Friday, June 26, 2009

Day 16 - Downtown Sydney

Day 16 – Downtown Sydney

I just now realize how much I wanted to do in Australia that I won’t have time for since I’m leaving tomorrow morning. There is certainly more I could have crossed off my personal checklist had I not been so busy sightseeing and doing the meet & greet with the family. On the other hand, I would probably have spent more time on my ass doing nothing, watching NFL, or messing around on Facebook. So, to a certain degree, I’m glad most of the best plans were already laid out, and it’s easier for me to follow a scheduled itinerary rather than make it up as I go along. That said, today was a day for Mum and I to knock out the rest of our touristy stuff in Sydney before our scheduled departure the next day.

Only because Mum had been using her “Aussie Specialist” travel credentials, she was able to get us some sweet hookups around Australia, and today was another chapter in the many benefits this privilege provided us.

Today was the day Mum had to return her “No Birds” rental car back to the office in downtown Sydney, and because the car was due back at 11am, we would have to rely on public transportation from that point through the rest of the day. Against our better judgment, we once again trusted the sometimes-unreliable GPS “Navman” to find our way to the No Birds office. Unfortunately, the towering Sydney skyline created interference, and we once again started getting dodgy directional assistance. I had wanted to toss this gadget out the window from Day 1, as the irritating voice comes in extremely loud, and I hadn’t been able to find a volume control on the console. Furthermore, it served as the impetus for Mum and I getting into a tiff the night before in Melrose Park. It only began to work properly once we were a block away from No Birds. We pulled into the driveway of the rental office. Before she turned off the engine, I looked at the fuel gauge, which read 2/3 full, and asked her if we were supposed to fill the tank first? An expletive-laden tirade would ensue, as it was going to be a real pain in the ass for Mum to back the car out of this crowded parking lot and into busy downtown traffic. Not to mention that we had to find a petrol station. Mum and I had already had it out the night before, so we were over being frustrated with each other. We simply laughed at our collective negligence, and spent the next 20 minutes driving aimlessly around (the Navman was turned off and in the glove box at this point) until we finally found a Shell station. After we threw in about 14 litres and returned the car, we were charged another $8 for outstanding electronic toll road charges.

Mum and I rode the subway to the station just outside Sydney Tower, the tallest building in Australia. As we ascended from the subway terminal, I noticed a young father slowly and methodically carrying an occupied baby stroller up a flight of stairs. I asked him if he needed a hand, and his eyes lit up with gratitude. I grabbed the front wheels while he held the handles, and with gentle precision, we were at the top of the stairs in about ten seconds. He thanked me profusely afterward, and was relieved that his baby in the stroller didn’t wake up! I then asked him where Sydney Tower was, and he smiled and pointed to a huge building right across the street.

Since we lost about a half-hour gassing the rental, we were late for our 11am skywalk at the top of Sydney Tower, the tallest tower in Australia that serves strictly as a tourist attraction. In spite of its enormous stature, the building doesn’t have anything between the bottom nor the top of the structure, similar to the gigantic CN Tower in Toronto or the god-awful Stratosphere in Las Vegas. Tourists were paying $65 AUS to get to the top, but Mum got our passes for free by saying she represents a consortium of tourism agencies back in the US! The manager at the front desk pulled Mum aside, and apologized that they had inadvertently overbooked the 11:30am group, and that we would be helping them out tremendously if we could wait until noon for the next group. Since we were getting to the top for free, we obliged even though we would lose even more time today. We passed through a couple different metal detectors (tight security in this building), and took the elevator to the indoor observation deck with a panoramic view of all of Sydney, located just below the outdoor top deck. We couldn’t have picked a better day to check out the most magnificent view of the city! The weather was warm, and only a couple of clouds prevented 100% sunshine. I bought a tuna sandwich at the upstairs café to tide over my appetite while we waited until noon, and also got a detailed view of various parts of Sydney through the many complimentary telescopes in the observation deck.

When 12pm came around, we joined our group, and the tour guides assigned us lockers where we were to store all of our possessions, including jewelry. Those who were wearing tight-fitting rings on their fingers were given medical tape to cover their rings. Since we were about to stand on the largest lightning rod in the country, the tour guides felt this was a necessary safety precaution to avoid possible electrocution. Furthermore, we were each given breathalyzer tests before we were permitted to change into our provided jumpsuits! They don’t want any drunks stumbling around the top of the tower, and I’m sure this was also necessary for insurance purposes.

Ten people formed our group, including a family of three. The dad was celebrating his 50th birthday along with his daughter and his 300-pound wife. The latter put the fear of God in me as we walked upon the transparent concourse. That’s right: the surface we were on was sturdy but clear, so you could see Market Street 879 feet below. Oian (pronounced “Owen” – Gaelic spelling), our jovial Irish tour guide, demonstrated the sturdiness of the walkway by jumping up and down repeatedly on it. Before we walked around the top deck, we had to literally attach ourselves to the building with a tethered steel cable. As we strolled around catching the multiple views which seemed even more breathtaking from outside, Oian took several pictures of us. First he had us pose, then he told us to jump for an action shot. My heart skipped a beat as Big Momma landed with a thud after her action shot. I took a final look at the surrounding scenery before we returned inside: I could see Sydney’s suburbs, the ocean, the harbor, adjacent Hyde Park, and the Olympic Stadium that housed the 2000 Summer Games. We then detached the cables from our jumpsuits, went inside, took off the jumpsuits, and bought a CD with our pictures stored on them.

Once we got to the bottom of the tower, there was a nearby attraction called “Oztrek” (I kept calling it “Ozfest” by mistake – big difference). We missed the show by five minutes, and had to come back an hour later. I suggested that we spend some time at David Jones, which was serendipitously located across the street from the Sydney Tower. David Jones is a high-end four-level department store similar to Bloomingdales/Neiman Marcus that carries apparel, house wares, produce, and many accessories. I needed to do some holiday shopping for Uncle Gerry and Aunt Carol to show appreciation for their hospitality. Before I left for Australia, my father gave me his David Jones credit card (he’s a merchandise buyer, and “DJ’s” is one of his international clients). I found a golf shirt for Gerry, a Rayon top for Carol, and a V-neck T-shirt for myself that was on sale. Gerry and Carol are headed to Fiji (less than four hours on a plane from Sydney) in March, so I thought these items would be useful to wear during their holiday. I took the purchased goods to gift wrap, and had them prepare the gifts with lovely wrapping paper and fancy bows. I would return to pick them up after Oztrek.

Oztrek turned out to be more of a kid’s attraction. It was like an IMAX movie coupled with a moving theatre, similar to the old “Star Tours” at Disneyland. We traversed the many different terrains and landmarks Australia has to offer: Northern Territory Outback, Sydney Harbor, Great Barrier Reef, and Ayres Rock in the center of the country. I found the actors cheesy and the movement of the theatre nauseating. Maybe I’m getting old, because that type of entertainment was much more appealing 15 years ago. When we left the Sydney Tower after Oztrek, I was starved. We found a food mart that had a wide variety of $5 dishes. I bought three curry dishes for $10. The first four bites were good, and then I wanted to get rid of the rest of it. I would regret eating even more after Mum suggested we visit the produce section of David Jones before we go back to Gift Wrap to pick up the presents.

I had no idea what to expect when Mum mentioned DJ’s produce section, but I was blown away by a great many delectable items that were ready to eat. Envision Whole Foods meets Barney’s, and that’s DJ’s food court: simply amazing. I was pissed off that I was full from the crap I just ate ten minutes earlier! I took advantage of the holiday sales and bought some delectable chocolate treats for my friends and family back in the States while Mum bought chocolate liqueurs for Gerry and Carol. We then went upstairs to Gift Wrap to pick up the other presents, and finally left the store.

It was about 5pm, and unfortunately, we had lost about a couple hours due to various delays throughout the day, so we wouldn’t have time to visit the aquarium, let alone the zoo across town. This was unfortunate, because Mum could have gotten us into these places for free as well, and I always enjoy looking unique Australia wildlife. We decided to take the Sydney monorail around the city circle for ten minutes of quick sightseeing, and hopped off at Darling Harbour, where we would catch a ferry back to Huntley Point, the ferry stop nearest Gladesville that Mum and I rode in and out of two weeks earlier.

The ferry was full of commuters in business suits: half were playing with their respective Blackberries and Iphones, and the other half were zoned out on the Ipods. 5pm seems to be a more popular time for Australians to get off work than Americans, who would be lucky to work only 9-5! Mum called Gerry from the ferry, and when we arrived at Huntley Point, Gerry was there to greet us. Since it was Tuesday, I was expecting to play tennis and Euchre with Gerry again, but he was skipping the club tonight given that it was our last night in Sydney. When we got back to Gerry and Carol’s, I informed everyone that I would like to sequester myself in the TV room to watch the Monday Night football game saved on IQ (Tivo). After all, my season may ride on this game!

I watched the game as fast as I could, fast-forwarding through all the commercials and downtime that American football offers. I had made it to halfway through the third quarter when Gerry announced he and Carol were taking us out for Thai food, and it was “their shout” (they’re paying). I quietly sighed, put the game back on pause, and put my shoes on to go out. Fortunately, I felt optimistic based on what I saw in the Panthers/Bucs game thus far.

At dinner, Gerry informed me that Mike, Sally’s American husband, wanted to take me on a pub crawl since we didn’t get to hang out one on one much during my time in Oz. We were supposed to go out earlier in the trip, but Mike’s kids got him really sick, and he was in no condition to go out on the town until recently. When we returned from the Thai restaurant, Mike was parked outside the house waiting for me.

Mike took me to several local pubs around the Harbor. These places were the very antithesis of touristy. Mike is originally from Boston, which is how he met Sally thirteen years ago (Sally used to be a New England Nanny before she brought Mike back to Oz). Naturally, he has a predilection for Irish pubs, and took me to a couple which had their own microbrews. We then visited a place called Strike Bowl that had bowling alleys. We were there too late to bowl, but Mike ordered us a beer called “Highwayman”. This brew had to be at least twice as strong as American beer, because I was pretty trashed by round three! Mike and I exchanged a few interesting stories, and had a legitimate bonding experience. He was sorry I was leaving so soon, and told me about how I could have been a millionaire had I stayed in Australia the last twelve years to open up the juice bars like I had mentioned a long time ago (I used to work at Jamba Juice in college, and saw the opportunity to expand the juice empire Down Under, but decided to finish college and work in entertainment instead). Now, there are juice bars everywhere in Australia! We also talked about American football, and since he occasionally wagers a little on NFL, I told him to bet the Eagles against the Browns on Monday Night, a pick that turned out to be a winner (I hope he took my advice).

The drunken conversation then transitioned to a melancholy tone. I lauded Mike for being able to handle it all with Sally (who can be, um, temperamental from time to time) and the two boys, and this was the first time I saw Mike with his proverbial shields down. It was just two of us alone in a bar, I was leaving the country soon, and he decided to vent a bit. He said he jogs a lot to deal with the frustration of having two mentally challenged sons, and is not totally thrilled with the idea that Sally wants a third child – ideally, a daughter that won’t be autistic and will be able to take care of her when she gets older. I can totally see Mike’s perspective: the emotional toll that raising two autistic children can take on the head of a household on a daily basis has to wear him down after a while. In spite of all this, Mike was able to remain optimistic. He told me many kids (as well as their parents) at Ethan and Cooper’s school have been afflicted with much more severe learning disabilities than they have, and at least his boys are sweet and relatively obedient. This bond I had formed with Mike made me sad I was leaving after just 16 days, but at the same time, I felt encouraged to return to Australia in the near future.

We left Sydney Harbor around midnight. Unfortunately, Mike had to go to work the next day, so we weren’t able to get too crazy that night. We stopped at a liquor store where I purchased a magazine for a friend back in Los Angeles as well as bottled water for the ride back to Gladesville. Mike dropped me off at 12:30, and when I entered the house, I was surprised the alarm wasn’t on.

I walked upstairs, and Gerry and Carol were in Gerry’s office waiting for me to get back. They had bought some birthday presents for me, and I was quite taken aback by their generosity. I was given a couple athletic caps featuring an Australian footy team, as well as their cricket team. Speaking of cricket, I also got an authentic cricket ball, and a comedy CD along with a couple of really touching greeting cards. Coincidentally, my father ended up buying me the exact same birthday card back home in the US that Gerry got me in Australia. Small world, or just similar tastes? I told my aunt and uncle how appreciative I was not only for the lovely gifts, but for their overall hospitality and for taking Mum and I around town the last three weeks. I am glad I have such a great relationship with my Australian relatives because it’s comforting to know I can fly across the world to the south Pacific, and have a place to call home.

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