Monday, March 24, 2014

Australia Day 28: Bondi, Harbour, Chinatown (part 1)

Our nice direct train route to Bondi beach, Sydney’s primary tourist beach, was subverted by train maintenance being done on the tracks. That meant in order to reach Bondi we had to take a series of local buses. One of our party didn’t have any cash (a seasoned traveler hand slap to Oscar for that mistake) so the rest of us waited outside a hospital while he retrieved some money from the hospital ATM. Why they have an ATM in the hospital remains a mystery, but I was imagining it being just outside of surgery; the doctors waiting for the patient to get a few bills out before performing his appendectomy.

Bondi Beach from the Bondi-Bronte Walk
Once we navigated the web of bus lines, we arrived at Bondi beach on a partially sunny day and immediately looked for the path out. It wasn’t that we didn’t like Bondi beach, on the contrary it’s quite nice, quite crowded and quite interesting, but while we had the clouds on our side, we intended to walk the rocky path between Bondi and its sister beach Bronte. It’s a beautiful walk – one not to be missed if you’re visiting the area – full of majestic littoral vistas, rocky outcroppings and outstanding beach bodies. 

Cliffs of the Bondi-Bronte Walk
There was another public seaside pool set in the rocks and at the median of the walk a large outcropping facing out, unimpeded, into the endless Pacific. A little ways down we hung out at another outcropping overlooking another small rock beach where people were risking the breakers to play out on the smooth natural table. We didn’t quite make it to Bronte. Espying it from the path we decided it was pretty much identical to Bondi, so we walked back down the path and went to get some food.

We ate at an unassuming promenade food stand where we had traditional Aussie meat pies covered in mushy peas, generous scoops of mashed potatoes and gravy. The pie was an artery clogger, but it was apparently a bit of a tradition as the cart was recommended to us by our local guide, Baron.

A circus of humanity at Bondi Beach (I think that's the official scientific name for a group of humans)
Sunscreen’d and swimsuited, we navigated through the crowd and claimed our small bit of beach. Having dipped my toe into the water, I had no intention of swimming in the icy depths, so I laid out while Oscar and Justin braved the cross currents. The beach was a pandemonium of humanity. There was a presumably French couple in front of us who were practically in coitus while there completely naked children cavorted around with strangers 30 feet away, there were topless women baring their...cargoes proudly to the world, there were perfect beach bodies and not-so-perfect ones. About an hour into the experience I began to realize that if I didn't get out of the sun, I was going to be a beet when I got home, so I enrobed and convinced the others that we had a few more things to see in the city. I think they might have been sharing in my sunburn fears as they conceded without much fight.

We tried to communicate with the creatures, but
alas, our primitive form of communication was lost on them
The storm clouds were rolling in by the time we reached Chinatown. We walked down one of the main thoroughfares, pausing briefly to take pictures with and of some enormous crabs and lobsters in tanks outside a Chinese restaurant. The crabs were the size of watermelons; the lobsters bigger than footballs.

It had started to sprinkle, so we decided to cut our Chinatown trip a little short and escape into Paddy’s Market. Paddy’s Market is an indoor fleamarket filled with cheap souvenirs, kitschy Australiana, knock off electronics and other peculiarities.  By the time we stepped into the doors two things were happening: the sky had opened and it was a bloody monsoon outside, and the market was beginning to close. It seemed they close at 5:00 on Sundays.  We shuffled around the storefronts, admiring the gigantic 20 foot long ceiling fans and waiting for security to throw us out. I was pretty turned off by the entire market, to be honest, but Oscar insisted we come back the next day, so we penciled it into our plans.

The gates finally closed at Paddy’s Market and we huddled in the covered entry way with a few other forlorn tourists, making jokes about how the rain would probably only last another 5 minutes, starting now. We made this joke every 2 minutes or so for about half an hour. Finally, as the rain began to at least somewhat relent, we decided to gun it in search of a restaurant.

Nasi Lemak at Mamak
A few Yelp! recommendations lead to disappointing results, until we finally decided on a restaurant called Mamak. Mamak is an Indonesian restaurant in Haymarket that is apparently a current rage, as there was a line clear out the door of the place, with a 30 minute wait. We weren’t keen on trying to find another restaurant at this point so we braved standing under the leaky awnings for a table. I am sure glad we did! Mamak has some amazing fare and it’s really affordable. The satay was perfect and I also enjoyed a rice dish called Nasi Lemak (they claim to be Indonesia’s national dish, but that is up for some debate amongst internet circles). I decided to go for dessert to enjoy their highly rated roti. Roti is a flatbread that is hand tossed extremely thin, then cooked on a griddle. I had the Roti bom, which was thicker and served like a cinnamon roll with ice cream and honey. It’s probably one of the best desserts I’ve ever had.

The rain had ended, the skies had cleared and evening was upon us. We walked to the Sydney Harbour waterfront, where there is a nice pier, many bars and restaurants, and several attractions including Madame Toussaud’s, an Aquarium, and an Australian animal sanctuary. A surprise attraction of the night was a fireworks show done right in the harbor, which we watched from a pedestrian bridge. We had a lot of luck randomly encountering festivals and fireworks and parades during this trip. I’m glad we ran into so much entertainment!

Yeah, well *you* try taking a fireworks picture sometime...
After the fireworks we decided to walk back to the hotel, so we followed signs trying to get back to Chinatown. We had crossed over a major highway at some point and were trying to find a way back around it when we ascended an escalator and wound up on a confusing path. At first we just assumed that maybe we had beat the crowd, but as we walked within the building, we started to realize that maybe we weren’t supposed to be here. It looked like the lobby of a bank or hotel or some other fancy, mostly-marble public area…except that no one was there. It was like a Twilight Zone episode where suddenly everyone in the world had just disappeared.

Finally we saw the exit doors and the glow of the street lights beyond. I felt a rush of relief as I was the leader of this expedition into the unknown, and my adventure had seemingly been vindicated. “See? There’s the exit,” I scoffed. With all confidence I reached to open the door for my fellow travelers. *Clunk* The door was quite locked. No worries, we’ll try the next one. *Clunk*

*Clunk* *Clunk* Hmm.

All the doors were locked. I had failed. It was time to admit defeat. Fortunately we had made this mistake tacitly egged on by a group of people in front of us who shared our rash decision, and eventually we decided it would be prudent to ask them if they knew how to get out of this Orwellian nightmare. They smiled and directed us to the after-hours exit right around the corner, and we three lost lambs finally returned to the flock on the street.

The rest of the evening was spent drinking room and watching crass animation in our hotel room. The next day would be our last full day in Sydney.

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