30 August 2009

the silence of sydney

My first reaction to Sydney was that it felt just like the States. I had expected it to be less commercial/more European or more Asian or somehow different. But, aside from incredible Asian food courts and slightly more British/formal English, Sydney (and much of Australia) felt a lot like California. Except instead of black, white, Asian, Latino and Native American, the demographics felt more like mostly white, with groups of east Asian, south Asian, southeast Asian and a tiny smattering of African.

What did catch me by surprise was how quiet it was. We walked around Sydney's CBD (central business district) from early morning until late afternoon, and no one was blabbering on their cell phones (like they do incessantly in the U.S.).

Instead, people in suits were walking along, silent. As were younger, hipper types. Even students and teenagers were not blabbing away into their cell phones. Maybe I'm turning into a crotchety old woman, but man, would I love it if people in the States didn't have a cell phone/hands-free device glued on their faces constantly.

My friend later explained that talking minutes were quite expensive in Australia, and people would give you looks if you spoke too loudly on your cell phone in public. (Will those people please come to the States and teach the people here some manners? Maybe the first step is to get rid of those unlimited minutes...)

My partner and I were in a museum a few days ago, for example, and a woman was sitting in the hallway, yelling into her cell phone, "And I'm about to tell you something very confidential." My partner and I wanted to laugh-- yeah, "you" and the entire museum. (Turns out it wasn't that juicy anyway: some guy was getting surgery. Not quite as interesting if she'd said she was a spy for the Moldovan government or something like that.)

Imagine instead a world where people had conversations with loved ones in person, the old-fashioned way, or corresponded via handwritten letters, if not in the same city. Ahh, the good old days.

I'm thinking I'd like to blow up my cell phone. Yes, they're great for emergencies and if you're running late and so on, but I love being unreachable when I'm out. If I'm meeting a friend, then I'm busy and can't talk.

Which is why I usually leave my cell phone at home. My partner isn't usually too pleased when he calls me from home and hears my phone ringing in the next room, but that's the price of freedom. Do you think I'm crazy? Do you love your cell phone? Could you live without it?

But I digress. Ahem, sorry. Back to Sydney. It also reminded me of Montreal. It was a clean, attractive city, and it made me think of what New York might be like if it was transported to San Diego-- perfect weather year-round, more laid back and a little slower, but still very cosmopolitan. But anyway, what do I know? I'm no Sydney expert. These are just first impressions.

Now, some visuals. I'll start with the opera house (of course).

Here is the front of the opera house, a view rarely seen in the promotional material:

I was surprised at how solid the opera house was. I had expected it to be made of some kind of airy fiberglass material, for some reason. Instead, it was solid concrete covered in shiny white tiles. It's quite a feat that the "sails" look so light.

Here's Darling Harbour Bridge. It makes me want to watch "Finding Nemo" again.

Darling Harbour (day):

And night:

The first bird we saw when we arrived in the Darling Harbour area:

The architecture reminded me of New Orleans in some areas:

And New York in others:

And lastly, some random art (which always make cities so much nicer to live in and explore):

Next up: Melbourne, my favorite city in Australia so far (due largely to the awesome couchsurfers we stayed with).

28 August 2009

lake powell and antelope canyon

On the way to Antelope Canyon, we stopped at the ethereal Lake Powell for a picnic lunch. The rocks in the lake seemed to float in the haze of the midday heat.

When we got to Antelope Canyon, we'd had pretty high expectations. It was great to see that fulfilled.

Here's some info from the Navajo Parks and Recreation site:

Gently carved from the Navajo sandstone over the course of countless millenniums, the slot canyons are majestic and narrow passages, just enough space for a small group to walk the sandy floor - and for the occasional shafts of sunlight to shine down from above.

It is really two separate canyons - Upper and Lower Antelope. Each contains the hidden "slots" carved from the swirling sandstone, and both drain from the south into Lake Powell (once the Colorado River). The canyons are so narrow in places that one can stretch out his or her arms and touch both sides.

The Navajo name for Upper Antelope Canyon is Tse' bighanilini, which means "the place where water runs through rocks." Upper Antelope is at about 4,000 feet elevation and the canyon walls rise 120 feet above the streambed. Lower Antelope Canyon is Hasdestwazi, or "spiral rock arches." Both are located within the LeChee Chapter of the Navajo Nation.

Though dry most of the year, Antelope Canyon runs, and sometimes floods, with water after rains. It is the water, slowly wearing away the sandstone grain by grain, that has formed the beautiful and graceful curves in the rock. Wind has also played a role in sculpting this fantastic canyon.

Here is what it looked like as we entered and how the colors seemed to shift and change as we made our way through.

And for those of you with some free time or, ideally, visiting the U.S. for a month, Jetblue is offering a great All-You-Can-Jet pass valid for a month, from September 8th to October 8th. Happy traveling!

23 August 2009

the grand canyon

For a month, we were unplugged.

No cell phones, no computers, no technology or anything that required electricity except for our digital cameras. While I enjoyed having no cell phone, I did find it a bit tough connecting to the world via (really overpriced) internet cafes ($4 to $8 per hour). So, it comes as no surprise that we spent little time online. Which is good in that we spent all of our time in Australia and New Zealand exploring (fun). But then we had hundreds of emails to wade through when we got back (not fun).

So, anyway, we're back, and we have lots of lots of photos to share with you. Yay! Now, let's get started. First things first: finishing up the US road trip.

The Grand Canyon: we'd heard we had to see it because of its sheer size (all of the river water in the world would not be enough to fill it!) and expected to be blown away. We started on the north rim and were disappointed at first. Here's what we saw:

I know, it's pretty breathtaking. BUT, we'd just come from some of the most beautiful places (Bryce, Zion, Arches...), and when we got to the south rim, we saw why it was much more popular than the north rim. This was our first view:

I think seeing the Colorado River snaking through the bottom of the canyon made all the difference. It was a beautiful jade green, which contrasted nicely with the red and white and brown rock. (I realize this photo looks a bit flat (darn midday sun!), so just imagine the colors of the north rim photo with a green river meandering through the bottom.) Here's a nice shot that my partner got of the pink sunset:

And one taken a few minutes later. The changing colors were pretty spectacular:

It was nice to see such a huge sky, where nothing interrupted the horizon at all.

We enjoyed the dazzling sunset and slept early to make sure we were up by 4am to pack up our campsite, catch the shuttle to the trailhead (the south rim is massive) and start our descent into the canyon before 6am. We hiked down to the bottom of the canyon in record time (over 7 miles (distance) and almost 5000 feet (elevation drop) in a little over two hours), enjoying views of the sun rising over the canyon as we flew down the trails.

The sun was up and powerful in no time, and 6:30am felt more like 11am.

It was exciting to see the Colorado get bigger and bigger as we approached, and it was amazing how large it was when we finally crossed it.

When we got to the bottom, secured a campsite and set up camp, it was over 100F (and it wasn't even 9am yet).

Thank goodness a ranger told us about the creek than ran alongside our campground-- we spent the entire day in it. The high for the day was somewhere around 115F.

We were told that fewer than 1% of visitors to the Grand Canyon make it to the bottom, and we thought it was because it had to be done as an overnight trip. Since our trip down had been over three hours faster than the recommended time, we thought we were hiking gurus.

We enjoyed a peaceful night of sleep and then learned where our physical limits were the following day.

For the record, we are two fairly healthy young adults, and we've both enjoyed our fair share of hikes. And then we hiked up the Grand Canyon. It was about 9 1/2 miles and almost 5000 feet up. We did the first four miles in two hours and figured we'd be done way ahead of the recommended 7 1/2-8 hours. But it was an unrelenting uphill ascent in sand with not a smidgen of shade. It felt like we were walking and walking and not getting anywhere. It took us around 5 1/2 hours, and we nearly died.

If it hadn't been soft sand, or if there had been an inch of shade, or if it hadn't been so hot (around 112F), or if we weren't carrying all of our camping gear/clothes/toiletries/food/water/trash, or or or, it would have been all right. But that combination made for the toughest hike we've done so far.

To save you from that same painful experience, I'd recommend not hiking up the Grand Canyon in July. Spring and fall would probably be quite nice. I'd recommend leaving, as we saw some people doing, around 4am instead of 6am. The sun is up and shriveling by 6:30am. We were told to pour water all over ourselves to stay cool at each water stop. (Going down the Kaibab trail, there was no water available on the trail, so you have to bring enough, but going up the Bright Angel trail, there were at least three water stops.)

We even saw a man practically showering at the water pump. He had his head under the faucet when we arrived, and we waited patiently as he then wet his back, his stomach, his legs-- and he even squatted down to pour water down the back and front of his shorts. Given how dead we were at that point, it was a welcome moment of comic relief.

Was it worth it? Yes. We saw some beautiful things (waterfall, condor, panoramic views).

Would I ever do it again? No way.

Would I recommend it? Of course.

Next up: Antelope Canyon-- and then Australia and New Zealand!