For Winter Break in 2012, I went to Australia.
I was tired of Japanese winters. The constant, unavoidable cold was quickly taking its toll on my psyche. I woke up every morning and watched my breath appear in puffs of white – inside my apartment. I would ride my bike in the cold to go to work where they didn’t have central heating. In the afternoon, I would return home to an apartment that was sometimes colder than the temperature outside. I was sick of it.
So, like a migratory bird, I decided to fly south and escape the winter for a bit. What better place to go than Oz? It was on the opposite side of the world, sunny and warm and, best of all, everyone spoke English there. Whether or not a country spoke English wasn’t usually a factor in where I decided to go, but at that point I was pretty nestled in Stage Two culture shock. The less my brain had to work to understand something, I thought, the better.
I knew that Australia was expensive. I didn’t realize quite how expensive it was until I was looking at hotels and hostels online. Even if I would have been able to afford them, most places were booked full throughout the winter holiday.
Luckily a Kiwi friend suggested a hostel – BASE Backpackers. The way she said the name implied a sort of ‘well, if you really have no other options…’ but I went ahead and booked there anyway. The reviews online all seemed mostly positive and I’m not a diva when it comes to traveling and accommodation. I figured I would be fine.
A few weeks and fifteen or so flying hours later, I was standing outside the hostel with my suitcase. My legs glowed iridescently in shorts that I had packed away when the weather in Japan had taken a turn for the chilly. The heat was glorious and my body was still trying to adjust to the fact that it was, in fact, December.
My room wasn’t terrible – a hallway entrance boasted a communal toilet, sink and shower. The room itself was a long stretch that consisted of four large bunks on the right side of the room and…nothing else. Basic and effective.
In my room, I chatted with a friendly German girl with one arm who was in the process of packing – such is hostel life. I chose the lower bunk next to hers and threw my small suitcase on to it. I sat for a bit, reflecting on how I was both in a different country and on the other side of the equator. The Bottom Half of the Earth: it was kind of a big deal to me.
Before long, a boy and girl entered the room chattering excitedly. They were both very loud and very British.
“Are you AC-CHOOLY joe-king me?” the girl exclaimed in awe. Her blonde hair gave off a dull shine as if it hadn’t been washed in a month. A tiny stud glittered in the left nostril of her large nose. She was tanned and must have been wearing at least half a pound of dark eyeshadow.
“I told you it was nice!” the boy responded as if he were proud of himself. He was slightly heavyset with beady dark eyes peering out from his round face. A backwards baseball cap covered his mop of shaggy brown hair.
“Like…you have so much more’n we doooo,” the girl whined. “Are you ac-chooly joe-king me right now…” she repeated in astonishment as she flopped on the lower bunk closest to her.
“Well you can come an’ sleep ‘ere whenever you want…” the boy responded creepily.
The girl giggled and said she would consider it.
I rolled my eyes. Were these Chavs? I was not well-versed enough in the subcultures of Britain to say for sure. Maybe not, but they were definitely obnoxious. For all accounts and purposes, I named them Brit 1 and Brit 2 in my head.
I exchanged pleasant greetings with the Brits before gathering my things to head out for the evening. I was meeting someone.
I was fortunate enough to have two friends in Sydney whom I already knew. Both of them were Japanese.
The one I was meeting that night, Shuhei, was a handsome man who was in his early thirties. He was tall and rail thin with an expressive face that broadcasted a radiantly youthful smile wherever he looked. At the time, he was dating an Australian and had moved to Sydney to be with him. He worked as a travel agent and spoke English fluently. Shuhei had lived in various parts of the world so his accent fluctuated between North American Vanilla to Peppery Australian twang. It was adorable.
I was sitting outside on an uncomfortable window ledge, on the very edge of the Wifi zone, when Shuhei appeared from the street. He called my name and excitedly ran up to me, proceeding to envelope me in a bear hug that was extremely atypical for a Japanese person.
His cheeks, I noticed, were red and his whole face seemed to be flushed and burning. The Asian Glow.
“Were you drinking?” I asked him with a smirk on my face.
“Yesss,” he said, elongating the consonant. “I just came from work party so I’m a bit drunk. My boss gave me a lot of beer to drink.” he flashed the charming grin my way. “Wanna get beer?”
I agreed and, in no time, we were in a local pub having a pint.
Shortly after our second drink, Shuhei decided it was time to go.
We chatted excitedly as he hurriedly led me through the streets of Sydney. It was nearing sunset and the sidewalks were growing more crowded as Sydneyites got off work.
Suddenly, Shuhei whirled around and placed both hands on my shoulders. “You didn’t go see it, did you?”
I stopped and stared at his handsome face in the changing daylight. His eyes were dark and piercing, scanning me for truth.
“No no,” I said. “I don’t even know where it is. I’ve only been here for like three hours, dude!”
This seemed to satisfy him. “Okay yokatta. It’s just down here, then!”
Before coming to Sydney, Shuhei had made me promise that I would not see the Opera House without him. In fact, he insisted that he be the one to show me. It was very important to him.
“Look! Here it is!” he said triumphantly after a short while.
I found myself in a bustling area of tourists and locals alike. There were buskers balancing metallic baseball bats on their chins, tour guides handing out flyers for their boats and hundreds of tourists (myself included) marveling at it all. Close by, I saw a small group of people dressed in aboriginal wear playing didgeridoos. The incredibly deep tones of the instrument bounced every which way, filling the area. I felt a vibration in my chest as we passed it – almost awaking something primal within me.
Darling Harbour is a fascinating place. In the distance, the massive frame of Pyrmont Bridge looms like a mountain. Traffic of all sorts passes through it while bold tourists test their gumption by securing themselves with ropes and walking across the top of it.
The harbor itself houses massive cruise liners bigger than any boat I have ever seen in person. They sit calmly on the blue water like enormous steel bath toys, awaiting their next voyage.
Further down the harbor, the main attraction sits at the end like the spectacle it is.
I had seen pictures of it, but to see the Sydney Opera House in person was something of a moving experience. The iconic alabaster waves rose from the top of the opera house in majestic arcs. I couldn’t look away, my eyes wanting to take every curve of the incredible design. As we walked around it, it seemed to morph appearances – giving it a different perspective from every angle.
On our way around the other side of it, I spotted a small outside bar on the edge of the opera house. There were people milling about and conversing with one another. We could hear laughter and music and it seemed like everyone was having a good time. As we drew closer, I saw that they were all dressed in costume – Batman, Wonder Woman, a cowboy, a prisoner, a pirate.
“Are they…having a costume party?” I asked Shuhei.
“Yeah, I think so.” he said. “Australians do that. Dress up and have costume parties around Christmas time.
“I don’t know why.” he added, sensing my follow up question to this cultural revelation.
Shuhei led me through the adjacent Royal Botanical Gardens to one of his favorite places – Mrs. Macquarie’s Chair. Cut into the rock wall was a large bench that is said to be where an historic governor’s wife sat and watched the ships come and go.
As I sat in Mrs. Macquarie’s Chair with Shuhei, we gazed out at the harbor. The sky was turning a periwinkle color in preparation for nightfall. The darkening water of the harbor shimmered as it reflected in the last rays of the setting sun. Above, the patchwork of clouds that covered the sky swirled and burned with pinks and purples and oranges that seemed almost otherworldly. The bridge in the distance, the massive ships floating motionlessly and the Opera House’s distinct architecture all combined for a picturesque sight that I doubt I will ever forget.
“Thanks so much for taking me here, Shuhei.” I said, turning to my friend. The shadows of the evening were beginning to shroud his face but I could still see his bright smile.
“I told you it was beautiful,” he said. “I love it here.”
Shuhei’s tour of Sydney included one final stop – Kings Cross. As we were walking there, he raved about how cool it was. Apparently it was a famous neighborhood but, at the same time, it was a bit dangerous. I nodded as he spoke, it sounded like a party area – maybe a bit like Khaosan Road in Bangkok, I thought.
After walking through a few unremarkable streets, we happened upon the famous Kings Cross. Or at least that’s what Shuhei told me dramatically.
“Here we are!” he said, throwing his arms out in grand fashion.
I looked at what he was motioning toward and saw a large illuminated billboard for Coca Cola.
“Oh…okay.” I said, trying to sound more impressed than I was.
“Isn’t that cool?” he asked, beaming.
I returned my gaze to the sign. It was…large. The lights flashed in sync and it did a very good job of advertising Coca Cola. But aside from that, it just seemed like a normal sign to me.
“I mean…I guess, yeah?” I said unconvincingly. “It’s…big.”
“What, you don’t think it’s cool?” Shuhei said defensively.
I laughed. “Er…it’s kind of…”
I tried to find words that would nicely convey my complete disinterest with what he had so proudly shown me.
“What?!” he exclaimed.
“I mean, I’ve seen this kind of thing a lot.” I said with a nervous laugh. “It’s cool and all…but it’s just an ad for Coke.”
“You don’t think is awesome?!” he asked incredulously.
“It’s not NOT awesome…” I fumbled. It was no use. I could feel the jet lag begin to wrap itself around my brain.
“I’ve just…it’s nothing new or exciting to me, really. Sorry.”
“Well you need to take a picture in front of!” he insisted, grabbing my camera. “So you can say you’ve been here. People will be jealous.”
The result was a photo of me looking incredibly underwhelmed in front of a giant illuminated ad for Coca Cola. To this point, nobody has ever claimed to be jealous of this picture.
“I still can’t believe you don’t think this is cool.” Shuhei continued as we walked on.
I laughed and gave a shrug. “I don’t know, maybe if it were an ad for like, Vegemite or something, I’d be more impressed.”
Suddenly, we were interrupted by two males storming out of a bar in front of us. They were a little older than middle-aged and looked pretty worse for the wear.
“You’re a fucking CUNT!” one of them screamed. He had a large, bulbous nose and a face covered in pockmarks.
“OH I’M the cunt, am I?” the other yelled back, matching the volume of the first man. He was overweight and his stringy gray hair hung down over his forehead, clashing with a face that was beet red.
“Who’z tha one who hasn’t even seen ‘iz FATHER in years?!”
“Yeahhhh yeahhhh,” the pockmarked man spat “and you’re a fuckin’ SAINT aren’t ya? Miserable BASTARD!”
“Oh, FACK OFF!”
Shuhei and I said nothing as we gingerly shuffled by the pair. I like to think I’ve perfected the vacant ‘I see conflict so I’m suddenly interested in whatever is happening across the street’ look.
When they were gone, we both exhaled a sigh of relief. Their argument was still audible in the distance, but the profanity was much harder to make out.
“Australians are lovely people,” Shuhei said with a sadness in his voice. “But when they drink, they sometimes become violent.”
I had heard this stereotype before, but I didn’t put too much stock in it. I still don’t. Americans are the same, after all. And Brits. And the Irish. And probably Martians, too.
Perhaps what I had just witnessed was a coincidence of sorts. Maybe the two guys were just having a bad night. Maybe, plot twist, they were actually father and son?
Aside from the drama, the neighborhood of Kings Cross was not very stimulating to me. Even with the unremarkable Coca Cola sign, I failed to see why it was a tourist spot. Perhaps I had gone at the wrong time – eight o’clock on a Tuesday evening – but it seemed just like any old neighborhood.
Not long after, the jet lag hit me all at once and I decided to head back to my hostel. Shuhei and I were meeting up the following day to go to the famous Blue Mountains and I decided that I needed rest in order to fully enjoy it.
He bid me adieu and I walked alone back to my hostel. I replayed all the things that I had seen in the past seven hours – it had been a bit of a whirlwhind. The streets of Sydney were alive and, as I wandered slowly through them, I decided that I had definitely made the right choice in coming to this intriguing faraway country.
More to come in Part II. Stay tuned! As always, feedback is much appreciated! Hope everyone is having a great Winter Break and enjoying the holidays! <3