Monday, February 24, 2014

Australia Week 1: Botanic Garden, White Night, Vic Market

After the initial burst of exploration and exhaustion during our first two days in Melbourne, the group was forced to return at least somewhat to reality and go to work on Monday at the game studio which will be our office for the next six weeks. The team there is very friendly and very familiar with running a live-service mobile game, which is our reason for coming out here to train with them. The studio is bigger than our office in Salt Lake, and more importantly, they have a $10,000 espresso machine in their break room – Melbournians are serious about their coffee.

Skyline over the Yarra River, just south of Fed Square
The week didn't lend itself to touring around the city. We went to a few restaurants in the evenings, but mostly it was exercise…work…eat…room…sleep every day until Friday. Friday we went out with some coworkers to the CBD, the Central Business District, which is Melbourne’s downtown area. We had beers at Federation Square, the controversial post-modern plaza and visitor center. It’s controversial because of its very peculiar design. There are very few right-angles to the building, lots of ornamental geometric shapes, and the whole thing is a bit of a maze to navigate. Still, it’s a cool little area with some nice bars and an outdoor music venue, which was home to an interactive game art installation the night we went.

Awesome tree at the Botanic Garden
The next day was busy. First thing I walked over to the Melbourne Royal Botanic Garden across the street from the hotel. The garden is a 38 hectare plot containing plants from all over the world, with particular focus on Australia’s native flora. Founded in 1846, it houses the National Herbarium, where active botanic research is still conducted, and has a wide variety of plots including a rose garden, rare and endangered species garden, an Australian forest walk, and a tropical greenhouse.

Block Arcade Interior
After walking the entirety of the garden, I went back to the hotel and then arranged to meet some of my coworkers at Collins Street in the CBD for self-directed walking tour. Collins Street has some cool examples of 19th and 20th century architecture, lots of interesting shops, and the central train station. The first major stop on Collins street was the Block Arcade, a Victorian mall filling with restaurants, tea shops and wicked cool architectural elements. We ate lunch there and wandered around a bit, then continued down the road to the ANZ Gothic Bank, which was closed for the weekend but the exterior was interesting enough.

We passed the Rialto towers, once the tallest building in Australia, now trumped by the Eureka Tower in south Melbourne (more on that in a later post), and ended our half-tour of Collins Street at the Southern Cross train station. At this point I had run out of time for touring since I had to race back to the hotel to change for a concert being held at the nearby King’s Domain park.

I got dressed and dashed over with minutes to spare…only to discover that the concert that I thought was going to start at 5 didn't start until 7. Ugh. It turned out though that because it was a free concert, the stadium had already begun to fill up even at 4:30, so I managed to get a great seat with an inevitable view of the soloist’s hands on the piano. There was blessedly a pre-show concert by an amateur symphony which was... something to keep me entertained for an hour, so there was that. The main event was the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and local soloist Caroline Almonte performing my favorite Rachmaninoff piece, Piano Concerto no 3. It was not technically perfect, but it was really terrific.

Train Station Illuminated during White Night
It was 8:30 and the sun was starting to set. The main attraction of the day was still yet to come, because that night something really special was happening in the Melbourne CBD. For the second year, Melbourne was hosting something called “White Night,” a huge luminous arts festival that lasts all night and features illuminated buildings, performance art pieces, live music, street food and lots and lots and LOTS of people. Now, I've been in Tokyo at rush hour on a weekday. I've seen crowds where you can barely move for the bodies. This was like nothing I had ever seen before. There were over 500,000 people present at the event, filling the streets of the CBD to watch the lights, see the shows…stay up late together - actually a lot of the motivation was a little confusing since there wasn't *that* much to do, but the energy was great. I was there for about 2 hours, wading through the sea of people to take pictures and briefly hang out with my coworkers. They were going to go on to sing karaoke, an idea which, given the swarm of people, did not appeal to me, so I worked my way back to the apartment, which took upwards of another hour, and passed out.

The next day I decided to take it at least a little easier. I spent the first half of the morning editing the photos from the previous day, then I went out with one of my coworkers to Victoria Market, a very large farmer’s and flea market. To be honest, I’m not sure I really got the whole experience from it. We wandered through the deli area and the produce section, ate lunch at the food court and browsed around the flea-market section. It seemed large and practical, albeit not particularly exciting.

After the Market I wandered back south in the CBD, through the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology mini-campus, down through China Town and over to the National Gallery, where I browsed for a few minutes before realizing I was too exhausted to continue staring at artwork from any century. So I went home, did my normal Sunday routine of laundry and video games, then in the evening strolled along the Yarra river until the sun set. Not a bad weekend.
Next week, it’s work again until the weekend, so expect some blog silence for a while. Next weekend we’ll see what adventures are in store!

CBD from the Yarra

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Australia Day 2: St Kilda Street Market and Beach

Day 2 in Australia started at around 7:30 am. I slept extremely well and woke up fresh-faced and bright-eyed. The first thing I did was toast some bread and eat my first spreading of Vegemite.

He just smiled and made me
a Vegemite sandwich.
Now, folks who know me know that I recently fell in love with Marmite, Vegemite's lesser known cousin from Great Britain, so I walked into my first Vegemite tasting knowing what I was getting into. First off, Marmite is...gooey, whereas Vegemite is much more akin to Nutella in texture (and also looks like it, but those that confuse the two are in for trouble.) Vegemite tastes less meaty and more bready than Marmite and has a distinctively artificial aftertaste that Marmite doesn't have. I am definitely more partial to Marmite, but it took me a few times to fall in love with Marmite, so maybe Vegemite will be the same. More in the future on that topic...

Coffee shops around here tend to
add cocoa to the top of their drinks
to accent their foam art
After breakfast I went down the gym and ran on the treadmill for 45 minutes, and then came back to the room for second breakfast -- this time some fat-free Greek yogurt with a little plum jam stirred in. By this time it was absolutely pouring outside. My first full day to explore Melbourne, and it's raining cats and dogs. I decided to go down to a cafe nearby for a cappuccino and some Final Fantasy VI on the ol' iPad to wait out the storm. I met my coworker Tony there and finally when the rain subsided we walked to a nearby Woolworth's supermarket to pick up some more room supplies.

I might regret this tomorrow...
On the way there we discovered a huge street market with covered walkways. The market, which was bustling, was composed of clothing vendors, services from barber shops to eyebrow pluckers, and a huge selection of restaurants and meat and seafood vendors. Ah, this was my kind of place. At a fresh seafood vendor, we saw some amazing samples of the local catches including huge crayfish, bay bugs, prawns and oysters. The oysters they were serving right from the storefront on the half-shell, at one AUS dollar per oyster. I couldn't resist. I got some local Coffin Bay oysters and sucked them down right there. Hopefully their ominous name is not a foretelling of my condition tomorrow after eating raw seafood in a street market...I'm sure I'll be fine.

After the elevenses of oysters, I was still hungry. Tony, who is anti-seafood, was voracious. So we bought some grilled burritos stuffed with chicken and headed to Woolworth's.

One odd thing I've run into here in Melbourne is a distinct lack of vermouth in the supermarkets. Two places so far seemed confused as to what vermouth even is. The only type I've been able to find so far is Cinzano Bianco, which is really not very good. Anyway, I bought some sunscreen and a cheap wok, because the hotel only provides one pot which isn't very conducive to cooking much of anything.

Kite surfer catching air
We returned to the hotel and regrouped with the rest of the team to head out to the biggest attraction of the St. Kilda area -- the beach. The beach itself featured a nice big boardwalk with lots of visual..attractions. One of the coolest distractions was the huge number of kite surfers, who use para-sailing style chutes to catch the very prominent winds in the area and surf around the bay.

That's a lota calamari
After a long walk down the beach, we ate at a restaurant just off the beach and then returned to the hotel. It was certainly a long day! I'm still not quite adjusted to the time change, but things are mellowing out. Tomorrow we start our first day at the game studio office, so there won't be as many exciting updates until we get some more free time this weekend.

Stay tuned! I'll write when I can.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Australia Day 0 and Day 1: Travel and First Impressions

Salt Lake Mountains and The SLC->Lax Flight
My trip started around Noon in Salt Lake City. I took the new green trax line directly from downtown Salt Lake to the airport, which was relatively painless and cost two bucks instead of the normal twenty five it costs to take a taxi. After all my boasting about efficient packing methods, I panicked at the last moment and decided to put my bag through baggage instead of dragging it around for my time in the Los Angeles airport -- a decision I would later regret, but more on that later.

The flight from Salt Lake to Los Angeles was short and bumpy and typical. Arrival in Los Angeles was met with the realization that I would be spending the next eight hours in the airport. The large layover gave me time to appreciate the giant suck-salad that is LAX's terminal system. My co-worker Tony put it nicely by saying that LAX is not one big airport, it's eight little airports holding hands. There is no way to get from the domestic terminals to the international without not only leaving security, but literally leaving the building entirely and walking along the sidewalk to another building.

Fancy Digital Screens at Tom Bradley Intl Terminal
LAX's brand new Tom Bradley International Terminal is a thing to behold. Its got all the flash of a upscale mall, all the stores that no one feels particularly comfortable shopping in, giant digital displays cultural video installations, and a caviar and champagne bar because -- LA.

 I paced around the non-mall for about 3 hours waiting for the rest of my team to show up, and then we had our first food experience of the trip -- Umami Burger. Overpriced, high-concept burgers, flavorful and a bit overwrought. I didn't manage to take any pictures because I was so burned out waiting that I was devoured the social interaction with my coworkers more than I the truffle burger with sweet potato fries. (It was good, so, there you go.)

Fancy Lights in Virgin Australian Flight
 Another 3 or so hours and we finally got on the plane. Ah, Virgin Airlines. I had fond memories of Virgin from my trip to London in 1999, and they didn't disappoint this time either. The jet was huge, new, roomy and clean. The two highlights were the seat to seat chat program that let me and my coworkers chat to each other through the trip and the plane's lighting system, which transitioned between different colors and intensities during the trip to coincide with the sunset, sunrise and sleep cycles.

The flight was 15 hours. If you haven't been on a flight like that, there's no describing it. You get into a zen state of numb anticipation...of waiting, contemplating the various parts of your body going numb, and thinking about when the next meal service is going to be, regardless of the quality. I stayed up until LA time 4 am so I could try to force myself into Australian time. I played a lot of video games, watched some movies, the usual thing.

When we finally *did* land in Melbourne, we had to wait for about 20 minutes on the tarmac for another flight to clear out of our dock. Then we exited into immigration, where we were met with a *monstrous* line that could have easily held us up for 3 hours. Fortunately it was for people that didn't have our lovely modern chip-based passports and we got to subvert the entire process and walk right through to baggage claim.

Baggage claim. Damn the words. People that know me know that I don't normally put bags through baggage claim at all. It's a torturous process waiting for the bags to come tumbling down the chute one at a time, and somehow, against all the odds, your bag is always the very last one, isn't it? I know It sounds like hyperbole, but this very thing happened to me this time. I decided to check my bag because I didn't want to drag it around LAX. It was the *LAST* bag to come down the belt, on a flight with hundreds and hundreds of bags. Ryan, I say\id to myself -- that was the last time. Never, ever again.

My coworkers and I shared a cab to St. Kilda, the beach-side neighborhood of Melbourne's central business district where both the hotel and the game studio at we are training are located. The hotel is the Seasons Botanic Gardens, so named because it is located across the street from the Melbourne Royal Botanic Garden.

Shrine of Remembrance in St. Kilda
In an effort to stay up, I walked over to the Botanic Garden and the Shrine of Remembrance, Melbourne's tribute to Victoria's fallen solders of WWI. Since the shrine is a 2 minute walk from the hotel, chances are I'll be taking a lot of pictures of it . Also I'll try to explain more about it when I'm a bit more rested and I can do some research.

This blog entry is the last brain-flexing activity I will do today. I feel like I've been up for 48 hours, and considering how well I slept on the plane, that might be close to accurate. I have my photo editing software on my laptop, so I'll be posting images more as I go this time.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Pre-trip Round-Up: Australia 2014

Hello readers, few and far between! I'm excited to report that I've been given the opportunity to travel to Melbourne, Victoria, Australia, for a six week business trip. This means a few things:

Thing one is that I get to check off another continent on my tally! All I've got left is Africa and Antarctica.

Thing two, which may be obvious by this post, is that I'll be updating my travel blog again! Huzzah! The format is probably going to be a bit different this time around. I won't have a lot of time during the week to actually see anything; I'll be working. Most of my explorations are going to be during the weekends. I'll also have time to edit photos during the trip, so I'll try to keep my galleries more current and not have a giant image dump at the end that I can't keep up with.

Here's what I know so far about Melbourne, where I'll be spending a majority of the trip:

It's the second largest city in Australia. The "cultural capital of Australia", Melbourne is a city drenched in art: film, impressionism, TV production, street art, and Australian rules football...which we'll call an art form for the sake of this list.

It is a busy sea port and the closest ferry point to Tasmania (which I haven't decided whether or not is worth the 11 hour boat trip to get to just yet.) It also has a pretty excellent public transportation network.

It is hot in the Summer (heat waves bring it up around 100*F) which is when I will be going, though technically it is part of the Australian temperate zone. Summer in Australia technically runs from December to February with Fall coming in March to May.

Australian food culture is a bit of a cultural fry-up. Of course there is the ubiquitous "Vegemite" (whose British cousin "Marmite" I am currently having a torrid love affair with), and Australians are indeed known for grilling things (I'm trying to avoid being aggressively stereotypical here.) But Melbourne is quite eclectic in its food culture. While it inherits a lot of dishes from the British Empire (meat pies are national treasure, as well as fish and chips), it also receives a great deal of influence from immigrant cultures, specifically Middle Eastern and western European cuisine -- particularly to that category, Italian and French.

That's enough summing up Melbourne for the time being as there will be plenty of time for that during the trip. A few details for those that care. I'll be flying out on Virgin Airways from Salt Lake City to Los Angeles this Thursday. After a brutal 7 and a half hour layover in LAX, I and several of my coworkers will travel from Los Angeles to Melbourne, a nearly 18 hour flight. During said flight, we will cross the magical IDL, and be teleported forward in time 24 hours. So we leave on Thursday evening and arrive on Saturday afternoon.

For my east coast friends, the time difference (without taking the day change into account) is -8 hours. Or if you want use real math, its +16 hours total. So if it's noon on Friday in Orlando, it's 4am on Saturday in Melbourne. careful when you call me, please.

I have a thing when I do these trips, where I post a map of my travel plans. In this case, it's pretty straight forward...

Only 3 days to go! Stay Tuned!