Bucket list item achieved!! Northern lights viewing: Reykjavík, Iceland

To paraphrase my friend who stayed with me for part of this trip, while people may come to Iceland wanting to see all the gorgeous geography, for those of us from more southern climates, what we are most hoping to see is the dancing lights of the Aurora (green lights) Borealis (Northern). In this post I’m sharing what I learned about your options for seeing them, if you’re based in Reykjavík. Firstly, unless you have a proper camera and tripod, you’re going to want to look on line for an app that tricks your smartphone’s camera into taking long exposure photos (I used an app called NorthernLights) unless you own one of the newest phones that already have that function built into them. And then you’re going to want to find a way to get away from the light pollution of Reykjavík at night — if you can’t see most of the night stars, you won’t be able to appreciate the Northern lights.

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Taken with my iPhone on my 2nd time out — during a solar storm

Over the course of my one week stay I went on two different $100 tours to try to see the lights. The first time, my first night in Iceland, was a total bust. This was partially because of partly cloudy skies — the nights before and after all the northern lights tours were cancelled because of rain. But also, and almost more importantly, because there was in fact barely anything to see that night — even if the skies had been clear. No dancing light, no brilliant green stripes. At best all the sun was offering up that night was a bit of light green haze that just lightly lit up part of the northern sky… it was there (enough that the tour company felt no necessity to follow up on their guarantee or a 2nd trip or a full refund if it had not been), but realistically it really wasn’t what anyone would have flown all the way to Iceland in hopes of seeing.

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Look closely, See the slightly greenish spot on the right side of this image? That’s it — taken with my iPhone

In fact, the high price tag we’d paid felt a bit like a rip off. When initially researching the prices for these tours, the prices kind of boggled my mind and initially I’d contemplated that it might just be cheaper to just hail a taxi and ask him to take us someplace dark… but in reality, as the week progressed, and after discovering just how insanely expensive taxis are in Iceland, the $100 round trip on a minibus seemed like a bargain. There’s nothing like Uber or Lyft in Iceland (i.e., more affordable taxis), so your choices are rent a car, take a bus tour (of varying sizes), or hire a taxi — which could easily run you $250 or a lot more by the time you’re done.

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“Go to Joy Iceland” was the name of the first tour company I took

The group shot above was taken of the 17 of us in the minibus on my first trip. I’m posting it as proof that the problem had not been because I was trying to take pictures of the Aurora with my iPhone… that’s me in the front row in the green coat/red hat, my friend who flew up to see Iceland with me is standing next to me wearing the purple coat and scarf … This shot was taken by the tour guide using his TOP of the line camera with a fancy lens, on a tripod, using a long exposure and with about 2 seconds of bright fill lighting flashed at us … see those slightly lit up patches on the right side of the image … seriously, that’s IT! That’s all we got that night. The Driver did his best and went to about 3 different locations, drove us around for about a full hour there and back — headed towards the middle of the island on the Golden Circle road, and we got to see lots of stars as he dogged the cloud cover, but mother nature just wasn’t helping him out with regards to the Aurora lights.

This is why, pretty much EVERY Northern lights tour you sign up for will start with a very LONG and detailed apology from the guide. This includes a lot of trying to explain scientific realities as to why you might not see anything that night and it’s not their fault. Be prepared for the fact that your fellow tourists may or may not grasp said science, and that they’ll end up wasting precious time asking questions that the guide has already explained, but they just didn’t grok it; the smaller the group, the less time wasted on said questions being one of the benefits of not taking a big bus. In fact I think half the job of the tour guide is to … if you get a night like we did that first night … make a really big deal about ANY Northern lights, no matter how pathetic, that might show up that night, just so that the company doesn’t have to take you out a 2nd time as promised in their guarantees.

As such, be prepared for the reality that you MIGHT have to go out more than once during your trip before you see anything. There is a cheaper $40 option, which means taking a huge passenger bus along with 120 other people. The major difference between opting for a minibus (20 passengers) over a full sized one (other than the aforementioned time wasted on explaining science to folks who have difficulty grasping it) seems to be that smaller vehicles are allowed to take dirt roads and take advantage of small concrete parking areas (big enough for about 2 cars max) that the Icelandic government has created for tourists on the sides of the roads. It’s important to remember that in Iceland the ring road wasn’t completed until the early 1970’s and even the ‘heavily’ traveled highway from Reykjavík to the international airport in Keflavík is only ONE lane in each direction… and not even a very wide single lane. AND NONE of these roads have large shoulders built into them to allow for pulling safety to the side. According to one of our tour guides, who spent a lot of time explaining how to drive safely in Iceland to us (while he was driving), the roads are so narrow that if a tourist stops anywhere other than one of these designated areas, trucks might just barrel through and run them off the road — and under the law, its the fault of the person who parked so as to partially block the road.

The big busses (clearly) can NOT take advantage of either dirt roads, or the tiny concrete lots on the sides or roads, and are by necessity relegated to taking you ONLY to locations that have big parking lots AND are out in the middle of nothing… of which there’s only a few within an easy drive of Reykjavík. If the sky is clear of clouds and the solar winds strong enough, the reality is that it doesn’t matter which option you take, you’ll see the show. HOWEVER, if that’s not the case — and the sky in Iceland is rarely clear of cloud cover, the smaller the vehicle you book the better the chance they can find a legal place to park that is both away from any light sources and where there’s a lot of visible stars, i.e., the best place to see the lights.

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That said, while we were waiting for our tour (the first one) this Minibus showed up, which was unlike any other we saw. It’s big wheels, and stood much higher than normal, and clearly was designed for off road travel. For myself, while I could see wanting one of these for a daytime tour, but I’m seriously doubting that the extra expense (I’m guessing it cost a lot more than our ~$100 per person), was going to be worth it… for all the reasons previously discussed.

The first time we went out (my friend and I together) was on the first night of our trip, a Monday night, and like I said … nothing. My friend didn’t stay as long as I did, and left on Friday at around noon. By that evening I found myself to be SO exhausted by the previous three days of tourism that I pretty much collapsed into my bed at around 3pm and couldn’t even go to get food. I survived on what was left in our fridge, some Icelandic yogurts (called Skyr — similar to greek yogurt, but with a milder flavor), and smoked lamb and traditional bread that had been gifted to us by our Airbnb host.

The next morning as I was touring around town, I kept hearing everyone raving about how intense the northern lights had been the night before, that the sky had been cloudless for the first time all week, and how the event had been so intense due to a massive solar storm, that you could have seen it from town if you just walked over to the bay and looked North. Let’s just say I was kicking myself. I went right back to my room and tried to book a tour for that night, but the company I had used the first night was fully booked, as were the next two companies I tried. So I got an idea and walked over the Aurora center (a museum near my rental, where you can see a fake Northern lights display and learn about the phenomena), and with the help of the staff found a ‘good’ (according to them) tour group that still had available seats for that night for about the same price I paid the first time.

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With the 2nd tour, which was led by a company called “BusTravel Iceland” we got picked up, taken to a parking lot, and then transferred to a 2nd bus of the same size (???) — this group killed about an hour of my time for no purpose, which I was not happy about, before finally hitting the road to our destination. Because of how intense the light show was expected to be that night, they only took us on about 15 minutes away from town on the road southwest towards the airport, and then only about three minutes along a dirt road on to the adjacent lava field (so that the headlights of cars wouldn’t bother us). Once there, lets just say that not only did I get to see the massive green stripes I’d been dreaming of, but even dancing lights were seen, where the you can see the strips moving around. We even got to see multiple colors as the lights danced, with bits of purple and pink flickering along the edges (unfortunately this wasn’t something my camera could pick up).

[Time lapse video of the Northern lights found on Youtube]

Initially my camera was failing me and causing me a lot of frustration. It would initially work, but then after a shot or two would stop. There was an Indian woman in our group who’d read something about how the automatic night shift feature in the iPhone interfered with the app’s software, and when we went into settings and turned that off sure enough my phone started working well. I had to restart the app after changing the settings, but then it was working again and continued to … the light show kept coming and going for about a half hour, and then stopped… we waited a bit just to be sure it was done… and then the driver said they probably wouldn’t be back till about 4am

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The next morning my friends who work in the computer industry were all complaining about the interference from the solar storm, and one of them posted this image, which shows what I’d been watching the night before.

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All good things come to an end… traveling with friends

[To my readers, warning… this post is pretty self-indulgent; It chronicles almost the past two years during which I on again off again travelled with Mik; It’s an overview of how it happened, what we saw together, what worked about traveling together, and what didn’t. In it are suggestions you might take to heart for yourself, should you team up with a travel companion, but you’ll have to read through all the hay to find those pins of value, cause this is a stream of consciousness, psychological dump on my part.]

After about 8 months of cumulative travel together over about two years … which was a pretty successful run considering how very different he and I are, Mik and I have decided to amicably ‘split up’ so to speak. Traveling together was no longer working for us — well seriously not working for me, and my low-level resentment occasionally blew up into me yelling at him, and THAT wasn’t working for him (well duh). There’s some low level anger, obviously, but for the most part we’ve dealt with it like adults.

[What follows is a sort of timeline of events … if you’re not interested in the blow-by-blow, feel free to skip to after the photographs stop, to get the meat of the problem.]

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In the summer of 2017, after having already traveled alone for about 2.5 years, I had decided that it was starting to get a bit lonely, and had reached out to friends via Facebook to see if anyone wanted to join me in my travels. In September of that year, Mik a guy I knew, whose job allowed him to work remotely, reached out to me and asked if he could swing by one of my next stops and spend a day with me (he combined it with seeing relatives in a town nearby the place I was going to be in Canada).

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Over lunch, he brought up the topic of our joining up our horses, so to speak, and traveling together. While the thought of having a travel buddy sounded good, I was more than a bit hesitant. My hesitation lay in the fact that Mik wasn’t so much someone I would refer to as a friend, but rather a peer who traveled in the same circle of friends as I had, about 10 years ago when I had lived in SF. In fact I barely knew him. We’d only ever had maybe one or two serious conversations in that whole period, generally around the topic of why as much as I thought he was a good guy, no I didn’t want to date him. After that, we’d maintained the connection via Facebook/social media (low-level) and about 5 years back, after I moved back to Chicago, he had asked to crash at my apartment for a few days while traveling through … I had a full-sized airbed that I set up in the living room for guests and again had an open invite up on FB. So I was a bit unsure about our potential for being travel buddies, but was lonely enough to be willing to give it a try.

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In Late October through early November, we had our first trial run, and spent a little over a week together in Tennessee. First we rented an affordable hotel room with two beds, because I usually don’t sleep well with others. I was really happy to discover 1) he was a very heavy sleeper who, 2) didn’t snore — like not at all. Apparently… I don’t snore either, he said however that I am quite the chatterbox while dreaming, but he said it didn’t bother him.

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This was then followed up by crashing at the homes of friends, first one of his, than one of mine in small towns, outside of Nashville… where we experienced sharing beds for the first time. This again also worked out all right (he was great about staying to his side of the bed after I made it clear that I don’t want to be touched while sleeping — HOW he manages to respect boundaries so well while asleep, boggles the mind).

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Based on this one week, we decided that we were going to do more traveling together, he headed back to the west coast for work related stuff, and then on to Australia where he’s from originally (and his mom still is) … and I went to Disney World for the third year in a row…. and promptly realized I was bored out of my mind with the place. So I contacted him and asked him, “do you have crash space for me there?” And he did, so I spent the next month figuring out how to downsize my life from the contents of a car, to that of one large suitcase and one carry on, etc., and, on Dec. 31, 2017 I had posted about how after traveling alone for about 2.5 years I had decided that it was starting to get lonely, and how I would now be traveling him, for as long as that might last.

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Later that day, on New Years Eve 2017/2018, I flew for the first time in my life to Australia. We hung out there, and did some other stuff, sometimes together, sometimes apart… Then on Australia day, which is sort of, a cross between 4th of July and Columbus day, while attending a protest in support of Aboriginal rights with him, I fell down and went boom, big time… which resulted in a concussion that took about a year to get over the worst of, but that to this day I’m still dealing with the repercussions of.

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That said, he was great during the worst of it. Had the foresight to document it for me with photos, knowing that I’m perverse enough to want them. Once out of the hospital, I could see (it was all there in his body language) his inner child was seriously struggling with his adult side in terms of “showing up” for me versus doing what he wanted to do in any particular moment (Mik is 45 going on 9), but he was none the less great about it. A week later (I was STILL in very bad shape “I …  …was… …talking… …like… …this…” and was still suffering bad positional vertigo so that I needed to be steadied in order to walk…), but Mik was flying to Tasmania with his mom, and I was scheduled to go to Ballarat (all my posts from there),

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LUCKILY the plan had always been for me to spend those next two weeks at the home of a friend, rather than to be in an Airbnb. She was a modern-day pen-pal; as in someone I’d bonded with over the last two years via Facebook, but had never actually met. She’d repeatedly said I should come visit her, so now I was going to. We had intended to spend two weeks traveling the area together, but obviously… life is what happens as you’re making other plans. That said, as dumb luck would have it, she was a former nurse, and as such was much better able (and more to the point willing) to care for me than he would have been. She was great about letting me rest 99% of the time, but still dragging me out for some short trips to places like their wildlife park… And to the Sovereign Hill Park where she regularly volunteers her time… a massive historical reenactment of Australia’s gold rush period, which I returned to for a FULL week during my second visit to Australia (I apparently broke their record for the furthest away person to buy a 1 year pass). It’s like Disney for history nerds, so totally up my alley… to the extent that I could see myself maybe going to that town for long enough stay so as to volunteer there myself.

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Towards the end of my stay, when I had more energy, we did a slightly longer trip out to Grampians National Park, Victoria. She also took me to her favorite dentist who (again, as luck would have it) specialized in jaw work; Another of the after effects of the concussion was that the impact from the fall had been strong enough that it dislocated my jaw. As in I’ve had over 1K worth of work done on it since then, and it STILL clicks. That said, she and I get along really well, and for the most part our travel interests are MUCH more copacetic than what I had with Mik, so odds are she and I will most likely do some travel together in the future (although her job does NOT allow her to work remotely, and her finances are that of a hard-working, middle-class person, so any trips will have to be short interspersed ones).

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After Ballarat I met up with Mik again in Adelaide, where he was visiting another girlfriend. From there we did a road trip along the Great Ocean road (link to all blogs on that topic). I’ve yet to do much blogging about that because at the time the post-concussive syndrome meant I didn’t have the mental strength to do much of anything. And then, I went to Korea and Japan and I had other things to write about … so my backlog of posts I need to complete is currently set to 140 (YAH!). Am thinking I need to think about staying put in one place long enough to catch up …

Photos from the as yet to be blogged about visit to The Twelve Apostles rock formation
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… of which only seven are still standing

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That said, during that whole road trip I was really only able to do things that meant leaving the car for short distances. I could NOT manage enough moving around to REALLY be able to SEE any one location in its full glory… let alone the mental energy to be able to really enjoy it. Just sitting in a moving car kind of made my brain feel like it was buzzing. As such, to be honest, I’d like to do it all over again, because my memories from that whole period are a bit hazy (like I said, post concussive syndrome). Only this time I’d cover shorter distances on a daily basis and spend much more time at each location (how I like to travel versus how Mik likes to do it). That said, Mik was considerate and not irritating to be around during that whole thing, and didn’t get pissy about my limitations.

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Photos of Phillip Island

All through it we kept checking in with each other and both of us felt like this travel partnership was working for us. In particular, I was surprised at how not annoyed with him I was (there’s a reason I never got married, I find most people irritating after a while). At which point I actually allowed myself to feel some affection for Mik, because I was enjoying his company so much (and was grateful for how considerate he was being). From time to time there were minor issues but nothing to write home about. So we agreed, we’d start making plans for future travel once this trip was over.

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After the road trip we ended up in Melbourne, where again I spent MOST of my time in bed getting over the mental strain of the road trip. We did however manage one day trip to Phillip Island, to see the Penguin Parade. We then drove towards Australia’s Capitol, Canberra, where both of us had friends,

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The nude is of a fellow classmate of ours. That image, which she’d never have sat for but for my influence, made his career.

…his where folks I sort of knew, from back when we all lived in SF, mine was a friend I had gone to the Royal College of Art, in London, with back when I was in my 20’s. This trip was also when I visited the locally famous Dog on a Tucker Box, and pit stopped at Glenrowan the home of Ned Kelly…  for the first time (we stopped by both a 2nd time the following year, spending a goodly amount of time exploring Glenrowan)

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After a few days in Canberra, we headed north to Sydney again, which is when we stopped at the Big Marino, for the first time (the following year, I asked if we could stop there again so I could actually get some shopping done, and climb up into the sheep’s head, as this time I wasn’t utterly wiped out, like the first time we went).

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Once we got to Sydney, I spent MOST of my time resting. Since we still had the rental car, Mik took me and one of his girlfriends, who was visiting him from California, to see Sydney’s Luna Amuseument Park (although we didn’t do any rides or anything like that). Apparently, while in Melbourne he’d walked me to the doors of THEIR version of the same, but my brain was so addled at the time that I didn’t realize that we had till we drove by it the following year when we did a longer stay in Melbourne, and he reminded me of it (the first time, I was just thrilled with being able to do a reasonably energetic walk, as in the post concussive dizziness had subsided enough to allow me to do that).

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The Jewish LGBT folks’ sign says Dayenu, an inside joke that made me very happy

About a week later we attended the ‘concluding’ Parade for one of Sydney’s biggest tourist draws, MariGras Week — which happens the same week as Catholic MardiGras, but that at some point converted from a Catholic pre-lent thing into Australia’s biggest LGBTQ event (Again, I’ve not yet written that blog post, so I can’t explain why, yet). After that, we headed off on our separate ways, while making plans for possible future joint travel.

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SO, a few months later we met up again in for a week in Ohio, where we spent a few days in Dayton, Ohio … a town I’d been wanting him to see. Dayton is in my opinion is one of the most undervalued tourist destinations in the US, as most Americans today have completely forgotten what the town had been in the past (it WAS the USA’s equivalent of today’s silicon valley during the industrial revolution). Mik, an engineer by trade, had passed through Dalton before, on the way to visiting friends who lived in nearby Columbus, OH, but didn’t realize its historic value and had never taken the time to really SEE it, but I had spoken to him about it at length, and had managed to convince him it was up his alley of interests. Turned out he wasn’t so much into issues of flight/travel… but what the town was ultimately about was the evolution of engines, and THAT he is very interested in, so he ended up enjoying himself but for very different reasons than I did. And here in lies one of the MAJOR differences between how Mik likes to travel and how I like to do it.

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[return to the meat]

It was after our Ohio trip, while planning our future ones, that I began realizing that most of my choices were turning into doing what he wanted and trailing after him. Me I’m essentially pretty easy, so as long as what he wanted to do was something I was physically capable of (my health issues meant I couldn’t go hiking with him, as much as I would have liked to) all good. The opposite, functionally, only happened after HOURS of negotiating, and tended to result in… you know how when you’re traveling with a little kid you have to actively plan it around what they want to do cause otherwise they’ll make it hell for you? It was a bit like that…. doing anything that he wasn’t really interested in meant being abandoned, because he was never willing to just trail along behind me.

Also, the entirety of the planning burden, was ending up on my shoulders. I was the one who had to search for out next digs, and every time it had to meet his needs, which included him having his own bedroom in any town he had lovers, so that he could have dates… which meant we weren’t really saving any money traveling together in those places. Only I had to also wait on him to agree to each location. I’d create lists of possible apartments, send him the list and then have to wait a full week or sometimes two or THREE weeks for him to get back to me, because he basically had to have nothing fun and hence distracting lined up before he be willing to sit down and do the work of planning.

That was when our disconnects started to really aggravate me. Oh, the conflicts were all pretty low-level. He and I really are pretty much OK with each other, it’s just that for me the benefits of traveling together were quickly getting outweighed by the annoyance of we are VERY different people. It worked for a while, then it didn’t. He likes the weather hot to equatorial, I like the weather cool enough to be able to wear a light jacket and a hat. If I agree to go where its hot and miserable, it happens, if I want to go somewhere cool, it rarely happens. He likes hills and mountains, I like looking at them from flat places where I can walk easier — cause I have real mobility issues and a high risk of falling if they’re not respected. I like shopping, historical and cultural stuff, he’s ok with that in short doses, but his priority is all about being social with old friends, reconnecting with old lovers and whenever possible finding new ones. I need a low-fat but in protein rich diet, he wants a high fat vegetarian one (and is disgusted by the smell of meat and fish). I love Japanese and Chinese food, he actively dislikes those kinds. I like things structured and organized in such a way as to allow for flexibility within obligations (which I never resent), he prefers lots of spontaneity and being able to do whatever he feels like doing whenever he feels like doing it (and resents the obligations that means he can’t, even though he admits there are a lot of benefits that come with my way of doing it).

This caused issues like him agreeing to things after long discussions, and then promptly forgetting anything agreed to that he didn’t actually want to do. At first I thought I was going crazy thinking this was the pattern, but I reached out to a bunch of mutual friends who had been his former partners, and they ALL said, “YUP, that’s what he does!” In NZ this actually resulted in me waiting to be picked up from Hobbiton at 10pm (which is the middle of NOTHING)  — even after my having said to him repeatedly, “you’ll pick me up at 10 right?” with him gripping and saying he’d already agreed to that so why was I repeating the question?… (I had because I knew he didn’t want to) …. only to realize he had in his own head decided that I’d agreed to finding my own way home. SERIOUSLY! Oh, and in addition, I prefer staying places for at least a few days each so I can rest a lot, and preferably for months if it’s a major city that has a lot of offer … while he gets antsy staying anywhere for more than 6 weeks (unless it’s a place he thinks of as home), and would prefer to not be there more than 3. … SO, yes, what it came down to was a basic disconnect

My theory about why it worked so well the first trip, but then did a mind blistering 180 the 2nd time we went to Australia, is that, at that point, in his head (he HATES when I do this), our relationship had shifted from “I’m on probation and being considered for a gig” to “OK, I can relax now, this is a sort of relationship with legs, she’s a housemate… with a moving house.” I’ve actually had a relationship like that in the past with the one guy I almost married. We were GREAT right up until I said “YES” to the ring, so to speak… and then from that day forward he went from absolutely charming bordering on perfect, to becoming a right asshole. When I asked him what had changed he’d said to me, “well you’re almost family now, I shouldn’t HAVE to be nice to family.” In Mik’s case… this was things like, he had been super clean and neat the first year, but then turned into something of a minor slob the 2nd (leaving puddles of water in the bathroom, wanting to bring food into my bed when we were streaming a show, etc).

I have confirmation of this being the fact with Mik, because over the last 4 months, every time he and I would have a “big talk”, or I get seriously pissed at him, he’ll shift back into the guy I was traveling with the previous year, at least for a few days…the same guy who I think (based on my personal observations), shows up when he’s with his sweeties (women he’s in non-monogamous relationships with who he only see sporadically, or for short stints) …. and everything will be good… and then he’d get comfortable again and all the behaviors I couldn’t stand would start-up again. (And again, I contacted all the women I know who’ve done long relationships with him, or whose sisters used to be his housemates, and they all confirmed, I wasn’t being neurotic… it was consistent with what they knew of him.) When that switch in his behavior would happen, I got annoyed and short-tempered and snarky with him… with lots of under my breath commentaries. Keep in mind, we’d done big talks to no effect, so I just gave up on trying …. because its pointless to talk about something when it never makes a difference because he just rejects that what I’m unhappy with happened or worse, he accepts it, and then forgets the conversation ever happened. There’s no learning curve, so — either way, it’s a lose lose scenario for me … till the next blow up, at which point he’s worried about his security again and he’s back to who I thought I’d be traveling with in the first place … that same guy who is great and easy to have around. Then wash, rinse, repeat … he gets comfortable again, stops minding his p’s and q’s…. we are back to where we started.

Also, as long as my health issues were emergency mode… he was great, but then he’d lose patience with not being able to do what he wanted to do when he wanted to do it. So, not wanting to be abandoned, I’d try my damnedest to keep up his pace, and inevitably end up falling down (literally, I went boom a lot more often with him than I do alone). Add to that the fact that he kept coming back from visits to girlfriends (many of whom have kids) with colds, and passing those colds on to me… He’s of the sort who gets better after 3 days, I’m the sort who stays seriously ill for a solid 2 to 3 weeks… and by the 2nd cold in 3 months… well, enough was enough. He was in fact ruining my experiences.

Insanity is doing the same thing over and over expecting different results. We’ve had THREE major attempts at fixing this in the last 4 months of traveling together, and the pattern got repeated. Three strikes and done. I told him in NZ, strike 2 … well yelled at him really, that I no longer wanted to go with him to Amsterdam. Then back in Sydney we had yet another blowup (in front of one of his dates) … after which, he’d been on BEST behavior, till finally I was like, “we need to talk about Amsterdam”, he agreed we did… and we agreed to cancelling that and all future trips.

The fact that I had, to his minor annoyance, insisted that we maintain a spread-sheet of ‘who paid what’ at this point turned out to have been a VERY good thing in the long run. For some small things, like dinners where the waiter refused to split the checks, we’d kept a pattern of taking turns, but for pretty much everything else, that all went into the spread sheet. I STRONGLY suggest this to anyone who gives this a try! Of course, he was the one in charge of the spread sheet (because he’s a computer programmer and knows how to make it REALLY work, while I’m clueless beyond using it as set up; as in every time I try to do more than just input data I’d seriously fuck it up and he’d have to go in and change the coding. That said, Mik being Mik, it wasn’t what he wanted to do, so it took him a few weeks to get around to it, with me having to send him constant reminders and him saying “oh yah, thanks for the reminder, I forgot.”; but, he FINALLY finalized it about 3 weeks AFTER he’d promised it would be done by (every leg of planning was like this, hence my mounting frustration with him)… with the end result being he owed me money… which he sent me via PayPal (about a week after figuring out he needed to — yes that me rolling my eyes). Last week, because he wanted my photos but was utterly unwilling to download them one at a time from cloud, we finally figured out how to cross share photographs — I’m a mac person, he’s a PC/Android person, it caused problems… DROP BOX is your friend ladies and gentleman… That said, it was ONLY our friend because he has a corporate account with them which allowed for (almost) infinite hard drive space. His google cloud account would only allow me to download from him a few at a time… not ALL at once as he was demanding… but unlike him, I have a modicum of patience. His unwillingness to accommodate to how websites like Airbnb wanted him to function versus how HE wanted to function, was part of why I ended up doing ALL the leg work of planning via those sites. ….snark snark snark

Hobbiton in Matamata, New Zealand: Evening Banquet Tour, and the Economic Impact that Lord of the Rings has had on the country

Located in what once was the laid-back Dairy town of Matamata, New Zealand (NZ), is the movie set turned tourist attraction, Hobbiton. It is a must see for any fan of Peter Jackson‘s Lord of the Rings (LOTR) movie series, of the J. R. R. Tolkien books of the same names. From an economic standpoint, this single tourist attraction, which happened almost by accident, has become the “flagship” for what is now the impressive movie-tourism industry that has evolved in NZ over the past 20 years. As a result, visitors can swing through the entire country on any number of “see all of the LOTR locations in 14 days” type tours, (most of whom also throw in a taste of Māori culture for good measure). However, for myself, I prefer to take my time when traveling. As such I suggest spending the night in or near Matamata, and timing your visit so that you can attend a Hobbiton evening Tour and Banquet, which only happens a few times a week — all told, for any Tolkien fan, it’s well worth the price (and the food ROCKS!!).

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[I need to do a quick shout out to the Hobbiton staff who worked “on set” on the evening of March 3, 2019. They are all amazingly well-trained customer service wonks who all seemed to love their jobs and not only never squashed our excitement, but rather actually aided our enjoyment. None of them were “phoning it in” so to speak. While the whole thing was impressively well choreographed (looking at youtube videos I see the same thing over and over), none of it FELT rehearsed or false. The whole time I felt as though I were being led through the set by friendly folks who seemed to genuinely enjoy our excitement to be doing it (like great teachers are) … And the food was not only delectable, but just enough to make sure everyone who wants seconds can have them (with just enough left over to feed the pigs); while not so much as to be a waste, etc,. That, and the timing of the meal was also perfect, so that no one ever felt rushed. BRAVO on a great performance! That said, shame that some of the staff at Shire’s rest aren’t that good, although, but, on second thought… maybe that’s why they were delegated to that location and kept off set.]

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FIRST thing you’ll see when exiting International Arrivals in Aukland, need I say more? As in RIGHT in your line of sight after customs.

Let’s be real, if you’re a nerd/geek like I am, your number one motivator to go to New Zealand was probably to see the 12 acre Hobbiton movie set. Other than for that, it’s hard to think of what other reason might have drawn over half a million people to the small town of Matamata in just over 10 years. Even the town itself recognizes this reality, to the extent that their welcome sign says “Welcome to Hobbiton” in BIG letters, and only refers to itself as Matamata in the small print (see first image above)….Most tourists coming here believe the set, is simply what was left behind from when they made the LOTR movies back in the early 2000’s, but the truth is a bit more complicated.

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Local businesses in Matamata clearly understand what’s drawing people to them

Peter Jackson chose to build his Hobbit Shire in this general part of New Zealand because the region’s natural landscape of green rolling hills already conformed with his mind’s eye vision of the shire, as described in the books. In essence, the local topography is grass-covered sand dunes. This is why the area mostly supports things like dairy and wool production, as it is great for feeding livestock but less so for planting. While sandy soil is good for growing things like root vegetables and corn, that is only when the land is generally flat. With hills like these, any farming of that sort becomes difficult. Driving past the other farms that encircle the movie set area you quickly realize that this Hobbit like topography is NOT special or limited to the small farm inhabited by the movie set; the below image for instance was taken along a road about a 20 minute drive southeast of where the Hobbiton set is located, and could just have easily been chosen.

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Photo taken outside of Tapapa, about 20 min south of Hobbiton

According to the Hobbiton website, construction of what was intended to be 39 temporary hobbit-hole homes began in March 1999, and filming started in December of that same year… and lasted only three months. Once filming completed in early 2000, they began to tear down the set (as had been set forward in the initial contract) but then the rainy season began, which put a halt to the process. During that time the owner of the farm began giving private tours to friends and family, but word got out and then strangers began to trickle in, wanting to see Hobbiton with their own eyes (only he didn’t have the legal permission to allow that, let alone charge for it).

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NOTE the sign saying FULLY BOOKED, and this was off season

As such, the owner changed his mind and negotiated with the film company to stop the dismantling of the set, which left a bunch of empty holes in the ground and only 17 plain white plywood facades in place [click this link for an article with images of how it looked then]. The negotiations to turn it into a tourism business took about a year, and included the stipulation that the studio earn a percentage of the money from every tour given. When finally completed in 2002, formalized tours of the movie-set began, and a former sheep shearing building that belonged to the owner was retrofitted into the “Shire’s Rest,” an area where tourists assembled before being taken onto the grounds proper.

The following are clips showing how this whole location, which took a lot of money to build was actually only used for a few short minutes in the films….

Keep in mind that Hobbiton is JUST the exterior shots, all interior ones happened in an entirely different part of New Zealand, in a film studio.

Among the people in my tour group were an older couple who told me that this was their third visit to the site. Their first had been back around this time in the early 2000’s, and that at the time the whole thing looked more than a bit dilapidated… with bits of plywood where the doors had been … sort of like a boarded up Hobbit ghost town, and yet, the tourists came… but they claimed that this had not dampened their excitement at the time to be able to see it, even with weeds growing everywhere, etc.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_28abWhen the studio returned to the site in 2009, asking if they could use the land again for the filming of the second trilogy which focused on “The Hobbit” (released in 2012, 2013 and 2014), the owner agreed, with the “price” being that this time rather than using materials intended for temporary film sets, all of the Hobbit holes had to be built using quality materials — and that they be left in place afterwards to support his now ongoing tourist trade. The rebuilding proceeded in 2010. At that time, since the location was now going to be a much more central feature to the films, five additional Hobbit Holes were added. (As I showed above, in the first trilogy the shire was only visible in the movie for a few minutes) When filming began again in 2011, actors commented on how the location, rather than showing any of the tell-tale signs of being a movie set, now looked like a real, but idealized, village where people lived and worked. This in turn, increased the value for visitors ten-fold, and like Disney World adding a new ride, word of mouth about the improvements generated not only return business, but new interest as well.

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However, at that time, no “tourist facilities” existed within the movie set area itself, which the ever-increasing number of attendees made problematic.  If you needed bathrooms or snacks, those needs could only be fulfilled back at the Shire’s Rest facility, before or after your visit (or porta potties, YUCH!). So in 2012 The Green Dragon Inn was built; it is an exact replica of the Inn, as seen in the movies. This final ‘destination building’ not only provided bathrooms, but solved a major complaint of tourists up until then.

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The Dragon Inn’s bathrooms: as imagined by the studio’s designers — I’m guessing, because this wasn’t in the movie… love the handicapped hobbit

As our guides made a point of telling us REPEATEDLY, Hobbiton was only built to provide exterior shots for the LOTR movies, and all interior ones were done at a movie studio, so “no, you can’t go into any of the hobbit homes” (let alone ask to use their bathrooms); and even where you could step in, what’s behind the door is not a real home (see images below). The Green Dragon Inn filled that gap in the experience by giving tourists the much longed for chance to enjoy a hobbit interior. As such, the Dragon acts as both the conclusion and the “HIGH point/climax” of your visit. It is both a place where tourists can have that experience, while having a rest (for a very limited time before being shuffled off the set again). There they are given one free drink of their choosing (from their special brews, for sale at the Shire’s Rest and at other gift shops in Matamata), and the option to buy more drinks, and/or a snack (or use the bathroom). BUT, as I said, on the normal tours your visit to the Inn is VERY limited, about 10 minutes tops. So signing up for an evening tour that includes the Banquet is the ONLY way you’ll be allowed to truly enjoy it at your leisure.

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The closest I got to Mount Ngauruhoe, this trip…

However, Hobbiton is just the flagship/main attraction, for a movie based travel industry that has evolved in the nation. What I’m about to say is a bit bizarre, and might offend some New Zealanders … but bear with me…. Between the two existing trilogies there are already 170 LOTR filming locations scattered around NZ’s two main islands, arguably at least as many locations to see as there are ‘things to do’ at Disney World — the world’s most famous movie-based attraction (if you include all the shuttle ferries, stuff to see at the hotels, etc). And both offer no shortage of tour books and web sites to help visitors discover where each and every one of those ‘attractions’ are and how best to appreciate them. Only while the excitement offered at Disney tends to be more passive (you sit, and are taken through something), New Zealand’s LOTR attractions, like Tom Sawyer’s Island or most of Paris Disney, are all walk through experiences, only with a lot more exertion required, trekking and mountain climbing, etc., and a lot fewer rides (think the tour busses). So it is in fact comparable, albeit different.

So for example, Mordor’s Mount Doom in LOTR is actually Mount Ngauruhoe, an active stratovolcano, that is one of the two such peaks located within Tongariro National Park; and like ALL mountain tops in NZ, it is a sacred place to her Māori people, and as such, by law, you are NOT allowed to drive to the top without first obtaining special permission. In fact, if you look at the google map for the place, while there are dirt roads going by it (accessible for those with mobility problems only if you rented a 4-wheel drive, and got official authorization in advance), there are in fact no roads that go up it; so if you want to see it your options are to hire a helicopter to fly you over (like I said, a movie-travel industry), or even more popularly, you can find local lodgings and choose to spend a full day hiking to the top. Oh, and if you want “shows” like at Disney, I suggest Māori cultural experiences. For myself, I STRONGLY prefer taking the time to relish things, and if I ever got the capacity back (unlikely without surgery and PT) would totally hike it.

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That said, the reality is, you actually don’t need to pay for a group tour to take you to see the LOTR sites/sights if you don’t want to, nor even buy a book on the subject to help you plan your trip. If you’re not someone who’s into pre-planning, you can in fact just impulsively fly to NZ, and figure it out as you go along. To paraphrase the New Zealand tourism board’s website, there are over 80 i-SITE visitor information centers scattered around the country, many of them located in distinctive or historic buildings (like the one above). In them you will find no shortage of pamphlets, and trained professionals, who can inform you about everything there is to do in any particular area you’re currently in, including which parts were film locations. And, of course, while in these i-SITE centers, you can do some souvenir shopping — as I’ve yet to find one that doesn’t have a gift shop.

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The government clearly knows from whence its tourist prosperity comes, and embraces that connection to Lord of the Rings, especially in Matamata. The town’s i-SITE building was even built to look like a cross between a traditional British home, and a Hobbiton one (note the round doors). While you COULD book your tickets here, in this particular case I REALLY don’t suggest leaving THAT to the last-minute. As mentioned repeatedly, Hobbiton is the flagship attraction to a WHOLE industry, and demand is high while availability limited. The set can only accommodate a finite group of tourists per day … particularly if you want to take advantage of any of the “tour and a meal” options. So seriously, book ahead for this part of you LOTR’s tour of NZ.

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While the Hobbiton tours began officially in 2002, in what was a half-broken down movie set, by 2012, after the repairs and upgrades had been completed (including the Green Dragon Inn) it had become enough of an attraction that it had 17 full-time people working on staff, and by 2013, attendance was said to average about 400 to 600 people daily, with as many as 2,000 showing up at the peak of the season; so, somewhere around 220,000 visitors annually, a number which increased to 350,000 in 2015Tours usually leave Shire’s Rest for the movie set every half hour (you can NOT enter the set on your own, you MUST be part of a tour) and, each of those lasts for about two hours. On average days, the last tour starts at 3:30, and on peak ones their hours are extended by just one hour, so that the last regular/no meal tour starts at 4:30. And, when they say pre-booking is essential, they mean it. As such, I would NOT expect to show up at the site, or even at the i-sight center the day of (or even the day before) and expect to be able to just walk on… unless you are very very lucky. I booked my ticket for the banquet tour a good three weeks in advance… during the OFF season, and there was already only limited seating available.

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One of the things that really amused me when we got to the Shire’s Rest parking lot was the sheer number of Jucy vans parked there…  for those who don’t know, this company was founded in Australia initially as a campervan rental company (vans converted into campers), although they’ve expanded into renting cars. For the most part (although they’ve come out with some subtler ones recently — note the plain white ones in the upper right image) these rentals tend to be pretty hard to miss. Most of the vans are the garish green you see above, while others are covered in what looks like graffiti art with off-color images and messages written on them. For those, you’ll rarely see two exactly alike. Their business model is to provide small, energy-efficient, well designed and highly functional, camper vans… at an affordable price. Their product initially was aimed at the backpacker crowd (young travelers), but as they’ve expanded into the family market they’ve toned down the exteriors of their rentals. If you want to do a LOTR tour of the island on your own (not part of a 14 day tour group), then you might seriously want to consider renting one of these.

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Adjacent to the parking lot you’ll find this small Information building, where those who have already reserved their tickets on-line (i.e., pretty much everyone) are asked to check in. (The window off to the left is a small ice cream shop.) When I was booking I wanted the longest stay possible, once I discovered that you’re NOT allowed to wander around the place on your own. I considered both the Tour & Meal combo, and the Evening Banquet tour options, but the former appeared no real competition to the latter. The “meal” option puts you into a tent that’s ADJACENT to the Dragon Inn (NOT inside), where there’s a Buffett… i.e., standing in line with lord knows how many other people to fill your plate. This option lasts for 2.5-3 hours (2 hours for the tour, and then about a full hour to eat). While the banquet option involves sitting down to an already drool worthy, family style laid out table where instead of being in a tent you’re comfortably INSIDE the warmth and comfort of the Dragon Inn. AND not only do you get to see the shire during the golden hour, with the sun setting over the hills, but you also get led through a 2nd time, late at night. So you see it in daylight, and you get to see it lit up by candlelight (well electric, but close enough). The Banquet tour is the longest visit option, lasting about 4+ hours: 2 hours for the tour, and then about an hour and a half spent at the inn, followed by the 2nd walk through the shire at night….. more details to come (see below).

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Once you arrive at the Shire’s Rest, originally the farm’s sheep shearing and wool shed building, which was retrofitted to its new purpose, there are sufficient things to do that, while you’re REQUIRED to arrive 15 minutes in advance of your tour’s departure time, you might want to get there a full half hour before that.

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To the right of the building (image above) is a small shaded area of benches and ropes, where you line up when it’s time to load onto the busses. The first floor of the main building holds the ticketing center, and a gift-shop selling a wide variety of LOTR “stuff” (most of which is available from online sellers). My tendency when it comes to places like this is, I window-shop the shops, but don’t buy. Having worked as a catalog photographer back when I was in my 20’s, I know full well how good we were able to make piece of crap items look in the photos… so before I buy I want to see the items with my own eyes. However, places like this tend to be overpriced and rely on your excitement about the visit (impulse buying) to drive sales. So, I take photos of the stuff that interests me (try to get the name of the producers, etc.) and then try to find it used on eBay.  Probably the only location specific items I’d seriously consider buying here are the postcards, and the LOTR themed Southfarthing™ beverage range, of Middleearth wines and such, which can be purchased here, or at the i-SITE center back at Matamata, or at the Green Dragon (but that are NOT available on-line… I’ve been looking, no luck)… and of course there are clothing items to be purchased made of local wools.

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The guy bottom right brought his Gollum character on the tour (will show up again later)

Upstairs on the building’s 2nd floor is a full service cafe that will provide you with cooked foods and hot coffee until 3pm, at which point their kitchen closes. Here is where you can find “second breakfast,” lamb burgers, and fish and chips. After 3pm, any already prepared foods that are still in the refrigerated case are available for sale, until the close of business, but nothing hot. Apparently, Shire’s Rest’s kitchen is also available to cater weddings, functions and company events.

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Adjacent to the main building is a smaller establishment called the Garden Bar, which offers outdoor seating only, and sells wine, beer and a small selection of nibbles. There are bathrooms adjacent to both the bar and the cafe. When it’s time for your tour you assemble in the area I described before, and are loaded up into busses and vans.

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If you’re given a choice (you might not be) the difference is this: The busses have a built-in video system where you’ll be shown a composite movie timed to last the entire trip. It is made-up from all scenes shot in this location, and all six LOTR movies, so that when you arrive you’ll have been recently reminded of what you’re looking at.

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The vans do not have this system, and instead there’ll be a tour guide who will recite to you about all sorts of facts and figures about the location (which I assume the movie also does), and will point out the one film location the busses pass (the one in the image above); the guide however can do something that the movie can’t, i.e., answer any questions you might have. I was in the van. The location above, if I recall correctly, was where the wizard Gandalf and the Hobbit Frodo pass through, while riding together on the wagon when traveling towards the shire at the beginning of the first trilogy.

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Once you arrive on the set proper, the entire group from all the conveyances will collect together and be given instructions of what you can and can not do: where you can walk, etc. The group will then be broken into manageable subgroups, each with its own guide. The groups will all take slightly different paths so that there’s never too many people in one place at one time, but all of the groups will ultimately see all the same things, but will come at them from different paths.

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According to a Forbes article from 2012, the making of the Lord of the Rings movies in NZ has touched the lives of each and every New Zealander, whether they realize it or not. Firstly, NZ is a place which, back when I was in high-school in the 1980’s I remember being laughingly described as having more sheep than people, and not much else. As a result, (and this excludes the people who have moved to the country in the 15 years since the movies came out) pretty much the entire population found themselves at one degree of separation from the film’s production.

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Firstly, from a country of 3.88 million (at the time) about 20,000 locals were hired as extras to work in the films (about 1/16 of 1% of the population) — BUT if the average Facebook account is any measure — limiting it to those who will only friend people they know because of face to face interactions — each of these have about 450 friends, family and co-workers each… and 20,000 X 450 = 9 million…. far more than the 3.88 million of New Zealand’s population in 2001. But the hiring of local resources in the making of the film didn’t stop there by ANY measure…

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According to this site, 1,200 suits of armor, 1,600 pairs of prosthetic feet and ears were made and used along with 2,000 weapons to recreate the battle scenes — and even if these were made abroad and imported, all of these had to be handled, organized, and distributed locally… which requires manpower. (The following video, which clarifies a lot of misunderstandings about the story that are held by people who’ve seen the movies but not read the books, includes a scene where two people are struggling to get a prosthetic hobbit’s foot onto an actor’s real one — its worth watching)

And the hiring did not end there; according to one of the officials for Tourism New Zealand whose job it is to focus on people arriving from abroad, Gregg Anderson “During a fight scene in Return of the King, I can see my niece’s horse.”

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Additionally, according to the same source, in order to create Hobbiton, 5,000 cubic meters of vegetable and flower gardens were planted a year before filming. According to our tour guide while MOST of Hobbiton is natural landscape, the homes did need to be dug into the hillsides, and some of the contours of those hills were changed subtly to support the lie that there were homes within them…

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As already mentioned, only a few of the doorways built into the sides of these hills actually lead to any sort of interior space. In such cases, there is usually JUST enough room for an actor or actors, to open a door and walk in or out (see the image below) … MOST of the doors in Hobbiton are just exterior facades leading to nothing– although they all had to LOOK like they are doors of actual homes that lead to something.

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The above home with the Red door, was the ONE such accessible space that tourists to the Hobbiton set are allowed into.  There was enough standing space inside for maybe three people, if one of them was crouched… and the tour guide sort of lined us up so each of us who wanted it could get a picture of themselves standing in the doorway.

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Bag-end, Bilbo’s Home

In each of the cases where the door opens to an actual space (as in actors must be able to enter), only enough of the interior is decorated as was necessary to support the illusion when said actor opened the door and the camera peered through it, if only for an instant. The above is Bag End the home of one of the main characters, Bilbo Baggins, the elder Hobbit who is in possession of the ring at the beginning of the initial LOTR movie trilogy, and the protagonist of the The Hobbit, the second movie trilogy. And as you can see, if you look through the doorway, you are given the impression there’s an actual hallway behind it… This however is the least impressive of the illusions of the set…

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That reward goes to the large tree above Bag End … it is a FAKE tree!!! While in the original movie there was a real tree there (although apparently even that was a cut-down tree used for the filming), what currently stands is a smaller replica with silk leaves. This is because of continuity issues in film making. When they filmed the original LOTR, they didn’t know it would be SUCH a big hit, or that they’d be filming The Hobbit a few years later. The first trilogy filmed (LOTR), in the fictional time-line, happened 60 years AFTER the story that happened in the second trilogy, The Hobbit (confused yet?), and trees GROW quite a bit in 60 years. As such, for the Hobbit (60 years before), that tree (which had been seen in the LOTR) had to be a smaller tree, requiring that they shrink the tree in order to maintain continuity… with no way to find a 2nd smaller tree to cut down with exactly the same sort of branch pattern as in the first trilogy (no two trees are exactly alike). SO, it was just easier to make a fake one! Movie Magic!%JrDeNLsSfmes89bJfdzBA_thumb_d92a

Another illusion manufactured at the location has to do with the size of Hobbits. According to Tolkien, hobbits are supposed to be between two and four feet tall, so the biggest are a bit shorter than the small boy in the pink shirt. I on the other hand stand 5’4″. The reason there’s such variation in the size of the doors is to manufacture the lie, with door sized calculated to falsify the impression of size the various actors had to create vis-à-vis the characters they were playing.

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An actor is seen outside of the above yellow door, so it’s human sized

Returning however to the economics of the thing: The (so far) SIX Lord of the Ring movies (which together cost slightly over one billion to make) were all major world-wide hits whose combined releases have to date generated $5,886,273,810 in worldwide box-office revenue. Because of the various businesses that have developed to support both the film industry and tourism, the massive success has gone on to have a long-term economic impact on the country of New Zealand that can not be overstated. As evidence, the positive impact of the first three LOTR films on NZ’s economy was enough to ensure that the government has not only gave Peter Jackson some controversial tax breaks, but also changed local employment laws in order to ensure that he didn’t keep to his threat of moving the Hobbit and all other future movies to cheaper locations.

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Currently tourism is New Zealand’s second largest industry after Dairy. Ask any of the long time locals and they’ll admit that Peter Jackson’s choice to use their country’s topography as the backdrop for his movies did more to advertise those natural wonders, and hence to put their nation on the tourism map, than ANY amount of advertising done by their government.

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Between the LOTR’s initial release in 2001, and 2012, the country saw a 50% increase in tourism, and even though only 1% of travelers (in 2012) said the movies were the ONLY thing that drew them, 6% of those asked admitted that the movies, and seeing the locations with their own eyes was one of the motivators for flying there — which accounted for about $162 million USD in tourism dollars. Even among those who were NOT motivated to travel to New Zealand because of the movies, 80% of them knew the films had been and were continuing to be filmed there, because of her unique natural wonders, a knowledge which helped them to see it as a desirable tourism destination.

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That said, the fact is that Peter Jackson, COULD have filmed all of his interior scenes anywhere in the world, but because he chose to shoot all of them in his home country of New Zealand, and then insisted on doing all of the post production  work there as well … at Weta Digital (a special effects house he founded) and at Park Road Post (formerly a small state-owned post production facility, but now a large one owned by Jackson) in Wellington — sometimes referred to as the house Frodo built, and due to Jackson’s influence now considered by some to be the best in the world … all of this together helped to build film facilities within the country that are now a 3 billion dollar industry NZD (New Zealand dollars).

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As mentioned previously, back in 2013 there was apparently some upset when Peter Jackson had threatened to move the filming and production of the Hobbit trilogy to places like Eastern Europe, etc., where it could have been filmed more affordably. By doing so, he successfully blackmailed the country’s government into not only coughing up $67 million NZD in tax breaks for his production, on top of having already in 2010, having had the country’s employment laws changed to his likings. The ‘Hobbit law’ — officially called the Employment Relations (Film Production Work) Amendment Bill resulted in a lot of outcry not just from actors, but also from the nation’s workers at large. This change in the law barred anyone working in NZ’s film industry from collective bargaining, and stipulated that any actors working in film production would be listed as contractors, unless they signed a contract that explicitly listed them as employees, i.e., sort of a BIG DEAL from the point of unions, etc.

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One has to keep in mind that just the parts of the film industry that evolved out of LOTR had in 2016 added $1.015 billion to NZ’s real Gross Domestic Product, so clearly, those tax breaks were paid back, with interest, and that was only about 1/3 of NZ’s entire $3.3 billion in revenue earned from the screen industry at large for that same year. In part this is because the LOTR franchise helps to supports 2,700 other businesses  (carpenters, costumers, set catering, etc) …. businesses that can then go on to serve other productions in the movie industry, and whose very existence make NZ a more attractive alternative to movie makers in general, including the new online-TV production companies like Netflix and Amazon…. it’s a rising tide that lifts all boats, so to speak.

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And, the cream in that coffee is that most of these jobs are supported to the tune of 80-90% by money from the film budgets of FOREIGN companies (not NZ tax dollars), the majority of which come from Hollywood that again feeds money into the local NZ economies. All of this LOTR prosperity may account for why the New Zealand post office released stamps with the Hobbit characters on them, and Air New Zealand has two planes decorated with a Tolkienesque theme. And things like this:

This also explains why, in 2018, the new government had under pressure given in to taking a look at making changes to the Hobbit Law, while refusing to repeal it entirely (which is what their constituency had wanted); and this rejection was in spite of being WAY more liberal than the previous government. As a general rule, no government is going to ‘kill the goose that’s laying the golden eggs’ without extreme provocation.

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Another VERY important point to know (that would surprise most people), is that while New Zealand’s economy is ranked first in the entire world for its socially progressive policies, and has a reputation for being one of the cleanest and greenest among the First World/western block, high incomeOrganisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries….  the reality is that it is, ironically, also the most DEregulated government within that institution. This is the result of the economic policies of Roger Douglas, who was NZ’s Minister of Finance back in 1984, as part of the country’s Fourth Labour Government (1984-1990). Known as Rogernomics, a hat-tilt to Ronald Reagan‘s  Reaganomics, he had instituted a set of neoliberal economic policies, the most important of which from the perspective of this piece, was an almost complete deregulation of NZ’s industries.

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Deregulation is almost always a good thing…. in the beginning. According to one study, between 1978 and 1998 employment in NZ increased by 50,000 jobs, an increase of 2.6% in a country that at the time had a population that grew, during that period, from 3.121 million to 3.8 million, and kept growing to today’s 4.794 million, all of which demanded a LOT of new buildings to go up, especially in city centers like Auckland. Keep in mind Peter Jackson began building the Hobbiton Movie set within this deregulatory economic context, in 1999. Of course the downside of deregulation is shoddy construction, increased pollution, etc.

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View from our Airbnb in Auckland, New Zealand, note all the new construction

I had my first hint that something of the sort was going on during my first days in the country, when we were at our Airbnb in Auckland. At the time I had commented to my travel buddy on the high number of newly constructed buildings that (to my well-traveled eye) looked like Asian construction. Architecturally, there’s all sorts of decorative devices you see in Asia that you’ll never see in the west, for good reason. Back when I was in my 20’s I did an internship with a Japanese ceramics firm that among a plethora of other things, made the easy to clean decorative tiles you see lining the sides of Japanese buildings. When I asked my boss why they didn’t expand into the US market, he told me, “We can’t. Those tiles are only stuck to the sides with a sort of glue, and they have a tendency to fall down from time to time and hit people in the head. In Asia, that’s no big deal because if it happens the victim’s family looks on it as just being bad karma. In the USA you blame the company for unsafe building practices, and it ends up in a massive lawsuit.” And then of course I lived in Korea for a few years, so I’m more than familiar with this sort of pretty but questionable constructionUNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_cbc3

One day as I was stepping out of that same Airbnb (in Auckland), I came across a real estate saleswoman trying to sell an apartment in our building to this young guy. He was clearly annoyed and wanted to know if she had anything NOT in this building. Out of curiosity I asked her what was the place they were selling and the price, it was about $200K USD, which struck me as suspiciously cheap for a one bedroom in a high-rise apartment in the middle of any downtown, let alone in the nations largest city. She admitted the building had “problems.” I asked what kind, and she admitted it had all sorts of problems, not just one or two, and that the owners might not be able to fix any of them although they were trying. The price was so low because you needed to be able to pay in cash as no bank would give you a loan to buy a place in this building… In other words, these beautiful new buildings in downtown Auckland, most of which looked to me like Asian construction, were in fact, of … probably Chinese construction. Again, what happens when you deregulate the construction industry…. is builders don’t do what they’re not absolutely required to do… which can lead to problems.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_294fBut in the land of deregulation well…. it’s a double-edged sword. But for the deregulated environment, I doubt that Jackson would have had it so easy making his film here, or building his post production companies, and quite likely Hollywood would have pressured him into making the film elsewhere.

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Deregulation, like Daenerys Stormborn’s dragons in GOT can be HIGHLY problematic doubled edged swords

And but for his having had done all that in New Zealand, we’d not be having this conversation. Additionally, had regulations existed, its questionable if Hobbiton as a tourist attraction would have been legally allowed to develop in the haphazard way it did, as things of this sort normally have to jump through any number of regulatory health and safety hoops…. like it not having a bathroom for the first 10 years of its existence … So… there’s that.

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The Dragon Inn even  has a resident cat!

Returning to the tour: After an unexpectedly long wait, during which folks explored the area and took lots of pictures (see the ones above)… we were all brought together in the bar area, where a pair of heavy velvet curtains hid the dining room from us. We were asked to PLEASE not take pictures until we were seated at our tables, although they understood the temptation, because if we did the food would get cold and they promised that there’d be plenty of time to inspect the room between our main course and the desserts.

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They then made a big To-do of opening the curtains, asking for volunteers from the group to do the big reveal (the two women in the photo, bottom left) and we all piled into the room like a bunch of excited kids … (really the excitement in the room was palpable)

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That said the spread was HIGHLY impressive not only to look at but also to taste. There were two big roasted chickens which seemed to be of the rotisserie variety and hence very moist and flavorful, a big chunk of salmon that was also not dry in any way, a roasted pumpkin stuffed with succotash (which kind of surprised me because that’s very much an American dish — corn, tomatoes, and peppers all being New World foods — but as I said sandy soil like the sort that the local topography is made of supports growing corn, so I’m guessing these were all local ingredients). There as also a big tray full of lamb shanks that sat on a bed of bubble and squeak, and came with a huge jug of brown gravy, and a mushroom dish that was to DIE for (if you like mushrooms, which I do). There was this huge dish containing a single coiled sausage cut like pizza, resulting in slices of varying sizes (quite tasty).

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Remember the Gollum from before? The guy put him on the table to watch us eat… And look at that guy licking his fingers, you can’t fake that kind of enthusiasm

There was one tray of roasted vegetables, and a big bowl of roasted cut up potato (with spices) again very good… A green salad which to be honest I didn’t touch… cause with all this… fuck no I’m not eating a salad.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_2949There was also a bowl of mashed sweet potato, which apparently in NZ is called Kumara, and has been a Māori/ Polynesian staple from BEFORE the white man arrived. This is kind of fascinating, again, because the sweet potato is believed to also be a new world food. I looked it up and the carbon dating of some sweet potatoes in Polynesia verified the vegetable’s presence there as early as 1400 CE., so before Columbus’s 1492 sailing. There are two theories, one is that Polynesians were SUCH masters of the ocean that they were already in limited trade contact with South America before the European discovery of the same. Another theory (for which no physical supporting evidence has yet been found), suggests that sweet potatoes might have already been on the Polynesian islands before the first humans ever arrived.UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_2978

My LEAST favorite dish was a beef stew type thing, which they described as being beef and ale. It wasn’t very tasty (kind of bland actually) and the beef chunks were very dry and chewy. That said, there were other people at the table talking about how good it was, so to quote one of my mom’s favorite sayings:
על טעם וריח אין להתווכח
….which translates to, “on taste and smell there is nothing on which to argue”

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What amused me no end was that the Green Dragon’s resident cat came to join us when it was time to sit down to dinner. He (she?) walked around the room, and then spotted an empty chair at our table and jumped up into it. The cat was VERY well-behaved, made no attempt to get at the food and just sat and waited for one of us to serve her — at least until she was spotted by one of the servers and shooed out …

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This almost made me cry because I had a cat (R.I.P.) that used to do the same thing. After my mom had died, every Friday night, I cooked all the other nights, my dad made dinner which included his home-made chicken soup. (To die for: the man used actual chicken feet which is the missing secret ingredient for why your soup is never as good as your grandmothers — as almost no one cooks whole chickens anymore.) Our cat would come and sit by the table, wait to be served … he loved that soup… and then went away, having never put his paws on the table, cause he knew it wasn’t allowed.

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More than enough time was given to us (and enough food supplied) that you could go back for seconds if you wanted to. Me, my stomach isn’t that big and I wanted to save room for dessert… so when I was done I walked around took some more pictures, allowing me to see some of the area in twilight.

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And then once EVERYONE was finished, and not before… One of the great things about this meal was you got no sense of being rushed during the banquet, the waiters came and cleared the tables, and then almost completely reset them to prepare for our dessert. During that time everyone got a chance to enjoy the twilight, or explore the room and all its details. (Not sure where this girl found the map of middle earth) While the trays of dessert were much smaller than what had been laid out when we first arrived, realistically we were all so full from the first course that it was more than enough, and there were leftovers when we were done. (Clearly, these guys have done this before — HAH! — and have the serving sizes down to a science, although the staff does a great job of making their performances ‘fresh’ so that you feel like you’re in a warm embrace of friends rather than being shuffled through something choreographed.)

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Look at that anticipation!

The dessert tray consisted firstly of a kiwi and strawberry sauce filled Pavlova (one of the national dishes of both Australia and NZ) topped with fresh cream. For those who don’t know, the Pavlova is essentially a large bowl-shaped container made of white meringue, created in honor of the famous Russian prima ballerina of the same name, who was also the first ever to go on a world-wide tour, and was responsible for introducing modern ballet to the world. This tour included Australia and New Zealand, and at the time she was the single most famous performer to ever visit here… so it was a REALLY big deal. In honor of her arrival the dessert was created, but it’s a point of serious contention between the two countries — a sort of tongue in cheek war that is talked about AD NAUSEUM — as to which one did it first … as apparently it was a great minds think alike sort of issue with two different chefs in the two nations coming up with the same idea for the SAME dessert named in her honor

…. because her most famous dance was The Dying Swan, a dance she performed 4,000 times, which involves wearing a white tutu that looked like Meringue.

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In addition to the obligatory Pavlova, there was a bowl of seasonal fresh fruit, British Bakewell tarts (bottom of image), butterscotch sauce (in the orange jug, which went REALLY well on the tarts), an Irish apple crumble (top of the photo), a bowl of Yogurt with honey and cinnamon (which at first we thought might be cream but it tasted wrong, and no one really knew what to do with it…), and a big metal jug full of Vanilla custard… which kind of goes well with anything

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After the meal was over, they handed about every third one of us a lantern, and they took us on a walk through the set at night. More than a few people supplemented that light with the flashlight function on their smartphones… The night was so clear, and there was SO little light pollution that if you look very hard at the photo above towards the upper right corner, you can see a star!!!

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I had NO trouble photographing the night sky with my iPhone’s camera (which generally sucks at low light images) and seeing stars in the image (see above)… because it was SO dark that what my eye was seeing wasn’t just a few stars, it was the Milky Way.

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After the walk through they had us form a circle and talked to us about our trip, asking us to remember our favorite moments and hold them in our memories. And then they had all the lights turned off, had us close our eyes for about a minute and then open them and look up… and just wow. IF you’re lucky enough to go on a night when the sky is clear, and I was… just wow…  and then those of us who wanted to got our photos taken in front of this one door, which was lit up with a powerful spot lamp

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After much searching I found this professionally shot advertisement for the banquet tour… that includes drone shots and (what were clearly directed actors as) tourists… but it shows stuff I could never have accurately filmed, like the night-time walk with lanterns … and the scene of the guy taking a bite out of a chicken leg so enthusiastically that it made me drool

As I’ve already said, I think it’s important to remember that Hobbiton is just the flagship for what’s become an entire LOTR based travel industry. Between the two existing trilogies there are already 170 LOTR filming locations scattered around NZ’s two main islands, enough to necessitate MULTIPLE trips on the part of any obsessed fan who wants to see them all, which can of course include multiple visits to Hobbiton. AND, because of the huge success that was the Game of Thrones (GOT) — which I’m currently bingeing in preparation for the release of the final season next week, Amazon has gotten on the SciFi band wagon and has ponied up a budget of one BILLION dollars for what is being advertised as the most expensive TV show ever made, an original five season Lord of the Rings. This is sure to happen because Amazon has ALREADY paid $250 million to Tolkien‘s estate, just for the film rights, which were given with the caveat that the film HAS to go into production in the next two years

The following is a preview of the new series (although the first 30 seconds is about the wildly successful of GOT and how that influenced Amazon decision. Warning, contains spoilers):

All of which means that most likely not only will the Hobbiton set be closed once again for filming, and hence more changes will be made, but that there are going to be EVEN MORE LOTR locations to be visited in New Zealand, in addition to the 170 that already there. All of which, should the show be as big a hit as the movies were, will mostly likely generate even more increased tourism to New Zealand.

[Note, not that this matters to you guys but, I had spent 3 solid days composing a very detailed discussion with research and backing statistics… which WordPress LOST; I had revised it multiple times, always making sure the software said it had saved it, even quit and restarted the program a few times… each time was told it HAD saved, only to hit publish once I had it all as I wanted…  and have the WHOLE thing get erased…. well… but for the title, THAT got saved (I had changed it only about an hour before hitting publish). Many emails back and forth to company later and all I got from them was a “we’re sorry, its not on our servers, must have been a bug with the new update” … YOU THINK!!! Every photo uploaded got saved (and in the correct order), and the new title (which I had only just modified before posting)… but all the text, GONE. So the above is me trying to reconstruct it using my google search history,  the photos, in order to try to remind me what I had said the first time. Which took twice as long in part because it was so frustrating]

P.S. I was just watching this 60 minutes show about the making of Game of Thrones, and broke into a cheer when I learned the sets for places like Castle Black are following the lead of Hobbiton. They were built to withstand the elements, and will be turned into tourist attractions. WOOT!

Surviving in Australia & New Zealand: personal notes

When looking for restaurants:

Yelp is NOT your go to app in either Australia or New Zealand. There’s SOME reviews, but not many. You’re going to want rely on Trip Advisor, which for some reason is preferred by the locals.

Aussie Food Products I like:

I’ve now spent 4 whole months in Australia and have discovered a few products/brands I wish I could find back home. Am listing them here, just because, and to remind myself (and my travel partner) for what to stock up on next time….

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SO YUMMY! This Lentil soup is sold in the cold “prepared section” of either Woolworths or Coles depending on the town… I’ve noticed its rare for them BOTH to be carrying it, and I’ve not yet found a town where one or the other of them doesn’t have it — This includes New South Wales, Victoria, the ACT/Canberra, Queensland, and South Australia. All of the soups from this brand have nothing in them you can’t pronounce. The Lentil is vegetarian, low-fat, low cal, high fiber, and filling. It costs around $6.50 AUD/$4.68 USD for 2 servings of 200 calories each (or one big meal, about 400 calories) … which is a bit pricey for grocery store soup, but is SO good that if a restaurant were to serve it to you at twice the price, you’d be perfectly happy.  AND it’s almost better cold than hot, in my opinion… so great to sip on hot Aussie days. Oh, and it’s KOSHER … the whole brand is (not that it’s important for me, but still… I have friends who do care). Their other soups are good… but this one is hands down my favorite… enough that I wish I could get it in the USA. I could live on this stuff.

 

For my fellow La Croix Water addicts:
I’m sorry, but it’s not sold here, yet.

Firstly, when it comes to flavored waters in Australia pretty everything is either lime, lemon or berry…. not a lot of flavor options. Only other options I’ve seen so far, which are MUCH harder to find are strawberry and peach.

And you need to be REALLY careful because Australia is FULL of flavored waters that say “no sugar,” but then you look and they’ve got artificial sweeteners in it… or it’ll say “no artificial sweeteners” and then they go and put in Stevia or some other “natural” no calorie sweetener … which science has proven are JUST as bad as for you as the fake ones — people who consume artificial sweeteners tend to be fatter than people who just consume sugar even when consuming the same amount of calories overall, something about it confuses your brain’s control over your metabolism. A sort of boy who cried wolf type phenomena

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This brand is sort of cross between La Croix and that vitamin water … and can be kind of pricy as a result… I’m talking one bottles costs the same as La Croix 12 pack. It’s water with some flavor and a few vitamins thrown in, and nothing else.  Their other flavors are also good, but this is my favorite.

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A cheaper option is Mount Franklin’s … which also sells flavored water, but this one is a bit harder to find. For some reason small over price bottles of it in convenience stores, or impulse sections of grocery stores are fairly common, but BIG bottles of it in the water isles of same are HARD to find. My favorite flavor for this is the strawberry, but it’s impossible to find in large bottles (but the preferred flavor in small bottles in the refrigerated section that cost the same as the big ones).. not the lemon, or lime which are easier…. the flavor currently to look for in the BIG bottles which cost the same as the small ones (BOGGLE) is the mixed berry flavor

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A third option, when I can’t find the other two, is this schweppes… which when they do have it is by far your cheapest option. Usually costs about $1.40 AUD which is also lemon or lime mostly… which I don’t like. I like the raspberry flavor, which is semi-common, or the peach, which is VERY rare.

 

 


My travel partner, LOVES this cereal. Its high in fiber, low in salt, free of all sorts of nasty chemicals and actually quite tasty. He lives on the stuff ,and I’ll occasionally steal a handful to chomp on as reasonably healthy snack food.

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According to him, unlike the British version the Aussie version is low in salt. It also comes in apricot flavor, if you can find it. Wild berry is the common flavor.

 

 

Aussie audities to remember:

1) In Australia Distilled water is often called demineralized water, and instead of being in the baby aisle like in the states, it’s usually in the laundry isle (to use when ironing). Me, I use it for my Nettipot…. and NO they don’t sell it at the pharmacy… in fact at the pharmacy, which is where they sell the salts in measured packets, they have NO IDEA what you’d even use distilled water for. Here in Australia they just go through the whole hassle of boiling tap water for 5 minutes, letting it cool and then using it.

2) In Australia bread comes with butter. IF you order a deli sandwich with Italian salmi and mustard, or roast beef, etc., they’ll put butter on the bread… became … say it with me… “in Australia bread comes with butter.” You will need to say “NO BUTTER” when ordering sandwiches if you don’t want it.

 

 

New Zealand stuff:

firstly, most of what holds true in Australia is also true in NZ, and with the exception of my Lentil soup, most Aussie brands can be found in New Zealand

  1. NZ again does not have distilled water at pharmacies… however it DOES has a brand of distilled water that’s sold in the bottled water aisle of many grocery stores
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  2. Fish in NZ is NOT sold filleted! It’s truly bizarre but fillet’s with no bones and no skin do NOT EXIST!!!! And when I bitched about it to locals they looked at me like I had screw loose (as in none of them knew it DOES exist in other countries).
  3. My favorite ice cream bar brand (possibly ever), is THIS one. Both my travel partner and I were VERY sad when we left the country that we’d not be able to eat it again (and there wasn’t any in the airport, I SEARCHED for it). There are more than a few flavor options we were both bowled over by how good each of them was. And a lot of the flavors promoted are native to NZ and Australia tastes, like Doris Plum.

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

A trip to Bondi Beach is one of THE things to do 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 the nearest/best beachfront neighborhood to downtown Sydney and while the train doesn’t go the whole distance, there’s busses almost every five minutes to take you the rest of the way. That said, this is my SECOND year spending a few weeks in this neighborhood, so I’ve decided to update this post more than a bit, rather than do a 2nd post on the same subject

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What most people miss when they come here are 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. For instance, the fact that almost every seller of Jewelry have stars of David for sale, as well as Chais, and Hamsas. Of course the latter, isn’t really a Jewish item as such, but rather a symbol that has been traced all the way back to ancient Mesopotamia, that is used by all the various religious groups of the area, and is sometimes referred to as either the hand of Fatima (for those who don’t know, the favorite daughter of Muhammad), Mary (Jesus’s mother), Miriam (sister of Moses), or just ‘the goddess’…  But of course the evidence goes deeper than that.

IMG_6500.JPGThis is now my second year of spending a few weeks in Bondi. Like I said in a previous post, the first time I came to Australia it was a fairly last-minute decision. 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, and my Chai necklace (which is also an AT-AT)

Now granted, on the day when I first arrived I didn’t know this… and my friend isn’t Jewish and was utterly oblivious to stuff like this, so he didn’t know either. Anyway, 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  (suitcases in hand) to an eatery called Savta Cafe, which he said was supposed to be good. I was SO tired after my flight that my brain didn’t trigger to the fact that Savta was the Hebrew word for grandmother. 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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That said, it was not the best I’ve ever eaten (the excessive use of mushrooms confused me) but it was ok… After that we lugged the suitcases to his rented a ‘room in an apartment’ (but not an Airbnb) 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].

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But ONE Israeli cafe 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, aka the Messiah, a concept that should not be confused with Jesus/Christ … even if the Chabad-Lubavitch (who can be referred to with either term) are the most Catholic of Jews — a concept to complex to explain here…  at least until Schneerson 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 friend and cardiologist (until he retired) who was flown in to also be part of Schneerson’s medical team before he died. [Personal story…. Ira came to my father’s funeral. After the service, he took me by the hands, looked me in the eye and told me how sorry he was to have been out-of-town during my fathers final days — and hence unable to help him personally, but told me that he called in regularly, and 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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Anyway, the VERY public display of the Rebbe’s picture on the side of a home (see above) made me realize there must be Lubbavitch in the neighborhood… but what I didn’t realize until 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 … (when looking at these maps, please note all the OTHER Jewish institutions that Google popped, assuming they were also of interest to me, when I searched the synagogues’ names

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!!!! (Not to mention a bunch of other Jewish institutions)…. For those who are not Jewish, in all of Orlando Florida, I think there are maybe four synagogues scattered throughout the entire metropolitan area… miles apart (driving distance). Only THE MOST orthodox of Jewish neighborhoods, the ones where there are all sorts of guys walking around dressed like Jews (which MOST Jews do not do) …  have this many synagogues so close together…. (Orthodox Jews aren’t supposed to be exerting themselves on sabbath — day of rest — and they can’t ride on cars, busses, or horses either for that matter …so they have to live an easy walking distance of their temples … which made it easy for the Nazi’s to round them up… but that’s a different issue.) Speaking of my oblivious travel buddy… by the end of our few weeks in Bundi (a please he’d been to a thousand times before) I was finally able to teach him how to identify orthodox Jews by their tell tale clothing choices.

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The next thing I discovered in Bondi there were actually quite a few Israeli restaurants, alongside Turkish and other middle eastern ones, which are also popular in the area.

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The above restaurant is, Sabbaba (Hebrew slang, derived from the Arabic word tzababa, meaning “cool”, “great” or “ok”)– which not only had a 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 based on my experience the only one that had the Malt Star was in Bondi … which says something about this outlet’s clientele

About a block or so away from that I found a third Israeli place, called Lyfe Cafe (Life with a Y, again, think of the Jewish Chai symbol) again the owner was an Israeli (again, I spoke Hebrew with them) 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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While eating at Sabbaba the first time, I spotted a Kosher butcher, called, “Hadassa Kosher Butchery PTY Ltd” located RIGHT across the street from them, which I later learned was an ALL Kosher butcher, that cuts it’s own meat, while serving the diverse clientele that lives in Boni.

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They cut their own meat!!! So rare in this day and age.

and just a shop or two down the street from that I found “Golds World of Judaica” where I ended up spending a few hundred dollars on Jewish/Australian souvenirs to give as gifts to friends, and of course for myself…

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An Australian Kippah! Got more than few of these

Specifically they had fusion Jewish/Aboriginal Australian items, like the above kippot (about $18 USD each… over two years I think I bought about 16 of them, because everyone I had given one to GREATLY appreciated them), as well as Challah Covers.

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During the few weeks I spent in Bondi on my visit a year late I came across Katzy’s Food World, which I didn’t realize was a Kosher restaurant till I got inside, located sort of Kiddy corner from Sabbaba.

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This is a fleishig, or meat restaurant — note the chicken, burgers, and the ‘Ruben’ sandwich with no Swiss cheese and mayo instead of Russian dressing (WTF PEOPLE!!! THAT IS NOT A RUBEN!!!) on the menu?

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When I was there, trying to decide what to eat, the girl working behind the counter told me that Katz’s for instance is FAMOUS for the Aussie meat pies — which is sort of a laughable statement if you understand it, in large part because its one of the VERY few places in the whole country that has Aussie meat pies made with Kosher meat, in a kosher kitchen… and hence if you keep kosher and want to try an Aussie meat pie… this is most likely where got it. (They even serve sausage rolls… which I have a feeling are more ‘pigs in a blanket’, i.e., all beef hotdogs in pastry… than sausage rolls, because there’s no such thing as kosher pork.)

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A mom trying to find a kosher Parve snack for her kids in a meat restaurant (??)

because of the dietary restriction of mixing meat with milk Kosher restaurants tend to serve one or the other but rarely both…  Falafel falls into the parve category, being never meat more milk. The mom in the above picture is clearly just back from taking her kids to the beach. From what was happening, it was clear the kids had been given ice cream while there (milk) and she wanted to get them a mid-afternoon snack but it couldn’t be meat because not enough hours had passed since they’d eaten the milk meal (seriously… there are rules to ensure that the meat and milk don’t even combine in your belly.)

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The two-handled red cup is for the ritual of washing your hands before meals

IF an Israeli restaurant is Kosher (which is NOT a given) then it will have falafel and meat, falafel and cheese, but not both…. Sabbaba has both and as such while it’s Jewish/Israeli it is NOT someplace the Jews who keep Kosher would eat at…. if you ever go to Israel you’ll quickly notice that NOT all the food served there is Kosher… if it is there’s be a big sign over the door advertising the fact in no uncertain terms.

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While at Katz’s I tried their Matzah ball soup. It was ok… my father made better. The “trick” to REALLY good chicken soup is you boil the WHOLE chicken, feet, beak and all, which this place did not do. If you don’t add those ingredients, the soup tends to have a sort of weak flavor and consistency. The feet are what provides pectin, and also a sort of super saturated chicken flavor. Today… when most grocery stores don’t even have the feet to sell you… folks rely on bullion cubes to provide them with that flavor — because they’ve forgotten what it was about grandma’s soup that made it just, better.

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Finally, Not only did I find Krinsky’s, the larges kosher grocery store in Sydney (its the size of a small Kosher market in Chicago), during my 2nd visit, but up in the mall next to Bondi Junction, there are three different supermarkets, and in one of them I found an absolutely MASSIVE (for a non-kosher market) kosher section

The town of Siem Reap and the Angkor temples, Cambodia, 2012

Back in late April of 2012 I did a very brief bucket list trip to experience first hand some of the temples of the (once hidden within the jungle) capital city of Angkor (or Yaśodharapura}, from the time of the Khmer/Angkor Empire (802-1431 AD) near the modern city, popular tourist destination of Siem Reap, Cambodia. We arrived the evening of April 23 and left on the night of the 26th… so essentially only three days. I’m posting about it now– using the notes I wrote on my Facebook account at the time to remind myself … because, to be honest…  I seriously doubt I’ll ever be able to do this trip a 2nd time.

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I went there with my Canadian work colleague — the one whose home, in Mill Bay Vancouver Island, I visited in June 2016. We shared an office in the Business school’s Marketing department for the entire time I taught at Kyung Hee University in Seoul South Korea… and took this trip together over the course of an extended weekend — I’m vague on it at the moment, but I think it may have been the period given to students to prepare for their midterm exams.

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Our one obligatory tourist shot… our tour guide insisted… what you don’t see is the long line of other tourists waiting to do exactly the same shot

Normally, this blog site will only cover trips from 2015 and later… or will reference back to previous trips because of more recent ones I’d just done (like the Halloween at Three Disney Parks post, or the one regarding Stubby Henge in Rolla, Missouri, where I compared it to the henge it mirrors back in England, visited in 2014)… But this was sort of a special case and the need to post about it has been plaguing me for a while now.

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Priests in their orange, and a balloon ride off in the distance

IF I were to go again, it would only be if I could stay there for like three weeks or longer, which is not something I would be willing to do as a woman traveling alone. So it would mean having to find a friend willing to go with me, and to spend that long leisurely exploring the sites together. This could of course happen, I’m just not sanguine about it…. so I’ve decided I sort of HAVE to document that trip (from SIX years ago) as best as I can remember it at this point… just for the heck of it.

So, let’s get started.

First off… Siem Reap’s Airport, was TINY!! The image below was NOT from the parking lot, as you might imagine, but was rather taken from the edge of the tarmac!

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(Don’t worry, the plum-colored shirt I’m wearing has the consistency of mosquito netting… utterly transparent up close, but helps keep the little malaria carriers at bay.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_2351.jpgThe building was only one story tall, so it’s of the type of airport where they bring stairs to the plane, which is about as tall as the building itself…  and then you have to walk over to the building…

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The building as seen from the tarmac

As you can probably tell, we were able to get a direct non-stop flight from Korea to Siem-Reap airport. [One of the things we discovered while there is that Korean pretty much dominate a segment of the tourism trade there, and are disliked by the Cambodians because their businesses are insular — creating very little profit for the locals]. Passport control for all incoming flights is one tiny room…. and then you’re out.

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Inside was easily the cutest nicest passport processing area I’d ever seen, replete with what I, in-retrospect, learned to recognize as re-creations of the Angkor Wat statues that decorate most of the hotels and such around town (at the time I was a bit worried they might be originals, but they looked too shiny and clean). These are usually made by handicapped artists — often folks who survived stepping on land mines — from a training place located near our hotel (see images of that later).

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The whole building was very new, and very spotless. The Cambodian government has clearly been convinced of the benefits of tourism to its economy, and has invested likewise — probably with some help from UNESCO grants (but I was guessing).

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This was the North Gate bridge entrance to the Angor Thom temple complex (I know this only by searching Google maps for photos, and this location was distinct), which was the first place of many that we visited on the first day, with my friend/office mate and our tour guide for the day – who I am still Facebook friends with almost six years later (I’m putting up his link so if you go there and want a good guide… hire him). He had been an English lit major in university (and as such spoke English impressively well) but had to leave because his wife started to have health issues and he needed to earn money

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_22f4.jpgand our Tuk-tuk driver, who had been assigned to us for a whole trip… He picked us up at the airport and was supposed to have dropped us off at the end, but didn’t show up. I’m pretty sure we kind of stunned him cause we treated him like our friend instead of our hired help — only I ultimately think he didn’t trust it was real. We insisted he eat with us at almost every meal (he refused the first time, but then gave in), and treated him when he argued that it was out of his price range;

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we introduced him to his first cheese burger and fries [which he enjoyed a lot, although he was wondering where the vegetables were — a slice of tomato and a leaf of lettuce weren’t doing it for him]. During those meals, he shared with us that he had been a street kid after his parents died under the Khmer Rouge (ruled Cambodia 1975 – 1979), [for those unfamiliar with the regime, I suggest you read up about the Killing fields, or see the movie of the same name] but had been pulling himself up by his own bootstraps ever since. His English was very good, all things considered … I no longer remember his name because he never stayed in touch with us….. even though he said he would. AND, I might add, my friend was all ready to send him a box of textbooks on topics he said he’d wanted to study, because he couldn’t really afford to go to school but still wanted to able to study … For those who don’t know… the tuk-tuk, a sort of mechanized update on the rickshaw, is the omnipresent form of taxi in Cambodia — only they’re SO CHEAP that you can afford to rent them by the day, like your personal chauffeur …. MUCH more pleasant

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The carvings on the bridge are from Hindu mythology, and represent a serpent that is being used in a sort of epic tug of war,  to churn the sea of milk. According to our guide, the process resulted in the birth of many Hindu gods and the dancing nymphs. We saw this sort of image often throughout the temples …. as to the missing heads, sadly, he told us that during the civil war folks would knock off the best ones and sell them on the black market to private collectors.

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Something you see all over while traveling around these temples is workmen reconstructing them. On one hand, this is great for tourism… but as an anthropologist, I felt like I was continuously seeing an archeologist’s nightmare in progress. What they’re doing is taking the toppled blocks up from the ground, figuring out where they go and putting them back… so … on one hand, good… on the other… worrisome

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B+Zqcz2LSJKnZ4xQZ%qw0g_thumb_3a6b.jpgAnother thing you see is these temples aren’t just tourist destinations, they are still used by the locals for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it gets pretty depressing, a few times we saw mothers who had seriously sick kids and were praying for them… Often the sort of illnesses you just don’t see in affluent societies. One particularly unforgettable example was a baby who seemed to have water on the brain so that the head was the size of a large watermelon on the torso of a baby who looked to be less than a year old.

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The old nymphs, and the modern ones

The cleaning staff is everywhere, constantly cleaning… Again, on one hand an archaeological nightmare, but it made me think of how this must have also been true way back when these temples were in their heyday.

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We were worried about this little guy, but it turned out that his mom (one of the cleaning staff) and his FIVE brothers and sisters all weren’t far away… again you saw this a lot, mom’s who were on the cleaning staff brought all their kids with them… often kids who should have been in school. UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_2354.jpg

At this point I have to make an admission… I think at some point before this trip I had ‘neuroticly’ turned off GPS tracking on my phone, and as such, I’m not actually sure WHICH temples the following photos are from… they’re in order… I just can’t specify the specific locations. and there are a lot of little temples along side the big ones that I’m pretty sure they took us to, and I’m only posting what I felt were the best pictures (there were a LOT of pictures)

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Our tour-guide, took us off the beaten path around the back of the temples, away from the masses of tourists so that he could share with us one of his favorite things about this place…. the chorus of birds doing jazz rifts in the forest. Also, the trees in these jungles (much of which have been cleared in order to better display the temples) have a beauty to them that’s a bit like modern art

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you can’t really see it from this angle but from the side (and looking at it sideways) this lump I’m touching looked like a head and two outstretched arms.

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An amazingly beautiful sight… the way the light was hitting the tree, etc..

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Note the images visible in the doorway

These wild chickens are EVERYWHERE… in case you ever doubted that the domesticated chicken began in Asia and moved west…all you need to do is look at these birds

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they’re definitely chickens, but look really skinny, tough and inedible…. and they run very fast. This totally makes sense, think about it… flightless birds that are as slow as our domesticated chickens really do need to be protected from predators in order to survive, while these guys move SO fast… and you have to look hard cause their chicks are almost perfectly camouflaged by the leaves

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I love the way the two human forms sort of mirror each other, the nymph, and the man
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Like ants, crawling up a hill…

When it came to the big temples like this one my friend, who is much hardier stock than me — the woman rode her bicycle to work every day while I took a taxi because just the walk up the hill (our University’s business school was at the top of a relatively steep hill) was too much for me.

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These orchestras were everywhere, and would switch out every few hours at the same choice locations. All are made up of horribly disfigured amputees, missing limbs, eyes, you name it.

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More toppled stones being replaced into the locations they believe they came from, like a giant 3D puzzle.

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The hoards, lining up for the obligatory picture on the pedestal… Everyone comes here wanting to take the same picture… in the same place, under the same tree… Also note all the blocks of stone that are on the ground… Those are both the walls and I assume some ceiling bits?

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I think this is my favorite picture of me from the whole trip

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The killer embrace

If you look you’ll see that in the background, behind my friend and the guide, are two trees, with one wrapping itself around the one below it…. and killing it.

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And when you walk through the doorway around to the other side of the wall you see this… the roots of the killer tree like the tendrils of an alien crushing the buildings….

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But again everyone wants their picture in front of it, because its also kind of beautiful. After this our guide took us to a different place, but the Tuk tuk driver needed to stop for fuel first… which turned out to be kind of a horrifying experience….

%HZz+qpVTvKnRznYDaGU5Q_thumb_c252.jpgthese are what roadside gas stations look like in Cambodia…. they’re everywhere, loaded up with empty water bottles or such… filled with what looks like lemonade .. but is actually fuel.

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As we drove we came across monkeys sitting by the side of the road, my friend and I kept squealing out.. “Baby monkeys!! Baby monkeys!! Baby monkeys!!” Our driver had to be convinced to turn around and let us ogle them… Cambodians see them as annoying pests

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_39e3.jpgFor some reason, maybe it was because we’d just seen the monkeys, our guide decided that when we approached Angkor Wat the first time it should be from the back side of the temple, rather than front…

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The famous Angkor Wat Temple, from the back

And this is where we saw a representation of the monkey wars… I forget that actual story but after our glee at seeing monkey’s this was where our tour guide took us next

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If you look to the left you see the beginnings of carvings that were never completed

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Note!! The Buddhas in this hallway are all missing their heads… Again, they were broken off and sold during the civil war (according to our guide)

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Again, the monkey wars

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When they dug this temple out of the jungle, this building was dense with bats, and the ground deep with bat-shit, which is apparently very acidic. The acid mud when the rain hit it ate away the bottoms of these pillars

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_237a.jpgLocals poured into here to have a red thread tied around their wrists, and to be blessed by the old man. Our tour guide (who was wearing one) explained that it was sort of Cambodian belief that these red bracelets warded off evil spirits

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The detailed caving on this wall depict a massive battle from Hindu belief; the reason it is black and shiny is from so many hands having touched them over the years. As a result, now they try to discourage people from touching the walls because all the acid from their hand is eating away at the stone the same way that bat shit ate away at that pillar

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The famous Angkor Wat, from an angle

This guy had earlier in the day asked me if I would take a picture for him. Later we ran into him again, and he insisted on buying me a coconut as a thank you, an offer that I quickly took him up on. I had already figured out at lunch that coconuts were going to be my dehydration savior. I was pretty much dying at the time, when our guide suggested I get a coconut water. I slurped the thing down, and my friend said she could see the light coming back into my eyes.  I ordered two more and was right as rain and good to go, after having been almost at death’s door not a few minutes before, because of dehydration.

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Coconut water is not only sterile to the point where you can use it as IV fluid in a pinch… but it’s better than Gatorade at curing dehydration. He ended up buying them for our whole group (including our guide). Turned out he was a retired cop from a Malay Island we’d never heard of, and was in town for two days just so that he could see Angkor Wat before he died. We agreed that too was why we had come as well, because it was a bucket list item — we then had to explain to him what a bucket list was.

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Me and my friend, at Angkor Wat

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The Buddha’s footprints

After this, they took us to a silk farm; this group is trying to ensure that the traditional skill of silk production doesn’t disappear (which it almost did after the civil war), and also as a way of trying to keep locals in the rural areas by providing them with gainful employment

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I learned that raw silk is actually yellow and is the other part of the shell… while refined silk is white and is the inner part of the silk thread

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if you look close you see the individual threads being drawn out

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UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_2352.jpgAn example of a traditional Cambodian pattern, is present in the stone carvings at the temples… of course they’re taking you here in hopes that you’ll buy some silk. We didn’t.

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At the end of our VERY long day, we were taken for an hour-long foot/leg massage, which was included in the cost of the tour… we later discovered that a massage like this in Cambodia only costs about $5. They even offer them in the waiting area in the airport near the duty-free shops (only more expensive).

END of Day ONE

YUP, ALL of that was ONE day… in Cambodia, in April when the average temperature is a whooping 96 F !!!! AND HUMID!!! If I were to try to do all that today in those temps, I’d die!

DAY NUMBER TWO…

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On the second day we went to a less visited area where the temples had not yet been “reconstructed” and the difference in what we were looking at was radical.  The other places also had stones on the ground, but nowhere near as many. I’m not sure if Angkor Wat and the places we saw the day before — which draw most of the tourists — had when re-discovered simply been in  better condition than this or not… and that’s why they’re famous. (As in maybe they weren’t the best temples at the height of the Khmer Empire, but were just the ones who survived best over time).

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But consider (images above and below) the state of this building andu766TCcgSfSCbJpQ0apkJw_thumb_c253.jpg

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note the HUGE difference from the ones I visited yesterday

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All HAIL Coconut water… seriously, if you go to Cambodia, this is your dehydration savior. Happily they were sold everywhere. When I first got there I was suspicious but it’s actually the safest thing you can drink. Coconut water is a completely sterile solution till the moment the flesh is pierced… and the women who work these stands are SO good at their jobs that they can whack off the top chunk suck that just a tiny layer of fresh coconut fruit is left covering the top. You poke a straw through that to get at the drink inside…. and if you’ve got a spoon, you can can scrape out the fresh coconut for a snack afterwards.UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_2327.jpg

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Like I said before, it was Cambodia, it was HOT and it was humid…. and I have a strong preference for elevators….

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My friend however was more than game to climb up the temple steps, while I stayed on the ground and took photos.

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These priests were really excited to talk to us. I think most tourists kind of just look at them in awe and don’t get that priestly duty in these countries isn’t any different from say… the two obligatory years of working as a missionary is for Mormons; the only difference being as Buddhists, you can do those two years at almost any age…  (I of course know all this because my boyfriend in college was a getting his Ph.D. in Buddhist philosophy) Although most folks chose to do their obligatory service to the religion it at about high-school because it makes it easier to find a good job or a wife if you’ve already done it, the fact is some will even do it when they’re young children

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After this, our Tuk-Tuk driver took us to this temple, after asking us first if he could. As I said previously his parents died under the Khmer Rouge… these memorials, which include the actual bones dug up from the killing fields offer a stark reminder to the Cambodians of those times. It marks the location of the one the 20,000 mass grave sites that were uncovered after the end of the regime. To save on ammunition, most of these people were killed via blunt force trauma, hammers, blades, axes, etc.. The location is not just a holocaust spot, but rather doubles as a school and orphanage, so alongside this visual is the sound of children’s laughter.

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At the end of the day, after a bit of a rest they took us to a buffet and show (included in the price of the hotel, if you can believe it); we insisted that our Tuk-tuk driver eat with us rather than stay out at the vehicle, which turned out to be a very good thing for us because, and we didn’t know this in advance, until he broke his leg in an accident which resulted in a limp, he had been a dancer at this very show and knew a lot of the dancers.

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Apparently, in Cambodia, the hospitals just amputate badly broken legs that require anything more than just being set in cast. That is, of course, unless your family can pay for better care, and as I said previously he’d been a street orphan. So instead of going to a hospital for care, he’d had gone to the priests who did NOT amputate, but now one leg was a bit shorter than the other.

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It’s amazing how these shots light up ever speck of dust on your lens

We had to get to bed a bit early that night, because our next morning was going to start very early. We were going to do the obligatory “sunrise over Angkor Wat” — a trip that was also included in the price of the hotel room.UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_2386.jpg

For me, part of the fun was watching the hordes of tourists, all taking photos where if you adjusted your exposure right, it almost looked like you were there by yourself, watching it…

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only you weren’t you wee surrounded by hundreds of people (and keep in mind this was the off season) watching the same thing….

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I don’t even want to think about the crush would be like at the height of Siem Reap’s season.

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One of the omni present features of the temples is the mass of hucksters, selling everything from silks, to fans, to postcards.

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Something that is a bit disturbing about it is that more than a few of these hucksters should really be in school. But the economics of the situation is that their parents need them working, because tourists are more likely to buy something from a little kid.

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We figured the pig had gotten away from the restaurant (which is off to the right of this location — it’s the same place where the cop bought me a coconut the day before.)

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The long shadow taking the photo is me

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After this … my friend who I was traveling with leads a grueling pace…

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we went on a boat trip down the river to where the floating towns are located

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A boat loaded with priests… note the orange robes

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Life along the river was kind facilitating, at first I wondered about having their lives on display like this, but then I figured a river is not really any different from road, or a train, and it was like how you can look in on people’s lives as you traveled past

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A floating town (that’s not the shore)

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That said, some of the house-boats were really, REALLY, nice and immacuatly kept up

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Note how the well-kept houseboats have satellite dishes and TV antenna’s. Thing is when you first see it you don’t really notice those little details — in part because you have your own assumptions about how these people live their lives. Me, I was wondering how they got their power…

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cars in the driveway

And there were also some less affluent homes

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While there we stopped at a store where they tried to sell us school supplies for our next stop, which was going to the be the village’s school.

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My friend, who is a bleeding heart liberal, wanted to buy some… but I was skeptical (having pointed out the satellite dishes to her along with some other details of affluence), and didn’t let her. Our Tuk-Tuk driver (who had come with us) grinned widely after I did so, and backed me up. He said normally he never says anything but it’s a huge scam. Tourists buy supplies, and as soon as they’re gone, the unopened supplies go right back the store to be sold over and over again, with most of the profit going to the store… which is NOT owned by the boat people.

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This boat, which he pointed out after was docked next to the school, loaded up with tourist donation about to head back to the store

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_2312.jpgAnd THEN after this visit, we were taken to a project not far from our hotel, where handicapped men were taught to create duplicates of the sculptures at the temples, to decorate hotels and sell to tourists.

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By this point in the day I was really worn out by our travels, the early morning, and the heat, and my tummy for some reason wasn’t happy with me, so begged out of what my friend had lined up for us as for the afternoon (more temples). Instead I stayed home at the hotel and rested for a few hours, and got to enjoy the view from our hotel, before we went out for dinner

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Before our trip, my friend and I discovered (to my horror) that by the time we got around to looking into it that it was too late to start the anti-malarial treatment. We got shots for Japanese Encephalitis and some other thing, but Malaria is a HUGE deal in Cambodia. That said, apparently since Siem Reap is the ONE major draw for tourism to the country, the government actually invests a lot of money in trying to control the mosquito population in the jungles that surround it. But I was still nervous, so I basically bathed in repellent on a daily basis, and soaked that cheese cloth like shirt in the stuff for good measure — I was not pleasant smelling the whole trip, but I didn’t care. Happily, I managed to avoid the little suckers and only got ONE mosquito bite, on our very last night in Cambodia (when I’d begun to get lax in my neuroticism), at the fancy restaurant we took our Tuk Tuk driver to which was on the edge of town (across from a graveyard) … I was praying it was NOT a malaria carrier… and luckily it wasn’t.

Diving the Great Barrier Reef & learning about underwater photography: Cairns, Queensland, Australia

Earlier this week I am happy to say that I completed yet another one of my bucket list items; I went scuba diving/snorkeling at the Great Barrier Reef along the eastern coast of Australia…. before it died completely. That said, I’m VERY sorry to say that, at least for the bits I was able to see up close, were already pretty much bleached/dead, when compared to pictures I have seen over the years of the explosion of color it once was…. very sad. Global climate change, it’s a thing.

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My travel-buddy and I had went up to Cairns in northern Queensland, which is the town located closest to barrier reef, and stayed there for a week. Be warned! Once you get there you’ll be barraged with boat tour options because Cairns is about either diving the reef, or visiting the UNESCO world heritage area rainforests/wetlands that line this part of the Australian coast. We ultimately opted for a company a friend of ours had previously used and been very happy with, called Reef Experience, which advertises itself as the only one to offer “all-inclusive” tours… no “hidden fees”, etc.

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This would be one of the photos they sell to you, taken by their photographer

What this translates to (per my understanding, which may be flawed)… is that while there are other companies that may seem cheaper… in reality they all pretty much cost the same or in fact more, while delivering essentially the same offerings. The major difference is other companies might not include various taxes and fees and what not (cost of the swim gear?) in the advertised price, and you’ll find you have to choose to add them in addition, or not dive… and by the time you do, those other guys are actually more expensive (unless you own all your own scuba gear, etc).

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Our tour group, including me and my friend (can you spot me?). The company posted this to their Facebook page for us to download afterwards — a freebie photo

They do have an online website, but I, rather than make the reservation that way, dragged my ass into their offices (a short walk from our Airbnb) FIVE days in advance of our trip …  on the assumption that this would keep problems from developing … I paid for the two reservations, and they asked were there any food restrictions. I explained that my friend was a vegetarian who was allergic to mushrooms. So, all good, and was told what to bring with me, when we’d be picked up, etc… and went home.

TWO days later (on Sunday, when we were supposed to dive on Wednesday), and I might add AFTER it was already two late to cancel and get a refund!!!!! I get an email explaining that under Queensland law, not everyone is legally allowed to do scuba diving and that we had to both fill out a medical form and send them a list of all the medications that we were taking, dosage, and how often; They would then show the list to their dive doctor and he would say if we could dive; or he would say that we needed to go to a doctor to be certified in person as healthy enough to do scuba. WHY they could not have told me that when I was in the office, and given me the form then, I don’t know. …. AND this was no PDF that we could fill-in and then send back to them, or even a website to fill out, it was an image file (???!!!). Something you needed to print out and fax back. Now keep in mind, we’re tourists, and I’ve yet to find a really portable printer (and who the fuck brings those on a plane?) and the Airbnb we were renting didn’t have “business office” facilities … so we had to get REALLY creative to figure out how to fill this thing… my friend, who is a professional geek, luckily had an image editor on his laptop… I have no idea how other people might manage it

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Also, read the form REALLY carefully. [Have you EVER suffered from a cold? Our best guess was that was, what’s called in the legal profession, a gotcha question; i.e, IF anything bad happens that you might want to sue them over, odds are you answered “have you ever had the common cold” with “No” because you want to be allowed to go scuba diving, and they can then say “SEE they lied on the form! They can’t sue us!”

So… Early Monday morning, after finally figuring out how to fill this thing in, and before we left to do the tourist stuff we had come to Cairns to do — which was NOT filling out medical forms, we sent it to them. LATE Monday night — seriously I kept checking my emails for a response from them, it didn’t come till around 9pm…. we got an email saying that their doctor had OK’d me to dive, but my NOT my friend (who is WAY healthier than I am and not a month before had been scuba diving in the waters off of Bali). Do not pass go, do not collect $200…. He had be seen by an actual doctor to get OK’d to dive, and they suggested a 24 hour walk-in-clinic nearby. My friend (being too tired and grumpy to go that night) contacted them to make an actual appointment for the next morning, but was told he couldn’t get one, that he had to come in as a walk-in, and hope to be seen on a first come first seen basis starting 5pm. (We called the company, who started calling around to other clinics and NONE could see him.) So the next day, he went over at 4:30 …but the doctors on staff did NOT know of his medication, and could NOT ok him to dive! They told him he had to come back AGAIN the following morning at 6:00 AM, BEFORE our 7:30 am dive, when the doctor who actually knew his stuff would be there. So my friend did, and that doctor said it was no problem — the drug is a common one in the USA, but less commonly used in Australia — and thankfully my friend was able to go there and be back by 7am, in time for our 7:30 bus…. which came 10 minutes early…. and after all that rushing, we were dropped off and discovered we now had to stand and wait for the boat crew to be ready…. because they were not.

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Talk about hurry up and wait!!! But back to the issue of pricing…. Essentially most of the one-day tours at this price point, about $150 USD/person, all seemed to last for about the same length. You should expect need to arrive at your ship at about 7:30 am and return to port at 4:30 pm. (Like I said, ours included pickup from and drop-off at our hotel — and thankfully the Airbnb was actually IN a hotel or they would not have — as part of the price… on the up side, they did call us when they were about to arrive. I STRONGLY suggest you find what the nearest hotel to you is, and set that as your pick up location if your airbnb is NOT so situated)

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Finally the staff arrived to check us all in. We had to show either the print out of our ticket or an email confirming it. On their sheet I saw that they had my friend listed as vegetarian, but NOTHING about his mushroom allergy, so I reminded them…. they said “thank you” and wrote it down…..

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This guy was traveling solo

Then every group of visitors (friends, families, etc) had their photo taken… like the one I posted at the top of the blog…. this is a photo you’ll be expected to buy later…

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Before the boat got started they talked to us, and told us that motion sickness pills (both medicinal and ginger tablets) were available. The Medical ones were $3 AUD for two pills (one for BEFORE we got moving, the second to be taken after lunch), which I went straight over the purchased… and was SO glad I did. Even with, I had to focus on calm breathing and such during part of the rougher parts of the ride out. During the way out to the dive site they fed us breakfast, and lets just say some of the folk who had thought they didn’t need the pills had ‘spilled their cookies’. For my travel buddy…. they had a veggie burger, which he didn’t want because he wasn’t hungry… and for everyone else there were fried-egg and bacon sandwiches… I just had a fried egg which I patted down with paper towels, to remove the oil. While doing it I talked to the chef-female and asked her, “did they tell you my vegetarian friend is allergic to mushrooms?” and the answer was “NO they  had NOT.!”… Keep in mind I told them this TWICE…. AND she kind of freaked because the dish she was getting ready to make for his lunch, was FULL of mushrooms!!!! That’s a MAJOR screw up!!

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There’s a top deck for those wanting to tan and rest, note the resort deck out in the distance (it just stays out there pretty much 24/7)

SO, that said… Along the way no matter which cruise you take, they’ll feed you breakfast, lunch, and a snack on the return trip (ours were all you can eat, and there was enough for seconds) — which is either included or you’ll need to pay extra. Ours was included, with water, tea and coffee for free…. pop or beer cost extra.

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Taken using their underwater rental camera… notice the color difference between the shoe in or out of the water?

Once out there, you’ll be lent a blue “stinger suit’ to protect you from jelly fish stings, a pair of flippers, a snorkel and goggles. Our company also lent a wet suit to anyone who was a certified swimmer and didn’t have their own (again something that I think other companies might charge you for). They seemed to have all the gear at pretty much every size, so for instance my friend who wears a shoe size of 13 Australia /49 European & 15 US — huge feet, has trouble find socks and shoes, WAS able to borrow ones that fit… while my feet are at the other end of spectrum (unusually small for a white girl, although average for an Asian woman), and I was also able to find ones that fit snuggly.

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They even had prescription goggles that they were lending out for free. I have particularly horrible eyesight, and doubted they’d have mine… but they had one that was close enough to allow me to see, and even had one that was for folks who were even worse than me… although they weren’t bifocals so I could see far but not near….

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Me, with my borrowed prescription goggles — purchased pic

Once we got out to the reef and dropped anchor, everyone got one scuba dive with an instructor (if they weren’t already certified), where the staff helps you get into the gear, into the water, and then makes sure you can both breath properly using the tank and regulator, and are able to expel water from your goggles while under the water (because apparently the goggles have not yet been made where that won’t happen).

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The rental camera is red filtered for underwater use, and is kind of lousy above it

And then you get led around by the instructor for about 20 minutes after that, after the photographer has had a chance to take pics of you while under the water. A second optional scuba dive was available for $65 AUD more (clearly advertised as such in advance), and you could make up your mind to add it after you’ve done the first depending on how you felt about it.

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This platform (holding a mini motor boat for emergency pick ups) was lowered into the water, and we took off from it, see the 12 air tanks lined up?

The first dive was about half an 35 min and included instructions and making sure each diver UNDERSTOOD them and could demonstrate them (one on one testing), while the second scuba dive is 45 minutes with none of it wasted on instruction. IF you are a certified diver… you could spend the WHOLE time swimming alone, but if not you HAD to swim with a guide and HAD to go through the lesson, even if, like my travel buddy, it’s not your first time going scuba diving. In fact in my group of four swimmers,  I was the only virgin who had never done it before.

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The red filter is simplistic, and makes everything look green

So the pic above — see how it’s very green? — That was one I took with their underwater rental camera which cost me about $99 to rent (but included my choice of 15 of the professional photographer shots … not great, … The pics below are that are blue, are by their photographer…. the very big fish is like the crew’s pet. Apparently this type of fish has a 5 year memory and is a bit like a dog in terms of his level of affection for the divers who come by daily

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The professional photos were color adjusted using very expensive specialized software, I’m SURE of it, because I watched him doing it.

So again, compare the color palate of the pics by the professional (blue) with the one they rented me (green), which I used while scuba diving… i.e., going MUCH deeper into the water than I would experience while snorkeling… much higher water pressure.

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The above were also passed through some basic color balancing attempts by me, using my Macbook’s photo program not complex algorithms for divers

Dealing with this pressure, and the fact that the goggles flood regularly is a big part of what they taught us before we went down. I felt ok for most of it; there were some initial problems my regulator which for some reason was set so tightly that I was having to REALLY force the air out while breathing, I could just breath out.

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Multiple boats all sharing reef adjacent areas, and little platforms set up about midway between

I hand signaled the instructor as we’d been instructed… we went to the surface and I told him about it and he made some sort of adjustment to the thing…  and from then on it was fine. Also between the fat on my ass and my tits, there was too much buoyancy between me and the suit (which also has built-in air pockets) so that I wasn’t able to submerge like everybody else … again I asked to go up… explained it to him… he made some more adjustments and then I was fine.

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A purchased pic of the diving staff, the blond guy front and center led my group of 4+him

After we finished the dive the instructor (blond guy wearing glasses above) told me that I had actually done unusually well and should feel proud of myself. He said that MOST virgins on the first dive freak out during the instruction section, because of problems breathing, or feeling like they were being water boarded, or whatever…. and MOST never actually manage to get past the initial instruction phase to do the scuba dive itself. I on the other hand had managed to do the whole thing, including pretty much the whole time allocated to the dive.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_213c.jpgBut at the very end of it my core muscles in my torso, and the muscles in my legs were just knackered. At that point, my friend, who is a strong swimmer, signed up not for the 2nd scuba dive (which he had intended to do) but rather for a snorkel dive with the ships marine biologist (I forget what the fee for that was, but it was less than the snorkel dive), which you could only sign up for if you were a strong swimmer. Since I was tired, he ‘informed’ me that he was borrowing my rental camera. 

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Me, showing off my iPhone in it’s waterproof plastic case, $28 AUD/~$20 USD ($13 on amazon)

Before going on the trip I had found a camera store just near our Airbnb rental. The girl working there had convinced me that the rental underwater camera’s offered by these trips weren’t actually all that good, and intended more for video than photos. That a better option, was to use my own iPhone inside one of these clear, heavy plastic zip-lock bags designed for smart phones. She said that’s what she uses and has used for a few years, and if you’re NOT going to invest in a top of the line camera it’s really the best choice. Supposedly I COULD have used it for scuba diving but to be honest, I didn’t trust it to keep my iPhone dry more than a few feet down …. but I figured snorkeling it could manage…. and in addition to the scuba outing, which you HAD to do with a crew member unless you had certification to scuba solo (which takes a full three days minimum to complete in Australia) there were two chances to go snorkeling independently (about four hours total) — although you had to stay within a certain distance of the boat/life guards while doing it ….

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Googles maps

An image of an underwater reef taken from above the water, they’re easy to spot, and at points they come up so high that boats can’t pass over them… so snorkeling really is a viable option… at the right locations you don’t HAVE to go very deep to seem them. Our boat while it ultimately docked at two different locations, so we got to see some variation of the reef while limiting our snorkeling to within the ken of the lifeguards. Although, that said…. BOTH locations were on/at the bit of the barrier called the Norman reef — if you look at a map of the barrier reef, it looks like a line of underwater islands.

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As the medical thing we had to go through earlier demonstrated, not everyone can scuba dive safely because of medical reasons— for instance people taking certain prescriptions aren’t allowed,  and not everyone feels comfortable scuba diving (even among those who want to, they freak out when first trying it as it can be claustrophobic and a bit like being water boarded). As such, even though scuba is included in the price, you can choose to just do snorkeling the whole time, if you’d rather

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These were the photos I took during our first chance at snorkeling, before we did our scuba session, when I was still using their rented underwater go-pro type camera (i.e., everything is very green)

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Photos from the rented camera, even after I futzed with the color balance on my computer, still not very good (but better)

… First thing I noticed when doing snorkeling was that MUCH bigger fish than I saw by the reefs seemed to like to hang out JUST under the boat. I think it has something to do with what was in the blue plastic bin they had hanging below the boat… it had these things that looked like transponders in it which I guess sent out sound-waves that attracts the fish to the boat… but that’s just an educated guess (after they pulled up the crate, no more big fish were hanging out down there). Anyway, once again… here was the photo I took of the photographer using the expensive to rent underwater rental camera … very very green

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And by comparison, THIS is the image of the same guy only this time I was using my iPhone inside the plastic bag. See how BLUE everything is? And sort of monotone everything is?

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Taken with my iPhone … really

DwdX1JAQSv+xgt9Rj8NcXg_thumb_c24e.jpgAfterwards, at the end of the trip while we were heading back to port, one of the staff members saw me flipping through images, and suggested try a free app for the smart phone, that she loves, which would automatically color correct my photos for me (it also allows you to modify that correction, less or more, etc) called Dive+ … which I did… and here’s what it looks like (before and after)

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So it’s a sort of judgement call as to whether to use it or not to apply the correction… but I was actually REALLY happy with some of the photos I ultimately got with the iPhone/Dive+ combo

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Love this one, it’s very other worldly

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I keep wondering how far down the professional dive photographer had to go to find this shot (below) … because it was NOT up near the surface where we were snorkeling (images above), that’s for sure

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Purchased image from our dive, also visible on their Facebook page

That said, its pretty clear from my images that the barrier reef, at least up at the top where a snorkelers could see it is already like 90% bleached out in these areas… which is very very sad.

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bottom right is scuba and deep divers (folks who are experienced enough to hold their breaths and go deep)

OR of course, if you don’t TRUST the plastic pack to keep your smartphone dry, you could always still rent from one of those underwater cameras from the tour company … which I opted for — at the last-minute — as the thought of a water-logged smartphone popped into my brain before the scuba dive. I admit I did this AFTER a lecture by the photographer about how much better my photos would be if I had the right equipment…

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purchased pic of me and my friend … I’m holding the rented phone (at the end of the yellow thing… which will make it float/bob in the water if you loose it) in my left hand

Actually I think that it was because  I decided to rent their go-pro-type underwater camera (the yellow thing in my left hand in the picture below) along with a package of 15 of the digital photos the professional photographer took……that they decided to put the above photo on their Facebook page… I’m GUESSING it was because … as far as I know, I was one of only TWO people who had opted to rent one of those underwater camera things, and as the camera is front and center in this photo, above, the photo helps to promote other people renting it

Domestic air-terminals in Australia are different from in the USA

So, yesterday we flew from Sydney north to Brisbane, changed planes, and kept on north to Townsville Airport, which is where you start seeing the Great Barrier Reef… bucket list travel to be sure. We were heading towards Magnetic Island, which is for the most part a tourism destination…. lots of beaches and hiking and mother nature at her Aussie finest

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will blog about it later, but suffice it to say, this is the view from our airbnb’s bed

Anyway, getting here we flew Virgin Airlines domestic. There were a few things about the airports that I found interesting. Firstly, in the domestic terminals there are few to any food places in the public areas before you pass security. This seemed strange to me because people regularly arrive at airports early, for one reason or another, and need to hang out and wait till it’s time to check in. (The reason for the absence made sense to me a bit later.)

The second thing I noticed was that … in Australia, when flying DOMESTIC (I checked, this is not true when flying international), you do NOT need a boarding pass in order to pass security. THIS in part is why there’s not much in the way of hanging out places before security. The fact is that as long as you’ve only got carry-on type luggage, you don’t really need to wait to check in before accessing the food and shopping options on the other side of it. I somehow doubt you can pass a full-sized suitcase through… but we arrived at the airport a good two hours before check in would normally be allowed, and — since we were flying Virgin, one of the major Aussie carriers (their desk is ALWAYS open) — they happily checked out bags anyway.

To be honest, I had missed the fact that something was absent from the normal process when we entered the line for security, i.e., no one stopped us to check our boarding passes; but, it was like little voice in the back of my head that went ignored. I only realized that something was off when I saw a of couple, standing right near the gates, doing what was clearly tearful goodbyes …. at a gate. This confused me at first…. Why are these two standing the middle of the walkway, holding on to each other like it was the last time they’d ever see each other? The woman had tears trailing down her face, and he was kissing her sweetly. This is the sort of thing you USED to see in the USA at airport departure gates before 9-11, but you just don’t anymore because of loved ones no longer allowed to approach said gates (tearful goodbye have to happen before security and tend to be rushed, because no one wants to miss a flight because of the long lines that can happen there). And then later as we were boarding, I was watching two friends (who I had initially assumed were traveling together) saying their goodbye, and then one loaded the plane with us while the other turned and left to exit the airport…. and the light bulb in the brain went off as I finally put the pieces together.

When we landed in Brisbane I also noticed a few people who were clearly waiting at the gate for folks to get off. They were standing there with faces of happy expectation, looking at every person who walked off — in the face — clearly looking for someone they hadn’t seen in a while …. Again, you just don’t see that sort of the thing at gates in the USA anymore. When you do, its AFTER people have exited the controlled areas, which are guarded to keep anyone from walking in-the-out-doors, so to speak.

And then when we got to Townsville, as we unloading I noticed there was a bar before you exited the controlled area, that seemed to be utilized by locals, just hanging out. REALLY unusual from my perspective. I almost had the feeling that IF you live right by the airport in Townsville, it’s a SMALL town, that’s the local bar. Again in small towns in the US you might find bars like this BEFORE security, but not after… at least not since 9-11 happened.


And on a totally different note: our airline stewardess on Virgin Airlines from Brisbane to Townsville looked like Gal Gadot’s (i.e., Wonder Woman’s), not as attractive, sister.

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the resemblance was particularly pronounced in profile and when she was smiling.

 

A poignant celebration of Fireworks over the Australia’s Sydney Harbor bridge, as viewed from my Airbnb….

So, yet another of my bucket list items has been checked off, although not at all in the way I had imagined. I have seen a fireworks display over the Sydney Harbor with the bridge and the archetypal Opera House in the background with my own eyes.

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It was totally unexpected… I was lying in bed in Sydney Australia, getting over a bad cold I’d been fighting — starting just 3 days after my arrival (so I probably picked it up during my flight), and my traveling mate for this trip had gone out with an old friend of his (he’s originally from Sydney) to a party. So I was not in the best of moods… stuck in bed, missing a party … etc.,

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To pass the time, as I was lying in bed, I was yet again watching the movie that won the 2016, Academy Award for best picture, “Spotlight.” For those who don’t know it…it is a movie about how the Boston Globe in 2001, had exposed the sexual abuse scandal that is still rocking the Catholic Church today. They had followed up on a theory of a psychological researcher — who had argued that 50% of Catholic priests were sexual activity and that of those, about 6% were pedophiles. According to him, this was not because they were attracted to children, but rather because male children from rough neighborhoods and broken homes (in particular) were the least likely to admit to the abuse.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_1f60.jpgGoing on that researcher’s assessment (which would have meant about 90 pedophiles within the total population of Boston Priests) the Globe’s journalists were able, through extensive legwork, and by reading between the lines of church records — to uncover that while only one pedophile priest was currently in the news, in fact 87 of them were currently being bounced around the parishes of Boston; all of this being part of a methodical & institutionalized attempt on the part of the Catholic Church to protect itself rather than its children.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_1f66.jpgOnce their research was published, over 1000 Boston area victims — knowing they were no longer alone — stepped forward, and ultimately 249 priests and brothers were publicly accused of sexual abuse JUST within the Boston Archdiocese. The Globe’s finding, had world-wide repercussions, effectively opening a can of worms as all Catholic communities, one by one, in a domino effect began to publicly address this cancer within the Catholic church… a phenomena which we are still dealing with almost 20 years later.

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In fact, the REASON I was watching this movie, for maybe the third time, was that just two days before all of Australia had been a twitter, literally twittering — and facebooking, etc., over the fact that Cardinal George Pell (who is referred to by multiple sources as the third-most-powerful Vatican official) had FINALLY been “convicted of all charges that he sexually molested two choirboys in Australia in the late 1990s. (Pell, 77, has been the Vatican’s chief financial officer in recent years; he earlier was the archbishop of Sydney and of Melbourne.)

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_1f5e.jpgI’ve talked about Pell before…  Almost a year ago I was in Australia, in Ballarat, a town just outside of Melbourne, which is epicenter of the abuse scandal here (I was staying with a woman I had befriended via Facebook years before). At the time I had blogged about “Ballarat’s loud fence: Civil protest against the church in Australia” and had included an amazing song written and performed by the inimitable Tim Minchin, ‘Come home (Cardinal Pell)’ … a song he had penned in an afternoon. (I admit I have since developed a bit of a crush on this guy… he is a genius.)

At the time, as far as I knew, Pell was only thought to have been actively involved in the coverup, but as this week’s court case proved, he was also sexually abusing boys himself.

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So this was a story that while was of HUGE interest to the Australian public, it was NOT being covered by the local press. In fact, the Judge on the case had instituted a media gag order on its outcome. As such, the Herald Sun Newspaper of Melbourne’s front page rather than covering the results, showed in large letters the word CENSURED followed by, “The world is reading a very important story that is relevant to Victorians [The Australian State within which Melbourne and Ballarat reside],” but, that said “The Herald Sun is prevented from publishing details of this significant news. But trust us. It’s a story you deserve to read.” The gag was so tight that even foreign press, for fear of legal repercussions, were blocking Australian readers from seeing what they’d written about the case. I learned about it because my Ballarat friend was reaching out via Facebook to her friends abroad to see if THEY could read trustworthy media sources talking about the case, and tell her what those articles had said.

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Anyway,  at this point you’re probably asking yourself, “WHY in fuck’s sake is Rebecca going on about Cardinal Pell in a blog post about a fireworks display over the Sydney Harbor?!” Well… when I saw the display I had NO IDEA why they were happening. My Aussie friend hadn’t known they were going to happen, I’d had no warning. So part of my brain sort of assumed that MAYBE … if this wasn’t due to some corporate event… just maybe they were in celebration of outcome of the court case.

Talking about it the next day with another Aussie native, apparently there’s a yearly TV show here in celebration of the Christmas Holidays that has something to do with caroling… and always includes fireworks over the bay that part of the program, and she though this was for that… but I couldn’t find anything on-line to confirm it… so I like to think that this was in celebration of the conviction… to paraphrase the country western song…  it’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Restored 1929 Route 66 Gas Station : McLean, TX

Not only is this a restored 1929 gas station, but apparently, this was very the first “Phillips 66” brand gas Station In Texas.IMG_0311.jpg

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IMG_0320.jpgIMG_0313.jpgOne thing I found kind of odd was that while other restored stations along the route had glass windows and you could see inside, this one had boarded up windows that were painted to look like glass.

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That said, I found both the poverty and the politics of this town to be more than a little bit disturbingIMG_0316.jpg

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THIS in particular gave me the heebeejeebees….

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With emphasis on “the civilized world” …. WTF? SERIOUSLY?