The Travel Blog That Wasn’t – Australia part 1 (to November 2010)

I’ve been asked by some people along the way to blog about my travels while I was in Australia – like, the stuff I was actually doing while there – and for some reason it just never happened. I tweeted a lot, but it’s hard to piece that all together.

The back story: in February 2009, I visited a friend who had moved temporarily to Sydney.  I never really found out if there was a particular reason he’d chosen Sydney, or Australia for that matter, but nevermind.  Australia had never been at the top of my “places to visit” list, but it was certainly on the list, and I realised that if I didn’t visit him while he was there, I might never have gone.  So I went to visit him, for three weeks.  I spent most of that time with him in Sydney, but we spent a weekend in Melbourne (which, at the time, I found rather boring… which is totally opposite of my opinion now!), and I went up to Cairns by myself and went diving on the Great Barrier Reef (an experience I recommend to anyone who has even the slightest chance of going – it’s worth it!).  I loved those three weeks, loved the country, loved Sydney; it was great.

Along the way I met numerous people (including a couple of young women from Toronto) who had picked up from wherever they were from and gone to Australia for a year.  I thought “why can’t I do this?” And then, “wait, I can!”  My work is almost entirely (though not completely) done remotely anyway – by the time I ultimately left Toronto, I was working from home (or a café) more than 90% of the time, and rarely had anyone work-related in my home.  The magic of the internet.  So I put the wheels in motion, tied up some loose ends, and by October 2010 I moved out of my apartment in Toronto.  I spent a couple weeks couch surfing across Ontario to Montreal, had two weeks of work in Montreal, and then headed to Sydney via Vancouver.

The initial “plan,” if you could even call it a plan, was to spend the year in Australia to see if it would work.  My plan for the end of the year was indefinite – in theory, I was returning to Toronto (via two weeks in Montreal, again for work), but if the whole thing had turned out wildly successful, I always had a year in New Zealand in the back of my mind.  (While the inspiration was to travel, rather than specifically to travel to Australia, Australia and New Zealand were the likely first choices as the visa I travelled / would travel on is only available until the age of 30, which is coming much faster than I’d like!  Being a British citizen, I have my whole life to get to and around Europe, assuming the EU doesn’t break down entirely.)  I kept all my ties to home based on this — basically the only thing I gave up was my rented apartment and a handful of furniture; even then, much of my furniture is still floating around on loan to many people!  I figured if I decided I never wanted to come back to Toronto or Canada, people could keep the stuff (which is mostly what ended up happening), I’d have the rest of my belongings shipped to me, and I could take care of all the administration of closing bank accounts and stuff on an annual trip to Toronto for work in June.  And so I went.

The first week in Australia was a complete and utter disaster.  First, upon arrival in Australia, the normal procedure is that they scan and stamp your passport (because everyone arriving has to have a visa already), asking no questions, then you collect your luggage, get asked a couple basic questions, and (seemingly at random) might have to put your luggage through an x-ray machine to ensure there’s nothing that needs to be quarantined (they’re very particular about introducing any more species than they’ve already introduced).  In the luggage collection area, there’s always the chance you’ll get questioned by a random customs agent, which is what happened to me the last time I went through, but it ended there at that time.  This time, I got questioned by an agent, who found it absolutely unbelievable that I could possibly have more than one suitcase.  My explanations of planning to be in the country for a year, and of planning to get an apartment while I was there didn’t seem to appease him.  I did at one point wonder whether he was even paying attention as he asked if I would be backpacking across the country (with 2.5 suitcases?).  Anyway, after he questioned me, he said it was fine and to go through, after writing something on my arrivals card.  When I got to the line where they ask the basic questions and decide whether your stuff gets x-rayed, I was directed through a third line… where the same agent met me.  I think that was the worst part of this ordeal – the fact that rather than ask me to come through for further questioning, he outright lied to me, just felt deceptive and wrong.  Anyway, he spent more than half an hour going through all of my luggage, questioning every single item.  It was only near the end, when he found a prescription that I take (which was in the original container and properly labelled) that I realised he was looking for drugs.  I was ultimately let through, with my now completely disorganised and messy luggage, but it was not a pleasant welcome to the country.

I eventually got to my hotel (only after the cabbie drove right by it numerous times), and thankfully was allowed to check in early.  That was Thursday. I had the hotel booked through Sunday night.  Word of advice to anyone planning a similar trip: book a hotel for longer!  I was able to stay one extra day but that was just barely enough.  I arrived in the country knowing virtually nothing about the real estate market (other than, thankfully, a central and reliable website where things were listed), and spent the next few days scrambling to find out all I could.  What I learned: My price expectations were completely unrealistic, Sydney apartments cost easily 1.5 times the price of equivalent apartments in equivalent neighbourhoods in Toronto or Vancouver, virtually all apartments are shown in pre-determined (set by the agent) 10-15 minute blocks and almost always on Saturdays (thankfully I arrived on a Thursday), and for any given apartment you may be competing with three or four dozen other potential tenants.  Oh, and foreigners without a letter from an ’employer’ usually go straight to the bottom of the pile.  Shared housing would have been somewhat easier; but as someone who works from “home,” living with strangers was not really in the cards.

So, I saw as many places as I could, asked really naïve questions of people who had only their own interests in mind, and sent in a bunch of applications.  The small amount of spare time I did have, I spent wandering some of the typical tourist places that I’d seen before but wanted to get a glimpse of again to remind myself that it was real.  And the one advantage of being in a hotel was that I could watch Australian TV – I don’t watch much TV in general, but the weekend I arrived happened to be the weekend of the ARIAs (similar to Canada’ Juno Awards), and I’ve been in love with Washington ever since!

Back to the apartment-hunt: there were really only two places I stood a chance at, based on the low volume of people viewing them – one in Pyrmont, and another in Woolloomooloo.  The apartment in Pyrmont was above a store in a neighbourhood that was one-half brand-new-development and one-half run-down-old-buildings (the apartment was in the latter half).  It wasn’t a bad apartment, though the bedroom shared a wall with the bedroom of an adjoining apartment, and the wall didn’t connect all the way to the ceiling… I would’ve lived with it, somehow, but it would certainly have been awkward.  I received a response from the estate agent saying they had received the application but were having trouble reading something – at this stage I had already signed a lease so it was too late.  I spent the next year wondering how different things would have been had I lived there (or somewhere else that I could’ve found if I’d had more time) instead.

Astor Apartments

The apartment in Woolloomooloo, which I ultimately got, was a tiny studio apartment, about 22 or 23 sqm (~250 sq ft, for those of us stuck in the age of imperial measure).  I never did find out the back story of Astor Apartments, the three-story building I was in, but the few people who did see it compared it to Melrose Place, and most suggested it must have been a motel at some point.  There were no internal hallways – I was on the first floor (that is, the first floor above the ground floor) and my half of the building opened to a large garden.  The units in the West half of the building opened to a pool (or a narrow walkway one level above the pool).  My unit (which I took photos of before moving out) was just big enough for a Murphy bed, a small desk, a table that I never used, a tiny tiny kitchen (I will never again live anywhere without a full sized fridge/freezer), and a bathroom with a full bath (not standard in Australian apartments – many have shower stalls).  My view was of Forbes Street, a pedestrianised residential street (with noisy/obnoxious inhabitants) that runs North/South through Woolloomooloo.

The location in Woolloomooloo ended up being the real highlight (and lowlight) of this place that I touched down at over the next year when I wasn’t travelling in other parts of the country, or back home in Ontario.  Woolloomooloo is the first suburb (North Americans, read: neighbourhood) East of Sydney’s CBD (Central Business District), so when I wanted to go into the city it was about a 10 minute walk over the Eastern Distributor Footbridge to Martin Place.  It’s also immediately West of Kings Cross and Potts Point, busy neighbourhoods with most of the services (like supermarkets) that you need to make it livable… if you don’t mind hiking up an escarpment to get there.  Finally, it’s immediately North of Darlinghurst, which left me near the ‘gay village’ without actually being in it – a welcome change from five years in Toronto’s Church-Wellesley Village (which I loved, but was in need of a change from).  Woolloomooloo itself, though, is full of contradictions.  I lived 300m from Russell Crowe (like, the Russell Crowe), and 300m from a park jammed full of homeless people roughing it.  On one hand, Woolloomooloo was very inaccessible by public transport (only two buses really serve it, one of which stops running at 6, the other goes nowhere useful, and it’s wedged between two train stations), and on the other hand, it was a focal point on recent cycleway installations.  In one direction of my apartment were some of Sydney’s ugliest locations (the underbelly of the Eastern Suburbs rail track – though this was improved recently by a park renovation), and in the other was the harbour and Woolloomooloo wharf.  You make what you can of what you have, though, and some of the best moments of my time in Sydney were spent sitting on the wharf and just taking in the majesty of the harbour.  I took this photo on my last weekend in Sydney and it remains one of my favourites.

Woolloomooloo bay at sunset

Anyway, the apartment was mostly furnished, so I really only had to pick up a handful of things to make it feel like a temporary version of ‘home’ (this didn’t stop me from spending far too much money at Ikea!)  Once I felt like I was reasonably ‘settled’ (it took less than a day to unpack, which is the beauty of furnished apartments), and had taken care of all the basics, I tried to piece my life back together a little.  I had spent almost six weeks without a home, without being in the same place for very long, and it was nice just to breathe a little.  Unfortunately, I couldn’t get back into the swing of things very quickly, as Optus had a two-week lag time on setting up home internet (and by “setting up” I mean “sending your modem by courier and changing a setting on their computer” – no one ever actually came to hook anything up in person).  This was when I had a bit of a culture shock — free Wireless Internet, which is almost obligatory at cafés and now even restaurants in Canada, is virtually non-existent in Australia. In fact, WiFi is really, really expensive in Australia, and you even pay for it at chain stores like Starbucks.  Others, like Gloria Jean’s, didn’t have any consistent standards for WiFi, and if it was available at all it wasn’t free.  I had taken to going to Coco Cubano, which offers free WiFi using a company called Unwired, which also provides the free WiFi at Sydney’s public libraries.  Of course, when something is free in a world of things that aren’t free, it’s not very good — I rarely stayed connected for more than 10 minutes at a time.  I got frustrated, to say the least.

So I said screw it, it’s mid-November and I didn’t come here to stare at a computer trying desperately to load an internet page.  I decided to book a trip that would be close by, cheap, easy to plan, and could be done in a short period of time.  I had initially planned to organise all my trips around the country once I was in an apartment and had reliable internet (because, of course, the internet is how one books things these days), but that wasn’t going to be for a while, so I headed for a long weekend in Canberra.  Sadly, Canberra was really the only place I went to by train – I love taking the train, but Australia’s geography and rail network make travelling out of Sydney by train inconvenient, to say the least.

Canberra is a great city, despite the fact that not many Australians particularly like it (this may have something to do with the fact that it’s the capital and consists almost entirely of politicians).  It certainly wasn’t the most exciting place I went in Australia, but it was a nice introduction to the country.  In particular, it got me right back into something I’ve always been interested in: politics. In particular, it was a good refresher of the political system — an hour or two at the Museum of Australian Democracy (which is housed in the country’s old parliament house) was a good crash course in some of the highlights of Australia’s system – mandatory voting, vote preferencing, the bi-cameral system we’re so familiar with in Canada, and so on.  Interesting fact: the speaker’s chair in the upper house of the old parliament house was given to Australia by the people of Canada when it was opened.

Besides that, though, I spent most of the weekend just wandering around Canberra, taking in a bunch of the museums (which, basically, are the major tourist attraction in the city), and getting confused by the public transport system.  As if the buses weren’t confusing enough, even walking anywhere in Canberra is puzzling – the entire city was designed (from scratch – when it was designated as the capital it was just a sheep paddock and they built the entire city there) on concentric circles.  This generally forms a big roundabout in the middle of each set of circles, with other roads radiating outwards… which means most streets don’t have a discernible compass direction, and your Northbound walk might become a Southbound one without you even realising it!  I did eventually find things, though, and left with a much greater appreciation for grid patterns.

One final highlight of the first month I spent in Australia was finally meeting a long-time Twitter friend IRL.  Josh and I had been chatting since the early days of Twitter, when it was easier to meet people you had things in common with, and in the days before Oprah.  We met up for a drink at the Beresford and ended up spending the entire evening chatting non-stop about anything and everything.  It was as if we’d known one another our entire lives, and we ended up becoming really good friends over the course of the year.

Come to think of it, that first month really set the tone for the entire year I spent in Australia.  Virtually everything that followed owed, to one degree or another, something to the events of November.

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2 responses to this post.

  1. […] First, finding a place to live – go to http://www.realestate.com.au. While there are some listings on places like Craigslist or Gumtree, if you’re looking for a legitimate rental this is the centralised database for all the listings.  (Flatshares are listed on here too, though Gumtree is pretty safe for those).  Once you’ve gotten onto the site and have had a chance to look at some of the places you want to see, don’t make the same mistakes I made. […]

    Reply

  2. […] The Travel Blog That Wasn’t – Australia part 1 (to November 2010) […]

    Reply

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