Don’t fly Aer Lingus to Dublin from Chicago, it’s not worth the price

I strongly suggest that if you’re flying to the UK or Ireland from Chicago, avoid Aer Lingus. Sure it’s cheap, but it’s probably one of the worst, most uncomfortable flights I’ve been on in years… I’m pretty good at sleeping on planes and on this one I only managed about 2 hours even though it was during my normal sleeping hours.
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View of Chicago over the wing
While the puddle jumper from Ireland to the UK wasn’t too bad as it was only 2 hours, the trans-Atlantic flight was abysmal. The seats were incredibly narrow (both in width and depth) so I could barely get my ass in nor stand with ease (I’m fat, but I’m not THAT fat … in fact side to side I’m not all that big because my frame sans fat is incredibly petite). Additionally, the armrest doesn’t lift so you can’t stretch out even if the seats next to you were empty — which mine was… Also they don’t lean back all that far… as a result in spite of having a window seat where normally I sleep pretty well, on this flight I only managed about 2 hours of interrupted napping. Add to this the fact that my body clock was already turned around to UK time so that take off time correlated almost exactly to when I’d been going to sleep for about the last week… and you see the problem. My body SHOULD have just nodded off but couldn’t because of how incredibly uncomfortable I was in the seat.
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It’s not me, it’s the chair

More worryingly,  I’d argue chairs like this are an example of why the feds are starting to get sufficiently upset about airline seating in economy so as to start to consider legislation to put an end to what’s been happening, namely, the rows of seats in economy becoming so close together as to be a survival risk in case of emergency.  My experience — and I am NOT overstating this — was that it actually was extremely difficult for me to stand up (I have mild and very common old age mobility issues); the chair in front of me was leaning into my space even when its fully erect. As such, I couldn’t actually stand without coming into contact with the chair in front of me which is pushing back at my frame and forcing me to use one arm to keep myself from falling back into the seat when trying to get up. Add to that I have frozen shoulders (again common in the elderly) and it’s an accident waiting to happen.

Had there been an emergency that necessitated my jumping out of my seat quickly to avoid being burned to death, I could not have done it. People on the plane seeing how much difficulty I was in were actually volunteering to help me… which has never been necessary before on any other economy flight.

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Inside the plane as we were loading
On top of that discomfort, the food was absolute crap. Honestly the worst airplane meal I’ve had in years. There was a girl sitting two seats away from me, and I wish I’d gotten a picture of her expression when she tasted… it was absolutely funny. So much so that I broke into a full belly laugh and we bonded over just how horrible the food was.
 It was some sort of chicken and couscous thing that had an odd taste, and made me wonder how many of us we’re gonna be sick later (in fact that next day I had impressively loose bowels when usually flying constipates me).
Then there was some sort of feta and cucumber salad thing, which just tasted odd — like something was just seriously off about it. We were all joking about “how can you screw up chicken and couscous, let alone a feta and cucumber salad?” In fact the ONLY tasty thing on the platter was this chocolate mouse thing.
The breakfast sandwich that they gave us a few hours later had a bizarre texture but a fairly decent taste — some people can really be picky about texture and would have been put off by it, me not so much. It was advertised as an egg and provolone with a sauce, they called a bistro sauce (usually: ketchup, lemon juice, mayonnaise, spicy brown mustard, garlic, horseradish, parsley, Hungarian paprika, cajun seasoning, and Worcestershire sauce) — but to me it just tasted like a combo of a lot of mayo, flavored with Worcestershire and Sriracha.
Oh, and the video interface on the plane was ancient. In fact before the flight even took off the stewardess apologized in advance if ours didn’t work and promised to try to move us if that was the case. Mine sort of did, but was almost impossible to navigate. Rather than touch screen it had one of those old handsets that you pull out of the armrest … while using it the interface kept either clicking on the item to either side of the thing I clicked on, or freezing up entirely; at one point I got stuck on a song which just kept repeating and refused to allow me to leave it… and that was it, it would not do anything other than play that one song on repeat for the next two hours … I
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Flying out of Chicago’s O’hare
The only good news was they didn’t loose my luggage.
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Not that one was the result of the other, but this time around I bought and installed Apple AirTags into my bags, and was able to watch my luggage follow me though the airport till it finally rejoined me on the plane. While not necessary I have to say it was comforting to know in advance that the bag was on my flight.

I fell down and went boom yet again…

Back on September 22, a day before I was supposed to leave to go to Reykjavík in Iceland I fell down and went boom on the streets of London, yet again!

At the time I was staying in the Kensington neighborhood directly adjacent to Harrods (a world famous department store, now owned by the family of the guy that Princess Diana was in the car with when she died) and had been spending the morning walking around and exploring the museum district where the Victoria and Albert Museum is, while listening to an audible recording of a book. Yes I was very distracted and putting a lot of stress on my brain, which was still dealing with post concussive syndrome. I had already become aware of the fact that I was starting to mentally fatigue and had contemplated staying in place and finding a cab to take me home, but had rejected the notion thinking I shouldn’t be such a ninny, my body was still fine and I needed the exercise.

Suffice it to say that was the wrong decision.

One of the problems I’ve had ever since the major concussion (back in Australia about two years ago) is that when I start to tire the balls of my feet begin to drag.  this is a problem that I’m still dealing with today. Initially they had been doing it all the time, so that it felt like the sidewalk was reaching up to grab my feet as I walked; but after identifying the problem and some self implemented physical therapy — who knew that my childhood ballet lessons would ever serve some sort of practical use in adulthood; I basically made a practice (for a few months) of focusing my attention on what my feet were doing, and that solved the problem by 95%. That said, anytime my brain starts to fatigue my feet go right back to dragging.

Anyway I suddenly caught my foot on a not completely level piece of sidewalk, tripped and started to fall … But I guess because I was mentally fatigued my hands didn’t do what they’re supposed to do, which is to Jut-out in front of me to break the impact and keep my head from hitting the ground. As a result I landed pretty much square on my forehead.

The picture in the upper left-hand corner is what I looked like shortly after hitting the ground. I lay there immobile in a state of shock, but some very nice girls whose names I didn’t get stopped and helped me. Once they gotten me up off the ground they escorted me down the street to a local pharmacy which turned out to not be a real pharmacy. They then took me from there even further down the street to a branch of the Boots pharmacy chain, where there was a minute clinic type set up. 

The pharmacist was busy talking to some other customers when I waddled up and asked for help, with blood trickling down my face. First she said “please stand in line and wait your turn.”, and then looked up at me and said, “apparently you take priority!” The people she’s been talking to were not particularly thrilled with this until they turned around and took one look at me and agreed that in fact I did. She took me into the clinic area and cleaned up my forehead and put a bandage on it and then took me out to the street and put me into a cab and directed it towards the nearest hospital with an emergency room, namely the Chelsea and Westminster hospital.

I then got to experience yet another example of how by comparison to other industrialized countries the US health system is seriously fucked up. I went into the waiting room, had to wait for more serious patients to go ahead of me – – keep in mind my forehead had already been cleaned up and bandaged by the woman at the pharmacy. When they finally saw me — The room has been pretty full when I arrived and I had a wait of maybe an hour, they cleaned my wond up a little bit more and put surgical super glue over the cuts to help them heal (and keep more blood from escaping– as we all know head wounds are heavy bleeder’s). when I asked how much it was going to cost me, this visit to the emergency room … keep in mind that in the United States if I even step foot into an emergency room I am hit with a bill for $1000, and that’s before seeing the doctor. When I was in Australia they charged me $134 to walk into the room, $134 to see the doctor, $134 for the CAT scan, etc.… So at the very least I was expecting some sort of fee of a few hundred dollars. To my shock and awe they informed me I owed them NOTHING!!!

The second picture on the upper left top row is what I look like when I woke up the next morning. The day started out with a small black eye swelling in my inner tear ducts adjacent to my nose, and progressed rapidly over the course of the day, most of which was spent at the airport or on a plane heading to Reykjavík. The third picture starting from the left in the second row is what I look like the next morning waking up in Reykjavík, and from that point on every photograph was taken once a day over the ensuing days. By the time I left Reykjavík the bottom right picture all I had left were lines that made me look like a football player.

What was kind of funny is that in spite of the fact that my eyes were deep purple almost nobody said anything to me about them, other than my best friend who flew in from Chicago to spend that week with me. There was one exception, one elderly man who I met in the waiting area for the flight to Reykjavík said to me, “I have a bet with my wife, she thinks you’re just doing some sort of weird make up thing, but I said that you had fallen and hit your forehead and that you have black eyes as a result.” Apparently the same thing that happened to him as a kid.

What I was most impressed by, and my Best friend felt the same, was just how impressively balanced the swelling was. It really did look like eyeshadow I had applied to my eyes, So I can’t fault people for thinking that that was what it was.

Continue reading “I fell down and went boom yet again…”

Sid’s Diner: El Reno, OK

Located on Route 66 in El Reno Oklahoma is a cute little diner called Sid’s, which has been serving up delicious food for over 40 years. Although it doesn’t look like all that much, this restaurant has actually achieved some notoriety on the national level for the quality of it’s cheap eats.

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While it takes advantage of their route 66 address, and has been written up in guidebooks as part of a Route 66 road trip, it’s important for authenticity’s sake (I believe) to remember that Sid’s is NOT technically a historic 66 diner. Sid opened the place in 1989, five years AFTER route 66 had already been decommissioned (in ’84).

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Their claim to fame, isn’t that, but rather the food… specifically their fried onion burgers, which are considered to be so good that the Food Network listed them as among the top 5 burgers in the whole US of A., and the Travel Channel has listed them as one of the must visit road side diners in the country in the cheap eats catagory.

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Note: the french fries here are STILL called Freedom Fries… will get back to this later

Their burger (i.e., the regular) consists of a large number of thinly sliced onions that are then smashed into the raw meat so that they merge with it, but as a solid layer– a bit like what happens with hash-browns. The King is just a larger quantity of beef.

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I watched them making these, and based on the massive amount of fat involved wasn’t going to even try them (as they were completely off of diet). But as I was asking about the sandwich, they insisted I have at least a taste of one for free. (This is a VERY friendly place.) So they made up one and cut me off 1/4 of it so I could try it. Normally the burger includes a huge gob of mayonnaise, but they-made this one without

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The remaining 3/4 were given to this this elderly woman sitting next to me, who was a regular. From what I overheard, she’s apparently in dire economic straits and they’re always adding free add-ons to her meals. I therefore insisted that I pay for the whole of her meal, my 3/4 and everything else she was eating.

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As a result they insisted that we have a picture taken together. I have to say she was a very nice lady, very cheerful and upbeat.

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Like I noted previously, the “French fries” in this restaurant are still referred to as Freedom Fries. That, and the heavy references to American’s armed forces kind of tells you all you need to know about the politics of this town, and the restaurant’s owner.

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This is term that was adopted in 2003, and to this day is still used by the most hardcore Republicans around the country. The renaming (let’s keep in mind that french fries are actually from Belgium and not France) was the idea of a guy who owned a diner in Beaufort, North Carolina by the name of Neal Rowland. This patriotic act was in response to France‘s opposition to America’s proposed invasion of Iraq (which we went ahead and did anyway, without world support). Not long after two Republican politicians picked up the idea and ran with it; the first was Walter B. Jones, who represented Rowland’s district’s in Congress and the second was Bob Ney, a Representative from Ohio who in 2008, was convicted on corruption charges and did jail time — why yes this does make me smile. In 2003, Ney was still the Chairman of the Committee on House Administration, and therefore in charge of managing all the general ‘stuff’ for the members of the house of Representatives. What these “patriots” did was to … as a way of sticking to the French (who are always quick to point out that French Fries are NOT French), insist that the cafeterias that serve politicians in Congress change the name of the fries likewise.

qh96DA2xSCaW7zxlXDfXrQ_thumb_ad7a.jpgAnd, why YES, the locals who El Reno did in fact, in majority, vote for Trump.

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Nzar Khoury Guest House & Airbnb, Acre, Israel

If you’re ever in the historic town of Acre, Israel (it’s one of the oldest continuously inhabited ones on the planet) and looking for a place to spend the night that is nothing fancy, but clean and HIGHLY affordable, look no farther than Nazar Khoury’s Guest House. I stayed here for almost a full month, and LOVED IT. If you want to book with him you can either call him directly (see number below), or use Booking.com, Agoda, or Airbnb (like I did — you may need to be signed into your Airbnb account in order to see that link, I’m not sure).  That said, while he has four different rooms available, his place is so much more affordable than the other places in town, that he tends to be full almost continuously (or at least was while I was there). UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_de83

Be warned, this is NOT a fancy hotel, with elevators and bell boys, but rather his family home that he grew up in, which he has converted himself in order to accommodate guests. He runs it himself (the guy in image above) and for the most part does a pretty good job of it … If you stay here you’ll be getting an authentic experience of how the locals live.

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His home, which is located about four floors up, has a patio that overlooks the mediterranean ocean and the old Ottoman built seawallramparts of this historic, and once militarily strategic town.

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The wall is currently being renovated; I was hoping they’d leave this long enough for me to get a shot of the sun setting in the middle of it, but no luck, it was only there for a few hours.

It is an almost idyllic place to sit and enjoy the ocean. While there you can also get to know some of his other guests (I met more than few people that way) as you all watch the setting sun while nibbling on the free munchies he provides.

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This picture (above) was taken at around sunset — as you can tell by the golden color of the stones, and if you look up towards the Nzar Khoury sign, you’ll spot some guests, particularly the guy in the black shirt, talking to each other while enjoying said it from the patio — next to him was in fact his wife (who was distracting him from the view).

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The moon, just moments after the sunset

The great part about having stayed at the Guest House for almost a month was how many different sunsets I was able to watch… no two ever exactly the same

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From his home you can easily see Acre’s famous lighthouse, and Haifa across the bay.

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On VERY clear days you can just make out the second holiest Bahá’í temple in the world, known as the Shrine of the Báb, it’ll look like a vertical strip from the top of the of the mountain to the bottom, with one very large building in the middle of it. I know all about the Bahá’í because one of their temples isn’t far from the home where I grew up, north of Chicago. But like I said, you can only see it on VERY clear days… otherwise the fog and or smog (depending on the color — fog is white, not brown) will block you from seeing it.UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_2ba6.jpg

Just to the right of the lighthouse is the remains of a submerged crusader castle. On days when the wind is low and the water is still, you can just make out the walls of the various rooms of the building…

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_df48.jpgon other days you’ll see fishermen (who aren’t actually supposed to be there, but the police don’t stop them) fishing either off the exterior wall of that castle, or netting up fish caught in the pools they create.

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Getting to his place is however NOT the easiest thing for people with mobility issues (it is NOT wheelchair accessible). The image above is the first set of stairs you’ll need to climb. These were built by the ottoman controlled Acre and were built more to be comfortable for horses pulling carts, then they were for humans. That said, the built-in ramps would have been a lot more helpful if they were filled in (so to speak). If you try pulling a suitcase up them, or a cart, the wheels will constantly slip off to one side or the other. (I’ve not seen anyone even TRY to negotiate them with a wheel chair.)

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The Stairway and Church’s doorway, decorated for the wedding

Nzar’s home — which is built upon the remains of a Crusader Church — is just next door to the St. Andrew’s Church (Greek Catholic), which is accessed from the parking lot by that same stairway. So, if you’re lucky, as I was, from his balcony you’ll be able to watch an Arab wedding party ceremoniously lead the bride to the altar.

At the top of the stairs you make a hard left (if you go right you see the church’s front door which is usually locked) and you’ll see the big metal door that marks his entrance

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The guest house’s  doorway and staircase

Push it open (it’s never locked)… be careful not to pull the handle (sometimes it’ll come off)… and you’ll see a very uninviting steep staircase that’s about 2 stories high with a banister that is just a rusty pipe bolted to the wall… that wiggles a bit if you lean on it (so don’t if you don’t absolutely need to). That said, while I was there a 90-year-old gray-haired grandmother with a seriously bent back put me to shame on those stairs.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_2b6d.jpgOnce inside you’ll see an apartment with VERY high ceilings. These are traditional to the region, and act as a sort of natural air conditioning system, as the heat rises above your head, and the cold drops to floor level. That said, no two spaces are on the same level. All the bedrooms are a step up to a place where you can leave your shoes, and then another step up to the bedroom area… the en suite bathrooms are yet another step up.

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The skylight viewed from above

My bedroom, where I stayed, has a skylight (image of it from the building’s roof)… but it’s currently the only one like that does. Unfortunately there were no way to block that light… so I ended up having to go to sleep earlier than normal in preparation for an 8am wake up (after a 6 am one, at which point I covered my head with a pillow)

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The setting sun as viewed through the doorway to the patio

At night, Nzar lights up his sign, so you can still easily see it from the parking lot below. IF you’re in one of the rooms that lines the back alley, as I was, and pop your head out the window, you’ll an large number of swallows (who you can watch at around sunset feasting on the mosquitos, G-d bless them), hanging out on the electrical and telephone wires that line the way.

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That said, I WARN YOU… they wake up really easily from things like the flash on your camera; and if awoken, they will fly around like crazy idiots for the next hour or so, chirping noisily. DO NOT WAKE UP THE SWALLOWS. That said, if you’re there during Ramadan, as I was, the wake up call before sunrise to allow muslims a chance to have breakfast, is ALSO going to wake the birds… you’ve been warned (ear plugs are your friend, as is a pillow over your head).

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Me, blogging while sitting on the patio on an overcast day

“World famous in New Zealand”, visiting the Two big L&P Bottles, in Paeroa, NZ

If you’re passing through Paeroa, while road tripping New Zealand (NZ) — let’s face it you’re most likely on the way to some place else — you WILL be seeing these two “Big Things”, i.e., huge bottles with the letters L&P on them located at either end of town. They represent one of NZ’s national soft drinks, which is made in here, using the local water.

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It is a super sweet lemony concoctin called L&P, short for Lemon — because it’s supposed to be a lemon tasting drink & Paeroa, the name given to the magnesium bicarbonate rich water of the springs located here. That said, the brand is no longer made here… it got bought out by Coke years back and is bottled up in Auckland …. although I’m not sure how many Kiwi’s know this.

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bottle in front of cafe

The bottle above, located in front of the L&P cafe, is one of two such bottles in town. In the photo I’m pointing at the advertising slogan on a red banner across it’s front… which reads “World famous in New Zealand.” I thought that was pretty witty, but learned afterwards that, according to Wikipedia, it was so successful that it has become a popular saying in New Zealand.

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bottle in park

At first I assumed the one in front of the cafe was the promosed “big bottle” but when we got there we were told that it was in fact the smaller one. The BIG one, is at the other end of town in a small park along the main road/highway…  Although, that said, if you compare the one above with the one below, to me they looked to be about the same size, only the one in the park is standing on a pedestal

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In case you’re completely unfamiliar with the product, L&P is a local to NZ brand of a lemony flavored soft drink… that in my personal opinion wasn’t very lemony, and actually tasted kind of fake … like some lab’s idea of lemon… And then of course I read the ingredients and…. its basically water, sugar, a lot of acid, and Citric acid (330).

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_2ad8As I discussed at length in the article about my visit to Hobbiton, (the movie set where the Hobbit Shire for the Lord of the Rings Movies where shot) 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.

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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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A retrospective of how L&P containers used to look, located in the entryway of the cafe

In day-to-day life, part of how this shows up for the average consumer is that in New Zealand, food labeling is DEVIOUS… so if you look at the close up of the bottle’s ingredients it says “food acid (330)” rather than “citric acid” … and ALL chemicals put into foods are like this… You know how in the states the general rule is if your reading the ingredients list and you can’t pronounce the ingredient you probably shouldn’t consume the product? Well in New Zealand ALL food additives are some easy to read words and a number code.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_2add.jpgFirst my friend and I went to the L&P cafe location (which is the first one you’ll hit if driving south from Auckland to Wellington, and pit stopped long enough to try a bottle of the stuff and use the facilities.

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While the menu looked ok, I was actually holding out, if you can believe it, for a pit stop at the McDonald’s down the road. No, seriously! This was because along with happy meals in New Zealand’s McDs were giving out children’s books by Ronald Dahl (he of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which was renamed as Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory for the movie version) with the happy meals instead of toysUNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_2ae0.jpgThe book being given out was his story Matilda (which in the movie version is called Matilda), only given out one chapter at a time — so that the title of the chapter was the title of the book — but with no reference on the cover to the fact that it was part of the larger book called Matilda. But for the fact that I’m very familiar with the story (not just the movie) I would never have known… and I was hoping beyond hope that at least they were giving out a chapter a week, because ever McD’s I stopped at was handing out the same “Marvelous Miss Honey” mini book.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_2ad4.jpgAfter this we stopped at the park at the other end of town where the “bigger” bottle was located. This one had little spots on the ground leading to it, which I’m guessing were supposed to be bubbles… which was kind of cute…. and a collection of signs talking about the history of the town

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As well as the history of the product

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According to the sign above, the reason the drink was made in this town, and I guess was made part of the drink’s name, was because the water in the town is naturally effervescent…. hence the bubbles on the floor.

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That said, we weren’t the only ones stopping to take a picture with the bottles… only these guy had the good sense to bring bottles of the stuff with them for when they posed in front of it.UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_2ad2.jpg

Location of the Bottle in front of the Cafe

Location of the Bottle in a small park

The Manawatu Scenic Route & Ruahine Dress Circle, in Rangiwahia, New Zealand

While my friend and I were road tripping south from Auckland to Wellington, we found ourselves with some (planned by me) spare time, and my friend … he who was doing the driving…  pretty much spontaneously decided he wanted to use said time to take a scenic route option his phone had notified him of, rather than stay on the most direct one. So, we turned off of New Zealand’s highway 1 and onto the Manawatu Scenic Route.

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Pretty much as SOON as we left route 1 we were happy we’d done so…

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The pictures really don’t do it justice

We found ourselves driving through a very windy and narrow river canyon type road (which was much more fun for him from a driving perspective than the mostly straight highway 1), with sides that were almost chalky white but shot through with green

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and a road that took us higher and higher up the side of the gorge, after which we entered a flatter area (at the top apparently)with some farms, and a GORGEOUS mountain range in the distance

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And then to MY delight (he was driving so past he didn’t even see it as we whizzed past) I noticed a stopping area with a sign and picnic area, and demanded that he stop and return us to it. [One of the many reasons we’re not traveling together anymore is he likes driving through places and considers them seen, while I like stopping each and every time I spot a good potential photo, so that I can take good pictures. Ironically, after I ended it with him, he wanted me to share with him said pictures.]UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_2a7e.jpg

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Panorama shot

looking down into the gorge I could see what the original settler meant, in terms of it looking like the dress circle seating in an Opera house (read the image above)…

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It wasn’t until afterwards when I researched the ‘Ruahine dress-circle’ that I learned that there was a side road we could have used to go down into it where there is a very popular swimming hole down there which we missed.

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my friend, who is about 6’+ tall, took this for me while standing on the picnic table (at my insistence)

Unfortunately, since he’s not one to carefully plan things in advance, my travel buddy was driving through the area sort of haphazardly (if I’D been the one to PLAN it, I’d have known in advance about the stopping location and the possibility of the swimming hole) and his GPS on his phone instead of taking us through the length of the whole scenic drive redirected us OFF of it once we got past the end of Ruahine Road, and (as he’s not a planner) he didn’t realize we actually had sufficient time and would have had MUCH better views had we stayed on it…  because from what I’m reading about it now, as I write this, we really only got a bit of taste of it…

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That said, we did get to see this view along Rangiwahia Road (which was NOT part of the scenic drive) after heading back to Route 1, which included our last view of Mount Ruapehu where Peter Jackson filmed his Mordor and Mount Doom in the The Lord of the Rings film trilogy.

Memorial of New Zealands Worst Train Accident, in Tangiwai

In Tangiwai, a rural Māori community in New Zealand, about half way between the rural towns of Rangataua and Waiouru, just off the side of highway 49, is a memorial to the worst train accident in the country’s history. The catastrophe occurred on Xmas eve in 1953, when the rail-bridge over the Whangaehu River collapsed beneath an express passenger train traveling from Wellington to Auckland, resulting in the death of 151 souls.

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A local school group was brought here to learn about the disaster

The disaster happened because the Islanders at that time suffered from a lack of understanding of the full risks associated with being directly downstream from an active Volcano, in this case, Mount Ruapehu (see images above and below).

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Note the Volcano and the reconstructed bridge in the above photo

Volcano’s are beautiful, and their eruptions result in rich black fertile earth at their bases that is wonderful for farming, and this is why so many farming communities are located directly at their bases all around world — in spite of their being some of the most violent forces on earth.

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For example: think about the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum located at the base of Mount Vesuvius (a volcano) in Italy, or the town of Kagoshima in Japan which sits directly adjacent to Mount Sakurajima, which is so active that residents have to walk around with plastic umbrellas to keep the volcano’s ash out of their hair.

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The cause of the Tangiwai disaster was in part seriously bad luck. Almost 10 years earlier in 1945, Mount Ruapehu, the volcano whose nearby presence is the source of the area’s sustenance, had erupted creating a thick layer of ash at the top of the mountain.

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Over the next 8 years, water collected in the cone of the volcano, forming a lake, held in place in part by that same layer of ash. Earlier that evening, at around 8pm, the water (heavy with lava, ice and ash) had broken through and rushed downhill via the Whangaehu River (whose headwaters are the yearly melts off the glacier that sits atop the volcano — see the pictures above taken in during NZ’s summer), and at approximately 10:15pm, the force of flood had taken out many of the railroad’s bridge’s supports…. but unfortunately, not the bridge (which the driver might have seen).

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The disaster happened only about 5 minutes later, at 10:21pm, and as I said resulted in the death of 151 souls; the recovery was horrific and continued for days as bodies were found hanging in near by trees, washed downstream by the river, or buried in banks of sand and mud; 21 of these bodies of the victims were never identified, and the bodies of another 20 souls, who were believed to have been on the train, were never found.

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Here are two videos about the disaster from youtube. The first is very short, 1.5 minutes video posted by the Auckland War Memorial Museum:

This second video is a full 20 minute TV show about bad days in history that focuses on the disaster:

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Giant Gumboot statue, Taihape, New Zealand

In a similar way to the tiny rural town of Riverside, Iowa (Population 993), having its monument in honor of the future birth of Star Trek‘s James T. Kirk, the slightly larger rural town of Taihape, New Zealand (NZ), population 1,730, has a giant “Gumboot” (Kiwi for a rubber boot) in honor of its fictional hometown TV character, a farmer by the name of Fred Dagg.

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Created by a NZ satirist by the name of  John Clarke, in the 1970’s, the Dagg character — known for wearing his Gumboot’s 24 hours a day (even in bed and in the shower) was designed to represent and make fun of the stereotypical NZ farmers, who lived in NZ’s stereotypically isolated farming towns.

Once he unveiled Dagg on national TV in 1975 the character made Clarke a national star. And as he had chosen Taihape as that hometown for his character, and the town owned that claim to fame with a will. Not only have they declared themselves the Gumboot Capital of the World, but they also have a yearly Gumboot Day, where contestants compete to see who can throw a gumboot the farthest, and who can wear them and look the dashing while doing it.

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As in nearby Tiarau, NZ, where corrugated galvanised iron was used to construct the Big Sheepdog, Ewe & Ram buildings, the Gumboot is also crafted from the same material, which New Zealanders seem to have a sort of love affair with.

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And just for kicks, some of Fred Dagg’s Greatest hit songs:

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Ohakune, New Zealand’s BIG Carrot

Located at the south end of the Tongariro National Park (the filming location for Mordor, in Peter Jackson‘s Lord of the Rings move trilogy), in the small town of Ohakune, New Zealand (NZ), what is reputed to be the world’s largest carrot. Considered by many Kiwi’s to be an icon, the carrot stands 7.5 meters tall (24.6 Feet), and its known as being one of NZ’s most hugged things.

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As anyone who reads my blog knows, I have a sort of perverse love affair with BIG THINGS (this will be my 59th one to blog about), i.e., oversized road-side attractions. You tend to see them in small towns, places that people would otherwise not travel to; with the items built or purchased, as a way to draw in tourists. Casey, Illinois is probably the most obsessive example of this, as in they’ve got EIGHT big things around town that hold the Guinness World Records for being the world’s biggest, for that sort of item. America has a LOT of things like this, with the world’s biggest ball of twine in Cawker City, Kansas, probably being the most famous; it was in the hit movie Michael (1996) where the Arch Angle Michael — played as less than angelic by John Travolta — comes to earth specifically because he wants to see these sorts of things. I argue that anyone doing a road-trip across America is sort of obliged to search them out… because they are “Americana.” That said, once I started road tripping around Australia I discovered they were into this sort of stuff as well, and likewise,  New Zealand also has a few (although neither has as anywhere near as many can be found across the USA.)

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I found a very good Neil Gaiman quote on the topic of road side attractions, in his novel American Gods, which is now one my favorite books (read it three times at least):
“So what is this place?” asked Shadow, as they walked through the parking lot toward a low, unimpressive wooden building.
“This is a roadside attraction,” said Wednesday. “One of the finest. Which means it is a place of power.”
“Come again?”
“It’s perfectly simple,” said Wednesday. “In other countries, over the years, people recognized the places of power. Sometimes it would be a natural formation, sometimes it would be a place that was, somehow, special. They knew that something important was happening there, that there was some focusing point, some channel, some window to the Immanent. And so they would build temples or cathedrals, or erect stone circles, or…well, you get the idea.”
“There are churches all across the States, though,” said Shadow.
“In every town. Sometimes on every block. And about as significant, in this context, as dentists’ offices. No, in the USA people still get the call, or some of them, and they feel themselves being called to from the transcendent void, and they respond to it by building a model out of beer bottles of somewhere they’ve never visited, or by erecting a giant bat house in some part of the country that bats have traditionally declined to visit. Roadside attractions: people feel themselves being pulled to places where, in other parts of the world, they would recognize that part of themselves that is truly transcendent, and buy a hot dog and walk around, feeling satisfied on a level they cannot truly describe, and profoundly dissatisfied on a level beneath that.”

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And that really is it… there’s an initial excitement as you head towards the Big thing… a profound level of satisfaction once you’ve arrived AT it, and then an underlying dissatisfaction once you’ve seen it.

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Anyone interested in WHY the big carrot is there, please to read the signs in the images above — basically, it comes down to the town being (for a time) New Zealand’s largest producers of carrots. The fiberglass carrot had initially been made as a TV advertising prop for a bank promotion, but later became available for sale;

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_2a35.jpgat this point, a group of the town’s vegetable growers Association, who had been looking for symbol to represent their importance to the town (many of whom were Chinese immigrants who had arrived in the 1920’s) bought it. It was then moved from Wellington, it original location, to the entrance to Ohakune in 1984, in a ceremony attended by NZ’s prime minister.

YtITP+naSuKrnMCKZc74Jg_thumb_d0fd.jpgThat said, once the ‘dissatisfaction’ stage had passed, I was more than a bit delighted with the activity park that the city has developed alongside the “erection” intended for both young and old to enjoy.

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The park includes a massive playground for kids housed with some scary looking examples of other vegetables grown in the area. I think they’re supposed to be cute, but both me and my friend thought they were kind of freaky looking… AND kids are NOT allowed to climb on them, so what’s the point of them being there?UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_2a3b.jpgThat said there is a nice selection equipment and game areas for the kids

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As well as exercise equipment for the adults

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This kind of made me sad… the towns forestry industry had added their own presentation section in the park, which included this massive log. According to the History of the log, it had been growing since the 13th century. When they felled the tree  in 1955, and when they got it to the mill they couldn’t use it because it was too big for the saws.. such a waste!

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There’s also a small area for people who just want a peaceful stroll through a green area, which feels a bit like walking through a patch of forest, along a stream, and is very restful. We saw more than few folks picnicking there.

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What I found amusing about it was clearly paid for with funds raised from local business all of whom got to embed a little advertisement into the concrete.

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And for the adults there’s also one of those mini outdoor gyms that are popping up all over place in public parks world-wide.

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That said, Ohakune is known for more than just vegetables. As I mentioned upfront, the active volcano in the background of the image above was the shooting location for the Mordor scenes in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movie trilogy, and is also has earned the being a duel status World Heritage Site both because of both its natural beauty and its religious importance to the Maori people. In summer, it is one of the country’s most popular full day hikes, known as the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, with a terrain towards the top that some have compared to being on Mars due to its utter alienness. While in winter, it turns into something of a ski resort town (more affordable housing for those willing to drive to the slopes), with the closest resort being at Turoa).

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Picture of the volcano from the porch of our Airbnb

In fact that Airbnb we stayed at (it ROCKED, seriously, was like a really good BnB), the owners share their home in summer, but vacate it entirely every winter because of just how much money it earns them as a ski resort rental.

The Big Corrugated Iron Sheep Dog, Ewe & Ram buildings, Tirau, New Zealand

One of the very first things I noticed once my friend and I began our road trip around New Zealand was, this country seems to have a love affair with using corrugated galvanised iron to construct buildings, as in I’ve never seen SO many buildings made of the stuff. One of the towns that has embraced this material with a will is town of Tiarau, New Zealand.

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Driving into town you won’t be able to miss this trio of buildings where the Iron’s been molded to look like a sheep-dog that houses the towns i-Site building, and the adjacent sheep & ram building, which house a coffee house and a woolen goods store, respectively.

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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 — i.e., for those travelers who are Lord of the Ring fans. 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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That said, the i-Site’s store doesn’t hold a candle to the one inside combined sheep and ram building next-door. The ram section is full of Marino Woolen goods, while the front of the Ewe (female sheep) section is is all things like New Zealand T-shirts, post cards, etc., and out towards the back there’s a coffee house that also has ice cream. (For some reason I didn’t take any photos in there.) If you have the time, I suggest walking around town because there’s a LOT of corrugated Iron statutes decorating the place. My friend and I were sort of in a rush to our next location, so we didn’t have time to really do the place justice, just a quick drive through… but there are at least eight different such decorations around town at last count.