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
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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.

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!

Lake Rotoiti, in Nelson Lakes National Park, South Island, New Zealand

If you ever have the chance to road-trip the length of New Zealand’s South Island, Lake Rotoiti (previously also known as Lake Arthur), which is located in the Nelson Lakes National Park, is one of the tourist spots so picturesque that it shows up not only on postcards but also on T-shirts.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_d222.jpgWhile this isn’t in my mind a “destination stop” unless you’re a local, it is a very pleasant place to stop and stretch your legs. We needed a place like that because we had the evening before taken the 2pm ferry from Wellington to Picton, which arrived at around 6:15 pm, and then rented a car, and spent the night in a very nice Airbnb with an en-suite bathroom, a walk in closet, and a hot tub,UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_28a3.jpgin the small town of Blenheim, a place that felt like I was at the Hilton for the price of cheap motel — got to love Airbnb. We were just pit stopping there, but apparently it’s an area known for its vineyards, and a lot of people who are into wine will stay for extended visits.

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After that we took a drive heading in the general direction of Christchurch, but because we had a few days to kill (and because the most direct route is still being rebuilt after the 2011 earthquake which completely changed some of the geography along the south island’s Northeast coast), we opted to take a route that took us along the island’s west coast.

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I LOVE how my apple watch allows me to set up shots (you can see what the iPhone sees on the watch), which in this case the smartphone was sitting on the hood of our rental car.

One thing to keep in mind is New Zealand actually has TWO lakes called Rotoiti (the Maori word for center) one on the North Island, and one in the South, I’m currently talking about the latter. (Yes it’s confusing, but at least it’s one per islands, think of it like there’s 88 different towns and cities in the USA called Washington, and 41 different Springfields, etc.)

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Please note the restrictions of which vehicles are allowed on this lake, it’s important. There are a lot of formerly clean lakes that have been polluted by things like personal jet skies and such, all of which leak oil and gas into the water, turning it green and murky. One of the things that makes this lake so impressive, in my own opinion, is just how clear this water is.UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_28a9.jpg

The picture with the boats at the end of the pier gives you an idea of how much deeper it is there. And still… this water is almost as clear as my bathtub. The upper left image is the water as seen from near the beach, while the bottom right one is taken from the far end of the pier… and you can still clearly see the rocks below

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After I took this image I started to see postcards and stuff depicting this lake, and they almost always have just this same shot… only framed better (my friend took it and for love or money I couldn’t teach him to frame a shot) and without the boats parked alongside the pier.

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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

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.

Adelaide Australia

I was only in Adelaide for about two and a half days (arrived Feb 15th, around dinner time, left Feb 18th, 2018, around noon), and most of that time was spent convalescing (from the massive concussion I was suffering), so I really didn’t get to see more than glimpse of the place. That said, I would happily go back again. It’s the sort of city that’s big enough to have a bit of everything you’d want in a city, but not so crowded that you can’t find a parking space. (Sort of like Evanston, IL, or Chattanooga, TN) — also not many photos were taken

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The first night we were there my travel buddy (who is an Aussie himself) walked me over to the “Rundle Mall” partly just to see it, but also because we needed to run by the local Target (yes Australia has this chain too) in order to pick up REALLY BASIC things the Airbnb host had not thought to provide for us, and I’m talking pillows and towels sufficient for two people. (This Airbnb sucked so bad that the sheets on the bed didn’t pass the sniff test — not by a long shot — for having been washed after the last guest had left.)

Oh, and he told me that in Australia the term ‘a mall’ tends to refer to a human-traffic only shopping street (cars are excluded), which may or may not be covered, as if not more often than it means a massive indoor shopping town, as it almost always does in the USA. An arcade by comparison isn’t a place full of games, but rather it’s something like the picture below (which is closer to an American idea of a mall, only it seems to be one walkway with shops on each side)fullsizeoutput_41c4.jpegThis sculpture located in mall and according to my  is fairly iconic to Adelaide, and is titled, A day out. I only took the one picture, but it actually consists of a four different pigs scattered about….

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If you look carefully at the bench where the guy is sitting and talking on his phone, below it is a 2nd pig….

Alongside the pigs statue (I’m blanking on the correct word, I’m finding my ability to recall words is still not back to 100% even though it’s almost six months since my accident)… OH, remembered it… the ‘art-term’ I was searching for was an installation, since it’s actually a collection of statues rather than one.

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Adjacent to the pig statues stood this group of protestors, the screens were all showing a movie that demonstrated the conditions of pigs on farms, including how they were killed, and the squeals. The protesters stood there silently. Add the two things together and you really do essentially have a performance art piece… even if it wasn’t what was intended by the artist of the pigs.fullsizeoutput_41c3

This art piece is another Adelaide landmark called either Mall’s Balls (I have a feeling this is Aussie humor), or ‘the spheres’ that serves as a meeting spot for people.

(the google map refuses to embed, so please check this link for the location)

Personally, it reminded me as an inferior version of Chicago’s (my home town) Cloud Gate, affectionately referred to, and better known as “the bean” — in fact I doubt most Chicagoans could tell you the proper name.

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During my time there I ate at one fairly decent restaurant, a Japanese place called Gyoza-Gyoza, which is apparently a local chain Japanese Izakayas (sort of the Japanese version of a pub, where folks come after work to drink and eat).

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Downtown Katoomba, Australia

Katoomba is a cute but small town, located about an hour and a half by car from Sydney (or 2.5 hours by train) about 2 kilometers from one of Australia’s natural wonders (which I of course was visiting), whose major industry is tourism. It’s a lot less tourist-trappy than most towns of this sort, while still having a sort of enough to keep visitors happy.

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NOTE: I’m writing this blog post well AFTER the fact. I was In Katoomba from January 12th to 18th of 2018 — about 5 months ago. BUT, because of the massive concussion I suffered only one week later, on Jan 25th… I have fallen woefully behind on the posts for that the Australia trip … but as I’m currently holed up in the Chicago area (i.e., my home base) doing things like doctor’s visits — including some related to the post concussive syndrome which I am STILL suffering from (albeit very mildly at this point, thankfully) I am taking the opportunity to rectify that…

The downtown area begins, essentially, at the top of a VERY steep hill, where it runs a bit alongside the rail road tracks, and then extends about a half mile South, down hill, in the direction of the natural attractions. (Other than a local movie theater, there’s little of any interest to none locals on the north side of the tracks).

Getting around:
And of course I am ASSUMING you don’t have a car… if you do you can just skip this part

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Getting from Sydney to Katoomba by train is actually a rather easy and enjoyable ride (see blog post). One of the things to remember is that IF you’ve already been in Sydney over the course of a week, and have actively been using the rail systems “Opal” transit card, once you have used it for eight trips in the course of one week (Monday to Sunday) you to qualify for 50% off on all trips for the rest of that week…  including the price of the rail trip out to Katoomba and back.

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That said, while there are also some bus routes you can take from the station to get you to your Airbnb or hotel, most of them stop running around 6pm … which I learned the hard way, when I arrived on a 6:30 pm train and ended up having to drag my heavy suitcase the 20 minutes it took to walk (almost a full mile) to my Airbnb… Luckily it was all down hill or I would broken into tears (the Airbnb host had COMPLETELY neglected to mention that fact in spite of my having told her what train I would be arriving on).

That said, I soon learned (not from her) that there are TWO 24 hour taxi services which will pick you up from pretty much anywhere, and run you home (I STRONGLY suggest keeping their phone numbers with you). The one you’re most likely going to be using is the Wentworth Falls Taxi, +61 (0)2 4782 1311; as the other, Blue Mountains Maxi Taxi, specializes in large wheelchair accessible vans that can accommodate up to nine passengers, +61 423 890 670, although they’re perfectly happy to pick up just one.
Places to eat:

Sanwiye Korean Cafe:

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First off, this place is TINY and popular. As such, unless you come on a non-vacation weekday and get very lucky… you WILL need a reservation (call +61 405 402 130) The time I opted for the basic home-style dishes my ex-boyfriend’s mother used to make regularly…   Mandu-guk (it’s a dumpling soup) and Japchae (which they spelled japjae)… I also ordered Kimchi, as this is the first Korean place I’ve ever been too that does NOT include the obligatory Banchan side dishes for free… and an order of Ginger Tea. That said, if you look at the reviews on Trip advisor, and pay attention to the ethnicity of the writers, you’ll see the western customers seemed to be way more enamored with the place than the Koreans (did I mention no obligatory Banchan?). For myself, the Madu-guk and Japchae were fine (they are two kind of hard to screw up dishes) but the Kimchi is SO incredibly mild that I could not smell it, or taste any of the red pepper.

For those who don’t get what I’m talking about, proper Kimchi should STINK, and at least mildly burn your mouth with the heat of the pepper. I had a Korean roommate back in college who initially kept a small bottle of Kimchi in our fridge, which because of the layout of the dorm room was in the same tiny room as our closets… we quickly banned the practice and forced her to keep it downstairs in the dorm room of some other Korean girls, because the stink had passed through the refrigerator’s walls and all of our clothes were suffering from Aux-d’kimchi. Additionally — keep in mind I lived in South Korea for almost three years while working as a professor, one of the first signs that I was back ‘home’ after spending some time in the States visiting my other home, was walking into an EMPTY elevator and being accosted by the scent of the Kimchi that some previous occupant had left behind (usually sweated out, like an alcoholic’s stench, or way too much cologne)

 

Paragon Cafe:

This restaurant would have been worth trying if only because it’s a piece of Australian history.  IMG_6067.JPG
It was the countries oldest continually serving Cafe (101 years when I went), the place is quaint beyond belief and is like a walk back in history to the 1900’s.

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established 1916 … the place had changed hands at least four times already, and according to this new report, shortly after I visited the current owner was being forced to leave by May 27 (over a week ago) because the business owner could no longer afford the rent, and whether the place will be maintained in its current form is in doubt.

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That said, I thought the food here was ok, WOEFULLY overpriced, and in spite of that nothing to write home about (the fact that it was struggling was therefore not a surprise). If you look closely at this menu (below) you’ll know what I ordered.

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Here’s hoping ….

 

The Gingerbread House:

When I finally spotted this place, located at the far south-east corner of the downtown area I decided that I was in love; This is a former church that for lack of congregants was converted into a cafe, that surrounds a gingerbread house/shop devoted to all things ginger!! (And as my friends know I LOVE ginger.)

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While there I found what may be the ultimate ginger drink, it’s called Rochester Ginger and (according to the company), it’s recipe is based on one made by Dickens himself … which I would happily drink regularly but for the fact that it’s $9.40 for a small bottle, about as pricy as wine …  when I got home I found Amazon has it  for slightly more. … By the way 1 cup = 236 ml, so this stuff is a bit over 177 calories a cup (while Coke is about 96 calories a cup)IMG_1907.JPG

they also had me try this organic ginger ale assuring me I would love it, but it was blah.

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There was also a ginger flavored Turkish Delight which was ok, but after the Rochester everything paled.

https://www.google.com/maps/place/The+Gingerbread+House/@-33.7172034,150.3120487,15z/data=!4m2!3m1!1s0x0:0xaaf95d3e9b389737?sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjFo57m88nbAhVD3VMKHfpPAGEQ_BIImQEwDw

Avalon Restaurant:

Based on the amount of business they do, this restaurant located not far from the train station seemed to me to be one of the most popular places in town. Their “specials” didn’t seem to change much Kangaroo burgers and pancakes with ice cream), and what finally drew me in was the burger. (Not my first taste of ‘skippy‘, which is what all the locals seem to call it, that was at Pins On Lurline, an upscale restaurant located outside of the downtown distract in what was once a private home … hence not included in this blog)

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The burger was less a burger than a sliced meat sandwich, with little rounds of kangaroo meat… not all that tasty and very chewy. While sitting there waiting for my food, I spotted this girl sitting next to me. I asked her if it was alright for me to take the picture and she allowed it…

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 The picture is completely untouched … the light was just perfect … and I of course allowed her to send a copy of it to herself.

 

Carrington Hotel
Let’s hear it for hotels that could not afford to update their facilities, until the fact that they had not becomes they’re selling point. Looking at the Carrington it’s pretty clear that’s the reality.

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I of course don’t know this for sure but after walking around the place I’m willing to take a bet that once the building was old enough to qualify for a World heritage landmark listing, and restoration funds that come with it, that that was probably the first time since 1927 that any serious renovations of the property happened…. and we should all be grateful because walking through its doors is like stepping back in time. According to Wikipedia it’s the only 19th century grand hotel still in use in all of New South Wales.
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This massive hotel property is located right in the downtown area, a meer steps away from the train station.

 

The Yellow Deli
The interior is VERY cute and Hobbit-warren like, and every food program (Yelp, TripAdvisor, etc) ranked it as the most popular eatery in town (must number of reviews, with almost all of the people giving it positive votes).
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I had arrived in Katoomba on a Friday night, and was mystified to find this place closed, but once I finally stepped inside I understand why. Every single man working there had a beard, a pigtail and was wearing very similar natural fiber clothes; That and the fact that women were all dressed akin to Mormons in terms of coverage, sent off a bell in my brain saying, “this is a restaurant owned by a cult.”
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So I asked, and it turned out they’re a religious group founded in Chattanooga Tennessee. They keep sabbath Friday night to Saturday…. like Jews, but they are not vegetarians like the 7th day Adventists (of whom there are many in the Chattanooga area)… at least based on the menu of what they were serving. They only believe in the old testament not the New Testament but don’t consider themselves to be Jewish… but rather they consider themselves to be Christians. The guy I spoke to, the manager, who was VERY excited that I had keyed into the cues that they were probably a religious group and asking about their beliefs, gave me a bunch of reading material
All that said, they make a very good Carob hot chocolate.
I really liked this place, I liked it enough that I ordered their fresh watermelon & ginger drink more than few times. You tell them what you want, and they throw the ingredients in a blender and serve it up.
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Casey IL: the land of 8 world record holding big things, and a lot of Jesus

If you’re the sort of person who is into BIG things, i.e., roadside attractions designed to lure motorists off of main roads and into small towns that they would otherwise have no reason to pass through… at least long enough to stop and have a meal or fill up their tank, than you’re going to LOVE Casey IL, pronounced ‘Kay-zee‘ by the locals.

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I first heard about Casey NOT from billboards or Tv, but rather from the woman whose Airbnb I stayed in during the Total Eclipse of the Sun that passed through downstate IL on August 22, 2017, (not one I’ll ever go to again, the woman who ran it was kind of despicable in her unmitigated greed) and I had been trying to work Casey into my travel schedule since then.

That said, when I say Casey is a town you probably would never come to otherwise (unless your family or job necessitated it), I mean it ! THIS ladies and gentleman is pretty much the whole of town (plus or minus a side street or two), if you don’t count the fast food options located adjacent to the highway off-ramp, about a 15 minute walk, or two minutes of driving away.IMG_1203

These photos were taken at around 4pm on a Monday afternoon, and so many of the businesses were closed, even the ones that were still in business, that at first I thought I might have made the strategic error of showing up on a Sunday.

Let’s be clear, Casey isn’t just kind of quiet, its dying. According to Wikipedia the most recent 2010 census, the population of the town was 2,762, down from their 2000 census count of 2,942, and while the next census isn’t for a few years, the estimated numbers for 2016 are even worse, 2,698… to put this in perspective the suburb I grew up in has a population of 12,187 and my highschool had a population of about 4,500 when I graduated, although it’s down to about 4K now…

That said, there’s something kind of brilliant in the efforts of town local, Jim Bolin to not only bring attention to his town, but do something to try to revive its economy, which is something I learned from these postcards in his wife’s shop:
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That said, the following video is worth seeing, as Casey made the iconic CBS Sunday Morning show, in that section where they talk about wonderful and/or odd things to be found off America’s beaten paths….

Watching the show I found it really interesting how its producers assiduously opted to ignore a huge element of the oversized objects scattered around town… namely, Casey is a town that takes its love of all things biblical, SERIOUSLY!

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Note the Star of David and Fishes motif on the chimes

Apparently, the wind chimes were the first item Jim built (with the aid of the Guinness organization), in order to hopefully draw traffic from the highway (with the aid of billboards) to his wife’s failing coffee-house, and it proved so successful that he started to create other items to help other stores in town…. that were “appropriate to the business” being helped.

For the yarn store he created the world’s largest knitting needles and a crochet hook, which would have brought me into the store and I might have purchased something, but for the fact that in spite of it being a Monday afternoon, the place was closed. (I’m pretty sure these had biblical text on them as well, but since the store was close I don’t know what it was.)

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… But that said, THIS is the password for the free wi-fi his wife’s business, the local coffee-house, offers. My provider is T-mobile and while my phone worked there, there was absolutely NO data other than this available for me in the whole town; otherwise, I might not have spotted this.

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I looked it up, the verse is “And ye shall seek me, and find me, when ye shall search for me with all your heart.” Once I saw that, I got a tad suspicious, as it’s not the sort of thing you expect as a WiFi login outside of a religious institution.

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Note: even more biblical stuff in this mural

After seeing the WiFi password it quickly became clear that every single one of these oversized item in town (from what I saw), while it does clearly serves to help bring customers into the various stores who might never otherwise enter them, each item also comes with an apropos bit of evangelicalism … via bits of biblical text.

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According to the (very) professional video located at this web site, the shoes weigh 1,500 lb, and according to the video from CBS, not only does the mailbox work, but if you mail things from it the postmark stamp says “world’s biggest mailbox” rather than Casey, IL. (Wish I’d known that when I was there, I’d have sent some post cards.)

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While most of the items are located in the downtown area, and were kind of easy to find with these sign posts that were scattered around town:
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Easily the single biggest “big-thing” in the whole town was the rocking chair… although is a rocking chair a rocking chair when it’s not allowed to rock?

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One of the stores in town sold a service where they would Photoshop you onto the chair

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While the final two items, the golf-tee and the pitchfork were both in locally owned businesses (not a national chain, etc), these were not in the downtown area but rather nearer to the highway.

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In addition to Guinness World record holding items, there were also other big items scattered around town items that did NOT earn that merit, but were none the less very big… and again, evangelical….

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Also while walking around town, I came across this sign referring to a road I’d never heard of, “The National Road

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… it wasn’t until I got home and wrote this blog that I learned it was actually the Cumberland Road, the first federal highway built by the United states government, which ultimately became route U.S. Route 40 …. so of COURSE that I had heard of that …

 

 

That said, there’s a quote from one of my favorite books, American Gods by Neil Gaiman, that comes to mind anytime I’m in one of the tourist trap/roadside attractions

“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.”

― Neil Gaiman, American Gods

So who knows, maybe there is something special about Casey…

Airbnb User Tips for adult renters (updated regularly)

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

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

Quick list (see below for explanations:

FIRST: Set up your profile to INCLUDE YOUR NEEDS and EXPECTATIONS (odds are the owners will rarely bother to read it, but should issues arise it helps to protect you when dealing with disputes)… then search for homes:

  1.  When searching for homes be SURE to put in not just dates, but home type (whole apartment, spare bedroom in an occupied home, or willingness to SHARE a bedroom) and what amenities you’re expecting.
  2. STUDY the pictures carefully, never assume anything these are homes not hotel rooms … if the window is high up, ask about their elevator or be prepared for 5th floor walk up
  3. Read all the reviews! ALL of them… and if there are no reviews be very very careful
  4. when booking well in advance NEVER book a Strict booking… actually avoid strict as much as possible.
  5. Communicate with the owner BEFORE booking.
  6. Leave an honest review to help the next person… the same way you hoped they were leaving honest reviews for you
  7. IF you are someone who NEEDS air conditioning, and they say they have it… DON’T TRUST THAT!!! I Promise you, odds are they don’t have central air or an aircon that’s in your bedroom. It’s going to be in their living room, which is down the hall and around the corner from your bedroom but directly adjacent to theirs. So yes the house has one, you just won’t benefit from it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SO, My List is VERY LONG and detailed:

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

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

Short term/overnight, etc:

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

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

 

Booking an Airbnb:

  1. Use the airbnb search engine: It helps you to find homes with the amenities you want on the dates you want. Check and double check because sometimes the settings don’t take the first time out (the web site isn’t perfect and is always undergoing tweaks that create new bugs). Really think about what you NEED, and makes sure to check those items… if you don’t check air conditioning you can’t complain or rebook because a heat wave came into town. For me, I always check: Private room or entire apartment, maximum price per night, the number of bedrooms and beds I need, washer (and or dryer depending on the climate), Wifi, Kitchen, aircon in summer and heat if I’m going there in winter (actually in high rises I’ll also look for aircon because the higher you go the hotter the apartments get to the point where you can have all the windows open even in the dead of winter and still be too warm)
  2. NEVER ASSUME, STUDY the pictures: unless they’re Superhosts, a lot of the owners are clueless and would never live in the room they’re expecting you to pay them money to live in. REALLY look at the picture, I mean REALLY… and if there are no pictures or insufficient ones, don’t book there. How big is your bedroom? Does it have windows? Are there shades on the windows? Is there a side table? A night lamp? A closet or someplace to put your clothes? And if the room doesn’t have what you’d assume it should have … ASK BEFORE BOOKING!!!(I’ve had owners realize the deficit and promise to rectify it before my arrival. Once that’s in the emails, if they have NOT done it by the time you arrive, you have cause for Airbnb to refund you, and evidence of their contractually agreeing to do it. Airbnb considers any communication in the emails as part of the contract. )
  3. READ ALL THE REVIEWS!!!! IF an owner is pretty sure the review that’s going to be left to them is going to be a bad one, there’s a trick to pushing it down the queue… if they do NOT leave the guest a review, the bad review won’t show up for 15 days (which is an improvement, as it used to be the bad review didn’t show up at all), and if they know two or three guests are set to rent in that time, that ensures that the review might not show up till the next page (which you might not bother going to). So read all the reviews and believe what you read.That said, read BETWEEN THE LINES!!! A lot of Guests are afraid of leaving bad reviews for fear that other hosts won’t want to rent to them if they do… so sometimes they just kind of hint about the place being bad. So be wary and exaggerate the importance of any tiny complaint. This is especially true if it’s a room in a house, because most people are unwilling to leave bad reviews if they have met the owner. All of this tends to sort of “break” the whole value of the review system.
  4. When booking well in advance: NEVER book an airbnb that has a strict cancellation policy, unless its for within the next few days! A lot of folks never bother to pay attention to this but airbnb has THREE booking policies: Flexible, Moderate and Strict. The first two are utterly reasonable and designate how far in advance you can cancel with a refund (24 hour or five days, respectively). The third one, STRICT, which seems to be the setting about half of the owners opt for is in my opinion NUTS. I recently read an article, and MOST experienced customers will avoid those bookings, till the last minute (as in within the next week),— Airbnb is currently using a carrot method to try to wean owners off of using strict, as the increasing prevelence of it is making former customers reconsider hotels. (An owner informed me that the company has informed them that it will now take a larger percentage of what the customer has paid if the owners set the refund policy to strict.)With a strict booking you will NOT get your money back, PERIOD (great for them, shit for you). IF you call Airbnb and cry long and hard enough, and can come up with something justifiable, like you Dad just died, they MIGHT let you out of the booking with a refund, but it’s not a sure thing. In my mind there’s really no justification for strict to exist, especially if the bookings are made well in advance. I for instance book a good three months in advance… now I could understand it if Flexible changed to Strict with two weeks left to go, or some such… but strict bookings three months out is crazy.– Talking to Airbnb I just learned something important… IF in the emails with the owner, (BEFORE YOU BOOK!!!) you can get them to agree to something OTHER than strict… so for instance, if you might say in your emails with the owner, ‘as I’m booking this 6 months out, would you agree to give me a full refund if I cancel at least three weeks out?’ And they agree to it explicitly (make sure they ACTUALLY agree, not say they might, or it’s possible… what you need is a solid YES) and THEN you book … IN THAT CASE, when you need to do the cancellation, CALL airbnb, DO NOT use the web site to cancel, and ask the staffer to read the emails from before the booking happened, because there’s an agreement in there for a full refund under these conditions. Airbnb will consider that part of a pre-existing modification to the contract, and give you the refund, the owner won’t be able to go back on that agreement.

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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