I awake, with the nervous jolt that sometimes happens upon a preoccupied mind, early, and peer blearily through my porthole. Dark. Dark, but with the subtlest idea of light. “Perfect,” I think, relieved. “I haven’t missed it.”
I leave the warmth of my bed, and find clothes. Warm ones. Although I’m in the South Pacific, the pre-dawn wind can still bite. “What else do I need?” I ponder, standing in the dark cabin, half-concentrating, half-sleeping. Oh, right. Camera.
Outside the wind is howling. The horizon is already becoming warm and fuzzy, and I can make out the sharp, sheer, dark cliffs of a new continent as I walk to the rear of the large ship. Reflected in the ship’s massive wake, I see the red, eastern glow of sunrise. A new dawn.
The ship alters its usual growl. It begins to slow, and turn. I walk the three football stadiums to the front of the boat, where I sometimes come to sit and stare. Usually, I’m the only one around to watch the sunrise. This morning, I’m surprised to find a gaggle of onlookers already assembled at the bow of the boat.
It is day 25 of our 25-day cruise, and we are pulling into Sydney Harbor.
I see a friendly father and teenage son I had briefly met some days before. The dad sees me and smiles. “Good on ya mate!”
I just stand there, at a loss for words.
The son then turns, smiles the exact same smile, and in the exact same voice, says, “Good on ya mate!”
I’m even more at a loss for words. Uh, uhh, uhh, thanks? Good morning? Good on you, too? Shit, what’s the proper response?
The Australians, ever friendly, have already turned their smiling faces back to their approaching home city, bathed in pre-dawn glow.
The throng of sunrise spectators thickens, instinctively drawn to the bow of the boat. Before we know it, the famous Sydney Harbour Bridge and Opera House come into view. We glide past the Opera House, and make port right next to the Rocks, in downtown Sydney’s Circular Quay.
Generally, I had understood that cruise ships making port in Sydney go under the bridge and dock at one of Sydney’s many peers. “This ship’s about an undred an thir-ee thousand tons. Caan’t make it under thuh Harbour Bridge, so we get to paak here. Proim location!” The father, a Sydney native, explains.
As we idle to a stop, surrounded by towering Sydney Skyscrapers and the tallest arch bridge in the world, the sun peaks her fiery head, directly behind the Opera House. “Huh,” I muse to myself. “Proim location indeed!”
I forgive, and thank, my faithful subconscious for waking me with the preoccupied jolt.
Good morning, Sydney.
Out and about:
“So how do ya loike Aw-stralia so far?”
“Well, I just arrived in Sydney a few days ago. So far it’s been great. Yesterday I did the hike from Coogee to Bondai beach.”
“Ah, ‘s brilliant. Though ‘s pronounced ‘COULD-GEE,’ not ‘COOOO-GEE’.”
“Thanks for letting me know.”
“Y’got ‘BOND-EYE’ right though!”
While browsing a downtown Sydney shop, two (rather bored) employees strike up friendly conversation. Among culture, politics, and travel, they also coach me on Australian pronunciation.
“Sydney’s easy to pronounce. ‘S tha same with or without the accent.”
“Where yeh headed to next?
“Well, next week I’ve got a ticket to head to Mel…….
“Gud one, mate!”
The guys are in a state of clear excitement that I’ve learned the correct pronunciation of Melbourne.
“and weh to next?”
“Next, I’ll head back north for a road trip, and stop in Bris……
They’re hanging onto my every word. I really have no idea why they are so excited, but I’ve got a ace up my sleeve, and soldier on.
(dramatic, expectant pause)
“Finally, I’d like to finish up in…..
The two guys explode, laughing and shouting in the middle of the high-end store, and clap me on the shoulders.
“You hear that? CAANs! Ee sounds loike a true Auzzie!”
The Grand Compromise:
I’m hiking a 4 or 5 mile stretch of classic Sydney coastline beauty, from Coogee to Bondai Beach. The path is quite popular, but since I started at the less touristy Coogee beach, I don’t encounter too many people in the morning. I take my time, stopping, photographing, painting, swimming.
By the afternoon, as I start to see more and more people, something funny keeps happening.
Imagine me walking aimlessly along a winding pathway, vaguely in the middle. I look up, and see someone coming towards me. My natural, instinctive reaction is to move to the right, so I can pass the other person in peace.
Well, this strategy, which has worked faithfully for 27 years, fails. Every time I move to the right, the person coming towards me moves to their left. These actions result in the awkward, apologetic dance of two strangers running into one another. About the fifth or sixth time this happens, my petulant inner voice indignantly shouts “Quit walking on the wrong side of the road, you big dumm———Ooh.”
“Whoops. Yeeeah, I’m the big dummy.”
It is an interesting fact that in medieval times, folks in most societies traveled on the left side of the road. The methodology apparently stems from the age of swords and jousting, when people wanted their strongest (predominantly right) side closest to any person travelling in the opposite direction.
Apparently, the industrial revolution, along with several Napoleonic edicts in the late 18th century, helped standardize travel on the right side of the road. Therefore, today, most of the world travels on right side of the road, while only England, Australia, India, and a handful of other countries (mostly areas former British colonialism) stick to the left.
In any case, it’s confusing.
Here is my proposed grand compromise: If these countries will drive on the right side of the road, America will convert to the metric system. Everybody wins!
While touristy Sydney seemed eager to please, and only too ready to bask in its beauty, I got the impression Melbourne didn’t give a second thought to what you might think. Sydney felt like a destination. Melbourne felt like a city.
Unlike Sydney, Melbourne is mostly flat, and rather industrial. It has the feel of a working city, a city where people live their lives. Perhaps this impression was fortified by my hardworking hosts, friends of friends who kindly opened their hospitable doors. The couple–a dedicated social worker and a performing arts teacher / actor–rose early early every morning to tea and a muesli breakfast in their charming, century old miner’s cottage. They cheerfully encouraged, guided and educated me in the nuances of Melbourne’s culture.
Their three sons–all roughly my age–proved fun, artistic, kind hosts, and on separate occasions I was able to see a little part of their Melbourne through each of their local eyes.
I browsed famous markets, watched musicians perform, spoke with street artists, strolled botanic gardens, watched a foreign film, bought thick, local bread, debated and commiserated in politics (far, far too many times), cooked fresh pasta, ate dumplings, almost went lobster diving, drank espresso, went to a big family gathering, rode the train system for a week straight all the while using a senior discount ticket (oops), discussed philosophy, learned Aussie slang, ate a delicious vegan dinner (who knew?), perused art, and people watched.
I also took the opportunity to use my camera to a greater extent. Here’s a glimpse of my Melbourne experience through it’s mechanical eye:
Thanks to everyone for their warmth. Until next time.