The Good, the Bad, and the Pretty

As a silly American, I notice that some of the small nagging things that I miss while in bonsai1-0513171237a_HDRAustralia are actually more reflections about me.  As my wife and I enjoy our last week together (she is going back a week early to help our youngest son move home from college summer break), I listed off a number of irks that might have contributed to my geek/homesickness:

  • Amazon prime “everything” – back home, there’s solid 50/50 that there will be a package waiting on my porch any given weekday.  “Hi, my name is Ryan, and I am an online shopping nerd.”  It’s coming to Australia soon – they are building warehouses – God help us all.  But for now, I have suffered serious UPS withdrawal.
  • Speeding – since getting my little Mazda 3 hatchback with a modest “performance” mode, I have become a more dangerous driver.  I crave that downshift, being pushed back in the seat, passing cars like they were stopped.  You can’t do that in Canberra much less NSW or Vic – you can’t even go 10kph over the fairly modest limits without risking losing your license.  There are fixed and mobile cameras everywhere here – I’m afraid to even scratch my nose.  Besides, rental cars here … meh.
  • Gobs of Internet – there’s public internet most places around Canberra, they even post signs.  However, you’re limited to a measly 250 MB per day, unless you hack the MAC on your phone 🙂  That doesn’t even get me 15 minutes of downloading updates and heavy social media diving.  I was unable to get reasonable landline broadband for my “short” stay (4 months) – it would have been 50 GB relatively slow ADSL for $500. As it was, I ended up with a LTE MiFi from Vodafone for $75 no contract – quite speedy but a bit of stuttering.
  •  Parking – I’m used to cruising the destination radius looking for a primo free parking spot, anything to avoid putting the coins in the meter (wait, what?) There’s no free daytime parking here, anywhere, period.  Everything has been taken over by ParkMobile, Wilson’s, or even a government franchise.  It’s anywhere from $1 to $2.50 per hour, but at least tap-to-pay at the kiosks makes it seem less painful.
  • Autumn – The leaves started to turn, then the next day, poof, trees were bare and mornings were below freezing.  There is more transition between two chapters of a Danielle Steel book than between summer and winter in Canberra.  Mother Nature seems to be able to put a big blue dot on Anzac Day that says “turn it off here”.  I’m sorry, but I like a little foreplay with my frost.
  • Television – there’s quite a bit of American TV on the networks in Australia.  The syndicated news shows have their own anchor personalities (imagine the Today Show with accents) and there’s a heavy BBC influence (including my beloved Attenborough).  But we do miss some of the current not-so-crummy sitcoms.  We also don’t have a DVR, so it has been practically unbearable actually having to sit through and wait for commercials.  However, it has been fun to establish a routine of watching old re-runs while cooking dinner: Friends, Next Generation, and my favorite, M*A*S*H.   This morning, the Brady Bunch is on in the background, while I type this – I don’t just _feel_ old now…
  • Outdoors – there were times back home when I went on a 4-hour geocaching hike with little more than a phone and a water bottle.  I must admit you have to be a bit more safety-conscious here.  Snakes, spiders, thirst, sun, terrain, immediate loss of cell coverage…  Even the beautiful magpies seem lethal when you realize their long, loud calls will drown out your cry for help.  It’s just a different mindset

Speaking of outdoors, we toured the National Arboretum yesterdawollemi1y, with a marvelous “100 forests” and almost as many gardens.  We actually got to see a small stand of wollemi pines – these were grown from seeds of the original discovery site by an Australian forester hiking in 1994, who thought the tree was unusual – it was, thought to be extinct, because it was only known through fossil records dating the species to 200 million years ago in the Jurrasic.  There is no other known species still alive like it.

The Arboretum is also host to a fantastic bonsai garden. It’s amazing to see some of these living works of art that have been in “training” (sometimes you can see the little wires) for decades or hundreds of years.

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Most phenomenally, we got to make our own souvenirs for this trip, some blown glass tumblers of our own design, a 40-minute endeavor with an experienced artist at the Canberra Glassworks.  Before watching the process, I had no idea of the technicalities, skill and risks involved in making some of the beautiful work.  Ours won’t be museum pieces, but they will be something to use and look at.

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We have had some wonderful experiences here.  I really wasn’t expecting Canberra to be so enjoyable and beautiful.  It’s hard to call it a city – although it’s got a population of 300,000, anyplace that has less traffic during rush “minute” than a 7-11 has visitors at 3am, is all right in my book (oh, wait, the one 7-11 here is only actually open 7 to 11).

And, when I come back in October, I am hoping for better internet, pretty spring flowers, and lots of brown cardboard boxes.

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Treasured Islands

Delaware is a small state, and shrinking.  I have been going to Fenwick Island since I was born, but erosion has rubbed out on a lot of the little atolls in the Bay where I used to canoe.  One small marshy point I would visit was rumored to be a stash location for Blackbeard, but it’s almost gone, sunken into the waters where crabs crawl.  I was thinking we could put back a little territory, just offshore – a nice complementary geographic addition, with some big trees and wildlife that are not just more geese, maybe a mountain or two (Delaware is so flat you can see across it from the firetower on the Maryland border).  After visiting New Zealand, I think I found the solution – I just need a really big crane. It’s a bit like the Shel Silverstein poem about a kid who has a lamp that will plug into the sun – just a small engineering challenge with the cord.

We were on the north island of New Zealand for five days last month,  on a bus tour that took us through a beautiful range of adventures.  We couldn’t decide which things were our favorites – but here’s some of our highlights.

Their national symbol is the kiwi, an endangered nocturnal flightless bird with a long kiwi_stuffedbeak that darts around in the dark smelling for worms and insects underground.   The name comes from the Maori people that described the sound it makes.  Their non-functional wings are invisible under the feathers, not even good for waving.  They are being bred in captivity via rescue programs because of the dwindling numbers from loss of habitat and unchecked possum populations going after their eggs. (The possum problem is so big that the utility companies have to put aluminum wraps on every single telephone pole to prevent them from climbing up and eating the wires. They were stupidly introduced by Europeans who wanted to grow them for fur and food – now it’s as bad as rabbits in Australia.)  We were able to observe darkened houses where kiwis are being bred, and wat0416171409b_dune_boogieched them feeding in their dim environment.  The kiwi has the largest size egg as a percentage of its body size of any bird.  It’s like a human trying to give birth to a four-year old.  I really feel bad for them.

The beach and dune sand up at Cape Reinga is not like what you usually find on US beaches – it’s so hard-packed that our tour bus was able to drive on the beach (and in the mild edge of the surf).  The steep dunes were hundreds of feet tall, and we stopped to hike up them with boogie boards – you flop down on your belly and slide down them like a toboggan, and you get up to quite a speed, slowed or steered only by dragging your toes.  Unfortunately, if you don’t maintain control at the bottom, a faceful of sand doesn’t feel or taste as good as snow.

Cape Reinga has a special tree and a spectacular view.  It’s essentially the northernmost point of the tahiki_tree_goodcountry, and if you miss it, sailing from Sydney, you better have enough food to reach Chile.  There’s a solar-powered historical lighthouse built in 1941, but the Maori people have been worshipping there since 1250 – they believe that the spirits of the dead go to the Cape, climb the down the roots of the kahiki tree (visible down on the rocks, fused into it – it never blooms) to the underworld and their homeland, Hawaiki.

Although the Pohutu geyer in Rotorua is the largest one in the southern hemisphere, it’s geyser_2_goodnot that it’s tall (maybe only 1/5 the height of Old Faithful) – but the raw power of the steam and water splashing out every few hours, and the permeating sulphur aroma, reminds you that there’s magma just a few kilometers under your feet. You can visualize something Paleolithic crawling out the the gurgling grey mud pools, and they warn you that the rocks you may sit down on are a trifle warm.  There’s steam rising out of more random points around town than a New York City block – and more appear all the time.  It’s not a place you want to gamble buying property.  They used to allow private drilling of geothermal wells – many of the hotels run off of the energy – but it caused too many turf wars about who was stealing each other’s supply.

Keeping away from the scalding geysers, vents, and boiling mud pools, we were able to peacefully enjoy the thermal effects at the Polynesian Spa right next to our hotecomm_PSpa11-12_0l, which uses natural warm mineral water from underground for a wonderfully relaxing experience.  I had not been to a public bath before, but it was really well organized.  You walk in and pick what you want from a menu – there’s a separate kid’s pool, group adult pools of varying temperatures (that are posted), locker and towel rentals, and some private pools that can be booked.  They also have a nice juice bar and other drinks to help keep you hydrated.  The spa dates back to 1878 when a missionary priest claimed his arthritis was healed by the hot mineral water, upon soaking advise of the natives.  (photo courtesy spa web site – I don’t have any personal ones).

dolphins4The water around the Bay of Islands is very scenic – it’s home to the “Hole in the Rock” (see previous blog photo) which is a famous and worthwhile see-sight, but the boat ride was also very relaxing and enjoyably smooth, and often a treat for observing schools of dolphins, which included a baby that we were able to observe for a while.

I’m looking forward to getting back to Delaware this summer,  down on the beach, reading a good book.  It’s a place you can close your eyes and still feel the sun through the lids, and taste the salt, and sink way down in your chair – though not so much that your Kindle falls in to water (I’ve done that.)  Yes, it will be good to be back home in the States, but I’ll be dreaming of New Zealand.

 

Hot Springs and Hallways

All our New Zealand trip souvenirs going up in smoke –  that was running through my mind as the fire alarm bonged throughout my apartment building, during the siesta hours.  Trying to make a mental list of the bare minimum things to stuff in my pockets, I blundered about, while my head was still stuffed up from a cold (an unintentional gift picked up in the last phase of the vacation) and a robotic voice insisted “evacuate” .  Peeking the bedroom window onto the terrace below, I saw individuals running for the front entrance, and my pace picked up a bit.  Passport, wallet, keys, glasses, cell phone, spouse…  We’ll get back to the things I forgot, later.

In my travels, I have had a few encounters with fire alarms, all but the last involving lackadaisical curiosity more than any intentional urgency, which surprisingly is contrary to my upbringing in the Navy on a submarine, where everything (even drills) is treated with the utmost sense of realism and urgency.  Perhaps I have gotten soft, until last year. It was at a hotel in Houston, up on the eighth floor, an otherwise uneventful (yawn) training conference, when I was awakened at 5am by what my brain told me was a crude prank, but since the alarm didn’t turn off in 2 minutes, I was forced to throw off the covers and go to the door.  Now, if you paid attention in fifth grade to Fire Marshall Bill, when I say this – nothing jolts you awake like feeling a warm doorknob.  Step two: get down on all fours, crack open the door.  To see and feel smoke wafting from the hallway in brings one to an entirely new interpretation of the phrase “sh** just got real.”  The final straw was running to the window as a fire engine pulls to a stop, like a small toy, on the street far below. So as to not mislead everybody in what turned out to be a very self-reflective event, involving not remembering which way were the fire stairs (those exit signs are useless – couldn’t see two feet), it was just a steam pipe rupture.

So, we have just gotten back from a marvelous six-day vacation to New Zealand, over the long Easter weekend.  It was conveniently quiet in the office because a lot of f0419171544a_HDR_hobbitonolks in Australia take some time off because of the Anzac Day holiday the following week.  Round-trip flights on Qantas and Virgin were about $800 per person, but we knocked off $200 by taking the red-eye over, which also eliminated an extra hotel night.  The tour was a bit more per person, and we decided to upgrade on the hotels, which was a gamble that really paid off.  Yes, the hotels and hallways and rooms were nicer, but their LOCATION was more conducive to nightly activities in town.  In hindsight, I would also splurge on the airfare in order to get better rested up – these tour groups keep you very busy.  I found a five-day booking on Viator with a company called “GreatSights” that nicely covered the hhole_in_rock3ighlights of the North Island: Waitomo glow worm caves, Rotorua thermal springs and sulphur lake and the Pohutu geyser,  Cape Reinga and the kahika tree, driving the bus on the hard-packed sand of the 90-Mile Beach and boogie-boarding hundreds of feet down the dunes, cruising the Bay of Islands and going to the Hole in the Rock and some great dolphin sightings, seeing hug0416171458abus_beache ancient kauri trees in the rainforests, a working farm with sheep and herding dogs, Hobbiton, and learning about the Maori tribal culture.  Another five days (if you have them) could be spent on the South Island, where I really wanted to see the Fox and Franz Josef glaciers – the glaciers on the North Island are on Mount Ruapehu, where the tour bus driver didn’t want to take me, since it’s an active volcano.

I have turned into a bit of a nature buff, so getting a chance to see a real kiwi bird (endangered, nocturnal) and the agathis australis kauri trees (some of which are one thousand years old, and the largest in NZ – the species dates back to the Jurassic period) was as precious as sightseeing in Auckland and the pretty coastal towns that dot the coasts and Bay of Plenty. We also got some close-ups with dolphins and many of the bird varieties. The glow worms were fascinating – I’ve been to Luray Caverns and seen some colorful stalactites. But, this tour was unique in that, once down deep in the cave, youWCAV704180000338c climb into a little boat and get pulled along via overhead rope in pitch-black until your eyes get adjusted and you see these little glowing dots of light over your head – little larva in different sizes and colors, hoping to attract insects brought by air currents into their strands of webbing. You can’t take photos or video, so they do the cheesy but endearing green-screen so you have something of a memory.

Logistically, the NZ dollar is about the same as the Australian dollar, about 70 US cents right now.  Food and drink are reasonably priced, and people are very friendly –  like Australia, you generally pay first and they bring it to your table,  and tipping is minimal.  We probably covered 800km in tour busses in the 5 days, but they were roomy and comfortable, some full and some only half, and the drivers were generally a hoot, providing color and documentary between sights.  I’ve never driven on a beach before, much less in a 14-ton tour bus, and got a little startle when he headed INTO the surf at one point.

I read the Hobbit when I was a kid, but I don’t recall digesting the Lord of the Rings hobbit_group_tree_goodtrilogy. I also don’t care for those kind of movies too much – not enough intrigue, too much hand-to-hand combat. But the scenery, in my mind and in person at Hobbiton, is fantastic.  Stacey really enjoyed it, being familiar with the movie scenes – for me, it was a good chance to get some ideas on what kind of playhouse to build the grandkids someday.

For souvenirs, I got a block of preserved kauri wood (I’ll carve some kind of desk ornament later), a little statue kiwi made out of eucalyptus, some postcards, a nice shirt, and some mud kits from the thermal pools at Rotorua (just add hot water, apply to face). It would have been unfortunate to have lost those things, seeing as a trip to New Zealand shouldn’t be a once-in-a-lifetime event, but probably often is.  It would have been really unfortunate not to spend a bit of time and money (ok, a lot of money) to experience kiwi land, while we happen to be in Australia.  Part of the reason I’m doing this blog is to capture0419171621a_greendrago some good memories, reflect on our good fortune at being able to do this travel, and provide some information to others that may want to share these experiences as well.  Up until now, I’ve been pretty caught up with work and routine, going through the motions, walking down the hallway of life, banking equity, thinking that we’d have plenty of time to tour, cruise, and vacation later, after retirement.  But not if you don’t know where the fire stairs are…

P.S. It seems I scared a few folks with that first line – we are fine, and no damage.  The fire department determined that it was something electrical in the next tower over – the tenants weren’t home, but a neighbor pulled the alarm.  Better yet, we have just about gotten over the post-travel sniffles, and are looking forward to a lunch cruise on the lake today, and some dinner from the farmer’s market.

Four Extra Toes

Nobody knows why we have five toes.  Go ahead – open a new tab and search it.  You’ll get a bunch of scientific stuff about how toes shortened when we came down out of the trees, and about how we needed so many digits early on for clinging to branches.  I’m not going to talk about fingers, in deference to Inigo Montoya.  But if you had four extra toes, you would walk more steadily, have better balance (the more to consume wine), and hold a poolside eight-card flush, which beats an eight-card straight.  This little piggy could have four extra destinations between the market and roast beef.

But what I’m really talking about is having four little extra things that you probably would not think about if they weren’t there.  That’s what we did this weekend in Canberra: the zoo, the botanical gardens, the old parliament house, and a science center called Questicon.  All were within 15 minutes of our place in Canberra, and very few inhabitants, I surveyed, had experienced them.

I saw my first wildfire, up close, at the botanical garden – they were doing some small “controlled burns” on the ground, around some of the vegetation.  Just little flames that licked around the trunks and left a black-grey ash over the soil. Then they turned on the sprinklers, which gave me a chuckle. My guide didn’t know too many details on the how and why, but I know a bunch of Boy Scouts who would love to get a piece of that action.  The gardens had everything from daisies (Stacey’s favorite) stacey_daisiesto termite mounds (not her favorite).  I learned more about eucalypt varieties than I thought possible, but little of it stuck, other than using the bark to make rope, and a few that can produce syrup.  Here there are bees that are independent, not part of a hive, but still very important for pollination.   There’s also an interestingly shaped bottle tree,

The zoo was a bit expensive, quite disorganized, and a bit sad.  The walking paths would get you lost faster than a caravan in a sandstorm, and most of the animals were lying far away in the shade, sleeping.  The only way to get them up close was to feed them, so of course, we did, though you have to pay extra.  There’s nothing so exhilarating like having an alpaca come up and start eating your shirt; oh, I didn’t pay for that – it just happened.alpaca2_0408171456c_HDR  Stacey got to feed the three giraffes (dad, mom, and 9-month old baby, which was still 10 feet tall).  They were very friendly, and hungry – they would rip the fresh leaves right out of your hands, and then use their tongues to scoop up some horse pellets, which they really liked.  We also went in with a guide and fed and petted a tree kangaroo – very cute little guy, but had the potential to bite, so the key was to keep him busy with food, so we want’s attracted to your fingers.  Australia was once covered with rainforest, and these little guys were bigger and ruled the land.  Once the climate changed and the rainforests shrank, regular roos evolved to take over the bush, and the tree roos have declined dramatically.tree_roo

Questicon is a great science museum, missing one thing: adult swim.  There were tons of cool things to play with, but you either had to stand in line, or if you tried to move, you stepped on a dozen seven-year-olds who just want to run around and push buttons without reading the nice plaques on the exhibits.  If you do manage to push them out of the way, you would be able do things like:

  • play air hockey against a robotic arm or against 3 other people in a flash_shadowcross-shape
  • put on a slippery suit and free fall 25 feet down a slide
  • freeze your shadow on a wall
  • stick your hand inside a tornado

One thing that mesmerized us for a good 20 minutes, partly because all you had to do is stand there a watch it, was a demonstration of how comets vent parts of their surface as they orbit near the sun.  This is physically illustrated by dropping little crystals of dry ice from a conveyor belt into a pool of water.  The comets float on the surface, but you see these little jets coming out the sides, and they scoot around under the plexiglass. There’s lots to do and see and touch – just comet_0410172145make sure you use the hand sanitizer stations located every 15 feet.

The old parliament house has rotating exhibits – downstairs was a collection of the best political cartoons of 2016 – and quite a few related to the US election, ’nuff said.    Upstairs, you walk around and learn about the early prime ministers, or social and economic landmarks in Australia’s century of independent history, or you can sit in the actual House and Senate rooms, in the same seats that were actually used up until 1986.  I yearned to stand up and holler, “Mr. Speaker!”   There also was a remarkable history of the Magna Carta, illustrating just how much world history I had forgotten since high school.

In addition to our normal weekend activities of people-watching at the Dock Bar and perusing bread and vegetables at the farmer’s marker, it was a good way to spend a dreary, windy, drizzly weekend – one that converted both of our umbrellas into fabric-clad spider-webs.  No, these places won’t be on your Top 10 list of things to see if you only had a weekend on Canberra.  But they would be on your top 14, if you had 14 toes.

Self-Inflicted Yoga and Life On Earth

My dying words were “Namaste my ass…”  And no amount of spandex-adorned CPR was going to bring me back. Sadly, it was my idea to sign up for some weekly yoga classes while we were here for four months in Australia.  It fit in well with our morning walks, desire to do better on our diets, and trying out the apartment complex gym.  I thought that getting some healthy new routines into our life would be better than the alternatives of eating out on the fabulous Kingston boardwalk every night.  It’s bad enough that because of all things metric, you can’t check the local news before going to work without a cup of coffee to power your brain’s celcius-to-fahrenheit circuits.  But regarding food intake, 45 years of calorie-counting doesn’t prepare you for the four-digit kilojoule labeling.  Except, get this – the pizzas are still measured in inches, and cooking recipes still in cups and tablespoons.

The first few weeks were wonderfully gentle.  Sally is another American transplant here, and her guidance and and peaceful transitions worked our muscles, balance, and limberness, allowing me to learn the poses, concentrate on my breathing, and generally not make a tumbling idiot of myself in the back of the room.  Today, Sally was on vacation, and Amy the Amazon Waterboarder inflicted my demise, one downward dog at a time.  And she didn’t adjust the air-conditioning, so even if I didn’t go into cardiac arrest, I would have drowned in a pool of my own matt-juice.  Don’t get me wrong – I think yoga is the best thing ever – I’m just not in shape to go through military boot camp again, like when I was 18.

What revived me was a meat pie and the voice of David Attenborough. I can’t get enough of him; he’s the Carl Sagan of the animal world.  He deserves more than just knighthood – perhaps sainthood.  Luckily, over here, there’s something of his narration on TV almost every night.  Tonight, his “Life On Earth” episode is about polar bears cross-mating with grizzlies (called pizzlies), better adapting to the climate change close to the North Pole, and how homing pidgeons do what they do by sight and memorization (note neither species is known to participate in yoga).  And even if it’s a re-run, we would not likely know, since we are sans DVR – it’s one of the few things I _really_ miss from back home (I mean, besides our dogs and our kids).

I have strangely fond memories, when I was very young, of Dad “cooking” us dinner when mom was working the evening shift at the hospital.  Many people, younger than Gen-X, won’t remember that before the microwave oven, there was this thing that was called a “regular oven”.  If one was not inclined to combine ingredients in a bowl according to an ancient artifact known as a “recipe”, never fear – there were these pre-boxed assemblies you could buy in the grocery store known as a “tv dinner.”  I don’t know if it was a coincidence, but we did eat these on wood and metal stands known as “TV trays” in the living room sitting on the couch while watching “TV”.  TV dinners came in aluminum trays (note to self: do not microwave), and had a meat in gravy partition, a vegetable partition, and a fruit crust dessert section.  I loved them better than pop tarts, which is another solution my dad had for an event called “breakfast.”  If you are hungry, and it’s not breakfast or lunch, there was a similar concept called a “pot pie”.  I hadn’t seen a pot pie in years, until now.  Meat pies here exist in prevalent glory, and while the ones I ate as a kid tasted like heaven (to an eight-year-old), the ones here are generally fantastic (to a forty-eight-year-old).  There are bakeries around town that make them fresh, with light and airy crust, with wonderful various fillings.

I ate two: 4850 kilojoules.  Amy is going to kill me tomorrow.

 

 

 

The Things We Do To Kill Time

Some people complained that there’s not a lot to do in Canberra, and that’s probably true if you don’t remember rotary phones.  The venues here that stay open past 7pm play moderate volume music from the 80’s, people take strolls along the waterfront instead of throwing their hands up to psychedelic x-tainted techno-tunes, and the young crowd that competes with us on Trivia Nights (Monday at Walt&Burley’s, Tuesday at the Durham) are the type that know the difference between the Fourth Estate and fourth down.  Unfortunately, that means that we have lost our American advantage, and thus are no longer winning prizes (restaurant gift certificates and bottles of wine) like we did a month ago.

Tonight we came in last place again, but the consolation prize is that we get to pick the topic for some of the questions for next week.  We got this question: what group of 3 letters can you place both before and after the partial word ERGRO to make a longer word?  We could have used the Team Fitz to help with this one: “What state has the most elected Presidents from? ”

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That’s okay, because we’re coming off a fabulous weekend of activities around Canberra.  Sunday, we drove out into the country northwest of town to a little farm vineyard for brunch as a place called Poacher’s Pantry.  I was expecting perhaps some exotic meats, and maybe they have those for dinner, and we’ll certainly investigate another time.  What we weren’t expecting was pretty much the best breakfast either one of us have ever had.  To say I had a piece of beef cooked just the right way, with stewed cherry tomatoes, onion relish, perfectly done farm fresh eggs, bacon that came right out of the smoking shed, would be such an understatement as to void my journalistic integrity.  Stacey had a mouthwatering maple and banana pancake that was so light it could have floated away except that the home-churned butter and gelato and blueberries that weighted it down.  Top it off with green fields and gardens, a cute little dog, and some nicely blended champagne drinks, and you could do  a lot worse.

pantry2

On the way back, I insisted that we spend a little time at the National Dinosaur Museum.  While there were enough moving growling life-like models to excite the youngsters (so much so that they also offer animatronic-free Tuesdays for the more skittish kids) , there was also a ton of great information about the various stages of life on this planet to re-educate me about many years of mislearned high school biology and geology.  Looking at 3-million year old insects in amber, putting your hands on real asteroids and seeing what a mummified reptile from the Jurassic looks like – I was in heaven.  It was actually too much – after absorbing a couple of hours of audio and video we decided to have some fun with the outside models and then get back to town.

dino_museum1

Every Sunday, we visit a farmer’s market about two blocks from the apartment, to get some fresh cantaloupe, grapes, olives, cheese, and other luxuries, including some fresh-squeezed cane juice.    The market is full of all sorts of neat things we hadn’t seen before, and a few things we’ll bring home to show – beanpod plants, some crafts from woods that are unique to the continent.  I also got a camel messenger bag and a kangaroo leather hat – kangaroo hide is a lot lighter than rawhide, and has a dimpled color, like a fawn.

people-watching

It wasn’t until we went to bed that we realized that we had shifted back in time an hour during the night, due to it being fall here, and daylight savings.  So interestingly, the time difference has gone from 16 hours when I first got here to 14 hours.    And I was just starting to think I had everything figured out.  Until we do, you’ll find us on Friday nights, 7pm at the Dock, people-watching as they walk along the lake.

Things That Are and Are Not Different

So, we haven’t proven that the toilet flushes the other way, but horse races are – I was watching an advert (they abbreviate everything here) for an upcoming race, and the jockeys were crossing the finish line right to left, which looked very unusual.  At first, I thought it was the camera angle, but no, from above, the whole race is clockwise as viewed from above.  I wonder what the stock car race tracks are like, if they have such a thing.  csiro1

Saturday was a sightseeing day of satellite dishes, telescopes, and legislatures, which have nothing in common except that that’s how we visited them.  South of Canberra, way down outside of town in a little valley out past the watersheds, is the Deep-Space Station CSIRO, which hosts a number of US-funded radio dishes, which both track satellites, and monitor far off phenomena like pulsars.  A very nice self-guided tour takes you through multiple rooms and astounds you with all sorts of technology like how space suits are made, how these dishes provided much of the communications for the Apollo missions, and what are some of the cool upcoming satellite technologies planned.  The gift shop was a little sparse (one criteria upon which I judge all tourist interactions), but the Moon Rock Café was splendid, offering a delicious home-made lasagna for us to savor, out on the veranda, while we looked out across green pastures, hearing the hum of the big white structures as they hummed and oscillated on their various assignments.

On the way back to town, we diverted up to Mount Stromlo, which has an stromlo1optical telescope observatory that dates back to the 1920’s.  Up to 50 telescopes have operated over the years, providing valuable research such as proof that the expansion of the universe is accelerating, but unfortunately everything was wiped out in 2003 by a bad wildfire that even reached the fringes of  Canberra.  There are a few university telescopes back in operation, and they’ve restored some of the historic buildings, and have a visitor center, including a café where we couldn’t resist a glass of wine (Stacey needed one anyway because of the winding roads that I drive and terrify her on) while enjoying the view over the city.  Most of the important research has shifted to a new location, Siding Spring, because as Canberra as grown, Mount Stromlo was getting a bit too much light pollution.

We finished the day with a tour of the Parliament House, including getgrass_hillting to actually enter the press galleries overlooking the two legistlature bodies, the House and the Senate.  Based on the US government model, one has representatives for population, the other has senators for each state and territory.  The House passes bills, but the Senate must approve them.  Interestingly, legislation gets two chances to try, and if not successful, pretty much all of Parliament is dismissed and the public gets to elect everybody all over again, at the same time – interesting concept!  It’s happened a few times, and it seems to make both sides a little more bipartisan. The Parliament House is built into the hill, and it has a grass roof, and you can actually walk up it and have a picnic.  The building is also built on transparencies – the Prime Minister can open all the doors, and see through his office, through both sides of Parliament, through the Great Hall, out the entrance, over the fountain, down the empirial gardens, over the old Parliament House, over Lake Burley Griffin, up Anzac Parade, over the War Memorial, to the top of Mount Ainslie, just how the city designers intended.

 

Melbourne’s Far-Away Beauty

If you’ve ever driven seven hours without cruise control, you’re wincing in the same manner as I spent hobbling around on my right foot for a few days.  We drove from Canberra down the Hume Highway in a little Kio Rio, whose fuel economy was magnificent but lacked in the areas of automation, road noise reduction, and having fewer than five blind spots.  But, as mentioned previously, people here stick within a few k’s of the speed limit, since enforcement is fierce, frequent, and thorough – and they really mean it in the construction zones, where you crawl at a pitifully slow pace past cones and barriers where there’s nary an orange vest in sight.

Due to such exact speed budgeting and a modicum of rest stops at places like Mackies (McDonald’s) which look the same as in the US but here have cleaner bathrooms and slower food – 20 minutes seems to be the average, unless there are more than 2 people in line – I digress, we arrived on Flinders Street in time to park underground, check into the hotel, and catch the Pengiun Bus.  The bus itself is hard to miss, but the owner, Mac, is especially endearing in what could only be describe as a fluffy pengiun perched on the top of a Yankees hat.

Downtown Melbourne is not like Sydney or Canberra – more graffiti, more litter, more dust.  But it has a peaceful air on the streets, where people leisurely stroll along the sidewalks, staying out of the way of cars doing hook turns, trolleys, and work trucks.  By the way, it’s pronounced “Mel-burn” – the “O” is silent, not like Meg Ryan.

That street peacefulness ends at rush hour, since the city has doubled in population in recent years, and road widths have not.  At 4pm, we attempted to get across the bridge out of town to the south, along with many of the 5 million other citizens – Melbourne and Sydney have 10 million of the 24 million people on the continent. But once you break that gridlock, you get to some of the greenest asparagus patches in the plains next to the mountains that I have ever seen.

Post-war, both Australia and the US had to find ways of putting its returning service members back to work, with major civil projects like dams and roads being the most popular projects.  For example, Eisenhower organized the construction of the American Interstate system after WWII, which doubled as runways in preparation for the next war.  After WWI, the Aussies built the wonderful Great Ocean Road, a windy twisty two-lane backwoods road manually cut into the sides of the mountains along the southern coast, that magpies would have trouble landing on.  And it was all dug and shoveled by hand, since the vets were too post-traumatized and shell-shocked to be anywhere near exploding dynamite.

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All along the road by the Southern Ocean, there are wonderful sightseeing spots, little towns and majestic cliffs.  We had lunch at Apollo Bay, famed meat pies and some Bundaberg sodas – famous for the rum, they’ve expanded into anything that contains sugar. The Twelve Apostles are huge limestone pillars out in the ocean – how they lasted this long is a mystery promising to instill arguments whenever three geologists meet.  The ocean is slowly winning, though, as there are only 8 left, and you can see the 9th one’s remains, which is what would have happened to me if I tried to go out in the huge waves. ap3

There’s a beautiful cove with the story of the Loch Ard tragedy, one of many founderings along the Shipwreck Coast.  A 16-year old cabin boy swam back out, after he had safely reached the beach in the storm, and saved an older girl, the only survivors of the 54 passengers and crew.  He then scaled the cliff and hiked for miles until finding a sheep farm to take them in, after days without food or water.  He wooed the girl, but he was apparently below her station, and they never hooked up.

But the best part of region is the Penguin Parade at at Phillip Island, and you simply must spend any amount of money to get there one evening before dusk and get a good seat, and perhaps a guided ranger tour complete with binoculars and audio headsets and maybe a blanket – it can get chilly.  But you are not allowed to take pictures or video, not one tiny frame, not with any kind of camera or phone or recording device – zilch.  The best we could do is get a nice photo taken at their visitor center studio after the fact, that is superimposed onto a green screen with the little guys, to help recall the fantastic memory of the experience.  I still get giddy thinking about it, and it’s hard to explain to those who haven’t experienced it.  penguins

Little penguins (that’s the species – called “little blue penguins” in New Zealand) are about a foot tall, black and white, and waddle in the most adorable way.  They swim in the ocean during the day, eating, and at dusk will come back to the edge of the surf, but will huddle on the sand awaiting the accumulation of a group big enough to attempt to safely cross the sand to their homes up under the grass mounds on the cliffs above. It’s an instinctual protective mechanism, waiting for dark, against birds of prey mostly, since traversing the beach is when their camouflage fails them.   Many of them are fat, and can’t even walk more than a few steps without falling over like Weebles, since they have to ocassionally bulk up and stay on land for three weeks while they molt their old feathers – without their oily overcoats, they apparently sink like a rock, if they don’t suffer hypothermia first.  Anyway, they come right up to you, to get to their homes.  They only live about 12 years so the current flock (?) have been comfortable having humans around and have no fear – but you don’t pet them, they will bite.  In fact, it’s a little strange being completely ignored, as they stroll past, finding their exact homes from memory, in the dark, even if having been away for months. Once at their burrows, they usually stand outside and chat with their neighbors in little barks and chirps.  I don’t speak penguin, but you can easily imagine them conversing about the weather, the day’s fishing, or how Aunt Maude was caught in a scandal, fornicating with three young males in the same fortnight (penguins are not monogamous but they are loyal to their fathered offspring raising).

It’s been almost a week – these little guys may not be light on their wings, but my accelerator foot still aches!

My Engine Runs on Wine

There are wine tours, and then there was the Canberra Wine Tour.  It started with a nice lady picking us up at our apartment at 9am, and ended with her dropping us off at the same place many hours later, with enough wine that it took a lot of trips in the elevator, and now more cases of it in our living room than furniture.  It should be duly noted that the bottle count went 2, then 6, then 18, then 68, in some geometric progression whose exponent was proportional to the number of varieties sampled.

It is no secret that south eastern Australia takes its winery industry seriously, and just within a quick drive from the capital, there are more vineyards (just on the tourist map) than in Napa.  Many of these are small batch, and do not export outside the US, so you close friends may guess what exotic gifts you may be receiving when we get back, _if_ we come back, _if_ the wine lasts that long…

There won’t be many photos with this blog entry, sadly.  First we were too groggy, since a circuit breaker confounded our coffee machine’s ability to produce the necessary stimulant doses, and our brains were not able to diagnose the prosydney_fountain_0312171340_HDRblem, for lack of caffeinated horsepower (you see the chicken and egg problem).  After an unmemorable but short ride to the first vineyard, we were tasting some very nice dry Riesling (at 10am on a Saturday) – the effect was giddying. By the time we remembered to take some selfies, we were in no shape to appear decently behaved. So, create some imagery in your mind as I describe some of the highlights.  Please enjoy this reflective photo of me pondering the meaning of life at a fountain in Sydney instead – both speak to liquid embellishment.

If vineyard #1 was a small Amish kitchen with a sole proprietor who goes out and picks his grapes, winery #2 was a polished affair with a breakfast enclave and a pavilion out back with picnic tables and a sound system.  We tasted a dozen reds, grew closer to our tour mates, and started longing for some nice bread and gouda to go with our 20 milliliter graduations.

We thought #3 would include lunch and the end of the day, but alas, it was a multi-warehouse commercial affair, moderated by a very nice guy who gave us some great prices on past-year syrah (or Shiraz).  He was the most knowledgeable of the bunch, and although I didn’t see it, I wouldn’t have been surprised if he was downing a few samples he served along with our’s.

We saw three unusual things on the trip.  First, we learned of grafting of new branches on the old vines – apparently you can grow a whole new grape without having to throw away and regrow the whole root system.  If that’s the case, I want to graft some 6-pack abs onto my existing “dad stomach.” There are also rose bushes growing on each end of the row of vines.  I asked to the purpose, and the owner explained that back in the day, they were indicators of incoming blight, disease, or insects.  That’s not quite the case nowadays, as roses have apparently become hardier to many threats.  Last, they have to throw nets over their vineyards to keep away the crows and cockatoo’s, although the birds are getting smart enough to know that they can weigh down the nets en masse, and thus still reach through to the fruit with their beaks.  Thus, dogs enter the equation.

At the last vineyard, where we _finally_ had lunch, we were greeted by two cute dogs, one of which had a savignon named after her.  In fact, most of the properties had dogs, to help keep away the other critters, greet us tourists and whittle away at our pocketbooks, and add to the happiness of the owners, as we so heartily know (missing our two border collies, back in the states).  In fact, there is a 200-page coffee table book called “Wine Dogs” dedicated to a large sampling of canines from growers all across Australia.

We really are enjoying the differences between the two countries – I will leave you with one last one.  Here’s me standing at the Parliament House the other day – you can just drive right up to it, it’s open all but two days of the year, and there’s plenty of parking underground.  In fact, you’ll notice the whole building is “underground” – that’s a grass roof, and they let people walk and play on it.  The beautiful flag on the top can be seen from almost anywhere in the city, and it’s the size of a bus.

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Day at the Museum

It is said that history is written by the victor – it’s also written by the native.  A few days back, Stacey and I went to the National Museum in Canberra, and it is astoundmuseum_17201235_10210808090792057_8754909699817983729_ning how many exhibits we stood in front of and expounded “Who the heck is this person?”  Their deeds had profound impact on at least the national level, but I was sadly uneducated as to their global significance.  However, it can also be said (as illustrated on a recent pub trivia night) that many here don’t know when Pearl Harbor happened, though to be fair, it’s partly because Australia was already engaged in a war with the Japanese well before our entanglement.

In any case, the National Museum was a delightful treat that will take another two visits to fully appreciate.  How rabbits have overrun the terrain, despite all sorts of antique and modern controlling techniques, Australia’s exploration of its interior mineral and water resources, and the evolution of its architecture are truly amazing stories.  The displays are enrichened by nearby touch tablets that provide you with additional pages of story-telling of the objects or characters, all photo identified, something I have never seen before.

There’s a of hands-on too – find a photo of me floating around Facebook now in leg irons, similar to how the early prisoners were shipped over.  I built part of a house with plastic flexible blocks that appears to be a modern solution to wood and steel shortages.

The highlight of the afternoon was the 3D 30-minute series narrated by David Attenborough (I really can’t get enough of his accent) on the beginnings of life on earth, and another segment of current life under the waters surrounding the Great Barrier Reef.  We both remarked that these are phenominal, and wish they were available to anyone on YouTube who has their own Samsung Gear VR and Galaxy S6 (the equippage used by the museum).  It was fun to sit down in this large room, with everyone to their own swivel chair, out of arm’s reach of one’s neighbors, put on the the googles and high-quality earphones, and proceed to be immersed in a digital world where you float and spin around, though fortunately not enough to get one’s stomach disturbed.

And it is here (in addition to the War Memorial) where much of the Aboriginal culture and heritage have been preserved and explained.  A wonderful people, well documented now, and yet you get a sense that we will never truly understand them as they were, thousands of years before the rise of civilisation (see, I’m even spelling their way now) in Europe.

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But in a twist of irony, as we ran out of time and were shooed out the doors, we stepped right into a hip hop concert behind held on the patio on the lake, complete with wine and cheese plates.  Although the local talent was quite enjoyable, complete with John Lennon glasses and fringe apparrel that went right along with my pony-tail and mid-life crisis, what I really found fascinating was the early vintage restored side-wheel steam paddleboat down at the dock.  It was named Enterprise, but I didn’t see an NCC-1701 on it anywhere.