Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Fear and Loathing in New South Wales

Thought I'd continue chronicling the rest of the week before moving on to other subjects. Here goes.


So I got up early and went to the Info Session for International Students at 9 am in more of Sydney's exceptionally wet pouring rain. I used my Reject Shop umbrella for the first time. It broke slightly, and eventually I got tired of fighting the wind turning it inside out, so I put it away and relied instead on my lovely new rain jacket, Dante. As usual, I had a hard time finding the session room, but a kind volunteer helped direct me and soon I was inside a tiered lecture theatre much like the ones at home. The room was crowded, and as the session started more and more and more bedraggled international students poured in until the aisles were lined with students unable to find seats.

There were a number of speakers who welcomed us to the university and gave us information about services for international students. There were two question and answer sessions and eventually the talks were really dragging on. There's only so long you can stay in a crowded steamy room with sodden clothes and a stranger alternately coughing and passing gas behind you. After a lot of fidgeting and talking amongst ourselves, the organizers let us go early. On the way out they gave us freebies, including a nice little nylon drawstring pack with the university logo on it and free U of S T-shirts. Woo! I love the T-shirt! My old school would never have been so generous. On the other hand, at my old school we didn't have to pay for buses or gym memberships, so I guess it evens out.

After the session I met a student while waiting for the campus tour to start, and she's Canadian! Turns out she lives in UniLodge too, on the same floor! What a coincidence! I was thrilled to meet her, and during the campus tour we chatted about our impressions of the university and city. It's strange, but talking to someone from my own country was like a experiencing a bit of home. There was an instant feeling of comfort and connection and... relief. Finally someone with the same accent, someone who wouldn't assume I was American when I spoke, who would understand my references to geography and weather and pop culture. What a joy it was not to feel shy when talking to someone. I can't overstate how happy it made me. I rattled on with her in a way I never would have if I'd met her in Canada. Somehow in my head "Canadian" meant instant friendship!

Anyway, we went on the tour and then I invited her to come to the Unimates BBQ with me. We finally found it after much searching, and it turned out that they had cancelled the BBQ due to the never-ending rain, so the club had relocated to a sheltered patio and were paying for people's cafeteria lunches. Mollified by the fact that for once I could order anything I wanted at a cafe, I got a somewhat dry tortellini and a cappuccino and went to sit with the others. I met a few people there. The treasurer of the club in particular was very funny and personable, though he did make fun of my program choice. When the lunch was over we headed to Hermann's Bar to see if the O-Week team was still running Giant Chess. They weren't. Everything had shut down early because of the rain, so I walked back to UniLodge with my new Canadian acquaintance, stopping on the way to find out how to change my classes.

After changing out of my damp clothes and hanging everything I could over my mezzanine railing to dry, I relaxed for a while and then headed back out to pick up my bank card. Unfortunately, it wasn't ready and they told me to come back on Tuesday. However, with their typical thoughtfulness and efficiency the ANZ staff did print me out a bank statement so that I could buy a mobile phone. And I got one! Strangely enough, I went to the post office to find it. The Sydney post offices have quite a wide array of merchandise in them (gift products, candy, toys, books, travel accessories and office equipment as well as stamps), plus a currency exchange and a mobile phone center. I bought a little Samsung prepaid model for about $50. I found a plan at the Optus store, so my little phone is now serviceable and can connect to the internet as well as text and phone. I took it home happily, then stayed up late watching movies on TV.


I had stayed up very late the night before and I'd also indulgently given myself the treat of not setting my alarm, so I woke up late. After getting cleaned up, I watched some TV and checked emails, and basically did nothing until my sister called me on Skype. It was so much fun talking to her! We had quite a long call. Then I did some reading, had supper, and decided to contact my new friend, who had told me that that night the famous Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras was happening in the downtown. Getting there was going to be tricky, but I'd asked the desk staff for directions and I was looking forward to the challenge of finding the street. I contacted her via Facebook and asked if she wanted to go. First she told me she wasn't leaving until later, and I said that I'd wait and we could meet up. Then she told me that she was already halfway there with a group of friends, and she'd forgotten to invite me.

Well, I can take a hint. I was crushed that my new friend who I had so much in common with didn't want to at least politely show me how to get to the parade. But I was determined to go anyway, and so I went, following my map and the large crowds of people heading down towards the harbour.

The parade was great! I really enjoyed the floats and the music and the costumes. I didn't enjoy the crowds. It was packed with people standing along the parade route and cramming onto balconies, park benches and step stools- anything they could stand on to see over the wall of people in front. To add to the obstructions, everyone had their iphones out and were holding them above their heads to record the parade. That's the kind of self-absorption that is enabled by mobile technology, I'm sorry to say.

I eventually found a spot on the curb where I could see a bit of the participants' heads. It was amazing. Every major political party was represented, plus non-profits, sports teams, the City of Sydney, and various churches (yes, churches!) and universities. It was great! I've never seen so much institutional support for LGBTQ people before. The parade concluded with two floats focused on the campaign for marriage rights for gays and lesbians. It was quite dramatic. Afterwards of course it was all a big drinking party with loud obnoxious young people acting stupid in the streets. It was a good thing there were so many police out.

The Mardi Gras, shortly before my camera battery died.

One of many drag queens in the parade. She didn't actually look this Halloweeny in person. Note the umbrella overhead.

Then came my ordeal. I started to follow the crowds going back, checking for landmarks and consulting my map when I could steal a moment safely away from the packed sidewalks. I made it fairly far, the crowds were starting to disperse, and then... I got lost. Twice. The streets all look the same at night, and drunken students were heading in every direction, so I couldn't even follow the general flow of the crowd. Three times I stopped and asked police officers for directions. Unfortunately, there were times when the streets that they pointed to curved back on themselves, joining other streets with new names or getting lost in overpasses and bus stations. It was frightening, especially as it got later at night and the other students started disappearing with their friends. I was lost downtown at night on the streets of a big city in another country, and I was no longer in a well-populated area.

Eventually I found my way back to familiar streets, but the experience was very discouraging. I was lucky. No one had robbed me or even made me uncomfortable. But thinking about the could-haves still scared me. And maybe it was unfair, but I couldn't shake the thought that if my "friend" had only let me accompany her, I wouldn't have gotten lost at all and overall it would have been a much better night. Being at home felt surreal and I went to bed hoping to feel more like myself in the morning.

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