Tuesday, August 25, 2009

My Outstanding Odyssey to Oz, Part 4: Melbourne

I got to Melbourne around 7 Monday morning. Because I hadn’t been riding an airplane / watching movies all night, I had energy to get stuff done this day unlike my first day in Sydney, although I needed to keep it light thanks to the flu and cold medicine sapping my spark. After checking in, I went downtown and walked around. One of my first trips ended up being to a large tower overlooking the city, not unlike Sydney tower. It’s funny how they advertised it as the largest tower in “The Southern Hemisphere.” I saw that proclamation for a couple of things later; I guess you need to be the best at something.

The first thing I noticed up there was that the city didn’t seem to be as big as Sydney. Sydney’s downtown has a weird bay/peninsula shape about it, while Melbourne is literally one big rectangle; but that’s still cool too because it has a free streetcar circling the whole place. I never had time to use it though during my 3 days there.

The fares for public transport were quite different here. In Sydney, like Japan, the further you go the more you pay. In Melbourne you pay for time; like a 2-hour pass, all day pass, etc. So when I first got on a charming streetcar to go downtown I looked all over for where I could buy a ticket. There was a machine, but as I was told later it doesn’t read bills because of bouncing around all over the place, it only took change. Australian money is cool and the bills are colourful; the 2-dollar coin is one of the smallest in contrast to the Canadian setup, and the 50-cent coin is a monster. Oh and there are no pennies! They just round up or down your total to the nearest 5-cent denomination. Mad world. Wasn’t Canada debating the same thing recently?

So anyways there I was, a silly tourist, on this charming streetcar trying to figure the thing out. It only took coins, but it seems like it wanted like 8 dollars for a pass. I didn’t really understand, and who carries 10 dollars of spare change on them anyways? Luckily the driver was really cool, and when we got downtown he told me where to buy a pass for next time; so I got my first ride for free. It seems to be largely on an honor system, as it’s up to you to verify you own pass when you board and it doesn’t seem like people check. The pass I needed was actually cheaper, but since it was time based I didn’t buy one until I was ready to go back for the day.

Anyways it was quite cool up that tower. They had some tourist stuff like going out into a window box so it looks like you’re floating over the city and stuff like that. I didn’t enjoy a beer like last time, but I did dawdle for a while. When I made my way down, there was a riverboat tour that looked fun. Instead of riding a full trip, I got it to drop me off at the Science Works museum along the way.

The tide was in, so the clearance under some of the many bridges was very tight. As such, we had to walk a bit to get on the tour boat in the first place. It was ok I guess, a bit pricey for essentially a slow taxi ride. But it did get me to an otherwise difficult to reach place. I had a couple hours to check the place out before the boat was back to pick me up. Once inside I discovered not only a science museum, but also a planetarium and the Star Wars exhibit that moved from Sydney. Melbourne seems to get stuff after Sydney, as a number of things I saw were a “coming attractions” like that Shakespeare play I saw the week before. I wanted to see “Wicked” too, a play on the wicked witches in OZ, but alas it was not to be.

I went to the Planetarium show, which had a special movie on looking for life in other galaxies and was narrated by Harrison Ford. It was unfortunate there were so many little brats inside, as they wouldn’t shut up no matter how much the parents shushed them. After the short movie, there was a presentation on the night sky and things to see like constellations and such this time of year.

She pointed out an odd body of stars and asked what they were. I had no idea, but all the kids chimed in “Southern Cross” or something. “That’s right, just like on the flag.” Oh, I see! That’s why your flag has stars on it, and it sort of helps explain New Zealand’s one too. I can only imagine the back story of finding these new and strange lands; I know we’ve heard and learnt a lot about the “North Star” and how essential is was for navigation back in the days of lore.

I didn’t have time for the Science Center, as I got a rather expensive ticket for the Star Wars exhibit instead. It was ok I guess, seeing props and stuff from the movies, but it was still expensive for a little room exhibit. The most famous props were missing too; probably auctioned off to ultra nerds to be hung on their wall, like Luke’s light saber or Han’s blaster. It was still neat though, seeing Darth Vader’s helmet open, or the different spaceships used in the series.

Anyways I browsed, and then left, the over priced and gimmicky gift shop, took the boat back downtown, and checked the nearby theaters for shows/musicals/whatever playing. Surprisingly things are quite limited during the winter season, and there isn’t even snow on the ground. That being said there wasn’t really anything to see in terms of shows during my 3 days. I later made my way to a huge information tourist center near the main station and explored my options for the remaining 2 days. Again, winter options limited some stuff, but I did book a full day tour the next day to see “The Great Ocean Road.”

I got a sub for supper and went back to my hostel to eat it and get some sleep, hoping I would get better. I then met my roommates that seemed all right, except for the fact they were all quiet; and somewhat hiding from a sweet little old lady in the center of the room.

She was… something different. A first for me; I’ve never really met someone who could talk for hours on end without really saying anything. She could be the best politician ever! But ya, it was impossible to end conversations because she just wouldn’t stop. I managed to end the first one by running to another room to eat, but when I came back, the jerk on the couch asked where I was from. I call him a jerk, because after I said ‘Canada’ the little old lady started up again, and he instinctively jumped right back onto his laptop the moment she opened her mouth, eyes glued to the screen; he knew what was coming.

She talked and talked. After about 20 minutes, I said something back. The dude on the couch (it was a big room) was so shocked he actually looked up from his computer: “He’s actually talking with this lady?” he must have been thinking, before he came back to his senses and forced his attention back onto the computer. I have no hard feelings towards her, like I said it was kind of remarkable seeing her talk in circles all by herself.

She was retired, single, (and probably lonely), so she stays at hostels to meet people. She kept her luggage on her bed… for some reason… so she was left to sleeping upright on her chair. She spent time in Canada, met interesting people, told me the same stories a dozen times each but in slightly different ways, and a number of other stories of her life and growing up. I maybe said 20 or 30 words in 2 hours. Hell, I was coughing up my lungs more than I was talking. That being said: I was suffering, and literally had to stop her mid-sentence with an “I’m sorry to interrupt, but I’m sick and really need some sleep.”

This only made her change gears though, so one looping story jumped to another and I had to interrupt her again, this time being a bit less polite. Eventually I was lying in bed, with my eyes closed, and after a bit she got the hint and stopped talking. Or I fell asleep; I don’t know which came first. I still think it was fascinating.

I got up early and got on the bus for the tour. It was one of the best tours I have ever been on. We stopped many times, the dude was interesting with the stories, and the sights were breathtaking. We saw surfers, koalas, parrots, rainbows, crazy rock formations, beautiful beaches and more. Apparently there is a huge road along the ocean in America, and this road got its inspiration for construction from that. Many times along the road were signs proclaiming “Remember, Australia drives on the left!” probably because a million tourist rent cars, drive on the wrong side, and get in horrible accidents; personal speculation of course.

It was such a great day out. Later on near “The 12 apostles”, 12 large rock formations in the water of which only 8 remain, we were given the option of riding a helicopter to see the coast. Normally I’d scoff at such an obvious tourist trap… but something was different this time. I’d never rode in a helicopter before, and $70 isn’t exactly breaking your balls; I’ve spent more doing less fun things before. What the heck eh?

I got into this tiny helicopter, and surprisingly didn’t freak out when we took off. There were 2 Koreans with us, and when asked who wanted the front seat they were quiet so I snatched it up. It looked extremely easy to pilot. We went over some fields, inadvertently chasing sheep and cows below. Then we went over the cliffs and were amazed. In the 10 minutes or so in the air I took many photos and video. The pilot was giving a small explanation and giving out questions, but I was too speechless. It simply was just a magical experience.

We saw more, and part of our tour went through something of a rain forest, and another for the parrots and koalas. The parrots were crazy, landing on people’s heads and stuff, but the koalas lost any sliver of ‘cute’ they may have had in our hearts. People mostly see them during the day when they’re sleeping like a ball of fur, but most don’t hear the horrible noises they make. Pigs sound pretty compared to these squealing boars. The tour guy was telling us about how they get kinky at night, and make horrible sex grunts/squeals for hours. Poor locals.

At one of the many beaches we saw, we were told penguins show up at night when it’s safer. Apparently they’re the smallest breed known, and they got their own separate day tour if I wanted to see them. I didn’t have time though; only one day left in Australia and I had some friends to catch up with. I managed to sneak into my room while the lady was sleeping upright in her chair and got some much-needed sleep.

I wish I were well enough to go out and try more of the beers there. There’s no shortage of selection, but I didn’t find one I fell in love with. The one I picked out for gifts was “Victoria Bitter”, which reminded me of Pilsner back home with some honey mixed in. Not bad. My friend said to avoid it like the plague though, and when I asked about it later, it was more because of the name having Victoria in it. Gotta’ love petty rivalries; like my one friend that will never stop cracking “Alberta is better than Saskatchewan” tired jokes over and over whenever I see her. :) “Banjo-Bowl” anyone? :D (Sask inside joke)

I managed to sneak out of my room again, and check out in the morning. She rustled, but I was safe. I felt a bit bad doing that, not saying goodbye, but I didn’t have more time for those stories. I felt I was being ruder by stopping her mid sentence and leaving so I guess it works out. I put my luggage in a locker at the bus center, got my ticket for the airport, and then I was free for the day.

I like to prepare somewhat, as last minute nail-biters aren’t fun. I went to a grocery store and bought a bunch of vegemite as gifts. For those who don’t know, vegemite is loved by Australians, and almost universally hated by everyone else. It is made, by scraping the sludge off the bottom of brewery tanks; so it’s salty, has lots of yeast and is healthy somehow.

Recently they’ve made a new type with cream cheese mixed in. Of course purists are crying foul, but maybe it’s to help take the “edge” off this otherwise “sharp” tasting spread to help it expand its markets. I wanted to take back some meat pies too, but they said it would go bad without refrigeration so I was sad. I left, and not even 2 stores down from the supermarket was an adult peep show.

What the heck! Was this like a red light district or something? I found out later these things are scattered in unlikely places throughout the downtown core. I, of course, went in to find out more, and it was interesting if it wasn’t disturbing. You could pay like $15 to stay for the day, watching movies and “live acts”, or you could go into a tiny booth where a bunch of tissues were readily available and pay for a peep show: $2 for 40 seconds. They seemed proud sex work was legal in Australia, as a sign advertised countries like Australia suffer 30% less sex crimes.

I put $2 in, laughed for a bit at the “show” inside, and then left. All the while being careful not to touch anything. Now I can say I’ve seen a peep show, and not waste my money next time :) They have them in Japan, but they screen you by race before you can go in: “Japanese only.” There is some weird conception among some that only foreigners have STDs, and as such the AIDs rate in Japan is spiking faster than many other countries; but that's enough about that.

I walked around for a while, checking out the cool architecture, and met up with my buddy Matt. I haven’t seen him in a long time, so we caught up for a bit. We had some beer, then some “Melbourne” food in a pleasant little crepe cafe. I had a crepe with vegemite in it. It was quite salty; I should have got the lasagna crepe. I found out Melbourne was made of a number of small side roads, and as such the locals know where to find the cool stuff while avoiding the touristy stuff.

A dude asked me which city I thought to be better, Sydney or Melbourne? These questions are never fair because everyplace is different, but I could honestly say I didn’t have enough time in either place to form an opinion. Even a week in Sydney was too short. With all the small side roads, he was telling me you could spend months exploring Melbourne, but I’m not much of a shopper so advice like that is all relative; “what is it you’re interested in?” I could care less about shops, but Matt needed a new pair of shoes so I was tagging along looking at stuff.

One thing led to another, and I was exchanging a lot of money to go shopping. Apparently Matt charges $200 an hour for fashion advice, and he canceled his next appointment to help me out for the afternoon. Apparently black and white goes well on me, and I got one of those cool hats that I can’t describe. I bought a fair amount; it was definitely a spur of the moment adventure. Many of the shops didn’t have my size, and it was later explained to me those sizes were more for skinny gay guys. Well, good thing I’m a ‘plus sized’ dude? I don’t know. I refer to my story of shopping with my sister Patty and how I should never shop alone.

I ended up having to cut the adventure short; as I had another friend I was meeting up with for supper. This time I saw Audrey, a former teacher. We had trouble finding a coffee shop that was open now that people were leaving work for the day, but we had a great time catching up. She gave me some good advice, like (honestly) having a plan when you leave Japan.

Now that many people have left again this year, that’s more evident than ever. Once the initial high of being home wears down, reverse culture shock seems to be a horrible thing. I know a couple of people who are planning their trip back to Japan already, but really they just need more time to calm down and mold their present reality. I know I’d probably go nuts too if I were to move back to Regina, but who can say for sure yet. Some people just aren’t that good with change, and maybe being back home would feel like a step backwards in life after all they’ve done here. Audrey is a Canadian, and after a while moved to Australia; I was shocked to find that out when I emailed my other friend/former teacher. Incidentally she just changed cities too.

Well I’m no psychologist on human behavior so I’ll leave it at that. I got to the airport all right and flew all night to Bangkok where I spent the next 3 days. While it sucks I was sick, I’m happy I wasn’t so sick to keep me from doing anything. Traveling during ‘winter’ isn’t so bad, as the heat from Bangkok was about to teach me.

"You can't base your life on other people's expectations." -Stevie Wonder


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