Monthly Archives: November 2011

A Peruvian in Australia: First Impressions of Melbourne

I hadn’t done much research on Melbourne. I had heard from everyone I asked that it was a very lively and pretty city. In fact just days before I arrived it was named ‘Most Liveable City In the World’. The virtual guide during the flight from Auckland called it the “Paris of the Southern Hemisphere”. I was certainly excited about my new hometown.

Melissa took me on a tour of the city centre on my first weekend. This time the guide was being guided. So many new things to get used to. Another tricky one was to get used to cross streets looking first to the right because in Australia people drive on the left, as in England. Hadn’t been for Mel I think I would have been run over that very weekend by a tram. Melbourne loves its trams but pedestrians not so much. Though useful, accidents happen all the time either cause tram stops are in the middle of the street and a passenger descending gets run. In fact this is the only city where cars have to do ‘hook turns’ in orders for trams to pass, so if you thought driving on the left was complicated enough think again. I can’t wait to get my driver’s license!

We visited Eureka Tower, the highest building in Melbourne. We took the ‘lifts’ to the observatory on level 88. The elevators are proud to take you up there in 30 seconds! From up there I could see the city’s highlights: ‘Jeff´s Shed’ or the Melbourne Exhibition Center, Etihad stadium, the Yarra River, the Aquarium, the Bolte bridge, Flinders Street train station, the Pacific Ocean and the docklands a bit further…Melbourne is Australia’s 2nd largest city with around 4 million people and the city is a combination of old and new. Old being around the 1850’s and new being very modern. Some of the first settlers came during the Gold Rush of the 1850’s from all over the world. In fact Eureka Tower’s top floors are covered in a golden layer made of actual gold.

Eureka Tower with its gold layer top floors with the Yarra River before.

St Paul's and Flinders Street train station.

I had a free week before starting school and I dedicated it to walking around the CBD (City Bussiness Centre), as locals call it. Melbourne Museum was a highlight. The museum shows you the history of the city as well as a collection of stuffed animals which makes a good introduction to the odd fauna of this continental island: kangaroos, wallabies, echidnas, koalas, platypuses, Tasmanian devils as well as other animals now extinct. Funnily, on my way to the museum I chatted for a little bit with a volunteer from a conservation NGO who told me that Australia is the country in the world that has had more animal extinctions. A shame when you realize that all the wildlife is so different here.

Butterfly collection at Melbourne Museum

One of the permanent shows at the Melbourne Museum is on Aboriginal culture, a people that I am fascinated with. Art, History, tales and video installations where Aboriginal people talk of their life style are in place. This subject is particularly delicate in Australian history.  In states like Victoria Aboriginals were pretty much vanished and most of their culture disappeared with them. In the rest of the country, from what I’ve heard, their numbers are still small (especially if compared to the past) and they face trouble such as alcoholism, unemployment, many are in jail, racism, languages dissapearing. Sounds a lot like what happened to the Native Americans in the US. I’m afraid I will have to search hard to actually be able to know them little. On the streets I have not been able to see someone who looks Aboriginal, so my guess is that they are segregated and live on the countryside.

Still, Melbourne is a pot of multi-culture and a very cosmopolitan city. Walking on the city centre one can see Asian girls dressed on miniskirts and Siberian-like boots (at the same time), muslim women wearing the ‘bourka’ or the whole tunic that only shows their eyes at supermarkets,  men speaking Hindi,  a Chinatown, a Greek precint, Italian restaurants everywhere (and I wouldn’t be surprised an arm of the mafia too), an Irish St Paul’s church. How not to feel home in such a foreign playground?

Passport collage at Immigration Museum

But Australia wasn’t always like this. A visit to the Immigration Museum (this was love at first sight for me, a city that has a museum dedicated to immigration!, think about it…) teaches us about the people that came to Melbourne, the Gold Rush, the ‘white Australia policy’, the thick aussie accent, and how today this country is one that greets people and refugees from all over the world. In fact a few countries have their second largest population in Australia and not within their territories.

But Melbournians, wherever they are from, are always talking about one thing: the weather. It’s reputation as a city with highly variable weather is famous. The band Crowded House has a song named ‘Four Seasons in One Day’ which is a game of words that makes reference to the weather here. It’s also a pretty cool song. I think being the weather forecaster in this city must be one of the most difficult jobs in the world, mostly because it’s impressive to me how much people rely on it here. In Lima, Perú we don’t bother though there is such a thing as the weather forecast. In fact Melbourne’s weather is not that different from Lima, if anything a little colder and less humid.

While walking around one day I found myself in the middle of a parade. I remember Melissa had told me “our parades are nothing like yours”. I was about to witness one of the true passions of Victorians: the grand-final-of-footy-parade. ‘Footy’ is how they call ‘fútbol’ or football here. But this is not American football or what others call soccer. Footy is Australian football or AFL (Australian Football League) and is massive here. A mix of rugby and American football (though not as boring), aussie football once again steals a name that does not correspond to a sport where hands are essential to the game. The final match was all over the news and the players of the 2 teams that reached it were about to wave hello to thousands of fans wearing the colours of their teams. Not only that, after the final there was a gala night were prizes to the ‘Best of the Year’ were awarded and, judging by the media coverage it was like the Champions League final for Europeans or the Copa Libertadores final for South Americans. I was even invited to a grill-party to watch the game! I was not gonna discuss there that a sport named football involves a foot and a ball, but I was glad to be invited and mingle among the aussies. However, I had noticed a few symptoms of homesickness…

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A Peruvian in Australia: The Trip Begins…

Santiago Arturo Merino International

I’m at Santiago airport. Been here for 12 hours already. And I have 20 more to look forward to, at least. No, I’m not trying to break a record. I’m just stranded here ´cause someone pushed the wrong button. It’s funny how the things we deem so high, such as technology, can sometimes turn a simple plane connection into a nightmare. I’m trying to get to Melbourne, Australia. Melissa is waiting for me there. We haven’t seen each other in about 3 months. Just last night we were saying “only a few more hours darling…”

It happened that the person who checked me in in Lima checked my bags only until Auckland, New Zealand – not to my final destination in Melbourne. So when I arrived in Santiago and I went to check in, first they tell me that I’m late even though I was at the gate at boarding time. But I was supposed to go to another counter when I arrived, if only there had been someone to tell me that or a good sign. And though I walked the whole airport during my 7 hour-stopover, I never ran into a single person of LAN Airlines to give information.

So when I had finally checked in and all was ready for me to go aboard they realised that my bags were checked to Auckland, then they tell me I can’t board. Why? Because I have no visa to New Zealand. Seems complicated, doesn’t it? Well, it isn’t! Please read it again and tell me if the airline logic makes any sense to you.

This means the solution for LAN was that I had to leave the plane at Auckland and go get my bags and then check in again. Impossible without a visa. And I wonder how difficult this is to sort out without me getting down the plane in the era of communications? Well, it made me lose my flight, so I’m guessing it’s a very difficult issue.I guess I just don’t understand the rules of civil aviation these days.

So now I’m stranded at Santiago airport. It’s 4.11am. I have slept 3 hours. Not tonight but last night. I’m on my 3rd beer after 5 coffees (at least). I can’t go downtown Santiago cause it’s too late and there’s no public transport  because it’s national holiday and most stores are closed. And I’m would have to pay 50$ for a cab. I have my bags with me, 46 kilos of what is now ALL of my stuff. I would’ve left them in a locker but I’m don’t want anything else going wrong now.I’m waiting for the airline people to show up to claim some kind of help from them. At least a hotel room will do but they don’t seem to be very helpful around here.

This is how a simple air transfer turns into a nightmare. With all the expectations high, my girlfriend waiting for me, dinner reservations having been made….But we can see the funny side. In fact that’s why I write this. Can’t you see it? I guess one day I will laugh about it. All I can do now is grin and think that this kind of incident, let’s name it  ‘ The airline new guy factor’, is the type of thing that happens,  it’s why people love and hate South America. Sure, big cliche. The lady next to me on the counter had the same problem, but she got in the plane.

Moral of the story  would be something out of Murphy’s law: whatever can go wrong will go wrong when you least expect it. Take it easy, try to laugh about it, after all, drama and comedy are just one step away from each other. Oh, and don’t choose LAN to fly if you have another  choice, please.

Grumpy and sleepy

Melissa called me with good news around noon: she had booked a room at the Holiday Inn right next to the airport. I headed straight there with my 46kilo-trolley and my I-haven’t-slept-in-2-days-face. The room was beautiful, with a massive TV and a lovely shower. It seemed bigger than the time I was gonna spend there so I tried to make use of all the facilities, toiletries, etc. I headed back to the airport after a failed attempt to nap a couple hours. I had to know when was I flying to Melbourne. The people who wouldn’t let me onboard said there was a flight the next day (today). Once again it was not easy to find a LAN person. When I found one the bad news was that there is no flight until tomorrow. The good news was that my place was being ‘protected’. At least I knew I was on a flight out of Santiago and that was something. Now my mission was to go and claim a decent treat. I decided to file a complaint.

Amazingly modern airports such as Santiago’s can be very pretty and efficient but when it comes to people helping people I had the impression I  was witnessing a bunch of monkeys trying to drive a car. No kindness or good advice. First I tried Taca Airlines to pay for my hotel, after all it was one of their employees who messed up my bags. They refused. They said all they could do was to offer meal coupons to eat at the airport. A small victory. With LAN it was even less encouraging. To find a way to actually complain at that airport would be the equivalent to finding a needle in a gigantic hay stack. Their customer service office seemed perversely designed not to be found. But I complained with LAN and with the airport authorities as well. I heard back from one of them, I will let you guess who did not.

Finally I went to bed after a short swim at the hotel’s pool and a relaxing moment at the hydro massage. Now this was decent treat! I was exhausted but happy that the next day I would finally (and hopefully) be on a plane to Australia.

After check out I headed to LAN to check in my bags at the Frequent Flyer counter. No problem with that after a little explanation to the person there. It seemed I was on my way. Without the bags I set on to do a few errands around the airport: send postcards, get a plug adaptor for Australia, buy locks for my bags (I wasn’t gonna take ANY more risks). I was so bored of the sameness of the place that I was starting to feel like that character in the Tom Hanks movie who lives in an airport.

But I got in the plane and the plane took off and I slept like a baby and I landed in Auckland 13 hours after. I couldn’t believe it. This time the first thing I did was find the counter of my connection flight to Melbourne. Once again I had to explain what had happened and judging by the expression on the face of woman behind the counter, it was trouble. She put me on the phone with another guy and I had to explain it one more time. This time the man on the other side of the line asked “you say this happened with LAN?…yeah, this happens all the time; no worries mate, you will fly today”. If I understood well this was a pretty common happening. Just to be sure I asked the woman behind the counter. “You’d be amazed” was her reply. May a word suffice to the wise.

I made it on that plane too. After 2 days stuck on an airport and a 13 hour flight, going from Auckland to Melbourne felt like a short domestic flight. All the rugby fans going to see the world cup stayed at Auckland and by the time I arrived in Melbourne the queues to be checked at customs were massive. That just made me remember how my trip began in Lima with my 3 spicy sauce jars being confiscated because they were too large to be carried on the plane (to think that THAT made me mad then!). Melissa had warned me about Australian customs, she thought THAT was gonna be the reason why I was going to be delayed, ha! Behind me on the queue there was a girl on a connecting flight and she was worried she was going to miss it. I offered her to go ahead of me, after all I had 46 kilos to be checked. Lucky or not, I went after and all I had to do was answer a couple questions and I was in. My heart was racing, nervous from head to toe, I couldn’t believe the new stamp on my passport and less could I conceive Melissa was waiting outside the room for me. When I came out of the (wrong) door there she was, standing in a flower dress, beautiful, with a balloon that read ‘welcome home’.  Together at last.

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