The staff at Sydney airport were friendly, cheerful, and highly paranoid about us bringing plants or animals into the country; I declared the tube of jaffa cakes I’d bought for Milena at the first stage (though risked a legal debate by calling them “chocolate biscuits”). Although there were queues, forms and honest-to-goodness sniffer dogs, unlike at Delhi, it was all very efficiently done, and we were out and blinking in the morning sun before you can say “welcome to Oz, mate”. We boarded a shuttle bus half full of porky Iowans with Make-A-Wish t-shirts, and listened to Aussie radio on the way into town.
The streets are broad here, and the vehicles bigger than back home; the average car isn’t that different, but there’s a greater preponderance of 4x4s, hefty pickup trucks, and lorries with those enormous long engine housings that you just don’t see in Europe, as well as double-trailer road-trains. Our hostel was a cheerfully decrepit joint called “Chili Blue”, located in a place called “King’s Cross”; Oz is absolutely full of British place names in weird combinations (I once spent an evening searching for them; my favourite was that they had an Islington in Newcastle.) The King’s Cross of the antipodes is a funny mix of costly, highbrow bijou establishments, run-down backpacker holes, and titty bars; the local high street is about 50% massage parlours and strip joints with some shiny corporatish buildings, nice hipster coffee shops and innocuous mini-marts mixed in. Chili Blue is just one of a clutch of hostels and hotels lining Victoria Street in varying degrees of downmarket, but there are a few expensive hair and coffee boutiques just across the road; further down, it turns into a really quite nice residential street with big cars parked outside quiet, expensive houses with pretty front gardens. A bit past that, there’s a huge naval base. It’s a funny old place.
Although shattered, we elected to stick out the day to get into the Australian day-night cycle. We found a tea shop to restore our English souls, and a little place with cabinets full of novelty lighters, polystone dragons, old military headgear and cutting-edge smartphones to buy some SIM cards for our phones; the hostel comes with computers we can use for free, which unusually for public computers are actually serviceable machines, but they’re busy most of the time and the hostel’s wifi is basically unusable. Next on the list was setting up some accounts with the Commonwealth Bank, and lunch at a place just across the road which for $7 piled our plates high with more-than-decent curry. A bombastic older bloke with a white moustache came in just after us, and asking him what the big roll of paper hanging from his back was (just drawing paper for an art class he was heading to) led somehow to a sustained chinwag about the British Indian Army and various old barrack buildings. People here are fun.
Our new SIM cards were working for text purposes, but we couldn’t get any net on them, so we went back to the zippos’n’stahlhelms place to ask for help; after a brief display of bravura phone-wizardry, our phones were singing with notifications, and I could finally message Milena (who’s been travelling all over the world, but right now is in the same hostel) to tell her we were here. We met up and shot the breeze about Stuff In General, shared our jaffa cakes, made ourselves some tea in the common room, where Kingdom of Heaven was playing (we mocked it mercilessly), and went out to eat at a place called “Vibe’s”, where I had a huge chicken caesar burger, and headed back to Chili Blue to, at long last, sleep.
On Friday we got up bright and early, had a perfunctory Chili Blue breakfast (toast x2, egg x1, processed cheese slice x2, tea xunlimited), packed our laptops into a backpack and headed into town, planning to find a coffee shop with wifi and get job huntin’. We passed St Mary’s Cathedral, which is lovely; it reminds me of the Church of Christ the Saviour in Moscow, in being a historic design (in this case, glorious High Gothic), but built comparatively recently with no expense spared. Unlike cathedrals back home, most of which grew gradually part by part like an ammonite shell and sport a thousand years of wear and tear, it was built from the ground up in one sitting, and it gleams.
After wandering amusedly through a very high-end shopping centre, we made the requisite pilgrimage to the opera house, and wandered around the southern pylon of the bridge to lie on the grass and inspect the battery of old cannon there, then strolled back to Circular Quay to find a Starbucks, which was like every other Starbucks in the world. Unfortunately, having bought our very overpriced (but admittedly really nice; they always have a great blend) tea, we found that this only got us half an hour of wifi, which we mostly used finding some real wifi spots. One of which turned out to be nearby, at the Customs House Library, where we went to chill until our laptop batteries ran out, researching employment.
We headed back towards King’s Cross via the Botanical Gardens, which were brimful of tree-ferns and various other weird and wonderful plants, and whose signs endearingly tell you to “PLEASE WALK ON THE GRASS –we also invite you to smell the roses, hug the trees, talk to the birds, and picnic on the lawn.” We got some meat pies on the walk back, then located the King’s Cross public library (which we’d walked past before, but barely noticed as it was sandwiched between two strip joints), where we spent the entire evening submitting job applications.