Sunday, May 13, 2007

Signing in from Sydney

I'm back after a rather long hiatus. Signing in from Sydney now. Vikram is on a project here till around September-October, and since I know I'm gonna be back in sweet India before Diwali, am able to appreciate Sydney quite a bit. In fact, it's a rather endearing city. So, now, be prepared for a really long post!

First impressions

My first impression of Sydney was, "Wow!!! This is such a lovely change from Singapore!" Sydney is a beautiful city, with a proper balance of majesty and quaintness. Very aesthetically built Victorian buildings and sandstone structures, cute and cosy brick houses, and lots and lots of greenery (of course, the CBD or Central Business District, which is the heart of the city has not much greenery to speak of but once you move away towards the suburbs it's beautiful.) And yes, the bays and harbours are rather delightful too.

Friendly people

Many scared me saying Australia is a very racist country, and that I should be prepared for not-so-friendly people. But, fortunately, so far, my experience has been quite different. I find the people here very friendly (probably because they know that I’m going to be here only for six months—it’s obvious when one talks to me!) In fact, I like the fact that the Australians still have the time to stop and say, "Good Day, Mate!" (pronounced "Good Dye, Myte!"), whether or not they know you. And if you happen to bump into any senior Britishers, they will even stop and chat with you. In fact, I was stopped on the road by an old man the other day who asked me why I did not go to school that day. He was rather surprised when I told him it's been more than eight years since I finished school!

Oh, and one of the most informative conversations I've had since I landed here was with an old lady whom I still do not know who... basically her husband and I were peering at the same curio in the museum and a conversation started because she knew what the strange-looking thing was… it happened to be a hand-rattle as we came to know later, but since it was in a barracks museum her husband and I were trying to guess whether it was some kind of instrument used to torture people—when she came and interrupted the horrendous thoughts saying it was but a kids’ plaything.

As the conversation progressed, she started explaining and delved into the history of Australia and all that. Her insights were very very interesting... she said, "Well, people call Australia 'down under' and 'the land of convicts' and all that, but what they miss out is the fact that these convicts and the wardens managed to build a whole city from absolutely nothing!" The clothes they brought from England were not suited for the weather, neither were the crops they brought. Half the livestock died on the ship. A lot of the food rotted before it reached 'down under'. The people here literally had to start from scratch. And it was amazing how the wardens managed to not blindly make the prisoners do menial labour, but also to identify and tap the talents in them. Those good at carpentry were made to craft various instruments and such, those who had a good knowledge of textiles wove fabric, and those good at farming did that. Of course she could not help quipping that if they had had the good sense to consult the native aboriginal people life would have been much simpler. “But they just could not do that, you know,” she remarked with a wink.

And yes, to me, a city’s libraries are an indication of how friendly the place is. I was just delighted to walk into the nearby library to find a nice, plump, friendly librarian manning the counter. And even more delighted to see her surrounded by kids (since the nearby school had just ended its day) asking for books to be borrowed, searching for lost things (and there was this dear boy who was asking her with a sorry puppy face if she’d seen the cap he lost yesterday--the one that his mother had embroidered his initials on, and she grinned and brought out a dozen caps asking him to find his!) and a lot of such friendly banter!

A normal city, with ups and downs

What I hated about Singapore was the fact that it seemed like I was walking through a video game. Everything worked, everything was predictable, everything was perfect--a small city, built and executed to perfection like a lucrative business! It’s a wonderful destination for tourists (no denying that AT ALL) but if you're a person who is rooted in organic India, you'll get bored after just a week in Singapore (despite the fact that the place is loaded with Indians, Indian restaurants, temples and what not!). Reason is that there is too much automation--even the librarian is substituted by a computer kiosk, and if you are a compulsive extrovert and a person who enjoys variety and uncertainty and all things natural, that automation can irk you!

Sydney on the other hand is very human. It has its pluses and minuses, just like any normal city. There are potholes on the roads, beggars, trains that breakdown, and all the usual quirks that add spice to life! In fact, two weeks after we landed here, one of the trains I was on broke down and I was probably the only one on the train who was delighted--Lovely, I thought to myself, this is a NORMAL city!

The beggars here, by the way, are very interesting. They sit on the roads, with a plate or cloth spread out in front of them. They have a board next to them, where they request you for money, in rather poetic ways—some of the boards read rather well—“I am a homeless bloke, with no roof above my head. Help me get on my feet again, and I’ll be grateful to you. Your gold coin donation will be highly appreciated!” (That means, they want nothing less than a dollar—the minimum gold coin denomination!) And yes, they can usually be found reading a newspaper and drinking a cup of Starbucks coffee. The heart still hopes that the coffee was donated by a generous passer-by or somebody who could not finish a cupful! It sure would give one a complex if beggars in this land could really afford Starbucks coffee all the time!!

Life in a village

So, for a month after we landed here, we lived in a serviced apartment in the heart of the city (while we were searching for a house.) We made use of that one month to do all the touristy things—to take a tour of the Opera House, walk on the Harbour Bridge, ride on ferries and jet boats, visit the Taronga Zoo, laze on the wooden steps flanking the waters in the harbour, gazing at the ships, living on sandwiches (vegetarian food is pretty easy to find in Sydney), and all that.

All this while, we also parallel-processed the house-hunt. It took us a little longer to find a house because we wanted one in an Indian locality and if possible close to the home of a family friend—whose family is one of the friendliest and most helpful we’ve ever seen!

Here, the residential areas are in the suburbs, outside the core city. Many of these suburbs are called ‘villages’, ‘towns’ or ‘municipalities’—and they typically are so. For example, the apartment we’ve rented is in Homebush Village. And these suburbs are typically villages. There will be a ‘market’ close to the railway station, where you’ll have a grocery store, a vegetable seller, a butchery, an ATM, a post office, and if you’re lucky a cafĂ© or a restaurant! For more amenities like the supermarkets, library etc you have to travel for 5 or 10 minutes by train, past a stop or two, to the nearest, let’s say, bigger village or town or municipality ;-) But it’s rather enjoyable now, because the weather now is good, and it’s like being on vacation in a hill station (no, we do a LOT of professional work—I’m talking about the ambience!) But secretly I suspect, I am enjoying this all the more because I know that the bustle of India (and proximity to our dear families and friends) is only a few months away :-)

So, well, we’ve now rented a unit in an apartment complex, for six months, and I’m back at work and blogging albeit on an extremely slow dial-up connection! Having grown so used to the comfort of broadband, reverting to dial-up is rather painful! Oh, I forgot to tell you why… this is one thing I did not like about Sydney… it’s not really a consumer’s market. In India, ever since the telecom sector began to be invaded by private players, competition is higher, and whatever customers ask for, it’s always “Mil Jayega!” Phone lines will be promptly connected in a week or so, and Internet just as promptly. But here, it’s very very slow—almost bureaucratic!

Telstra is a monopoly player here; so hot-headed that one of their consultants told me they won’t give you a phone line unless you take a 12-month contract! If you break the contract before that, you need to pay them the fixed charges for the remaining months—which is probably the reason why the tenant who occupied this apartment before went away without disconnecting the phone line! So, despite the fact that I found a service provider (Yes Optus) who gives telephone connections without contracts, it’s taking us longer to get a phone line as disconnecting the earlier line is a legal procedure (which fortunately Optus handles on our behalf). But what is TOUGHEST to believe is that a broadband connection takes TWO to THREE weeks after one gets a phone line! I mean, if I get a modem, install it etc., does it take that long for them to activate the line on their server? Oh well, who knows! Anyways, it’s back to basics, working on a dial-up connection, pretty much a big compromise for a geek J

So, here I am, waiting to get broadband… so I can upload photos!