Best Break Ever Part 2: Don’t get run over by a car…or a bike…or a tram…

My story of Melbourne starts with the trams, because the trams are EVERYWHERE. Melbourne apparently has the oldest tram system in the world, and it’s still a very vibrant part of the city.

Most of the trams are modern, like this one.

But a few routes, particularly the free "city circle" route that caters to tourists, still use the old-fashioned cars.

On one hand, the trams are a good way to get around. They combine the convenience of buses (you can catch them right on the street) and the efficiency of trains (they run on tracks and follow fairly predictable routes).  No matter where you want to go in Melbourne, you can probably catch a tram and get there easily.

On the other hand, though, they’re kind of annoying. Because the trams run down the middle of the road, a basic two-lane street is automatically converted into at least a four-lane. Four lanes become six, etc. As a result, it takes seemingly forever just to walk across the road.

Conveniently for pedestrians, trams follow the same laws as regular vehicles. Well, except when they don’t. So even when the “walk” sign is lit, you still have to watch out to make sure a tram isn’t barrelling down the middle of the road towards you.

A typical Melbourne street: parallel parking along the curb, eight lanes of traffic, two tram tracks, some bike lanes, and a few grassy medians thrown in for good measure.

Riding the tram itself is an interesting experience. Most of the stops are in the middle of the street, and usually (I have no idea why) in the middle of the block. Thus, you have to cross a lane or two of traffic to get to the stop. No big deal, because most of the city stops have nice raised platforms with sidewalks and shelters and benches, like a bus stop. But some stops aren’t so accomodating–they basically just dump you in the middle of the road, with only a fence seperating you from vehicular traffic and nothing but your common sense keeping you out of the path of another oncoming tram.

The ticketing system for the trams is also interesting. Each tram has a ticket machine, and the cars are theoretically patrolled by transit officers, but there is absolutely nothing preventing a passenger from travelling without a ticket. Passengers don’t board in plain sight of the driver like on a bus. There’s no physical barrier that requires a ticket to cross like on a train. So unless and until you get caught by a transit officer, it seems like it would be pretty easy to take a free ride. I didn’t see a single transit officer the entire time I was there, but of course I bought a ticket every day anyway. (It’s called Catholic guilt. And when a pass for 24 hours of unlimited travel is only $7, why not just fork over the money?)

The trams, however, aren’t the only environmentally friendly transit option in Melbourne. Biking seems to be quite popular there, providing one more moving vehicle for hapless pedestrians to watch out for. The city even has bike rental kiosks that allow passengers to borrow bikes for short trips. They’re stationed every few blocks, charge an hourly fee, and I even saw a few people actually using them.

Are you listening, Columbia, Mo.?

Once I got used to all the trams and bikes, I noticed something else about Melbourne streets: they don’t have a lot of cars. There is traffic, obviously. But the streets aren’t nearly as crowded with standard vehicles as a normal city’s are. I guess with so many other options, having a car just isn’t practical.

Just for fun, here's a photo of the mess of train tracks coming out of Southern Cross Station. Trains run to the outer suburbs of Melbourne, but people rely on trams to get around the city itself.


Best Break Ever Part 1: I’m on a Train!

My mid-semester break started way too early in the morning on April 9, when I caught a train to Central Station in Sydney to meet another train that would take me to Melbourne.  I arrived at Central approximately ten minutes before my train to Melbourne was due to depart, and thus learned the first reason that trains are better than planes. Can you imagine arriving at an airport ten minutes before your plane is taking off? Yeah, not gonna work. You’ll need at least an hour to check in, go through security, etc. But at Central Station, there was none of that. I just found the correct platform, showed my ticket to the guard, and took my seat. So simple. So refreshingly simple.

As soon as I sat down on the train, I was instantly enamoured. I got a window seat (yay!) and miles of legroom: another thing you won’t find in your average economy class airline seat. I had the two seats to myself, so I got to stretch out and relax as we travelled through the suburbs and out of Sydney.

I had neglected to eat breakfast before getting on the train, so when the conductor announced the dining car was open, I got up so fast I forgot I was in a moving vehicle and ended up running into a gentleman sitting a few rows ahead of me. Sorry, dude.

I ordered a ham and cheese croissant and a cup of tea, both of which were very satisfying. By the time I finished, we were out of the Sydney area and travelling through gently rolling farmland. It struck me as the most gorgeous thing I’d ever seen, and I realised that’s what two months in a city has done to me. Besides the one day I spent in the Blue Mountains, I’ve been surrounded by lights and tall buildings since I arrived here in February. So it was lovely to see green again.

Trees! Grass! Water!

Telephone poles!

The scenery remained unchanged for the entire 11-hour trip to Melbourne: cattle farm, sheep farm, cattle farm, sheep farm. We passed by rolling hills and tiny ponds, and through leafy patches of trees. We also stopped at about a dozen small-town stations along the way.  At each station, a few passengers disembarked and a few more joined the train. In fact, I’m pretty sure most people on the train didn’t go all the way from Sydney to Melbourne–most people who want to do that take a plane, because it’s faster and cheaper. This train primarily served people who lived in the small towns along the way and wanted to get to or from Sydney or Melbourne.  We only stopped at each station for a few minutes, so I didn’t get to explore these towns like I would have liked to.  Still, even the stations themselves were charming.

Excuse me, conductor, could I hop off here and travel back to 1949? I need to send a telegraph.

As we approached Melbourne, the sun was setting and rain was beginning to fall. By the time we got to Southern Cross Station, it was completely dark outside and definitely raining. Luckily, I’d done a little advance planning and knew which tram would get me to my hostel. I walked out of the train station and found the tram stop immediately: another advantage of trains over planes. When I flew out of Melbourne later that week, I had to pay $16 for a 30-minute shuttle ride to the airport. But when I arrived, all I had to do was walk out of the train station, and there was a $3 tram ready to take me on a 15-minute ride to my accommodation. Once again, the simplicity was refreshing.

I successfully located and checked into my first-ever hostel, The Nunnery. The building, a converted convent, is quite paradoxical. It still has lots of charming original features, like decorative moulding on the ceiling and stained glass windows above the doors. But it’s a hostel, so the bedrooms are furnished with bunk beds and littered with clothing, travel guides, miscellaneous possessions, and the occasional guitar. I slept there all four nights in Melbourne, and thoroughly enjoyed the experience, even though it turned out to be probably the least fancy of all the hostels I stayed in. Some of my room-mates were pretty interesting people, which made the experience even better.

So stay tuned for more about them–and more about Melbourne–in the next post!

I’m baaaaack!

After more than* two weeks of bus rides, hostel beds, beaches, bushwalks, meat pies and muddy jeans, I arrived back home in Sydney this morning. I know, it’s not technically home. But crossing the Harbour Bridge on my way back to college, it sure felt like it.

I’ll begin a series of proper blog posts about my adventures on Tuesday (hold me to that, okay?), but until then let me just say it was quite a trip. I saw the sun rise four times (if you know me, you know that NEVER happens). I took photos of so many beaches that they all kind of started to run together. I got a couple new passport stamps and crossed at least one thing off my bucket list. I went to Easter Vigil Mass in one country and Easter Sunday Mass the next morning in a different one.

And that’s just the beginning.

I know you can’t wait to hear all about it, so as soon as I get my computer back in a couple days, we’ll get this party started.

And if you don’t want to hear all about it, why are you reading this blog anyway?

*Edited to correct “over” to “more than.” Amy Simons, if you’re reading this, you taught me well. :)

(Temporary) Goodbyes

I’ve found that university life is a constant stream of packing, unpacking, goodbyes, and reunions. At the end of each semester, before each break, we cram our stuff into cars and hug our friends goodbye. At the end of the break, we return, unpack our gear yet again, and joyfully greet friends we haven’t seen for months–or days, depending on the break.

It’s no different for study abroad students. One of the lovely perks (just kidding) of living at DLC is that we have to move out of our rooms for mid-semester break so conference guests can sleep here. Fortunately for me, I only came here with two suitcases of stuff, so packing isn’t a huge ordeal. Still, it’s a little annoying, and I am of course surprised at the number of random items I’ve collected in the last seven weeks. I put some of my stuff into a backpack to take with me and the rest in a couple of suitcases to store in the DLC luggage storage room. I also had to take down my bulletin board, so now my room looks even emptier than usual.

Highlights include photos of people I like, a large and pretentious collection of art gallery maps, a Sydney Opera House ticket stub, a particularly vagina-looking Georgia O'Keefe painting for this month's calendar, and some aesthetically un-pleasing white space (pink space?) in the middle.

Of course, packing inevitably comes with goodbyes. I haven’t written much about them here (“The Social Network” taught me a lesson on blogging about acquaintances), but I’ve met some pretty decent people at DLC. One of them is Canadian, several are Asian, a bunch of them are American, and a few are even–can you believe it?–Australian.

Over the past two months, I’ve tramped around Sydney, had more than a few three-hour-long dinner conversations, and debated everything from healthcare to music with these people. They’ve taught me a lot and even helped me through one particularly lousy weekend when a phone call home just wasn’t going to cut it. I’m extremely blessed to have met them, and even more blessed they put up with my annoying Americanness and unavoidable snarky comments.

Me, Karen, and Ariana at the Royal Botanic Gardens. Photo courtesy Ariana.

Anthony, Sean, Raven, Vincent, Kate and me at a pub in Sydney. Photo courtesy Kate.

Tomorrow we’re having “family” dinner and movie night before we all go our seperate ways this weekend. I’ll miss them, of course, but knowing we’ll be reunited at the Royal Easter Show in two weeks (plus knowing I’ll see Ariana and Alicia in Cairns) makes it a little less painful.

The mid-semester break, fittingly, also represents the halfway point of my time in Sydney. Technically I think the halfway point is next Wednesday, but it’s not worth counting the days out. Anyway, it’s time for the traditional OMG I HAVE TO LEAVE THIS PLACE EVENTUALLY freak-out/reflection.

I’ve done a lot of freakin’ amazing stuff so far in Australia. I have no regrets about my first two months. Yet every time I check something off my Sydney must-do list, I seem to find two more things to add. So when I get back from break, I will definitely not be bored. The “OMG I leave so soon” panic hasn’t set in yet, probably because I still have 67 days here. Of course, 15 of those will be spent in other cities, so we’ll see how I feel when I get back and realise I only have, what, 52 days left in Sydney? For now, I’m operating strictly on a “carpe diem” type of policy.

I’m very excited for this break, obviously. But there’s one thing that makes me a liiittle nervous. My computer will be stored in a super-secret safe location at DLC. That’s right, I’m not taking it with me. This is slightly unsettling because I use it for EVERYTHING: looking up directions, finding public transit schedules, making plans with friends, keeping in touch with my family, and of course updating this blog.

I won’t be totally disconnected from the world: my not-so-smart-phone is equipped with easy access to Gmail and Facebook, and some of the hostels I’m staying in provide internet. Still, it will be interesting to see how many times I get lost without detailed “get on this bus at this time” directions. Thankfully, Amanda gifted me a great guidebook that will hopefully help in this regard. And yes, contrary to popular belief, I can read a map.

As for the blog? Well, I’ll be doing it the old-fashioned way–with a notepad and paper. I’ve got an empty reporter’s notebook for words and an empty SD card for pictures. When I get back to Sydney with both of these things filled up, I’ll try to edit the disorganized jumble into some blog posts you’ll like.

Until then…if you need me, I’ll be off exploring the world. Bye now!

Mass, Music, and…McDonald’s?!?!

This Sunday at 2 a.m., Daylight Savings Time ended in Australia. Unfortunately, I forgot this little detail, failed to reset my alarm clock, and missed out on the extra hour of sleep. I did, however, gain an hour of Facebook chatting with Lyndsey about the Cardinals, which was nice. (As much as I love baseball, it is, understandably, pretty low on the priority list right now.)

After getting up too early, I went to the Solemn Sung Mass at St. Mary’s Catherdral. I’ll spare you the details, except to say that it was a nice Mass and that people who use their phones during church services should be excommunicated. After the service, the men’s and boys’ choirs were singing at a fund-raising barbecue across from the church, so they all just walked outside onto the plaza in their choir robes and everything. The talking and laughing was quite an amusing juxtaposition to the solemn music they were performing during Mass just minutes before.

After Mass, I walked over to the Art Gallery of New South Wales, because it’s basically right next door.  Apparently there are free concerts in the 19th century Australian Art gallery every Sunday from 12:30-1:30. I discovered this at 12:30 and spent the next hour in pretentious classical music lover’s heaven.  I also took some photos of some of my favourite paintings at the museum.

This painting, besides being large and colorful and just a lot of fun, has an interesting story. The artist, Australian Robert Owen, painted each square one color to match his mood every 30 minutes for 80 days. I wonder if he woke himself up every 30 minutes or if sleeping time doesn't count.

If you know me, I'm sure you'll understand why I liked this one.

This one's called "The Curve of the Bridge" and was painted by Sydneysider Grace Cossington Smith in 1928-9, while the Harbour Bridge was under construction. I can't explain why I love this painting so much. Maybe because it's so quintessentially, unmistakably Sydney.

I left the museum and took the harbourside path through the Royal Botanic Gardens to Circular Quay. Sydney Harbour deserves its own blog post, and it will get one eventually. For now let me just say that if it were a person I’d marry it.

So sparkly.

By the time I tore myself away from the harbour, I was kind of hungry. I walked to George Street and found…McDonald’s. To Australian’s, it’s Macca’s. To us, it’s Mickey D’s. But either way, it’s the same concept.

Yes, I went to McDonald’s for lunch. In Sydney. But let me explain. The thing about McDonald’s is that they’re not all exactly the same. Each one is a little different. I’ve heard some in Florida serve clam chowder, for example. So I wanted to see how Australian ones were different. Unfortunately, it’s been so long since I’ve been to an American McDonald’s that I don’t really know what a normal menu item is, so I couldn’t really compare. One thing I did notice is this McDonald’s doesn’t have a dollar menu. It has a $2 menu, and there are like three items on it. Gotta love a city where you can buy literally nothing for less than $1.

I ordered a cheeseburger value meal ($4.75) with a Coke. And guess what it tasted like?  A McDonald’s cheeseburger value meal. With fries and a Coke.

So now I know. The buildings and menus may look slightly different, but McDonald’s food tastes the same everywhere. Curiousity satisfied and experiment concluded, I took the train back to college, where I enjoyed some real food–an ice cream sundae.

Oh, and I guess I had dinner too.

Help me plan mid-semester break?

I haven’t left the Sydney/North Ryde/Blue Mountains general area since landing at the airport on February 13. Over mid-semester break, that will change. I get kicked out of my college for two whole weeks (sixteen days, actually), so I really have no choice but to go out and explore Australia. I’m not bored with Sydney yet–not even close–but I’m excited to see some other parts of the country. What will I be doing, exactly? Well, let’s take a look at my itinerary, shall we?

Saturday: Train ride from Sydney’s Central Station to Melbourne’s Southern Cross Station. I don’t know why I’m choosing to spend 11 hours on a train instead of 1.5 on a plane. Oh wait, yes I do. It’s because the train station is more convenient than the airport, and trains are awesome.

Saturday night-Wednesday morning: Explore Melbourne, the city I probably would’ve lived in if Mizzou offered an internship as part of the program. Still, no regrets here. In Melbourne, I plan to:

Sleep in a converted convent

– Catch a few shows at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, including a show full of female comedians (Deja Vu really needs to get on that) and another show called “Grammar Don’t Matter on a First Date.” Too perfect.

– Go to Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral

Ride the world’s oldest continuously operating roller coaster at Melbourne’s Luna Park

Check out an exhibit on Disney films at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image

Indulge my pretentious/hipster side at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art

Get locked up (not really) at the Old Melbourne Gaol

Enjoy Melbourne’s Royal Botanic Gardens (Sydney’s will be a tough act to follow)

Check out an exhibition on the history of Australian women in the Army

Ride the tram. Of course.

Once I get all these things accomplished, hopefully I’ll have some time left over to just wander around Melbourne. It sounds like a wonderful city, and I’ve been wanting to go there for quite some time.

I’ll be leaving Melbourne Wednesday morning, spending an hour or so in the Brisbane airport, then arriving in Cairns Wednesday afternoon. Here’s my itinerary for Cairns:

– Snorkel in the Great Barrier Reef

– Um….

Obviously, I’m going to Cairns to see the reef. I will not–will NOT–leave this country without doing so. I haven’t booked a snorkeling expedition yet, because the number of options is overwhelming and I’m having a crisis of indecision. But I will definitely be doing so in the next few days. After that, I’ll still have a couple days in Cairns. I have no idea what I’m doing with them yet. I’d love to take the Savannahlander train into the Queensland outback, but it’s really expensive (especially for single travellers) and I’m not sure I can justify the price. So I may just end up hanging around Cairns with Ariana and exploring the nearby World Heritage-listed Daintree Rainforest.

At 11 pm on Saturday, I’ll board a plane to Auckland, New Zealand. I hope it’s a comfortable one, because otherwise I’ll be quite a sleepless mess when I land in New Zealand at 5:30 a.m. At this point, though, a little less sleep for a $40 savings is a tradeoff I’m willing to make.

I’ll spend Sunday exploring Auckland, including going to Palm Sunday Mass at yet another St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Yes, I’m aware my Catholic is showing. Thanks for pointing that out.

Then on Monday, I’m joining a sort-of tour of the North Island. I booked an expedition that includes a guide and transport to four different towns. It’s a hop-on-hop-off tour, so in theory I can spend as much time as I want in each place. (In reality, I only have seven days in New Zealand.)  I’m hoping it will give me the flexiblity to do what I want at each place, while still providing the convenience of a guided tour. I’ll probably plan most of this week as I go, but there are two things I know I want to do for sure: visit the glow worm caves in Waitomo, and go zorbing in Rotorua. There are a few reasons I’m choosing to spend almost a week in New Zealand:

– I’ve heard it’s really beautiful.

– I’ll probably never be in this part of the world again, at least not for a while.

– I’ll get another passport stamp.

– The New Zealand dollar is currently worth about 73 Australian cents. At this point, I can’t afford NOT to go to New Zealand.

My tour will depost me back in Auckland on Saturday, and Sunday morning I’ll catch yet another painfully timed flight–this one at 6:15 a.m.–back to Sydney.  I will drag myself to Easter Mass at St. Mary’s Cathedral, and then….?

Monday and Tuesday are both public holidays in Australia (Easter Monday and Anzac Day observed, respectively), so I don’t have to go back to school or work until Wednesday. Monday, some people and I are going to the Royal Easter Show at Sydney Olympic Park. I’ve been excited for this event since I found out it existed. We’ll see if my love for state fairs transcends national boundaries.

I can’t move back into my college until Tuesday, so I’ll hopefully end up spending Sunday and Monday nights at the home of a friend who actually lives in Sydney. Or the floor of a friend who lives in my college. Or a hostel. Or something.

Anyway…that’s my break in a nutshell (a very, very large nutshell).

What do you think? Any must-dos I’m missing in Cairns, Melbourne, or the north island of New Zealand?

Any advice on which snorkelling tour to take at the Reef?

Any generous donations to the “Angie wants to ride the Savannahlander” fund?

Any requests for photos of koalas, kangaroos, or emus?

Just kidding, I already acknowledged those.