Sydney, Australia

Not five minutes into my arrival from Port Moresby back to Brisbane, I literally faceplant in exhaustion while trying to catch a train. I get up and run in, with bloodied hands and knees, and laugh it off.

Adrenaline keeps me going in a brief reunion with Vyvian. Oh, the novelty of having a lovely restaurant meal with a friend again! Of a beautiful Saturday morning market stroll! Of a haircut to finally feel fresh again! Of an afternoon enjoying the sunshine and the skyline view from South Bank!

It lasts until I drag myself to the airport, endure yet another delayed flight, then onto Sydney, where I’m unable to buy a transit card with no credit card until I plead with an attendant to use hers and I repay her in cash. It’s hard to get by in an increasingly cashless society when your stuff is stolen. I’m tired.

Sydney is one of the world’s most famous and livable cities, renowned for its beauty. You come here for the Harbour and Opera House, of course. And in this week in particular, the Women’s World Cup, with the whole country rallying for the Matildas.

Yet at this point, a week from the end, all I want is a taste of home.

Launching straight back into the remote work routine of early mornings and early nights, I had afternoons and evenings to explore, and I definitely did! But even with the physical energy to walk 15 km every day though, the mental energy just wasn’t there anymore, especially for the first few days.

What I did have energy for: Asian food.

Sure, I can wait a week and get it all in Vancouver. But I’ve missed flavour! I’ve missed variety! Heading to one of Sydney’s four Chinatowns in Burwood on a whim, I found myself in heaven: a heaven of choice paralysis, of sights and smells familiar to my palette, and the sensation of utterly blending into a crowd again, speaking the same languages. I soon found myself heading to the other ones as well. Eastwood, Chatswood, and the original Chinatown in Haymarket — I made sure to hit those Chinatowns too.

Meeting up two nights with my friend Therese, a recent arrival to Sydney from Singapore, I felt nursed back to health just by having congee, rice rolls, Hainanese chicken rice, nasi lemak, kway teow, desserts, and catch-up conversation. Going from far-flung suburb to suburb for a walkabout and a hyper-specific meal, I began to feel like myself again — this is what I’d do on a weekend or weeknight in Vancouver with friends. Another night out later in the week at a ritzy bar and restaurant with former Vancouver friend Stoo and his friends reminded me of how enjoyable it is to socialize normally again in a group where I’m finally not the novelty. (And how nice it is to have a cocktail again!)

And yeah, I did join the hordes of tourists from around the world, go to the Harbour and the CBD and take a bunch of photos of the Opera House and the Botanical Garden and walk across the Harbour Bridge. But over the week, as my mental energy returned a bit, my focus and enthusiasm began to shift — Sydney’s full of ethnic enclaves, interesting neighbourhoods, and weekend markets. Why not hit as many as I can? Even if they’re all far apart, it’s pretty easy with that expansive system of heavy rail trains and ferries that pleases my public transit-loving heart.

My inner hipster liked Redfern, the neighbourhood I was staying in, full of students and rowhouses. Newtown and Surry Hills appealed to my coffee-loving inner yuppie, and boy is the coffee great in Australia, especially with a meat pie or a lamington, no matter how simple or fancy. The banh mis, about as ubiquitous as hot dogs in New York, are both gigantic and miles better than any I’ve had back home. Cafes and restaurants still had far more people dining al fresco on patios than inside, despite being rather chilly in the midst of Australian winter. I kind of admire that…and don’t even have that level of commitment as a Canadian!

And a long Saturday meander took me through the Carraigeworks market and its fancy food samples, the Paddington market and its crafts, the Kings Cross market for a quick bite, and the Chatswood market for all things Asian — all much bigger and busier weekly outdoor markets than what I’m used to! Visiting all of this involved detours into neighbourhoods and their little quirks: posh houses, fun shops, cafes all scattered on residential corners, parklets, giant malls, crowded streets, and everything in between. If there’s anything of Sydney I’m particularly jealous of, it’s the excellent variety of vibrant, bustling third spaces scattered everywhere in equal measure.

Contrary to what seems to be prevailing opinion, I don’t find the city parts of Sydney to be all that architecturally interesting or particularly photogenic, even if it’s pleasant enough. But Sydney’s known for its natural beauty, and you don’t have to go far at all to see that, especially for coastal scenery. Ferries are the easiest way, whether merely joining commuters all the way to Parramatta, or up to the touristy strip of Manly Beach. With plenty of coastline, there’s countless walks to do, and I opted for the Coogee Beach to Bondi Beach walk, enjoying a breezy afternoon along the cliffs.

Further afield, there’s the Blue Mountains a 2.5 hour train ride away, and I got to go on my only true hike of the entire seven-week trip, starting at the famous Three Sisters lookout. The crowd thins out from there almost immediately, and I had windswept viewpoints, waterfalls, and much of the cliff walk all to myself. I was exhausted but more than satisfied after 18km of walking, even without descending to and ascending from the valley below.

There’s so much in and around Sydney, and I say this despite actively skipping a whole lot. Never got the energy to watch a World Cup match, let alone any sport, at a bar or viewing area. Never went to a single museum. Never swam at a beach. So many more neighbourhoods out there. Like Brisbane, this stay felt a little bit like a window into a parallel universe life, where I could easily see myself living in Sydney and enjoying it, even if it’s a city that’s too busy and too big for my tastes.

This is the part where I typically end a trip full of nostalgia, and I’ll find myself missing a place before I even leave for home. But this time, I’ve really got nothing left in the tank. PNG was fascinating, frustrating, fulfilling… but the experience (and not the country) was mildly traumatic given all that went wrong. I’m proud and satisfied looking back on it but happy to close that chapter. Sydney’s cool, don’t get me wrong, but I’ve never so dedicated a trip elsewhere to seeking the joys of my home life before. I’m just eager for the real thing now!

Once I rest up and get my energy back though…

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