w r i n k l e d
ADVENTURES IN TRAVEL, WRITING AND AGING GRACEFULLY
This is terribly un-PC of me, but I was sort of expecting to hate Beijing. Not just the smog and communism, but frankly, I thought I would hate the people. See? Very un-PC of me. Why the assumption? In the last few months we've encountered many fellow travelers, but none more boisterous, pushy and culturally insensitive, and as in as great a number!, as the Chinese. I'm not kidding. They are everywhere, walking around fancy restaurants with their shirt pulled up to reveal a bulging, naked belly. Indulging in the hotel breakfast buffet for all four hours. Pushing past you and your kids to fight to the front of the line. Putting their hands under the public bathroom sink while you're still washing yours. Straddling sacred sculptures and monuments for photo ops. And then there is the constant goober hocking and farmers' blows. You can read all about it in the paper – the woman who pulled down her son’s pants in a middle of a crowded restaurant to let him pee into the water bottle that she keeps in her purse for just this purpose. The sign outside the Louvre in Paris, stating in Mandarin only, that one must not defecate on the surrounding grounds. And during our time in Macau and Hong Kong we heard plenty of people talk smack about their neighbors.
But with so much expendable income, the Chinese are everywhere. Last year alone, 100 million Chinese traveled outbound, and in the next 5 years, their numbers are expected to double. In response, China's Ministry to Tourism has created a list of traveler do's and don'ts to improve the country's reputation abroad. Among the tips: flush the toliet, no pushing in lines, don't vandalize sacred objects, keep your socks on in public spaces. Oh boy.
Yet I really, really wanted to walk the Great Wall of China and after much scampering about trying to get a last minute visa, we discovered that if we kept our visit to under 72 hours, we'd be able to scooch in and out without one. Unfortunately, 72 hours is just not enough time. Beijing is gray, smoggy, sprawling, difficult, complicated, and completely and utterly fascinating. The city is fully aware of its economic super power status and one can't help but feel its blossoming potential and along with it, its arrogant authority. People in Beijing work hard, move fast and contrary to my expectations, can be extremely warm and friendly. Plus, the Great Wall of China is all (and more!) that it's cracked up to be.
Why did I think Beijing would be congested and squat? The city is wide, orderly and dare I say, sophisticated.
As soon as we checked into the hotel we dropped our bags and ran around the corner to the famous Dadong Roast Duck Restaurant. The huge restaurant takes its Peking duck seriously. Chefs, with stoic, surgical precision, carve super lean ducks table-side. Pricey, but when in China, a must-do.
While in Beijing we stayed at the comfortable Marriott Executive Apartments. The apartment was very spacious with fancy bathrooms, great work out facilities, pool, etc. But, lest you forget you are in China, the hot water was limited, so were the newspapers, and after spending an hour on the phone with IT, we realized the reason we could not access our gmail accounts, Google or Facebook was not because of a wonky internet connection, but because we were in COMMUNIST CHINA. Duh!
And as if the constant body searches weren't enough, every time we entered a public park, train station, museum, etc., all bags needed to be screened. This made for long lines at the subway.
Chris and I dragged ourselves out of bed at 4:30 a.m. to watch the honor guard of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) march at precisely 108 paces per minute, 75cm per pace to raise China's national flag. The ceremony, which takes place every single morning, is accompanied by a chorus singing the national anthem, dignitaries dressed in traditional garb and, of course, a throng of tour groups.
No trip to Beijing would be complete without a visit to the Forbidden City, home to ancient imperial rulers and closed to the public for 500 years. Yes, it's a beautifully preserved piece of history, but my favorite were the looming, gnarled trees of the imperial Garden.
While we were wandering the Forbidden City, a man spied Oona and asked if she would mind being photographed with his son. Oona obliged, but after he took this shot, he said in Chinese, "Now take her hand and pretend she is your girlfriend!" Oona just laughed, but the mortified boy turned red, shouted "No!" and ran away.
The street food in Beijing is fantastic. Sold in little shops, carts and off the backs of bikes, you'll never go hungry walking the streets. We sat on tiny plastic chairs to nosh fantastic steamed pork buns and then finished snack time with candied crab apples and strawberries.
We spent three hours looking for a restaurant Sylvia had recommended in the aptly named Hidden City complex. We finally gave up and walked into the nearest spot. No one spoke English and we were the only tourists there, but the food was authentic and delicious. Being Korean, I'm not one to shy away from heat, but some of the food in Beijing was too hot to handle even for me. Twenty chopped peppers for like four shrimp.
Beijing used to be made up of hutongs, little warren-like alleyways that separate one neighborhood from the next. Most have been bulldozed to make room for wide roads and high rises, but a few, the most authentic ones located around the Forbidden City, remain. Life in the hutongs remain slow and secret with signs that keep out the curious eyes of tourists.
But one hutong that is decidedly not shy is Hutong Nanluoguxiang, a great little area for shopping, people watching and tea drinking. It's one of the few colorful places in otherwise somber Beijing.
How can you come to Beijing and not see acrobats? I took Chris and the kids to see the Golden Mask Dynasty show (think acrobats in Las Vegas produced on a big stage by Olympic director Zhang Yimou). Their jaws literally dropped when a waterfall raged down and around the sides of the stage. But my favorite was the peacock dance, when a dozen dainty women floated around the stage with giant birds perched atop their heads. As the last notes played, the peacocks alit and flew off the stage. Outstanding!
Beijing's contribution to China's culinary landscape is the ever important snack. Our hotel was across the street from Wangfujing Snack Street where you can get just about anything on a stick.
Name your poison (no pun intended): seahorse, baby cobra, scorpion, starfish or silk worm? Yum.
We took the train 70km to Badaling to climb the Great Wall of China. Normal tourists hire a car and driver, but cheapskates like us take public trans. Train seats were sold out so we spread out a map and popped a squat. The locals came better prepared boarding with floor cushions and picnic snacks.
We missed the train back so had to take a bus. It was crowded, hot and we had to stand for much of the nearly 2 hour long journey. The kids, especially Prince Isoo, were not happy. But many of the ladies on-board offered to sit the kids on their laps. The ticket taker finally yelled at a young man and made him give up his seat for the kids to share. No, the police will not give you directions and no one speaks a lick of English, but Beijingers are curious and friendly. It didn't matter that we couldn't speak Mandarin, they would gather around us, talking animatedly, patting the kids' heads or butts as we smiled and nodded dumbly. When they had had enough of their one-sided conversation, they would wave and move on. While Chinese tourists could use some practice in the art of cultural sensitivity, while on their home turf, they are absolutely lovely.
We made it! These pictures just do not do it justice. Constructed in the 7th century and over 5,500 miles long, it is an architectural wonder. Imagine, huge stones dragged up the steep incline, tamped down with mud, and snaking on the spine of a mountain wide enough to accommodate five horses abreast.
And bonus: We caught it just as the cherry blossoms were starting to bloom. Beijing, I'll be back, next time with stops in Taiwan and Shanghai.
In my time visiting Carol, I had questions: Why move to Hong Kong? What’s life like here? How long will you stay? Don’t you want to go home? Isn’t life here harder? Why is this life of uncertainty better? These questions, I know, are directed as much toward myself as to her. We are, though a decade apart, constantly searching, trying to make for ourselves and our families, a home. She may be my little cousin, but I sought her wisdom. After a week inundated with questions, Carol finally confessed, “Cheong, I’m not sure what comes next, but I know I don’t want to have a mediocre life.”
Needless to say, Carol is pretty cool. Not in the funky-haircut-hipster-clothes way that no one really cares about, but in the way that if she were a donut, her center would be an enthusiastic, emotional, all-in, creamy filling of goodness. So of course is her husband, except Shannon is very sensible, laid back, dry, hilarious and smart. They are the same good penny, opposite sides. Too bad their kids are so horrible. Kidding. Ava and Josiah are the best. The only thing that could have made our time in Hong Kong better was to have her brother Charles, his wonderful wife Sunny, and their two kids join us for an extended family vacation. Poof!
Good thing we got a chance to rest up in Macau because there is a lot to do in Hong Kong and Carol was raring to show us all of it (or kill us trying). A typical day had us up and out at 7:30 am to board a mini bus to the train station where we would meet up with Carol & Co., and then ride the spotlessly clean, super efficient subway to Charles & Co. Some days we’d have urban adventures (Disneyland, Victoria Peak to view the harbor and skyscrapers, the fantastic science museum). Other days were spent watching the fishermen peddle their goods in the bustling seaside village of Sai Kung or swimming in Cheung Chau island. But that’s the really cool thing about Hong Kong – city and nature, old and new, East and West all intermingled in one. It’s a fascinating blend. And despite its citizens’ apprehension as Hong Kong makes its 50 year transition from British to Chinese rule, it will be interesting to witness the transformation of the city and its people.
After eight months of being just the four of us, we had suddenly grown to a group of 12. Crossing an intersection I loved how easily and thoughtlessly Remy or Ava would slip their hand into mine. Sunny caught me up on all the news from home. Charles was always game for tasting something unusual. Shannon and Carol played tour guide and shared their HK knowledge. Everyone had a buddy. Head counts at every exit and entrance. Always someone to play with, to talk to, a hand to hold, a tired little body to carry. On our last night we went into Hong Kong Island for a hot pot dinner. We said our good-byes at the train station with endless shouts and one more hug. After they finally disappeared through the turnstile, Chris turned to us and said, "Well, it's just us again". We all felt such a deep sense of loss and loneliness. But there was no time for crying. We wiped our tears, packed our bags and geared up for Beijing.
You know the trip is going to be good when you get this kind of welcome.
You can get most everything in Hong Kong, except good bagels. This would leave me moaning and groaning, but that's not Carol's way. Instead she just Googles a recipe and viola! fresh homemade bagels hot out of the oven.
Carol & Co. live in the New Territories, about an hour commute from Hong Kong island. Yes, it takes awhile to get to the major sights, but this is the view from the back of their apartment! Another perk? You don't need to don a mask just to take out the trash.
Our view wasn't so shabby either. When we returned from visiting Sylv in Macau, we found that Shannon and Carol had schlepped all of our luggage to a great little apartment in the next village over (even stocking the fridge with groceries!). While their friends were out of town, we crashed in their place and got to drink coffee every morning to this view. Thanks Luke and Natasha for the fabulous stay!
The best cure for jet lag? Noodles, the Chinese breakfast of champions. Charles & Co. hung in there despite a long day of travel.
We stopped by the awesome school where Shannon teaches 6th grade. These very smart kids clearly love their teacher.
Hanging with Bruce at Madame Tussauds.
In the late 1800s, the British settled Victoria Peak to evade the deadly bout of bubonic plague that had overtaken Hong Kong. To protect themselves from the disease, escape the heat and humidity in the valley, and secure the city's best views, Europeans built mansions and lodges at the top and then passed an ordinance barring Chinese from the Peak. We took the tram, but in the olden days, the Europeans traveled by chairmen - sedan chairs heaved up the super steep mountain by the Chinese. Another example of racist policy making? The Light and Pass Ordinance requiring Chinese to carry lanterns while walking the streets after sundown (so Europeans could see them coming and avoid potential criminal activity). The ordinances have long been appealed, and today HK is 93% ethnic Chinese.
Bombarding Carol with questions as we stroll the hiking paths of Victoria Peak.
We celebrated Remy's birthday with a trip to Disneyland. The Hong Kong version is smaller and more manageable than its American counterpart, but just as crowded and fun (no snark intended).
Chris, Isoo and Shannon decided to skip the crowds at Disney and went birding instead. This was just one of two days Shannon took Isoo birding. It's safe to say that Shannon is at the top of Isoo's list of favorite people. Honestly, Shannon's pretty high on my list, too. Not only is he funny, patient and kind, but he forfeited his Spring Break to wake up early every day to help Carol cook, clean, shop and escort her crazy family all over HK. It was a treat to finally get to know Shannon and spend some time with him.
Carol took us all over town. And I mean ALL OVER. I think our biggest transport day had us on a taxi, ferry, bus, bus, train, mini bus, taxi. Our Octopus (transit) Card got a serious work out. But it was a great way to see the city and understand the sprawl of HK.
Skyscrapers and everything! Assuming the position.
Subway station somewhere.
I'm sure at one point the glimmering overpasses, skyscrapers and double-decker buses gave HK Island a futuristic feel. While that may still be the case, the city is starting to show some signs of wear and tear. Mixed in with big buildings are dated towers riddled with ugly balconies and heaving AC units.
Another indicator of the passage of time: Occupy Central. Students continue to line the streets to protest China's proposed electoral reforms, restricting the selection of candidates to those prescribed by Beijing. Many see this violation as a precursor to the changes that will slowly take place in Hong Kong, and fear for the wider, sweeping reforms once the "one country, two systems" amendment expires.
Added to the "Yet another thing I didn't know" file: Hong Kong's domestic helper community is comprised of young Fillipina workers. While they don't get paid much, its more than they would make back at home so they come with the hope of working for a couple of years, saving and then returning back to their homeland. Domestic helpers typically work 6 days a week, taking on tasks such as cleaning, cooking and childcare. Hong Kong law stipulates that in order to work here, they must live-in with their employers. Homes often have a "helper room" in the back of the apartment for just this purpose - a tiny space with a single bed piled high with all of their belongings. Unions have been fighting to change the live-in policy claiming that the law makes domestic helpers more susceptible to physical and sexual abuse. In the meanwhile, as their current situation doesn't afford much space or privacy to entertain, every Sunday thousands of helpers gather near the HSBC Building in Central Hong Kong. They listen to Fillipino music, share their native foods and trade news about life back home.
My favorite HK memory - always having a little hand to hold. Chris and Ava.
Goofing with the cousins.
We took the ferry to the supposedly quaint, sleepy town of Cheung Chau to ride bikes and swim at the beach. Surprisingly, by mid-day, the little island was packed to the gills and it was hard to find a grain of sand on which to stand. We had to wait hours for a spot on the return ferry. Thankfully, the kids (and we) managed to keep each other entertained.
Cheung Chau is a tiny fishing village just 10km southwest of Hong Kong Island. The island is known for its annual Bun Festival, a joyous four day celebration that culminates in the climbing of a giant bamboo tower covered in Chinese buns. For awhile it was also referred to as "Death Island" due to a spate of charcoal-fire suicides that took place in holiday homes in the early 2000s. Renters would light charcoal fires in a sealed room, thereby perishing from carbon monoxide poisoning. It became such a popular method of suicide that the Chinese government replaced charcoal grills in public parks with gas grills, and charcoal manufacturers began printing messages of "Treasure Your Life" on its packing. Nowadays the island is known for its great beaches and narrow, winding streets.
We all went to Easter Sunday service at Carol and Shannon's church. The kids had fun at Sunday School, but the real treat for Isoo was hearing Carol play guitar and sing in the choir (a.k.a. rock band) with Charles guest spotting on drums. Isoo was so impressed he wanted me to 1. Take pictures (wish I did!) and 2. Start going to church. I didn't want to break it to him that not all churches are as super cool as theirs, but I promised we'd try to find the right place for us when we return home.
As for the rest of the day, we had to clear out of the apartment for Luke and Natasha's return. While Chris and I packed up and checked us into a hotel, Carol and Shannon took the kids to an Easter egg hunt and party, and then kept them for a sleepover. Chris and I had our first date night in months! - a great dinner, uninterrupted conversation and a stroll around Temple Street Night Market.
We spent the next morning on the phone with our accountant doing taxes, Shannon took Isoo birding (again) and the rest of the gang took a boat to Hep Mun Bay. Afterwards we all met up in Sai Kung to watch the fishermen sell their catch while Sunny and I failed to stop each other from eating all of the dried squid.
Oona and Colette at Hep Mun Bay.
The pretty ladies of Sai Kung.
In the market for some fresh fish? Sai Kung is the place to go. Make your selection from the pier and the fisherman will send up your purchase in a fishing net.
If you don't want to cook at home visit one of the dockside restaurants. Tanks and tanks overflow with fresh fish.
This hot pot dinner was the last of many great meals in HK. Among the new foods we were able to try - chicken feet (belch), durian (double blech), fish balls stuffed with mozzarella cheese (not bad, but very weird), spicy curry fish balls (yay!). But our hands down favorite meals were at "shirtless man restaurant" where Shannon wowed us with his ability to order dim sum in Cantonese and we were treated to, you guessed it, shirtless men.
The many faces of durian.
Hong Kong sightseeing casualty of the day: Remy (though nearly every kid took a turn on someone's shoulder). Actually, I was impressed by the kids' stamina! Lots of sightseeing and long days on public transport and they all managed to stay happy and cheerful.
Aunt Carol with the crew. My of my favorite pics of HK.
I am going to do something I am not supposed to do. I'm going to put Macau, Hong Kong and Beijing in the same post. Before you start yelling, I totally know that these are very separate administrations, languages and cultures, but I am just too behind to write the three separate posts that these amazing locations deserve. But the one thing in common? We had an amazing time in each.
We endured another 17 hour travel day to drag our sorry selves from Australia to Hong Kong. Despite our late arrival time, my cousin Carol insisted on taking the bus an hour from her village in the New Territories to meet us at the airport. For the record, I really did try to keep her at home, but she showed up anyway and frankly, she was a sight for sorry eyes. Carol and her brother Charles are a good 10 years my junior, which means that while she was still swinging on a playset, I was long in NYC, being the world's biggest college nerd. By the time I'd returned to Chicago, she had lived in as disparate places as Guinea, Africa, Southern Illinois, and most recently, Hong Kong. She was, as long as I could remember, the little sister I'd always wanted.
But in Hong Kong, she was the big boss and she, her husband Shannon and her two kids kicked off the trip by touring us around the school where Shannon taught. About the school, Isoo (a.k.a., world's pickiest child) said it most succinctly: If I had three wishes in the world, I would use one wish to ask that I go to this school. Of course he only went to one class - gym, which lasted for 72 minutes and during which time they played soccer. The students were incredibly well-behaved and welcoming, the staff friendly, the amenities great. Oh and Isoo made, a super cool new buddy Ben so what isn't there to love about this school?
After school we met up with my other cousin Sylvia, who took the ferry over from Macau to take us to fancy drinks over a fancy view and a terrific dinner that we tried very valiantly not to sleep through (darn jet lag!). If Carol is my cool little cousin, that Sylv is my cool older cousin. You know - the one that always disappears during family events to go to some crazy party. The cousin that's been everywhere and knows people with boats and the perfect place to hang out and oh yeah, can hook you up with a ridiculously plush room at the Banyan Tree Resort. Despite being in the throes of an intense work schedule, she carted us to all over Macau, introducing us to really some great people, treated us to so many fantastic meals and spoiled the kids rotten, complete with huge American breakfasts of JOHNSONVILLE SAUSAGES, AMERICAN BACON, and french toast with MAPLE SYRUP. After months of adapting to rashers, various cold breads and noodles for breakfast, the kids were so excited to see their beloved American products. Honestly, after what was a fun, but "rugged" tour of NZ, it was such a treat to be well-cared for and pampered. It came at just the perfect time and was more recuperative, fun and generous than we deserve.
As for Macau, I found it much more interesting than expected. As a special administrative region of China, it had been under Portugal's rule from the 16th century till its handover in 1999. Now it's Asia's, gambling mecca grossing $45 billion annually (7 times that of Vegas' earning). Sylv always referred to it as Jersey to Hong Kong's New York (more like Atlantic City, I say), but after having been to Portugal and learning about its history of exploration and discovery, I found it fascinating to see its art, architecture, culture and food echoed and adapted to Chinese tastes. There's a great canvas tile at the foot Padrao dos Descobrimentos that charts all of the land conquered during the Age of Discovery. It's amazing to think that at one point, Portugal controlled much of the world (for about a minute). While it's lost much of its influence and economic power and is in recent years, struggling for solvency, it's pretty cool to see its historical significance playing out in Macau. It was a great lesson in showing the kids how interconnected the world is, and why history, even 100 years later, still matters. It was also a little weird to see Chinese people walking around what looked like little Lisbon, with a big fat does of Las Vegas, I mean.
Before we embarked on the hour long ferry ride from HK to Macau, Sylv took us to the IFC building for fancy drinks on the rooftop terrace. Think young folks with hip clothes and hair cuts hanging out with a view of glimmering high rises and old-fashioned junks. No wonder HK is referred to as the Chinese Manhattan.
Sylv introduced us to her good friends Miguel and Cristina, their adorable kids and her other buddy, Eddie, at Fernando's, a famous Portuguese restaurant near the seaside in the charming Cologane Village. The food and company could not be beat. We gorged ourselves on fresh seafood while Miguel and Cristina, expat Portuguese, told us what it's like to be Portuguese in Macau. They, as well the rest of the world, are curious as to what will happen once the 50 year "one country, two systems" amendment expires and Macau's government officially reverts to Chinese law. Until then, its business as usual.
After Miguel and Cristina so generously treated us to lunch, we strolled Hac Sa beach and hiked along the water's rock formations. Hac Sa, as its name implies, is technically a black sand beach, but after recent erosion, the shoreline was supplimented by yellow sand, giving the beach an interesting striation of colors.
Oona and Maria became fast friends because, you know, these two girls are so shy. Walking the rocky coastline.
All smiles with Sylv.
Macau consists of the Macau peninsula and the two islands of Taipa and Coloane, which were connected by a landfill to create Cotai, We hopped a cab from Sylv's modern high-rise in Taipa to hit the sights in Macau Peninsula. Walking the windy streets near St. Paul's is a trip: colonial era European architecture mixed with more recent Macau low-rises. Signs in both Portuguese and Cantonese. Shops selling Pastel de Nata and Chinese beef jerky.
Largo do Senado, where dragon dancers lounge among classic Portuguese tile work.
The Ruins of St. Paul. Commissioned by the Portuguese, designed by an Italian, built by Chinese and Japanese craftsmen, and placed on a hill on the Macau Peninsula. The facade includes a fascinating blend of Asian and Western images - Jesus, doves, lotus blossoms, dragons and Mary crushing a seven headed hydra.
St. Paul's Ruins are Macau's most famous sight, but not its most popular attraction. That would have to be the casinos. Casino Lisboa is an oldie, built in the 60s.
Before checking into our digs at the Banyan Tree, we walked through the Venetian and took the kids to Carnevale. Oona especially, loved the glitz and glamour.
And we were spoiled by too much great food. With the exception of the chicken feet, the dim sum here is outrageous. Some dining tips from Sylv and Shannon: Raise your hand for service, bring your own napkins/tissues and reserve the specially colored chopsticks for serving. Since the SARS outbreak in 2002 that resulted in nearly 800 deaths, empty rice bowls arrive in a larger bowl of boiled water to indicate that all utensils and eating vessels have been properly sanitized.
When I say our hotel room was sweet, I mean it. Here is one of two relaxation pools in our room (the other is a Japanese soaking tub). THANK YOU AGAIN, SYLVIA!!!! We are not worthy!
Or if you prefer, you can get wet outside in the wave pool.
After Sylv went back to work (boo!), Carol, Shannon and their kids joined us in Macau for an afternoon of sightseeing. We went back to the ruins.
Counted the cannons at the top of Macau Fortress Hill.
And tromped around the Mandarin's House.
Thanks for an awesome time, Sylvia. And to the cousins, you should definitely plan a visit!
While in Thailand, I met an Aussie. I told her that I was contemplating a stop in NZ and Australia to which she responded, “If you go to Australia, you should check out Sydney. But if you only have time for Australia OR New Zealand, definitely pick New Zealand.” I’m not saying Australia is not worth a visit, but I couldn’t agree with her more. I expected Sydney to be a laid back, hip, amazingly beautiful, friendly place and sadly, it didn’t quite meet all of my expectations. In a nutshell: the weather was fine, the beaches are gorgeous, the food was a little bland, the people not very nice, and the sights underwhelming.
I know this sounds vaguely Naomi Campbell of me, but at this point, I was desperate for a day sitting on the couch, watching Grey's Antamony and drinking red wine. For a pea-brain like me, it's hard work to research and learn stuff every single day. And unless it's like, super amazing, I was in serious need of a nap. So maybe Sydney wasn't boring. Maybe I just needed to be bored. Nonetheless, here it is,
We had rented a tiny house in the Paddington area, a little suburb known for charming cottages with wrought iron terraces, cute cafes, boutique shops and a great Saturday market. While the house itself was pretty gross, I could very well have happily spent our entire trip kicking around Paddington, especially the sprawling Centennial Park with its great running trails, playgrounds, and much to Isoo’s delight, fantastic birding. I said it once, but I’ll say it again: When possible, eschew the touristy areas for local neighborhoods. Get up and run in the park with the locals, wander grocery shops to get a sense of traditional foods, see the kids come home from school in their uniforms, pick a neighborhood café and make it yours. It’s the best way to meet people and get a sense of local life. It’s also a welcome respite from the anonymous hustle and bustle of the generic hotel.
This is going to blow your mind, but the Sydney Opera House is NOT white. The 1,056,000 self cleaning tiles are, in fact, cream-colored. The day we visited was overcast so the Opera House seemed dingier and smaller than I'd imagined. We also took a walk through the small, tidy Botanical Garden and along very crowded Sydney Harbor. Sadly, there was none of the picturesque gleaming whiteness.
The day we visited just happened to be National Greek Day so the area was filled to capacity with Greek nationals, and cheesy Miami Beach-like club hoppers. It was like a contest to see which could be louder - the amplified Greek folk songs or the thumping hip-hop Opera Bar soundtrack. Not sure who won, but I definitely lost.
We took a bus to the quintessentially Australian Bondi Beach and did the coastal walk to Bronte Beach to spend the afternoon digging in the sand. Yes, there were the requisite long-haired surfers, golden bikini babes and picturesque blue waves tipped with white surf. But I was thrilled and surprised by the breathtaking rock formations and very cool rock pools that lined the shores. Sydney’s beaches absolutely deserve the hype.
What are rock pools, you ask? Australia's known for their killer waves: great for surfing, but a little rough for kids, a challenge for lap swimmers and can harbor the occasional shark. So every swimming beach has a protected salt water pool carved out of the rock. Here you can enjoy the sun and float peacefully around the chlorine free pool. Or not!
Another good thing - Art Gallery NSW's free Asian Art show. It was an incredibly well-curated show repurposing medium used in traditional Asian art in contemporary form. It was smart, fun and the kids loved the awesome children's trails. And did I mention the free admission?
I don’t know if it’s because of Australia's long history of discriminating against racial minorities (see White Australia policy, Chinese Exclusion Act, second class treatment of Aboriginals) or because Aussies don't like Americans(?), but I was frustrated and disappointed by the way we were treated in Sydney. We were spoiled by the warm welcome we received in NZ, but with very few exceptions, the Aussies we encountered seemed hostile. There was none of the famous Aussie laid-back friendliness depicted in the U.S. media. Cabbies and servers had no interest in answering questions or serving us. Bus drivers would flat out ignore us. I was berated loudly and sternly by an airport official who threatened me with a $300 fine for having my cellphone out several hundred feet from the Customs desk (while ignoring everyone else who was texting in much closer proximity). Restauranteurs definitely did us a favor by serving us.
The one exception were Steve and Begly, two older gentlemen Isoo and I met while birding Centennial Park. While Chris and Oona spent the day petting koalas and kangas at the behind-the-scenes tour of the Taronga Zoo, Steve and Begly took Isoo under their wing (wink wink), letting us trail them for several hours while schooling him on local birds. Isoo was in heaven.
You didn't seriously think you'd get away without seeing a koala bear, did you?
Next up after my nap? Back to Asia to reconnect with family in Macau and Hong Kong.