Saturday, June 4, 2011

Earthshakes in the Land of the Midnight Sun

June 3, 2011 This morning I was still in bed in Anchorage, Alaska when I felt a gentle rocking back and forth. I knew almost immediately what it was. I had felt the same vibration in Oaxaca, Mexico one morning as I was waking up. It’s a weird sensation to feel as though a big truck is rumbling past your window, yet there is no sound of a motor or vehicle passing. Of course, no one else I asked had felt it; so I googled “recent earthquakes in Alaska”. Sure enough, at 9:58 AM a 1.67 ML earthquake had occurred in the central region. But the weird and scary thing was that the list on that webpage was HUGE. There had been 9 other quakes that morning and there were 14 more to come that day! One of them was 3.68! We’ve been skirting one natural disaster after another as we’ve traveled around the world. We were in Christchurch, New Zealand one week before the horrific earthquake struck. Floods plagued the east coast of Australia as we approached that country. We were headed for Japan when the earthquake and tsunami destroyed Fukushima. Now, we are planning to be in Iceland next month and they just suffered a major volcanic eruption. Is Someone trying to tell us something?!

Getting Around China

April 27, 2011 Our first day in China was going to be a challenge. We wanted to see the town of Suzhou, which is 60 miles west of Shanghai, and we knew that we had to do it the first day there; since we were staying overnight on the ship and wouldn’t have to worry if we returned late. We found out before hand that only Chinese Yuan was going to be accepted on public transportation, so we exchanged money on the ship; just in case there was no ATM in the cruise terminal. (We found out later, that was a great decision.) We left the ship at 8:10AM with 6 - 100 Yuan bills in our pockets (about $100); so we stopped at what looked like a quick shop to buy a pack of gum and get change to use on the bus. After playing Charades with the store clerk, we learned that the “Bussah” costs 2 Yuan (38¢) per ride. Now, we tried to interpret where the bussah stop was. In China, it is rude to point with your finger; so people use their fist and thumb and wave in the direction they are indicating. That can be really confusing when several streets are going the same direction. But we were soon on bus 135 headed to the metro stop. All signs at the bus stops were in Chinese characters; so we really had to watch for street signs to know when to get off. We were so impressed with the modern, clean, graffiti-free bus and the metro station was no less impressive. A large bank of automatic ticket machines waited for us at the entrance. Thankfully, we saw on the touch screen that English was an option. We pressed the Shanghai Railway station as our destination. The screen asked for 4 Yuan and out popped our ticket. The underground waiting area was lined with large glass panels to keep people from falling into the tracks. The panels automatically opened when the metro arrived. Inside, the cars looked brand-new. We arrived at our final stop, walked upstairs and outside. Right in front of us was the Railway Station and inside was another bank of automatic ticket machines with English directions. We purchased the $14 Economy class ticket to Suzhou and walked into the train terminal. It looked like an airport with shops, restaurants and large waiting areas. We only waited about 15 minutes before our train arrived and went to our reserved seats. Wow! Reclining seats, magazines (in Chinese), overhead compartments, large windows, train attendants that looked like flight attendants, and a flat screen in front of the car that displayed the current time and speed. We took off exactly on time and were soon showing a speed of 335 km/hr (200 mph). No wonder they call them bullet trains. We arrived in Suzhou in less than 30 minutes. I’m not sure what we expected to see in China, but it wasn’t this. Everyone we met was helpful, smiling and well-dressed. Not one of them was like the unpleasant Chinese Embassy worker we had met in Chicago when we bought our Tourist Visas. Understanding Shanghai had been easy compared to Chicago.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Back to Work?!

March 8, 2011 It’s been almost 3 years since we retired. We’ve gotten spoiled by the freedom of getting up when we want, eating when we want, and staying or going as we please. But last week a request for our help on a cruise ship shore excursion seemed like a fun thing to do and we said, “Yes!” Suddenly things changed. I couldn’t sleep well the night before because I was afraid the alarm wouldn’t go off. (What’s an alarm clock? I hadn’t used one in months!). Then I was stressing about what to wear (something professional-looking, but comfortable enough to wear climbing in and out of a bus). Paul & I were each in charge of a group of 24 adults on our busses. We were supposed to take attendance, tell them about the area as we drove to Larnach Castle, take pictures of the group and assist with any emergencies. The day went smoothly and we all had a great time. As a reward, the tour coordinator “paid us” with a dinner for two at the upscale Pinnacle Grill restaurant with a wine pairing at each course. I guess we can now make up a cardboard sign that says, “Homeless. . . Will Work for Food.”

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Learning Kiwi

February 20, 2011
Coming to New Zealand, unlike Europe seemed so easy. We didn’t really know what to expect as far as food, customs and the people; but we knew that we would at least know their language – English. Whew! Well, it didn’t take us long to discover that when New Zealanders (known as Kiwis) speak; we don’t always understand. When our friend Sharon told us that she had 3 Beadrooms; I thought – Wow! She is really into crafts! We now know that a short “e” sound is often pronounced like a long “e”. So Beadroom = bedroom. When Stuart asked if we needed a Chilly Bin, we didn’t know what to say. (It’s a cooler.) At the golf course, did we need to rent a trundler? Should we be offended when a guy described Paul’s watch as ”flash”? While driving - what happens when you read the sign, “Merge Like A Zip” or “Watch for Road Slumps”? What’s easier than ordering a cup of coffee? Not here! Even the smallest diner has a huge list of choices none of which says “coffee”. Choose from flat white, short black, long black, latte, cappuccino, etc. Or would you prefer a “cuppa”? Ok, that’s getting confusing; let’s just order a burger. What kind would you like? A fish burger, chicken burger, egg & bacon burger? When we asked what a fish burger was, we were told you just cut the burger in half and put in the fillings you want. (That didn’t sound appetizing.) But later we found out that “burger” means “bun”! In the supermarket, we couldn’t find hamburger at all – it’s “mince”. You should have seen our faces when our hosts were talking about a party that they had attended. They said they got home, went to bed and just as he was turning off the light he realized, “Crykey Dick! We didn’t even have tea!” (Only later did we find out that “tea” means “supper”.)
NZ has been a pleasant surprise for us. We thought the country would be beautiful, but it has exceeded our expectations. The influence of “Mother England” is still strong; but the younger people seem to be thinking less as “colonials” and more as independent citizens. The Maori (native islanders) are fully involved in the government and have at least two bi-lingual channels on TV. We love the Kiwi customs like offering a small pitcher of milk “for your tea” to renters in every place we have been (hotels, B&Bs, apartments and rental homes); seeing Lawn Bowling Clubs in full white uniform (including safari hat, shirt, shorts, long socks and soft soled shoes); watching Black Caps cricket matches that go on for days (and break for tea); All Blacks rugby matches dominating the sport scene; finding that small grocery stores (called dairies) don’t carry mustard – and ketchup is known as tomato sauce; using an electric wall plug is a two-step process (first you need to flip a switch on the plate to get it to engage); discovering that many local golf courses are on the honor system for paying green fees (just put your money in a box) and to use rental clubs, get them out of the shower in the men’s bathroom. “Good on you” for not cheating the system. Be sure to leave everything the way you found it, no littering, please recycle. Live and let live. Paul’s even getting used to driving on the left side of the road. Brilliant!

Friday, January 28, 2011

Pub Night in New Zealand

January 28, 2011 We have been skirting natural disasters for a month now. While we were in New Zealand’s North Island enjoying beautiful weather, there was another earthquake in Christchurch on the South Island. A couple of days after we played golf in Rotorua, there was a huge brush fire on the course and yesterday they had an earthquake. When we arrived on the South Island, the North was hit by torrential rains and major flooding has covered parts of Auckland and other cities we just visited. Today we are in Cape Foulwind (which is about 6 miles from Westport, right on the Pacific coast – called the Tasman Sea here). I am sitting at our kitchen table looking at a fantastic flower garden and out to the sea – watching breakers hit some huge rocks (called the Steeples) jutting out of the water. This location is so beautiful that even though we had reserved 3 nights here, we have decided to extend to 4 nights. It is just breathtaking. Pauline and Bruce, who own the property, are so nice that we felt like we had known them all of our lives the minute we met. She wanted us to come over to her house for a glass of wine last night and then she drove us to her favorite local pub, The Star Tavern, for dinner. That was a hoot. We were the only non-locals; and wearing jeans and collared shirts, we were way over-dressed. Come as you are was just that. Fishermen, still in boots; some left their boots at the door and were just in socks. We loved it! People just being real, without pretense. The atmosphere was fantastic. Lots of people came up to us to find out who we were, introduce themselves, shake hands, etc. The food was great, too – Paul had a falling-off-the-bone lamb shank with a medium dark Tui beer and I had a Fisherman’s bucket (rig – a kind of shark, scallops, mussels, squid) – all caught that day – with the local Sauvignon blanc. A family band started at 7PM and people were dancing and singing along. The pub owner’s dog let himself in and out of the sliding glass door, greeted the customers, played with the kids and fell asleep near the sofa. We were close to our cottage, so we walked home. What a great opportunity to be part of lives that are so different from ours.