Sunday, August 31, 2014

Sunday: Melbourne -> Christchurch

Got up early after sleeping poorly because I was worried I might sleep in, and got picked up by the airport shuttle just after 6am. Had an uneventful flight to Christchurch, got through immigration and got my bag quickly, and then had a long wait (30 min?) to get through customs. Picked up my rental car and drove to my hotel, a very bright comfortable room in a building on the outskirts of the CBD (Central Business District, what they call the downtown core down under). Gig settled in and started thinking about my plans for the next day or two. I have a lot of driving to do the next two days, but in still want to see a few things (besides the scenery) along the way.

Had dinner (beef kebab with a Fat Yak pale ale, and baklava for dessert) just around the corner, and then went for a walk through part of what used to be the CBD.

Christchurch was hit with two major earthquakes in 2910 and 2011, and much of the downtown area was destroyed. I was expecting to see more of it rebuilt, but what I saw tonight was pretty post-apocalyptic. The street lights are all working and there is a bit of car traffic, but most of the buildings have either been razed or stand dark and empty. Some have stacks of shipping containers stacked in front of them. I'm not entirely clear what purpose those serve, perhaps storing contents of building while they get rebuilt? Here's one interesting development involving shipping containers to jump-start the revival of the area.

Overall, the place felt a bit depressing and creepy, and it's sad that it is taking so long to rebuild.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Last Day in Melbourne at the Melbourne Writers Festival

Wow, what a great day!

It was my last full day in Australia before flying to Christchurch tomorrow morning, and I spent the day pretty much all at the Melbourne Writers Festival. I started with a free session called Sh*t Asian Mothers Say, about a book of the same title by siblings Benjamin and Michelle Law, born in Australia to Chinese parents who moved from Malaysia to Australia to make a new life for their family. The brother and sister authors were very entertaining as they quoted from the book and talked about their family, exploring to what extent their book was inherently racist for reinforcing stereotypes about Asians, and Asian mothers in particular. The session was a lot of fun.

From  there I moved upstairs in the ACMI (Australian Centre for the Moving Image - a film-centric museum currently hosting a big Dreamworks exhibit) to my first paid session of the festival. The session title was License to Thrill, and it featured authors Lauren Beukes (latest book: Broken Monsters) and Terry Hayes (I am Pilgrim) talking about what it takes to write a thriller. Hayes talked about the balance of suspense (when you expect something to happen and it doesn't) and surprise (when you don't expect something to happen, and it does). Beukes talked about how in order to get away with the supernatural elements that are common to her stories, she needs to construct a credible, real-world scaffold to support that. I came out of the session wanting to read both their books.

I grabbed a hot dog for lunch from a stall in the Flinders Station, and enjoyed it in Federation Square while watching one of the performances celebrating Melbourne's 179th birthday today. Then I hopped a tram to my next session, near the State Library of Victoria. I had some time to kill, so I had a fabulous dessert at a chocolate shop: an ice cream sandwich of dark chocolate ice cream between two macarons.

Then I hung out in front of the library reading for a while. The place was full of people spread out on the lawn enjoying the beautiful day, as well as a large Falun Gong demonstration, similar to what I have seen in Toronto, but noisier.

My final session of the Melbourne Writers Festival was the one that had been shown as sold out, that I managed to get a ticket for anyway. I chose it because one of the speakers was Dave Eggers, and I've enjoyed a few of his books (You Shall Know Our Velocity and A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius). I didn't really know much about the publishing company he established, or the quarterly literary magazine McSweeney's at the heart of it, and I did not know that he had established 826 Valencia, which is "dedicated to supporting students ages 6 to 18 with their writing skills". The session was about how McSweeney's was established and how it has survived, and a bit about what goes on at 826 Valencia. That's both the name of the non-profit organization and its address in San Francisco (there are now branches in a few other cities). Dave Eggars explained how the zoning on Valencia required a retail presence, so they set up a Pirate Shop up front, selling silly pirate merchandise. Apparently that retail operation generates enough revenue to cover the rent, which was not expected!

I loved the session, and was very interested both in exploring the McSweeney's quarterly, which introduces new writers to its audience, and likes to experiment with its format each issue in some zany ways, and in learning more about 826 Valencia, which seems to be doing amazing things for some kids who need help in school and in life. After the session I bought two McSweeney's books, and stood in line to get them autographed. The line was short, but moved slowly because Dave Eggars spent time with each person. I got him and the other two people there from McSweeney's to sign the books I bought. The host of the session was Chris Flynn, who I had seen speak yesterday. I had bought his book for my Kindle, and as he was still there as well, I got him to sign the back of my Kindle with a Sharpie! I think it was the first time he had been asked to do that, and he got a kick out of it.

Had a yummy Thai dinner and then returned to the hotel, ready for an early night, since I need to be up around 5am to get to the airport in the morning.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Melbourne Day 6 (Friday): Writers Festival & Laundry Festival

Up very early, had breakfast and hung out for a while before heading out to the first of my sessions at the Melbourne Writers Festival, a free session featuring Lauren Beukes. She is a South African writer of offbeat science fiction; I've enjoyed her books Zoo City and Moxyland, and will choose which of her books to read next after hearing her read! The session was held in a cafe at Federation Square, and was an intimate gathering of about 20 people. There were 4 authors who each read from their latest books. I enjoyed Lauren Beukes' reading (and learned that her surname is pronounced "Byoo-kess", not "Byooks"). She introduced it by saying it was a bit of a strange book, which I found funny, given that both of her books that I have read so far are quite strange, and I figured that was her style. One of the other books - The Glass Kingdom by Chris Flynn also sounded good: about a meth lab in a traveling carnival - sort of a comedic mashup of Breaking Bad and Water for Elephants maybe? Chris Flynn also told us that he shares an affliction with a character in the book, in which his episodic memory fades away after a few years, so he can only remember the last few years of his life.

I popped into another free session that featured 3 first-time novelists, hearing them read from their debut novels and discuss their experiences finding their way to getting published, which was pretty interesting.

Had some lunch and then back to the hotel to gather my laundry. Took a tram to the Soap Bar, a very nice coin laundry where I managed to get everything done in less than 2 hours, including the round-trip tram ride. With a little bit of hand-washing of a few pairs of socks and a T shirt or two, I should now be able to make it to Wellington before I need to do another full load of laundry.

Relaxed and read for a bit, and then headed back to Fed Square for another free session: a book launch of Favel Parrett's new book: When The Night Comes. I knew nothing of the author (it's her second novel) but it sounds pretty good, and the launch event was delightful, with a couple of nice introductions, a little talk and reading by the author, and champagne and dim sum appetizers for all. Very classy. I chatted with a Kiwi woman who gave me an idea of things to do in New Zealand.

After the launch event I walked over to the Bourke St Mall, found a nice garlicky lamb kebab wrap, and then got a tram back to the hotel. Fun day.

More Aussie/English Vocabulary:
alight (which I always thought meant to get on a transport vehicle) = to get off (e.g. a tram, a train)
pants = underpants; trousers are what we call long pants

How I'm finding my way around

I brought my iPhone along mainly as my camera for this trip. I've turned off roaming to avoid the high fees from Rogers. It turns out though that I can still use the iPhone for navigation. I found some good offline maps in an app called City2Go. For three bucks I've been able to download detailed maps of every city I'm visiting throughout my trip, in Australia, New Zealand and New Caledonia, and much of the areas in between, and my iPhone's GPS works without needing any online data. Other apps give me the local transit networks so I can figure out how to get where I want to go, and in Melbourne every tram stop is shown on the City2Go map. That means I don't need the driver to call out the stops (which doesn't always happen) or to be able to recognize local landmarks or see the street signs. I just follow my little dot until I'm where I want to be and then get off. It's working really well.

Each city's transit network is different of course. I found Sydney's the hardest to get my head around, and the least comprehensive in terms of getting me where I wanted to go. Melbourne is the best, with trams and trains that seem to take me within a couple blocks of anywhere I want to go, with very little waiting. I was told by friends that I would enjoy Melbourne more than Sydney, and planned more time here accordingly, and those friends were correct!

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Melbourne Day 5 (Thursday)

I slept in and had a lazy morning, reading, planning and blogging. Had lunch and then took the train to the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) for a tour of the stadium. I had a 2-for-1 offer in my Melbourne Visitor Guide iPhone app, and was planning to give/sell the other half of it to someone else, but I arrived just barely in time for the next tour, so I asked the teller to give the free admission to the next person who arrived, and tell them to pay it forward to a Canadian. So hopefully some other Canadian in Melbourne will get a nice surprise soon.

The tour was pretty interesting. The stadium is used mainly for cricket and Australian Rules Football, and has a long revered history. It's sort of like if there were one stadium that combined Maple Leaf Gardens and Fenway Park all in one. The stands were recently rebuilt, section by section over four years, so as to keep about 70,000 of the 100,000 seats available at any one time during construction. We got to go down onto the field, into the change rooms (strangely spartan and generic, as they are used by 4 different football clubs plus cricket teams, so nothing can be built in that is specific to any one team), and through the members stand and several other areas.

I thought these were irrigation machines, but they're actually lights,
moved around to cheer up the areas of grass that are mostly in the shade.

Player reserve benches on the sidelines

After the stadium tour I looked through the National Sports Museum and Halls of Fame that are inside, which focused mostly on cricket, Aussie rules and the Olympics. The Olympic display covered both the Melbourne 1956 Olympics and Australian participation at all modern Olympic events, but was tremendously summer-centric, with only tiny little footnotes about the existence of the Winter Games every 4 years.

Artsy shot of the ANZ tower as seen from inside the Collins Centre, fading into the fog

I took a tram back downtown in time to see a movie: Predestination, which I enjoyed a lot. Had dinner at a restaurant near my hotel, and then headed back for the night.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Melbourne Day 4 (Wednesday)

Breakfast in the room again and caught up on a lot of email that came in overnight. I decided, based on the weather forecast, that today is the day to go explore St Kilda, a beach area just out of town. Took a long tram ride there, and had a nice walk through town, along the famous Acland Street with its cake shops (found a very yummy apple crumble that was calling my name) and then sat by the beach reading for a bit. Had a delicious lunch of dim sum and then took a tram up to the Jewish Museum of Australia. It's a small but interesting collection of exhibits, largely about how the Jewish community in Australia has gown, and from where and when the immigrants came. I was hoping to see their exhibit on Maurice Sendak (author of Where The Wild Things Are), but it turned out that was a temporary exhibit that ended some time ago.

Back to my hotel for a siesta in mid-afternoon. As dinner time approached, I took a longish tram ride up to Clifton Hill, in pursuit of a neat bit of synchronicity.

Rewind to my drive from Adelaide to Melbourne. I was driving along listening to music from my iPhone, and the Bare Naked Ladies song "Another Postcard" came on. The song and the driving reminded me of a trip 30 years ago, when my friend Philomena and I borrowed my mom's car and drove out to the maritimes. We were heading to the ferry to cross from PEI to Nova Scotia (this was before the bridge to PEI), and saw two hitchhikers with a sign that said "Out of Here!". We picked them up, and quickly became friends with Andrea and Rupert, camping with them in Nova Scotia for a bit. Later I had a fun little tradition of sending them postcards from the wrong city when traveling - for example a postcard of Toronto sent from Merida, Mexico. The driving and the song brought all that back, and I started wondering how I lost touch with such great people. When I got to Melbourne I tried to look them up, Googling Rupert's name first as it's less common. Sadly what I found was a memorial notice; he passed away two and half years ago. I did manage to find Andrea on Facebook and reconnect. When she found out I was in Melbourne, she asked if I could try to find her a CD of an Australian musician, Enda Kenny, whom she had recently heard and met at Summerfolk in Owen Sound. When I looked him up I realized he was playing a gig nearby tonight, so I figured I had to go! Was it a sign that there is a tram line running from a block from my hotel to a stop right outside the hotel where he's playing?

Had a nice dinner of "parma" (what Australians call chicken/veal/eggplant parmigiana - in my case chicken) and a local beer, and then tried my first alcoholic ginger beer (who knew there was such a thing?!) which was very nice. The music started at 8:30 with a pair of singers, and then Enda Kenny came on. He's a folk singer who Andrea described as singing about a lot of political issues, though tonight it was just simple folk songs about people. I really enjoyed the whole evening, especially Enda Kenny's set. I talked with him a bit, extended Andrea's greeting, and he was really pleased that I had come, and that I was able to put him in touch with Andrea by email. I bought her a CD, and he was kind enough to give me another for free.

I caught the second-last tram back to my hotel, and got to bed after midnight - a very unusual late night for me, but a really good one.

So What's Different Here?

After my trip to Russia last winter, this one is a lot different, in that it's not so much different from home. In a way that's a little disappointing, because I travel mainly to learn about other (different) cultures. Language is a part of that, and there are a few subtle differences in Australian English I've been picking up. My latest new word is "hoon", which refers to one who exhibits anti-social behaviour, specifically in terms of wild driving. There was an article in the paper about how the hoon schools are seeing much lower attendance than expected based on the number of infractions recorded.

Anyway Australia is a lot like home. The cities look a fair bit like Canada, though the trams here in Melbourne are a nice difference. The people here even say "sorry" when you bump into them, just like at home. And everyone has been very friendly, perhaps more so than at home. But there are some subtle differences:
  • Most restaurants don't have much table service; you order and pay at the counter and no bill is delivered to your table. Usually you're given a number on a tall stand to put on your table so the server can find you.
  • No tipping! The credit card machines don't even offer the option to tip. At first I found the prices quite high, especially for food, but then it sunk in that the extra 30% I would usually add for tax and tip is already built in. Beer is still pretty pricy though, often at $9/pint. But it's decent beer!
  • Speaking of beer, the choice of sizes of beer glasses is a bit perplexing. You might get a "pot", a "schooner" or a pint, depending where you are. Here's a guide.
  • Credit cards here are combined with debit cards on a single card, so the payment machines ask you to select which account to charge. That's caused my card to fail a few times when the clerk assumed it was a debit card.
  • More people seem to smoke here, though this Wikipedia page suggests the rate is about the same as in Canada.  I guess I'm just overly sensitive about smoking.
  • The electrical plugs are different, and apart from the different shape of the plugs, the outlets tend to stick out from the wall, and each outlet is separately switched. That's led me to fail to recharge a device at least once, when I forgot to turn the outlet on!
  • They drive on the left of course. And while I didn't have trouble adjusting to that as a driver, I'm still often confused as a pedestrian, not always looking the right way when crossing the street. Yesterday I waited at a tram stop going the wrong direction until I noticed where the tram was headed, and had to cross the street to go the way I wanted.
  • The trees and other flora are quite different, which I noticed the most in the Outback and on the drive along the Great Ocean Road. The fauna are very different too of course, but I've seen less than I expected, and mainly in zoos so far. The exception are birds, of which I've noticed a bunch of different and beautiful ones in the parks.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Melbourne Day 3 (Tuesday)

Had breakfast in my room again, mailed a postcard off to the gym, and then headed out to the Queen Victoria market (2 trams). I browsed the Aboriginal art store and negotiated what I think was a decent price for three paintings. Had a nice chat with the shop owner, herself of Aboriginal descent, while she wrapped the paintings up for me.

Wandered the market, which is cast, clean and quite upscale (a but like the St Lawrence market but bigger, nicer and all on one level, surrounded by a good variety of shops and restaurants. Picked up some apples and smoked salmon for a snack, and then had lunch at the food court there. I was soon joined by a group of people who turned out to be from all over the world (China, Vietnam, Eritrea, India, Sri Lanka, ...) who are all studying English together, on a class field trip to the market with their instructor. I had a delightful chat with a few if them about Australia, Canada and English while we ate.

Headed back and browsed the Bourke St pedestrian mall, and then back to my hotel for a bit. Then I headed out to check out Captain Cook's cottage. It's the oldest building in Australia, and is the actual building where Cook's family lived, and where he occasionally popped in for a visit in between his multi-year long voyages.

Cook's Cottage

The cottage was bought in 1933 by an Australian who had it disassembled, shipped to Melbourne, and reassembled here. A nice woman in the gift shop, dressed in period attire, gave me an overview of Cook's 3 voyages, much of which seemed like a massive waste of time, until he got what was coming to him in the end when he was killed by some Hawaiians he had pissed off. At least that's what I took away from the story she told me.

Nice walk through the Fitzroy Gardens, then picked up some snacks for a little mini-meal in my room.

Headed out again a little before 7 to the Virgin Athletic gym around the corner. They have a small climbing wall, and I need to climb! It has been almost 3 weeks since I last climbed. After a quick "safety induction" in which they confirmed I could get the harness on and work the auto-belays safely, they left me to climb. There were two guys climbing when I got there but they were soon done, and one woman climbed for a few minutes and then left, so I was alone at the wall for most of the time. It's a small wall with 7 auto-belays, with about 3 routes per line. It's auto-belays only, which I guess keeps things simple in a gym environment. The taller part of the wall went up about 18m - about half again as tall as my gym. The routes weren't too bad (my expectations were pretty low), and without a partner to take turns and give me a good rest I did a few climbs in a row and quickly got pumped. I only lasted about an hour but I had fun, got sweaty and the climbing made my knees feel much better!

I had a light meal of satay chicken in a Malaysian restaurant (there are a lot of those here!) and headed back to the hotel.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Melbourne Day 2 (Monday)

When I got up, I grabbed a muffin at the 7 11 down the lane, and had it for breakfast in my room with the coffee provided. Spent much of the morning catching up on blog entries, and fighting with Blogger to get my photos in the way I wanted. Also did some research on where to get Aboriginal art, which I'm interested in picking up while I'm here. I think the prices were better in Alice Springs...

I grabbed a quick lunch at a nearby food court, and then stopped in at the first Aboriginal art gallery. The prices blew me away, so I looked politely and moved on. Walked to Hosier Lane, a famous art-filled laneway, where school children were getting their photos taken in front of the grafitti and painted walls.

I crossed over to Federation Square, and checked out the Atrium, a covered by open-air area in fromt of the art gallery there. The gallery was closed today, but there were some nice shops in the Atrium, including a small bookshop with its shelves dedicated to the writers who are appearing at this week's Melbourne Writers Festival. Just outside was the box office for the festival. I stopped by to ask a few questions, and was able to buy a ticket for one session that showed as Sold Out online, featuring Dave Eggers. I was glad I had stopped by!

The Olderfleet Building, on Collins St

I like how the Intercontinental Hotel squeezed itself in
between the Olderfleet Buildings in a way that works.
(And I have no idea where the 1960's border effect came from;
there must have been a roll of old film in my iPhone...)

I took a tram to another Aboriginal art gallery, but when I got there I was told they had recently moved (without having updated their web site). So I hopped another tram and headed up to Victoria Market, finding it closed and abandoned. There was one shop nearby with some Aboriginal art, but I didn't see anything I loved. Another shop nearby was closed today, along with the rest of the market. I'll return another day! I grabbed a beer in a nearby pub (no worries finding an open pub when you need one here!), and read up on the writer's festival.

Took a couple more trams back to my hotel for a little siesta. Had a yummy pizza at Panned Pizza down the street, and luckily couldn't find the waffle shop I had smelled on my way there. Instead I got a pint of Cooper's Pale Ale at a comedy club just around the corner from my hotel, and watched the first set of their free Monday night comedy night (with my $10.50 beer). The show was good, and the place was completely jammed; I was standing in a crowd at the back. The set (which the MC called a "bracket" - another addition to my Australian vocabulary) ended with Fiona O'Loughlin, whom everyone there but me knew of well.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Adelaide -> Melbourne

OK, I've fallen behind again, too busy or tired to post the last few days!

I had only 1 full day in Adelaide on Thursday. I had breakfast in the Central Market, right across the street from my hotel. I picked up some fruit, cheese and beef jerky for the next few days, and had a coffee in a cafe in the market.

I spent the morning exploring a few attractions: a gallery showcasing Aboriginal art, the South Australia Museum (mainly the Aboriginal exhibit, and one on Mawson's Antarctic expedition). Had lunch at the museum, and then crossed town to the Jam Factory, a collection of art studios and galleries. I watched some glass blowing (a team of three people working beautifully together to make a large bottle), and explored the galleries and the shop, full of mostly beautiful and very expensive pieces, mainly in glass or ceramic.

Back across town (making good use of my unlimited transit pass!), had a beer in a pub and then went to see a movie: Snowpiercer. It was a bit disappointing, and one flaw in the plot bugged me: this train containing the last of humanity after we froze the planet supposedly makes one trip around the earth each year. It's clearly moving quickly, but even at 100km/hr, it would only a few weeks to make that trip.

I found an Indian restaurant near my hotel for dinner, and got to bed early.

Friday morning I got up, had breakfast and checked out of the hotel. Took a bus to the Avis office, got my car (a nice small Hyundai) and headed out. It was straightforward to get out of Adelaide and onto the freeway, and driving on the left was not an issue. I had driven on the left once before, on our group trip to Scotland 6 years ago. Then I was driving a big van on very narrow roads, and that was a bit challenging. This small car was easier to handle. My only problem was that most of the time when  making a lane change or turn, I would turn on the windshield wipers instead of the turn indicator, as the two stalks are reversed here!

The drive from Adelaide to Melbourne is about 900km, and I planned it for two days, with a stop in Portland around the middle. The first day took me through big open plains, rolling countryside and some forest, and most of the forest was obviously planted, with hundreds of trees in perfect rows. The landscape looked vast, and the trees different enough from what I'm used to that it looked a bit exotic, maybe a little like Africa. I saw a kangaroo and what I think were a couple of koalas, dead on the road from collisions.

I arrived in Portland around dusk, and got a little turned around looking for my motel. I finally stopped at a fish & chips shop to ask for directions; it turned out I was only a few blocks away. The motel was quite nice, including the best internet connection I've had all trip - good enough for a Skype call with my daughter Karen! The owner also brought by my continental breakfast (cereal, juice, milk, raisin bread) so I could have it whenever I got up; there was a kettle and toaster in the room so I could make my coffee & toast. I walked a block to a nearby hotel/pub for dinner. It was quite busy, and while I ate, I enjoyed watching several of the locals try their luck at one of those machines where you manipulate a claw to try to grab a prize. This one was filled with footy (Australian Rules Football) balls, and while I think of those machines as a scam, I saw at least 4 balls retrieved in the hour or so I was there.

Saturday morning I got up, had my breakfast, and hit the road. An hour or so into my drive I got to the start of the Great Ocean Road, the really scenic drive that was the reason I rented the car from Adelaide to Melbourne. This route was slower, with a lot of twists and turns and scenic lookouts to stop at, and it took me longer than I expected to get to Melbourne (not that that was a problem).

Some of the 12 Apostles

Another Apostle


I entered Melbourne around 6pm, and as I pulled off the freeway I hit terrible traffic. I decided to get off the Main Street I was on and see if other streets were moving better. They were, but I ran into 2 issues with that plan. First, one of the streets I chose didn't go through as far as I wanted, so I I had to turn. And the turn I needed was a "hook turn" - a right turn (and remember, when driving on the left, the right turn is the bigger turn across oncoming traffic) from the leftmost lane. I had read about these, but wasn't prepared to execute the maneuver properly, and wound up doing a regular right turn, which I think did not please all the other drivers around me.

Got to my hotel around 6:30 after fighting my way through all the traffic, glad that I won't be driving any more here after I drop off the car in the morning. My hotel here is the nicest one so far (maybe four stars), and is centrally located at the edge of Chinatown, and close to train and tram lines that will take me anywhere I want to go. Had dinner (Indian again!) at a restaurant around the corner, and got to bed, very tired after a full day of driving.

Sunday I slept until 8:30 (10 hours!), and took the car back first thing, which turned out to be a little trickier than I expected. First off, it took the valet parking guy about 20 minutes to fetch my car, because the transmission stick was stuck. Then I drove down to the Avis office, which is in the Southern Cross train station. I spotted the office on the other side of the street, and managed to do a U-turn a few blocks later to come back around to it. It wasn't clear where to park the car (no driveway or parking area), so I pulled up at a taxi stand and ran in to ask where to leave the car. That turned out to be a parking lot two blocks down the road, where I finally managed to leave the car.

Found a spot for breakfast nearby, and got myself a 7-day transit pass. Melbourne has a great network of trams and trains; Rob Ford would hate it, but it's going to work well for me while I'm here.

After breakfast I wandered around Federation Square and the Flinders St train station.

Federation Square

The clocks at Flinders Station.
"Meet me under the clocks" has been a common way
to get together in Melbourne for generations

Can't help it, but this made me smile.

It turns out that the Melbourne Writers festival is on this week. I found 5 authors I'm interested in seeing:
  • Lauren Beukes, a South African writer of strange, quirky sci-fi novels I enjoy
  • Dave Eggers
  • Salman Rushdie
  • Chris Hadfield
  • Tony Wheeler (of Lonely Planet)
I had missed Chris Hadfield's session, some of the others were sold out, and the Salman Rushdie session as $130, which I found a bit pricy. I bought a ticket to a reading including Lauren Beukes, and there's another free session with her as well. I wish I had known in advance about this festival, as I might have been able to get another ticket or two before they sold out.

Had a yummy lunch of peri-peri chicken at a Nando's, and then returned to my hotel for a little siesta. Headed out mid-afternoon and got the train to the Melbourne Cricket Ground for my first Australian Rules Football match.

The Melbourne Cricket Ground ("the MCG"),
one of the most hallowed sporting arenas in the world.
Sort of like Australia's Fenway Park?

Each team had a huge banner brought out onto the field;
their players ran out from behind their banner.

I had seen the odd game years ago, and decided it was a part of Australian culture I ought to sample. The people sitting next to me were friendly and happy to explain what was going on, which turned out to be simpler that I had first thought. The ball can be advanced by kicking, hand-punching the ball to a teammate, or running (but you need to bounce the ball once every 20m when running with it). When you catch the ball off a kick that's called a mark, and the other team can't tackle you, so you get a free chance to kick or pass the ball without interference. Scoring is all by kicking the ball through 4 goalposts at the end of the huge field: 6 points for a ball kicked though the two middle posts, and 1 point if it goes between an inner and outer post. I was seeing the Richmond Tigers play the St Kilda Saints. Richmond was battling for the last of 8 playoff spots with this game and one more left to play in the season, while St Kilda was buried in last place with only 4 wins in 20 games. There was no national anthem at the start of the game, but each team's theme song was played as their players took the field. Richmond jumped out to a quick 30-0 lead, but after that the game was pretty even, with the final score hitting 98-72. I was impressed with the skills of the players, all of whom had to be able to kick and catch accurately while running around the enormous field continuously.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Sydney -> Outback -> Adelaide

I've been mostly offline for the past few days while in the Outback, so I have a few days to catch up on!

On Saturday morning I got picked up from my hotel by the airport shuttle for my flight to Alice Springs, in the Outback. I was disappointed in my shuttle driver, who made me load my own suitcase in the back of his van, used his cell phone while driving, scolded another passenger for not having a printed voucher, and then after having her write all her details down on paper, reviewed it while driving. At the airport he dropped me at Terminal 2 and made me walk across a parking lot to the Qantas terminal 3, saving him one stop.

Had an uneventful flight to Alice Springs, and after a bit of a wait, got a shuttle to my hotel there: Alice's Secret. The place is spartan but nice, and very friendly. My "room" is actually an old van, with a bed in the back. It's actually very spacious and comfortable.

The Betty Boop van

Interior of Betty Boop van

After settling in and starting to organize what to take with me on my Outback tour (space is limited on the bus and I have to leave my suitcase here), I walked into and through town. At first the town seemed nearly deserted, and then suddenly there was a wave of people walking towards me. The big sporting event of the year had just ended: the Henley-on-Todd boat races. This is especially interesting because the Todd River is a completely dry riverbed, and the "boats" are teams of people dressed in silly costumes carrying a fake boat frame around them. I had just missed the end of the regatta, and joined the crowd in a pub, where I had dinner. Then I walked to a nearby grocery store and picked up something for tomorrow's breakfast and some snacks for my Outback tour. Back to the hostel and joined some of the other guests in the TV room to watch the big rugby match (Rugby Union rules this time) between Australia and New Zealand. I got to bed early, ready for early pickup in the morning.

Sunday I awoke at 4:15, about 45 minutes earlier than planned. Had breakfast and packed up, and got picked up by the tour bus at 6am. After a few more stops to pick up others, we hit the road for the 4.5 hour drive to Uluru, the main destination of our 3-day Outback tour. It's the "big red rock" in the middle of Australia. I don't normally go in for organized tours, but decided on this one partly because my friend Matt recommended it, and also because the alternative of renting a car and staying at the two resorts along the way would have been much more expensive (one company has a monopoly on accommodations and the prices are high). I also would have had to do the 12+ hours of driving. The tour accommodations weren't as fancy (comfortable tents with warm beds and blankets, though they were unheated, which made getting out of bed in nighttime temperatures just above freezing fun.

There were 22 of us in all on the tour; the others from the UK, France, Germany, Switzerland and Italy (I was the lone non-European). It was a good friendly group, including some young couples and a couple of families with parents around my age and their kids. We had a few stops along the way to break up the trip, including a camel farm where some went for a short camel ride.

We arrived at our campsite at Uluru/Kata Tjuta National park, had lunch, and then headed to Kata Tjuta for a hike. Kata Tjuta means "many heads", and consists of a few dozen rounded, eroded domes that are magnificently beautiful. We had a nice hike for a few hours that took us through many of the domes with amazing views, and our guide Sheldon had a lot of information about the formations.

Kata Tjuta

Kata Tjuta

Kata Tjuta

Me at Kata Tjuta

After the hike we drove to a viewing area to watch the sunset at Uluru. The sun was setting opposite the big rock, and the colours on Uluru changed rapidly as the sun went down.

Back at the campsite we had dinner in the nice mess tent. The food and the company were both good, and after dinner we sat and chatted by the fire a bit.

I slept well in the tent but awoke early again, just after 4am Monday morning, an hour before I had to. We had early breakfast and headed out to Uluru. Part of the group got off for the full walk around Uluru, and some of us instead headed to the sunrise viewing area to watch the reverse of what we saw last night, on the other side of the rock. Then we got dropped off at the midway point of the base walk, where we joined up with the others.

Unlike Kata Tjuta, where erosion has created many distinct domes, the harder rock of Uluru has remained in one piece, and it's an impressive hunk of rock, with lots of neat detail on it. Some of those details are considered to be like holy writing to the local Aboriginal people, so there are a few parts of the rock signposted as "sensitive sites", where photography is not allowed.



Uluru detail

Uluru detail

Where we finished our base walk around Uluru, there's a large sign pleading with visitors not to climb the rock. Climbing used to be a standard part of the experience of visiting Uluru, especially when it was more often referred to by its "white fella" name of Ayers Rock. The request by the Aboriginal people to respect their holy place has greatly reduced, but not eliminated climbing. I was impressed by the tone of the sign, which does not forbid climbing or scold visitors, but very politely pleads for respect. While I was reading the sign, a man was next to me looking at it when his wife came, grabbed his arm, saying "You can read that later", and dragged him over to climb the rock. I'm a climber, and I enjoy "conquering" hills as much as anyone, but there are so many other places we can climb without disrespecting and insulting the local people that it's hard to understand why some continue to climb here.

Please do not climb

A question of respect

After the base walk we met up with a local Aboriginal named Vincent, who took us on a "cultural walk", explaining some of the significance of a few features of the rock, and how they fit into ancient stories of his people. He repeated bits of a story along the way, and at the end combined them with a drawing in the sand that included some of the symbols I had seen in Aboriginal paintings. His words and cadence were like poetry. At the end he told us a bit about how his people are still not treated equally in Australia, and referred to the Intervention of 2007.

We stopped by the Cultural Centre where there were some exhibits and an art gallery, and returned to our campsite for lunch. After lunch we got back in the bus and drove to Kings Canyon National Park, where we camped for the night. I had trouble getting to sleep, and only got a few hours sleep before it was time to wake up - this time at a more leisurely 5:30am on Tuesday morning.

After breakfast we went on a walk through Kings Canyon for about 4 hours. Though billed in so places as "Australia's Grand Canyon", it's a far more modest canyon that is nonetheless pretty beautiful. The walk involved some climbing up and down, and while I made out fine, my knees are feeling pretty sore after three good hikes/walks in a row, especially the right knee.

Kings Canyon

We had lunch back at our campsite, and then drove back to Alice Springs, getting back to Alice's Secret around 6pm.

Had a shower and got settled into my room, and then walked into town for dinner at a decent Thai restaurant. Picked up a few things for breakfast and returned to the hostel, had a beer and then got to bed early. I caught up on some much-needed sleep after three very early mornings in a row.

Wednesday morning I had breakfast, packed up and relaxed until my shuttle arrived to take me back to the airport. Had lunch at the airport, and then took my 2-hour flight to Adelaide.

Nice sign in the airport on arrival in Adelaide;
the open door is located where Adelaide is in South Australia.

My welcoming public transit experience in Adelaide was a good one. It was simple to buy a three-day transit pass at a shop in the airport, and I caught a bus right there that took me right into the CBD (Central Business District), just a few blocks from my hotel. I checked in, and while asking the clerk (also the barman - a good sign) if he could check that the nearby coin laundry I had found on Google was still in business he told me there's a washer and dryer right here in the hotel, which saves me a lot of schlepping. That's a big win, as I am completely out of clean clothes, and being able to do it right here is much easier!

My hotel in Adelaide

I put my clothes in the wash, had a beer in the pub, tossed them in the dryer and then had dinner. The clothes weren't nearly dry after the first cycle, so I put them back in, but when I went back up later to check on them, someone had pulled them out and put their load in the dryer, which I though was pretty rude. I checked back a little later and the dryer had stopped again, so I swapped my clothes back in! I guarded the machine until the cycle was done, at which point I took my almost-dry clothes to my room, and spread them out to finish drying overnight.

Back down to the pub to finish updating this blog, with another beer to finish off the evening before getting to bed.

[It's been frustrating trying to get my photos into posts as I want them. I need to sync them via Google+ from my iPhone (where I take the photos) to a Picasa album that is accessible from my iPad (where I compose these blog posts). The internet connections are not the best, and Google+ seems kind of unpredictable in terms of when it will actually sync all the photos I ask it to. The worst part is that Blogger seems to have some idiosyncrasies. I'm using an Apple keyboard with my iPad to compose these posts. That works fine for entering text, but when I add a photo and want to resize it, I seem to be able to do that only with the keyboard disconnected, using the touchscreen interface. And after resizing a photo, the post resets to the top, and I cannot scroll down using the touchscreen interface. So I wind up switching back and forth between keyboard and touchscreen, going back to the Settings app each time, which makes photo insertion incredibly tedious. I keep thinking I must be missing something obvious - that it can't really be this awkward to add photos to a blog post and control how they appear. This is the cost of leaving my laptop at home - definitely still the right call in spite of this frustration.]

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Sydney Day 4: Touristy Stuff & Rugby

I spent most of Friday hitting a few of the more touristy arts of Sydney: the Wild Life zoo, the Sydney Sea Life Aquarium, and the Sydney Tower Eye. I had a ticket to each from the combo I bought when I went to Manly, and I figured I might as well check them out.

The Wild Life zoo was pretty interesting, and I got to see a bunch of the more unusual animals unique to Australia: kangaroos, wallabies, koala and echidnas. My timing was right to catch the short talks about the koalas and kangaroos. The aquarium was disappointing, and while much larger than the one in Manly, I didn't find it much more interesting. The swordfish were a highlight though.

The Sydney Tower Eye is the tallest building in Sydney, and features a great view of the city from above everything. On the way up is the "4D experience", a cheesy 3D movie with added effects: rumbling floor, mist, smoke and bubbles. Pretty lame. And at all 3 places there was great effort to funnel everyone through the gift shop. The Australians outdo the Canadians and Americans at gift shops full of crap.

Views of Sydney from atop the Tower Eye

I wound up at Town Hall railway station after coming down from the tower, and found a good Malaysian food stall where I got some yummy satay for dinner, and picked up muffins for tomorrow's breakfast. Bought my train ticket and figured out how to get out to the Olympic Park for the rugby match, arriving well before game time.

Betting vans outside the rugby stadium!

I hadn't realized that there are two different varieties of rugby here: Rugby League and Rugby Union, played with different numbers of players and slightly different rules. Rugby Union is what I played in high school (I was a house league hooker!), and Rugby League is what I was seeing here. There were 13 players, and after 5 tackles a team had to kick the ball away or else turn it over when tackled next (very much like 3/4 downs in North American football). There were no line-outs and very few scrums. The game was close and fun, with the Bulldogs edging the Eels 18-16.

Train back to downtown and walked back to the hotel, getting to bed late and very tired.

[photos to come once I get my iPhone/Google+ to sync them properly; the wifi so far has been a little inconsistent in terms of speed...]

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Sydney Day 3: Manly & Opera

Up early again after another good sleep. Had breakfast at the hotel buffet again; I knew it was going to be winter down here (and it's not any colder than I expected in general), but why is the hotel buffet in an unheated space. Today I was dressed for it, but it still made breakfast pretty uncomfortable.

I decided to head out to Manly today, to enjoy a ferry ride and see some of the outlying area. I bought a combo ticket online for the small aquarium at Manly and a few other places I plan to see tomorrow, and headed out. On my way to to the wharf I stopped in at a few places and picked up some things I'll need while in the outback that I had neglected to pack: sunscreen and bug repellent, and a warm hat and gloves. While it will be warm enough during the days in the Outback, at night it will drop to close to freezing. After overpacking for Russia and not using most of the warm clothing I had packed, I seem to have over-compensated, and under-packed for Australian winter.

Took a bus to Circular Quay and got the ferry to Manly. It was a beautiful sunny day, and the half-hour ferry ride was really nice, with gorgeous views of the harbour, and a view of the open ocean as we approached Manly.

 Sydney Opera House (left) and the Sydney Harbour Bridge from the ferry

Manly is a small, cute touristy beach town. The Corso is the main drag from the ferry wharf to the beach. I walked along it, and spent a little while at the beach, watching people and reading. Found a nice spot for a lunch of fish & chips, and then went to explore the aquarium. It was small but interesting, and my timing was good to catch short talks about the sharks and the Little penguins (which are indeed little).

I took the ferry back to Sydney and walked to the nearby Opera House to pick up my ticket for tonight's opera. Took a walk through the Royal Botanic Gardens (partly blocked off for construction), and then had a drink and dinner at one of the sidewalk cafes by the Opera House.

View of part of downtown Sydney, from the Royal Botanic Garden
The opera was Rigoletto, which is supposed to be a good "beginner" opera. There were surtitles in English, which helped. The music was good, and I enjoyed the hit tune La Dona e mobile, which of course I knew from Bugs Bunny cartoons, but in the end it seems I am not much of a fan of opera. Like the opera I saw in St Petersburg, the plot seemed overly complicated and silly, and while I can appreciate how talented the performers are, the style of singing is not my favourite. Still, the instrumental music was good, and it was fun to just be in the theatre, which is as magnificent inside as outside.

Sydney Opera House, from the ferry

Joan Sutherland Theatre in the Sydney Opera House.
My seat was near the back, dead centre.

After the show I walked to the bus stand at Circular Quay and found a bus that took me within a few blocks of my hotel. Got to bed late, very tired, and with sore knees. My left knee had acted up on my trip to Russia in March, and I've been getting physiotherapy for it. It's doing OK now, but since landing in Vancouver my right knee has been quite sore. I'm still able to walk all over the place, but it's pretty painful, and stiffens up when I sit for a while. I'm hoping this isn't going to be a problem during the hikes in the Outback...

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Sydney: Day 2

[writing this Thursday morning about Wednesday in Sydney while it's still Wednesday afternoon back home; still getting used to what time it is...]

After a very good sleep (despite the moaning of the elevator avery minute or so), I spent Wednesday getting my bearings and exploring central Sydney. I got a 10-pass for the city buses and took one up to The Rocks, a neighbourhood by the water where convicts initially cut much of the sandstone used to build the city, and which later became the site of major protests by working-class people and unions against development proposals that would have erased most of the historical buildings. Now it's a trendy area with museums, touristy shops, and lots of restaurants (many of them really expensive). I visited the Discovery Museum that filled in some of the history, wandered the streets a bit, and had lunch in a nice pub.

Walked over to Circular Quay, where ferries come and go to & from many points nearby, and then took a bus over to Hyde Park.

Sydney Opera House, from Circular Quay

Spent some time in the Hyde Park Barracks Museum, learning more about the British "Transportation" system that brought convicts (often guilty of only minor theft) here for sentences of indentured labour of 7-14 years or life. I always knew Australia was founded this way, buit didn't know how minor the crimes could be that sent one away, or that Britain had done the same in North America before American war of Independence.

From the museum I walked to Hyde Park nearby, and enjoyed an ice cream cone in the sun.

An ibis (thank you Google) hanging out with pigeons in Hyde Park

The park is beautiful, long with a tunnel of fig tress down the middle (sadly many of them dying due to the poor soil they were planted in decades ago).

 Fountain in Hyde Park

My arty shot from the middle of the park looking north.

From the park I wandered across town, through Chinatown, into a market full of stalls selling all kinds of stuff, and picked up some snacks for the hotel room. By the time I got back to the hotel, checked my email in the lobby, and got to my room, I was pretty wiped. Ended up turning the snacks into dinner, and crashed around 10pm.

Tried one of the local flavours; not as exciting as it looked!

I'm trying to sort out what Sydney (and Australia) is like. So far it feels very much like home, some sort of mix of Canada and the USA, and much less British than I expected. Not really very foreign at all. The people are very friendly and polite. I guess it feels a lot like Vancouver so far.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Sydney, Australia: Day 1

It's Tuesday evening, and my trip is about 4 days in ("about" because of having crossed the International Date Line)

I left Toronto Friday evening and flew to Vancouver. I had wanted to break up the long trip Down Under, and I still have a few friends in Vancouver. Even better, SIGGRAPH (the computer graphics conference I used to attend almost every year) is in Vancouver this week, so lots of old friends are there.

I stayed at the YMCA hotel downtown, and it was actually pretty nice and comfortable, and very conveniently located. On Saturday I got together with my old friend Tony. We met for lunch (Szechuan) in the west end, walked around Stanley Park for hours and got caught up on each other, grabbed dinner (Italian, right across the street from where we had lunch!) and then saw a movie (A Most Wanted Man - so so). I hadn't seen Tony in several years, but we picked right up.

Vancouver seems like more of a big city than I remember. I lived there from 1985-88, just a few blocks from where we ate. Obviously there have been massive changes since then, but even since my last visit for the 2010 Winter Olympics, it seems to be more densely filled with tall buildings, and busier. It no longer feels much smaller than Toronto to me.

 Arriving at Vancouver airport; these walls looked very climbable!

 In Stanley Park, at the waterpark, where we managed to cross through unscathed
until I said to Tony I was surprised we didn't get wet,
at which point a woman squirted us with a super soaker.

On Sunday morning I had lunch with another old friend: Crazy Judi, whom I had last seen in 2010. As with Tony we picked up where we last left off, and got caught up on each other's kids. After brunch we went back to her downtown condo and chatted some more with her husband Mike while enjoying their amazing view of the harbour.

I picked up my luggage from my hotel and then headed to The Rogue, where a bunch of ex-Alias employees were gathering, some who live in a Vancouver and some in for SIGGRAPH (and me). I had a few drinks with them and shared old stories, and then hopped on the Skytrain to the airport.

The 14-hour flight to Auckland wasn't as bad as I had expected. I'm not sure I slept much, but I did get some rest, and wasn't completely zonked on arrival.
 Good advice for me at the Auckland airport, as I awaited flight NZ101 to Sydney!

I caught my connecting flight to Sydney a couple hours later. That flight was delayed on arrival due to a backup at the Sydney airport. I got through customs quickly, got my bag, waited a while for my shuttle van, and got to my hotel a little after 11am local time, about 25 hours after leaving Vancouver.

I dropped my suitcase at the hotel, walked around the neighbourhood a bit, and found a place nearby for lunch while waiting for my room to be ready, then checked in. I spent most of the afternoon relaxing and reading. My room is large and comfortable, though the hotel is showing its age in some ways. The location is decent, but there is internet only in the lobby (which gets crowded at times with guests all staring at their phones!).

I walked to a nearby pub and had a beer and pizza for dinner. Back at the hotel, I managed to stay awake reading until about 9pm before crashing. Hopefully that helps me adjust to the local time zone quickly!

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Heading Down Under Soon!

It's time for another adventure, so this weekend I'm heading out again.

First stop is Vancouver for the weekend, then on to Sydney Australia. I'll be in Australia for about 19 days: Sydney, then a few days in the Outback, then Adelaide, where I'll get a car and drive the Great Ocean Road to Melbourne, where I'll spend about a week. From there I hop over to Christchurch, where I'll rent a car and explore the South Island for a week or so, cross to Wellington, and then make my way up to Auckland. From there I'll fly to Noumea, New Caledonia, for the World Youth Climbing Championships. Two young athletes who train at my gym as members of our Youth Competitive Team will be representing Canada there. I'll be volunteering at the competition in between cheering for the kids from True North, as well as those from elsewhere in Ontario and Canada! Then a short visit to LA to break up the trip home, and I'm back in Toronto before the end of September!

I'll be blogging here about my trip again, so stay tuned if you're interested.