Posted by: Alex | June 28, 2010

The Land Down Under

May 14, 2010, 9:03am

Rubbing my eyes and putting my glasses back on, I willed myself awake and excitedly looked out the window to survey the new continent beneath us.  I caught glimpses of whitecaps on the waves below between puffy white clouds, an endless field of cotton balls extending off the wingtip to the distant horizon.  Hanging low over the ocean, illuminated in the first rays of the morning sun, we descended rapidly towards the cloud tops.

Though still thousands of feet in the air, you can immediately recognize that you’ve arrived in a foreign country.  Without seeing any faces or hearing the local language, the land speaks volumes about life at ground level.  The small size and haphazard layout of farmers’ fields in southern England exposes a convoluted history of land ownership.  The four-leaf clover design of massive highway intersections in the United States, ignorant of the concept of scarcity of land, are pulsing arteries parallel to vast plains of fields laid out in a perfect grid.  The endless red and blue roofs, large and small, of China, are packed into the metastasizing growth of Beijing.  The paucity of nighttime lighting over vast tranches of India tells of economic conditions outside the major cities.  Like a fingerprint, each pattern of land use is an identity inseparable from the culture, history and politics of past and present generations.

As the aircraft cleared the last wisps of cloud, the coastline sprung into view, wandering aimlessly, and occasionally revealing a sweptback bay with a wide, sandy beach.  The waves silently lapped the shore, not a soul in sight at this quiet hour of the morning.  Sydney’s international airport came into view off the left wing, and we were fortunate to join a long line of aircraft in a left hand circuit: everyone sitting on the left side of the aircraft was about to get a leisurely aerial tour of Sydney Harbor.

Compact and modern-looking, with skyscrapers and towers tickling the morning clouds, Sydney’s Central Business District (CBD) is split across the famous Sydney Harbor Bridge.  As the olympic stadium and village rolled by in the outskirts of the city, I realized how little I knew about Sydney other than being able to identify its two most famous landmarks.  One of the most well-known buildings in the world, the Sydney Opera House, came into view and I remarked on how beautiful the architecture is seen in context.  It appeared smaller than I imagined, sitting alone on a tiny spit of land in the harbor, dwarfed by the bridge and nearby skyscrapers.  A pleasing shape to the eye, the rising sun’s colors danced off its sails, flowing and changing, reminding me of sunrise at the Taj Mahal.

The landing circuit took us cleanly around the harbor, and I was surprised by how compact it is.  Seemingly countless small inlets and bays sprout off the main harbor, each holding a pod of neatly-spaced sailboats, homes looking down like spectators in an amphitheater.  Having never sailed anything larger than a 3-person dingy, and never observed it myself, I pondered how crews get to their moored boats off-shore.  Probably not by swimming.  In a neighboring inlet, a tanker ship offloaded its cargo into storage containers on land, its route through the harbor unclear from my vantage point.  The homes in this particular inlet were no doubt less desirable.

Despite having experienced thousands of landings and in spite of being a pilot myself, as usual, my stomach tightened.  An accident on approach, a time when there are few quiet moments in the cockpit, is exceptionally unlikely, and knowing what the procedures are in the cockpit is little comfort.  The thought that this might be the one time that the aircraft simply continues descending gently, putting us short of the runway in the dark ocean crossed my mind.  Yelling at them to pull up, the pilots would never hear me in time, and the flight attendants’ first reaction would be to sedate me.  The deathly silence in the cabin with eyes transfixed on the approaching ground through the tiny windows, typical conditions during landing, betrayed the unspoken unease that our lives were in the hands of an immensely complex machine with two overworked pilots at the helm.

Needless to say, the aircraft made a flawless touchdown.

Sydney airport bursts with activity, confidently playing the part of a major international hub, and travelers arriving from Europe or North America no doubt instantly feel right at home.  Clearly a major gateway to the Orient, close to half the foot traffic is Asian.  Spotting a Boeing 747 draped in United Airlines livery, it teased me with the idea of how mindlessly easy it would be to jump on board and be back in San Francisco for lunch the same day.  I marched towards immigration and despite the fatigue of being awake since 1:30am local time, Australia had a friendly feeling to it, and the Australian women seemed to be particularly attractive.  I had a good feeling about this trip.


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