“Are you an American,” I'm asked by an elderly man on the street.
“No,” I reply, “I'm a Canadian.”
His wife looks at me quizzically, spinning me around, searching my backpack for a patch, or some other clue that might hint at the truth of my statement. Were she to have known better, the M.E.C. logo would have been proof enough. Finding nothing she spins me back.
“You know,” her husband jumps in once more, “you really ought to put a patch on your pack. Something to let people know. They might mistake you for an American.”
One beat goes by, perfectly timed, before his wife snarls a half smile, “and that's not good in this country.”
This is what I get for asking where the post office is. Hot tips about how to avoid undeserved trouble based on my country of origin. You'd think I was walking through the bombed out streets of Baghdad, rather than Sydney, Australia. It's bad enough that the country holds Americans in such an unfriendly light by way of their exchange rates – the Canadian dollar exchanges at a much more generous rate than the America, despite its relative value on the world market. But no, here I am being told by a nice charming elderly couple, that I should watch myself for fear people think I'm a Yank.
What I find most interesting, is that couldn't I not easily fall under the assumption that I'm a travelling Aussie? I've seen a number of them sporting beards, carrying packs, and dressed the same as me. Although, I don't have hemp necklaces, and I do tend to shower once a day. These factors may mark me as an outsider to this regime.
I am reminded of my trip across Canada in 2006, when – in Calgary – a homeless man thought that I, myself, was homeless. To be fair, I did look it. Imagine me, but in unwashed clothes – and unshowered, except for the odd hair wash in Tim Horton's single locking bathrooms. Then add on my poncho, an raggedy boots. It was an interesting insight into the culture, the next hour was.
The more things change.
But no, I'm now out and about, trying to defend myself with the songs of Oh! Canada, a song title with an exclamation mark, just to make sure you know it's time to – as Gerald from Camp Robin Hood, in years back, would have said - “be excited!”
For what it's worth, though, I did end up finding the post office, despite the fact that the couple gave me the directions back when they thought I was an American. Perhaps it was a trap? A plot? Just bad advice to send me on my merry way to nowhere. And with that post office, a post card was mailed. Success for all!
With that, I headed off into the afternoon.
My morning took me to Darling Harbour. Despite its prominent placement on the map, I had so far avoided taking a walk down that way. But today would be different. Rather than just going to the Circular Quay, I would walk west. This one choice led me to a whole new set of wonders and until this time, unseen, buildings. First – five or ten meters west of my hostel – was the theatre where Wicked was playing. I do so love the musical, but with ticket prices set at $100.00 it was out of my price range. Going to see a musical by myself? Well, it's not unheard of. But I'd only do it on the cheap. Seriously Sydney, one hundred bucks for Wicked? Even the afternoon showing of it? Very well. You'll price as you'll price. (I lie – Wednesday's 1pm show? Only seventy dollars. This does me no good, as it is now Friday June 25th, and that show isn't until I've flown out.)
Continuing on, I passed through China Town – the gates looming large. Apparently I am situated in China Town. This would explain all the Chinese restaurants, now that I think of it. Across from the Chinese strip was Paddy's Market. Which seemed to be a mall of some sort? I would check it out later, I told myself, and walked on. A man on a mission.
I passed the Chinese gardens, with a price of six dollars for admission. I assumed they'd be a lot like the Chinese run Japanese gardens in San Francisco. Also, you know where I'd seen a lot of Chinese plants and architecture lately? China.
I continued on.
The exhibition centre was just in front of me, and walking past it – along with all number of water... things – little artificial rivers with small rapids in them, and fountains shooting up into the air, rather unimpressively – I made my way closed to the harbour. Getting there would require navigating around many Fifa entertainment areas fenced off. All empty and abandoned, signs promising their coming to life once night arrived.
The harbour itself? Well, I don't know what I was expecting. But something a little bit – more. I had high hopes that it would be a fantastic place that I'd somehow not yet come upon. But really, it was just overprices restaurants where you could sit on a patio and watch other peoples sail boats swan in their docks.
It also offered views of the submarine and tall ship you could buy a ticket to board and look around it. As much as I'd like to wander in a submarine, I just had no patience for this place. I had expected something – but without even a view of the Opera House, which I must say, is the only thing that keeps me going in this city, I quickly absconded. To be fair, I poked around for nearly an hour, watching as the monorail went overhead, but there just wasn't much to hold my interest here.
Sydney is a real city – one like Toronto, I would imagine. I know where to have a good time, find cheap food, and cheap fun in my city. But in Sydney, I am somewhat lost. There's nothing pointing the way. There are no obvious tourist traps here, and no obvious places to go. Wandering off the main streets seems to put you into empty districts or, on other main over-priced streets. I'm sure there's more to this place, yeah? Or – maybe it's like Vancouver, where Melbourne was the Toronto. Maybe Sydney is all just name recognition, living off the fact it's on the ocean, and close to things that are worth checking out, while not really holding all that much back.
Still – it's a pretty city, and one that could be best experienced in three or four days. I wouldn't stay that much longer, if given the choice – but when waiting for a cheaper flight date? If you have the time, there are much worse places to be.
Also – my time here allows me to catch the Collingwood v. Sydney Swans game on Saturday, which almost didn't happen as my Antarctic friend was going to buy tickets, saw they were 65 dollars, and bailed. I thought this couldn't be, so I checked, and discovered those were the most expensive seats. Twenty dollar tickets did exist. And with that, Christmas was saved, and we now have tickets for tomorrow's game.
I also have plans to stay up reaaaaaaal late and return to the harbour to watch soccer on the big screen. At midnight I'm going to make my way back and see if all the Fifa excitement is going in high gear. I can only assume it will be.
And with such a late night planned, it's hardly worth feeling guilty over the fact that – after one day off – I returned to play more Plants vs. Zombies. I want the iPhone for this. But, after iPadding it up in big size, I don't know if I can transition down. Mistakes may have been made.
I found myself walking back to the hostel, after night had fallen. I was overcome with the feeling I often find myself falling into when I wander through the urban expanse after dark. It has been some time since I was last wrapped within its grasp. Xi'an stands out in my mind, gazing at the drum tower. I wonder if I've even found myself stumbling through the streets, in a somewhat lonely daze since that night.
The streets ceased to be that which I ignored, as I focused on my destination. I was in that, 'be the change,' mindset. I was looking at Sydney with childlike awe. All I could think was just how amazing places like this exist. We are animals, same as dolphins, apes, seals, and all other beasts smart enough to wrap senseless murder, and war into the behaviours (which is a thought all of its own – why is it the seemingly intelligent animals that torture and kill for sport?) We are simply animals who thousands of years ago were plugging away through the mud, and slowly developed agricultural skills, hunting skills, the basis for small communities to be formed allowing us down time without fear of hunger, or death. One thousand years ago the Europeans were still in the 'Dark Ages', never mind the other advanced societies that skipped this period of unenlightenment. It's easier to cloud this over from a historical standpoint – theoretically the natives had an extra thousand years to develop before they were wiped out, but, again, gloss over this and pretend the whole world advanced at the same speed.
Two hundred years ago we still had to work full days, and from very young ages. Fifty years ago, well life was starting to get better, and the roots of the city that I am now walking around started to come into being. True that it was founded much longer ago, but the modern city was being born.
Today, as I stepped through the streets, the signs were not simply blocked out, but instead markers representing stores, and stores were not just abstract concepts, but rather entire spaces with goods. When I saw Footlocker, it wasn't simply a shoe store, but rather a space where thousands of shoes were held – thousands. Each made by, perhaps, children in a country across the ocean, and then shipped to this island. How could a people who ten thousand years ago were killing ten foot tall birds with wooden spears develop to be the same as – well – me?
And where do we go from here? Suddenly the monorail which I'd, to this point, scoffed at no longer seemed silly, but rather proof of the future. I'd like to see our culture press on without looking back, without fear, in a reckless struggle. It is through reckless progress that we end up with our greatest advancements. Television, radio, recordable media (records, mp3s), space shuttles, advanced power generation, cars, we developed them all under the threat of death, and war. We pressed on without wondering what might happen if we made a mistake, and look at where it has got us.
I want to see a century where we do not say, we are comfortable, we have advanced enough. And if that means we spill a few billion liters of oil into the ocean? Well – worse has happened to get us to this life we now enjoy. It's so easy to look at the problem, but I see a world built on millions of lives lost to – now called – senseless violence. I see a city that exists only because of the losses that have come before, which push us on to make something amazing.
The internet, gps systems, cellular telephones – these are things that we have a hard time linking to destruction, but there they are. And they are not without their risks. Cancer from cell phones, all sorts of potential disasters when networks of satellites circle overhead, and as for the internet – well there are more problems there than can be counter, but the most obvious, is one that was brought up in the early nineties, and often overlooked since, in favour of blaming things of pornography and violent videogames. The Anarchist's cookbook is freely available to one and all, and knowledge can be a dangerous thing.
But there it is – this is our world, this is an amazing city, and seeing all these people from various cultures walking around together, dressed the same, acting same – to see groups sectioned off on bar patios, and others inside spinning balls hoping to win a 1:55 car raffle, and seeing girls in minidresses walking with guys in skintight shirts reflecting the surrounding greens, oranges, and reds – well it makes me want to see a world where we use up all the resources we can, and simply advance.
Pandora – in Avatar... This is a movie that is supposed to make us think of the dangers of advancing without thought. But it was because that Earth used everything it had, it was because there was “no green there” (as our illustrious space marine states) that they pressed out into the universe and discovered those brand new wonders.
And as I walk the street at night, and allow my thoughts to overcome me, I realize that these are perhaps not the lessons I want to take away, and yet there they are. And, because of our fears, and our comfort, and unwillingness to press on I will never see a world where we live off planet, or under the water. In the fifties some thought we'd have colonies on Mars by now. And with the advancement their age saw, it's obvious to understand why. But no – we care about the world now.
And I care about the world too. And I want to see it better. Who would reverse time to bring back the rain forest if it moved us back fifty years into the past? Who would undo the 'horrors' of the past if it meant we were still dying of tuberculoses on a regular basis? Who would undo billions of liters of oil spilled into a vast ocean if it meant we had to give up cars, or even tv. Or – if it meant we'd have to limit our computer use to but one hour a day.
We love our progress, we should embrace it. But we probably won't.
And then I'm inside my hostel, and the night is gone, and I'm comfortable, and I love trees, and BP is the devil again, and aren't people terrible who don't recycle. Three and a half hours until I head back out into the night. Might as well try to make myself a better person, listening to some NPR, Radiolab.
Curse you RadioLab and your episode “Life.” It's about Chimeras and how some people have two sets of DNA in their body from two fetuses, very early on, fusing (when they're just embryos, so maybe before they're fetuses) and creating one person. Had they not fused quick enough she would have been a Siamese twin. There would have been two personalities, two personas. So with two sets of DNA, and only one consciousness, what is it to be human.
And there is an Israeli scientist who has grown a little human kidney inside a mouse. There's that reckless progress. And cows that have human blood for transfusions. Thank you RadioLab. Press on, press on! Lets get those stemcells rolling.
Renaming audio book files (Thursday Next saga 1-4) ugh, if only I could read the 3 tags. And it turns out I'm missing the last few tracks of the fourth book. Goodie.
And then, because the day hasn't had enough in it, at midnight – rather than falling asleep – I get up out of bed, take the elevator down to the ground floor, walk outside the hostel and sit myself down on a stoop, taking out my newly obtained “An Embarrassment of Mangoes” to replae the just finished Sooterkin, and I begin to read. Ann Vanderhoof's story of her two year journey from Toronto down to Trinidad immediately grasps me, and I can't help but feel jealous of her journeys sailing across the seas. Which proves two things – one, I will never be happy, it's impossible, I accept it. If I'm jealous of a traveller when I'm out on a year long trip around the world, there's no hope for me. And Two – I could probably pair down a full year into a two hundred page text that is compelling. But I'd need something to bind it all together. Ann's recipes at the end of each chapter do the job nicely.
“What do you say to that?”
“What,” I ask, looking up from my book.
“When a girl tells you to go [expletive] yourself.” a slightly intoxicated boy says. “What do you say to that?”
Looking around, I notice a girl in a tight blue dress with black stockings, and her pudgy friend standing beside her, making her look better in that parasitic way that girls do. “Who said what now?” I am still mentally shopping for a new sailboat, while at the same time eating mangoes, the juice dripping down my chin.
The guy points to the girl in blue – of course. “And why did she say this?” It's been a while since I've had a conversation, and this could prove to be interesting. I play along.
“Man, I don't know!”
“She didn't mean it!” chubby girl steps in. “She's the nicest girl in the whole hostel!” This is the new line, moments ago, as I was scrubbing my boat's hull, it keeled over on the beach, low tide allowing for these repairs and services, it was, “she's the hottest girl in the hostel!” These two things rarely go together.
The girl in blue takes this moment to prove how delightful she is by storming off, “I'm not going to the bar!” This isn't necessarily a bad thing. She can hardly stand up in her three inch heels without toppling over.
“What do you say to that? When a girl tells you to go [expletive] yourself.”
“Man,” I finally speak up, realizing nothing interesting will come of this, and wanting to go back to my novel, “you either take a stand or you deal with it.”
“I'm dealing with it.” A defeated young male.
The other girl has not left though, “lets go get drunk!” And off they go – the guy patting me on the knee, “thanks,” as he goes. Maybe the evening will transform one girl into the other, wash away the pain, or lead to a moment where none of this is even remembered. The latter is the most likely occasion.
Alcohol. It's a hell of a drug.
A few minutes later Anna meets up with me, and off we walk back to the Harbour I wandered through this morning. It is not the mostly empty expanse it was earlier. This morning where there was nothing and no one, there is now a full house. Ten thousand people wearing Portugal and Brazil jerseys, running around waving flags, and screaming in excitement. The soccer game is playing on a number of big screens over the water. The area is packed.
At half time Anna begins to push through the crowd using her powers of being a pretty girl, while I follow behind, hoping that since they've already parted I can move past. When we reach the steps – three rows from the front of this mess – she steps down, kicking some, and stepping on others. No one bats an eye. I have to follow. From the front she looks back at me. I am not a pretty girl. I depend on my powers of looking uncouth enough that people might just let me pass, without questioning. A subtle sense of the fear of the unknown allows me through. And then – we are in the front row of a mass of ten thousand people. How did we get here? I do not know.
Garbage litters the water before us. It's pretty gross. I'm not gonna lie. This is what happens when you invite this many drunken people down to the waters edge. But then the half time ends, and the sound of horns – those terrible terrible killer bee horns – begins to play. And the game returns. I watch soccer at its finest (well, at what I assume its finest is, as I do not have a healthy love for the sport, as much as I love to watch it live.)
The two teams did their best soccering the ball up and down the pitch, trying to soccer it into the goal, before the other team soccered it away, allowing for a soccer chance before that soccering, too, was soccered into a reverse soccer.
Fifty minutes later when the game ended, the score was tied at zero. Of course it was. Each time the other team got possession there was a great cheer. Why, I thought? That's like cheering when a baseball player hits an obviously foul ball. Nothing will come from it. Don't they know they're watching soccer? Here's how to play the game:
One team passes it around like a school yard game of kick ball for five minutes before making a break, and then passes it right to the other team, who repeats this. This goes on for twenty minutes, before someone decides to allow a scoring opportunity to liven things up. Everyone moves out of the way, not all that worried, because despite how small the ball is, and how huge the net is, the two will never come together. For this is soccer.
Some people fall, pretend to be hurt, get stretchered off the field, drink from the magic water bottle, and spring back to life – rejuvenated.
People pass the ball some more, and then when the buzzer goes, everyone shakes hands and walks away knowing they've done excellent soccering on this day.
Seriously – any game that is allowed to end in a tie, there are major problems with that. It gets teams into a feel where they can accept the tie, rather than hurting from it. Where you get points for games, like a win gives you four points, a tie, two, and a loss zero – it should be a win gives you two, a loss zero, and a tie negative one. No one likes a tie. It's stupid. Fact. It's like asking the New Jersey Devils to write the game's play book. All for the trap! Action is teh lame.
But the crowd is excited, and being mobbed out at the end is a good time, and this evening was a good story about how the world cup is being handled here in Sydney. The Chile game was soon to follow, but ten thousand there would not be for that one.
When I returned to my hostel at two thirty, I was ready for sleep. But couldn't. Not until the sea air returned to me, and the sun reflected off the oceans blue. Once more I returned to the world of Ann, and her husband Steve. A sailing trip that took place over a decade ago. And I can't help but wonder if I'd ever do something like that, something like this, ever again.