Point. There’s almost never anyone at reception. It’s one of those. You have a key to the door and let yourself in. Concierge is a foreign words in these parts, but hooker isn’t, it being just down the road from the red light district around King’s Cross. I sit and ponder in the gloom, taking in the passeggiata. A woman walking a dog ambles by. A passerby looks at me and tosses out “enjoying yourself?” “Very!” Two men walk past hand in hand, whispering gently. Zoe, a very formal young woman from England with the most beautiful accent walks by. What is it you’re smoking?” she asks. “Cigarillos, Romeo and Jullieta. Cuban.” “Really? My grandfather used to smoke them.” “Have one!” She accepts and we chat in that impersonal, friendly English way, nothing meant, nothing intended, then leaves to join her group, enjoying the fag. Anastasia, a stylishly dressed woman of a certain maturity wearing big earrings and a hat walks by. “Nice hat”, I say. “Yes, but I was wearing a bigger one this afternoon” she replies in an accent. “But now you’re wearing a smaller one to protect yourself from the moon.” “Of course! We think alike. You have a beautiful spirit. You are so nice, so normal!” she oozes. “Normal? Me? Please don’t be so hasty to condemn”, I beg. And then she’s on a roll. “Some people I’ve helped in life are scumbags”, she says. “Scumbags. Even relatives. Especially relatives. They took photos of me with a cheap camera, the type that accentuates your wrinkles. Cheap cameras that don’t flatter you at all, that show the worst!” “Don’t tell me, I know those”, I reply. “In my case, even expensive cameras do damage – even the Canon EOS 1100D/Rebel T3″, I add. “The scumbags did it out of spite”, she says ignoring me. “If they wanted a better photograph of me, all they needed to do was ask and I would send them one. But they circulated the one with the wrinkles out of spite, taken as I said, with the cheapest of cameras, the ones that show the worst in one. Scumbags!” Oh dear. Anastasia needs to talk, and does. She tells me she used to work as a dancer in King’s Cross in the days when there was proper dancing, not the flesh shows of today, and she used to dissuade young girls from becoming prostitutes. That’s why crooked cops hated her. But she survived, she’s doing well, she’s alone and free, without a man oppressing her. The Lord provides if you’re a good person. She could have had much more money if she opened her legs, but what is money? “But Alexandros, you are a good person. I can see you’re mad like me. Not bad mad, good mad, nice mad”, she clears. In celebration of this, she rewards me by giving an impromptu rendition of a poem about Alexander the Great, in Greek, right there on the pavement in the lamplight under the poplar tree, with Alexander the Negligible providing an uncomprehending audience of one on that low wall. But I understood all, every word, every expression, so alive. I couldn’t have made this up if I tried. Ah, the wonders of an unscripted life!
- In search of Pricilla Queen of the Desert and all that, decide to take in a drag show one Tuesday evening in Darlinghurst. Try the Arq nightclub but it’s closed, as are most drag places on Tuesdays. Weekend’s the time. So I end up at the Stonewall Theatre. I enquire of the barman whether there’s a show on later. He says only karaoke. I say what about the following night? “Oh, on Wednesday nights it is Post Box night. Everyone in the bar wears a number, and you can send a written message to any number you fancy via the counter. It’s great fun”, he says. Only if you get mail, I think. Imagine being there all night and not getting a single message? Despite sending out ten? Could be ego-crushing. Better not risk it. Eventually got a peek at a drag show on my last night in Sydney. Good, but once again, as an artistic genre, I’ve seen as good in Cape Town!
- Meet Jack for breakfast at a Potts Point cafe.4 Jack, a native Sydneysider, came to live in Cape Town many years ago. We used attend pub quizzes together. He’s been back in Sydney since 2000. He used to be involved in SA sport, and is also a renowned playwright, conducting writing courses and theatre festivals around the world. He thus interweaves a duality of sport and art. He greets me with a handshake. Hasn’t aged a bit, says the same about me. We talk about our life and life lessons. We open up, out of mutual need more than anything I sense. He’s had it as tough as I have, but seems further down the line in terms of dealing with it. Says I need to find inner peace. Says he only came right in India where he worked with some guru and monks and a consciousness movement. We talk a lot. I say I’m about to embark on a mindfulness retreat. He says I must, I must. There is that which we want from the world, and that which the world expects from us. The trick is to recognise this, and not to live an egotistical life, says Jack. We finish breakfast and go to the Heyes Theatre across the road where a play of his is being rehearsed. It’s ten in the morning. I see the director and the actors and the musicians giving life to his creation. Jack tells me that the issue with most writing is that it’s solitary. But writing a play is social, you interact with many people. He invites me to attend a workshop on writing a ten-minute play. He’s conducting the next one in Dubai. You learn to write the play on the Friday, you write it on the Saturday and on the Sunday you watch your play being performed. I fully intend going. Some people are talented. And some of us have had a circuitous talent bypass, a wide one.
- Police wearing shorts? Yes. In New South Wales.
- Take a Hunter Valley wine tour with AAT Kings Tours. Drive through small towns of overbearing egalitarian lower-middle class character. Neat and compartmentalised and proper. Don’t ever want to live in one of those. Despite being a serious wine tourist, this is my first ever wine tour on a bus. It’s not the same as going by car. We don’t visit boutique wineries, but large commercial ones where the thirty of us are shooed into tasting rooms where one person serves us all. Not the most personal of services. The driver looks Japanese but is Egyptian Australian. Has a ‘sobriety’ check after each winery visit, which involves his cracking a joke and our having to catch it, otherwise we haven’t drunk enough. E.g. “What did the fish say when he banged into a wall? Damn!” Or, “Why was the computer late for work? Because he had a hard drive.” “What do you do when you see a space man? You park your car, man!” Groan, groan, groan. And as a parting shot, he told us a dirty joke: “John fell in the mud.” No wine in the world could atone for those. He was almost as bad as Graeme on the bridge. The wine routes are best done in a smaller group if you’re serious about it.
- At McGuigan Wines, a winery that has won International Winemaker of the year in 2009, 2011 and 2012, the chap conducting the tasting to around sixty of us is equally ‘funny’. It’s an Australian thing. Says he’s from West Cessnock just down the road. It’s one of those featureless, amorphous Australian towns I mentioned earlier. Now there are two types of people in the world, he says. There are those who are from West Cessnock, and those who wish they were from West Cessnock. At this point, being from Cape Town, I laugh loudly, hoarsely and coarsely. You want to be from West Cessnock he says, because it’s at the gateway to 130 wineries. Being from Cape Town, a gateway to many more, I laugh again, hoarsely.
- On my sixth day in Sydney, Graham arrives from Cape Town.5 Despite being wealthy, a US dollar multi-millionaire many times over, he insists on sleeping over in the second double bed in my cheap hotel room for a night before we depart for the Great Barrier Reef. With his boyfriend. Of course, being Graham, he assumes a shocked expression as he enters the room and quips “this is the worst hotel room I’ve ever seen” before descending into feigned catatonia. “Lucky you”, I say. “Holy Moly”, he blurts, turning colour and ignoring me. “The Hilton’s got space”, I say. “Holy Moly, cockroach species unknown to science must lurk here! Jeez, what’s the pong? Criiiikey Moses f_uck me sideways with a banana!” But he stays. Now I’ve never spent a night in a room with a gay couple in the neighbouring bed. Neither with any couple for that matter. Nor in the same bed. Why do I allow this? It’s philosophy’s fault. Philosophy teaches one to maximise one’s experiences, not necessarily one’s happiness. My mind goes into overdrive. Perhaps they’ll be too exhausted to get up to tricks after eighteen hours since leaving Cape Town. Alternatively, they may be jet-lagged, unable to sleep and will therefore be very perky indeed. My sleeping pill, my sleeping pill, my sanity for a sleeping pill!
- Ordering coffee proves tricky in Oz. They don’t know what an Americano is. ‘Coffee with milk’ is too general a term, and if you want it you must know how to order. Someone told me you understand it better by thinking in terms of tots of alcohol, Aussie-style. Basically, most coffees you order at good coffee shops are variants of the basic espresso, which is around 7g of freshly ground coffee extracted over 25 to 30 seconds in a steaming machine. This produces about 30-35ml of aromatic, thick black liquid. A latte is simply a single shot of espresso topped with silky textured milk and 1-1.5cm of foam. A cappuccino is comprised of a shot of espresso at the bottom, topped with an equal amount of hot milk and finished off with milk foam. A long black is a double espresso with added hot water. So to get your coffee with milk, ask for a long black with milk.6
- The big debate in Australian politics is the imminent introduction of fiscal austerity measures. Their national budget, like everyone’s, needs balancing. I follow the debates on TV. The sensible government of the day promised no increase in taxes in the previous elections. Now they need to raise money. So what do they do? They keep their promise. They’re raising not taxes, but a balancing budget ‘levy’. The opposition, like silly opposition everywhere, don’t get the difference. They can’t see the difference between the sensible – or is it silly – government’s ‘levy’ and a tax. Opposition politicians belabour the hardships ‘Australian families’ have to bear, emphasising the emotive qualities of ‘Australian families’ with earnest, unctuous solemnity. One of the proposals to balance the budget includes raising the retirement age to 70. Good idea. So the TV pans to young dock workers breaking their backs lifting heavy freight. They interview one of the dock workers, sweating. He says it is killing work at 30, let alone at 70. The politician proposing the measures should come and work a day with them, or even a few hours, and then go on to pass the law in clear conscience, he says. Quite, I think. But how the heck does one balance the budget?
- Beggars, rare as they are, exist, as they do everywhere. They either sit on the pavement or subtly approach you for money at your sidewalk cafe. Youngish women in particular, always accompanied by a dog, sit on pavements in front of shop windows. There’s always a cardboard with her name on it and the dog’s. They beg for ‘some change’. They’re disheveled and their eyes have that forlorn hollow look… What histories do they have, what lives have they led? Drugs? Abandonment? Betrayal? Who knows. One approached me at my sidewalk coffee table. I usually don’t give, and I didn’t give, but sometimes something in a face moves me; a certain quality of voice betrays need and genuine pathos glimmers through. Needy mendicants. One then relents. Why should I have thought the Commonwealth of Australia beyond misery?
- A word on Melbourne. It isn’t Sydney. So I spoil myself by eating well. I eat at the restaurant ‘The European’. It was recommended to me apropos nothing by a Melburnian of whom I asked street directions, the irony lost on him. I cannot thank him enough. At The European, Daniele is my waiter. He arrived eight months ago from a village half-way between Milano and the Swiss border. “You won’t know where, sir” he says, waving away his home town. I trust Daniele, forego my menu choices and surrender totally to his recommendations. I am not once disappointed. “The ideal number of persons around a dinner table is two, myself and a damned good head waiter”, said Nubar Gulbenkian. Indeed. This is no time for skimping; I must reward myself for having the courage to eat out alone, a thing I fear. Why? Because as a person who loves people, it is hard for me to eat alone in a space which mirrors bubbly sociability at me, as it does in a restaurant. Like a shunning I don’t deserve, when eating alone at a restaurant I feel the shame of social failure clinging to my skin, especially when the happy look at me, and am filled with discomfort. Look it’s a personal issue, we all have issues, you have yours. So I tackle the menu. We start with a salmon-type dish from the Great Ocean Road, just what was needed, followed by two local oysters washed down with a crisp Jacquiere from the Savoie. Then a creamy fish chowder, followed by the duck four-portions dish – all cuts different and superbly prepared and enjoyed with a Pinot Noir from Burgundy, where else. And so forth. This is how I overcome my Melbourne blues. I frequent the European. I become a regular, being attended upon by my Melbourne friend Daniele, who flashes a smile of recognition each time I enter. “Welcome sir!” In the process I overcome the self-reflective stigma of eating alone at restaurants. Unwittingly, with his smile and easy way, Daniele helps unshackle my discomfort with solitude, and for a while even keeps that fiend Loneliness – who has been interfering again in my life for the first time in years – away.
- Or perhaps I’m simply envious of beautiful Sydney? I found it all clean, safe, organised, civilised, polite. Sydney is a world class city. It is vibrant and has spirit. Cape Town can compete in only one sense, and that is in its topography, its scenic beauty. And definitely in soul. There is only one city that I’ve been to that can compete with Cape Town in this regard, and that is Rio de Janeiro. In most other respects, arts, culture, import – Cape Town is comparatively parochial, a veritable fishing village, and I prefer it that way. Sydneysiders, you have a great city. I can see why so many people emigrate there.
- The ZAR/AUD exchange rate in April/May was around 9.80, but the retail price I paid was closer to 10.30. The ZAR-USD wholesale exchange rate was around 10.50 over the same period. 5 ASD was also the price of an avocado pear at a fruit vendor (see pic). For South Africans, these are insane prices. At the exchange rate of April 2014, I conclude one needs around three times your South African salary to maintain your standard of living in Sydney; more for the same standard of housing I’m told. To wit: A recent research report by Deutsche Bank (Mapping the World’s Prices 2014, published 9th May 2014) indeed affirms Australia as currently being the overall most expensive major economy. On a price level index where the US = 100, Australia measured 155.8 and South Africa 65.7 over the period. So it was expensive!
- As I have it, an Australian person of European descent, the predominant number of which came from Britain, is officially and politically correctly referred to as someone of ‘Anglo-Celtic origin’, and not as a ‘white’, a ‘colonialist’ or a ‘settler’ as variously referred to in South Africa.
- The maximum yield recorded for one bite of the Fierce Snake is 110mg, enough to kill about 100 humans, or 250,000 mice! With an LD/50 of 0.03mg/kg, it is 10 times as venomous as the Mojave Rattlesnake, and 50 times more venomous than the common Cobra. The most venomous snake known in the world is Belcher’s Sea Snake, a few milligrams is strong enough to kill 1000 people! Source: http://listverse.com/2011/03/30/top-10-most-venomous-snakes/. By the way, you all know the difference between a venomous and a poisonous snake, yes?
- Not his real name.
- At this stage I out of politeness and respect for privacy usually append “Not his real name” and supply a pseudonym, but in this case it’s actually Graham. Graham Muir.
- Tomato, a website touting itself to be “The insiders’ guide to food and drink in Melbourne’, explains the different coffees in http://tomatom.com/2011/03/guide-to-espresso-coffee/.