Sydney (or Dom Down Under, Part 1)

Asia & Australasia

I’m back in the Northern Hemisphere (where did all the light go?) after spending two weeks with its brighter, warmer southern twin. To avoid blogging overload I’m going to split this trip into two and talk about Australia first!

With Jeff, Carolyn and Maria

With Jeff, Carolyn and Maria

More cousins!

More cousins!

The impetus for this trip was Claire and Mitesh’s wedding in Sydney, which I rashly promised to attend back in the feel-good cousin vibes of Jamie’s San Francisco wedding of 2014. To have a family scattered across the world is a wonderful thing, but to have a global family where everybody actually likes each other is even better. Deborah and Rob, Claire’s parents, were incredibly generous and hosted two evenings of family reunions – including a Sydney harbour cruise – before the main event. (I didn’t take photos of the wedding itself, so until the official ones emerge, you will have to believe me that I dragged a new suit around in my backpack for two weeks. But I did!)

From the London branch, Carolyn and Maria turned up with a bundle of Cadbury chocolate to tide me over until my next UK visit: it looked like we were smuggling drugs. Many many thanks also to David and Ginger, who took me out for dinner on the first night even though I was probably frazzled and incoherent from all the flying. I also got to meet a wide selection of new cousins (at least, new to me!) which continues to expand my network of people to beg sofa space from in the future. And, of course, thanks and congratulations to Claire and Mitesh for making the whole thing happen. Never have I heard wedding vows quite like theirs.

The world doesn't really need another shot of Sydney Opera House, but I'm giving it one anyway

The world doesn’t really need another shot of Sydney Opera House, but I’m giving it one anyway

On the Bondi to Coogee beach walk

On the Bondi to Coogee beach walk

Cool birds in the Botanical Gardens

Cool birds in the Botanical Gardens

More of the Botanical Gardens

More of the Botanical Gardens

After the family jamboree was over, I hung out in Sydney for the rest of the week and was really impressed by the city. It’s a delicate balance to be an obviously ‘working’ city and yet have so much going on for tourists, and Sydney is helped in doing this by a network of ferries and beaches. I checked out Manly and Watson’s Bay, but my favourite was easily the Bondi to Coogee beach walk, pictured above, which I did on Australia Day and so was surrounded by families picnicking and young people drinking and/or not-drinking on the beaches (there was some divergence between the flashing prohibition signs and actual behaviour). This stunning walk was also one of Emilie’s top recommendations, and her suggestions formed an excellent guidebook while I was there.

In the spirit of serendipity, I also want to put in a word for Sydney’s Justice & Police Museum, which I ducked into at random and fully embraces the “yes, we were originally a convict colony” history of European emigration to Australia. It’s one of those museums where you can wander around and interact with an old police station, cells and courthouse, force random strangers to take photos of you looking judgement in the judge’s seat, and admire the history of the Australian TARDIS police box. I realise people don’t go to Sydney for the museums, but if you happen to be walking past, you should check it out.

At the falls, making incorrect assumptions about how much of the hike I had completed

At the falls, making incorrect assumptions about how much of the hike I had completed

Without a doubt, however, my favourite Sydney excursion was to the Blue Mountains, a mountain range which – despite being a two hour train journey out from the city centre – is ludicrously cheap and easy to get to. After tapping out my ‘Opal’ card at the other end, I really did feel ashamed of the comparative cost on Britain’s railways. My Airbnb host, Mark, had recommended the trip and directed me to Wentworth Falls as the best place to go. (Tangent: I really, really love Airbnb. Especially if you’re travelling alone. This was one of the highlights of my whole trip and I only did it because I had a real resident to chat to.)

Although I knew I would get a waterfall – obviously – I was deliberately ignorant of what exactly I was going to see. This led to a lovely moment where I thought I’d got to ‘the’ waterfall, took a bunch of photos, and then realised that the path continued to a much, much larger drop overlooking a beautiful wooded valley. I was absolutely not wearing sensible shoes and had no idea how far away food would be (later a kindly hiker brought me up to speed) but I still decided that it would be silly to come all this way and then not do the ‘hard’ hike with signs like ‘Valley of Waters Slacks Stairs’ and ‘descend ladders facing inwards’. So I did, and I descended the ladders facing inwards, and it was an immensely satisfying and scenic trail with some fun challenging sections (i.e. “now get through this river somehow”) which concluded, mercifully, with a café serving restorative lunches for hungry walkers.

Looking out at Wentworth Falls, Blue Mountains

Looking out at Wentworth Falls, Blue Mountains

Beyond these trees, the universe ended

Beyond these trees, the universe ended

After lunch, my day at the Blue Mountains descended into farce as I moved on to the Three Sisters rock formation – getting mightily drenched in the process – only to discover that mist now rendered them completely invisible. And I mean, literally, to stare out from the ‘viewing station’ was to gaze into a pure white void, which still didn’t stop tourists looking and taking photos and (most confusingly of all) taking selfies against nature’s blank canvas. It was hilarious, and felt like a postmodern art project, and was probably more fun than actually seeing the designated sight to begin with.

On my last day in town, I also went to see Groupon people who usually exist solely on video conference calls. Cassie took me to lunch to try some of the laksa which Nolan had insisted I try in Sydney, and later I went for beers with the famous Bobby, a fellow ex-UK colleague Dan, and others from the Australian office.

With Bobby Mulligan

With Bobby Mulligan

To round off, I would like to praise Australia most sincerely for its predominance of pies. After living in a desert of pies for so long, this was a joyous reversal, and to the extent that even the café on the ferry – where I’d expected crisps, drinks, maybe sandwiches – offered a selection of hot meat pies and sausage rolls to eat. If you live there, I guess you take this for granted, but it really is the most marvellous achievement and made me very happy while.

In my next post, I will ‘cross the ditch’ to New Zealand and continue my adventuring…

My favourite moment in Malaysia so far happened inside the ‘Dark Cave’ at the famous Batu Caves just outside of Kuala Lumpur. Everyone turned off their torches until it was pitch black, and we had a minute of silence for the victims of MH17. This was the sort of darkness you’re almost never allowed anymore. No fire exit signs, smartphone screens or glowing standby lights to adjust to over time. My eyes kept straining for light, but nothing came back. And it was so glorious. I could have happily stood there for an hour, feeling very very peaceful and zen.

It can’t last, of course. Especially not when an Australian tourist insists on shining his torch straight at a snake after being politely but repeatedly asked not to. If I spoke Parseltongue, I tell you, that constrictor would have received some immoral encouragement.

Monkeys!

Monkeys!

The other animal of note at the Batu Caves are the monkeys – which I still get an odd thrill from being around. Not that I trust them, of course. Monkeys are obviously untrustworthy: any fool who’s seen The Jungle Book can tell you that. But still… monkeys!

I didn’t do a great deal in Kuala Lumpur itself, besides wander around Independence Square, and visit the first museum I came across. The prime exhibit there was a scale model of the city, which lit up and flashed myriad colours while bombastic music played and screens boasted of Malaysia’s growing GDP per capita and impressive tourism income. It’s an interesting country, Malaysia. One of my taxi drivers described it as a harmonious society of three cultures. Another scoffed heartily at this description and preceded to give me a lengthy and personal denunciation of its constitutionalised discrimination.

I really don’t mind taxi drivers ripping me off when they’re willing to talk politics.

The Sultan Abdul Samad Building

The Sultan Abdul Samad Building

Anyway, on Sunday I took a day trip to Melaka, which is smaller and prettier and more ‘historic’ than KL. Mosques, temples and churches jostle side by side, befitting an old trading town ruled by a succession of three European colonial occupiers. Although in one of the Chinese temples, I did read the following sentence which read very curiously indeed to my Europeanish eye:

Worshippers sometimes request the services of a more experienced person to pray on their behalf.

Stark contrasts

Stark contrasts

On that note, saying where I’m from is complicated now. I mean, it’s not really, but you know when a tour guide asks they don’t really care and would probably appreciate a simple one-word answer as you shuffle past. So what do I say? London? Chicago? I staved off an identity crisis when I got back to my hotel room late on Sunday night, immediately started the kettle and settled down for some tea and Peter Capaldi’s first episode of Doctor Who. Like praying towards Mecca, it doesn’t matter where you are in the world when it’s New Who time: just orient yourself towards iPlayer and enjoy.

I have returned from my odd combo-holiday: Oman and Sri Lanka! (Or more precisely: Oman, Sri Lanka and various intermediary airports. Turns out it’s possible to be both delayed by four hours and still almost miss your flight… a feat I managed in Dubai. But I digress.)

Oman first, to visit Sophie who’s been living and working in the capital Muscat.

Me and Sophie in Muscat

Me and Sophie in Muscat

This was my first time in the Middle East, and the most striking thing was the almost complete lack of ‘city’ in the European sense, i.e. a central touristy bit where you can walk around narrow streets without cars. There is an old section, but it’s very very small, and so the city kinda resembles American suburbia but plonked in a desert. (It wasn’t unbearably hot, but that’s probably because of all the air-conditioning – outside it does feel like a hairdryer is switched on in your face.)

Welcome to Muscat. Bus population: 0.

Welcome to Muscat. Bus population: 0.

That said, the people were all pretty relaxed and friendly, and when Sophie was working I got driven around by some of Michele’s friends thrice removed, Abou and Wangchuk. (Dear AIESEC, I contribute nothing and just freeload off your enviable social connections. I’m sorry. Love, Dom.) We saw the Royal Palace, found somewhere you could drink (foreign hotel bar) and then hung around on a beach until the sun came up 🙂

It's hard to do selfies in the sea

It’s hard to do selfies in the sea

It sounds ridiculous, given how many mosques there are in London, but I’m pretty sure this trip was the first time I’ve heard calls to prayer in real life. (From the beach we could hear them start just after 4am, which is just too early for anyone to be contemplating anything.) On the way to the airport I also risked another lateness incident by squeezing in a whistlestop trip to the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque, so you can finally have a photo which looks a bit more Middle Eastern:

Sultan Qaboos

Sultan Qaboos

And then it was on to Sri Lanka to hang out with my cousin Josh (who I haven’t seen in two years!) and his friends Saul and Ella. We spent a little time in the capital Colombo, but to be honest there isn’t a great deal to do there and my most memorable moment was getting laughed at by a giant group of schoolchildren for being white. (Joke’s on them though: by that point I was mostly sunburnt red with some attractive purpley mosquito bites.) Instead we mostly hung out in two beach resorts further south, Hikkaduwa and Unawatuna.

Cow. Beach.

Cow. Beach.

Me and Josh

Me and Josh

Josh, Ella and Saul

Josh, Ella and Saul

These were relaxing and chilled days – with not many people about as we were outside the tourist season – and consisted mostly of beach, beer and curry. For short journeys, we got around by tuk tuk, which are cheap and kinda thrilling – unlike being a passenger in car you don’t lose your connection with the outside world, and indeed can contemplate just how close you are to colliding into that outside world and toppling over.

On my very last day I felt bad for not having seen any elephants (you can’t go to Sri Lanka and not see elephants!) and so we got a driver to take us sight-seeing: the elephant orphanage, the Royal Botanical Gardens and the Buddhist Temple of the Tooth in Kandy. Although the elephants were cool, it was actually more of a thrill to come across monkeys in the park the same way you might come across squirrels here.

Your Sri Lankan elephant photo

Your Sri Lankan elephant photo

I've seen Jungle Book, so didn't want to get any closer

I’ve seen Jungle Book, so didn’t want to get any closer

The journey home was a mind-numbing four flights long, but I did at least get to spend the bulk of that time with Emirates who – I’m almost disappointed to report – are actually very good. Their boastful luxury branding almost made me hope they would be rubbish, but I have to admit that coming home on their double-decker plane was one of the nicest flights I’ve ever had. And it gave me a chance to catch up on some films, so I’d like to round off this post with a cheap imitation of Abbi’s Film Friday juggernaut:

Dominic’s Unconnected Thoughts On (Mostly Disney) Movies

The Amazing Spider-Man 2

Spiderman wasn't going to miss out on his fake Masters

Spiderman wasn’t going to miss out on his fake Masters

A poor corporate governance regime leaves sprawling business empire OsCorp (never trust a company with ‘corp’ in their name) in the hands of emo Harry Osborn. Harry is angry at Spiderman for refusing to poison him, so teams up with Electro (giant, blue, somewhat electric, also angry) to get revenge.

I actually enjoyed this, despite not having seen the first film in this ridiculously premature reboot. Fun fact: we saw it in the cinema in Colombo, where for some reason they project a countdown onto the centre of the screen shortly before intermission.

Frozen

Anna had no interest in the 'Chicago weather' fetish

Anna had no interest in the ‘Chicago weather’ fetish

Unable to control her power of magically freezing things, Elsa (in my head played by Natasha Self) goes all cold on her little sister Anna (in my head played by Katie Self) instead of saying “hey, I’m scared that I might accidentally kill you if we play the magical freezing things game again, so let’s try badminton instead”. To pass the time, Anna sings some damn catchy songs before falling dangerously in love and triggering a disastrous explosion of magical freezing.

I loved it, though, and I don’t care who knows it. I’m so glad Disney got back into its groove with Tangled and the like.

Psycho

Weirdly, Norman's Tinder wasn't getting much interest

Weirdly, Norman’s Tinder wasn’t getting much interest

Oh, you know this one. On the run after nicking $40,000 from her employer, Marion Crane checks into a creepy motel run by Employee-Of-The-Month Norman Bates and participates in Iconic Shower Scene. Gripping, suspenseful and with a twist ending which I miraculously avoided having spoilt for me before finally watching this, Psycho is a justified classic.

 

Brave

We'll see about those phone-hacking charges...

We’ll see about those phone-hacking charges…

I’d heard mixed things about Brave and I have to agree it’s not one of PIXAR’s best. Rebekah Brooks lookalike Merida is a fiery princess who quite naturally objects to her mother’s plans for a forced marriage. Turning to a witch for help, she requests a spell to change her mother which unexpectedly transforms her into a bear.

You can see where they were going with this – it’s a valiant effort to do a good mother-daughter story – but the problem is that Merida herself is sometimes pretty off-putting. And I’ve been wondering if that’s some deep-rooted sexism in me wanting female characters to be ‘nice’, but actually I think I would be a bit perturbed if a male hero took so long to feel apologetic for deliberately poisoning his mum too.