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).