Monthly Archives: March 2014

Of trains, trams and tiny apartments: Melbourne’s collapsing public transport network

Could this be a Melbourne train in a couple of year's time?

Could this be a Melbourne train in a couple of year’s time? Source: http://sachinkhosla.com/fun/pakistan-train-bizarre

Those, like me, who suffer the daily train commute into Melbourne will know of the train driver who enjoys performing his stand-up comedy material.

One of his favourite lines, when the train is overcrowded, is to remind squashed passengers that “a packed train is better than no train at all”.

This, I suspect, may reflect more the prevailing Metro Trains’ attitude towards its service, than an attempt at lightening the mood.

The truth is that Melbourne’s transport network is no joke, unless you like your humour black and enjoyed from underneath a stranger’s armpit.

The city seems to be grinding towards eventual standstill and gridlock: train and tram cancellations and delays are daily occurrences; timetables have become objects of hope and derision rather than of any practical use.

Train stations have become places of confusion and chaos; on board, commuters endure sardine-like conditions, the sighs and grunts of frustrated fellow commuters, and worst of all, bad jokes from train drivers. None of this is helped by the disinterested, robot-like announcements of platform announcers, who deliver the unwelcome news with the indifference of someone reading the daily shipping report.

About the only good thing about a packed train is the lack of room for authorised officers (transport police) to patrol the carriages sniffing out fare evaders, though I wouldn’t put it past them to try.

But these problems are only the tip of the iceberg.  Rapid urbanisation and a desire to embrace Manhattan-style apartment living is bringing more and more people streaming into inner-ring suburbs of Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane. In just one example, Melbourne’s Yarra City Council says it expects half a dozen new apartment developments to spring up along the Victorian-era streetscape of Smith Street, each adding dozens (sometimes hundreds) of new residents who will need to catch the train, tram or bus to the city.

The Victorian facades of Smith Street, Melbourne

The Victorian facades of Smith Street, Melbourne

The council claims there are no “glaring deficiencies” in transport services on Smith Street but that it is monitoring the situation and “understands” there are improved tram services planned. Hardly reassuring, when local residents claim you can’t get on a tram that runs up and down the street as it is. This scenario is being replicated in dozens of inner-city suburbs in Melbourne and Sydney, where transport infrastructure is at breaking point.

RMIT professor Michael Buxton, a renowned authority on urbanisation and planning, expects a proliferation of six-to-nine-storey apartment blocks along all Melbourne’s Victorian retailing streetscapes in the next few years with little restriction on height, the number of apartments or their sizes, allowing developers to chase maximum profits. Last year, a developer called Sixth Lieutenant received approval for 28 apartments, some as small as 33 square metres (about four Toyota minivans lined up side by side), on a tiny 142-square-metre site on Smith Street, Fitzroy.

Plan Melbourne, the Victorian government’s so-called blueprint for development of the city to 2050 when the population is forecast to reach 6.5 million, acknowledges the increased congestion on roads and public transport and talks loftily about a long-term plan of developing a more efficient, faster “metro train service” that does not share train lines with regional services.

It’s an admirable vision, but many, many years away, if it happens at all.

The truth is that the Victorian government’s transport plans are lagging far behind huge demographic changes favouring inner-city living, when they should be leading them or at the very least, keeping pace.

In Mexico City, the best functioning megacity I’ve yet visited, a subway train comes every two or three minutes, and end-to end-journeys cost three pesos – about 25 Australian cents. In New York, an extensive, efficient and usually reliable subway network removes the need for cars.

The Mexico City Metro is the second biggest in the Americas after New York's subway system

The Mexico City Metro is the second biggest in the Americas after New York’s subway system

But in supposedly the world’s most liveable city, we find ourselves cursing as the train announcer drones on about another delayed or cancelled service. I wonder just how long it will be until those scenes of Japanese passengers being prodded and shoved into trains by uniformed platform officials become part of the daily commute here. It can surely only be a matter of time.

(This article first appeared in the Australian Financial Review.)

Mexico is indeed “gentle and fine”, Jack Kerouac

lonesome_travellerIn Lonesome Traveller, he’s poetic, mystical, sometimes incomprehensible account of wanderings and odd jobs in the mid-1950s, the beat writer Jack Kerouac writes of a trip to Mexico:

“There is no violence in Mexico, that was all a lot of bull written up by Hollywood writers or writers who went to Mexico ‘to be violent’.”

Kerouac continues:

“I know of an American who went Mexico for bar brawls because you usually don’t get arrested there for disorderly conduct, my God I have seen people wrestle playfully in the middle of the road blocking traffic, screaming with laughter, as people walk by smiling – Mexico is generally gentle and fine, even when you travel among the dangerous characters as I did – ‘dangerous’ in the sense we mean in America – in fact the further you go away from the border, and deeper down, the finer it is, as though the influence of civilizations hung over the border like a cloud.”

I recall the warnings from well meaning friends and family – There’s still time to change your plans/It’s not safe/It’s a dangerous place/Don’t go – before we boarded a New York flight in Christmas 2010 for a month long Mexican bus sojourn from Cancun all the way west to Guadalajara.

Though the notion of Mexico as a violent place is indeed “a load of bull” but still seemingly engrained in the American psyche more than fifty years after he wrote about it, Kerouac’s description of Mexico as “generally gentle and fine” is wonderfully precise.

There is little violence south of the shady border towns where the stories of gangs, beheadings, shootings and drugs garner garish headlines in American newspapers and stoke the flames of fear.

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A fruit stall, Mexican style

As travellers, we found the biggest danger in Mexico to be from a falling coconut while snoozing under the shade of a palm tree on an unspoilt sandy beaches on Isles Mujeres or Tulum.

Or perhaps from one of those mad windy bus journeys – where brakes are unnecessary accessories – up through the mountains to postcard perfect town like San Cristobel de las Casas, where the only sense of danger are the dolls, paintings and postcards for sale in souvenir shops depicting the Zapatista rebels with guns criss-crossed across their chests (and scary steely stares).

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The colourful, quite streets of San Cristobel de las Casas beneath the mountains

I write in my journal of a day spent in this oasis of bright colours, cobbled quiet streets and lazy wanderings:

“Students and tourists abound.The streets are lined with brightly painted mainly single story houses and shops in shades of yellows, reds, blues and oranges and with slanting roofs of Spanish-style red tiles…the perfect place to wander, sit and sip a coffee or beer and people watch.”

In comparison to the constant pleadings, coercions and tourist tricks and traps in Thailand, India, Morocco and Egypt (all places I nonetheless loved), Mexicans are so laid back they hardly bother when it comes to approaching tourists.

On Isles Mujeres, the little island off Cancun, this lack of savvy was perfectly captured by a man offering boat trips to see whales:

“Wanna go on a whale ride?” he enquired as we strolled by one afternoon.
“No gracias,” we replied.
Silence, then he said sleepily:
“Lotta whales…”

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Ice creams in the park, Valledolid

No one harasses you in Mexico. Not in the small, sleepy afternoon siesta towns like Valledolid (where we visited the ruins of Chichen Itza and swam in the underground Cenotes) and not in sprawling, bustling Mexico City, the world’s best functioning mega-sized city.

Are there dangers in Mexico? Of course. I would not be so naive as to suggest otherwise. But the risks are small unless you’re smuggling drugs, heading for the seedy border towns or in the words of Kerouac going there “to be violent”

The Mexico I remember is that of little black haired men with moustaches; their plump wives pulling chihuahuas on leads, climbing steps to find churches painted in brightest pink and orange, wandering streets in shades of yellow and red, the little taco stands sizzling away by the side of the road, poodles sleeping in hammocks, glorious, colonial Spanish architecture, the boulevards of Mexico City, the murals of Diego Rivero, Frida Kahlo’s sad paintings in the blue house in Coyoacán, ancient Mayan ruins overlooking beaches and azure oceans.

Alive in colour, light and smiles. A sentiment Jack Kerouac would have agreed with, I think.

Jack Keroauc top left next to the poet Allen Ginsberg and firends in Mexico City

Jack Keroauc top left next to the poet Allen Ginsberg and firends in Mexico City

Snake oil: Door-to-door salesmen and other scams

snakeoilIf an alien crash landed on earth, probably the first thing that would happen to him is he’d get scammed and he’d have to fly back to his faraway planet in just his space undies. That’s if someone hadn’t stolen his identity and sold his space-craft already.

My wife and I were the proverbial ‘aliens’ a couple of years, when we flew into Cairo for a week’s visit as part of a round-the-world trip in 2010.We figured since it was so short a visit and all we wanted to do was see the Pyramids of Giza, the Egyptian Museum, take a cruise on the Nile and wander around the ancient streets that we’d not bother to buy a guide-book and just wing it.

Big mistake!

We got conned on our way to the pyramids.We got conned wandering the ancient streets. I got conned on an evening stroll when looking for a place to eat. Conned. Conned Conned. By old kindly looking men. By young boys. By exuberant fathers with stories about their children. It was incredible.

camel ride

Riding a very expensive camel in Cairo, October 2010

The scams were not sophisticated in the way they are in Australia and other westernised cities and “harmless” in the sense that all you lost was a bit of dosh. Looking back they were somewhat endearing (or perhaps pitiful) and assumingly thought-up as a means of getting by in a very tough city.

Back in Australia, it’s a far more dangerous proposition with greed the primary motive. There are scam-artists waiting on the telephone, in the letter box and at the front door. It’s so bad that the government has a dedicated website called Scamwatch to warn you about each of them with real-life stories and advice.

Our home phone, which we hardly ever use except for our internet service is a constant source of dodgy phone calls. We hardly ever answer it now, figuring that if it’s an important call, people will try our mobiles or Skype.

The other day I picked up the phone and  a woman proceeded to tell me she was from Microsoft support and that I had downloaded a virus on to my computer. She implored me to go on to my computer and search for a certain file to verify this. I could hear she was talking from a faraway place, and with a strange manner of speaking English, so I just hung up the phone. Sure enough this was a scam as described on this UK website with the end result that you download a real virus that steals all your personal information.

Then’s there’s the door-to-door energy salesmen trying to get you to switch energy accounts.

Twice this has happened to us in Melbourne. The first time the salesman identified himself as from an energy company, the second time was more sinister.

Last week, just before dinner, a guy appeared at our door with a clipboard. He pulled out a spreadsheet, told me he was from Jemena and said he needed to see my last energy bill to compare what I was currently paying.

Jemena is an energy infrastructure company which provides electricity and gas to homes. This electricity and gas is then on sold to consumers from retail suppliers like Origin Energy, who are our gas and electricity supplier.

The salesman gave me the impressions this was all very official and pressing so I rifled through a cupboard full of documents and on my iPad until I found an online bill. The man stood there quietly, smiling with his clipboard. I showed him the bill and he studied it. Then he said something like “Oh my god” and went on tell me I was paying 20 per cent more each month then  I needed to. He said he would sign me up and that I would save money from next month.It was then I realised this wall all a deceptive little scam.

He wasn’t from Jemena, but from a retail energy supplier called “Simply Energy”. I told him I wasn’t going to sign up to anything on my doorstep and he left with a piece of paper on which he had scribbled his mobile phone number in pencil in case I changed my mind.

I googled Simply Energy. The reviews were scandalous. It got an average rating of 1.4 out of 5 from 235 reviews on productreview.com.au with stories of customers being overcharged, having their gas and electricity supply cut and even contacting a customer’s current supplier to say they had switched to Simply Energy even when they never agreed to.

They use to call these people snake oil salesmen, referring to travelling charlatans selling miracle cures and quack medicines. Now the scams have become far more sophisticated and devious.

Have a look at the Scamwatch website, there are dozens of scams preying on the naive, weak-minded, plain unlucky or vulnerable from online auctions, to pharmaceutical products to real estate scams.

One of my most popular blog posts was about a letter I received in the post over a year ago covered with Spanish stamps and postmarks. It was addressed to me in person, offering me the chance to share in an inheritance of an oil magnate called “Albert Schlesinger” who had apparently died in a car crash in 2004.

Seems ridiculous right? Who would fall for that? But every year thousands of Australians do.

A program on the ABC’s 7.30 Report reported that every month, Australians lose $7 million just through internet scams.

They’re impossible to avoid unless you choose to live like a hermit, never answering the phone, turning on your computer or answering the doorbell.

Confessions of a cricket tragic

This article first appeared in the Australian Financial Review

Retired skipper Graeme Smith with the Test mace, signifying South Africa's number one ranking

Retired skipper Graeme Smith with the Test mace, signifying South Africa’s number one ranking

To be a South African cricket supporter residing in Australia is to be a true cricket tragic.

As we slid to another home series defeat against Australia in Cape Town, I dashed off a tweet about the last Test side to beat the Baggy Greens at home, a team know as the “Invincibles” which white-washed Bill Lawry’s tourists 4-0 way back in 1970. A colleague replied: “Oh come on, Larry, nostalgia is the last refuge.”

Perhaps he was right. Perhaps it was a foolhardy attempt to prop up my spirits after yet another home series failure against the old foe; the only blight on an exceptional record that has seen South Africa rank as the No. 1 Test side in world cricket for many years and unbeaten in 14 Test series dating back to 2009.

No defeat hurts more than to lose against Australia (the 1999 World Cup semi-final still haunts me), no victory is more sweetly savoured.

When we finally did win a Test series against Australia in 2009, away from home, and then again 2012, also away from home, it was indeed a sweet moment for a biltong-eating expat like myself.

But a home Test series win against Australia has eluded us in seven attempts since we returned to world cricket in 1992 with just two draws and five defeats.

Back in 1970, just prior to being cast into the sporting wildness, South Africa was a dominant side with a host of superstars in the making. Top of the pile was Graeme Pollock, considered by many to be the finest left-handed batsman the game has produced. In a career of just 23 Tests, Pollock scored 2256 runs at an average of almost 61. I was lucky enough to see Graeme Pollock bat in the early 1980s, when he was approaching 40 and in the twilight of his career. It was at the “Bull ring” – the Wanderers Stadium in Johannesburg, where Pollock would come into bat at number 4 for provincial side Transvaal, known then as the “Mean Machine” and packed with star players including West Indians Alvin Kallichirran and Sylvester Clarke (relics of earlier “rebel” tours). The side was captained by the handlebar-moustached all rounder Clive Rice, whose rich talents sadly coincided with our period of isolation, meaning he never played a single official Test. I’d sit there with my dad in the wooden seats, long before they knocked down the old grandstand, eating a chicken mayo sandwich, binoculars trained on the pitch, watching the bowlers run in.

When it was his turn to bat, Pollock would lazily stroll to the wicket Viv Richards-style and take his guard nonchalantly. When in form, he was a sight to behold, able to clip a fast bowler off his toes for six with just a flick of his bat. I still have his signature in a little green autograph book I kept as a lad. Others in that 1970 Test side that never got the opportunity to fulfil their burgeoning talents included opening batsman Barry Richards, who scored 508 runs against Australia at an average of 72 (in what was to be his only Test series), all rounder Mike Procter, who picked up an incredible 26 wickets at 14 a piece and captain Ali Bacher, whose record against Australia was seven wins from eight matches (he was also part of the team  that beat Australia 3-1 in a home series in 1966-67, captained by Peter van der Merwe).

Softly spoken, calm and diplomatic Ali Bacher was a constantly on television. As our leading cricket administrator, he organised the rebel tours in the 1980s that kept cricket alive during isolation and in 1992 led the country back into world cricket. Of course,  I remember everything back then – the smell of boerewors wafting up from braais (barbeques) around the stadium; the colourful match programs packed with statistics about my heroes; walking across the field to inspect the pitch with my dad during the lunch break – from the viewpoint of a privileged white upbringing.

I was too young and naive to understand the country’s cruel reality: that apartheid robbed generations of black, Indian and mixed-race South Africans of participating in the game.

Thankfully, that’s all changed and our team is a now a better reflection of the ‘‘rainbow nation”, with players of colour like Hashim Amla, Vernon Philander and Alviro Peterson all households names. Just last month, a junior South African side packed with players of all colours beat Pakistan to win the under 19 World Cup. Perhaps they will one day guide us to a home series win against Australia. A World Cup win would be nice too.