Monday, November 17, 2014

Singing in Sydney

Night view from Sydney Tower
I know better; I know to pack an emergency change of clothes, toothbrush, and toiletries in my carry-on bag, but after 40 years of air travel without a lost bag I grew complacent. My hot pink bag with the multicolored handles and large international orange airline Priority label on it, along with about 20 other bags, was not put on the plane in Los Angeles. I had shoes, meds, toiletries, but nothing else; the next day was looking like I'd be wearing shoes and my jacket. That's not standard dress even in relaxed Sydney. The solution was that I purchased a pair of chinos at a clothing store and three pairs of cheap socks, three pairs of cheap but cute undies, and a rather nice shirt at the subway station. The new lesson I’ve learned on this trip is don't ever buy underwear (no matter how cheap and/or cute) at a subway station. They were one size fits all and ‘really stretchy’ the sales girl said. Well, this one size fit one leg to just above the knee. And so the adventure begins…

Once we got the clothing issue sorted, we walked through the Royal Botanic Garden. I was
Top L to R: Cockatoos, Queen Victoria, Kookaburra
Bottom L to R: St Mary's Cathedral, Sydney Harbor
really excited to show my traveling companion, Dave, the resident fruit bats (flying foxes) with the six-foot wingspan. Unfortunately they are gone; the weight of the bats was destroying trees so they were driven off (the bats, not the trees). I'm sorry to say that these bats are now having difficulty surviving because no one wants them on their trees, either. Of course, there are more than just plants in and near the gardens. On several of our passes through these grounds we saw flocks of sulfur crested cockatoos and a few Kookaburras. These birds, as well as the Australian ravens, are noisy ~ think Tarzan movies, then amplify the bird sounds and you’ll have a close approximation of what greets you in the mornings. As we walked down the west side of the gardens we noticed Saint Mary’s Cathedral, a gently gothic church housing historical items as well as lovely stained glass windows. A bit further away was a wonderful statue of Queen Victoria without her customary scowl, inviting you into her building that is also a repository for stained glass and for upscale shopping. Eventually, we arrived at the Vaitor desk on the Circular Quay to get our Sydney Attraction Pass. It does save you a bit, but isn’t nearly as good as the pass for Lyon, France (see Near-Normal Lyon Blog). Since the day was clear, we spent quite a bit of time looking around and taking pictures from the top of the Sydney Tower. The views helped us get orientated to the city and decide what we could and could not get to on foot. Taking a page from Disney marketing, as you exit the tower, you get to go through the gift shop and pick up the pictures that were taken of you in front of a green screen at the entrance.

Top to Bottom: Chairlift, echidna,
Tasmanian Devil, giraffes 
Our second day in Sydney we went to the Taronga Zoo. You have to take a ferry over to the other side of Sydney harbor, then you get to ride a ski lift gondola up to the entrance. The transportation is exciting and the venue is really pretty. We spent all day walking up and down more hills that there are in San Francisco. Dave got squeaked at by a bird or two and we watched the handler entertain the male Asian elephant. She got him to kick and throw balls, move logs, spray water (the kids went nuts about that) and probably the most important trick, back up. They do about 20 different tasks to keep the elephant from being bored and to make sure that it obeys voice commands so that a vet can actually go into the enclosure and check out any problem. The zoo has all of the Australian animals, as well, and had opened up a couple of new 'night time' exhibits since I'd been there last, probably 12 years ago. We did see a Bilby ~ they are nocturnal and are now the animal associated with Easter rather than the rabbit. They also had a Tasmanian Devil that didn’t look devilish at all sleeping in its enclosure and some interesting reptiles that were quite a bit more active than we expected (it is spring in Australia, after all). Amazingly, or maybe not since the school break is from mid-November until February, there were oodles of school groups and mothers with preschoolers. One little girl was really good at chasing away seagulls from where we all were eating. She tried it with an Australian White Ibis and nearly got pecked. Needless to say, she didn't try it again. Food in Australia is expensive. For two orders of chicken strips, French fries and soft drinks it was $30AU which was about $24US.

Until you're there you can't tell how big the Sydney Opera House is; it’s enormous! The only
L to R: Opera House, Alex and the purple carpet,
Alex and the structure of the sails
way to get inside the performance halls is to buy a ticket to a presentation or take a tour. And the tour of the Sydney Opera House was excellent. Alex, our guide, kept us entertained while teaching us about the building. He took us into the actual opera auditorium, the symphony auditorium and one of the small theaters. The seats (we were allowed to sit for about 10 minutes between sets of stairs and there are about 300 of them) were designed by a surgeon, have the same density as a human body and are quite comfortable. Alex has a wealth of knowledge about how productions are staged, the reasons why certain materials are used in construction, and the interactions among performers. One of the things I found most interesting was that the original design for the Opera House was presented as a set of sketches rather than formal plans. Although architect Jørn Utzon never visited this finished masterpiece, he won awards for his work and was honored when the reception hall was named for him. The other information Alex gave us that made a big impression on me was the variety of entertainment that has gone on in the Opera House. It has been used as a cinema as well as a wrestling arena, Arnold Schwarzenegger won his final Mr. Olympia body building title in 1980 in the concert hall, and live chickens have wandered on stage and off during an opera. Perhaps other tour guides have some of the same information, but I doubt that they are as interesting, entertaining, and engaging as Alex!

Top: Cynthia and Il Porcellino, Skyline
Bottom: Aboriginal art, Birds and people in the
Royal Botanic Gardens
Probably one of the odder tourist destinations, and also near the Royal Botanic Gardens, is the Sydney Hospital. While the building is interesting, it’s Il Porcellino that attracts visitor attention. This bronze copy of the Florentine boar was donated in 1968 and stands in front of the hospital. If you rub its nose, you’ll have good luck, or so the legend goes. We gave his nose a rub as we walked by and I never lost any more luggage ~ just saying… Also on our walks we spotted a wall that illustrated Aboriginal art. This brightly colored painting was on the wall of an apartment house near our hotel. In the painting you can see the traditional images of echidnas, kangaroos, and the snake.

On Darling Harbor is the Sea Life Sydney Aquarium. It was much bigger than we expected and pretty good when compared to other aquaria we’ve seen. Of course they had the iconic Sea Dragons, and Platypuses but I was surprised to see that they also had Dugongs (a lot like Manatees and were also mistaken for mermaids by sailors who’d be at sea for a very long time). We saw oodles of unusual sharks and rays and about as many screaming kids. One of the most interesting things we saw was the feeding of the rays. A handler dumped squid into the tank; as they settled to the bottom the rays dove after them and literally sucked them into their mouths. Rays have grinding plates rather than teeth so they can’t really bite, but do leave one heck of a hickey if they happen to latch onto your skin. Since we were at Darling Harbor anyway, we sat in one of the sidewalk cafes and had a glass of wine, then we walked the rest of the way around to the other side of the harbor and up about 50 steps to the Pyrmont Bridge. This pedestrian bridge provides beautiful views of the harbor, the ships and downtown Sydney.

L to R: Dave on sub, Cynthia on ferry
Beer can sailboat, Abseil for Youth 
The Australian National Maritime Museum is also on Darling Harbor but across from the Aquarium. On our way across the Pyrmont Bridge we saw people repelling down a building. Abseil for Youth is a group that raises funds for the Sir David Martin Foundation which, in turn, helps young people in crisis. The group we saw was coming down from the top of a very tall office building. Some were moving rather slowly while others were gliding confidently over the slick façade. It looked like fun to me and had they been letting other folks participate, I’d have taken a turn. Once we got into the Australian National Maritime Museum we did a lot of standing while reading all sorts of information. There was also a tall sailing ship (with three masts), a submarine, and a destroyer that we could board and view. The docents were very good on the sailing ship, talking about construction, living conditions and what sorts of efforts it takes to make one of these ships sail. This ship actually takes a crew and 80 passengers to sea for tours to other Australian states. The docent told us that the passengers live and work as people did on the original 1874 James Craig. Because of the hull design, the ship tends to pitch, roll, yawl and buck which does nothing to settle stomachs and calm nerves; the docent related that the smell of the ship when it came into harbor testified to the not so smooth sailing the passengers commonly experienced. While I like to sail and feel very comfortable on most boats, nothing she said made me want to sign up for a trip on the James Craig. The docents on the newer ships weren’t quite as knowledgeable or entertaining. However, since Dave was stationed on a destroyer, knew a lot about this type of ship and could explain about its equipment, structure, and armament. The HMAS Vampire was bigger than the destroyer he was on, but that was about the only real difference. Since it doesn’t carry one or more boats, a submarine is actually a boat (or at least that’s the story). HMAS Onslow was larger than most submarines, but I was not such a happy camper in that cramped space and I have the bruised knees to prove it. Visiting this vessel did dispel those pleasant beliefs that there are viewing windows, two or three people can stand around the map table, and that it’s easy to see out of the periscope.

Once we finished in the Darling Harbor area, we walked through the 'Night Noodle Festival'
Left: Night Noodle Festival,
Right top to bottom: Red lanterns, Cooking stick food
which is all about Asian food and lots of Aussie beer. The only line longer than the 'food on a stick' queue was the one for the ATM. The beer, beef, desserts and people watching in the park were all good. It’s interesting that some Australians complain that there aren’t enough official holidays, but there was not a single day that some sort of festival wasn’t being celebrated the entire week we were in Sydney. There are even celebrations at The Rocks. 
The Rocks was once the place where prisoners went as soon as they got off of the boat from England. Some reverted to their heathen ways while others actually started businesses and lived a fairly good life. One man was sent here because he had a one-pound note that was counterfeit. Although he was already married in England, he married another woman in Sydney (I've forgotten just why she was a prisoner) and they developed a successful butcher shop. After about seven years wife-one comes to Sydney, wife-two is pardoned and her current husband gives her $200 to go back to England, which she does. Wife-one lived in Sydney about two years then died. Wife-three comes into the picture along with her five kids (I think they add a couple more); eventually she divorces him. At this point he loses all of his money and the butcher shop and vanishes. Interesting story that could have been made better if wives-two and -three had actually known each other and been in cahoots to do the husband in. This and other fascinating stories were in The Rocks Discovery Museum; it’s free and it’s fun. From its humble beginnings, this region been transformed into an arty area with lots of non-mainstream shopping and places to eat.

I'm amazed at how many school groups we've seen and where we've seen them. The only day that there wasn't some sort of organized tour for a school was Sunday. Australian educators believe in taking kids on field trips, complete with papers for them to fill our and talks for them to listen to. And the kids are well behaved (except for that one that the teacher is always losing her religion over). At any rate, the Chinese Garden of Friendship is quite lovely, with or without groups of children trying to learn about plants. I really liked the Chinese Zodiac Animals hidden around the garden; the monkey was swinging from a branch of a tree. Along with the metal statues, information was provided about that particular sign and which other signs would be good friends. What I didn’t expect to see were the water dragons that were sleeping peacefully on rocks around the main pond or the nest-building activities of Australian White Ibises in that same area. This tranquil setting is a good way to end a visit to Sydney.

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