Wednesday, June 7, 2017

- The Antipodean Week: Bondi to Sandycove via Abu Dhabi -

Surf, sand, bikinis, tourists. It is winter in Bondi Beach and the scenery is of a sun-kissed place extending a pale white veil over the Pacific shoreline, as busy as any other time of the year.
Exciting and notoriously more energetic than its sleepier neighbours across the Harbour in the North, narrow streets lined with stores selling souvenirs, fast-food noodle joints and crowded bus stops flow downhill from the transportation hub at Bondi Junction and extend as far as the Ocean permits.
I meet my Irish friend by the train station and enjoy churros con chocolate in the late afternoon, the surfers packing up their sandy boards around our table, and the sound of steel blinds closing yet another business day in Sydney.

We finish the day at the sound of a lonely guitar at the Irish pub, the strings and notes echoing the nostalgia of distance in the dark oak, the smell of overpriced Tayto crisps overcoming the roasted tones of a pint of Guinness.
For a second, and whilst waiting for my cheap steak with fries to arrive, I find myself in a very familiar situation, for the life of the immigrant is equally hard in every part of the world, a sense of belonging which is never complete. The heart and body divided into several pieces scattered all around the globe.
One by one, the labourers wearing their high-vis vests over their GAA jerseys vanish in the stillness of the Sydney night and the Irish accents slurred at the heat of pints of lager ring quieter. Another day in foreign lands has passed. Another successful day of conquers, another day of missing home.

In the morning I see why the neighborhood is world-famous. A pilgrimage for those who surf, a nature-bursting break for the city dwellers five miles down the road at the CBD, a relaxing spot for those fancying lane swimming in the pristine waters of the 'Icebergs', and a renowned beach for tourists, for the treacherous sea currents of Bondi are even worth their own TV show internationally.
I lay my towel in the white sand and almost hypnotized by the constant water swirl, I watch the many human attempts at dominating the waves. Experts and learners skim through the navy blue water crashing continuously against the sand banks, at times spraying some spine-chilling drizzle over the beach, at times attracting thick black clouds.

Once my friend is finished at work, we meet at the beach and walk from Bondi to Coogee, which is best done at sunset, when the surf grows stronger and the waves seem to unwillingly give way to the night, unleashing its fury against the rocks below the coastal walk, at a time in which the sun sets behind the apartment blocks in Tamarama and pale orange sunbeams shoot across the large house windows in Bronte.
Coogee Beach is hip and secluded, like an antipodean version of Santa Monica fringed with restaurants selling cheap tacos with sangria, everything only a few meters away from the dark crashing waves which reflect the lights of the Pavilion like glitter against glue.

Half-drunk, we dash back to Bondi Junction. Shirt on, power walk and train journey to Darling Harbour, the mirage of the harbour lights that seem to almost merge with the stars suspended in the clear sky helping with my alcohol absorption, the light wintry breeze knocking it off at once.
Saucy pork ribs are had with my Narrabeen-Brazilian friends and one of the prettiest good-byes of my life are said over the Pyrmont Bridge, right there when the city's rhythm succumb to the clock hands pointing at midnight and the streets turn melancholically dark.

My last day in Sydney is spent under the weather both literal and metaphorically. The heavy rain at times punishing commuters and city-dwellers, engulfing the largest city in Australia in gasps of damp gusts, and my moody stomach trying to cope with the food and drinks had the night before.
It is perhaps the best time to do some last minute shopping and make the best use of the free wi-fi and shelter at Westfield, doing some travel housekeeping at the aroma of a peppermint tea only hours before once again embarking on yet another set of flights.

And this is how my adventure in Sydney ends. Walking down the wet streets of Bondi Junction, joining the sad-looking commuters at Central, their lack of energy somehow inducing a strange sorrow of leaving the city, the carriage must-impregnated stale air conditioning damping the train windows, which cry and drip under the winter rain.

I am somehow happy to see the Airbus 380 at the gate. The sturdiness of the 'big mamma' guaranteeing a smooth flight which gracefully floats off Mascot at almost nine at night, timidly waving good-bye to the distant towers of Circular Quay before sharply turning left, outback bound.
The flight path West is notoriously longer. Two movies and a nap take you as far as the Java Sea, two movies later and the map tells tales of Kerala and finally, some four hours later, the plane performs its final approach, the engines roaring harder in a fierce fight with the crosswinds, the whale lifting off again meters before kissing the runway. A little aerial tour of Abu Dhabi is consequently performed as an accidental treat and, fifteen hours and twenty five minutes after the doors were last closed in Australia, the A380 finally touches down in Abu Dhabi.

Dusty, hot, inert. Although my thoughts of any city in the Gulf tend to be quite cynical, mainly due to my time living in Qatar, the Abu Dhabi stopover is a nice addition when concerning the jet-lag battle.

A swimming pool will refresh the heat, the air conditioned will help dissipating the dust, and bottles of cold water (drinking tab water is unthinkable) will quench the thirst.
Yes, there is indeed a certain air of plastic in the air. A so-called sanitized version of Arabia laid in hot shifty sand: the beach almost criminally hot for enjoyment, its water infested with painful jellyfish and its sand only inhabited by the shade of the distant buildings, the grandeur of Sheik Zayed Grand Mosque, its remarkable architecture of golden details engraved in pristine white marble best enjoyed without a smile (or risking a hefty fine), or even the Souq, with its air conditioned hallways and Venice-like canals of still nearly-boiling greenish water. Abu Dhabi is a place in constant transition, resilient to years of hostile flirt with the desert.

Abu Dhabi would not have been the same without my friends and their originality. The snacks enjoyed by the pool, the painting-like views from the sixty-something floor, my friend's (improved) cooking and the sunset cycling on Yas Island (which by the way is free), a much recommended outdoor activity in the Emirati capital, because how many times in life can you say you have cycled on a real Formula 1 track?

At nearly midnight, with the thermometer marking smothering thirty-three degrees, the taxi speeds up through desolate roads embedded in the still desert. The lights of the airport marking the launchpad for the last leg of the trip, performed overnight in some sort of sleepy memory, the almost-changing landscape underneath the aircraft turning fertile in the dark as we approach Europe, the day invading the cabin through the windows shades when breakfast is served, and the Northern winds rocking the aircraft in bursts of light turbulence on final approach over the Irish Sea.

In Dublin, the temperature is the same as in Sydney. The sun breaks through the morning fog at O'Connell Street and fully shines as I make my way into the office. Freedom is declared in the late afternoon and a hazy summer day finishes in Sandycove. The foamy waves crash against the rocks of Bullock Harbour and with a can of cider in hand, I put an end to this journey from Bondi to Sandycove via Abu Dhabi.

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