Sunday, 15 May 2011

Guess who we saw yesterday?

More here.

We're off to NZ!

We weren't intending to go to NZ for a good few years, having been there multiple times over the past few years, between the milestone birthdays of my grandparents as well as their respective funerals. But we had an offer too good to refuse.

First a bit of backstory. My cousin K lives in Christchurch with her partner G, and two young sons. She's had an, um, interesting twelve months (in the sense of the ancient curse: May you live in interesting times).

First, there was the quake on 4 September 2010, which fortunately did little damage ("Mum, why is a dragon trying to land on the roof?"). Then a fortnight later, K had a seizure resulting in the discovery of a serious, but mercifully benign, brain tumour. Surgery was able to remove most of it, and other than the instability caused by the wobble-inducing anti-seizure meds and the frequent aftershocks, things weren't too bad.

K had a post-surgery MRI to assess progress on 21 Feb. However, a deadly and destructive quake struck Christchurch the next day, 22 February 2011 (which meant that K's scan didn't get formally read until early April). Oh, and a week before, Dad managed to go arse over tit over the handlebars of his mountain bike, resulting in some impressive injuries which meant he couldn't do the farm stuff (mowing, pruning, digging etc).

So the folks brought K & G and their boys over to Oz: G (a landscape gardener) did the farm stuff that Dad couldn't, and they all got a couple of weeks' break from living in a disaster zone (no power, no running water, no sewerage, no schools, few navigable roads, and the odd nearby cliff threatening to fall off).

Anyway, the folks had organised tickets for the four of them to come back over the ditch for another fortnight or so of R&R, starting 20 July. However, that would mean delaying the second round of K's surgery, necessary to remove the remaining bit of tumour that couldn't be got last time. Instead they have chosen to schedule K's surgery for June, which means she can't fly for a good few months afterwards. So rather than let the flight lapse (cheapie flight so no refunds), Dad has transferred the booking into our names.

TL:DR - we're off to Queenstown in mid-July to go skiing for a week, flying back CHC-MEL on 20Jul11, because my cousin has had a shit year and can't.

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Musings - religion

Warning - my ignorance and broad generalisations are likely to offend some viewers. You'll get over it.

This 'compare and contrast' begins with the arrival of white settlers in the respective countries. Both countries did a shit job of dealing with the incumbents, choosing instead to kill them with disease and muskets.

America was largely settled by waves of religious refugees from Europe, of various creeds. This ethos still permeates the country in so many ways. Primarily, it means that in America you have freedom of religion, but not freedom from religion.

On the one hand, it means that no religion's holy days get public holiday recognition (except Christmas Day). So Good Friday is just the same as every other Friday for most people. Yom Kippur is unrecognised by a public holiday. The start and end of Ramadan is glossed over by most. My understanding is that (some) employees get half a dozen floating days which can be applied to the religious holy days of their choice.

No-one will ever be elected to public office in the States if they don't attend church (at least somewhat) regularly. In fact, it's stricter than that. You must attend a Christian church, and unless it's some form of Protestant church, you better have a shitload of money to make up for it (see also: Kennedys). So it's freedom of religion, as long as its ours. Obama is probably the biggest not-quite-exception to this, as he was raised in a secular household, exposed to many faiths, but not a believer. But he picked a church and got baptized before running for office. Like he had a choice.

The other corollary of this freedom of religion is that every Tom, Dick and Harry (but not Harriet) seems to be able to found a church. Where I was staying in East Harlem, I would pass at least three or four churches in the three blocks it took me to get to the subway, whichever direction I took. Mostly Baptist, some clearly long-closed, some brand spanking new. (Let's not even go anywhere near Scientology.)

By contrast, Australia was a convict settlement from the get-go. Half the people in the First Fleet, which arrived in January 1788, were convicts. This is probably the source of one of our defining characteristics: a lack of respect for authority. Including God and all who claim to speak for Him. These days, perhaps at most 20% of the population would attend church weekly (frankly, I'm surprised it's that high).

Founded by Anglicans*, the Protestant holy days are awarded public holiday status. In fact, almost all shops are required to shut on Good Friday and Christmas Day (as well as half of Anzac Day), and we also get Easter Monday. Our Constitution (1901) provides for freedom of religion, including the right to choose no religion (we'll still take the public holidays, thanks). Our courts explicitly permit a witness to choose whether to make an affirmation (I solemnly and sincerely declare and affirm ...) or an oath (I swear by Almighty God ...).  At least one of our Governers-General (the Queen's representative in Australia, you know, the Defender of the Faith and Head of the Church of England) was a well-known atheist, and was sworn into his office with an affirmation.

So this freedom of religion is recognised in the Education Acts of the various states, for example the Victorian one provides that "education in Government schools must be secular and not promote any particular religious practice, denomination or sect." So far, so good. Except the very next subsection provides that religious instruction is practically required to be provided in Government schools, must be done during class times, and must be supplied on an opt-out (not opt-in) basis. Now, this would be tolerable if the religious instruction were a comparative religions type of thing, discussing the characteristics and beliefs of the world's religions. But it's not. Ninety-six percent of all religious education in Australia is provided by Access Ministries, teaching Christian education only.

So we have a largely secular country where Christian holidays are granted higher status, and Christian education is practically mandated in government-funded schools. And America is a comparatively religious country, where you can choose your holy days, and Christianity can't be taught in schools (pockets of creationists notwithstanding).

Go figure.

*The gaolers were largely Anglican; the convicts were Irish Catholic or various forms of Protestant

Musings - NYC & mobility

New York is a great town. It's compact, with a great subway system, and plenty to see, do, buy, and eat (as my few weeks there will testify).  But I wouldn't want to try to navigate it if I wasn't able to walk briskly and climb stairs. New York would suck mightily if you were wheelchair-bound, or can't manage stairs, or are pushing a pram.

The subway
Now I know the subway is old, with the first underground line opening in 1904. But the Americans with Disabilities Act became law in 1990, mandating access to public transportation among others. However, as at August 2010, two decades on, only 89 of the 468 subway stations are ADA-compliant.  There are a few more that are wheelchair-accessible, but it's still not a great proportion.  And I saw more than one subway-station elevator out of order, too, which reduces that number even further, with bonus randomness.

Conversely, all but one of Melbourne's 200 metropolitan train stations are wheelchair-accessible, as are all the trains (the driver has a ramp) although only some of the trams (the main inner city/inner suburb form of public transport) are wheelchair accessible, and an increasing number of tram stops.

And it's not just people in wheelchairs who need, or at least appreciate, access to public transport that doesn't involve stairs. Bodgy hips and knees can make life with stairs difficult. As can prams or strollers. Or even just heavy and/or awkward luggage.

Building entrances
America really hasn't embraced the automatic door. Yes, they're in a few places, but overwhelmingly the doors to shops and other buildings are narrow, heavy, outwardly opening doors.  Or revolving doors, which suck even harder if you are in a wheelchair/slow-moving/have a pram.  The climate arguments (it gets really hot! it gets really cold!) don't hold water.  Yes revolving doors are good for maintaining internal climatic conditions, but so are airlocks (two sets of doors, a few metres apart).  And revolving doors require that you have a regular door adjacent to it, precisely because they are unusable if you can't walk briskly, which completely destroys the climate-control reason.

In fact, all the automatic doors I did encounter had big signs (A5 size) at eye level warning "Automatic Door. Keep Moving" and a big upwards-pointing arrow circled in green. Because clearly they are so new-fangled they require explicit instructions. Here, it's the non-automatic doors that require labels as they are the odd-ones-out.

On the other hand, there is one thing that it very widely automated. Toilet flushing. Because (presumably) that's something people forget or need help with.  And because of the high water mark in traditional US dunnies, if you get one with an overly sensitive sensor, every time you lean forward it thinks you're done and you get a wet arse. Here, you're shit out of luck (so to speak) - you gotta push the button yourself. Because it's so hard to do.

Sunday, 8 May 2011

My Favorite Place B&B - truth in advertising

This was my home away from home while I was in NY, and it was wonderful.

I found them when a friend suggested looking at B&Bs as a possible accommodation type.  My requirements for  accommodation were not too challenging:
  • not stupidly expensive (it's New York, so "stupidly" is a relative term)
  • own bathroom (I'm willing to share, but only with someone I know)
  • own room (I'm too curmudgeonly to sleep in a dorm)
  • close to public transport
  • not too far from town, but not too close
  • wifi
  • not too noisy (not above a pub or nightclub)
My Favorite Place B&B ticked all the boxes: $100/night single, $125 double (at the time); own bathroom and bedroom; a couple of blocks from the 6 line, the 2,3 line and only a touch further to the B and C lines. A few locals hinted a little trepidation at it being in Harlem, but nothing to be too concerned about. Yes, I was one of very few white faces in East Harlem, but I didn't feel remotely vulnerable, let alone threatened, even though I was often out quite late. And I certainly never felt uncomfortable riding the subway at all hours of the day and night. The reviews suggested the breakfasts were good, but rather understated things. And they cheerfully acquired a kettle just for me.

Extra bonus points were awarded for windows that opened (exceptionally rare in hotels); quiet (being at the back of the building the street noise was very muted); and the charming hosts, Carlos and Cesar.

The only thing I would change would be to include a bar fridge in the room, a suggestion I passed on to C&C - I would be surprised if they haven't already acquired one.

And just to recap the extraordinary breakfasts that Carlos prepared (each day served with tea, juice, cereal, yoghurt and fruit):

Saturday, 7 May 2011

Updated placeholders

I'm slowly making my way through the backlog of placeholders. These will generally have lots of photos (one of the reasons why I didn't do them while away), so be warned when 'reading more' - it might take a while to load.

Remember, with almost all of the pictures, you can click on the thumbnail in the post to bring up a fullsize image, which you are welcome to download for your own personal use. Attribution is given where the pics aren't my own.

Updated so far:
Day 8.2 - Quilt exhibition, American Folk Museum
Day 8.3 - Wicked!

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Home again, home again, jiggedy jig.

I walked in the front door of home at 11:30am local time, Wednesday, 4 May) - the same time my train left Montauk Monday morning.  Which means I've been travelling 24 hrs (we crossed the date line) + 14 hours time zone difference. That's 38 hours solid. No wonder I'm knackered.  I did manage to get some kip on both flights - sleep would be too generous a term - so I should manage to stay up until regular bedtime, which will help reset my body clock.

I've snarfled some food from the fridge (ie picked the carcase of the bbq chook clean), had a grapefruit, a few Tim Tams and I have a cuppa in front of me. After my shower, I weighed myself. JD and I had been making a concerted effort to lose about 10kg each, and we were both down about 7kg two weeks ago when I left. All that delicious food, plus the chips and cake and cheetos at Montauk have taken their toll, and I've regained a good third of that. Never mind - some of it will come off quickly, the rest will take the usual hard work and discipline.

The first of several loads of washing is in the machine, and I collect the kids from school in a couple of hours. It'll be great to see them, but I'll have to wait until tonight to see JD.  I love travel, and going to new places, but the best part is always coming home to loved ones.

I'll aim to update the placeholder posts over the weekend - now that I'm on a desktop (tabs, multiple screens etc) it'll be much easier.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Homeward Bound (or why I prefer carry-on only)

My UA flight was scheduled to leave New York at 6:05pm, although I was told at check-in around 3:30pm that (a) the flight was delayed until 8pm, and (b) that I would still make my connecting flight. Around 5:10pm, I went over to the UA gate desk to confirm the flight delay, and point out that the two hour delay exceeded my layover in LAX. David, the exceptionally helpful chap at that gate, immediately arranged for me to be transferred to the QF flight, scheduled to leave shortly after UA25 was supposed to leave.

The tricky part was getting my bag off the UA cargo load and onto the QF load. After getting a detailed description from me (I couldn't get the internet back up to show him a picture from my blog), he then contacted the baggage people to have my bag put onto carousel 5 (where the luggage for the flight that had just come off the plane I would soon be boarding). I knew I had to have my bag rechecked by 6.03pm, when the flight closed for luggage.

Let's just say that was one of the most fraught half hours I've had for some time. If my bag didn't come through in time, I wouldn't be able to board the QF108 flight to LAX, and I'd miss my connecting flight home. The idea of being another day away from JD and the boys had me reduced to quiet tears. The luggage for the passengers seemed to take forever (a number of the passengers were getting rather stroppy), but still my bag wasn't appearing. At ten to six, I went to the United Airlines desk through the "No Re-entry" doors, and was assured that David had been in constant communication with the baggage people for the past ten minutes, and that my bag had just been delivered to the carousel.

It turns out there is a door to get back into the baggage area, and I was very relieved to see my bag on the carousel. I dashed back out, asked that the UA staff pass on my thanks to David, and went out and back up again, to the Qantas desk. They had a baggage tag waiting for me, and escorted me to the front of the now very long line to go through security. (So I became one of those line pusher-ins that I bitched about last time I was in LAX.)

In the end the flight was slightly delayed, and I had time to get a final frappucino, to hydrate, caffeinate, and calm down. The flight was uneventful, as one always hopes it will be, and I am now waiting at the gate lounge for my flight to Melbourne, and boarding has just started.

Local time: 10:45pm Mon, body clock time: 1:45am Tue, time at home: 3:45pm Tue.

Day 12 - Homeward Bound

I'm sitting at the railway station, got a ticket for my destination

Well, I don't actually, because there are no ticket machines at the Montauk end of the line. But the conductor sells me one, and we're on our way. It's 11:30am, and the start of the long trip home, about 35 hours worth, starting with a three hour train ride back to town.


The news today (last night) is that Osama bin Laden is dead. The TV channels are full of jubilant Americans; my Facebook feed is full of jubilant Americans and wary everyone else. A poll question at the end of the lead story on The Age website asks whether you believe the threat of terrorism has lessened since bin Laden's death, with 86% of respondents saying No (last time I looked), me among them.

When you declare a War on Terror, rather than something more tangible, like a country, you need a stand-in for the enemy. Osama bin Laden was, for many here, the anthropomorphisation of The Enemy. Ding dong the witch is dead/fifty bullets in [his] head.

But like the many-headed Hydra, cutting off one head will only cause a dozen more to sprout in its place. And will create a martyr of the head removed. While burying him at sea will prevent a shrine, a place of pilgrimage being created, it won't stop others from trying to emulate him.

As someone who is flying today, both across the country and across the Pacific, I do not feel this is a safer world than yesterday. And I selfishly hope that what retaliations come (for they will come) do not come in the next two days. Wishing us all "safe travel".


At JFK, I find some lunch at a sit-down place: chimchurrones (?sp) which are chewy bits of pork, with a mustard aioli (?chipotle) and a bright green sauce of some sort (?pico gallo), with a basic salad - improved by squeezing the lime over it. I also order a side of creamy parmesan spinach, which is a 5" frying pan of sautéed spinach, in a somewhat creamy sauce, with some breadcrumbs over them - actually very good. With no sparkling wine by the glass, and being out of sangria, I didn't feel bad choosing tap water to go with my meal.

I spent a very frustrating hour or so trying to connect to the wifi (pay), but have finally done so. It's not cheap, but I understand my flight is delayed (I hope to God it gets to the hellhole that is LAX in time for me to make the Melb flight. I wanna go home!

Day 11 - Montauk

The morning dawned clear and calm. Not that I saw the dawn - I again slept soundly, and enjoyed a leisurely morning, including cereal and several cups of tea, and chatting with victoria and kerrie, and later Sue G.

They were driving into town, so I begged a lift to the place where many of them went yesterday for Lobster Roll. Duryea, the lobster place, is on the harbour on the west side of the island (the village is on the Atlantic, or east side of the island). Although it was only a little after 11, the restaurant was open (I wasn't even the only one there), and I ordered my lobster roll, and took a few pics while I waited.

My lobster roll arrived shortly. I had been given a choice of potato salad or chips (which meant crisps), and went with the former. I'm not sure I've had quite so much mayonnaise (in different forms) in one meal.

The coleslaw wasn't too bad, the cabbage had a tint of bitterness suggesting is wasn't super-fresh. The potato salad had quite an acidic dressing which was appealing at first, but quickly became too much. The lobster itself was good, a good amount of meat with some good sized chunks, but rather swamped with a lighter mayonnaise. I don't eat a lot of lobster, so I can't speak to its quality, but it tasted okay. The whole meal was certainly filling, and a little pricey ($22 incl tax) for a paper plate with a lot of mayonnaise. But, I've had a lobster roll, and in Montauk, no less.

Monday, 2 May 2011

Day 10 - Montauk

The day started with a leisurely sleep-in. I slept well - the memory foam mattress at the B&B meant I got quite hot and sweaty. ODH (my roommate) had already decamped by the time I deigned to wake. A couple of cuppas, some gorgeous poppyseed cake, and through the hedge I went.

After another HUGE cuppa tea at Harri's (I'd run out of milk here), I sat about and chatted a bit, then decided to wander off towards town, perhaps a mile away, walking along the beach.

It was a mild, overcast day, with a light breeze - long sleeve t-shirt weather. I did dip my toes in the water, to wash the sand out of my shoes (crocs). I then stood on the sand in agony for a minute or so as the pain of the really very cold water wore off. No swimming for me!

Once in town, I went into the IGA and got a few essentials (milk, cereal, tea) and some lunch (it was noon by now) - a tub of yoghurt and some stuffed mushrooms from the hot food self serve. (Sorry, no pics) They were good - a spinach and breadcrumb mix, topped with cheese, baked, each about 1.5"-2" diameter, a little less high - four for $1.60 or so (sold by weight).

Montauk very much has a high season, and the rest of the year. I understand the town population swells from around 3,000 people to about 50,000 over the summer months, as those that can afford to escape the sweltering cesspit that NewYork becomes for a few months of the year.

So the IGA was running winter hours (still pretty good), the servo was undergoing major reconstruction, and closed for the winter, a number of the motels claimed "Open year round" suggesting that many of the others are not. The mini-golf was clearly in a state of disrepair (the fibreglass bear was standing at a very rakish angle), and a number of other businesses were closed/buildings vacated.

I walked back to where we were all staying, and rejoined the conversations - there were usually several going on at the same time, much like on BW. It was sort of like the stage show version of the book, but even louder and with less plot.

Mid-afternoon, I decided to go for a nanna nap, knowing I wouldn't last the evening otherwise (and whilst I love them all dearly, I also needed a little quiet time). A number of people commented that they wish they'd thought to have an afternoon kip too, and flaked relatively early.

The bonfire planned for this evening was thwarted by the high tide - with the tide up, there's not sufficient clearance from the dunes to have a fire, so we had hot dogs and red velvet cake and chips and cookies and cheetos and lots of other junk food. I paced myself with my alcohol, having only two rather large, but reasonably dilute V&Ts for the evening. I was still a little headachy, but I suspect that's more dehydration than anything else.

I was in bed by midnight, soberish, hoarse from talking and laughing to much, less sunburnt than many, having had a very delightful day with a good bunch of friends.

Sunday, 1 May 2011

Day 9.2 - Montauk

I got to Jamaica a little after 3pm, needing to connect with the train that leaves at 4:25pm. I found a spot on the floor in the AirTrain terminal, with good wifi and wrote a bit more on my food post. I was hoping to meet victoria and bing-o at the station, but with very patchy wifi on the platform, and texts/SMSs between our phones taking so long they probably not only had to go to Australia and back, but through LAX customs each time too. In the end, we didn't meet up on the train, but did when we pulled into Montauk.

The train journey itself was a very painless two-and-a-bit hours. Express for the first hour or so, then stopping all stations through the Hamptons. There were eight carriages, all double decker, and there were a few empty pairs of seats in the carriage I was in. I perched sidesaddle on my seat, with my iPad balancing on my bag and keyboard on my knee to finish my food post (published when wifi restored).

victoria and bing-o (their nom de nets are all lower case) and I shared a cab with some others and were delivered to the motel where we were staying. A friend, Harri, who is hosting this weekend has an old family house nearby. (I'm not going to give specific names to avoid giving away Harri's address by inference).

Here's the view from the door of my room. Probably all you can see are the cars and the power cables and the other stuff, but look past that and you can see the ocean. The Atlantic Ocean is just across the street from us.

After a restorative cuppa tea (the rooms have kettles as promised; I had tea bags, and I begged some milk from the proprietors), we joined the others at Harri's house.

Can you imagine eighteen or so 30-something to 50-something women in a few rooms together, all of whom know each other virtually, but many of whom are meeting in the flesh for the first time? Lots of loud talking, shrieking, laughing, smoking, drinking, snarking, and the rest. I think the full complement is just shy of two dozen once the late stragglers got in.

By morning, I was (am, as I write this) decidedly hungover. I didn't even have that much to drink - only three glasses, but the glasses were, um, rather big, and I may have overcompensated for the flow restrictor on the big-ass bottle of vodka, by being rather generous in my pouring. Despite Snarky Bean's best maternal efforts in feeding us a bunch of finger foods, and the rather good red velvet cake with the Union Jack on it (in honour of the Royal Wedding) that Harri organised, and a variety of corn chips and NZ confectionery delicacies (Pineapple Lumps!!! Wine Gums!!! Jaffas!!! No L&P ) imported by Simnel, I didn't really have enough to eat to compensate for the alcohol.

At least I did sleep well. Two cups of tea, a little delicious poppyseed cake baked by, heck, I can't remember now, and a shower, and it's time to rejoin the fray.