Saturday, December 25, 2010

The pilgrimage to Melbourne (Part 2)

I was up early again, and made my way downstairs to the lobby for breakfast. This time I met a guy from Texas, USA. We chatted and I told him that I was going to watch the cricket match today. He informed me that he went to the match yesterday with some of his Aussie friends and enjoyed himself. However he got sunburnt really bad. We had a discussion on how strong the sun is in Australia. He told me that in 25 years or so of living in Texas he has never had to use sunblock and even then has never really got sunburnt. Its interesting that quite a few of my American friends found cricket to be fun. Or at least that's what they told me. Tony, Fatima, Ben. Perhaps cricket has more action when you compare it to baseball. But I'm not entirely sure about that either.

I thought it would be a good idea to visit the Melbourne Aquarium before I went to the stadium, since it would close to visitors by the time of stumps. Someone had suggested that it was a nice place to visit in Melbourne and I was also running out of other ideas. I didn't want my whole Melbourne trip with only memories of the MCG and noisy trams. The Melbourne Aquarium was slightly expensive at around $25. The marine life at show was quite interesting, but still did not warrant the price they were charging.

I reached the stadium at around half past 10. Australia hadn't lost a wicket even with the nightwatchman, Nathan Hauritz, batting. He went on to score a career best 75 and Australia declared at a score of 450 odd runs. Almost all of our batsmen got starts, but each one of them failed to capitalize. At stumps, Umar Akmal was there at 10 and Pakistan was a hundred something for the loss of 4 wickets.

I also got a bit tanned. I blamed it on my naive use of sunblock. I had only smudged some of it on my face before leaving the hotel and didn't bother to take the bottle with me. Afterwards, I would have the sense of using it very liberally and at regular intervals. The weather was still good, although it was getting hotter. After the sun would go down, it became a bit chilly. I love Australia for its erratic weather. You could have all four seasons in a single day. In Adelaide, at times, the temperature difference could be 20 degrees in consecutive days.

After stumps, I decided to take a walk in the city. I called home using skype on my phone and did 'The Matrix' thing with Omar. Omar would talk me through on where to go using Google Maps and would also highlight some important and historical buildings in the area. At some place in the city there was a street band playing. They were not bad at all, although the size of the crowd wasn't too great considering the rather good quality of the music. They played a song by Radiohead, that I can't recall now. They also did 'Yellow' by Coldplay, with a saxophone solo in between. It was close to brilliant. I regretted that I only got to hear the last few songs that they played.

Moving on, someone had mentioned earlier that Melbourne is cheaper when compared to other cities. I hadn't bought anything since I had come to Australia, and it had been nearly 5 months. Hence, I let go of my usual thrift mindset and went to a few souvenir stores. I got myself some tourist t-shirts that I thought would be good presents. The shirts cost around $12 each. On a later visit to Melbourne, I would get the chance to go the famous Queen Victoria Market where I got a couple of cool shirts for $5 and $6 each. The Queen Victoria Market was actually only a small walk away from the Hotel Discovery, the place where I was staying. However, I was not aware of its presence at that time.

I grabbed a subway sandwich and took it with me to the hotel's dining place. Sitting by myself on one of the tables, I was joined by a friendly German couple who had been backpacking across Asia and had reached Australia. They were very warm and delightful people. We talked about all sorts of things, including world politics, culture, sports, etc. They seemed to be very well informed and I enjoyed our conversations to the fullest. They spoke English very fluently, especially Peter, who didn't have much of an accent either. I could tell right away that Peter was an academic, based on his manner of explaining things very elaborately and gradually, and also because of his vast general knowledge. His girlfriend was a sports instructor. They asked me if I had signed up for the free beach trip tomorrow that was provided by the hotel. I told them that I hadn't and registered right away.

Next morning, I made my 40 min walk to the stadium. Time used to fly whenever I was out walking by myself. I always enjoy solitary walks; it is a time for a lot introspection. I tend to talk to myself a lot when I'm by myself. Sometimes I even argue. I'm not sure how many people do that, or even if it is a healthy sign at all. As soon as I entered the stadium I heard loud applause. Umar Akmal was batting with great aggression and the crowd was loving it. He had just hit two consecutive 4s. Nevertheless, I was just in time to witness a magnificent pull shot for 6 the very next delivery and a 4 the ball after. However, after a couple of overs, his cameo fifty ended with a catch in the slip cordon. The batsmen were continuing with their habit of getting starts without any big scores. I left the stadium during lunch, with Misbah batting alongside the previous day's nightwatchman, M. Amir, with the score nearing 200 for the loss of 5 wickets.

I made it back to the hotel in time for the bus to leave, with my German acquaintances also on board. Before leaving, I met the Korean guy, Jang, again. He seemed very interested in going as well and rushed to get his stuff from his room before we left. The bus driver provided us with somewhat of a tour of Melbourne, and also gave us the option of choosing between 3 beaches. After passing through all 3 options, we ended up at Brighton beach. It wasn't the prettiest beach that I had been to in Australia, but it wasn't too bad either. Jang told the Germans that he could speak a bit of German himself and spoke a few phrases. His knack of remembering such things did surprise me. There was a Russian in the group who spoke in a manner that was similar to Roger Federer. There was also a girl from New Zealand who, it seemed, was bonding quite well with the Russian. We enjoyed some sun and continued with our conversations. The Russian and Kiwi girl left together after some time. The four of us decided to leave after a while ourselves. While we were looking for transportation for our way back, Jang said something to us, which we were not able to fully comprehend, and he then just walked away. He was indeed an odd and funny person. We tried to decipher the tram maps and schedule that was planted on a board at the tram stop. Another thing that I found a bit irritating while being a tourist in Melbourne was that most of the transportation within and to the city is via trams. Unlike traveling by bus where you can always ask the bus driver regarding which bus to take or which stop to get off, you're usually on your own when it comes to trams and have to ask around for an approximate route or a stop near your destination. We managed to reach the city and I grabbed myself something to eat while the German couple bought something from the supermarket to cook for dinner. We had dinner together at the hotel.

Next morning, I had bought a half dozen doughnuts from a Krispe Kreme outlet in the city for the match. Having heard so much about Krispe Kreme, and being an eager doughnut consumer, I chose from a different variety of unusual flavors and types to see if I could find their best doughnut. However, I was a bit disappointed. The doughnuts were only slightly better than ordinary and didn't have the same softness and delectable taste as I had become accustomed to with Adelaide's Gourmet Glaze doughnut shop. Perhaps, the doughnuts had lost some of their flavor since I ate them gradually over the course of the day and as the match progressed.

4th day of the Test, and Australia were 3 down for a hundred after Pakistan had been bowled out for around 250, just managing to avoid the follow-on with Misbah undefeated on 60. Australia resumed, and Shane Watson was dropped on 99 by Abdul Rauf, after the fielders and bowlers did an amazing job keeping him nervous and fidgety in the 90s. He remained undefeated on 120 and Australia declared giving us a target of more than 400 runs. Again, our batsmen were getting starts but not converting them into centuries. By the close of play, Pakistan was 30 short of 200 and had M.Yousuf and Umar Akmal batting with 3 batsmen out. A win or draw was improbable but not impossible. We had been playing some good cricket, but had let some of the intensity out during key phases of the game. On my way out of the stadium I met a South African woman with her Australian partner. They were nice people and she told me to not lose hope as South Africa had come back from a similar position a year earlier in Perth to win the test match on the last day. We also discussed how the crowds became rowdy as the day progressed and the number of drinks consumed increased. And Australians, being louder than most people from other places, would generally make quite a lot of noise and disruption when intoxicated.

I visited the War Memorial that the bus driver had mentioned the day before. It was an interesting place, even though I was late for visiting the inside of the memorial. The royal botanic gardens of Melbourne were also nearby. I continued my walk and did a whole tour of the gardens. I perhaps ended up walking more than 3 hours that day; all by myself and with only my thoughts. I went back to the hotel and met my German friends there. We decided on walking through the city and then afterwards went for a movie. We went to a Hoyts cinema at Melbourne Central, and ended up watching "Did you hear about the Morgans?", a romantic comedy starring Sarah Jessica Parker and Hugh Grant. It was a light movie about how an estranged couple reconciles as a result of certain events and circumstances. The Melbourne Central itself is a great shopping plaza built around the 120 year old "Coop's Shot Tower". It also serves for a city loop railway station that is underneath the mall.

I really enjoyed my time with my new friends, and we roamed around the city for a bit more before calling it a day. We agreed to meet in the morning before I left for the stadium for the last day's proceedings. In the morning, we met for breakfast and Jang was also about. It was a nice sunny day so we went outside and took some pictures. Jang rushed in again to his room, after only telling me to wait for him. We waited for 5 to 10 minutes while we joked about his amusing oddities. He came back with a piece of paper that had the name "Lt. Jang" written along with his email address and phone number. The other side of the paper had "Visit to Korea" neatly written. It was a very nice gesture. I remember writing my name and email address in his diary. Peter and I also exchanged email addresses and suggested to add each other on facebook. I also welcomed him to tour Pakistan someday and told him that I would be more than happy to be his tour guide. He offered the same to me to tour Germany.

I made my way to the stadium to only see Australia wrap up the innings just shortly after lunch in front of a handful of spectators (well still 5000 people!). I got to visit the National Sports Museum during the lunch break, which is in the basement of the MCG. It was an interesting experience, but I enjoyed the cricket section the most, for obvious reasons! The baggy green caps of different eras where put up on display, and caught my fancy. However, the thing that really blew my mind was a room that was made to look as Shane Warne's dressing room (since the MCG was his home ground). There was a lifelike hologram of Shane Warne projected in this room, as he talked us through his entire cricket life. It really felt as if it was the actual legend right in front of us, as he turned on a television set, showing us some of his bowling clips and also tossing a ball around the room. It was a fantastic experience and one I would recommend every person who visits the MCG to undertake.

I came back to the backpackers hotel and collected my luggage. I tied my belt to the suitcase so that I could use it to drag it around without having to bend too much. I just hoped that my jeans would resist falling down! I had asked the hotel reception for directions and to find out which trams to take in order to reach the station on Spencer Street. I had tickets for the Firefly bus service that was to reach Sydney in 12 hours. I've always loved buses. However, I had a spare ticket that I had bought for Omar a couple of weeks ago. I asked the Firefly people if they could refund me the cost, but they said that they didn't have a cancellation or refund policy. I pleaded with them that all seats were booked for the day, and that they would be able to find people who need a seat easily. Upon my insistence, they told me to hang around the office and if anyone showed up, they would direct them to me for the ticket. Apparently there was only one person who needed 2 tickets, hence I was to embark on my trip to Sydney with the luxury of having extra leg space as a result of a spare ticket.

It had been 6 days of excitement, loneliness, enjoyment and a lot of adventure. It was my first real stab at experiencing a new city on my own. I made some good friends, witnessed a life-long dream and learnt about other cultures. It was an experience I would never forget.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The pilgrimage to Melbourne (Part 1)

Friday afternoon, 25th December 2009. I had reached the clean and spacious confines of Adelaide airport and made through security with only a small suitcase in hand. The handle of the suitcase that had been pulled out now refused to slide back in after I had reached the waiting lounge well ahead of the departure time. Having plenty of time in hand, I tried various methods of coercion to force it in, till the point that I heard a loud crack. Oh it did go in then, but out came a few hundred small pieces of plastic that sent a clear message that I would now be either carrying the suitcase or bending and pulling it in a manner similar to what hockey players are accustomed to.

Not the best start to my summer of cricket, I thought. But then again, I did remind myself that things should begin to liven up later as I was to be joined by Omar for the life-long dream of witnessing a Boxing Day Test Match featuring Pakistan at the MCG. A few minutes later I received a call from Omar telling me how PIA had screwed up his ticket and he wasn't allowed to board because of a typo in the airline code. Absolutely insane! I was devastated and felt bad that Omar wouldn't be able to join me in watching such a once-in-a-lifetime spectacle. Also, I was to spend 6 days in Melbourne by myself while Omar tried his best to change his ticket to reach Sydney directly in time for the 2nd Test.

Having reached Melbourne, I looked for the bus service that was supposed to drop me off at my backpackers hotel. After calling the service on phone, it seemed that they were not operating on Christmas day. I took another bus service that dropped me off to the bus station in the city, rather than the hotel, for a hefty 16 Australian Dollars. And to my surprise, the city was more or less empty. I asked a few people the way to Franklin Street and they suggested I take a tram and pointed me to one. I hopped on and found it to be deserted save for one guy who seemed to be of Lebanese descent. After a few minutes I asked him where I should get off and he suggested what he thought would be the appropriate stop. Getting off, I wandered around the streets 'carrying' my suitcase with me till I found a guy, roughly my age, who helped me find my way with his GPS enabled phone. He gave me a few good tips on being careful in the city especially at night and avoiding certain areas, if possible. I thanked him and managed to reach the Hotel Discovery which had the entrance crowded with people who seemed to be not from Australia.

Reaching my room, I was greeted by 7 french nationals, who were in their early and mid twenties, and had apparently made the room their own with their laundry all over the place along with other possessions splayed across the room. After some conversation, I tried to recall the french lessons I had taken a couple of years ago and uttered a few words, which to my surprise was not appreciated by my new roommates, as they told me that they preferred we conversed in English only. I guess they considered speaking in French a private affair and didn't want this 'intruder' to try to communicate and, perhaps more importantly, understand what they were talking about with each other.

I dumped my stuff, went to the toilet to freshen up, and then left the hotel to seek sustenance as lunch was way overdue. Free from carrying luggage and the concerns of finding my hotel, I was able to absorb and appreciate the setting that the city presented. Melbourne, as I found out more on a later visit, is a city that can be associated more with its people and events rather than the buildings, scenery or monuments it possesses. On the evening of Christmas day, the city was completely deserted. Unlike the other cities that I have visited in Australia, the tall buildings are clustered together and are separated with narrow roads, often made even narrower with road space allocated to trams.

Speaking of trams, I was more accustomed to the silent modern trams that were used in Adelaide. However, Melbourne presented itself with more angular steely trams that had perhaps been used since the 80s. These trams made far greater noise, which reverberated against the cluttered buildings surrounding the roads to amplify the noise even further. Looking back, after I had reinvigorated my usual sense of appreciating classic and older things, I do think that the older trams did add some culture and history to the city (even if they were not particularly old) even though they did manage to startle me on more than one occasion.

After grabbing a tuna sandwich from Subway, I started to walk down Elizabeth St, with hardly a soul around. Not surprisingly, almost all shops were closed except for eateries and 7-elevens. A few blocks ahead, I saw signs of life as people were gathered around a particular corner. From what I remember, it was Bourke Street; the equivalent of Adelaide's Rundle Mall, but obviously far bigger and with more shops. The people were mostly parents holding their children and looking through big windows of a Myers Shopping Center. On closer inspection, I saw the windows to be occupied by stuffed pigs while a voice narrated a story. It was a very pleasant experience as I stood there listening to each part of the story, while moving on to the next window till the entire story was completed.

From there on, I could see the end of the main city area and also the presence of more people. I took my time walking around as the light faded. Upon reaching the end, I saw the Flinders St Station on the right side of the road while on the left side there was an open area that had a small tourist information center (a clear mismatch to the actual size of the city!). This area was known as Federation Square and had a few levels of stairs present that were used for sitting. There was a large screen on the side of a cafe/restaurant present on the corner of the square. Upon moving forward, the Yarra river could be seen. It was a pleasant sight but not breathtaking. Following the river up I could see the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) and also my destination for tomorrow morning.

As I looked at the MCG from afar, I had a tingling sensation all over my body for a number of reasons. It was indeed one of the most, if not THE finest cricket stadium in the world with a capacity nearing 100,000 people. But more importantly, it was where we won our first World Cup way back in 1992. The fact that I would be going there for a boxing day test match made it even more special. I just couldn't wait for the morning to come. On the other hand, I felt very bad that Omar couldn't make it. Being cricket fanatics of the highest order, this would-be experience was considered by us as perhaps the most desired and cherished after, of course, visiting the Lords cricket ground in London. However, I tried my best to enjoy myself as much as I can, as there was not much that could be done regarding Omar making it in time. I came back home, found the room to be deserted and went to bed rather early.

The next morning I woke up early enough to shower and get ready to make it in time for the complementary breakfast. I met a Korean guy at one of the tables. He was a funny person, who had been in Melbourne for a couple of months and was working in a Japanese restaurant. He surprised me with a few Urdu phrases he had learnt from some of his Pakistani friends in Korea, which included "Pakistan Zindabad" and "Allah hu Akbar". Communication wasn't always very easy with him but we had a good chat during our breakfast.

I continued with my pilgrimage towards the MCG and soon enough was joined by hundreds making their way to the stadium. A small bridge that went over numerous railway lines, and was also a perfect view for the Rod Laver Arena, contained small speakers on each of its sides. There were foreign phrases being uttered from these speakers, perhaps signifying the multicultural society that Australia, especially Melbourne, presents. Upon reaching the stadium grounds, the outdoor nets caught my eyes instantly. I think Michael Clarke and Brad Haddin were practicing some batting; a sure sign that Australia would be batting first, which was a slight disappointment. I made my way through the many many ticket counters and joined a queue. I bought a ticket for all 5 days that had cost me roughly $80. I don't think many would be coming for all 5 days, except for the players and the Channel 9 crew and commentary team. Upon making my way round the stadium I was looking for a way in when I saw Steve Waugh standing right there, just a few meters away from me, talking to someone. I didn't know what to do. I really wanted to go and ask if I could have a picture with him. But I didn't want to act like an over-eager cricket fan bugging him on his personal time. I didn't see other people making a fuss around so I just let it go. Perhaps I should have made more of an effort for the picture.

I went inside and made my way upstairs on the escalators. The stadium was very modern and clean and there were practically a hundred sections. I asked a security person where the general stands were and he told me that they started from section 36 (or was it 56?) or I could go to the 3rd floor. The 2nd floor, it seemed, was for members only. I seated myself in the middle of a row that was more towards mid-wicket / extra cover. This row was underneath a stand so it had plenty of shade. Also, it faced directly towards one of the 2 absolutely HUGE and brilliant TV screens. I don't remember seeing bigger and yet such high quality TV screens in my life. The sections closer to the ground were almost full with people creating most of the drama and the noise inside. I wasn't sure if I wanted to be under the sun or in the shade. Usually this dilemma is the cause of brilliant weather, and that was the case here too. It couldn't have been a perfect day for cricket. It was indeed a fascinating sight, although, overall the stadium appeared to be half empty. Later I would find out that this "half-empty" stadium had around 60,000 spectators watching the 1st day. The amazing thing about the MCG is the noise that can be generated inside. With 60,000 people stacked up, the cheers and sound of spectators resonating within the coliseum can be a breathtaking experience. The Australians are very great sports (not counting the players of course!). They seem to appreciate cricket, be that from the opposing team. And they also love a bit of a fight, especially if it comes from the underdog.

Two people had come and occupied the seats to my left. They were brothers; one in his thirties and the other one perhaps a teenager. I really had some great conversations with the elder one. We started to talk about the game first, and then Australian cricket in general. We discussed the politics and team selection surrounding the Australian team. He gave me some insight regarding Steve Waugh and Shane Warne. We discussed the future of players such as Andrew Symonds and Shoaib Akhtar. He explained to me that Symonds was of the 'older breed' of Australian cricketers, such as Doug Walters and David Boon. He told me that Doug Walters was rumoured to have played several Test matches while being drunk and even then scored heavily. The new Australian cricket culture was in complete contrast to the old days when late night curfews were not as strict as they are now. I remember telling him and his brother how this moment, watching a Boxing day Test Match, had been a life-long dream for me, and I got a bit emotional in the process. Hah! He was indeed a bit surprised when I told him about it though, since he was aware that cricket fans from our part of the world tend to not give much importance to Test cricket and are more obsessed with the limited overs version of the game.

Meanwhile, Australia was batting very steadily. I remember the first few overs were rather difficult for them to score. But once the openers had survived the initial spell from Amir and Asif, they were able to capitalize well. We did drop a few catches on the way, though.

After the Tea break, the two brothers had left. I started a conversation with an older man to my right. He would have been in his 70s, I imagine. He seemed to be a very nice, quiet person. He asked me where I had come from and what I was doing. He told me that he and his son come to watch the boxing day test match every year, for the last 15 years or so. They take their car for a 2 hour drive down to Melbourne. It was very nice interacting with the local people; something I wasn't able to do much since I planted foot in this great country.

It was indeed a great satisfying day of cricket, even though we were definitely behind the eight ball, with Australia 300 something for the loss of only 3 wickets or so.

Heading back, I really didn't have much of an agenda for the night. I decided to stroll alongside the Yarra river, taking photographs of anything that caught my eye as interesting. After a while, I decided to watch a movie in what seemed like an old theater in the heart of the city. 'Sherlock Holmes' appeared to be the most interesting amongst all the movies that were being played at the time. And it was indeed a terrific choice. I enjoyed every bit of the movie. The direction by Guy Ritchie was exciting and adventurous, as one would perhaps expect.

The day was almost over and I was quite tired. It was also the day my elder brother had got married. Upon reaching the hotel, I called Bhai and his wife, Cathleen, to congratulate them. It was a bit surreal to imagine Bhai now married. Meanwhile, Omar was able to convert his ticket from Melbourne to Sydney. He told me that PIA made the same mistake again, and he had to call up one of our relatives, who happens to be a General Manager in PIA, to fix the issue.

All in all, it was one of the most memorable moments of my life. I guess, I'm not the only Farooki who would say the same about this day.