Sunday, 26 June 2011

Din Tai Fung, Sydney (26th June 2011)

Jono leaves for San Francisco today for work and I won't be seeing him for the next 5 weeks till I fly over to meet up at the end of July! Have been feeling somewhat sad the last couple of days knowing my baby will be away for so long (this would be the longest time he is gone) and even though we can easily keep in touch with today's modern technology (phone, email, Skype etc.), it just doesn't feel the same not having him around physically. But I'm excited for him because he gets to work at the Google HQ, an opportunity most of us IT folk can only dream of. Working in Silicon Valley, home to some of the world's largest technology corporations - how awesome is that? I'm jealous but very happy for him :) I hope the next 5 weeks will fly by quickly and I'll get to see him in person soon. Looking forward to my 2-week holiday in San Francisco and the surrounding areas - about time for a break from work!

Was up at 6am to get ready and have breakfast before accompanying Jono to the airport. Ken was really sweet to get up as well and made us mushroom and cheese omelettes - thanks Ken! The taxi came to pick us up at 7.30am and we arrived at the airport about 15 minutes later to join a long queue of passengers checking in to their Air New Zealand flights. I'm unsure if the queue was because everyone was trying to get on Air New Zealand flights since most other airlines have cancelled their flights due to the volcanic ash cloud but it was a ridiculously long wait, leaving Jono only 45 minutes to go through customs and rush off to his gate. Lots of kisses and hugs as we bid farewell (no, I did not cry this time, really) - have a safe flight and let me know when you arrive at San Fran! Will miss my baby dearly :(

Took a taxi home and was out again with Ken around 10.30am to World Square Shopping Centre where  he purchased a cheap prepaid mobile and SIM card from the Optus store. Having an Australian mobile number now would make it very handy to get in touch with him (his NZ mobile phone and number didn't work here) and also with his job hunt. We had some time to spare before meeting Su Wei for lunch so went to check out the Asian supermarket, Miracle Supermarkets. We were rather like kids, in all our Asianness, highly excited to see products we grew up eating and are familiar with in the supermarket. You can even purchase fresh vegetables and meat, as well as baked buns and other Asian pastries in store. "Oh, look, they have those soft shell crab things - let's get some on the way home," piped Ken as we walked past the cooked food area. Hmm, baby crabs marinated in a chill sauce...I wonder what it would taste like...

Headed upstairs to Din Tai Fung restaurant where we were meeting Su Wei for lunch around 11.30am. Su Wei was running late so Ken and I got in the queue for a table. I really wanted to check out this restaurant because the guys at Google keeps raving about the place whenever I'm out with them. Su Wei's heard the same from her friends and since we both have not been there, we decided to give it a go just to see what all the hype was about. Din Tai Fung is a world renowned Taiwanese restaurant that specialises in 'xiao long bao', aka soup dumplings. The restaurant name rings a bell and I think my rellies had taken me to the Malaysian branch on one of my visits to Kuala Lumpur several years ago...

We were given a numbered buzzer and an order sheet to fill in while we waited to be buzzed. It was rather strange that we had to pre-order our food without seeing an actual menu (no coloured pictures of dishes as reference). Oh well, I guess we have to try our luck. Definitely getting the 'xiao long bao'...tick...what about dan dan noodles or rice dishes...The three of us quickly skimmed the list and filled up the form before handing it together with the buzzer to the maitre'd and followed her to our table. The restaurant was very busy but unfortunately they do not accept bookings so you have to queue for a table. Surprisingly, the service was quite prompt and soon our table was filled with an assortment of food: 'xiao long bao', shrimp & pork 'shao mai' (similar to the soup dumpling except there's an extra shrimp on the top, making the dumpling look like the shape of a sea anemone), Shanghainese style Drunken Chicken (chicken drumstick deboned and marinated in a blend of Chinese rice wine), pork bun, Dan Dan Noodles (noodles in sesame paste sauce), Crumbed Chicken served with fried medium grain rice (Taiwanese style rice), and Steamed Taro Dumpling and Steamed Mini Taro Buns for a sweet finish. Both Su Wei and I also had their Lychee Mint Juice which was a smoothie in a vile green colour topped with a fresh lychee - sweet but refreshing :) Cost us $81.90 total which was rather expensive. The food and service was good though I'm not sure it's that amazing as hyped out to be...

Din Tai Fung Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Ken was keen to know where the local fresh produce market was and Su Wei brought us to Sydney's Paddy's Market in Haymarket where fresh produce was sold from Wednesday to Sunday from 9am till 5pm. I did not know there was a fresh produce market here - I had always thought it was a place that sold Australian souvenirs! There were so many stalls selling vegetables and fruits, and the price was much cheaper than what we usually get from the supermarket plus there was plenty of variety too (they even have durians for sale!). Ken and I only picked up a few items for dinner as we weren't prepared for a big shop. Hmm, I'll probably have to invest in a vegetable trolley so I can come here on my own on Sunday mornings while Jono's at work and easily carry the purchase home.

Ken and I walked Su Wei to Central Station and said our goodbyes then headed back to World Square Shopping Centre to Coles to pick up a few more items for dinner and bought a small container of the baby crabs (cost $3.50) from the Asian supermarket before taking the train home. The rest of the day was spent chilling out indoors snacking on the baby crabs (crunchy mini crabs in a tangy sweet chilli marinade) and working on our laptops. Photo of the baby crabs:

Feels like crunching on scorpions when I chew on the mini pincers (not that I've had scorpions before)...

Saturday, 25 June 2011

Cockatoo Island (25th June 2011)

"Ah, so nice to have other people make me breakfast," smiled Ken while Jono and I busied ourselves in the kitchen, taking turns to cook pancakes. We were all up around 9am and decided to have breakfast at home - nice mug of plunger coffee each to go with our pancakes drizzled with maple syrup (REAL maple syrup - I've got a part Canadian in the household, remember?). I don't mind the cooking since it was a Saturday and I didn't have to go to work. Plus I enjoy being in the kitchen with Jono preparing food together - fun activity in itself while sharing the effort :)

After breakfast and rounding up the boys to get ready to head out, we finally left home around 11am for Circular Quay where we bought ferry tickets from Sydney Ferries at Wharf 5 to Cockatoo Island (cost us $10.60 return ticket per person). We had just missed the ferry and the next one wasn't till 11.52am so we took a short stroll along Opera Quays to the Sydney Opera House to kill time. It was a beautiful sunny day with a light breeze - Sydneysiders and tourists out enjoying their day by the harbour, and plenty of activity on the water too!

We stopped to pick up takeaway lunch from a cafe on the way back to Wharf 5 only to end up running to catch our ferry and watched it leave without us. Argh, shouldn't have got my tuna sandwich toasted! Now we'll have to wait for the next ferry grr...All the stress and rush for nothing :< Jono found out that there was another ferry leaving in 10 minutes from Wharf 4 and asked the staff on duty if we could catch that ferry instead. Fortunately the staff were understanding and let us through the ticket barrier on presentation of our existing tickets without extra charge. Great job, Jono!

Finally, at 12.10pm, we were on board the ferry to Cockatoo Island. The journey took about half an hour with the ferry stopping several times including Balmain to drop off and pick up passengers along the way. We took our seats on the outdoor deck upstairs, eating our lunch (sadly my tuna sandwich was not any better toasted - yuck) and enjoying the amazing views of Sydney Harbour. I just love cruising on a boat!

Cockatoo Island is the largest island in Sydney Harbour and was Australia's biggest shipyard during the twentieth century. It was also formerly an imperial prison and its prison buildings are listed under the UNESCO's World Heritage list. I had briefly read about this island awhile ago and thought it would be interesting to check it out which was why the mini excursion to the island today (Jono and I had planned to come here last weekend but it was quite windy so decided to postpone the trip). As we approached the island, I was having second thoughts about bringing the boys along with me - all I could see were what looked like large warehouses and not quite the tourist destination I had envisaged. Oh well, we are here so let's see what it's all about...

On arrival at Parramatta Wharf, we were given a brochure with information of the island which included a self-guided tour map. A quick pit stop to grab some coffees from The Canteen (the only cafe on the island) just around the corner from the information centre, we began our walk on the lower part of the island. Walking through Mann Street into the Industrial Precinct, we stopped to check out the empty warehouses which during the island's shipbuilding heyday were filled with the sound of machinery and men at work - today, these warehouses are virtually silent with remains of large machinery to give us an idea of the scale of shipbuilding. There is also a Volunteer Conservation Workshop where volunteers help restore vital pieces of the island's history including its old, rusting machinery.

We continued on past The Dockyard, where its last major work was the maintenance and refit of the Navy's Oberon class submarines (this included the HMAS Onslow that Jono and I visited at the Australian National Maritime Museum sometime ago). If you plan to shortcut across the island, the Dogleg Tunnel takes you from The Dockyard all the way back to where the cafe is. Doubled as a bomb shelter during WWII, it now contains a soundscape that is both captivating and strangely eerie as you walk along a long wooden-beamed tunnel. There was a dark room near the exit which had a projector playing a video clip of a man running down the tunnel. I must say I felt a bit scared watching the video in a room that was pitch black and hearing the sound of heavy breathing - I couldn't see Ken or Jono at all! I think it's time we head out to where the light is...We then walked past the campground (you can hire the tents available and camp overnight at a cost) towards the lookout, looking at the many cranes left on Cockatoo Island and its magnificent brick chimney stack where it once generated electricity for the island.

A steep walk up Burma Road (named after the 1,150km WWII supply road which winds through the mountain range linking Burma with China) that connects the bottom of the island to the top (the upper island aka The Plateau), here you will find the convict-built remains of prison barracks, a military guardhouse (that doubled as a fort), and official residences. At one time, 500 convicts were held in these barracks - all crammed into dark cells gasping for air. And if prisoners decided to revolt, the guards could lock themselves in the guardhouse and fire out through the numbered embrasures.

The Plateau is a great vantage point of the surrounding harbour and city skyscrapers, and is also where you will find the tennis court and holiday houses, both of which can be hired. In fact, you can also hire parts of the warehouse for private events, workshops or conventions. It would be quite cool to have a private party on the island and/or have everyone camp overnight! There were also two exhibitions currently on from 4th June till 31 July on the upper island - A Different Time: The Expedition Photographs Of Herbert Basedow (black-and-white photos taken during Basedow's expedition in central and northern Australia, many of which feature the lives of the local Aboriginal people he met), and Lidcombe Design On Cockatoo Island (an interior design exhibition that visually displays the potential reuse of Cockatoo Island ranging from housing to restaurants).

The whole walk around the island takes about 90 minutes with plenty of time to wander. Frankly speaking, I enjoyed the ferry journey a lot more than visiting the island itself. Surprisingly, many of the visitors today where families with young children - I wonder what would kids find interesting in a small island like this...It was somewhat interesting to learn about the history of Cockatoo Island though I wouldn't recommend it as a tourist spot, especially if you're on a tight schedule visiting Sydney. Photos taken at Cockatoo Island here.

We took the 2.44pm ferry back to Circular Quay and then the train home in time to catch Michelle and Mike on the family Skype call before they headed out to dinner. Ken went to the nearby supermarket to pick up ingredients for dinner (he's cooking for us tonight) - I think he should be able to make his way home on his own okay on his second day in Sydney...

We had a chilled out evening, Jono packing his bag for his flight to USA tomorrow and Ken busy making sushi for dinner. Despite the limited ingredients Ken could find, he managed to improvise and made us all a yummy meal. Everyone had to make their own sushi, flattening the rice on small square nori sheets and adding fillings of our choice - avocado, salmon, teriyaki chicken, tomato in mayo, and tamago (sushi omellette). Messy but yum!

Hmm, last evening with Jono before he goes away to San Francisco for 6 weeks. I miss him already :( I'll be heading over at the end of his 5th week and spend the final week that he would be working doing touristy things in San Francisco on my own. The following week will be spent together travelling to places such as Napa Valley and Yosemite National Park. Looking forward to my upcoming holiday!

Friday, 24 June 2011

Ken moves to Sydney (24th June 2011)

Ken arrives in Sydney today - finally, he's coming here! He was meant to arrive last Friday but had postponed his flight a week later. Ken's coming to Sydney is not for a short visit; like us, he has packed up all his belongings for a permanent move to Sydney. Good for me because I will now have another friend in the same city! :) He will be staying with us for the first couple of weeks while job hunting and getting his bearings of the city. I know what it's like moving to a new country on my own and not knowing anyone - not the greatest feeling when you have so much to worry about from where to stay to looking for work. The least we could do as friends is put him up for the mean time (even though he'll be sleeping on an inflatable mattress in our living room) while he concentrates on getting a job (the job part, not much we can do for him). Hopefully he will find one as quickly as I did and soon he'll be one his way to setting up his new life in the big smoke.

I rushed home from work to meet Jono and found that Ken still hasn't turned up. Jono had booked a table for 4 at 6.30pm tonight at our favourite Thai place, Thai Pothong - Claus was in town for the day so we were catching up with him as well over dinner before his flight back to Melbourne. Both he and Ken were running late so we had to move our dinner booking to 7pm. Hmm, 6.40pm and still no Ken. He was meant to be here by now and I can't get through to his NZ mobile number...Jono and I decided that he would go meet Claus at the restaurant while I waited for Ken at home. And I'm glad Jono and Claus had started with dinner as Ken didn't turn up till 7.30pm! Turned out his flight was delayed and the queues through customs etc. took so long with the sudden mass of arriving passengers (probably because airlines are back up and running today - many flights were cancelled due to the volcanic ash cloud). Plus his taxi driver got a bit lost finding our place - I had the feeling that it might be the case when I saw a taxi driving up and down our street slowly, as if looking for the street number, and soon enough got a phone call from Ken that they couldn't find our place (he called me using the taxi driver's mobile). Poor Ken literally dropped his bags at the apartment and then had to walk about 20 minutes to the restaurant with me. Would have let him rested a bit but we were terribly late for dinner and I was SO hungry!

By the time we arrived at the restaurant, Jono and Claus were pretty much done with their dinners. I was picking on their leftovers (the boys ate too many starters while waiting for me and Ken so couldn't finish their mains) while I waited for my Red Duck Curry (mild boneless duck red curry with lychees, pineapples, tomatoes and sweet basil) - mmm, their Steamed Mixed Seafood always reminds me of otak-otak in Malaysia. Yum! I can see Ken enjoys it as much as I do, picking on whatever remains we can scoop out from the dish and having it with rice. The Red Duck Curry was also lovely and the lychees were a nice complement to the curry. In fact, most of the dishes we've tried here are delicious and so is the service (ok, so maybe they aren't so prompt with bringing out our beers but they are very prompt at serving you rice at your table). Cost us $175.15 for the table which included starters, mains and beers.

It was nice to catch up with Claus even though it was brief. He left us for the airport around 8.45pm and the rest of us settled our bill and headed out in search for Corridor bar on King St. During Ben's visit to Sydney, we tried to go in to this wine and cocktail bar only to be told they were closed...AT 12AM! Who closes this early on a Saturday night??? Apparently they do!

The bar was crammed with patrons and true to its name, the setting felt very much like hanging out in the corridor of a flat, giving it a chilled out vibe. You can choose to sit near the bar watching people pass by, the cocktail lounge upstairs or the outdoor deck. Jono and I each had a cocktail (Jono got a Plum Pisco Sour while I had a Rosetta cocktail that had a black tea base), and Ken tried a pint of Little Creatures beer. Cost us $40.50 all up for drinks which was expensive but to be expected (cocktails are never cheap unless you make your own at home). Cheers to Ken for starting a new chapter of his life in Sydney!

We made our way up to the cocktail lounge and chatted over our drinks. Hmm, my cocktail sure tasted a lot like drinking chilled tea except it had alcohol in it. In our chit-chat, we found out that this was Ken's first time in Sydney. Well, there are definitely heaps of things to do and see here in Sydney and you'll have plenty of time discovering places - we are still finding new places to eat, see or do in the city every week!

We headed home around 10pm and helped Ken set up his bed for the night. "Hey Ken, can you come and feel if this is firm enough?" said Jono, who was referring to the inflatable mattress but we all cracked up laughing at what he just said. Ah, our inflatable mattress - such an innocent household item that triggers the most inappropriate conversations hehe :P

Sunday, 19 June 2011

Volunteering at the Sydney Film Festival (19th June 2011)

After my stint last year at the New Zealand International Film Festival in Wellington, I wasn't planning to volunteer at another film festival and not getting to see much of Jono or time to myself over the course of the event. And yet I signed myself up to volunteer at the Sydney Film Festival on their website when they first announced the dates of the event! Well, I've been in Sydney for about 3 months now and I'm feeling quite settled into the routines of work and life and thought, it's probably about time to get involved in the local arts and culture scene like I have been back in Wellington. The Sydney Film Festival was the first event that happened to pop up in my radar :) The festival runs for 2 weeks from the 8th - 19th of June showcasing 161 films from 42 countries - many of the films have sold out so you've to be in quick!

A week prior to the festival, volunteers gathered at Dendy Cinemas on Opera Quays for the induction where we where given a pack consisting of a volunteer shirt which we got to keep at the end of the festival, pass, handbook with important information you need to know about being a volunteer at the event as well as a festival programme booklet. Several festival staff including the festival director each gave a briefing on what the festival is about, what their roles are and answered any questions the volunteers had, most of which I'm aware of since I've worked in similar events in the past.

I was quite surprised that there was no minimum amount of shifts a volunteer had to do - I only had 2 shifts, both on Sundays and each was 4.5 hours long. My first shift was at Dendy Cinemas on Opera Quays where I worked with volunteer co-ordinator Emily and 3 other girls. The cinema reminded me a lot of Penthouse Cinema in Wellington where they were less mainstream and screened a lot more festival movies. Emily gave us a briefing of our tasks and I ended up being one of two girls handing out voting slips and counting votes at the end of a screening (films over 40 minutes in length screened are subject to an audience vote), while the other pair had to scan audience tickets with a handheld barcode scanner (some of the scanners are able to scan mobile tickets too) upon entry to the cinema. There was no ushering or cleaning tasks required of us. We had only 1 cinema screening the festival films so it was an easy job managing the patrons. I obviously have the 'I'm here to help' face because I kept getting random people coming up to me to tell me things such as "There wasn't any toilet paper in the women's toilets" or "The movie was too loud" and none of them were even  here for the festival films!

Each of the volunteer had a 30-minute break for lunch and we also received a staff discount when purchasing drinks and food from the candy bar. My mochaccino only cost me $1 - sweet! It was somewhat disappointing to learn that volunteers do not get a chance to watch the movie while they are on duty (in the Wellington film festival, seats were booked out for volunteers so when we have completed our tasks, we could slip in to watch the movie) and that we only got our complimentary ticket after completion of each shift. Under normal circumstances, I would say it's only fair that one receives the reward at the end of completing their task. However, in this instance, giving us complimentary tickets this late into the festival leaves volunteers no opportunity to make use of them since most films would be sold out. I was fortunate enough to swap my complimentary ticket from this shift for film Even the Rain, which was a Spanish film about a filmmaker (played by Gael Garcia Bernal) who went to Bolivia to shoot his film in the midst of protests during the 2000 Cochabamba water crisis. A stirring yet heartwarming part-fact-part-fiction movie giving audiences a glimpse of what it was like during the protests by the Bolivians fighting against the water shortage caused by a multinational.

Oh, you wouldn't believe who I bumped into at Dendy Cinemas - Janice! She was in a rush to another festival film at a different location but it was still lovely to see her as I've not seen her since our catch up in April!

My second shift was on the final day of the festival, this time at Event Cinemas on George Street. I wasn't feeling my best having a puffy left eye thanks to a darn drain fly (those tiny annoying bugs you find in your bathroom) that decided to kill itself by flying straight for my eye. It has been 2 days now and the swelling and itching still persist. Hmm, might have to go see a doctor after this shift...

There were 6 girls including me on this shift. Volunteer co-ordinator Bronwyn had a totally different approach to managing us, pretty much letting us run the whole show on our own - I'm not sure if it was because it was the last day of the festival or that she assumed we knew what to do, it was rather unprofessional to let us self-manage when some of us had never worked in this venue before. There were 2 cinemas screening about the same time making it challenging to co-ordinate patrons so that they queued up for the appropriate cinemas. I ended up being the primary person scanning the tickets, and also had to count votes for ones of the films. At one point Bronwyn came and took my scanner off me towards the cinema to scan some tickets (patrons probably came through another entrance) and took off, forgetting that I still have last minute patrons waiting impatiently for me to scan their tickets so I had to chase after her just to get the scanner. Sheesh!

Volunteers on the final day of the festival were invited to attend the festival after party instead of given a complimentary ticket. I'm going to pass since my eye is still not good and it's a Sunday. All in all, volunteering at the film festival was an experience in itself though there's room to make the volunteering experience an even better one - there is much they can learn from the Wellington organisers, that's for sure.

Sunday, 5 June 2011

Drunken Geisha, Pyrmont (5th June 2011)

The weekend has been pretty quiet - most of Saturday was spent chilling out at home, and while Jono was at work on Sunday, I spent most of my day doing household chores and catching up with sorting out photos from our recent activities. Having spent most of my weekend at home, I suggested we go out for dinner at Drunken Geisha on Harris St in Pyrmont located not too far from Jono's work. Gets me out of the house, even just for a bit. Plus, we got to check out a restaurant we've not been before in Sydney!

I headed over to Google to meet Jono around 6ish and we walked about 3 blocks uphill to Harris St where the contemporary Malaysian-Singaporean restaurant was situated. We didn't expect Pyrmont to be this hilly! To be honest, I'm not sure why the place was named Drunken Geisha for it has nothing to do with the type of cuisine at all (I had thought it was a Japanese restaurant at first until I looked it up on the internet). Stylish design with plenty of dark wood and low lighting, this small restaurant was wedged in the middle of a stretch of townhouses which have mostly been converted to restaurants. As we approached the glass windows to check out the menu, the young waiter came to the door to greet us and ushered us to our table. Hmm, the have belacan kangkung (water spinach stir fried with chilli shrimp paste) - my mouth is watering just thinking about the dish! It's one of my favourite Malaysian dishes!! Can we order some of this, please? :)

We ended up with our table filled with a roti, their signature dish beef rendang (Malay spiced coconut beef), kapitan chicken curry (nonya style dry curry), belacan kangkung (yes!) and a pot of rice to share, and drinks of teh tarik and chin chow (black grass jelly with syrup). The food in general was nice but pricey (most dishes are above $15 and my belacan kangkung was $10.90 - ouch!) though I can't comment much about the kapitan chicken curry as I don't think I've ever had this dish growing up in Malaysia so unsure if it tasted as it should. We definitely ordered way too much food and had to doggy bag most of the kapitan chicken curry. I wasn't very impressed with the teh tarik when it came out a chilled drink - instead of 'pulled' hot tea, we could hear the young waiter busily shaking the prepared tea and ice in a shaker from behind the bar. Shaken tea IS NOT teh tarik!

I have to say my favourite dish tonight was the belacan kangkung - I could have just this dish and rice for dinner and be perfectly happy. "Sure you don't want anymore water spinach?" I asked Jono and he smiled, saying he has had enough. More for me then - yum, yum!! Jono was watching me with amusement as I polished off the plate and asked me why Malaysians enjoy stinky food. "There's the durian, the food we saw at the street stall in Malacca, and now this," he continued and I shrugged. I'm not sure why but I guess we were introduced to such food when we were young and just grew up loving them. Come to think of it, there are several Malaysian delicacies that can be quite stinky...

Cost us $42.25 all up inclusive of 25% off the bill (voucher from the Entertainment Book). I would recommend trying the place out if you are in the neighbourhood, perhaps even coming by on a Saturday so you can also try their Hainanese chicken rice (they only served it on Saturdays).

Drunken Geisha Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

We left the restaurant around 8pm for home, making a quick stop at the nearby grocery store to pick up milk and cereal. Ah, Jono and his scooter - he's like a little kid, zipping ahead of me on his scooter with the groceries hanging in its bags on his handle bar, stopping occasionally so I would catch up and then zipping off again. Go on, run along now! I can't be bothered running after him for he's just too fast and I'm too full...