Coastal Walking at Bondi

I first heard about Bondi Beach from a book I read as a kid. It was one of those puzzle narrative books, not Choose Your Own Adventure, but similarly interactive. Every couple of pages, the narrative would pause as the characters had to figure out a riddle or number problem, and the reader was meant to do the same. I was always too impatient to actually do them, so I flipped to the back to read the solution before moving on. Anyway, one of these books featured a brilliant scientist who loved to surf, and when his niece finds him missing, she knows just where to look for him—at the surfer’s mecca, Bondi Beach, Australia. The beach went on my mental list of Places to Visit.

Surf’s up

In my mind, Bondi was pronounced “Bond-ee” and was a small beach town far away from civilization. Neither of these things is true. It’s pronounced “Bond-eye” and it’s a suburb of the decidedly civilized Sydney. I took the metro out there, and then a short bus ride to the beachfront. The town part of the beachfront is about three blocks long, lined with surf shops, cafes, fancy restaurants, and clothes shops. Unfortunately, a four-lane boulevard separates this area from the esplanade; it must be nice for cruising in a car, but is annoying for pedestrians and for the intimate feeling usually found in beach towns.

Bondi Beach

I’d read in my guidebook about a place that had gelato so delicious, it was considered the best in all of Sydney, not just Bondi, and it also did pizzas at reasonable cost. Oh, the dangers of entrusting a guidebook with your feelings of anticipation! Those pizzas were not reasonable (at least, I don’t consider $18 for a 6” reasonable), and the gelato was priced as if dairy cows were going extinct (I’ve since discovered that one scoop of ice cream costs $5 no matter where I go in Australia). I got a panini and resolved to buy ice cream later in the day.

I was quickly realizing that the warnings I’d heard before coming here were all too accurate; eating out in Australia is expensive no matter where you go. I’d like to think that’s partly because they actually pay their servers a living wage, rather than the paltry $4.25 an hour American servers make. Tipping isn’t common here, because it isn’t an integral part of the wait staff’s pay. They get paid for the work they do from their employers, which makes sense to me. If you feel particularly well treated, you can round up your bill or leave an extra dollar or two, which returns tips to the realm of nice gesture rather than optional expense left to the whim of finicky customers.

After lunch, I strolled down to the beach. It’s a wide beach, and all of it is fine, white sand, with no sea debris mucking it up. They must do a lot of maintenance on it to keep it that way, and it is well worth it. I read my book, did some people watching, and looked on as twenty adorable kids about age 10 got a surf lesson.

Kids eager to get their lesson started

Go, kids, go!

One of my friends back home put me in touch with a friend of hers who had been to Sydney before, and his only must-do was the Bondi coastal walk. When I arrived in Sydney, everyone in my hostel rhapsodized over the coastal walk. I checked my guidebook and it gushed about the coastal walk. Guess what I decided to check out?

On the coastal walk

Well, I’m gushing and rhapsodizing, because that walk was gorgeous. A paved path, occasionally broken up by uneven stone stairs, it winds its way 6 kilometers along the coast, from Bondi to the town of Coogee. I walked to Bronte, then stopped at Tamarama on the way back for a ginger beer and Magnum ice cream bar (I keep my promises).  The path was full of people out for a jog, families on an afternoon stroll, and tourists like me who stopped every 10 feet to take another photo of the plunging cliffs and deep blue sea.

Rar! This looks like a dinosaur head with its mouth open.

A nice afternoon snack

The path from the other side of a cove

I enjoyed visiting Bondi, and can easily recommend it for a beach visit. If you’re a surfer, take the advice of an obscure puzzle book from my childhood and visit!

First Two Weeks in Australia, in Photos

It’s been a little trickier than I’d thought it would be to find time to blog, not to mention to find cheap and reliable internet. But I’m working on it, never you fear, dearest fellow travelers. In the meantime, here are some things I’ve done in the past two weeks:

Backlit as all get-out, but there I am with the opera house and the bridge. Sydney!

In the Royal Botanic Gardens of Sydney

Surf’s up (haha, no, I did not surf, but I watched)

view of Kings Canyon from the dry riverbed

Kangaroos aren’t hopping down the street here, but they are nibbling around the edges of their spacious cages on camel farms (yes, camel farms)

There it is.

Surf’s Up

Everybody knows the basic advice: Don’t go out in the cold without a hat and mittens. Don’t swim right after eating. And don’t sleep with strangers. Generally that’s all pretty sound, but I suggest we reconsider the last one. Now before you think this blog is about to turn into something it’s not, dearest fellow travelers, let me reassure you I’m talking about sharing someone’s home while on the road — couch surfing.

the map on my wall showing where all my couch surfers are from

The idea behind surfing is that you get to know a place much better from seeing it through the eyes of locals than you do from staying in hotels and sticking to your guidebooks, and that everyone benefits from cultural exchange and sharing a meal. It’s free to sign up for and use CouchSurfing.org, but I must emphasize that this is not a site to visit if you are just looking for a free place to stay. Obviously, we all prefer cheap options, but you are inviting yourself into someone’s home, not crashing on your friend’s friend’s dorm room floor.

And now, for the Safety Talk. Most everyone I talk to about couch surfing says, “But how do you know it’s safe?!” Well, you can’t know for sure, any more than you can know most things for sure. However, the organizers of the site put in several safeguards — there’s a vouching system, in which only people who have met surfers in person can vouch for them, and on your profile page, other surfers can leave recommendations or bad reviews for all other surfers to see. You can verify that you are who you say you are by using the verification process; you fill out your address on the site, they send you a postcard to that address, and you mail it back to them, confirming that you live where you say you live. Finally, you use your own good judgment. You’re not signing a contract when you agree to host or request to surf, and your safety is paramount, so if you arrive at your host’s house and get a bad vibe, or your surfer shows up three sheets to the wind, by all means arrange alternate plans.

I’ve hosted about a dozen times, and almost all of those times were really great. I’ve met people from Albuquerque, Singapore, Rio de Janeiro, Minneapolis, England, and Germany, and we’ve spent long nights over bottles of wine and bowls of pasta, chatting about our lives and our homes. I like being able to properly host my surfers. I like to show them some favorite restaurants and music venues, and one day I even did totally touristy stuff like pose by Buckingham Fountain, go to a festival in Grant Park, and stand in line for the Sears Tower.

Couch surfers, as you can imagine, tend to be open-minded folks, laid back, and pretty young. Sometimes I feel very old as I watch people barely out of their teens showing worldly bravura, when really, they’ve still seen and experienced so little. But we all have to start somewhere, don’t we?

I’ve surfed just once so far, with my sister E, in Munich. Our host was fantastic; she made us dinner one night and took us out to a beer hall another night, and she took us to many major tourist sites and negotiated all the German for us. She’s a really interesting person, a surgeon who uses all her time off to do extreme adventuring like dogsledding in the Yukon or horseback riding across the Rockies. We spent hours talking about balancing work and play, living on your own, and American/German differences. Before we surfed with N, I was signed up on CouchSurfing but unsure if I would feel comfortable hosting, but after staying with N, I knew for certain that I wanted to be someone providing this kind of experience — this kind of friendliness and curiosity — to people from all over the world.

In short, if you couch surf, you may end up like this:

E dressed in N's traditional Munich leder hosen, on our very first CouchSurfing adventure

UPDATE: There is video. Oh yes, there is video. For some reason, it’s on its side, but here it is. Please note that we were playing Tom Jones’s “Sex Bomb” in the background for this fashion show. Cultural exchange, what!