Sunday, January 30, 2011

Australia! Australia! Australia! We love you!!! Part I: Melbourne

In Nov 2009 I was sent by my company to Australia to oversee a few store openings. My travels over the 2 week period took me from Melbourne to Sydney and I made sure I gave myself several days for sightseeing in between. The next 4 posts cover the stories and exploits experienced by yours truly during those 2 weeks down under.
My first stop was Melbourne. The city was founded by a man by the name of, no joke, Batman and the settlement's original name was Batmania! Can you imagine??? However after a short time the British, in typical colonial fashion, barged into town, took over the government and renamed it Melbourne. Batman died of syphilis a few years later at 38 years of age. The city is divided in two by the Yarra River, north and south, and there is quite a rivalry between them. Or so it was described to me by a local during a late night conversation over a few beers. The south is clean and stuck-up while the north is gritty and creative (his words, not mine).

Be careful when you're walking around Australia! The hole in the ozone hovers over the entire continent and as a result the UV radiation levels are dangerously high! I discovered this the hard way on my first day there, walking all over Melbourne with nary a drop of sunscreen or a hat atop my head. My day ended with me sunburned and exhausted, crashing into my hotel bed for hours, passed out into the night.
People hang their shoes from lamposts in Australia too!

This is a statue of the smartest man in Melbourne.

People in Melbourne love their Tapas. Most of the restaurants, from luxurious to economical, serve Tapas, which for me is a bit annoying. It means you have to pick out all these little dishes and they add up monetarily, I'm telling you. But I did love the pub atmosphere of their bars, and the bartenders were always friendly. The people in Melbourne like to socialize and drink almost as much as New Yorkers do...I found that quite endearing. I became a regular at a bar in Fitzroy called the Builders Arms, and formed an amicable bond with Sam the bartender. I don't think the bar was that popular but the crowd was always intriguing and Sam would often throw in a free drink or two.

Sam, the bartender.

These objects were decorating someone's window quite randomly.

I found that many of the cab drivers in Melbourne don't know their way around the city so I soon starting taking the trams. Melbourne is a great biking city, but alas I did not rent a bicycle...that would've been the best way. I really loved the Fitzroy neighborhood. Located in the north of town, the Fitzroy is the bohemian section, filled with great places to eat and drink, bookstores and other odds and ends. People walk around barefoot and the building's painted surfaces are peeling off from the burning sun. Gritty and lively, it serves as a good place for a boy from New York to explore. One woman stopped me on the street and said she loved my 'sunners' (sunglasses)! I settled into a great restaurant called Little Creatures and hung out for hours nursing my beer and eating Barramundi. Suddenly the lights went out and a girl hopped up on a table and entertained us with a spirited fire dance.
These sculptures were stuffed into someone's parking lot behind their house.

Melbourne was great and I hope to go back some day. I'll ride my bike around from pub to pub with loads of sunblock applied to my face, smiling.
I discovered these objects on the sidewalk in front of my hotel

Wilsons Prom

I didn't want to leave Australia without getting a chance to see the outback. So I booked a walk in the bush to the Wilsons Promontory, a beautiful nature-preserve about 4 hours from Melbourne on the southern-most tip of mainland Australia. The geography is a combination of coastal dunes, dry low-lying grasslands and jungle-like mangroves. At the southern peninsula are spectacular ocean views from the top of rocky cliffs.

I booked the trip on my first day in Melbourne, but a couple days later I changed hotels and called the service to inform them of my move. I guess they didn't convey the message to the driver because on the day of the trip I waited for an hour while the driver was parked in front of the wrong hotel. I was lucky because they were about to leave without me when I called to inform them of their mistake. Of course by the time they picked me up everyone on the bus was pissed off thinking it was my fault. So I turned the charm on full-blast and over the course of the drive I won them over.

On the way to the Prom we stopped in an artists colony called Fish Creek. It was a beautiful area, nestled into the rolling farmlands of Victoria. I heard the song of an Australian Magpie hiding up in the treetops. It was a very curious and unique sound. As I was commenting on it a local hippie walked by and stopped to talk to us about the Magpie and then proceeded to imitate the bird by cocking his neck back and going "KOOWA!!! COOO!! COOO!!! KOOOOWACOOO!!!!!" I think he scared the real bird away.

Wilson's Prom was hit by a bad fire earlier that year, and much of the grasslands were still charred from the destruction. But the area
was fast repairing itself and you would see a mixture of blackened branches interspersed with lush green foliage. Upon crossing a stream the surroundings suddenly changed and we found ourselves in an ancient jungle that reminded me of the Jurassic period. Only moments later we emerged into a magic setting as we ascended a path enclosed by twisting branches to a view of the ocean at its pinnacle. Breath-taking.

Finally I went for a swim at Squeaky Beach. It's called Squeaky Beach because the sand particles are so fine that they squeak beneath your feet as you walk upon them. The water was freezing!!! But I went in anyway realizing I had never been in the ocean this far south on the southern hemisphere. I was so happy and reveled in the moment.

Saw this heart made of shells on the beach. Romantic.

As we were leaving the Prom we saw a family of kangaroos so our guide stopped the bus to let us take a peak. I separated myself from the pack so I could get a closer look without scaring the marsupials away. I got really close to one and pulled my camera out to take a few shots. However the kangaroo was lying in the sun and had no interest in being the subject of my photographs. He lazily watched me approach and, although I was only steps away from him, didn't move a muscle. He looked entirely bored. Hoping to get a more exciting photo I made a clicking sound with my mouth thinking that would instill more life into him. The sound seemed to startle him and he sprang up to his full height (I would say about 5 feet) staring me right in the eyes. Woah! I was suddenly face to face with a creature I knew nothing about and he looked hostile. I backed slowly away, trying not to look scared (I did manage to take a photo of him in this moment, see below). As I jumped back onto the bus I realized I came awfully close to getting into a fist fight with a kangaroo.

Before: bored kangaroo

After: the kangaroo wanting to kick my ass.

At the end of the day we stopped in a shop to get some eats. Not sure what chicken salt is.

My crew.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Sightings in Sydney

Sydney was my last stop in Australia. Sydney is a beautiful city. The architecture looks like a cross between Chinese vernacular and Queen Anne style. Lots of intimate, twisting roads traversing hills and parks, leaving a sense of discovery around every turn. When strolling around the harbour it reminds me of the San Francisco bay. It very much looks like the bay area in California with its green hills spotted with little houses and such. Besides being known for its famous panoramic view of the Opera House and Bridge, the harbour also has a notable place in Rock 'n Roll history. In 1957 Little Richard was on his first Australian tour and during his stadium performance in front of 40,000 fans he saw a ball of fire scorch across the night sky. Although it turned out to be the Soviet satellite, Sputnik 1, he took it as a sign from God that he should end his sinful life in rock music and become a devout man. He threw his $8,000 ring into the Sydney Harbour and flew back to the US to become an evangelist.

My first night in Sydney I ate at a r
estaurant right on the harbour with a view of the Opera House. I sat at the oyster bar next to an older couple and we soon struck up a conversation. They were from Adelaide and were here on their honeymoon. They asked why the US doesn't have government-sponsored health care to which I simply shrugged my shoulders, "Don't ask me I just live there." Although the food was delicious (the oysters from Australia are huge!!!) the service was terrible. When I ordered my VERY expensive meal the waiter asked me if I would like a side dish to go with it. I assumed that meant there would be none included in my entree so I asked for a side of mashed potatoes. When the waiter came back with my plate of fish and mashed potatoes I dug in. However a moment later the waiter came back with an enormous mountain of mashed potatoes on a plate. "What the hell is this???" I asked. "Your side of mashed potatoes", the waiter said. "Oh my God, why would I want a side of mashed potatoes with a meal that already comes with mashed potatoes???" I was just laughing, thinking what a riot this was, but the waiter was not amused and brought the manager over. I couldn't believe the staff was actually mad at me for this simple misunderstanding. I soon realized this was a common scam in Sydney for the waiter to offer a side dish with your already all-encompassing meal.

Look at all the different people that walk around Sydney!

The next day I headed to Bondi Beach. It was a recommended spot by a local I met on the flight from Melbourne. I rode the bus there which took forever. I had no idea where to get off and the bus just wound through the neighborhoods with no clear direction. I finally decided to get off and just walk. It was a great beach with small, lapping waves and topless bathing beauties. The water was freezing and I had already learned in Melbourne how potent the sun's rays were, so after a short while I found a shady spot and took a nap. A friend lived in Bondi and we met up for a margarita in a hole in the wall Mexican restaurant overlooking the ocean. I wondered what Mexican food tasted like in Australia, but I didn't try it. That very afternoon I ate a delicious Cajun chicken sandwich in a joint owned by a South American guy, so you never know.
On my last day in Sydney I walked the Botanical Gardens and stumbled upon a huge outdoor rave. So many people dressed in day-glo with the techno beats thumping to great raucous abandon. I can't believe there's still an audience for this stuff. I wondered what all the trees thought of the intense beats reverberating onto their trunks and leaves. As the sun began to set I found myself surrounded by the largest bats I'd ever seen in my life. The Australian Flying Foxes live in the gardens by the thousands and come out at night, screeching and bellowing as they open their 5 foot wingspan into the enveloping dusk. It was terrifying, mainly because they were shitting and pissing as they went.

The giant Flying Foxes of Australia. See the next post for my video footage.

Mystical tree in the Botanical Gardens

This funny-looking tree was falling over and was tied to another tree for support.
I ended my Australia trip at the Sydney Opera House. It was so magical at night, its brightly-lit concrete sails piercing the dark Harbour sky. There was a large, outdoor bar in front and I ordered a vodka tonic, to which the bartender served me a vodka soda. Oh well. Australia, you're not perfect, but I'm glad I got to know ya and I hope to see you again sometime!

Moving images from Down Under

Here are a few quick movies I shot in Australia...

The first one is of the giant bats of Sydney, or Flying Foxes. I discovered them while wandering around the Botanical Gardens at twilight. Very eerie.

Stumbled upon this amusing scene while walking The Rock in Sydney.

A view of Sydney Harbour. Reminded me of that David Bowie video, let's dance.

The view out my window while descending into cloud-covered New York.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Goodbye to the ol' fruit vendor?

Recently the building I work in started renovating the lobby. It’s going to be a 3 month process and during this time the main entrance is closed and all the employees have to use the back door. As a result my typical morning approach has shifted 1 block south. On my typical route I would always stop by the same fruit vendor on the corner and buy 2 apples. Each apple was 50 cents and the vendor, who spoke no English, would happily complete each transaction with a pleasant smile. It had become a part of my daily routine. But since the lobby renovations, my alternate route has lead me away from this morning ritual and I haven’t seen my fruit vendor in weeks.

Today, a glitch in my commute took me down the old familiar street and, realizing I would pass the fruit vendor, I instinctively reached in my pocket for a dollar to buy 2 apples. But as I approached the fruit stand something looked different. The cart was set up strangely and a large canopy shaded the produce. A man I didn’t recognize was arranging the fruit and it suddenly dawned on me that this wasn’t my usual vendor. I immediately felt a bit out of place and I kept my distance as I looked closely to notice the apples were 75 cents each! I looked at my dollar as my heart sank. I would either need an extra 50 cents to buy the pair or would be left with a quarter in change. I stood there confused for a moment, then, putting my dollar back in its pocket, walked away with no apples wondering what happened to the usual fruit guy. I may never know.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

The origin of birthday celebrations

I thought a good post on the "birth" of the new year would be a short study on birthdays. I've often wondered about how we came to celebrate people's birthdays. It seems so universal now that it's almost as if we've always had birthday celebrations in people's honor. But that is certainly not the case.

First of all, birthdays couldn't exist without the creation and knowledge of a calendar. And a calendar marking the passing of time was not universal until very recently. Ancient Egyptians had a calendar based on the solar phases and they were the first documented civilization to celebrate birthdays. But birthday celebrations were reserved for only the Pharaohs, not common folk or women or children. The Ancient Greeks loved birthdays and even celebrated them with a cake and candles, much like we do today. But again, this was only for men of some social standing. As many people know, the birthday song was originally written in the late nineteenth century as a children's song called "good morning to you" but eventually morphed into the birthday song we're all familiar with today.

My theory is that the celebration of birthdays is a very western tradition. Ancient tribes and Eastern philosophies do not put emphasis on the individual, rather in nature as a whole. The self-importance of every individual is something only adopted during the Humanism Renaissance and developed fully in the Age of Enlightenment in Europe and the American colonies. Before that I would imagine that hardly anybody celebrated birthdays, and if they did it would be reserved only for gods and nobility. In more primitive cultures, where there are no kingdoms or defined leaders, there are probably no birthday celebrations.

So happy birthday 2011. May you bring us good fortune for your entire duration. Until you die and 2012 takes your place.