It’s Been a While…

“Brisbane tomorrow!”, the end of my last post, written over 4 years ago, promised to soon describe our adventures in Brisbane, where we planned to meet up with friends old an new, enjoy the Queensland sunshine, spend Christmas, and start mentally preparing ourselves for the return home and reality, but it was the last thing I wrote about the trip, until now.  I fully intended to return to the blog and bring it to a conclusion, but then life, and love happened.

As I said, in Brisbane I had friends, among them a young man named Frank, for whom I had some tender feelings from a brief romance years past.  Most of my time in Brisbane was spent ditching little Nicky with Frank’s cousins while Frank and I behaved like obnoxious lovebirds, until Nick & I departed for Maui at the end of February.  3 months later Frank & I are engaged, 4 months after that we’re married, and woosh, I’m back in Australia, this time as an immigrant.  3.5 years later, my head still sometimes spins.

I am determined to finish this now though, as I want to start another blog, this time about my life and misadventures in trying to adjust to Australian life.  The epilogue to Nicky and my adventure will be much abridged, as I’ve forgotten much, and if I try to write everything I remember it will never be completed.  My writing, I can see, even from these few paragraphs, is very rusty, so please forgive that as well.

And now that I have posted this, I am obliged indeed to finish writing about this truely life altering adventure.  Final post to come soon!


Jenolan Caves

2014 started rather unusually… I woke up well rested and headed for a run along Blackwattle Bay. Returning energized, I decided to call Gabe, a friend of dad’s from his college days. When I was in Sydney in 2012 I spent my last full day touring around Sydney with him & his wife Natasha from Magadan, riding the ferries & checking out the Oceanarium at Manly Beach, which is well worth a visit. You walk through a tunnel under a giant fish tank, where sharks and other local fish swim lazily around you.

I’d been a little worried about Gabe. I’d lost touch with them as they hadn’t been on Skype for months, and since Gabe’s getting on in years & not in the best of health I was a bit worried that he might be no longer with us. Luckily, a friend in Brisbane also happened to be his nephew (once again, it really is a small world), and he sent me Gabe’s phone number and assured me that Gabe is still topside.

Gabe answered the phone as if he’d been waiting for my call for ages. Expressing no surprise at all upon hearing my voice, he immediately asked when he could expect us. Upon finding out we had 4 days left in Sydney he asked us what we were doing tonight, and told us to take the train out to Minto, where he’d pick us up. We’d spend the night at their place and tomorrow we’d go to some cool caves that aren’t too far from them. Having no plans for the next few days we immediately said yes & made ready for the 1.5 hour long trip out to Minto.

We arrived in the far outskirts of Sydney after dark, and there was Gabe, the same chain smoking, sharp eyed old man I remembered. The interrogation began right away. Where have we been, what have we seen, are we hungry, how are our parents, when are they coming to Australia, having you been following the tennis, and do you know how screwed up the American government is?

As an aside, Aussies refer to tennis as “the tennis,” cricket as “the cricket,” and football (soccer) as “the footy.”

Natasha, a well preserved Russian woman with Texas big blond hair greeted us with all the effusive love and enthusiasm someone would shower on a long lost niece and nephew, peppering us with a million questions without ever waiting for the million answers. Beers appeared, and we met their son Anton, who’s Aussie jargon & accent ran so thick we had considerable trouble understanding him at first. Dinner was delicious and drinks & food seemed never-ending, and after a long evening of chain smoking and catching up we bedded down for the night.

I’d mentioned the night before that I’d missed porridge horribly during this trip, and so the following morning Natasha made us a giant vat of it, insisting we finish it all, and we set off to the Jenolan Caves. Now, I hadn’t looked them up so it only occurred to me an hour into the drive to ask exactly how much longer it was to get there. “Oh, not far,” answered Gabe, “maybe another hour and a half, maybe 2.” Oh. We drove through the New South Wales countryside, admiring the beautiful Blue Mountains, past farms & endless gum trees. After another hour we finally started dropping into a deep ravine. Cell phone signal was lost & the humidity became almost unbearable. We were finally near the caves.

Now, I usually google stuff before I visit, and I completely neglected to do so this time around, partially since Gabe’s accent is an interesting mix of Russian and Aussie, and not always completely comprehensible.  So, Jenolan Caves came to me as a complete surprise (other than, obviously, that they were indeed caves).

175 km west of Sydney, hidden in the Blue Mountains is a network of open caves, considered the oldest known in the world, that is over 40 kms long.  Found thousands of years ago by the local Aboriginal people, they were known as “Binoomea,” or Dark Places, created by a struggle between 2 ancient gods.  The waters deep below were considered to have curative powers.

The Wikipedia discounts it, but locals cling tight to the legend that the first white man in the caves was the ex-convict & outlaw James McKeown around 1838, who used it as a hideout.  However, the first to document their findings were brothers James and Charles Whalan.  After that cave explorers & curiosity seekers came in droves, until finally in 1872 the Australian government decided to tighten its protection over the site.  Amazingly, caves continue to be found to this day, and they really have no idea how extensive the cave system actually is.

It would literally takes days to take all the tours available, and to enjoy the hiking trails around the caves (of which there were many), so we got tickets for the Lucas Cave tour, the one recommended for people who were pressed for time.  People on a more leisurely schedule can actually get a room at the conveniently located small hotel located just beside the ticket office.

Almost a kilometer in length, with 910 stair steps, the tour of Lucas Cave is approximately 1.5 hours long.  Most of the stairs are just in the beginning, as you make your way through low & narrow passages, occasionally passing small pockets of pretty rock formations.  I was preparing myself to be rather unimpressed.  I’ve never been much for these kinds of things anyway.  Growing up in Upstate NY we’d visited Howe Caverns, & I remember it as being one of the most underwhelming experiences of my childhood.  And then we came into the highest chamber of of the cave, The Cathedral.  54 meters high, the rock formations imitate a belfry, a pulpit, and even a grand pipe organ.  No kidding.  Our guide explained to us that the space is considered to have some of the best acoustics in the world, and has hosted many great acts including the Vienna Boys Choir, and they even have an opera company, aptly called “The Underground Opera.”   He dimmed the lights, and a familiar melody faded on from hidden speakers as an impressive light show started illuminating various features of the cave one by one.  The intro to the S&M album, Metallica’s collaboration with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, demonstrated perfectly that the space indeed has incredible acoustics, both for metal & classical music.  The Cathedral is in fact used also as a church, and is a popular wedding venue.  

We continued the tour with new found respect for the place, and were impressed over & over again by, well, everything.  I can’t really correctly describe the massive rockfalls, the crystals that carpet some of the rocks to make it look like freshly fallen snow, places where the water has run down for millenia just so to form what looks like the most delicate curtains blowing in the breeze.   At one point we came across a column, almost a foot thick, that had at one time connected the ceiling to the floor.  An earthquake in eons past had hit it so hard that it broke the bottom from the top & moved it a good foot to the left.

From time to time signs from the early explorers were obviously visible.  Remains of their campfires look as if they were put out perhaps a week ago, instead of the 1870s.  They used soot from their candles to sign their names and dates on the ceilings.  Unfortunately, where they broke rock formations for souvenirs are also readily visible in quite a few places.  Apparently the practice was only banned in 1872.  Ironically, most people, after having gone through so much effort to break off pieces to bring home found the rocks too heavy to bother with once they reached the surface & would just dump them up there.  I asked what the penalty would be now for such an offense & the guide jokingly asked me if he would have to search my bag before the tour was finished.

Exhausted, and a little bit chilled (the caves are a consistent 16C year round), we emerged into the sunlight ready for a nap, which luckily we got to take as Gabe drove us the 2.5 hours back to his place for another dinner before our planned return to town.

We’d made tentative plans to meet some friends for drinks later that night, so wanted to be back around 9pm, and were waiting for a sms. Anton came by as we finished dinner, and on finding us still at his parents house invited us out for a drink. No problems about getting you back to the train, the pub is just down the street from the station. So, along with his friend Luke we headed down to the tavern with all the good intentions of only having one singular drink each. Anton bought a round, and we headed outdoors to the pokey machines. Every pub has them here, to some degree. Anton tossed in $20, and proceeded to win $50. Luke won $200 in the next machine, and so the evening went. One round became 3, and they egged us on to play as well. I lost the $20 I tried, just as I expected. My luck has never been good on these things. Nick, though, won over $100. To prove that I really was no good, I stood leaning against the one Anton was playing, and sure enough, he began to lose quite spectacularly. The entire time, he and Luke peppered us with questions regarding living in the US of A, shaking their heads upon finding out exactly how low our minimum wage is, declaring astonishment that there’s surfing on Lake Michigan, and declared their enthusiasm at the prospect of visiting us on our home turf.

Somewhere in the middle, Anton’s girlfriend Jaime arrived, and Anton introduced us as his cousins from America. Sure, why not, may as well be! She turned out pretty cool though, and after she won $200 on the pokeys we switched to the pool tables, where we all discovered that our billiard playing skills have gone the same way as our sobriety, straight out the door. It was then decided that we would retreat for the night to their place, where they have their own pool table, a slab of beer, and whiskey as well.

And so we found ourselves at 4am in Anton’s garage, annoying their neighbors with loud music & laughter, playing with their 2 rottweiler mixes, Coco & Turbo. It was decided that neither Jaime nor Anton would go to work in the morning, and so after a hearty breakfast at Hungry Jack’s (their version of Burger King) and a trip to the mall so I could buy flip-flops to replace my long-suffering (seriously, 4 years, 12 countries, countless miles, best $14 on footwear I’ve ever spent) sandals, they deposited us back to the train station, with promises that next time we came through Sydney, hopefully in a few weeks, there was more fun to be had.

Slightly dazed, and still wearing the same clothes from 2 days before we headed back to Sydney for our last night. Dinner was with our friends Masha and Simon. They met at a party I organized way back in the day, and had gotten married a few years later. It was for their wedding that I went to Australia for the first time, and I like to drop in every few years to see how they are doing. 4 kids and what seems a lifetime later, when we meet up it feels like no time has passed at all.

After, we headed to Andrei’s house for a few final drinks with our gracious host. Have I mentioned he’s a cocktail maestro extraordinaire?  Good times had by all, goodbyes said all around, with promises to return, and invitations to visit us in the frozen northern hemisphere when it was not so frozen, and it was time for bed.

Brisbane tomorrow!


Beach time!  I was very excited about this.  All my previous Sydney experiences have been during Aussie winters, so the extent of my beach visits were pretty much “Oh how pretty, ok, it’s windy, lets take a picture & go have a beer.” We hopped on the 370 bus, and took the slow ride to Coogee Beach.

Nicky immediately liked it.  Everywhere you looked people basked in the sun, played frisbee & volleyball, and for the most part looked pretty fabulous.  Nothing like going to a beach full of beautiful people to either send you into a spiraling depression or inspire you to diet & exercise, stat!

Speaking of exercise, it was time to stretch our legs.  We turned to the northern end of the beach, and headed out on a well laid path toward Bondi Beach.  Approximately 6kms away, the distance is spanned by wooden walkways most of the way, winding over cliffs & past beaches, each prettier than the last.  We walked by lawn bowl clubs & surf clubs, all being enjoyed by  bronzed and happy runners, vacationers & tourists.  To our great delight we ran into people wearing Blackhawks t-shirts & caps twice, Chicagoeans, escaped from the frozen north.

Mildly disconcerting, in the midst of all this fun in the sun, is Waverley Cemetery.  A vast blanket of crosses, statues & tombstones, it stretches over the crest of a hill and all the way to the cliffs.  Started in 1877, its the final resting place of many significant Australians who I won’t name since I honestly haven’t heard of a single one of them (sorry), occasional movie location, and popular inspiration for quite a few authors & artists (all of whom I also have never heard of).  Some avid Baywatch fans might know it from the show’s Australia movie length episode.

We finally reached Bondi Beach, to meet with Meghan & Jennifer, 2 British girls we’d met in Thailand.  It was great to see them, of course, and we spent a pleasant couple hours comparing impressions of Australia (they are there on a working holiday visa and currently live in a group house & work as door to door saleswomen, which is apparently still relatively normal in Australia, though it sounded weird to my American ears), & catching up on our latest adventures since we’d last parted.

Now, everyone, of course knows Bondi Beach.  Seen worldwide by millions during the 2000 Summer Olympics as the beach volleyball location, its where UK, Irish & Kiwi backpackers flock to in droves.  It is, indeed, a very nice beach, as beaches go.  Honestly though, I was more impressed with the more intimate Gordons Bay (awesome for snorkeling, so I’m told) and Tamarama Beach, and in fact all the other beaches we had passed.  Bondi, I could take or leave.  The one thing I found really cool though were the swimming pools carved out of the cliffs, the Bondi Iceburgs, where people do laps while waves crash over the edges.

Anyway, we said goodbye to Jennifer & Meaghan, and, since we liked the walk so much the first time, headed back to Coogee as golden hour sunlight stretched over the cliffs & churning surf below.  It was just as enjoyable the second time around, and to my surprise Nicky agreed that this is a walk he would not at all mind repeating.

Next morning, a Sunday (weird, suddenly to have to start taking days of the week into account), Andrei & Nastassia picked us up to go to church.  Andrei, besides singing for his supper at the Opera House, is the choir director at the Russian church in Cabramatta, and I was very much looking forward to doing something I hadn’t done in 5 months, sing in church.  The pleasure was mildly muted though, by the fact that that evil earache had returned full on.  I had, the day before, started using ear drops (though the pharmacist, excuse me, this is Australia, so its chemist, actually, I consulted also saw absolutely nothing wrong with my ear, had shrugged apologetically, given me the ear drops & told me they probably wouldn’t help an earache that had been on & off for over a month), and having followed the instructions had stuffed cotton into it.  This, while singing, made my head resonate in extraordinarily unpleasant ways, and I ended up giving myself a nasty headache.  I soldiered on anyway, sharing the music stand with a lovely old lady who apparently knew dad and his buddies from way back in the day when she and her husband had visited San Francisco.

Afterwards, we explored Cabramatta a bit.  Now, my first experience in Cabramatta was in 2004… 2003?  Whenever it was I first visited Sydney.  A friend of mine was marrying an Aussie, and we, my 2 friends and I, were hosted by a lovely old Russian lady who fed us daily mountains of delicious pelimeni and humble pie about being too American (“Don’t you girls steal any more of our good Australian boys, I know that’s why your really here.”), and in the case of one of my friends, vegetarian (“how can you be Russian and a vegetarian?  Its not natural?” Anna’s reply – “I’m half Swedish.”)  We didn’t half mind though, because those pelimeni really were that good, in fact, the best I’d tasted in my life up until that point.

Cabramatta, back in those days was really quite rough.  One morning over breakfast Tiotya Sonya (for that was our hostess’s name) asked us if we’d heard the gunshots late the previous nights.  Umm, no?  On our last night of that trip, upon telling the people we’d met for dinner & movies where exactly we were staying, and how we were getting home (taking the train to Cabramatta Station & walking the 5 or so blocks), they went pale and tried to give us money to take a cab home.  “No, no, that’s quite alright, we’ve been doing that walk for the past 2 weeks and have been quite alright.”

It’s predominantly an Asian neighborhood, and Tiotya Sonya, (who herself was born in China & is in fact married to a Chinese orphan adopted by Russians who had crossed through China in their long run to Australia after the Russian Revolution) described it as “Dis is not Cabramatta, dis is Vietnamatta.”

A lot has changed in Cabramatta in the past 8 to 10 years.  Apparently the crime rate has gone down quite a bit, and now its a rather pleasant place to go for good Asian food and cheap shopping.  After lunch at one of these said eateries we explored the various cheap wears for sale at a bargain (2 of those posters that change images when you tilt your head, horses, Buddha, Vishnu, boats, bunnies?  $5, ok, for you, $4!) and enjoyed the sunshine.  Food coma led to Sunday afternoon nap & movie marathon.  We’ve been rather busy the last few days, time for a rest.

The next day Andrei & Nastassia invited us to join the on a trip to Manly Beach.  As a trip to Manly is always worth it, and the company delightful, we immediately said yes.  We met them at Circular Quay and almost immediately boarded a ferry for the trip across Sydney Harbor.  It being the day before New Years Eve, the boat was packed with tourists & vacationers, and everyone rushed to the front of the ferry, to get the best views of the Opera House, the Bridge, and everything else.  We nabbed a spot right at the front, electing to stay standing along the rail and taking in the scenery.

Andrei pointed out a few noteworthy landmarks.  Luna Park peeked out from under the Sydney Harbor bridge.  Built in the 1930s, its a Coney Island type theme park.  The entrance is a giant grinning yellow face, giving it a slightly creepy Depression Era feel.  Entrance is free, but each ride is $10.  I’ve been meaning to go every time I come to Sydney, just to say I’ve been, but can’t justify the expense.

On the same side is Kirribilli House, home of Australia’s prime minister.  He has 2 official residences, actually, one in Sydney, and one in Canberra, the capital (no, Sydney is not the capital of Australia, its Canberra.  Apparently there was a bit of a hullabaloo back in the day between Melbourne & Sydney about who would get to be capital, and since no one could agree on anything, they ended up choosing a one horse town between the two).  Unlike the heavily guarded White House in DC, Kirribilli House stands on top of a hill above the Harbor, with barely if any security visible.

The ferry ride is about half an hour, and soon before reaching the pier at Manly on the right we passed the entrance to Sydney Harbor, the narrow gap through which the ships of the First Fleet, bringing the first settlers and convicts from England to Australia, had passed through in 1787.  Looking through the gap, it strikes me every time that the next nearest land mass is South America.  I know this is true from anywhere on the east coast of Australia, but here it hits me most of all.

Now, Manly always struck me as a weird name for any place, and apparently it comes from some early explorer noting that the local Aboriginal men were quite manly, and that it was imperative to name a beach after that very fact so that it would be remembered forever.  Success, so far.

Anyway, off the boat, we headed past the Oceanarium, (visited on a previous Aussie trip, totally worth it), we headed to Aldi for some ginger beer and other supplies, and crossed through the pleasant main thoroughfare to the beach.  Manly Beach I find much more pleasant than Bondi.  Though its longer, its cozier.  Not sure if its the pine trees that line its entire length, or the view, or that while there’s a fair amount of meatheads about, it has a much more family atmosphere as opposed to Bondi, where half, if not all the purpose of going is to show off your tan.  Manly is also where the French tourists go, possibly to avoid the Brits & Irish at Bondi.  We basked in the sun for hours, occasionally dipping into the chilly waves to cool off.  Every once in a while a sarcastic voice came over the loud speakers, asking swimmers to please stay between the flags for safety, or for “those 3 people who are having surf lessons by the rip tide, that’s a stupid place to have surf lessons, please move to a safer location that has been marked out for that purpose.”

Afterwards, we headed across the street to a spacious pub, found a corner booth, and took turns buying rounds of beer & cider, and proceeded to happily solve all the world’s problems in a matter of hours.  The ferry ride back to the Quay was at golden hour, & the already beautiful harbor took on a magical tint (or perhaps its was the cider talking, but either way, the trip back was highly enjoyable).

The next day was New Years Eve.  Now, my usual New Years Eve festivities involve lots of friends, lots of booze, and rolling into bed as the sun comes up.  This year, both Nick & I felt okay with trying something new, and have a quiet night in.  Mind-blowing, I know.  Instead of, in early afternoon, heading to the Harbor like good little tourists to secure viewing spots for the world-famous fireworks, we headed to the nearest liquor store, bought 2 4-packs of beer & a bottle of Coke, some chips & cookies, and planned out a movie marathon.  At 8:45pm, we headed down to a nearby overpass with Andrei’s parents, and from a distance of about 5 kilometres, watched the 9pm fireworks over the Bridge, which were quite nice, if a bit more sedate than I expected, and then headed home.   After a few beers, everyone but me headed off to bed before midnight.  At 11:45 I retraced our steps to the overpass, where a fair crowd had gathered to watch the midnight show.  I settled in on the guard rail, sipped my beer, and then watched quite possibly the most spectacular fireworks show I’ve ever seen.  Seriously, the 9pm show had just been a teaser.  Even from the distance of 5kms, it took my breath away.  The entire horizon was lit up in starbursts, and in the middle the Bridge exploded in blossoms of color.  A minute past midnight, my phone rang.  It was my mom, calling from Chicago, and weirdly, from 2013.  As I watched the show I told her & dad the 2014 so far was looking pretty good, wished them Happy New Year, & headed off to bed.  In bed before 1am, I awoke in 2014 with a clear head & a light heart, and did something I always promise myself to do on  every new years day, but had as yet always never quite managed, I went for a run.

*Apologies, I wrote the 2nd half a bit under the weather.  We enjoyed Russian Aussie hospitality a bit too much late into last night, and the aftereffects are taxing the brain just a little bit (though thankfully it was just beer & vodka, so nothing actually hurts).

“Nicky, Meet Sydney”

Andrei swept us out to his car, and very quickly we were on our way to to his parents’ place.  They had kindly agreed to let us crash in the granny flat out back for the duration of our visit to Sydney.  Over breakfast we had the great pleasure of once again meeting Nastassia, Andrei’s French girlfriend, with whom, through the weird small web that constitutes the Russian Orthodox diaspora, we’d traveled with years ago to Egypt & Israel.  Time to go to the mall.

At the Optus shop a bemused Russian sales guy (when he saw the name on my Illinois drivers license came the usual conversation “yes, we’re Russian, yes, we’re American, no, we weren’t born in Russia, yes, we speak Russian” etc etc.) quickly sorted out a sim card for me at an Optus store, and for the first time in what seemed like ages but in fact 4 months, I had decent 3G and signal.

Later that night we were settling into the granny flat.  The beds were comfortable, the dvd player worked, and a delicious dinner (and several cocktails mixed by our benevolent host) had left us in a rather satiated & sleepy mood. The granny flat was located about 100 feet from the main house, down a pleasant tree-lined pathway.  The bathroom facilities were located in the main house.  Close to midnight I picked up one of the flashlights provided and started making my way up to brush my teeth.  All was good until, right in front of the door I met a rather nasty looking spider.  To my uneducated eyes it looked HUGE. As I flashed the light on it to get a better look it flexed its meaty redish legs & lazily spun around at the end of its string.  I cautiously inched around it, giving it as much space as possible.  I brushed my teeth with growing trepidation, and went back outside.  He was still there, hanging out.  The journey back to the granny flat seemed MUCH longer.  Every which way I flashed the light I could see strings left by spiders, many just above head height.  At last back at the flat I breathlessly told Nicky to be careful on his own trip up to the main house, to which he responded “I ain’t going up there.”

Out of morbid curiosity, I googled spiders found in Sydney.  This was, in retrospect, a colossal mistake.  Once the lights were out, every rustle, every breeze from the fan created a nightmare image of hairy legs crawling across my arm or leg.  Nicky at one point yelled “Turn on the light!  I think there’s something on me!!!”  The next day Andrei laughingly explained to us that it had been nothing but a harmless garden spider, it sting hurts but is by no means lethal.  And then, of course he went on to explain all the nasty spiders that would hurt more, or in the case of the funnel-web spider,  are lethal and can be found in Sydney, and in fact all over Australia.

Sydney has always been weird for me.  This was my 4th time here.  The first time, in 2004, I’d loved it.  The next time, in 2009, I’d been less than thrilled, so in 2011 I’d allocated only 3 days, had a fantastic time & regretted not spending more time.  This time I had absolutely no idea what to expect.  Even before we arrived things were not looking so good.  I know a good fair amount of people in Sydney, so it was a little unnerving when I had sent out emails from Thailand saying “Guess what, I’m coming to Sydney on Boxing Day!” the replies had been variations of “We’re on holiday, sorry!”, “I’m overseas on a work assignment, sorry!”, or, the most unnerving, dead silence.

Let me explain about the holidays.  In America our holidays, if we are lucky, consist of Thanksgiving and the day after, maybe Christmas Eve & Christmas & New Years Day.  In Australia, many gets the time off between Christmas & the first weekend of January.  Even luckier Aussies get a full 3 or 4 weeks off.  Traffic is light in the cities, the parks are full of kids & a good percentage of Australia take themselves off to Bali, or Fiji, etc. etc.

So here we were, having come all the way to Sydney to find 85% of the people we know off in foreign parts.  No worries, there is still plenty to do!  Time to go for a run & assess the damage Thailand has done.  To my relief and surprise I managed a decent run.  The Changs & cheap Thai cigarettes hadn’t helped, certainly, but didn’t hinder nearly as badly as I had feared.  I was back on the long road to a marathon (which one I have no idea, but I figure by end of summer I’ll be ready)!

Nastassia had plans in the CBD (central business district, “downtown” for us Americans), so introduced us to the bus system.  She showed us where to buy the 10 trip pass & showed us which stops to go to for various destinations.  The Sydney bus system (and in fact the whole of the Sydney public transit system) rather sucks.  I can totally see why most people drive.  Not only are there almost no direct routes to anywhere, if you transfer for one bus to another, you have to pay for a whole ‘nother trip.  Each trip costs something like $3.80, so if you need 2 or 3 buses it becomes ridiculously expensive.  The 10 Tripper at least saves you a dollar per trip at $28, but still, if you want people to take public transit this is NOT the way to encourage it.  They have other cards as well, weekly and monthly, but unless you are a prolific rider there’s no point in getting them.

Nastassia left us upon entering the CBD, and we de-bussed at Circular Quay (pronounced “KEY,” here).  Nicky, in his usual style, was more impressed by the giant cruise ship that was gearing up for departure near the Sydney Harbor Bridge than the Bridge itself.  “I’ve never been near one of these before, how cool!”  We wandered past the Aboriginals who have been busking there since my first time in Sydney, probably peddling the same cds & playing the same didgeridoos, and over towards my favorite part of all of Sydney.

The Rocks is, admittedly, extraordinarily touristy.  It is probably one of the few touristy places on earth that I don’t mind returning to over and over again.  The history alone makes it worth a visit.  Dating back to 1788, it derives its name from the limestone on which it was built.  From early on it was here that sailors & convicts came to seek both booze & love at a reasonable price.  In 1900 the place was so filthy that there was a breakout of the bubonic plague.  That’s right, the Black Death came to Sydney only 114 years ago.  Many of the wharves, warehouses, businesses & homes were thereafter demolished, and redevelopment was planned.  This was interrupted by WWI, and continued in fits & starts til the 1970s.  Now visitors wander through what remains of the original Rocks, charming stone & brick warehouse & terrace houses, many transformed into art galleries & restaurants, past souvenir shops & pubs (among which is the Fortune of War, from 1828, considered the oldest pub in Sydney, though the Lord Nelson also seeks to claim the title), and up to the Sydney Harbor Bridge.

Almost right under the bridge is one of my favorite spots in The Rocks, Foundation Park.  It’s the ruins of 8 terrace houses clinging to the cliff side.  You can wander through the rooms, delineated by waist high walls, getting a sense of how cramped the conditions were for the people living there.  Steel furniture sculpted by Peter D. Cole is strategically placed, a bench here, a picture frame above a ruined fireplace there, to remind you that these had once been homes.

There’s a lot of other really cool little places in The Rocks, well worth the visit, but seriously it would take forever to write about them, and we didn’t go to them anyway this time around.  Instead, we wandered back over to the other side of the Quay, to what pretty much everyone in the world knows as the symbol of Sydney, the Opera House.

It is pretty darn cool.  It is a bit of a stretch to see the sails that inspired its design, but cool, none the less.  One thing I hadn’t realized before visiting is that it actually has 2 shells, a larger and smaller one.  Andrei, who sings for his supper at the Opera House, imparted the following nugget of trivia.  Originally the larger shell was specifically designed for large stage productions, its acoustics to project operatic voices lifted in song…  However, due to some ridiculous politics & infighting the opera was relegated to the smaller shell, which in no way is suitable for large-scale stage productions.  Anyway, we took the require tourist shots in front of it, and took in the view of Fort Denison.

Fort Denison, from far away, is an unimpressive low structure squatting in the middle of Sydney Harbor.  Originally the island was used for executions, with the gibbet installed in 1796.  In 1839, to everyone’s surprise, 2 American warships appeared in Sydney Harbor, and circled Pinchgut Island, as it was then called.  Nicky & I hypothesized that the Americans were probably just as surprised, since at the time it was still practicing Isolationism & had no reason to be there what-so-ever, except perhaps that they were lost.  At that time the powers-that-be decided that perhaps they should build better fortifications to protect their new colony from their old colony.  This became even more urgent in 1855, with the onset of the Crimean War & the threat of Russian invasion (we find this endlessly funny, by the way), and so they decided they should probably finish the construction that had been abandoned in 1841.  Now its a tourist stop & wedding venue.  Doing research on it, I found this little bit on Wikipedia:

In October 1900, as the Boer war raged in Africa, the White Star Line ship Medic sailed into Sydney Harbour and dropped anchor in Neutral Bay. One evening, the fourth officer, Charles Lightoller and four midshipmen rowed to Fort Denison and climbed the tower with a plan to fool locals into believing a Boer raiding party was attacking Sydney. They hoisted a makeshift Boer flag on the lightning conductor and fired one of the cannons located at the fort.[4][5]

The conservative citizens of Sydney frowned upon this activity and after an investigation Lightoller accepted sole responsibility for the incident and was reprimanded. White Star Lines apologised and paid damages to the city.

Charles Lightoller went on to be the second officer of the RMS Titanic and the most senior officer to survive the 1912 sinking of the ship. He was a key witness at both the British and American inquiries into the disaster.

Anyway, moving along on our little tour of Sydney, we went into the Royal Botanical Gardens.  They are, well, exactly what they sound like.  Vast, nice, full of trees, flowers, ponds, fountains, birds, and all that other stuff you would find in a botanical garden.  I honestly like the Brisbane RBG better, they are cozier, but Sydney’s are worth a stroll through non-the-less.  One thing had changed since the last time I had visited, much to my distress.    The vast colonies of flying foxes had been resettled elsewhere.  Now, I know that is good for the gardens & the foxes, and especially the tourists who were constantly at risk of falling bat guano when walking under the trees the bats slept in, but I had promised Nicky bats, cute red bodied bats with black wings that were really rather adorable, and I couldn’t deliver.  The flying foxes were gone, and so rather dejected we continued on to the QVB.

The Queen Victoria Building, or QVB, is basically a mall, but a really cool one.  Built in the late 1800s in the elaborate Victorian Romanesque style, its worth a walk through even if you aren’t in the mood to shop. The 3 story rotunda was filled up by a giant synthetic Christmas tree, whose star almost touched the gorgeous main dome.  Nicky & I spent some time admiring the 2 giant clocks, each commissioned by the Queen Victoria.  One showed Australian history from the Aboriginal point of view (not a particularly cheerful clock), the other showing British royalty.  There are other historical displays hidden here and there, and always worth a look, but by now we were footsore & hungry, and decided it was time to head back for a rest.

Back on the bus, back to the granny flat.  We finally met Andrei’s parents, who’d been away the previous night.  A long chat & a few beers later it was time to retire.  Tomorrow, we’re going to the beach!

Time for a Change of Hemispheres

We opted to fly on Christmas Day because it was more than $100 cheaper than on any other day. Everyone I talked to about our itinerary shook their heads in pity for us, and then I would have to tell them not worry.  After all, we’re Russian.  Russian Orthodox Christmas is actually January 7th (insert long explanation about Eastern European & Western European calendars pre WWI), so traditionally we spend December 25th eating Chinese food & watching TV.

At Duty Free in Chiang Mai, I tried to fulfill a request by Andrei, our host at our next destination.  “Just get me a good bottle of something at Duty Free.”  The Chiang Mai Airport is a clean, modern, rather small airport with a decent Duty Free, and I quickly spotted several good whiskey options.  Luckily, I asked at the desk how much liquor I can bring into Australia.  “None.”  What???  “No alcohol into Australia.”  Why???  Shrug.  That’s not possible.  I checked online, and sure enough, though it is sometimes possible to sneak booze past a rare sleepy customs agent, the rule is that you can only bring in bottles bought at the duty free IN Australia, before going through customs.  Oh, and you can only bring in 50 cigarettes.  Huh???  Ah yeah, I reminded myself, I’m going to a country where prices are tripled, everything wants to kill you, and some things, make that a lot of things, make absolutely no sense at all, (seriously, beetroot on burgers?  Whose brilliant idea was that?).

The flight to Kuala Lampur was uneventful.  After the announcements & the captain wishing us all a Merry Christmas Nicky fell asleep & I read Terry Pratchett’s Night Watch.  We were scheduled to arrive at dusk, and as we flew low over the dark rolling mountains of Malaysia they looked mysterious & strangely inviting.  Might have to check them out some day.

The AirAsia terminal in Kuala Lampur leaves MUCH to be desired.  I expected so much more, but other than one, what can be loosely termed, sports bar, a couple of food stalls, kiosks, & a Dunkin Donuts, there really wasn’t anything at all.  We ordered a disappointing fish & chips at the sports bar, and settled in to wait out our 4 hour layover.  Since AirAsia charges for everything, I figured I could beat the system a little by buying some snacks at the shop, so Nicky & I loaded up on cookies, chips, Milo, Nescafe & water.

While all the short local flights you can wait for right by the gate with no further security, all those going to Australia you have to go through the metal detector & x-ray again.  Um, ok.  BTW, all that water you just bought?  That is still in fact sealed & obviously bought IN THIS AIRPORT???  Yeah, you can’t bring that on board, please discard it before entering the secure waiting area.  What???  How ’bout the cans of Milo & Nescafe in my purse?  They went through the x-ray machine just fine.  After that we are asked a few friendly questions by Malay security.  “How long are you in Australia for? Do you have an outgoing ticket?  Who are you staying with?”  Another hour wait in the secure area without even a water fountain, and we were finally getting on our 7.75 hour flight to Sydney.

So AirAsia, like Spirit back home, charges for everything.  Unlike Spirit, though the prices are entirely reasonable.  Especially since, hey, I’m flying from Northern Thailand all the way to Sydney for about $300, the service is great & the seats are comfortable.  (Anyone whose flown Spirit are familiar with the delays, snarky staff &, oh yeah, the seats DON’T recline).  The plane was a bit cold, so I went to find out how much it cost to rent a blanket.  About $3.  Great!  I’ll take it.  Do you take Visa?  “No, cash only, you can pay in American or Australian dollars.”  Crap.  I had plenty of Aussie cash from previous trips… unfortunately it was all stashed in my backpack… which I had checked.     So I huddled as much of myself under my hoodie, ever grateful for that tipsy night in Pai where Chris, Danny & I had all bought hippie beanies.

Finally, Sydney!  A quick stop in Duty Free for Andrei (Famous Grouse here is twice what it is in Chiang Mai, sneaky Aussies & their sneaky laws), and we’re making our way up to the Customs dude.  For once I’m not directed over to the side for the usual additional questions I always get upon arriving in Australia (“How do you know the people you are staying with?  How much money do you have in your bank account?  What are these pills for (even though the prescription has my name on it, with the exact reason spelled out on the label)?” etc, etc.).   Even the guy who asked to see my shoes since I’d marked on my arrival card that I’d been hiking in fields & rivers was super friendly, wished me a good time & waved me through very quickly.  No sniffer dogs?  That’s a first!

Actually, Nicky did get sent to the line with the sniffer dogs, but unlike with me he was with a bunch of other people (perhaps they have to fill a quota per flight?) and was through in about 1/2 a minute.  So, to my great surprise customs took way less time than my usual hour, and we were walking to the arrival hall.

I almost immediately see Andrei’s friendly face coming towards us.  Hugs, hellos, “Andrei, this is Nicky, Nicky this is Andrei,” and we are in the car heading to Annandale and breakfast.

Hello, beautiful, sunny Sydney!

Nicky’s New Suit

As much as I would have loved staying in Pai even up to our day of departure from Thailand, catching  a minibus in the morning & going straight to the airport, we had a mission in Chiang Mai.  So here we were, once again strolling through Thae Pae Gate, into the old city.  This time around we decided on Deejai Hostel, recommended by Emil, who’d promise that it has hammocks & amazing showers.

We arrived to find out that the electricity had been knocked out earlier in the afternoon, and so they couldn’t check us in yet, but they promised that when we returned in a few hours we would have a room.  There was actually quite a few people who’d been at Darling’s hanging out in the common area.  I wasn’t particularly thrilled to see Mark, an Aussie bogan who’s irritated the heck out of me around the bonfire for several nights in a row.  However, somehow, having left our packs in the hostel’s storage room, we found ourselves heading down to a cinema with him to see the Hobbit.  This had been first order of business on our agenda upon our return to civilization from the time we left civilization.  When not drunk he was actually not unpleasant, though perhaps not the most illuminating company.

The Hobbit, which I’d been very much looking forward to, was a bit disapointing.  I usually don’t pay attention to nay-saying critics, but in this case they were absolutely right.  Parts of the book that would have made the plot go more smoothly (the elvin feast that Bilbo had to sneak past, for one, Bilbo outsmarting the spiders, for another) were left out, and really stupid crap was added.  Seriously, orcs in Lake Town?  They had enough problems without them.  I’m not saying it was bad, but it wasn’t nearly as good as it totally could have been.  Peter Jackson, for the first time, disapointed.

Afterwards, we made our way back on a songthaew, which dropped us of at the wrong gate, which we figured out rather quickly.  At this point Bogan Mark amazed me quite a bit by walking up to a Thai in a shop & asking in fluent Thai how to get back to our hostel.  Afterwards he shrugged nonchalantly & reminded me he’d been in Thailand since March.

I should mention the shock of having to use sidewalks after a month of just wandering down the middle of streets, rightly assuming that moterbikes will drive around me.  Also, rats.  In Pai we hadn’t seen a single one, I assume because the street dogs keep the population under control.  And roaches.  In Pai the only roaches we saw were the ones on sale for consumption by tourists.  There were lots of people at the hostel fresh from Bangkok talking about how quiet & chill Chiang Mai is.  “Go to Pai,” I would tell them, “you ain’t seen nothing yet.”

Upon our return to the hostel, we checked in & discovered that indeed, the showers were amazing.  For the first time in over a month there was actually enough water pressure to get the soup out of my hair.  Til you’ve expereinced this, you have no idea how thrilling it is. It was odd sleeping on a bed though.

So, as I mentioned, we had a mission in Chiang Mai, to get Nicky a suit.  I’d tasked him with finding a good tailor, and he scored big time with CM Custom Tailors.  We rocked up with no appointment, and within 2 minutes were being waited  on by a slight, very enthusiastic & well spoken Burmese fellow named Santoes.  We told him what we wanted, he brought out fabric samples of various qualities, explained why the cheap ones weren’t worth it, & and what was so great about the expensive ones.  Finally, we agreed on the 2nd best quality wool blend, and for 9000 baht (about $280) we got ourselves a suit, Egyptian cotton shirt & a silk neck tie.  Original asking price was 1200.  I figure for my crappy bargaining skills, that wasn’t too bad.   I wanted Nicky to get a nice olive green, but Nicky informed me it reminds him entirely too much of vomit, and he instead decided on a middle grey, which in the end did actually contrast quite nicely with his ginger beard.  Santoes got out a measuring tape and for the next 10 minutes called out numbers to his assistant.

For 2 days we lazed away, our only commitment was to come back for a fitting.  The first one went easily, and I was very much looking forward to seeing the completed product the next day.  As it turns out, at the second (and supposedly final) fitting. having a picky mom who happens to have quite a lot of experience with a needle & sowing machine finally came in handy.  I used to hate shopping with her because when we found clothes we wanted she would always point out an uneven seam or hem.  As Santoes expounded on how great & dignified Nicky looked, all I could see was the bad & uneven stitching at the shoulders.  I pointed it out, and Santoes assured me that with ironing it would be just fine.  I pointed out another uneven line, and Santoes blinked, got out chalk, and started making adjustments.  “Just a little, here, & here & here…” and in just a few minutes, he’d drawn several outlines of needed fixes, including the bad stiching on the shoulders.   We were then told to please come back tomorrow, everything should be ready then.

We came back, the suit was ready!  Nicky looked sharp (other than the broken down flipflops he was wearing), and he was rather pleased with himself.  Yes, yes, you were right about the color, olive green would have been entirely too puke like.  As Nick tried it on though, Santoes noticed something wrong with the shirt, and told us to once again to come back tomorrow.  I was a bit worried, as we were leaving Thailand the next afternoon, but Santoes insisted that the colar needed adjusting, and that it would absolutely, positively be ready in the morning.

Our evenings were spent chilling out with the residents of Deejai’s.  There were several there who obviously practically live there, and of course we end up being befriended by the slightly insane ones.  Lilu, a freespirited promoter of exotic lifestyles (with absolutely insane stories), Greg, a constantly tipsy British ex-military man who’s self admitted PTSD emerged in rather entertaining rants about his unique experiences in Thailand & his disdain for the gap-year backpackers, and 2 absolutely hilarious crazy-eyed bogans from Airlie Beach.

My days were spent on a mission to find a dress that would be acceptable to wear for Christmas, and for 4 days I tried and failed to find anything even remotely acceptable.  The dresses that fit were cheaply made and completely inapporpriate for church, the nicer ones were obiviously made for Asian chests & rears, and so the day before departure, I gave up, and instead decided to do a little maintance that I had neglected for 4 months on the road.  Now the guidebooks talk about the Chiang Mai Women’s Prison massage, which is supposed to be really good, but I wasn’t sure where it was, so I opted for Lila’s, which is on one of the main streets in the Old City.  Lila’s is where the parolees work, perfecting the skills they learn in prison.  I got my eyebrows done, and then had the best pedicure of my life.  Seriously, 1.5 hours of being pampered in one of the most comfortable armchairs i’ve ever sat in, plus a cup of hot delicious jasmine tea.  Luckily the girl did not speak English, so I couldn’t give in to the niggling temptation to ask what, exactly, she was on parole for.

So, suddenly, it was December 25th, our last morning in Thailand.  Nicky went to retreive his shirt from CM Custom Tailors.  He came back thrilled, telling me how one of the workers at the store had seen him walking down the street and given him a lift on his motorbike, and then had driven him back to Deejai’s.  Now that’s service for you!

Meanwhile, I nursed my hangover over a Heiniken PTSD Greg generously shared with me, and waited for 1pm, which is when the taxi would come for us.  Lilu fretted about the Christmas party she’d been asked to organize, while Greg asked fuzzily if anyone actually remembered how he’d returned from the bar the night before.  All the while backpackers came & went, wishing each other & us “Merry Christmas!”  I was mildly confused by 3 Brits running around who’d decided on dressing in banana suits for the day.

And then it was time for hugs all around, goodbyes, well-wishes, “Merry Christmas”es and then we were off to Chiang Mai Airport in the back of a pickup truck.  Easy check-in, through security, and then we were boarding our AirAsia flight to Kuala Lampur and then points further south.

Fairwell to Pai

And so, after 3.5 weeks, its come time to say good-bye to Pai.  I know it baffles some people as to why we would stay there for as long as we did, so I’ll try to explain.  Imagine finding a place that’s kind of like summer camp, Jamaica, and Maine all rolled into one.  After 3 or 4 days you settle into an easy flow & quickly lose track of time.  The only thing that changes are some of the faces that appear in the common area every evening.

To be honest, after 4 months of travel, the introduction conversations blend together.  “Where you from?  Oh, [country name], I [have/have not] been there.  I’m from [city, country].  How long are you traveling for?  I am [time frame].  Where’ve you been?  Oh cool, I am [going to/have been] there.  I’ve been to [previous destinations].  What’re you getting up to tonight?  Oh cool, I [may/may not] be doing the same.”  I can guarantee you that if you end up hanging out with this person later, you will probably ask all these questions all over again.  I have hung out with people for days on end and then only learn their names by saying “Hey, add yourself on my Facebook, please.”

Friendships are weird on the road.  Some people, after having a perfectly pleasant time with them for several days, fade out of memory the moment they disappear from view (horrible, but inevitable).  Others you friend on Facebook & then only remember when they change a status or post a picture.  Then, there are the people who touch your very heart & soul with their humor, kindness, wit, and intelligence (sometimes all in one person), and you know that passing time & oceans will never truly separate you.

As had become custom for nights before departure, our group, (consisting now of 2 24 year old Danish kindergarten teachers, Emil & Christian, (btw, Emil told us that when going through customs in the US it is bad for a guy to, when asked “What do you do for a living?” to say “I play with small children.”) and an Aussie girl named Kate), wandered the Walking Street.  I went to say goodbye to my favorite meat-on-stick ladies.  For the past 3 weeks they always greeted me with a smile & cheerfully attempted to teach me simple Thai sentences.  I can now manage, more or less, “Hello, how are you?  I’m well, thank you. It’s cold!”  One was a pretty girl married to a rather disreputable scruffy looking  French dude who showed up from time to time, the other a chunky girl with a severely deformed hand, which didn’t stop her from cooking up food & making change for customers.

Anyway, the meal was forgettable but for the company & the fact that it was really entirely too cold.  Temperatures at night had been dropping into the 40s & 50s for the last week or so, though during the day its still in the 80s.  Apparently, unbeknownst to the rest of the world, the mountains of Northwest Thailand get cold in the winter.  To warm ourselves, we bought some beers & headed to the bonfire at Darlings, where we stayed until well into the night, but for the 11:45 beer run.  Booze in Thailand stops being sold in stores at midnight, so since I didn’t feel like buying at Darling’s inflated prices, it fell to Emil & me to ride into town.  Sober as he was, he still hadn’t quite gotten the hang of driving on the left side of the road, so, besides my chattering teeth while I clung to his back, pretty much the only conversation as he navigated the curvy road was “Left side… left, left side… LEFT SIDE!!!!!”  Somehow we made it, filled everyone’s order, and made our way back, me happily munching on my ham & cheese toastie.

The next morning Emil joined us for breakfast, and then we were on the full minibus back to Chiang Mai.  We got the back seat, and while still not the most comfortable thing, staying up til 5 or 6AM greatly helped me sleep through almost the entire ride.  I propped my head on the suitcases stacked next to me, and almost next thing I knew we were being dropped off once again at Thae Pae Gate.

So here we are again in Chiang Mai, time to get Nicky a tailor-made suit, buy some souvenirs, and while away the hours til we fly south to summer.