Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Down Under Times volume VIII

(See: Back from the Memory Hole for an explanation of why these are posted now...)

October 31, 2001

Happy Halloween and welcome to the eighth edition of the Down Under Times.

Before you embark on your vicarious adventure Down Under, I would like to say a word or two about the current crisis back home and in Afghanistan. These are serious times, and I hope no one takes offence at the light-hearted nature of our newsletter. We are regularly hit with bouts of guilt and helplessness when we realize that we are here in Australia, relatively safe from the many current threats that have spread across America.

Friends of ours have been criticized by others for "vacationing" while the country is in crisis, making comments such as "glad you are able to go off and have fun while we live here in fear", or something to that effect. While the resentment is understandable, I think it is short-sighted. Those of us on this exchange have had these plans in the works for a long time, and circumstances make it difficult to back out without serious economic impact. At the same time, as we all know or have heard, to sit at home and brood is to give in to the fear the terrorists live for, and many of us will not go down that road, even if we aren't terribly at risk or susceptible here, 12000 miles from the US.

Having said that, I found it quite distressing to fly so soon after the attacks in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania. The sweat glands were working overtime. Everyone has become a potential terrorist, everyone is suspect. The attacks have made us into suspicious people right now, who watch every plane over every city half expecting to see them veer in toward a new "target", like the Sydney Opera House (where we might just happen to have been standing), or into some other landmark. There is nothing reasonable you can say to a seven-year-old when she says "What if there are bad guys on the plane, Daddy?" or "What if a plane crashes into it?" as we stood in the observation deck of the AMP Tower several hundred feet above the streets in Sydney.

Still, we can't hole up in the house and never come out, and these recent tragedies haven't spelled the end of fun or amusement for millions of people around the world, so maybe this is actually a good time to consider that we should have more fun, not less. As the old saying goes, "No one ever muttered on their death bed that they wished they would have spent more time at the office".

Please take care of yourselves and your families. Enjoy your time together, and enjoy the upcoming season of Thanksgiving. We do indeed have an awful lot to be thankful for, even if it doesn't always seem like it.
Hope to hear from you soon, and we'll see some of you in a mere seven weeks!

Down Under Times Volume VIII
October 2001
All the news that no one really needs to know, but is going to hear anyway!

Your subscription to the Down Under Times is about to expire! According to our records, you have one (or maybe two at the most) issues remaining - but there is nothing you can do to prevent the expiration of your subscription, so smile and have a nice day!

The Last Hurrah
We have recently returned from our last two-week holiday of the year. While reviewing past issues of the Down Under Times, it came to our attention that you might perceive that all we do is travel - not true! Sometimes we vacation, and when we're not vacationing, we're on holiday!

Ok, that's an exaggeration. Of course we have a fairly normal life here, despite regularly recurring bouts of guilt for travelling and having fun while our country is in conflict. Our weekends away and the two-week vacations have been so spectacular, however, that they have completely dominated our correspondence. This time was no exception, as we traveled to Sydney and other areas of New South Wales.

On Names…
Dave has always been fascinated by maps and place-names, and Australia has some particularly (peculiarly??) interesting ones. Let's start at home, shall we?

We live in Ferny Creek, a rather self-explanatory name actually. The house is on Seaview Avenue, yet is approximately 45 kilometers from the nearest drop of sea water. It seems to us a most unlikely name for a street so far from the sea, and one in which an actual view of the sea is so remote. It is possible, we suppose, to catch a glimpse of the sea through the trees from a rooftop on the high side of the street, but then you would have to battle the city haze in order to make it out - but we have to admit it is possible, and on a clear day, even probable. As usual in these matters, however, no one asked us our opinion when the street was named.

We left our lovely sea view for our last destination, the East-coast State of New South Wales. Along about the time Captain Cook landed in Botany Bay south of what we now know as Sydney in 1770, he and his crew declared the land for Great Britain and named it New South Wales. The problem arises in the "New" and the "South". There is a Wales, which makes sense, but no South Wales, and hence no reason to call the newly explored place New South Wales. However, that is what it was, and still is, called, so there you are.

Let's fast-forward a bit to the post-Sydney part of the trip, as long as we are on the topic of names. After five nights in Sydney, we drove along the long, undulating ribbon of concrete and asphalt (known as "bitumen" here, and pronounced like "bit chumen") called the Pacific Highway to our next stop called Nelson Bay. Then we drove the highway again another several hundred kilometers to Coff's Harbor. Problem was, while driving many hours on the Pacific Highway, we saw nary a glimpse of the Pacific Ocean. Not once. (Unless you count the appendage called Port Stephen's, which is where Nelson Bay is located - but it is not directly on the Pacific Highway anyway.) Undoubtedly the road must come near the ocean at some point, but we surely never saw it!

There is also a plethora of unusual, some might even say humorous, names that we have come across in our travels so far. Just a sample of a few: Warrnambool and Wanthaggi, Victoria; Burpengary, Queensland (a personal favorite); and on this particular trip to New South Wales, Coolongolook Creek, Blackbutts Road, Dead Man's Creek, Man Arm Creek, Crowdy Head, Scott's Head, Little Head, Broken Head, Bobbin Head, Hat Head National Park and Booti Booti National Park. Certainly there must be some that are even more unusual, but you get the idea.

Sydney is the capital city of New South Wales, and has a population of about five million. Intellectually, we're sure everyone knows that Sydney exists. However, it is one of those cities that you hear about often, and you're sure it's quite interesting, but you never really know much about it until you get there, and then - wow! - is it cool! Sydney Harbor dominates everything in the city center, and can be seen from just about everywhere. It is also extremely busy with boat and ferry traffic, yet appears surprisingly clean.

One of the trendiest places in Sydney is called The Rocks, and is located just off Sydney Cove and Circular Quay, which is the place where the First Fleet came ashore back in 1788 with its cargo of prisoners to settle the 18-years-young colony. Now, of course, it is filled with shops, boutiques, restaurants and hotels. This is where we stayed for our five nights in this wonderful, beautiful city, right in the middle of the action.

There was so much to see and do while in Sydney, we couldn't possible describe it all. Instead, we'll focus on a few highlights of our stay.

The Sydney Opera House
Our first day in the city, we had a lovely lunch in the shadow of the world famous Sydney Opera House. This must be the most photographed building in the world, and we personally took at least 25 photos of it from all possible angles. It is truly remarkable.

The next day we toured the Opera House, and learned more than we thought possible about this wonderfully quirky and unique building.

The architect was a Dane by the name of J├śrn Utzon, who has the distinction of not only designing the Opera House, but of never visiting the site before winning the design competition, as well as never actually seeing his masterpiece in person once it was completed. (He left Australia in a huff mid-construction, and local architects took over the project, seeing it through to completion.)

The building was budgeted to cost $7 million dollars and was to take 4 years to build. It opened in 1973 in a ceremony by Her Majesty the Queen of England and Australia, a little later than planned and slightly over budget: it took 14 years and $102 million to complete, mostly due to contradictory planning between the state Liberal and Labor governments, who kept unseating one another during construction and reconfiguring the design, the budget, and specifics of the original plans. No doubt this spurred Utzon's early departure.

The land the Opera House sits on was originally a special meeting-place for Aboriginals in pre-colonial times, and later became a tram yard for repairs and storage of Sydney streetcars. Contrary to popular belief (we say that a lot here), it is really five theaters, not just one. The outside "shells" were not intended to look like sails, as many think, but are really just parts of the same sphere. They were, perhaps obviously, the most difficult design features of the building, and while peeling an orange one day, Utzon came up with the solution.

Imagine if you will, holding a ball in your hand. If you drew lines away from a central point to form triangles on the surface, and then could cut into the ball towards its center, you would have three-dimensional pieces that fit together like a puzzle. This is what Utzon did, and the result is breathtaking. All the pieces that form the roof system were made as if they came from the same sphere, and therefore could be prefabricated from the same molds, just in different sizes, and their design would withstand the occasionally severe winds that sweep in from the nearby ocean. A truly impressive feat.

Each of the "shells" really is two separate structures: the free-standing, shell-like roof, and inside the shell, a separate building that actually houses the theater itself. Neither one ever touches or is attached to the other. The supports that hold the shells are made up of more than 2200 concrete blocks, and the roof is covered in more than 1.1 million self-cleaning ceramic tiles.

A Gothic Cathedral in Utzon's native Denmark (apparently where Shakespeare's Hamlet was first staged) provided him with inspiration for the interior design, and Mayan temples gave him the inspiration for the use of hundreds of steps, both inside and out. While on our tour, we heard part of a rehearsal of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, and it was a tantalizing teaser for what it must be like to witness a full-fledged concert in this wonderful hall. Our guide told us that the London Times produced a poll several years ago, and 95% of the people named the Sydney Opera House as the 8th Modern Wonder of the World. We think so too.

Darling Harbor
We took one of the omnipresent harbor ferries to Darling Harbor, perhaps less well-known, but an equally important and busy finger of water that forms Port Jackson (the body of water where lies Sydney).

Darling Harbor is filled with shops, places to go and things to do. There is an area of retailers that really seemed like it could be any old mall anywhere (but for the harbor just outside the windows); nevertheless, it was a really great place to spend a few hours. There is a wonderful, clean and well-kept playground area for kids of all ages (Tom and Sophie still love these), and several fountains that are very pedestrian-friendly (Tom and Sophie love these as well) along the esplanade near the harbor. A short walk away is an IMAX theater, a wonderfully outfitted Chinese garden (we skipped this, as we had been to a similar one just recently), and the raised monorail that travels around, and above, this part of the city (that was rather amusing). A bit farther along is Chinatown, complete with the rather incongruously named "Paddy's Market" - the Queen Victoria Market of Sydney, although all indoors and under a modern shopping center. We returned to Chinatown for some excellent potstickers at a little hole-in-the-wall restaurant.

As we were being tourists for the day, we did some rather touristy things. One of them was visiting the AMP Tower, the tallest structure in Sydney, offering great views out to the ocean and as far west as Homebush Bay, the site of the 2000 Olympiad, not to mention all the nooks and crannies of the harbor itself. It wasn't the tower or the views so much as the attractions on the first level that were intriguing. A wonderful little multimedia presentation awaited us; complete with holographic images of little Australian people projected onto glass and about 1/20 normal size. As we sat strapped in our seats, these little people moved and jumped and drove cars, perfectly coordinated with the props inside the viewing area, and introduced all visitors to the wonders of Australia.

Then it was off to a ride, of sorts, where we again were strapped in and shuttled off all over the country, as the visuals were displayed on six large screens for 180 degrees of viewing and we were rocked and rolled in our seats. It was well presented, and was a very informative hour and a half. We did go to the observation level of the tower, but didn't stay long for a number of reasons, at least one of which might be obvious.

One of the more interesting sights we took in while on this side of the city was the Soviet Union's space shuttle, the Buryan (it means 'snowstorm' in Russian). As it turns out, when the USSR collapsed in 1991, the Buryan went into storage outside of Moscow, where it remained until 1999. At that point, a private corporation was formed to ship it here to Australia, of all places, where it will remain on exhibit until eventually, it will move to a new country for display (speculation is Singapore).

Oddly enough, the shipping company used to transport this massive reusable space craft (all the way from Sweden) turns out to be the very same company using the very same ship that has been in the news quite a lot here in Australia lately. The boat is the Tampa, and is the source of some controversy here as the boat that houses 400-odd Iraqi asylum seekers and refugees, hoping to come ashore here in Australia. The government isn't allowing this but instead is opting to send these people to a little island nation called Nauru, several hundred miles off shore. Quite the coincidence, really.

Da Bridge
I had to do it - really, I did. It took about three hours all told, and as kids aren't allowed, Kate wasn't particularly interested and the place doesn't offer child-care, I did it alone. After all, it is entirely possible that I will never be in Sydney again (although I hope not), so I felt I had to make the best of my time here right now. I refer to the climbing of the Sydney Harbor Bridge. I felt an obligation not to climb Uluru (due to its sacredness), when we were in central Australia in April, but I had no such compulsion this time. After all, this was just a bridge…but what a bridge it is!

It was a rather gray day, but warm and not too breezy, so altogether a rather perfect time for climbing. The summit (as it is so blithely called) offers absolutely amazing views of the city, the harbor, the Opera House, and all in all, views of about 50 miles in every direction, maybe more on a really clear day. A truly spectacular way to see this most attractive city.

Now I'll bore you with some amazing statistics:
· It contains six million rivets;
· When hot, the road deck can rise a approximately 42 centimeters;
· When hot, the bridge itself (!) can rise approximately 17 centimeters;
· The road carries 200,000 cars per day over the harbor;
· The 'summit' is 134 meters over the water, exactly twice the height of the largest 'sail' of the Opera House;
· 16 men died while building the bridge;
· It opened in 1932 (1998 for climbing), and was known among the workers as "the Iron Lung" because it kept so many families alive during the Depression;
And possibly the most impressive (or at least my favorite) fact: Paul Hogan (Crocodile Dundee) was once employed as a bridge painter.

A little quirk regarding the bridge climb is that you are only allowed to walk halfway over the harbor on the structure itself before turning around and coming back. Apparently 16 separate government and regulatory agencies govern the bridge, which connects Sydney proper with North Sydney (just over 1000 meters away), and the company that operates the climb couldn't get the authority for climbers to go the complete length of the bridge and into North Sydney!

Once I completed the climb (it was 100% safe, by the way), our Minnesota friends Pete and Athena Goff joined us for a walk around Circular Quay and a bottle of wine in the shadow of the Sydney Opera House. Quite a way to spend a day!

A Nod to the Good 'ol USA
We couldn't resist it. After a year (almost) without anything like good Mexican food (well ok, twice), we saw the shining beacon of what must be the only Taco Bell in Australia. Now, I am the first to admit that Taco Bell is not real Mexican food, but when you're used to having it once in awhile, and haven't had it in almost a year, it sure tastes good! (They looked at us real funny when we asked for refried beans, though - they don't offer them, and called them 'mushy beans', or some approximation of that.) What a shocking treat!

Just to top off our All-American exit from Sydney, we hit one of two Starbucks in town. Apparently, the day we were there was coincidentally the same day that the first-ever Starbucks in Melbourne opened. We look forward to a visit….

Port Stephens and Nelson's Bay
Sadly, we left Sydney for points north (along the already discussed Pacific Highway), and arrived in our new destination, Nelson's Bay.

Due to the collapse of the Australian airline Ansett several weeks earlier, many people from New South Wales were driving to closer destinations, Nelson's Bay included. Together with the first weekend of the school holiday, and the state's Labor Day, the town was teeming with people.

Our hotel was packed to the hilt, and thanks to some rather unpleasant neighbors who partied until the wee hours of the morning, we got almost no sleep our first night. They left the next day, as did many other travellers, and it was quiet once again. Tom and Sophie met a nice little girl from suburban Sydney, and have since talked on the phone and received a post card from her after our return. She has an aunt in Minnesota (it's a small world, after all), and the next time they visit, they're sure to come and see us.

We took a dolphin watching tour on the body of water where Nelson's Bay is located, called Port Stephens. We roughed it a bit with cold (relatively speaking) gale force winds to see a small pod of six to eight dolphins frolicking in the even colder water, and heard over the radio of whale sightings just outside the bay.

The area reminded us a bit of the Door County peninsula in eastern Wisconsin, with marinas and resorts and little shops and restaurants. Other than the dolphins, whales and the nearby Hunter Valley wine region, it felt just like home. We did take a day trip out to the Hunter Valley, although we only visited two or three wineries, as Tommy and Sophie were keen to get back to the nice warm pool at the hotel. The rest of the valley will have to await our return!

Coff's Harbor and the Big Banana
Another six hours up the Pacific Coast Highway and we arrived at our northern most destination, Coff's Harbor. (A few more hours in the car and we could have returned to Queensland, sight of our July vacation.) It sits in the midst of a tropical fruit-growing region, as the "Big Banana" name might imply.

While there, we hit two major attractions as well as two Hollywood movies for the kids in the evenings.

The first was called the Pet Porpoise Pool, which (obviously) specializes in marine mammals like dolphins, porpoises, seals and sea lions. It wasn't altogether a bad value for the money, and the animals seemed rather well cared for, unlike some wild animal parks we've seen. Tommy and Sophie were able to "shake hands / fins" with a dolphin, and Tommy brushed the teeth of one as well. He also fed calamari to a very friendly, very large sea lion, and Kate fed a dolphin as it leaped about 10 feet over the surface of the pool, which was really quite cool (except she didn't get wet).

While there, we met a very nice family with four kids from Kalamazoo, Michigan, although they currently live in Sydney while the father works for Kellogg's. After our morning at the Pet Porpoise Pool, we said our goodbyes, parted with the hope that we might see one another around the area in the next few days, and went off for a nice picnic lunch along the seashore. Then it was off to the main attraction, the Big Banana, which is (not unexpectedly) a banana farm.

Upon our arrival, we did in fact bump into our new friends the McGuires, and together we spent the next several hours touring around a banana plantation-cum-amusement park and indoor snow ski area. (Interesting combination, don't you think?) It's amazing what you can learn if you visit some of these places; for example we had our world rocked as we discovered, much to our surprise, that the banana plant is really an herb that is a member of the grass family (!), and the banana itself is simply the fruit of the plant. While bananas have only been in Australia for the past 100 years or so, they exist in the historical record back to 600 or 700 BC! Amazing!

We spent the next day lolling by the pool, having a pool-side lunch in the company of little lizards that literally ran over our toes, and winning a trivia contest for the hard won prize of a cold Victoria Bitter at our new friends lovely resort. It was a great way to finish off our trip north. We now look forward to a trip to Kalamazoo to visit our new friends, and their dog Winston. (This is important because Kate already had plans for the same kind of dog (golden retriever) with the same name!)

On the Road to Woy Woy
Before we were to fly out of Sydney and back to Melbourne, we scheduled a stop in the thriving metropolis of Woy Woy, New South Wales. (Actually, it was just to break up the trip back south to Sydney - there isn't much thriving in Woy Woy, although it is a nice town).

As we drove, we reached the lovely little town of Port Macquarie, named (along with 832 other geographical place names, a major bank and a national dictionary, among other things) after the Scotsman Lachlan Macquarie, one of early Australia's first governors. We lunched in an idyllic setting, with a beautiful blue sky and a high sun complementing a quaint little beachfront. The only fly in the ointment was the rally occurring just in the park next to where we planned to eat.

In the shadow of the ANZAC memorial, dedicated to the war dead from the town of Port Macquarie, and just around the corner from McDonald's, Baskin Robbins 31 Flavors and an unloading Coca-Cola truck, "Concerned Citizens for Peace" were gathered, breaking the peace by making a wee bit of noise. Mostly, the noise had a distinctly anti-war tone, coupled with a distinctly anti-American feeling. Sometimes subtle, sometimes not, individuals spoke out against the impending US-led retaliation (which had not yet started at the time) and in support for innocent Afghan civilians and the looming refugee crisis that would no doubt accompany it. We are as certain as we could possibly be that we were the only Americans in the crowd, and although we didn't stay long (we hadn't eaten lunch yet), we heard enough.

I don't claim to have the answers, and I'm in favor of peace as much as the next guy, but to suggest that the United States and our allies should do nothing, or should just shrug this off and work to give food or other aid to those who sheltered the terrorists is a slightly naive position. Should the US have aided Afghanistan in different ways 20 years ago? Perhaps, but that cannot be changed now, and that was at the height of the Cold War. Through that lens (of the Cold War, that is), the actions of the US 20 years ago were focussed on stopping the spread of communism. I think we need to understand that the world would be a significantly different place had the Cold War turned out differently.

We enjoyed our lunch, and headed for Woy Woy.

Who's on First?
As we close out this penultimate edition (and longest, by far - sorry for that!), let us mention a rather interesting phenomenon that is about to occur here in Australia - a federal election, to be held on November 10th.

This may not be terribly interesting outside the continent of Australia or the region surrounding it - but for one humorous possibility. The current Prime Minister is John Howard, a member of the Liberal Party (which, oddly enough, isn't really all that liberal), and he has in his administration two fellows with rather out of the ordinary names. Now I grant you, just exactly the right circumstances would have to take place (perhaps involving the stray passing of an unknown comet or something), but if John Howard does not win his election yet the Liberal Party continues to hold the majority in Parliament, the current Federal Finance Minister Peter Costello could become the next Prime Minister. All by itself, nothing to write home about, unless of course his second in command should be the current Federal Workplace Relations Minister, who goes by the name of Tony Abbott. How exactly this might happen I can't be sure, but boy would it make our last month here interesting! Abbott and Costello could even grab more headlines than a former professional rassler / Hollywood film star / state governor might!

"This is the end, my friend…"
Well, you've wasted another perfectly good thirty minutes of your life reading about ours, although we're glad you did. As you may already be aware, we are coming home to the United States a bit earlier than previously expected, due to the lack of available seats on any flight from Los Angeles to Minneapolis in the few days before Christmas. With that information, I approached my principal here with our dilemma, and he suggested that if we could find seats on a flight on an earlier date, he would check to see if I could be released early, and that is exactly what has happened. Below you will find our itinerary for the last gasp of our journey, the flight home.

For those of you in the area, it would be fantastic to see you at the airport upon our arrival, but under the circumstances of tighter than ever security and the fact that we would not be likely to spend a lot of time together right then and there, we certainly will understand if you are not present. Having said that, we are looking forward to spending time together after the holidays. It's been a long haul, and we look forward to seeing all of you.

Here are the specs:

Depart 1215 PM Melbourne 12/15/01
Qantas Flight 93
Arrive 730AM Los Angeles 12/15/01

Depart 1140AM Los Angeles 12/15/01
Northwest Airlines Flight ???
Arrive 519PM Minneapolis 12/15/01

See you soon!
Kate, Dave, Tommy and Sophie Panetti

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