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Thursday, December 19, 2013

Day 4-6: Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Lovely, yet different. That is TDT's thought on first setting foot on a new continent, Australia. The birds sing, but they sound different. Christmas carols drift up the hill, but the sun is hot and people are wearing shorts.

I can only imagine what the original inhabitants thought when Europeans first arrived in Sydney Harbour, the date now celebrated as Australia Day. On the one side, a penal colony, on the other, a people whose name, like that of the Inuit in northern Canada, simply means "people." After all they did not know there were any others. It seems that misunderstanding was mutual.

We crossed the equator and flew down the Java Sea, the majority of our flight being over Australia itself--the north coast, Alice Springs in the middle of the outback. It is a lesson in geography just to realize how near Australia is to Indonesia. The airport is at Botany Bay. Sydney is the major international gateway and seems to have the iconic places we associate with Australia--the Harbour Bridge, the Opera House, and Bondi Beach. The spectacular natural harbour, which so enticed Europeans, is best experienced by ferry, and features not only built-up shopping areas like Darling Harbour, but the freakishly classic Luna Park, a kind of Sydney Coney Island.

I emerged from the subway feeling like I was in Chicago--the cavernous streets and buildings were the same, but not the environment. The bright full moon is not the same angle of the moon that I see in the northern hemisphere. Imagine how far away this must have seemed in the days when ship was the only means of travel. Yet nowhere in the world now is more than a day or two apart by plane.

Just behind Luna Park is Kirribilli, where the governor apparently lives, although I will associate it more with fantastic al fresco dining. There are strange juxtapositions of culture everywhere. "Charing Cross Indian Delight takeaway"  and a didgeridoo player at Circular Quay, who seems to play the same perpetual role there as the bagpipe player does outside Edinburgh station.

From my first visit to the Pacific Ocean I knew that it is best experienced with a body board, but I didn't spend that long at Bondi Beach. Instead, we walked along the clifftops to Coogee, with spectacular views all the way from Icebergs swimming club, to Tamarama Beach, Bronte Beach, Clovelly Bowling Club and beach, Gordons Bay where the shore divers were busy, and Dolphins Point, which memorializes Australians killed in the 2002 Bali bombing. (It seems weird that Australians would go anywhere for a holiday, given that they have Australia, but I wondered the same thing when I first met European tourists visiting places like the Grand Canyon. It's always the different place that appeals!)

At several stops along the way we dipped into rock pools that use the natural sea water--delightful if you don't like sticking to the sand. At Coogee Beach was what I was told was "an ocker Aussie pub," a real pub with a "Tab" for in-pub betting. Not like England at all. Nor was the open-top bus tour where basically, if you stood up and got decapitated by a tree branch, it was your own fault, mate! Very touristy and yet strangely liberating.

The Sydney Opera House sits on Bennelong Point, named for an Aborigine who got to know the English language and civilization. Well-intended perhaps, although to his detriment. Next to this are the Royal Botanic Gardens and its sobering display "Cadi Jam Ora" ("I am in Cadi"). You walk through the gardens and a timeline about the Gadigal people who once used this as an initiation ground, finally learning about the Freedom Riders (a 1960s parallel to efforts in the U.S.A. for black citizens' equality). Then round Chinatown and the Anzac memorial, lest we forget the sacrifices of Australian and New Zealand troops during the World Wars.

Given the history of North American Indians, I can't help being reminded along the way of the people who lived in Australia tens of thousands of years before smallpox and guns arrived. Despite this history, and that of the convicts transported here, it is a sunny, chilled-out land where people work to live and know how to enjoy family time and the great outdoors. This is a massive overgeneralization and I could be roundly criticized for it, but it's my first impression--and what do you expect from a free blog?

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