It had been almost eight hours since I left my modest Japanese home in wintry Toyama by bus to Kansai International Airport in Osaka and I could feel a subtle change in my disposition. I ignored it.
As I flew en route to Ho Chi Minh (Saigon), Vietnam, it was evident that I was unwell. My heart began palpitating, my body seemed to be spewing copious amounts of heat waves, my throat pained so immensely I was unable to utter a single word; I could barely move my limbs.
As the plane started its descent into Saigon, the air somehow appeared to shrink with every passing second. An unfamiliar sickness engulfed me. As we landed, it was unmistakable that I was unquestionably ill.
Unable to move, the Vietnamese airport medical team quickly removed me from the aircraft by stretcher, placed moist cloths over my burning body and then wheel-chaired me to a doctor who immediately attended me.
All I can remember is waking up after for what seemed like decades of sleep and feeling painfully hungry.
What exactly happened to me I still do not know. It was lost in translation between a humble Vietnamese doctor and myself. What I can attest to, however, with irrefutable clarity is the unwavering kindness bestowed upon me by the Vietnamese people during my feeble state.
After several tiring hours and a long flight later, on a perfect Christmas Eve afternoon I had finally arrived in Australia. In that instant my hovering sickness seemed to magically vanish.
It was 7:00pm on the eve of Christmas. My Scottish friends and I rushed to make our dinner reservation at the revolving “360” restaurant sitting at the top of the Sky Tower, the tallest free standing building in Sydney. It was the perfect evening, full of indulgences- eclectic gourmet food, fantastic ambiance, and scintillatingly witty conversation all punctuated by achingly beautiful views of the city.
After a sinful dinner, we strolled aimlessly through Sydney devouring everything our virgin eyes laid upon. We found ourselves by the charming Darling Harbour which presented immaculate glimpses of the city. It was buzzing with activity- children running playfully in every direction, families of all nationalities having moonlight dinners with dazzling views of the shimmering sea, blinding neon lights advertising all the attractions it had to offer- the Sydney Aquarium and Wildlife World, the world’s largest IMAX theatre, vagabond ocean cruises, the peaceful Chinese garden of friendship, among a litany of others.
It dawned on me there that I was actually in seemingly elusive Australia. From my elementary days to teenage years, to young adulthood Australia had always captivated me and here I was.
The Darling Harbour had ignited my quest for exploration in spite of my lingering sickness. I yearned at that moment to discover the Sydney Opera House, the quintessential landmark of Australia. My friends, however, were exhausted and understandably so. We had been travelling for more than twenty four draining hours. We retired and headed back to the Radisson.
Christmas came and bubbling with child-like excitement I embarked on my journey, solo, to find the famed Sydney Opera House. Venturing through the city, I was initially surprised by how culturally rich Sydney is. It is a cornucopia of human culture, a microcosm of the world, a paradigm of beauty in diversity.
The city is lined with Korean restaurants, Japanese sushi bars, Thai massage parlours, Belgian cafes and avant-garde Italian boutiques; the aroma of Indian cuisines tickles your every taste bud; you hear echoes of German, Russian and French being spoken a myriad of people, sounds of Aboriginal didgeridoo (wind instrument) humming through the air, beautiful latina bellas bellowing a cheerful “Feliz Navidad”, Greek salesmen and Sri Lankan entrepreneurs hailing a merry “G’day mate”.
As I continued further, its architecture struck me. Sydney is not what I had envisioned. I had the notion of a modern jungle carpeted with towering sky scrapers, mirrored buildings laced with innovative technology. Sydney does indeed have the aforementioned but it is blended masterfully with exquisite colonial buildings and beautifully manicured gardens hinting to former British past. The city seems to elegantly fuse a rich past with a contemporary and progressive future that overall creates an exciting rendezvous.
As I paced on, I passed the enchantingly vibrant Hyde Park and kept wandering along Macquarie Street when I stumbled across it. Before me, tipping at the edge of the Sydney Harbour, rooted on a striking waterscape stood the Sydney Opera House. Designed by the celebrated Danish architect, Jørn Utzon, the Opera House is majestic, bold, sultry and spellbinding but above all, it is startlingly beautiful. This architecturally orgasmic edifice seduces you forthwith. As I stood transfixed by it, I truly understood why this is the iconic image of Australia.
The next day I continued my journey throughout the city and the more I delved into Sydney the more I started to experience an inescapable sense of déjà vu. Sydney, I pondered, is reminiscent of a true love- stunning but unassuming, mesmerizing but laid back, passionate yet friendly.
The following day I temporarily bid Sydney goodbye and ventured on a three hour flight to Cairns in North Eastern Australia.
While Sydney offers unparalleled sophistication, Cairns promises memorable adventures. In Cairns I explored Australia’s fascinating species at Hartley’s Crocodile Farm. There I petted a lethargic koala, got face to face with an intimidating crocodile, accidentally frightened a young wallabee and, as karma had it I was terrorized by an opinionated emu. My escapades had only now begun.
At dawn next morning, I found myself on a hot air balloon floating across a quiet Cairns sky. On top of the world Cairns seemed familiar to me. I couldn’t help but become a little nostalgic.
The rainforest carpeted mountains brought back images of hiking though the rugged Northern Range of Trinidad with my friends; the crisp air and warm tropical breeze were reminders of the long drives to my aunt’s beach house in Mayaro; the lush green sugar cane plantations evoked wonderful memories of my childhood in Balmain where my cousins and I would have naked bush baths overseen by my grandmother. Cairns sincerely felt like the home I had left almost six months ago.
After swimming seamlessly through the heavens, I was now ready to plunge into the depths of the South Pacific Ocean. As I dived into the welcoming sea, I was instantly transported into another world. It was a frenzy of brilliantly coloured fishes, gentle stingrays and unfamiliar fauna that created a marine extravaganza starring the Great Barrier Reef which gave birth to a spectacular underwater rainforest.
As I snaked the ocean’s floor, I couldn’t help but think that I was a secondary character in the delightful “Finding Nemo”.
A few hours later, I found myself lazing on the white sandy beach of Michaelmas Cay, peering at the turquoise waters, having the hot Australia sun beat against my brown skin; I whispered to myself, “This is Utopia.” That night I slept peacefully.
A trip to Australia, I felt, would be incomplete if I hadn’t explored the Aboriginal culture. I signed myself up for the acclaimed Tjapukai Aboriginal Night Show. It was admittedly very commercial initially but as the night progressed, insight into the ancient Tjapukai culture blossomed before my astounded eyes through a colourful masterpiece of tribal song and dance. It was impossible not to be moved by this journey into the past.
My aboriginal education climaxed next day at the Cairns Night Market where I, on a hunt for red boomerang, initiated a conversation with an elderly aboriginal man. Conversing with him, he relayed a painful but uplifting tale of his people- explaining a story of robbery and deceit, oppression and disturbing segregation, a painful struggle and triumphant victory for equality. I listened attentively to him, humbled by each word that poured out his mouth. I bought the boomerang, shook his hand and bid him a thank you and a goodbye.
Next morning at an early 4:00am on New Years Eve, I said a final farewell to Cairns and boarded my flight back to Sydney.
Hours later, after much anticipation it had finally begun.
Five…four…Everyone had already started counting down the last remaining seconds of 2008. I had for many years watched it on television, imagining, dreaming, perhaps more longing, what would it be like to see the sky painted so magnificently.
And here I stood mere metres away from the breathtaking Sydney Harbour Bridge counting down with more than one and a half million strangers the final seconds of a soon to be memory.
Three…two…I perused the crowds and everyone’s eyes seemed to be gripped to the dark velvety Australian sky.
One…“Happy New Year!” Everyone shouted in a celebratory unison.
The sky suddenly spat a kaleidoscope of sparkling colours. Husbands passionately kissed their wives, mothers lovingly embraced their children, friends affectionately shook hands, lovers got lost in each other’s eyes and there I was, standing in Sydney alone scanning the masses, spellbound by a floodgate of raw human emotions drowning me. It was a truly glorious experience.
The last few days I immersed myself in this incredible city. I decided I would end my odyssey by witnessing a theatrical performance at the alluring Opera House and there I stood dressed in my Peruvian cotton shirt, silk black tie and ashy blue tailored blazer ready to see my first opera “Madame Butterfly”, a tale of love at first sight.
I was incomprehensibly aflamed. I got to the register, asked for the best ticket and the cashier robotically replied “I’m sorry sir. All tickets are sold out.” I asked if I could wait in line just in case one person would not show up, fate would have its way and I would see this beloved play. She pointed to a line of people who had similar thoughts and she assured me it was too late.
I was terribly disappointed. Sad seems more appropriate. I slowly headed out the Opera House, walked excruciatingly slow down the stairs and each step I took my legs felt heavier and heavier. I had journeyed thousands of miles to see this tale of love, dreamed of Australia since I was a little boy, gotten frighteningly sick and I had missed it. I refused to just leave like that but the truth was there was nothing I could do…nothing.
Since I was already dressed my best, I decided to go into an exquisite restaurant nestled in the Harbour with panoramic views of the Bridge and Opera House. An American waitress came and took my order.
As I sipped my Australian Shiraz my mind drifted, wondering what the opera would be like. That thought then lingered into oblivion and replaced by my adventures in Australia and then it hit me like a ferocious avalanche- I had gone hot air ballooning…alone, plunged into the Great Barrier Reef…alone, saw an aboriginal night show…alone, explored Sydney on Christmas Day…alone, brought in the New Year…alone, having dinner at a lovely restaurant…alone.
It was the first time since leaving home that I had felt so deeply alone. I felt a lump in my throat. I tried my best to rid myself of it but it refused to go. I would have loved to share all I had seen and experienced with someone special but this was sadly not the case.
I quickly finished my dinner, cleared those thoughts cart wheeling in my mind and then proceeded to my hotel.
The final day sneaked up on me. It was time to say my goodbyes. As the plane took off, I peered out the window and looked at Sydney with nothing more than everlasting memories. With every passing second, Sydney became smaller and smaller until it eventually disappeared.
Knowing it was completely gone, I still gazed out, hoping to see one last glimpse because I had then realized I had fallen in love, not with a country but with a city named Sydney.
Written: January 26, 2009.