Last weekend I drove up to PyTexas, which was held at Texas A&M University, and my route led me through the Bastrop area. Nearly two years later the effect of the fire is still very striking: you're driving along, passing through typical countryside areas, and then – black, burnt trees for miles. There is new vegetation springing up around these dead trees, but it just seemed to emphasize the destruction even more.
On my way home from the conference I pulled off the road as I passed through the area again, and took a few photos in this one small section of the devastation. I've posted them in an album on Google+. They don't really do justice to the feeling you get driving through miles and miles of similar scenery, but they show the damage that was done, and how little things have recovered in two years.
I had a few days between PyCon Canada and PyTexas, so I took my first vacation days in a long time to drive down to Rochester, NY, and visit my family and friends. For those who don't know my history, I lived in the Rochester area for 15 years before moving to San Antonio a little more than 2 years ago, and since then I haven't been back. That means that I hadn't seen any of my friends since then, and, what was even stranger, I hadn't seen my older son Mike in that time, either. Sure, we talked on the phone and video chatted from time to time, but it is really odd to think that it had been over two years since I had been in the same room as this person who dominated my life for so many years. I guess that's the difference between having children and having adult offspring.
With such a short visit it was hard to consider it a proper "vacation", but it was really refreshing to my soul to re-establish contact with some of the people who have played a significant role in my life. And it was fun to see Rocco, my puppy of many years!
After a few more days down under, some more observations:
Overall, people in Sydney are not nearly as fat as Americans. What is even more remarkable is that I have not seen any fat children. It takes getting out of America to realize that no, 10-year-olds don't typically have rolls of fat around their bellies.
I've spent hours walking throughout downtown Sydney, in both the residential outskirts, the business office areas, and the tony shopping districts. I have yet to see a single police officer on patrol. Maybe they're all undercover, but still - in most US cities, there is always a uniformed police presence.
Even though I'm sure there are a number of tourists among the crowds, people on the streets know how to walk without bumping into others. Coming from New York City, I always took this skill for granted – until the first time I tried walking through Boston. Boston is a great town, but no one seems to have any awareness of their surroundings as they walk down the street. Since then I've noticed that each city I've been in has a general level of sidewalk awareness, though none are close to Boston in terms of obliviousness. Sydney is the first city which approaches NYC in this regard.
I always had the impression that Aussies were heavy beer drinkers – perhaps too many Crocodile Dundee movies. Yet it is difficult to buy beer here unless you know where to look. Convenience stores don't sell it; supermarkets don't sell it. The only place I've found to buy a beer are the "bottle stores" (their 'liquor stores'). And while I've seen plenty of local beers on tap, I've yet to see Fosters anywhere. I'll bet that if you ask Americans to name an Australian beer, the only one they know of is Fosters.
Understanding people speaking with the native accent isn't too bad, but it is much, much more difficult to understand them on TV. I initially thought that it was due to crappy speakers on the TV in my hotel, but flipping around I found an old American movie, and the voices were crystal clear. Flip back to an Australian show, and I get about every third word.
I arrived in Sydney this morning. Not only is this my first time in Australia, it's my first time in a place where cars drive on the left side of the road. I took a cab from the airport, so I didn't have to deal with it from behind the wheel, but it still seemed very odd visually. Still, it was pretty much what I had anticipated.
What I didn't anticipate, though, was how different it would be as a pedestrian. When crossing the street, I reflexively turned to the left to look for oncoming traffic, and seeing none, began to cross... until I heard something coming from my right! The reversed traffic flow meant that I had to re-learn how to cross a street!
There is another, much more subtle effect of this that I noticed as a pedestrian: when walking along the sidewalk, I naturally keep to the right, but here more often than not, people keep to the left while walking, too. I suppose that makes sense, given the convention for automobiles, but it was surprising nonetheless. It's striking how such small differences can change your routine so dramatically by making you focus on things you would normally take for granted.