Susan G. Komen: Race for the Cure; Springfield, IL

About a week ago, as I wandered around downtown Springfield on saturday evening after the museums had closed I came across this event, the Susan G. Komen ‘Race for the cure’ getting ready to start right in front of the Illinois Capitol building. And for those who don’t know, it was the Koman Foundation that first associated pink ribbons with the fight against breast cancer…

IMG_1654

For those not familiar with the foundation: Koman was once one of the most trusted charities in the country, raising funds in the fight against breast cancer.

IMG_1657
This stand was handing out free wig stands for women undergoing radiation therapy, and free food to runners, which included pulled pork sandwiches and lots of cookies (I admit it, I accepted a chocolate chip cookie, which they offered to me even after I said I wasn’t running)
IMG_1551
Free pink cotton candy and water from McD’s was also being provided to the runners

But then,  it made a decision to stop donating some of its money to fund Planned Parenthood (a reproductive health foundation founded by Margaret Sanger — who was part of the inspiration for Wonder Woman —  that serves the poor, but that is HIGHLY controversial with conservatives because it also provides abortions), and pretty much lost a lot of its goodwill.

fullsizeoutput_3ed0
They were giving out Pink scarves, like in this girl’s hair, as well. A woman commenting on my entire lack of pink in my outfit insisted that I take one and wear it.

This included (some unfair) claims that only about 20% of the money goes to cancer research, while paying Komen’s founder and CEO, Nancy Brinker an exorbitant salary. So at this point, while the foundation is starting to redeem its reputation, it’s still a bit controversial with liberals.

IMG_1663

An after the fact note: this run was towards a yearly goal of raising $500K, we are now approaching the start of June (the half way point) and Koman has only managed to raise $65,967 towards its goal (according to this website, at the date of posting).

fullsizeoutput_3ece

Gay Pridefest; Springfield, IL

Completely by accident I happened on Gay PrideFest while visiting Springfield, IL. I was looking for parking in order to visit Abraham Lincoln’s home, when I saw a massive street fair type thing happening down the street that led directly to the front steps of the capitol building. After I parked, I passed a girl who seemed to be coming from there and asked her “what’s going on over there?”, “Pridefest” she answered…

fullsizeoutput_3ee5.jpeg

The event basically consisted of a series of booths lining two city blocks of the street, including about a half block to either side of the cross street in the center. There was also a bandstand featuring live performances at the far end, closest to the capitol building, with most of the food and beverage sales happening towards that end (near the music)

IMG_1371.JPG

The PrideFest Central booth (information about the event, distribution of wristbands which allowed you to buy alcoholic beverages from venders, etc.) was located right at the crossroads point in the center of the event…

fullsizeoutput_3ee4

About half the booths were political in nature, some of them were selling items to raise money, some collecting names on petitions, others just informational IMG_1562.JPG

While most of the booths were selling rainbow (Gay pride) themed type goods that would be attractive to members of the LGBT community

IMG_1563.JPGOf course the sales booth that caught my eye was selling bumper stickers….IMG_1376I’d like to say that I can never have too many bumper stickers but I’m running out of room on the back of my car… am beginning to dreaming longingly of purchasing a plumber’s type van in part because more room for both stuff and bumper stickers

IMG_1382
I ended up buying this one, times three (spares)

I will say this is not my first Pride event by a long shot, and compared to most of the ones I’ve been to this one was a pretty small and laid back event. In fact I only found one guy who REALLY embraced his gay during the event.

IMG_1379
He’s dressed as a leather fairy, note the wings on his back

But, to be fair, most of the pride events I have been to were in Cities with MASSIVE out of the closet LGBT populations, and hence a significantly higher level of perceived safety to be OUT.

For instance, I lived in the San Francisco Bay area for years and in addition to the LGBT pride parade have attended some really out-there pride events. For instance, while the Folsom Street Fair is more about BDSM and Fetish than it is about LGBT — although there’s a LOT of overlap, as both are Sexuality and gender identity-based cultures,  this particular pride fair is most definitely NOT for the squeamish (and in fact is one of the few things that pushes even my boundaries). That said it’s a HUGE event; Folsom takes up 13 city blocks and draws between 250,000 and 400,000 people every year depending on weather, etc (and the crush is such, that it is can trigger Agoraphobia, even for people who are normally just fine with crowds). That, and just a two months ago, when I was in Australia, I attended the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras with some friends of mine.

Halloween at Three Disney Parks, worldwide: Paris, Tokyo, & Orlando

Every year, all of the Disney parks celebrate a selection of the major ‘western’ holidays, and this includes Halloween. As no two parks are exactly alike, neither do any of them do the Halloween festivities alike. As such, I’ve decided to dedicate a blog post to those differences — As I experienced them. So far I’ve been lucky enough to be in three of the six Disneyland parks during Halloween: Paris in 2008, Tokyo in 2013, and Orlando in 2015 (the only one called the Magic Kingdom instead of Disneyland).

IMG_6399

So for instance, while Disney bounding (wearing modern street clothes that echo Disney characters) is something you’ll see year round at the US parks (if you know what you’re looking for)

IMG_0934
The girl on the left is Disney Bounding Snow White, the other girl is doing Minnie mouse

full-out costumes/Cosplay for anyone above the age of 14 are not allowed at any of the parks, in order to protect the brand and more importantly for fear of people confusing staff with visitors; except, that is, during the Halloween festivities (although even that is regulated, and the rules –often as reflection of security concerns — vary by park). That said, the extent to which the regular customers embrace that varies wildly both individually and culturally. That said, each of the parks has a very different ‘flavor’ as to how Halloween is done.

 

Paris Disney: where Spooky and eerie Halloweens rule

On October 29, 2008 I was in Disneyland Paris; this was back when it was still called Euro Disney Resort, and controlled not by the US Disney corporation but rather by local interests, and as such, much may have changed in the last 10 years in how Halloween is celebrated. To be honest … my experience of the park at that time was that, as a whole sucked rocks so bad that I was not at all surprised when a few years later I heard that Disney US had suspended any expansion plans, and initiated a take-back of control of the park; it was a process that began with the aforementioned name change, and that was completed just last year — so that they have only recently announced plans to begin the expansion that had been intended from when the park first opened in 1992. When I visited, it had been open about 16 years, was managed still by a subsidiary, (created I think in order to make the French feel like they were in control of the thing…) and well, like I said it sucked… BAD. The staff was impressively lazy and rude (oh have I got stories!!), the bathrooms was offensively dirty and smelly, and well… a far cry from “The happiest place on earth.”

IMG_0949

All of the Disney parks are intentionally designed to provide similar yet unique experiences, as a draw for folks like me to visit all of them, and Paris has some really good rides. For example, while I think EVER park has a variation of the “Haunted Mansion,” most of these rides tend to be more fun and quirky then they are spooky or scary, with the exception of the Paris version. Called “Phantom Manor,” this ride dark to the point of being down right creepy; unlike the other versions it includes a cohesive story line that is intentionally eerie. (Read this story synopsis to see just how much).
(Also watch this ‘ride-through’ YouTube video shot in 2015, and even if you don’t speak French you’ll note that music is also a heck of a lot spookier than at the other rides.)

Here’s also an interesting hour-long documentary on YouTube about what the Imagineers where going for when they developed the Disneyland Paris’ Phantom Manor, if you’re so inclined.

IMG_0845
The Phantom Manor decorated for Halloween, complete with the cast member in the green gown, with a pumpkin head, standing on its balcony behaving ghoulishly towards the crowds

ANYWAY, back to the topic at hand…. the same way that Disneyland Paris does a creepier haunted mansion, it also has a much creepier Halloween than the other parks do. Rather than the normal array of Disney characters posing for photos with the guests, you’re more likely to see staffers dressed as happy Jack-o-lantern and smiling ghouls were everywhere. As are Pumpkins, ghoulish decorations and the almost constant presence of orange paint, so that from the moment you walk into Main street, you are CLEAR that Halloween is being celebrated at Disney.

IMG_0844

IMG_0846
Note the orange paint on the ground in he upper right corner

For the kids there were bright red candy apples (ala the poison apple from Snow White), and face-painting

IMG_0844

Halloween themed gifts and collectables

IMG_0848

And pumpkin themed decorations, both to look at and to have one’s picture taken with

IMG_0849

IMG_0847

All of these is relatively normal, although the more you looked at the decorations, the more they became dark, grotesque and marginally perverted.

IMG_0850
Children posing with burial vaults?
IMG_0911
There’s something vaguely “Little Shop of Horrors“-esq about this decoration
IMG_0859
I’m not sure what is going on with this skull, but I surely didn’t expect to see something like this at a Disney park
IMG_0868
Is it me, or is this dark-o-lantern eating the brains of character below her?

So yes,Halloween at Disneyland Paris’ like it’s haunted mansion ride, is a good deal darker and more ghoulish than what one would expect from a Disney attraction.

 

Tokyo Disney: subtlety and nuances of Japanese culture

IMG_3493

On October 24th, 2013, while working in Seoul, South Korea as a professor, during one of the school holidays I had a chance to visit Tokyo, mostly with the intention of going to Tokyo Disneyland (YES, when I go to Tokyo I want to go to Disney, what’s your point?). This was actually my 2nd, or possibly third visit. The first time(s?) I went was back in the mid 1990’s while I was doing a summer internship with Eisai Pharmaceuticals in Tokyo. This (third?) visit in 2013 was my first chance to see the adjacent DisneySea park, which opened it’s doors in 2001. While there are things about the Tokyo Disney parks that frustrate me the Tokyo parks are among my favorites, in large part because they offer some of the best people watching opportunities. (Among the annoyances: the ATM’s in the park do NOT accept foreign bank cards — the mind boggles, especially since the food carts are cash only. For the restaurants you need a preexisting reservation, or you have to stand in line, literally — and sometimes for over an hour. There is no ‘come back at around 2:00’ with a txt messaging system if something opens up earlier, like in the states. And unlike the US parks there’s no service that allows you to spend your money at will and have all your purchases sent to the front gate for later pick up.)

The major reason the people watching is so good is that the Japanese love all things ‘Kawaii, aka, cute‘ to the point of a national obsession, and when the Japanese go to Disneyland they embrace that element of all things Disney with childlike abandon. As a result, wearable for sale items, like Disney ears, hats etc., exist in a much larger variety than in the USA, and they are pretty much ALL gender neutral. Unlike the USA where almost everything is Minnie Mouse (with the requisite bow), since men and boys are as likely to want to wear these things as women, Disney provides. So, not surprisingly, when they celebrate Halloween, they want to embrace the cute (and not the scary, like in Paris), and Disney delivers on that end as well.

That and, as the Japanese also appreciate subtlety in aesthetic (Shibui),  the holiday is a lot less, “in your face’ than it was in Paris.

IMG_3494

The above image for instance is Disney Main street during the Halloween period, compares it to the pictures of the same local in Paris that I posted and you’ll noticed a distinct difference. In fact but for the orange flowers on the lamp-post there really isn’t much in the way of Halloween happening. A little further into the park, just past main street, and you begin to see decorations,

IMG_3511.jpg

but again the decorations are no where as near in your face as in Paris ones, in fact its as though you’re being eased into Halloween. As there are bigger ones to come, behind the castle. Think of the parks this way, you enter the park through World Bazar (otherwise known as Main street USA) at 6:00 (where there was almost nothing in the way of holiday decorations), while it is possible to exit from there directly to AdventureLand, MOST people keep going straight, towards the castle, which is at the center of the clock.

3506acbd0a176289e8049933e0d87251

Once they’ve reached central park, most people will then go left to Adventureland which in Tokyo has New Orleans theme/Pirates of the Caribbean, 7:00 on the map, but it really isn’t till you hit

IMG_3522.JPG

Westernland (9:00) that you start to see decorations, and these are for the most part, up on top of building, rather than down at ground level (i.e., in your face)

IMG_0944
Note how the decorations mimic actual carved pumpkins, and are fun, rather than something out of child’s nightmare, like in they were in Paris… also older Japanese women will often use an outing to Disney as an excuse to wear their Kimono.

Even those decorations are not the garish bright orange that we saw in Paris, but a more subdued naturalistic looking pumpkin type decorations that could almost pass for real.

When you leave Westernland (10:00), heading towards where Crittercountry and Fantasyland meet — where the haunted mansion is located, the decorations get much more vibrant, but still cute, and with a lot of pumpkins that almost look real.

IMG_0943
Note all the people politely lined up in order to have a staff member take their pictures with the decorations. (In Japan this is done with the customer’s cameras, I was just there a few weeks ago, and they still don’t have the photo services with professional photographers at the ready, that you see at the Magic Kingdom.

And then of course, there are more of them around the Haunted Mansion (please forgive the poor quality of the photos), if anything, the tree of jack-o-lanterns that sat before it is probably the scarriest decoration in the whole park

IMG_0950
Forgive the poor quality of these photos, my old iphone 4s wasn’t up to the job

When you get into Fantasyland at 9:00, that is where you the colors and decorations become intense, but by this point you’ve been eased into it, so it not in any way shocking to the sensibilities, like in Paris. (If you DO go to Tokyo Disneyland I strongly suggest going on the Winnie the Pooh ride, there’s nothing like it in any of the other parks — it does NOT ride on tracks — see this video.)

IMG_3589

And then, if you enter Toontown section of the Disney park, which is designed for young children, that is when the decorations become their most extreme, but EVERYTHING in that section of the park is oversized and cartoonish, so it’s in keeping…

IMG_0945
A common thing at the park is to see girls in pairs who have gone to extreme lengths to dress alike, like these girls have… also note the little girl in the duck costume

After Toontown, Tomorrowland didn’t have much going on in the way of Halloween decorations, so that the total effect is of the most extreme decorations all being towards the back of the park (10:00 to 2:00, if viewing the map as a clock)

In addition to decorations, Tokyo Disney had some Halloween/orange themed eats (had all of them, they weren’t bad… although I remember wondering why the cream in the doughnut was orange flavored instead of pumpkin).

IMG_0939

One of the “big things” at Tokyo Disney is there are popcorn carts everywhere, but (unlike in the states where they’re pretty much either buttered or caramel, with the most distinctive thing about the carts being each has a different character spinning the wheel)

in Japan (sort of like their obsession for flavored Kit Kat bars) there’s a WIDE variety of flavors come of which change seasonally, and some of those can get a bit wacky… the curry smells better than it tastes (in my opinion), and I strongly suggest avoiding the shrimp flavored popcorn.  (And here’s a few different videos I found on YouTube of people taste testing various flavors)

That said, just like at the popcorn places in the US parks, Tokyo Disneyland sells collectible popcorn cases that vary with the themes of the rides, or major holidays like Halloween. The major difference I’ve found between the two is that the US ones seem to be intended for single use and hence fall-apart quickly — I purchased a vampire Mickey at DisneyWorld’s Halloween party and it fell apart as soon as I got it home — the Japanese popcorn cases are impressively durable; in Japan if you bring it back on subsequent visits you will get a small discount on the cost of a refill, so they are built with that in mind; after I purchased the one pictured below, I gave it to the 7-year-old daughter of the friends I was staying with, she and it was reported to me that she continued to use it for about a year afterwards as a purse, in addition to bringing it with her to Disney for popcorn refills. That is how strong these suckers are.

IMG_0938
Flavored popcorns at Tokyo DisneyLand and DisneySea, and the special Halloween case being offered

And of course there is a special Halloween influence to the parades

IMG_0941

But as I said, some of my favorite aspects of Tokyo Disney is the people watching, because just as the whole Cosplay movement began in Japan, the Japanese are far more likely ‘enthusiastically’ embrace the opportunity to show up to the parks in FULL costume (this article was posted 2015 two years after my visit —  at which point it had gotten so extreme, seriously check out the article, that in 2016 I heard that Disney had finally reeled them back in a bit) than other folks do. Back when I went in 2013, the trend was still a bit more laid back, but still impressive. Then, as I noted below the picture above, one of common trends was seeing girls coordinating their outfits, and the other is men who are unabashed in wearing cute stuff alongside the women (something you’d almost never see in the states).

IMG_0946

fullsizeoutput_3d49

IMG_3504
Two middle-aged Japanese housewives embracing the orange: standing up they were also coordinated, but in a much more subtle way than younger girls

That said, what really blew my mind was I saw a few different couples (men with their girlfriends and or wives) where the wife was dressed normally, but man was dressed in what the Japanese refer to as “Lolita Fashion” a trend that’s been going on in Japan for about as long as I can remember (so at least 30 years — I remember buying some of this back when I was in my 20’s and Japanese sizes still fit me). Think of it as a MUCH cuter version of Goth fashion.

IMG_0937
Don’t be confused, the person in the purplish dress is most definitively a male, the one in the Alice in Wonderland influenced baby-doll outfit I’m also pretty sure is a guy (look at the hands), but in this case not entirely

Like I said, the Lolita style is a very big deal in Japan, people will invest thousands of dollars in these outfits (they are definitely NOT cheap), and there are malls in trendy places like Harajuku and also Shinjuku that have whole floors of department stores devoted to the devotees of these styles. I even once spotted a Japanese girl at Epcot in Florida who showed up wearing Lolita fashion (the moment I saw the dress, she was ahead of me in line at one of the Epcot food festivals, I started chatting with her in my limited Japanese).

IMG_0935
This Japanese girl was at Epcot in 2017 with her boyfriend, she is also dressed in a Lolita Fashion; She’s wearing a Beauty and the Beast inspired outfit — note her dress’ fringe pattern
IMG_0936
Minishops in a Mall in Shinjuku that has a full floor devoted to the style

 

 

So while these styles are a thing in Japan, and some of them are highly influenced by Disney characters, such as Lewis Carol’s Alice… it’s a questionable line of are they Cosplay or fashion. As such, individuals who show up wearing it other than during Halloween may face some problems with the costume police at Tokyo Disneyland’s front gates. That said, what amazed me was not people were wearing it, but that Japanese MEN were wearing it… and wearing what was decidedly and clearly women’s fashions.

One of the things about Japanese culture is that there’s a time and a place for everything. Japan has had a long history of cross dressing, and, apparently, Disney’s Halloween has become one of the times and places where it is now acceptable for the growing trend of Japanese men with cross dressing tendencies, which the Japanese refer to as Otokonoko, to embrace their inner princess. So if you’re there during Halloween, make sure to keep an eye out.

As I mentioned before, there are currently two parks at Tokyo Disney, the Land (which is essentially Disneyland like in Los Angelus, or the The Magic Kingdom) which is a family oriented park, and DisneySea, which has a distinct nautical theme (although with touches of Epcot, as it offers a chance to “travel” to places like Venice, the Arabian Coast, Cape Cod & historic New York, Jules Verne’s Mysterious Island, a lost river delta in South America (which has the AWESOME Raiders of the Lost Ark Ride), and an area for smaller children (that you really HAVE to see, it’s awesome) aimed directly at the Little Mermaid — you get to essentially go “under the sea.” DisneySea is considered the more “adult” park, and was intentionally designed to be suitable for taking your girlfriend on a romantic date.

Here while there are Halloween decorations they are kept subtle throughout the park, when you first enter the park, there’s a venetian styled banner above the doorway that if you look very closely, says Halloween 2013… and has a bit more orange in it that usual, but that’s about it…

IMG_3656

And then when you pass the gate and enter the central lake — effectively the design replacement of garden at the center of the Magic kingdom — again more orange has been added to color pallet, but that’s about it.

IMG_3669.jpg

fullsizeoutput_3d05
This statue had a carved pumpkin hanging by a cord around his neck (??, no I don’t get it either)

When you enter American section again there are orange banners that say happy Halloween

fullsizeoutput_3d4c
Note the couple (boyfriend/girlfriend) off to the side dressed alike, this tends to be more of a Korean trend than a Japanese one, based on what I’ve seen. (So there’s a good chance those two are in fact Korean,

IMG_3694

and the decorations that were at ground level were so naturalistic that I remember thinking they might have even been using real pumpkins, trying to replicate what it would look like in the states, but I wasn’t sure. IMG_0942

And of course there were girls dressed alike, and men embracing the cute, just like across the park at Tokyo Disneyland.

IMG_0973

Besides the decorations I showed, I found very little else (in the non-European sections of DisneySea that were celebrating the holiday. For instance, while you might think this is a Halloween decoration,

IMG_3762

in fact it’s a “Día de Muertos” decoration that’s a permanent fixture in the South American section of the park.

Disney in the DisneyWorld:

In the US while there are a nice selection of Halloween decorations scattered throughout the park, MOST of them can be found near the entrance and in the main street area

IMG_1073

Other than that, really not so much… Instead Disney has used it as yet another opportunity to separate you from your money. I.e., if you want to really experience Halloween at the US parks, you’ll need to buy a special ticket (pass holders only get a tiny discount, and only on low attendance nights) to”Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party,” (which was a counter bid to Universal Studio‘s far more popular “Horror Nights/Fright Nights” events. (I think I’ve noticed a pattern, in that the discounted nights at Disney seem to be the ones that are scheduled directly against a Horror night, so that tells you something. Personally I HATED Horror Nights, but I’m 50, it’s not designed for me, even the Wikipedia page admits as much.)

IMG_6400

The special even essentially consists of three additional aspects, which even though I had a top of the line season pass with no block out dates, etc., I had to pay an extra $69 for… 1) access to trick or treating from various spots around the park (the candy was pretty run of the mill);

2) The ability to watch a special show called the Hocus Pocus Villain Spelltacular:

IMG_6409

then 3) a special parade, called Mickey’s “Boo-to-You” Halloween Parade

IMG_6449

The coolest parts I got photos of, the headless horseman, especially when he pops up in a very dark spot, like where I was sitting is very cool…

IMG_6445

And then if you’re sitting in a dark place the ghosts from the haunted mansion dance by, and they’re slightly glow in the dark

IMG_1072

And then finally, 4) what I feel is the REAL draw for hard-core Disney fans, is the ability to stand in some VERY long lines… I’m talking like well over an hour in some cases, to have you picture taken with character that are never otherwise available to have your picture taken with, which includes ALL of the dwarves at one time, some of the Disney villains:

IMG_1070

Found a YouTube video where a woman goes through all the things to do at the party, and since unlike me she wasn’t on a diet, she ate all special party only deserts they were selling (yah, you paid $69+ to get in, and you have to pay to buy these special deserts)

So that said, one of my favorite things to do is people watch, and since Halloween is one of the few times the parks allow adults to come in costume, it can get interesting.

IMG_1071
The bottom left group was really creative, they’re the emotions from the Pixar movie “Inside out”
IMG_6394
This family, the adults came dressed as the Orcs from Frozen while the children came dressed as Anna, Elsa and Kristoff (how brilliant is that?)

Sakura! Cherry blossum season in Tokyo

Bucket list item: See the Japanese cherry blossoms… in bloom in Japan….. CHECK!

While most Americans have heard this song at some point or another, celebrating the tree’s blossoms, if only while eating in Japanese resturants, they do so without appreciating the extent to which the blossoming of these trees is a central element of Japanese cultural identity. To quote this site, “the contemplation of cherry trees has long been perceived as a philosophical activity more than anything else. Based on the philosophy of mono no aware, appreciating the beauty of ephemeral things, hanami is an activity that encourages introspection.”

fullsizeoutput_3ef5
This tree was adjacent to the train station near my Airbnb

As I’ve said previously, this has been one of my bucket list items for while. I had seen them multiple times in S. Korea while living and working there, but (I explained in detail in this previous blog post) the Korean cherry blossoms look entirely different than the iconic Japanese ones. I had finally managed to see the Japanese variety in 2017 when I caught them in full bloom in D.C., but in spite of the fact that I’ve cumulatively spent maybe eight months in Japan over the years, it was never during the appropriate time. FINALLY, this year I did it!

After seeing the first tree in full bloom near my Airbnb, I called a very old friend of the family, Yasuko (her husband and my father worked together, and the first time I stayed at their home I was in my 20’s) suggested we do something, and when she asked me what I wanted to do, I told her I wanted to see the cherry blossoms. First, she took me to this street, which she was supposed to be one of the best “non-park” viewing locations and considered good for night-time viewing.

 

IMG_9985IMG_1755

I kind of felt bad for the cars who made the mistake of trying to drive down this street as it was so clogged with people enjoying the cherry blossoms

IMG_9966

This is our family friend Mrs. Yanase, who was kind enough to show me this. Note how there are growths and flowers all along the length of the tree

IMG_1754

IMG_9965.jpg

After this, Yasuko and I took the train to Rikugien Gardens, a park that she told me is normally never open at night…

IMG_0066

but for the Cherry Blossom season they have special illuminated evening showings. She was actually kind of excited because in all her years of living in Tokyo (most of her life) she had never gone to one of these special nighttime events at the park.

IMG_0077.jpg

When we arrived there was a very long line of people waiting to enter the park the snaked outside of the park and down the street (and police standing there with lit lanterns to make sure the cars saw them).

IMG_0063.jpg

IMG_0005.jpg

This isn’t a bush, but rather a tree that is ginormous with massive branches extending out that are held up by poles. The crowd of people surrounding it was at least 10 people thick, and if you look towards the bottom of the tree you’ll see people’s darkened heads, which will give you a better sense of the perspective.

IMG_1756.JPG

The above are all pictures of people taking pictures of small branches of the same humongous tree shown above

IMG_0015.jpg

This is the same tree from a different angle (same tiny heads at the bottom), as we walked through the park there were tiny traditional Japanese tea houses (which Yasuko wanted to go to but they were closing just as we got there). Instead we found a less ritzy tea house selling the same foods, but with less pomp.

IMG_1753

IMG_0044.jpg

After the park we walked to nearby train station, where there was also a of flowering trees in bloom

IMG_0068

IMG_0070

IMG_0074
I loved the way the light from the Denny’s sign made the pink blooms even pinker

Airbnb User Tips for adult renters (updated regularly)

This is a blog post I will update regularly based on changing conditions: (Last update, April 2018)

I am NOT your average Airbnb customer, I’m a woman in her 50’s on a tight budget (I can afford about $70/night on average) who lives the Airbnb lifestyle, which is a bit like the RV retirement lifestyle but without the RV…. and I’ve been doing it pretty much non stop since June of 2015. So my NEEDS and concerns are different than that of some kid in his or her 20’s, most of whom would be perfectly happy with an air-mattress on the floor if the price was cheap enough. The point of this blog post is to try and help out other people around my age who are considering using the far more affordable airbnb’s rather than relying on hotels.

Back in 2014 folks the media started talking about the Airbnb lifestyle, people who rather than renting one apartment for year at a time, rents them for weeks or months at a time. Folks did this for one of two reasons, either either: A) they were bouncing around the various neighborhoods of a new city where they now worked as they got to know the area, allowing them the opportunity to make an educated decision about where they would like to settle, or B) they were part of the new internet driven working class whose office/factory for work is a computer linked to the internet via a reliable high speed connection … and therefore can essentially be ANYWHERE in the world.

First step: Setting up your profile to include your needs expectations

No really, your first step shouldn’t be looking for places to rent, it really should be setting up your profile. And while there should be a short description of you (I list my areas of education, previous jobs, hobbies, etc… as well as the fact that while I’m very outgoing and friendly I tend to hole up in my room with my computer for hours on end)… the focus (in my own opinion), should be on what your expecting from them.

Take the time to really craft out a description of yourself and list out your expectations of any place you rent. Let’s be honest, MOST owners won’t bother to take the time to read it, but SOME will; and, if your description clearly stated your various requirements its then ON THEM if their place doesn’t meet them. (It will help you out later when dealing with airbnb corporate if there are any disputes, if you have done this.)

List what you need, and why you need it: This should include allergies, mobility issues, and or if you have diet restrictions and or medications which mean you WILL be needing kitchen access, even if you won’t be cooking…. etc. Do you expect the room to be smoke free?? This isn’t a motel, this is not restricted by the laws that obligate smoke free zones. This is someone’s home. Are you someone who lives on your computer devices (like me) and expects to be able to charge 5 items at once but doesn’t have space in your suitcase for power strips with 6 foot cords? Because believe me, some of these places won’t be set up to support that if you don’t don’t warn them, they won’t even have a spare power strip in the house (unlike hotels).

Do you prefer to work at a desk or in bed propped up by lots of pillows? (If the latter, makes sure to warn them because I’ve come across more than few who will give you one pillow and not understand the problem.)

So really think about your habits and needs, and where should the plugs/power points be relative to bed or desk? Things like that…. and communicate that.

Anyone who spends time at Professional hotels knows that they are actually pretty much set up for all possibilities in these regards, but airbnb homes are not (although they should be). In fact, to my experience, with the exception of Superhosts, most airbnb hosts when they start out are pretty clueless that the reason pretty much every hotel room on the planet now includes a mini fridge is as much for medication storage as an opportunity to sell tiny bottles of booze at obscene prices. If they ever went to a good, four star hotel room, and really bothered to pay attention to what’s in there and asked themselves why things are where they are relative to other objects in the room and replicated that in their airbnb’s… they’d all have 4 star airbnb’s. But they don’t… they’re like my old students who did “C” level work and expect me to give them an “A” grade for it, and throw tantrums when they don’t get it.

So makes sure you state your expectations clearly and give the owner (whose job it is to host you like an honored guest) the chance to meet those needs… and assume they’re clueless teenagers, because a lot of them are.

So, as an example of what I write: I’m allergic to fur, so in mine I write: “I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE cats and dogs, and have had multiple pets in the past; that said, I learned the hard way that I’m a bit allergic to them; so, if your space has decent ventilation and it is kept clean of fur and dander not a problem (PLEASE remember to vacuum under the bed). However, If my bed is where they love to hang out and sleep when no one is there, please warn me.”

Over the course of that time I’ve stayed at a handful of Airbnb’s run by folks who either did not take the JOB (and it is a job) of being an Airbnb host seriously, or suffered some “blindness” in what it means to host an older person with even the MILDEST of mobility issues, etc., ones that are understood as NORMAL to anyone my age. So, while there is definitely a market for super-affordable Airbnb rentals that are only an air mattress on the floor, I am definitively NOT their target customer. As such, I’ve learned it’s safer to explicitly state rather than assume my (reasonable) expectations, just like I used to have to do with students, and list the things that I assume owners will provide, based on the sort of stay at their homes that I will be doing.

SO, My List is VERY LONG and detailed:

RECENTLY Airbnb has added accessibility descriptions, but the reality is Airbnb has not OBLIGATED owners to make fill them in (as in we won’t post the site unless the you have made these changes in your site’s description) and as such most owners who’ve been on the airbnb for a while have NOT bothered to fill it out, or worse don’t because they don’t want the hassle of having anyone with any sort of disability in their home …. and as a result, if you do check any of them, you’re severely limiting the number of homes you’ll be shown

In my book, there are two types of stays: short-term and long-term stays:

Short term/overnight, etc:

  1. Parking: If I am road tripping OBVIOUSLY I need someplace to put the car. Some owners can be quite the little shits when it comes to this. Airbnb has “free parking on premises” as a search variable, so make sure you click it if you need it before looking at what’s available … but that said, BY THEIR OWN ADMISSION all this means is free street parking near the rental even though BY LAW this is NOT a correct interpretation of the term because on the property (which you own) does not mean on the street (which you don’t) … and some owners, in spite of this, will even consider street parking where you need to jump out of bed at 8am to move it every 2 hours until 9pm to be “free parking on premises” … when clearly it’s NOT in the mind of any person doing the renting … so be CLEAR about your needs and expectations. And if you’re driving something that’s hard to park, such as having a trailer in tow, be clear about that. And while on a short term/overnight stay I can happily live out of my suitcase if I have to, even in that case I’ll assume they have
  2. Fast reliable Wi-Fi: and in my case this is a non-negotiable. This means, a minimum of 5mbps/per user (the slowest speed necessary for normal low definition streaming and regular usage ….. while 20 mbps/user is suggested for high definition TV/films, and is of course greatly preferred, I do not expect it). But here’s the thing, a lot of owners don’t get the “PER USER” part… they’ve got 10mbps and their home has two parents, any number of kids, and then you the person renting the airbnb… and don’t understand why your frustrated that you can’t stream your favorite show in your bedroom since it’s working just fine in their living room where they’re sitting and watching Netflix — while their kids are probably in their bedrooms streaming music.I make a point of being clear with the owners of just what my internet usage is… I expect to be able to stream all my shows, but other than uploading some pictures to from my camera to the cloud, I don’t do a lot upstream traffic. Some people do, and if you need decent upstream be honest about it.
  3. Air-conditioning, and/or a fan: I am an overweight woman in her 50’s and am in menopause, which means I will SUFFER when trying to sleep at temps above 75F/23C the way a normal person would in a 90F/32C degree bedroom; and, even at 75F degrees or cooler, I need a fan on me (unless it is cooler than 67F/19C). It’s kind of ridiculous that I have to say this, but I find that have to remind them that if they have a ceiling fan/lamp combo, to please make sure the cords are long enough that a shorter person can reach them, as I’ll want to have the fan on at night, but the light off, and I’m too old and unstable to be climbing up on beds and chairs to do it. Part of the problem is age bias, YOUNG airbnb owners who can just pop up on the bed and reach up to the cords (or are tall enough to do it themselves) can’t conceive of a future where their legs no longer support that sort of activity… and can actually be really intolerant of mobility issues in the folks who rent from them. So be clear.While Airbnb is STARTING to hint to owners that they should include mobility access issues, most owners just don’t “get it” unless they themselves have “experienced it”, or if their own aged grandmother comes by and bitches at them about it.
  4. An easily accessible bathroom: or better yet en-suite if I can get it (I’m at that age where I stagger eyes half open to the bathroom multiple times a night). This is however negotiable as long as the bathroom is very easy to get to, i.e., there are no stairs or steps, or things I could trip over on the way there, and the distance is short enough that I don’t have to fully wake up to do it. Let’s face it when you’re in your 50’s sleeping is hard enough to do as it is, and if I have to do any of that to get to the bathroom in the middle of the night I’ll have a hell of a time getting back to sleep.
  5. A WORKING, 3 pronged/or grounded electrical outlet located directly adjacent to the bed: You’d think this was a no brainer but it’s not. I work in bed propped up by multiple pillows, with one shoved under my neck to support my head, and I DO NOT want to have cords blocking my ability to move around safely. (I travel by car, with my own power-strips of varying lengths, if necessary). But have on occasion been boggled that I had to explain to an owner that old-fashioned two pronged/non-grounded outlet is really only acceptable (in this day and age) for lamps, and is absolutely NOT OK for sensitive electronics like computers…. which is why you don’t see laptop computers being sold with two prong plugs… USB chargers are sold as two prong, because the technology itself alters the current running through it, but at this point, computer’s won’t charge off of a USB cord. I’ll tell you right now, owners who won’t bother to put in an extensions cord or a power strip usually turn out to provide an inferior product/stay.
  6. Drapes or shades on the bedroom windows: for privacy and to block the sun, (again, you’d think this is a no brainer, but based on my own experience, it is not). Firstly, I do NOT raise with the sun … and more importantly, I want my privacy. I want to be able to walk around my room naked if I need to, and not worry about being seen. In Miami I once stayed in a room that had hip height to ceiling windows on two sides of the room, with neighboring homes all around… that ALL had unobstructed views right into my bedroom … and the 20 something male owner didn’t understand why I might take issue with this. (His bathroom was the same, THE BATHROOM!!!)
  7. A comfortable bed: THIS is a hard one, because different people have different definitions of this. So for the purposes of this, let’s say that it is an actual mattress a normal distance off the floor (an actual bed, not an air mattress)… and there are no springs poking me in the back. One home I stayed at belonged to a retired woman who admitted that the mattress I was lying on was the one her daughter (now a mom with kids of her own) had slept on growing up … and hence the mattress was about 40 years old (I still shudder at the thought). It had coils poking me in the back that she had tried to obscure with one of those memory foam tops. IF you go to Asia be cognizant of the fact that the traditional culture there is to sleep on a futon on the floor (which is actually way better for your back… the soft beds you enjoy are why westerners suffer from so many back problems in later years), so that even their ‘western style beds’ in five star hotels will come with super firm mattresses. That and a lot of places still will only offer futons that are folded up and put away during the day time. My reality now, with my hips and knee problems is that I can’t easily get up from the floor on my own, so sleeping that way really isn’t a possibility for me anymore. (Maybe if I’d spent a lifetime having to do that on a daily basis I’d still have that flexibility, but it is what it is.)
  8. Stairs: I’m at that age where I am starting to have some difficulty with stairs, so I ask them to please warn me if the room I’m considering requires more than one flight. That said, as I have a hard time just getting myself up a flight of stairs, I need help lugging something like a suitcase the same, so I ask for it. For short stays, knowing this, I have a backpack type thing I put what I’ll need for overnight into, and I leave my suitcases in the car.

    Long-term (more than a few days):
  9. If I ask to stay between three weeks and two months (depending), then that town is my destination, and I expect to be able to unpack and ‘get comfortable.’ So, if the Airbnb offerings are REALLY NOT set up for that, or amenable to having an extended-stay guest comfortably ensconced for MORE than a few nights, I tell the hosts to PLEASE be honest and tell me about it. (My experience is they get gleeful about the possibility of earning a lot of cash with little effort, and forget that REALLY that room is not set up for it, and the result will be a very UNHAPPY customer and a lousy review.) I will assume a long term rental includes EVERYTHING I mentioned for sort term stays, PLUS:
  10. A closet and or clothes rack: for hanging clothes – I’m a woman, I have nice clothes, like dresses, that require hanging, airing out, etc. The way airbnb works “hangers” like short term parking are considered an amenity that owners may or may not include. I travel around with a box of 50 velvet lined hangers in my car (you can get them at Costco for like $10)… so I don’t need nor necessarily want their cheap ass wire hangers left over from the dry cleaners … but I DO need some place to hang my stuff. You’d be surprised the number of times I’ve been put into rooms that did not have anywhere to do that.
  11. Empty shelving for clothes, at least 2 or 3 drawers worth, so I can unpack my suitcase; with empty being the operative word. (Again, you’d think this would be obvious, but apparently it is not)
  12. Free Parking, that is NOT on the street:  While street parking is ok if I’m only staying for a few days, most cities, towns and villages have stickers they sell to locals that need to be there if they’re going to be using street parking for an extended period. My car is easily identifiable due to ample bumper stickers, and police have ticketed me for not having a local tags after a few days of parking in the same location; if it’s in a driveway or in a garage then it’s on private property and not under their purview. Airbnb owners tend to completely forget this little detail, and when you get ticketed, they’re NOT going to pay the fine for you.
  13. Kitchen access:
    A reasonably sized microwave: that I can actually cook my single person meals in (I prefer nuking to most other formats). And by reasonably sized I don’t mean one of those tiny ones, I mean one I can put a single serving pyrex into, or a full sized dinner plate.
    A refrigerator with freezer space: This does NOT mean a mini fridge in the bedroom. I have a medically restricted diet and live mostly off of frozen ingredients which don’t come in tiny bags. So I need at least one shelf each of fridge and freezer space,
    A sink for washing food and dishes in, I once rented what had been advertised as an “entire apartment” which was a bedroom over a garage that had a mini-fridge and a microwave but where the owner freaked out when she realized I was having to wash my dishes in the bathroom’s sink… and “NO you can’t do that!!! It’ll clog the pipes!” … well lady, where do you WANT me to wash these? The toilet?
    and HOPEFULLY a toaster or better yet, a toaster oven. I can microwave toast, but it’s kind of nasty.While I love access to freshly brewed coffee in the morning, if it’s something the owner normally provides, if not, I can made due. Some grocery stores sell cold coffee in their fridges, and if not I can drink stuff I bought the night before at a cafe in a pinch…
  14. A washer/Dryer: this would be a washer IN the house or garage that I have access to, and detergent; or if an apartment… not coin operated ones located down in the basement or some such. In some places, like Australia, the sun is SO hot and the air so dry that even wet jeans will dry on the line in a two or three hours, so dryers are only ever found in high rise apartments, and sometime not even there. So I’m flexible about the dryer part.
  15. Help on stairs with suitcases: if I am staying more than one night I WILL need help from someone stronger and steadier on their feet than myself (I’m also at the age where I’m starting to have balance issues) in getting my bags up and down stairs.
  16. Privacy while in the bathroom: I never thought I would have to say this, but experience is a harsh teacher: A bathroom for showering that offers privacy from the neighbors. Recently, in a male owned home I was assigned a bathroom where my nudity was only hidden from the waist down, and when I asked the host that he do something to fix it (I had actually upon arriving intended to ask Airbnb to move me, but he begged me not to, promising to make changes), he answered, “how is increasing the safety of female guests going to increase my profit margin?” Seriously, not making this up.

 

Booking an Airbnb:

  1. Use the airbnb search engine: It helps you to find homes with the amenities you want on the dates you want. Check and double check because sometimes the settings don’t take the first time out (the web site isn’t perfect and is always undergoing tweaks that create new bugs). Really think about what you NEED, and makes sure to check those items… if you don’t check air conditioning you can’t complain or rebook because a heat wave came into town. For me, I always check: Private room or entire apartment, maximum price per night, the number of bedrooms and beds I need, washer (and or dryer depending on the climate), Wifi, Kitchen, aircon in summer and heat if I’m going there in winter (actually in high rises I’ll also look for aircon because the higher you go the hotter the apartments get to the point where you can have all the windows open even in the dead of winter and still be too warm)
  2. NEVER ASSUME, STUDY the pictures: unless they’re Superhosts, a lot of the owners are clueless and would never live in the room they’re expecting you to pay them money to live in. REALLY look at the picture, I mean REALLY… and if there are no pictures or insufficient ones, don’t book there. How big is your bedroom? Does it have windows? Are there shades on the windows? Is there a side table? A night lamp? A closet or someplace to put your clothes? And if the room doesn’t have what you’d assume it should have … ASK BEFORE BOOKING!!!(I’ve had owners realize the deficit and promise to rectify it before my arrival. Once that’s in the emails, if they have NOT done it by the time you arrive, you have cause for Airbnb to refund you, and evidence of their contractually agreeing to do it. Airbnb considers any communication in the emails as part of the contract. )
  3. READ ALL THE REVIEWS!!!! IF an owner is pretty sure the review that’s going to be left to them is going to be a bad one, there’s a trick to pushing it down the queue… if they do NOT leave the guest a review, the bad review won’t show up for 15 days (which is an improvement, as it used to be the bad review didn’t show up at all), and if they know two or three guests are set to rent in that time, that ensures that the review might not show up till the next page (which you might not bother going to). So read all the reviews and believe what you read.That said, read BETWEEN THE LINES!!! A lot of Guests are afraid of leaving bad reviews for fear that other hosts won’t want to rent to them if they do… so sometimes they just kind of hint about the place being bad. So be wary and exaggerate the importance of any tiny complaint. This is especially true if it’s a room in a house, because most people are unwilling to leave bad reviews if they have met the owner. All of this tends to sort of “break” the whole value of the review system.
  4. When booking well in advance: NEVER book an airbnb that has a strict cancellation policy, unless its for within the next few days! A lot of folks never bother to pay attention to this but airbnb has THREE booking policies: Flexible, Moderate and Strict. The first two are utterly reasonable and designate how far in advance you can cancel with a refund (24 hour or five days, respectively). The third one, STRICT, which seems to be the setting about half of the owners opt for is in my opinion NUTS. I recently read an article, and MOST experienced customers will avoid those bookings, till the last minute (as in within the next week),— Airbnb is currently using a carrot method to try to wean owners off of using strict, as the increasing prevelence of it is making former customers reconsider hotels. (An owner informed me that the company has informed them that it will now take a larger percentage of what the customer has paid if the owners set the refund policy to strict.)

    With a strict booking you will NOT get your money back, PERIOD (great for them, shit for you). IF you call Airbnb and cry long and hard enough, and can come up with something justifiable, like you Dad just died, they MIGHT let you out of the booking with a refund, but it’s not a sure thing. In my mind there’s really no justification for strict to exist, especially if the bookings are made well in advance. I for instance book a good three months in advance… now I could understand it if Flexible changed to Strict with two weeks left to go, or some such… but strict bookings three months out is crazy.

    — Talking to Airbnb I just learned something important… IF in the emails with the owner, (BEFORE YOU BOOK!!!) you can get them to agree to something OTHER than strict… so for instance, if you might say in your emails with the owner, ‘as I’m booking this 6 months out, would you agree to give me a full refund if I cancel at least three weeks out?’ And they agree to it explicitly (make sure they ACTUALLY agree, not say they might, or it’s possible… what you need is a solid YES) and THEN you book … IN THAT CASE, when you need to do the cancellation, CALL airbnb, DO NOT use the web site to cancel, and ask the staffer to read the emails from before the booking happened, because there’s an agreement in there for a full refund under these conditions. Airbnb will consider that part of a pre-existing modification to the contract, and give you the refund, the owner won’t be able to go back on that agreement.

    —That said, BE AWARE!!! Airbnb has a new policy, IF you reserve the room for 27 days or longer the booking is automatically strict. They are doing this now as a way to appease local ordinances that are trying to get rid of airbnb’s all together, because of the slum lords who are changing their long term rental units to airbnb’s in order to earn more money from them… thereby creating local affordable housing shortages. This change, as much as I personally don’t like it because I always booked one month at a time, makes sense to me.

  5. Unless they’re Superhosts with 50+ 5-star reviews, contact the host: Do this BEFORE putting in a booking request, and wait for them to respond. Talk to them, ask them a few questions. Do this EVEN with folks who are set up for auto booking set up —  unless you’re road tripping, they have “self check in” as an option (they don’t need to be there for you to get in) and you’re desperate to find a place to sleep that night. My experience is if they don’t get back to you within two hours, your most likely dealing with a host who won’t be responsive to your needs, and worse you might just find yourself hanging around for a few hours waiting to be let into the rental. THAT and once you put in a booking request, you’re kind of married to that rental until the owner gets around to accepting or rejecting… and they have 24 hours to do it.
  6. Leave an honest review! The review system only works if you’re honest.

 

When things go wrong:
Let’s face it, life happens. Both for you and the people hosting you. One of the things to remember about Airbnb is that it is NOT a hotel… most of these people aren’t organized enough to have back up staff… and life happens.

So, the main thing to remember is, CALL AIRBNB!!!!

No seriously. I strongly suggest that your first move should always be to call them rather than deal with problems via their website. For the most part their customer support people are very good, and very helpful… and when they’re not hang up and try for a different one.

This includes: IF YOU NEED to cancel because of a REAL reason (and ‘we decided to stay with friends, or a hotel’ … isn’t a real reason), and can CONVINCE them that it’s a real reason, they will try to work with you and might even under certain circumstances arrange a full reimbursement including fees. What they’ll do will depend on who you talk to and how much empathy you can build with the person on the other side of the phone and the legitimacy of your issue.

— That said, just recently (Feb 2018) I’ve noticed that instead of getting routed to a stay at home mom working from home (with the occasional sound of kids in the background), Airbnb has switched to call centers staffed by guys. Ever since this happened, customer service has DROPPED like a bomb… so be prepared.

Don’t cancel unless you’ve GOT a REAL reason. For myself I’ve in about three years only ever cancelled twice. The first time it was when I had decided to completely change my travel plans and go to Australia instead of stay another month in Orlando … and that time it was all on me, so I lost service fee but was reimbursed the rent and tax. In the second case it was a rental I had made over a month previous that wasn’t due to happen for yet another month going forward (I like to book a good three months in advance when I can). When I had booked, the male host was new to Airbnb and only had one or two reviews… it being a month later, and just for shits and giggles I decided to see what folks had written in the time since… and was utterly freaked out of my head by what one woman had written about her stay. I immediately called Airbnb, told them that as a single woman traveling alone I would feel UNSAFE staying at the home of this man (because of what this other woman had written), and told them I had already decided on a DIFFERENT Airbnb that I wanted to be moved too…  the woman on the line read the review, completely agreed with me that this was NOT OK behavior on the part of the host …. she reimbursed my full price including fees (and promised to send a sharply worded letter to the unsafe host) and I re-booked to the new location.

Remember what I said about leaving honest reviews? You have an obligation to the people booking after you to warn them about bad shit…

But there’s a second case, sometimes a host will cancel on you, and my advice is the same. Just the other day I met some strangers at a restaurant (they were at the next table) and we got to talking. They told me how on their very first airbnb attempt, the host, “some young guy” who was subletting his apartment out while he was going to travel, had decided he wasn’t feeling up to it and canceled on them at 5am on the same day they were supposed to check in.

I asked them, “did you call airbnb” … and of course, no they had not… they just put their tail between their legs and decided to never use the service again. I explained to them how when my bookings had fallen through at the last minute, Airbnb has put me up in reasonably priced hotels (I paid and sent them the bill and they reimbursed me) when a host left me hanging like that, and while in my case it was just an over night stay, I would assume they’d do it until I was able to secure a different airbnb booking in that location… or one nearby…. while stuff like this is pretty rare, it happens.

 

 

Here’s a list of other sites I found that discuss some of these issues:

https://www.driveontheleft.com/7-airbnb-tips-first-time-users/

https://petergreenberg.com/2015/02/23/airbnb-tips-and-tricks-for-first-timers/

http://www.dreamystays.com/airbnb-tips/

https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/travel/a-beginners-guide-for-airbnb-users/2016/11/28/e086cb84-aaa6-11e6-977a-1030f822fc35_story.html?utm_term=.02545021794e

On a racetrack in Melbourne, Australia

We’re not sure how this happened but the cool factor DEMANDS that I blog about it for posterity…. Somehow… and we’re not sure how this happened… we accidentally — possibly were directed there as a detour … but oh my lord… we’re driving on a formula 1 race course.

IMG_8413.jpg

Apparently there’s a Formula 1 racing track just south of central Melbourne in a place called Albert Park, and in our drive south to see the penguins we got diverted away from some construction on to it. It’s one of the few circuits that is on public roads, and when it’s not being used for a race is publicly accessible…

IMG_0714.JPG

But admit it… this is COOL! (although granted we were driving it at much slower speeds)

IMG_8416

 

Ballarat’s loud fence: Civil protest against the church in Australia

I’m currently spending about two weeks in the town of Ballarat, about an hour south of Melbourne, Australia by train. Ballarat is currently known for two things, 1) once upon a time it was Australia’s Sutter’s Mill — a gold rush that utterly changed the nature of Australian settlement, and 2) more recently it has become ground zero for the Australia’s version of the Catholic Church’s sex abuse scandal. To quote an article by Australia’s ABC news network: “Catastrophic failure’ of Catholic Church leadership in Ballarat caused ‘irreparable suffering’: royal commission

IMG_0592

My friend who lives in Ballarat had been regularly posting ALL the updates about the child sex abuse scandals there to her facebook account, so I was well aware of the issue before I arrived. And then December 17, while I was beginning to plan my trip to Australia to meet up with my traveling buddy, he sent me a text: “Ballarat doesn’t make national news very often. Kinda sad reason for it today,” which included this linked article:

After I arrived in Ballarat, ever time my friend (who I was staying with) and I passed a Catholic Church, convent, or convalescent home for retired priests and nuns, she would repeatedly tell me about how the victims of the abuse, and how the families have been kind of playing a game of wack-a-mole with the church (one that the media has dubbed “Loud Fence”). The families and victims have been repeatedly tying ribbons to all of the wrought iron fences surrounded churches and church properties as a silent protest, and the church has been repeatedly taking them down.

IMG_0593

As part of explaining the scandal to me, my Ballarat friend started to explain to me about Cardinal Pell who covered up sexual abuse of children by priests in Ballarat and in “punishment” had been elevated to one of the highest offices of the Vatican, namely as its Prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy, and was now deemed by the Vatican as being “too sick” to come home to Ballarat to face charges. (Pell should not be confused with Boston’s Cardinal Bernard Law who pulled the same crap, and as his punishment was also moved to Rome and given multiple high prestige jobs.) She then played for me this song by a popular Australian Comedian that became a major hit, to the point that when she walked around she was constantly hearing people play it –its a VERY funny song, so please listen to it:
Apparently, the Vatican believed that if they forced the hearings to be moved to Rome, because Pell was “too sick” to be flown to Australia, this would avoid the disruptive and media magnet protests of the victims. When the song became a hit, Minchin — the artist — donated all the proceeds to pay for victims to be flown to Italy to be there for the trial…

One day, on the way back from an afternoon out — where we once again passed first by the retirement home for priests and nuns, where she again told me about how they’d taken down the ribbons that victims of abuse and their families had tied to the iron gates … we passed the local cathedral…  where I noticed that the back was clean of ribbons…

IMG_7344

the side gate however had them… and then as we were about to the church entirely we noticed a woman with a huge basket busily tying ribbons to the gate.

IMG_7339

We quickly parked and I went to take pictures. Turns out a loved one had been a victim and committed suicide…. and in the category of there are none so blind as those who will not see… at one point a parishioner came up to the woman who was doing it asking her for what reason was she was putting ribbons up…  There are none so blind as those who will not see… 

Happily…  Pell ultimately DID come home to face charges, and the case is currently making it’s slow path through the Australian courts

I fell down and went boom: my experience with the Australian health care system

Well yesterday did NOT go as planned…

MVIMG_20180126_171153

I just spent a good six hours in the emergency room and my travel plans for the next month or so may be royally screwed up (or at the very least some rescheduling may be required).

So, yesterday in Australia was a national holiday called “Australia Day,” which commemorated the landing of the first boatload of convicts on the shores of what is now Sydney; it is Australia’s equivalent of American’s 4th of July & Columbus Day combined, only it would be like our celebrating the landing at Jamestown, which we don’t do.

My friend that I’m currently traveling with is a first generation Australian, and he wanted to start the day attending an event in support of the Aboriginals. which began with a rally, followed by a march, which ended at a park across the street from some government building (where families with grievances presented them to the powers that be). In the park there were actives, performances, political speeches, and myriad of booths selling or advocating things that would be of interest to the folks who participated in the rally and march.

It was a very hot day, we had gotten up unusually, and in-spite of wearing a hat, and having done a fairly decent job of staying hydrated, I was tired. After, as we were walking around the park, we stopped at this one booth that was selling T-shirts with pro-aboriginal/political “stuff” on them, and at one point I took a step backwards; too late I realized I had just unwittingly stepped backwards off of a lawn and over a curb to a slightly sunken street … backwards… so that right away I was put off balance; and THEN … just to put a cherry on an already bad situation, I spotted the baby carriage that had hooked itself under RIGHT under my foot JUST as I had stepped back to ensure that I would have NO chance to catch myself. My friend described it as a slow motion “arse over tits” moment; he saw what was about to happen but couldn’t stop it…

27990252_10212881308521896_269148247_o (1)
About three weeks later my friend spotted this safety advertisement and said, “I’m afraid this poster gives me flashbacks to your accident a couple of weeks ago. The moment when you were in pretty much this position was frozen into my memory. And I felt as helpless as the guy on the escalator.”, it’s so perfect that I’m adding it to this post.

Apparently he was not alone in this, he said that a bunch of people were like, “oh shit”… while my body was airborne, and before my head hit the ground/pavement with an incredible THUNK (before my body had finished the trip — see above).

Don’t be horrified for the baby, it was fine; the pram was of the sort where the wheels jet out in front of the carriage, so tipped over them without upsetting the baby… it wasn’t hurt. In fact I have been calling then incident a “hit and run by a baby carriage” because the mother didn’t stick around more than the amount of time it took her to make sure her baby was fine. According to my friend she stayed around only for a few minutes after that and then she took off … probably afraid of being blamed.

That said… I lay there for all of a moment in shock, and then began to cry out and curled into the fetal position; my head began to throb and I checked the back of my head for blood (there was a HUGE lump from a acute subdural hematoma, but the skin had not broken, so no blood gushing out of me… but as soon as I turned my head a little to get access to the lump the world began to spin sickeningly. My benign positional vertigo, which had for the most part left me alone these past two year was back with a WILL. Before I was aware of much, a woman was by my side proclaiming herself to be a professional nurse and folks were yelling for help; and not too long after that the emergency staff for the event joined her, took over, checked me, declared no blood, and that they were happy that I hadn’t passed out. (Turns out I’d fallen only a few steps away from their tent, and they’d just been complaining about how bored they were because no one had needed them).

The medical personnel in the course of checking my condition asked me to open my mouth and close it… and right away there was a massive CLICK sound; the force of the impact had essentially “sprained” the tendons that hold the jaw to the rest of the head, and my jaw was dislocating when I opened it. Not good!  Then they asked me a series of questions about my preexisting conditions which I rattled off as best I could (I was having a bit of trouble answering them)…  then after a bit I remembered to tell them that I have a history of herniated disks in my neck which I have had extensive physical therapy for (in my car I even carry around a Saunders Cervical HomeTrac Traction Device, just in case). As such, they weren’t taking any chances, and put me in a head brace and then told me to straighten my legs and not move.

[My friend, who (and I did not know this before the trip) has been an active member of the New South Wales State Emergency Service (NSW SES) ever since he was in high school (and continues to be, checking in with them whenever he’s in the country) … was absolutely great! He held my hand to sooth me when he could and knew when to stay out of the professionals’ way when he couldn’t (all of which makes him doubly useful as a travel companion). That said, at a certain point he began to feel useless and a bit helpless … but remembering how I like to document everything, he started taking pictures to show me later. This made me very happy.]

So… from my perspective the next thing I knew was they were crossing my arms and rolling me on my side in order to put something hard under me (my world began to spin sickeningly) … and then lifted me on to some sort of conveyance, at which point they moved me, telling folks to get out of the way.

IMG_0569.JPG

To quote my friend, I got the fancy police escort through the event to where the ambulance was parked, at which point they transferred me off the jeep, and then essentially tipped me off of the hard plastic orange stretcher and onto the ambulance’s white wheeled one. If you look closely at my face you’ll see I a was NOT enjoying myself… the whole world was spinning sickeningly and at various speeds depending on if they had just tipped me or not, not to mention that my head hurt.

IMG_0570

IMG_20180126_150801

Then they took me to the hospital for a CT scan again tipping me to transfer me between beds… It was NOT a happy time. (Having my friend there with me the whole time, holding my hands and making sure none of my stuff got lost in the fray — he held on to my hat, my cell phone, etc., was all a huge help and a major stress reducer.) … Once they’d finished testing me the good news was no visible brain bleeds and they released me … the bad news was that my positional vertigo was back with a will… really horrible spinning that actually had me dry barfing into a bag just from being repositioned from reclining to sitting (again my friend seeing my distress grabbed me and held me till the spinning stopped, which was a mercy)… They had kept me for 6 hours in a neck restraint; I was not even allowed to bend my knees to try to get comfortable, and let me just say that peeing while laying down is a bitch.

Once we finally home, in order to keep me in a elevated position as I slept, my friend (on my instruction) put a couch cushion on the bed, and I used his travel pillow to support my head … putting the pillows that would normally be under my head under my knees. I know from pervious experience that I’ll be needing to sleep like this for the next few days (it keeps the head steady, because the spinning that would happen as the head normally moves around during sleep could result in my barfing while still asleep — VERY Dangerous — and even if you don’t barf it keeps you from sleep well, which slows down the healing.

As of today the dizzy was so bad I can barely walk… so as to my trip, we’ll see what happens… but we may need to completely redo our plans if my brain doesn’t adjust to the new normal quickly enough ….

That said, the ER visitbecause I’m not an Australian citizen and do not qualify for their national insurance policy, has so far only cost me $138 AU (112.07 US) out of pocket (Jaw drop… ) for having seen the doctor, and while they haven’t charged my card yet, they said because of the CT scan and two other tests, there would be 3 more charges of that amount… so $552 AUD total (or … $432.23 USD!!!)

Seriously, this is the information they handed me about the fees I would have to pay:

From the Hospital’s Medicare ineligible patient fees list (Basically everyone from an overseas country that does not have socialized medicine and a reciprocal agreement with Australia):

Everyone pays a consultation fee of $138.00 AUD  (or 108.06 USD!!!)

Then, for tests:
Pathology test, $138AUD
ECG $138AUD
X-ray $138AUD
etc., (I was assured my CT was the same amount)
Inpatient accommodation for one day (had I needed it would have been): $2,214 AUD
ICU accommodation for one day: $5,616 AUD

Now, let’s keep in mind that in the USA the average cost of an ER visit is about $1,233 USD ($1,574.41 AUD)
… that’s JUST the visit, and maybe a blood test or something…
Then you have to add the AVERAGE cost of a C.T. scan, which is around another $1,200… so about $2,500 for my visit if I’m lucky …. and while based on Obamacare my insurance would have had to pay for it, because of the size of my deductible… which is a whopping 7K — I’d still be paying out of packet … so… other than that amount being applied to my maximum out of pocket, which is also 7k (seriously)… if I were healthy the rest of the year my insurance would essentially pay nothing.

The big unanswered question is how much the the ambulance will cost me. According to my friends THAT is the really expensive charge in Australia, but according to the hospital staffer, he thought it might be only another $200 over that because of how close we were to the hospital, and the fact that I fell down at an insured event (they would according to him pay the lions share of the charge).

but those bills to my card have yet to process — but if what they said holds true my out of pocket in the US WITH insurance covering parts would still run me a heck of a lot more than this will have … and if it that’s the case I’m not even going to bother dealing with the international travel insurance for reimbursement … going to save it for when I need something a hell of beans more expensive.

 

Invasion day/ Australia day: A Rally in support of the Aboriginal population

 

26168255_585319435144528_5797177957101119331_n
The black above, red beneath with a yellow sun in the middle is the flag of the Aborigianl

While the PLAN had been to spend the whole day attending a series of events that were scattered around the city through to the massive fireworks display at night, the only thing we managed to attend was a rally in support of the Australian Aboriginals (because I fell down and went boom). However, while at the march I learned that, their presence on the land, for a myriad of reasons, is STILL not legally recognized, either NOW or historically, because of a legal declaration made by the British 200 years ago that the Australian continent was terra nullius (i.e., empty of humans). The mind boggles, really it does.

On top of that, a major issue that apparently hadn’t really BEEN until just this year, was the fact that Australia day, which celebrates the landing of the first boatload of western settlers is also, from the Aboriginal point of view the day that marks the west’s invasion of their historical lands (kind of like Columbus day and the 4th of July rolled into one).

IMG_6839

Anyway, my friend that I’m traveling with is fairly solidly left wing in his politics, and told me that while I didn’t have to come with if I didn’t want to, this is the event he would be attending first thing in the morning (as in we had wake up way earlier than I’m used to in order to be there on time, which may have been part of why I tripped), but since I didn’t know much about Aboriginals, in spite of my background in Native Americans, I decided I should go with him. AFTER we were going to go do all the more sort of normal celebrate the day things.

The following is the details about the rally from their facebook page:

“Invasion Day 2018 rally:
The war on Aboriginal people continues… Sovereignty and Justice Now! This rally will mark 230 years since British military forces invaded Gadigal land and declared British rule over this continent, along with Aotearoa and other Pacific Islands. While colonial regime continues to hold a day of celebration, we resist the ongoing war against Aboriginal people. From the brutalisation of black youth in detention, the murder of men and women in custody, the theft of children from families, the destruction of Aboriginal lands to feed corporate profits, the apartheid NT Intervention, the forced removal of communities,First Nations on this continent are under heavy assault from a new wave of dispossession. But the fightback is also growing and urgently needs your support. This rally has been initiated by Fighting In Resistance Equally (FIRE), a coalition that organised last years impactful and successful “Invasion Day 2017 rally – no pride in genocide!”
Also the last two successful marches on human rights day, December 10 last year and this year.

FIRE believes that standing against the colonial system and the racist mindset that was brought here in 1788 is crucial to all struggles against oppression and exploitation.”

IMG_6837

 

So yesterday, before I hit the floor and went boom, at the march/protest in support of Aboriginals … I had questions.

Firstly I must admit that my eyebrows went up when we first arrived to see what was clearly socialist types coopting what was supposed to be a pro aboriginal thing with their own stuff… HATE when that happens in the US when whites try to co-opt Native American protests… Or the way I learned that moveon.org, after I signed their initial petition about how the Feds should “move on” from being obsessed with Clinton’s sex life, felt that as I had signed ONE thing they believed in that give them the right to put my electronic signature on EVERY petition they were coming up with … so that now I just won’t sign any of those things anymore and at one point sent MoveOn an angry cease and desist email.

IMG_6841

And then I was SERIOUSLY put off by the fact that they put up a Palestinian guy to speak who was making false comparisons (if you support the Aboriginals you must support the Palestinians) and blaming the Israelis for atrocities that WERE done to the Palestinians, no doubt … ONLY it was by their Jordanians and Syrians “brothers” rather than the Israelis who had done them, but rewriting that history to put it all on Israel’s back… and he even had the audacity to claim we’d done child abductions, when the PLO had ACTUALLY been abducting Christian Lebanese children and turning them into child warriors before the Lebanese war …. I think he thinks that when Israel offers free health care and university degrees and such, we’re abducting their kids… and watching all the young hipsters nodding their heads with how right he was… set me off no end…

Basically (and modern genetic testing techniques back me up on this) we were arguably there before the Palestinians — although more than a few Palestinians would be shocked to learn, and the genetic testing also backs this up, their ancestors had been Jews and were forcibly converted to Islam generations ago at the point of a sword — and we were driven off our land by waves of invaders, and from my perspective Palestinians are a bit like… well some time in an alternative reality future, white people — many of whom are actually have Aboriginal ancestry they have forgotten about — being pissed off because Aboriginals who had escaped the genocide in Australia, got rich, came home and bought up all of Sydney and then declared an Aboriginal state, saying the white people could continue to live there but they would have to adhere to aboriginal law. It in fact would make a pretty good alternative reality book…

Add to that the fact that I was tired, and it was really hot, and I was NOT in a happy mode towards the start of that day…

So I immediately had some doubts about pretty much anything I heard after that… There was a chant, “always was, always will be aboriginal land” which I couldn’t quite make sense of. If it were true, does that mean all the young middle class hipsters who were chanting it were willing to contact some suffering Aboriginal families and put their money where their mouth was? “Hey, I’ve been chanting this, I own a couple of properties around Sydney I inherited from my family…. I’ve decided my family stole it from you guys so HERE, take my property I’m sailing back to the UK?” Don’t think so… so WHAT in fact did the chant mean?

My friend who I travel with was trying to explain it to me, but then a complete stranger who was walking near us, was this nice guy called Luke who offered some very coherent explanations, and for the rest of the march he became my teacher, explaining in a lot of detail stuff I had not known.

With regards to the chant, NO, Luke agreed I was right, none of these guys were likely to hand over their homes, but it was more of a constitutional issue. Until quite recently there hadn’t even been any discussion that the Australian constitution should even recognize Aboriginals as having been there first (which in this day and age is kind of head scratcher, and completely inconsistent with how the rest of the world views Australians), and the constitution here still doesn’t although discussions have commenced. (I did note later to my friend that the ONLY reason the US constitution is any different, in case you didn’t know we have always legally recognized the tribes as “dependent sovereigns” even if we didn’t stand by our words, is because at the time of the founding we were at war with the French and NEEDED the tribes on our side in that war.) But there’s apparently push back from the sort of Australians who would have voted for Trump (the sorts who were wearing Australians flags yesterday, instead of showing up at pro aboriginal protests), who like in the US don’t tend to be the folks living in cities — although some of them do (and it’s pretty easy to spot them on Australia day). To paraphrase his friend Sonja, who we met up with at the event, there are 3 sorts of Australians… the all white and claim their ancestory to early settlers “we’re Australians! This is OUR land” crowd… then there’s the urban yes we’re Australians but we feel really bad about what was done to the Aboriginals crowd, and thirdly the more recent recent immigrants and or refugees or first generations folks who are of the “we’re just happy to be here” crowd…. but then we agreed there’s a 4th group, the “who gives a fuck about politics this is just a day off work” crowd. And I learned there’s a Northern territory that isn’t actually under the same laws as the rest of the country (from a legal viewpoint a bit like Louisiana which has a completely different legal system from the rest of the USA, or Canadian territories which aren’t actually states) and in these Northern territories some pretty gruesome stuff is still happening, kids still being separated from parents without due process, etc — which I had not ever heard about before.

So I learned a lot. It was good… and after that we attended a thing in a park where aboriginal dance groups and singers performed, and various aboriginal artists exhibited their works

IMG_6850

After, I found these articles about the march in Sydney and some others around the country… was kind of hoping I’d spot me of my friend in the march, but so far no luck.

https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2018/jan/25/invasion-day-rally-where-protests-will-be-held-across-australia

http://www.news.com.au/national/nsw-act/hundreds-gather-for-invasion-day-protest-march-in-sydney/news-story/fb0f514ff0088107a2b6b0b307d6bb1a

http://www.news.com.au/national/hope-australia-burns-to-the-ground-tens-of-thousands-protest-across-the-country/news-story/558c5aabea78c258cdf9c155259497c4

http://www.smh.com.au/nsw/invasion-day-rally-in-sydney-draws-thousands-of-protesters-20180126-h0orw4.html

IMG_6852

Dapper Day at the Magic Kingdom

It’s Nov 17th, 2017 (well, 2am in the morning on the 18th) and today Dapper Day held one of its multiyear events at the Magic Kingdom in Florida, i.e., people watching extraordinaire — which is a good thing because the park was so ridiculously full that I could forget about doing anything else (the thanksgiving schools vacation period has started).

IMG_4509

While the Dapper organization co-ordinates with Disney, and works hard to stay on their good side, and is best known for their regular Disney outings, the Dapper organization isn’t actually part of Disney, nor is it promoted by them. However, since the events celebrate fashion, and are not a form of Cosplay (and their website STRONGLY discourages anyone from showing up in any sort of full costume), as long as none of the attendees to their events show up in anything that could be considered “a costume” they are not, technically, affected by the Disney rules against costumes.

IMG_1111IMG_4473

Dapper Days currently happen in both of the U.S. Parks, and the Paris park, and according to their website, “All sophisticated attire is encouraged from vintage-inspired classics to chic, contemporary looks. Active and retired military are encouraged to wear their dress blues or service uniforms if they like.”

IMG_1112IMG_4503IMG_1113IMG_4502

In honor of dapper day, I got new ears… when I got it home I snipped away the black veil that was attached to it…

IMG_4519