Saturday #34: Thankfully, it was raining

Saturday #34 was one of those very pleasant but largely uneventful days that one experiences when traveling in a country that is similar to home yet different in so many ways. Nothing much happened, yet I’m sure there will be a time when I look back on this day and smile.

I got up early and reluctantly checked out of the best hostel I’ve visited in my eight months of travel. I’ve developed my own hostel rating system and Sydney’s Wake Up Hostel scored top marks in 18 of 20 categories. The only negatives were a lack of power points in the rooms (one double outlet for 4 beds) and café staff who were hopelessly inept. But if you can get over those two minor issues and you don’t mind sleeping in a room with three strangers and sharing a very nice bathroom down the hall, Wake Up hostel is the best way to save several hundred dollars per night. The place feels like a boutique hotel that would cost about 10x the price in a very expensive city like Sydney.

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Prices were particularly high this week as it bridges Chinese New Year and Sydney’s Gay Mardi Gras. A bed at Wake Up is $36-$42 a night while Expedia shows many hotels priced between $399 and $1352 on the same night. There were NO hotels rooms within 80km for under $290 on February 26.

I took my “to go” coffee and headed across the street to Sydney Central Station. Sydney’s subway system isn’t that extensive but its cheap, the double-decker trains are clean, generally less than half full, and they run as far as the airport for an extra $16 fare. This seems like a much better deal than the $27-a pop Union-Pearson express that is to open in Toronto this Spring, but obviously not as good as Vancouver’s Canada Line that whisks you from downtown to airport for $4. But I digress.

I made it to the airport in 13 minutes. It took another 10 minutes to purchase a new data plan and install a new SIM card in my phone. Within an hour of leaving my hotel I had picked up a rented Ford Mondeo, entered my destination in Google Maps, and was pulling out of the airport with the help of my Australian-accented virtual co-pilot.

If there’s one thing I miss about life in Toronto – and would not have guessed to be the case before leaving – it’s the simple pleasure of getting behind the wheel and driving on the open road. Not that there’s much “open road” in Toronto unless you hit the DVP at 4 a.m., but you know what I mean.

I’ve been “down under” for 10 weeks and by now driving on the left side of the road is beginning to feel natural. It wasn’t this way when I hopped into a cab at the airport on Day #1 in Sydney, or when I got behind the wheel of my first rental in Auckland, but all that time staring out the front window of a Stray bus has had an effect on me. So with some experience under my belt, sunny skies and unusually light traffic, I pulled onto the M1 and headed to Menangle.

There’s a very modern harness racing track in Menangle and on this particular night it hosted the first heat of the World Drving Championship. Tim Tetrick was wearing the red, white and blue for Team USA and Guelph’s Jody Jamieson was decked out in red and white (and black, for some unknown reason). Jody, Tim, New Zealand’s Dexter Dunn, and seven lesser known drivers will visit five tracks over the next eight days. I think the Ford Modeo and I should be able to cover about 2000 km before winding up at Menanalge for the finale on Sunday, March 1.

I had mixed feelings about going to the races on Saturday night. I hadn’t been to a working harness track since my last day on the job at Mohawk on Saturday, June 21, 2014 – eight months to the day. I did spend an afternoon at the thoroughbred track in Buenos Aires in October, but even then it’s been a long time between bugle calls for someone who spent 4-7 days a week at a racetrack for 32-1/2 years. Most people in the business will find it hard to believe that I could be so heavily involved for so long and then simply walk away. Until a few years ago, I found a racetrack or sportsbook on every single vacation. I’ve been to OTBs in London, Paris and Amsterdam; I’ve sat in Vegas sportsbooks for hours on end; and I even bet on international racing from a beachside shack in the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe.

Now, after eight months of travel, I have been weaned. Apparently there is more to life than making trip notes for $8000 claimers in February.

While it was relatively easy to break free, it also felt great to be back at a racetrack. I walked through the front gate at Menangle and instantly felt right at home. The grandstand is considerably smaller than ones in which I spent much of the last 15 years (Woodbine and Mohawk) but it’s the right size for the crowds they usually draw. A few years ago the local racing authority sold off the old track in the heart of Sydney and used the proceeds to build the ultra modern Menangle track about 70km outside the city. The new track is as much a TV studio as a live entertainment venue. On-track crowds are often sparse now that racing is beamed to hundreds of pubs and OTB shops around the country.

They did many things right when they built Menangle. I especially liked the patch of grass between the grandstand and racetrack. I spent most of the night standing on that grass and talking to a racing fan who also happens to be a self-described “travel-holic.”

Peter’s wife still works part-time as a teacher while he is newly retired from his second career as a longshoreman in the port of Sydney. He said he made “good money” and now plans to enjoy his retirement by traveling as much as possible. Peter has traveled extensively in Europe and Asia and he recently spent seven months driving around Australia in a campervan. Yes, it’s so big that you can spend seven months driving around the perimeter. Peter had a long list of “off-the-beaten-track” places that I should visit while traveling in Australia. Unfortunately I don’t have seven months and will see only a fraction of what he has suggested.

Before I knew it, it was the last race and I still hadn’t placed a bet. I chatted with the lone bookmaker who was working Menangle that night. I asked why I should bet the #10 horse with him when he was offering $2.60 (for $1) when the tote was paying $4.80. He replied, “Because the tote will come down.” By post time the tote price had indeed dropped to $2.30 and I had a fixed-odds ticket paying $2.80. Obviously, the bookies know what they are doing or they wouldn’t stay in business. Unfortunately the classy trotter Vincennes didn’t come in and my $20 bet was toast. Still, it was a very cheap night at the races and I got a lot of good advice from Peter.

As I got back to the car, the skies opened up and it began to rain. At that point it dawned on me that 100% of my down-under driving had been in broad daylight on lightly traveled roads. The drive back to Sydney was going to be a new experience. When I got back to the hostel I posted this on Facebook: “

“I made it back to Sydney. First time driving on the left, at night, in a light rain with windshield wipers on, in a big city with lots of curving and complicated roads. I survived but I’m ready for a drink. Or seven.”

When my nephew and I rented a car in New Zealand, we each made the same driving mistake over and over. When changing lanes or turning at a corner we’d instinctively flick the turn signal indicator. The problem is that cars built in Australia with right-hand drive have all of the controls reversed, so what we think of as the turn signal indicator is actually the “windshield wiper” control, and vise-versa. We washed the windshield in our New Zealand rental car about 200 times over the course of a week.

I was still making the same mistake over and over on Saturday #34. At least this time when I flicked the wiper instead of the turn signal I did so without attracting looks from pedestrians and other motorists. Thankfully, it was raining.

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