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Published: January 11th 2010
We certainly don't want to suggest that the Australian government doesn't care about drug trafficking or infectious disease but we have observed that they are meticulous about ensuring that absolutely no unauthorized produce of any kind makes it into their country.
Our early morning customs and immigration experience in Australia was noticeably absent of any strong drug warnings; instead, we were reminded by multiple signs after departing the plane, that if we did, indeed, have a renegade coconut in our possession, it was best to just turn ourselves in and minimize the prison sentence.
OK, seriously, since we didn't have any fruits or veggies in our luggage, immigration was fairly easy and the only slight concern we had was when the very nice Customs officers were sending our bags through the X-ray machine. One guy raised an eyebrow and asked if we had ANY food at all in there? Perhaps. . a Cadbury bar? Guilty as charged. Fortunately we were waved on.
Also absent was any (noticeable) H1N1 screening. After having our body temperature under constant surveillence in airports in Southeast Asia - by sophisticated sci-fi-like thermal screening monitors, x-ray guns aimed at our foreheads, or just a handheld thermometer being poked in our ears - we were almost disappointed by the Australian government's lack of interest in our well being.
All of this took place in Darwin, our initial point of entry to Australia en route to Sydney.
Our flight from Singapore to Darwin was on JetStar Airways, one of the low-cost carriers in Asia/Australasia. We had flown on Jetstar from Yangon to Singapore a few days ago and had been impressed with the service. Apparently, any interest in good service stops in Singapore because our flights from Singapore to Darwin, and from Darwin to Sydney, were abysmal.
The first flight started off in an upbeat manner: an empty seat in between us. But the joy faded quickly - a 1.5 hrs delay and finding out that no food or drinks (not even water) would be served for free on the flight. Worse still a fat little kid behind us started screaming the lyrics of various pop songs a few minutes after our departure. The annoying child was absolutely gaga for the Black Eyed Peas and so, throughout the night, we were treated to random outbursts of "Tonight's gonna be a GOOD GOOD NIGHT!". He was flanked by his useless grandparents who fussed over him continually, bowing to his every whim, allowing him to play his video games loudly throughout the flight, including during takeoff and landing, and putting fuzzy, oversized earmuffs on him when he howled during the descent into Darwin. Weird, very weird. Definitely a momma's boy in the making. Or at least a poster child for Ritalin. For at least 30 minutes we toyed with the idea of stuffing a few Ambien (prescription sleeping pills) into the Cadbury bar that we had in our backpack and offering it to him.
During our 3 hour layover (4am-7am) in Darwin, we took a look around the airport. This was our first time in Australia and we were inordinately delighted to discover that Australians do, indeed, speak English (and English that we could - mostly - understand). The menu at the cafe was in English; the books at the airport store were mostly in English, the flight announcements were in English. We weren't home but we were certainly in more familiar territory. Better yet we didn't stand out as much. We looked pretty much like everyone else (albeit sleep-deprived, slightly confused and a little scruffy). It was a strange but good feeling after having travelled in Asia for 2 months.
While we were waiting to check in our bags again for our flight to Sydney, we stepped outside briefly. Darwin is located at the top center of Australia in the tropics. We were met by a rush of hot, humid air - the temperature must have been at least 90F - and this was at 5am! Fortunately, we were off to the more temperate Sydney and we finally arrived there at 1pm.
We took a cab into town (very strange that it cost $48 AUD to travel the short ~5-6 miles to the CBD; the exchange rate is nearly 1:1 - so to get to USD from Australian dollars, multiply by 0.9).
Despite overpriced cabs, we love Sydney already. The weather is warm (in the high 70s/low 80s F) but much, much cooler than Southeast Asia and without the oppressive humidity. Also, our hotel is, appropriately enough, a pub - Lord Nelson's Brewery Hotel. It is a stone building built in the early 1800s and named after the famous Admiral Lord Nelson, a British naval hero who won (and died in) the famous Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.
It was a Thursday afternoon at 2pm but the pub at our hotel was already packed with cheerful looking groups of two, three, or more people of all ages. Being a work day we wondered why there were so many people in the pub in the middle of the day? Perhaps people left work early because it is summer and everyone is in a festive mood for the holidays? Maybe a generous boss decided to treat his/her staff to a relaxing afternoon of Lord Nelson's finest brew? Or maybe the economy is just as tough in Australia as in the U.S. and these are all locals working on their resumes over a beer? For whatever reason it was buzzing.
Our room is located on the top floor of the building (three floors above the pub) and is very quiet. Very nice and perfect for the next few days.
After getting settled in we spent the rest of the day (and evening) wandering around the area. Our hotel is located in "The Rocks", a somewhat touristy neighborhood close to Sydney's famous harbor. We are spitting distance from the Harbour Bridge and only minutes from the immensely popular and architecturally-stunning opera house.
Feeling very sleepy, we decided to eat dinner at our pub (excellent beer accompanied by a pizza with pumpkin, goat cheese and caramelized onions, an unusual but delicious combination). Our initial impressions of Australia are very, very good and we'll tell you more about why we like it so much tomorrow.
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