Southern Crossings — Day 5: Folie à Deux

18 June

Folie à deux (n.):
the presence of the same or similar delusional ideas in two persons closely associated with one another
— the Merriam Webster Dictionary

By now I’m getting used to the sight of waking up and seeing that there’s nobody in the opposite bed. Betsy is out today to visit Kiama, a small town 120 kilometres south of Sydney famous for its two blowholes, and where she will eventually find her way blocked by loads of construction tape. Amy and I are not as good at planning such excursions, so we decide to stick to the time-honoured “each pick a place and go there” method.

Checking my wallet for the first time, I notice that I am running on less than AUD 40. Normally this wouldn’t be a problem for me, Scrooge McDuck that I am, but there are alarm bells going off in my mind: what if we get stuck in the middle of nowhere? What if either of us suddenly collapses in the middle of the street and we need cab money? The improbable possibilities seem endless. I note them all down in my brain — and then completely forget about going to the bank for a very long time.

Meanwhile, there are places to go, and things to see. My pick for the morning is the Powerhouse Museum, last seen being prohibitively expensive for Kathy and me. Never one to renege on a promise, I’ve come back to have a look at what is surely one of the weirdest museums on Earth. For example, I feel confident in saying that no other museum would greet their clientele with an exhibit on the Wiggles. To their credit, it’s a very informative exhibit on a music group with a deservedly long and varied history, and who certainly introduced many a child to the world of music (if you were an international school student in the early 2000s, they were EVERYWHERE). But still: odd choice.

Going upstairs feels like graduation, for all at once things get serious: we move from talking about children’s music groups to gravity, trains and carbon emissions — basically, everything that might kill you. And I do mean everything, for this place is more encyclopaedia than museum: the further we walk, the more things we encounter. Toys? Check. Plastics? Check. Gigantic lethal turbines? Check. In fact, the only thing that the Powerhouse Museum does NOT seem to have is any art (and with the Wiggles exhibition downstairs, that’s still debatable) — that is, until I take a closer look at the giant periscopes dangling from the ceiling and realize that they’re not just an exhibit — they’re an art installation AND a game to be played on two different floors. God, Powerhouse, save some for the other museums.

There are so many things here at the Powerhouse Museum, it’s basically an encyclopaedia of human achievement. What’s amazing about it all is how densely it’s been constructed: even though there has to be more than a dozen sections in this long, airy building, they’re all tucked neatly alongside each other. Getting to a section you want is as simple as a saunter across the hall, or a trip down a flight of stairs. The potential to get lost in a maze of galleries is gone — and I know, I’ve said before that I like getting lost in museums, turning a corner and not knowing what to expect. But the Powerhouse presents a convincing case for the opposition: our itinerary through the museum is amazingly uncluttered and simple, a gentle stroll through different areas of science instead of a frantic journey of information overload. I usually find the latter MUCH more fun, but today I just prefer the alternative.

This also means that we spend less time on navigation and more time actually stopping to appreciate everything before us. Now, this is a travel journal and not a frame-by-frame replay of what happened on June 18. But there are just so many things worth talking about that there’s a massive temptation to talk about it all, to tell you how delighted we were just hopping round the exhibits, losing ourselves in the exhibits rather than the layout of the museum. I can tell you about the light experiments that we played around with, or our attempts to build a marble runway. I can talk about the steam train that we climbed onto, or the sad love story app we found on the iPad lying forlornly on a table in the Future section. But that would take ages, and anyway Amy and I spend more time laughing at each other’s futile attempts to land a plane or align the marble run pipes for everything to clearly register. (“Your earphones are askew,” I say to her while fiddling around with the iPad. I don’t think I’ve seen her look more affectionate in the past four months.)

There are so many things about the Powerhouse that deserve a deeper dive, but for the sake of clarity (and sanity) I’m only going to mention one: it’s really just an old departures board salvaged from Central Station, but it sits proudly in the middle of the Transportation section, infinite destinations listed on an endless array of signs. You look at this board, and you suddenly feel that the whole world has been laid out before you. Yes, almost all of the destinations are in suburban Sydney and the farthest location I can spot is “Canberra” — hardly glamorous, from what the girls have told me of the place. (Apologies to Julian.) But the board itself still represents a smorgasbord of potential: so many names, so many places that seem important. It’s just a masterpiece of evocation.

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At this point you probably expect me to say how much I love the Powerhouse, and how it’s the best science museum I’ve ever visited. It’s not. It’s not even the best one in the Asia-Pacific region (the one in Taichung has a laser maze, for Christ’s sake). Interaction is minimal, and for all the gigantic things on display there you always find yourself admiring rather than learning. But it does do the most important job of a science museum — inspire wonder at the universe. See, science museums are never just about learning: kids do that enough at school, and with Wikipedia on hand, these days you can look up that definition any time you like to win that argument of yours. Reading long and sometimes condescending paragraphs about how this or that works (like this one) is just not something we do nowadays.

Inspiration, though? That’s a museum’s prerogative. What fascinates me is how museums (and in particular science museums, which are always more grounded and geared towards the average visitor) command your attention, hold it for superhuman lengths of time — which in this day and age is more than a few seconds — and tempt you to walk further in. They promise you awesome things, that there’s more to be amazed by if you just go through that doorway, and then — crucially — they deliver. Perhaps they even outperform expectations. In a way, the museum itself encourages us to be inquisitive: if this microcosm of the world can astound so well and so frequently, then what about the real thing? Can we be blown away by the actual world? Despite the total lack of surprises in the Powerhouse, it still somehow manages to keep you asking, keep you guessing about the cosmos. Like the board I found upstairs, it tells you to keep looking: there’s a world to discover out there. And that’s why I still find this place utterly enjoyable: it has potential. You don’t find that in every museum.

A quick lunch of a meat pie just outside the building, then we’re on the road once more. As the invisible clock strikes three, we’re back at North Sydney station, exploring for the first time things north of the Harbour. (So much of Sydney’s goodies are concentrated south and west of the Harbour — why don’t they build more stuff on the North Shore?) While I’ve been caught in my own monologue about the beauty of science and whatnot, Amy has been combing the maps for an attraction (and patiently gushing with me about everything we see). Being the sort of person who reads maps very closely she’s discovered a place called Wendy’s Secret Garden. The whole thing just screams mystery: who is Wendy, and why is her garden Secret? (I recognize how filthy that last sentence sounds.) Both of us can’t resist a good mystery, so we’re here to find out.

The road slopes steeply towards the sea as we head south from the station in search of the garden. We’re back in suburban Sydney now, and a pretty affluent suburb at that: comfy, two-floor terraced houses with enclosed gardens and garages line the streets — although streets might be a bit of a misnomer for these three-lane leafy avenues, methodically criss-crossing the suburb (which by the way has the ridiculously evocative name of Lavender Bay). The entrance to the garden turns out to be halfway down a staircase that leads to the sea — we walk past it twice before we find it, which I think fulfills the “secret” criterion.

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Google Maps lists the Garden as a “charming hideaway for picnics”, and this is probably the best way to describe the place: it’s smaller than it looks, but Wendy, whoever she is, has made a lot of effort in trying to make it fun for anyone who’s visiting. Like its namesake, the Secret Garden is overgrown with vegetation, but in the midst of the chaos you can spot signs of careful cultivation: a clearing that squeezes out just enough space for a bench (overflowing with dead leaves, but the thought was there), then there are the little Easter eggs that peek out from the undergrowth — like the half-deconstructed machine in a corner, all jagged and rusty with its cogs sticking out. (I don’t know about you, but I find rusted machinery very sexy.)

Like the museum from this morning, the garden encourages you to keep on digging: walk through the twisting pathways, look out for surprises. It’s also a place that encourages closeness: Amy and I are never far from each other, afraid that we’ll get lost or have to retrace our steps. Eventually we find ourselves at a dead end, with only the trees and a particularly frumpy gnome surrounding us — and above us, the clear blue sky. For a moment it’s quiet, the air around us still, promising the best solitude — then loud laughter bubbles through the foliage, startling us both out of our wits. A bunch of students in the next clearing, already making a start on their evening drinking. They don’t seem the least bit surprised to see two Asians stumbling into their little gathering.

Walk down towards the sea and the pleasant walkway that extends along the coast. Sadly, Lavender Bay has nothing to do with the south of France, nor does it smell of the purple herb, but to compensate for this there are some large wooden posts used for mooring boats and yachts — and this being a rich part of Sydney (the Prime Minister of Australia lives in Kirribilli next door), there are a LOT of both pleasure craft and logs to moor them on. The latter are capped off at the top by a white cap, as if they were takeaway cups from a fancy cafe. Across the water, the giant coathanger that is the Harbour Bridge stands stark against the sky, its black brilliantly contrasted against the light blue and the white.

We find plenty to talk about as wel stroll down the coast, largely because we’ve both lapsed into observational comedy — “look at those Starbucks posts”, “how old are you, taking pictures with a plushie”, and so on. On our left are some railway tracks that seem to mutate and grow the closer they get to shore — but they come to a dead halt just before a line of red iron fencing, a crescendo of ironworks brought to a sudden silent ending. A Sydney Train sits all alone in the sidings, waiting for somebody to notice it again. Beyond that: a few abandoned fairground facilities, a couple of lonely benches, and painted on the mustard yellow wall in front of us, the words “Luna Park”.

It doesn’t mean much now, but before Walt Disney came along, the words “Luna Park” were synonymous with “the best time of your life”. Not just in Australia, but around the world: “funfair” in both Greek and Turkish is “lunapark”. Taking their names from the original in New York, Luna Parks sprang up everywhere, and four were built in the ANZ region in just thirty years. Most of them closed down during the Great Depression, but two have survived: one in Melbourne (where the scoundrels charge AUD 2 just for entry), and the other in Sydney. But while the Melburnian one has had pretty much smooth sailing in more than a century of history, the one at Milsons Point has closed three times, had almost all its attractions demolished and suffered an infamous 1979 fire that killed six children. The fact that it’s still standing, then, is nothing short of a miracle.

I’ve always had a fascination with amusement parks: they’re dreamy utopias where everything is garishly colourful and gaudy, a psychedelic paradise where the only option is absolute fun and leisure. There’s so much happiness that we often think there must be something sinister lurking underneath the surface — it’s why so many trashy horror books of our youth were set in funfairs. That artificial brightness unnerves us. Yet Luna Park doesn’t do that: so much about this place reminds me of the human touch, of how hard people are working behind the scenes to keep this place up. The Coney Island funhouse, unchanged since the Park’s 1935 opening, is tattered yet charming with its old-style paintings and faux-stern instructions; the Dodgem Hall next door has zero customers but still the operator is standing by the entrance, doing her job. The lack of people visiting (it’s a Monday afternoon and a schoolday) also brings with it a dash of melancholia: there’s just something sad about a place that was built for fun and yet lies deserted, the theatrical announcements ringing through the empty alleyways for no one in particular.

Amy catches me staring wistfully. Always a sharp one when it comes to others’ desires, she suggests that I join the screaming children in Coney Island or on one of the rides. At this point, however, the fact that I have less than 30 dollars in my wallet roars back with a vengeance: much as I’d like to go crazy just once here in Sydney, splurging out AUD 12 on a few slides just seems like a financially imprudent (and also stupid) decision. (I regret to say that the idea of visiting a bank afterwards does not occur to me.) In the end I settle for watching people play in Luna Park from the entrance. They might be inside a large mouth, but at least they’re going to have fun inside.

We sit for awhile in a gazebo underneath the Harbour Bridge, doing nothing but listening to the waves. This place offers so many views: just opposite us is the Harbour and the Opera House, above us we have the Coathanger, and across the road is Luna Park. Normally I’d be dying from the excitement, but five days of frantically going places has dampened my enthusiasm. All I really feel is a desire to stop moving so much, to spend quality time connecting to people. I promised a friend back in Hong Kong that I’d write him something from Sydney, so I pull out pen and paper and a few photos I’ve taken over the months. Slowly but surely, labouring with a language I cannot express myself in well enough, a picture of Australia takes shape. I just hope my Cantonese scribbles are getting the point through.

Half an hour later, we’re heading back to the city — on foot. It’s entirely my fault: I can’t leave Sydney without one last look at the Opera House, and the urge to see the Coathanger up close is just too strong. So instead of taking the train from Milsons Point like any sane man would, I decide that I want to walk all the way back to Circular Quay for one last round of pictures. Unbelievably, Amy doesn’t object to this: most people would have drawn the line and either demanded that we take public transport or abandoned me, but not Amy. In the true spirit of friendship, she’s decided to come and walk the entire two kilometres as well. Hand on heart, she’s a brilliant human being.

I’m about a third of the way through when I start to regret not taking the train. The distance is one thing: two kilometres sounds not a lot on paper, but you try walking for six hours straight and then add a never-ending bridge to the mix. But even worse are the other, non-footbound users of the bridge: besides the North Shore line running along its edge, the Coathanger also hosts EIGHT lanes of traffic. On a Monday afternoon like this, cars and lorries and motorcycles are all thundering into the city, only a few feet away from the pedestrian walkway. This also means that any person foolish enough to walk the length of the bridge gets ten lanes’ worth of noise and pollution, which is at least nine too many. It is a genuinely stressful experience, and by the time I reach the first available exit me and my legs have had more than enough. I am prone to exaggeration, but it’s not hyperbole to say that this experience might have cured me of my romantic ideas about bridge-walking, once and for all.

On the other hand, there are the views.

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First, there’s the Opera House. One would expect a bridge called “the Sydney Harbour Bridge” to offer spectacular views of said harbour, and this one delivers so, so much. Even if you have an unhealthy obsession with the Opera House like I do, it’s mighty hard to capture its full majesty if you’re not viewing it from, say, the opposite shore, or in mid-air. The Opera House NEEDS water to complement it, it doesn’t feel complete without the blue of Sydney Harbour around the sides — and the Bridge provides you with a perfect opportunity to fill in that gap. Watching the ripples dance on the dark water, you can see why the Opera House works so well with the Harbour: the former flows so well, it seems to become one with the sea.

But all this pales in comparison with the bridge itself. It’s no use contemplating the Harbour Bridge from afar or on a train: it sits naturally in the background, and your eyes just pass over it without a second thought. But then you walk through it, your legs screaming with discomfort and your eyes riveted to the skies and the… er, rivets, and you realize how mind-bogglingly big it is. It towers into the skies, each girder, column and rivet bigger than you can possibly imagine. You can see the nuts and bolts up close, and then it dawns on you just how many there are, holding this technological marvel together. Then you notice the intricacies: I know I accuse every single thing I come across of being intricate, but this deserves a class of its own as it’s just so beautiful: the steel weaves and winds its way up to the heavens, a dizzying network of walkways switching between the arches, creating a layered network that seems to exemplify the beauty of steel. This isn’t just a bridge — it’s an exuberant shout of humanity, articulated through metal and fire.

We’re just in time to catch the last few rays of sunlight as we reach Circular Quay. I still haven’t gotten the hang of pictures that show my face, but Amy is kind enough to give me some pointers. A passer-by kindly takes our picture together: under the dim yellow glow of the streetlamps, it feels like a scene from “La La Land”, just with marginally less dancing. Then it begins to rain: not miniscule droplets like we encountered in Katoomba, but driving, pouring rain, the type that makes everyone run for shelter and clears out Circular Quay in seconds. For the first time, the Harbour turns monochrome, and a blanket of grey sweeps the horizon.

One final trip: Circular Quay to Kings Cross, then to the Airport. We sweep the water from our shoes, and I sigh in tiredness as the train leaves for the final time. Amy, however, is still sprightly and chatty, and is thinking of places where we can eat dinner — the woman seems to have infinite energy. Perhaps it’s simply due to the fact that she’s the most friendly person on Earth: I introduced her to my friends at uni fellowship and within a week her network of friends there was more than what I managed in four months. I admit that there have been times when I am jealous, or when I think “is this girl really doing this? Is she too much for me, should I be keeping my distance?” But having her for company today, having fun with her, those questions fade into the nethersphere. She has so much to say, and so much worth saying: she has jokes aplenty, wry remarks to make, excellent discussion to engage in. She empathizes and throws herself into harebrained ideas. A wonderful friend. What else is there to say?

Meet up with Betsy at the Airport. She seems tired: the blowhole was indeed spectacular, the obstructive “do not cross” tape less so. “I met another girl there, and we just pulled down the tape and continued walking,” she said. “Wasn’t that big of a deal.” Amy still presses her for details on the whole thing. The flight back is a much more subdued affair than our outbound one, everyone dozing in the darkness of the cabin. I still can’t help gasping excitedly when I see the cluster of lights that is Melbourne, though: Sydney might have the Opera House and the Coathanger, but it doesn’t feel comfy and laid-back the way Melbourne does, with its homely cafes and friendly people. As we ride the bus back into the city, I check my wallet. There is exactly one dollar and fifty cents inside.

Due to some bizarre trackwork (and the horrible inefficiency of Melbourne Trains) the next train isn’t due at Southern Cross station for another 45 minutes, so having said goodbye to the girls I walk outside to catch a slow tram that trundles up the streets at a snail’s pace. It’s already well into Tuesday by the time I return to my frigid icebox of a room. The stench of me greets me as I open the door, and I sink onto the thin mattress, thankful to the Lord Almighty that I’ve survived.

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