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The chronicles of two Portlanders in Singapore

Three weeks ago, I signed off with a note of impending vacation, towards the southern part of the world and the continent of Australia1or Oceania if you’d like.  In a break from the holidays that have seen us in South-East Asian countries that are not as well known to Americans, Bev and I toured two countries that we as Americans have a lot of commonality with; New Zealand and of course, Australia.  Australia, in particular, has become one of our closest cultural partners over the years of my lifetime, a phenomenon for which I have no explanation other than “Crocodile Dundee” and Steve Irwin, but I presume is due more to the shared values of the American and Australian experience – rugged individualism and the romanticism and appreciation of the vast rural expanses of our countries.  Truly, I’ve met more Americans on holiday down under than I have in Singapore, though, that really not ought to surprise.

Our itinerary took us to Sydney, then to the South Island of New Zealand and then back up to Oz to the city of Gold Coast, to Surfer’s Paradise.  Rather than relate to you, gentle reader, a travelogue in chronological order, I’m opting to break up the previous two weeks of holiday into two posts of their own, one post – this week – on Australia and the following on New Zealand.

You may have heard of the city of Sydney.  You might have even seen a few pictures of a particular building with a particular bridge behind it.  It’s a little famous, I guess.  Silly understatement aside, the eponymous Opera House does not fail to disappoint in the slightest.  It is a true wonder of the world – a feat of engineering so impressive that its story still inspires people to tears.  If you’re not familiar with the story; a contest was held in 1954 to select an architect for a new opera house to be built on Sydney Harbor.  The winning design was submitted by a Danish architect, Jørn Utzon, who hadn’t completed the engineering design needed to support his iconic design.  That process would take many years, during which a rift would grow between Utzon and the Australian government.  Utzon left Australia in 1966, vowing never to return.  Though he eventually reconciled with the country in the 2000’s, by then he was too infirm to travel.  Though pleased with the finished product, he died in 2008, never having laid eyes on his masterwork.

We toured the Opera House on our final day in Sydney, again, saving the best for last.  The interior is as revolutionary and iconic as the exterior.  The building defies superfluous description – the architects chosen to complete the work did so with the idea of making sure that Utzon’s vision was honored and held to while trying to figure out the thousand of details to make the building a reality.

There are many surprising facts about the Opera House that I could relate here.  The one that I will is regarding the roof – the roof is not painted white, nor is it actually white.  It is a tiled roof, an off white color, and the tiles are self-cleaning.  The roof’s channels are designed to send rain water along the surface of the roof to clean the tiles and the water is channelled between deck gaps down into the harbor below.  It’s an amazing system supported by a moment of genius by Utzon when he solved the geometry problem of the roof – using slices of the same sphere to achieve the exact curvature on all the “sails” of the roof.  For the rest – go visit!  It’s worth a trip just to see the Opera House.

But there’s much more to Sydney, which I’d like to spend more time on with you, which is why I’m skipping over all the amazing stuff you can read about elsewhere.  Let’s talk about the city.

If you know me, you know that I love cities.  I love their designs, their histories, the choices both for good or for ill that shape the lives lived within them.  As a city, I knew nothing about Sydney when I touched down south of downtown.  I knew the Opera House, that was it.  So let’s explore the city and its history a bit.

Sydney is built on the Sydney Harbor, the largest natural harbor in the world.  The city spans both north & south of that great waterway, with the famous Sydney Harbor Bridge spanning between the two near the city center on the south shore up towards the neighborhoods regarded as “North Sydney”.  Sydney sprawls – the city limits are massive, from the Tasman Sea to the Blue Mountains to the west.  But the city doesn’t have that clogged mess of streets that one would expect from such a large city.  The city is spacious, with parks breaking up the various neighborhoods and limited land use on the fingers of land that jut into the harbor.  Even the central business district2CBD from here on out boasts Hyde Park as a meeting and event locale, with statues of Queen Victoria and her Prince Consort, Albert.

I have a friend from Sydney who I’ve known – mostly online – for many years now.  Her fiancé just recently moved from Maine, a person I’ve known for some time online as well, but had never met.  Also, a friend from Portland and her husband moved to Sydney about the same time Bev and I had moved to Singapore.  The time was right for meetup, which we did in Crow’s Nest, a city neighborhood in North Sydney.  As we walked around the neighborhood, Alex pointed out particulars of Sydney’s architecture, and how it relates to the city’s history.

When Bev and I touched down, our first stop while walking around the CBD was the Hyde Barracks, a place I had never heard of.  Hungry for history, we boldly entered to learn in detail of the founding of Sydney, and especially, the English penal system responsible for the city.

This is where extracting a narrative becomes difficult for me, gentle reader.  Everything in Sydney is connected to its history.  Most likely you’ve learned at some point that Australia was initially founded as a penal colony.  Britain in the 19th century was being overrun by crime.  Not willing to execute petty criminals, but not able to support wards of the state in prisons, Her Majesty’s government devised transportation as a deterrent.  Criminals sentenced to transportation were effectively exiled from the British Isles and sent to Australia, an entire world away.  The newly arrived “colonists” were thrust into a peculiar society – one regimented by a harsh prison system, but with the ongoing task to build their community from scratch.  The first governor of Sydney had an interesting idea, to allow convicts to earn their freedom, not as British, but as the first Australians, who would build their society through redemption and rehabilitation.

As we learned at the Barracks, which served as a jail house for the convicts, the system worked.  Sort of.  For a while, the future looked intriguing enough to be possible. Interaction with the indigenous peoples was encouraged at first, but as the colony grew and Commonwealth interest in the colony grew with it, the British governors followed the same playbook as their forbearers had and contemporaries were in America.  Australia, for its part, has, perhaps all too late, recognized the wrongs it did in its dealing with the aboriginal peoples, but from what I saw in Sydney, great care has been taken to recognize who had the land first.

This history lesson comes back to the present now – as the convicts toiled to build their city and thusly lay down the first bricks of their future country, those bricks were all made of the local sandstone quarried from the lands around Sydney Cove.  You can see this history well on display as you walk around downtown.  Many of the older buildings have a distinctive brown/gold color that is not likely found in many other cities.  It makes these buildings, including the massive Queen Victoria Building, stately reminders of the good, and the bad, of history, and lends to Sydney a unique character.

Well that was quite the journey huh?  Again, I can only urge you, if you’ve found my poor attempt to impress upon you the full Sydney experience to go and visit.  I could write ten thousand words and still not do the city justice.

We found Sydney an amazing city not only for its history, but for its people as well.  One thing that jumped out to Beverly and I immediately after living in Singapore – the number of openly gay couples in Sydney.  While I have no idea if Sydney has more LGBT citizens per capita than Singapore, certainly the society is more open and inclusive than the Lion City.  Sydneysiders – as they are known – I found were cosmopolitan, young at heart and possess in their city an appreciation for art and beauty.  Truly, the Opera House is an effective and honest symbol of the city.

At the foot of the Opera House is the Opera Bar – a waterfront watering hole that reeks of style and modern glamour.  Though a bit on the pricey side, it can truly be said that the bar, tucked underneath one of the most famous buildings in the world and spread along Circular Quay3remember, pronounced “key”, is in the running for the best bar in the world.  This isn’t hyperbole, the food is amazing, the drinks large, the staff infused with the friendly Oz spirit that’s so infectious and the scenery, the Opera House on one side, and the Harbor Bridge on the other, is top shelf.

We found ourselves there late at night, a cool breeze running through the harbor, Beverly looking amazing in her black dress, and myself, well, I clean up pretty well with a sport coat and slacks, I guess.  We had taken the water taxi over from Woolloomooloo Bay to Circular Quay.  Why am I telling this story in reverse?

Because I believe in saving the best for last.  We had just come from a performance of Turandot, held not within the great Opera House, but on the shore of the Harbor, under clearing skies.  That cool wind was the tail of a rain storm that had ripped through the city during the day, leaving the seats wet, but the night remarkable for opera.  Massive bats flew around the set as actors were lowered from cranes to deliver the Son of Heaven’s pronunciations as our brave Tartar prince tries to woo the cold Princess of China.  Voices filled the harbor, as the music stirred emotions I barely knew that I had.  It was magic, pure and simple, the magic of art and devotion to the muses.  Turandot isn’t without issue in its story telling – Puccini died before he could finish it, and Toscanini, not willing to rewrite what the master had already committed in indelible ink, simply capped the story off with a bittersweet ending.  Still, as I understand it, opera isn’t about the story, it’s about the power of music.

As we rode on Sydney Harbor towards fantastic drinks and food on a clear cool night, I reflected on the way the music made me feel.  I was reminded of the nights spent on the ferry in San Francisco Bay, looking at the ferry building and the iconic skyline, the Golden Gate Bridge in the background.  Here I was across the Pacific Ocean in a city every bit as regal as my beloved city of my birth, perhaps even more so.  Above us loomed the Opera House, and I concluded that the power of music is mighty indeed.

Upon our return from New Zealand4yes, these two posts are going to feel like a Tarantino movie, but with much less violence, we touched down in Queensland, the state to the north of Sydney’s New South Wales.  As we made our descent, Gold Coast came into view, a miles-long beach lined with condos and skyscrapers, looking every bit like the pictures of Miami.  This was our beach holiday, complete with an AirBnB rental right on the beach – the famous Surfer’s Paradise.

I have to qualify this leg a bit.  I didn’t like Surfer’s.  I found it noisy, touristy, crass and overdone.  I’d never seen as many fake breasts in one place in my life.  Missing from Miami was of course the soulful Cuban influence, and I’m not really sure what replaced it.  There was a definite South-East Asian presence, which makes sense, but said influence took the form of countless massage parlors and hole-in-the-wall Vietnamese and Thai restaurants.

Perhaps I’m being unkind.  To be fair, this leg was actually a mistake.  Bev had booked the return from Gold Coast after we confused it for Cairns, where I had thought spending a few days exploring the Great Barrier Reef would be a great way to finish up our holiday.  To see it while we can.  Instead we saw tourists baking in the sun and a pristine sand beach, and took in the Pacific Ocean one last time before heading home to our Little Red Dot.

Still, we had fun.  Bev especially – I had apparently slept incredibly poorly our last night in New Zealand and somehow injured my shoulder, to the point where lifting my arm became incredibly painful.  Beverly wanted to kayak around the canals and rivers in Surfer’s, which I couldn’t do and heal.  So she did that and I finished reading my book and spent a sleepy day on the beach, letting the breeze cool me and the sounds of the Pacific rock me to rest.

We had rented a car and left Gold Coast for Tambourine Mountain, in the Gold Coast hinterlands.  This turned out to be a great choice – we found some nice little hikes, getting our quota of bushwalking in while down under, and found an amazing brewery in the quiet art town of North Tambourine.  We had local cheeses and sampled local wines – Queensland’s warmer climate though lends itself towards Chardonnay5not my favorite and of course, Australia’s signature grape, Shiraz.

Back in Surfer’s, we did find some awesome ale houses and live music.  The night life of Surfer’s was much more enjoyable, with some fun people watching, folks lining up for the nightclubs that lined Surfer’s Ave.

Gold Coast being a bit less cosmopolitan than Sydney, we received a lot of comments about our accents, which was actually pretty nice.  In Singapore, I don’t think many locals have an ear for the difference between an Aussie and an American accent.  Down under, our accents marked as North Americans the second we opened our mouths to say “Hello.”  I rather enjoyed being marked as an American, it opened a lot of conversations and if you know me, well you know that I like to talk.

We’ll just leave it there, shall we?

So, some other observations;

  • I didn’t truly understand that a lot of the brands we have in Singapore are Australian brands until this trip.  Boost Juice, Sumo Salad, Crust Pizza, Guzman y Gomez, all Aussie brands.  I’m sure there are much more.  Cotton On, maybe?  Here in Singapore there are the big global US brands – Starbucks, McDonalds, etc, but many of the more widespread chains are in fact Aussie.  Stands to reason, really, noting how close Australia is versus the UK or the US.
  • Aussies are beautiful people.  Emma had commented on this when she was there last month, but seeing it first hand, yes.
  • Going hand in hand with the above point, Aussies are fit people.  Sport is important to Australians, just as much as it is to Americans.  Though we value different sports, their love of sport is every bit as potent as our own.
  • The last night we were in Oz, the Olympic Trials were being held for swimming.  Let’s talk about swimming for a second.  Aussies pride themselves on their swimming.  Americans have dominated the sport in the last few years6thanks Mike and Missy.  This year, come Rio, the Aussies are coming.  Shots have been fired.  Shit is on.  We were behind enemy lines last week, take my word for it, the Aussies want our gold medals.
  • The Aussies aren’t going to have our gold medals.  So ppppppt.  United States is going continue kicking asses in the pool.  Shots, as I said, have been fired.
  • Flying to and from the east coast of Australia, you fly over a significant chunk of the Outback.  Australia is fucking huge and unlike flyover country in the US, there is nothing in the center of the island of Australia.  Just endless desert.  It’s crazy.  And beautiful.  We might have flown over Uluru too.  Which would have been cool to see but I think it was still nighttime when – if – we did.

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