Popping Up Down Under Again

Trip Start Sep 15, 2006
Trip End ??? ??, 2007

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Thursday, April 19, 2007

Flights that last over 10 hours are becoming commonplace for us, but still, the trip from Santiago to Sydney seemed to take forever.  Scheduled for 18 hours, it actually took 20 due to an unexplained longer stopover in Auckland.  We'd taken a lot of flights on LAN this month, and exhausted our movie options so badly we were forced to watch the Ashton Kutcher `comedy' "Just Married".  Two thumbs way down on that one.

Once we'd landed in Australia, we got stuck in Imigration for over an hour in a line a half mile long.  We wondered if Wendy, who had stayed in the home of Cierra's grandparents on a trip to the states thirty years ago, would have given up on us and gone home.  Nope, on emerging from the Customs door, I spotted her sign with our names through the crowd and she caught my eye at the same time.  Wendy was looking for two exhausted jetlaggers with huge packs... not to hard to spot us.  She had us in the car whizzing about Sydney's freeways before we knew it.  Ah.. back in the land of English.  We could read billboards, and signs... and the paper.  We're literate again!

On the way to their place, we picked up Wendy's youngest, Ollie, a bushy-haired 13 year old just done with rugby practice.  Later on, we met Eric, stockier and just as into rugby, and Elie, their oldest and only daughter, who makes a delicious chocolate cake, and brownies that disappeared as fast as we could pick them up.  We settled into their beautiful home, with glass walls opening onto protected bushland forest and wild cockatoos flying about.  A skylight in the ceiling of the entrance shone upon a glass floor that revealed a sitting room below.  What a remarkable home! Of course, we were too tired at this point to fully apreciate it, and once we'd met Wendy's husband David, we laid down for a quick nap.

The alarm woke us to leave for Eric's afternoon rugby game, and we struggled awake like dinosaurs through a tarpit.  I thought there was no way I could stay alert through a sporting event while feeling like that, but once the rugby started, we found the quick, ceaseless action kept our attention well.

The family took us out to their favorite Italian place that night for dinner.  Wonderful food, but the jet lag started to set in again, and my eyes decided to stop focusing on things after the main course.  Fortunately, we left before my face ended up in my plate, and we went straight to bed afterwards.

Jetlag works both ways, and around 4 am, I found that further sleep was impossible, so I got up and surfed the internet for an hour.  One more short nap and it was time to face our first full day in Sydney!

The place we were staying was a 30 minute trek through suburbia from the nearest CityRail station, the very Aussie-sounding Wahroonga.  Once there, we bought return tickets to the city and waited for the train to show up.  A double decker service came along shortly, and we climbed aboard as the train took off with a high pitched electric hum.  It was a pokey ride into the city, as the stations are so numerous and closely spaced that the trains barely get moving before they're stopped again.  We got off at the station before the Harbor Bridge, and took our chance to walk across it into the city.  The black steel structure recently celebrated its 75th anniversary, and it positively vibrates with the force of the constant traffic flowing across.  We strolled along and peeked under the chain link fence designed to prevent jumpers.  Sydney Opera House gleamed in the sun to the left, and the city's high-rises loomed dead ahead.  We walked around The Rocks, one of Sydney's oldest districts from the days when most in Australia were convicts who were sentenced to be there.  Loking around at the bright and clean city it is today, it's hard to imagine that this place was ever doled out as punishment.  Oh, please, Brer Bear, don't throw me in the Briar Patch!

After awhile exploring the Museum of Contemporary Art, we grabbed lunch and went to eat in a park atop Observatory Hill.  A huge group of elementary schoolers in their uniforms having a picnic lunch appeared to be a whole brigade of tiny rangers with green hats, ties, and shirts.  We then toured the Observatory itself, from which officials once monitored not only the stars, but also the ships and flags in the harbor. 

A visit to Qantas in attempt to change the last leg of our round the world flight so that we could arrive farther south in New Zealand gave us no help at all.  The ticket was printed on Lan Chile paper, the agent claimed.  Really? I thought it was issued by Qantas, I said.  Well, OK, yes it was, she admitted.  But the flight was on LAN, and anyway, she couldn't find us in the computer, so we'd have to go bother somebody else about it.  Great, full marks to you for unhelpfulness!

It was getting on in the afternoon by this time, and we hiked into the Royal Botanic Gardens for some relaxing among the plants.  Deep in the gardens, we listened to the chattering of the birds in the trees, which were heavily laden with some kind of fruit.  Suddenly, I saw a small dragon fly through the air.  Wait a minute... that's not fruit at all! Every tree around us was practically bending over with the weight of the local fruit bat population, which could clearly benefit from the introduction of a natural predator or two.  Bats clawed at each other from neighboring branches.  The air was thick with the pungent odor of fruit bat guano, and we decided we'd much rather go look at the Opera House in the late afternoon light.  What a unique structure, and with the golden sunlight coloring the cascading domes, we were reminded that it was time to be getting home.  Indeed, by the time we'd taken the train and then walked from the station, it was quite dark and David jovially commented, "Hey, you are still alive!"

We watched in awe as David expertly and effortlessly whipped up a gourmet meal for the family.  He chatted over the kitchen counter, slicing olives and tomatoes for a salsa with salmon.  They'd asked us to let them know if we'd be home for dinner each day, but based on the first night's dinner, we knew that we'd have no trouble making it home every evening for a delectable feast. 

The next day, more walking about Sydney, as we toured the historic districts of King's Cross and Potts Point.  Many of the city's grand old residences are here, and we had a step-by-step walking tour that gave us a vague idea what we were looking at.  We didn't need the brochure to tell us that we were in the red-light district of Kings Cross, once we'd seen the motley crowd of characters just outside the station.  In Hyde Park, the Aussies have built a beautiful monument to their military casualties from all of the wars in their history.  Inside the giant stone building, a circular balcony looks down upon a statue of a fallen soldier hoisted upon his shield and sword.  It's a moving and beautiful tribute to sacrifice.

On to the library, and to another art museum, both with extensive collections of art and photography.  I especially enjoyed seeing the pictures of the Harbor Bridge's construction.  No wonder the thing looks so sturdy... both sides of the steel arch had to be built out to meet in the middle with no support in the meantime.  Home for dinner.  It was pasta night, and overachiver David had made two different pasta dishes, so good you had to have a serving of each. 

We'd planned a big walk around some of the harbor the next day, but a late start and then some business on the internet booking flights for later on kept us busy until it was way too late, so we decided to have a lazy day around the house.  Anyway, Freeman, the family's roly-poly old black lab, was just begging to be walked.  He was so excited about the opportunity that it wasn't actually necessary to attach his leash, as he took it in his mouth and refused to let go.  Even when yappy neighborhood dogs came up to bother him, he wouldn't bark back, for fear of losing his grip.  Freeman also happens to be the name of my middle brother, and I found this strange and hilarious.  "Come here, Freeman.  Roll over, Freeman.  Let's go, Freeman." I found myself saying that last line a lot, as Freeman's body wasn't as eager to go on a long walk.  He started to walk slowly, and we turned around and headed for home.  It was clear his legs were painful, and later Cierra did a little exam on him and found he had one good joint, a typical old lab.

Thursday, we made good on Wednesday's plans and got out there early to do some hiking.  In the City Center, we caught the Manly ferry, filled with lumberjacks and hairy women with shoulderpads... just kidding, actually Manly is a town, and the ferry wasn't full at all, rather it was nearly empty.  Still, as the engines roared in reverse and the city's skyline started to back away, a local old timer appeared at my shoulder.  "That's the most beautiful sight in the world right there." he began.  He narrated the entire 30 minute ride for us, pointing out the various landscape features to us and giving us a history lesson in the process.  From fruit bats to soil fertility to former nude beaches, this guy knew it all, and by the time we were docking, we half-wanted to invite him along for our walk too, just so we could learn a bit more.  But the 4 hour walk ahead could have proven a bit much for his constitution.  We traipsed around several inlets and then up over a high headland with a great view of the whole harbor.  A four masted sailing ship was taking a cruise around the harbor, and for a moment we could almost imagine it was Captain Cook and his crew about to drop anchor.  We ate lunch on a secluded beach, at least until a couple and their dog swam in from their yacht anchored in the cove.  After lunch we had to hoof it through the rest of the walk and make it back to Wendy's place to catch our ride.

Our plan was to try to thumb our way up the coast, but Wendy was good enough to find us a ride for the first leg of the journey with her sister Jenny, who was driving to Forster (3 hours up the road) with Greg, her husband.  Wendy's parents lived up there, and we had an invite to stay with them all for a couple of nights.

As we loaded up in Greg's BMW, he watched carefully.  "There's nothing sharp on the bottom that will scratch the seats, right?" he asked nervously.

"No, it's all soft." Even so, as I looked at the beautiful leather interior, I made an extra effort to lift the bag off the seat and not slide it across.

As Greg drove up the coast, I chatted with him and Jenny and Cierra fell asleep.  Soon, we were driving through a thunderstorm and heavy rain.  We crawled past a string of ten cars stopped, emergency lights flashing.  I couldn't hear them talking in front anymore, and dozed off myself...
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