Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Several Days in Sydney

By Pauly
Sydney, Australia

When Nicky and I were figuring out what to do with our extra time in Australia, I suggested Sydney for a few days. She was reluctant. Since we were on a budget and would be coming back again in January, I suggested that we spend several days in Sydney to get it out of the way. I could sense that she wanted to do some other stuff but since she was on a tight budget she eventually agreed.

We arrived in Sydney on a Saturday afternoon and moments after we checked into our hotel room she started to fall in love with the city. She kept saying that it reminded her of San Francisco. I could understand where she got that. To met it reminded me of a mixture of Seattle/SF.

In January, Brandon Schaefer and I took the train to Sydney after spending a week up in Byron Bay and on the Gold Coast for Big Day Out. We stayed in a hostel near Kings Cross and we got to know the area pretty well as we roamed the streets durng the day and stumbled around them drunk at night.

I remembered a delicious and inexpensive Italian restaurant named Fellini's on tree lined Victoria Street and took Nicky there. I ordered the penne calabrese with chorizo, chilis, and bacon. We drank a ton of red wine then wandered around Kings Cross. It's an interesting area with a mixture of yuppies, hipsters, and travelers (both backpackers and tourists). It also has a seedy element like the East Village used to have. There were lots of hustlers and dope addicts not to mention the aloof street hookers who stood on Darlinghurst Road right in the open.

We found ourselves at a cafe near the fountain with a covered awning. It was aptly called the Fountain Cafe. We sat at one of their twenty or so outdoor tables and played Chinese Poker. Then the sky opened up and rains came pouring down. We were sort of stuck there until the rain let up. But it never did and we continued to drink and drink while we waited out the rain. One of the waitresses was a cute German girl who looked like Cate Blanchet. She had been making eyes at me since we sat down. She dropped off our drinks and then got real close up to my face and asked what we were playing. I told her it was Chinese Poker. She said she didn't know how to play and wondered if I could teach her. That quickly tilted Nicky, who was ready to gouge out her eyeballs.

When I woke up on Sunday morning, my body was paying for all that Shiraz and bottles of Carltons that I consumed. Hungover in Sydney. That's something that happened a lot during my last trip. Since I was unable to score any herbal supplements, I spent most of my time in Oz drinking like a fish. Most of my mornings involved some sort of hangover.

I did what I could to shake off the pounding headache and tumultuous stomach and decided to bet on sports. I befriended a Swedish fan of my poker blog who used to play professional hockey in Sweden. All he does these days is play online poker and watch hockey. He gives me tips from time to time on Allsvenskan Swedish Hockey League game. His advice helped me run my account up to a profit of over 2K Euros. Time to cash out. Take the money and run. I'll use those funds for a trip to Vegas in December.

Nicky eventually woke up and we got ready to meet my buddy Nigel down at the Sydney Fish Markets for Sunday yum cha, or dim sum. Nigel is the editor of a Aussie travel magazine who lives in Sydney. He is an avid reader of my sites and in January, we met for the first time after he invited Brandon and myself over to a BBQ at his flat in Glebe where we had our Almost Famous moment as we mingled with real locals and made mojitos in his kitchen. We were both looking forward to hanging out again.

I hailed an idle cab in front of the hotel and as I jumped in the cab, I slammed the door on my hand and my pinky quickly dislocated. It's a recurring injury that I've had ever since college. Josh Webber originally knocked it out during my fraternity's flag football practice. Since then it has popped out during hoops pick up games and other random times like when I was moving to Seattle or once during rough sex. It had been almost two years since it last popped out so I was actually due.

I usually pop my finger back in place but that instance wouldn't budge. The second bone on my finger was wedged above the third bone. And it hurt like a motherfucker. In the past I would slide back into place after a hard yank. But I couldn't get it to snap back.

I was distracted for most of our lunch and excused myself to the bathroom. I ran into a stall and tried and tried to snap my finger back. No luck. I gave up. I needed the help of a professional. Upon my return to the table, I asked Nigel if he could recommend a good doctor or perhaps the closest ER. We quickly finished up lunch and then took a taxi to the ER near Sydney University.

I don't have health insurance and in the past if I made a trip to the ER to get my finger fixed and it cost me over $2,000. That's why I always popped it back in myself. To save money. Lucky for me, Australia has an amazing health care system. Even though I was not a citizen of their country and even though I was without health insurance, they treated my injury and didn't make me feel like a piece of shit. The last time I went to the ER in America and said I didn't have insurance, they put me at the bottom of their list and barely paid attention to me.

All I had to do was pay a $100 fee to see a doctor in Australia. Compared to a $2K bill at Columbia Presbyterian in NYC or $3K bill at Cedars-Sinai in Hollyweird, that was a sweet deal. Nigel was enraged that I had to pay one cent. He was used to the amazing free health care system in Australia and felt I should have been given free care. I explained to him the god awful situation of the health care fiasco in the US and suggested that he see Sicko.

The triage nurse checked out my finger and told me that I had only a few people ahead of me. The entire trip to the ER took about ninety minutes and that included treatment. As I waited to see a doctor, a second nurse came out to the waiting room and handed me two pills and a cup of water.

"Take these," she said.

I quickly popped them and mentioned, "Er, so what am I taking."

"Oh," she laughed. "I guess I should have told you that they were pain killers."

"Why didn't you say so," I blurted out. "I could really use two more."

She said to wait until they kick in. I didn't want to tell her that there were instances when I'd pop two before I got out of bed that day. I was a veteran pill popper and needed a higher dosage.

Another nurse appeared and took me to get x-rays. That would cost a fortune in America. In Australia, the cost was... free. The radiologist said that nothing was broken and that the doctor would see me shortly. Five minutes later, the doctor appeared and asked me to call him by his first name. He peeked at the x-rays, gave me more painkillers, and asked me if I wanted a local anesthetic to numb my finger.

He pulled out a huge needle and I fuckin' hate needles. He shot me up and he accidentally hit the bone and a sharp pain rocketed throughout my body. Instantly, I became lightheaded and woozy. I wasn't looking at the doctor injecting the needle because that would have freaked me out. Instead, I focused on the curtain in the examination room. It had a trippy pattern and as soon as he took out the needle, I had a vivid acid flashback. The entire curtain rippled in a psychedelic kaleidoscope as I uttered, "Sweet!"

I had not seen that many vibrant colors since I followed the Grateful Dead. The doctor let the injection sit for a couple of minutes as my entire hand went numb and most of my forearm up to my elbow. That's when he snapped the finger back into place.

I thanked the doctor and asked about check out procedures. He told me to just walk out the front door and that if I owed the hospital anything, they would send me a bill. I had used Nicky's mailing address, so maybe they'll send me a bill for $100. Nigel thought that they wouldn't even bother billing me and that I probably got treated for free. Ship it!

I just had a $2,000 swing. Had this happened in America, I'd be stuck with an expensive ER bill and they would have only given me extra strength Tylenol. As is, I was treated extremely well by the Australian health care system and became even more angered at our politicians and the suits at insurance companies for fucking us over. I'll save that rant for another time.

The painkillers had kicked in and I was floating about a foot off the ground. Nigel, Nicky, and myself had made plans to visit the Star City Casino after yum cha and play poker in the worst poker room in the world. Although we had a brief detour to the ER, we decided to continue with our plans. We caught a taxi out front of the hospital and headed straight to the casino.

Star City's poker room has the reputation for being the worst poker room in the world. Ask the locals and they will tell you. The wait list is always long. The players are atrocious. And the rake (the amount they charge to play) is insane. Since there is zero competition, they own the monopoly.

There was a huge wait so we put our names down. I intended to play the 2/5 NL game, but since I was shitfaced and could barely see straight, I opted for a smaller stakes game. They text you when your table is ready and we used Nigel's mobile to get our update. We headed to the bar and started pounding beers.

Nicky's name got called first and she headed over to play. Nigel and I continued to drink. I told him that I needed some quick instant gambling action so we walked over to the sportsbook and bet on the greyhound races. We thought it was a greyhound race, but we ended up betting on the ponies from Hobart in Tasmania. I picked a horse named Miami Jack that went off at 9-2 and it won by two lengths. Before I left, I put a bet in on am NBL game. The South Dragons were a -7.5 favorite over the Wollongong Hawks. I thought it would be a lock. (Sadly, Wollongong only lost by seven and I lost my bet by a friggin' half a point!)

We left the sportsbook and I stumbled back to Nicky's table. She went up $350 in the first hour of play. I finally got called for my game and got seated next to Nigel. I didn't play very well. Sure I was extremely wasted at the time, but the players were so horrible that I should have made a profit. Instead, a slew of crazy Asian gamblers walked away with my money. Unreal. These players were willing to gamble and piss their money away. But I didn't catch any cards in three hours and when I got my money in ahead... I couldn't keep the lead. I ended up losing about $300. The painkillers wore off and I decided to leave.

Nicky was up a bit and cashed out. She had been on a good run playing in Oz. Me? I played twice. I had won a tournament with a bunch of drunken dealers in a casino employees bar in Melbourne and got my ass handed to me in Sydney by CAGs at the worst poker room in the world. Thank God for Swedish hockey and the amazing health care system in Australia. If it weren't for both entities, I'd be stuck big time.

We left the Star City Casino and headed back to the hotel room. I popped a couple of Vicodins and drifted as Nicky watched Breakfast at Tiffany's. I liked the flick but was angry that the film version of the book omitted the fact that Audrey Hepburn's character Holly was actually a prostitute. I eventually feel asleep muttering, "She's a fuckin' hooker! George Peppard is in love with a hooker."

* * * * *

The weather was wet, windy, and unpredictable in Sydney. It would be sunny out and five minutes later it would start raining. It reminded me of Seattle. One block was dry while another was drenched. We grabbed breakfast and then took the subway downtown to Circular Quay. I wanted to show Nicky a cool place called Manly Beach, which was much better than the overrated Bondi Beach. You have to take a ferry to get there, which is a lot of fun since you pass the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Opera House. Perfect for taking photos. When we got to Circular Quay, we were told that the ferries were not running at the moment due to nasty seas. They suggested a bus. I told Nicky that we should go back another day. The funny thing was that the skies were blue with some clouds. It was raining all morning but stopped.

Since we were close to the Opera House, I told Nicky we should explore that area which was adjacent to the botanical gardens. We wandered around and took a lot of photos. Tons of school groups and bus loads of Asian tourists descended upon the Sydney cultural and architectural icon. At one point I was stopped by a little Korean kid. He was there with his school group and had to ask random visitors a series of questions. He would ask them in near perfect English, but wrote down my answers in Korean into his little notebook.

We wandered through the gardens and the park for a couple of hours before we walked back downtown to catch the subway home. As we arrived at St. Marin's Place, there was a TAB tent set up. TABs are like OTBs in Australia. It was the day before the $5 million Melbourne Cup horse race. It's like the Kentucky Derby, Belmont Stakes, and the Preakness all rolled into one. Since it's on a Tuesday, everyone wants to bet on it at the last moment. The TAB folks came up with a smart idea to put a mobile betting tent in St. Martin's Place so all the downtown office workers can go bet on their lunch break.

When we got back to Kings Cross, we headed to the TAB around the corner from our hotel. It was actually next to the subway entrance. It was Monday and put a few bets in for the Tuesday race. There were signs everywhere that read... Avoid queues and bet early.

We had dinner at an Indian joint called India Down Under. I went with the chicken vindaloo and that was a hot fuckin' dish. I couldn't stop sweating. I needed to eat ice cream afterwards to cool down. We went back to the Fountain Cafe for late night drinks and a few hands of Chinese Poker.

On Tuesday, we wandered around Darlinghurst and Kings Cross. We also walked through New Hyde Park and found ourselves back down at St. Martin's Place around lunchtime. It was race day and the Melbourne Cup went off at 3pm. The entire area near the mobile TAB stand was packed with thousands of people, most of them suits or secretaries, trying to get in a bet. The Melbourne Cup is so big that everything stops for the few minutes and everyone watches the race.

We headed back to Kings Cross and found a table in a sports bar in front of a big screen. The place began to fill up. The bar had drink specials and the bartenders were dressed like jockeys. They walked around with trays of free sandwiches. The TAB nextdoor had lines out the door. Everyone was getting in on the action and everyone in the bar was getting shitfaced.

I had bet on two horses, one named Zipping and the other Sirimone. Nicky went with Purple Moon and another horse that I forgot the name. Her horse ended up going off as the second favorite behind Master O'Reilly. Well, Purple Moon got off to a slow start but it took the lead about 3/4 of the way through the 3200m race. It was leading until the last couple hundred meters when Efficient came out of nowhere to win. Nicky's horse finished second but she bet it to win. So she got nothing.

On Wednesday, we were determined to get to Manly Beach. We got up early and ate breakfast then took the subway to Circular Quay. The ferries were running and we hopped on the next one. We sat outside so Nicky could snap photos and get a magnificent view of Sydney Harbour.

We wandered around Manly Beach and took a hike up in a nature preserve nearby. Afterwards we sat in a pub overlooking the beach and drank while we played Chinese Poker. That seemed to be the main activity in Sydney... drinking and Chinese Poker. We did it a lot in Amsterdam in the coffeeshops and we did it a lot in the cafes and bars in Sydney.

After our trip to Manly we took the ferry back to Sydney and returned to our hotel. We did a thorough pre-pack to prepare for our departure on Thursday. We also verified our flights. I decided to leave a few more things behind to lighten the load. I also charged up my Bose headphones and iPod so I'd have entertainment for the long flight back to the States.

We had a final dinner at Fellini's on Victoria Street. We liked it so much the first time that we went back. You can't beat the price... $55 for two pasta dishes with wine and garlic bread. Nicky spoke about returning to Hollyweird where there's currently a writer's strike. I told her that I was happy to finally get to spend time in New York after another long season on the road.

I estimated that I spent 40% of 2007 (so far) outside of America. I lived in hotels/hostels 40% of this year. The longest I was in one place in 2007 was seven weeks in Las Vegas covering the World Series of Poker. I took a month long trip to Oz in January, almost eight weeks in Vegas in the summer (interrupted by a three-day trip to NYC to see Widespread Panic), six weeks in Europe, and just completed another three plus weeks in Oz. I spent smaller trips that were one to two weeks in length such as a week in Florida... twice (Langerado in March and Key West in September) along with a week long trip to Vegas for March Madness, two plus weeks in LA in February, two weeks in Vegas at the end of April and beginning of March, a week in Monte Carlo. I had a couple of two week stretches in NYC over this year and enjoyed those immensely but it seemed as though I was holed up working on assignments and pre-writing columns. I had a few trips to Amsterdam and Hollyweird that lasted a couple of days each, not to mention the random days I spent in NYC in between assignments. Nothing more than brief two or three day pitstops to sort through my snail mail to dig out paychecks, pay my bills, and do laundry.

I took several long journeys in 2007 and the rest of my life gets thrown out of whack while I'm gone. I'm used to traveling so much that it only takes me a day to get re-acclimated to my surroundings. I'm spending a few days in Hollyweird to get my space together and work on the next issue of Truckin', upload pics to Flickr, and edit a few YouTube videos before I return to NYC for three straight weeks on Monday night. I would like to just hole up and write but in reality, I have to catch up on a lot of shit, and then there's my least favorite day of the year... Turkey Day.

I'm sure I have a mountain of mail to sort through and a stack of new books waiting to be read. I have hundreds of emails to answer and dozens of phone calls to return. There are a few bands I want to see in NYC. I have a few deadlines on the horizon and I have a trip back to Oz in January to plan in addition to a side trip to New Zealand. I might be off assignment for two months but it seems like I still have a lot of shit on my plate. Perhaps I can get everything out of the way in less than a week so I can get ten days or so to write. I've been waiting for that alone time for a full year.

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