Living and working in the Arab Gulf has afforded my husband and me some remarkable travel opportunities, including a visit to incredible Sydney, Australia.
Sydney felt like home. Although my earliest travel dreams included Australia and storied images of vaulting kangaroos and cuddly koala bears, transcendental Ayers Rock, the Great Barrier Reef, and a self-sufficient people, I did not anticipate the sense of comfort and belonging I would encounter in this multifarious country.
Our trip would be over the Christmas holidays, and incorporate visits to Sydney and the Queenstown area of New Zealand. As a young adult I had fancied a month-long adventure to expansive Australia taking in not only Sydney, but the Great Barrier Reef and Canberra in the east; Perth in the west; Adelaide and Melbourne in the south, and the ample outback in the interior, however, the mundane reality of a limited timeframe bound to work responsibilities restricted our visit to a mere four days in Sydney and nine days in New Zealand.
Though arriving in Sydney at 10:30 at night after a protracted flight did not allow us the advantage of ingesting the views between the airport and downtown Sydney, location of our accommodation, plucking the curtains aside the next morning, we discerned an ornate maroon-colored church with towering pinnacles, St. Mary’s Cathedral, and people scurrying about, many in shorts, on foot, bike, or some on skateboard, all framed in the luscious greenery carefully constructed along the streets and nearby historical Hyde Park.
Our first foray into the city was a short trip around the corner to the funky all-day breakfast restaurant, “Two Good Eggs.” Bishara had done reconnaissance into the offerings at our hotel café, however, found that eggs, a “breakfast must” for us, were not on the menu, so the receptionist graciously recommended “Two Good Eggs,” which did not disappoint. The youngish waitresses wore mostly very short shorts and friendly smiles, the food was unique and varied, and we took much pleasure in watching people and pooches romping in a nearby park through broad picture windows. The folksy ambiance of “Two Good Eggs” reminded us of our college days in Gainesville, Florida and our runs to Café Expresso, a sweet little hole in the wall with an earthy vibe and varnished tree trunks serving as tables.
While Sydney is a friendly city, there are innumerable regulations and edicts that promote and preserve an aura of orderliness and security. Upon first arrival at the Sydney airport, Bishara and I were greeted with strident stares and muted threats of steep fines, or potential jail time, by immigration officials for having a banana peel inadvertently stashed away in our carry-on. In subsequent days, while travelling through the city by taxi, one garrulous and informative driver, became abruptly somber as he directed us to quickly latch our seatbelts in the backseat, as he spotted policemen who are known for meting out fines for seatbelt infractions. Even trekking on foot through the city, we were reminded of the disciplined nature of the place while waiting for walking signals to change at intersections, when hailed with blaring rhythmic sounds, as well as moving graphics of pedestrians alerting us that we were allowed to enter the crosswalk. And all pedestrians dutifully obeyed the commands; Bishara and I, unruly as we are, regularly walked into intersections when there was no traffic, but nary a soul followed us.
Despite all of the rules, or maybe, in part, because of them, Sydney has a carefree and cheery feel, wrapped in the perception of inviolability. Like residents of the San Francisco Bay Area, another coastal location with temperate weather, Sydneysiders are easygoing, engaged, sports-minded, and amiable. Catching a local bus to Bondi Beach, a favored destination for locals and tourists, and a few short miles to the east of Sydney, we were struck by young women in the skimpiest of bikinis sunbathing and frolicking in the gentle waves seemingly going unnoticed by ostensibly eligible, and muscly, young men content to share their own company and the enchantment of the surf. A stop at a Bondi ocean-side café found us surrounded by more solitary tanned and “bikinied” ladies enjoying a good read, yoga, or simple reflective moments without unwelcome “cat calls” and stares, similarly exuding a vigorous and healthy populace of young adults free of base distractions. A refreshing display!
Our previous winter and spring holiday jaunts as expatriates were typically spent in the warmer climes of Asia – Vietnam, Bali, Malaysia, Thailand, India, and the Middle East region where token references, such as a simple decorated Christmas tree in a hotel lobby, were made to Christmastide. Although I believe Christmas is overly commercialized in the U.S., I looked forward to experiencing the merriment of the holiday season in a western country with summertime weather. Entering the lobby of our Best Western hotel in the heart of Sydney on our first night, however, there were no holiday decorations to be found, not even a Christmas tree. And in the ensuing days, as we toured Sydney, visiting the Opera House, Harbour Bridge, The Rocks, and a variety of other sights and restaurants, the predominant commemorations of the season gravitated towards simple unadorned and inconspicuous Christmas wreaths displayed on doors or walls, although we did attend, what turned out to be, an awe-inspiring yuletide service with carols and a spectacular light show at St. Mary’s Cathedral.
Among the copious attractions in Sydney, Bishara and I made certain we saw the iconic Opera House on our first day, and were elated to secure tickets for the play, Orlando, an eclectic and avant-garde production, based on Virginia Woolf’s novel of the same name, scheduled for that very night. While we appreciated the quirky play, we were just as thrilled at the fortuity of being within the confines of the Opera House, itself, attending a performance. The next day, we spent time in the sweeping and lavish Royal Botanical Gardens, abutting the Opera House grounds, exploring the Herbarium, Fernery, Palm House, and exquisite gardens displaying red gum trees, red cedars, hoop pines, a great diversity of other flora, as well as stretches of thick grass filled with lazing and picnicking families and views of Sydney Harbour.
A fifteen minute taxi ride from the Royal Botanical Gardens through the downtown district brought us to another waterway, Darling Harbour with its shiny skyscrapers, tourist boats and luxury yachts, and modern trendy cafes. After surveying the harbor and smartly dressed tourists and businesswomen departing their offices while sipping Earl Grey tea at a cosmopolitan eatery, we began a circuitous walking tour along city streets, under freeway flyovers, and over open skyways, and ultimately arrived in colorful Chinatown. Chinatown afforded us communion with lively crowds of visitors and maître d’s encouraging the public to dine at their establishments. We delighted in sumptuous corn soup, chicken with vegetable soup, and lemon chicken with rice at one of the many eating spots, alongside clamorous middle-aged Australians at a nearby table discussing a recent cricket match.
Departing Chinatown after a hearty meal, we crossed tram tracks and wandered into Paddy’s Haymarket, a tourist haven radiating frenetic merchandising of t-shirts, souvenirs, footwear, clothes, and crafts to eager hordes of shoppers.
Our rewarding four-day stay in Sydney concluded with a flight to Auckland, a remarkable nine-day tour of New Zealand’s southern island, and a 24-hour return visit to the vibrant city of Sydney before flying back to the Arabian Peninsula. Feeling highly nostalgic about leaving Sydney, Bishara and I presumed we would sleepwalk through our final day in Australia with some low level sightseeing and preparations for our long flight later in the evening. A chatty taxi driver, however, hauling us from the Sydney airport to our accommodation on Campbell Street in “Thai town,” amended our sentiments by informing us about ferry excursions to Manly, a suburb to the northeast of Sydney proper, which boasts a lively beach resort community. Welcoming the suggestion, Bishara and I purchased ferry tickets at Circular Quay, and after savoring sea breezes and lovely glimpses of the Opera House and Harbour Bridge we disembarked from the boat and strolled along palm-lined streets filled with cafes and attractive retail shops, to Manly Beach. Spying a Mexican restaurant with a decent view of the beach, we enjoyed a milieu of bustling crowds appreciating glorious weather, shopping and dining opportunities, as well as beach-goers cavorting in the surf.
Several hours later we were on a shuttle bus travelling to the Sydney airport, keen on absorbing all the sights along the route; multicolored row houses and hip bistros of Surry Hills, industrial suburbs of Zetland, and terraced abodes and quaint storefronts of Beaconsfield, striving to store the scenes of our wonderful trip in our consciousness for future reflection.