Puffing Billy

First of all, a very Happy New Year to everyone! Now that’s out of the way…

One of the tourist attractions I wanted to go to when we moved to Melbourne was the Puffing Billy steam trains at Belgrave. But what is Puffing Billy? Here’s the answer as quoted from their website:

Puffing Billy is a genuine relic of our more leisurely days. An historic steam train still running regularly in the mountain district it was built to serve at the turn of the century.

The Railway is the sole survivor of four experimental lines used to develop rural areas in the early 1900’s. Puffing Billy is now a major tourist attraction, its operation depending on hundreds of dedicated volunteers.

Puffing Billy runs every day of the year, except Christmas day, so why not take yourself and your family or friends on a sentimental journey along this 24.5 km operating museum. Enjoy the mountain scenery and panoramic views which pass by your carriage window. At Lakeside, the intermediate terminus of the railway is inside the beautiful Emerald Lake Park. You may stop over for a few pleasant hours bushwalking, swimming or just relaxing in the peaceful country setting. The terminus of the line at Gembrook is a delightful country town with much to offer the visitor.

I’ve forgotten about Puffing Billy for a while until an officemate told me about their family trip to the Dandenongs last week. He also mentioned Puffing Billy in passing as it was in the general area. He told me that he had gone there a few times before. Since I was curious about the place/ride to begin with, I asked him about his experience. That got me more interested to go.

So, on my birthday, Raquel and I drove to Belgrave to get on the Puffing Billy steam train. It was great. I wanted to see an actual fully-operational steam engine locomotive up close. What I didn’t realise about these old trains was the amount of polution it generates though. I certainly didn’t expect the large specs of coal falling on our skin and into our hair. Some even fell on my lips and teeth!

Still, I sort of loved it as I felt like I was transported back to the old West. It felt like I was riding a rural steam train into the wildernes back in the late 1800’s.

We were lucky that we have a buy-one-take-one ticket voucher and the ticket prices were cheap that day. So we paid like a quarter of what we would’ve actually paid if we had paid full price without the voucher. I thought it was well worth the drive to Belgrave and the money we spent on the train ride.

We stopped at the half-way point though which was about an hour from Belgrave. We felt that it wasn’t worth going all the way to Gembrook. I was just really after the train ride. We can always just drive to Gembrook in the future if we want and it will probably be faster than taking the train. After all, it was an old train and it didn’t really go that fast.

So, if you havan’t had the chance to ride the Puffing Billy train, I recommend that you give it a go. I think kids will specially love it.

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Published in: on January 3, 2008 at 12:58 am  Comments (1)  

Boxing Day rush

This year, Raquel and I didn’t take our annual leave this Christmas week to save it for later. That meant that our days off work during this week and the next only include the weekends, December 25, December 26 and January 1.

As you may well know, December 25 is Christmas Day and January 1 is New Year’s Day. But if you are originally from the Philippines like me, you may not know that December 26 is also a holiday here. It’s a holiday called Boxing Day.

No, it has nothing to do with the sport of Boxing. It has more to do with actual “boxes”, as in the thing you put gifts in. Here is a short introductory excerpt of what Boxing Day is about taken from Wikipedia:

Boxing Day is the day after Christmas, a public holiday in most countries in The Commonwealth. It originated as a day for giving gifts to employees and poor people. It has sporting traditions, especially fox hunting, and is the day when stores launch the most significant sales period in the retail cycle.

It is usually celebrated on 26 December, the day after Christmas Day, but can move to 27 December or 28 December if 26 December is a Saturday or Sunday. The movement of Boxing Day varies between countries.

The public holiday is recognised in the United Kingdom, Canada, New Zealand and Australia, as well as many other members of the Commonwealth of Nations.

Most shops in Australia always have the Boxing Day sale where you can buy their left over Christmas stock for real cheap. We have never gone Boxing Day shopping before because we were either out of the country or just too lazy to bother. However, this year we decided to go.

We have nearly no Christmas decorations at home this year but we plan to change that for next year. Since everything will be cheaper on Boxing Day, specially the Christmas decors, we wanted to buy all the decor we’ll need next year on Boxing Day.

The original plan was to wake up early and get to the mall early to make the most out of the all-day sale. Come December 26 morning, we were too sleepy to get up at our pre-designated wake-up time of 8 AM. We ended up waking up at 10 AM and leaving the house at 11 AM. That was a big mistake.

By the time we got to Highpoint (shopping centre), all of its various car parks were already full. We circled around and tried different parking locations for about half-an-hour be we finally chanced upon a car that was about to leave its parking bay. Finally!

When we got in the mall, the place was packed with people! As in Christmas-shopping-in-Asia packed. I couldn’t believe it. Where did all these people come from? Well, I couldn’t exactly blame them. There were sales of up to 50% off in lots of shops that day.

We had our lunch soon after arriving at the mall, which proved to be another mistake. By the time we got to do our shopping for Christmas decors and a Christmas tree, the shelves for these items were half empty. There weren’t even any decent Christmas trees left! All we found were red-brown trees and black trees. Black trees? Who buys Christmas trees with black pine needles? Well, my officemates suggested that maybe those were Goth Christmas trees or Emo trees.

So, no sale on the trees that day. But we were able to buy some Christmas decorations, at least. We also got other things that were equally on sale like a couple of pots and a monopod for Raquel’s camera. The only thing I was able to buy for myself was a new headphone set with a microphone and that thing wasn’t even on sale that day. Ah, well.

I almost did buy a discounted Gears of War game for the PC but changed my mind about it at the counter. I probably won’t play it as much in the end anyway. I would rather get Call of Duty 4, Bioshock or Titan Quest.

Even though we weren’t able to get a tree and I wasn’t able to buy any discounted goodies for myself, I still thought we got the most out of the Boxing Day sale. We’ll probably go again if we are in the country next year’s Christmas season.

On a side note, we just wanted to rest our heels after all the walking and shopping. We went back to Werribee and met up with a friend to watch a movie: National Treasure (2): Book of Secrets. There were a lot of so-so reviews of the movie so we didn’t expect much from it but I end up really liking it. If you are a fan of Indiana Jones-type adventures and you have some knowledge of American history, I think you’ll like the film, too.

Published in: on December 28, 2007 at 12:08 am  Comments (2)  

Christmas Eve

It’s one day from Christmas Day and I am pleasantly surprised as to how cool (literally) it has been lately. It’s an unbelievable 14 degrees Celsius at this very moment. Those of you not living in Australia may be wondering why this is so unusual. Well, it’s supposed to be Summer right now and my past Christmases here in Oz were mostly warm ones.

I shouldn’t complain. I always wished that my past Christmases were cooler because it doesn’t feel like Christmas at all if it is celebrated at 35 degrees Celsius. That’s one of the reason why we want to spend our Christmas elsewhere (somewhere in the Northern Hemisphere) if we could help it. However, this time, it’s far cooler here than when we were in the Philippines in December last year.

We just got back from the Christmas Eve Mass and now, we’re watching the traditional Carols by Candlelight extravaganza on Channel 9 all the way to midnight (well, nearly). All the while, we are changing channels to also while the annual Edinburgh Military Tattoo.

I’d also like to talk about the Mass earlier though. When we got to church, the half-hour pre-Mass kids’ caroling was still going on. And, sad to say, it was very appalling! I’m not bagging the kids here though. They were pretty good. However, there was this elderly lady singing the microphone who was easily overpowering the kids’ soft little voices with her out-of-tune high-pitch singing (to put it nicely). It was utterly an ear-shattering cringe-worthy performance. I’m not exaggerating. You should’ve seen the kids around us trying desperately to block out the lady’s high-pitch voice by covering their ears with their hands.

Speaking of kids, they were running uncontrollably around the back of the church the entire Mass. Makes me wonder where they get all their energy from. I’m only wondering where the parents of these kids were. Well, I’d rather have them running around than having them screaming or crying.

Regardless of my complaints above, I actually enjoyed the Mass. I just thought it would’ve been better if the microphone was nearer the kids than the lady who was in all probability these kids’ music teacher.

Back in the comfort of our home, watching TV, I’m just waiting for midnight to call up family and relatives in the Philippines to greet them all a Merry Christmas. We also have some leche flan and embotido (which Raquel made herself) in the fridge ready for our Noche Buena dinner.

In the meantime, I’ll probably be drawing something to pass the time. Again, Merry Christmas to all of you!

Published in: on December 24, 2007 at 8:46 pm  Comments (2)  

Christmas in Melbourne

Merry Christmas everybody! It’s Christmas eve as I’m typing this. This is just the second Christmas we’ll be spending in Melbourne. All I can say is that it’s pretty different from what I’m used to in the Philippines.

I still miss how most houses, the roads, the churches and the trees were all decorated with colourful fairy lights (Christmas lights) and parols (local Christmas lanterns). Here, there isn’t a lot of that going on. Well, the fact that the sun sets after 9 pm during the Christmas summer here was probably a major reason why.

Anyway, we went to the city after dark to take some photos of Melbourne at night with its Christmas decors aglow. To those of you who aren’t here and are curious as to what Christmas night is like, here are the photos:

Published in: on December 24, 2007 at 5:50 pm  Leave a Comment  

First Christmas at home

It’s been a couple of years since we’ve gotten our house and over that span of time, we haven’t had the chance to celebrate Christmas in it. We were always away during the past Christmases (trying to escape the Summer heat). This year though, we’re not going anywhere.

It might be nice to just hole up in the house during Christmas week anyway and just relax and pig out. We’ve been very busy lately with lots of stuff so a little down time will definitely be wonderful.

Although we’ll be spending Christmas at home, we didn’t really take the time to spruce up the place with the usual holiday decorations. We’re just being lazy. The only decor we have is the one wreath which we hung up outside our front door. And so, our home is far from the idealistic Christmasy living room scene I drew recently.

It does feel a little less like Christmas without the decor though. Maybe I’ll get off my lazy bum and devote some time to setting up the decor next year, if we happen to be around to celebrate the season at home.

Since we’ll be spending Christmas at home, that means we’ll have to prepare something for Noche Buena. Maybe a Filipino-style spaghetti, macaroni salad, hot cocoa and leche flan. Traditionally, no Noche Buena dinner is complete without hamon (jamon, Christmas ham) and keso de bola (queso de bola, a big ball of cheese covered by a red wrapping). But since neither Raquel or I enjoy these foods, they won’t be missed in the dinner table.

I’ll probably go rent some Christmas movies to watch over Christmas week to get into the holiday spirit. Yeah, movies like Die Hard and Die Hard 2 would do the trick! Maybe I should seek out Chevy Chase’s old movie, the Funny Farm. There’s this part in the movie that was around Christmas time that I really loved as a kid. Home Alone 1 might also be nice. Any recommendations? In the end, we’ll probably be watching some Christmas carolling show on TV, though. That’s good enough, I guess.

We’ll probably be exploring the neighbourhood for some Christmas-themed events, too. There’s supposed to be some Christmas lighting exhibition somewhere in Werribee but we haven’t the exact details of when and where it would be.

At the end of the day, as long as I get some much needed rest and relaxation, I’ll be happy.

Published in: on December 17, 2007 at 12:11 am  Comments (1)  

Lax justice

One of the striking things I’ve noticed about Australia is that the punishment handed out to convicted persons seem to be very lenient as compared to that in Asia (from what I’ve read, at least). For example, in a lot of Southeast Asian countries, drug trafficking is punishable by death. Granted I’m against the death penalty but I think these people deserve very long prison sentences at the very least. Here, a head of a drug syndicate got jailed for just 17 years. That’s the head of the syndicate! Accomplices got between six to 12 years each.

I’m not sure about other Asian countries but in the Philippines, rape is considered a heinous crime and is again punishable by death. I’m reiterating that I’m against the death penalty so everytime I mention that a crime is punsihable by death, keep in mind that I’m not condoning it. My point is that it was considered so heinous that it deserved capital punishment.

But here, a 10 year old girl was gang raped by eight teenage males and one 26-year old male. The attackers were tried and were convicted. However, that won’t go into the teenagers’ criminal records. They even got suspended sentences! That meant no jail time for any of these offenders. Why? Because the judge thought that the little girl “probably agreed” to it! What the hell?! At least, Australians, for the most part, were just as outraged with the verdict as I was.

I’m not sure if longer prison sentences actually act as a deterent for would-be criminals, but I would like for the criminals to at least get the punishment they deserve.

Published in: on December 12, 2007 at 12:30 am  Comments (2)  

Australian Election 2007

Earlier today, all Australian citizens of age went out to the polling places to vote for their representatives and senators in Parliament. I say “all” because voting in elections here is mandatory (though some people find ways not to vote). Basically, the political party with the majority of representatives voted into Parliament wins the election and that party’s leader becomes Prime Minister.

This was the first time I have to vote for the Australian federal elections and I’m a bit excited and anxious. Excited because my vote will help decide who Australia’s next Prime Minister will be. Anxious because I’m not sure how elections are done here.

It reminded me about how chaotic elections are in my home country. In the Philippines, there are a lot of security measures that needed to be met on election day to ensure that no cheating occurs. Thumb prints are taken and black tough-to-remove ink is dropped on your fingernail as a sign that you already voted (and cannot vote again). Ballot boxes need to be chained and guarded by third party volunteers at all times or risk it being stolen.

Another difference between elections here and in the Philippines I’d like to note is that the elections here are held on the weekend. That means no free day off for us which is a bit of a bummer.

The polling places opened at 8am and closed its doors at 6pm. We went to the nearest polling place from our house at around 10:15 am. That’s right. We can go to any polling place in our area and we don’t have to be assigned to a specific polling place like in the Philippines.

Anyway, there was a queue when we got to the place. It wasn’t a long queue though and it didn’t take long before for us to get to the table with the lady with all the list of names of voters in our area. We told her our names and she looked it up in her thick binder. When she found our names, she marked our names with a pencil and handed us our ballots.

Each of us got two sheets of paper. One small green one where we have to rank the Representative candidates of different political parties. We have to put a “1” on the box beside the name of our first choice candidate. Then write “2” on the box of our second choice and so on. Frankly, I’m not sure why we needed to even rank them. I’m pretty sure simple “check” in the box for our favoured candidate would have sufficed. But I guess there is a reason behind the ranking thing. I’ll find that out later.

The second sheet of paper is a long white sheet of paper with a list of all the political parties and the names of senatorial candidates for each one. We have two choices here: we can either rank (again!) all the senatorial candidates (there are a lot of them!) or just put “1” on the box of the political party you wish to support. Since I don’t want to waste any more time ranking every senatorial candidate (and I don’t even know any of them), I just did the easier second option.

After that, we fold up the two sheets of paper and drop them in their respective cardboard ballot boxes. And that was it. No thumb prints, no ink on fingers. The entire thing took less than fifteen minutes. It was that painless. It was so easy I couldn’t believe it.

But here’s the even better part. Before Saturday ended, we already know the winner of the election! Unbelievable! Specially for someone like me who grew up with elections in the Philippines. I wish elections back home was this simple and organised. But I guess doing the same thing back home would result with a lot of unscrupulous people cheating the elections. That is just unfortunate.

Anyway, if you don’t know yet, the Australian Labor Party won the election and Kevin Rudd is now the new Prime Minister of Australia.

Published in: on November 24, 2007 at 11:32 pm  Comments (6)  

Cost of living in Australia?

I found that the most common question asked by people I know who are thinking of migrating to Australia is how much does it cost to live in Australia. Well, I don’t have official statistics or anything so the only way I can answer this is to draw from my personal experience living in Melbourne.

Back when we didn’t pack home-cooked lunch to the work, we spend around $250 per week on groceries with the cost of eating out for lunch included. A lunch meal will generally cost about $10. It’ll probably cheaper at McDonald’s or Hungry Jack’s (aka Burger King) with their $6 burger meals that include chips (French fries) and drink. At selected Hungry Jack’s branches, you even get to refill your drink again and again. In the end, it will always be a lot cheaper to cook your own food than to eat out.

To save even more, instead of shopping at Safeway (called Woolworths outside Victoria, I don’t know why) or Coles, shop at Aldi instead. Sure, the selection of products is a bit limited at Aldi but those you can get there, you’ll get there a lot cheaper than the major supermarket chains. We would first buy our groceries at Aldi then go to the nearby Safeway to buy the rest of the things on our grocery list that we didn’t get at Aldi.

This $250 does not include transportation costs, clothing and utilities. We take the train so that’s $158 for a monthly full-fare Zone 1+2 ticket each. That ticket allows us to take any public transportation within Greater Melbourne. If you live closer to the city (within the Zone 1 boundary), you get to pay less. We only use the car on weekends and it costs us about $30 per week to have it filled with petrol (gasoline).

As for our utilities, our latest water quarterly bill was about $90. During winter time, our gas bill can reach up to $100 per month. Gas (gaas) is usually necessary not only for cooking but for heating homes, you see. Electricity bills tend to rise during winter too due to our need to turn on electric heaters and less daylight. Our winter electricity bill can reach up to $200 in a quarter. However, we are still aiming to lower our electricity, water and gas usage so hopefully, we’ll need to pay less in the future. We are doing this not only to save money but of course to help out the environment. Yeah, I just had to throw that in there.

If you are renting an apartment, you probably won’t need to worry about the water bill as the owner of the property usually pays for the water. So that’s one advantage of renting. Speaking of renting, a two bedroom apartment we rented in St Kilda East (an inner Melbourne suburb, about 15 minutes away from the city by train) cost about $1,200 per month (they will quote the rent in dollars per week though). Apartments will cost more if furnished.

If you are just starting out and you need furniture, go see Fantastic Furniture. They have the cheapest furniture packages that I know of. It’s not exactly the classiest furniture around but they definitely aren’t shoddy either. For $2000, you get a double-sized bed and matress, a dining table plus chairs, living room tables, bedsides (drawers), and a 51cm TV! You’ll probably need to assemble some of the furniture yourself though but I’m sure you’ll be able to handle it. That’s partly how they can sell it for cheaper. I bought my first furniture suite from them and I found the furniture to be sturdy and durable. And they don’t look too shabby either.

For the clothes and other spendings, you will get a better idea of how much things cost here by looking at the various department store chains’ catalogues online. Here are a few of the more popular chains of shops:
Myer
Target
Big W
Kmart

Now, you have to do the math (or as they say here, maths) and figure out how much money you need to bring with you when you fly to Australia. Be sure to bring enough money with you to last you six months here without a job just to be sure. Note that the cost I quoted above was for two persons living together. Utility bills might be cheaper if you are by yourself living in a one bedroom apartment, for example. It could be more expensive if you are a family of four, of course.

I hope this helps anybody wanting to know how much things cost here.

Published in: on November 21, 2007 at 12:01 am  Comments (5)  

Scaremongering

I just want to keep this short. The Australian Federal election is less than a week from now and the major political parties are coming out in full force with their political campaign ads. And the Liberal Party’s TV ads annoy me to no end.

Not once did I hear from the Liberal Party’s TV ads what their party is going to do for the country if they get re-elected into parliament for another term. What is their platform? Well, you won’t know it from just watching their ads. Instead, you’ll only hear scaremongering and mud-slinging from the ads.

Imagine if companies advertise their products in such a way. McDonald’s ads will only show how Burger King’s burgers are less tasty than theirs. Bunnings Warehouse ads will only show how Mitre 10’s shops are lacking in selection and how much more expensive their stuff are. Toyota ads will only show how Mitsubishi cars are less reliable. And so on. Ads that don’t help sell a product but only exist to try to dissuade you from buying a competitor’s product.

It makes the Liberal Party look very desperate. It seems like they think that the only way they can win this election is by making sure nobody votes for the other party. They claimed that 70% of the Labor Party’s people were union officials like it will bring about communism into the country. The funny thing is that the figure they quoted wasn’t even correct. I’ve heard on radio that the number of former union officials were much lower than 70% and Peter Costello acknowledged this, yet they continued to run the ad that claimed 70%.

Here is that ad: Watch in YouTube
Here is the transcript from the radio programme: Read the Insiders transcript interview with Peter Costello

This is my first federal election. I previously didn’t care one way or the other which party becomes the ruling party. But with statements from current Prime Minister John Howard saying that climate change doesn’t mean the end of the world, I’d rather go with Labor just to see him out of Parliament. In fact, climate change does mean the end of the world! John Howard may be too old to witness it first hand but what about the younger generation, HUH?!

It doesn’t help that I just hate scaremongering tactics because people tend to fall for them, more often than not. I feel like these tactics take advantage of people who are less informed. It feels like cheating to me, is all.

Anyway, I just want to vent out. Vote for anybody but the Liberal party, for me.

Here are some more of the Liberal Party’s ads:
Under Labor, who will run the economy?
Unions to Take Control of our Economy

Contrast those with the Labor Party’s ads:
The difference between Kevin Rudd and Mr Howard
Kevin Rudd’s vision for Australia

Published in: on November 20, 2007 at 10:01 pm  Comments (4)  

Finding a place to live

A reader whose family has recently received their resident visa has sent us an email with some queries on how to find a place to live here. This reminded me of the time when we were still in the process of moving here from Canberra and how we went about finding an apartment in an unfamiliar place where we don’t know anybody and we only have the weekends to drive from Canberra to Melbourne to view the listed properties. The move was difficult but not impossible and hubby spent a few weekends driving and sleeping in hotels.

Anyway for those who are just starting their search, hope these tips ease the difficulty of getting your own place.

  1. If it’s at all possible, get a street map of your target destination (Victorian map). This would not only help you in choosing where to narrow your search for a place to live, it would also be handy for the times when you need to find work, schools, parks, etc.
  2. A new migrant would probably not be in a rush to own a car and would generally be reliant on the public transport – this would include trains, trams and buses. The easiest and probably the fastest mode of transport (if it turns up!) are the trains. Study the network map for Melbourne and surrounding areas to see which areas have the service. Take note that there are two zones and fare levels within the network. Yellow denotes zone 1 while blue means zone 2.
  3. Although most train station names are also suburb names, not all train stations/stops are suburbs. For example, Balaclava station (Sandringham line) is in the suburb of Balaclava. However, there is no Aircraft suburb even if there’s an Aircraft station (Werribee line). To determine if the name is a suburb, try to find the name in this list of Melbourne suburbs.
  4. Once you have a suburb name or a postcode taken from the list of suburbs, you could now search for available rental properties at Domain or Realestate.com.au. Enter the suburb name and wait for the site to return a list. Both sites feature a way to view the available properties on a map (Plot properties on map link for Domain.com.au, View on Map tab in Realestate.com.au). Although the map is quite limited in what it shows, it is still a useful way for you to see how near the property is to public transport and parks. Click on the little houses/markers to see a short description and a thumbnail photo of the property.

    As an example, I typed in St Kilda East as a search criteria in Domain.com.au, switched to map view and clicked on a property in Blenheim Street. This ad is for apartment unit number 3 at property number 24 with 2 bedrooms, 1 bath and 1 parking spot. Located near the bottom of the map is the Balaclava train station while the solid lines on Carlisle and Chapel Streets indicate that tram lines run through these streets. This means that the property is very near public transport. Remember that being close to public transport could be a minus (noisy, a higher volume of people passing through and possibly traffic in peak hours) as well as a plus (easy to get to, numerous options to get away, cheaper transportation cost as you may not have to own a car until much later). Rent is listed as $280 weekly which would probably be paid monthly ($280/week x 52 weeks/year divided by 12 months/year = $1,213.33 monthly).

  5. To learn more about the location of the property, go to Street-Directory.com.au and enter 24 Blenheim Street, Balaclava VIC as the address. The map displayed would be quite detailed and you would be able to see train lines and stations as well as tram and bus routes. You would also be able to see that it there are a couple of schools, parks, parking spaces and a town hall nearby. Ticking on the For Rent layer on the left hand side menu of the page would also show all the rental properties being advertised in the area.
  6. If you’re curious, you could also learn more about the demographics of an area buying looking at the suburb’s profile. Local newspapers could also shed some light on the lifestyle of the people living in the area as well as the burning issues of the residents there. Typing “St Kilda newspapers” in Google, I found the area’s local newspaper – The Port Phillip Leader.
  7. Create a shortlist of properties you would be interested in and contact the agents to inspect the properties. Photos in the ads do help but there is no real substitute to actually being there and imagining yourself walking the streets everyday, envisioning your furniture in the space and seeing how you like the place.
  8. And finally, for those who are unfamiliar with the rental application process in Australia as well as their rights and responsibilities as tenants, have a browse at the renting section of the Consumer Affairs Victoria. One particular document to be found there is the especially useful guide for newly arrived migrants and refugees.
Published in: on November 19, 2007 at 7:52 am  Comments (1)