Sydney Harbour Bridge
A milestone had passed without me knowing. I was up late in my dorm room at Bounce Hostel (highly recommended), and talking with Justin, a backpacker from Canada. Like most Canadian travelers I've met, he was a cool, laidback person.
"When was your first trip?" he asked.
"2004," I answered. "I studied abroad in England, then backpacked around Europe."
"So you've been traveling for 10 years," he concluded.
Whoa. Has it really been that long? I can't believe a whole decade just went by without me knowing. Makes me glad that I didn't listen to people who said, "You're young, you have plenty of time. You can do travel later."
No, if you want to do cool stuff, you gotta do it now. Or it might never happen. What if I hadn't decided to study abroad when I was just a college student? I could have missed out on 10 years of travels, amazing friends and incredible experiences. Felt good to look back on those years and have no regrets. Well, almost none. Wish I'd dated more girls.
Behind the Photo
Getting that perfect shot. It's the bane of a solo traveler's existence. I've journeyed a long way, and I need to get that picture with the iconic monument. For Sydney, that was the Sydney Opera House.
I'd been stranded in front of it for an hour. I tried taking selfies, but I don't do it in my regular life, so they came out bad. I asked a Korean girl tourist, and later a young Chinese guy tourist. Also awful. Terrible composition, like they couldn't decide whether to make my face or the opera house more prominent, instead of striving for a balance of both. The same thing had happened in Kyoto, but I'd forgotten that lesson about how Asian tourists take pictures.
My friend Colin had once given me a tip on pictures: zoom in and check your smile. This prevents "full screen regret" where a photo looks okay on the camera's small screen, but later when you view it on your laptop, you realize your facial expression was off. But it's too late to re-shoot because you're already home.
Aside from the composition, I realized my facial expression wasn't natural. I had the "hurry up and take the damn picture!" look because the person was taking too long fumbling with my camera. Worse, my smile was completely fake.
My smile appeared most natural when I looked at two kinds of people: close friends and hot girls. The problem was I travel alone. No friend to take a picture of me. That was out.
So that left only one option . . .
"Excuse me," I said, approaching a hot Australian girl. She was tall, with dark hair, a model's cheekbones and fair smooth skin. Wearing a slim black sleeveless top with pink skinny jeans, and high heels.
"Yes?" she asked, a little startled.
"Can you take a picture of me?" I asked, holding up my camera.
"Sure!" she said.
I showed her the camera screen and pointed, explaining where my face was to go and where the opera house was to be situated. Framing and blocking the shot, as they say in the movie industry. I was talking as Marcus The Director, issuing instructions to the cinematographer. I was single-minded and on a mission, speaking with purpose, not letting her beauty make me nervous. She nodded and understood.
Then I strode into position. Looked at her and thought, "She's really hot." Boom, my smile appeared. Flash. She took a couple more photos from other angles.
She flipped the camera around and showed me the screen. Excellent. Did the zoom-in check on my face. Got the smile. Pimp city.
"Thanks," I told her.
"No worries," she said, smiling.
Me with the Sydney Opera House
Getting back into travel mode
I had to do transition back into travel mode. Four long years had passed without me going on a trip. I noticed once I started packing, things started clicking in my head.
Photo of the stuff I packed, laid out on my bed. In the center is a Tortuga Backpack. You can go here to view my complete packing list (Google Docs).
Jet lag was something I took for granted. When I lived in Asia, there was very little time difference when traveling around the region. Maybe one hour, if that. But going from Hawaii to Australia caused some problems.
The main one was I wouldn't get hungry for dinner until like 11:00 p.m., when most restaurants were closed. That sucked! I'd make do with snacks from convenience stores.
Had to get used with getting lost again. My very first night, I went looking for somewhere to eat. I took a tunnel under Central Station and came out the other side. After I ate, I couldn't remember where I'd come from. Must have walked in circles a half-dozen times.
Due to a fear of international roaming charges, I took the extreme step of leaving my iPhone in Hawaii. Gasp! How can you survive without a smartphone?! Luckily, I'd started traveling before those were the norm, so I didn't freak out at the loss of Google Maps.
Eventually, I spotted some familiar signs and found my way back to the hostel. Mission accomplished.
Reverse Culture Shock
I would joke to my friends, "I'll go to Australia when I'm ready to leave Asia and hear English again."
Turns out, the joke was on me. Sydney was the most Chinese place I've been to outside of Asia. I couldn't go anywhere without hearing people speak Mandarin. For me, Australia was more reverse-culture shock. At one moment, I'd be immersed in Asia, then suddenly, I'd get yanked back into Western culture.
--I knew there was a Chinese community, but I didn't expect it to be so everywhere. I swear, at times it seemed like half the population of China was in Sydney (and half of Taiwan's population was in Melbourne).
--I got so used to traveling to Asian countries and not understanding anything, I was hyper-aware of all the English everywhere. Whoa, I could read signs and understand what people are saying again! I don't have to ask waitresses for the "English menu."
--Western food being so accessible. In Asia, you're surrounded by Asian food and you have to look a little harder to find good Western food that isn't part of a major chain. In Sydney, it seemed like every block was loaded with restaurants, cafes and pubs. Wait, the Western food is the local food?! Had to adjust to that.
--Prices. Aww, I can't get away with spending less than US$2 on a meal like I did in Asia. D'oh!
The clearest moment for me was when I was walking out of Market City, a large mall in Chinatown. I'd just eaten dinner at the food court. As I walked on the sidewalk, I looked over at a building across the street and had my mind blown.
Taiwan flag. The sign above the entrance said it was the Kuomintang headquarters in Australia. For reference, the KMT (a.k.a. the Chinese Nationalist Party) is a major political party in Taiwan. I completely didn't expect to see that in Australia.
KMT headquarters in Sydney
My mind reeled, and I had a mini-meltdown. "Where the hell am I?!" I thought. Whoa, Asia overload. Don't think I can handle this.
Seeing the Taiwan flag triggered my brain and brought everything back. The rush of memories: freaking out over having only 30 days to find a job, desperate visa runs, Taiwan bosses, laughing with friends at hostels, and wild nights dancing at Taipei nightclubs. The wrenching feeling from leaving Taiwan and remembering everything I'd lost.
Too much. That was four years ago, but still felt like yesterday.
The pilgrimage for Ken
Ken and me at Double Bay
From my travels, I've been fortunate to make new friends and later visit them in other countries. I have a list of people I like to call "The Intercontinental Club." They're the few friends that I've been able to meet up with in two countries or more.
Ken is on that list. He's the very first friend I made when I moved to Taiwan and checked in at World Scholar House hostel. This was back in 2006. Little did I know I would be visiting him in Sydney in 2014. Lots of times on the road, when you make new friends, you add each other on Facebook and eventually fall out of contact.
I'm really glad that didn't happen with Ken. He was living in Thailand, but visited Taiwan several times, we got to meet up in Thailand and Laos as well. I still thank him for taking us out of the backpacker hell that is Vang Vieng, Laos to check out an organic farm and drink "the best mulberry milkshakes in the world."
What makes Ken so special? Put simply, Ken elevates conversation to a fine art. You know those awkward pauses when you talk to people? That never happens with Ken. He effortlessly hops from topic to topic without letting the flow falter: travel to art to high finance to pop culture to history. He has encyclopedic knowledge, but never seems to show off or make you feel like an idiot. Indeed, he makes you feel more intelligent. I learn from him every time we talk. Not to say he's stodgy, he's also one of the funniest people I know. He can take something that's true and phrase it in a blunt and witty fashion that you can't help but laugh your ass off. Hours pass by like minutes.
Ken is a voracious reader, so it made sense to buy him a book as a gift. But what book? The first problem is finding something he hadn't already read, which was unlikely. And if I did, it had to be interesting. Finally, after much consideration, the book I chose was "J. Peterman Rides Again." It's the story of an entrepreneur who started an unconventional catalog company. Peterman journeyed around the world to discover high-quality rare products to sell in his catalog. He's like the Indiana Jones of retail. I thought the combination of writing, travel, business and zeal for quality were a perfect match for Ken. Here's a news clip about it.
Then another crisis. The book was out-of-print. The good news was that Ken probably hadn't read it. The bad news was whether I could locate a copy in time. I ordered one off an Amazon reseller. The shipping took forever, as my flight to Australia loomed closer. I was ready to give up and just mail it to Ken after returning to Hawaii. Literally a few days before my departure date, the damned book arrived. It was one of the last items I threw into my backpack.
One of the first things I did when I got to Australia was to buy an unlocked cell phone (not smartphone) and a local SIM card. I called Ken and we arranged when we could go for a drive. Knowing I liked books, he took me to one of his favorite bookstores. We ordered food from the cafe upstairs. Once we settled into our seats, I had the pleasure of presenting the book to him.
Ken holding up the "Peterman Rides Again" book
When I explained what the book was about, he was intrigued. This sparked another long chat, mostly about advertising. Just like old times.
Later, he took me out to Double Bay, a ritzy area. We grabbed a table at Cosmopolitan Cafe, which had a stylish clientele. Felt like a luxury restaurant, not a coffee shop. He strategically positioned us at a table near the street. There was a steady stream of the hottest girls I'd seen in Australia walking by, making me wonder what nightclub or bar they were going to.
Before we knew it, it was 1:00 a.m. and time to go home. That's the sign of a great conversation: so much times passes by, and yet you still wished you could have talked more.
Ken's favorite gelato shop. It's in Bondi Beach.
I got one scoop of vanilla, and one scoop of hazelnut. Man, I miss eating gelato.
Dancing at Side Bar
A favorite venue for employees at Bounce Hostel was Side Bar. The main appeal was location, crowd and cost. It was on the other side of Central Station, about a 5-7 minute walk. As for the people, Side Bar is under Wake Up, a huge hostel, so the club was full of foreigners (I still call Westerners that after living in Asia for so many years). Last but not least, the Bounce guys had connections, so us guests could get in for free. I though they'd get a kickback for steering in customers, but the Bounce rep said they didn't in this case.
Going to a new club in a new country always feels exciting and scary. I'm curious to see what it will be like, but also wonder if my dance skills might not be up to par. It's been a long time since I'd been to a nightclub, and I'm not a 22-year-old dance machine anymore. Who knew what new moves these young kids had? Sometimes, before entering a club, I'll quickly stretch my arms and legs, rotate my shoulders and knees. Gotta loosen up first. Not as flexible as I used to be, due to aging. The irony is that people interpret my stretching as the complete opposite: "Look, that guy's doing exercises, he must a pro dancer!"
My typical pattern is to check out the scene before hitting the dance floor. I'll take a walk around the whole club, doing a reconnaissance trip. Where is the restroom? Where are the exits?
I'll also scope out the dancers, get a feel for the people. Hot girls. Which guys are good dancers.
On that last point, one time my friend Colin and I were in Club Wax in Taipei. He was being a good wingman and was talking me up to some girls. While I scanned the crowd, he bragged to them, "Marcus likes to see who the good dancers are, so he can destroy them."
Ha ha. I'm not quite that ruthless. I just want to see who's got cool moves, who I can learn from. You can always improve.
The majority of dancing at Side Bar was the same drunken spasms you see everywhere. There were a few standouts: two guys doing c-walking, a couple of hip-hop dancers and even a female breakdancer. Always fun when you've got some good people on the dance floor.
I actually went to Side Bar three times. The third time was the charm, due to a different DJ. The first two times, the DJ would remix hip-hop songs that didn't need remixing, the originals were already great for getting you moving. Reverse alchemy, it's like he sucked the energy out of great songs. Hate it when that happens. But the DJ on the third night played hip-hop and some really cool remixes where he took non-dance songs (like rock) and putting in techno and hip-hop touches. That was a great night.
Luckily, turns out I didn't need to worry. People liked my dancing okay. Guys came up to slap hands with me. Shows of respect. Western girls pulled me in to grind up on me. That was surprising, since at clubs in Asia, I found Asian girls more passive. Girls in Asia usually would just circle around, giggle and point, hoping I'd notice them. But Western girls seized the initiative. Nice to know that genuine enthusiasm and being in sync with the music will never go out of style.
- A question from my Australian friend John, who lives in Hobart
The main highlight for me was that Australians just seem to enjoy living well. Play in the sun, eat great food, grab a drink at one of the million pubs around. I know England has a lot of pubs, but because of the awful weather, they're mostly indoors. In contrast, Australia was full of outdoor pubs and restaurants. Like Europe! Even hotels. I'm used to hotels having exclusive in-house restaurants. But a lot of hotels here had open public restaurants on the ground floor. You can't walk through a city block without being within drunken staggering distance of a half-dozen good joints. Probably by design, ha ha.
Atom Thai, a Thai restaurant recommended by my friend John. It's in Newtown, a funky suburb of Sydney.
Inside of Atom Thai
My dinner: Lemongrass chicken
--book hostels ahead of time. There are major events like concerts in the big cities (especially Sydney), and lots of backpackers doing working holidays in Australia, so good cheap accommodation is in tight supply.
Due to the mass of backpackers doing working holidays, a lot of the crowd at hostels in Australia are long-term stayers. They can be a little clannish and not as open to meeting new people.
I get that, since I've been on that side when I lived in hostels in Taiwan. I wasn't going to make the effort to get to know someone if they were leaving tomorrow. Just be prepared for that atmosphere and seek out fellow travelers to hang out with.
Sydney was where I felt this the most. Melbourne had a lot of long stayers too, but I found them a little more friendly. Maybe it has something to do with the city. Sydney is more fast-paced, while Melbourne is more chill. Your mileage may vary.
My top hostel pick: Bounce Sydney. Excellent facilities, definitely in my Top 10 hostels I've ever stayed in. The only hostels I've stayed in better than this were in Berlin and Kuala Lumpur. Stay here, you won't regret it.
At the front desk of Bounce Hostel with Kosta (left) and Ray (right). Great guys, they take guests out partying.
Aside from the fine facilities, it was really the staff that made the experience at Bounce for me. All the employees from the manager to the reception desk were friendly and travelers themselves.
Due to the long-stayer factor I described above, it did feel a little lonely sometimes. But Ray in particular was a social whirlwind: he introduced me to other guests and took us out partying at his favorite nightspots in the city. Sydney wouldn't have been the same without him.
--One of the highlights of Sydney is to take the ferry to Manly. There's a long line at the wharf for that ferry. An attendant came over to my line and said you can buy tickets at the machines at any of the other wharves. So that's what I did: walked to another wharf, bought a ticket to Manly, and went back to the Manly wharf.
This is Wharf 3, where you board the ferry to Manly. But you can get a ticket at another, less busy wharf.
Get on the front, upper deck of the ferry. As the boat pulls out of wharf, that's where you can get great camera angles of the Sydney Opera House.
The best seats in the boat are at the front, upper deck. You have to wait right at the bottom of the ramp, then run into the boat as soon as they open up the ramp. Seats get taken fast.
--For cheap souvenirs, go to Paddy's Markets, it's under the Market City shopping center in Chinatown.
2 sets of drink coasters
1 permanent shopping bag
2 men's wallets
1 women's wallet
All for under AUD$30.00.
Entrance to Market City in Chinatown
Paddy's Markets, under Market City
--Eating out can be very expensive in Sydney. Do some advance research online for terms like "cheap eats Sydney." You'll find specials at various bars and restaurants on certain days of the week.
I sought out the many Asian food courts, eating lots of Thai and Chinese food. Relatively low compared to other options. Market City is one of the biggest and best-known. There are smaller, more hole-in-the-wall food courts that can feel even more Asian.
Juice bar at Dixon House food court in Chinatown
Juice bar menu
Sugar cane juice. It's mixed with lime and poured over ice. Awesome cold drink.
--Where to party. When I asked around, people told me that hip-hop venues were scarce in Sydney. I think it's the U.K. influence, which is more into techno and electronic music.
Then a DJ from Wales gave me a hot tip. He said he'd been looking for a good hip-hop joint in Sydney for a year and a half. The best he came up with was Play Bar in Surry Hills (http://www.playbar.com.au). From their website, it sounds like a small, intimate venue with an old-school feel.
Unfortunately, my schedule didn't allow me to go. Since I've heard it's so rare to find a hip-hop place, I'm passing this on to anyone in Sydney who might be in dire need of street beats.
Here's what I saw on their About page:
Bringin’ a lil bit of Melbourne style to Sydney…--If you want an efficient way to get oriented in Sydney, do a tour with I'm Free walking tours. The tours are "free," but you can pay with a donation at whatever amount you decide. They're available in Sydney and Melbourne.
Raw, street & underground…
Beats, breakin’ & musical excursion…
Turntables & graffiti…
Ales, spirits & vino…
I went with them in Sydney, and had a good time, and met other backpackers. The downside is that they were staying at other hostels, so never saw them again. Oh well. This is why I prefer tours run out of your hostel, so you can meet people who are fellow guests and it's easy to see each other afterwards back in the hostel.
This girl was my guide, and she was the founder of the tour company. Wish I could remember her name.
--By the way, I got a new camera for this trip. Canon S110 ($190 on sale at Adorama with memory card and belt case). The newest version at the time was the Canon S120 ($449). When I compared the specs, the only difference were some extra video features I didn't care about. So I got the Canon S110.