Melbourne, a note

The moment I disembarked from the plane, I knew this was going to be an experience I’d never have imagined. As I walked into the chilly Melbourne streets shrouded by patches of dark and light clouds, melding into one, meandering through the skies, I fell in love. 

It wasn’t the first time that I’d taken such a string liking to a city. Melbourne is home to millions of heart beats, yet it thrives with a unique pulse that matches none other’s. Every iconic city is iconic for a reason, and I was about to discover Melbourne’s.

Sure enough, when I left my hotel ten minutes after checking in, it was still mid afternoon on a Saturday, and the central business district (or CBD) bustled with wanderers—tourists and locals alike—coffee or iced tea in hand, exploring the various nooks and crannies of the painted city. The first noticeable thing about Melbourne is the immensity of people. Though not as dense as Chennai, where I lived for six years, it’s still a haven for lots of shuffling bodies.

Stumbling into people from all over the world, I followed the directions on my map to an alleyway. Melbourne is the only place where alleyways are so versatile that they’re tourist attractions, shelters for the homeless, getaways for smokers, canvases for artists overflowing with talent—all in one.

One side of the city boasts vintage Victorian architecture, every brick instilled within screaming grandeur, while on the other side are rows upon rows of these oiled up walls carved with emotions, philosophy, and outcomes of deep-rooted fear of (and for) society. It was as if the artists of the city exclaimed, “Look, wall!” and went crazy all over it.

Nodding to a tune in my head and smiling at the tens of unrecognisable languages that floated through the air into my ear, I realised Melbourne is far more multicultural than any other city I’ve been to. And I’ve been to San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York. Although, in many aspects, Melbourne resembled New York to me. The city’s weirdness reminded me of the vagueness and unpredictability that hung around me in NYC.

My gut feeling only solidified as the day wore off and darkness blanketed over the neighbourhood. All of a sudden, musicians popped up in street corners, strumming their creativity through empty glass bottles, metal serving plates, and brass cymbals.

Unsurprisingly, onlookers gathered, dropping jaws, filming videos, cheering on, laughing and dancing to the tunes. It was a carnival on the street, where everyone forgot their problems—overdue bills, medical appointments, insurance claims, tax returns—for a few minutes and surrendered themselves to the moment.

It was past 10 pm—bright, noisy, teeming with life. Wonderful.

The next day when I stepped out of my hotel, a pop-up coffee vendor greeted me with a wide smile and a “Hiya, mate!” I didn’t think—my mouth split wide in joy and I reciprocated with all the enthusiasm I could muster. His hello kept the spring in my step throughout the day and I felt myself bouncing on my toes as I walked down street after street, marvelling one moment at the brilliant architecture and then at the lack of creativity in naming roads—Little Burke Street came after Burke Street. Then came Collins and Little Collins—I felt amused, but also thankful for it was easy to remember.

While the CBD sported such names, a little further away, outside of the heart of all the bustle, weirder and quirkier names popped out at me. Hosier Lane was home to some of the greatest graffiti I’ve seen. Literature Lane, appropriately named, was rather glum and ignored. Chopper Lane sported a dog that watched a fish swim away, and AC/DC Lane celebrated the height of rock music that once moved the world. Colours bright and dark mapped faces, caricatures, buildings, and stories, narratives that’ve survived years of camera flashes, oohs, and ahhs, and pointing of fingers.

Melbourne turned out to be so much more than I imagined. It was bright and airy and cheery, but also dark, dreary, and gothic. I loved every bit of it.

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Spring greens in Sydney

When I moved to Australia in April, we were gob-smack in the middle of Autumn. Five hundred shades of red and yellow and green filled my eyes with wonder and brimmed my soul with glee. Every time I heard the crunch of whittled leaves, orange-ing before browning, before being swept away in a flurry of breeze, my heart skipped a beat. All my life I’d dreamt of fall and the moment I saw it, I fell in love.

And then came winter. 

And I realised the first experience of anything is always cherish-worthy. I lived through my first winter shivering, but also dropping my jaw at the barren white eucalyptus trees whose land we’d encroached. I walked along the Lake Ginninderra every day, inhaling breathtaking freshness that came with a stinging white breeze. I was so inspired and awestruck that I showered my blog with haiku and photographs. 

And now it’s spring.

I spent the last couple of weeks travelling to Auckland, Sydney, and then Melbourne attending corporate conferences and presenting in each city. As nerve wracking as it was, I still managed to get away, to get time for myself to scale volcanoes in Auckland and to tread on a sheen of valleys in Sydney. 

The first time I was in Sydney was last June, and Vivid Festival was in full blow. As is customary for any traveller, I took the ferry across to Manly and back. It felt like a massive achievement. But alas, I couldn’t visit the botanical gardens.

This time, I knew I’d rectify my mistake. And I couldn’t have picked a better time to go. On a Saturday morning, I checked out from my hotel early (I was flying to Melbourne later in the day), and wandered off to the botanical gardens. It was a mere five-minute walk from my hotel—perks of travelling for work.

Royal Botanical Gardens, Sydney

When I got there, an expanse of green waved at me. As always, my mouth slipped into a permanent smile. First volcanoes and now this—I was having the trip of my life. A little light headed and a lot light hearted, I made my way around the garden. It’s a massive space full of native plants and flowers, studded with small waterfalls, fountains, and rock formations.

Thousands of flowers were in their prime, blooming out of trees, from behind bushes, and peering through the ground softening up dry parched land that winter had left in its wake. Pristine is an understatement.

As I climbed up a flight of stairs towards the street, saying goodbye at the gates were the four seasons and their dedicated statues. Autumn and winter held goblets, as they should, and summer considered shedding her cloak. And darling spring with a halo over its head, smiled in silence as I bade a reverent farewell. 

Statue of spring - Royal Botanical Gardens, Sydney

Until next time.

Climbing volcanoes

When I first heard that I’d be travelling to Auckland for a conference, I did the usual happy dance. I was going away for a few days, and to an exotic place I’ve never been to. For months I’d fantasied about the Te Aurora hiking trail that runs through the north and south islands of New Zealand, covering all historic and culturally-significant sites. It’s a 3000 kilometre trek, one that’d take 3 months for an experienced hiker and about 8 months for me. 

But that’s all I knew about New Zealand. Pathetic, I know. Which is why excitement ballooned in me as I clambered on to my flight, scarf and jacket on, ready to face the unknown weather conditions the kiwis were conditioned to.

Welcome to Auckland - airport entrance

When I landed at 12:30 am, it was chilly and breezy. But hey, I’m from Canberra—chilly and breezy is my jam now. I’d researched and planned to take the public bus system all the way to my hotel, a mere 500 metres from the bus stop. What I didn’t anticipate, though, is the lack of meals in my flight. Argh, vegan problems.

I touched down with a rumbling stomach, and the only place open at 2 am (security checks are a pain in the ass) that isn’t a McDonalds or Hungry Jacks was another burger place: Lord of the Fries—a complete, vegan junk food chain. Oh, well.

Dumping the public transport system, I chose the capitalist corporatism of Uber to feed myself. When I slept that night, it was 3:40 am and Batman was on television.

Every time I’m in a new place, my energy levels are so high that it baffles me. I was up and charged to explore at 9 am. I soon realised how cool Auckland’s public transportation system is: their bus card, called AT HOP, comes in two variants—a standard plastic card like the rest of the world or a key tag for practicality. Of course I went for the key tag! 

With a dangling key tag full of bus cash, the streets had become my oyster. Wandering around the neighbourhood, I went past the Sky Tower, spotting it from everywhere I stood. It’s a telecommunications and observation tower in the heart of the city, and like any massive piece of architecture, a tourism magnet. I’d seen a few towers to know my money’s better off someplace else, but I did take plenty of photos for free.

Sky Tower in Auckland

After all, Canberra has its own tower—the central point of focus for many a camera folk and sun gazers.

So far Auckland seemed abundant in glorious buildings. And every shop—cafes, restaurants, bars, quoted reasonable prices. Auckland is far more affordable than what I’d become used to. Nothing to complain. 

When I looked up activities nearby, my top hits were Mount Eden and One Tree Hill. Two dormant volcanoes, havens for trekkers. Bring it on, I thought as I traced the route first to Mt. Eden.

Panoramic view from Mount Eden, Auckland

The bus got me there in about thirty minutes from the city. As I ascended, I came across a notice board declaring the Mt. Eden trek as part of the coast to coast walking trail—the same Te Aurora I’d had my eyes on for ages. Elated, I told myself this’d be a practice session for when I’m indeed ready for the actual one.

Coast to Coast Walkway sign at Mount Eden, Auckland

It was easy enough. Joy and excitement are great motivators when you’re climbing a hill far more massive than yourself. I felt a spring in my step with every forward step. I smiled at trees, chuckled at bushes bursting with blossoms, and marvelled at the study ground that pushed me back as I pressed down on it. 

All around me, nature showered in hundreds of shades. Flowers in yellow, white, purple, and red laughed at me as I scaled their home, welcoming but also doubtful—as if they weren’t sure I’d make it all the way up the mountain. Ha, I never shun from a challenge like that.

View from Mount Eden, Auckland

Breathing in some of the freshest air I’ve experienced, I powered through. The higher I went, the more I saw of a deep gash in the ground. A valley sunk downwards, a clear sheen of grassland except it looked like a mountain turned inside out.

When I got to the top I saw it for what it was: a massive hole in the hill, covered with green, green, and more green.

Mount Eden, Auckland

As I looked around at the city, spotting the Sky Tower and the thousands of miniature homes that housed Aucklanders, I knew I was in utopia.

Sitting on a pile of rocks not long after that, basking in the rather hot sun, I savoured my raw chocolate caramel slice, engulfed in the uplifting scent of wet plants. 

It only got better as I left for One Tree Hill.

This one had more plains to walk through before the actual climb up. A well-paved pathway led me through light green meadows spotted with darker bushes, water tanks, sheep, and tiny humans scurrying across the vastness that enveloped them. 

On the way to One Tree Hill, Auckland

Unlike Mount Eden, the higher I went on One Tree Hill, the more greenery I saw patched by the unmistakable signs of human. I’ve always hated people’s irresistible urge to leave marks in places, to emboss their presence, to shove their opinions and fantasies on unassuming nature. And yet, there it was—a massive heart carved on the ground, names of long lost lovers scratched into the earth, without the least regard. Love can be so cruel at times.

At the top stands a tower, a memorial for Sir John Logan Campbell. Scotsmen Cambell and Willian Brown were the first Europeans to settle in the region, and together they built the first house and set up the first shop. Campbell was also a member of parliament and a prominent social figure before that. No wonder he’s called the Father of Auckland.

Daylight lingered as I descended from the hill. Spring had reached Auckland and I set out to wander the streets—there was still so much to see. But first, coffee. And some glorious raw treats. Well, why not?

Hello, joey

When my friend heard I’d been in Australia for four months and hadn’t seen a live kangaroo (I’d only seen dead ones along the highway), she took it upon herself to fix my life.

We were going to the Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve, the day after it snowed in Canberra. When I woke up (much later than usual), sunlight was streaming through the blinds I’d drawn the previous night. Jumping to my feet in panic, I coffeed, stretched, and showered in record time. Unboxing my thermal t-shirt that’d been shelved for almost a couple months, I told myself it was time to layer up.

By the time I got out the door, jacket, beanie, moisturiser, and some sourdough stuffed into my backpack, my friend and her husband had been waiting for 30 minutes. 

It was a cold Saturday afternoon, and even though the sun faked bravado, it was no use in the face of gale winds the speed of 50km/h. End-winter sure seemed worse than mid-winter, and I shivered as the breeze nuzzled through my wet hair strands. Apologising profusely, I snuggled into the warmth of air conditioning.

And we were off. All the way to Tidbinbilla to see kangaroos and whatever else we could set our eyes on. And boy, what a journey it was.

Road trips excite me unlike any thing else. While most people would chatter, laugh, and nod away to wonderful music, I’d rather let my aimless eyes wander as we pass by fields upon fields of green and brown smeared trees, peeling white eucalyptus barks striking power poses against the dotted blue skies. Beauty of such kind hits me dumb. And sure enough, as we waded our way through the curving street, weaving through yellowish greenery that defied all rules of winter, bright and nourishing like citrus-infused broccoli, all I could do was stare at the unapologetic expanse of nature.

A sudden “look!” from my friend turned our heads. Two large flightless, fright less, birds, their heads down, mushroom backs protruding, hunted the ground for edibles. I’d only seen emus in pictures before. We swerved out of the street and parked in a campsite nearby. We waddled our way into the wilderness, and I soon gave up trying to avoid squashing the ubiquitous droppings that made up our path. The birds cared naught about the three shivering, decked up, humans that’d invaded their privacy. We watched as one of them stepped over sticks and stones with its lanky feet, webbed toes flipping ever so slightly in the breeze. The other dropped a massive shit storm, thoroughly unabashed by its nakedness.

As we explored our surroundings, we walked into more droppings, some set and square, some round and rolling, some wet, most dry and smashed, blending into the rain soaked grasslands. 

And then we stopped. A mob stared at us from the distance. From no where, kangaroos had galloped over and paused in their pursuit of jumpiness to turn around and offer us a glance. I was elated. I looked squarely into the curious eyes of an adolescent kangaroo standing behind a thin, weak-limbed tree, and it looked back, just as fascinated about me as I was about it. A few others had stopped too, looking around at different directions before hopping away into the trees. But my kangaroo friend held my gaze for a good five seconds before dismissing my interest in a flurry of sand rising from its jumping feet. I swelled in joy—I’d seen a kangaroo at last. And it had seen me back too.

I couldn’t wait to get to Tidbinbilla. I was addicted, craving more.

When we got there about fifteen minutes later, the kangaroo abode was our first stop. Three of them sat in a field of emptiness. What more could they want? We stepped out of the car, snuggled into beanies and rain jackets, and approached the closest one. It didn’t even look up at us. So intent was it on the uninteresting sheen of grass at its feet. Afraid of startling it, we remained still, watching its mundane nibbling. As still as us, the rest if its body stood unflinching, even though patches of its fur flurried in the icy wind. Watching it eat its boring food was less boring than I’d imagined. And so we stood for a good few minutes, observing what was clearly a feast, when suddenly a pink sausage poked out between its feet. Like accidentally putting your hand in hot water, the pink whatever pulled right back in as quickly as it had shot out.

My friend and I exchanged raised eyebrows. Our minds wandered through ungraceful plains trying to discern what that could’ve been. As if to clarify, something rummaged and we realised it was a pouch hosting a living being within. Affirming, a slender tail, like a single strand of rice noodle,  slithered out before it went back into the comfort of its home. It was the most pristine moment of life, and we watched for quite a long time, waiting, hoping, the joey would grace us with its face. And it did. First came the tiny nose, followed by pin pricks for eyes and a dollop of ears. Poking its head through the pouch, it tried to grab a particularly long thread of grass that seemed to tease, just beyond its reach. And all the while, the mother grazed on, unaware or unperturbed by the weight in her belly getting hungry. Unsatisfied with the spread before her, she galloped away to the other side of the field, her joey still protruding in curiosity.

And I felt complete. I’d seen more than a kangaroo. I’d seen life in its most natural form, in its undomesticated, unaltered state. 

For the next three hours, we walked along a few trails, spotting wallabies, a group of koala bears, one of which shuffled about with a joey of her own on its back, a bandicoot, and a few platypuses plopping in and out of the water. And throughout, alternating rain, snow, and a freezing wind brushed against our faces, pushing us forward, testing us, encouraging us, and numbing our bodies and minds with its suffocating beauty.

Having inhaled a cup of coffee, we pulled out of the reserve and were heading out into the open road when another “look!” screeched the tires. The day wasn’t over—for there sat one on a roof and another on a Eucalyptus tree, two kookaburras their yellow and brown stripped tails flipping, blue patches flashing, as if nature, unable to assign a colour to the bird, had thrown in a bit of everything. 

They asked to be gawked at.

We obliged.

It was the best damn day of my life.

The feeling of home

It’s been just over two months since I moved to Canberra, and I’ve at last started to feel like a local.

It’s nice too—I can now walk to the shop nearby without having to look at a map ten times along the way. I like knowing how many signals I need to cross before reaching the mall, and which entrances are be open later in the night. I find myself analysing the various walkways to my destination and choosing the closest or the most scenic depending on my mood.

It’s empowering in a way that I don’t have to rely on someone or a some technology to help me navigate, to help me get through every day.

That’s the life of a local—knowing the right bus stops and the frequent routes, not because you’ve memorised them but because they’ve become part of your routine. I even shrug off the little things that a someone new in town might roll their eyes at; well, that’s Canberra for ya, mate.

But it also means that I no longer feel the city the same way as a traveller does. And I felt that way for quite a while. Everywhere, I saw something worthy of a jaw drop, a closer look, a lingering moment. Everything fascinated me, and I’d willingly walk an extra kilometre to read the street names and stare at the buildings.

I don’t do that as much nowadays. Sure, I still walk four kilometres everyday around the lake just because I want to experience the many wonderful trees and birds and noises—they’re so enchantingly different every time.

However, I also see the other side. And resonate with it.

I see the things, the little annoyances, jitters, that a common person sees. I understand more about why some people don’t appreciate the new bus routes. I loved them when I arrived—extra buses, free services for a month, what’s not to love, I wondered.

Now I know how it’s affected some people’s lives. How a small change in their schedule has toppled regular commuters who find it difficult to adjust to the new system. I’d never have understood that a couple of months ago. Now, though, I can sympathise with them. And now when the old lady sitting at the bus stop tells me that the previous bus never showed up for some reason, I realise what it means to her. And the best of all, I’m now local enough to agree with her and tell her about the time I sat waiting and the bus never showed.

It’s the little things like that that make home feel homey. My lifestyle has melded into the ways of other Canberrans, so much so that I’m now a regular spectator at a local Morris dancing practice. The dancers identify me so that if we run into each other someplace else, we’d exchange a warm hello. I have events and things to do every week—people to meet, shanties to sing, writing clubs to be accountable to—things I look forward to. Things that make living in a society enjoyable and worthwhile.

That’s what it means to be local.