Sunday, August 3, 2014


THE POOP SCOOP (or a cautionary tale in which I learn not to believe everything I read on the web.)
I often use Dr. Google as a reference in health matters, instead of incurring the cost of going to my doctor, only to discover that he also, in order to answer my questions or address my symptoms, turns to his computer and googles.
         Last week I became interested in why my poop was black. I wondered what that meant, knowing that poop color can signal illness or merely tell what a person has been eating; for example, red poop and pee means I’ve been eating beets. I hadn’t eaten beets, and the poop was black. So, I googled “black poop.”
         Pages of sites popped up on my Google list. More people than I ever dreamed of had the same question. Perhaps black poop had become an outbreak of epidemic proportions. That thought gave me pause.
         I clicked on the Mayo Clinic site and read. And froze. All systems froze. Denial arose. Surely what I read could not apply to me.
         I clicked on the next site, and the next
         No, I hadn’t drunk any Pepto-Bismol or eaten licorice, which could cause black poop. None of the possible non-horrible reasons suggested on these websites applied. That left only the horrible reasons.
As the saying goes, my shortened life flashed before my eyes. I might be afflicted with kidney disease or a perforated ulcer. Esophogeal, stomach or intestinal bleeding.
         Oh, my god, I was going to die! I was going to die!
What was I going to do? Would I want a service or not? I weighed the pros and cons. Right then I decided I would not tell my husband of my findings just yet, because there were fun events coming up in our lives. I didn’t want to miss any of them in lieu of making preparations to die. I wouldn’t tell my friends, either, for the same reasons. I had things to do, it was summer, and I just wanted to enjoy my last moments on Earth.
I hoped only to have enough energy to complete my amusements. In order to determine my level of energy as a baseline, I took a quick assessment of my present condition. I felt fine. My stomach didn’t hurt. I peed right on schedule. I was amazingly healthy given what these sites told me I was dying of.
         Feeling so well, I realized I was unwilling to accept my certain fate as  promised by these websites, I hoped for another opinion. I opened another site,, and read more. There, off to the side under a photo of a bowl of blueberries, I read, “A bowl of blueberries is a healthy snack but they can also turn your stool black, causing ‘false melena.’”
         Why the heck wasn’t this exception placed FIRST in all the symptom explanations of ALL the sites? Why did I have to die at least four deaths before I came to this sentence?
         Of course. I’d picked blueberries two days before, and when I pick blueberries, it’s four for me and one or two for the bowl. In this manner, I’m certain I ate waaaay more than one cup of blueberries. Please assure me I’m not the only one who picks blueberries this way. How can one refrain when the blueberries are fat, fresh, tasty, healthy for us, and so readily available?
         I offer readers this cautionary tale in case some of you pick blueberries the way I do and suffer the consequences, then in your search for explanation regarding your symptom do not find the teensy relieving photo and sentence. I also offer this cautionary tale if you have a dramatic bent and only a small wisp of common sense and leap immediately to the worst conclusion.

         The lesson in my newfound wisdom is this: Many doctors hate Dr. Google for a reason. Don’t believe everything you read on the web.

Thursday, February 27, 2014


Auckland with Sky Tower
January 12
Got in to Auckland, New Zealand, (pronounced “new zehland,” or referred to as “n-zed.”) last night at six. Our driver was a Punjab from India, who’d been here since 1998. Cosmopolitan city but in appearance and clime like Pacific NW. Some palm trees and Monkey trees, though. Went to pharmacy and ready to walk around a bunch more looking at sights. One other couple has arrived early like us and we talked this morning. Met a nice Swedish couple last night when I offered to take their picture in front of the harbour.

Albert Park

We walked up Queen St. and found some wi-fi, then went up to Albert Park, a lovely spot of green on a hill smack dab in the middle of the downtown. Had lunch at the Harbourside Bar and Grill, out on the patio overlooking the harbor.


January 13
We rode the Link bus which goes around the periphery of Auckland and got off at the Auckland Museum. We spent most of the time there with the Maori exhibits. Such beautiful carvings and faces that look like people I've seen. The faces on gateways, bowls, and ship's prow are all so different in appearance. Abalone rounds make the eyes and ceremonial faces have a third eye. There was a longhouse constructed and the front of a storehouse. A canoe so long 100 men could ride in it. Their main weapon consisted of a "mere", what I'd call a whacking stick, a kind of flat, hand-held paddle made of wood or jade.

This decorated the door to the longhouse.

A wall chart showed the similar language origins and from that one could see why some Hawaiians look like Maoris. Same origins.
After the museum, we finished the circle so we'd seen the areas of Parnell and Ponsonby by the time we got back to our hotel. Weather both days has been windy and yesterday also rainy but always a spot of sun as well. Looks a lot like Oregon here. Tomorrow a yacht ride and a visit to Eden Gardens and then back to the museum. We've enjoyed this being a "green" country and all the healthy food. Last night’s dinner was at an outdoor cafe called the Britomart Country Club--a roof, a boxcar for restrooms a boxcar for a bar and one for the kitchen, then a bunch of tables and chairs and that's it. That’s a good concept for an outdoor restaurant in a warm place.

Wednesday, January 14--
First we had a lecture of New Zealand history and a bit about politics. Do you know no humans were here until about 800 years ago? Only mammal was a bat. No predators so birds forgot how to fly, evolved to wingless. The kiwi grew whiskers and has furry feathers. Heard a bit about American soldiers being here in WWII which interested me since Mom just told me Dad had been here for a period of time then. The Americans built a park for the citizens of Auckland.

Off we went for a sail around the bay on a sailboat, pretending we were racing in the World Cup. Wind in our hair on the harbour--ahh! Too short a ride.
Up to Eden Garden, a lovely garden made from a quarry. Walked and met all our friends, the trees and flowers same as at home but blooming instead of frozen and dead. Had a fabulous lunch where we all introduced ourselves. Lots of scientists, accountants, pharmacists, nurses. Only one other teacher and writer. Speaking of writing, I sold a book already!!!

Then back to Auckland Museum for a guided tour, seeing mostly different things from yesterday. Glad to have gone back this second day. Neal said it was like being in a totally new museum. More history and explanations.

This is one segment of the longhouse wall.

A storage shed for food items.

We all wear these "whisperers" which are devices that allow the guide to talk and us to hear even if we are way behind or way ahead or in the next room. Cool!
We can't wait to see what tomorrow brings as we head to the beach and a volcanic dome.
The long 100-man canoe--postcard photo

No, I did not scream the first time any transport started out on the “wrong” side of the road. Roundabouts are fun, though. John, our guide, says that they used to say that THEY drove on the right side of the road, but really, they were driving on the left side, not the right side, so now they say they drive on the “correct” side of the road.
Lots of other funny idiomatic expressions we noted along the way, like “way out” for “exit,” (Don’t we all want to know the way out at times?) and “Remember to indicate” for “Use your turn signal.” Many, many more.

January 15
Today we explored the North Coast of greater Auckland, especially North Head, Lake Pupuke, Cheltenham Beach and Devenport--old volcanoes and WWII batteries, previous Maori armaments.

Looking across to Auckland

This morning's lecture was about the geology and weather patterns of NZ--very interesting to see weather from this southern perspective. Our speaker showed us a map with NZ in the center and there wasn't much else there except ocean and the edges of Australia and Antarctica. Did you know that Australia actually broke off from India? There was a huge land mass called Gondwana and then some major shifting occurred. NZ didn’t even exist back then and got here because of plate tectonics. It’s a very new landform. Part of NZ is sliding over the top and part is sliding under and the middle of the twist is where all the earthquakes are happening and volcanic action could occur at any time.
Auckland is very temperate and very windy with immediate weather changes and now we know why, thanks to our lecture.
John Walsby, the guide, reminded me of our friend Clair Thomas, because he knew so much about everything and every subject in the natural realm that he never stopped talking and my head got very, very full. I wish I would have had science teachers like this in my former education.
Neal took a bazillion photos so maybe he'll share them when we get back.
Mostly I loved being outside in all the beauty. Lunch was good, too. Hahahaha!
Tomorrow we visit a glow worm cave and move on to Rotorua.

Friday, January 17
I forgot yesterday to say that the addition to the bridge in Auckland, engineered and built by a Japanese group, is called the "Nippon Clip-on."
On the road today, we stopped out in the country at a nice place for lunch, called "Roseland," and then went on to the Waitomo Glow Worm caves. What a spiritual experience! We could barely see in front of us and could hear only the water droplets from the top of the cave in the water. The boat guide propelled us by pulling on ropes. The glow worms shine turquoisey in the dark. My sister Susie would have loved it and she would have cried. On a boat, in the dark, no cameras, no talking, just being in a state of awe. Once the butterfly (I just read it is called a "fly") emerges, it lives four days in which time it has to find a mate and lay its 126 eggs. The first one out eats all the other125 for food enough to live and the cycle starts again. Waitomo means water hole.
The glow worms--postcard photo

I went swimming tonight in the lukewarm outside pool, windy, but I needed to move all of me about after a long bus ride. Tomorrow a morning hike, an afternoon lake cruise and then a Maori feast and festivity. So much of the topography looks like Hawaii or Costa Rica. Many cattle ranches, sheep ranches, and dairy farms today. People asked where the dairy barns were because though we saw cows, we saw few barns. John said that there are sheds but they are back away from the road and most are just open, with a roof, because the weather is generally good. The lake down the road here in Rotorua is the same size as Singapore.

January 18
We are now in Rotorua which rests in a giant caldera. It smells of sulpher.
Today was incredible, just incredible. Susie would have cried again! Hahahaha!
First we went to the Waimangu Valley Geothermal site. We saw all the types of geothermal activity and the plants that grow in such an area. We saw many geysers, which some people pronounce "geezers." So us geezers were seeing geezers. However, someone corrected the misprounouncements by assuring us we were seeing geysers. We saw photos of before and after because the huge activity was quite recent. Now the activity is closely monitored so everyone can evacuate safely in time.
We cruised on Lake Rotomahana (not the big one we saw coming in—another one) created by the last blast, and got up close to many geysers. Then we hiked for a mile and a half and studied flora, heard birds, and got very close but not too close to more geysers. Thighs got a good workout, believe me.

Lunch was a total shift as we ate at the Princes Gate Hotel in Rotorua. What a beautiful old Victorian hotel that was moved twice, the second time so miners would have a place to drink after work, since Prohibition went into effect in the old town, and a new town grew up around the replacement site of the hotel. The new owners have upgraded the hotel to its present splendor.
Then we visited Te Puia, established to preserve the traditional arts and crafts of the Maori. We saw the geyser Pohutu, which goes for 40 minutes at a time, in action, and some boiling mud pools. We also learned how to cut, prepare and weave the flax for use in making cloaks and skirts and bags and such. Our Maori guide said it was very uncomfortable to wear. I have to say that if I ever got a tattoo, it would be one of the amazing Maori designs. I enjoyed looking at them all.

Back home for a shower and a brief rest while Neal shopped in town at the jade shop Back home for a shower and a brief rest, and back to Te Puia for a dinner and entertainment, a hangi (cooking in the ground) at a Marae--meeting place. The coolest thing about this was the opening ceremony at which Neal was chosen to be chief of us visitors. There was a ritual he had to learn that is taken very seriously and then there was music and dance. As Mrs. chief, I got to sit up front with him and I also got to do the women's dance with the white balls. I felt like a cheerleader! Hahahaha! Then Neal got to do the Haka with the Maori men. OMG! What a spectacular event! Dinner, much of which was cooked in the ground, was amazing as well. An evening to never forget and a wonderful celebration of yet another culture that wasn't as primitive as everyone assumed.
Neal is floating in the clouds with his new title as chief, and everyone is calling me “Miss Chief.”

The skirt


Hangi food, cooked in ground

Me doing the white ball dance

Neal doing the Haka

En route, North Island to South Island to Te Anau, Sunday January 19th
Tiring travel day. Two plane rides, nice attendants, tea and biscuits the middle of each flight, but no tea second flight because of turbulence. Landed in Invercargill and lunched at local Salvation Army, whose ladies prepared a typical Southland meal.  It seemed like a regular picnic meal to me, corned beef sliced cold, potato salad, beet salad, bean salad. I don’t know what dessert was because I didn’t have any. Cookies, I think.
Then a geography lecture about the places we are going during which I did what I usually did during junior and senior high school geography classes, especially after lunch--fall asleep. Hahahaha! I was so comforted to learn almost all of my tour mates did the same thing. I hope we didn't dishearten the speaker who addressed our continually nodding heads. However, I have to credit him with some blame as he said he knew most people didn't learn much by being talked at and then, by golly, that's what he went and did!
Next came our looooong bus trip through dairy, deer, and sheep farming country. Think Baker valley and Wallowa County and Summerville area of Union County, Oregon for what the topography looks like. The deer are the English red deer and they don't jump the fences. Plenty to eat right where they are. Dairying is four times bigger than sheep farming here now. Very windy here and more so tomorrow. Hope my eyeballs are big enough for all we'll see tomorrow.

At 7:15 tomorrow, off we go to Milford Sound, then back up to Queensland.
And by the way, Roget wrote the thesaurus in 12 years of his retirement, so no fair sitting around on your tuckus when there's plenty to do! He also figured out how animation would work. Neither of which has a darn thing to do with this trip, but it just shows how a person can learn something new every day even when she's 67!

Monday, January 20
Te Anau to Milford Sound to Queenstown
Up early and out for good reason, to miss the traffic and zillions of other tourists who wanted to do the same thing we did, jump on the boat and cruise to the end of Milford Sound. More gorgeous scenery on the way there, dairy, deer and sheep farms, giving way to more glacial mountains and rocky land. We stopped to take photos of fog rising from the fields and giant mountains reflected in clear rivers and ponds. In one place, The Chasm, we stood on a bridge and looked at The Sculpture, a place where the rock had been worn through by raging water so there were holes and boulders that looked as though they were turned this way and that on a lathe.
Taking my breath away!

My favorite NZ photo!

The Chasm rocks

Once at the end of the sound, we boarded the mini-cruiser and gave ourselves neck and eyeball exercises, looking almost straight up on both sides, five to six thousand feet. I didn't look much down in the water that Neal tells me is at least half a mile deep. Many waterfalls bore the typical names of waterfalls, like "Rainbow" and "Bridal Veil." Some waterfalls came from streams and some were just run-off from rains. The boat got right up to them and people in front got soaked!
Our boat, and Bishop's Mitre in background

Just breathe.

Ahh! Awe!

Here I must stop to say how gloriously lucky we were today to have SUN because it rains 360 days a year on the sound. I was outside the whole time except when we were eating lunch and I'm mad about having to be inside eating because I missed a lot of waterfalls. My eyeballs actually DO hurt from looking! We saw New Zealand fur seals basking on a rock but they weren't barking.

On the way back through Homer tunnel, as we exited, we pulled off to visit a couple of Kea birds alongside the road. Google them to see how smart they are. They are about the size of a small turkey.


Back through Te Anau and then up to Queensland--again looked like a greener version of Eastern Oregon. The lake here at Queensland is turquoise and so beautiful to regard, with the craggy peaks across the way. Our room is like a condo, our bedrooms upstairs. We have our own bathrooms as well. Can't wait until tomorrow to cross the lake to see a sheep farm in action, come back to walk around town and the gardens, drink wine on the deck, and then take a gondola ride up to the top of the mountain for dinner. Woo-hoo, NZ!

Queenstown waterfront

Queenstown from gondola window

Tuesday, January 21, Queenstown
Slept in a tad later today and then went on a steamboat ride across the lake to Walter Park Homestead. We saw a demonstration of sheep shearing, and yes, by golly, they still do it the way Pascal Arritola did it for our 4-H sheep every year. And yes, the lanolin still stinks as much. Then we were shown how sheep dogs round up the sheep. What a good dog, part Border Collie and something else, very smart. He was about 12 years old, so an old guy still good at his job. His name was Kenny. All the tourists got to feed some sheep if they liked. The sheep seemed to know that was coming because they all ran up to come through the gate out of the pasture and into the enclosure.

The young man was such a comedic and personable presenter, so I asked him what he studied at university and he said commerce management and agriculture. He did not plan to be an all-time sheep shearer and he explained that a person can't do that every day of the year and after awhile any shearer gets all hunched over from that back-breaking job. The top shearer in contest did 700 sheep in a day. Wow! He did mention how dumb sheep are. From experience, I can agree with that.
Steamboat that brought us
We all ran off to a fabulous barbecue lunch at the lovely farmhouse. If you ever wonder about Road Scholar trips, let me tell you, you will be fed superbly, more food and more often than you really require. I am going to have to work out so hard for awhile thanks to the holidays and now this. Today one of the desserts was homemade ice cream, I could tell because it tasted like Susie's, soooo delicious! Black Quinoa salad which was crunchy.

The Farmhouse

Another favorite NZ photo

Queenstown, The Remarkables to the left

Sunset, Queenstown

On the way back, I eavesdropped on a conversation between the steamboat's boiler tender and some other New Zealanders he'd met while they all were on holiday in Alaska. His neck had been burned in a flashback of the boiler due to big wind coming down the pipe and he'd been in hospital for a month. Quite a handsome lad despite all that.
In Queenstown there is a plethora of activities to partake in, something like Bend, Oregon. Jet boat rides, parasailing, paragliding, hiking, kayaking, etc. and skiing in the winter. There are even sporting games for kids along the beach. If you are an outdoors person, this is the town for you.
Back across the lake in Queenstown again, we toured the town on our own, looking for whatever treasures we desired. I found a tee-shirt and Neal got postcards and stamps. Then we trekked through the park back home. We rode up the gondola for dinner tonight. Just got back from that. Great view from above!
Tomorrow a visit to Arrowtown and then a plane ride to Wellington where there was an earthquake two days ago. Wish us luck!
We've enjoyed our condo apartment here, believe me!

Wednesday, January 22
Another long day and plane ride. Now in "Windy Wellington." As I stepped out of the plane, the wind blew off my glasses.
But to backtrack, this morning after leaving Queenstown, we made a detour to the old mining town of Arrowtown--refurbished sort of like Virginia City, Nevada or any other kind of ghost town. We walked around and looked at the old, tiny houses and shops and visited some of the Chinese settlement. We had the tourist coffee and treat and enjoyed the sun. I bought a watch because mine broke from continually catching on seat belt-latching and un-latchings.

Had lunch at the airport and rode the big bird in the sky to Wellington. The airport in Wellington is named "the Middle of Middle Earth." The bus driver gave us a quick tour of the city, took us to the top of Victoria Hill to look at the entire almost 360-degree city, told us where Antarctica was, and let us get off the bus for 10 minutes to visit the botanical garden and begonia room. Then, the pièce de resistance: once at our hotel, we attended a discussion of politics in New Zealand that would have been much more interesting had we not been at the end of a big travel day. The main gist is that one party has the majority gained from the political process so if something to help constituents needs done and that party wants to do it, it gets done.
One new thing I learned today is the term "lifestyle blocks." If you buy a 2-10 acre parcel of land and build a house on it, this is called a lifestyle block. In Queenstown, the homes built are usually McMansions. I told Neal that our lifestyle block had only a gatekeeper's cottage. Hahahaha!

Beets. As I was to discover, in both New Zealand and Australia, people eat beets quite often. More often than in the states and in many different recipes. Delicious.
We are exhausted and I'm starting to get a cold, (too many buffets with a zillion germs hands on the food tongs). Oh, rain last night turned back into sun! Hooray!
One last note--Wellington reminds me of Russia in that many buildings are painted grey and styled utilitarian, flat stacks of floors, no greenery. Homes squished together, no yards and mostly unkempt, peeling paint and such. So different from where we've been.

Wellington, January 23
Woke to bright sunlight and--WIND, our constant companion. Still, we intrepid travelers persevered!
The entire city looked better in sunlight. Doesn't it always?
We started with a cable car ride up to the top of the botanical gardens. That was a fun ride, more like a funicular sit-down ride but an enjoyable experience nonetheless. Since we were at the top of the gardens, we had to walk down, right? Ahh, finally some real activity that wasn't too much stop and go. We stopped almost down to look at a sculpture by a famous American sculptor, Henry Moore, and the sports-playing fields the Americans in WWII constructed in appreciation for the city of Wellington. Back down to the rose gardens, but no stopping to smell, just on down to visit the oldest church in town and then to our appointment with the Supreme Court.

Henry Moore sculpture

St. Paul Church

Of course Neal was in 7th Heaven. First we saw the present building, and then the older, restored one. The new courtroom inside the new building is in a dome-like configuration. Like a Kaori cone. I hope I have the right spelling, anyway. Copper on the outside and triangular pieces like that cone on the inside. The ceiling has an oblong glass skylight ceiling in sort of triangular, long shapes (leaves?) to deflect sound and that part can be covered over when it's too warm, like in midday. There are five judges who are the final deciding court. We were allowed to go up and look at their chairs and touch the screens made to look like Maori Longhouse wall mats on either side.
This building was made so that the public can see the judges at work through the glass at the doors of the court. So people standing across the street at a bus stop can look in and see that the court is in session. The windows can be shaded if a case warrants, so of course the guide demonstrated that for us, several off and ons.
Then we saw the old, reconstructed courthouse and it looks more like what we expect a courthouse to look like. Of course Neal got up in the witness box and took the oath, etc. there ensued a big discussion on which hand was supposed to be on the Bible and which in the air. The docket with steps leading down to the prison was right in the middle of the courtroom. Some people told Neal that was where he really should have been! Hahahaha!

Inside Supreme Court

Supreme Court building

Old courthouse


Lunch was at the Backbenchers Gastropub. Good salad. Funny political cartoons that fit our government officials to a “T” as well as the ones being commented upon. Evidently, politics is the same everywhere. The Parliament Building was being refurbished and a meeting of all the countries in the Commonwealth was going on, so we didn’t see inside those buildings.
We spent the afternoon at the Te Papa Museum. We heard lovely philosophy from our Maori guide. I hope to find a book that includes it all. One particularly striking statement he made was that the Maori believe that if people want a good society, then parents must parent well. If they don't, the young people will turn against society. The museum was a place where one could go at ten in the morning and maybe see what you most wanted to see by 6 p.m. One highlight was the Pygmy Blue Whale skeleton which hung from the ceiling and filled the room.  After the museum, we enjoyed a wonderful dinner with some of our group on the waterfront.
Te Papa

Te Papa Welcome Ceremony Room

Wellington, January 24
Zealandia, the place in the city that has been fenced off with footings and mesh with holes less than quarter of an inch in thickness so nothing can get in by foot (except some very small mice being watched to see they don't become invasive). Zealandia, where anything not native to NZ before humans arrived is being eradicated and where things that were here before are being reintroduced, like certain species of trees. Our guide said it will take about 700 years for that to happen, but you have to start somewhere, right? We had a lovely, brisk morning walk through the reclaimed land and although all the birds and creatures weren't out yet, since some are nocturnal, some cormorants were out.
By the way, if an ornithologist here asks you if you want a shag, don't bop him one for his impudence--"shag" is what cormorants are more commonly called. We saw the NZ version of geckos, several varieties of birds I now forget the name of, and some ugly three-eyed lizard thing that sleeps burrowed in a hole.
We heard the bell bird but we didn't see it, same with the saddleback. I guess the ornithologist could say, "If you don't want the shag, give me my saddleback." Hahahaha!
After the outdoors walk, we went inside the visitors center and watched a 7-minute film showing what NZ was like before humans, then all the bad stuff Maoris and Englishmen did, unwittingly, when they showed up and now how in this one space and in several NZ islands the damage is being reversed. Quite an inspirational movie. We all could do a bit more to live more sustainably. I saw a quotation yesterday that I liked--If you live like there's no tomorrow, there definitely won't be."

Ugly, three-eyed lizard thing

As a surprise, we were gifted a Quickie surprise trip to Weta Studio gift store. People snapped photos of the giant trolls and the Golom (sp) and the big fang-toothed monster. I did that, too, it's true, and Neal bought himself and his mentoree Lucas a Hobbitown shirt.

This afternoon the gang drove around with a geologist who explained the geology of the area. I, on the other hand, took a nap. We have to arise at 4:00 in the morning to fly to Australia and I need to catch up on sleep before then. We had a lovely farewell dinner for those who were going back home without seeing Australia.
If you've ever wondered if you'd like NZ, I have to say the answer is probably yes. I'll be sad to bid it farewell.

Saturday, January 25
Travel day, wake up 3:45, flight to Sydney, Australia, at 7:05.
Upon arrival, as we drove in from the airport, we stopped for a breather at the famous Bondi Beach, drove up to a park where we could take in the all of Sydney, and then out to the south headland of the harbor and a place where people used to leap to their deaths.

Bondi Beach

At the headlands

Sydney, bridge and opera house in distance

Once ensconced in our hotel, we walked around the central city area in a circle and experienced George Street and Market Street, and the Queen Victoria Building. Our hotel is right on Darling Harbour. Briefing for rest of time in Sydney and then dinner. Pooped. We have cruises and a zoo trip on our list and we’ll learn about opal mining. We also have a tour of Sydney Opera House where we all plan to sing. Sydney is lovely and lively. More to come!

Queen Victoria Building

Sydney Opera House

Australia Day, January 26, 2014
Happy Australia Day!
It started off cloudy and misty. We had two lectures about Australia's history, but at tea time I left to go buy a pair of shoes because mine just died. I traversed where we'd walked yesterday so I was reasonably sure I wouldn't get lost. That way I got a photo shot of Queen Victoria's Market which I had missed yesterday because my iPhone had died. My new shoes felt great as we walked around alongside the harbour all afternoon at "The Rocks."
Just a little bit about what I did learn. The median Australian taxpayer makes about $50,000, the range being from $37,000 to $80,000. 1.5% of pre-tax income goes to medicare. 9% goes to superannuation for retirement fund and employers have to contribute half of that.  There are also widow’s pensions, disability pensions and returned servicemen or their widows’ pensions. Healthcare is both public and private and palliative care is available. I also have a great fact sheet should anyone be interested in more comparisons between our two countries.

Australia Day, January 26, 2014
Happy Australia Day!
It started off cloudy and misty. We had two lectures about Australia's history, but at tea time I left to go buy a pair of shoes because mine just died. I traversed where we'd walked yesterday so I was reasonably sure I wouldn't get lost. That way I got a photo shot of Queen Victoria's Market which I had missed yesterday because my iPhone had died. My new walking shoes felt great as we walked around alongside the harbour all afternoon at "The Rocks."
Just a little bit about what I did learn. The median Australian taxpayer makes about $50,000, the range being from $37,000 to $80,000. 1.5% of pre-tax income goes to medicare. 9% goes to superannuation for retirement fund and employers have to contribute half of that.  There are also widow’s pensions, disability pensions and returned servicemen or their widows’ pensions. Healthcare is both public and private and palliative care is available. I also have a great fact sheet should anyone be interested in more comparisons between our two countries.
We saw warehouses and bond shops turned into restaurants. Many buildings are kept the same on the outside and re-purposed inside. We saw the tall sailing ships race, ferries racing, a cruise ship and a steam ship. A helicopter pulling an Australian flag, news helicopters, and about 30,000 people milling about with us.
Bond shops, now restaurants

sculpture depicting first settlers

Oldest house in Sydney

Tall ships race

Australian flag

The coup de grace, though, was getting to tour through all the various performance stages of the Sydney Opera House and watch a couple of films about its design and structure. We weren’t allowed to take many photos. We can also say that we sang at the Sydney Opera House. We go back Tuesday to see a performance there.
beams inside Opera House

We went to dinner along the harbour and Neal and I stayed to see the most fabulous fireworks show I've ever seen in my life, and I'm OLD! It was synchronized with music and just when we thought it had come to the finale, it would take off again. What was also cool was the way the fireworks were reflected in the windows of the buildings across the harbour. Neal said it was half an hour long. Everyone present was mesmerized by the show, all 180,000 (paper said next day) of our closest friends. Getting out of there pushed our claustrophobia and agoraphobia limits to the max but I'm so glad we stayed to experience it. Plus, 1.8 million people came into Sydney for the Australia Day celebration. Tomorrow we go on a cruise and then we have the day and night to ourselves. I wonder what we'll come up with?

January 27, still Sydney
We cruised Sydney Harbour today, all the way out to the north and south headlands, into all the little side harbours and back. Sunny, light breeze, a perfect morning for a cruise. We had the "morning tea" cruise and halfway through, we were served our tea and box of sweets. Being in the harbour helped with understanding Sydney's layout so much better. Gosh, that was fun!

Darling Harbour amusement park

Harbour cruise

Our lunch was in the very first hospital, at The Rocks, built by convict labor and the stones were at least a foot thick. That place is going nowhere for awhile!
Look at the stones in the doorway

I will talk about ketchup here. The formula for it is very different from in the states. The bottles and labels are the same, but the texture and taste are different and it’s not called ketchup. It’s called “tomato sauce.” I’m not sure what they call what we call “tomato sauce” but I can imagine Aussies and NZeds are disappointed when they come here and buy tomato sauce and find it to be thin, runny stuff not like their ketchup at all.
Did I talk about vegemite yet? If not, that’s probably because I find it disgusting. I first encountered it in a bowl sitting next to the croissants at breakfast buffet. I thought, “Oh, goodie, chocolate sauce which will taste great on my croissant.” Imagine my surprise to taste a black, tinny, salty spread made from yeast, rotten yeast, surely, in my opinion. What a waste of a bite of an otherwise perfectly good croissant! Others in our group made a similar mistake. We are told kids really like it on their toast. I guess it’s what one grows up with, but if I’d tasted that as a kid, I don’t think I’d have wanted to grow up! At least now I know what English and Commonwealth writers mean when vegemite is referred to.
I love kiwi juice!
We walked back down George Street to our next destinations, first the convenience store for Kleenex, batteries, cough drops--those things you find yourself needing whilst traveling, then we headed up Market Street, over the overpass, and down to the Aquarium, as Vallie (one of my former students who works here sometimes) suggested for spare time fun. Saw our first platypus, huge sting rays with giant tails, all types and sizes of sharks, eels, giant water snakes, turtles with almost foot-long necks and a turtle that was trying to mate with a fish. Persistently so. Adults couldn't explain that to each other, let alone their kids.
We walked slowly back to our hotel, stopping for libation along the waterfront.
Loving the free afternoon! Tonight we'll head back to Darling Harbour for dinner. 
Neal at Darling Harbour

Beautiful sculpture, Darling Harbour
Tomorrow, the zoo, free time, and then the Opera House performance.

Tuesday, zoo and Sydney Opera House Day
Before anything, we stopped at an opal store to learn about opal mining.  We did not get to see an actual mine, just a little video. Interesting, because opal is my birthstone (Who decided stuff like that anyway?) and because I hadn't known there were three kinds and all three are mined in Australia. I liked the bluish ones the best but since I didn't have $14,000 for a necklace, I didn't buy one. Some women on our trip did, though. One woman couldn't decide between the $6,000 pair or the $18,000 pair. She's 80, though, so why not spend it while she can enjoy it? Me, I'd rather have a new car. Hahahaha! I can't lose that as fast as I seem to lose jewelry.
Most of our guys stood in the hall wondering why these tours didn't have fun stops for guys but when I asked them what they'd suggest, they came up blank.

Off to the zoo where we saw wombats, kangaroos, echidnas, possums (not the same thing as what we call possums), a shingle back lizard, a platypus, a pigeon that looked like a cousin to a peacock, a gorilla, elephants and a Tasmanian Devil. And another great view of Sydney Harbour. Oh, and the most dangerous spider in Australia, the funnel spider. Supposedly it's not aggressive and there is now an antidote. Males' venom is worse than females'. I did not like when the spider was being passed around, believe me! However, the male platypus has stinger on his left foot with venom worse than that spider! Learning all kinds of things. And today was the last day of Christmas/summer break before kids have to be in school. We enjoyed our ferry ride back to town.
Koala (not my photo)



Tasmanian Devil (so cute)

 Came back to the hotel for rest and re-packing for our flight to Melbourne. John
Shingle-backed lizard
said tonight it was 27 and fine in Melbourne tomorrow, so not as hot as it's been. “Fine” means “nice.”
Dinner and then off to see this evening's performance of "La Soiree" at the opera house, a cabaret like a cross between Cirque de Soleil and Darcelle's. The acrobatic acts were amazing feats of muscle control. There were naughty bits, such as the strip teaser who kept finding a red cloth in her clothing pieces so she had to remove them and when she got down to nothing, she found one more red hanky in her hoo-haa. One woman was a sword and knife swallower. Lots of trapeze and twirler acts. Another woman twirled hula hoops, and finally one woman was a powerful songstress. All in all, a funny evening laughing at all the naughties.

January 29th, travel to Melbourne (pronounced “Melb’n)
After we arrived, we were taken to the Fitzroy Gardens for lunch--tea sandwiches and fruit platter. Very lovely, prim gardens, a darling miniature Tudor village--some of the guys thought it looked like the buildings were constructed from Legos. Also, a fairy tree--when a tree was damaged and had to be removed, an artist asked if she could carve the bottom part into a fairyland for kids and the city agreed.  Captain Cook’s parents’ home has been re-constructed here as well.
Mini Tudor Garden

Fairy Tree

Captain Cook's Parents Home

Menus here in Australia often appear as sheets of paper attached to a clipboard.

Next, we went to the top--of the Eureka SkyDeck 88--and looked out over the city. 

No matter how high we build something, we have to go to the top and look out, don't we? Supposedly, that is the highest vantage point in the Southern Hemisphere, but I couldn't see Antarctica no matter how much I squinted, so I'm just not sure about that! Hahahaha! One part up there, called "The Edge," has a floor of plexiglass so if you pay to go in it, you look down 88 floors to the street. And then you pee your pants. Road Scholar didn't pay for us to do that and no one protested or paid to do it.

Melbourne, our hotel to the left


Melbourne Harbour

Our last stop before checking into our hotel was at the Melbourne Shrine of Remembrance, honoring all the troops who went halfway or more around the world to fight England's wars. So many men were lost in WWI, mostly in Gallipoli, buried in common trenches where they fell, so that their families had no place to take their grief and a whole generation of women went without husbands. There are memorials to WWII, Korea, Vietnam Nam, and Iraq as well. These places make me so sad, remembrances of senseless slaughter. I can't see one good thing that killing others ever does. I'd like to see memorials to peace and reconciliation once in awhile.

Depiction of WWI hero

Tomorrow we get to see penguins, so I'll have something black and white to look forward to! We've been warned it's freezing down there and we're to wear our warmest clothing. OK! My earmuffs are at the ready!

Thursday, 30 January
Started the day with a lecture, "Introduction to Australia's Economy and Health System." The two main things I retained from this lecture were this: The Australian economy and employment are both so much better than in the states and have stayed stable during the recession, and most importantly to me, there is free health insurance for every single person. Sometimes a person has to wait for an operation but that means nothing to me since I had to wait six months for my knee replacement to get the person I knew who did the best job. Aussies can purchase private health insurance and get things done faster, but most are smarter, and make themselves a fund as they start out life for their health insurance--whatever dividends come in go to their fund and not to an insurance company. If they stay well, they have a nice nest egg once they reach our age and to me that makes so much more sense than paying an insurance company what you could be packing away yourself so much more safely since you DO have health insurance as a backup anyway.
Here's my impression of Aussies overall--if they want something to be done or built, by damn, it gets done and gets done now. If it's not right, it gets torn down and replaced with something that actually works. Needs do not get bogged down by partisan politics. If the people want something, their elected officials do it. That's the way government is SUPPOSED to work. They do have have lobbies, but the peoples' voice is so much stronger. Hooray! So if they want a beautiful public arts center, for example, it gets built. Roads, they get built. A certain law, it gets passed. I love it. AND, their taxation doesn't work out to be any more than ours and EVERYONE'S salary is taxed that certain percentage (I think it's about 30%) and that includes people who are excluded by our tax laws because of the huge amounts of money they make. I don't believe the wealthy should get a pass--noblesse oblige is a concept I embrace. It's also a Christian concept, actually. We're only as good as the poorest among us. Help out everyone (oh, those on welfare, those mothers who had children, have to find a job when the kids are in school) Also the basic minimum wage is something like $15 per hour! Another hooray!
Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, Oi, Oi, Oi! (That is a positive Australian cheer. After we learned it, we said it many times!)(Wikipedia tells me this is now an official registered trademark chant—plus many more facts. Go google it. Fascinating.)
After the lecture, and after tramping around in alleyways to enter a couple of famous arcades (Royal Arcade, Block Arcade)(like mini-malls), we all rode the tram over to Victoria Market, which is a larger version of Pike Street Market in Seattle, about the same size as the outdoor market in Cuernavaca, or similar to any number of European open-air markets, a vast majority of stalls under a roof. Neal and I ate lunch in the food court and then walked up and down each aisle and looked at "stuff." We saw some of EVERYTHING--items from every nation, so many colors, smells like leather, for example, or wool, and sounds, like the fishmonger and meat market monger shouting about their wares. Some of the vendors shouted out at us information about their products as we walked by. I got some pants that Neal called my "lounging" pants, and a tee-shirt. He got some stuff but mostly we just looked and enjoyed the sensory splendor. Our friend Sally got a foot massage. Sorry I missed that one! Hahahaha! I almost had my fortune told, but at my age that might be a very short reading and I don't want to know that!
Royal Arcade

Arcade with Figures that strike the time

foodcourt at Victoria Market

Victoria Market

Looking for the perfect tomato!

Everyone loaded into the bus at three and we were off to see the Phillip Island Penguins come in from the ocean where they've been fishing and swallowing enough to feed their chicks when they return. They get so full they have to walk at a 45 degree angle up the beach. Our meals have been so plentiful during this trip that I empathize entirely. Now if I only had some chicks to share with when I got home!
More about that experience in a moment, because we made two stops on the way there. First we stopped at a family viewing and petting farm (mostly to pee, but then again, feeding wallabies and kangaroos, seeing some more Tasmanian Devils (so cute!) and petting koalas was an enjoyable by-product. Neal fed a wallaby and he said it was really soft. You don't move your hand when they are eating the food or you get scratched. I just watched.
Wanna be friends?



Tasmanian Devil (I'm cute, huh?)

Our next stop was San Remo Pub where we had dinner and our friend Mike who is a motorcycle race enthusiast realized this is a pub where one of his idols hangs out because a whole wall is dedicated to him. There's a giant world cycling event held here apparently. Mike went to talk to the owner and get the scoop, and he was gifted with a poster from the race held in San Remo from 2013. He was thrilled and of course someone took a picture of him and his poster so it can be emailed to him. That's how nice Aussies are.
Neal on refreshment duty

Then we were at the beach at the site where the penguins come up. Everyone has to be very quiet, seated, and without electronic devices or cameras (so I have no photos of this event, but you can go online, google it, and see it). (You can go to online or you can download a free app, Penguin Parade, Phillip Island at the App store.) Some people from another culture group did not obey even though they were told how the flash disorients the birds and then they don't know where their burrows are and they go back into the ocean and their chicks die because they didn't get food. Some members of our group pointed out any infractions they saw. Since directions were given in every language, it's not like that other group didn't understand the fragility of the situation.
Beach at Phillip Island

First three birds arrived, the lookouts, and then once things looked safe to them, the others came in and began waddling up the beach, swaying sided to side, bellies low to the ground. Every time we saw yet another group emerge, it felt like magic. The audience is asked to wait an hour after the first ones come in so that they have time to get to their burrows so people don't scare them. by the time I walked back up the hill, I saw only little butts coming from the burrows. They have worn dirt paths up the hill to their burrows in their nightly march. I started counting but so many came in last night I soon lost count. I'm sure at least 50 were there. Here's another place my sister Susie would have cried! It's simply wonderful to see Nature in action and to realize we humans are finally smart enough to protect another species while enjoying their process.
We got home at midnight. Our bus was very quiet the two hours it took to get back to the hotel. What a wonderful day!

January 31, Still Melbourne
Our butts are dragging! We had to get up early to be at the Ian Potter Centre NGV by 9:00. Somehow I don't think that's very fair! We had a most informative lecture about the exhibitions there, one of them Aboriginal art. We learned what some of the symbols used by the Aborigines mean so we can now understand the paintings better.
Ian Potter Centre NGV

Royal Exhibition Hall

I took this for my knitting friends.

For my old car buff friends, Dave and Gene

After the presentation, Neal and I took the free shuttle tram over to the Melbourne Museum at Carlton Gardens, next to the Royal Exhibition Hall. More lovely architecture and gardens. I have to say we have enjoyed the availability of public transportation and appreciate how we can get from place to place without a car. That makes a city livable.
At the museum, we focused on the Aborigine exhibit. There was one section where you could sit at a jukebox and press your selection and hear the story of an Elder. There was a large structure that featured several modern Aborigines speaking about their language and their own clan. There used to be over 250 different languages that are largely lost now because none of them were written and each clan had its own (three) languages, each one for certain situations. But Aborigines sure as Hell know what dirt was done them by the English and other white settlers who came here and reparations have begun to be made. I read Bill Bryson's very funny book about Australia before I came, and realize that even since that writing, things have improved for the Aborigine culture. About time. The story is similar to that of our African Americans and our First Nation peoples. Kids ripped away from their parents and family and language in order to assimilate and "civilize" them. The sad thing, for whites, is that they were too stupid to learn from those cultures who had so much figured out that we are just now beginning to realize.

We took a lovely stroll back to the hotel after our visit, passed a "bottle store" where Neal found an excellent Aussie sparkling wine made from pinot noir and chardonnay grapes, because, when in Rome...Right? We figure while we're here we should sample the wares and today's selection called "Izzie" was yummy. It goes well with Koko Black 80% chocolate, by the way. The rest of our afternoon involved finding a free wi-fi, a good dinner place, and then packing, because Alice Springs is on the agenda for tomorrow. Uluru, here we come!
Something I keep forgetting is that in Sydney and here in Melbourne, both, there are neighborhoods where it looks like New Orleans with all the wrought-iron verandas. Wrought iron was used as ballast on the way over in ships that would be taking back wheat and other agricultural products.

February 1, Alice Springs
Yet another plane trip and here we are at Alice Springs enjoying heat and sun.
We have had a most informative lecture on the Aborigines who live in this area, their lifestyles, beliefs and art. Aborigines are around 3% of Australia's population, and about a third of those are full-blooded. Some recent DNA tests have shown similarities between people in the area of Pakistan and the indigenous peoples here. How interesting! Other animals have also migrated here from that area, dingos and a certain type of tiger. There is way, way more information and more to come.
We went to The School of the Air which I've read about and seen films about for a long time. Instead of the radio system they used to use, there are now satellites, fax, phones, and internet. Although the school is funded by the government, they are looking for funding for extras, like books to add to their library. Kids over the years have made quilts, murals and other artwork to symbolize how even though they live 1200 kms apart, they are classmates. They get together three times a year for events such as camping and sports and are sometimes surprised about what each other really looks like.
NW Territory Flag and old radio set-up

mural outside School of the Air

looking into a classroom

quilt students made

After the lecture, I jumped in the pool for a bit and that felt wonderful! Thank goodness for air conditioning!
At the Olive Pink Botanical Gardens cafe, we were entertained by an Australian folk singer who was really wonderful, all songs new to us about old Australian life, except "Waltzing Matilda" which we all joined in singing. Then we enjoyed a steak barbecue.
Afterwards, an astronomer pointed out stars in the southern sky as much as could be seen through intermittent cloud cover. He was a talker and finally our Alice Springs leader, Martin, said in the midst of the speaker’s spiel, "Thanks so much, Andrew, this has been so informative. On the bus, everyone." Hahahaha!
Another very full day!
folk singer

Our guide, Martin

Sunday Feb 2, Alice Springs
We spent the morning in the very lovely Alice Springs Desert Park, learning about the desert landscapes, flora and fauna of Central Australia. Martin is so knowledgeable and his lecture was great. He took us through the Desert Park, looking at the birdlife, very colorful birds which I didn't write down the names of, but Neal probably did. Parrots, budgies, a red-capped robin, a bustard and a big black bird with red undertail. It was around 103 degrees today, so it was hard to concentrate. We went through the marsupial house and saw the little kangaroo mice and Rock Wallabies, snakes, lizards, and spiders. These are a few of my favorite things, not. Well, not the snakes and spiders, anyway.

horned lizard

We learned about several forms of acacia, one with leaves like spikes and shaped like an upside down umbrella so rain goes down to the roots when it rains, the Mulga. Big Moga snakes live under that tree. Then there were the Witchetty bushes under which grubs live and are the first real food, just lightly seared, for Aborigine infants. Oh, yum. We also saw the Mulga Goanna lizard, and one lizard that was see-through and luminescent. Some lizards look just like branches of a tree and blend in well with the environment. I also saw the Spinafex grass mentioned in the novels about this area that I read. We were given a many-paged informational packet with names and information about this area which I will read in its entirety later because this is the most interesting area in Australia and the one we seem to hear the most about through songs, poetry, and novels, not to mention films.

Moga snake




 Termite mound

luminescent lizard
We went into the MacDonnell Ranges a bit, passing by the memorial to Rev John Flynn who designed the Royal Flying Doctor Service, the medical service for remote cattle stations and Aboriginal communities in Central Australia. We ended up at Simpson's Gap, which is the home of a small colony of black-footed wallabies but it was too hot for them so they stayed in the shade, so much smarter than us. Flies, volumes of flies, made up for it though. I have a little fan, so I got it out and blew that around my face and they couldn't come near although some black flies bit me on the leg. Everyone was doing the Australian Wave, which is the flapping of hands across the face to keep the flies away. I'm wearing my head net tomorrow at Uluru.
Where part of the stones between the north pushed down and the south pushed up the MacDonnell Ranges, the middle part has been worn away and that is called Simpson's Gap and there is a bit of water in there. We could hear a frog croaking and Martin said when it finally rains a lot, if you're down there or anywhere where the water level is close to the surface, all of a sudden a frog could just pop up. Hahahaha!
The state flower depicted on the flag

Simpson's Gap

Simpson's Gap

Simpson's Gap

The Royal Flying Doctor Service center was our next stop and we saw a film explaining its importance to the very rural areas of Australia. The very first radio ran by someone pedaling a bike to make energy. I think we need our TV's to be run like this. Hahahaha!
I came home, took a shower, re-arranged for the bazillionth time my suitcase, washed out some clothes and hung them to dry, and read e-mail. The heat is draining.
Royal Flying Doctor Service

For dinner we are going to Kungkas Can Cook to learn of the importance of aboriginal traditional bush foods and their use in modern cuisine. We will be sampling some but I truly don't want any grubs, thanks.
The food was fabulous. No grubs at all! Our starter was a platter of tasting samples, camel meatballs' (yum), sliced kangaroo(which tastes like venison or elk, yum!) and bread for dipping into some oil and then dried herbs, including ground wattle. ( I'm bringing some of that concoction home.) For the meat there was a chutney made from a berry which is related to the tomato. Dried, it tastes like a burnt raisin and it's full of anti-oxidants. As a chutney ingredient, it was fabulous. Also there was a pesto of oil and chopped lemon myrtle. The main dish was chicken, with a sauce using a berry shaped like a small grape but tasting lemony, with the consistency of a melon. I tasted one of those berries on its own. Yum! We also had rice with a desert herb, and then veggies of steamed sliced carrots and chopped bok choy. Yum! Dessert was a caramel tart with a hard chocolate top and ice cream containing wattle. The Aboriginal woman who runs the catering business says that chefs from around the world have come to learn how to use bush food ingredients from her and a group of women are staring a business providing those ingredients worldwide. Hooray!

Homes here are much like home and more energy efficient in that solar power is encouraged and supported by the government. There is a big aquifer here so there's enough water for the 28,000 population but they are planning to pipe from another aquifer farther away in order to let the water rise in the one they are presently using. So there is energy and water, air conditioning, and satellite service here, and more services than in most cities this size anywhere, because of what all has to happen here to service all the outback peoples in a huge area. (Australia is the same size as the US, and Alice is in the middle, well, a little more to the eastern side, but there’s a lot of nothing around it.) The railroad went through to Darwin in 2004 so that helped more goods to be shipped back and forth more cheaply than by road, although there are still plenty of trucks pulling three trailers going north to Darwin and south to Adelaide.
Cicada, about 2 and 1/2 inches long

Alice Springs reminds me in many ways of Burns but red, like Sedona, and the desert park reminded me of Bend's High Desert Museum.
Tomorrow we'll get up at 5 am and head for Uluru, more heat and more history. It will take us 5 hours to drive there, but we're having potty stops, thank god! The trip is like going from Portland to La Grande. We'll stop for morning tea and then at some place where we can ride camels if we want to.
That reminds me to say that camels are now an unwanted species in Australia and measures are being taken to reduce their population drastically.

February 3
Alice Springs to Uluru? Well, the road curved once. Hahahaha! Think the road from Bend to Burns, three times over. The most unusual thing was that it rained! We stopped for camel rides at one roadhouse and morning tea and scones with Devonshire cream at another roadhouse. We saw Mt. Conner through the rain. The DVD we were meant to watch didn't work. We stopped at pit toilets and I told the person after me to flush. Neal's constant joke is wearing off on me. I saw a bunch of Desert Oaks, which I had read about. They have little cones like pine trees and they look like short, droopy pines. They got their name because the wood looks like oak when cut. I finally got to see what a roadhouse looks like inside after reading about them in novels. We hadn’t known our driver was a champion camel racer.
inside the roadhouse

outside the roadhouse

Kay and John riding camels


Our bus driver and champion camel rider, Graeme


When we arrived at Uluru, they had just survived a major downpour and the place we were going to eat had flooded, so we had to eat at the 5-star hotel instead and everyone thought that was the place we were staying overnight. Alas, our hopes were dashed when Martin said that no, this is a 5-star hotel, but we're staying in a 3-star hotel. Waaaah!

We went to the Uluru Culture Center and National Park Service, went into two Aboriginal shops where Neal found the gifts he was looking for, and looked at art in the gallery. Then we went on a couple of walks up to the actual Uluru. This is not the time of year for walking around it and besides, most people in our group could not do that anyway. I'm so glad my former student Nancy told us to take our headnets because the flies are persistent, shall I say. Martin says when the flies are bad, you must perform fly chi, and when they're terrible, you must employ fly kwando. They go for the ears, mouth, nose and eyes because they are seeking moisture. Neal says yesterday's temp was 105 and the visitors' center thermometer said 95 in the shade. Want to take a walk? Reminds me of when I used to bike around town and out to the gravel pit with Sean on the back of my bike when I lived in Burns. So I have my headnet, my hat, my sweatband, and my little battery-operated fan to cool off with.

There are no words for the beauty of Uluru, the red, massive popped-up fat layer of sediment in the middle of flat land. We visited caves and water pools on our walks and saw a falcon and two pie-eyed butcher birds.

My favorite shot of Uluru

more Uluru

There's a falcon in this tree.

A myth goes with this section of Uluru. It involves a snake.

Aboriginal drawings

Ceremonial cave

Uluru from far away

My favorite part of Uluru

We went back out tonight to see sunset and were surprised with champagne, a nut mix, crackers and orange juice. We sat on little chairs to see the changing colors at sunset. The sky was spectacular, darkening and lightening in places. A magical time. We came back by dinner and by the time we finished, rain was falling outside.
Another adventure.
Our main guide, John, and site guide, Martin

Louise and Bob

John, Sally, Cynthia




February 4, Kata Tjuta (Kah-tah Tyou-tah)
When we got up this morning, we saw kangaroos jumping all over the cliff out our back window, a dingo, and a hawk. Neal saw an eagle.
We rode to Kata Tjuta and viewed the rock formation from afar at two different spots, and then climbed one part close-up. We were walking on 550-million year-old track. Awesome, in the true meaning of the word, when you think about it. There's no way to get an idea of the immensity or density of this place. It's like trying to get all of Grand Canyon in one photo shot. Not going to happen! It was cloudy today, probably another rainstorm, so we couldn't see the Petermann Range in the distance that this is a part of, the part of sedimentation that got pushed up out of the earth.
Kata Tjuta

After lunch and one last visit to the shop for those things we just couldn't live without, we caught the Uluru plane to Cairns. By the time we got to the airport, the rain poured. For some reason this airport allows carry-ons only up to 7 pounds, so many people had to re-pack in a hurry--weigh and pack, re-weigh and re-pack etc. etc. etc. Than we sat and sat and sat. Some mechanical problem with the plane. One kinda doesn't mind sitting when you know something is going to be fixed on the plane you will be boarding. Even the shop and the cafe closed while we sat there. Hahahaha! Cobwebs grew on us. Even more rain poured--in the DESERT, mind you. We watched them load our luggage, one suitcase at a time, by hand. No automation there. OMG! Whoever lifted my bag probably got a hernia because I had to stuff many items from my backpack to my suitcase.
Finally, we boarded and were only about a half an hour late. The plane ride was bumpy and we were stinky from hiking around the desert all morning so by the time we got to Cairns we were a bus full of grumps. You can imagine how happy we were to find out we had to attend a lecture half an hour after our arrival. The hors d'oeuvres made it nicer and the speaker told us about what we'd be seeing on our fantastic trip to the Great Barrier Reef, which was on the bucket list of most participants. Isn't that on everyone's bucket list?

February 5—Cairns (pronounced “Cans”)
We got up an hour early this morning because we didn't know that Cairns was an hour later than Sydney (and a half hour earlier than Uluru--how odd!) So we get up, cranky, drink our coffee, take our showers and go down for breakfast and no one is there. We ask the receptionist what time it is and find out about our error. We could have used that extra hour, dang it! We laughed, because what else could we do?
After breakfast, we headed out to the docks and boarded our catamaran bound for The Great Barrier Reef. Not sunny, cloudy, but no rain. Still, we are sunblocked to the gills, our swimsuits, or what Australians call their "cozzie" (for bathing costume) under our clothes. It takes two hours to get to the reef from Cairns, so about halfway we had morning tea. Then, upon our arrival, the fun began. The seas had been rough, so everyone was a bit green around the gills, the sunblocked gills, remember. Even though it’s cloudy, sunblock is necessary in NZ and Australia because of the hole in the ozone layer right overhead. Tons of skin cancer in both countries. We were in the first group to go on the semi-submersible and see the coral and fish close up. However, because of the recent cyclonic activity, the water was murky and it was difficult to see much other than what was close up. Still, we saw jellyfish, cleaner fish, great big fish, little tiny fish, blue fish, yellow fish, zebra fish and one turtle. I got really sick to my stomach and thought I was going to have to use my puke bag. The staff told us we had to read the instructions inside first. Hahahaha! And they told us not to hand the full bag to them when we'd finished. I was happy to reach the open hatch and full air again.
Out the back of our boat

What I saw out the submersible window.

Neal coming back from snorkeling.

A very nice lunch was served and then we got on the boat to take us over to the beach so everyone could snorkel or if they are terrified of putting their faces in the water like me, they could swim, which is what I did. Some kind of fish was right up there once I stuck my feet in. I got in up to my neck and swam around. That's my comfort level. Neal snorkeled for a long, long time and saw a sea cucumber, and giant clam, parrot fish, zebra fish, tiger fish, a Moorish angel fish, a manta ray, spaghetti coral, brain coral, staghorn coral, needlenosed fish, groupers, etc. ( I just copied his list--note the difference between my fish naming [big, little, etc.] and his specifics. That's the way we roll.) We saw most of Neal's list from the semi-submersible window, too.
Lots of people in our group who'd never snorkeled before learned how. Our guide, John, and the Cairns guide, Sue, were very patient in teaching everyone so they had a great experience. Such happiness on their faces when they got back on the big boat!
The weather turned god-awful, rain pouring in on all sides of the boat and choppy water. We had seats on top and because there were so many people on the boat, that's where we were stuck. Everyone held on to the poles (from floor to roof) and I took pictures I'm going to post on the Road Scholar website saying here's our guide and group pole dancing. Hahahaha!
Pole dancing

Pole dancing

Some of us gathered in a circle and we asked John if he could please bring us some wood for making a fire. We all laughed at that, and then one of the crew came out of the cabin and brought us a flare and said, "Try this." We really laughed then. Next, he came out and took a photo of us. What a sodden lot we were once we got back in port. Freezing on the bus because the driver had to keep on the air conditioner so it wouldn't fog up the windows. Good thing we only had to go ten blocks to the hotel. Everyone headed for a hot shower.

I have to say I'd thought the reef would be white, and it's not. The sand is golden. Today there were a bazillion black birds on our portion of the reef, shitting all over everything. Sally saw one mature bird eat a baby bird of the same species. Normally they are not there on that reef, we're told, but they are all disoriented because of the cyclone, and not quite themselves. Poor things. We've all been there, haven't we?
Dinner was on our own, so we decided on Greek food, and our tour mate Sharon went with us because she loves it as much as we do. We were in for a treat. The place is called "Fetta's" and I highly recommend it should you ever be in Cairns, Australia. I ordered my favorite things for starters and so did Neal--dolmades, calamari (pan-fried, not deep-fried) and hummus. Then we had our main entrees. I chose spanikopita, Neal had falafel, and Sharon had moussaka. I was in Greek Heaven. I shared mine with everyone because there was no way I could eat ALL of that after ALL those starters. I had three triangles so I gave one to Neal and one to Sharon and they loved my spanakopita, too. We did NOT have dessert. But I did give the owner a big, fat hug because that was the best Greek food I've ever had, even in Greece. I said, "Are you the owner?" and he patted the top of his head which was grey and balding. "Our meal was excellent, every part of it, including the service!" I said. "Thank you, thank you, thank you," he said, and then Neal hugged him, too. I was out of the main room by then so I don't know if Sharon hugged him or not.
On our way back home, we were harassed by a drunk Aboriginal woman who told us this was HER town, her ORIGINAL town and we were tourists. We already knew all that, so we kept quiet. And said a prayer to send her love.
Another wonderful adventure today, and I still feel like I'm on the boat, rocking in uncontrolled motions. I may fall down, right onto my bed. You know what's going to happen when I close my eyes. You know.
Tomorrow is the rain forest. The dripping rain forest. Of course.

February 6, Kuranda and the rainforest
Kuranda started as a place to grow coffee, was used as a military base in WWII, and overtaken by hippies in the 70's. Now it's a tourist haven with lots of outdoor market stalls. About 25 kilometers from Cairns, it's a lovely place for those who work in Cairns to live. Kuranda is surrounded by World Heritage rainforest. Very similar to parts of Costa Rica.
Instead of taking the guided rainforest walk, Neal and I felt the need for coffee and a bit of shopping. We had a short rainforest walk anyway, later. The coffee was delicious, and the scones that appeared with it--who ordered those, anyway? Mostly we just sat and talked about our day before and our trip in general and tried to summon energy for one more day.
After lunch, we took the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway 7.5 km gliding just meters above the rainforest canopy in a gondola. This is one of the most botanically fascinating and diverse areas on earth. The presence of certain species serves to prove the theory of the land mass, Gondwana, as things similar to here are found all over the globe in areas no way connected to here. On the other hand, many things exist here and nowhere else. And that seems to prove the theory of evolution. That's why it's a protected area and Australia works as hard as New Zealand to keep out any foreign species.
gondola cables disappearing into the mist

Out the gondola window
Neal in gondola car enjoying view of rain forest

gondola station partway, forest walk

At the bottom of the Skyrail, we visited the Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park. Tjapukai means rainforest. First we were presented with a show of Aboriginal song and dance and didjeridu playing. Then we learned about the many kinds of boomerangs and what purpose each had, after which we learned about the bush plants and how each was used for either food or medicine or paint.
We went on to throw spears (Neal was really good and actually hit the straw bale with the kangaroo picture on the front.) While I chose not to throw a spear, I did try my hand at boomerang throwing and that was fun. I was successful, but Neal was very, very good, surprising people so much they commented on it at our farewell proceedings last night.
Playing didjeridu

Neal tossing boomerang

Playing didjeridu which involves 5 things at once!

Back home, showered and re-dressed, we had our final comments and a lovely dinner.
Feb 7--have not been able to access wi-fi for several days until now. We walked around Cairns through pouring rain looking for a wi-fi access and after so doing, passed by the welfare office and saw the state of affairs Aboriginal people are really in. Much the same as people waiting at welfare offices here in the states. Some of the men laughed at us for being tourists. Did our jungle hats and zip-off-legged pants give us away? Two policemen strolled up behind us and told us there was really nothing for us in this area and we’d do better in the first or second street back from the waterfront. Subtle suggestion. Strong meaning.
Waiting for our bus to take us to the airport now. We fly to Sydney this afternoon and then on to home tomorrow. Hope we dry out before our flight! Another adventure!
What a fabulous trip! If you have always wanted to see Australia or New Zealand, do it.  The people and the land itself are remarkable, memorable and unforgettable.  I laughed every day at some idiomatic expression or another, some of which I’ve relayed to you previously, and I found them all charming. Our guide John’s asides had me in stitches. For example, of the barely trickling showers in our first hotel, he said, “You have to turn around several times to get wet in there.” Hahahaha!

When you say to yourself about a place you’ve just visited, “I could live there!” that means it’s a very good place, indeed. This has been a journey good for the brain (new things to learn every day—how the shower works, how the room key works, how the light switch works, how the elevator works, how the money works, where the tram goes, besides all the information at each place we visited), good for the soul (primitive peoples knew a lot more than we do in the spiritual aspect and in living sustainably), good for the physical well-being (lots of good food and plentiful exercise) and good for the eyes in the beauty we saw all around us every day.

Speaking of which, Neal has just shared some of his photos with me, and he captured the beauty with his telephoto lens in ways I couldn’t, so I hope he shares them on Facebook or in his own blog. They are very much worth looking at.

Feb 8—For two days, in fact. Qantas International is a marvelous flight to take if you choose premium economy because it’s just like first class on any other airline. I’m telling you this because I know that after reading my journal, you are already planning your trip to New Zealand and Australia.