Australia’s House of Representatives: Canberra

One of the joys of travel is an opportunity to reconnect with old but distant friends. My travel buddy and I were doing a road trip from Adelaide to Sydney that allowed us to pass through Canberra, where both my he and I had friends. While there, my friend suggested that we attend go to the Parliament House and attend a session of the House of Representatives, which I was thrilled to do.IMG_8797.jpgThe building above is actually the NEW house of Representatives building, (opened in 1988 and cost 1.1 Billion Australian dollars to build — wiki) according to my friend. The Old Parliament House (below, built in 1927) sits directly across a green divide from the new one, with the two buildings facing each other.

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A picture of the old building from the opposite side, but you get the idea

My travel partner, Mik, had said to me that he couldn’t understand why they’d built the new building, when the old one still seemed perfectly good. I, however, have a theory. The old building has a stripped classicism style (the “rational architecture” style preferred in the 1920’s, and particularly embraced in Nazi Germany, that tends to reflect power the way a football linebacker reflects power); the new one reflects the old (both geographically and thematically, note the white pillars) while having a lot of “touches” that ‘honor’ aboriginal culture. [As I discussed in the blog post about the protest march I took part in the day of my accident, there seems to be a focus on appearances in how Australia addresses the political problem — on the world stage — of their relationship to their aboriginal population that eclipses the import of actions … and I think the new building intentionally includes these surface touches to show their ‘deep abiding respect’ for their native populations, without having to actually address the very real and substantive insults still happening today (see later in this piece).]

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Note the Aboriginal art in front of the main entrance for the building

Below is the front entrance of the new building… note how on thematic level it reflects the shape of the old building; note the up down and the negative/dark versus light working of the shapes; but is less about brutish power (like the old building)… and more delicate, and hence also reflective of the “pillars of democracy” appearance — that you tend to see in the greek revival preferred in American Government buildings.

IMG_2159also pay attention to how while the old building looks from this angle as though it is embedded in a mountain (photo above, entrance is just to the left of the photo); so that the new building is actually built into the side of a man-made hill, with the elevated flag sitting on the top of its peak. So ULTRA modern while still reflecting the old building and the “Natural” elements. (Why yes, I do have an undergraduate degree … a BFA… in Art from the Art Institute of Chicago, and yes I did also attend the Royal College of Art in London … why do you ask?)

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Got to love Aussie humor, I bought a box of the “Parlimints”

The interior of building is full of pillars decorated so as to bring to mind a grove of Eucalyptus trees … the one of the most common native of the Australian continent/country (so again, shifting the focus to the natural and native)

IMG_2161So for example consider the pictures of the tree on this website, and then compare it to the columns, and you’ll see what I mean. Once inside, we picked up our pre-reserved tickets to view the debates, and since we had time, so we explored the gift store at length, and then we went to have a snack at their cafeteria (which is REALLY nice and worth checking out.fullsizeoutput_4183.jpeg

THIS was my very first Lamington. One of the purposes of travel is eating new foods, and back when I was in Ballarat, my friend there had said that I needed to try a Lamington while in Australia. That said… when I saw they had one I ordered it for my tea, and had my travel buddy for this trip, Mik — an Aussie native, try it, and he deemed it to be a good Lamington …Not outstanding but good … I wasn’t impressed. 

When it was time, we joined the group booked to attended the House of representatives question time, and passed through a security check… unfortunately we were not allowed to take out our phones for any reason while in the observation deck, and there were staff member posted at the front of every aisle to make sure we didn’t… they even would come talk to us if we were sitting “properly” (no putting your feet up, etc)…. I did find a YouTube video of the actual debate we watched (released by the government), but it said these videos are only up for 6 months at a time, so I didn’t bother.IMG_2166.JPGAfter we were released from the  we did a guided tour of the building, as well as some free range wandering around … above the chamber there was the symbol of Australia but it was too small to see in the photo, so my travel buddy noted it was also on their $0.50 coin.IMG_2162At the back of one of the big rooms, there is a mural that the tour guide told us was actually very important, but because of a dinner event planned for that evening it was being blocked by a black curtain, the gold triangles, and the two projection screens hanging from the ceiling… I was however able to get a glimpse of it from behind the curtain… again, it looks like a natural Australian forest, and in it I spotted a Cockatoo (the white ones with the yellow plumage on top of their heads).IMG_2165

One of the amusing things the tour guide pointed out were these stickers across doorways,

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According to the tour guid they’d been put there by the U.S. President’s secret service when he came for a visit… they go through, made sure the place was safe, and then placed these stickers across all the various doorways and closets along his path to make sure that they weren’t accessed between the inspection and his arrival.

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after this we took an elevator to the roof of the building … in part because the building has that very interesting lawn roof, which is what makes the building look like it’s embedded into a mountain.

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According to my friend, when the building first opened up you used to have full access to the lawn and kids used to use it for fun (rolling down the hill of soft manured lawn). After this, as we were heading home, my friend took a route that brought us by the back of the Old Parliament building (picture above), and pointed out to me the Aboriginal Embassy encampment located in the park just across from it. I asked him if we could park and visit it… which I got the impression is something he’d never done before based on his response (he seemed a bit intimidated by the thought) but he agreed.

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So we walked into the encampment, while there we were called over to come sit with some of them who talked with my friend, while I listened from the edge, before hitting him up for money. To be honest they reminded me of my months on the Navajo reservation, where I was doing research on economic development there; it was just like any of the times I was around the alcoholic, out of work, vagrant Navajo who the were a source of anger and embarrassment to the other tribal members, the ones I was interviewing; these latter were the ones who were actually getting on with their lives and making something of themselves and trying to make life better for their people, rather than doing nothing while blaming others for their condition, well, nothing other than coming hands out and hitting up their more driven relatives for cash.

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… although I am guessing the movers and shakers do need to enlist someone to just sit there and do nothing (and who better?). After this, my friend seemed pretty deep in his thoughts as we headed home… we couldn’t really do much more at that point because I was utterly exhausted

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View of the Parliament building from across the river
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The view from our Airbnb

 

…..

The next day is when we went to have dinner with a very old friend of mine, Tat, whom I have not seen since my undergraduate days at the Royal College of Art, 30 odd years ago … which is where he and I met first while sharing a vat of photo chemicals in the dark rooms of the college. Yes, we’re that old…

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That said, somewhere in his files he has naked photos of me, because like the mutual friend of ours in the image behind us (we sent this photo to her), I also was one of his models — only no one ever wanted to put the pics of my body on a wine bottle like they did with hers (which is ultimately what made his career). Lumpy fertility goddesses don’t make for good advertising campaigns. That said we had a really nice meal together … with many of its ingredients coming from his own garden… and then we walked around his neighborhood (A Canberra suburb).

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My friend Mik petting one of Tat’s pet fish

This was a video I took of some cockatoos we passed on our walk

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You know you are in a Jewish neighborhood when: Bondi Beach, Sydney Australia

Bondi Beach is one of THE places to go if you’re visiting Sydney; for instance, if you look at TripAdvisor’s top things to do while in Sydney, a trip to Bondi is #2 on the list. It’s a beachfront neighborhood in the greater Sydney metropolitan area. What most people when they come here would probably miss is all the clues that tell those of us who are MOT “members of the tribe” that this is also one of THE most Jewish neighborhoods in all of Australia.

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Like I said in a previous post, my decision to go to Australia was fairly last-minute. I had contacted my travel buddy, who goes to Sydney (his hometown) almost every year during their summer months (Dec through March) in part so that he can spend Christmas with his mother, but also just to be there. His mother lives in a retirement village in the suburbs, so he opts to stay in an apartment rental in one of his old stomping grounds.

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A mural adjacent to Bondi Beach, note my T-shirt

In this case, when I arrived he had rented a room in an apartment in an area called Bellevue Hill, right near St. Stephen’s Anglican Church, that is located just west of Bondi beach and just east of the Bondi Junction Train station — [The map refuses to embed, so please check the location via the link]. What I didn’t realize untill I had actually been there a few days and explored the place it was that it was ALSO spitting distance from The Central Synagogue, which is a modern orthodox congregation

AND Adath Yisroel Congregation / Tzemach Tzedek

AND The Sephardi Synagogue

AND an easy walking distance from the Chabad-Lubavitch House

In fact, there turned out to be about EIGHT … EIGHT synagogues all within an easy walking distance of our apartment …. Let’s put it this way, only the MOST orthodox of Jewish neighborhoods have that many synagogues so close together.

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Now granted, on the day when I first arrived, we took the train from the airport to Bondi Junction, at which point — because my friend seems to like to walk everywhere (even when lugging suitcases)

we walked first to this cafe, which he said was supposed to be good, in order to have a bite to eat. The place is called Savta Cafe (I was SO tired after my flight that my brain didn’t notice that Savta might be pronounced Safta — the hebrew word for grandmother).

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That said, the menu made it pretty obvious that this was an Israeli restaurant — something my friend had not realized. I got very excited and ordered the Shakshouka, a dish invented by Tunisian Jews, and pretty common in Israel.

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Not the best I’ve ever eaten (the mushrooms confused me) but it was ok…

But an Israeli restaurant does not a Jewish neighborhood necessarily make. The next hint however was SO in your face that I couldn’t possibly miss the implication. The next day he took me on a walk from our apartment to the beach, and we passed THIS house along the way…

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Let’s Welcome Moshiach with acts of goodness and kindness

For those who don’t know who this guy is, his name is Menachem Mendel Schneerson, also known as the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Many of his followers (I am not one) had actually believed that he was THE Moshiach (the Messiah, not to be confused with Jesus… even if the Chabad-Lubavitch are the most Catholic of Jews) at least until he died.

To tell you how Jewish I am, I’m one step away from Schneerson via more than a few people even though I am NOT one of his followers; most closely of whom was our family cardiologist (until he retired) who was flown in to be Schneerson’s cardiologist. Ira came to my father’s funeral, where he took me by the hands, looked me in the eye and told me how sorry he was to be out-of-town during my fathers final days, but that he had heard via the nurses and doctors at the hospital how I had been at my father’s side every day from his admittance until he died… and he said to me, “Rebecca, you have raised the bar in terms of how a child should be with a sick parent.” … to this day it is probably one of the nicest things anyone has ever said to me, and just thinking about it makes me want to cry. Ira is a real man of G-d, instead of going to synagogue and making himself the center of attention, he spends every sabbath quietly in the hospital, saving lives.

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The next thing I discovered in Bondi was no shortage of Israeli restaurants. This place, Sabbaba — which not only had COMPLETELY authentic Israeli style falafel sandwich, but the manager was Israeli (I spoke Hebrew with him) and they were serving MALT STAR (a non alcoholic beer that is almost ubiquitous in Israel) to wash it down with!! (As it should be!) This turned out to be a local chain (there are a three of them scattered around Sydney,) but TWO in the Bondi beach area.

RIGHT across the street from Sabbaba I spotted a Kosher butcher, called, “Hadassa Kosher Butchery PTY Ltd.” and “Golds World of Judaica” where I ended up spending a few hundred dollars on Jewish things you can only find in Australia type gifts for friends and of course for myself…

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An Australian Kippah! Got more than few of these

At this restaurant, Lyfe Cafe, again the owner was an Israeli (again, I talked them in Hebrew) and I also tried their Shakshouka — a bit better than the last place, but still not “up to snuff” in my opinion.

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Finally, up in the mall next to Bondi Junction, there are three different supermarkets, and in one of them I found a MASSIVE kosher section

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Phillip Island, Victoria Australia: Koalas

Both my travel buddy AND the friend I stayed with in Ballarat… told me that they wanted to bring me to Phillip Island. It’s about a day trip from Melbourne and (as this desire on their part evidenced) is most definitely a must see on while in this part of Australia. While both of them wanted to bring me here to see the penguins (see my post), my travel buddy and I got there early enough, that we had time to kill, so that we decided to go to the Koala Conservation Centre

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[NOTE: That said, I’m writing this blog post well AFTER my visit. In spite of the fact that I was in Phillip Island on Feb. 25, 2018 a whole month after my accident that had resulted in a sever concussion, I still wasn’t mentally able to keep up with my write ups … At the time an outing like this one left me exhausted and the next day was spent just resting. At the time, if you’d seen me, you’d realize very quickly that something was off… my speech was MUCH MUCH slower, so that I was searching for almost every word (which was very weird and a bit frightening)… as such I was still in a very passive space mentally, and as such I couldn’t write about it then, and I just haven’t gotten around to writing about it till now.  The accident made it impossible to focus my brain the way I needed to in order to blog, and as such I fell woefully behind on the posts the Australia trip … but as I’m currently holed up in the Chicago area (i.e., my home base) doing things like doctor’s visits — including some related to the post concussive syndrome which I am STILL suffering from (albeit very mildly at this point, thankfully) and the fact that I hit the ground so hard that I dislocated my jaw (requiring some expensive visits to my dentist who is trying to fix the damage) —  I am taking the opportunity of being back on my home turf to rectify that lapse.]IMG_1754My travel partner (Mik) and I have ONE major disconnect in our our travel preferences, I try to avoid extreme heat at all costs while he LOVES it; and he considers temps that most people qualify as in the mild to comfortable ranges, freezing. Doing our long-planned day trip to this island, Australia’s weather took a dip from “Oh my G-d it’s hot” to 66 F (18.9 C) which he considered FREEZING and I consider about perfect for dressing spiffy (a t-shirt, a light leather blazer and jazzy hat). (If you note the pictures, he ends up NOT wearing his jacket even though he kvetched about the cold… Men!)

Anyway, we bought our tickets for the penguin march later that night (cause they sell out), and headed to the Koala Center

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When you first arrive at the center there’s a big educational section where you can read up on all sorts of things you didn’t know about Koalas, such as the fact that they are going extinct because of a fast-moving strain of Chlamydia which is causing infertility and blindness (since my visit, there’s actually been some progress with private funding in sequencing their DNA, which they hope will lead to a cure before one of the cutest animals on the planet goes extinct)IMG_1756

Once you’ve cleared the educational bit, you walk into a two bits of protected habitat, where the Koala’s are essentially caged-in (partially to keep them in but also to keep other Koala’s infected with Chlamydia out) into a sufficient amount of habitat to keep them happy — with supplemental foods dropped off in areas close to but just out of reach of the guests.

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Note that some branches are wrapped in plastic in order to discourage Koalas from going out onto the boardwalk

Then you walk up along elevated (but handicapped accessible) boardwalks that bring you up to the level of the branches where the Koala’s like to hang out. So you can get close, but not too close.

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It’s easy to spot where Koala’s are because of all the guests collecting there

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Me and Mik, and Koalas (there’s one in every picture)

Here’s a video I took of an active Koala (most of them tend to be sleeping, or just lazily hanging out.

 

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This old guy (the staff member told us it was an elderly male), in spite of the best attempts of the staff to keep it from happening, had somehow managed to get from the tree to the ledge of the visitors section of the boardwalk. The guy in the light shirt standing next to Mik was in fact a staff member, who was blocking visitors from getting too close. He told us they had placed a tree limb across from the boardwalk to a tree, and he was just standing there waiting for the Koala to get the hint and cross back to the tree, so that he could remove it.

Sovereign Hill: an historical amusement park near Ballarat, Australia

Sovereign Hill is located in Golden Point, a suburb of Ballarat (a small city located about an hour northwest of Melbourne, by train). This attraction is a bit like a Disneyland for history geeks, and probably the best living history parks I’ve been to yet, i.e., right up my alley and definitely would like to come here again.

IMG_1105To be realistic, in any other part of the world Ballarat is so small that it should have swallowed up Golden Point, making it a neighborhood within the city, the same way that for efficiency reasons modern Chicago has swallowed up what were its numerous surrounding villages, such as the Pilsen neighborhood, and New York has swallowed up Harlem, etc., … but this process of city expansion for some reason hasn’t happened yet in Australia. When I look at Melbourne and Sydney neither seems to have done the same to the towns and villages that surround them.

[NOTE: That said, I’m writing this blog post well AFTER my visit. I was in Sovereign Hill about 5 months ago, on Feb 13, 2018, which was only 19 days after my accident on Jan 25th which resulted in a sever concussion.  As such, I wasn’t really able to appreciated it in fullness (we were there only for about two hours, and it really was all I could manage at the time before having to head back to bed). That said, I would really love to come back here at some point, buy a one year pass and spend a good few days there, just like I do at Disney. BUT, that said, because of the accident I couldn’t really focus the way I needed to in order to blog about much of what I saw for the next month after, and as such have fallen woefully behind on the posts the Australia trip … but as I’m currently holed up in the Chicago area (i.e., my home base) doing things like doctor’s visits — including some related to the post concussive syndrome which I am STILL suffering from (albeit very mildly at this point, thankfully) and the fact that I hit the ground so hard that I dislocated my jaw (requiring some expensive visits to my dentist who is trying to fix the damage) —  I am taking the opportunity of being back on my home turf to rectify that lapse.]

Sovereign Hill actualizes for its visitors the history of Australia’s Victorian gold rush (1851 – 1860’s) which had the same impact on Melbourne that Sutter’s Mill had on San Francisco.

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(The video above is a TV ad for the attraction, and while it won’t be AS inhabited as when you arrive, a lot of what it shows is in fact visible… candy being made, metal being worked, etc., as my pictures show)

This is a video I found on YouTube shot by a tourist

One of the distinct aspects of Sovereign Hill, is that while “visitors” of course includes basic tourists (both Australian and international), more importantly it means groups of Australian school children;

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One of the four school rooms in the park

they are sent here (and other not quite as nice locations scattered around the country, this according to my travel buddy for Australia, who is also an Aussie but who did not join me on this leg of the trip) to spend two days in (what my friend told me was) government subsidized experiential learning programs.IMG_1106.JPGThe above is the 2nd of the four schools in the park, located in an abandoned shop, and shows children lining up to attend a class; I spoke with the girls as they waited for their teacher and they said that each of them had been given a “story line” of who they were, and that all the students in this class were the ‘less affluent’ students in town, miner’s children, orphans, etc.

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They told me that these children (below), on the other hand, were playing children from more affluent families. The woman in blue is their actual accompanying teacher/guardian from home, while the man on the left is a teacher who works full-time at the park. I found this newspaper article about talks not only about him, but verifies some of what the children told me, and adds how the different groups have different curricula, with the richer students being taught genteel skills, like drawing and sewing, while the poor “ragged” students spend half their day being taught trade skills.

IMG_1107.JPGFor those tourists who don’t know what’s going on, these teachers and students just become part of the overall show

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The third school room (I never saw the fourth one), held in a church

The following is a video I actually took, and uploaded to YouTube of these kids being taught cursive (a form of writing soon to be relegated to history):

This next ‘Welcome to Sovereign Hill’ Video, is actually the seven minute introductory video shown to students when they first arrive. It gives an overview of the town with an explanation of the historical evidence they relied on for its construction, as well as some basic instructions to the students on how interact with the tourists they will be sharing the space with, who will think of them as part of the show and hence will want to take their pictures (the video is well worth watching):

In fact (according to my friend who brought me here who has worked here for years as volunteer) it is these educational programs, more so than general tourism, that constitutes the bread and butter funding for the park and keeps it profitable enough that they can keep it in top repair, and pay for things like upgrades to the experience and professional actors and animal experts to work there.

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The woman clutching the jug plays the role of the town drunk

In support of their educational mandate, Sovereign Hill’s web page also offers up a large selection of teaching/educational videos that they produce including various performances at the park’s theater, a musicologist discussing the songs miner’s sang, an informational video on how to pan for gold, a historian discussing how the industrial revolution changed Australian life, and a video that offers up quotes from writers of the time exemplifying how what the park offers is an “improved” version of history, etc.

Sovereign Hill is not only about the time period of the gold rush; because of its location, the park has a specific focus on the events of the Eureka stockade, which Australians are in general taught (correctly or incorrectly, historians dispute this) as being the birth of the movement towards democracy in the country.

This video (above) gives you an overview of the historical events that occurred not far from where the park is located (the specific location is still debated but it was definitely a location visible from the park)

While these video’s below talk the special ticket night-time sound and light show devoted to events of the Eureka stockade, which they call Blood on the Southern Cross

A vast section of the park is devoted to Victorian homes of the sort that more affluent town’s member might have lived in. Every home is decked out with historical elements designed to make it look as though it’s actually being lived in, but the owners just happen to be out at the moment.

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Other parts of the park are devoted to trades that one might expect to find in just such a town, in this case either there are people working there, or it tends to look more like a museum (with signs explaining what you’re looking at).

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bottom right is broken wheel, supposedly waiting to be fixed; this shop occasionally has a craftsman on staff explaining the craft, but not today
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The undertaker’s, my friend says no one actually ever works here

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One part of the mining camp section of town is the Chinatown district. While there was no one working in this section when we visited, it was clear that a tidy sum of money had been invested into its development, as each aspect of it comes complete with multimedia aspects to make up for the lack of staff.

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Inside the temple is multimedia show, worth listening to

IMG_1134.JPGWhen you stick your head into these tents, you’ll hear the voices of the non-existent Chinese miners speaking to each other. If you pay attention you’ll actually learn things about the prejudices and injustices these miners faced, as Chinese.

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In this tent you can listen to the Chinese miners arguing amongst themselves about the choices they were having to make, and about how they organised themselves into self-help organizations, since they couldn’t count on the white to treat them fairly. It was fairly obvious from the items in some of the stores to the composition of the tourists, that Chinese tourism constitutes a fairly large percentage of who comes to this park, and their concerns and interests were therefore fully met.

 

That said, Sovereign Hill, while it has a huge educational mandate and is a living history museum, it is also first and foremost an amusement park type attraction — A Disneyland for history geeks, and hence must provide its visitors with amusements. As such, it provides the obligatory schedule of free of charge performances that visitors can attend during the day.

 

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One of the interactive activities that the park offers is the opportunity to pan for gold in their stream. According to my friend, this isn’t a real stream and gold that’s there is seeded, but no one really cares. You’ll find any number of people happily devoting at least a good hour to panning for gold.

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If you want to cheat there’s also a gift shop set up as a miner’s tools shop, where you can buy little vials with tiny bits of gold in them, but what’s the fun in that?

And in addition, even though Sovereign Hill –unlike Disney — is a non for profit, they take every reasonable opportunity to separate you from your money after you’ve paid your entrance fee (which is almost as high as some of the smaller Disney parks). That said, most of the payment-to-go options (after the initial entry) are all very reasonably priced…

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Coach Rides: $5.50 Adult, $4.00 Child (5-15), $17.00 Family

There are also tours that take you into a genuine historic gold mine that sits beneath the entire park, and constitutes one of the other “highlight” things to do in the park

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There are three different tours; well, 1 tour, but with a choice of 3 different movie endings

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According to my friend all of the tour guides who lead chinese tourists through the park (this one is about to lead a group into the mines) are required to dress the way this woman is dressed, i.e., what is historically accurate clothing for a Chinese resident of the town, just as the tour guide for our group was required to dress the same way a miner of the day might have.

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Everyone takes the same walk through tour, lead by a guide

At the end of the tour you watch what is essentially a VERY fancy Powerpoint presentation with all the animation bells and whistles on one of three topics (see above). You do this while standing in a small hollowed out, rounded but still craggy space (with the evidence of it having been mined out), deep inside the mine.  The presentation is projected onto the craggy rock’s face rather than a smoothed surface, which is pretty cool. It’s supposed to kind of make you feel like you’re in it with them. My friend and I opted for the presentation called the secret chamber, about Chinese minors and their trials and struggles with local prejudice; is the story of two brothers one of whom went home rich, the other who died in a mine collapse.

IMG_1123After the presentation you walk past a past a large patch of exposed gold still embedded in the quartz, so that you can see what it looks like… but that you are separated from by a bulletproof-glass wall and a whole bunch of security equipment which they make sure you can see.

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After the tour you come back topside and are let out into the obligatory gift store, this one selling a lot of gold, with a very strong focus on their Chinese tourist customers (because I’m guessing they’re the ones most likely to buy some).

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The one thing I was tempted to buy was the snow globe full of gold flakes, the minor inside it looks SO happy, and it’s relatively affordable.

In addition to this obligatory “after a ride” gift store, there are two varieties of stores in town, those selling period specific goods that you could probably find outside of the park if you looked hard enough, but presented in the style of store in the 1800’s

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I love this photo, note my friend in the reflection
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We ran into this same guy working at three different locations, but he’s so pretty we didn’t mind at all; he’s behind the counter at the Criterion (above), this jewelery store, and the candle works (below)

[Regarding my friend, it was almost karmic good luck that I was scheduled to stay with her for two weeks at exactly that point in my trip. She’s one of the few Facebook friends I ever made (we used to play this same FB-game, one of those that necessitate that you friend complete strangers, and we found we had so much in common that we continued to stay in touch long after both of us stopped playing). She had invited me numerous times to visit her in Australia, and she lives quite near to Sovereign Hill. In addition to being a successful realtor who has returned to University to obtain her undergraduate degree in history, AND a professional psychic (see the blog post for the tour of a haunted former Nun’s abbey, that she guides)… she also used to work as a registered nurse — which was infinitely useful for me in terms of her being understanding the needs and limitations of my health predicament while visiting her.]

The second variety of stores are those selling items that were handcrafted by the skilled craftsmen demonstrating by hand what in this day and age are almost lost arts

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in the Town there are six different places selling food during the day (plus a seventh that’s only open for the sound and light show in the evening)

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A candy store with historic candies
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This bakery was selling a full meal in a bun: one end was the appetizer, the other dessert

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As we were touring through the town, my friend took me to the room where she would normally work while volunteering… the ladies lounge in the hotel. Normally my friend would sit there, doing needlepoint, and talking to any visitors who might wander in

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The day we visited we found this woman is doing what my friend normally does, so the two of them had a nice chat exchanging pointers.

A matter of health… Two years later

Some of you may remember that on May 9, 2016 I was diagnosed with non alcholic fatty liver disease, and told that if I didn’t get it under control I would need a new liver. I am THILLED to announce that it is under control! I just got back from the doctor and my liver numbers all came back normal… like not even high in the normal range… utterly and completely NORMAL. It took me about two years of maintaining a very strict low fat diet where I was essentially trying to irradicate it from my diet entirely (except for fat from things like fish, nuts, or small servings of avacado & dairy). Not only that but having been pre-diabetic now for about 20 years, where my sugar was high, but I managed to keep it just low enough as to not necessitate insuline or meds (I was adament that I be allowed to try to control it with diet), my blood sugar has ALSO tested completley normal (I’m convinced there’s a connection).

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This is my chart from back on Sept. 1, 2016, about 6 months after then initial diagnosis, when I convinced the doctors that I could do it without medications

For those who don’t remember…. Back in May of 2016 I swung through Chicago for my yearly checkup, weighed in at 185 lb (instead of 130, which is where I should have been), and was informed that not only were my sugar and cholesterol shooting up, but I had developed fatty liver disease; and, if I didn’t do something, and do it quick, I was going to need a new liver. YOUCH!!! She said I had to make an appointment with a liver specialist ASAP, and I had to change my diet immediately, to as low fat as possible. Mostly fish, a little chicken, no beef at all, and as low fat as possible, so I could NOT eat at restaurants anymore.

However, I was only in town for two weeks, not enough time to even book an appointment with the specialist, had already paid for lodgings in Canada for June through August, and I knew I would not be back in Chicago until the beginning of September, when an old friend was getting married.

[Note: This, my dear reader is why pretty much every meal after May 2016 consisted of fish, and something low fat and full of fiber on the side. NOT eating at restaurants wasn’t going to fly, so I had to come up with some pretty fierce protocols to makes sure that didn’t harm me. I know this sounds extreme but,…. I start every order with the explanation: “this is not about me wanting to loose a few pounds, this is about me having liver disease and if I am not VERY VERY careful needing to try to try find a new liver and get a transplant. So, unless you want to quite literally poison me, unless you want to be partially responsible for my death, you need to listen very carefully.” … it seems to work.]

It’s also why I had scheduled, as I promised my doctor that I would, two full months in Chicago in September/October of 2016…. In mid October I went to the liver specialist, and was greeted with GOOD NEWS!!! Instead of 185 lb, I was 150 lb…  35 lb lost in five months….  and as the above chart showed, all my bad liver numbers had dropped.

Then they did a liver scan and he said there was no evidence of any scarring of the liver, i.e., cirrhosis. That he was very hopeful and happy (and how nice it was to have a patient who actually did what the doctor said to do). I was instructed to keep doing what I’m doing in terms of my low fat diet and exercise, till the liver number have come all the way down, but that he didn’t want to see me for two years, at which point he’d want to run tests again.

It is now TWO years later, and while I admit my careful eating, which involved careful ordering and ripping the heads off of restaurant staff that brought me anything oily was not always consistent, it’s been what was necessary to continue the downward movement of the really important numbers!

That said, I’ve actually managed to do it while STILL putting on a lot of weight over the course of the last year…. I had dropped down to a very happy 135 lb for a while, but in the last year I sadly have climbed back up to around 157 lb again…

That said, as I’m writing this I just realized my GP has to write me a referral so that I can make an appointment to see the liver doctor again this coming October/November (like he asked for)… and she forgot to do it… going to call her now.

Is there a the connection between Lincoln logs and the log cabin Abraham Lincoln was born in? HMMMMMMMM…. a theory

I have just come up with a convoluted but not so unlikely theory regarding the invention of Lincoln logs and why they are called Lincoln logs…

So yesterday while Visiting Lincoln’s home in Springfield, IL I learned they were invented by Frank Loyd Wrights son…

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Well I have been the memorial for Lincoln’s birthplace, inside of which stands a log cabin

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today I learn I was wondering who were these Lincoln Farm Association folks…  and learned that…

According to Wikipedia:

Richard Lloyd Jones “From 1903 until 1911, he was a writer and associate editor for Collier’s Weekly, working under the publisher Robert J. Collier.[1] In 1905, Robert Collier and Jones collaborated to buy the old Abraham Lincoln farm at auction in Hodgenville, Kentucky. Then they organized a fundraising campaign to establish a historic site, which was opened during the Lincoln Centennial in 1909. The first board of trustees for the site included Jones, Jenkin Lloyd Jones [his dad]Mark TwainWilliam Jennings Bryan and President William H. Taft.[1]

AND….

Jenkin Lloyd Jones was not only a famous Unitarian minister, but was ALSO the uncle of Frank Lloyd Wright.

So what you ask?

I have been to Lincoln’s birth place, and according to both the staff member at the memorial  and Wikipedia the log cabin that is there is NOT the original, but according to this site it was — or at least the guys who made up the Lincoln Association, who were the ones that bought the building thought it was. Doing more research I found this site which sort of explains the confusion.

Apparently, in 1894 a speculator by the name of A.W. Dennett bought the farm where Lincoln had been born thinking people would want to see it, and had deconstructed a two-story log cabin found on a different part of the property, and moved its logs over to the spot where the original farm was thought to have stood (the original building had long ago been disassembled and he just assumed that this Lincoln cabin had been built using those logs). He then opened the spot for business, only no one came — because, no one was interested enough to shelp to rural Kentucky… So, as the saying goes, if you can’t bring Mohammed to the Mountain…. and at one point he added the logs from the cabin that was supposed to have been the childhood home of Jefferson Davis, the President of the Confederacy. But, with all the building and taking-apart and moving around, the Davis logs and the Lincoln logs got mixed up… so that by the time the Lincoln Farm Association got around to buying the land and the logs back from Dennett, it was anybody’s guess (by historical standards) which if any of the logs were from the original house, when they ‘rebuilt the house’ in Hodgenville.

SO, Frank Loyd Wright’s son is the cousin of the guy who started the foundation to buy up the property that had been Lincoln’s birthplace and original home which was on touring display (come see Lincoln’s cabin) both of which were owned by the same guy… oh and this guy also own the Jefferson Davis logs from his original home and would show them together… and in the South, Lincoln logs were not marketed as Lincoln logs, they were marketed as Jefferson Davis Logs… coincidence? I doubt it…

 

‘Women-Only’ Train-Cars in Japan

You’d THINK ‘women-only’ carriages would only happen in cultures like the Middle East, where the genders are kept separate, but you’d be wrong. In an effort to combat ASSHOLE men who think a crowded train is the perfect opportunity to put their hands up the skirt of any women unlucky enough to be standing next to them, various cities around the world have begun to institute “women only carriages” in their trains, including Tokyo.

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Today I spent best part of a miserable day (Tokyo was having a gale, i.e., a storm with very little rain but near constant 30 to 50 mph wind gusts) at Tokyo Disneyland (hey, a woman has got to have her priorities); and while heading back home to my airbnb had my first encounter with this phenomena.

Because of having to fight intense winds the whole day I was already exhausted, and the whole route (from the airbnb to Disney) takes a miserable 1.25+ hours — and includes a LOT of additional walking as you make changes between three different lines none of which are adjacent to the other (suffice it to say that I will NOT be staying in this location again)… By the time I reached the final leg I was EXHAUSTED, and I still had make a change from the Japan Rail (JR) Chūō line (which runs east to west) to the Keio which starts at Shinjuku Station, which runs to the “dormitory communities” (or commuter towns) west of Tokyo…. where I was living. When I finally got to the Keio platform, the train was sitting there with it’s doors open, but pretty much every car “looked full”.

Emphasis has to be given on the “looked” part, because … one of the “experiences” of being in Japan is riding in a TRUELY full train. Most Americans have never had the pleasure because it involves an invasion of personal space that unimaginable in the west. A full train in Tokyo is one where people have been crammed together like sardines to the point where you are cheek to jowl with your fellow passengers, and as the doors close the train staff can be seen shoving people in.

[Note: if you ever find yourself on a train like this, I STRONGLY suggest you take this suggestion, “go with the flow.” By that I mean, relax your entire body and pretend you’re laying down on a bed, and don’t freak out when you find your legs are no longer under your body. It’s a very Zen meditative sort of thing, like a trust fall or being held aloft in a mosh pit. IF you try to struggle to stand, a) you will fail, and b) you might actually get hurt — as in strain your back. At stations right before yours, maneuver yourself closer to the doors, especially if your needing out at the next station. When you station arrives and the train comes to stop, THEN you get your legs back under you and yell “SUMIMASEN!” at the top of your lungs repeatedly, and starting from a football stance put your shoulders into the person in front of you and shove the hoard blocking your exit out of the train. Once you’ve burst through their ‘defensive line,’ immediately turn around and face the startled masses, bow very deeply and hell out Sumimasen again, then leave.]

Back to my story… This was not THAT full, but it was still pretty darn full. I kept going down the line car by car trying to find one where there was enough space to step in without having to shove my way in (like I said before, this was the first station on the line so the train was just sitting there with its doors open). Finally, I found one, and bleary eyed and exhausted, I stepped in. Looking around I was like “wow there are a lot of women on this car.”  The doors remained open, and more women stepped on… And then I started to look around and really SEE and realized that I could not spot a single male on the car. Well that was odd, so I couldn’t be right… I keep looking and sure enough I could not spot even one man on the car.

Suddenly I had a brain fart and, in English, I loudly said “is this a woman’s only car?” One girl standing just by me, who spoke a tiny bit of English volunteered a quiet, “yes”, so then I asked her “how do you know which is the women’s only car?” and she kept saying “muzukashii, muzukashii” which in Japanese translates to literally to “difficult, difficult” but idiomatically has a much broader ‘unexpressed meaning’, or what the Japanese refer to as Haragei (a crucial concept to understanding the Japanese);, in this particular case it meant: “my English really isn’t good enough to be able to explain this to you and while I’m struggling to find the words I don’t know how to say it… and I am very both sorry and slightly embarrassed about that, so please forgive me.” In Japan it’s VERY important to belly as much as with your ears.

When I got off the train I looked all around until I spotted the identifier.

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I had of course heard about women only trains, and had probably many months ago read something somewhere saying they were showing up in Japan, but it wasn’t something that was in my ‘awareness’ so to speak… to use proper English, it was not within my ken. (Great word, shame it’s not used more, it’s the closest thing in English to the full and proper meaning of the Japanese term, “Wakarimasu” — which is rather closer to the SciFi slang term “to Grok” than it is to the simple concept of to know.)

The need for women only cars in Japan however, WAS … I am sorry to say, very much within my ken. Back, 30+ odd years ago, when I was in my early 20’s I spent two successive summers living and interning in Japan. The first was in the tiny Japanese ceramics town of Arita, more precisely in Okawachiyama Village (and at the time there were only two other westerners in the whole place) working interning in the international business department of Iwao Jiki Kogyo; the second time was in Tokyo for one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical firms, Eisai. That summer I was riding on a perviously described “very full train” with wife of my father’s colleague, a professor from Todai, when an also previously described asshole made the mistake of taking advantage of me. My mamma didn’t raise no shrinking violets.

I felt an uninvited hand exploring my backside and then using it’s fingers to pull up my skirt. For about a split second I was in shock, but then I got pissed and slowly maneuvered my hand through the press of bodies around to my rear and grabbed the hand. I then proceeded to slowly turn my body around while holding firmly onto the hand (at that age I played piano, violin and viola, practicing each for at least 20 minutes a day… and was rather renowned among my friends for how strong my hands were). By the time I turned myself around, the hand had been twisted into a position that I was sure would be uncomfortable if not outright painful for the owner. I then looked among the faces in front of me, and found who I was pretty sure was the guy based on his expression of fear and pain… I then let go of his hand, pulled mine out, pointed right into his face and yelled  repeatedly “CHIKAN! CHIKAN!” … Japanese for molester, or sexual harasser. The people around us all looked at him in shock (tellingly, a lot of them were unhappy with me for disturbing Wa, or harmony — another term crucial to understanding Japanese culture) and when the train doors opened he ran out of the train with his tail firmly between his legs.

While the folks on the train weren’t thrilled with me, my companion, who was in her mid to late 30’s (I was in maybe 23? at the time) looked at me with pride and wonder. That said, she shuffled me off the train even though it wasn’t our stop (like I said, I had committed the then socially unforgivable sin of breaking Wa — read the description) — but now a days I hope Japanese might have grabbed him and held him for arrest, instead). And then once we were on the platform she said to me, “HOW did you do that! PLEASE teach me! That happens to me all the time on the train and I never know how to respond. That was WONDERFUL!!!”

I say that no a days I would expect the Japanese to respond differently because, as the presence of Women only cars indicate, times have changed. According to this web site, “The chikan problem is [now] taken very seriously by railway companies and the authorities, and anyone found guilty of groping is liable to imprisonment or a fine of up to 500,000 yen ($4,500).” But that said, according this other web site  (citing a 2008 study by Adam Burgess and Mitsutoshi Horii), “Somewhere between 50-70% of young Japanese women experience chikan (“pervert,” often “groper”) on Japanese commuter trains in metropolitan areas” and, according to the same site the reason Japan’s camera phones make a snapshot noise that the user can NOT turn off is to prevent sicko’s taking pictures up girl’s skirts.

According to yet another on-line article, Women who attract chikan, and women who don’t”: The illustrated guide that’s provoking debate, which was published in 2014… the problem of Chikan men is now being discussed openly in Japanese society…

By the way, THIS is the image in question…
And, looking at it, who do you think the artist identified as the easy target?screenclip4
… according to the artist, in Japan, sexual attacks are more in line with the tastes of Pedofile priests than the sort of “she must have been asking for it” victim shaming we tend to see in the West. As such,, the woman with exposed breasts, or the Goth girl are the ones least likely to be attacked, while while the underage school girls or demurely dressed adult woman are statistically the ones MOST likely to be attacked.

“Suspects in sex crime cases were asked why they chose that person [to attack]. Fewer than 5 percent said they targeted someone because they were wearing provocative clothing. In rape cases, the most common reason given was ‘they seemed like they wouldn’t report it to the police’ (45%). In indecent assault cases, the most common reason was ‘they seemed meek; I didn’t think they’d be able to stop me’ (48%).” — from the article about the image

… returning to the trains, the good news, according to the wikipedia article on the subject of Women only cars on trains, is that in Japan, unlike some other countries, men are fined for entering the cars and the ever present rail staff (the ones whose job it is to shove people into cars) are on site to enforce the rules.

 

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.”

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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.

 

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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

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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

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

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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.

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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).

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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.

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

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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.

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

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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.

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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…

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

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