Month: February 2007

Melbourne, Australia: Goodbye To The Three Irishmen … For Now

The days back in Melbourne have all blended together in my mind by now, so I hope you’ll forgive my inability to remember every detail of what I did and when. I would usually run small errands, or spend time at the library with free wireless internet access.

Ray, Kieran and Owen were leaving for Perth on Monday morning, so that night was a goodbye celebration on Fitzroy Street at the Prince of Wales pub.

The jugs were pretty cheap, something around 7 dollars, so the entire Jackson’s Manor clan came out to say goodbye. Valerio, Rosanna, Andrea and Jillian were there after a lukewarm night at Vineyard, which quickly became Valerio’s favorite hangout; Michael, Sven and Simon the Germans (well, Simon is Bavarian, not sure what the difference is); Jonna (say “Yonna”, and spell it differently because I probably got it wrong) from somewhere in Eastern Europe; Francesca from Italy; and Owen, Kieran and Ray, of course. Sophie and I arrived last with Steffen in tow, who had just stepped off the Spirit of Tasmania ferry that morning.

The pub was great fun, everyone with a beer in their hand, refilling each others’ drinks and recalling old times. The party rocked until about 2, when the bar started to shut down. We headed back to JM for a little post-party party in the dining room. Everyone was rather peckish, so we pooled together our bread and peanut butter resources, as well as whatever goon was left over from pre-partying, and dove into some traditional backpacker drunk tucker.

I went and got my honey, the good honey, and invited everyone to try a peanut butter-and-honey sandwich, oddly unknown to everyone. Except Steffen, who had never had one either until he took my advice and made it for himself in Tassie. One was all it took to hook him, he loved them after that.

Simon was immediately accepting and very much enjoyed it. Both Jonna and Francesca liked neither peanut butter nor honey so they not only abstained, but started to denounce them. Ray had quietly made and begun eating his sandwich when, through a stuffed mouth, he exclaimed “Oh, that’s just a world of taste!” We all started cracking up. “It’s really good!” After he crammed the last bit of bread into his mouth he gave his final blessing, “That’s just the tastiest thing I’ve ever had!” He even said he had never really liked peanut butter or honey separately, but the combination was beyond compare. This prompted both Jonna and Francesca to try a small bite, but I think they had long since made up their minds, and couldn’t be swayed. Ray went back for seconds. And thirds.

Owen and Kieran came back from the bar and, since Kieran was doing the driving in the morning, headed to bed. We said our goodbyes, and promised to look them up when we got to Perth (Steffen set a date of Thursday for our departure to Adelaide; he had not found any additional travelmates yet).

The rest of us stayed up until 4, when Barry the hostel owner came in and told us we couldn’t drink in the dining room anymore. Tim was easy to dodge and push around, but Barry was not one to question. I used that as my cue to leave, and I turned in for the night. The others moved into the TV room and kept the party alive.

Melbourne, Australia: Mistaken Identities In The Vineyard

On Saturday I accompanied Jillian to a bar called Vineyard because she said there would be a good band there. A couple guys, one of whom was on her tour of the east coast, were planning on meeting us. We were just going to check out the scene, then make a decision on what to do that night. Vineyard was on Acland St., around the corner and about 5 blocks away from JM. Jillian decided to take the long way, “cause she wanted to show me the beautiful neighborhood of St. Kilda”, and we zigged and zagged through a very residential area. I joked that the “bar” would turn out to be no more than some dude’s house, and his crappy little garage band.

We finally arrived at Vineyard, at the head of Acland, before it dissolves into a blend of cafe’s, bars and restaurants (you’re free to come up with the distinction yourself — it IS very difficult in Australia, and I could do at least two entries just on that matter).

The band was Cold Sweat, and they were warming up as we bought our drinks and wandered around the bar. On the walk, Jillian and I had compared music tastes, and we even touched on the subject of funk music, a mutual member of the “like” column. Lo and behold, Cold Sweat started beating out popping rhythms with a very groovy bass and trumpet back. We definitely had to have that funk.

Jillian’s east coast travelmate was an Italian named Valerio (say “va-LEEEHHHRR-iio” and flick your hand, fingers up, into the sky when you say it; bonus points for having pasta sauce on the stove in front of you and an apron on when you do it). He had come with his friend Andrea (say “Ahn-DREY-a”) and Rosanna. Andrea was from Rome, but had moved to Melbourne about a year and half back for work. Rosanna was another backpacker who lived at the Manor.

I went up to the bar and was waiting to order a VB (Victoria Bitter) when a very-white bald guy sidled up to me. He put his elbows on the counter, also waiting for the bartender. He stuck his hand out and asked for my name. He attempted to make small talk, but he was too drunk, and I was too uninterested. I did catch his name, though: Wallace.

Back at our couches, I was talking to Jillian, but soon there was a small break in our conversation. All of a sudden, Wallace plants himself in between Jillian and myself, on a 3-seater couch.

After several awkward moments of slience, or me trying to talk across Wallace, he asked if I wanted to switch seats. “Yes, please.”

Jillian was in a conversation with Rosanna, so Wallace took that as an opportunity to talk to me. I asked him what were good places to go for live music around Melbourne, but all he seemed to do is extol the city’s virtues, as if it was even a battle to fight with me. He finally gave me a run down: Vineyard was definitely his favorite, and South Yarra (a suburb of Melbourne), though named by LP as the up-and-coming young person’s scene in the area, was overly-trendy and yuppie-infested.

Then he made a comment that made me realize the conversation had to end. “So … what are you looking to do tonight?” “What?” “You know, what do you look for when you go out … just to have a good time, or meet people, or what?” Ah, shit. Later, Valerio would tell me that Wallace was hitting on him too, and Andrea exclaimed, “That guy?”, as if there was a question of his sexual preference, then widened his eyes for a second and smirked, “Come on, of course!”

Valerio told Andrea and I at the end of the night that Jillian asked him if he was gay. Valerio didn’t understand why, but Andrea cackled and pointed at him, then looked at me, “[sigh] He doesn’t know why, he doesn’t understand”, then shook his head sadly. Andrea was convinced that Valerio had all the trappings of a good gay Italian lover, but Valerio, in his broken-English innocence, was none the wiser.

Melbourne, Australia: When You’re Another Backpacker’s Tour Guide, You Know It’s Time To Leave

Sophie and I pretended we could wake up early and head out to the gardens. But in truth, The night before at Traffik left me with no illusions about sleeping until 11.

My mission that day was to visit the Queen Victoria Markets to buy some fruit, nuts and honey, but first I promised Sophie a walk around the Gardens and a short visit to one of the museums. She hadn’t been in Melbourne long, and was afraid she’d miss all the tourist sights sitting in Jackson’s Manor all day, a whirlpool easily into which many backpackers were easily sucked .

We hopped on a train to the Royal Botanic Gardens, and walked a huge loop around the grounds. The day was brutally hot, and neither of us had expected to work up so much of a sweat. As we strolled through the Australian Rainforest area, the sprinklers came on, misting the surrounding plants on one of it’s many sessions during the day. Sophie and I stood under one of the taller fixtures, letting the small drops of water invade every pore and rescue our skin from the heat.

After the Gardens, we made the trip up Swanston Street/St. Kilda Road to the National Gallery of Victoria: Ian Potter museum, which I had visited a day or two earlier. The only part I hadn’t seen was the ground floor indigenous art exhibit. I was particularly intrigued with one piece by Lin Opus called “Fish”, which was an exceptional example of the use of synthetic polymer paint on canvas. They also had dueling exhibits of contemporary aboriginal art versus traditional.

Traditional Aboriginal art are typically “dreaming” pieces, which consist of a series of dots and geometric forms, marking places (with topographical detailing), paths, animal tracks and events. It’s very deliberate, confined and clean. The contemporary pieces, however, use the same concepts of dreamings and involved symbols but it is done without such discipline, using sweeping, almost violent and thick brush strokes, vivid colors and overlapping canvas areas.

Sophie and I dined outside the library on some sandwiches and pasta salad, then headed to the markets.

We bought some mangoes, strawberries, and raisins, and I finally found some good, local, unprocessed honey. Sohpie rolled her eyes at me as I launched into a discourse on “good honey” versus the poor excuses you find in supermarkets, how you need to work to find the good stuff, and how it’s well worth it.

That night I stayed in, or at least as much as I could stay in, I did. The dining room in Jacksons Manor is always littered with people who have “self-catered” their alcohol for the evening, and spend the night smoking cigarettes and refilling each others’ goon. After a few glasses I tapped out.

Melbourne, Australia: Tell You What, I’ll Make 3 Easy Payments of $5.99 For Her. Deal?

The last time I was in Melbourne, two weeks earlier, I had visited the National Gallery of Victoria: International and only most of the National Gallery of Victory: Ian Potter Museums. I headed back to the Ian Potter gallery and finished the second floor. On the ground floor was an indigenous art exhibit, but my stomach was grumbling and I still had to put some time in on the internet.

After a quick lunch catered by Safeway in front of the library, I headed in and spent a long time reconnecting with the world.

By the time I got back to Jackson’s Manor, Jake and John had left for Adelaide (they had a tour booked to Alice Springs and Ayer’s Rock that left from Adelaide in only a few days). He left me his number and told me to give him a shout when Steffen and I were on our way to Perth.

Steffen was coming back from Tassie that weekend, and after a few days in Melbourne, he and I would find two other travelmates and drive the Great Ocean Road to Adelaide, passing through the Grampians National Park.

In the dining room of Jackson’s Manor, I met Jillian, a Canadian from North Bay in Ontario. She was working for a club in South Yarra — what many Melbournians consider the up-and-coming, trendy suburb of the city — as a promoter, bouncer or whatever they wanted her to do.

I asked her what she was planning on doing after she finished traveling (she had been in Australia for about 7 months and was planning on staying for another 4 or 5). She said she just finished school and wasn’t sure what she wanted to do next, so I asked her what she studied as a major, to get an idea of what were her options. “Oh, no, I just finished high school.” “Oh.”

I told her I thought it was amazing that she had the courage and resolve to go on a year-long working holiday after high school, that at the same age I was still figuring out the thing about making bunny ears and looping them around to tie my Nikes. She said that North Bay wasn’t exactly the best town to hang out and figure your life out. A lot of her fellow students got into drugs or dropped out of school, or just didn’t do anything with their lives. She knew she wanted to get away, so she did. Good for her.

Jillian also told me about a bar up the street called Traffik (affectionately called “Tragik” for reasons made apparent later), where they offered $2 pints on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Obviously, it was a necessary destination for all backpackers in the area, whether they wanted to or not.

We headed there around 10, early for Traffik standards, and I checked out the scene. Jillian hated the place, saying it was just a sad little bar, not exactly what she looks for in a hangout. Before we entered, she wanted to show me a place she did like, so we ducked into a bar in an alley around the corner.

The bar scene in Melbourne is like a big scavenger hunt. All the good bars, the local hangouts and places that’ll serve up standard drinks but a chic atmosphere and music are tucked away and hidden in back alleys and small dark streets. You may not even know it’s a bar until you walk inside. They say that if you can find some of these places, you have to be a local. In that respect it differs from Sydney, but beyond the obvious it exposes a fundamental distinction: in Sydney, everything is out in the open, the big bars are the popular ones, they’re on the main streets, at the main intersections; every club has a loud and room-shaking dance floor; the drinks are overpriced; the music is predictably mainstream, as are the people. In Melbourne, culture takes the shotgun seat, and the popular bars are the ones with good music at hard-to-find venues; you can always find cheap drinks; the clientele is eclectic, usually there for a few pints with good friends, to sit back in a comfy chair and tap their feet. Whereas Sydney is the A&P, the Safeway Pathmark, Kroger, Melbourne is the Whole Foods Market or that little grocer around the corner.

Within an hour or two, the entire hostel had shown up to Traffik (and, probably, every resident at another hostel two doors down called Coffee Palace). It was almost as if someone ran around the dining room collecting all Jackson’s Manor-ians and then carted them down the street to Traffik. It was a great time, and I spent most of the evening talking to three Irishmen named John, Tim and Dave — or Mannie, as he was also called.

Sophie had also shown up, but while we were chatting, a tall Australian guy who was clearly soused kept approaching her and — from the expression on her face — really bothering her. His name was Trent and he was playing the part of the drunk guy who believes he is writing poetry in his mind, but it just comes out as something vaguely offensive.

I could tell she was in trouble, so one time he had her cornered, I quickly ducked in and said, “Hey mate, can I borrow her real quck? I gotta introduce her to someone.” I grabbed Sophie’s elbow and was about to walk away when he said, “Ok, you give me $20 and you can take her.” I gave him the obligatory chuckle, muttered “Yeah, right,” and started to turn away again. With a dead-serious look, he repeated it. I said “Listen man, I just want to talk to her for a second, then you can resume your conversation.” “Yeah, that’s fine, but if you want to talk to her right now, just give me $20.” OK, this doesn’t sound like a bad joke anymore. I gave Sophie a puzzled look and she shot back one of growing consternation, so I turned to Trent and said, “Mate, you don’t own her and neither do I. She can do what she wants, and right now I think she wants to come with me.” Trent looked at Sophie and could see that she wasn’t enjoying his attempts at humor, and finally broke into a smile, and with a lazy, stumbling drawl ($2 pints will do that to someone), said “Take it easy man, I was just joking.” No, you were joking the first time, and it was a bad one. Now you’re just being creepy.

As we turned our backs to Trent and walked away, Sophie leaned in and said, “Thanks, that guy is so scary!” Yes, he certainly was, and unfortunately he would try several more times that night to talk to her. Most of the time we’d see him coming, and before he could go up to her I’d swing my body around and butt him out of any attempted conversation, but a few times he’d surprise me and get through to assault speak to her.

Sophie left and I followed her, tired of the Traffik scene. Back at Jackson’s Manor, some of the others were in the dining room, polishing off the goon. I didn’t stay up with them too long, since the next day I had agreed to take Sophie around to some of the sights, like the Royal Botanic Gardens, the Ian Potter art gallery.

Melbourne, Australia: I’m Back, Back, Back In The Saddle Ag-eh-aiinn …

The number of stories told on the road by Jake and Ben about the hostel where they stayed for 1 1/2 months was too much to pass up a chance to stay there myself.

Jake had also come back to the mainland with me, so I followed him to Jackson’s Manor in St. Kilda and booked a bed for 3 nights.

The hostel is situated on a small street right off the main road, Fitzroy, in St. Kilda. I had only seen it briefly when I dropped my food off with Steffen two weeks earlier, only the common areas such as the kitchen, dining room, tv lounge and lobby.

In comparison to the hostels in Sydney, … well, there is no comparison. Jackson’s Manor was suffering in upkeep: the walls and floors were worn, the furniture decrepit and there was a general musky haze that seemed to permeate every room. The facilities weren’t filthy, but you definitely wanted your shower slippers guarding your feet at all times. Though what Jackson’s Manor lacked in amenities, it compensated with liveliness.

Barry was the owner, a gruff-looking but pleasant mannered Englishman who usually was only around during the morning. For the rest of the day (and night), the place was run by Tim, a gruff-looking and gruff-mannered Aussie who’s temperament, unlike his clothing, changed frequently. But Tim could also be very accomodating and even hold a somewhat coherent conversation from time to time. The other backpackers would enjoy having some fun with Tim’s confrontational-but-easily-overcome personality.

Like the time he told the guys who had stayed up drinking until 4 AM to clear out of the dining room so he could mop, and they replied with a loud “@$#& OFF, TIM!”, so he just mopped around their feet. Or the time he got angry over the dirtiness of the kitchen and wouldn’t let anyone in, not even to get another beer from the fridge, until the dishes were clean. So someone went to the front door, rang the doorbell, and as Tim walked to answer it, they snuck around the house through the back door and retrieved the beer from the fridge.

Many of the other backpackers at JM had been there for months, working at cafes and restaurants around St. Kilda. A family-like bond had developed amongst most of them, and the tables in the dining room were often filled with people from all corners of the globe, sharing food, drinks and the occasional joint, the filling of which could be easily purchased from one of two workers at the hostel.

Our first day there, Jake took me around and introduced me to the backpackers he had gotten to know: Ray, Kieran and Owen the Irishmen, Ren and Rich the Englishmen, and of course John, Jake’s travelling mate from U of D.

That night, I hung out with a bunch of them at JM before we went to a pub on Acland St. called La Roche, where Ray worked as a waiter.

I was considering staying in Melbourne if I could find a pub or restaurant job, which I had been told was easy, so I was quizzing Ray about how he landed his job. The trick is, evidently, to lie out your teeth. Experience? Sure! Will you be here for a long-term position? You betcha! Ray said the manager put him through a “test” which was nothing more than studying the menu for 15 minutes. Since literacy is definitely a bullet on my resume, I asked Ray if there were any openings. He said that if I gave him my CV, he’d drop it off with his manager. Ray was leaving in less than a week and his last day was coming up soon.

I told Ray I’d get him my CV, but then got to thinking about it: my CV has the words Boeing, NASA, MIT, International Space Station, Information Technology and Programming peppered throughout the job experience category. What in the world is the manager gonna think when he sees that?? Though I knew I could spin it in my favor: “well, as you can see, I’ve had to understand very complex space systems and perform difficult tasks that arise unexpectedly and that require a quick turnaround, so I think I’m just the man to serve your customers a grilled cheese sandwhich.” Jake said he thinks I’m a little overqualified.

The jugs at La Roche went for only $7, and after we had eached purchased one, Jake, John and I walked down to The Espy, but soon made our way back up Fitzroy to JM. Jake and I were starving, so we bought got a slice at Archies. The pizza was mediocre, but the selling point are the potato wedges they come with for only $4.20.

True to my Jackson’s Manor briefing by Jake before arriving, there were still people awake and drinking when we got back. In fact, I don’t think they had even moved since we left for the pub. I met Sven and Michael from Germany and Sophie from Holland. Ren and Ray had made it back too and we were all sipping Goon, comparing travel stories and discussing the differences between each of our nationalities.

Goon is the generic name for cheap box wine. There isn’t a brand name of such wine called “Goon”, but it’s generally accepted as a good name for the whole category. There were rumours that “Goon” was an Aboriginal word for “drink” or something equally unbelievable. I joked that it was probably an Aboriginal word for “bad wine”. To use it in a sentence, “I don’t get paid until Thursday, so instead of a wedge of Camembert and the 2006 Blackstone Merlot, I settled for some Goon and a mozzarella stick.” Later I discovered the most likely etymology: that “goon” is a corruption of the word “flagon”, which was a term given to the cask wines brought over on ships.

I had heard this from the group of folks during my last night in Katoomba, but it seems that the Dutch can understand German, but Germans can’t understand Dutch. Sven and Sophie would often have conversations with Sven speaking German and she would respond in English. Sven’s English was conversant, but Sophie’s was much better. Sophie was telling me that in Holland, they’re required to learn German in school, whereas in Germany, it’s an option to learn other languages.

Most of the people at the table had been to Thailand, so we talked about why Thailand is probably the best place to travel. This is a pitch that Ben and many other people have given me on several previous occasions. The hotels and meals in Thailand are dirt cheap, meaning you would never have to cook or share a room with anyone else. The landscape and culture are unforgettable, and because of the proximity to countries like Laos, Cambodia, Indonesia and Vietnam, it makes for easy travelling to lots of fun places. Ben said that of all his travels, Vietnam would probably be his favorite. Ren and Ray both said I had to go to a Full Moon party that’s usually held on a beach, which is a mecca of debauchery.

Ray said that if he had to pick one city to live in for the rest of his life, it would be Barcelona. And the moment he said it, three others at the table looked up with glassy eyes and sighed, “Ohh … Barcelona …”

I lasted until about 4 AM with those heavy-hitters before calling it a night. Sven and the others must have been up for at least another hour or two. In the morning I was surprised to find out that Sven was one of the others in my 8-share dorm room. The others were Jake, Kieran, Ray, and Owen.

Tasmania: Final Thoughts

I think it’s clear that the trip to Tasmania is one we’ll never forget. The land is incredibly beautiful and the culture and atmosphere warm and welcoming: the rolling farmlands in the northeast, the rich history and fishing villages of the south and southeast, the healthy rainforests in the west, and the … interesting people right smack in the middle. If I could do it again I wouldn’t change one single thing, that is, of the things within my control.

That’s Right, The Weather

Had we known the weather would be so bad, we would have re-scheduled the trip for another time (naively believing the weather in Tassie is so predictable). But even so, the weather in Tasmania is so fragile, so fickle, that complaining about it is useless. And wishing it would change is dangerous: it will change, shortly, and you better just wish it changes in a positive direction. Incidentally, Steffen and Ben reported that immediately after we left, the weather in the mountains cleared, giving them ample time to do walks in the area and snap some great pictures.

The People

I would defy anyone to argue that there are friendlier people in this world than Tasmanians. Australians are very friendly in general, more so than anywhere I’ve been yet, but Tasmanians are friendly to depths I’d only heard about in fairy tales. Take, for example: the staff in visitor’s centers who wouldn’t let us walk away without until they felt they made a beneficial impact to our trip; the mechanics in Campbell Town; Jan the hostel owner in Hobart who sat and told us about everything there is to see in the area with a personal conviction like she was coming with us; the park rangers in Cockle Creek who were just checking for national park passes, but chatted with us for 20 minutes; the hostel owner in Geeveston who let Jake and Ben crash in the hostel at no additional cost because it was so cold and wet outside; the cafe owner and her German chef in Maydena who chatted us up about what to see in the area; Tamika, my future sugar momma and her lesbian partner, the 4-fingered harvester, Simon and all the folks in Ouse; the caravan park owners in Roseberry; the visitor’s center staff at the Cradle Mountains; Rebecca, Jai, Matthew and his dad in Sheffield.

They are so proud of their land, so happy to see people visiting it, that they want to get involved and make sure you have the best time possible. You’d be hard pressed to find even customer service that good, and they get paid for it.

The Sights

You know how when you’re sitting on the couch at home in Houston or Boston or Ann Arbor or wherever, and you think about rainforests you imagine this humid, moist environment where you’re surrounded by strange animal sounds, lush vegetation and walking trails that are often only barely visible? That’s exactly what it was like. I’ve never experienced nature in that form, almost untouched and a dominant force when compared with humans.

And only a short drive away are beautiful coastlines of white sand beaches, farmlands that grow everything from olives to opium (the Cap’n told me that the area around Geeveston is one of the major suppliers of opium to the medical industry), deep gorges, and tall, treeless mountains.

There is a national park almost every 50 kilometers, and as they should be, they’re relatively untouched by man.

And if you get tired of the outdoors? Well, there’s always Hobart, larger than you would think a town in Tasmania would be.

I’ve already thought about when I’ll come back and what I’ll do. The Overland Track from the north of the Cradle Mountains to the South is a popular trek, and I’d love to devote the time to do it properly. The northwest area is also supposed to have spectacular parks and cultural areas and it was the one part of the country I missed. I’d also consider coming to Hobart, or a small town like Geeveston, and doing some work for a while. Hobart is actually a very nice little town. Not too big that you get lost in it, but not too small that there’s nothing to do.

But in the end, what I’ll miss the most is driving around in that beat up car with those three guys, trying to navigate our way around a foreign land. I am so grateful that I got to share that experience with them.

My recommendation? Just go. And you know what, don’t bother checking the weather, don’t buy a waterproof tent, don’t take your car in for a tune-up, and for god’s sake don’t plan a thing until you’re 20 km outside the city. Talk to everyone: the guy at the gas station, the lady in the pharmacy, the owner of the hostel; they’ll give you the best advice about how to spend your time. Just make sure you change your socks often, you have plenty of CDs for the road, and you have some people with you. Adventures like this don’t need anything more than that to get started, call it a cheap thrill. You can thank me later. On second thought, just promise me you’ll send me all of your stories and we’ll call it even.