It’s my first day in Sydney, I must waste no time. As soon as I finished checking in at Home Backpackers Hostel, I left to roam the city in search of the trees that yield purple flowering plants; the jacarandas. Jacarandas are commonly found in countries like Argentina, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Spain, Zambia, Nepal, and Australia. The name comes from the Guarani language—an indigenous South American language—which means “fragrant”. In Australia, Jacarandas bloom in springtime, October to November. I went in November, just in time to appreciate these beautiful purple blooms.
Days before this trip, my friend sent me an online article that showed some Asian tourists stopping traffic in Sydney for that perfect Instagram-worthy photos with the jacarandas. Don’t worry, I didn’t cause a traffic, but I managed to find some of the best spots for some jacaranda appreciation in the Central Business District (CBD).
I wanted to hit myself in the head because I knew I would be alone yet I left my tripod in the hostel. So when I had my first sighting of the jacarandas in Riley Street (click here to see the Google Maps street view).
I had to muster the courage to ask strangers to take my picture. I looked around and saw a couple walking the street and I heard them in speaking in Tagalog. Yay! My kababayans! I followed them and specifically asked the woman to take my photo. They continued walking as if they didn’t hear me so I tailed them like a stalker. I repeated myself until they couldn’t ignore me anymore.
The woman looked at me and said, “Akala namin Chinese ka kaya dumiretso kami.” (We thought you were Chinese so we went ahead.) I honestly don’t know what to make of that statement. I mean, I should have been relieved that they didn’t ignore me completely, but somehow, it didn’t feel right that they ignored me at first because they thought I was Chinese. I think my thoughts are reflected in my not-so-natural smile in the photo. I want to give them the benefit of the doubt, maybe I misinterpreted the remark? I’m not sure.
With Google Maps, I set off to my next destination. Sydney’s primary nightclub strip, Oxford Street, is where I found the loveliest jacarandas trees. I spotted other tourists taking in the view, including a woman whose hair was dyed purple. I didn’t take a picture of her even if I wanted to because you know, decency.
As I walked along Oxford, contemplating where I should head to next, I saw more jacaranda trees right outside the walls of Victoria Barracks, an Australian Army Base.
Darling Harbour & Circular Quay
I saw more jacarandas for the rest of my stay in Sydney because they are practically everywhere. There are also jacaranda trees, albeit few in Darling Harbour and Circular Quay.
It is worth noting that I didn’t have to go beyond CBD to find the jacarandas. The whole city is swathed in lavender this time of the year that you don’t even have to try too hard (or stop traffic) to seem them.
I was tired from the flight and the thought of just sleeping in the hostel did come to mind, but I didn’t give in to my lazy tendencies. Finding the jacarandas was the highlight of my first day in Australia and I’m glad that I stayed up for them. Do visit Sydney in springtime when they are in full bloom.
I used to work in companies where people get sent abroad, people of higher position or those who are just simply brilliant at what they do; I fall neither in these categories. So there it goes, at the back of my head, an impossible dream. It wasn’t until I worked in my previous company that I started entertaining possibilities of being sent on a business trip. I wasn’t consistent with the whole ritual of visualization where you meditate and think about it every single day. My process is more like, I ask the universe then forget about it. And then it happened, just not exactly the way I envisioned it. Late last year, I left the company, accepted another job offer, and just a month after I started, my boss summoned me to our head office in Sydney, Australia. The business trip I only used to dream about has materialized.
Wait what, how did this happen?
I wish I could tell you, it was due to my outstanding performance as an employee, but it was too early in the game for that. I started working for my current company in October, the business trip transpired in November. My boss summoned me so I can meet the rest of the Knowledge Management team. I am working as a Knowledge Specialist for an IT company based in Sydney. In the Philippines, our office can be found in Eastwood, Quezon City.
No hassle Australian visa application
I only had a month to prepare and I made sure that I have all the documents needed to assist in the approval of my visa. It was a relief to know that Australian visa application is all arranged online. I applied for Visitor (subclass 600) visa. I filled out the form and submitted the following documents:
- Bank certificate
- Certificate of Employment
- Scanned copy of passport
- Birth certificate
- Invitation letter from employer
- Travel history (scanned pages of passport with immigration stamps)
I paid AUD 140 (₱5,716.65) and passed my application on the 30th of October. That’s it, no interview, no embassy visit, no need to have it arranged by a travel agency. My flight was scheduled on the 10th of November so I sent a follow-up email on the 6th. The next day, I received my visa approval.
First time to fly from NAIA Terminal 1
I was excited to go to Sydney, but I wasn’t too keen to be on an 8-hour flight. I was traveling with my fellow writer, Kristel on a 10:30 p.m. PAL flight. We met at NAIA Terminal 1, as soon as I got off the Uber, one of the airport staff approached me with a trolley. Next thing I knew, he was leading me to a booth where I had to pay for his porter service. He did push the trolley for me but only up to the counter. I could very well do it on my own, I only had one luggage and one backpack, the porter service is an unnecessary expense in this case.
NAIA Terminal 1 is smaller and less busy than the other airport terminals. I know this may sound funny, it’s not like I was flying business class, but this terminal somehow made me feel like a VIP.
PAL is cool, like seriously!
The first time I flew PAL was on a trip to Bohol. I remember feeling sorely disappointed that it wasn’t anything I expected it to be. It’s the Philippine flagship airline, I didn’t appreciate being served with Skyflakes for snacks. My opinion of the airline changed dramatically on this flight. First of all, food! Not just crackers but a meal. I’m aware this may be because it’s an international flight, but still, I appreciate the full package.
And the next best thing, the digital monitor for each passenger. You’ve no idea how important this little piece of screen helped me manage my flying anxiety. Sleeping on a flight is not my thing, or should I say, not something I am capable of doing. Hence, I was ready; music on my phone, check, books to read, check, and now movies to watch, check! I was armed to the teeth.
Somewhere between that 8-hour flight, turbulence strikes, too intense for my armory to handle. What’s a girl to do but sleep? I couldn’t do it on my own, I needed to pop a pill. When the med took effect, I was too groggy to care if the world is crashing down. I took liberty in occupying all 3 seats in my row and I did it with my seatbelt on; uncomfortable but doable.
If you somebody told me years ago that I would go to Australia for a business trip, I wouldn’t have believed it. I have come to appreciate this aspect of life, the part when you get thrown with pleasant surprises.
Nov 11 – around 10:00 a.m., Sydney time, we touched down Sydney Kingsford Smith Airport. The first point of business is to get an Australian sim card and the Opal card. I approached the Optus store and asked for data that is good for 1 week of use. The staff recommended the Sim Only Plan for AUD 30 (₱1,225.00) with 3GB data.
Opal card is a smartcard ticket that you can use and reload for public transport in Sydney. I got the Adult Opal for AUD 40 (₱1,633.33).
After getting what we needed, Kristel and I parted ways; we wouldn’t see each other again until Monday. Meanwhile, I had the weekend to explore Sydney. I hailed an airport taxi that cost more than my soul to take me to my hostel. They do right-hand driving in Sydney, the driver is an Indian guy who said that he has been living in Australia for 3 years now.
He asked me a few questions, such as my country of origin, the reason for visit, as well as my job. He asked me if I could see myself living in Sydney for good. That time I had only been there for 2 hours, but I remember answering “Of course. I think it would be awesome.“
And it was the beginning of the best 9 days of my life.
Never in my life have I longed for the sun with such intensity the way I did in the dawn of the 27th January. We were marching on a muddy trail, I had been relying on what little light that lands on my pathway from the flashlight of the person behind me. The light’s movement was so erratic and unsteady I suffered from dizziness that lasted for half an hour. I was tempted to rely on my mobile phone for some illumination but I worried it’d be soaked in the rain. And so I prayed for the sun, willed the rain to stop, and I seethed with regrets, wishing for the entire thing to be over. These are my thoughts on what I considered my most uncomfortable climb to date; Mt. Maynoba.
Save for my cousin, Jackie and my friend, Krish, I climbed Mt. Maynoba with a new set of hikers. A few of my classmates from French class showed up, as well as three people who saw the event on my Facebook page. The group assembled at KFC Kia Theatre in Cubao at 1:30 a.m. I couldn’t climb on an empty stomach, it usually makes me lightheaded, thus I ate a full meal. We left at around 3:00 a.m.
One of my friends, Krish, hailed an empty van and negotiated with the driver to take us to Rizal. He agreed to do it for ₱2,000, Krish haggled until she got it down to ₱1,500 ($28.85). We were a group of 10, everyone was amenable to pay ₱150 ($2.88) per head.
I sat in the front seat, tried to catch some zzs to no avail. It’s safe to assume not a soul in that van had a decent sleep the night before given how early our call time is. My cousin came around in my apartment at 10:00 p.m. so we’d go to Cubao together. We turned off the lights, we said goodnight, and just before I was drifting off to sleep, my clock alarmed. I turned on the lights, Jackie reported that she wasn’t able to sleep; neither did I.
The reason we were early is that I didn’t want to miss the sea of clouds this time. When I went to Mt. Batolusong, we arrived a tad too late to see the SOC (yes I just acronymed the sea of clouds, get over it). To ensure our success, I read up on mountains with the highest success rate of seeing the SOC; Mt. Maynoba topped the list. I set our assembly at the ungodly hours. I told them if I don’t get to see the SOC this time, I would throw a tantrum.
Mt. Maynoba is a 728m mountain and one of the hikers’ favorites in Rizal. It is classed a 3/9 in difficulty and may take 2-3 hours to finish. Aside from the chance of seeing the SOC, the other highlight of this loop hike that climbers can look forward to is the 8 waterfalls.
The network signal in Rizal is hard that we couldn’t rely on Waze or Google Maps. One hour in the road and I knew we were lost. The dark road seemed endless, the driver clearly didn’t know where he was going but he drove on anyway like he was hoping it would eventually lead us to our destination. I told him that we were lost, he denied it and said that he just happened to take a wrong turn somewhere. I sat there and maintained my eyes on the road, trying my best to keep my composure. Internally, I was trying to simmer down my growing frustration.
The driver apologized profusely when we reached our destination. I told him it’s okay, but my facial expression might have told otherwise. It was not his intention that we lost our way, but you got to understand none of us slept to be early for this trip. We wasted precious time that might have reduced our chance of seeing the SOC.
The rain showed no sign of stopping further dampening my spirit. It did cross my mind to cancel the hike. They didn’t pay me to arrange this trip, but I still bear the responsibility for being the organizer. I have never climbed a mountain in this terrible weather condition and never in this darkness. I knew this would be extra burdensome. Were they silently regretting that they ever joined this trip? It would be sad to know if they did, but I couldn’t blame them especially when I know exactly how it feels.
I inquired if they wanted to go on; they all said yes. And so climb we must.
Our next ordeal was a half hour ride to the jump-off point on a crooked, muddy road. Over the huge craters of the puddle, the tricycle hammered on, while we got tossed inside the small vehicle. We paid ₱200 ($3.85) for each tricycle. At the registration area, we paid ₱100 ($1.92) per head, and we were given three guides, each one is compensated with ₱500 each. A briefing from one of the guides ensued, and then a little before 5:o0, we were ready to go.
The rain hasn’t stopped, if, at any, it grew stronger the further we went. We were hoping to buy some raincoats from the stores but they said they were sold out. Jesse had a raincoat, which he said he always brings in all of his climbs. Krish, on the other hand, had an umbrella; the rest of us had nothing to protect us from the rain.
I had a backpack, inside there’s a gallon of water, my camera, extra clothes, and toiletries. My bag is not waterproof, but the material was thick enough to prevent water from soaking all of my stuff. Still, I was worried about my camera the entire hike. I have put it in a plastic bag and sandwiched it between my clothes for protection. I didn’t care that I was bathing in the rain, if I get sick I can recover, but if my camera gets wet, it might not. While I was thinking about this, I recalled a childhood memory of my mother advising me to take off my shoes if I have to walk in the flood. I remember feeling a little bit hurt that my mother is more concerned about the shoes than me. Years later, there I was, climbing a mountain under the pouring rain, more concerned about my camera than my own health.
If I wasn’t carrying a gadget, would I have enjoyed the experience? I can’t tell for sure. All I know is that it was no fun, trekking and not seeing where you are stepping on and feeling your damp clothing clinging to your skin. When in my previous climbs my most insistent thought is getting to the summit, this time, all I wanted was to head back. My great sense of discomfort was mirrored by my companions.
20 minutes to the first peak, the rain grew stronger. We had to take a pause and assess our situation. There is no doubt in my mind that I want to go back, I don’t think it’s worth the risk and I was no longer enjoying the climb. I asked the group if they wanted to continue or to go back. Half of the group wanted to return, the others wanted to go on. We all agreed to push through to the first peak.
It was still dark and we could barely make out the surrounding by the time we reached the first summit. From a distance, we saw what we believed to be the sea of clouds, a big mass on the horizon. It was too dark that it was difficult to appreciate to view. We waited until there was enough light to take some photos.
We spotted a few tents set up by the campers. I couldn’t believe they were there since the night before and in this weather. It’s not hard to imagine that they had an uncomfortable if not a rough night. Jessie and his friend, Paul originally wanted to continue but after reaching the first peak, they changed their minds. The three joiners who saw my Facebook event were the only ones who finished the hike, kudos to them. The rest of us, mere mortals, retreated to where we came from. We encountered the other hikers on our way back and because this is a loop hike, they knew that we didn’t complete the trek.
I felt no shame for not having finished it. I know how to pick my battles. I skidded and fell on my butt twice from walking over the slippery slope. By the time we reached the jump-off point, was covered in mud.
They say that a bad experience makes for a good story for which I’d have to agree. As a writer I find the poignant tales and the most harrowing of experiences to be the most interesting themes to write. This is not to say I want to court misfortunes to create better stories, I just accept the fact that sometimes, things go downhill despite your best efforts. What’s important is the learning that you can take from each experience, in this case, one must always check the weather report.
Even so, my Mt. Maynoba climb takes the cake for being the most memorable. Hell, we got rained on. What could be more unforgettable than that.