24 May, 2011

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So here's the thing.

I'm in Sydney at the moment, on a trip with a group of people. My brother lives over here, so I stayed with him and his family for the weekend, then last night joined the rest of the party at our hotel.

Today was the first day of the trip proper, and it was really good. We had a very busy day, going from place to place. But the very last event of the day was cancelled, so we had a few hours to kill. At this point it was late afternoon, about 4.30pm, and since there was still about an hour to go before the shops closed, some in the party wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to go shopping. As we stopped to let those people off at some large shopping mall, I made a sudden and impulsive decision to jump out and also look around the shops, just to see if I could find anything interesting.

I wish I never had.

Here's the problem: I hadn't expected to go shopping, so I wasn't prepared for shopping. Sure, I had my wallet, but I didn't have the other thing just as important to the shopping experience as my wallet - my iPod. You see, I find shopping deathly dull, so I can only do it while listening to something that gives my mind something else to focus on. Without my iPod, I realised I'm not going to cope. Plus, I'm really only interested in a limited number of shops - ones that sell DVDs or books. And with the exchange rate being as it is, I doubted I could find anything that was actually a significantly cheaper than I could get in New Zealand. But I was lucky, and did find a DVD boxset for about $NZ25 less than back home. That said, I would gladly pay that $25 to avoid what happened next.

About 5pm, I decided I'd had enough of the tedium of shopping, and started walking toward the hotel. I walked some three blocks before I saw the Town Hall train station. Knowing that my hotel was close to the Circular Quay station, which is a couple of stops after the Town Hall station, and that it was supposed to only be a short walk from the shopping mall to the hotel, I started to wonder if I was going in the right direction. After all, it hadn't occurred to me to check what direction the hotel actually was. Figuring Circular Quay was a better-known landmark than my hotel, I asked at a newsagent, who said Circular Quay was indeed in the direction I'd just come from. I had been going the wrong way.

So I walked back for a while, when I started to think. Circular Quay was by the water, for obvious reasons, so where's the water? I look up the side-streets, but every street around me slopes rather sharply up, not down to water level. It was like I'm in a valley, not a place with a harbour two blocks away. So I try walking up one of the side streets to work out which side Circular Quay is on. I reach the top of the hill, and look down to a big sign saying "Darling Harbour." Then I start to worry. I don't really have a mental image of what the city of Sydney looks like, but I do know that Darling Harbour and Circular Quay are two entirely different places. So just how far away from where I want to be am I? Which means now I have NO idea where my hotel is.

So I did what any rational mature adult would do. I panicked. I had difficulty breathing, I felt faint, a wave of stress hit me, I started to imagine myself wandering aimlessly around Sydney for the rest of my life. Then I had a thought. I have family that live in this city. They'll know where I need to go. So I call my sister-in-law, but she didn't know where to go, and even if she did, I couldn't have heard her over the traffic noise. I was going to call my brother, who had apparently finished work, when I saw a couple of bus drivers standing around a bus. They'll know where it is, I thought, so I went up and asked "Which way to Circular Quay?" One of the drivers points me to the direction I'd originally started going. So I set off, now knowing that I'd been right all along.

It's at this point that my brother texts me asking "You lost or something?" I give him a call, but again cannot hear him because of the traffic noise. Still I manage to communicate to him where I am. Meanwhile, for some reason I'm starting to have my doubts again about exactly which direction I should be going in. So I decide to ask some people standing waiting to cross at the lights. This very nice girl said to me, "Circular Quay is too far to walk, but you can catch a bus. If you follow me, I'll show you where the bus stop is." We cross the road, walk for a couple of minutes, and then she points me to a long line of buses, telling me which bus to catch. I thank her, walk along to the front of the bus stop... and my heart sinks. Across the road is the shopping mall where I began this whole saga. Half an hour of walking, and I'm back where I started.

Then I have a thought. It's 5.30pm, the shops are closing, if I'm lucky perhaps some of the other members of my party might have only just finished their own shopping. In which case, I can follow them back to the hotel. I start to call one of them when a text from my brother arrives on my phone. It's directions, based on where I had been when we talked. "Walk up two blocks until you find George St. Turn left, walk 1½km until you find your hotel." I look at nearby signs. Hey, I'm on George St. And I did turn left to get to the bus stop. Now that I know where to go, I set off, walking, and walking, and walking, until I find... a hotel I'm not staying at. But it's a hotel I know is near mine, because last night I accidentally briefly logged onto their wireless internet rather than my hotel's wireless. So that must be my hotel behind that other one. And indeed it was. So, some fifty minutes after setting off, I finally was able to collapse in my room. (And for the record, yes, I had initially been going in the wrong direction. If I hadn't noticed the Town Hall train station, I might very well still be walking right now.)

Moral of the story: never leave your room without your iPod. The whole experience would have been a lot more bearable if I only had something to listen to.

Alternative moral of this story, as suggested on Facebook by my friend Kim: "Don't go travelling with Matthew - he starts panicking when lost in an English-speaking urban area, complete with shopping malls, hotels, easily-accessible public transport, mobile coverage and local contacts..."

Well, sure, I guess that's one lesson you could take out of the story if you really wanted to.