Category Archives: Australia

The Other End of the World

It started with a series of firsts.

My first time in Australia.

My first time flying Qantas, as well as my first time on what is considered a “domestic” flight in a country other than my own.

Finally, my first time in one of those time zones that operate in half hour increments.

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I wasn’t even a teenager the first time I looked at a time zone map and noticed these peculiar places on the other side of the world. After many years of only seeing this on a map, it felt strange to finally physically be in one of these places.

With respect to geography, I could not be in a place more opposite from where I live.

Darwin is in the Southern Hemisphere. It is tropical. It is coastal, and it is remote.

Rather than four, or two, they separate the year into six seasons.

The series of flights to get here, without the layovers, took a total of 21 hours. With layovers, and crossing the international date line, it was a three-day journey. There’s no way not to feel farther from home than at this point.

Yet, as soon as I arrived in Darwin, I found myself in a setting that felt strangely familiar. A Greek festival.

The Glenti Festival, in its 32nd year, celebrates the Greek heritage of Darwin. This aspect of Darwin’s history and culture is something I was unaware of before coming here.

The overall vibe here felt strangely familiar. It became easy to forget just how far from home I was geographically. I repeatedly encountered the types of attire, mannerisms, and activities I would typically associate with the more rural parts of the United States.

I ended up feeling like it would be impossible to find a county more culturally similar to my own. Other than the United States, I don’t recall anywhere else I saw as much soda sold at the grocery stores and as large of portion sizes at restaurants.

With the warm humid air, beaches, consistently seeing hats like the ones many wear in rural America, and streets like Mitchell St., it felt like a weekend at Daytona Beach, Florida.

I could easily imagine some of these places featured in an MTV reality show!

Many of the differences I did observe felt like slight differences within the same general framework.

In the United States, we contend with the way we uprooted our Native American population, with mixed results that include many failures we tend to gloss over.

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Australia has the Aboriginal population, who appear to be honored in ceremonies, but not fully integrated into mainstream Australian society. When the conference I attended in Darwin began, I was given a “welcome to country”, acknowledging the Larrakeyah population that was here thousands of years before British settlement. Yet, I am certain that the nation of Australia administers all affairs here. This feels similar to our often impoverished “indian reservations” across North America.

The influence from nearby countries in Southeast Asia can be felt in both the racial makeup of the population and the types of cuisine available.

At places like Stokes Hill Wharf, one of my favorites in Darwin, cuisine from Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore, India and more can be found.

The wharf was one of several places to see a phenomenal sunset during the dry, or Wurrkeng, season.

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It also feels like Australia has a similar political divide. Without ever bringing up politics, over the course of the week I heard viewpoints ranging from admiration of President Trump, to envy for New Zealand’s progressive stands on certain issues.

There are still some obvious differences. Australians drive on the left side of the road and pronounce the last letter of the alphabet “zed” rather than “zee”. They also have a different perception of “cold”. Many lament winter temperatures in Sydney and Melbourne, mostly in the 5-20C (41-68 F) range. For most Americans, this is not cold.

The most culturally significant difference I experienced was how friendly people are.

I felt a kind of cultural warmth here. At the conference, I met dozens of people who would happily chat with me about both professional and non-professional topics. I also made friends with others at the penthouse bar at the hotel. Nearly every day, I was invited to join with people, who were previously strangers, for a meal or some other sort of activity.

One afternoon at a bar along Mitchell St., I noticed two people who were sitting alone, at separate tables. Despite different ages, genders, and races, they weren’t sitting alone for long; one invited the other to join. When a room is empty enough, we Americans leave an empty seat between ourselves and the people we were joining. However, any of the Australians I met, that would come join me at a session, would sit right next to me. I noticed them all doing it with each other. Even in a room with dozens of empty rows, there would be people sitting right next to each other.

I came away feeling that American culture is a bit stand-off-ish. An Australian woman I met on a ski lift at Whistler last year told me that people sitting adjacent to each other on a ski lift but not speaking a word to each other “would never happen” in Australia. Yet, we do these kinds of things all the time. We keep our distance from one another. We abruptly end conversations so we can get back to activities that involve work, making money, or personal development. Sometimes, our behavior even suggests that other human beings are mere commodities to be leveraged for personal gain.

Yet, it is important to remember that the values of our immediate surroundings are not the only ones that exist. With loneliness and depression on the rise in the United States, perhaps we can benefit from incorporating some of the values observed in a place that couldn’t be farther away geographically yet could hardly be more culturally similar.

One Cloudy Day in Sydney

The day started with fog. It wasn’t thick enough to cause major travel hazards. But, it was thick enough to obstruct views of the Sydney Harbor Bridge from the Central Quay train station platform, as well as the 25th floor of a nearby hotel. The hotel concierge would not recommend activities like ferry rides and bridge tours so long as the visibility was as low as it was.

Luckily, that fog would gradually lift over the course of the day.

This would give way to an afternoon that was just cloudy, with five afternoon hours to explore Sydney, as early June has some of Sydney’s earliest sunsets.

It ended up still being a pretty good day to walk through The Royal Botanical Gardens.

The low-level cloudiness of the day, if anything, provided a unique experience. The thick layer of cloudiness felt like it added an element of mystery to the trek through the gardens, with its variable, but often dense vegetation.

Embedded in the trees are plants from many parts of the world, some unexpected.

At the far Northeast end of the garden is Ms. Macquaries Point. There are several paths to get there, each with different vegetation. It is a large garden visitors could easily spend multiple hours at. The view of downtown, from across the bay, is perhaps the best one in the city.

The Sydney Harbor Bridge Tour is supposed to be an epic experience. However, it is expensive (~ AU$ 300), and probably would not have been cost effective on a day like this. Ferry rides to Sydney’s North Beaches, however, cost only AU$15 round trip.

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These ferries track right next to Sydeny’s defining skyline features as it connects downtown with communities like Manly Wharf.

Manly Wharf feels similar to many coastal communities in America, particularly in California. Despite less than ideal weather conditions, surfers ventured in and out of the waves of the Pacific Ocean all afternoon while coastal birds wandered among the humans looking for food scraps.

Over time, their presence becomes something everyone is just accustomed to, part of the background like the sound of the ocean waves or the humming of one’s kitchen appliances.

The great thing about venturing to places like this is the ability to imagine the day to day lives of people who live here. Central Quay is, of course, the most “touristy” part of Sydney. There is nothing wrong with being a tourist. Attractions are attractions for a reason; they are great places to visit. However, most of the other people walking around places like this are also tourists, not living their typical day-to-day lives.

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Here it is different. At the bars, people were cheering on their local team in Australia’s favorite sport- rugby. The shops along the wharf provide not only the kinds of services tourists need, such as restaurants and ice cream shops, but also grocery stores and gyms. Patrons at the bar would encounter others they are already familiar with. Living near this beech and taking a 30-minute ferry ride to work every day feels like an amazing life!

There were also plenty of families in the area, many enjoying the beech, and preparing to take the ferry downtown for the Vivid Light Festival. This festival runs for something close to a month at Sydney’s darkest period, with various light displays illuminating Sydney’s downtown buildings.

It was also quite well attended. It makes perfect sense for an event like this to occur this time of year in Sydney. Sydney’s winters are not that cold. Saturday was a chilly day with temperatures in the 10-15°C (50-59°F) range. This, although not cold from the standpoint of anyone that has lived in cold cities in the Northern United States, felt cold enough to encourage many locals to wear wintry clothing, including coats and hats. For the entire day, most people appeared dressed the way New Yorkers would dress for an evening in December with temperatures just below freezing.

One day stops are never a guarantee. This is especially true in places with variable weather conditions; mid-latitude destinations in wintertime. Travel is often a delicate balance, between planning and spontaneity, between maximizing time and finding time to relax, and between the desire to take part in everything and the limitations of the human body. It is possible to use perhaps the scarcest human resource, time, to its fullest while traveling by doing things like visiting popular destinations in wintertime for one day. However, it requires the understanding that not everything will always go exactly according to plan. Being aware of what is going on, weather and other considerations, while noticing events like like Vivid Light Festival and being open to trying them out will usually lead to a great experience regardless of circumstance. Sometimes, when circumstances require adjustments to be made, the experience can even end up better than the one originally planned.

The Longest Flight of My Life

Nearly 14 and a half hours on an airplane can be quite an intimidating prospect. It is the longest flight that I have ever taken in my life and I can’t imagine a longer one in my future. The flight itself turned out to be both surprisingly easy and surprisingly challenging at the same time.

The most obvious challenge on a flight that leaves at 11 P.M. is sleeping. Airplanes are not comfortable places to sleep. Despite this, I was able to get at least six hours of solid sleep. However, I spent much of the flight in and out of sleep and a good part of the second half of the flight trying to force myself to sleep.

I was trying to avoid jet lag. Sydney, Australia is 17 hours ahead of Los Angeles. It actually ends up feeling more like going back 7 hours and just losing a day. The flight departed on a Thursday evening and landed in the morning on a Saturday. Friday just didn’t exist! Understanding that 7 A.M. in Sydney is 2 P.M. in L.A., and that without any kind of adjustment my Saturday in Sydney would be short (I’d likely get sleepy at 4 P.M., which is 11 P.M. in L.A.), I came up with a plan.

First, I forced myself to stay up a couple of hours after boarding. This was relatively easy as the flight provided dinner service. Then I tried to force myself to sleep as much as possible. A little over halfway through the flight, it became harder to sleep in the unnatural position of an airplane seat.

This was the most difficult part of the flight, as is often the case, but it was not nearly as difficult as I had thought it would be. Maybe this is a sign that our lives are too sedentary. Being seated for 14 hours in a row is obviously not natural. However, many of us have had days with similar amounts of time spent seated. Ten hours at a desk job, with an hour and a half of commuting and some time at home in front of a computer or television at home has created a surprising number of similar days. I have somewhat different reasons for having had days like this, but the 14+ hours of sitting on an airplane felt almost disturbingly too natural to me.

The sun rose right as the flight was preparing to land. It left me with one question. Why did I just leave summer to visit winter? In Sydney, on Saturday, I would last until just after 9 P.M. before falling asleep. Not bad. Maybe long flights to the other side of the world are far more manageable than we all think, and we all should take advantage of opportunities to visit “The Land Down Under.”