As the Orion made its way north up the coast overnight, the fog burned off about 10 AM just as we approached the towering cliffs marking the entrance to Watson’s Bay, leading us toward Australia’s largest city (5.1 million), Sydney, about five miles away at the western end of the bay. Winds had freshened to about 12 knots, and sailboats and ferries were scooting about in every direction under blue skies. In the background were towering skyscrapers, then the iconic opera house and the famous Sydney Bridge. Behemoth cruising ships dwarfing the Orion were docked along the quay. Yes, I had seen the photos and had an image in my mind of what it looked like, but have to admit, I was awestruck. Taking this one moment, seeing the harbor for the first time, you could say it was worth the price of admission— the cost, the 20-hour ordeal getting down to the Down Under, the jet lag, and the lingering, pesky, respiratory virus. I suppose you could say that this is why we humans—at least some of us—like to travel: to see what beauty the planet Earth has to offer. If you are a sailor like me, it does not get any better than the Sydney harbor.
Now I have already confessed that in typical fashion I had not done much homework in preparing for the Down Under adventure. After three full days in Sydney and saying goodbye to the Orion and our fellow Viking travelers, I found myself saying, “I had no idea.” I had in my mind that the entire country was arid with the coastal areas resembling southern California. Not so. The East Coast is green and lush and gets more rain than we do in DC. The northern coast, which is much closer to Indonesia than the southern coast is to New Zealand, is mostly rain forest. I had no idea of Australia’s beauty and diversity on its East Coast or the dynamism, diversity, and sophistication of its two major cities. I kept repeating, “Hey, these are world class cities, comparable in many ways to a Paris or a London or a Vienna or a St. Petersburg or a Shanghai or even a New York. But, of course, all these cities and other world class cities offer their own unique charms reminding–me, anyway–of the greatness that we humans are capable of and the many challenges we still face.
My other observation, however, is exactly the opposite. Yes, while each of these world class cities is unique and special, in the era of globalization, cities all over the planet are looking more and more like each other. As I look out our window in the Marriott Hotel in downtown Sydney, I could be almost anywhere. I am not able to see the harbor and am surrounded by towers of glass, steel, and concrete with emblems you see in almost every world city: “Citi,” “HSBC,” “Ing,” “EY,” “ANZ,” “Emirates,” “PWC,” ”Westin,” and that is just what I can see from my window. The stores on the street below are also the ones that are ubiquitous in all major world cites: Louis Vuitton, Sachs, Gucci, H&M, Prada, Tiffanies, Victoria’s Secret, and, of course, McDonnell’s, Subway, Krispy Kreme, and KFC. People now pretty much dress the same way everywhere. If you were to wake up in the middle of this bustling city and not get wind of the language spoken or be able to see the harbor, you would be scratching your head, wondering, where am I.
There have been many special things about our three-day visit here—a four-hour guided bus tour arranged by Viking, ferry rides to Manly Beach (30 minutes) and the extraordinary zoo (15 minutes), and good meals at local restaurants (one thing you really miss on cruises). The highlight of the Sydney stay so far was our lunch today with Richard, one of our son, Andrew’s, Australian friends who used to work for Citi. An internationalist who is married to a Japanese woman, Richard has lived in South Africa and London, and visited half the major capitals in the world on business. He has resettled in Sydney, between jobs. We spent a leisurely two-hour lunch on the top floor of the historic Customs Building overlooking the main harbor. There is a big difference between getting the spiel from a tour guide and talking with a local.
Yes, he agreed with my enthusiastic assessment of Australia’s charm, but pointed out that the problems we have in the U.S. are found all over the world in varying degrees including Australia—growing income disparities, diminishing job opportunities due to immigration and global competition, and the major issues facing the planet like climate change. While we are all in this together, however, it is pretty clear that Australia has us beat on having a higher minimum wage (over $20/hour), better income support, a stronger safety net, free college, and universal health care at little or no cost to the user. However, the aborigines issue still nags the country, whose record is about as bad as ours. Low income neighborhoods aren’t visible in the major cities (though can be found, he said, in outlying suburbs, small towns and in the Outback), and the cities are clean and efficient with very good public transportation. There are no utopias on the planet Earth. Some countries come closer than others, however, and Australia would seem from our limited exposure to be one of them.
Off to the opera tonight, then to Adelaide tomorrow.