No Shirt, No Shoes, No Worries (2010-03-18) – Part II

Continued From Part I

Jen on the steps of the St. Mary's CathedralThe next stop was St Mary’s Cathedral, which is the largest, although not tallest, cathedral in Australia. We didn’t intend to linger long – there’s only so much standing around and staring you can do in a place of worship without feeling intrusive. After admiring the sandstone architecture from the outside as much as possible, we slipped quietly into the dim sanctuary.

The atmosphere was hushed as we viewed colorful stained glass scenes and the grand roof, arched high above our heads. Sounds echoed up to it, and I had the urge to raise my voice in song to the vast resounding space. This is a common feeling I have in large cathedrals – there’s something about the beauty of the structure and the way the answering walls promise to be forgiving and love your voice back that makes it seem like I could and should produce a sound that would be lovely enough to add to and match well with the surroundings. However, I refrained from emitting more than a soft sigh of longing, as there were fervent worshipers in the pews whom I was loathe to interrupt. But to sing in a cathedral like that, just by myself, is on my list of things to accomplish in life (#52 to be exact); one day, I will enjoy that ultimate musical experience.

Amid our wanderings inside, I found an amazing painting that seemed out of place from the rest of the decorations. The stained glass and art on things like the Stations of the Cross were of an older style often found in Catholic cathedrals, which coordinated well with the building’s design. But there was one strikingly beautiful painting around a corner that really caught my eye. The modern, photorealistic style showed a simple, dark, desert background behind a beautiful girl smiling softly and holding a baby with intense dark eyes. They both had peaceful expressions – the infant was curious yet contemplative, and his mother showed a gentleness, and a willingness to be protective even through hard times. There were so many other feelings in that painting, many of them hard to express in words, but it brought more emotion to me than all of the other art in the whole building combined.

I would have liked to stand in front of that lovely image for a long time, but we had one last stop for the day: the Royal Botanic Gardens and The Domain. They were a combination of cultivated natural areas and gardens that spread over a peninsula on  the bay. It was a short walk from the city, and we were soon wandering on paths through grassy lawns and beneath a variety of trees. I am sadly lacking in botanical knowledge which would have given me greater appreciation of the multitudinous flora, but I still enjoyed the foliage as a whole.

Jen going barefoot in the Royal Botanic Gardens

The best part was a sign that I saw repeated throughout the grounds. It invited visitors to enjoy the area to its fullest, including walking barefoot in the grass and hugging the trees. This was all I needed to kick off my sandals from my tired feet and scrunch my toes into the soft grass. This was the vibe I had been looking for; everyone was barefoot at the beach, but this was in the city, a serious place of business that still had areas to be barefoot. It was important too that it wasn’t just something I liked and did that was tolerated – all people were *invited* to do it. This was the essence of the Australian spirit, the ‘No worries’ idea exemplified, and I couldn’t have asked for anything better.

A Cockatoo, not an uncommon sightThe rest on the time in the gardens was a pure pleasure; I’ve never liked shoes much  (or clothes for that matter), so wandering the paths and lawn spaces barefoot made all the difference. In addition to the well kept greenery, the birds were wonderfully fascinating. As we spotted different species along the paths, it appeared as though the entire exotic bird section of the local pet store had gotten loose in the trees. There were large white cockatoos, and parrots colored with the bright shades of a box of crayons. They were not, however, escapees from a tropical bird show; they were merely the common local wild birds. It was yet another thing in Australia’s favor, to have such interesting creatures as regular inhabitants.

There were plenty of other parts of the day,  interesting things that we saw and heard and learned and experienced, but that almost indescribable vibe was in all of them. Technically nothing magical or vastly unique happened – Sydney was a fairly average city, even if it felt like everyone was driving on the wrong side of the road. It was still nothing more than some big boats and a white wavy building, some grass between my toes, etc., but for me it was much more than that. You can say what you like about adding meaning where it doesn’t exist, but I think it was an example of gestaltAnother unique Australian bird at its finest; all of the objects and places and creatures and experiences were truly greater than the sum of their parts. I had come there to experience the vibe underneath it all, the normal and unadorned parts, to soak up the true feeling. And I am happy to report that the spirit that I found in Sydney that day, the one I had been warming up to Bondi and that filled me in Birubi, was wonderful and drew me in to soak up even more.

It was the laid-back ambience that I had always hoped for; a place with a bit of myself in it. Sydney, and all of Australia, are certainly unique, and while I could make some comparisons to other places, there’s nothing quite like experiencing the real thing. Australia has drawn me in with its own sort of ‘hug’ – one that invites you relax, kick off your shoes, and don’t worry. All I can say to that is, "Cheers mate!"

P.S. – If you’ve been wondering where the "No shirt" part comes in, well, I have to confess that it was mostly just representative of the relaxed attitude. But besides shirtless guys on the beach around Bondi, there’s actually a nude beach near one of the suburbs on the bay. That one you can go check out for yourself 😉

No Shirt, No Shoes, No Worries (2010-03-18) – Part I

The Dunes at Birubi, Seem to Stretch on Forever

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 Abstract Imitation that is the Sydney Opera HouseThe 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 stillThe Hyde Park Fountain, Diana on the Left, Jen on the Right 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 toMy 3x5 Bruise Developed an Evil Smiley Face 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.

Finally Kicking Back at the Café HernandezJust 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