Monday, October 24, 2011

An excess of access

Melbourne—What a first-time traveller to Melbourne can immediately notice is how Australia, a continent of 22 million people scattered over a territory of 10,000 square kilometers, could easily be “accessed”.

Let’s begin by air. There is a direct flight via Philippine Airlines from Manila to Melbourne, but because of Lucio Tan’s troubles with the unions, a PAL flight to the land down under did not materialize.

From Changi in Singapore, the Singapore Airlines runs a daily seven-hour flight to Melbourne. Several other airlines, including Virgin Air and Airjet, fly out of Changi to disgorge an endless stream of tourists and business people to the City of the Southern Cross.

From the air, Melbourne is a large quadrangle divided into proportionate grids, which tells us how its planners envisioned a city accessible from all directions, with parallel boulevards, streets, byways, places, and causeways. You wouldn’t be lost in Melbourne, but you could lose yourself intentionally—if you are an on-foot explorer (I was!)—in sights and interests, like shopping which is an Eve’s apple to any traveller to Melbourne.

From the airport, access to the city is by train, tram, bus, or taxi. Melbourne has an extensive network of public transport that rivals the efficiency of any Europe metropolis. Like in Tokyo and other efficient cities, there are plenty of taxis, but if you are on a budget, the train and the tram is the way to go.

For Melbourne residents, the tram is the easiest means to go about their city. One can easily hop onto a tram and be in one’s destination in a couple of minutes with very minimal traffic. Signs in intersections are aplenty asking pedestrians to give way to the tram!

One can also go around by bicycle or by motorbike. Everywhere, there are plenty of bike hire stations and bicycle travelers can use the sidewalks, which are as wide as the streets, to reach a destination or a place of interest.

The City Circle Tram is a must for any first-time Melbourne visitor. It takes about three hours to “encircle” the Melbourne central business district via this public transport operated by Yarra Trams, one of several tram companies in the city. It is free and it has a piped-in sound system that provides visitor information to passengers.

I became a City Circle Tram fanatic on my last day in Melbourne. From the Hotel Victoria, the 125-year old hotel that is part repository of Melbourne’s colonial history—a Filipino manager who served as Hotel Victoria’s general manager for eight years tells the tale of Tina Turner sitting endless hours alone in the hotel’s second floor coffee shop sipping latte—was Flinders Train Station, housed in a Victorian-era building opposite Federation Square. Flinders is by the banks of the Yarra River, which one can cruise to see the southern edge of Melbourne by the sea all the way to the Victoria harbor.

It is on Flinders that I boarded the City Circle Tram, counterclockwise first, all the way to the Docklands and back. While on the moderately-lumbering tram, I saw the Australian Cinema and Moving Images building of steel and glass with an architecture that needs a hard look for one to understand. Every city it seems has an architecture that calls attention to itself and Melbourne’s ACMI is its entry to this phenomenon.

Along the way I saw (it was a sight-seeing ride; no dawdling) the Old Treasury Museum; then the Parliament House; State Library of Victoria; Flagstaff Gardens; Etihad Stadium; Victoria Police Museum; Melbourne Aquarium; and the Immigration Museum. The latter is a major place of interest, considering that Melbourne, in fact, all of Australia, was built on the toil and sweat of migrants.

Just to ensure I would remember for a long time the feel of Melbourne, I took another City Circle Tram tour, this time clockwise, using the same route and with the same places of interest in sight. This time I did not complete the cycle for I alighted on Queen Street, up north, and walked all the way to a suburb mecca of tourists: the Queen Victoria Market located by the Tram Route 55 going to the Melbourne Zoo.

The QVM—which I have repeatedly referred to as Victoria Court to the delight of my companions—is a cavernous haven for inexpensive buys of anything on sale in Australia, some of which are Italian leather goods manufactured in China. I spent something like AUS$80 on coming-home gifts at the QVM to show proof I had been there; then retired to Hotel Victoria in the late afternoon to prep myself up for the next day’s grueling 12-hour trip back to Manila.

But the best way to see, to savor, to smell, and to feel Melbourne is to walk.

I did. I traversed the city’s wide walkways and easily got myself drunk with the sights and sounds of a metropolitan hub just waking up on a lovely spring season. Block after block, I walked. I walked to have coffee along the cafes on busy Swanston, Bourke, Elizabeth, Exhibition, and Flinders streets. I gawked at bookshops; admired old colonial buildings; peeped though opal-selling houses; rummaged through stacks of Australian leather stores and souvenirs; and got a taste of Australian-Thai, Australian-Chinese, and Australian-Vietnamese food in an endless line of shops and bars competing for customers tired, hungry and thirsty after walking.

Now I know the secret of success of the food business in a city: make people walk to get them tired, hungry, and thirsty. And the way to do this is to maintain wide pedestrian walkways; keep them lighted, clean, and safe; then remove the physical distractions that send pedestrians nervous, such as vendors, muggers and hustlers, and mendicants.

Alas, in most of Manila’s streets, one walks at the mercy of the elements, of the known and of the unknown, because the authorities in charge of ensuring the cleanliness and safety of the city are mostly in hiding—themselves cowering in fear of being accosted, mugged, robbed, or infected with the city’s filth and pollution the moment they go out.

This is one reason why we are being laughed at by people around the world. Filipinos, I heard one say, is very meticulous and concerned about personal hygiene that they take a bath twice or thrice a day, while other peoples don’t. But in the aspect of ensuring their surroundings clean, Filipinos don’t give a hoot. Look at the city streets of Manila, Pasay, or any other urban town strewn with all kinds of refuse and you will know what I mean. But I digress.

Melbourne is a melting pot of peoples and cultures from across the universe. During my stay, I’ve met five taxi drivers of varied nationalities—an Italian, a Syrian, an Indian, a Turkish, and an Australian. I listened to a duo of Chinese and Australian pop singers performing along the sidewalk near the City Square. I met a Spanish waitress; became fast friend with a Kiwi attendant at the Pie Face café; knew a Filipino service crew at the City Circle Tram; got introduced to a bright and obviously single female Atenean taking up her MBA at the Melbourne University; and spoke in the Bicol language with a long-time female employee at the Melbourne Human Resources Services.

The front officer at the Victoria Hotel with already an Australian accent but has no manners was a Chinese. At the QVM, I haggled with an Indonesian storekeeper; and got a lot of ribbing from a Slovenian trader. At the Australia Post along Little Collins, the employee who answered my inquiry was an Australian of Japanese descent.

Melbourne in October is a busy, festive city. The horse races, the concerts of foreign entertainers, the fashion festivals, and the arts exhibitions are all happening at this time of the year in Melbourne and making Melburnians’ cash registers ringing with tourist dollars.

I had been to Moscow, Paris, Geneva, London, Tokyo, Johannesburg, Beijing, New York, Ontario, and Dubai, and other cities in Asia, Middle East, and Africa, but Melbourne, to my view, is one of the world’s most live-able cities. It is very friendly to foreigners. It is safe. It is immaculately clean. But if you plan to reside here, you must have a stable job because the standard of living is expensive, with the GST—whatever that means, but it means tax—staring you in the face every turn of the way.

But why was I in Melbourne?

It’s because I was lucky to be part of a team of National Wages and Productivity Commission officials who went on a mission to study Australia’s wage-setting system. The NWPC, the country’s wage-setting and business productivity promotions agency, is in the thick of formulating policy to reform the system of fixing wages in the Philippines and had planned this trip to study the Australians’ way of, well, paying their workers.

The team’s visit was underwritten by the International Labour Organization. The ILO is a partner of the Department of Labor and Employment whose Secretary, Rosalinda Dimapilis-Baldoz, my boss, conceptualized the reform. It was Baldoz, therefore, who sent me to Melbourne.

The team was composed of NWPC Executive Director Ciriaco Lagunzad, Jr., his deputy, Patricia Hornilla; his two directors, Jeanette Damo and Ahmma Charisma Satumba; the Secretaries of the National Wages and Productivity Boards of the National Capital Region, Region IV-A, and Region XI, Aida Andres, Rovelinda dela Rosa, and Ruby Badilles, respectively, and myself.

As delegation head, Executive Director Lagunzad made sure we were focused on the mission. But that’s another subject I need to write about after this impression on an extra-ordinary city, which impression I felt needed to be laid down first before I explain the serious part of the mission.

That, Virginia, is called context.

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