Friday, October 22, 2004

Sydneysider

My last Delhi days were filled with goodbyes, both on Saturday, to Helen, flying back to the U.K. after our marvellous week together, and to Butterflies, the voluntary organisation with whom I had had my attachment. After I saw Helen off at the airport on Saturday morning, I went to a meeting with Street Educators at Butterflies to report back on what I had achieved. It was the usual awkward English presentation with nearly simultaneous Hindi translation by the long-suffering Parwez. I then handed around some delicious Indian sweets in the office, said some final goodbyes, and took my leave.

I have a couple of pictures from my last few hours in the city – of the Birla Temple, the Lakshmi Narayan Temple, and of me in my new kurta, which Butterflies kindly bought me to thank me for the work I had done. Both of these, with my pictures of Sydney, can be found if you click here.

I had a quiet Sunday loafing around the hotel, spent some time in the pool blocking up my left ear, then checked out and headed for the airport at 18:00. The flight was not until 23:15, but late checkout at the hotel extended only until 18:00. Dr. Dilli insisted on accompanying me, even though he did not need to – I felt that I could by now negotiate without help the chaos and madness of the airport – and so we went there together in the hotel’s private car. We said goodbye outside Departures (where you are not allowed without a ticket to go somewhere!). I had worked alongside him for 3 months and we had spent a lot of time together. We shook hands for the last time, and he gave me a gift to take with me – a Frank Sinatra CD which was, as usual, very kind and thoughtful of him.

Check-in didn’t open until 20:00. I.G.I. is not a place where it is easy to kill time, so I rigged up a deck chair out of a couple of trollies and lay on the floor of the airport, writing e-mails, until it opened. I managed to get seats at the front of economy, with perhaps a bit more legroom, for the two flights: 4 ½ hours to Singapore, then 7 ½ hours on to Sydney. We had a two hour stopover in Singapore, where the airport doubles as a futuristic shopping paradise. By that time, I felt as if it was the middle of the night Delhi time, so I wandered around amongst the kimonos and prints rubbing my face trying to keep awake. I picked up a wireless network in the airport and managed to send the rest of my e-mails I’d written in the lounge at Delhi.

The flights were good and eventless – and I can confirm the great reputation of Singapore Airlines – but lost about an hour along the way, so we arrived in Sydney at 19:30. An approach to Sydney at night looks like one to any other urban area in the world, until you get closer to the city. The stripes of clouds outside simulated bands of light and shade, like enormous searchlights sweeping over the landscape, and then we banked over the harbour, bridge and opera house which looked spectacular, like no other city.

Having lived in Delhi for 3 months, it is amazing the feeling of relief that you experience at being somewhere where English is the spoken language. I think. The first person that I met at customs and immigration had an Australian accent. The second, the taxi dispatcher, spoke this garbled Eastern European, and the third was the taxi driver, who was from South Efrica. The fourth was my friend, who speaks with an English accent, and I arrived at her house just before 9.

She had warned me about Australian Customs, who are hot on preventing disease entering or spreading around the country. I had no problem, so I assumed that I answered satisfactorily their entry card questions about farms and relations with farm animals… heaven knows what would have happened had I told them that hardly a day went by in the past 3 months without being in close proximity to some of my bovine friends who hang out in the streets around the office!!!
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This part of my travels, and my accounts of it, will be different from my Indian stay, in several ways. One is that I have metamorphosed from the intrepid proto-Dilliwallah on the dangerous-to-know 520 bus, to the Hobo of the South Pacific. Well, perhaps not a Hobo, but certainly a rover, a traveller from one city to another in Australia, one friend to another, with no fixed agenda at all other than seeing people and places. The second is that, other than occasional contacts by e-mail, I am now doing no work for the first time in 20 years – who’s the unkind soul in the back seats saying that that started a long time before?! Finally, in New Zealand, other than meeting up with a jazz friend in Auckland who I met by e-mail, I have no itinerary at all, only 2 weeks in the South, 1 week in the North.

The result is that the sort of impressions that I gained after living in Delhi for 3 months will largely be absent here, replaced by a sort of Tom’s Travelogue, similar to a South Pacific Travels slide presentation probably delivered to a National Trust Group with pictures and map and hand-around photos. It will be surveys of particular locations, landscapes or townscapes, than discussing issues and cultural differences. I hope for all that that I can keep it interesting – I certainly have no intention of doing anything uninteresting! How successful I am will emerge along the way as I encounter the places and the people.

One other difference is that, because I’m now on the move, I may not always get to some internet access on my Friday to upload in time for your Friday…so please check back…!
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I need to be careful what I say about Sydney as there is at least one and possibly more Sydneyphiles reading this account. Not that I have anything bad to say about the city, quite the opposite, but the weather has been cool, grey and rainy all week, not the best background for a city so beloved for its spectacular natural setting. The most sun that has broken through was a short interval yesterday afternoon. Right now, Friday morning, it is chucking it down!

Last week Sydneysiders had a heatwave, with temperatures in the late 30s, a disaster as there have been terrific problems with water shortages here. I rather doubt that they’re on the scale of Delhi, but they have at least been severe and worrying for the city’s population. For such a bullish, optimistic city, it seems almost insulting to posit a possible natural limit on its resources. Oh, it’s very serious. There are draconian fines for washing cars, for watering gardens outside specific times, etc. Residents are being exhorted to use water-saving methods such as not running water while brushing your teeth, etc. although nobody has gone as far as Delhi in advocating the water-saving shower (splash some on at the beginning of your shower as you soap up, turn off, then splash some on at the end to rinse!).

I have spent the week in and around the centre of Sydney, every morning setting out from my friend’s house and walking down Railway Parade to the station like the veriest commuter, passing by a garden en route with a beautiful blossoming orange tree with fallen oranges littering the lawn to remind me that I’m in the southern hemisphere. My first day was spent wandering around squinting into the middle distance with the vague, distracted air of someone 5 ½ hours jetlagged who has no idea where they are going.

There is no doubt about the principal attractions of the city: its harbour is the most spectacular setting, set off and made more spectacular by two outstanding features, the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Sydney Opera House. The downtown area is a familiar mix of low-rise colonial architecture (mostly Victorian) and modern skyscrapers, much like Toronto or, considering the natural setting, Vancouver.

If you walk along MacQuarie Street, the Opera House is set so low in the harbour that from land it is barely visible amongst the trees in the Botanical Garden until you are almost upon it. I can heartily recommend the Opera House tour, which takes you through the building, tells its story, and exposes you to the interiors of the theatres. Each theatre looks inside like an enormous curtain emanating from a tiny, doughnut-shaped curtain rod in the ceiling. The doughnut is held up by great ribs of concrete bound together with steel cables; outside the theatres, the interior has enormous wheels of molded concrete with huge spokes. Our tour guide spoke of how the Opera House had put Sydney “on the map” despite the well-publicised disputes with Jorn Utzon, the architect, and the enormous cost and time overruns – I guess that it did do that, as before then Sydney was probably a nice city, a very livable city, and when the Opera House opened in 1973 it bounded into another league. It wasn’t just a wonderful city with a great natural setting, but it now had two monuments which took best advantage of that setting.

Did you know that the tiles that constitute the skin of the Opera House are not white, but tan and off-white? One of the ‘sails’ (and the whole complex does resemble a sailing ship) houses the Opera House, a second the Concert Hall, and there are 3 other performance places besides. I booked a ticket for the opera on Thursday night, determined to experience the Opera House during a performance, then went to have lunch at a sidewalk café on Opera Quays.

The fresh smell of sea air was intoxicating. Although now overlapped by today’s Opera Quays, the coastline of 1788, when the first boats landed from the Old World, is marked by gold disks that dot the quayside. Opera Quays sweeps around to Circular Quays, location of the water transport hub, and the Quays continue on the opposite side to the twee, cobbled old area known as The Rocks. It struck me that a good way to get to know the city fairly quickly would be by taking a bus tour, so I took the Sydney Explorer in the afternoon.

The Sydney Explorer was a good concept, and gave a good overview of the city, but also highlighted how central the physical situation, the harbour, and water, were to its appeal. Sydney became the city it has because of the harbor, but the site was also chosen because there was a freshwater stream here that flows to the sea. When I went to the Art Gallery of New South Wales a day or so later and was sitting in their café, I noticed that the roofline of the apartment building in Wooloomooloo on Finger Wharf tends gradually upwards in a broken line, punctuated by bursts of treelife and two storey houses. It reminds one, as everything does, of the intimate connection of the city with water, as a constant background, or as a playground. It was water that brought the first European settlers here to establish the city; and that produces its extraordinary landscape and attractive setting.

At the gallery, I went to an amazing exhibition entitled “Cross Country: The Alchemy of Western Arnhem Land Art”, subtitled “A Festival of Aboriginal Art”. I found the images striking, and very beautiful. Have a look at www.crossingcountry.com.au for more information. A 1989 piece by artist James Iyuna entitled “before there was any water” seemed a harbinger of the current water crisis – a long rectangular piece of bark encloses painted bones, feet, wayward limbs and femurs and heads, seemingly placed in an orderly, lifeless arrangement without the magic liquid.

As the weather has been so forgettable, my best view of Sydney this week was last night, when the grey skies made no difference. Before “The Marriage of Figaro”, I had dinner and sat people-watching on Opera Quays. Dusk gradually took hold and the lights around the quay, in the Rocks and the harbour, came on to illuminate the scene. The Harbour Bridge was spectacular in the dying light then, after dark, it resembled a constellation, its lights defining its outline arc. At night, it was almost easier to pick out wharves and buildings on the opposite key, as they were each lit individually. Ferries with strings of lights alongside moved into and out of Circular Quay. From the now twinkling skyscrapers of the city flowed a continuous stream of people along Opera Quays toward the Opera House. Suddenly, the parlous state of the weather didn’t seem to matter.

1 Comments:

Blogger Crazy_Sister said...

Wow just keep on writing. Have you
seen "Crocodile Dundee" yet. You
do look so relaxed. Take care from
your Canadian family.....

October 23, 2004 2:01 PM  

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