Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Under and Back Again - Pt. VII

Tuesday, August 1, 2006

I'm kicked rudely out of a confusing but entertaining dream by a cold, inorganic warbling. It's the ringing of my phone, my 6:00 a.m. wake-up call. I welcome it the same way I would welcome a crowbar hitting my scalp. The students and their eager socializing made sure that I got very little sleep during the night. The other three (Japanese) teachers all got rooms off on the isolated, peaceful other end of the hall. I got stuck right in the middle of student country (more discrimination?), so I bore the full brunt of it. It wasn't talking or merriment that kept waking me up; no, they were very careful to avoid that. However, they made no effort to lessen the banging of their self-closing doors as they shunted themselves from room to room. Every time Mr. Sandman hit the mark I'd be roused by another bang. This went on till the wee small hours.

And now it is 6:00 a.m..

I drag myself out of bed by the neck and in my foggy-minded state try to figure out what to wear. The hours of the hotel's coin laundry were apparently designed for maximum inconvenience, and my wardrobe situation is now desperate. The vitals are all covered (I brought plenty of extras), but it looks like the outer layer might end up being either very casual or kind of smelly. Fortunately, I have one dress shirt that I only wore for half a day, so there's not enough of a pong to matter, especially with my trusty Speed Stick.

(You have to understand: the Japanese are very particular about hygiene. Not only do they always bathe at least once a day if not more, but they tend to have very mild body odor compared with us Westerners. No matter how much I wash or how much deodorant I use, by the end of the day it's not uncommon for me to see wrinkled noses and overhear low moans of "Kusai..." ["stinks"] in my vicinity. Frankly, I don't see how so many Japanese businessmen can get away with wearing the same outfit for an entire week with impunity, especially since they don't usually use deodorant!)

Through tremendous force of will, I finally get myself cleaned up and dressed. I leave my room and get on the elevator up to the top floor restaurant only to remember that I've forgotten my meal ticket. The journey to my room and back takes a bit of time as there are only two operable elevators that the entire, crowded hotel clientele wants to use at the same moment, and no stairway in sight. By the time I make it up to the restaurant my group is already well into breakfast. It doesn't matter; the kids look to be in even worse condition than I am. Breakfast is pretty good, and the view of the harbor in early morning is wonderful.

After eating, I brush my teeth and head downstairs to where our group is massing in the lobby. Then we board the bus for our first visit of the day. Where are we going? I'm glad you asked! We're off to the Frank Vickery Care Centre, which is a care center(re)(er)(re)(Я)(?) for the elderly. Perhaps you are wondering why we are visiting a care centЯ. Well, it wasn't entirely our choice. You see, from the beginning Mr. K determined that this should be a "study trip". This fact was referred to our travel agents, who in turn referred it to the Australian Embassy. The Australian Embassy responded by sending us some really nifty study aids including Japanese/English workbooks for the kids. These workbooks centЯ mainly on the differences between Japanese and Australian society. Care of the elderly is one of the issues. Therefore, a visit to this care centrereЯ facility was placed in the itinerary.

At first glance it definitely does not look like any old folks' home I've ever seen. Actually, it is divided into different sections depending on the level of care needed. This is explained to us in detail at the very beginning of our visit, when the (very tall) chief administrator gives us an informative lecture (while our Japanese tour guide translates. Actually, she makes a few errors and leaves a few things out, so I risk looking like a total asshole by correcting her on a couple of occasions when my patience simply runs dry). This particular facility includes bona fide condominiums that are specially equipped to facilitate the needs of the elderly while at the same time encouraging them to live as independently as possible. The other side of the compound is a "hostel" which is a little more like a traditional care center, i.e. staff are right there all the time. If more intensive care is required, subjects are then moved on to a convalescent care cent/e/r/e/ located outside the compound and staffed by actual doctors.

After the lecture, we're allowed to take morning tea there together with some of the residents including the ones that made the cakes we're given. (The kids don't complain...and after a while some of them muster the courage to chat with those wonderful, old ladies.) Then we're taken on a grand tour of the condominium section. That turns out to be fun.

After going through the common facilities, such as the gaming room, hair salon, and common dining hall, we separate into groups. My group first goes into a flat owned by a really charming couple who have plenty of anecdotes to tell. They're surprised to notice that one of our boys is wearing a cross and are disappointed to find out that he does it for reasons of (heavy metal) fashion rather than religion. (The woman says, "I really wish I could sit that boy...no, all of 'em, down with a Bible and teach 'em a thing or two!") After we leave that flat, we are told that we are now going to visit the home of a "very interesting" woman named Vye(? Vai? Veigh? I vie for the spelling of her name!!!!). We are also warned that her flat is, well, unique. That turns out to be a bit of an understatement.

(Sorry...I don't have a picture of it! Ms. Y took a couple, though. I'll see if I can get one from her...)

Her flat is more like a museum. It is literally packed in every corner with various knick-knacks and items of sentimental value, every one of which clearly has a story behind it (and she is more than happy to tell them if asked). It is obvious that the woman is both very sentimental and a collector of things. She also likes music boxes, particularly if they move in unique ways. The woman is an absolute kick, and it's hard for us to get the kids back out of her flat to continue the tour!

After it's all done, we load up on the bus again and head out to Sydney University, which is an interesting combination of old and new. The famous, old quad building is over a hundred years old and has both a carillon (dedicated to Australia's war dead) and a fascinating museum of ancient civilizations (which we don't have anywhere near enough time to see!). As we walk around, we see sleepy-looking, ivy-covered brick buildings standing next to fancy, modern structures. There is also plenty of construction going on. The beginning and end of the tour is the student union building, a multi-story, stainless-steel-looking structure that includes two floors of multi-ethnic dining facilities (where we have lunch among all those students) and a bona fide shopping mall that makes Oregon State's Memorial Union building look like a little mom & pop store.


Screwing around in front of the Quad at Sydney University.

Looking into the Quad.

Looking toward downtown Sydney from the Quad.

South(?) gate and bus terminal, Sydney University.

Entrance to the (Wentworth) Student Union building.

I'm particularly impressed with the cosmopolitan nature of the university. Yes, Oregon State had its share of foreign students. (I know because I worked with them a lot...which is the main reason I wound up in Japan.) However, Sydney University's student body is far more polyethnic. Apparently a very large number of students come here from such countries as Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, India, and Lebanon. (I know I see far more women in Islamic dress here than I've probably ever seen anywhere in my life! I'm also hearing an amazing array of languages being spoken all around me!) As I mentioned, the dining facilities in the student union building are multi-ethnic and quite interesting. As for me, I settle for fish & chips (which are more like what I had in London than what I had in Oregon), and I experience having my chips with gravy for the first time in my life. (Okay, my Canadian friends can stop laughing now!) Mr. K has Indian curry. Ms. Y has some kind of sandwich. Mr. I has something that looks Asian, but I can't identify it. We eat at a table in front of a Turkish/Lebanese lunch counter that advertises all its products as being halal (i.e. prepared in accordance with Islamic law). The atmosphere around us is noisy but very cordial, and students don't appear annoyed when I ask them a question about the cafeteria facilities; on the contrary, they're quite friendly. (Beats the hell out of the OSU students I remember...at least the non-Oregonian ones...especially the ones from Southern Calif...never mind.)

I might also add that, during the university tour, on more than one occasion I am approached by students here who ask me, as the obvious native English speaker in the group (even despite my chronic Americanishness), what we're all about. Again, Sydney University is a very large, famous, and very busy university, but the atmosphere here seems amazingly friendly!

Maybe I should see if I can complete those other two degrees here...or maybe not. It's just a thought. So is buying a Paul Reed Smith guitar, building my own fully-equipped studio, getting a BLUE Dodge Viper...

The tour ends well ahead of schedule. Both Mr. I and I (I and Mr. I? Mr. I, I and?) are happy, because it means we'll have time to get some much-needed laundry done. Ha ha ha ha ha. I can be so funny sometimes. No, the tour guide remembers that there is one more low-price and duty-free gift shop in Sydney that caters especially to Japanese travelers. My and Mr. I's protests that we're all shopped out and would rather go back to the hotel are simply ignored. The students don't seem very thrilled about it, either, but when we arrive they still find the shopping gumption to come out with one or two more bagfuls each.

I and the other teachers push things a bit, and we somehow manage to get back to the hotel with about an hour to go before we go out for dinner, and the coin laundry is still open. I hurry there and arrive at the same time as Mr. I to find only one washer and one dryer, no change machine, and no detergent in the vending machine. I know the rush will be starting soon, so I run to catch the elevator and find both of them in use quite far from my floor (and the third elevator is down for maintenance). Looking desperately for a stairway, I see a door marked "exit", run to it, and open it. Sure enough, there is a stairway, so I head down to what should be the ground floor level...to find no door. I start to go further down the stairs, but there is a sign that says: "WARNING - Proceeding past this point will cause alarm to sound".

Uh, oh.

I run back up to the first floor (U.S. second), but the door is locked. Cursing under my breath, I hustle up to the third floor (U.S. fourth), where the coin laundry is located, just as Mr. I is closing the door behind him.

"Is everything alright?" he asks innocently.

"Um...I think we're f****d," I reply.

We both try the door. It's most definitely locked.

"We're most definitely f****d," I say anxiously.

After a hasty conference, we run up the stairs to the ninth floor (U.S. tenth), where all our rooms are, and start pounding on the door and shouting. After a few minutes, a couple of our girls open the door...and burst out laughing.

You see, on every floor EXCEPT the one with the coin laundry the doors are marked: "Emergency exit only: door will lock behind you". I have to wonder if they set it up that way on purpose...

Anyway, Mr. I and I take the elevator down to the ground floor, go to the lobby, and get our change and laundry soap. As we do so, a whole group of staff, all bearing flashlights and keys, emerges from a nearby door. When the duty manager comes out from behind the desk, one of them says, "We didn't see anyone in there."

The manager, pointing at them in turn, says, "You two check the other stairway. You two go around to the back exit. As for you, go back up that stairway and see if maybe you can figure out how and where they got out."

The staff separates and heads off in its respective directions like a bunch of white-armored stormtroopers, only in black suits. Mr. I and I quietly go back to the laundry room, do our laundry, and return to our rooms, sighing with relief all the way.

It is now evening, and the scenery is unbelievably beautiful. We are taken out to a famous Chinese restaurant (the Imperial?) which is located in The Rocks on the waterfront almost right under the Harbor Bridge and across the bay from the Opera House, which is all lit up. Unfortunately, I don't have my camera. It's a pity. It's gorgeous. As for the meal at the restaurant, well, the portions aren't as big as we always got in Caloundra and Brisbane, and the service is sometimes a bit inattentive (read "rude"), but the food is excellent. It's definitely a pleasant evening.

I'm tempted to go up to the top-floor lounge for a cocktail tonight, but I don't. Instead, I concentrate on getting my things together for tomorrow's trip, getting myself cleaned up, and finishing Kafka on the Shore. Just for good measure, I bribe the kids in the nearest rooms with some of my leftover munchies from Caloundra. At least they're being quiet tonight.

4 Comments:

  • This is a wonderful travelogue. I'm surprised that the kids visit an old people's home. I like women like Vi - perhaps her name is Violet! My old music teacher ended up in Alcheringa, took her music with her, but after a month - the horrible medicine they gave yer - quietened her down. Awful!
    The Uni. Yes. Lots of overseas students are in our Australian universities and they pay heaps for the 'privilege'.
    The lift and stairs story I can relate to as I am claustrophic. I'll post something about that soon.
    W.

    By Blogger Peceli and Wendy's Blog, at 6:52 AM  

  • Lots of Bahraini students go to Australia to study. I'm not surprised you saw so many girls covered.

    The nursing home sounds really nice. The U.S. should take lessons from them. I once volunteered at an old folk's home. It was so sad and depressing. The woman I visited never had any company from her children.

    This woman, Vi, she sounds sorta like my mom in way. My mom collects bunnies and has TONS of them in her room... even has made special shelves for them. Her room is full of all sorts of stuff and she loves it. I love it too and hope she passes down lots of things to me.

    Surprising that you guys would eat Asian food in a foreign country. I'd think that you'd want to try out local food. Maybe not though... don't know.

    So the Japanese don't sweat? I wonder why. I think it's rather rude that they say the things they say... "stinky". I've never understood ppl who take two baths a day! Don't think they'd much care for me! ;)

    By Blogger tooners, at 4:42 PM  

  • I can also relate to your stairwell story. There's a stairwell at the medical center in Oregon (where I used to work) that had doors that would lock behind you. The only unlocked exit door was on the very bottom floor, which opened up onto a very steep (and uncivilized) hillside, surrounded by trees and mud. It was not unusual to see a hapless salesman trudging out of the woods in a suit, and muddy shoes.

    I believe that's a severe fire-hazard. If the fire starts in the stairwell, on the bottom floor, you are as good as dead, with no chance of escape. It's amazing this type of building design is even legal!

    By Blogger DewKid, at 6:28 AM  

  • Well, Peceli and Wendy beat me to it. The old lady is Vi, short for Violet.

    You know, they have centres like that in the US and Canada, too. I've been to a couple.

    I couldn't believe the pics of Sydney University. I am sure the old part is modelled on the Scottish unis. By the time I saw the pic of the quad, I thought I was at Glasgow University again! They call them quads too.

    By Blogger Olivia, at 7:20 AM  

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