Thursday, February 16, 2012

Travel Bug

Normally, after a vacation, I’m always glad to be home.  Vacations generally aren’t restful for me.  I like to go and do and see as much as I can while I’m in any given place.  I mean, if I wanted to sit on a beach and relax, I could go down the street.  I live in Sydney after all.  So, whenever I land, I arrive home, take a shower, and just lay down on my bed or the couch for a while.  I’m usually so glad to be home so I can just sit still for a while and rest some.

Coming back from China in October, however, was a whole different story.  I was happy to have my own bed, my own shower, and my own toilet, but I really wasn’t all that content.  Yes, I came back and showered and laid down for a while as per usual.  But while I was lying down, I was on my laptop looking up my next trip.

After discovering the joys of traveling on a group tour, I thought “well hell, I should go somewhere new.”  Everywhere new actually.  I do have my list of 103 Things that I want/need to do around the world, but in my head, the list tripled.  In mainland China, I had one thing on my list:  The Great Wall.  But the Terra Cotta Warriors were just as spectacular, the Forbidden City was cool, and the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum was an unexpected small treasure.  If I was missing all of these things on my list, what else am I missing???

Living with Clinton, my new flatmate, hasn’t helped at all.  He loves travel too, and he likes nerdy documentaries.  He turned on Joanna Lumley’s Nile one day and I was immediately sucked in.  I never even thought of going to all of the places she went – from Egypt, through Sudan and Ethiopia, down to Rwanda – but now I want to.   Add a few more things to the list.  And I’m totally sending him the bill for that one.  Or maybe I’ll send it to Joanna Lumley.  By “send”, I mean hand deliver, because I’d love to meet her!

The number of hours I’ve spent on the computer looking at websites for Lonely Planet, G Adventures, Intrepid Travel, Wikitravel, Gecko’s Adventures, and countless others is… staggering.  It has helped me kick my bad habit of looking at Wikipedia and, 4 hours later, realizing I’ve gone through 30 articles and now know a huge amount of useless information about something random like bonobos or Nunavut.  But now I’ve just replaced one vice with another – hours upon hours of looking at different tours and pricing flights and figuring out what vaccinations I would need to go to that unheard of country.

Some of them are easy from Australia – like this quick 10 day Vietnam trip which goes the length of the whole country from top to bottom:

Asia is easy – especially from Australia – but Africa is a much bigger adventure.  Most westerners who do a safari tour in Africa stay south.  From Cape Town, through Namibia, Botswana, and into Zambia seems to be the most popular.  Tanzania is up in the rankings too.  But I found this 3 week jewel in a very different part of Africa – Senegal, Mali, and the Gambia.  The best part is:  it actually incorporates two of my 103 Things – the House of Slaves Museum in Dakar, Senegal, and the Great Mosque of Djenne in Mali:

In searching for that one, I found another nearby tour which hits completely different countries, none of which I ever really thought to go to and definitely aren't represented on my 103 Things:

Voodoo Kingdoms?  Burkina Faso, Ghana, Togo, and Benin?  Bring.  It.  On.

The crown jewel of trips – the apple of my eye – is this one:

18 days aboard the MS Expedition and a day or so in Argentina on either end.  Antarctica, the Falkland Islands, and the South Georgia Islands would be truly incredible.  Now, looking at the price tag, it will be a long while before I get to go.  Unless of course I find me a sugar daddy or win the lottery stat.  In the meantime, a more plausible option is this one:

When my mate Lenora was here in September, we made some plans for the Trans Siberian Railroad in 2013.  Anyone want to join?

In the meantime, I have another trip to hold me over.  It may not be to a far off place like Siberia, Senegal, or Antarctica, but it’s exciting in its own right.  This weekend, I head off with Cade – one of my Perth travel buddies – along with his partner and another mate.  Destination:  Tasmania!  Little Tasmania – the island state – has a reputation for being inbred.  Despite that, I am totally pumped to go.  Actually, I’m probably more excited about seeing Tassie (as the locals call it) than I have been about any other part of Australia.  Why?  Tasmania – once the most backward state and the butt of every joke – is now the most progressive state.  While the inbred jokes remain, every other review of the island is nothing less than stellar.  The last state to decriminalize homosexuality has now taken the lead in gay rights legislation.  With green energy, Tasmania is at 100%.  The food, wine, and arts are supposed to be divine.  And 45% of the island is protected in national parks and other reserves because the scenery is said to be spectacular.  On top of that all, Tasmanians have a reputation of being super friendly – maybe a little off – but super friendly nonetheless.  What are we going to see?  EVERYTHING! … or at least as much as we can squeeze in…

I’m stoked!

As always, blogs and pictures to follow upon our return.  Woohoo!

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Summer Events in Sydney

Everybody comes out for summertime in Sydney.  Despite this year’s ridiculously wet weather, the parades, festivals, exhibits, and shows have gone on.  Here is a small sampling of what I’ve been up to over these busy few weeks.

Rally for Marriage Equality

Kicking off summer in early December was the Rally for Marriage Equality.  The gays and supporters were out in full force to march through the city and end up at the Labor Party’s National Conference in Darling Harbour.  Australia’s party in power voted to add marriage equality to their party platform, but only with a conscience vote, thus diluting its impact and delaying the inevitable for no good reason.  But, it was a step in the right direction and great to see everyone out.  Overall, it was a good day:

New Year’s Eve

The fireworks on Sydney Harbour are pretty spectacular. Fireworks shoot off of the Harbour Bridge and from several barges strategically placed all up and down the harbour.  If that wasn’t enough, several of the skyscrapers in the city shoot fireworks off their roofs.  Not bad.  And what was even better was our new apartment’s view of it all.  The photo quality isn’t that great at night on the iPhone, but you can totally see the bridge and the opera house:

Chinese New Year

A few weeks after New Year’s was Chinese New Year.  Having a large Asian population, Sydney has a massive Chinese New Year Parade.  Watching the news about it earlier in the week, the parade is actually more pan-Asian than strictly Chinese.  All sorts of groups take part, and news estimates put the crowd at around 100,000.  Not bad.

We watched about 30 minutes of the parade before both my mate and I were ready to go.  There were just too many people out.  And besides:  I’ve been to China now.  I’ve seen the crowds and the giant, ornate dragons first hand.  I don’t need a parade.

Sydney Festival

Most of the month of January is dominated by the Sydney Festival.  The three-week or so long festival consists of arts, live music, and all sorts of other performances.  There’s something on every day and night.  Last year, my mate Todd and I went to a light and sound show at the Chinese Garden near Chinatown.  This year, I decided to check out opening night with a few of my mates.  There were stages set up all over the city with all sorts of different acts.  After walking around the streets of the Sydney CBD, we ended up in The Domain – a big park right next to the city.  The crowd was massive:

Notice the stage on the right side of the photo.  There were too many people for us to stick around too long that night, but we went back to a few days later to the Symphony in the Domain.  It was still packed, but not like sardines.  A picnic, a few friends, and a symphony later, it was a splendid event.  Best part:  it was free!

National Maritime Museum

There are also tons of exhibitions at museums all over Sydney.  The National Maritime Museum had been advertising their Aqua exhibit as “a journey into the world of water.”  From the creators of Cirque du Soleil, I thought the exhibit must be excellent, and it was a great opportunity for me to finally check out the museum which I had been meaning to do for ages.

Well, the journey into the world of water turned out to be a journey into the world of a waste of money.  Short, lame, and hugely uninformative, the exhibit was a let down.  Luckily, the museum had a boat made of beer cans:

That was the highlight of the museum.  The rest of the inside was a snooze-a-palooza (unless you’re old and boring, in which case the museum is awesome!)  The saving graces were the submarine and destroyer on display outside in the harbour.  I’m pretty sure you can get separate admission to just the submarine and the destroyer at a much more reasonable price.  The submarine was a quick walk through for me and Charlotte:

But we ended up on an 80 minute guided tour of the destroyer led by a very ancient naval veteran who took a particular liking to Charlotte because she was from his hometown in England.  It was ok though, because this grandpa-like fellow had tons of war stories and made the tour quite real.  He served on a ship identical to the destroyer we were on, so he was a wealth of information.  A+.  Also, torpedoes.  Torpedoes!  I tried to nab a few as “gifts” for all of those lovely places that I love so much (you know, like Iran, Syria… the Vatican  Utah… France…)  but they were too hard to sneak off the ship.  Next time.

Oooo – and the museum’s gift shop also had some treasures:

Finding Antarctica

I needed an awesome exhibit to make up for the crappy one about water.  The State Library of New South Wales had an exhibit called Finding Antarctica: Mapping the Last Continent.  It was several rooms full of maps of Antarctica.  The maps started in the 1500’s when people first thought that there might be something down there.  As most of the maps were world maps, they also featured Australia.  It was incredible to see how both Australia and New Zealand slowly appeared on maps, bit by bit, over the course to decades and centuries.  It was crazy!  For an amazingly long period of history, people thought that Australia was connected to New Zealand AND Antarctica… AND Tierra del Fuego – the island shared by Argentina and Chile right off the bottom tip of South America.  Because people back then thought that there must be as much land below the equator as there was above, the massive land mass of Australnewzealarticdelfuego was believed to have existed.  Later on, it was of course discovered that these were all separate and of varying sizes.  Incredible.  As the exhibit was chronological, it also had all sorts of newer information about manned exhibitions to the frozen continent and Australia’s role in exploring the last continent.  Fantastic!

And yes:  I’m a nerd.  $25 for some fucking 2-minute uninformative exhibition on water – which was offensively half in French I might add – is no match for a FREE exhibition showing the history of maps of Antarctica.  FREE!  I’d pay $25 for that one.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Citizen Glen

I took a half-day Friday at work to attend my mate Glen’s citizenship ceremony.  Glen was super excited to become an Australian citizen, and I was super excited to be there to support him.  I was also excited because I wanted to see exactly what a citizenship ceremony entails.  I found out that each ceremony is different, as each city puts on their own ceremonies for their residents.

I had stopped and watched the citizenship ceremony for a few moments at the Australia Day festival at Hyde Park a few weeks ago.  There were probably twenty to thirty people becoming citizens that day, and Sydney’s Lord Mayor, Clover Moore, called out their names individually and told a brief story about their journey to Australia.  Glen hadn’t been asked about his story, and after hearing about it from me, and a bunch of other stories from other people, he really had no idea what to expect… and neither did I.  How exciting!  I met up with Glen and his partner, David, before the ceremony.

As you can see, Glen dressed up for the occasion.  How dapper he looked!  Other new citizens opted to take a less formal, more stereotypical Aussie approach to their dress:

Board shorts to become an Australian citizen:  LOVE IT!  I also loved that Clover Moore did this ceremony as well, as she’s our much-loved mayor AND member of state parliament.

Notice in the picture, there’s a lady in the background by the piano.  She was playing jazz while people got their citizenship, and that was a bit out of place.  But before the ceremony started, she was playing all sorts of Australian classics, such as Waltzing Matilda.  There was also the national anthem, Advance Australia Fair:

The new citizens took either an oath or an affirmation.  The difference, you ask?  The oath mentions god.  The affirmation doesn’t.  I was extremely pleased that Glen chose to do the affirmation.  In fact, the group doing the affirmation was significantly larger than the group doing the oath.  Woohoo!  And after that, it was time to get your citizenship.  Unlike the small ceremony that I saw on Australia Day, this one was a bit too large to tell everyone’s story.  There were over 140 people from over 40 countries, including Glen’s homeland of Ireland, becoming citizens on Friday.  In fact, names weren’t even called – everyone just lined up in order, shook the mayor’s hand, and became Australians.  And of course, I got it all on video:

Notice at the end how Glen was given a goodie bag as he walked off stage?  We had heard lots of different things that people get on their citizenship day.  Someone told Glen that he would get a plant.  He didn’t.  Inside the bag was a small picture book of Sydney, a City of Sydney pen, a voter registration card, a small packet of Vegemite, and a piece of paper outlining how not to die in a rip current.

I’m not joking.

Despite the slightly disappointing contents of the bag, Glen was still all smiles.  And where there was once only one Australian, now there are two:

The city had a small buffet after the ceremony with champagne and some traditional Aussie desserts:  lamingtons, pavlovas, and Anzac biscuits!  I love free food!  And so does Jessica - she came along as well:

After the ceremony, we headed to the Australian Hotel.  Operating since 1824, the Australian Hotel is Sydney’s longest licensed bar and remains stocked full of dozens of types of Australian beer, making it the obvious place to celebrate a new citizenship.  We (I) decided that we needed to have one beer from each of Australia’s six states, starting with a Cascade from Tasmania:

Some Aussie fare to eat:  a crocodile pizza along with a Cooper’s from South Australia!

Four more states and then many beers after that… and then some shots too… we were very… very happy…

And when we’re happy, we talk to strangers.  Like Jess and I tracking down the dude in the black shirt with the skulls on the back.  We saw him at the citizenship ceremony and thought it was just awesome that he was wearing a shirt with skulls on it to get his citizenship.  He was Irish as well and therefore far drunker than we were. 

I’m pretty confident he had no recollection of us the next day.  But that’s ok.  He became an Aussie that day too so he was entitled to drink it up.

Now that I know how these things work, I’m looking forward to attending a few other friends’ ceremonies in the next year or two, and then (hopefully) my own in 2014.  I better start learning all the words to the national anthem.  But until I have them down perfect, I’ll just leave you with this…

Aussie, Aussie, Aussie!  Oi!  Oi!  Oi!

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Everything's Great

China may have a Great Wall, but everything in Australia is great!  And not really because I say so, but because everything has “Great” in the name.  Seriously.  Look at a map of Australia sometime and see how many items you can spot with the name “Great” – like the Great Australian Bight, Great Barrier Reef, Great Dividing Range, Great Keppel Island, Great Sandy Desert, Great Victoria Desert… It’s not just natural features either.  Want to take a walk on the Great South West Walk?  How about a drive on the Great Ocean Road?  If that one has too much traffic, check out the Great Alpine Road, Great Central Road, or Great Northern Highway.  Great Otway National Park would be a great place to visit, as would Great Basalt Wall National Park and Great Sandy National Park.  Even the Australian Jews get in on the action.  Right here in Sydney is the Great Synagogue.

So, why is everything so great?  It’s probably because Australia is just so big – so great in size.  Australia is the world’s sixth biggest country by land area.  That means there are some great distances between places on the map.

Let’s put the size into perspective:  2 of Australia’s 8 states and territories are larger than Alaska.  Larger than Alaska!  A further 3 states and territories are larger than Texas!  Everything’s bigger in Texas, eh?  I think not.  Take that, you full-of-yourself Texans!  The smallest mainland state – Victoria – would still be the 11th largest state if it were in the US.  For the island states, Tasmania is 4 times larger than Hawaii, and the Australian Capital Territory is nearly 15 times the size of the District of Columbia.

On a greater scale, the state of Western Australia would be the world’s 10th largest country by land area if it were to become independent.  Crazy!  Queensland wouldn’t be far behind at number 18, and the Northern Territory would round out the top 20.  South Australia and New South Wales would both be ranked in the 30’s.

On the other hand, despite having the world’s sixth largest land area, Australia is only ranked 52nd in population.  That’s a lot of land for not a lot of people.  California has more people than the whole of Australia.  So does Texas.  New York and Florida aren’t far behind.  Australia’s most populous state, New South Wales, would only be ranked 13th in the US and has approximately as many people as Washington state.  And as for those smaller island states and capitals:  Hawaii has nearly three times the population of Tasmania despite Tasmania quadrupling Hawaii’s area, and the District of Columbia has nearly twice the population of the ACT despite it being only one-fifteenth the size.

Looking at the world again, Western Australia would be ranked 143rd in the world in terms of population if it was its own country.  143rd!  That’s a remarkably low population for a country that would be the world’s 10th largest.  It would be the world’s least densely populated country with under 1 person per square kilometer.  Currently, Mongolia is the world’s least densely populated country, and its figure is nearly equal to the population density of South Australia.  The world’s second least densely populated country is Namibia, and its density is nearly equal to that of Queensland.  Northern Territory, with a population density of 0.2 persons per square kilometer, is less than 25% as dense as Western Australia.  No independent country has as few people in such a space.  In fact, the only places on the planet less dense than the Northern Territory are Greenland and Antarctica.

So what’s the point of all of this?  Well, it’s this:  Australia has a lot of land which makes distances between places really great.  But when you also factor in the sparse population and all of that vacant land in the middle, the country’s size just seems so much greater than it actually is.

So maybe that’s why everything here is “Great”.

Or maybe it was just an incredible marketing scheme that started shortly after the first convict settlers landed in Sydney.   A 200+ year old tourism campaign is a pretty good success.