Australia journal - June 1999

Sydney: Restaurants and zoos

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The Black Bayou doesn't exist any more.   That space is now a French-Italian restaurant.  We wandered back down Oxford Street in search of inspiration. Raquel's, a Spanish restaurant, didn't have a menu in the window so we went in and asked to see one. It looked promising, and the place was crowded, so we sat down.

I began with a Margarita, which was "frozen" but not thick and slurpee-like. I think it might have been made with lemon juice instead of lime juice, or maybe it was something other than Triple Sec that gave it a muted sweetness that let the fruit flavor shine through more than the usual stateside version. It was an unusual and tasty drink.

Our waiter was an aging queen with curly black hair, looking a little like a former member of KISS or something. I was seated facing the kitchen, so Rita had a better view of the dining room; from where I sat I could see a one table with eight boisterous men; a round table with four men, two small children and a mom; two thirtyish couples speaking Spanish; and one deuce with a regular-looking Aussie couple. This was a noisy, happy room.

The staff all wore black t-shirts with RAQUEL'S in white type where the breast pocket would be; the woman in polka-dot pants had a shirt that said I'M RAQUEL! We speculated about the relationships among the staff, some of whom looked to be related to each other, and we made up stories about the other diners.

While we waited a very, very long time for our entrees (appetizers) to appear, we watched gigantic plates of food being delivered to our neighbors. This was true of last night's dinner, too: huge portions! The presentation was very three-dimensional, with the steak laid on top of the side dishes.

And then: live entertainment! A handsome gent in a black pinstriped suit working a digital keyboard and sampler, opening with a cheesy samba number which seemed to please the rowdies to my right. "Guantanamera" got the treatment next, and several of the men at the big table sang along -- as did the two Spanish-speaking women to my left.

Next up was "Mas Qui Nada," and by the time it was over the diners had forgotten all about the singer. I felt bad for him as he ended the song just as the rowdy room fell silent. Undaunted, he moved on to "Perfidia," as the manly men raved on. Two of them stood up to compare their beer bellies, to the delight of their mates. After that, the entertainer took a break and came over to the table near the kitchen where Raquel sat to catch her breath now and then.

I finally figured out that the two parties to my right were connected. I heard one guy say something like, "We're the Albanian national touring soccer team. We don't play -- we just tour." And people at both tables cracked up.

When this large party was rising and preparing to leave, I watched the older child -- a handsome blond boy about nine years old -- transfixed by something on the other side of the room. I turned around to see one of the Spanish-speaking couples making out. I must say, high cheekbones and a low forehead sure are an interesting combination.

As our drawn-out dining experience progressed, our relationship with our waiter warmed up considerably. At the end of the meal, we chatted a bit about our homeland and his, and he told us he was hoping to make it up to San Francisco some day. When we mentioned our itinerary to us, he told us he'd been to all of Australia's state capitals and found Brisbane to be a bit conservative. Sydney, he told us, is "like the New York of Australia." We let him know how happy we were to be in this particular district, and I felt there was an unspoken acknowledgement of the connection between this gay-friendly quarter of Sydney and our home town. We left Raquel's satisfied and happy, and I wondered if it was just our good luck or are all the establishments in Surry Hills full of excellent food and splendid people.

When we got back to our room, exhausted, we turned on the television set and cruised the five or so broadcast channels available. We watched a Hugh Grant movie, "Nine Months," for a few minutes, noting the Berkeley backgrounds, and then switched to an odd program of orchestral music illustrated with a montage of American West scenes, psychedelic dancers and light-show footage from the '60s, shots of the orchestra playing, and the composer John Adams driving a car in the desert. I thought it strange that we would be in a hotel room in Sydney, Australia, flipping between a movie set in Berkeley and a program about a Berkeley-based composer.

Balance was restored in the cosmos when we clicked over to a cricket match.

Within ten minutes or so, Rita was sound asleep, sitting up on the couch with the clicker in her hand. I did not attempt to rouse her nor move her to the bed, transfixed as I was by the incomprehensible spectacle on the choob. I watched this match, Australia versus South Africa in the World Cup, for nearly two hours and I still have no idea what was going on. I am impressed and amazed by the utter inaccessibility of what I beheld; clearly the commentators knew what was going on, and the throng in the stadium reacted to the action as if they understood it, and the players -- in uniforms a little like those worn by stewards on a cruise ship, only in colors -- were definitely playing in earnest. But although I watched until the end of this -- this fit? this inning? this period? this chukker? No, definitely not chukker, and I'm pretty certain it wasn't the end of the game or match or whatever the hell -- I can tell you nothing whatsoever about the object of the game, the rules by which points (runs? furbys?) are scored.

Whatever the name of the items that's tallied, there were quite a few of them scored by one side and hardly any by the other. By the end of the action the score was something like 187 to 6. No one was talking as though this were the humiliating rout it might appear to be; maybe tomorrow the other side will come up to bat (?) and even things up. I hear cricket matches can go on for days or weeks.

The only thing I know for sure about what I saw is that one of the South Africans batted the ball (?) right out of the park (off the pitch?) into the stands, and increased his side's score from 5 to 6. Aside from that, don't know how the action on the field corresponded to the score on the screen. Things happened, and the commentators got excited about some of those things, but nothing was explained and my powers of observation and deduction let me down grievously.

I am certain that baseball was nowhere near this opaque to me when I first encountered it. The music of Harrison Birtwistle was easier to comprehend than this on first hearing, and that is saying something.

I am typing this at 5:15 am. I stayed awake til nearly midnight last night, hoping to sleep at least until dawn today, but I was irreducibly wakeful by 4:45 and Rita sent me away because I was disturbing her much more effective efforts at slumber. My stomach was growling demands, and I had a head full of ideas that were driving me insane, so now I'm awake, at the table across the room from my bride, typing by the light of the kitchenette. If my head is somewhere around the International Date Line, still making its was into Australian east coast time, my bowels are circling Calcutta. I expect my systems will be more in sync a day or two hence.

We had breakfast at the Roobar again, and after spending some time on the WELL we came back to the hotel and prepared for a day on the water. We took a chilly, windy walk through the concrete canyons of the upscale downtown closed-for-the-Queen's-birthday shopping district. We purchased passes good for a week's unlimited passage on the ferries and buses, and took the 11:15 to the Taronga Zoo. It was a crystal-clear day, with a few clouds in the sky and a stiff wind on the ground. The zoo is on a hillside opposite Sydney; the views of the harbor and the city in the distance were breathtaking.

I haven't been in a zoo since I was a kid, and I probably won't go back again any time soon. The lonely captivity of these animals is disturbing to me. Zoos are a contradiction and a conundrum: a great advertisement for natural diversity and preservation, and at the same time a cruel imprisonment of these wild souls. They are better fed and free from danger, which makes them better off and much longer-lived than their wild counterparts -- and it is also true that some animals that are nearly extinct in the wild are being preserved and in some cases restored thanks to zoos. But an animal whose heritage and instinct give it a wide range in their natural habitat will suffer from enclosure in small spaces. Are guaranteed meals, comprehensive health care and rent-free shelter sufficient compensation for the loss of freedom? What do we call that when it happens to human beings?

Still, I learned a lot, and saw many wondrous things. The Tasmanian Devil, a stubby little black thing with naked, translucent red ears, is almost friendly-looking though not at all cuddly; there were two of them, huddled together in the chilly wind. The platypus was hard to see in the darkened water environment, but we did see it swimming swiftly behind the glass; the echidna scratched itself between the quills while pushing its long narrow snout into the dirt in search of food; the red panda, strikingly beautiful, small with a huge bushy tail; the sun bear, with its pale nose and blaze of color on its chest which we never got a clear look at; the bongo, with narrow vertical stripes on a darker brown hide, as delicately decorated as a chocolate truffle; the kangaroos, demonstrating their quadra-pedal manner of low-speed locomotion; the koala, climbing down a tree branch backwards; a phenomenal collection of snakes, including a couple of pythons that looked to be upwards of 15 feet in length.

Australia's indigenous fauna are in many ways mind-bendingly different from what we're used to seeing in North America. What we Yanks usually see of this world isn't a tenth of it. The variations are a wonder to behold, and some of nature's scariest are here as well: spiders large and fast enough to catch and eat birds!

To my surprise, my favorite sight at the Taronga Zoo was the giraffes (which are not, of course, indigenous to Australia). The zoo has scheduled talks throughout the day, and the lecturers are charming and witty as well as informative. The giraffe guy gave his presentation from a spot above the animals' yard, so the animals related to him at eye level -- an inspired idea. There were bundles of branches to attract the browsing beasts, and he brought out their personalities delightfully with the use of carrots: the huge and fanciful creatures came right up to the keeper's perch and nuzzled him repeatedly in search of treats. It was a pleasure to watch this man work with these animals, and the audience was delighted. It is hard to imagine the evolutionary process that gave rise to this weird collection of traits, and I could almost begin to persuade myself of the existence of a creator; if our world was made by a higher consciousness, it is a higher consciousness with a great, warm sense of wonder. The basic design of giraffes is weird enough; the color, the surprisingly graceful way they move, the sweetness of the way they interacted with the keeper - watching this all take place in front of a couple hundred children and equally-impressed adults was the highlight of the day and a sublime expression of the nature of life on earth.

Meet the Brush-tailed phascogale: "The three-week winter breeding season, the males fight for access to females. In the spring, at the age of 10 or 11 months, the males die, exhausted from stress."

We spent three and a half hours on our feet in this very well-designed hillside environment. The buses from the wharf brought us to the entrance at the top of the zoo, and we worked our way across the terraces and down the hill. We didn't follow the schedule of presentations, but through the course of our tour we caught a lot of them. We stood by the chimpanzee area for several minutes while someone tossed carrots and bell peppers in, and we watched how the animals interacted with each other. We saw the last few minutes of a penguin presentation. We stood in awe before the Komodo dragon, by far the largest lizard I have ever seen, as it moved around its pen, working its huge tongue the way all its smaller cousins do.

We got on the ferry for the fifteen-minute trip back to the Circular Quay, and then we got an another ferry to the beach town of Manly. It was late afternoon and the sun would be going down soon, so our main interest was the ferry ride itself. But we did walk across the very narrow isthmus to the beach, where I recorded the sounds of kids feeding cookies to the bids in the surf and Rita collected a couple of perfect seashells. Walking back through the busy town as the street vendors were closing up for the night, I stopped to record the impressive din of a tree full of chattering birds. A huge sound, and one I am happy is not happening outside my home or place of business all day!

When we got back on the ferry, I headed for the men's room and Rita found a seat on the upper level. I found her and sat down opposite her, whereupon she put her feet up on my knees. This was a big surprise to a couple sitting next to Rita: to their eyes, we were total strangers!

Back in Sydney, we caught a bus to the south end of Hyde Park and walked to the Uchi Lounge (15 Brisbane Street), the Japanese restaurant to which we arrived too early for dinner on Saturday.

We were greeted and seated by a young Anglo woman with artificially copper hair and eye shadow as thick and black as Groucho's mustache. The scene was not terribly Japanese: a painting of an Asian woman behind the bar; some Japanese characters on a banner near the register; moody Anglo music on the stereo.

The other serving person was a thirtyish Australian gent, and I had to ask if there was anyone Asian in the kitchen. "Two at the moment," said our waitress," and one Spanish. And one Australian." And the owner is Japanese, she added. When we raved about the unique and creative quality of the meal, the waitress explained that the owner travels a lot. We decided that this place would do very well in San Francisco.

And then back to the hotel before eight, too tired to walk any more. We probably could have gone right to sleep, but in our continuing effort to get in sync with our time zone, we watched "Analyze This" in our room and managed to stay awake through it. The movie had a few funny lines, but the idea had a lot more potential than this script delivered.

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