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Chinese New Year: the Year of the Rabbit

Kickoff at Belmore Park

Culturally, Sydney reminds us in many ways of London and major cities in the U.S. You can find most of the same stores here and the standard of living is pretty much on par. One of the most noticeable differences, though, is the significant Asian influence – it is to a degree that you’re unlikely to find in those cities. Even outside of the sprawling Chinatown district, East and Southeast Asian restaurants seem to outnumber the others. It’s hard to walk more than a block or two without seeing a Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai, Korean or Japanese establishment, and many of the stores and bars are of Asian influence as well.

It’s no surprise then that Chinese New Year is a big event here, and since we live on the edge of Chinatown it was essentially unavoidable. The festivities started even before the official kickoff, with small entourages of dragons and drums occasionally passing by on the streets. The official kickoff was in Belmore Park on January 28th and included food, drinks, music and other attractions.

They made rabbits out of all sorts of things

This being the Year of the Rabbit, rabbit statues and rabbit-themed things could be found all over the place, ranging from the normal to the strange to the downright creepy. There also were a variety of activities and giveaways at the kickoff: at one point I was wandering around with a stick of incense, unsure of how to properly dispose of it without accidentally committing some sort of egregious cultural faux pas.

We managed to make our way back without causing too much trouble and ended our New Year activities for the evening and the weekend. The celebration was a week long, culminating in a big parade the following weekend and, you guessed it, fireworks!

One of many Chinese Dragons

The following weekend, we ventured out to secure a spot along the parade route, which took over a significant portion of George Street before continuing through the rest of Chinatown. The parade was well done and included a variety of acts from all over eastern Asia. Though the relationship has had its ups and downs, Chinese-Australian relations have historically been mostly positive, in part due to China being Australia’s largest trading partner and Australia’s significant natural resource exports to the country.

Leftover Floats: Year of the Pig!

The floats were quite elaborate and were interspersed between lots of performers, although we suspect that they started to run out of ideas once they started rolling out all of the floats from previous years: “Hey, we’ve got these things that are just lying around for the next decade, why not throw them in too?” I couldn’t include pictures of them all, so here’s a shot of the pig, the patron animal of mine and Kristen’s birth year.

We could definitely tell when the parade was near the end though, because they really started to run out of ideas at that point. Basically, anything that looked like a rabbit was a valid candidate for being paraded down the street. As a result, I will conclude this edition of “Life with Kristen and Ryan” with a game: Name That Cartoon Rabbit! First correct answer in the comments wins a prize, local pickup only 🙂


Name That Cartoon Rabbit!

Australia Day: Celebrating the arrival of the First Fleet

Me and Kristen and an opera house

Australia has a number of national public holidays, some of which you may celebrate (New Years Day, Christmas Day) and some you may not (Anzac Day, Boxing Day). There are also state holidays that may happen at different times on the year (or not at all) depending on what state you happen to be in. One of the most popular holidays is Australia Day, held annually on January 26th to celebrate the arrival in Sydney Cove of the First Fleet. Sailing from Great Britain and containing close to 1,500 people (including 778 convicts), the 11 ships reached Botany Bay between January 18-20, 1788.

Teaching the Aussies American football

Of course, depending on your perspective, the landing of the First Fleet might not be something that merits celebrating. Due to the negative impact of this event on the indigenous Australians (Aborigines), the day has also been called Invasion Day and Survival Day, among others. This hasn’t really caught on (I suppose it would be a bit difficult to market), but protests and demonstrations occur most years.

Nonetheless, Australia Day is like Independence Day in the United States, a day of picnics, drinks, music, festivities and fireworks, all of which we planned to take part in. We started the day with a picnic in Rushcutters Bay Park, near the Potts Point neighborhood of Sydney. Assuming that they would be difficult to find in Australia, I packed a black and yellow American football alongside my Terrible Towels for occasions just like this.

Australia Day bands in The Rocks

After spending a few hours at Rushcutters trying to teach the Aussies how to throw a football, we worked our way over to The Rocks, one of the historic areas of Sydney, to meet up with Kristen’s classmates and see a couple of the bands. From there we walked to Darling Harbour and Cockle Bay for dinner and the fireworks. During dinner the bar was televising a cricket game between the UK and Australia, so with the help of one of Kristen’s classmates, I now understand the game (more or less).

Australia Day Fireworks at Darling Harbour

As in the States, the night ended with fireworks, always a crowd-pleaser here in Australia. I think there were a variety of fireworks shows all over the city, but we opted for the ones in Darling Harbour, which are nice and close to our apartment. And, as you might expect, they offered some nice opportunities for yours truly to work on his night photography skills. I unfortunately didn’t have a particularly ideal vantage point, but I think I was able to get a few decent shots… you be the judge.

With Kristen's classmates and one extra

We stopped for a group picture on the way out… see if you can figure out which one isn’t part of our group 🙂

Sydney Festival 2011: Symphony in The Domain

Our second week went by smoothly. Kristen officially started class and I’m still getting to know my way around the ThoughtWorks office and the CBD (Central Business District, for those of you just tuning in). Sydney, though not an exceptionally well-laid out city, has an abundance of high quality public venues and festivals to make use of them. One of the most prominent is the aptly-named Sydney Festival. Held every January since 1977, the festival includes close to 100 music, performance and art events spread throughout the city.

The Domain and the skyline

Some of the most popular events are the open air concerts in the Domain, an extensive set of parks, museums and monuments on the east side of the city. Only a 10 minute walk from most of downtown, the Domain is Sydney’s equivalent of Chicago’s Millennium and Grant Parks; an expansive green space for events, festivals and general recreation (I play soccer there every Monday). It is part of a larger downtown park system that includes Hyde Park to the southwest and the Botanic Gardens to the north, with the iconic Sydney Opera House at the northwestern tip. Check out the map for a better idea of the layout.

Music in the city

We attended the second of the three open air concerts, called Symphony in the Domain. An event that normally attracts upwards of 80,000 people, it combines the feel of Ravinia with the location of Pritzker Pavilion. This year the Sydney Symphony was accompanied by readings from Shakespeare and the Sydney Philharmonia Choirs.

Bats in the Domain

We arrived pretty close to the start of the show, so we opted to grab a seat in the grass off to the side, though still in view of the stage. While waiting for the show to begin, Kristen headed over to the concession area to get us a snack while I took a few pictures of the area. One of the first things we noticed were the bats. Native to Australia, grey-headed flying-foxes, also known as fruit bats, are abundant in the parks of Sydney and can be seen roosting in the trees.

1812 Overture with Fireworks and Cannons

While the entire concert was great, what primarily attracted us (Kristen in particular) was the finale performance of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. A staple of Ravinia’s Labor Day Spectacular (which we’ve attended twice), the 1812 Overture is often accompanied by pyrotechnics of some sort. In this case, the performance was accompanied by fireworks, cannons, and fireworks coming out of cannons… an excellent way to end the show.

Like most major cities, there are always an abundance of events, shows, concerts and festivals going on in Sydney. For example, in a few weeks we plan to attend Tropfest, Sydney’s short film festival. You’ll find plenty to do when you come (and you should!)

First-Hand Guide: Traveling to Sydney, Australia

So you’re considering a trip to Australia, yeah? Great! It’s a bit daunting, I know, but once you make it here, you’re bound to have a fantastic time. Hopefully this guide can help answer most of the questions and concerns you might have about making the trip.

Make no mistake about it, Australia is a long way away from, well, almost everything. A flight from Sydney to New Zealand is at least 3 hours, Tokyo is 10 hours and Los Angeles is 14 hours.

Most itineraries from the US will route through either LAX or San Francisco (SFO), and, depending on your preferred airline, you can probably fly to one of those cities directly (United, American and Delta fly direct to LAX from their major and some minor hubs). Depending on your time and airline preference, you also can fly non-stop from Vancouver on Air Canada or, starting in May, you can fly non-stop from Dallas on Quantas, although the DFW-SYD flight stops in Brisbane first.

I’ll use LAX as my example, since that’s what we did. Flights from ORD-LAX are about 3.5 hours; JFK-LAX is about 5. You’ll probably want to give yourself some extra time prior to your international flight, since that gives you a buffer for delays and should increase the chances that your bags will make it.

As I mentioned, LAX-SYD is about 14 hours. Flights usually leave between 9-11pm and land at around 6am two days later. We left on January 6th and landed on January 8th, so I’m sure something interesting happened on January 7th, but I wasn’t there for it! Of course, you regain that lost day on the way back (you land the same day as you take off). You’ll be flying on a large plane, probably a 747, so there will be movies and other entertainment available.

It’s not a fun flight, but if you’ve been on other red-eyes, it doesn’t feel that much different. I personally didn’t really notice much of a difference compared to my flights to Brazil and Chile (10 hours apiece). You leave at night and arrive in the morning, so a few hours here and there don’t really make much of a difference. Just hope that you can get a bit of sleep on the plane, although it probably won’t make your first day in Australia much easier.

As you might imagine, flights are expensive. Expect to pay at least $1500-$2000 per person for a round trip ticket, depending on when you book and when you want to visit. You can attempt to book with points, but Australia is difficult to obtain using award travel, so you’ll need to be flexible with your itinerary and diligent about calling the airlines for availability.

Fortunately, with each ticket comes two free checked bags on most US carriers, which you’ll want to stick to, since both additional and overweight (>50 lbs) bags cost around $200 apiece each way. Australia is a pretty casual place, so pack light and weigh your bags before you leave home. More information is here, depending on your airline: United – American – Delta.

Once you arrive, you’ll be dealing with an actual time change of around +16 hours (SYD – US EST), though the impact on you is actually only 8 hours (Sydney is 8 hours behind and 1 day ahead of the US East Coast). Based on the rule of thumb that it takes about 1 day per hour of adjustment, it’ll probably take a week before you’re fully adjusted, though you’ll probably feel good enough to stay out all day by your 2nd or 3rd day. I’ve heard that the adjustment during the trip back is more difficult, although I haven’t experienced it yet.

Once you arrive, there are plenty of places to stay, and from what we’ve heard the hotels are pretty good. We haven’t stayed in any of them though, so definitely check out reviews online and see what is available, especially if you have a particular award program affinity.

Sydney is a very walkable city, so I’d recommend booking a hotel that’s reasonably centrally located. If you look near downtown Sydney, known as the CBD (central business district), you’ll probably want to find a hotel bounded by the water on the north and west sides, Elizabeth Street on the east side and Liverpool street on the south side. This will ensure that you’re no more than a 20 minute walk to restaurants, shopping, nightlife and major train, bus and ferry stations.

You can also look for hotels near the beaches (there are some) or use something like VRBO if you want to rent a house. I wouldn’t recommend going too far outside of the city so as to keep your transportation options open, so no farther south than Maroubra or farther north than Dee Why.

Unless you’re planning a trip significantly outside of the city, don’t rent a car. You can get just about anywhere by ferry, bus or train, which is much cheaper, almost as convenient and a better way to experience the city. For day trips, you can usually organize something through a tour company, although the light rail system around Sydney is pretty extensive. Sydney also has car sharing through GoGet and they allow drivers with foreign licenses, so that’s an option for longer stays.

Regarding trip duration, I’d recommend staying for at least 9-10 days, since it’s a long flight to get here and you’ll need at least a day or two in Australia before you’ve adjusted enough to the time change. While there’s plenty to do in Sydney, you also might consider using it as a jumping point to visit other cities/states in Australia (Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide, Cairns, Perth, Tasmania), other locations (Uluru [Ayers Rock], Great Barrier Reef), or other countries in the neighborhood (New Zealand, Indonesia, Singapore). Wikipedia has a great article on Australian landmarks to help you get started.

In short, come visit! As a trip, it’s a significant undertaking, but you won’t regret it, promise 🙂

Category: Australia  Tags: , ,  One Comment
Week in Review: Our first 7 days in Sydney

The Opera House at night

It’s been an exciting and exhausting first week in Sydney. I spent my first week in the ThoughtWorks office meeting people and getting work and personal affairs in order (IDs, bank accounts, etc). We’ve also started the search for an apartment, which we’re told will be a challenging process. In the meantime we’re mostly living out of suitcases, as we don’t want to unpack everything while we’re still in the corporate apartment. It takes a bit of time to dig around and find what we need, but we’re getting by.

Kristen spent the week in orientation, getting to know her new classmates and professors. Her class of 48 people represents 19 different countries, so she’s certainly getting the international experience she was looking for. If you want to know more about her MBA activities, you’ll have to bother her, since she’s been a bit lax about posting to the blog 🙂 I did get a chance to meet a few of her classmates at Cruise Bar though… they’re an entertaining bunch.

Classmates Jonathan and Daniel

We spent most of Saturday checking out apartments and getting to know various areas around the city. We’ve seen a few nice and not-so-nice places; the mix gives us a good lay of the land so we know what to expect from the housing market. We mostly looked at houses and apartments in the Surry Hills area, which reminds us a lot of the North Halsted neighborhood of Chicago and whose main street, Oxford Street, is like Halsted Street on steroids. Lunch was at Zambrero, which is currently in the running as an adequate Chipotle substitute (I’m already starting to go into withdrawal). I’ve heard good things about Guzman Y Gomez though…

Always listen to Larry the Lifeguard!

Since we couldn’t look at apartments on Sunday (most open inspections take place on Saturdays), we decided to check out more neighborhoods instead. First stop was Coogee Beach, another of Sydney’s eastern beaches. Unlike Bondi and Manly, there aren’t many surfers due to the calmer waters, so the swimmers don’t necessarily need to stay between the flags (the area of the beach off limits to surfers and more closely monitored by the lifeguards).

Giles Baths at Coogee Beach

Coogee also features a number of baths, which are sheltered ponds carved into the rock on either side of the beach. They are perfect for spending time in the ocean without having to fight the surf. Giles Baths, on the north side of the beach, is essentially just a big hole carved into the rock, but Wylies Baths, on the south side of the beach, has a fully enclosed pool, sun decks and restaurants.

The Coogee area is great, and though we’d considered living near the beach, the public transportation options for the eastern beaches are a bit limited, so we’re probably going to stay closer to the city.


We ended the day a little closer to home with a visit to Chinatown and the surrounding markets, although Paddy’s Market was closed by the time we arrived. One of the nice things about living near Chinatown is that we’ll have front row seats for the Chinese New Year celebrations on February 3rd. We’ve already seen a few dragons on the street as the area prepares to usher in the Year of the Rabbit.

Day 2 in Sydney: Bondi Beach, Sydney Harbour and Manly

Despite waking up at around 3am, Day 2 (Sunday, January 9th, for those of you keeping track) was poised to be much more productive. After a solid night’s sleep (if at odd hours), we were much better prepared to take on the day. We made plans to meet up with Darren, Amanda and their three kids for brunch, so we got moving early, if you count 9:45am as early, and drove over to Centennial Parklands Dining in Centennial Park.  Afterward, Darren and Amanda kindly gave us a tour of the eastern suburbs before dropping us off near Bondi Beach, one of Sydney’s most popular tourist destinations.

Kristen at Bondi Beach

After soaking in the sun for a bit (and finding some cheaper ice cream!), we boarded a bus back into the city. We had originally planned to just check out Sydney Harbour from Circular Quay (pronounced “Key”), but upon reviewing the ferry schedules, we found that there was a Manly ferry every 20 minutes, and if the sign says it’s famous, how could we miss it?

If the sign says so, it must be true

We picked up tickets ($13.20/person round trip) and hopped on the 2:40pm ferry for a quick 20 minute ride over to Manly. We quickly found out why the ferry is famous. Not only does it take you to a great destination (which we’ll get to in a minute), but you get some fantastic views of Sydney Harbour, the Harbour Bridge (which you can actually climb), and the Sydney Opera House. Cool!

Yep, we made it!

We arrived in Manly and, after a quick walk through The Corso, a pedestrian-only street lined with restaurants and shopping, we found ourselves at what is currently our favorite beach in Sydney. A retaining wall near the beach provides ample shade for yours truly and the sand and surf are fantastic. Should you come visit (and you should), you can bet that we’ll be sending you to Manly Beach to get you out of our hair for an entire day. You won’t regret it!

Manly Beach

We spent a couple hours at Manly, dined on some excellent fish and chips (the seafood, as you might imagine, is top notch), and then realized that we forgot the sunblock and decided to call it a day. You can bet we’ll be back though, and I’ll be sure to take some better pictures.

On the way out, I found a candy stand in the ferry terminal, which, at $3.50/100g ($16/pound) is a little steep, but great in a pinch. Expect a more thorough review of the candy stand soon 🙂

For those of you interested in all things gummy and chocolatey

Given that we were running on a full night’s sleep, today was much easier to handle, and though we still went to bed early, if we were more ambitious we could have pushed it (although I’m naturally an evening person anyway). If you’re aggressive about it, you can probably overcome the jet lag in 3 or 4 days, although it’ll still probably take close to a week before you’re feeling comfortable on the Aussie schedule.

Day 1 in Sydney: Unpacking and Darling Harbour

Picking up where we left off, we landed at around 6am and made it to the apartment by around 9ish. Sydney is on Australian Eastern Standard Time, which is GMT +10 hours during the winter and GMT +11 hours in the summer (October to April). So that means that I’m currently 17 hours ahead of Chicago, although the jet lag is only 7 hours. As a result, should you come visit us (and you should!), assume that it will take about about a week before you’re fully adjusted.

After spending a few hours orienting, organizing, calling people, etc, we were determined to get out of the apartment before we fell asleep. First stop: lunch and the grocery store. After getting a bite to eat and picking up the essentials, we decided to do a bit of exploring. Despite the strong urge to go see the Opera House, Harbour Bridge and all the iconic stuff on the first day, we weren’t really up for the walk, so we stayed a little closer to our neighborhood and walked to Darling Harbour instead.

$6 for one scoop is one thing, but $18 for a banana split?!

On the way, we started to notice one of the first things you’ll note about Australia: everything’s more expensive. This was all ok back when the Australian dollar was trading at around 70 US cents, but now that the AUD and the USD are about 1 to 1, your American dollar doesn’t quite go as far. I’m certainly looking forward to that first Australian dollar, cost-of-living-adjusted paycheck!

Darling Harbour and the Sydney Skyline

We spent the next couple hours wandering around Darling Harbour, checking out menus and watching the street performers. The harbour has a Navy Pier feel to it… lots of tourists, lots of restaurants, water, etc. We stopped by the Australian National Maritime Museum, though at this point it was nearing closing time, so we added it to our list of things to do.

After crossing the Pyrmont Bridge (which apparently swings to let ships through… totally missed that), we walked back up the other side, picked up some pamphlets at the information center, then stopped by the Chinese Garden of Friendship and adding it to the list as well.

Chinese Garden of Friendship

This was about enough for the day, so we walked back to the apartment and started debating where to find some dinner. At this point though, it was about 6pm and, running on only a few hours of airplane sleep and feeling like 2am, we opted to stay in before calling it an early night.

First impressions: Sydney is a fantastic place to live. It’s a clean and vibrant city with tons going on. Our apartment is on the edge of Chinatown, so everything is open late and people are out and about through most of the night. Sydney has a lot of things going for it: great weather, great location, tons of stores and restaurants, and, of course, there are awesome beaches. Stay tuned 🙂

Australia: We made it!

The story really starts a few months ago, when Kristen was notified of her acceptance into UNSW‘s business school. That one email set off a flurry of requests, paperwork, process and relocation that eventually led us to O’Hare International Airport to begin a two day trip to Sydney, our new home for the next 16 months.

The trip itself actually was pretty smooth, with the possible exception of the bag fees that come with checking 6 rather overweight duffels. Fortunately, Kristen still had her 1K status on United and I made it to Premier, so that covered most of the fees, with ThoughtWorks making up almost all of the balance (whew!) After ditching the bags, we made it through a flight from ORD to Denver, waited there for 3 hours, then continued on to Los Angeles to board our 14 hour flight to Sydney.

Flights from LAX to Sydney normally leave between 9pm and 11pm and land between 6am and 8am. You also lose a day, so in our case we left on the evening of the 6th and arrived the morning of the 8th (I’m assuming something interesting happened on the 7th, but we weren’t around for much of it). You gain the day back on the return trip, but it’s still a little weird to miss an entire day.

As it turns out, the trip itself wasn’t all that bad. Having done a few 10 hour red-eyes to South America this year, I didn’t find the trip to Sydney to be all that much worse. You still leave at night and land in the morning, so a couple extra hours here and there don’t really seem all that different.

We flew economy on the 747, so we unfortunately didn’t get to see the upper deck. I hear it’s nice, but it wasn’t worth the cost (something like $13k when Kristen looked). This was our first time on a 747, and while the plane itself isn’t all that remarkable (it’s mostly just bigger), the wings are longer and flex more, so even the slightest turbulence is magnified.

We finally landed in Sydney, breezed through immigration and were thrilled to see that all of the checked luggage made it! While it sucks to sit around the airport during 3 hour layovers, the extra time allows the bags to easily migrate from one plane to the next. We also had a comfortable buffer for any delays, which is helpful when flying through both Chicago and Denver in January.

After pulling together all of our belongings and stuffing our winter coats into what little space remained in the bags, we met up with our ThoughtWorks-arranged driver for a quick trip (20 minutes or so) to our temporary accommodations: a corporate apartment near Chinatown, at the corner of Sussex and Liverpool. The place isn’t bad and is in a pretty good location, but we won’t be here long, so we aren’t really moving in all that much. Besides, there’s still a lot to explore!

Category: Australia  Tags: , ,  2 Comments