Entry #043: Friday, November 29, 2013 (Sydney, Australia)

G'day! My, has it been a week already since my last entry? Time sure does fly when you're also flying (and walking, and doing other stuff, I suppose). In case my shoehorned salutation didn't clue you in (or the title for the entry, for that matter) I have now reached my fifth continent, Oceania, beginning with Australia, aka "The Sunburned Country". I now have a better appreciation for that moniker, but let's not get ahead of ourselves! We still have some plenty to talk about in Vietnam and in the air before any talk of Vegemite is relevant. So let's get to it!

So, on Friday I woke up, and in my new room, with the window that faced an indoor courtyad, it was completely dark, and I had no clue what time it was. Thankfully, it wasn't as late as I was worried it might have been, so I still had time to go down to breakfast. Shortly afterward, I decided to walk down to the local hospital to get an x-ray. I considered getting a ride on a motorcycle because, y'know, possibly broken toe, but as is often the case, once people started yelling at me to ride with them, I was so off-put that I just decided to walk. It really wasn't that far; it was on the same roundabout at the main market, only about a fifteen minute walk away.

I knew from the get-go I was in for an experience, as not only was I using a public hospital in a foreign country, not only was it a socialized hospital (the kind Tea Party folks'll warn you about), but it was a legitimate, literal Communist hospital. It's also in a developing country, so obviously, it'd be unfair to make any sort of projections that our hospitals would somehow turn into this under Obamacare. At least, I hope it wouldn't, because the first thing I noticed (other than the fact that the only procedure listed in US dollars as opposed to Vietnamese dong translated to "Liposuction") was that the place was dirty. After I checked in, I sat down to wait to speak to a doctor, and no fewer than three cockroaches passed by my feet. Additionally, all of the equipment looked terribly old, not the least of which being the giant x-ray machine that was going to be scanning my foot. That was probably the only part of this that really made me uneasy - who knows how much stray radiation might be leaking out of that thing? But hey, at least I didn't have to worry about getting invasive surgery - I'm not sure I'd want to get any incisions in a place where they still used a ceramic water dispenser (which was helpfully labeled "CLEAN WATER") from the 1950s.

The actual process of getting everything ready was relatively painless and straightforward. Well, it was painless until one of the doctors started manipulating my toe. That was painful. But I only had to fill out a couple of forms, and they didn't even ask for any form of identification. Payment was...not terrible, but did seem a little nickle-and-dime-y, since the "examination" (quotes used because it lasted two minutes and mainly involved a couple questions and the aforementioned toe manipulation) cost $10, with another $15 bucks for the x-ray. I had to pay both of these in cash, and got a couple pink receipts in return. (This was important, as my travel insurance works on a reimbursement basis.) I sat in the hallway for a short while, all the locals staring at me (as I was the only white person in the entire building, most likely), until one of the doctors came up to me to bring me to the x-ray room. He asked for me to show him the receipts, and then I waited a little bit longer before they brought me into the room with the giant, ancient machine. Moving my feet around, they took a couple shots, and sent me on my way. I waited another ten minutes, and then they came to me with the scans, which showed, to my relief, that my toe was not broken after all. Satisfied, I was free to go...except that I remembered that the x-ray doctor had never given me back my receipts.

This began a long and complicated series of events, in which I went back and forth between rooms a dozen times, and spoke with as many different people. Or tried to speak, at least. I didn't mention earlier, but even the English-speaking doctors only had a rudimentary knowledge of the language. The rest had none. I had to use my phone's translation app to try to explain the situation to them. Once they got a general idea of what I was actually saying, they would bring me down the hallway, and give me to someone else. It was only by the tenth person that the message finally got through. We went back to the x-ray room and looked for the receipts, but found them missing. Thrown away, I can only imagine. Having exhausted that option, I asked for new receipts. So, we went to the cashier, but after some conversing, the doctor told me they'll only print one copy of the receipt. And they'd already printed mine. I asked what recourse I had. The doctor only shrugged, and promptly refused to answer any more questions. Exasperated, I left. I am simply thankful that it was only $25 I lost, and not a heftier amount. (And who knows, maybe I can still reason with the insurance company and...wait, reason? With an insurance company?)

Feeling a mixture of emotions (with the good feelings of a non-broken toe winning out), I grabbed a boba tea on the way back to the hotel. That's one thing I'm gonna say I miss from college: constant access to boba. It's not as wondrous as frozen yogurt, but it has its place. I also stopped at the Holland...expo(?) thing that I mentioned in the previous entry. Sadly, it was still not completed, despite it ostensibly opening that day. There were a few stands that seemed ready to go, but to be perfectly honest, it didn't seem like it was going to be terribly interesting even at its peak, so I took a couple pictures and then left it be. I didn't really have enough interest in going back, or doing much else for the rest of the weekend. The main portions of my Saigon trip, I'd say, were done. I got back to the hotel and began what I'd mainly be doing for the next couple days: relaxing a bit, and uploading photos to Facebook.

Spoilers: I'm going to say "I uploaded photos" a bit in the next couple paragraphs. Because that really did take up time. Uploading photos to Facebook isn't easy. Actually that's a lie; it's pretty easy so long as there's no errors (which can screw you up super hard and make it so the entire album doesn't publish). What's not easy is uploading photos and then giving them context. Even putting a basic description takes time, and throughout the weekend, I uploaded more than 1,100 photos, covering all of China, all of Nepal and Everest, Singapore, and all of Thailand up to the cycling trip.

That's a lot.

Now, to be perfectly upfront and honest, I did spend a little bit of time playing some games (mainly because I really get the itch sometimes, and at least it's not as mentally draining), but still, I think I was more productive than anything. I did take a break somewhere in the night to get dinner, which I was craving quite a bit, as I had skipped lunch. I went back to the Cafe Zoom place and got a sandwich and salad as takeaway, which I brought back to the hotel and ate while continuing my work. I basically kept uploading all night, until maybe 3am, when I finally decided to go to bed. However, it was at that point (or perhaps well earlier, since I was listening to music this whole time), that one of the neighbors on our floor began coughing, hacking, so loudly and violently that I had passing fears that they were going to die. It did nothing to help me sleep, I'll tell you that much.

Still, I did eventually get to sleep, and woke up Saturday morning, maybe around 8:30 or so. I ate breakfast at nine, got back to my bedroom at maybe 9:30, and then uploaded my largest photo album, the Everest Base Camp Trek, which comprised of just a hair over 400 photos. After uploading and captioning them all, it was 1:30. Think about it.

I decided to go to lunch (and even then, I was well aware of how weird it was to have had a full breakfast, sat down to accomplish one task, and then eat lunch) at this place called Tiny's Cafe, a street over from our hotel. It had reasonable reviews on TripAdvisor, and seemed like a friendly enough place when I saw it the day prior. That's actually what I thought: "This seems like a friendly enough place." The irony there being that this lunch ended up being really uncomfortable, because there were some guys - one of whom I'm assuming was the owner, who were having a vitriolic argument with each other and with solicitors. Now, I know I'm not always the nicest person to solicitors, but I don't actually scream or curse at them, like one of these guys was doing. Hell, for all I know, if I wasn't somewhat obscured by a wall in the middle of the cafe, I might have been a target as well. As it was, I was thinking of just leaving, but I figured I'd give them the benefit of the doubt. In retrospect, I probably should have left; the food did not make up for the ambiance. It wasn't terrible, but...well, let's just say that, contrary to the photo in the menu, and the description in the menu, the bruschetta was not served on fancy French bread, but rather on some cheap Wonder-style white bread, toasted in an uneven toaster. But it was edible, as was the salad I got. Throughout my meal, I kept asking for the check, so I could get out of there as soon as possible. Once paid, I snuck out, careful not to be seen by the angry men, and went back to the hotel, where I just relaxed for a while, as I was still tired from the EBC photo uploading.

I eventually went out for dinner (Christ, I just sound like some sort of gluttonous pig here), heading back to the really good Italian place that my mom and I both liked. I wanted it to cover both dinner and lunch the next day, so I got more than I knew I would need - a Greek salad an a calzone. I went back to the hotel, ate half the salad and a few bites of the calzone while watching some videos, and then spent the remainder of the night uploading the photos up to the end of my time in Bangkok, at which point I became so tired that I had to stop to avoid falling asleep into my keyboard.

In case you'd like to see the albums (and are not my Facebook friend), you can do so at the following:
China 1 - Beijing
China 2 - Xi'an
China 3 - Shenzhen
Nepal 1 - Kathmandu
Nepal 2 - Everest Base Camp & Kala Patthar Trek
Thailand 1 - The Road to Bangkok, ft. Malaysia
Thailand 2 - Bangkok

Now with that shameless cross-media promotion over with, let's talk about Sunday! After having my last breakfast at the Pink Tulip (in which I went all out and ordered...the same basic thing I'd been ordering every morning), I went back to my room, freshened up, got everything packed away, and then brought all of my stuff downstairs at noon. Thankfully, the staff there said I could wait in the lobby as long as I wanted. So, I set up my laptop and brought out my leftover lunch. As I opened the containers, I immediately wished that a) I had a fridge in my room, and/or b) I had just focused on finishing the salad the night before. It may have been fine, but something about lettuce and veggies and dressing and feta cheese just left out to stew in their own juices overnight, even covered, made me a little uncomfortable, and so I just stuck to the calzone.

During the four hours I had before my taxi would show up, I tried to be as productive as possible. I sent out a number of emails, mostly in relation to my South America trip, and then I tried, for the first time in a couple weeks, to again get my Zune back to working condition. I had pretty much accepted the fact that I'd be losing all the music on it either way, which would be a huge loss, but one that could be recovered from. However, after a good two hours of performing every piece of troubleshooting that the Internet suggested, and having error messages appear at every step, I finally got a new error message: "Contact Support". As far as I could tell online, this is the point where people say, "I hope it's still in warranty." And mine, being six years old, clearly isn't. I knew it was the end of the line. And yet, despite losing my main (and easiest) source of access to my music library, I was strangely at peace with the fact. Maybe it's because it lasted me so long, when both iPods I owned died within 7 days of their warranty expiring. This thing had been my faithful musical sidekick for years, and I have been the product's biggest evangelist, years after people even remembered that it even existed. So, I couldn't be mad at it. Saddened, yes, but not angry. I don't know what I'll do from here on out (on the trip at least), but I'll just put it here one last time: the Zune was a great, unappreciated product. Thanks for the years of service, buddy!

After doing all that, I figured I'd pack all my stuff, and make my payments. I tried paying in a mix of cash and credit card, to get rid of what Vietnamese dong I had left. Unfortunately, I still ended up with about 50,000 left (about $2.50). I decided to go to the Circle-K on the street next door to get a couple snacks. I got their equivalent of an icee, a pack of Mentos to add to my stockpile, and a couple small candy packs. I still ended up with 1,500 dong left, but considering that this was only $0.075, I figured it wasn't really worth pursuing further. However, it might have been worth spending on an umbrella (or, perhaps more realistically, a cocktail parasol), because, out of nowhere, the sky opened up and a torrent of rain fell from above. Literally, it was clear as I walked out of the Circle-K, yet I had to find cover under the overhang of a bar two spots over. I planned to wait it out, seeing as these sudden flash storms always subsided as quickly as they'd begin. Except...this one didn't. It kept going for minutes and minutes, which doesn't sound like that long (and on a geologic scale, isn't), but I only had minutes before my taxi was to arrive, and I could see the water covering the ground growing deeper and deeper.

When I only had five minutes left, I decided to go for it. Thankfully, whilst the rain didn't stop, per say, it did lighten up a minute amount, enough to make me feel grateful for waiting. I rolled up my pants and quickly moved through the ankle-deep water, careful to keep everything contained in my vest as dry as possible. I only was in the elements for about 80 seconds, but I was fairly thoroughly soaked, so much so that Annie kindly offered me a towel to dry off. I accepted his offer and sat down, waiting the final few minutes before the taxi called. I grabbed my stuff, and Annie an umbrella, and we made our way out to the taxi, where I hopped in, thanked Annie for his hospitality, and rode off.

The taxi ride really showed off how big and sudden the storm was. We passed by a number of motorcycles being soaked in a wave of tire-raised puddle water (some of which was coming from my taxi). I watched the bikers' dejected faces with pity. But we were also a victim in our own right, as we ran into a fallen tree covering an entire street. So don't think I'm overplaying how heavy this rain was. Still, despite the detour we had to take, we arrived at the airport well on time. This was a good thing, because I had other things delaying me. First of all, the airline wouldn't give me my ticket, because I didn't have an ETA. Huh? I wondered. So, I apparently didn't do my research well enough before coming here, because apparently Australia, in lieu of having people from some countries fill out visas, makes them complete an "Electronic Travel Authority". This is tagged to your passport, and says that...I dunno, you're not a terrorist or something. The thing is, if you're an American, you have a to pay a $20 service fee (which doesn't apply if you're an EU citizen). Basically, it's an electronic visa. So, despite being part of the international visa waiver program, you still end up having to register and pay to get into the country. Frankly, it seems a tad suspect to me. But rules are rules, and so I had to quickly log onto their website via my phone, register all my details, pay, get a confirmation, and then go back and get my ticket.

I was able to make it through security relatively quickly, despite them making me go through multiple times because I didn't take out my laptop and such. (I should note that everyone was making this same gaffe, as they did not provide any trays in which to place laptops or anything else.) Arriving at the gate with plenty of time to spare, I was able to relax a bit until it was boarding time. When I did get on board, I had a very nice surprise waiting for me: my seat was in an exit row! I think that may have been a first for me. So while I had to put all my luggage in the overhead compartment, I had more leg room than I could possibly need, and I was happy to offer my door-opening services for the privilege. It was a fairly short flight, as we were only going from Saigon to Kuala Lumpur. So short, in fact, that I was only able to watch the first half of a movie (I chose Pacific Rim).

When I arrived in Kuala Lumpur, I came to an interesting realization: I have been to Kuala Lumpur on more occasions than any other city. Like, it's all been in transit, but I was in Kuala Lumpur from Kathmandu to Singapore (in the aiport), from Singapore to Bangkok (at the train station), and from Saigon to Sydney (again, in the airport). I feel this record may stand for the remainder of this trip (although Sydney may tie it by the end), which is somewhat ironic, as Malaysia was never even a twinkle in my eye when planning this trip. But I didn't spend long in there, as the check in process began only about 20 minutes after I arrived. This included yet another security screening, in which I realized that the water bottle I had filled at the local drinking fountain had to be drained. So, in the security line, I shotgunned a full liter of water, to the light applause of the people in line and a smirk on the security guard's face.

I got on the plane, and was immediately missing the exit row I had in the last one (it always seems like it's the short flights where I get the more desirable seats). It was pretty late, and I knew jet lag was going to be getting to me, but I wanted to make sure I finished Pacific Rim before I went to bed. I did and...it was okay. Not nearly as good as I felt some of my friends built it up to be. Once you get past the ticket-selling premise (giant monsters fighting giant robots), it's actually a bit of a forgettable film. The characters range from forgettable to just annoying, and the writing is fairly formulaic. But it's a visual film, and I guess in that regard, it's pretty good. But anyway, when that was done, I went to bed. Or tried to, at least. It seemed as though everything was conspiring to keep me awake. I knew my seat wouldn't have as much leg room as the exit row seat, but when in reclining mode, my knees were literally squished up to the seat in front. I didn't have the luxury of  a window seat, and so I couldn't stuff my pillow into the corner and lay down on it. And the guy next to me was a loud snorer and got up several times in the night (which I don't hold against him personally, but was still a factor). I did drift in and out of sleep throughout the night, but it was uncomfortable and inadeqaute. By the time breakfast was served, "groggy" would be a generous description of my condition.

Breakfast consisted of some eggs, sausage, tomato, and mushrooms. I thought it tasted a little odd, but I attributed that to the sauce they had so generously drizzled over the whole thing. I then realized I still had two hours before the plane landed, so I decided to watch another movie. This time I chose Argo, which I knew was what everyone says makes Ben Affleck a good actor and director, and had something to do with acting, but that was about it (I don't know much about movies). Criminy, it was totally, 100% not what I was expecting in any way. But it was a good movie; if you haven't seen it, you should. However, by the end of it (which was, incidentally, when we began to land), my mind was finding it difficult to focus on the movie, as I was not feeling well. My stomach was churning, I was feeling hot, I was sweating, I was dizzy. I turned on my air conditioning full blast and tried breathing slowly. Was this air sickness? It couldn't be, I've never gotten airsick before. Well, whatever it was, it wasn't getting better. In fact, it was getting significantly worse. For example, my left arm started becoming completely numb. Is this a heart attack?! I wondered intensely, Am I getting a heart attack at 26?! That thought passed when my right arm also became numb, though it did little to ease my concern. I decided to play it safe and grab the air sickness bag, as I couldn't get out of my seat to go to the bathroom. I somehow managed to tear open the bag, despite having no feeling from my elbows down. I then held it close to my chest as I tried to reason what the issue could be. After going through the potential issues in my mind, I eventually reasoned that the most likely cause was food poisoning from that breakfast. After we landed, I confirmed this...by vomiting. It was probably the quietest, most tactful vomiting anyone has ever managed in history, as the guy sitting next to me didn't even notice. And after that, the feelings came back to my arms, I stopped sweating, and generally felt as though nothing bad ever happened. I quickly hopped into the bathroom, threw away the bag, rinsed out my mouth, and just left. If anyone was aware of what had happened, they made no indication of it. But yeah, no further problems; whatever bad food I had ingested, I had uningested, and all was well with the world.

Going through the Sydney Airport was a fairly straightforward experience, but one that prompted a bit of concern on my part. I've heard stories, tales about the strict customs policies, including that you can't even have foreign mud on yours shoes (which, despite my washing, mine still did). Their entry card asked a number of questions, one of which had to do with if I was carrying any medicine, illegal weapons, or illicit drugs. I initially checked "No", but then thought that maybe the small amount of medication I still had (including a few pills given to me in Vietnam) would count. I didn't want to be deported for that, so I edited it to check yes, and underlined "medicine" to make sure it was clear I was on the level. I also had to answer a couple other questions affirmatively, which, when I got to the customs area, put me in the quarantine line. The quarantine agent, who repeatedly referred to me as "mate" (yes, I realize this is Australia, but I didn't realize the stereotypes permeated so deeply). He ran my bags through a scanner, but seemed more interested in asking me questions...
"Travelin' a bit, ain't ya?"
"What d'ya do for a livin'?"
"How are ya affordin' this trip?"
"Have a place to return to?"
"Where'd ya come from? Where ya headin'?"
And so on. I don't know if this was a technique they use to try to get me to slip up and admit whatever guilt I had (watching Argo made me a bit wary in that regard) or if he was simply curious. Either way, after I'd answered enough questions, he gave me my bags and let me go on my way.

It was only then that I realized that the immigration desk hadn't stamped my passport. With the ETA thing in place, they don't need to. (I found out later that if you want it stamped, you need to ask specifically.) Seeing as each stamp is, in my opinion, a badge of honor, this made me legitimately dismayed. Australia, if you're reading this, please stamp passports as a rule again, kthxbai.

Anyhoo, I went through the airport, got myself a SIM card (and probably chose wrong, because the service provider I chose apparently doesn't have great service in two of the three places I'll be heading too, but whatever, I've been through entire countries without any card before; I'll live). I then made my way to the shuttle area where, after an initial bit of confusion, I was able to get into the shuttle that would take me to my hostel. I got there about noontime or so, but was told that I'd have to wait until 2pm before they'd let me check in. So I left my stuff there, and decided to get some lunch. I went to a McDonald's across the street, as I wanted to continue My Disgusting Quest™, but was disappointed to see nothing that immediately stood out to me as "Australia!" Failing that, I decided to get a chicken salad, so as to mitigate how much poison I'd be putting into my body.

I then walked around the streets for a bit, with one of my main goals being to check out the prices in the area. It...was not encouraging. When a Subway $5 Footlong costs $7.75 (though I should note that they don't actually call it a "$5 Footlong"), it's not a great sign. But I will say that I am so relieved that the tap water here is safe for drinking, as the cheapest - the cheapest - I could find water in the store was for $0.70 a liter, and that was if I bought a 10-liter jug. For a one-liter bottle, closer to $2.50. A precooked chicken costs $10 at the cheapest, whereas the price in Cape Town was half that (and overall, this really made me think that if I retire, Cape Town would be the best option). Ouch. I haven't gotten a pack of Mentos here yet, but that should be my benchmark item. Anyway, when I was tired of depressing myself with high prices, I went to a park and sat down for a bit, to look at the interesting birds in the area. And there are quite interesting birds here: in addition to your workaday pigeons, there is something that seems similar to a cockatoo, and (in my opinion most interesting) an ibis. I thought I may have been mistaken about that last one, but there apparently is a thing called the Australian ibis, and these large, black-headed birds walk around parks in what appear to be gangs.

I went back to the hostel, got my keys, and went into my room. Though this is a sentiment that has developed over the past couple days, I'll just put it right here: I'm not the biggest fan of the place. It's alright; definitely not the worst place I've stayed, but it's definitely not the kind of place I would stay in if there were better options (which there weren't, unless I wanted to pay more). The place, which is "being renovated" by its new owners, "has" WiFi, though this only works if you are in the lobby (I can't connect from my room), and even then, is spotty as heck. It's also a bit on the dingy side, though I honestly have seen worse. The problem, though, the real problem is the clients. Which, if you turn it around, is that the problem is me. There's two types of hostel people, as I've mentioned before: the people who'll use a hostel because it's the cheap option (that is, people like me), and the people who stay at hostels because they want to basically live in a fraternity-like environment. The people who are drinking, smoking pot, and asking you why you're being anti-social by not joining in. The kind of people I've never enjoyed. Honestly, I'd love for there to be an "old person" hostel, for mature individuals who just want to save a few bucks. I mean, I love having fun, but hearing a karaoke version of "Wonderwall" at 2am through thin walls makes me long to be a policy-enforcing RA again. But yeah, the typical hostel vibe (at least for an Australian hostel) doesn't really jive with my personal vibe.

Sorry, I always seem to go on a tangent when talking about hostels. Anyway, when I arrived, I was still massively tired from my flight, so I fell onto my bed and took a nap. I was woken up (briefly) when two of my roommates came in. They're a couple from Bavaria who are planning to buy a campervan and travel/work in Australia for a couple months. They're staying in this hostel for a couple weeks, and it's their first hostel experience. They're kind and quiet, and exactly the kind of people I like sharing a room with. They got themselves set up as I continued my nap, but before long I got up, and tried fixing my WiFi issues. Once I realized I couldn't get the hostel's WiFi to work, I went to do a little bit of shopping, in which I mostly picked stuff up, looked at the prices, put them in my basket, walked around the store a bit, thought about it, then put the items back on the shelves because I couldn't justify paying. That happened a few times.

I then decided to go to dinner, and after checking out my Yelp app (they actually have Yelp in Australia; I knew there was a reason I shouldn't uninstall the app from my phone), I decided to go to this little joint on the water, where I got their most famous dish (which is validated by a photo of Colonel Sanders eating it), a meat pie topped with mashed potatoes, peas, and gravy. It was actually quite good, in that English-comfort-food kinda way. I then took the long way back to the hostel, primarily because I kept taking wrong turns and not looking at my map. I didn't bring my camera with me on this walk, but thankfully didn't see too much that was exciting or interesting. I then got back to the hostel and did some writing and stuff. (I finally managed to get an internet connection by, essentially, stealing the signal from a nearby building. Hey, only God can judge Tupac and me.) We then got another new roommate, a guy named Max from England, who also seemed to fit well into our group dynamic, being nice and friendly, but not really the hoo-rah hostel type. We hit it off so well that I invited him out to gelato with the rest of us, and we walked a half-mile down to this one gelato place and got some really good stuff (I got a mix of strawberry and mojito, which I think is a prime combination). We then talked for a while before heading back to the hotel, where I did some night stuff and went to sleep.

I woke up the next morning, looking forward to the free breakfast that was apparently waiting in the kitchen below. I was a bit disappointed to find out that it was just some toast and a little bit of cereal; I think I may have been spoiled by my time at the Pink Tulip (among some other breakfasts). After eating that, I went out and got a public transportation weekly pass (though even now, I'm not sure it ended up paying for itself. I'll assume it did; it makes me feel better), and then took the train out to the town hall, where I met up with a group for a free walking tour. This tour lasted about three hours, and was very much worth the $10 tip I eventually gave to the guy leading it. We walked a good portion around the city, learning a bit about the history and getting an idea of some of the interesting places around. After it was finished, I got a small lunch and then did my own walking tour. I wanted to visit the Royal Botanical Gardens, and continued walking in that general direction until I finally got frustrated and wondered, where can they be? After consulting with my map, I realized I was in the Gardens, as they were more of a huge park than anything else. So, I eased up and enjoyed my walk around, making some calls and taking in a bit of sun.

I eventually made my way out of the park, following signs to the Art Museum of New South Wales, which I went into. To my pleasant surprise, you only have to buy a ticket for the temporary exhibits - the permanent exhibits are free. I took advantage of that by visiting all the permanent exhibits before continuing on my way. I then was able to make it to St. Mary's Cathedral, the largest cathedral in the city. It was indeed a very impressive building, much more so than the cathedral in Saigon. I couldn't take much in the way of photos, as there was a guy walking through who was strictly enforcing their "No Pictures" policy, but trust me, it was pretty nice. Since I was there, I decided to say a few quick prayers, and then headed out. I thought to go to the Museum of Australia, and immediately remembered that I had left a 20% discount coupon at the hotel. Figuring that it would just be a couple bucks anyway, I decided to bite the bullet and buy a ticket. But the cashier told me I'd only have an hour, as it was already 4pm. I was genuinely surprised, as I wasn't looking at the clock. I decided to hold off, so I left and continued walking, this time through the parks. I then got on one of the metro trains to get to the hostel (hey, I needed to make use of that pass). There, I met Max, who I talked into doing the free walking tour's night tour in the Rocks region of the city. However, by the time we left (and stopped at the store to buy him a baguette and some cream cheese), it was clear to me that we were going to be late. And we were; the tour started by the time we reached the train station, still a mile away from the starting point. We powerwalked, if not outright jogged, to make up for lost time (this would later come back to haunt my feet, as I was wearing flip-flops at the time). Thankfully, it all worked out, as we ran into the group, who were coming in our direction. We joined in and did the tour, which covered a number of things that weren't covered in their day tours. Another $5 for a tip, and I felt that it was again well-spent. (A similar "ghost tour" would have cost $35.)

We then made our way back to the hostel, which included a bit of walking (and, for those interested, I ended up walking - in flip-flops - for 8.5 hours this day) and another train ride back. We stopped to do a small bit of shopping at the local Coles (which is their Safeway/Kroger equivalent), and then went to the McDonald's for dinner. I looked a little harder this time, and did see something that seemed local: the McAngus, whose sign had a stamp on the lower right corner with a picture of Australia on it. How local! So, I got it to continue My Disgusting Quest™, and...it tasted like a normal burger. Maybe there's something special about Angus beef, but I couldn't taste it. You've let me down, Australian McDonalds. You've let me down. Anyway, after that, we got back to the hostel, where the four of us talked for some time, did some of our respective nightly work, and then went to bed.

The next morning, I was a bit disappointed, because Max had to leave (as they told him that there was no space for him to stay in the room that night). While I don't mind saying goodbye to folk, my disappointment came from the fact that we were losing our nice, calm quartet, and gaining an unknown entity, who could be just as easy-going, but could easily be what I'll now term a "hosteler". The German couple also left for the day, while I stayed in the room for a little while to do some writing. I eventually left to go to lunch. I wanted to go this place called the Scubar, which I heard had cheap kangaroo pizza (and I really want to eat kangaroo at some point). So, I take the train over to its area, and walk for about twenty minutes on top of that (and remember, my gallivanting in flip-flops meant that my toe/foot was hurting), before arriving and realizing that the place didn't open until 5pm. That is to say, no lunch there. So, I walked back to the train station, and took it over to the docks area, where I walked over to the Opera House, and bought a ticket to see the Royal Something-or-Other Orchestra on Saturday. It's my one splurge while here. The cheapest ticket was $89, and it is actually behind the orchestra, but hey, at least I get to see the conductor.

I left to again get some kangaroo for lunch - this time in the form of a burger. I searched Yelp, and found the Rocks Cafe, a nearby spot that has kangaroo burgers...or had, anyway. Apparently they stopped serving them a couple months back. However, I had already sat down, and I didn't want to be a jerk, so I just bought a normal burger meal. It was pretty good (and came on a huge fresh-baked bun), but was it worth the $19 I paid for it. No, no burger is worth that much, I'm sorry. Still, at least the cafe's manager was pretty nice, although his waitresses were slow as molasses. I waited for 20 minutes after asking for the check before going inside to pay for it. Is that a thing here? I dunno, maybe it is. But I had places to be, so I hobbled my way back to the main public transit station. I decided to mix things up, so I chose to take a bus instead of the train. In hindsight, this was a bad decision, because it ended up taking well longer than the train would have. So by the time I got to my destination - the Australian Museum, again - I had less than two hours left. Turns out, I didn't need it, as I only needed to spend an hour-point-five in there. The museum was alright, not really as interesting or thorough as I was hoping it would be. And I felt an entire floor dedicated to minerals may have been a bit overkill. That said, the exhibits on the Aboriginal people were very insightful and worthwhile.

I left the museum, and before getting back on the train, made a quick stop at the local Starbucks, where I tried my long-dejected card, and...it worked! Hooray! I got a small drink and sipped happily as I made my way down to the train and hopped on. I got back to the hostel, where I messed around for a little bit. Before I knew it, it was 7:30. (It's easy to lose track of time, since they're in the long days of summer where it doesn't get dark until 8pm or so.) So, I decide to get some dinner, and I'm in the mood for Mexican. Luckily, there's a Mexican place just down the street, which was ostensibly the best there is in Sydney, if not all Australia (though, folks were quick to point out, the bar is quite low). I went, got a burrito bowl with all the fixin's, and ate. It was fine, but more than anything, it made me pine for Chipotle, which would have been twice as good for half as much. I later went to the store to get some multiple-meal food (like, a pre-cooked chicken and such), but realized that it would be a stupid idea to do that if I wouldn't even eat it for at least 14 hours. So, I just went back to the hostel and did a little bit of writing. Oddly enough, if there was actually supposed to be someone showing up to fill in Max's space in the room, they never showed up.

I had to wake up a little early the next day, as I was meeting up with someone. I got up, had a quick couple pieces of toast for breakfast, and then met up outside the hostel. The person I was meeting was a gal named Teresa, who you would only know if you listened to my Everest Base Camp Podcast. Meaning that nobody has heard of her. Long story short: While we were staying at a lodge on the descent of the EBC trek, there was another group we met, of which Teresa was part. She was concerned because she had left her camera charging cable in Singapore, and had a trek even longer than my own. As she had a Sony camera, I tried using my own cable to help her, but when that failed, I showed her a few tricks to extend the battery life of her camera. (This, along with a suggestion to look for a universal cable in Namche Bazaar, ended up giving her camera enough life to eek its way through her trek.) She was quite grateful, and asked how she could repay me. Despite the rest of my group heckling me like I was some lothario, all I asked was for some place/activity suggestions for Sydney, her hometown. She gave me her contact details, and later let me know she would be in town when I was, so could show me around. So, I just decided to follow through with all that.

So, we met up, and she drove me through the town. It wasn't just a roundabout Sunday drive, though - we had a specific destination. One in Sydney. And yet, despite experiencing traffic that really wasn't that bad, we drove for maybe an hour and a half before we reached our destination. When we finally got to where we were going, we had a quick coffee (or, for me, hot chocolate) stop, and then began on a walk. We walked along a coastal area, up a hilly trail, until we reached the local lighthouse, with great views of the harbors. We were hoping to walk down a different path through the forest, but it was blocked off, as it looked like the forest had recently had a fire. So, we went back the way we came, and then took another quick drive to one of the sandy beaches. I would actually say the quality of the beach was comparable to a good number of SoCal beaches, which is a major compliment. However, their "lifeguard zone", which was a designated area which had to be the area you swam in, was, between two flags that couldn't have been more than thirty feet apart. And that was it. So it was kinda lacking in that regard. Still, we didn't have much intention of swimming, even though we changed into swimsuits. We set up a couple of towels and laid out, and talked for some time, about Sydney activities, Nepal, travel in general, and miscellaneous other items. It was a bright and sunny day, but the strong ocean breeze kept it quite cool, which I think worked against me (more on that later). After, perhaps, a couple hours, we ended up leaving and going to lunch. We stopped at some organic-new-age-health-food place, the kind of place where they have nachos using linseed chips. (Three guesses as to what I got for lunch.) While eating, and for quite some time after that, I showed off all my photos from the EBC trek, as well as whatever other interesting photos I could show from my trip before my computer's battery died. Teresa also showed me her photos, some of which looked absolutely stunning, especially from a color perspective. But she was quick to remind me that, for having a point and shoot, my photos were also good. I honestly can't argue with that.

We hopped back in the car, and after a short detour to the area she grew up in (which also had amazing views of the water), we drove back to the part of Sydney where my hostel was. As it was time for everyone to go home from work, and because she made a point to cross the bridge so that I could see it, this was a long drive, taking almost two hours. But we managed to pass the time by talking about Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones, as well as my attempting to explain how marketing in gaming works. She dropped me off at King's Cross, and gave me a book of trails to hike in the Blue Mountains. I asked how I'd return it to her, to which she replied that I could stay in her guest bedroom when I got back. So that's $25 worth of accommodation I don't have to pay for!

As I was walking back to the hostel, I realized that I did a piss-poor job of covering myself with sunscreen, as a few parts of me, most notably portions of my legs, were super burned. Bright red and rough to the touch. Bad enough that I felt they wouldn't just turn into tan on their own. Rather, I went to the store and bought some pure aloe vera gel (as you can guess, not cheap!). I also picked up a box of fish and chips, because everyone has been telling me to get that while I'm here. I got back into my room and ate (which was a disappointing experience, as the fish was way over-breaded, and I had apparently missed the "best fish in Sydney" joint just a few spots over. Claudia and Michael (the German couple) also told me that we had a new roommate, though they hadn't seen her for more than a second, so they didn't know what she was like. Well, within a few minutes, we had our answer, as the girl (whose name I never bothered to ask for) came in, along with some bimbo. She appeared to be Scottish, and her first question to me was, "You going out tonight, or are you going to be boring and stay here?" Yep, she was a pure hosteler, through and through. She kept on talking about how this was the best hostel ever to which I silently scoffed, but the Germans sincerely asked if she was being serious. This led her on a lecture about what made it so great (most of her reasons revolved around the things I dislike in hostels). She also explained that we shouldn't worry about the roaches in our room (which I didn't mention, but they're there), because you can have roaches anywhere. She then immediately went into our en-suite bathroom (which she noted as a luxury) and took a shower with her iPod blaring music, whilst her friend sat in the bed above me, legs dangling over me. I looked at the Germans, rolled my eyes and smirked. Eventually, the new girl came out, put her iPod on the floor and turned it up even louder, and then bent down to dig through her luggage, pointing her exposed rump at me from underneath a high-hitched towel. Uninterested in a peep show and annoyed with the insipid music she was playing, I doubled my efforts on isolating myself in my writing.

One of my greatest assets is my tact and diplomacy, so even though my tone when speaking with her was blasé, I was quite polite and friendly. So when I explained how the nightlife wasn't my life, and how I don't drink and all that, I managed to seem like her best buddy, even though I couldn't wait for her and her...what, three friends at this point?...to be out of the room. When she finally did, I sent her off with a "Have fun and stay safe," followed by some laughter with the Germans once the door closed. They immediately told me how thankful they were that I wasn't like that, and I returned the sentiments. I then continued working on my stuff for the night, pausing only to slather some more aloe on my body, before going to bed.

Now, one thing I didn't mention is that this was Thursday, which, if things worked the same throughout the world, would have been Thanksgiving Day. But, this being Australia, it wasn't Thanksgiving Day. So I decided to hold off any sort of celebration until, more or less, Friday, when most of America, including my family and friends, would be celebrating. As such, I'll use the transition between days to repeat the note of Thanksgiving that I wrote on Facebook, the sentiments of which may or may not have been made in this blog before.
I'm cheating a bit, as it's actually already Friday over here. Still, if there's anything this trip has done for me, it has given me a greater sense of appreciation and gratitude. I am thankful for the fact that, when all is said and done, I live in a country where I can have any comfort I need. I am thankful that, no matter how idiotic and incompetent our government is, I don't have to worry about being imprisoned or killed for making such a statement. I'm thankful that we have a variety of cultures, a variety of foods, and a variety of opinions to share. I'm thankful that virulent disease is an anomaly and not a way of life. I'm thankful that we are able to have all those first world problems we talk about. 
On a more personal level, I am thankful that I have had the opportunities in life, both financial and logistic, that have allowed me to go on a trip of this magnitude. I am thankful that, despite that I've had many ups and downs, and that the ups have been life-changing, whilst the downs have only been rough (as opposed to devastating and/or deadly). And, above all, I am thankful for the support of all my friends and family, who have been with me (virtually or, in a couple extraordinary instances, in person) every step of the way. You are all my collective rock, and my gratitude could not be properly expressed in words, despite my efforts. 
Happy Thanksgiving to all!
I woke up in the morning, with the full expectation that this was going to be an off day. One to relax, not walk around everywhere, let my sunburn heal a bit, and finish up this blog entry. I skipped the hostel's breakfast, choosing instead a few handfuls of a cereal I had bought with me (pro-tip: buy a box of cereal when traveling or just in general life; it's never not useful). I then began downloading some items from the Internet, primarily a couple of indie games, courtesy of the current Steam Sale (I know my "halfway-around-the-world" argument doesn't apply as much when I'm in a first-world nation, but still, it's funny how I can stay in touch with my home base roots whilst traveling). Unfortunately, unbeknownst to me, the WiFi provider that I'd been using this whole time went out for one reason or another, and so my phone, which I had hooked up to my laptop as a USB tether, switched to the mobile data plan, which very quickly drained my allotted 500mb for the day, and then the extra 500mb it gives you as overage. But after this 1gb was gone, the connection dried up. Meaning that I couldn't get data on my phone, and the WiFi I was using wasn't working. When it comes to Internet access, this wasn't an ideal situation, I can tell you that.

Anyway, the Germans, who I think had gone out for breakfast, came in and let me know of a couple revelations. First, it was raining (some Australian summer, huh?), and second, there was a dead guy in front of the hostel. .........Wait, what? Yeah, so apparently, there was a police scene literally two feet away from the entrance to the hostel. I didn't mean to investigate, but after some writing, I decided to get some food from the store, and as I went down, I saw the police tape coming in through the door. Outside, there were several cops standing around, most likely waiting for some manner of forensics officer. And, after one of the police saw me and stepped aside to let me out, I looked and saw a body on the ground, with only a few fingers of his hand not covered by a sheet. I tried to get some sort of information from the police about what happened, but they either didn't know anything at that time, or just weren't forthcoming about it. (The official story, told to me later in the day, was that the guy was a junkie. He OD'd, fell, hit his head, and died.)

So yeah, nothing to start the day like a corpse!

Anyway, I got to the grocery store and looked for a turkey, as I'd be eating lunch while all my family and friends would be having Thanksgiving dinner. Unfortunately, I could only find turkey in the large, frozen form, or as ludicrously expensive sliced deli meat. So, I decided to split the difference and get a fully cooked chicken, which was actually fresh out of the oven, as well as a salad and some other items. I brought the chicken into the hostel's kitchen and spent a good ten minutes harvesting every scrap of meat I could into a Tupperware that I also bought. To my sheer delight, I discovered that the chicken was filled up with stuffing. This was more like Thanksgiving than I expected. I split the meat, stuffing, and salad into two portions, and then brought up one half to eat for lunch. While I was eating, the German couple asked me for help with negotiating tactics when dealing with a guy they were trying to buy a campervan from. I gave them some pointers about how low to start from, but the vast majority of my tips revolved around one concept: make him think you're the expert in the field, and that you actually know what the vehicle is worth, whether you do or not. I also told them to be polite but matter-of-fact, and not let him see you waver at all. I even gave them my number in case they needed to pull a Hail Mary and call their "American used car dealer friend". (I prayed it didn't come to that.)

So, the Germans left to continue their campervan search, and then the hosteler girl came in (she had popped in and out through the morning with little word). As she was in, she complained about her hangover, and gratefully accepted a piece of candy I offered as treatment. She then took a shower, and came out, and basically dropped her towel to start changing. The following exchange (to which my statements were almost verbatim, but hers are edited a bit for language) occurred with me still writing on my laptop.
"Just as a reminder, there is a person in the room."
"Yeah, well, you're not a jerk like the guys in the last room I was in."
"I'd always figured there was a finer gradation* in relationships between 'You're a douchebag,' and 'Let's get naked in front of each other.'"
"Have you seen my heels?"
"I always lose them. But what guy would complain anyway? Hell, I almost crawled into your bed last night; I was so drunk and tired."
"Imagine my disappointment at the reality."
"Where the hell are my heels?!"
(*Yes, I did use the phrase "finer gradation" in actual conversation.)
Once she got some clothes on, our conversation became a bit more standard, with her telling me about why she was in Australia, us both complaining about the high prices here, and me explaining my trip to her amazement. I also mentioned that I did marketing, to which she immediately demanded I give her some contacts, since she also did marketing. I gently reminded her that I haven't done much work in the last 8 months, and that most contacts were in the US, and that most would need recommendations, which I would be hard-pressed to provide.

Not really wanting to speak with the hosteler girl any longer, I decided to head out to give my family a Thanksgiving Skype call. I walked over to a nearby coffee shop and ordered an iced tea, which granted me an hour of WiFi access. I tried calling, but the signal was pretty poor. So, I decided to use the time to try to get my mobile data back working. I jumped through umpteen hoops before finally getting into a customer service chat program, where, after about a half-hour of back-and-forth, the representative realized that according to the terms of my plan, once I reach the upper limit of 1gb, that's it for the day. I'd have to wait until midnight before getting any service, and would have to use WiFi in the interim. What a gaffe! (By the way, I'm pushing for "What a gaffe!" to become an internationally recognized catchphrase.) However, I still needed to call my family, and the coffee shop owner let me know my time was up. So I did the only decent thing I could: I made the call from behind a pillar, still within WiFi distance, where nobody could see me. I had a chance to briefly speak to everyone in my family, which was a nice treat.

When I made it back to the hostel, we had another new roommate, Kiet, a nice, quiet guy from Singapore who would be there until Sunday, meaning that we'd have a calm room until I left. Thing was, the hosteler girl's stuff was still in the room, even though she was supposed to have moved into a different room at 10am. The hostel staff had to track her down, and she relinquished her keys to Kiet as she grabbed her luggage. We exchanged well wishes (I'm not sure how sincere they were on either end), and she headed out. Kiet then put his stuff away and almost immediately left for a really early dinner with friends. I just continued my writing. The Germans came back, saying that they were successful in making themselves the alpha pair in the seller's eyes, but unsuccessful in getting the price down to what they wanted (though they followed my advice of giving him a matter-of-fact "Call me if you change your mind"). Later on, I invited them to go to an event they held down in the Rocks area, called the "Village Bizarre", but unfortunately, they had another campervan to look at. I had more chicken and salad for dinner, and then left. When I was 3/4 of the way there, I realized that I had forgotten my camera, which was a shame, because there were all sorts of stuff happening in the area. If nothing else, there was a guy dressed as a jockey arm wrestling with a guy dressed as Fred Flintstone. But the Village Bizarre itself was a little underwhelming. Most of it was made up of food stands (which made me wish I hadn't already eaten dinner...that is, until I saw their prices), and a few pieces of performance art. I watched a few of these, and while they had interesting elements to them, they seemed to want to be weird for the sake of being weird; no substance. But then again, I often don't get performance art, and only God can judge Tupac and the performance artists.

After walking through the entire thing twice, I started on my way back to the hostel, only to get a text from Claudia saying that I forgot my keys (I was really forgetful, apparently). So, I tried getting back as soon as possible. I sabotaged myself by accidentally taking a train the wrong way, but I got back to King's Cross eventually. The problem was, the hostel's front door was closed, and the Germans had already left, so I had to wait a bit. To pass the time, I stopped at the McDonald's to get a Sprite-based icee-like thing. While there, I watched as a bunch of crack heads congregated both outside and inside the place, and asked the register for lots of cups. I didn't mention it much before, but this area, the big backpacker area, is pretty seedy. Lots of potheads, lots of crack heads, and a laughably high number of adult stores and strip clubs on a single street. Really, the dead junkie was just icing on the cake. Definitely not a place to raise a family, I tell ya what. So, once I saw some people coming out of the hostel, I snuck my way in, and knocked on the room door. Thankfully, Kiet had returned, so all was well. I spent the remainder of the evening finishing this entry, while a veritable ruckus was going on outside our door.

At least it was calm inside.

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