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!)

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