The Sydney Opera House makes a 400-pound gorilla look tiny.

Further proof that we are, in fact, in Australia: This morning, while taking a shower in the bathroom across the hall, I was mesmerized by the water going down the drain clockwise. Took my brain a moment to register that this was abnormal, and once I did, I got a little dizzy. It felt like the whole world was upside-down.

Apparently, the Clockwise In The Southern Hemisphere Thing is not always the case, as we have been taught to believe. But it was certainly true in the icky fourth-floor bathroom in the Footprints Youth Hostel Sydney. I suspect had something to do with all the backpacker fungus.

Here’s one undeniably great thing about traveling with a baby: You are awake and ready to roll while the rest of the world is sleeping. That goes a long way in a city like Sydney, where tourists compete for space and attractions everywhere. The downside, of course, is that we’re in bed by 8:00 every night, but that’s OK. We have no overwhelming desire to hit dance clubs with our 11-month-old.

When we entered the Footprints kitchen lounge for our $2 breakfast, the only folks awake were some Japanese guys, who asked if they could take a picture of Hannah. (Way to bust those stereotypes, gentlemen!) Turns out a white-skinned baby is quite the oddity here; everyone wants to know how old “he” is (All seem to think she’s a he), where she’s from, what we feed her, et cetera. Right now, she’s eating what we eat, which is toast with melted cheese and Rice Krispies.

Our main destination today was the famous Sydney Opera House. It’s arguably the country’s most identifiable landmark, and I’ve never totally understood what the big deal was. Now that I’ve seen it, I understand. It’s a fascinating hulk of architecture, an urban sculpture with so many nooks and crannies that it looks totally different depending on your vantage point. This is a massive structure we’re talking about, and the closer you get to it, the harder it is to understand what you’re looking at.

The thing was a bitch to build—took almost 15 years, or ten more than originally planned—and the politics of getting it done was one of Australia’s great fiascos of the sixties. America had the Vietnam War; the Aussies had the Opera House. According to Wikipedia, so you know it’s true, the Opera House’s famed shells are covered with more than a million self-cleaning, glossy white-and-matte cream Swedish-made tiles, “though from a distance the tiles look only white.” Up close, they also look white.

Sarah didn’t seem terribly interested in spending tons of time there or walking around it; in fact, she didn’t even want to go up the steps to the doors. May have had something to do with the backpack on her back containing a 22-pound baby wrestling with a stuffed monkey.

For my money, the best view of the Opera House is from a neighborhood across the cove called The Rocks. That was the only place we could really make sense of it all. The iconic interlocking shells of the Opera House were reportedly based on the wedges of an orange, and that’s what it looks like from The Rocks. An amazing marvel of engineering, this thing—and the fact that it’s on the water only makes it more majestic.

As for The Rocks, it’s one of those restored historic districts that everyone talks up (“Oh, you have to go to The Rocks!”), and then you get there, and there’s no there there. Just cobblestone streets and old buildings and lost history. Originally home to indigenous peoples called the Cadigal, the district became the site of Australia’s first European settlement in 1788. Since then, it’s been a convict town, a port city, a hangout for thugs and rogues and gangsters and other savory characters. Now, as far we can tell, it’s a place where tourists buy trinkets and puppets and beer. Wherever the Cadigal are now, they can’t be pleased.


Photograph: Courtesy of Jeff Ruby