Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Going to Vanuatu

I've booked a cheap (<$400NZD) ticket to visit Vanuatu from Dec. 19 to Dec. 26. I'm really looking forward to the visit, although a bit uncomfortable about the fact that there is malaria, dengue, typhoid, and a variety of other exotic diseases (including leprosy!) there, and supposedly no real modern healthcare facilities. Oh well, I suppose I'll just have to take some extra precautions.

I plan on staying a few days on Efate, as my flight will be landing there in Port Vila, Vanuatu's capital. I plan on spending most of my time on Tanna, where I will visit Mount Yasur, an active volcano that has been erupting constantly since the first European explorers arrived on the island (in fact, it was the glow of the volcano that apparently attracted the first explorers there). I am kind of scared about this volcano trip - although it is not too common, once in a while, with an unpredictable larger eruption, it apparently hurls a shower of lava bombs at the visitors, and people have been killed there before. Apparently everyone is told to watch the lava bombs, and if one comes for you, don't run, but step out of its way. I suppose I'll just be extremely cautious there and hope that no explosions are big enough to hurl lava bombs at me while I am on the volcano. Other than that, I'm looking forward to seeing some of the traditional "kastom" villages there, as well as the cargo cult villages - the most famous of which is the John Frum cult. Although different sources seem to report different beliefs, from what I gather, it is a cult that believes a god manifesting as a white man in western-style clothing will return one February 15th, celebrated annually as John Frum Day, and bring the villagers great riches. It is believed that this will only happen if the villagers return to a very traditional way of life, shunning western technology, missionaries, not attending school, and ridding themselves of money. Some believe John Frum to be a manifestation of a spirit that lives in the volcano, some believe that he is a vision, and some even believe that John Frum and Jesus are the same being after interacting with Christian missionaries. The cult seems to recognise that John Frum is from the USA and is associated with the US army, and they even have a ritualistic "Tanna Army" organisation, who puts on mock military parades. Many speculate the origins of this cult are from anonymous military men from the US army who introduced themselves as "John from the US" during World War II. Interestingly, this beliefs stills seems to be quite strong in the area, strong enough to obtain a seat in parliament for the John Frum political party. I'll report more about it when I learn more from the locals!

In any case, I will definitely take the utmost precautions, but this should be a very interesting trip if the weather cooperates and things go smoothly!

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Melbourne - Day 4 (Epilogue)

Today was my last day in Melbourne before heading back to Auckland. Packing up all of my stuff, double checking and triple checking to make sure I haven't left anything behind, I once again headed off to Queen Victoria Market to meet up with Jake, after saying farewell to Damien. I wasn't planning on doing anything too intense today - since I was heading off directly from the city to the airport for a 4pm flight, I was going to be carrying my pack with me all day.

Today, with the market open, it was a very different atmosphere compared to yesterday. With the stores open, many customers were milling around, and it proved to be quite a centre of activity. First order of business was to grab breakfast at a place that Jake liked. There, we had a very cheap, but hearty breakfast, and I enjoyed a flat white to make up for my lack of sleep. From here, we quickly toured the inside portion of the market, which reminded me very much of the St. Lawrence Market in Toronto (although a bit smaller - or perhaps I didn't tour the entire area). I thought I would be happy living near a market like this, with low-cost but fresh-looking butchers, seafood stalls, and boutique beer and wine vendors. From here, we moved on to the main reason that Jake wanted to visit the market - souvenirs. Since he was returning home to the US the next day from his three month trip, he wanted to bring back some souvenirs for his family and friends. The souvenir portion of the market was located in what appeared to be large outdoor warehouses, with a variety of cheap and mostly campy trinkets for sale, but at very low prices. Picking out a few items that fit Jake's limited budget, we headed over to the library for me to check my flight information, where we took turns going online as I couldn't bring my bag into the library, and there wasn't much point in storing it.

From here, there wasn't much time to do much else, so we just wandered around the city, eventually ending up along the southern banks of the Yarra. We ended up just sitting on a bench on the shores of the Yarra looking at the skyscrapers of the Melbourne CBD. We had some great and deep conversations about life, and were enjoying each other's company in the warm sun. These are the kind of relaxing moments that I feel like everyone needs once in a while - and it makes me realise that it's not where you go, but who you go with and who you meet that defines a trip. After sitting there for quite some time, a bit after noon, I decided it was time for me to head off to the airport. We meandered our way to the Southern Cross Station, stopping once to take a commemorative photos of us together in Melbourne. Seeing Southern Cross Station for the first time from the outside, I was impressed with its modern architecture, especially its wavy roof, completed in 2006. There were also odd-looking multi-story yellow boxes with rounded edges perched on thin metal legs, which served as what I think are offices in the station, judging by the contents of the boxes visible from large glass panels.

At the station, we said our farewells as I boarded the bus, and wished him luck with his plans of retuning to school. I arrived at the airport reasonably early, so I sat at a café to enjoy a mocha while reviewing my photos from the trip and watching the airplanes milling about outside the window. As I sat at various parts of the terminal for some changes in scenery, I was surveyed by Yvette, a representative from Tourism Australia. As it turns out, she was a Couchsurfer, and we chatted for a while after the survey. I asked many questions regarding life in Melbourne and her reasons for moving there. As for the flight and trip back to my flat in Auckland, that was quite uneventful. I had plenty of time to think about the lessons I learned on this trip on the three hour flight, and I arrived home satisfied at my leisurely tour of Melbourne and the time I spent with Jake and our deep and meaningful conversations. In the short time what we have been together in New Zealand and Australia, I feel that Jake and I have gotten to know each other pretty well, and will be checking in with each other for the rest of our lives, hoping, and believing that we will meet again in the future. We had better, as Jake owes me a dinner or two!

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Melbourne - Day 3

The third day, I woke up, looked at the various drawings and writings on the other Couchsurfers' van, and headed into town to Queen Victoria Market, where I was to meet Jake. Queen Victoria Market, established in the 1850s, covers an areas of a few city blocks organised into different, but related sections. Located just inside the northern bound of the CBD, is set against a marvellous backdrop of skyscrapers with their tops poking into the low, dynamic clouds that day. Combined with the steam rising from the vents on the high rooftops, the skyline seemed alive.

As I arrived, it was clear that the market had not opened up for business yet, as everything was closed. There were a few workers and truck around, loading and unloading their produce. As we arranged to meet at the south-western entrance to the market, I had arrived at the outdoor fruit and vegetable area, and was greeted by the giant "QUEEN VICTORIA MARKET" sign painted on the slanted roof of the enormous shed there. This part of the market was also the site of a huge parking lot, as well as a large solar installation on the roofs of the various sheds lined up in rows. Covering 2000 square metres, this was the largest urban solar installation in the Souther Hemisphere that is connected to the energy grid.

I tried to look for an indoor area to wait for Jake, but as everything was closed, I had to stand outside and endure the cold - I was surprisingly cold even though I was wearing nearly every article of clothing I had brought on this trip! Luckily, it wasn't long until Jake arrived. Since the market was closed, we decided to come back the next day and head directly to our next destination - Brunswick, to try some of the Lebanese bakeries that Ben had suggested. Since Jake was staying in the Brunswick area, he knew what trams to hop on to get there. However, it turned out that he stayed in Brunswick West, so it was only after consulting the map and hopping on another bus that we arrived on Sydney Road, where the commercial district of Brunswick was centred around. No matter, the detour was pleasant, and I took the opportunity to send a postcard to my parents.

We walked along Sydney Road and stopped off at a few Lebanese bakeries. There were also many other Lebanese shops and supermarkets, which we took the chance to explore. We had a lot of tasty pastries and a few drinks and juices, and were soon quite full and content. This was quite a bustling area lined with cafés, restaurants and shops. I noticed that this area had the typical Melbourne style, which was based on older and decorative brick buildings. There were also some good example of graffiti here as well, which Jake took the time to take some photos of.

Following Sydney road down farther, we exited the Lebanese district and wandered around what appeared to be a mixed community, with Chinese, Caribbean and Greek shops. Since we didn't have many plans, we just wandered around for a while, and stopped in a Greek café for a coffee. I love travelling with others who aren't fussy about seeing as much as possible on a trip. It was clear that Jake valued the company over seeing specific sights, which was great. We sat for a long time on a bench on the side walk, people watching and chatting. I had some deep thoughts about what I wanted to do after New Zealand and how the world fit together. This is also when I started having serious thoughts about moving to Australia, to Melbourne in particular. Unfortunately, we didn't make it to nearby Lygon Street, where there is supposed to be a happening Italian community, but we didn't care.

After chatting for a while, it was time for us to go meet another Couchsurfer downtown. Jake was changing hosts today, so we went to pick up his stuff and head over to his new place. Walking to Brunswick West, we sat for a while at his host's house - no one was home, so we just sat and chatted in the back year. There was an overly-enthusiastic puppy there that peed itself quite often and constantly nibbled at our bags and hands, while jumping around non-stop. Hopping on a tram and searching around for a while, we found Jake's new host in Southbank, near the Eureka Tower.

From here, we still didn't really have any ideas of what to do, so we went to see if we could catch the last Parliament tour of the day. Unfortunately, we arrived just five minutes late, but at least we got to see the Parliament House, where the government of Victoria was based out of. The parliament building was quite impressive, and the style reminded me of some of the buildings of Kensington Palace in London. Set on a high pedestal of stairs, large towering columns lined the front part of the solid-looking building. The lampposts outside the building were capped with crowns, giving a sense of importance to the site.

From here, we headed to Richmond and walked all around in the area, getting lost a few times. There is quite a bustling Vietnamese and Chinese community here, with many ethnic restaurants, markets and stores. We saw a few typical Melbourne houses (a small unassuming façade, but extending very deep into the property), but decorated with typical Chinese stone lions out front - an interesting contrast. We also saw a lot of houses with beautiful delicate ironwork around the windows and doors in a few of the neighbourhoods. We even wandered as far as Abbotsford, and crossing the murky Yarra, had a brief walk in Dickinson reserve. It was a good, but tiring, tour of that portion of Melbourne, seeing the typical neighbourhoods, including a few rather industrial ones. Jake also told me a story about him and a few other Couchsurfers getting arrested in New Zealand, and how their court proceedings with the judge was just like a casual conversation in an office, with people making jokes and getting them processed quickly - but that's a separate story from the Melbourne trip.

As it started getting dark, we went into the next train station we encountered, and headed back to the CBD. After dinner, we spent some time wandering around Chinatown looking for Berlin Bar, which someone had recommended to us. There were apparently many bars with interesting themes in Melbourne. Berlin Bar, we were told, was very difficult to find and had two rooms. One room, "West Berlin," is lavishly decorated and serves fancy cocltails, while the other room, "East Berlin," through a door, is barren, with only crates as chairs, and serves only cheap beers and other cheap drinks.

As it turns out, although Melbourne Chinatown is not very big, it is very interesting to explore due to an extensive system of alleyways, just like the CBD, albeit smaller. The main street, stretching across three blocks, is quite busy, decorated with lanterns and lined with restaurants. After asking a few people who were not sure where Berlin Bar is, we decided to start at the beginning and walk down each alleyway to look for it.

We found many interesting restaurants and bars, including some open-air bars in the alleyways. One of the most interesting discoveries is the Croft Institute, which is also mentioned in Lonely Planet. To get to the Croft Institute, one has to walk down a winding alleyway that become dodgier and dodgier. Walking past workers from Chinese restaurants smoking outside and taking the rubbish out, the graffiti on the wall becomes denser and denser, which the alleyway grows darker. After one final turn, a door leads to a laboratory/hospital themed landing, from which one can enter the different floors of the bar. Apparently, the bar sponsors the graffiti in the alleyway, and they had recently had a lot of new work done just in the past few weeks. They pointed us in the right direction towards Berlin Bar, and still not finding it, we continued searching. As it turned out, we skipped exactly one alleyway in all of Chinatown - the alleyway with Berlin Bar in it! In fact, we had even passed through this alleyway while looking for the Szechuan restaurant, but the entrance was so inconspicuous that we didn't spot it the first time! In any case, the bar was closed for the night, as they were only open four days out of the week.

On that note, we decided to call it a night, but not until after finding the alleyway where we saw the graffiti artists working the other day. We did a lot of walking today, and I was quite happy that it was time to rest.

Edit (Oct. 24, 2010). Since I wrote about this experience after such a long delay without making any notes about my Melbourne trip, some of the events may be in the wrong order or have been left out. I just remembered an important part of the night that I did not write about in my original post: Jake and I went for Ethiopian food in Footscray. I had been craving Ethiopian food since discovering that none was to be found in Auckland, and after raving about it with Jake, he was sold on the idea. We contacted Kirin and Damien as well, as Ethiopian food is better with more people, since all dishes are shared. Unfortunately, Kirin was busy, but Damien told us that he would be joining us - about two minutes after we ordered! Finding a good Ethiopian restaurant was quite an adventure as well, as Footscray was dodgy to the extreme and relatively empty an night! The restaurant was also dodgy and empty with the exception of a loud Ethiopian family who shot glances over at us from time to time. When Damien arrived, we had nearly finished our portions, but what he ordered was the best dish of the meal - gored gored. This was the first time I had gored gored, as I have always been hesitant to order raw meat at restaurants, but after this, I've decided that the risk was worth it for gored gored! After the meal, I was glad that Damien was there to walk back with me, as the area was quite intimidating at dark, but with someone that knew the area, the walk was quite pleasant under the calm starry night. He tried to take me to a bar (or café?) for a drink, but unfortunately, it was closed. I headed off to bed after a bit of chatting and lounging around with Damien and the others that were present for the night.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Melbourne - Day 2

Waking up in the morning, I headed over to the train station, as Jake and I had arranged to meet at 10:45 in Federation Square. Arriving at just the wrong time, I had to wait for nearly half an hour for a train, but enjoyed sitting there, listening to the sound of the rain and the views of the misty city silhouette in the distance. I also struck up a conversation with a woman to ask about life in Melbourne.

Jake and I both arrived at Federation Square at close to the pre-determined time, which is quite impressive for many travellers, especially ones, like Jake, who has been wandering around the world for a few months or longer. We grabbed a burger and fries at a chain I had seen around Melbourne, "Lord of the Fries." It turned out to be surprisingly delicious and cheap, and only after a few bites did we realise that we had vegetarian burgers! All of a sudden, that big sign by the counter claiming that King of the Fries is now fully vegetarian suddenly makes sense! We wolfed down the food as fast as we could, as were were planning to attend a show starting at 11am.

As it turns out, Jake's friends had given him a fake (read: counterfeit) complementary ticket to films shown by ACMI. Since the tickets appeared to have been printed hastily, one side said "admit one," while in another section, it says "admit two." The people at the counter were quite friendly and welcoming, and they had no problems in letting both of us in. The only show these days is "Herb and Dorothy," a documentary about the Vogels, two art collectors in New York. Throughout their life, even though they did not earn much money, their passion had seen them amass an impressive art collection of thousands of pieces by famous artists, which was eventually donated to the National Gallery of Art. I quite enjoyed the film. The cinema itself was quite modern and well designed too, with lights coming through large lightning bolt-like patterns on the wall. When the lights came back on and we were walking out, I noticed that everyone else there was a senior! As it turns out, this was a "senior's cinema" show, specifically advertised to the senior audience!

After the film, we spent some time in the National Gallery of Victoria, which we did not get a chance the visit the day before. There were some good exhibits, and the facilities were quite spacious and modern, but I felt that the displays were a bit sparse. I feel that with some changes in the design and layout, they could have many more items on display for a facility of that size. But I suppose a state-of-the-art museum that is free to the public is nothing to complain about! What I did like about the gallery is that due to the layout, it wasn't just a museum, it was a social space, which is great in getting people to visit the facility. There were cafés on nearly every floor, and most of the cafés were quite alive and filled with people.

From here, we went on to visit The Shrine of Remembrance, the large war memorial in Melbourne. It was quite an impressive structure, with large stone pillars inside and carved motifs around the walls. There were also books of names of soldiers who had lost their lives (I think in World War I). There was an associated museum and a few chambers underground with statues and other memorials. There were small statues and memorials outside, around the grounds as well, including a small statue commemorating the horses who had died during the wars. Apparently, one of the main attractions of this shrine, which is quite touching in my opinion, is a plaque on the ground in the middle surrounded by a small ledge and covered with with some wreaths and flowers laid about it. On the plaque is written "GREATER LOVE HATH NO MAN." On November 11th, Rememberance Day, at 11am (modifications with a mirror had to be installed after the introduction of daylight savings time), a ray of sunlight, coming through a hole in the roof, traces over the plaque and illuminates the word "LOVE." Apparently, people liked the idea so much that every hour, there is a "simulation" of the ray of light along with a short, three minute recorded service. I thought the simulation was overdoing it a bit and made it seem gimmicky, but oh well, the intentions are good.

After getting a nice view of the city from the roof of the shrine, which is accessible to the public, we took the tram to Fitzroy, where we walked around for a bit. This was one of the neighbourhoods that I was most interested in, as people have told me that I should consider living in this bohemian neighbourhood if I moved to Melbourne. It was pretty happening, but I was somewhat disappointed that it was only one main street. Although it was quite a long and happening street, with bars, restaurants, shops and brew-pubs, it still did not feel like a large area. Unfortunately, I never got to visit it again at night, when I hear there is a lot of great activity going on. I wanted to visit Brunswick as well, but after some investigation, we discovered that there weren't any direct way to get there, so we decided to head back into the city and take it from there.

We made a quick stop at the library to do a bit more research, and realising that I had not visited the State Library yet, I took a quick tour. The State Library of Victoria is quite an impressive and sturdy looking stone building, originally commissioned in 1853. It had seen many renovations and extensions, and today houses around two million books. By far the most impressive section of the library is the La Trobe Reading Room, renovated in 2003, an octagonal atrium spanning five floors. The desks were laid out in a radial fashion, and this seemed like it would be a great place to study. Although we were invited to some kind of Couchsurfing and movie get-together by bumping into a barefoot hippie coming out of the library wearing a Couchsurfing shirt, we decided that we were a bit too lazy to figure out how to get there and to just hang around town for the evening.

From here, we wandered around the Melbourne alleyways a bit longer before coming to Federation Square again, where we found beach lounge chairs set up under a giant suspended globe. Apparently, events are held in Federation Square every so often to promote it as a busy public space. The Light in Winter, happening while we were in Melbourne, is an annual event that spans over a few weeks. Art exhibitions and shows are set up during that time. As we sat in the chairs, gazing up at the stars and the Southern Cross above the city lights, the large globe turned on, and displayed patterns like the surface of the sun. It was an art installation. The slowly changing and interactive light patterns would have been much more captivating if it wasn't so cold outside. However, I was impressed at the number of people that were out in the square.

Following a recommendation by Ben, Jake and I headed over to Chinatown to grab dinner. It was actually pretty amusing how we ended up at Sichuan House. I went through the list of restaurants suggested by Ben with Jake, and when I mentioned Szechuan food, Jake went "ooh!" It wasn't until we had our food in front of us when I discovered that Jake has never had Szechuan food before! Wow, was he surprised about what he was in for! He did really enjoy the dinner, especially enjoying the numbing and tingling sensation of the Szechuan peppercorn for the first time. Since it was quite expensive, I offered to cover food, as I'm sure I'll meet up with him again sometime in the future during our travels, where he can provide dinner. Dinner there was quite good, but I thought it didn't really live up to the extremely positive recommendation from Ben.

Still being quite early after dinner, Jake and I decided to take a trip to St. Kilda, as Ben had suggested Acland Street was worth checking out if there was nothing else to do. The tram ride took quite a long time, but eventually, we arrived on Fitzroy Street, which was not very happening but still had a few active restaurants and cafés at this time of night, which was impressive enough. As we got to Acland street, we were very confused. It was a small, quiet residential area. Where was the action? As it turned out, Acland street is divided into two portions, one was residential, and one was filled with cafés and restaurants. We had arrived at the wrong end of Acland Street, and not knowing this fact, never found the exciting area.

No matter, Jake decided to take me for a visit to the St. Kilda Pier, where there was an area to watch penguins! The pier is a surprisingly long road that extends about 700 metres into Bass Straight. One of the main landmarks of the area is the St. Kilda Pavilion, located about half a kilometre from the start of the pier. This kiosk, built in 1904 (burned down by arson in 2003 and re-built in the original style), is a very good example of Edwardian architecture. Even though nothing was open on the pier at this hour, there were still some people using the pier as a jogging track, or just taking a walk along the water.

Just past the kiosk is the penguin colony. At this time time of night, it was quite active, as all of the penguins (eudyptula minor, the smallest species of penguin) have come back from fishing. From a small wooden plank walkway, one could watch the penguins run around, fight, and call to each other. It was quite entertaining just watching them for a bit. The view across the water was also quite good from here, as one could see the glimmering skyscrapers of the Melbourne CBD in the distance, across the water. Alas, I was not able to get a photo here - as soon as I took out my camera, a downpour of rain arrived, obscuring the view. Where there was was a glimmering city, there is now only a vague bright patch.

From here, it was home time. I have only one last full day to spend in Melbourne, but I figure I had done pretty well so far. I have seen the main neighbourhoods I had wanted to. I suppose that's the advantage of going on a trip with not much expectations, which is very different than the amount of things I try to pack in on my other trips. I figure I'll just spend the next day casually exploring, and seeing that it was also going to be Jake's second last day before heading home, I'm sure he will also be in the mood just to take it easy and enjoy being here. On the way back, we ran into a group of drunk teenagers on the tram, who the other passengers effectively kicked off the tram by threatening to call the police - that was pretty awkward.

I spent that night back at the Couchsurfer's place hanging around, reading some guidebooks, and chatting with the newly arrived French travellers. They showed me their van, which in good traveller style, has been drawn all over and decorated - legacies left by the different owners of the van as it passed from traveller to traveller. Apparently, this van had even helped them make contact with other travellers. On the van is written in large letters "this van is f***ing awesome," and just a few weeks ago, they found a slip of paper stuck on the van that said "yes, this van is f***ing awesome" along with the other traveller's contact information.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Melbourne - Day 1

I woke up after a cold night. I was surprised at how cold Melbourne winters are compared to Auckland winters. I made a mental note to wear more layers the next night before going to sleep, as I did not get a very good rest the night before. As Damien left for work, I got dressed and prepared by day pack for a day wandering around Melbourne centre. I also sent a text to Jake, whom I hosted for a few nights in Auckland, and Kirin, one of the two CouchSurfing ambassadors for Auckland. Both of them happened to be in Melbourne during my visit. Kirin was busy at work, and told us he would meet up for dinner, but Jake didn't have any plans, so we decided we'll meet in the city in about an hour's time.

As I've heard some things about Footscray market, and seeing that I was in the area, I decided to pop in there to grab a bite to eat before heading into the city. After a 20 minute walk along relatively quite streets, I emerged on a series of more bustling streets, with a mix of Vietnamese and African stores and people wandering around. I was quite happy I found this place - or so I thought, as I had only some very crude maps of the area. I found a nice plaza filled with colourful characters wandering around, and due to reading some signs strangely, I was somehow convinced that this plaza was Footscray Market. It was only on the night of the day before I left that I discovered that I was standing right beside the building where Footscray Market was located in - oh well, something to save for next time. There was also a busy street where trams ran. The view down this street towards the skyscrapers of Melbourne centre reminded me very much of Toronto, where such views from similarly colourful neighbourhoods against a backdrop of skyscrapers are common. As I was walking around, I got a text from Jake saying that he was going to get free internet from the State Library of Victoria, and after referencing the Lonley Planet I took out from the library, I was on my way to Footscray Station.

The area around the station looked much better during the day than at night. It was bustling, and many people were walking around. I caught a train to Flinders Street Station, and soon, I arrived at Melbourne Central, the station by the library. It was now that I started seriously doubting my travel abilities again, as I just realised that instead of purchasing a 5 x day pass ticket, I had purchased a 10 x 2 hour trip ticket for the same price. Seeing that I was only in Melbourne for a total of less than five days, a 5 x day pass would have covered my travel period nearly perfectly. This failure in reasoning was completely not like me, and I really beat myself up over this poorly-planned purchase.

In any case, I arrived at Melbourne Central, and was immediately impressed as I emerged up out of the station into a shopping centre, right under a giant glass dome enclosing a historic lead shot manufacturing tower. After a photo and grabbing a quick look at the exchange offices, when I realised I was ripped off at the airport, I emerged out onto the busy streets of central Melbourne, right across from the library. Crossing the street, I approached a hooded man reading a book under the big statue on the steps in front, and as planned, it was Jake! I love it when plans just work out while travelling! After some warm hellos, we headed off to explore Melbourne together.

The first stop was a café that Jake was directed to earlier, where one could order a bowl of coffee. A bowl! Well, seeing that I was quite exhausted already, and had a long day ahead of me, I figure it would be a good idea. I relaxed with a giant bowl of mocha. It was here, when Jake didn't buy anything, that I learned the state of his financial condition. Jake, after a three month journey (his first backpacking trip), was to return to the US the day after I fly back to Auckland. Being still in school, this means that he has only about $10 a day to spend for the next five days, and he still wants to buy souvenirs and gifts to take home. Looks like we won't be doing anything too extravagant in the next few days!

After coffee, we spent a while walking around the Melbourne CBD. This was one of the activities I had been looking forward to doing in Melbourne. I've heard that one of the unique features of Melbourne are the small alleyways of the CBD, which one can spend hours wandering around in. I wan't let down. Just off of the busy, bustling main streets are a network of tiny alleyways filled with stores, cafés, restaurants and bars. It was very cosy wandering around here, as they are filled with people and covered with awnings, often stretching nearly all the way across the narrow canyons made by the buildings. Much of the walls here were also covered with graffiti - not the bad kind, but very professional and artistic ones. As it turn out, graffiti isn't only tolerated, but celebrated here. We even walked past a small alleyway with ladders set up and a group of artists working under the watchful eye of a handful of observers and photographers.

After a while of wandering, we headed over to Federation Square, the cultural centrepiece of Melbourne, completed in 2002. Federation Square, located right in the centre of Melbourne along the shores of Yarra River, is an entire city block filled with indoor and outdoor public spaces, a series of (mostly free) cultural institutions and a visitor's centre, all built in an abstract futuristic post-modern style. It was definitely one of my favourite places in Melbourne. I can't express enough how much I respect a city that provides such high quality cultural institutions and public spaces to its citizens for free.

We visited an exhibition organised by the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, known by its acronym, ACMI. There, I had a crash course in the history of Australian cinema, watched a few very entertaining videos (old and new artistic shorts), and a variety of visually stimulating displays. There was even a small booth that allowed you to make your own (low-granularity) bullet time video, which you can e-mail to yourself! We wanted to explore the video library of ACMI as well, but they were quite busy, and all of the booths were taken. At this time, I got a text from Damien, who had some time off between shifts, and we decided to meet at Federation Square.

As Damien showed, up, he was very keen to hit show us some bars, so we followed him back into the CBD, where he brought us to a very cool rooftop bar. Getting into small elevator covered in pasted posters and scribbles, we took it to the sixth floor, where there were a few closed shops of some sort. Taking an external flight of stairs another floor or two up, we arrived at a rooftop bar, which during the summers, also serves as an outdoor cinema! I can imagine myself quite happy here, with some friends, having a few drinks, and watching some art house movies at night, to the backdrop of the glowing skyscrapers of downtown Melbourne. I also enjoyed the beer I had here very much, a local micro brew - which reminded me of how much I missed the world-renown micro brews of Northern California that I enjoyed frequently when I lived in San Francisco. Here, we weathered quite a downpour under some parasols, and found the locals to be quite friendly and chatty. After the the beer, we left the cold of the outdoors and popped a few floors down to a large and surprisingly busy bar, which had a wonderful warm, bohemian vibe to it. Damien soon left, happily buzzed, to go to work - as he was biking to work in a commercial kitchen, I seriously hoped that he would be careful after the drinks! Of course, not wanting to leave Jake out of the fun, I had been buying his drinks, as he has effectively no money left to spend.

After the bar, Jake and I decided to head over to The National Gallery of Victoria, a large museum, free to the public, just across the Yarra. Even though we realised that they would most likely be closed when we got there, we decided it would be a nice walk anyway. After some great dusk views of the city around the Yarra, we arrived at the waterfall wall of the National Gallery to find that it was, indeed, closed. Well, no matter. At this time, Jake and another CouchSurfer made contact, and it was determined that we would meet in front of the Crown Casino and Entertainment Complex across the street from the Convention Centre.

Walking along the Yarra, we were treated to some great night views of the city and views of Eureka Tower, completed in 2006, which held the title of world's tallest residential building for a brief moment. I quite like the symbolism in the architecture, the blue and white cladding representing the flag of the Eureka Stockade, the gold top representing the gold rush, and a striking stripe of red running down from the top to represent the blood that was shed in one of the most important events in the state of Victoria's history. We arrived just in time for the nightly fire show, with large balls of fire being shot up into the sky from a few pillars along the Yarra in front of the Crown Complex. Everyone just stopped for a few minutes, and as soon as the show as over, everyone just continued on their way. It was quite cold and rainy now, and after a bit of waiting on a bustling street filled with people streaming out of the convention centre, we were glad to finally see the other Couchsurfer.

From here, we walked up a few blocks to meet up with Kirin. Unfortunately, Jake had to head off to a house party, so he left and couldn't join us for dinner. Kirin and I walked to the CBD area, where I was quite impressed with the number of restaurant choices offering reasonably-priced meals. As it turns out, Melbourne is one of the most multicultural cities in Australia, with over 40% of the population reporting to be born overseas, according to the most recent census in 2009. This is nearly comparable to the astounding 50% that Toronto reported. Actually, I found it quite interesting, I've discovered that Canada tells their citizens that it is the most multicultural country in the world, while Australia makes the same claim to their citizens! And no one seems to have questioned it or even realises that both nations claim to be the most multicultural country in the world. It makes me wonder how many more countries claim this, and what the actual statistics are.

After dinner and a drink at Young and Jackson, a bar made famous by controversially displaying Chloé, a painting of a nude female in the Victorian age, Kirin and I parted ways. Seeing that it was quite late, I decided not to join Jake at the house party, so I started back to turn in for the night, as I was quite exhausted for the day. I enjoyed some great night views around Flinders Street station. Perhaps seeing me take photos, I was hit upon my a kind of creepy Burmese gay guy on the ride back. I am really not sure what it is about me that seems to just attract these kinds of situations. In any case, when I made it back to Damien's, I spent some time chatting and trying to find a leak in a large air bed in the lounge. Damien had bumped into two French Couchsurfers sleeping in a van they bought and are travelling around it, and thought it would be nice to offer them a warmer place to sleep in for the next few days. Turning in for the night, I made sure to wear nearly everything I had to fend off the cold at night.

Oh yeah, and one other thing I learned - apparently my ticket purchased worked out after all. Any tickets used in the evening get extended to a day pass, and if one uses their pass for the second time in a day, it also gets automatically extended to a day pass - what a generous and convenient system! I guess I'm just that good when it come to travelling - even my mistakes are good! (Just kidding!)

Melbourne - Prologue

June 4th, 2010. Friday. After a stressful week of work, the time for my next long-weekend trip was finally here. In all honesty, due to the recent amount of stress, I haven't even really thought about the trip, and wasn't really looking forward to it - a first for any trips I have taken. I was also thinking of the fun I will be missing out on, as Bach Weekend 2.1 was scheduled for this week - a bunch of my friends are heading out to a bach. In fact, someone had to be called to be my replacement when we realised that I would be gone for that weekend.

Since my flight was scheduled for just after 9pm, I had time to first head home, do a final check, and then head to the bus station at the ferry terminal building to catch the 6pm bus to the airport. With a new Kathmandu EOS SL 26 litre pack purchased just this week, everything went smoothly. I was happy that I finally got around to getting a small, simple, light (half a kilo!) pack for use on the long weekend trips. Sitting on the bus and looking out the window at a busy ferry terminal after dark, I finally had a chance to relax after an extremely stressful week. The ride there was not very eventful, although since it was taking place during rush hour, I saw how busy the Auckland bus stations can get, especially around schools.

I arrived at the airport, and feeling strangely familiar with the standard check-in procedure, went up to the Qantas desk to check in. "Do you have a valid visa for Australia?" asked the clerk. "I'm on a Canadian passport - I don't need a visa." I replied. All of a sudden, I remembered - for last year's trip to Sydney, I had applied for a visa online a few days before the trip (which unfortunately, only expired very recently)! The fact that I needed a visa was immediately confirmed by the check-in clerk! Uh oh, this could be bad. Fortunately, after many "interesting" situations encountered on previous trips, I stayed calm and composed, and asked is there was an Internet kiosk close by. As it turns out, the Qantas ticketing office could process my visa immediately for $30, only $5 more than what it would have cost online. I was just happy to get my visa approved and sent back to the check-in counter! I was surprised that this was the second time in a row something had gone nearly horribly wrong right at the start of the trip - but luckily, a solution would be found immediately. I hoped that this wasn't a sign that I was losing my travel skill that I had built up over the previous trips!

After the visa hiccup, I was quickly checked-in successfully, and I was off to the upstairs lounge with my small, neat pack - I was so happy that I was so comfortable carrying this pack around - definitely a good purchase! Since I still had quite a bit of time, and knowing that the Auckland airport is rather quick, I relaxed outside with a bowl of ramen from a Japanese restaurant in the terminal. This put me in a better mood after the stressful week. One of my favourite things on a trip is waiting at an airport with food. Especially on international transfers during random hours of the night, it feels like you are in a fortress of activity, protected from the night, with nothing else to do other than eat, drink, browse the stores, and people watch. As time came, I passed through security quickly, and soon after, I was on my way to Melbourne. I watched Alice in Wonderland and enjoyed an unexpected meal with drinks on the flight.

Arriving in Melbourne was pretty straightforward. A few questions and I was through. I had thought that perhaps I would receive extra attention for only having a 26 litre pack with me on an international flight, but they didn't seem to mind that much. Walking out of customs, I was greeted by a giant red rug with "Welcome to Melbourne" written on it in giant yellow letters in both English and Chinese. After exchanging some money (in which the changers told me that transaction fees were charged everywhere, which convinced me to change all of my money - a mistake on my part), I asked the info desk where to find a SIM card. I needed a phone, as I was to Couchsurf at Damien's place tonight, and needed to contact him. Unfortunately, all the stores were closed, so I decided to just hop on a bus and sort things out when I get to downtown.

Arriving at Southern Cross station, I emerged beside a giant Hungry Jack's. Luckily, I found a 7/11, who should carry SIM cards, according to the people on the bus. I bought a Vodafone card and a a recharge voucher and proceeded to activate it. As it turns out, the activation process is all automatic. When they asked for my passport number, I made a mistake while saying it, and requesting to repeat it, the voice told me "... thank you, we now have your passport number. Now, let's get your..." Great, what a wonderful system. In any case, the card promised to be activated within a few minutes, but after a few minutes, when I tried to dial a number, Vodafone told me that the process was taking longer than expected and that it could take up to six hours for activation to be completed! Just what I needed! Well, I decided that in the meantime, I will head over to my CouchSurfer's place and hope my phone gets activated before I arrive.

Since it was late at night, many of the trains were no longer running. I asked one person how to get to Footscray, and he said that there are probably no longer any trains. I asked another, and his first response was "you don't want to go there at night!" Well, that makes me feel better... after reading that Footscray is the worst neighbourhood in Melbourne earlier that day, and not having any idea how I am going to contact my Couchsurfing host! In any case, he did suggest a train to get to Footscray station, but he reckons that trains were no longer running to Middle Footscray, which is where I actually needed to get to. My plan was just to get a cab at Footscray, and that may even save me from having to walk through this dodgy area at night.

Arriving at Footscray, I was disappointed. The area was deserted. Not seeing a pay phone, I asked someone, and he didn't know where to find one. Seeing that the station was emptying out, I asked one of the last people to exit the station. He didn't know where to find a phone either, so I just offered to pay him to use his phone, but he was kind enough to just lend it to me. I was so relieved to get through to my host and told him where I was. Just then, I glanced up at the board, and noticed a train to Sydenham, the train that goes through Middle Footscray. Even luckier, it turns out that my host was on the train that I was going to take - arriving at Footscray in eight minutes! After arranging to meet him either in the second last car or the station, I happily went to the platform to wait for the train.

All went according to plan, and stepping on to the train, I was greeted by Damien, my host, who was happily drunk and on his way back from a bi-weekly Couchsurfing meeting in the city. From the station, we walked to his house. We had to pass through some extremely dodgy-looking areas, a dark alleyway of what looked like abandoned warehouses (they turned out to be garages) to a street with small-looking houses packed close together. As it turns out, in Melbourne, the houses in the city all have very small fronts, are packed close together, but extend very deep into their lots.

After settling in and some quick chatting, I was ready to go to bed on an inflatable mattress in Damien's room. I was just happy to see my bed after safely arriving at my host's place, especially after going through such difficulty contacting my host, and not knowing if I could get in contact with him or not. Just before heading to bed, I received a text from Vodafone. My activation was complete. Thanks Vodafone, your timing couldn't have been better!