Every place has a spirit to it; a vibe, a feeling that makes it definitively *there*, and not somewhere else. It can be a hard thing to put into words, much less define. A good friend once described New York City like a “freezing cold, smelly, filthy, warm hug”, but then said that it was perfect just like that. I couldn’t agree more – despite the negative (but accurate) parts of that description, I absolutely love it as much as my clever cohort does. If capturing a location’s spirit or vibe is difficult, then it can be even more challenging to explain why some places draw you, while others make you want to get the hell out of Dodge. NYC has many features that I usually don’t like, and yet it always feels wonderfully, indescribably right.
For me, Birubi (a beach 2 hrs north of Sydney) was the quintessential Australian adventure. We turned our jeep off-road between big rolling sand dunes onto a long white beach that was largely empty, save but a small handful of similar vehicles spread out into the distance. The only houses visible on the shore were far behind us and shrunk into the background as we cruised past the expanse of dunes until we found some waves that looked just right. There were no lifeguards to tell us to move out of the swimming area, no mass of surfers fighting for each wave or creating a slalom course by hanging obliviously in the path of the break. The water was perfect – cool and clear with broad areas of green and blue, and nothing but soft white sand below.
To top it all off, I caught a ride that just went on and on… I was just standing on the board watching the white sand and grassy dunes for ages. It wasn’t just surfing – it was Surfing. The rest of the session and the day went wonderfully too, but that experience—going out to that beach and getting that ride—that’s what Australian surfing is to me; that’s a big part of what Australia is to me.
And yet, this post is not officially about that awesome day, although I could happily go on at length about it. While the openness of the beach, and the experience of Surfing there certainly explain some of what made it all definitively Australia, there was much more to the Aussie experience. We arrived there with a good helping of ‘no worries’ already in our system, from the first two weeks of our overall Australian adventure. That iconic attitude was gently reinforced both from being in Bondi and, a little surprisingly, from Sydney as well.
A simple ferry ride was the start of our day around downtown. The route brought a classic scene into view – beyond the naval shipyard, the tall buildings of the city rose shining in the golden sun toward a blue sky that arched over the famous opera house in the foreground and the bridge just to its side. The juxtaposition of the imposing ships of war near the architecturally stunning opera house brought to mind the dichotomy of human progress. It is truly a marvel that we can construct such large and amazingly complex physical forms, and bestow upon them our endless creativity in the form of abstract imitation. Yet at the same time, we also craft such massive tools of destruction, capable of quickly obliterating ourselves along with the aesthetic wonders that we value so greatly and toil so diligently to produce. All that from a couple of boats and a white wavy building! It was easy to tell that it was going to be a big day.
Our first stop was Hyde Park. At the entrance was a fountain with four metal sculptures on it, depicting different figures from Greco-Roman mythology. The one directly in front of me, Artemis/Diana, caught my attention; there was something familiar about her pose, something I identified with. I’m not Greek by a long shot (try Polish/Russian) and I’m certainly no expert on art or mythology, but I still felt a connection with her. She was a kindred spirit in which I could see one side of myself, the controlled wildness of a hunter. It was strength and power and beauty all contained in the directness of intense focus and patient intention. Looking at that statue was like watching a panther stalking its prey; that light in its eyes is what I felt with Artemis.
The park stretched down the long block and the broad walkway in the middle was lined with tall trees. The trunks reached up over four stories, with crowns of leaves on the high branches. Walking between them was like entering a natural grand hall. They were a refreshing sight, almost a hallowed space, although they barely hid the hustle and bustle of the city, and only lasted for one block. Each new section of the park we passed through was a bit different, and we enjoyed them all.
At the end, we started looking for some lunch. The place we had researched didn’t seem to exist, so we decided to wing it and walk around until we found just the right place – a little nice but not too fancy, a little bit local, but not too grungy and not fast food, with a good ambience too. This was quite a tall order, and it was made worse by the fact that we didn’t know the area and were getting tired. We had rushed several kilometers to reach the ferry on time and my leg was hurting from the large hematoma I had received the day before from a wipeout with my surfboard. Every block seemed to drag on as we wandered nearly aimlessly in search of our elusive ideal.
Just when we were about to settle for anything edible, we spotted some wide stone steps off of the kitschy thoroughfare we were on, going down towards a smaller street. “I would put a cafe down there,” Paul said, and I had to agree that it would make the perfect location, although after our otherwise fruitless search, it seemed too good to be true. But down we went, and there it was; Café Hernandez, quaint and picturesque, serving simple European inspired cuisine. It was everything we had hoped for, and we could barely believe our luck as we finally relaxed at a shady outdoor table. Of the several small plates we ordered between us, everything was delicious and satisfying. In fact, the whole experience was quite satisfying, and with a second wind we happily departed our chance find.
To be continued… Part II