Monday, May 26, 2014

May 26 -- Australia Postscript

Vic sent us several group photos taken around the country that I am adding below. Not only was Vic a great guide, but we really had a great group too. It was smaller than usual -- only 12 of us instead of the more typical 15 or 16 -- and everyone was friendly and easy to be around.

The inital group of 9 at Cradle Mountain in Tasmania.
Front: Lynn, Gwen, Karen, Maureen, Merna
Back: Jim, Jan, Rick, Bob

The entire group in Melbourne at the ANZAC memorial
with two former soldier volunteers. Left to right: Julie,
volunteer, Jim, Gwen, Lynn, Karen, Jan (back), Barbara,
Rick, Merna, Arlene, Bob, Maureen, volunteer

At Uluru, sporting the fly nets that helped keep us sane
and protected from the numerous little flies. Left to right:
Arlene, Julie, Gwen, Jan, Merna, Bob, Barbara, Maureen,
Lynn, Jim, Karen, Rick

Same place, sans nets. Left to right: Arlene, Gwen, Jan
Merna, Bob, Barbara, Maureen, Lynn, Jim, Karen, Rick

Sydney Harbor, left to right: Maureen (back), Merna, Bob,
Gwen, Jan, Barbara, Arlene, Rick, Karen, Lynn (back),
Julie, Jim

May 24 -- The Endless Travel Day Home

We got up before 6am Sydney time for our 10am flight to LAX and arrived at 6:30am LA time, essentially arriving before we left. This is how you get a day back when you cross the date line in each direction, but it is not worth it.
Interesting diagram at the Sydney Airport ladies room
-- in the stall. Apparently many Asian visitors are
confused by western-style toilets.
The flight crew was perverse. I set my watch to LA time right away, the lights dimmed after dinner and I finished the movie I was watching around 10pm and dozed off (this was 3pm Sydney time, but the environment said "nitey night"). I was actually dreaming when they brought food around at midnight LA time and Jim woke me up. Tried to sleep again, and never got to the dream stage, when lo and behold, at 2am they thought it was time for another snack and woke us up for a 'stick' of coconut and pineapple ice cream. Not bad, but really? Feed us every two hours? Like being in a hospital where they wake you up every hour or two, apparently to verify you are still alive. After another two sleepless hours, I gave up and watched another movie.

We finally landed in LA and got to the gate 5 minutes before passport control opened, so we cooled our heels on plane til they were ready. The good news is that there were only about 2 people ahead of us so we breezed right through to baggage and got lucky again with bags that appeared quickly -- we were the first of the 9 OAT (our tour company) people on the plane to head to the customs review. Here I thought we might spend some time as I had brought back food (not fresh, but the good 'processed' stuff to share with friends) and other people had had to haul it out of their bags to display it. Plus I kind of overdid the opal purchases (thanks to Jim's efforts) and knew we had over spent the duty free limit. The agent who called us forward had literally just started, he glanced at our way-over-the-limit total and the checked 'food' box, said 'have a nice day' or some such thing and waved us on. HOLY cow! Saved us a minimum of $200 in duty.

The rest of the trip was about as easy except for the part where we were on the plane and waited on the runway for 40 minutes before we could take off. This proved to be the margin that prevented us from picking up our mail because traffic north to Marin was HORRIBLE....the 35 minute trip took an hour and a half -- must just have been Memorial weekend traffic -- no wrecks or construction that impacted where we were. Now all we have to do is recover from our 33 hour day and pick up our mail on Tuesday!

It was a fabulous trip. We have had a number of wonderful guides over the years on our OAT tours, but Vic really set a new standard in adapting to our interests and preferences and entertaining us on the road. Not only did we get history and culture, we listened to music (my favorite was a 'promo' song called Come to Australia or Deadly Animals (which gives you a clue about its content -- see the video here: ) and ended the tour with a trivia contest. It was VERY close -- 30-31, but our team won. I know we only touched the surface of the country and could have easily spent at least twice as much time there.

May 23 -- Sydney on Foot, Vivid Sydney

We had the day to ourselves and got to sleep in a bit, but made up for it in total distance covered. We headed over to Chinatown (gotta see them where ever we go) and the market there. No where near as extensive or cohesive as San Francisco, but interesting, and we got some fun souvenirs at the market.
Entrance to 2 block Chinatown walking mall

The Chinatown mall -- note lights strung
in front of trees -- probably better at night.

An ibis just kind of walking along. We actually saw
them in several places.

Practicing tai chi

Hotel that adapted the SF Chinatown look.
On the way to the bridge, we passed a convict-built wall,
identifiable by the marks scratched into each sandstone
block to prevent convicts from filling their quotas from other's work.
Next up was a walk across the Sydney Harbor Bridge. The first challenge was just figuring out how to get ON the bridge as a pedestrian. The map and the signs were oriented to cars and bikes. It was a bit of a hike, but we walked over and back and met a native Sydney woman who was on her very first WALK across the bridge!

Remember the cassowary photo from
the rainforest? This is the speedbump
sign that got modified as 'After' and with
head and feet to mimic a run-over

Starting the bridge walk -- like the Golden
Gate Bridge, one side is bikes, the other is people.
View from Sydney Harbor Bridge to 'Dolly Parton' Bridge

Top of the bridge with bridge climb tour and national flag on top

View of the harbor from the bridge

Front view of the opera house

Walking back the other way

Folks finishing their bridge climb

View toward 'The Rocks', one of the two
oldest parts of Sydney - the convicts got
the rocky shore, the military the flat area opposite.

Jim on the Sydney Harbor Bridge

For lunch, we went to the Aussie version of Burger King. A guy named Jack started it many years ago, but couldn't call it Burger King because when McDonald's arrived, they had bought the rights to the Burger King name for 20 years. When the name was finally available, everyone was so used to calling the Burger King "Hungry Jack's" that it would have been confusing to change it.

Next up was a stroll through the large, beautiful Botanical Gardens. I really like it when the plants are labeled so I can learn what I am enjoying.
Another ibis

This is called 'The Dreaming', the aboriginal version
of creation

Friday afternoon at the park. All school kids wear uniforms,
not just private. Note the ibis in the center foreground.
More school kids in the park
The Art Museum of New South Wales (Sydney's state)
lists names of included artists on the facade, but someone
must have flunked spelling.
Closeup of spouting turtle in a fountain.
 Jim also thought I should have some opal earrings, so we ventured into another opal shop, this one on the 3rd floor of a shopping street building and totally not commercial looking compared to our experience yesterday. And wouldn't you know it, I was able to add to my ridiculously extensive collection of earrings. After that it was one last trip to the ATM for cash, then back to the hotel to clean up for our farewell dinner. Hard to believe the trip is all but over!
We had a hotel rooftop cocktail half hour before dinner
and got a glimpse of sunset.

Arlene celebrated her birthday with us and was given
a genuine Aussie hat to keep off flies

Our travel group getting ready for dinner
 Tonight was the opening of Vivid Sydney, a two-week festival of lights with light shows on tons of buildings all along downtown. After dinner, we walked around with the group ogling all the displays.
One of the fun things is that the displays changed.
On this one, you can see the building displayed on.

Same projection, but the building is more obscured and
the trees look more 3D

Two designs on the same building --above is kind of
eerie, below is more tame.
Sydney Harbor Bridge, above and below
Circular Quay and the city behind it.

Sequence of designs on the opera house. Some are
a bit blurry because of the challenge of this type of
photography with a hand-held camera.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

May 22 - Bus/Cruise Tour of Sydney and the Opera House

Alert: this is a LONG post because we had a busy day and learned a lot. We started off on a bus tour of  Sydney for the entire morning, followed by a tour of the Sydney Opera House, a cruise in Sydney Harbor, and a visit to an opal store.

This is not really smog because it cleared out by noon
The bus headed out to Chinatown, which is only a few blocks from our hotel. We will go back tomorrow and walk thru to see more. Next, we drove around Darling Harbor, a big entertainment area and then down towards the Sydney Harbor Bridge. On the way, we stopped at the Sydney Observatory, which was put in place early on to map out the southern skies. There are very nice views from here of the Sydney Bridge, although there was a light morning fog that fuzzed up the view (and photos).

Sydney Harbor Bridge from below
We proceeded to the base of the bridge for more photos. It was built in 9 years, starting around 1923. Fourteen hundred men worked on the bridge, and especially when the Depression hit, jobs here were highly sought after. Men came down each morning hoping for work and the area at the base of the bridge was called the Hungry Mile for all the men hoping to be able to feed their families. Tomorrow we plan to walk across the bridge. We had toyed with doing the Bridge Climb, but you have to allow 3.5 hours and the cost for two is $500, which I expect we can spend in other, more lasting ways. Safety was reasonably good as only 36 men died in the construction. From here we could also see the Sydney Opera House.

We wound around the Circular Quay, where we had taken the train to last night, past and through the Royal Botanical Gardens (another possible jaunt tomorrow) to Mrs. Macquarie’s Point and her ‘Chair’. Macquarie was a governor of Australia and lots of things got named after his wife – there are lots of Elizabeth and Macquarie places all over Australia (our hotel is on the corner of Elizabeth and Goulburn Sts). This point provided a another view of the opera house and bridge, which improved as the fog cleared.
Opera House and Bridge

Mrs. Macquarie's "Chair"

Fortified Island mistaken for a sub by the Japanese in WWII
We continued on through a number of different neighborhoods to South Head, the south land mass at the entrance to Sydney Harbor. It has magnificent cliffs, which are unfortunately an attraction to the depressed and there are numerous signs asking people to call for help instead of jumping. The gentleman who lived across the street was known as the Angel of the area because he watched for people who looked like they might jump, talked to them, invited them to his house for tea, and brought policeman in to help direct them to public services. He is estimated to have saved over 500 people from suicide there. Since he died last year, the death rate has increased.
Looking from the South Head to the North Head, Tasman
Sea to the right.

Next up was Bondi Beach, where we got to spend 30 minutes. Karen and I dipped our feet into the Tasman Sea, but neither of our husbands were so bold. The sand was gloriously soft and not at all hot. I can see why it is so popular. Jim was there on R&R around New Year’s in 1971 and says that the surrounding area has changed a lot since then. 
Bondi (pronounced Bond-eye) Beach
 We headed back into the city and stopped at the Wayfarer Chapel, a non-profit started 50 years ago by an unconventional Methodist minister who saw a need to support the less fortunate in the area. The King’s Cross area is close to the naval yards and has been a hotbed of drugs, drinking, and prostitution for a very long time. Rather than trying to fix people, the staff (45 + 600 volunteers, including our guide, Vic) focuses on accepting their clients as they are and treating them non-judgmentally. I found the ‘graffiti’ on the chapel walls to be quite inspiring.

They provide food, but not as a handout because they feel that is dehumanizing. Instead, no meal costs more than $4. One of the most radical things they did was to create a safe haven for injecting drugs. Their logic was that this was going to happen anyway and that people were dying due to unsafe conditions. If they could keep them alive, there was the potential to improve their lives. Once the center was open, ambulance calls in the area dropped by 80%. This is still a controversial service and the only one in the southern hemisphere. Apparently Canada also provides this service in one or two places, and all the others are in Europe.

Finally, the bus dropped us off at the Sydney Opera House for our tour. Unfortunately, we were not allowed to take photos inside the performance spaces. The first thing I noticed is that the roof did not appear all that white. It looks whiter in the photo I took than it did in real life. The colors looked more grayish with white borders. We learned that the roof is covered with tiles (1, 560,006 of them), some matte and some polished, and not pure white – some are more creamy colored than others. The chevron design I saw was the contrast of the matte and polished tiles and the grayness came from the angle of my view.
Opera house roof from a different angle that
highlights the tile pattern and differences.
The story of its construction is pretty amazing. When the Opera House was first proposed for the site, the neighbors with the view of the previous work yards screamed that building it there would destroy the view and their property values. Of course, just the opposite happened. As with many Australian buildings, an international competition was held and 232 drawings were submitted from around the world. Most were standard square buildings but a few were more imaginative. The ones from the Danish architect, Jorn Utzon, were almost rudimentary and were initially rejected. However, Eero Saarinen was brought in as a judge late in the process and insisted on reviewing all the submissions, not just the ones that had passed muster so far. He felt the Danish design was spectacular and convinced the powers that be to select it. The problem was, the design really was rudimentary, how to create the roof was unknown, and they started digging without a complete plan. They thought they could build it in 3 years for $7 million, but it took more than 14 years and $102 million, and the architect departed 7 years before the project was completed.

The building has 2 main stages and 5 smaller ones. The original opera stage and symphony stages were reversed and more seats were added to each to increase revenue potential. The acoustics are designed so that no amplification is required for the music to be heard. Because singing 8 opera performances per week is a lot for a singer, 5 shows are alternated with all their stage equipment brought from the basement in huge elevators designed for the purpose.
Although the roof sections are called 'sails', from this
angle, they look more like stacked upside down boats.

The architect wanted to bring the outside in. This is the
view from the intermission lounge area.

The interlinked concrete ribs that form the ceiling supports
eliminated the need for interior pillars.
Opera house from the cruise boat.
After lunch along the harbor, we took a 1.5 hour narrated harbor cruise. The day had turned totally glorious and we got a different angle on several of the sights we had seen earlier. Last up was a stop at an opal store, where they showed a video of how opals are mined and then showed us the difference between the types of opals. I had brought my collection along and was surprised to learn that one I thought was so-so was good quality and vice versa. I also learned that my two favorites were probably worth more than I thought. Of course, with Jim’s encouragement, I found one there to add to my collection too.
Largest opal ever found -- 11 inches long, 17,000 carats.
This is mine now. They posted it with the name
"California Dreamin'" after we bought it.

With the day’s tours finally over, we vegged out for the night with the exception of a quick run to a grocery store for snacks and beverages.