Australia: It’s BIG ASS and BAD ASS
(Australian friends, Bad Ass is slang in US for a good/cool thing!).
The city of Sydney, Australia, has a population of about 4.2 million people. That’s a little daunting coming from New Zealand, whose total population is about 4.5 million. I was faced with flying into Sydney at 8:30 in the evening, and after getting through customs, it would put me at 9:30 at night trying to figure out how to get from the airport to the Bounce Sydney Hostel. (It’s a good idea to book flights that arrive during the day—even if you have to pay a little more, I’ve learned).
Since this whole scenario was anxiety producing, I decided to check the Broadsabroad.net site for hosts in Sydney. Low and behold, I got in touch with Colleen who immediately responded that I could cancel my hostel reservations and stay with her in the central business district (CBD) at her inner city apartment. She also stated we could break the three night stay rule and offered three additional nights while she was away for the weekend. Wait. There’s more: she volunteered to meet me at the airport! This from a total stranger who’d I’d only messaged a few times. I’ve always thought I’d like to win the lottery, but, in fact, I have won—the lottery of meeting remarkable people.
As I made my way through customs, there she was sporting a big grin; I liked her immediately. Colleen directed me to the train and we enjoyed a short ride stopping at many points of interest like Town Hall and the Circular Quay (the Sydney Harbor stop) before reaching our destination at Wynyard Station and Colleen’s tony apartment on the 4th floor of a former Presbyterian Church. Here I was in the ideal location and a short, five minute walk to the famous Sydney Harbor.
Colleen is a woman after my own hart. A divorced, middle school math teacher with three grown children, she decided that the city is where she wanted to be, so she rented her home in the suburbs and made it happen. Colleen is bigger than life and beautifully bohemian in her attire and accessories. If there is one word to describe her, it’s unflappable.
Having met her, I recalled a quote from Leonardo DiCaprio I’d read recently that resonated (and made me like him more): “Every next level of your life will demand a different you.” He’s right. As we get older, our vision of ourselves should expand, not contract. Colleen…and, actually, all the women I’ve met… seem to embody that philosophy.
The next morning after Colleen headed to work, I headed out to explore. Sydney’s happy vibe quickly cast its spell.
The harbor is smaller than I had imagined. It doesn’t overwhelm. I actually felt like a kid again taking in, with childlike wonder, the bustling activity of ferries toting passengers to and fro, the latest cruise ship docked for a couple of days, tourists taking in the sights along the harbor promenade, outdoor cafes serving flat white coffees, buskers entertaining, and presiding majestically over all, the iconic Sydney Opera House. Maybe it’s the warm weather and the fact that everything appears so clean, or maybe it’s the huge expanse of sunny skies over sparkling blue water…a feeling of lightness permeates this city.
Wanting a picture of myself with the Opera House behind me, I stopped and asked a young man, who seemed to be showing his mother and sister the sights. He flashed me a huge smile and enthusiastically told me he was from Thailand, and after five years, had just gotten his Australian passport. Australia has a universal visa system. All non citizens (excluding New Zealanders), must have a visa to get into the country. Getting one can be tough, but I can see why people come visit and then want to stay.
For the next week, my days began at the Circular Quay (it’s addictive; you really just want to hang here and soak up the atmosphere) frequenting Starbucks (yes, I broke my own rule) because there is great internet and the employees don’t care how long you stay. There’s lots to do close by including the Botanical Gardens right on the edge of the harbor, The Art Gallery of New South Wales, and one of my favorites, the Museum of Contemporary Art and a terrific exhibition of work by Grayson Perry, Britain’s most acclaimed contemporary artist known for his ceramics and large scale tapestries. A visual chronicler of popular culture, Perry has a shrewd humor and his work reflects many themes about what it is to be human.
I had to take a ferry ride, so I went to Luna Park on Sydney’s North shore and then strolled over to Lavender Bay and Wendy Whiteley’s Secret Garden. The widow of Australian artist Brett Whiteley, she has transformed what was originally a railway garbage dump into a sculpture garden and sanctuary right in the middle of the city.
Being in the city necessitates walking, and it felt like I clocked ten mile days that often stretched into evenings. But I always felt safe. In conversations with other foreign travelers, I’ve heard the same sentiment: Australia feels safe. With strict gun laws and new alcohol initiatives enforced across Sydney and New South Wales (ie. a ban on takeaway alcohol sales after 10pm and 1:30am lockouts), I never felt uneasy. The threat of terrorism doesn’t seem to loom as heavily as it does in the US and Europe. People are friendly and accommodating, hence the lightness again.
Speaking of walking, I trekked from Wynyard Station all the way to Chinatown to get to the Powerhouse Museum, a trip well worth it. This museum of applied arts and sciences holds a wide array of treasures. On view was the world premier of an exhibition by artist Nathan Sawaya using hundreds of thousands of LEGO pieces, a beautiful exhibition of 70 garments designed by Australian fashion pioneer, Collette Dinnigan whose signature lace dresses have been favored by celebrities like Cate Blanchette and Taylor Swift, and a exhibition celebrating jewelry dating from antiquity to the present.
These wonderful places are available to any tourist with a brochure and the internet, but meeting Colleen was what really enriched my stay. After work one night, we took a ferry, this time from Darling Harbor, all the way to Sydney Olympic Park, built for the 2000 Olympics and now a suburb 10 miles west of Sydney, to have dinner with a couple of her friends.
While Colleen was away for the weekend, her friend Cecilia, who I’d met earlier in the week, invited me to the magical Blue Mountains, home to some of the most incredible scenery in Australia and less than two hours from Sydney by car. Having worked in this area for many years, Cecilia knew the region well and showed me the best viewing spots to see the blue-hazed beauty at Echo Point.
After a visit to Scenic World and a late lunch in Katoomba, Cecilia zoomed me back to my doorstep in Sydney in her Mazda sport’s convertible (I so appreciate great driving). It just doesn’t get better than this.
I had to leave Colleen’s place, but I wasn’t ready to leave Sydney, so I booked a three day stay through airbnb in nearby “chic, metro”Surrey Hills, right next to busy Central Station. Surrey Hills has a wonderful mix of cultures and a strong sense of community. I was really excited to meet up with my young friend, Victoria on holiday from the Northern Territory in Kununurra, where I will be in June. I felt quite urbane meeting up for a drink in another neighborhood of this fabulous city.
WOWED is how I would describe my initial visit to this vast country with so much to see and experience (and I haven’t even mentioned the beaches yet). This quote from Mark Twain comes to mind:
“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Cut the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”
Sailing from my safe harbor…what a good idea.