Friday, April 3, 2009

Back in the City of Sails

Every once in a while I end up in a place longer than expected. Sometimes because I get sick. Sometimes it's because of state-of-emergency level flooding. This time, I was just hanging around to meet a few people who were all busy during weekdays. Thanks to that, I ended up looking at this inside of this building here.

I'd just arrived back from the Blue Mountains and some of the best hiking I've ever done (which, at this point, is saying something). The Blue Mountains reportedly have more plant diversity than all of Europe. Picture your stereotypical red Australian outback desert scene with red rock mesas. Now add a lot more of the mesas and cover all of that with lush forest and what one national park sign describes as “a vertical swamp” on the sides of all the rocks-- it looks exactly like everything you've ever pictured the dinosaurs roaming around in. Add a lot of waterfalls and a lateral trail carved midway up the side of a long cliff, with water dripping across everywhere in front of spectacular view. That's where I hiked.

A two hour commuter train ride later, and I was back in the heart of the biggest city in the continent. After I made a few calls and emails to people, I decided to spend least two more days in town, and made arrangements. The next morning, I spotted a flyer in my hostel for a performance of Tom Stoppard's Travesties. In the Sydney Opera House.

I got on a phone to the box office and tell them I'm a semi-broke young backpacker who really wants to see the show tonight. Turns out they have student rush tickets. We made the arrangements, she runs me through the available seats, I gave her my credit card number, finalized the ticket info, then the agent gave a started exclamation and asked to put me on hold. I waited a bit, then she came back on.

“Agh. I'm so, so sorry, I've bunged this all up. We just got you tickets for The Alchemist instead of Travesties.”

“Wait, what?”

“Yeah, there aren't any tickets for Travesties tonight. I'm really sorry about this. Look, if you like, I can cancel this and we can see if there's another night we can get you a ticket, or you can keep the ticket to The Alchemist.”

“Oh. Well, can you tell me about The Alchemist?”

“Yeah, sure, it's a comedy by Ben Jonson, also being performed in the opera house--”

“Hang on, Ben Jonson? As in Shakespeare's contemporary Ben Jonson?”

“Yes that's the one.”

She goes on to read off some of the credits for the show and a quick synopsis that I sort of listen to. The only real thing I knew about Ben Jonson was that he spent most of his time either writing plays or whining about why his Clearly Superior Work got so much less attention than that of his perceived rival, William Shakespeare. I'd never read or seen anything he'd ever done. I even had to look his name up just now to make sure it's not spelled "Johnson." Meanwhile, I'd seen, read, and even performed stuff by Stoppard. So I stuck with the ticket to the Alchemist.

And that's how I ended up inside of a big white building that went several million dollars and ten years over budget. It was designed to look like a set of sails. Its actually a couple buildings joined underground, with at least two stages and a cafe. The stage the show was in wasn't quite as interesting as how it all looked on the outside, but the show was great. They decided to stick everything onstage-- costume racks, extra props, even the stage manager was sitting downstage in the stage-left corner calling cues into her headset and banging her table with a hammer when a knock on the door was called for. And it worked. As for the show, three double-timing crooks swindle half the city, juggling Dutch monks, prizefighters, and widows, greedy nobles, and a tobacconist's apprentice that could be smelled for miles. Plus a big explosion half way through. That's entertainment.

I found out as I left the theater that you can have high tea in the opera house while listening to opera singers sing by your table. Yet another reason I'll have to reprise this whole trip if I become rich and famous: I can visit the opera house with more cash and a wardrobe that hasn't spent half its time crumpled into a backpack for six months (not quite Sydney Opera House high tea style these days).

I headed places where the wardrobe I have is a little more expected, like Manly Beach. I haven't looked up why the community of Manly is called Manly. I didn't see anything amazing more manly about Manly than any other non-Manly beach community I've visited in Australia. But, even if there's a severe lack of intentional puns in even the tackiest of souvenir shops I visited there (all one of them), there are some pretty hilarious accidental ones, like the Manly Drinking Station, or The Manly Grill ("part of Manly Culture"). Possibly the most suggestive one is the address of Manly's Website: If you don't get it, you clearly have a cleaner mind than I.

However, the main image that sticks out a bit in my mind from Manly was not the puns or wordplay, or even the really good surfers and coin-operated beach-side BBQ grills, it was something else I managed to catch on camera. On the beach, I spotted a boy, maybe nine or ten years old, in a full wet suit carrying a surfboard. Coming from a place like Seattle, it never occurred to me that anyone would grow up surfing. I watched him run along, actually sucking his thumb occasionally, and I subtly tried to frame a photo with my camera. That's when I was startled by a sign I realized he was about to run by on the beach. Putting the two in the same frame makes for a story you might want to think about. Here it is.

I've left Sydney now. Sticking around to meet people was well worth the wait, I've gotten inside peeks on things from the huge success of WWF's Earth Hour from a member of the young labor party, to life on a remote wildlife park in Namibia from an animal care specialist and even a peek backstage into Hollywood from a fascinating artist and writer who does storyboards for major motion pictures (as in Return-of-the-Jedi-major), and who just published his first novel. These meetings were not just the "oh that's really neat" variety that you tell your friends about and forget. This is the kind that sits you down hard afterwards and makes you really think about the world, where are you in it, what you want, and what you're going to do. And at my age, that's exactly what I need.

More immediate and bit less... er... heavy, I'm facing another choice. Well, several choices. I've left Sydney for Port Macquarie. I'm eventually going to Brisbane to visit more people. That's settled. I'm checking out the Great Barrier Reef, probably. Aside from that, the East Coast is famous for beautiful beaches and islands, and it's where most Australians live. Most backpackers go there to party. All sounds fantastic, but it also sounds a lot like how people describe the places I'm heading in SE Asia, which will also be a lot more affordable. The middle of Australia contains Alice Springs and Uluru (aka Ayers Rock), a massive natural wonder and full of aboriginal rock art, among other interesting things, but costs an arm and leg to go and see. The west coast has the wild and rugged outback. Less backpackers partying, a lot more natural wild stuff, but it's hard to get around and takes ages to do so because it's mostly big and empty. I fly out of Darwin on the Northwest coast. No matter what I do, I'll have to fly to get there., where do I go?

Check out this entry's Photos.


  1. Joel! Still traveling, great! Let me know if you need a place to stay in Oz or NZ, I have a few friends who are fellow backpackers. Be careful, Seattle!

  2. That sounds like a very clever staging of The Alchemist. Jonson wrote some very funny good stuff and some a bit odd for modern tastes. Worth reading. You'll get more chances to see Stoppard and not Jonson as much.. so good choice and funny how it happened. Your traveler flexibility serves you well. Lv, Anonymom

  3. Man, Jonson is good. I'm glad you got to see it! I'd either go to Alice Springs and the Rock (how often do you get to go places like that?) or the West Coast - places described as hard to get around are frequently worth it.

    Also, where are you going in SE Asia when you get there?

  4. Go for rich, forget the famous. Or be famous but not rich. Both together means no life of your own. (Not that I know from personal experience, you understand). Or better yet, just enough to travel whenever and wherever you want!

  5. Kim- Great to hear from you! Yeah getting down to S.A. was slower than I expected, but I'm past NZ at this point, any connections you can through me for Oz would be great. How's business these days? Did you get a place in Atitlan?

    Ananymom- I keep forgetting you've been reading all these. We'll figure out specific recommendations when I get home, yes? (Or maybe just the next time I'm bored somewhere with a good English library)

    Count C.- I start in Singapore and will be working my way up. I've been hearing a lot about Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam, and I have freinds in Hong Kong. So it'll probably involve all of those, possibly Malaysia as well. We'll see what things look like when I get there.

    As for east vs west vs center, I'm starting to brew a plan where I get all three in, but I'll still want advice so I know how to weight them.

    Catherine- The trick is knowing which places are "rich". The east coast is clearly the famous choice. Actually so is Alice Springs... hang on, are we talking about places or lifestyles here?

  6. Great to read about your trip over in Australia. Enjoyed this section of your blog. You've got interesting travel stories.