Monday, June 20, 2011

Perth - A Chronology of Learnings

In Round 12 of the AFL (10-13 June) a three-day trip to Perth, primarily to see Essendon v. Fremantle, became a six-day adventure of mishap, mistake, luck and lessons.

Homelessness, ash clouds, anxiety, sleep depravation, medication withdrawal, chainsaw juggling, footy, beers and mates. It was memorable.

So I’m writing a recap, through a chronology of learnings.

Lesson 1: Melbourne's airport bus service (probably) isn't so bad
Buses have an enduring perception of being the inferior mode of public transport. I think it’s the absence of tracks – a reassuring visual cue that something will come be eventually to pick you up, and you can see exactly where its going (on Google Maps anyway).

I’ve bussed between many cities and airports yet, despite living in Richmond, using the SkyBus service to Melbourne airport had never even occurred to me before my English backpacker housemate did so.

Before I could get too far along that train (err, bus…) of thought though, my parents were offering – by which I mean ‘insisting’ – to drop me at the airport for my 10pm flight.

It was unnecessary, would actually be no quicker for me and a hassle for them, but I couldn’t refuse their needy generosity.

Before we’d even left tensions arose over my casual, ‘I’ll figure it out’ attitude to landing in Perth at 1am and getting to the hostel against their anxiety around a young man alone in dark streets.

I didn’t even know why they both needed to come to the airport to drop me off but tension was in the air, though Dad did attempt light conversation. But when the ride to the airport feels longer than the flight to Perth, you realise you probably made a bad choice. The SkyBus would have been so easy and peaceful.

Lesson 2: Sometimes your parent’s anxieties have some validity

Yet – and this is tough – their overbearing concerns weren’t entirely misplaced.

The taxi pulled up in Stirling Street, Northbridge, which I’d been led to believe was essentially Perth’s Richmond, and I wondered if he’d come to the wrong place. There was absolutely no sign of life, most disturbingly across the road within my hostel. For twenty minutes I sat on a milk crate at the front door, calling their phone number, ringing the doorbell and considering my options.

At 1.30am I walked towards the CBD, homeless.

Lesson 3: Don’t bet the house on the casino
Other than a few cars rolling by, the city was just as empty. To my mind, this left one option: somewhere that’s always open and welcomes all sorts – in fact the more desperate you are, the better. A place where everybody knows you’re lame – the casino. My iPhone told me the walk was less than 5km, which I know I can do in about 50 minutes. Decision made.

I walked briskly through dimly lit back streets – some illuminated by red lights shimmering off discarded goon bags – and along eerie pedestrian paths, finally arriving in Burswood after a more than an hour and a few wrong turns.

My dorm - night one
Inside the Burswood Entertainment Complex, exhausted but completely sober, dressed neatly and looking as pleasant as always, I walked 30 metres towards the casino entrance. It was an uneasy walk as my eyes darted around, unsure whether to look the two security guys in the eye and risk coming across as ‘hard-arse’ or avoiding eye-contact and looking dodgy. They let me in, but barely two steps on a third guy informed me I couldn’t come in wearing ‘work boots’. WTF?! My blundstones? I wear them nearly everywhere, but they’re not good enough for a casino? Being durable, comfortable and downright awesome, they were the only shoes I’d brought across. A little scuffed and worn, sure, but by no means dirty and certainly cleaner than the pants worn by many of those already shoving coins into machines just metres away.

My bed - night one
But arguing with security is like arguing with an umpire – you never change their mind, just steel their resolve – so, as it was no longer fun, I walked away.

The pleasant gentleman at the cloakroom where I’d left my bag was curious as to why I was collecting it so soon. I briefly explained my predicament.

‘Where are you from?’ he asked.
Nice. Thanks. Fuck off (this was my general attitude to Perth at this point).

Anyway he did kindly advise that my only, and unlikely, chance of finding somewhere open would be in Northbridge, but I certainly should not walk there.

So I stood at the top of the escalators leading out of the Burswood Entertainment Complex pondering where to spend the rest of the night. Nearby I spotted a little café, closed until 8am, with a bench and stools tucked discreetly around a corner. It offered the perfect spot to at least sit unnoticed by all passersby, visible only to those who looked closely in the reflection of the café’s glass shutters, which also offered me a reflective view of anyone walking past.

My third, and best bed - 'night' one
Eventually I fell asleep, waking a couple of hours later to the suspicious stare of a cleaner standing a couple of metres away. I stood and left my post, heading for my last option – the toilets. Toilet seat cover down, I sat and slumped against the tiled wall. The fived walled cubicle actually seemed relatively ergonomic with comfortable corners that facilitated a gentle snooze. I should have tried that first.

About 6.30am, I stepped out into the icy pre-dawn as glimmers of sunshine peeked over the horizon, and caught an early train back to Perth, where I trekked out to Kings Park, found a sunny patch of lush grass overlooking the city and slept some more.

Lesson 4: Get your accommodation booking confirmed.
Of course, a few weeks earlier I did speak to the hostel manager about the logistics of my arrival. It wasn’t until I eventually checked in – 12 hours late – that I found out they hadn’t forgotten me the night before, rather some poor sod had actually stayed up waiting for me the week before. But why, when in our conversation I had explicitly mentioned the long weekend?!

‘Yes, that was last weekend,’ replied the hostel manager.

Call it Melbourne arrogance to assume Western Australia would acknowledge the Queen’s Birthday public holiday on the same day as Victoria (and every other state), or West Australian detachment that – just because they are half the bloody country – the rest of us mightn’t be aware of their Foundation Day holiday the week before, but either way … whatever, now I had an actual bed.

Lesson 5: Realise why you’re really staying in a hostel
Not staying with the friends who had also travelled across to Perth, I imagined a hostel would provide a good mix of personal time to read and write, and opportunities to socialise and meet friendly new people.

I quickly realised this was a misguided fantasy. Or should that be ‘remembered’? I’ve stayed in enough hostels to know the reality. Usually there’s a strong clique among the long-term stayers, a group that is difficult to break into over a short couple of days without a lightning personality, and finding space to yourself is often impossible.

So it was away from the hostel that I sought both my socialising and solitude.

The other four guys in my five-bed dorm seemed to be members of the alpha clique. This could have been beneficial, but I never really met them, given our differing sleeping patterns. If I was going to make friends, I probably needed to do so before being too embarrassed by the possibility I’d snored kept them awake snoring like Chewbacca swallowed a chainsaw – even though they woke me up at 4am, stumbling into the room drunk, and again a couple of hours later as activity in the bunk below me shook my bed.

At least I got confirmation of my snoring on night two when I was woken by a football thrown at my head. Nope, friendships were not likely here.

So why book a bed in a hostel?

I did genuinely want to meet new and interesting people. Maybe it wasn't the ideal setting for me with just a couple of days and friends in town. Generally, I don’t like the isolation of ordinary hotels.

And, essentially, I am a tight-arse.

Lesson 6: Messed up plans create new opportunities
Saturday rolls round, this nomad is finally rested and eager to explore. Misfortune, or stupidity, struck again though, keeping me away from my planned visit to Rottnest Island. I paid $60 for the ferry and was instructed to board the bus at the bus stop just outside front in 20 minutes, which would take me to the ferry. I sat eating a muffin 30 metres away, closely watching the bus stop. A shuttle bus sat there marked with a tour company’s branding. That couldn’t be it, but the time had almost passed and I was starting to feel uneasy. Ten minutes past the scheduled leaving time I asked at the desk if I’d missed the bus. Yes I had, as the kind lady behind the desk explained, because the bus didn’t leave from its usual spot as there was a shuttle bus taking up the space.
Crazy Canadian juggling in Fremantle

My plans were ruined, but my money returned, so I decided to make the best of it and take the opportunity to explore Fremantle.

I loved Freo’s active, welcoming streets far more than the typical city streets of Perth full of retail and office blocks. I don’t want to shop; I want to see things like street performers juggle a grenade, machete and running chainsaw.

Lesson 7: Franchise restaurants take their food preparation quality consistency seriously
When one friend orders lasagne and it is served, sent back for being cold in the middle and re-served looking exactly as it did (cut open in the middle) upon being sent back, all well before the other two of us get our pizzas, you must question the integrity of the kitchen.

I’ve heard dodgy things about outlets of this particular franchise in Melbourne, so it offers further reason to avoid ‘La Salmonella’ (not real name).

Lesson 8: Do not travel to watch Essendon play

I should have learnt this after travelling to see Essendon lose to Adelaide by 96 points last year. But having been fortunately surrounded by sympathetic sufferers, we found ways to enjoy ourselves.

Anyway, it was match day – the reason we’d travelled all this way – and we were quietly confident of Essendon’s chances. I was anyway.

Late in the morning I got talking to a Canadian from the hostel who was going to try and get a couple of cheap tickets. Given that when I bought mine all that was available were $60 premium seats, I suspected his chances of getting a ticket at all, let alone cheap seats, were somewhere between buckley’s and none. But I didn’t have the heart to tell him.

On the ground (not me)
Sitting in the premium section, with the sun in my eyes and surrounded by Fremantle members I sat silently throughout the game, uncomfortable even giving gentle applause on the few appropriate occasions for Essendon, lest I break the deadly silence. 

Rubbing salt in the wound of a bad, totally unenjoyable loss was bumping into the Canadian back at the hostel who proudly produced a $27 ticket that had placed him in great seats on the opposite wing.

But we did get onto the ground after the game - half the reason I wanted to go to Subiaco.

Lesson 9: Shit happens – make the best of it, but be prepared
Talk had been growing about an ash cloud that was threatening flights in and out of Melbourne. Through the evening I checked various websites on my phone to find out if I should bother going to the airport for my 1.20am flight or organise accommodation for the night. I was almost at the airport when I found out it had been cancelled.

Again walking the dark streets, I found a nearby hotel and must say I was grateful to have my own room with TV!

I now wouldn’t be leaving for another two days – 1.20am Wednesday morning. Frustrating, but nothing anyone could do, and it’s not like I was in a desperate rush to return to work. Again, make the best of it.

Unfortunately I had packed for three days, not five, both in terms of clothes and anti-depressants. Silly boy.

I caught up on rest, again, and spent a little more time exploring Perth.

Tuesday night I sat in a pub with a pint, constantly checking the flight status through various websites. Déjà vu. Tiger issued a statement about 9.30pm Perth time confident that all flights would go ahead. Relief! Assurance! I finally knew where I’d be sleeping that night – even if it would be on a plane and minimally.

An hour and a half later, as I stepped into the terminal my heart sunk as I looked at the screen above the check-in desk and saw that horrible ‘C’ word. Word quickly spread through the line that there were no flights out available until Friday or Saturday. Half the people in line pulled out their iPhones and booked flights with other airlines. Myself included.

By the time I was at the check-in desk where they offered me a rescheduled flight or refund I had already booked a flight 10 hours later on Qantas.

Making the best of it at this point meant finding somewhere to lie down and see if I could get some sleep. Bodies lay scattered around the terminal, as if a massacre had taken place. It was bloody cold, I guess they don’t worry too much about heating the terminal when there were no flights coming or going and all the desks were closed.

Having been mistakenly, cruelly, told 20 minutes before boarding that all flights for the day were cancelled, mine did in fact leave – one of the last flights out before all flights in and out of Perth were cancelled.

Lesson 10: Appreciate the benefits of your parents anxieties
In a final twist to the weekend that brought things frustratingly full circle, the intrusion of my parents into my life came in handy in no small measure.

Boarding the SkyBus at Melbourne airport, my over-exhausted body collapsed as soon as I sat down. I have no idea how long I was asleep before waking up to strangers standing around, asking if I was ok and applying an oxygen mask. In a dream-like fashion, I had no idea what was going on but didn’t find it particularly unusual. I was so exhausted that I just said ‘yeah, I’m fine,’ accepted whatever was happening and went back to sleep. The next time I woke I was asked if I could stand and walk – ‘why wouldn’t I be able to?’ I wondered – and bundled into an ambulance.

Seems I started shaking in my sleep and someone called an ambulance. Luckily for me, my mum paid my ambulance membership years ago and, as the bills have been arriving at their house, she has been renewing it each year. As the paramedics asked if I was a member, I produced the card, admitting I had no idea if it was still valid. It’s something I’d be likely to overlook, for cost, procrastination or sheer laziness. THANK YOU MUM!

And so, after a few hours of tests in St Vincent’s hospital, my adventure was finally over and I was home; even if it wasn’t my actual home, but my parents’. I know exactly how Mum would feel about that sentiment though.

Perth was not just memorable, but fun. When I go back, and I will, maybe even for an Essendon game, I’ll stay in Fremantle, I’ll book flights with Virgin, I’ll be more organised while still leaving plenty of scope for unforseen adventure and I will not return to Burswood.

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