Just got back from one of the best cities I have ever been to, Melbourne. As far as living, I’d take Melbourne over pretty much any city except Chicago and Barcelona. Those three are all pretty close now. I’ll tell you a little about my weekend and try to explain why this is.
One reason I say this about Melbourne is probably because things have gone so smoothly over the weekend, after a rough start, that is. My flight was out of Newcastle at 6:30 p.m., so I decided to take the 4:15 bus from the Newcastle Train Station in the city center. But to get to this bus, I had to catch a city bus down to the city center. I realized later that this is relying too much on public transportation. I figured that the 3:10 bus would give me enough time, so I got to the bus stop around 3:00. The bus came, the driver didn’t even open the door and signaled to me that there was no room on the bus. One person got off the bus, and I was the only one waiting. She drove off. I looked and saw the next bus would come at 3:26, still giving me enough time. The bus didn’t get there until 3:38, which would cut it close on a normal day. Well the bus was pretty much full, meaning that the bus would stop every 30 seconds with people getting off at every stop. And of course the traffic was the worst I had ever seen. After freaking out and nearly having an anxiety attack, I realized I would either have to miss my flight or pay $100 for a taxi to the airport. So I called the bus company just to make sure there was no other bus, and there wasn’t for another hour and a half. However, the guy said that I could meet the bus at a different stop as the bus drives out of the city, and it was near me. So I jumped off the bus and ran about 3/4 of a mile, just in time to catch the bus. Definitely dodged a shot to the wallet there.
This was my first time in Newcastle Airport. I must say that I love small airports now. I got the airport, walked 2 minutes to get inside and to the automated check-in, took 1 minute to get my ticket, took 30 seconds to walk to security, and took 2 minutes to get through security. I always love airport security outside of the US because they never make you take your shoes off. It’s such a pain to do that. The best part is that the airport never once check my ID. Anyone could have just used my ticket to get on the plane and no one would have ever known.
I got into Melbourne and bought my round trip bus ticket to the city from the airport ($26 round trip, not too bad), and then called my friend since he didn’t mind showing me around the city. He’s one of the Canadians I met in New Zealand. We walked around the city and he showed me all the places that he likes. After eating at a restaurant in Chinatown, he showed me this hotel that has a bathroom with a view. Up at the 35th floor of this hotel, the men’s bathroom has a huge window looking out to the city. I guess it’s a good, free way to see a nice view.
The following day, I set out to do some more exploring by myself. I ate the free breakfast from my hostel consisting of cereal and bread (better than nothing) and walked to the information center. On one of my maps, the Australian Stock Exchange was located not far from my hostel. I thought it’d be cool to see, but I couldn’t exactly find the right building. There were signs along the street pointing in the direction of it, but no building ever labeled it. I asked a few people on the street, but none of them were really sure either. I guess it’s not the like the NYSE with the 50 foot flag and clear labeling.
The information center was definitely overwhelming. It was pretty well set up. You had to go to a machine to get a number to wait in line to talk to an assistant. I waited a good 15 minutes, then bombarded the lady with questions. For every question, she had a new pamphlet. No joke. “Do you know of any good walks I can do?” 3 pamphlets. “Which city trams are free?” Pamphlet. “Which is the best lookout tower?” “I can’t give recommendations, but here are fliers for all of them.” I walked out of there with about 15 different pamphlets, not sure what to do with them. This just confused me. What do I do first? Will I have enough time to do them all? I had no idea what to do, so I just picked out the one that I knew would interest me. This one was the sports walk.
The sports walk pretty much consisted of seeing the Olympic Park, the Melbourne Cricket Grounds, and Rod Laver Arena, the site of the Australian Open tennis championship. All these stadiums were in close proximity in a nice little sports area, with nothing else around but sports arenas. The Olympics were hosted in Melbourne in 1956, I believe, so those stadiums were as impressive as the others. The Melbourne Cricket Ground is huge. It seats about 100,000 people (I didn’t know 100,000 people in the world watched cricket), but it also hosts other events as well like Aussie Rules Football, Rugby, etc. I just saw this from the outside, but it definitely looks huge.
On my way to Melbourne, I set a new goal for myself. I realized that I had seen Wimbledon and have also seen, from the outside, where the US Open is played outside of Manhattan. If I would get to the sight of the Australian Open, I would only have to go to Paris to finish up the 4 majors around the world. This is next on my to-do list.
I went into Rod Laver Arena and was pleasantly surprised that a student could get a tour for just AUS$9. I bought my ticket, and walked over to see what kind of food they had there while waiting. I look over at the tv and was surprised to see the Bulls and Celtics Game 6 on, live and in the 2nd overtime. Who would have thought I’d be standing here in the sight of the Australian Open and stumble upon an NBA Playoff game that is being played just 2 hours from Stockton? I stood there watching, and soon a bunch of other guys were standing around watching too. These guys were all workers at the arena, and they seemed to know quite a bit about the NBA. I proudly told them I was from Chicago. I cringed as the buzzer sounded at the end of the second overtime as I realized it was going to a third overtime. My tour was to start in 10 minutes and I wanted to keep watching. I had to leave with just 3 minutes left in the 3rd overtime. You’ve gotta hate those Australian Open tours.
The tour was great. Seeing the locker room was cool. The guide explained that at the beginning of the tournament, all 128 participants (I think she said 128) use this same locker room. As players get eliminated, the locker room becomes less crowded. By the time of the championship, there are just two players left in the locker room. I can just imagine Nadal and Federer both in the same locker room getting ready for a nice 5 hour match. Something I thought was funny is that players seeded in the top 40 get lockers about 2 times the size as the players seeded below 40. Still not big, though. The small lockers were probably 1 1/2 feet tall and 1 foot wide. They had labeled the lockers that some of the top players had used this year, like Roddick, Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, and others. I took pictures of the different lockers, but they were obviously all the same.
Seeing the main court was somewhat disappointing since they were setting up for a Brooks and Dunn concert. The dome was closed and the surface was covered up with a hard surface. It seemed more like a little smaller version of The Mark (formerly, I should say). The stadium is used for concerts very often; she said 60 concerts per year. Australians seem to love Pink. She said Pink is playing 16 different shows this year in that arena alone. Although it was disappointing not to see the court, it was still cool to be there. They also took us out to a less important court, so we got to feel the surface. The surface is called plexicushion, but it feels pretty much like hard surface. However, it’s supposed to be better on the players’ legs and has some other benefits.
Another funny thing the guide showed us is where the players get interviewed before the matches. It’s just a little hallway before the main entrance to the court, and the hallway has the sponsors background. However, the background is just like an 8′ x 5′ mat on the wall in a hallway. And, apparently, the opponent is standing a few feet from them as they are interviewed. I guess that’s why they will never really say much during the pre-match interviews.
After this I took the free tram over to the Queen Victoria Market, one of the biggest markets in Australia. It was really the first market I had ever really enjoyed. I went in hungry, so that influenced me to make some purchases. It was the end of the day, so a lot of the places were trying to get rid of stuff. I got strawberries, bananas, apples, grapes, and some crackers, all for about US$3. It was actually pretty addicting, and I walked away with about one and a half pounds more of grapes than I had wanted.
I then waited at my hostel and waited for some guy that I had never met to come pick me up to go camping. Here’s how the story goes. There is something called the Great Ocean Road. It’s exactly what it sounds like, a road along the ocean that is great. It goes west of Melbourne, and it’s one of the main things that people do when they go to Melbourne. However, the bus tours, as always, are overly priced and crappy (usually about $140 and full of photo-obsessed tourists). My great idea was to rent a car, but that fell through as the people I knew were either leaving town or not interested. Well I discussed it more with the Canadian I met up with on the first night, and he told me of this guy he knew that was doing the Great Ocean Road this weekend. He called up his friend, and the guy said he had room for me and that they were camping on Friday night. Without knowing any other details, I said yes. This is one way that I can see that I have changed in the past year. A year ago, I’m not sure if I would jump into a car with a complete stranger for a camping trip. Now, I have absolutely no problem with it (and sometimes prefer this). The only communication I had with the guy was about 3 text messages asking what to bring and where/when to meet. Waiting along the road looking for an unknown car and person was strange, but in a way exciting too. He drove up and yelled out his window, ‘Trent?” I jumped in and we were on our way.
The guy was a classic farmer. He had that farmer look: flannel shirt, baseball hat, boots, etc. His dad owns a tomato (pronounced to-mot-oe in Australia) farm northwest of Melbourne several hours. I enjoyed talking to him because he is one of the few people that I have met here that really don’t know much about the US. It’s actually quite surprising, since nearly everyone seems to have a good knowledge of the US around here. He didn’t know what American football was, had no idea what Iowa was, no idea where Chicago was. It was really great telling him more about the US, since it’s rare to be able to do that anymore (I blame Hollywood for this). He brought three flatmates of his, all from Taiwan. They said I was the first American they had met him Melbourne, so they seemed to be really interested in the US too. They asked about one of the topics that I get asked about a lot, the tv show “Friends”. They were watching it on their laptop with subtitles in Taiwanese. It still amazes me how some of these tv shows are so widely watched around the world. Friends and the Simpsons are recognized by, what it seems, almost everyone. I was surprised to learn that Taiwan’s most popular sports are baseball and basketball, both American.
Camping was cold but fun. We just got there at 1 a.m. then woke up at 6 a.m. From our tent, we could hear the waves of the ocean, which was really nice. We woke up to see the sunrise from the 12 Apostles, which are huge pieces from the cliffs that are still standing by themselves. It’s pretty amazing to see these still standing while there is no other land within 75 meters from them. . We then stopped at a few other places with similar cliffs to the 12 Apostles. The drive was pretty nice all the way back to Melbourne, but it really didn’t live up to my expectations. For how much hype I had heard of it, I expected something more unique, I guess. It was still a nice trip, but I am definitely glad I didn’t have to pay $140 for a bus tour.
One cool thing that we saw on the way home were some wild koalas. We came around a corner and there were probably 15 people standing there taking pictures, so we pulled over to take a look. There were 4 koalas in the trees eating their eucalyptus leaves very slowly, of course. We’re lucky to see them awake since they sleep around 20 hours per day. Seeing animals in zoos is nothing really special, but seeing them in the wild is really unique.
After a good night’s sleep (at least, as good as you can get in a room with 15 other people staying in it), I woke up excited and feeling like it was Christmas morning. Today I was heading to the Aussie Rules Football match between the Western Bulldogs and the St. Kilda Saints. This game has excited me much more than rugby, and I was looking forward to this match for a few weeks. I had some time to spare, so I headed towards the Docklands. This is the place of Melbourne’s harbour, which has been a big development the past year. Many new apartments complexes along with a brand new shopping area have been built recently. The shops just opened in December, but apparantly business has been slow. After talking with an employee at one of the shops, I found out that a lot of people really don’t know about the area. This was surprising since it really was a nice area with some good shops. Since the stores were slow, I picked up some Western Bulldogs gear (I just randomly picked them as my team since I don’t know a whole lot about the league). I picked up a Bulldogs banner and a football, so I can get some matches going back home (like anyone has ever heard of this game).
As I was walking along the harbour at 10 a.m., I saw a 20 foot television screen set up in a little open area. I decided to take a look, and what happens to be on? The Bulls against the Celtics in Game 7. I took a seat and watched the 4th quarter. It’s funny to see how irrelevant this game was to everyone around me. People would come and go. Some people would glance up at the screen but have no interest and walk away. Some people probably had no idea who these teams were. No one seemed to have even a little interest about this game. One 5 year old boy looked at the screen and shouted, “Basketball!”, but then he continued playing with his toys. Funny, since if this screen was in Chicago and it was the 4th quarter of Game 7, masses of people would be watching. But no worries since it was Sunday, and Sunday means football (Aussie Rules, that is)! After watching the Bulls lose it, I walked over to buy my ticket at the stadium.
The ticket was ridiculously cheap, about US$8 for a general admission ticket. As I waited, I felt like I was going to an Iowa football game. Except I didn’t really know what to expect. I wasn’t even sure of some of the rules, but I was excited to learn. Luckily I sat by a nice couple from New Zealand, and they were happy to explain the rules to me.
There’s nothing like going to the stadium on a warm, fall Sunday afternoon to watch football. But this time fall was in May, and football was Aussie Rules. But really, I enjoyed it just as much. Aussie Rules is one of the most exciting sports I have seen. I’d say it’s a mix between soccer and rugby. Players can run anywhere, but the only way they can get rid of the ball is by kicking it or punching the ball to another teammate. If the player kicks it and the teammate catches it in the air, he gets a free kick. There is no stoppage if someone punches the ball to a teammate. The goal is to kick the ball through the posts. There are 4 posts. The two inside posts are worth 6 points, and the outside posts are worth 1 point. What makes the game really exciting is that if the player with the ball is tackled, it is a turnover. It is actually bad for the player if he holds onto the ball while being tackled. So this means that sometimes the game is like a big fumble with no one being able to get control for over a second or two. The guys who play this game are amazing athletes. They can jump, they can kick the ball 50 meters accurately, and their decision making is amazingly quick. Obviously, I really enjoy this sport. Hardly anyone watches this sport in New South Wales, but people in Victoria love it.
The only bad part about the match is that the Bulldogs were blown out after the second quarter. St. Kilda outmatched them, but mistakes kept the game close for a while. The first two quarters were great, though. I found myself jumping up out of my seat as if Shonn Greene was about to break off a long run in Kinnick. For once, it actually feels like it was fall in May.
Another Canadian I had met in New Zealand offered to give me a place to stay for the night, so I took the tram up to the University of Melbourne for the night. I’m jealous of those students who get to walk out of their apartments and see the skyline of Melbourne.
For my last day, I just walked around the city more. I rode the city tram around, which is great since it’s free. They have a specific tram that goes around the city in a circle, and it’s meant for tourists. Very nice to have since it’s a great way to see the city. I think the tram system really adds character to the city. It’s cool to see a few trams sitting at a stop light, and to see the people waiting in the tram stop in the middle of the road. The main thing I did today was go to the top of the Eureka Tower, which is the highest observation deck in the southern hemisphere. I spent a good hour up there admiring the city.
I slowly made my way around the city and then headed back to the airport. The end of another short journey. Luckily, Melbourne won’t be going anywhere soon.