Daily Archives: February 14, 2010

Melbourne, Part One

Melbourne
February 7nd – 14th

flinders street station

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Melbourne was the highlight of my whirlwind trip to Australia two years ago, and once again it’s making me very happy. The Economist recently declared it the world’s 3rd most livable city (behind Vancouver and Vienna), and I’m not surprised — this place is fantastic. Excellent food, public transport, nightlife, and a great arts scene.

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You can go out anywhere in the city, have a wonderful night, and walk home alone through empty streets with no worries about your safety… that’s pretty wonderful, coming from Los Angeles.

I’m going to stay here for another ten days or so before I hit the road again. I have every intention of coming back here a few months from now, finding work and getting a proper apartment. It’s the only place I’ve been so far that clicks in terms of actually LIVING!

Superbowl Monday:

Due to the time difference, the Superbowl kicked off at 10:30am on Monday morning. I went down to The Turf Bar in the CBD to catch the game, and showed up a bit early to try to get a seat. Even showing up before 10am, the place was already packed full of people with pint glasses in hand. No seat for me.

Standing up for a few hours wasn’t the most fun thing in the world, but the game was great (woo Saints) and I met a bunch of nice American and Canadian folks.

It was easy to spot the Australians in the crowd — they were the ones wearing NFL jerseys for teams not in the game. Lots of San Diego and New England jerseys.

I met even MORE Americans that night at the hostel’s free Monday BBQ — students from Cal Poly SLO who were spending a semester in Adelaide to study wineries from a business perspective. It sounded like an awesome program, spending all day “working” with wine and having it count for school.

We put our heads together and won a round of pub trivia in the hostel bar for free drinks, but only came in 2nd place overall due to our lack of soccer knowledge. I’m pretty sure most teams were cheating using iPhones, including ours — it’s just that my Google-fu is stronger than average. There is no honor between backpackers, and I’m OK with that.

The Hostel:

I’ve been staying at a place called Urban Central. The name describes it pretty well. Nice, clean, new digs, relatively close to the center of the city. Maximum four people to a room (most places offer 4/6/8/10-bed dorms, sometimes 12-bed dorms, and one place I saw in Hobart had a 20-bed dorm), with comfortable beds and air conditioning that actually works. Lovely.

The only thing I don’t like is that it’s a very large place. Just like the place I stayed in Sydney, hundreds of people are staying here, and it’s a bit sterile and impersonal. In most of the resort towns the hostels are smaller, and full of people who are on holiday and interested in having a good time. In the cities you have more people who are staying in hostels in order to save money while going to work every day… plenty of people have no interest in having fun.

There’s free continental breakfast from 7:30-9:30am (which I’m never awake for), and free rice/pasta for people who elect to cook in the kitchen (which I have never done, and have no intention of doing), so poor backpackers love it here.

My roommates have included a French guy with a drinking problem, an Englishman-turned-Australian with a snoring problem, and an American guy with a gambling problem.

The hostel bar is big and reasonably easy to make friends in, but it seems to exist solely for the guests here. There is no way to get into the bar without walking through the hostel, so there’s a complete lack of people who wander in off of the street. In contrast, a lot of hostels around have bars which operate like separate businesses that just happen to be next door to each another. I much prefer normal-looking bars that just happen to have a ton of travelers in them, instead of weird little rooms off of the kitchen that only serve booze to hostel guests. People act a lot stupider when they feel like they aren’t in a proper bar (e.g. bringing a sack full of McDonald’s cheeseburgers into the bar, eating them with one hand while drinking Jagermeister with the other, then puking everywhere)

Melbourne Aquarium:

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Decent, but not in my Top 5. In Australia, the Sydney one is definitely better. In Los Angeles, the Long Beach one is better. Save your money — just go Scuba diving.

Fitzroy:

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Fitzroy is a suburb of the city, just northeast of the CBD. If we’re talking in terms of Los Angeles, it may be like the Silverlake / Echo Park of Melbourne. Hipster girls with cute accents! Art galleries! Music venues! Craft beer!

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Little Creatures is my favorite Australian brewery, and they have a restaurant/bar on Brunswick St. They offer free internet which is actually blazing fast (most places with “free wifi” have a slow connection and 30 poor backpackers trying to share it), and free bicycle rentals for patrons who have knocked a few back. I could see myself spending a lot of time here, even if a pint of beer is $8.50AUD.

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I’ve been advised that when I come back here to live, I’ll probably end up living in the Fitzroy area or the St. Kilda area (a Venice Beach-y suburb southeast of the city, with a beach). I’ll be spending a few days in St. Kilda next week in order to do my due diligence.

Crown Casino:

At first I thought that Urban Central was dangerously close to the Crown Casino complex for someone who enjoys Las Vegas as much as I do. Luckily for me, casinos in Australia are a pale imitation of Vegas and I don’t feel any real desire to spend an extra time there.

No free drinks. People lining up to play the shit show that is Casino War. Weird games I’ve never heard of. No blackjack tables that pay 3-to-2, only 6-to-5. Limited odds at the craps table.

I went there on Thursday night with Sean, my American roommate from Chicago. He had been drinking all day, and kept telling me to keep an eye on his spending while at the tables. When we tried to get into the casino, I was ushered right in, but he was tossed out on the spot: “Sir, you’ve had too many”. This was probably a good call on the part of security, but who am I to judge? I shrugged, and said “Sorry man, I’m going in”, and didn’t see him until the next day.

What happened to me:

I sat down at a blackjack table with some older Australian guys and an Asian mother and daughter with fat stacks of $100 chips and extremely limited English skills. Rather than playing their own hands, the Asian ladies preferred to sit out of the game but place bets on the hands of everyone else at the table.

Having someone else betting on your hand tends to make things very uncomfortable, because all of a sudden I’m betting $15 on a hand that some mean old dragon lady has $200 on, and she’s yelling at me to hit on things you’re really not supposed to hit on. When I win she’d grunt in something close to approval, but when I’d lose I’d have to listen to a nonsensical lecture: “YOU HIT WHEN I SAY!”

After donating $150 to the casino over the course of two hours, I decided to head home and call it a night.

What happened to Sean:

He tried three different casino entrances before he found one that didn’t bounce him immediately. He says he made it to a roulette table and was up around $1100 before someone recognized him as the drunk guy who had been denied entry. They started to make him leave, but after realizing that he was up over a thousand dollars, they invited him to move to a higher stakes table. After losing all of his $1100 and $400 of his own money, they finally “suggested” that he go home.

Nights out:

Believe it or not, once in awhile I get bored spending my evenings listening to backpackers trying to one-up each other with stories about how poor they are. When that happens, and I’m actually somewhere with nightlife, it’s a sign that it’s time to hit the city and meet some locals.

The only question is “Do I invite people from the hostel to come with me?”, and after some experimentation I’ve decided that the answer is a definite “no way”. Going out with friends would be great, but going out as a loosely-knit international group of strangers is just weird, and the locals don’t take you seriously.

In Melbourne there are no laws mandating that the bars and clubs shut down at a certain time. Some places are open until 1am. Some places don’t get any business until 1am. Some places are open until 7am. This makes for an incredible opportunity for shenanigans, should you fall in with a fun crowd.

I did some research online and found a few wonderful bars. In the CBD they’re all hidden in basements or up flights of stairs, perhaps in sub-alleys off of main-alleys, occasionally behind doors with no signage. Finding the places is half the fun. Everyone is always genuinely impressed that I managed to find the places, although it’s not too hard with a little determination, a good ear for muffled music, and an iPhone.

The Ding Dong Lounge in Chinatown might be my favorite place so far — I saw a great local band called Fearless Vampire Killers, and enjoyed a DJ who played classic Kinks and Pixies, as well as recent indie stuff like Animal Collective and Deerhoof, with a packed dance floor.

People are friendly, and as soon as they hear my accent the game is on. Minor celebrity status is granted, friends are made, and good times are had. On Friday night I got a bunch of phone numbers and invitations to do things later in the week. New friends Sarah and Natalie dragged me around town until 6am, and I’ll probably be meeting up with them today at a music festival. I could get used to this!

Upcoming plans:

In Melbourne until 2/23.  Let’s see how much trouble I can get into.

2/23 – 2/26: Tour from Melbourne to Adelaide via the Great Ocean Road and the Grampian National Park.
2/26 – 2/28: Tour of Kangaroo Island
3/1 – 3/2: Exploring Adelaide
3/3 – 3/12: Ten Day Tour from Adelaide to Perth. Empty beaches. Sleeping under the stars in the middle of nowhere. Swimming with sea lions.

Random:

– Some of the nicest, most wonderful girls I’ve met here have been Irish. Some of the trashiest, bitchiest girls I’ve met here have been Irish. I don’t think this is a coincidence. Irish girls are the new Gremlins. You start out with a cute little pet that you want to carry around with you everywhere, but if you get it wet or feed it after midnight all hell breaks loose.

– In the hostel bar here there are a few pool tables and arcade games. Different groups of guys have their own special ways to drink and completely ignore the women — the most ridiculous by far is the “sock a punching bag as hard as you can so a computer can assign an arbitrary score to your manliness” game. Guys come down to the bar without shirts on to flex and drink and punch a machine while the girls yawn and wait for someone to talk to them.

– It’s weird when Bar A shuts down at 1am, and you hoof it a mile down the road to Bar B, only to find that almost the entire set of people from Bar A is there too.

– I was against the idea of using a travel agency to book my upcoming tours, until I found out that it’s actually far cheaper to use one than to try to book everything yourself. Not only did the people at Peterpans Adventure Travel save me a ton of money and handle all of the logistics for me, they also gave me free beer (good), educated me about the current state of Australian rap music (bad), and acted out their favorite Will Ferrell sketches and scenes from Eastbound and Down for me (so bad it was good).

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