Wednesday, December 31, 2008

New Year's Eve - Sydney Australia


Both of us were dog-tired, so we dragged out by 9:00 and went to Gloria Jean's to see the what for on their Internet connection. They have a sign in the window showing Everywhere Connection WiFi. What is not shown is that it is a subscriber service, so you have to log on and pay a subscriber fee. I really cannot wrap my head around the fact that there are no free WiFi hotspots at coffeehouses or restaurants. This makes me nuts that Budapest is so far ahead of such a modern society. I paid the fee for 120 minutes time, thinking over the next few days, I would use it up. It was begrudgingly, but I did it. I had just checked e-mail and downloaded it all, when the connection kicked off. I checked my log in...fine. Wireless connection turned on...working fine. Firewall blocking it? No! Reboot the computer and try again. Still now working. Call over the guy from behind the counter. He said it must be the router, so he goes to reboot it or whatever they do. Minutes later, the connection is up and running again. Great. Well, not so great, because within five minutes, it was out again. Called the guy over again, he checked my computer over. No, the problem was not my computer, it had to be their system again. He disappeared to do something or other. Back online, surfing cyberspace, jamming along for a whole ten minutes when whack, hit the cyber wall of no connectivity yet again. Three strikes, they were out and so were we. After dropping the computer off at the hotel, we decided to do a test run to the ship for tonight's event. According to the desk reception, it would only take ten to fifteen minutes to walk there. Translation: thirty to forty-five minutes. Over the hills up and down we went, Ron with map in hand, but the receptionist said it was a pretty straight shot with only one turn. We however, had to stop at the Chinese Garden on the way. But it was closed for the pending holiday activity, so we went through another park instead. Filled with fountains of great magnitude that flow forever around a green space, the Australians take their parks with serious interest and design. In the green area, young men were playing modified cricket and soccer. Further into the park, children can be amused with fun fountains that resemble step farming on the side of a mountain, or spiral shells that finally end in a black hole in the middle. We followed the map provided by the ship company; our dock was located to the side of the Maritime Museum. Going into the museum, we asked to make sure, found our dock and checked our watches. It took one hour and thirty minutes. Okay, we stopped in the park, looked around, relaxed a second or two, so we could not gauge an accurate account of time. However, going back from there to the hotel we could. Here is the scary part. Each entrance to any of the dock area is a no alcohol area unless you buy it from the restaurants within. There is security at every possible way of getting in and they check your bags for liquor. I asked one of the security guards wearing a yellow vest if the gates would be open all evening. We would need to get through this harbor area to catch our ship. He assured me they would be open all night. When we arrived at the other end, I checked with the guard there also. Sometimes there is a point to being compulsive, other than setting your nerves on edge. His response was that as soon as the crowd gets too large, all gates go on lock down. After sharing what the other guard had told us, he asked “Was he wearing a yellow shirt or a black shirt like I am?” Here is where the problem occurred, yellow shirts are only junior security and do not know shit. Only the guys in black shirts who have had ten years or more experience know anything at all. This guy looked like he was recruited as a gang member or a former Soprano, so we tended to believe him and worried about being locked out and not getting to our wharf for our dinner cruise that we have paid $1,000.00 and were told in no uncertain terms that there were no refunds. Swell! And not the kind of swell that happens in the sea. With paranoia, we headed back to the hotel for a quick rest, a shower, and then out once again. We did take the city train a few stops to save some time, but we were still far earlier than we needed to be, but cautioning on the side of error. We made it to the dock with over an hour to spare. I kept checking people's tickets if they were holding them to see if they were on our boat. No one seemed to have the same tickets, so I again became paranoid we were at the wrong dock. When the last ferry came to board, I asked the guy taking their tickets and he assured me we were in the right place as he scooted me off of the gangplank so the could leave the harbor. Our trip was on the Princess Cruise line and our ship was the Sydney. When a Princess ship came in and had Sydney Princess on it, my heart sank. There were no tables and chairs, there were a hundred people waiting, there would hardly be room to stand. When we went to board, the guard told us we were not on that ship, but the next one. Ours was just the Sydney. The second boat that came in was what I had imagined. Larger, it was filled with tables and chairs set for dinner. It had walking room outside in the front and upper deck. After finding our assigned seats, we introduced ourselves to the people on both sides of us. One older couple was from Perth, the other from England. The English couple quickly made arrangements to have a table for two and left us. The Perth couple was charming. Dinner was a buffet with salads, roasted chicken, roast beef, shrimp, and oysters. They called us up table by table to keep order. The chicken and the scalloped potatoes were to die for; Ron and I agreed, the potatoes were the best we have ever had. All of the beer, wine, and champagne was included. After everyone was served, we were invited for seconds or thirds, but the buffet table stayed up for another hour in case anyone was shy. Shortly after dinner was completed, everyone was milling around the boat. The city has a shortened fireworks display at 9:00 pm for families and so children can see some fireworks. The boat staff presented a large cheese platter with crackers. You would think that no one had eaten dinner, they demolished this in twenty minutes. An hour before midnight, they put out two enormous trays of fresh fruit cut up. We cruised all over the bay watching the other boats with their lights on, the city lit up, and the opera house dimmed, but partially lit. It was a magical experience, one that I had been waiting for for fifteen years, and it was worth the wait now that it came to fruition. The fireworks display was all that I could hope it would be. Not only fireworks in the air, there were others over the tall buildings. When all was over, the staff presented everyone with a meringue type dessert. I am not usually one for meringue, but this was incredibly delicious. All of the staff was so gracious; they all worked endlessly without an obvious break the entire time. Each time someone complimented one of them, they honestly responded with “I am so pleased you are enjoying it.” By 1:15 am, we were back disembarking and making our way back to the hotel. It was one enchanted evening for certain.We floated back to the hotel and crawled in by 2:00 am.

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Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Where is Our Fax? - Sydney


As soon as reception opened this morning, Ron was there to check on the vouchers for the cruise. Nothing still. I am thinking about $1,000 Australian dollars on my Mastercard and I have nothing to show for it. This gave me a headache and two aspirin did not touch it. We took our laundry to a place where they will wash, dry, and fold for a reasonable amount. Ironing is extra and if we wanted to iron, we could do it at the hotel. Ron wanted to do the hop on-hop off bus. I was not keen on the idea, but we went anyway to the bus station to get it at the first stop. It is advertised as having 31 stops with two routes one going to Bondi Beach good for 24 hours for $30.00. Getting on was not a problem when we started out. There is a taped narrative in English. Here is where the fun started. Each stop, the narration advises that all passengers must remain seated at all times. Once the bus started, we heard “We are now you can see on the left...and to your right we are now approaching...” All of the … parts are where the narration cut out. About a third of what we were supposed to hear was missing in the atmosphere. Due to construction, the bus had to drive on the wrong side of the street. He kept warning us that we would have to duck for low branches since they were not trimmed on this side for the bus. At the Opera House, we gave up the ghost and hopped off. Seeing the Opera House up close was terrific, though I had no desire to attend a performance, even if there were one during our stay. Inside there are five major performance spaces, the largest of which is the 2,690 seating place. The money for the construction was allocated by having a lottery. Designed by Danish architect Jorn Utzon, who never saw the completed project leaving after major disagreements. The cost went from a projected $7 million Australian to the final cost of $102 million Australian. Locals either love it or hate it; this has not changed over time. The parks and green spaces throughout the city are treasured by tourists as well as locals. With all of the high rises, blotting out the sky, these oases give some breathing room. Frustrated with the hop on bus, we walked the city. All of this time, I had been carrying my computer around thinking that I would have some time to write, but it never happened. A coffee break was just that and nothing more. One of the unexpected treats were the occasional Aboriginals playing the traditional didgeridoo. I really love the music, so we stood around for some time listening. We ventured to the Queen Victoria Building, a gorgeous red sandstone building that has been converted to a high class mall with expensive high end shops. By this point, my anxiety level had reached a peak, so we returned to the hotel to check on the elusive fax. It still was not there. I was beside myself, but we called the cruise lines, but with no answer this time. Panic! We went to reception to tell them our concerns and she was great. She went to check to see if anyone else had taken a fax when she was away from the desk. Reception is upstairs where the hotel rooms are, with the bar below. The fax had actually been sent to the bar area. Finally, my headache disappeared. With that weight over my shoulders, we went to get the hop-on bus again to go to Bondi Beach. When we arrived there were five people waiting for the bus that went this route. After waiting for thirty minutes, I asked one of the others how long they had been waiting and she responded an hour. She said they could not get on the first bus because of overcrowding. When it finally came, a German woman pushed ahead of me; she had only been waiting five minutes, so I blocked her husband.. The guide caught and said something, but I corrected him and he told the husband to keep his wife on a shorter leash. Bondi pronounced Bond-eye, is one of the most famous beaches in Australia. The beach is roughly a kilometers long, patrolled by those famous Australian lifeguards that we see in all of the movies and on calendars. Being a beautiful beach, I really expected to see tons of beautiful people in their little speedos lazing around sunbathing. The beach was not nearly as crowded as I would have thought, there was rarely a speedo in sight, but those that were had the overhang problem. Their bellies hid the speedo. The men who could easily have worn a speedo, wore those long and boring to look at long shorts type bathing suits. How many beaches have their own web site? The area is full of restaurants, bars, and souvenir stores. They had a little crafts market in the center, which we perused and bought a couple of trinkets. We figured it may be too expensive to eat in this area, so we took the public bus back to the city. By now, the hop-on bus had stopped for the night. Though our tickets are good for 24 hours, we do not plan on attempting it again tomorrow. We found an Indian restaurant that appealed to us on Oxford Street. You can order 2 or 3 main dishes with rice for a fixed price. I had one type of chicken, one beef, and one vegetable. The servicing are for the famished, because it was all I could do to finish it. We are not sure how they can do it, since the prices are so reasonable, but it was a great deal for us. This restaurant is a repeater.

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Monday, December 29, 2008

Sydney Tourism


Going to the tour office in Sydney is a totally different experience than in Melbourne. It is located by the water, in a rustic area of restaurants and shops, but is on the second floor of a modern small mall type building. About half the size of Melbourne's tourism office, this would not be a problem. It is the organization that is a problem. Their only system for handling information is for people to form a line, no numbering, just one long line. To add insult to injury, they only had one person dispensing pearls of wisdom to a slew of people waiting, while the only other person acted as a cashier for those making purchases. Ron stood in line for twenty minutes with a list of questions, but then gave up. At one point, the sole attendant asked who just wanted New Year's Eve information and then passed out brochures of the activities. Bad news all around, we were too impatient to wait and the poor soul that had to deal with the ever growing numbers was losing her patience at a steady rate. For one of the largest cities in the world with a population of 4.1 million, and millions of tourists coming every year, this is ridiculous.

At the back of the office, there was indeed a separate booking desk to book tours, cruises, and so forth. There were two people working when we managed to figure out we needed to take a number here. Why would you have the foresight to have a numbering system in one area, but not the other. We were told that one million people come to Sydney for the New Year's Eve event alone, so they were certainly not caught unaware at the turnout.

While waiting for our number to be called, I listened to what others were booking to gather ideas. Hearing the responses from there 'agent' have me fodder for making an insightful decision when it was our turn, and in turn cutting down on the time it took us to get out of there. Our number was called by a third 'agent' who appeared on the scene. She appeared to be part of our family, so I had hopes of getting some quality service, in spite of the disgruntled look with which she started working. We told her we wanted to book the New Year's Eve cruise to which she abruptly said “We don't do that, I will give you the information, but you have to call yourself.” I immediately responded with “Your co-worker just booked a cruise for someone.” She turned to Mark, a nice looking young man who I was hoping would be helping us and asked if it were true. He politely responded that is was, they had the capability of booking the cruises in their computer. Mark had to walk her through the whole thing, but finally she was successful. We choose the Princess Cruises without knowing much about it other than we would be part of the Parade of Boats around the harbor, have dinner, be on the water for both the 9:00 and midnight fireworks displays, and return around 12:30 am. Sounded good! Okay, hand over $495 Aus each for this privilege.

We also booked the Blue Mountain tour that included a stop at a wildlife park. Sign the Mastercard slip for one, sign the Mastercard slip for the other. Thank Tammy for her services, and leave after she said the cruise company would fax our vouchers to the hotel by 5:00 pm. She printed out our vouchers for the Blue Mountain tour. We were off wandering around for about an hour when I realized I never did get a credit card receipt for the cruise, only for the tour on January 2nd. In essence, I had charged close to $1,000 Aus and had nothing to show for it until we received the fax at the hotel four hours from now. The only time I frighten easily is when money is concerned. This was one of those times.

We walked up George Street to the Circular Quay where we had our first sighting of the Opera House and the famous bridge dubbed “God's Coat Hangar”, Sydney Harbor Bridge. Both were wow experiences from afar. In the distance, we could see people walking over the bridge. This is something that those who do not have a serious fear of heights do for the fun of it and the amazing views. For me, those views can be found on postcards. I don't need to climb into the heavens to see them for myself, thank you very much. Finding the Museum of Contemporary Art after being intrigued by the posters around the city, we discovered the exhibit of headless mannequins by Yinka Shonibare MBE. He uses wax to create bodies that he designed clothes using Nigerian folk designs on Dutch fabric, arranging them in different situations. One example was a table of ten supposedly men, sitting around a table playing poker. What one becomes aware of is the amount of information that is perceived through body language alone, without a single facial expression. No pictures were allowed, breaking my heart. I would have loved to be able to share these.

Strolling back to Hyde Park, we spent some time looking over the Archibald fountain displaying Greek mythological figures such as Diana and Apollo. On the other side of Hyde Park, there is a lovely garden and different fountain dedicated to Prince Albert, the consort to Queen Victoria. However, it also has the ANZAC memorial remembering the Australian and New Zealand men who lost their life in wars. A young man was sitting on the steps smoking a hookah, at least until the police came and disrupted his peaceful times.

By this time, it was 6:00 pm. Anxious to find a fax with our cruise vouchers, we headed back to the hotel to check with reception. No fax was waiting for us. I called the number for the cruise line that Tammy had supplied, reaching someone within three rings, surprising me due to the hour. The cordial woman said they have not sent out the faxes to anyone yet, had not promised it by 5:00 pm, but we would have it by 9:00 pm. This was nerve wracking also since the reception closes at 8:00 pm.

Noting it was out of my control, we went to Oxford Street, the gayest street this side of the equator according to the young guy who checked us into the hotel. For dinner, we chose a restaurant called La. The specials looked appealing and the prices were even more so. It was a good choice of places; we needed an extra walk after dinner and a stop at Gloria Jeans coffee before going back to check e-mails. I had to buy time at Gloria Jeans for WiFi access. No one seems to know of any free WiFi spots around the city and even those that advertise it as free, really have a service that you have to sign up with and buy time before going any farther than their own home page.

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Frommer's Reader Comments



Very good, helpful, and insightful guide book. My wife and I always like Frommer's guide books, and your Budapest book is no exception. Thank you.

FYI, the Cotton Club seems to have closed in the past couple of months (well after the latest edition went to print).

We are in Szentendre today. Excellent description and recommendation. Like you said, the shops and atmosphere are the attraction, much more than the museums, so Monday is a fine day to be here. Actually, the Marzipan Museum is open today. As I love marzipan, the museum and town are especially delightful.

Thank you.

Best regards,

Joshua Fischer

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Sunday, December 28, 2008

Choo Choo Charlie Melbourne to Sydney


Our train trip was booked from Melbourne to Sydney; however, we received an e-mail stating that due to track work, we were being bussed to Albury. From there we were to be switched to a train for the rest of the trip. The bus was space challenged; they had to run three buses to accommodate all of the people. The ride was three hours; shockingly, it went by rather quickly. We were met by train personnel who pointed us to the correct car. The train, albeit comfortable was not like the last train we used, but each are run by two different companies. The seating on this one was 2-2 seats, which were not that wide to begin with. This also lacked car service, we had to go fetch food from the dining car and bring it back to our seat. We had not shopped for and packed munchies, so we did the mad dash to the dining car as soon as it opened to avoid the rush. The highlight was when they announced there would be Devonshire tea service with raisin scones, clotted cream, jam, and tea and then came around to take orders.

We did not pull into Sydney until 8:30 pm,. There was a long line for a taxi as they were only coming one at a time. After we acquired one, the driver was on the phone the whole time, took us about four blocks after circling the city and charged us $10.00.

We are at the Macquarie Boutique Hotel, situated above a bar in the central business district. Reception was closed by the time we arrived, so we had to check in at the bottle shop or liquor store associated with the bar. I had trepidation turning over $1,143.00 AUS to the cashier of the store. He did not have anything to give me as a receipt either. That was unnerving.

Our bed is extremely comfortable, but the room has no windows and is on the small side. The bathroom, the first private one we have had this trip, is cramped. Because the hotel took out the dining area, our continental breakfast is a breakfast in the box already on the desk waiting for us. We have a hot water heater to make coffee or tea, and in the box is a single servicing cereal, a box of milk, one of juice, a plastic bowl and spoon, and the bonus is a bite size granola bite.

After a walk about, we stopped at a Spanish Tapas restaurant, but each tapa started at $14.50 and went up from there. Deciding against a $100.00 dinner, we just had beer and then grabbed a slice of pizza on the way back to the hotel. From what we have seen in our short walk is that there are lots skyscrapers. Lots of skyscrapers. It almost causes a claustrophobic feeling, blotting out the sky at nighttime.

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Saturday, December 27, 2008

Last Full Day - Melbourne


This is our last full day in Melbourne. As we are soon leaving Melbourne, let me share some city information we collected. It is the largest city in Australia as well as the capital of Victoria. Regardless of the spelling of the name, it is pronounced Mel-bun. Almost one-third of Melbournians were born overseas or had parents who were. With a population of over three million, it is the cultural hub of the country, getting plays, concerts, and cultural events beating out other Australian cities. Although Adelaide was founded by free settlers, not convicts like Sydney, Melbourne was not only settled by free settlers, but it had a gold rush too in the 1850s. This made for a wealthy city that has maintained its prosperity. We both have fallen in love with the city and agreed that if it were not so far from everything else, we would look into immigration. Melbourne has been voted one of the most livable cities in the world. There is no doubt in our minds as to why. For our last day here, there were still things we wanted to see, but with the closing times over the Christmas holidays, we knew we could not fit it all in, but we tried. Our first stop this morning was the National Gallery of Victoria in Federation Square. We had heard they have a large exhibit of aboriginal artwork, so we needed to get back here when it was open. We arrived at 10:30, but found a free tour by a docent was being offered at 11:00, so decided to wait for it. Our docent was extremely knowledgeable about the aboriginal art work, taking us to selected pieces and explaining the differences in the themes, the tribes the artist came from, and the significance of the work. The second half of the tour included the temporary exhibition by a New Zealand artist, who had made Australia her home. Rosie Ganlian....I did not write her name down and it is not in my brochure. Regardless, she is a modern artist who collects junk and then assembles it into art pieces, calling it assemblage art. Now if I had wandered into this room on my own, I would have called this a collection of junk and left. The docent was able to give me insight that would not have occurred to me left to my own devises. I walked away with a greater appreciation of contemporary art. The tour was almost two hours long and I was getting sensory overload, so it came to a conclusion just as I was deciding to go AWOL. From here, we went to the St. Kilda area, described as chic and bohemian. It has the highest concentration of restaurants in the city. The esplanade is snuggled next to a beach and next to it is Luna Park, one of the world's oldest fun parks dating to 1912. With the opening being an open mouth of a demonic looking clown, rides shaped as a giant spider or called ghost train, and a fun house that promises to make you laugh yourself to death, this seems like a masochists haven. The rest of St. Kilda is a cross between funky, shabby, shocking, and amusing. I wish we had discovered it sooner; we could have spent more time here, but we wanted to make the Immigration Museum. As the name suggests, the Immigration Museum celebrates the immigration history of the city. Located in the old Customs house, there are a number of stories from people from many different countries telling how and why they came to immigrate to Australia. Regrettably, by the time we arrived, the museum was only going to be open for an hour, but I paid the $6.00 entrance and Ron got in free as a senior. For some who fled here, it was refuge status, while others were seeking freedom, and yet others prosperity. I did wish we had more time to read all of the stories and look over the displays; we barely covered the first floor and did not get to the second floor at all, but at least we could check it out. We went for an early dinner and then back to the hotel to pack. We have an early train tomorrow. Or rather we have an early suburban train to get to the bus to get to the train that will take us to Sydney.

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Friday, December 26, 2008

Boxing Day - Melbourne


The day after Christmas is Boxing Day throughout much of Europe, though stories differ as to where the tradition started. Australia being a British domain, it is not unusual for them to observe the custom as well. All government buildings are closed including museums on this day. Here in Melbourne, all but the most commercially oriented stores are closed. Those that are open, are doing a brisk business from customers who must have received cash in their stockings. There seem to be more people with shopping bags now than before Christmas.

With few choices of things to do, this was a low key down by demand, not desire. The one place we would wander was the Royal Botanical Gardens. With ninety-nine acres and 12,000 plant species from around the world, this could surely maintain our attention for a few hours. This is considered one of the best botanical gardens in Australia. Admission is free, so the place was swarming with visitors. Though there are numerous signs stating why ball playing of any type, could be harmful to the plants and foliage, there were a number of families with their cricket balls and bats, mallets, clubs, whatever they call the stick used in that game.

Nearby in King's Domain, we came across La Trobe's cottage, which was a prefabricated house brought over from England for the first government house of Victoria. Brick by brick, it was shipped over to be reassembled. This is not its original spot, but was moved here years later. It was not open for touring when we were there, but normally, it is on Sundays from 1-4 pm.

The rest of the day was spent down by the waterfront, but first we made a side trip to Federation Square, where the Christmas décor was already removed, but the tourism office was open. We were looking for something to occupy our time, thus maximizing the time we had left. One thing that we had spotted on previous jaunts down to this center was a small brochure for an animal sanctuary that is only held at night. Called Moonlit Sanctuary, we booked a tour for $110.00 each. We arranged for the driver to pick us up in front of St. Paul's Cathedral, because we wanted to stay in town.

At 7:00 pm, Jefferey pulls up to collect us in his private car. He explained that he collects tourists coming out to the sanctuary when they need transport. An hour ride, Jefferey made it interesting with his world views and his interpretation of life in Melbourne. He was quite a character and waited for us to complete the tour in order to drive us back again. We thought we were a tour of two, but some others arrived with their own transportation. All together, there were only nine of us.

The tour is at night since most of the animals are nocturnal, so are more active in the nighttime. After receiving a handful of pellets we set out to feed the kangaroos and wallabies that knew we has something of interest. It did not take long to get one or the other eating out of our hand. All of this took place in the open backyard behind the sanctuary. From here, we walked through the woods where Michael, has created protective cages for many of the other species. A number of them are on the verge of extinction and he is attempting a breeding program to raise their populace.

We visited gliders, possums, owls, dingoes, wombats, quolls, padermelons, pobblebonks, some of these names sound like they are straight from Harry Potter, but they are truly animals. We also walked amongst to feed bettongs, miniature kangaroos that are not much higher than my ankle. It is fun and surprising to see this mini-kangaroos hopping all over, but without any inhibitions if you have food in your hands.

The final animal we met was the piece de resistance, the koala. One solitary koala named Gumbah, sitting up in his tree, eating his breakfast or dinner, whichever it is koalas eat when they first awaken. We were not allowed to touch him, but we could take as many photos as we wanted. Seeing a koala up close and personal was all I had wanted. I felt complete.

After the tour, we were invited into the sanctuary building for tea and cookies. Michael, who started the sanctuary on his own, has been trying to get funding for some time to increase the number of animals, but has not been too successful. The tours supplement the costs of care and feeding, plus he has some volunteer programs running also, getting people to assist him with the upkeep. All-in-all, we felt this was a good value for the cost and would certainly recommend it to others. or call at (030) 5978-7935.

Jeffrey drove us home afterward. He seems to be good friends with Michael, so it is most likely a symbiotic relationship. He was quiet on the drive back, which was a good thing since I had hopes of taking a nap on the way, but did not get the opportunity because of the conversation, but now I was on the downward slope.

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Thursday, December 25, 2008

Christmas in Melbourne


Christmas in Melbourne. Ron has this obsession with going to church on Sundays, but even more so on Christmas. Some years I go with him, while other years I find a coffee shop to bide away the time. This year, he decided attend the services of the Episcopal Cathedral, so I went just for the show. Our seats were in the back, put I could not see a nativity anywhere in sight. Ron said there was a tree, but that passed me by also. Talk about deadly dull, this is one of the most morbid “celebrations” I have attended. For what is supposed to be regarded as a celebrated occasion, the music was most maudlin. It was difficult to tell the difference. Each song sounded like a funeral march, not celebratory in any stretch of the imagination. It is no wonder that most of the people were seniors, there was nothing here to inspire young people. Streets were emptier than yesterday, but still fuller than what would be expected for Christmas in the city. All of the stores were closed, but a smattering of coffee shops and restaurants were open. Others had signs showing they were closed until January 5th extending the holiday for their employees. With limited choices to amuse ourselves, we went to the Royal Botanical Gardens. The garden was founded in 1846 by Baron Ferdinand von Mueller and William Guilfoyle, the first two directors. The Baron was considered the greatest botanist of the 19th century. Today, the garden is over thirty-eight hectares with more than 52,000 individual plants, representing 10,000 different species from around the world. We have been to a number of botanical gardens, but this ranks as one of the more beautiful. Each section is lush, well categorized, and filled with interesting specimens. On the outskirts, there are wonderfully assorted statues dotted here and there to add a special stop and pause moment. What was most intriguing for us were the Christmas picnics. We had seen notices of this in butcher shops and grocery stores, but it was still funny to see people sprawled out on a blanket with Santa hats on and the Rubbermaid storage containers spread around with serving utensils. It seems to be quite common here to have picnics from the looks of the number sharing the lawns of the gardens. With the movie Australia released, we decided we should see it here and today was a choice day for some entertainment. The casino multiplex was where it was showing at 3:45. Similar to Hungary, the seating is assigned, but they showed us where seats were available and let us choose our own. The cost of a ticket was a shocking $16.50 each!! Ron decided to opt for popcorn, but I did not; the smallest size popcorn was $6.00. The coming attractions literally took up thirty-five minutes before the feature film began, but since we had no where to rush off to, it did not matter much. Did I like the movie? Yes and no. The scenery was at times breathtakingly beautiful, but I could not see myself wanting to spend any amount of time in most of the places shown. Sure, I would like to visit them, but after one night's stay, move on. The story was disappointing. It seemed like it took part old Western movie, part WW movie and reset it into an Australian setting and viola, you have a new movie. Change the Native Americans to Aboriginals. I cannot say that would miss anything that Hugh Jackman is in, but Nicole Kidman seems disingenuous in her role. Lasting close to three hours, it was entertainment, nothing more. Would I take the history portrayed as factual? Hardly, but it may make me ponder and dig deeper into investigating it for sure. We decided to eat at the food court at the casino; both of us could have whichever cuisine we had a hankering for, but both of us chose Indian. Food whether restaurant or grocery store is beyond expensive. Restaurants use entrée to mean appetizer or as in some places a starter. For what we would call an entrée, they call a 'main'. Every establishment seems to love the 20s; most 'mains' seem to start at $20.00 or more. There has hardly been a night when we have left a restaurant spending less than $50.00 for the two of us and that only includes one beer each. If we had a heavy bar tab, I could understand it, but we never do. Our time in Melbourne is coming to a close soon. We both are in love with the city. It is going to be difficult to leave here, even if we don't know what pleasures Sydney will bring. With that in mind, we headed back to the hotel again expecting a quiet night, but not finding it. Since so many obviously cannot find holiday comfort with family, it is gratifying that they could find it with each other.

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Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Christmas Eve - Melbourne


The city is abuzz with activity; Federation Square is filled with people wandering around. With everyone in shorts and short sleeve shirts, it loses the Christmas feeling. It does not matter to me since I have lost that Christmas feeling many years ago, but it still strikes me as strange. No one seems to be hurrying along to get their Christmas shopping done either. So many people, so few bags of goodies to be wrapped and put under the tree. I think the difference is that perhaps people here have it in perspective of not letting it get too commercialized.

Melbourne offers a free tourist bus that goes around the city, number 999. We rode the entire circuit as it makes a wide loop around the city hitting popular sights. It beats a hop on and hop off bus. When you want to catch it again, it will stop at every thirty minutes. Although there is no commentary like a tour bus, our driver did announce some highlights as we went along.

At the end of the route, we stopped at the Melbourne Contemporary Art Gallery for a look around. We were attracted to it due to the sheet of water that serves as a fountain for its glass wall entry. Admission is free, but we only went to look at the stained glass exhibited in the rear gallery, but later was seduced into the back yard where lawn art was on display and which was quite diverse. One statue of Rodin was displayed next to a Mexican mosaic. As we were leaving, we noticed what we had missed coming in, statues of emaciated nude people of various ages standing with the watery curtain of glass as a back drop. Our original purpose in going in the museum was to use the restrooms, but the glass caught our eye and then one thing led to another.

As we left this museum, we seemed to find fairy girls roaming the streets with adults. Little girls who were dressed in fairy costumes were swarming the area. We could only assume they came from a recital of some sort. They were so adorable with little wings sprouting from their backs. We assumed they were little girls in costumes, but then again, this country does have some real oddities, so you never know.

Strolling without a goal or purpose, we found ourselves down by the wharf where the largest casino in Australia happens to be. It could very well be the largest in the world, taking up multiple blocks, rising up into the clouds, and having everything under the sun in the lobby from shopping to restaurants to multiplex cinemas.

Along one bridge, there are metal statues spanning the length. These statues are representations of aboriginal symbols. During the day, we were told they move ever so slowly, so you don't even notice unless you have not looked at them for an hour or more. At each end of the bridge is a legend of the meaning of each piece. Just looking at them, one would not have a clue what they represented. The only exception is one of a man and woman who look like their dancing. After you read the summary of what each one represents, there is an expanded appreciation of the aboriginal themes and stories.

On another bridge, the city has huge panels of glass installed. On each panel going in alphabetical order, there is etched the immigration information for a group of people who came to Australia and those that stayed in Melbourne. For example, and these numbers will not be correct, but a typical panel would show:


20,000 to Australian 12,000 to Melbourne

Cities in Afghanistan where they came from

Reasons for coming:

Social persecution

Religious freedom

Increased changes of better employment

Better education

Languages spoken:

This serves to engage the multiculturalism of the city and embrace it. Everyone we spoke to said that they appreciated the multicultural-multifaceted nature of the city believing it made a richer heritage for everyone.

In the evening, we were torn between two activities both of which were being held in Federation Square. One was the the unwrapping of the Advent calendar again for the final night and the other was something we were not able to get tickets for. Each year, they offer Christmas Carols by Candlelight, a fund raiser for a children's health organization. It was sold out, so we could not see it in person. In Federation Square, they have it televised on the gargantuan television screen on the square. Personally, it was probably a good thing it was sold out. All of the entertainers were Australians we had never heard of before, some hosts of local talk shows. We watched about thirty minutes of the show with Australian singers who just released a new album or just had their latest child, performed some Christmas carols we were either familiar with or not, but what was unusual was that they would come out to perform looking like they were headed to the corner store after popping out of bed on a Saturday morning. A few of them seemed so out of place with their dress for a Christmas special and one woman singer, had a lovely evening gown on with flip-flops. What we watched was interesting, but not worth the price of tickets for us, which were $25.00 a piece I think.

A block away from the square, there is a large Christmas tree made of green metal with metal ornaments and lights. Every half hour, the lights flash and the tree sings a Christmas song. One wall along side the tree is covered with sayings that run into each other making it difficult to see where one ends and the other begins. This is named the Nativity Wall, yet no where in the city did we see a nativity scene set up, not even on church lawns.

By 10:30 at night, the streets were still lively, many families out with their children, making me wonder why they were not home waiting for Santa. They must have him here, since more than one place had a “visit Santa” or “have your picture taken with Santa”.

We went back to our hotel by midnight, I naively thought that the bar would be empty, being Christmas Eve, but not so, it was full. Thankfully, most were in the beer garden at the back of the building, but the music permeates the whole building. The boom, boom, boom, bass sounds is reminiscent of many decades ago. How uncreative to still have a boom, boom, boom beat continuing into the 21st century.

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Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The Importance of Meeting Ernst - Melbourne


Before we left Budapest, Ron had booked a free walking tour with the city of Melbourne, a service they provide through their tourism office. We were scheduled to meet our tour leader at 9:30, so we were up early with plans to have breakfast closer to Federation Square, the initial spot. The suburban train station is less than a minute from our hotel. The weather looked iffy as we approached the station; it was not just chilly, but downright cold. Neither of us had brought along a jacket, thinking this is summertime. Within ten minutes, we both regretted it, but did not want to miss the train for a quick run back to the hotel to play fetch. Reason told us that this was only early morning chill and the day would warm after an hour or more. On the platform, there is an intercom box, which by pressing the green button, it will announce the next train to stop at that station and the approximated number of minutes to wait. We had a fifteen minute lag time, but it deposited us right across the street from the tourism office, giving us time for a coffee at the nearby café. Federation Square directly across from the train station, is for the most part an open area where large crowds can gather comfortably. The two notable buildings are ultra-modern and look like they have been the result of war wreckage. The open area is constructed in reddish-brown sand color bricks of various hues, bringing to mind the Australian outback. Different areas are elevated by steps, giving crowds of people different levels for viewing. In some areas, these desert multi-colored rectangles give the sensation of undulating sand dunes as you leave civilization preparing for the harsh realities of the outback with its unforgiving forces of nature. Seated in one corner of the Square is a glass house, where the tourism center is located, but first one must go downstairs. The expansive space is well designed for efficiency, yet there is an immediate sense of welcoming at the same time. Once you take a number, you wait for the next available volunteer to call you. Most of the people milling around serving visitors are volunteers, not paid workers. As a number is called, a melodious voice announces “Number 34, please go to counter number 8”. While I was wandering around, deciding if I should buy a sweatshirt or not, Ron had found our tour guide. I only found sweaters that were selling for $160., so the chill seemed more acceptable with every dollar. Our tour guide's name was Ernst, but insisted on being called Ernie. He was originally from Germany, but came over as a youth, and has lived in Australia for fifty-six years. Immediately after introductions, Ernst shared that he was seventy-one years old, swears a lot, but will try to hold back if we are offended by it, and that he has a tendency to touch when he speaks. After reassuring him that these were not problems for us, he went on to say that a German woman he toured yesterday, told him off for touching her shoulder. Ernst gives young-elderly new meaning. He has spring in his step, he is feisty, and continues to contribute to his society. Two woman were supposed to be part of our tour, but they did not show. Their loss, we had Ernst all to ourselves. To try to recall a fraction of what Ernst shared with us starting in Federation Square and continuing for the next four hours, could not do anyone justice. Ernst's prior vocation before retirement was as a teacher in a vocational college, but he retired at fifty-three years old. His love for talking is apparent, but not abusive. He was continually alert when sensing we had questions and he was sensitive to our needs and interests. Honestly, it was only toward the end of the four hours that I started getting weary and I blame myself for this. Thinking I may have a chance to get some writing in during the day, I had my computer in my side bag. Add to that a thick wallet and a large digital camera and even if the computer is only two pounds, it gets tiring. A couple of things immediately stick out in my mind about what Ernst had told us that I will share. One Aborigine language uses the word euro for kangaroo, so Ernst has told his relatives in Germany that Australia had Euros for thousands of years before Europe ever thought about it. There were over four hundred different Aborigine tribes throughout Australia, all with different languages and cultures. Prior to the white man, there were no horses or camels to facilitate travel or communication, thus keeping the different tribes independent and separated culturally and linguistically. With hunting Aborigines, the introduction of diseases, and other conquering hero tactics, the Aborigines have almost been decimated. It was only the current Prime Minister who has apologized for their demise; the last one refused to say “Sorry”, but he was a Bush supporting ass, so it figures. Ernie heard us when we said we were interested in architecture. He took us to see impressive buildings including historic banks and the stock exchange. His thorough knowledge of the city is impressive considering he himself does not live within the city, but commutes in for tours. Every three months, he travels to some other part of the country or to other countries, so he is attuned to a traveler's needs. By the time we were to say good-bye, we had passed our tour time by thirty minutes. We stopped at a café to fill out his 'quality assurance' survey. Ernie had advised us to visit the State Library to see the dome. We had to check our bags into computerized lockers, but it was worth the effort. I have yet to see a library like this before, even in the States, and I have been to over thirty states. Computers were everywhere with a fifteen minute time limit for use on one side with a line of people waiting. On the other were just as many computers with access to the contents of the library's collection. In the center of the room, the vaulted ceiling was four stories up ending in a superb dome, which was the main attraction Ernie had in mind. However, it was not the dome that impressed me the most, but the arcade on each floor above the first floor. Each floor had floor to ceiling bookshelves with volumes filling them. These looked to be classic collections or other rare books by the looks of the bindings. Behind each of these balconies were galleries of art work or other exhibitions. The one we spent a couple of hours with was the history of the printed word. They did such a beautiful and comprehensive display, which I could have spent another two hours investigating, but I could feel Ron's need to move on elsewhere. We kept verbally promising each other that 'right after....' we will return to the hotel and get our coats. It never did get too much warmer. When in the sun, it was fine, but once in th shade or shadows of stores or other buildings, the wind snapped at you with a fierce blow of cold air. As we passed a Starbucks, I did not so much as have a need for a coffee, but rather the hope of Internet. Remembering that in Malaysia, every Starbucks was a provider of free WiFi Internet, I was hoping it was the same here too. Sadly, not! Yes, they did have WiFi, but the staff did not seem to understand the word FREE. They kept insisting all I needed to do was open my web browser and create my own ID and password, yet to do this, you first had to buy time. They did not get it, it was not as free as they were led to believe. Biting the bullet, I bought time. The reason I was reluctant is because, if I have to buy it each place we go, it is not transferable from one place to the other. Use it or lose it. Use too much and be left wanting more. The usual routine of life. Aside from that, considering in Budapest, you can find free WiFi everywhere you turn, it irks me to have to pay for it in major cities in developed first world countries, not to mention airports in cities like Amsterdam. So breaking our promise again, we went back to the tourism office for more information. Tonight at 9:00, there will be a show on Federation Square where they will uncover the next number in the giant Advent calendar. We found we missed the free rehearsal of the Christmas carolers, but we were in luck to visit the famous Myers Department Store, where they are famous for their extravagant Christmas displays. The line for viewing the windows was over a block long, but well organized with chains giving everyone a fair chance. Once at the first window, no one rushed anyone along, so you could spend as much time gawking, oohing and aahing as you wished. The theme was “How Santa Really Works”, based on a children's book by the same name. Each of the windows was jammed with a visual moving representations of the book. Although we have not read the book, we are guessing that the thought bubbles above the characters heads in the windows are text from the book also. It took us about forty minutes to get through the line, but another fifteen or more to appreciate all of the intricacies to make this window such a celebrated attraction. We had heard the store David Jones had “Santa's Cave” so in line with getting Christmas spirit, we went in search of this cave. Not being into spelunking, we were a bit cautious of what we might find, but like Indiana Jones, we were in search of adventure. There just happens to be a trilogy of David Jones stores within blocks of each other, each only holding one part of the stores' selections. Naturally, on the third try, we found the one where Santa was hiding out in cave-like splendor. Why Santa would be associated with something as sinister sounding as a cave was beyond my getting answers. By passing the snickering elves that wisely perceived we were adults without children, coming to investigate the goings on here, we were disappointed to realize that David Jones is no Myer's Department Store where the spirit of Christmas is concerned. This Scrooge has set up a commercially profitable little business to capitalize on Santa's good name and reputation. While waiting in line for Santa, mommy and daddy can buy the little ones treats like popcorn, candy bars, or “fairy floss” (cotton candy). After they get the sugar rush, you can buy them a ticket to ride the mini-merry-go-round with the choice of three horses that look like something from Gulliver's Travels land of the little people. It was with firm resolve at this point that we were determined to return to the hotel for coats. Ron discovered that the 109 tram ran close to where we laid ourself to sleep last night, so we picked up our coats and were back out again in record time. Earlier we had discovered a Crispy Crème donut shop. I insisted we return for dessert before dinner. On Federation Square, there is hangs a humongous Advent calendar along the side walls of a building. My guess is that the building is 12 stories, but it could be larger. At 9:00 each night, there is a show where they remove one of the numbers from the calendar. We were there at 9:00 to see the proceedings, but we were not ready for what happened next. From the top of the building, a clown is dropped like a bungee jumper. With a spotlight on him, he does acrobatics in the air and against the wall. As this is happening, different lights appear behind him shaped like bursting stars or fireworks. This part of the show continues for about ten minutes when the other side of the blue screen and Advent boxes light up. Another clown appears and starts performing also. The difference is that this clown has a movie projected on the blue background giving him scenery to interact with. As the scenery moves, this clown who is suspended stories from the top of the building walks down a street, looks into store windows, climbs a telephone pole or rides a scooter. Finally, he systematically removes the ribbon of the present du jour and then proceeds to take of f the wrapping exposing the next number. After forty-five minutes, the performance is over. Each night the participants are eligible to submit their names into a drawing for a new mobile phone. The winner is announced at the end of the show. One of the buildings on Federation Square is related to film. Outside of their building, there are three oversized presents. In one of the presents is a television with a scrolling display of the holidays in December and how they are celebrated in different parts of the world. Ernie had told us that Melbourne has the largest Greek population outside of Athens and Chicago. He said that there are over 150 languages spoken in the city and for the most part, have reached racial and ethnic harmony. To further illustrate this point, the large video advertisement in the square has Merry Christmas alternating through a number of different languages with the associated flag from that country. Finally, but 10:00 pm, we thought we better take the tram to scope out the area to see what the offerings would be for dinner. As we were standing at the tram stop, I noticed a stand in the train station called Lord of the Fries, which caused me to guffaw and mention it to Ron. This little pixie woman of about twenty-two years of life responded with the fact that they offerings were not bad at all, but a little overpriced. After a minute, she started in asking if we were on vacation, et cetera. We headed in two different directions when the tram doors opened, so it was magical to find her by my side when I looked up. She picked up the conversation where we left off as if there we were still conversing when we parted company. When we decided to get off two stops later after seeing a couple of restaurants open, she detrammed along with us all the while giving me restaurant reviews. We stood in the street still discussing the merits of each establishment, but she wisely suggested we step up to the curb. I was still a bit overwhelmed by the fact that she was still by my side. I was not sure if she was waiting for a dinner invite or an invitation to come stay with us. After profusely thanking her for her assistance and sage advise, we parted ways.

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Advent Christmas Calendar Melbourne


It is difficult to tell, but this person was suspended along the side of a ten story building to perform these antics, before ripping off one of the 'presents' to display another Advent calendar number.

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Monday, December 22, 2008

The Overland Train - Adelaide to Melbourne


When we first planned this trip, train travel sounded exciting and adventurous. We both enjoy train travel and considered the landscape we would see during the hours on a train going from one city to another. It was with this in mind that we booked seats on the Overland train from Adelaide to Melbourne. Due to the extensive number of hours, the trip is over ten hours long, we opted for the Red Premium Seating, which was the most comfortable choice available on this train. The train only runs three days a week in this direction, all during the daytime. The return trip is three times a week, during the night, so sleeper coaches are available.

Our train was scheduled for 8:30, so we were up by 6:00 and took a taxi to the train station, which is outside of town. The train station is modern, sleek, and check-in is similar to an airport. You put your luggage on the conveyor belt, they weigh it, only 20 kilos allowed, they tag it, and they give boarding passes. All very professional.

The well lit, clean cafeteria was a perfect caffeine stop with a bit of brekkie as some call it here. We both made intermittent cigarette stops since we would be on a smokeless train for 10 hours. Everything and everywhere that is covered is smoke free in the state of South Australia.

When we booked this trip, this is what the brochure stated that aroused our excitement about the journey.

“This historic train pioneered inter-capital rail travel way back in 1887, its name inspired by the historic ‘Overlanders’ who travelled the route on horseback. A century on and a $4 million refurbishment later, today’s train-travelling ‘Overlanders’ will enjoy the journey in relaxing comfort arriving at their destination in the early evening. Throughout this interstate journey, guests can soak up a diverse range of landscapes from rugged mallee scrubland, to fields of golden crops, over vast open plains and through gently rolling hills. Distance: 828 kilometres.”

And this about the Red Premium service

“The "New" Overland Red Premium Service

Comfortable reclining seats offering greater personal space. 2 and 1 across aisle, 36 per carriage

67cm pitch between seats

Access to licenced Café Carriage

Meals for purchase from licenced Café Carriage alternatively limited a-la-carte in-seat dining served via trolley service

Snacks for purchase from trolley service or the Licenced Café Carriage.

Free orange juice/water offered on boarding

Free Platform magazine.

Priority luggage handling service.

Luggage allowing 50kg per person. 3 items 20/20/10kg.”

We were excited, we were charged, we were juiced up about this trip, even if it meant going without nicotine for ten hours, we could do it since the scenery would overwhelm us. This service was just reactivated in 2007 after a major refurbishing. After the first hour of “rugged mallee scrubland”, we had enough scrubland for a lifetime. The “fields of golden crops” translated into fields of dried out drought ridden areas in dire need of moisture.

This chance to see the Australian landscape was not what we had imagined. With both cities on the coast, we missed the part in the description where they say we will see magnificent ocean vistas, but we thought it was an oversight on their part in the brochure. None of this landscape has seen water for years.

Like a premium service on an airline, or what used to be premium service on an airline, each coach had two attendants to wait on us. We were given an orientation to the train, introduced to our attendants, and then served orange juice. The seats were magnanimous in size and comfort. With at 2-1 configuration, we each had the one on the right side of the train. If we were seven feet tall, we would have had enough leg room, so when we reclined our seats, we did not decrease the real estate of the person behind us in the least.

I thought this would be an excellent opportunity to catch up on writing, each seat had a hidden tray under the right hand arm rest. With the computer set up and ready to write, what I did not anticipate was the bumpy ride. The entire length of the journey was similar to being on a small aircraft that flew at low altitudes and encountered turbulence. After pounding out one paragraph, I had thirty-seven spelling mistakes due to my fingers slipping by being bounced around as I typed. Even the cursor could not maintain its position on a word, the bump and grind of the rails thrust it upward, downward, or sideways. I gave up.

Normally, I can read in many unnatural conditions: in a car, on a plane, in low light, and so on. After reading thirty pages at a time, my eyes were exhausted. I took a nap. The order of the day was read, nap, read, and nap some more. An hour into the travels, the attendants came around to take breakfast orders from the menu in our seat pockets. We refrained since we had eaten already. It didn't take much observation to notice that the passengers who were already maximizing their seat space were the ones to order breakfast served to them where they sat. Breakfast trays were no sooner cleared away when I noticed they were already spying the lunch menu in anticipation. We held back from lunch also; we packed some snacks to eat along the way.

We were due to arrive at 6:30 pm, but due to hold-ups, we did not arrive until 7:45. The Red Premium luggage service ended once our luggage was checked in. Once in Melbourne, we had to walk from the very front of the train car A to car Z to collect our luggage, fighting through the crowds of travelers and those who were there to greet them. Even then, we were held at bay until all of the luggage was displayed like tin soldiers, ours calling to us to collect them from the lot. It was a zoo.

Once in the station, we found a train employee who directed us to the Connex ticket office, the company that provides transportation in the city. We at first opted for a seven day metro ticket, which would have worked on all trams, buses, and suburban trains. The agent talked us out of it, saying that Christmas Eve and Christmas day were free travel days. Therefore, we should only buy daily tickets, but for tonight, just a single ride ticket. For $3.50 each, we had our single ride ticket and were on our way to Collingswood station where our hotel was located.

As we left the station at Collingswood, our hotel, The Laird, was within a thirty second walk. It is a gay male only hotel located above The Laird gay bar. Check-in was quick and easy and we were in our spacious room within minutes. The spacious room is all split pine walls giving it a very western feel to it. The walls throughout are decorated with framed posters of similar hotels in San Francisco, San Diego, and Berlin as well as Herb Ritt photos and Tom of Finland. There is a well appointed self-service kitchen with a espresso coffee machine, cereals, toaster, and OJ in the fridge. Next to this is a large lounge with a dining table and chairs in addition to a sofa, and arm chairs for reading or relaxing. Each room has its own television, air conditioning unit, and ceiling fan.

Being Sunday evening and late by this point, we went looking for some place for dinner. The only option was a Chinese restaurant, which as it happened was not a bad choice after such a laborious day of bump, bump, bump. It was low key and relaxed.

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Sunday, December 21, 2008

Kangaroo Island to Adelaide


Leaving Kangaroo Island was no hardship for me. I cannot imagine a lifestyle here being cut off from everything. They don't even have the population for a small cinema. There are only 4,000 on the island. Ron was heartily disappointed we did not see any kangaroos or wallabies, so we agreed to get up at 6:00 am to wallaby hunt before the ship back to Adelaide. When the alarm went off, Ron dressed and went looking while I showered, assured he would not have found a thing. When he returned claiming he saw a wallaby, I made him show me pictures before I believed him. He had. We went again and sure enough, we saw the same one, but then three others followed. The difference between a wallaby and a kangaroo is that they are smaller. These wallabies have long tails that are not as powerful as the shorter tailed kangaroo on the island. Satiated with our discovery, we went back to the hostel to check out, walking back to the boat and boarded within fifteen minutes. The return ride did not feature Santa Claus. Perhaps 8:30 am is too early for him to appear. The ride was close to two hours and we walked to the Adelaide Central Youth Hostel from there. Check-in is at 1:00, so we had to leave our things and return later. Sunday is not a booming day in the city. Most everything was closed, but we found activity on Gourge Street and Rumble the pedestrian street. We looked at the Christmas lights, the decorated arcades, and snapped pictures. We stopped for lunch at the Hogs Breath Café, not associated with Clint Easwood's place in Monterey, but they did have menu items like the Dirty Harry burger. This hostel is incredible. The kitchen has twelve work stations, each equipped with a sink, all of the plates, cups, glasses, and silverware you could need. Each also has a four burner stove, a microwave, and cutting boards. The dining and relaxation area has huge dining tables in addition to sofas, soft chairs, and games. On the balcony are tables and chairs for smokers. Most of the evening was spent reading and preparing for our ten hour train ride the next morning.

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Saturday, December 20, 2008

Kangaroo-less Island


Within fifteen minutes last night, I was out for the count. This is without a doubt the most comfortable hostel bed I have ever slept in. This is also the first time in about six months that I accomplished getting a full eight hours sleep. We had lots of time to spare with our tour starting at 9:30, so Ron went to see if he could find some penguins. A colony resides on this island. Locals claim they wander the streets, there are even penguin crossing signs, but last night they were allusive, not to be found anywhere. We had gone down to the Penguin Center across the street from our hostel, but the guide there said they are not coming on shore as much since the seals are driving them away. Seals think penguins are tasty treats.

As I was sitting at the picnic table, a Sealink van pulled up and the driver wandered into the hostel yard, looking over papers and scratching his head. I approached him to see if he was our driver and sure enough he was, here at 8:30, but not due until 9:15. He stated his company had sent a fax to the office of the hostel letting them know there was a change in starting time. I said to him what I had hoped was fact; Ron was told by the manager last night that the tour started at 9:15. The manager also said not to panic if they were late; they were late yesterday.

Ron had taken off looking for penguins and wallabies; none to be found. Ron was not to be found either. The guide had others to collect from this location, so while he rounded them up, I was going to try to find Ron. As I walked down road, Kalen, our guide and driver pulled up and suggested we could look faster if we did it by van. Ron was no where in sight, then suddenly, I spotted him beach combing the sand picking up shells. When he spotted me and the van, he came running, a rather useless gesture since there were still five others to get from the hostel who were not ready either. As a side note, Kalen is an ex-pat American. His mother re-married an Australian and he moved here when he was ten years old. He and his wife came to the island for a three day vacation and never left.

Once we were all gathered, Kalen told us we were lucky. This was the overflow tour. The original bus had fifty-three on it and was full. Our van will have sixteen total. All together now from our place, we went to collect two others from another hotel, and then the balance were coming in by airplane. As we were leaving our parking lot, a car pulled up and asked for directions. The front end was totally smashed in. The driver had hit a kangaroo.

Here are some quick facts about Kangaroo Island. The island is 155 km long and 55 km wide, making it the third largest island off of Australia's coast. It was uninhabited until it was discovered in 1802, but Matthew Flinders, an English explorer. Since that time, ½ of the island has never been cleared of vegetation. One-third of it is protected by the National and Conservation Parks system. The island is home to thirty animal species, two hundred and fifty bird species, and eight hundred and fifty plant species. Unfortunately, most of the animal species are nocturnal, making day-time sightings difficult. Kalen explained that kangaroos cannot sweat nor pant, so they have to avoid the sun and come out at night to forage.

Many of the islands koala population perished in fires. Because of the drought conditions, the island is susceptible to lightening fires. They had a bad one two years ago, which was bad news for koalas. The fuzzy cuties climb trees when frightened, not a safe refuge during a fire.

Highlights of the tour did not include any kangaroo sightings, though locals claim there are thousands on the island. During this tour, we did not see any wallabies either, so as far as wildlife, it was close to a bust. We did see seals and sea lions, a saving grace.

At Seal Bay, we found the Australian Sealion, the second largest breeding colony in Australia. With a conservation officer, we were able to walk down to the beach and get as far as six meters away from the animals. We were told they could outrun a young and fit man who has been in training, if they are frightened. We had to stay as a group to confuse their poor on land sight, making them believe we were one large animal.

We went to the Admiral's Arch, near the Cape Du Couedic lighthouse. It is a natural arch formed by erosion from the sea. It is the breeding ground for the New Zealand Fur Seal. There were dozens frolicking in the water and on the rocks. The stink was horrendous.

At Remarkable Rocks, we were able to climb granite boulders formed and reformed by weather and water. These gigantic formations were carved into strange shapes. We were warned about going too close to the edge, as other tourists have ignored the danger signs and have fallen to their death.

Lunch was provided by Beckwith Farms. It was surprisingly excellent. There were five fresh salads to choose from, each with superb veggies we could help ourselves to. To accompany this our other offerings were chicken and a sausage. This was a good thing; food at the IGA grocery store is ultra-expensive. We had bought two large sweet potatoes, a pound of butter, and a package of pork patties. This came to over $30.00.

The island has five different towns, each with their own local government, one hospital with twenty-four beds, and an all volunteer fire department. Parts of the island recycle rainwater, without pollution in the air, they do not need to treat it in any way.

By the end of the tour, we still had not seen a kangaroo or wallaby. I suggested to Kalen they rename this place to Kangarooless Island. Jokingly, I said they only suggested there were thousands of kangaroos to keep the tourists coming. He swore they were there.

After cooking dinner, we went on a kangaroo hunt yet again. It was now dark and their prime time to come out and roam, but still nothing by 10:00 pm. We gave up hope and went to bed.

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Kangaroo Island Sea Lions


Kangaroo Island sea lions

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Kangaroo Island Beach


Just 53 seconds long.

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Friday, December 19, 2008

Glenelg to Kangaroo Island


Four-thirty am and I am wide awake. One would think that after all of that traveling, I would have been able to get at least eight hours. By six, I was showered and trolling the neighborhood in a direction we had not explored. A few doors down from the hotel is a bakery advertising itself as the best pasty shop in Australia. Having won the award from the Australian Pasty Competition, they can make this claim. At least they are the best amongst those that competed, but yet, I wanted to try for myself. From the pictures, they look like calzones. I would have to wait an hour; they don't open until 7:00am. When Ron climbed out of bed, I went to the breakfast room and he met me there. We have hours to kill until we take the ferry to Kangaroo Island for two nights. The check-out time of this hotel, the Atlantic Tower is an early 10 am. It seems unreasonably early, but by nine, we had our bags stored, on our way out the door. Gleneng is a cute little town, but like most little towns, you can run out of things to do very quickly. We went for a real coffee first. The hotel coffee is only instant. After a stroll to the ocean, we walked through town again, going into book stores, candy stores, Ron ventured into the Discovery Center. This is a museum type place that traces all of the areas history. This area was settled by people who chose to come here, unlike most of Australia, which were prisoners exiled from England. Admission was by donation of a gold coin, which meant one or two dollars, your choice. My choice was not to join him. I walked around and then met up with him thirty minutes later. On the beach, there is a fun house with an arcade totally targeted to children, so we had to venture in. Mostly video games, games of chance with candy as the reward, and a carousel, there was not much to capture the attention of the adult mind other than imagining the fun children would have here. Walking back out along the beach front, a couple was offering camel and donkey rides. The camels looked like they were molting; the donkey was the size of a Labrador Retriever. For $5.00 a person, you could experience riding any of the three animals. People were taking them up on the offer, but I left my camel riding days back in Egypt. One of the churches was open, so we wandered in. It is a “Unifying Church”. Pretty basic inside, there were some handmade banners decorating the walls that were worthy art pieces to draw further notice. We called the Sealink people once again to confirm our pick-up time and location. We arrived at our hotel pick-up by 2:45 for a 3:30 pick-up. They only have two locations in the town, so we chose the closest. By 3:30, concern set in. We had not had what would be called excellent communication with this company thus far. At 3:45, Ron called them again, making us grateful for having a phone. They claimed the van should be there any minute, but they did not have direct communication with the driver. How could that be in this day and age? At 3:50, the van pulled up. The robust woman driver told us she had been waiting for us at the wrong hotel. Finally, she called in on her mobile and was given the correct information. I seem to believe that mobiles can call in both directions. So this van takes us to meet the larger bus of people going to the ship. After a forty-five minute drive, she pulls up to this roadside storefront and tells us that the bus will come for us here; here is the middle of nowhere. Inside, I am panicking. Calling the company has not been productive, so how long do we need to be abandoned here before someone cares to do something productive? With no shade and the sun shining brightly, we waited. A Sealink bus arrived after fifteen minutes, gave us our boarding passes for the ship and off we went to the ferry. The ferry is comfortable and similar to many other ferry services we have traveled. The journey is only a bit over an hour. Today, though this trip had one special traveler, a real celebrity. Santa Claus appeared and had all of the children on board come sit on his lap to tell him their Christmas wishes. Each was rewarded with some candy canes. At the other end, we walked the block and a half to our hostel. Normally, the word hostel brings mixed messages in my mind. We have had both excellent and horrendous experiences with them. The Kangaroo Island hostel looks more like a small hotel than a rabid youth party center. We booked a double room, but strangely our room had three sets of bunk beds. The bottom bed of each was a double with a single bed upper. Theoretically, this room could sleep nine, but for the next two nights, it was only for two. Immaculately clean, the mattresses were inviting. The first order of business was to grocery shop. The selection of restaurants in this area of the island is limited to two that are open and functioning; one of them is a fish restaurant. Our cooking had to be put on hold since the German and Dutch youthful guests took over the kitchen and just about every piece of cooking apparatus. We were finally able to cook our sweet potatoes in the microwave and fried our patties of pork, apricot, and something else that we found ready to cook at the local IGA store. That and a bottle of beer and we were set for the night. Hostel owners Maureen and Ray are gracious hosts, but they disappear after all booked guests are checked in. They did confirm that the Sealink bus would be here to get us at 9:30 am tomorrow morning, but that today, the bus was ten minutes late. We were warned not to panic if it was late again tomorrow. Ron and I decided to sleep separately on either side of the divider wall to facilitate a better nights sleep.

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Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Curse


Long lay-overs are a travelers curse. I despise long waiting times; I want to be there regardless if it is the anticipation of discovery of visiting a new place or the redundancy of returning to familiar routines. Waiting has never been my forte. Days of waiting or what seemed like it, it occurred to us that we had booked our room in Adelaide one day earlier than needed. Time zones, date lines, horizontal lines, poetry lines, or any other lines that have clogged up our thinking, we realized we were supposed to be in the reserved bed at this very moment. Yet, it is only the next day and early morning when we will feel the comfort of a mattress. Fearful that the hotel would cancel our reservation, but only after charging us for one night's stay, we found the Internet kiosk in the airport lobby. All six computers were being used most likely by others who had time to kill and no airline lounge privileges to distract them. I chose to stand behind a little boy, thinking I could intimidate him into releasing the computer into my custody. This kid was tough. He held his ground searching his Hotmail account in Arabic, reading unread messages from March of 2008. I was not certain why he felt the sudden urgency to read them now, other than there were a line of people waiting to use the computers and he was now had power. After the Hotmail, he Googled for on- line games. At this point, impatience kicked in and I wanted him gone. I asked him if he were almost done with his 'work' as others needed the computer. It was at this point, I heard an authoritative voice coming from behind me, with this the kid briefly turned and responded to the voice. His little fingertips were still glued to the keyboard; he seemed to fear that lack of contact was an admission of lack of interest. The authoritative voice reverberated commands causing flickering actions from the kid like short volts of electricity vibrating his body. The voltage must have finally caused him to admit defeat relinquishing the computer to me. I whipped out an e-mail to the hotel after an expert Google search and within minutes, I graciously gave the computer back to the forlorn minor who must have had as much time on his hands as we did and no way to amuse himself. Malaysian Airlines carried us from Kuala Lumpur to Adelaide. Honestly, I was not prepared for the plane or service we received. The plane was a 777-200, with a 2-5-2 configuration. Each seat had its own television screen, so we had on demand movies. The space between seats was roomy, much more so than the 747-200 we had been on with KLM. Malaysian Airlines does not serve hard liquor. I really wanted a scotch to knock myself out, but the options were white or red wine. Dinner was actually cooked and reminiscent of the old meals they served on airlines. Those would be the meals we complained about before they started lowering their standards to save money. Now we have a new gastronomic incompetence targets to focus on. This flight was close to eight hours, but regardless of the personalized televisions, we slept most of the flight. There is just something about dry recycled air that does not provide much incentive for staying awake. It did not motivate us to watch Wall-E a second time or most of the others were just reruns also. Miracle upon miracle, we landed in Australia, Adelaide International Airport. Our luggage, though checked in in Vienna and routed around like we were, was riding on the conveyor belt by the time we made it through Passport Control. The inspector, a young woman, asked why we were there. She then defensively asked why Adelaide specifically? She was not amused with my blunt answer that these were the cheapest tickets we could find to Australia. It was my innate sense that told me she has a bit of inferiority complex regarding her home area. Cheaper airline seats was own motivation. I do hope she proves me wrong. So we were advised to take a taxi to the hotel for 10-15 Australian dollars. The taxi came to 19 dollars by the time we pull up to the door. After thirty hours of travel, I would have paid double just to be here. Yes, the hotel received our e-mail, but they thought we missed a connection, not realizing we had left Europe two days prior. They were impressed with the long lay-overs we had endured to come to their fine city, obviously they are not as uptight as the Customs Agent. Our room is extra large-so is the bed. There is a cabinet with an assortment of cups, glasses, and other stemware. The fridge is fine for food storage if you want to forage as a raw foodie. The shower is large enough to entertain in. Since we technically stayed here last night, we are technically allowed to have breakfast, so we ventured up for some cold cereal, instant coffee, and reconstituted juice. As was the plan, we had two nights here before being picked up for Kangaroo Island and two nights there. Well we will have our second night here tonight, but the first night was spent in absentia. Finding our pickup point for the shuttle tomorrow was our first priority. We no longer had slag time with a missing day, International date lines, and all of that playing with our heads. Our hotel is only three blocks from the beach; a pristine barely caramel colored sandy oasis that stretches for miles with frothy shafts of water gently slapping it. It turns out we are not in Adelaide, but rather in Glenelg, a palindrome named suburb. It is a lively little town with festive smallish houses that are reminders of the beach front properties of my New Jersey past. The main street and all of the arteries running from it boom with businesses or storefronts waiting to be filled. The number of coffee shops are only out-numbered by the abundance of banks. We had to have a coffee to recharge our batteries, so we lamely went to Gloria Jean's since they offered outdoor seating. Smoking indoors anywhere here is taboo, so outdoor seating is popular where space permits it. We are grateful it is summer time. Right, summer time and we are wearing our jackets with the liners inside. This is summer like South African summers. The locals don't seem to realize it is cold out. They are wearing shorts, sun dresses, and sandals. What was it Mark Twain said? “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.” I may have missed a word here or there, but the quote is appropriate for here. Yea, though it is summer here, the air is brisk and the winds are wild. No one seems to pay much attention to our strange ways or accent when we have an opportunity to converse with a local, but the coats are a dead giveaway we are not from here. The fact that Ron has yet to remove his Obama '08 pin could just be another clue to the observant. Vodafone exists here as well as in Europe and South Africa, so when I found a store, after giving my life history, show three forms of ID, and pledge allegiance to the Mobile Community, I was able to buy a Sim card for my phone. It pays to have an unlocked global phone. For $35.00 Australian, I am now topped up with $150.00 worth of calling time allowing me to call anywhere in the world. Technology can be wonderful. Of course, I could not test it out immediately since my battery had died from lack of use and each time I tried turning it on, it suspended itself. I needed to recharge it. I could have sworn I had done that before leaving home, but then again that was days, weeks ago? It seems like we have traveled in a time capsule. Glenelg has a tram that runs into the city center of Adelaide. After a nap, shower, and shave, we take this thirty minute ride by buying a day ticket from the on-board conductor. For $8.00, you can unlimited trips, whereas a one-way ticket would run $4.50. As the Customs Inspector suspected, we did not know much about Adelaide, so everything we saw was a pleasant surprise. It is charming with old English buildings nestled in between modern ones. The influence of Great Britain is not lost anywhere. The currency coins still has Elizabeth on it. Depending on the year of minting, her looks change. The more current coins have an unflattering image of her side view, but I must say, the bills are strikingly beautiful in color, design, and each has a transparent plastic window. Each denomination has a different design. Parker Brothers should pay more attention to these details if they ever redesign Monopoly money. This alone could increase sales. All of Adelaide is razzle-dazzle Christmas, which is difficult to wrap your head around when you were born and raised in the northern hemisphere, but two years in Southern Africa and one in Asia has preconditioned us for this phenomena. With all of the Christmas décor, it does make it more festive than any other non-seasonal Christmas destination we have been to over the years. Before returning to Glenelg, we double checked on our transport for tomorrow. Ron called the Youth Hostel people to confirm our pick-up to be taken to the boat for our Kangaroo Island adventure. They had it wrong, so it was a good thing we called, but then had to stop into the office to pick up transport vouchers. We finally had it all planned and was good to go Looking at restaurant menus and stores, prices here are high. Fortunately for us, the Australian dollar has done a nosedive. When we were first planning this trip, the Aussie dollar was almost 1 to 1 with the American dollar. Now, it is one $ American to $1.65 Australian. The Euro is even better at one of them to 1.95 Australian. Such as our exchanges go, it seems expensive for restaurants to be charging $23-35.00 for an entrée and side dishes extra. How do these people afford these prices? Albeit, there are many empty storefronts that must not have survived the economics of the times, those that are still going seem to be flourishing. Ron had a hankering for BBQ. He really wanted to be able to say, “Throw some shrimp on the barbie for me.” so he investigated the top spot to go. When we returned to Glenelg from Adelaide, we went to the BBQ restaurant for dinner. They only serve various steaks and steak with shrimp. With our Aussie beer, I ordered the 450 gram porterhouse steak; Ron ordered the beef and reef, steak with shrimp. Perhaps my expectations were too high, but what I received was a big slab of cooked meat. This beef had not seen a spice or herb before I rambunctiously attacked it with the salt shaker. Even then, it was just salty beef lacking a personality. In my imagination it would have been marinated, or prepared in some way to make it stand out from other meats, but it did not. Plentiful, yes, full of flavor, not exactly. Our bill came to $70. and I know I have repeatedly told myself, we will not pinch pennies on this trip, that seemed like an extravagant amount of money for a dinner that was not worth writing home about. Walking back to the hotel, the air had gotten noticeably cooler, reassuring us it was a good idea to bring out jackets along. We were in bed by 10:00 watching a comedy on television. What a thrill to have all channels in English.

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