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!