Sri Lanka 2017 Part 4: Polonnaruwa and safari in Minneriya

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

 

This morning, our itinerary called for a visit to Polonnaruwa, another UNESCO World Heritage site.  We had another delightful breakfast at the lodge, complete with pots of coffee.  We took the buggy (golf cart) to the entrance, where Prasad and Dinesh were waiting for us at the appointed hour.  It was a fairly short drive to the city.

Polonnaruwa was the second great capital city of Sri Lanka, built during the 11th and 12th centuries.  It was a thriving commercial and religious center, and the archaeological remains are in excellent condition, giving you a good idea of what city life was like back in the day.  The ruins were “rediscovered” by the British during their rule of Sri Lanka.

Our first stop was the museum, which had a scale model of the ancient city.  Prasad used it to give us an overview of what we would see.  The museum also had some wonderful artifacts.  There were bronzes, statues, and even ancient medical instruments.  We spent about 45 minutes to an hour there getting our bearings and then it was off to the races.  Dinesh had the van ready, so our plan was to drive to each group of ruins. 

Our first stop was the Royal Palace.  In its heyday, it was said to have seven stories.  The walls were three yards thick, and the holes were there to hold the floor beams for the higher floors.  They must have been made of wood and are no longer visible.  In some places, black charring is visible.  There is mention of a great fire in the history books.

Here we are at the Royal Palace entrance, looking very regal.

I’m always fascinated with the infrastructure, especially all things water, sewer and drainage related.  Prasad explained that this was an indoor toilet.  My daddy didn’t even have that when he was growing up.

Bricklayers used to be artisans.  These are still standing after 1,000 years.  

In the next picture, you can still see the plaster that once covered the walls of the Royal Palace.  It’s now protected with a pane of plexiglass to keep water and sun damage to a minimum.

Imagine what this would have looked like with all seven stories on it.  It must have made an imposing impression on visitors to the palace.  Isn’t that always the point of a palace?

The Council Chamber, also known as the Audience Hall, was the place where the king summoned the nobles of the kingdom.  

Notice the intricate carving at each level:  these are dwarves.  A dwarf served the same purpose in a Sri Lankan royal court as a jester:  they were the jokesters, the entertainers.

Lions are a symbol of the king and of the Sinhalese people, who are said to have lion’s blood running through their veins.

Elephants are also associated with the royal court.

This is a drainage pipe.  We saw them all over the site, and they still function.  They are set down end to end, with nothing holding them together at the joints.  

The bathing pool still holds water.   Can you see the crocodile at the lower right?  He’s a water spout.

Where people live and work, they must go potty.  This is a septic tank.

And back around to the entrance of the Audience Hall.  The royal lion greets us at the entrance steps.

Our next stop was the quadrangle.  Prasad showed us this next building, the Satmahai Prasada.  Its purpose is a mystery lost in time.  It is shaped like a pyramid but has no interior (except for the small “cave” seen at the front).  The staircase (to nowhere) is on the outside, and crumbling figurines are set within the wall niches.  We spent some time guessing about what it might be used for.  Greg was particularly intrigued and kept tossing out ideas to Prasad, which were quickly and firmly rejected.  After a while, I told Prasad, “People have been trying to figure this out for hundreds of years, but Greg is going to solve the mystery in five minutes.”  

We had to remove our shoes and hats and cover our knees for visits into the holy places in the quadrangle.  I kept a skirt in my backpack for coverage, while Genene chose to wear long pants.  Genene and I wore sandals on the theory that they would be quick and easy to remove, and we had been making fun of Greg for being a typical tourist and wearing tennis shoes.  The last laugh was on us because when we removed our shoes and walked barefoot, the ground was burning hot.  Greg still had his socks on, so he could stand the walk a little better.  Even Prasad was hopping around like a cat on a hot tin roof.  We ran from shady area to shady area to look at the ruins and listen to Prasad’s explanations.  

The Vatadage is a circular relic house.  There is a lower terrace and an upper terrace.  At the top, four separate entrances lead to central dagoba with its four Buddhas.  Prasad told us that each Buddha was set at a cardinal point on the compass.  We got out our iPhones and verified.  Prasad was delighted.  He had not realized that smart phones have a compass.  I know he will download the app onto his Samsung!

Some of the Buddha statues were in better condition than others.  

The stupa behind this Buddha may have once held Lord Buddha’s Tooth Relic.  We will hear a lot more about the relic when we get to Kandy, where the Temple of the Tooth Relic is now.  The tooth relic is revered by Sri Lankans.   This Vatadage is a very holy place to the people here.  

The carved entrances to the terrace were particularly beautiful.  As I mentioned, Sri Lankans consider this to be holy ground. There are volunteers who patrol the site, making sure the proper reverence is shown.  Greg accidentally got into trouble on the lower terrace here.  He was following Prasad’s lead.  When Prasad came down to this lower terrace, he absent-mindedly put his ball cap back on.  Greg followed suit, and we immediately heard whistles from the ground below.  One of the volunteers gestured, and Prasad and Greg quickly uncovered their heads again.  

The seven-headed cobra hood is a symbol of royal power.  And check out those dwarves.  

The statue at Bodhisattva Shrine caught the light well.

The next view is from within the Hatadage looking back at the Buddha on the compass point at Vatadage.  There are three buildings in the quadrangle with rhyming names:  Vatadage, Hatadage, and Atadage.  Can you guess at the roots of the words? They are numbers.   Hata means sixty.  Dage means relic shrine.  One theory says that Hatadage was built in 60 hours.  Another theory says that it used to hold 60 relics. 

There are three granite Buddha statues within the Hatadage shrine.  The one in the middle looks directly at the Buddha in the compass point in the Vatadage.

Latha-Mandapaya is a curious structure.  It is surrounded by a latticed stone fence.  Eight columns shaped like lotus stalks with unopened buds at the top surround a small dagoba.  It is said that Nissanka Malla, the king who ruled from 1187 to 1196, sat in the enclosure to listen to chanted Buddhist texts.  He was the king who declared that only a Buddhist had the right to rule, securing his position and justifying his claim to be king.  

The Gal Pota or Stone Book is inscribed with the virtues of King Nissanka Malla.  The slab, which weighs 25 tons, was dragged here from 100 kilometers away.  

As we left this area, Prasad pointed out the warning that is inscribed at the entry/exit point:  the fate of anyone who steals from this area is etched in stone.  You will return as a ghost, a dog, or a carrion bird.  

We took a break and drank king coconut water.  It was cool and refreshing, but the three of us could hardly finish one.  

Our next stop was Rankot Vihara.  It is the largest stupa in Polonnaruwa and the fourth largest in the country.  We ran upon a group of school children on a field trip, and they joyfully ran up to us.  Each one would greet us and formally inquire:  “How are you?”  

The stupa is a place of great power.  Prasad explained that if you look at the structure in a very basic way, you see a triangle.  Many ancient structures have this shape so that they can receive power from the “beyond.”

Our final stop of the morning was at Gal Vihara.  The temple contains four rock relief images of the Buddha, carved out of solid granite.  There are several theories about what they mean.  Whatever they represent, they are colossal and beautiful….

In particular, the standing figure with crossed arms generates debate because it is an unusual gesture not seen very often in Sinhalese sculpture.  Some think it is the Buddha at an early stage of enlightenment.  Others say that it is the Buddha showing “sorrow for the sorrow of others.”  Prasad holds to the theory that this Buddha is a peacemaker of sorts:  there were two competing schools of Buddhism, and at one time the priests were at war about it.  Prasad says that the gesture means “no argument.”

The schoolchildren reappeared.  They had a time of worship at the statues and then they played again.  

We finished the tour, barely scratching the surface of Polonnaruwa, and headed for lunch.  We had a special treat in store.  Jaga Foods is one of the best restaurants on the island.  They have a farm-to-table concept.  We pulled up and the first thing we saw was their garden.  Mango, banana, pepper by the rows.  They aren’t lying when they say the food is fresh here.  

Jaga greeted us in person and explained the rules.  There was a buffet, and above each simmering pot was the main ingredient of the dish.  That made translation easy.  You just looked at the fresh fruit or vegetable sitting on the plate above the pot.  Jaga told us to “draw a line” about four pots from the end on the right side.  Those dishes were “Sri Lanka spiced.”  The name of the last dish was “dynamite curry.”  It was dynamite in every sense of the word!  We tried everything, and it was all wonderful.  We also had our first Sri Lankan roti, which is akin to a tortilla or pita but is made with coconut and onion, giving it a sweet, savory taste.

The tables at Jaga are on a covered patio with a great view to a bayou-like stream, and as we sat having our lunch a water monitor came to the bank and posed for us.  

Now we knew why this little fence was erected.

For the second time in as many days, a Chinese tourist provided us with some amusement and bemusement.  He grabbed his young child, trotted him down to the edge of the fence, and began trying to take photographs of him with the monitor.  He had the kid posed dangerously close to the monitor.  Jaga came running out and yelled, “Get back away from the fence!  The monitors are quite aggressive.”  The tourist was shocked.  He said, “They are not your pets??!”  Jaga said, “No, they aren’t!   They are wild, and they very much like Chinese people.”  Everyone snickered a bit at Jaga’s joke as the man scrambled to get his kid back up to safe ground.  They made it, thank goodness.

In five minutes or so, we got even a better understanding of how aggressive these creatures can be.  A second water monitor appeared, and the two of them made ugly noises at each other.  Then a fight broke out.

They rumbled.

They rassled!

They both got up on their back legs and tried to throw each other over.

The big guy prevailed, and the little fella swam off.

Get out!  And stay out!

Jaga invited us to write on his ceiling.  The walls and ceilings were covered with praises for the food and hospitality.  Genene added ours to the mix.

After lunch, we prepared for our first safari.  We headed for Minneriya National Park.  There are two parks in the area, and the elephants move from park to park, depending on availability of water.  Sri Lanka is in the midst of a devastating drought.  The monsoons that should have happened last September did not come.  It still looks like a lush, tropical paradise from our point of view, but the reservoirs are at historic lows.  For us, that meant the water was easy to find, and the elephants should be too.

 The jeep queue to get into the park was daunting.  

We sat in the air conditioned van while Prasad handled all the details of getting our tickets and finding us a jeep driver.  After a short wait, we were off.  We had to drive quite a while through what I would describe as a scrub before the landscape changed and we started to see our first animals.

Buffalo.

And there they were:  the ellies!  Right off the bat, we saw this tusker.

This lake would normally cover much more ground.

The herd hung out next to the woods.  The elephants in Sri Lanka are much more shy and wary than those we saw in Africa.  Of course, poaching is a big problem in Africa, but the elephants here have more DAILY conflict with humans over habitat encroachment.

We saw fishermen on the lake.

This cow and calf were alone, separated from the herd we saw earlier.  We wondered why.

Eventually the elephant herd made its way to the water to drink.

We had a lot of human company.

Can you spot the very small baby?  The herd kept it mostly hidden from our view.  

We left the park, and Prasad joked, “Now you have seen 15 elephants…and 75 jeeps!”

We were hot and tired when we got back to our hut.  Genene’s favorite thing about this place was the lily pond just inside our front door.  She stuck her feet in and…

The fish came running!  They nibbled on her feet.  Fish spa!

We were so exhausted, and tomorrow we will leave for Kandy.  That meant we had a lot of packing to do.  I made the evil suggestion:  let’s skip the wonderful lodge dinner and order room service.  Greg and Genene were in agreement immediately.  Furthermore, as long as we were dining in the privacy of our rooms, let’s “cheat” and eat “Western”.  And so we did.  We packed our gear and ate hamburgers, club sandwiches, and French fries.  We love the spicy food here, but at some point, your belly says, “Give me a break.”  And besides, we knew we would not have a better meal than the one Jaga cooked for us at lunch today.

The main lodge is beautiful at night.

 

 

Tomorrow we hit the road again and see more of this beautiful country.

2017 Sri Lanka Part 3: Sigiriya and a village tour

Monday, July 31, 2017

We started early this morning.  Prasad and Dinesh advised us to meet them at 6:30 AM for the short drive to Sigiriya Rock Fortress, a UNESCO World Heritage site.  The climb to the summit is over 1,200 steps, and the heat becomes oppressive as the day wears on, so it is best to get an early start.  As we stepped out the front door of our room, we heard a dog barking.  Genene is obsessed with the dogs here and loves to count them.  They are ubiquitous.  Prasad assured us that they have all been vaccinated and that rabies has been eradicated on Sri Lanka, but I told Genene on day 1, “Look but don’t touch.”  In any event, we heard the dog making a racket, and Genene wanted to go see him.  I’m an old country girl at heart so when I saw the dog, I was immediately reminded of my first Irish Setter Rusty, who loved to tree squirrels in the backyard when I was a kid.  Sometimes Dad would go out in the yard and shoot the squirrel, just to shut Rusty up.  Anyway, I could tell this dog was barking at something, and I told Genene, “Stop looking at the dog and look up.”  In a moment, we saw them:  macaques!  The monkeys romped from tree to tree, and the branches rustled with the weight of them.  I never shouldered my camera so I didn’t get a shot, but we thought it was a fun start to the day.

When we got to the lodge for breakfast, one of the employees showed us a crocodile in the pond.  We hadn’t even left the hotel yet and already had two wildlife sightings!    

 


We took the golf cart (or as the porters here call it, the buggy) to the front entrance, where Prasad and Dinesh and our van awaited.  They had cold water for us, and we made the short drive to Sigiriya.  We had to use the “foreigners” entrance.  There is a separate car park and entrance for Sri Lankans, and they pay lower entry prices as well.  I can certainly understand that, but it’s a little jarring to be called “foreigner” right there on the entrance sign.

Sigiriya is a giant rock, a citadel, rising out of the plains.  The rock served military and royal functions during the reign of King Kassapa, whose short tenure lasted from 477 to 495 AD.  According to history, King Kassapa sought out this strategic fortress after overthrowing and murdering his own father, the previous king.  In the end, King Kassapa had to abandon this fortress and commit suicide when his step-brother came for him.  Paybacks are a bitch.

 Before we started the hike, I got some shots at the entrance and ticket booth area.  We told Prasad about seeing the monkeys this morning, and he warned us that they were “naughty monkeys.”  This sign gave the same advice.

The lily pond was beautiful in the early morning light.

 

We began the hike.  Prasad walked very fast, and I struggled to keep up with him.  

Sigiriya was protected by a series of crocodile-filled moats.  

 

The lower level had water gardens, the ruins of which are still visible.

 This is a fountain.  Prasad says that when it rains hard at Sigiriya, the hydraulic system still works perfectly.  Water runs from the top of the rock fortress down through the various basins and this fountain actually runs.  I wish I could see that, but I’m glad we were not climbing to the top in a driving rain.

Sigiriya waits for us in the morning haze.

Here we are, as fresh as daisies before the climb.

Can you see the troop of naughty monkeys? 

The baby is hanging on for dear life.

 This is a ruin of a stupa or dagoba, a place where a monk might go for meditation and to seek enlightenment.

This snake slithered across the ruins.  We were astonished to see a old Chinese woman, iPhone in hand, practically run at it while trying to get a photograph.  She wasn’t going to stop either.  I think she would have walked all the way up to it and tried for a selfie. Prasad scolded her pretty harshly and told her not to get too close.  She did stop in her tracks, but the snake was scared and quickly disappeared. 

Ruins are still clearly visible in the base of the rock.  Can you see the lip ridge carved into the rock at ceiling level?  This ingenious and simple construction causes the rain to sheet off the rock at the ridge, instead of continuing to flow down into the brick structure.  What a marvelous low-tech engineering solution to a drainage issue.

Some original paint can be seen on the rock wall here.  After Sigiriya was abandoned as a king’s palace and fortress, it was used by Buddhist monks.  They plastered over most of the paintings, which had been of lovely ladies.  How do we know what was there?  There is a graffiti wall further up the mountain, and the graffiti makes references to the wall art.   There may have been as many as 500 ladies painted on the rock face.  

After some stair climbing and walking, we entered the boulder gate into the fortress.

On the climb up, we were able to see the remaining beautiful frescoes known as the “Heavenly Maidens of Sigiriya,” but sadly photography was not permitted.  The sheltered gallery rests in the rock face, and the shapely women are still as colorful as they were in the 5th century.  Some people believe they are apsaras (celestial nymphs), while another theory holds that they are King Kassapa’s concubines.  They are pretty ladies, whoever they were.  You’ll have to google it or take my word for it.

We were allowed to photograph the graffiti wall.  The graffiti has been left from the 6th century through the 14th.  Archaeologists study the writing and find clues about who was here and what they saw.  According to Lonely Planet, a typical scribbling is:  “The ladies who wear golden chains on their breasts beckon me.  As I have seen the resplendent ladies, heaven appears to me as not good.”  Ah, people used to be more interesting.  Nowadays someone would probably just write, “Kilroy was here.”  

About two-thirds of the way up, we got a break and an excellent vista.  

Prasad warned us to talk quietly.  There is a particular problem at Sigiriya.

They aren’t kidding!

Prasad explained that wasp and bee attacks are frequent, and there is even a shelter built out of screens in this area.  First aid workers stand nearby.  Thankfully we did not need their services, though Prasad told us that a few weeks back, several Chinese tourists ended up being hospitalized because of a particularly violent attack.  He said they were talking too loud.   I’m glad he didn’t tell us about any of this until we got up there, because Genene is very afraid of bees and wasps and she would have spent the entire time fretting.

 

This ruin was probably barracks of some sort.

A lookout perch.

We prepared for the final ascent, which begins between the Lion’s Paws.  

 A little wider view gives more perspective.

From here, you can see the top.

Up we climbed.  I am woefully out of shape and had to stop from time to time along the way.  I sounded like an asthmatic, and I am amazed that the bees didn’t attack and kill me for wheezing so loud.  

We made it to the top!

My baby is not so little any more….

From the top, the views are stunning.  The catchment basins still hold water.  

The king’s throne.

 

When we finished exploring the summit, we had to go back down the way we had come up.  It was starting to get a little more crowded.  These two photos give an idea about how steep the rock face is.

As we went back down, I looked back at where we had been.  I wondered about how well all these scaffolds are secured into the rock.  

On the way out, we had to pass through the vendors hawking their wares.  It reminded me of all the rides at Disneyworld and how they always funnel you through the gift shop on the way out.  

Dinesh (at right) was waiting for us at the van with fresh pineapple.  It was so sweet and delicious, and we let the juices run down our faces, hands and arms.  

It was late morning when we finished our Sigiriya climb, and Prasad suggested that we take a tour of the nearby village.  We could get some lunch and learn how the local people live and work.  

There is a motorcycle in the way in this next photo, but can you see this cart?  It’s being pulled by what the villagers were calling a “tractor.”  It looks more like small lawn mower with tiller handles for steering, and they loaded it down with people.

Our ride was much lower tech–a bullock cart.

The cart had no shocks.  If a car rode rough, my dad would say, “This thing rides like a log wagon.”  I think that an Arkansas log wagon and a Sri Lankan bullock cart are probably first cousins.

Our bullock cart “driver” guided the animal by scratching his back.  If he scratched on the right side, the bullock moved left and vice versa.   If the bullock slacked his pace, the driver just gave a little touch and the animal sped up.  

We passed other carts and bicycles along the road.

We saw families in the water.  Looks like Mom is doing the wash while Dad plays with the kids.

A young man casts his net to fish.

We alighted from the bullock cart, and I checked to make sure I still had all my fillings.  We scrambled down a hill and climbed into a boat.

Here’s the ramp, which probably isn’t OSHA approved.

A heron sits  in the tree.

A kingfisher watches the water.

Dinesh is a man of many talents.  He can drive, and he can paddle.  

Our bullock cart driver, now a boat pilot, stopped and collected lily pads.  He made this hat for Genene.

They picked a beautiful lotus flower for my my beautiful girl.

We crossed the lake to our destination.  Get a load of this boat ramp.

We met two lovely women whose job was to teach us about village life.  They went right to work.

She broke open the coconut like it was an egg.  

 

Prasad explained that no part of the coconut would go to waste.  The outer husks are piled up around the trees for mulch.  The inner shells are used as drinking cups or bowls.  The meat of the coconut is, of course, eaten.

She mixed a vegetable curry.

Genene tried her hand at grating the coconut.  

Coconut milk is made by pouring water into the freshly grated coconut.  You squeeze, squeeze, squeeze until the water becomes milk.  

This lady is using the post to drive into the bucket, which is filled with rice.  The force of the dropping post separates the rice from its husks.

I took a turn.  It was satisfying to pound on the rice, though I tired quickly.

She tossed the rice into the air.  The hulls flew away, leaving behind the perfect grains of rice.  She wouldn’t let us help with this part, probably because she knew we would have tossed it all on the ground.

The curry is simmering.

The ladies showed us how they used handles around the tree to climb for coconuts.  Have I mentioned that Dinesh is a man of many talents?  He saw the challenge and immediately took it.  Up the tree he went.  The ladies got great joy from this and laughed heartily as he shinnied up the tree.

He waved from the top.

And back down again.

Nothing is wasted.  Coconut tree fronds are woven and used on a thatch roof.  The ladies showed us how it was done.

It took about three minutes for each of them to weave a panel.  

Time to eat!  The coconut bowls had a hole in the bottom.  She dipped the water out, held it up, took her finger off the hole, and we had fresh clear “running” water.

Curry, fried lake fish, okra, rice and chips.  No utensils are used.  Sri Lankans eat with their hands, using each of their five fingers to mix the different foods for different flavors.  It was delicious.

Here’s the whole spread.  Prasad is on the left and Dinesh on the right.

After lunch, we admired their vegetable garden.

Elephants and humans are in conflict in Sri Lanka, and these lookout towers are used to watch for the beasts before they get to the garden.  It’s about like a deer stand.  Villagers use firecrackers to drive the elephants away.

Genene and I climbed into the lookout.  As soon as I got in there and took this shot, I climbed right back down.  I don’t think it was made for a big American girl like me.  I was afraid of going through the floor and ending up on the ground.  

After lunch, they let Genene try to grind some millet.  She’s rocking her skull ring and Fall Out Boy wrist bands!

The naughty monkeys played nearby.  I caught a brief glimpse of a mongoose but was unable to get a shot of it.

This weaver’s nest was hanging eye-level from a tree.  

 

We heard the sound of a motor in the distance.  Our chariot ride was approaching.  We bade our goodbyes to the hard-working ladies.  A single tuk-tuk came to the village house and picked us all up–the Gordon family plus Prasad and Dinesh.  It was a tight squeeze.  Before long, a second tuk-tuk appeared, and Dinesh and Prasad climbed out and got into their own tuk-tuk.  We are not sure what happened, but our driver was not a happy camper.  When he pulled up to the starting place for the tour, he had a very animated conversation with the tour operators.  They were all hollering at each other, and we took the opportunity to climb out and get away.  No tip for you, Mister Grumpy-pants!  We asked Prasad what had gone on, and he said that tuk-tuk drivers were always in a bad mood.  

We were hot, sweaty and beat.  Luckily it was not a very long drive back to our lodge, and we were happy to go to our hut and take a load off.  We showered off and rested for a while.

At supper time, we took the short walk from our hut to the lodge.  Again, we heard rustling in the trees.  Our day ended as it began: the naughty monkeys climbed around over our heads.  They were so much fun to watch as they jumped from tree to tree.  

We saw so much today.  It was hard to process.  How do you build a fort out of a slab of rock using no machinery?  Imagine the manpower it took.  How long does it take to paint 500 women onto a wall for your king?  The paint is permanent, so there is no second chance to get it right.

And then there are the questions about life today.  How do you protect your food supply from an elephant?  How many parts of a coconut can you use?  How long does it take to pound enough rice and shred enough coconut to feed your family?  Can you weave a thatch roof fast enough to keep the out the monsoon rains?

The ingenuity of the people–ancient and modern–is amazing.  I can’t wait until tomorrow.

Sri Lanka 2017 Part 2: Colombo to Vil Uyana Resort

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Did I mention how glad we were that Prasad changed our itinerary?  It was wonderful to set no alarm.  We were exhausted from our journey and slept in for as long as our bodies would allow.  We ambled down to the main lodge and and ate a fabulous breakfast with two pots of coffee.  

We started with fresh fruits and fruit juice.

 

Greg and I both had mung bean curd with curry.

Genene stuck to a more traditional breakfast, and I didn’t waste a photo on it.

 

Here’s the view of the gardens from the dining area. 

We took a stroll past the pool.  It’s too bad we didn’t have enough time to take a swim.

Our hotel suite was gorgeous.   We decided to leave the garland and flowers on the beds since we knew they wouldn’t travel well.  

Genene’s room was lovely too.  I was sorry we couldn’t stay longer but am sure there will be other nice places along the way.  

We left our hotel at noon.  Prasad and another driver met us to take us to the airport.  Dinesh drove ahead to Sigiriya in the van so that he could pick us up after our flight.  Our 25 minutes in the air will be his 4 hours on the road.  The traffic is a hoot to watch.  Buses, tuk-tuks, motorcycles, bicycles, trucks, cars and vans all share a two-lane road.  it looks like chaos, but there is method in it.  Everyone is quite cooperative, and they move a lot more people down the road on two lanes than we do in the States.

We arrived at the airport promptly at 1:00 PM.  We were flying on Cinnamon Air.  The “terminal” consisted of a small building.  We went inside and they opened our bags and looked through them (no X-rays), checked our passports  and made us walk through a metal detector.

Here’s the gate area:

Our chariot awaits:

All aboard!!!

There was just us and one other couple aboard the small Cessna.  There were two co-pilots.  They both wore shorts and one of them had on no shoes.  We wondered what their stories were but didn’t ask.  After we got buckled up, one of them stuck his head in the back door and said, “Good afternoon.  I am Steve.  We’ll be in the air for about 25 minutes.  Keep your seat belts on the whole time.  There are life vests under your seat, but you won’t need them.  That’s it.”  He shut the door, hopped in the front seat, and we were off.  

I’ve ridden small planes a couple of times in my life and always found them to be fun.  You really know you are flying, as opposed to a jet, which feels like speeding along in a tube.  The ride was bumpy, and it made me a little queasy.

Genene was excited at the beginning.

Anything that moves has a soporific effect on Genene.  That has been true since she was a baby.  When she was fussy, we used to put her in the car and take a drive.  The drives are just a little different now.

 You can see how this water reservoir is being used to irrigate the nearby fields.  

Sigiriya is the big rock on the right.

We got a great view as the plane banked for landing.

The runway was bumpy!

The plane came to a stop, and Steve said, “I think this is it.”  He popped open the door and we stepped out.  

The fire truck was standing by, just in case.  

Prasad must have contacted Dinesh on the way because he was rolling up just as soon as we got off the plane.  It was pretty easy to spot him.  

It was a short ride to our resort at Vil Uyana.  We were greeted with cold towels and fruit juice.  Check-in was easy, and we went straight to lunch.  I took a photo of the view, not realizing at the time that the “hut” in the middle was to be ours.

We had the option of going to Dambulla Caves but it was already fiery hot and Prasad told us that we could easily see them on the drive to Kandy in a couple of days.  We were happy to accept this change in itinerary because it meant we could have an afternoon of leisure.  We still feel pretty jet-lagged.

Greg always likes to try the local beer, so he ordered up a Lion.  The bottle was bigger than he was.

We ordered something called “Go Sri Lankan” and it was a great start. The food is spicy and flavorful and is very much like Indian cuisine.  

At least we were “decent” with dessert and ate a plate of fresh fruit.  

We got settled into our room.  Greg napped.  Genene was thrilled to have fast wifi and spent all her time laying in bed watching Youtube videos and giggling.  I let her.  It’s her vacation too.  I worked on the blog.

Our accommodations are lovely.   Downstairs, we have a private swimming pool outside. Inside the door, we have a lily pond, a sunken tub, two sinks, a walk-in shower, and a toilet.  The toilet is a little bizarre to me because it has no door on it and it faces toward the tub and sink area. There is a distinct lack of privacy.  It reminds me of a recurring dream of mine.  In it, I am always desperately looking for a toilet but the only ones that are available are out in public or in the middle of a street or something bizarre like that.  Usually that dream signals that I have to go to the bathroom in real waking life.  Anyway, enough about my weird psyche.  Let’s go upstairs.

Upstairs is the only air conditioned portion of the suite.   It’s a large room with beds for all of us and two balconies that overlook the pool.  There is also a toilet with a door on it (whew!), so at least I can go to the restroom at night without sitting on the open throne downstairs.  

 The room comes with sarongs, and I spent some comical moments trying to learn to tie one.  I didn’t allow any photography, and the end result can best be described by the words of my father:  “Looks like two cats rassling in a tow sack.”  

We walked back down to the lodge for dinner.  We all had on shorts and felt distinctly underdressed.  There are a lot of Brits on holiday here, and apparently they like to dress for dinner.  The staff didn’t seem to hold our casual attire against us and treated us graciously.  Greg ordered a chicken curry, and all the accompaniments looked the same as lunch.  That was okay with him! Genene had a bowl of spicy chicken soup.  I had a honey-soaked pork that was sweet and delicious.  Genene was tired, so she and I walked home early while Greg stayed back and finished his Lion porter.  He caught a golf cart ride home and was only a few minutes behind us.  

The turndown service includes putting up the mosquito nets.  Genene happily wasted the remainder of the evening “Youtuberating.”

 Our bed was beautifully turned down, with the words “GOOD NIGHT” spelled out in fresh leaves.

Our day will start early tomorrow.  We climb Sigiriya after dawn.

Good night.  

 

 

Sri Lanka 2017 Part 1: Getting there!

Friday, July 28, 2017

 

Summer vacation time!  This year, we picked Sri Lanka.  Everyone says, “Why Sri Lanka?”  Well, why not?! This is our third year to use Asia Transpacific, and we trust our planner.  Last year with Australia, we knocked off all the continents (except Antarctica; only Greg has seen that and he can just hold it over our heads because I am not going to vacation on a slab of ice).  So without any particular need to check anything off a list, we asked our travel planner to give us her favorite and most exotic destination, and she said without hesitation, “Sri Lanka!”  There are UNESCO World Heritage sites, ruins, temples, festivals, wild animal safaris, and beaches.  We said, “Sign us up!”

We worked hard the past couple of weekends to get packed so we could avoid all the last minute drama, and it mostly worked.  We found a good place for our new puppy Jackie.  She has gone to stay with a nice lady who dog-sits in her home.  There are two or three other dogs with her, and she was in dog heaven and didn’t even give a backwards look at Greg and Genene when they dropped her off.  Dogs need vacations too!  The cats Skitter Scatter and Madeline will stay at home, and someone will check on them.  I am sure that Madeline will leave us some hairballs as souvenirs. She likes to do that while we are away.

My mom is recovering well from her fall.  She broke her pelvis, and there is nothing they can do for that except wait for it to heal.  She has been really tough and is doing her physical therapy like a champ.  I’m proud of her.  Greg’s mom is tooling along perfectly too.  She even made us some cookies to take on the trip, but we ate them all before we left.  Knowing that they are both doing well makes going away much more relaxing.

Action Limo came VERY EARLY this morning, arriving at our doorstep at 4:30 AM.  I pushed the start button on my watch chronograph so that we will be able to tell how much time has elapsed “doorway to doorway.”  We were at the airport by 5:30, and our American Airlines flight to LA was uneventful. I sprang for the extra legroom seats and was glad of it because it meant we got to board earlier and had a place for all my camera gear.  Folks in the back of the plane had to check their backpacks, and I do NOT want to check my camera gear.  I’m lugging two camera bodies, three lenses (including the enormous 500 mm), a flash, small waterproof camera, and enough memory chips to choke a horse.  I am ready to capture whatever we see!

Leg 1:  Houston to LA.

 

We arrived at LAX after about 3 1/2 hours in the air.  LAX is a disaster, but that is nothing new.  We had to ride a bus to one terminal and then walk to the Tom Bradley International Terminal.  I am amazed to see the buses at LAX driving around next to the planes.   It certainly seems dangerous to me, but I never hear about plane/bus collisions on the news, so they must have the details worked out.  

It was about 9:30 AM according to California, but our bodies were still on Texas time, where it was nearly noon.  We were hungry.   We wandered around the food court area for a while before settling on some sushi.  Our waitress raised her eyebrows slightly when I ordered a 9 oz. pour of the wine, but I figured it was noon somewhere.  Lunch was good, and we felt ready to tackle the next chore:  getting our tickets for the remaining legs of our flight.

Because we flew American Airlines to California but would use Cathay Pacific on the remainder of the journey, our American Airlines representative in Houston told us that she couldn’t print our boarding passes there and we would have to do that in LA.  She was able to check our bags all the way through, so at least we didn’t have to track them down at baggage claim.  We did, however, have to go out of the security area in LA and into the ticketing area, which meant standing in more lines and then being subjected to the indignities of a second security check.  Luckily our layover in LA was four hours so we got through these redundancies and ended up exactly where we had been: in the Tom Bradley International Terminal.  At least that part of LAX is a little more bearable than the domestic terminals, which are an absolute zoo.

The next leg of our flight took us from LA to Hong Kong.  It was our first time to fly with Cathay Pacific.  Our original itinerary had called for us to fly east.  Since Sri Lanka is literally halfway around the world from Houston, we had a couple of options.  When we planned the trip months ago, we had tickets on Qatar Airways and were going to fly straight from Houston to Doha, Qatar and then from Doha to Sri Lanka.  The first nail in the coffin of that itinerary was the announcement that all electronic devices would be banned from the cabin on the flight coming back from Doha.  I really did not like that idea because I carry a lot of camera gear that I do not want out of my sight.  We thought we had some work-arounds figured out on that subject, and then about three or four weeks before we were supposed to leave, we were notified that our onward flight from Doha to Colombo had been rescheduled, which had the cascading effect of ruining our first day’s activities.  That was enough of a sign to us.  We pulled the plug on Qatar and chose to fly around the world via Cathay.

Leg 2:  LA to Hong Kong

Saturday, July 29, 2017

We lost a day somewhere in the air.  Cathay was a good ride, but I would not describe it as extraordinary. I am too cheap to spring for first class, so we always ride coach.  It was comfortable enough, but my memory is that Korean Airlines, which we used two years ago to get to Bangkok, was a better value for the money.  In any event, we spent over 14 hours on the flight from LA to Hong Kong, so we had plenty of time to watch movies, read and sleep.  The only mishap came fairly early in the flight.  I have trouble with leg swelling on the long flights, so I use a pair of compression socks.   They keep my legs nice and tight, but they have the odd effect of muting some of the feeling in my legs.  I was all stretched out and suddenly my right foot felt very odd.  At first I thought it was burning and I was mystified and a little alarmed.  In a moment, it became clear that my foot was WET.  The person in front of me spilled an entire glass of orange juice down the seat, where it pooled at my feet.  Yuck.  The flight staff were very helpful and brought wet towels to clean up.  I counted myself lucky that this was the worst thing to happen during 14 hours in the air.

We arrived in Hong Kong bone tired.  Our layover in Hong Kong was a little over an hour, just long enough for me to grumble about the poor air conditioning in the gate area.  My legs were puffy so I had no shame about laying in the floor by the gate with my legs up in the chair.  That seemed to help, and I’m sure that it looked charming.  I am not sure whether the compression socks are worth their trouble.

The final leg from Hong Kong to Colombo was about five hours.  I was so exhausted that I passed out as soon as we got seated and slept through the take off.  I woke up pretty disoriented, which gave Genene a laugh.   Teenagers love to mock their parents.  Greg and Genene both watched “A Dog’s Purpose,” and I got a kick out of watching them both tune up and cry.  

Leg 3:  Hong to Colombo, Sri Lanka

We arrived in Colombo at 11:30 PM their time.  Asia Transpacific had us on a fast-track entry, and we saw a man carrying a placard with our names before we even got into the main terminal. He gathered us up and signaled. A beautiful lady wearing a long green sari appeared from nowhere and told us to follow her.  She walked fast!  Greg asked to go to the restroom but she didn’t hear or pretended not to.  She marched through the airport like a boss, led us to a table, told us to grab our pens and write quickly.  We only had one pen and I wasn’t writing fast enough with it so she took it from me and put me to work reading off our passport numbers.  I started spelling Genene’s name and she said, “Shorter!”  So Genene became G.K. Gordon, and Greg became G and she hustled us to the line, where only one person was ahead of us.  We had completed electronic visas online before we arrived, so it was a quick job for the immigration representative to scan our passports, stamp them, and welcome us to Sri Lanka.  

Miss Green Sari was waiting for us on the other side and escorted us to the baggage claim area and into the Silk Road Lounge. I have never gotten through any immigration process more quickly.  Our guide Prasad was waiting in the lounge with rose bouquets for Genene and me and a garland for Greg.  It was purple and just happened to perfectly match his shirt.  

I think we look pretty good, considering we’d been “on the road” for well over 24 hours by this time.

While the Silk Road folks located our luggage,  we sat in the lounge and had a tray of sandwiches, samosas and a wonderfully spiced chicken.  Prasad worked to get our Sri Lankan iPhones going.  We tried to save money this year by buying the minimal AT&T international plan and using Sri Lankan SIM cards in our old iPhones for our data roaming.  Alas, AT&T must have left some residual bug in our old iPhones, which had been sitting in a drawer gathering dust.  Prasad could not get the SIM cards to work with them so for now we will have to keep using our “real” iPhones.  Ah well, one less phone for each of us to keep up with.  We put the “burner” phones away in the bag.  

Prasad took a selfie of the four of us.

We gratefully headed for the exit and met Dinesh, who will be our driver for the next two weeks.  He was waiting for us just outside the exit doors, and he and Prasad made quick work of loading our bags.  It took about 20 minutes to drive to the hotel, and we were completely braindead.  It was sometime after midnight, Colombo time, and I was amazed to see how many people were still out walking along the street.  Prasad taught us the traditional Sri Lanka greeting ආයුඛෝවන් “āyubūvan” (thanks, Google, for the weird letters; reminds me of Wingdings!), which means “may you live long.”  (And that, of course, reminds me of Mr. Spock!). The greeting is made while clasping your hands in front of your face and slightly bowing, which is a lot like the Thai and Cambodian greetings we learned two years ago.  

Our overnight accommodations were in the Colombo neighborhood of Negombo, at the Wallawwa.  The hotel has only 18 rooms and has been converted from a residence.  It was formerly the home of the commander of the Royal Air Force during British rule of Sri Lanka, then known as Ceylon.  When we arrived, we were greeted with cold towels and a small glass of fruit juice.  Check-in was mercifully brief, and Prasad bade us good night.  I was very happy that he changed our plans.  We were originally scheduled to head back to the airport at 8:30 AM, the next morning, but Prasad found us an afternoon flight instead and told us to sleep in.  We were so grateful!  

When we got to our room, I turned off my chronograph on my watch:  from the time we left our front porch to the time we got to our hotel room, 33 hours and 52 minutes had elapsed.  Can you blame us for being beat? 

 

Australia 2016 Part 15 and FINAL: Finishing Strong!

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Good news!  We felt good enough to get back on track today.  The only good thing you can say about a gastro bug is that it usually leaves as quickly as it comes.  It tears through you, leaving some temporary wreckage, and is on its merry way to humiliate someone else.  We had scheduled the Wild Australia Experience at the Toronga Zoo.  It would be our last morning to bask in the joys of a leisurely, all-you-can-eat breakfast at Pier One, and we took full advantage.  Genene is learning to drink entire pots of tea, while Greg and I drink the long blacks with cream.

We took an Uber to the zoo so that we could get dropped at the main entrance to get our tickets and meet our guide.  The zoo is set in the side of a steep hill, and if you arrive by ferry, you are at the bottom.  If you already have your zoo tickets (which we didn’t), you can ride a cable car to the top.  Otherwise you have to load up on the city bus.  We have made enough transfers!  We just caught the Uber and got dropped off right at the front door.

There was one other family on the small tour this morning, and they were from London:  Mum, Dad, and two boys, one slightly older than Genene and the other slightly younger.  They were a good crew.  We met up with our guide, Shawn.  (Is everyone named Shawn or Shane?)  First he took us to the water bird area, where I got this lovely shot:

Then the real fun began.  Shawn took us into the wallaby and kangaroo area and gave each of us some kernels of corn to feed.  He told us to keep our hands flat (like feeding a horse a sugar cube), and when they were finished eating,  we could stroke them gently behind their heads at the shoulders.  The younger boy from the UK got a little too close to his kanga’s head with his hands, and she gave him a shove.  I thought for a moment that I was finally going to get to see a live human vs. kanga boxing match!  Shawn got things sorted out quickly.  The boy didn’t cry, but he was a bit shaken.  I thought it was awesome for him, and we got him laughing in a moment.  I kept telling him he would have a story to tell in the bar when he gets older.  “I went to Australia and boxed a kangaroo!”

Are you looking at me?!

Keep your hand flat, Genene!


Shawn taught us a little about the life cycle of the kangaroo.  They are very prolific breeders.  Far from endangered, they are well adapted and can be found all over Australia. The new baby is the size of a bean and is blind and hairless.  As soon as it is born, it crawls through its mom’s fur and  into her pouch to grow, where it will stay for about 190 days.  After that time it will emerge from the pouch and hang around its Mama until it can fend for itself.  As soon as a baby is born, Mama Kangaroo can immediately become pregnant again.  That means she can have one baby at her side, one in her pouch and one in her womb.  In times of drought or other distress, Mama can essentially push the pause button on her pregnancy for several months.

Our next stop did not involve animals at all:  we went to a refrigerator unit filled with eucalyptus leaves.  We were going to get to feed the koalas!  Shawn explained that each koala in the zoo gets 1,000 eucalyptus trees dedicated to it at a nearby plantation.  The freshly cut limbs are shipped in daily, and the leaves are offered to them.  If the koala does not eat the branches on the first day, the zoo offers those branches to them one more day.  If they aren’t eaten on the second day, the zoo knows the koalas will never eat it, and the zookeepers feed them to less persnickety creatures.  The koala spends 20 hours a day sleeping, and the rest of the time it eats, pees and poops.  We had already discovered that on Kangaroo Island.

Genene gathers the limbs for feeding:

We were able to get a much closer look at the zoo koalas than their wild counterparts who stayed high in the trees on Kangaroo Island.

Genene got to put the food out for the day for her koala.  We were not allowed to touch them because it is not heathy for them.  Also, they aren’t very nice creatures.  As you will recall, one of the cooks at Kangaroo Island had a shiner to prove it.  (I’d like to give some shiners to some folks on Kangaroo Island too.)  We turned our back on this guy for a second and let Shawn get the shot:

.

Next , we got to meet Lucy Liu the Wombat.

Human encroachment into wildlife habitats is a problem in Australia, just like the rest of the world:


Throughout the zoo, we saw kookaburro in the trees.  Shawn explained that they work as a team to steal lunches from unsuspecting zoo patrons.  One flies down close as a decoy.  While you are shooing it away, the second one swoops in for the steal.  Isn’t that cunning?

Our next stop was the zoo kitchen where all of the animal meals are prepared.  Shawn explained that their zoo uses food which is fit for human consumption.  Nothing but the best for Toronga animals!  The zoo has ethical rules about how animal life is handled if it is to become food.  Invertebrates can be fed alive because they do not feel pain.  All of the vertebrates (including small mice) are humanely killed before being fed.  Nature is not as kind as Taronga.

Yum, yum!  White mice.  My favorite!

Our guide asked for a volunteer from each group.  Of course, we volunteered Genene each time.  Another perk of being an only child!  The London group volunteered their older son.  Shawn told them both to close their eyes and hold out their hands.  Shawn got something from the refrigerator and poured it into their hands.  Their eyes flew open immediately and a millisecond later they dropped the stuff in their hands to the floor.   He had given them a handful of meal worms!   Then he delivered the worse news:  everyone who didn’t volunteer had to taste one!  They were alive and squirming gently.  They were about a half-inch long and looked a bit like a tan-colored worm.  I popped it into my mount and quickly chewed so that it would STOP MOVING!  It was slightly nutty tasting to me.  Greg thought it was like salted celery.  Anyway, it wasn’t bad.  If I were caught in the desert, I could make a meal on them.  Everyone in the group tried one, including Genene.  I told you this was a good crew!

Shawn told us we were going to get to feed another uniquely Australian animal, the greater bilby.  He grabbed a container full of the meal worms and we headed into a darkened room.  He opened the door to their habitat, and the little creatures ran out into the hallway toward us, took one look at us, and ran back into their room.  We had to go to them to feed.   They looked like something between a possum and a rat.  They scampered quickly in their habitat, stopping to snag a few worms and run back into their holes.  The lesser bilby actually became extinct in the 1950s, and the greater bilby is endangered.  Their population has been decimated by feral cats and foxes.  The country has responded by raising awareness of them.  Conservation efforts are underway, and the Australians have replaced the Easter Bunny with the Easter Bilby.

That reminds me:  there is another reason to hate the Easter Bunny Down Under.  Rabbits were not a native species to the continent but were introduced by an Englishman in 1859.   Much like the story we heard about the cane frog, the rabbits soon overran the landscape, devouring the food needed by native animals.   Several native species were driven to extinction, and sheep farmers saw their grazing fields being decimated by the rabbits.  The government undertook the construction of large “rabbit-proof fences” to contain the spread of the creatures.  (By the way, there is an excellent movie called “The Rabbit-Proof Fence.”  It’s about an aboriginal girl who is trying to get back home after basically being kidnapped and conscripted for menial work by the Australian government.  Check it out on Netflix.). Back to the rabbits.  It took scientists some time to find the cure:  they introduced a virus to kill the rabbits.  Their numbers have been greatly reduced, but those rabbits that survived were resistant to the virus.  Rabbits have still not been eradicated.  Human beings sure do create a lot of problems when we move species out of their natural habitat.  The poor Englishman probably just wanted to be reminded of home when he turned those first rabbits loose in his backyard.

Anyway, back to the zoo.  After we finished feeding the worms to the bilbies, Shawn took us back to the kitchen and had us sniff a thick liquid they had concocted.  It smelled a bit like molasses to me.  He grabbed a small cup and we followed him back to the darkened animal area again.  He asked for two volunteers, and Genene and the young UK kangaroo boxer stepped up.  Shawn smeared some of the molasses on their hands and opened a small box, about the size of a shoe box.

Peekaboo!


He pulled out six feathertailed gliders, also known as pygmy gliding possums.  They are the smallest gliding mammal, about the size of a mouse.  He put three of them on each of the kids’ hands and let them start eating the molasses right off their fingers and palms.   Things were going swimmingly, and Shawn decided to let everyone feed one.   He spread the sweet concoction on our hands and redistributed the little creatures.

It tickles!

Everyone was having fun until one of the gliders took a quick crawl up Kanga Boxer’s arm.  He shrieked like a little girl and clamped down.  I was afraid that he had mashed the little creature, and Shawn couldn’t find it for a while.  Furthermore, Kanga Boxer’s blood-curdling scream was on a frequency that activated the other gliders, because they all started wiggling and Greg’s glider started heading up his arm.  Thankfully Greg didn’t scream like a girl!  Finally Shawn located the missing glider.  I think it was somewhere around Kanga Boxer’s neck under his hoodie.  His mom had to laugh.  She said that her son had that effect on every animal.  She said he could go to any neighbor’s house and be told, “Oh don’t worry, our dog is friendly!”  Moments later, he will be bitten.  I don’t think Kanga Boxer will become a zookeeper.  I did admire his good nature though.  He literally rolled with the punches.

As we were putting the gliders away, Shawn got a radio transmission:  “The platypus is in the tank!”  Off we went.  We got into the aquarium room just in time to see the platypus taking a morning swim. It went back and forth quickly and then climbed out and went back into its den.  Luckily they had a camera in the top of its den, so we got to watch it there too.  (No privacy for you, platypus!)  The platypus is a monotreme, a mammal that lays eggs.  They have webbed feet.  The webs can be folded up when they are on land, and they can walk with their claws.  When in the water, they close their eyes and ears and use their sensitive bill to find food.  They can pick up electric pulses from any animal moving in the water.    I didn’t realize this but the male platypus has a venomous spur on its back legs, one of only a handful of venomous mammals in the world.  (Of course, if it’s venomous, it has to be from Australia.).  If he gets you with his spur, you can expect to go the hospital, and even morphine won’t help much.  It will take about a month for the pain to subside.

I didn’t have time to get my camera settings right, so this isn’t the best shot of the platypus in the water:

Here’s a shot of the platypus in its den:

We walked back outside the aquarium and found a wombat in its den, visible through the glass.

Shawn walked us through an aviary and showed us some cool birds before escorting us to the restaurant.  We all received a cupcake and a drink and laughed about our adventures this morning.  Shawn took his leave of us, and we finished our snack and bade our goodbyes to the Kanga Boxer/Screamer and his family.

Our zoo admission ticket entitled us to spend the entire day there, but we needed to be back to the bridge area by 3:45 PM for our climb.  It was about noon.  We decided to make a strategy to maximize our animal spotting.  But first, a little entertainment.  We went to the trained seal show at Genene’s request.  She surprises me.  I never know who I am going to get with her these days.  Sometimes she wants to act older than she is.  Other times, she wants to do “little girl” things.  I actually prefer the “little girl” things now because I know how few and far between they are about to be.

Let’s go see the seals!

The show was lively and fun.  I couldn’t believe the size of some of their seals.  The Houston zoo has a similar show but their seals are tiny in comparison.  I actually got a little teary eyed during one part of the routine.  They had a trained seal showing us the dangers that wild seals face in their habitat due to humans.  This beautiful creature, who ought to be in the wild himself, was instead spending his afternoon responding to whistles and fish treats while pulling up fish nets, trash, and plastic to show the crowd how we damage the environment.  The irony was not lost on me.

They went that-away!

I’m primetime, baby!

Did you floss?

Dive!

Jump!


The show finished.  We hit the exit and tried to figure out the “must-dos.”  We skipped the elephants and all the African animals.  We have seen them in the wild, and seeing them in a zoo gives me no joy.  Instead we opted for the Australian bush walk and the Blue Mountain walk.  We got to see a Tasmanian devil, a lazy fellow who stayed in his hidey hole.  I did not get a good shot of him.

The zoo is on a prime piece of real estate, with harbor views all around.

We asked Genene to choose her favorite:

This turtle sat on this rock in this position so long that I was convinced that he was a fake.  And then he moved.

Our last “must-do” was the cassowary.  We had not been fortunate enough to see it in the wild in the Daintree, but we knew the zoo had them.  If only we could find them!  The zoo is set in a hillside with lots of windy paths and sidetracks.  Furthermore, there were several areas that were under construction so even when we followed the map, we often hit dead ends.  We persevered and we were rewarded.  The cassowary truly is a remarkable bird, like something left over from the Land of the Lost or Jurassic Park dinosaur days.  There are fewer than 1,000 cassowaries left in the wild.  Their habitat is encroached upon by humans, and they often get hit by cars and attacked by dogs. They are known as a keystone species crucial to the biodiversity in the rainforest.  They eat over 238 species of plants and thus spread the seeds around.  They are beautiful, imposing creatures.  I am not sure I would want to see one in the wild with no fence separating me from its razor-sharp claws.

By the time we finally checked the cassowary off our list, it was after 2 pm and we hadn’t had lunch.  We were supposed to be at the bridge climb rendez vous point by 3:45 PM so we needed to get moving quickly.  We caught the sky bridge cable car to the bottom of the zoo so that we could ride the ferry back to the Circular Quay, a short walk from our hotel at Rocks.

Last views from the zoo:

When we got to the bottom of the hill, we tried to buy three single tickets to get on the ferry, but we could not get any of the vending machines to work, and there were no humans in the ticket booths.  The ferry was approaching.  Greg looked around and said, “Let’s just get on!”  And just like that we became public transport scofflaws in the land Down Under.  I am a rule-follower by nature, and this made me very nervous. Riding the ferry was the longest 12 minutes of my life.  I kept thinking someone was going to come by and say “ticket please” and then hurl us off into the water when we could not produce it.  (Remember that scene from “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”?  No ticket!)  No one did a thing, and we arrived at the Circular Quay and kept our heads down as we walked past the men who were docking the ferry.  Of course there was one little problem at the far end of the terminal.  We still needed a ticket to get through the turnstiles at the exit.  I approached a man at back side of his ticket booth and asked him if he would sell us a ticket.  He said no and told us we would have to go around to the other side.  I said, “But we’ve already ridden so we are on the wrong side of the ticket booth.”  He advised us very nicely to go through the “No. 10” exit, which was wheelchair accessible and had no turnstile.  We exited and tried to do the honest thing.  After looking at another row of non-functioning ticket machines, we all said, “Screw it” and kept on walking!  We can never ride the ferries in Sydney again.  Somewhere our photos are going up on a Sydney’s Most Wanted Ferry Scofflaw poster.  Greg shrugged his shoulders and said, “They should have made it easier to pay.”

We had a quick sandwich at a shop in the Rocks.

As we were finishing our meal, this pretty boy perched in the chair beside us.

The cheeky fellow started eating our leftovers right out of our plates:

I did not need my 500 mm lens for this job:

We took one last walk through the Rocks markets:

We did not even have time to go back to our hotel and freshen up.  We headed straight to the bridge, where we met our guide for the evening, an affable  “born and bred” Sydneysider named Scott.  In a previous life, he had a desk job.  He says he can never go back.

While we waited for the tour to start, we looked at the photos of all the celebrities who had made the climb before us.  Oprah Winfrey, Nicole Kidman, Vince Vaughn, Eva Longoria, Demi Lovato, David Hasselhoff, Bill Gates, Antonio Banderas, Usain Bolt, Will Ferrell, Kevin Spacey, Emma Thompson, Hilary Duff, Justin Timberlake, Robert DeNiro, Steve Irwin, Prince Harry, Ben Stiller, Cate Blanchett, Pierce Brosnan, the entire cast of “Modern Family”–these are just a few of the more than 3 million people who have made the climb.

Sydneysiders call the bridge the “coathanger.”  It’s 3,769 feet long, 439 feet high and 160 feet wide.  It weighs 58,202 tons.  It’s the largest and heaviest steel arch in the world.  Construction started in 1922.  The two halves of the arch were built outward from each shore.  It took seven years of toil by 1400 workers to get the arch to meet in the middle.  They were only eight inches apart!  This was long before the days of computers and Autocad, so getting the arches to meet in the middle was an awesome engineering feat.  Workers bolted them together in 1930, and the bridge was opened to the public two years later.

There was a group of 12 of us on the tour.  There were people from Australia, the US, England, Columbia and Japan.  It was truly an international crew.  First we all had to pass a breathalyzer test, even Genene.  You can’t drink and climb!  I am pleased to say that it was the first time I have ever had one used on me.  We were all stone cold sober, so there were no issues.  Next we had to remove all loose items from our pockets.  Even a coin can become a deadly projectile when dropped from the top of the bridge.  Absolutely no phones or cameras would be allowed.  Everything had to go into a locker.  Next we were fitted into a very attractive one-piece jumpsuit.  Its blue/gray color is designed to help climbers blend into the bridge and thus not distract the cars driving across it.  It has the added benefit of making you look like an extra from a Star Trek episode.  (At least we weren’t wearing red.  Everyone knows that the Star Trek characters who wear red die before the first commercial.)  Next we got fitted with a belt which had a carabiner-like rope that attached us to cabling on the bridge.  We received headsets with radios (we could hear Scott, but we did not have microphones), fleece jackets, rain jackets, hankies, croakies for our glasses, a beanie cap, a headlamp.  Every single bit of it was attached to the jumpsuit by a clip.  Nothing was going to fly off that bridge.

After we got suited up, we actually did some practice runs while still inside.  Scott advised us to use three points of contact at all times, and ladders were to be climbed and descended with our faces toward the ladder.  There were stairs, catwalks and ladders to simulate portions of the climb, and we all had to navigate them while Scott watched to make sure none of us was going to freak out.  One of the ladies in our group confessed to being a little afraid of heights, but she made it through the mock run just fine.  In spite of being told to go down the ladder while facing it, I turned outward.  Scott said, “You’re not in the Navy, Lori!  Turn around!”

Our practice run complete, we headed out onto the bridge.  We traveled single file.  There was a family from California and a man from Hawaii in front of me.  Genene was behind, and Greg was behind her.  The lady who was afraid of heights was behind Greg, and she started to lag almost immediately.  Scott was at the front of the pack leading the tour.  Greg was worried about the lagging lady, but he did not know how to get Scott’s attention.  Greg took advantage of one of his gifts:  he can whistle very loudly.  He uses it to call Genene to dinner and get the cats to come in.  He did his best wolf whistle.  Scott’s voice came over the radio:  “Did you just whistle at me?!”  Greg gestured at the lady behind.  When we got alongside Scott, he told Greg that we did not have to worry at all and we certainly did not need to whistle.  Scott said he had his eye on everyone.  After a few minutes, the lady seemed to relax, and we all went to the top together.

It took us about 3 1/2 hours round-trip to climb the bridge, and the views were stunning.  We went all the way to the top, 439 feet above sea level.    A small part of me wished for my camera, but mostly I was glad to be free of it so I could simply enjoy the view.  Technology is a double-edged sword.  It’s wonderful to be able to photograph and document these trips, but the camera often seems to separate me from the action and keep me from enjoying “the moment.”

We had a good laugh when we got back down and saw this one of Greg with his eyes tightly shut.

Look Ma!  No hands!

The sunset was pretty on this day, but not spectacular.


We climbed every one of these steps.

Our international crew:

The sun went down and the lights of Sydney came on.

Is this the wave?


Scott took a short video of us at the top.  He suggested that we say something like “happy birthday” so that we could send it to our friends on their birthdays.  Genene and I overruled that suggestion and told Greg that we wanted to call the Hogs.  When Scott shouted “Action!”, Genene and I started the “Woo Pig Sooie.”  Greg was a little confused and so his line went something like “happ…ooooo pig sooie!”  He was a child actor in Richmond, Virginia and worked with his father in regional theatre there.  We couldn’t believe he flubbed his lines like that!

Along the way up and down, Scott told us about the millions of rivets used in the construction, many of which are in the bottom of the harbor.  There were many deaths during construction, but one man–only one–actually survived a fall from the bridge.  We were exhilarated by the climb.  We had finished strong in Sydney!

We got undressed, reclaimed our gear from the lockers, and purchased our photos and souvenirs.  We hit the street,  took one last look at the bridge climb building, and started strolling back through the Rocks.

I got one last shot of the Opera House.  What a diva!  Always posing!

Like any major metropolitan area, Sydney has its share of modern art in public spaces.  This next piece sits in the median, and I guess it must have caused a few wrecks because there is actually a sign to warn motorists that they are not looking at a wreck.

“Still Life with Stone and Car” by American born sculptor Jimmie Durham.

My last shot of Sydney this evening:  thanks for a great day, Coathanger!

We headed back to our neighborhood exhausted from all the day’s activity.  It’s our usual traveling custom to return to a favorite place for our last evening in a city.  We all wanted to have noodles at Lotus Dumpling Bar.  It had been our favorite Sydney meal.  We had no reservations, and the small restaurant was completely packed.  We were disappointed but we should have planned better.  We walked back to the hotel, sat in the bar area and ate fish and chips, hamburger and pork neck.  It was all very good, and we were happy at having been able to accomplish so much on our last day.  Genene really liked eating at the hotel because she could go straight the room afterward and start getting ready for bed.  She also likes getting away from her boring parents for a few minutes.  We knew she would be safe and so we stayed in the lobby.  Greg finished his last Boag’s beer, and I closed out the night with a glass of Australian red wine.  I wish we had not gotten ill on the journey.  I could have drunk a lot more Shiraz!

Because we never really got unpacked, packing up was pretty easy.  We would have to leave before the fabulous Pier One began serving breakfast downstairs, so we put in a room service order and hit the rack.

Monday, August 8, 2016

We hated to leave Pier One in the Rocks.  It turned out to be our favorite hotel of the stay.  Their hospitality was flawless.  I wanted to love Southern Ocean Lodge on Kangaroo Island, and I am sure I would have had a completely different impression of it if we all hadn’t gotten ill there.  It’s easy to demonstrate hospitality when everything is going right.  It is when things go wrong that you find out how good (or not so good) that a place is.  Southern Ocean Lodge did not properly handle the situation with the mystery illness.  Pier One did.  Southern Ocean Lodge tried to brew peppermint tea.  Pier One sent for the doctor.  Pier One-1; Southern Ocean Lodge-zero!

Anyway, we said our goodbyes to Pier One and to Australia.  Our driver arrived at 6:50 AM, and our early morning ride to the airport was uneventful.  It took us a little while to figure out where the customs and immigration line was in the Sydney airport, but it was easy once we did.  We didn’t even talk to a human.  They just scanned our passports, took our photos and let us through.

The plane from Sydney to Los Angeles was supposed to take off at 9:50 AM, but we got a bit of a late start.  The flight duration was just about 14 hours, and we were slated to arrive at LAX at 6:30 AM on Monday.  We would arrive in Los Angeles BEFORE we left Sydney.  We were getting our day back!

Qantas must not have heard about me yet, because they let me on board the plane. I spent a lot of time looking at their “tailcam”, which was broadcast on our entertainment systems at our seats.  It was a hoot to watch the plane take off and land.

My sleeping beauties wasted no time getting into the position.

We arrived at LAX about an hour later than scheduled.  We were supposed to have had two hours for our connection, but an hour of that was gone.  Qantas and American Airlines took the liberty of bumping us from our scheduled flight from LAX to Houston.  Instead they booked us on a later flight to go to Dallas and then to Houston.  It would add hours to our trip!  ARGH!  We did not want to ride two more planes and sit in the airports!  We were so aggravated.  We ran through customs and immigration.  By the way, it always amazes me that most of the rude treatment that we get “on the road” comes from US immigration agents.  They can be little tyrants.  We flashed our Global Entry in the hopes of speeding things up.  Greg and I both got selected for a random explosives check, which was a little annoying since we have both undergone background checks to get qualified for Global Entry.  While they are wasting time with us, some real bad guy is getting through the line!  The agents did not communicate very well with each other in Greg’s situation.  One of them sent him over to the explosives check line but didn’t tell the other one that it was a random check.  Then they started in with the questions:  “Why are you in this line, sir?”  “Well, because your man sent me here!”  Greg was tired and I thought he was going to get himself into trouble by giving them some attitude.  Luckily we made it through pretty quickly after the initial confusion, and we raced up to the American Airlines counter so that we could press our case to be put back on our scheduled flight.  We were sick of airports and ready to be home.  What we didn’t know then was that on this day, there was some kind of major glitch with Delta, and they had large scale flight cancellations.  The lady at the American counter acted very sympathetic and clicked her mouse for about 15 minutes, looking for alternatives.  (Remember Greg Focker in the “Meet the Parents ” airline check-in scene?)  I began to wonder if the gate agent was really doing anything or if she was just clicking the keyboard and mouse long enough to make sure that she burned all of our extra time down before telling us that she couldn’t find anything.

In any event, after some time, she gave us the bad news that we would have to fly to Dallas and then to Houston.  She checked our bags back through and sent us toward our gate, Gate 69.  We passed through the doors and the real fun began.  The sign said, “Gate 1-40” and had an arrow to the left.  “Gate 75-112” with an arrow to the right.  Where the bloody heck was gate 69?  We wandered aimlessly until we found someone in a uniform to ask.  He started laughing and said, “Oh, that gate.  I’m not going to give you instructions to the gate, because you will just get lost.  I’m going to give you instructions to get you to the next person in a uniform like me, and they will send you on to the gate.”  And so it was.  We found the next uniformed lady, and she pointed us down a hallway and down a staircase.  We arrived at a glass door to the exterior of the airport!  We had to wait for a bus to get us, and we drove around on the tarmac.  I promise that I am not making this part up:  the bus was driving around on the runways and the tarmac with the planes!  It was unbelievable.  We finally arrived at Gate 69 FROM THE OUTSIDE of the airport. We had to climb a set of temporary stairs that looked like scaffolding and go back into the airport.  How could any of this be ADA compliant?  How could any of it be secure?  It was crazy.

LAX was a zoo.  There were not enough seats, and people were laying in the floor and walking shoulder to shoulder down the narrow hallways in the gate area.  Get us on the plane!

Luckily our flight was on time, and we got the heck out of LAX.  I had not been there in years.  It’s an absolute armpit of an airport, and I cannot believe this is an American airport.  It looked like something out of a third world country.  I pity anyone who is trying to come for a visit to the United States for the first time and has to come through LAX.  What a first impression it must create!

Okay, I’ll climb off my soapbox.  We got to Dallas on time, and DFW was much more civilized.  We were exhausted and punch drunk by the time we boarded our last flight from Dallas to Houston.  We arrived in Houston in the late afternoon at around 5:00 PM.  Our man from Action Limo was waiting on us, and we let him tote all the luggage.  We were exhausted.

We pulled up at the house before dark.  The two best moments of any trip are getting underway and coming home.  Our dog Nala was thrilled to see us, and the cats yowled with their usual displeasure. (They like to fuss at us when we have been gone.)  I started my usual routine of washing clothes and unpacking.  Our friends Scott and Michael left us some ready-made dinners in the refrigerator so we didn’t have to worry about food, thank goodness.  There was a lot of red dirt from Uluru in our suitcases!  I will have to go to work tomorrow, so there won’t be much rest for me until the weekend.

POSTSCRIPT:

I have been particularly slow getting my blogs done on this trip.  I think part of it was because of the challenge associated with using a new program.  Another factor was my busy work situation.  I had to dive right in, so blogging had to be done on nights and weekends.

Also, some of the time I would have spent blogging was spent filing complaints.  I was so unhappy about what happened at Southern Ocean Lodge that I took some action. I tried to communicate with their management through our travel agent, but Southern Ocean Lodge was not interested in trying to make an amends.  They didn’t think they had done anything wrong.  I didn’t blame them for the illness.  Anyone can get sick.  It’s the secrecy that troubled me and the lack of communication about what was going on.  Never mess with a mamma who has had to watch her child be sick for hours!  I filed a complaint of suspected food poisoning with the Health Department in Adelaide.  I managed to get their establishment inspected, which gave me a little pleasure. I hope it gave them a bellyache to rival the one they gave us.  The day the inspector arrived, there was nothing wrong in their kitchen, but that is not surprising.  It was weeks later, and whatever happened was long over.  We found out from the inspector that there were 10 sick guests and 6 or 7 sick employees in the lodge at the same time as we were.  In a hotel with 21 rooms, I think that’s pretty significant.  We still don’t know what happened and probably never will.  Was it food poisoning or was it just some kind of highly contagious illness?  We don’t know.  What we do know is that their staff was not honest with us about how many people were ill.  Sometimes the fanciest place is not the best place.  Enough about them.

When I ask Genene to tell me about her favorite day, she says it was the Daintree Rainforest tour.  I think she was just thrilled to share the day with kids her age from her school in Houston.  Genene has run into Rebecca at school at Awty several times now.  Rebecca even has some of Genene’s teachers, so Genene has been able to give her some tips.  You never know who you will meet on the road.

Greg’s favorite part of the trip was “anything in Sydney.”  He loved the city and all it had to offer.

My favorite thing was Uluru.   I cannot tell you why.  It was beautiful, magical, mystical.

The best book that anyone can read to prepare for a trip to Australia is Bill Bryson’s “In a Sunburned Country.”  I love all of Bryson’s work, but this book is a hilarious romp and will get you in the mood to travel Down Under.  I referred to it time and time again while writing this blog.  Read it before you go Down Under.

What else did we learn from this trip?

Don’t trust a marine biologist on the Great Barrier Reef.

Don’t go drinking and swim with the crocodiles.

Never get involved in a land war in Asia.  (Sorry, we just watched the “Princess Bride.”)

Koalas can pee like a racehorse.

Always take the helicopter ride.

Never introduce a non-native species onto a continent.

Crocodile tastes like chicken.

Ant butts taste like a cross between a Granny Smith apple and a lemon.

Meal worms taste nutty.

Vegemite tastes like crap.  Spread it paper thin!

There is something magical about Uluru and Kata Tjuta.  I have no idea what it is, but I want to go back and find out.

Reminders of my father are everywhere, even in Australia.  It is both comforting and sad.

 

Thanks for coming along with us to the land Down Under.  The country/continent is vast, and we couldn’t possibly see it all in two weeks.  In fact, I think our itinerary was too ambitious.  Even with all our traveling and time spent in the airports, we never even made it to the western coast.  I also regret that we never had any real interaction with the aboriginal people.  They’ve been there for 50,000 years.  I guess they will be there when we go back.

I will end the blog with the only word we learned from the Anangu.  The word has many meanings.  It can be used to greet someone and to say goodbye, much like the better-known “aloha” that the Hawaiians use.  Its literal English translation is “good.”  I like the symmetry of that.  You greet someone by wishing them well:  “good.”  You send them away in the same hospitable way.  Until next time….

Palya!

 

Australia 2016 Part 14:  An unscheduled Make and Mend

Saturday, August 6, 2016

We had no plans for today, having canceled our scheduled tour because we were all recovering from the mysterious illness we picked up at Southern Ocean Lodge.  We had no alarm set, so we slept late and went down to Pier One’s lobby for breakfast at some time after 8:00 AM.  Greg and Genene felt pretty normal, but I still felt tired and weak.  I managed to eat some fruit and muesli, while Greg and Genene polished off big breakfasts.  Genene had her Earl Grey and Greg drank “long black.”   As soon as breakfast (or brekkie as the Aussies call it) was finished, I felt bone tired.  I went back upstairs, climbed back into bed and slept until lunch!  I was equal parts exhausted from  illness and from the embarrassing spectacle on Qantas the night before. (I can never live down the shame of it!) I think Greg and Genene slept some too, and when they were not asleep, they read quietly or listened to music in our room.

I woke up just before lunch and felt better.  I was hungry, which I took as a good sign.  We walked to the 8th pier and had lunch at an Italian restaurant.  We picked Italian because I figured they would have some good “comfort” food:  pastas, bread, and so on.  The 8th pier is near the theatre district, and we enjoyed watching the diners who were trying to make the 2:00 PM show.  We also saw a wedding party having lunch after having their photos taken on the pier.  I am not sure if we were witnessing the after-wedding party or just the after-wedding-photographs party.  No matter.  Everyone was feeling jovial, and we perked up a little just watching the sights.  We strolled slowly back to our hotel, and Genene hunted for Pokemon along the way.  Before we left the states, we bought her a small international data package for her phone and for ours.  We had admonished her to keep track of how much data she was using so she would not go over the limit.  I guess our lecture must have scared her, because she had been so judicious (stingy) with it that she had data to burn.  We leave Australia on Monday, and there was no way she could use all the data she had saved up.  Pokémon helped her out a little with that problem!  I think she caught some creatures that you cannot find in the US, although I don’t know too much about the game.

We spent some time relaxing at the hotel.  With no place to go and nothing to do, we just laid around and read books and listened to music.  By about 4 PM, we all felt good enough to head out for the weekend market in the Rocks.  We had been there at the beginning of our vacation two weeks ago, but we hadn’t bought anything.  We figured there would be plenty of time for souvenir shopping, but we had not managed to do any along the way.  There were also a few areas of the market that Genene had not seen due to the great schnitzel/shitznel incident of two weeks ago.  (I can’t laugh since I am now the vomit queen of Qantas.).  We ambled along and enjoyed the ambiance of the market.  We even found some artwork to buy and headed back to the hotel for a little break before dinner.

Along the way, Greg asked us to make a detour.  When Ormsome Orm gave us our tour of Sydney nearly two weeks ago, he mentioned that there are several pubs that lay claim to being the oldest in Sydney.  Orm pointed out the Hero of Waterloo as one of the contenders.  You may remember the story of the trapdoor at its bar that was used to involuntarily conscript sailors on leave.  We wanted to say we had pulled a pint there, so we wandered around the Rocks until we found it!

We made sure that it was okay to bring Genene inside and were assured it was no problem.  It was warm and crowded inside.  Genene drank a coke while Greg and I had a draught beer.  We couldn’t see a trap door anywhere, and the bartender smiled mischievously when we asked about it.  I guess Greg and I are too old to be sailors and Genene is too young.   According to the pub’s website, there are still shackles on the walls in the cellar, and the entrance to the smuggler’s tunnel can still be seen.  We were not allowed to go down there, so I can’t vouch for that.  I can vouch for the fact that they pull a good pint.

We headed back to our hotel.  I was happy to be feeling better.  We had arranged to have a special guest star for dinner.  Our friend Polo Baran (brother to the beautiful Mariana Baran Goodall and brother-in-law to my law partner “hot mess” Taylor Goodall) is living in Sydney.  He is in graduate school for business, and we had made contact with him through Facebook and invited him to dinner with us.  It was touch and go as to whether we would be able to commit, but he was a gentleman and told us he would “hang loose” and join us if we were able.  If you read my blog last year, you will recall that we met his parents in Siem Reap, Cambodia.  By sheer coincidence, we were all in that city on vacation at the same time.  It seemed only right that we should find Polo here in Sydney.

He met us in the hotel lobby, and we formulated a game plan for dinner.  The concierge recommended a Greek restaurant, Athenian.  It would require transportation, and Polo introduced us to the wonderful world of Uber in Sydney.  We use Uber all the time in Houston, but it never really occurred to me that it would be available in Australia.  Polo whipped out his iPhone, and in a few minutes, our driver arrived to whisk us away.  It felt good to be on an adventure again, even if it was just a Uber ride to dinner.

We had a wonderful evening of food, wine and travel talk at Athenian.  I thought the food was pretty good, but not spectacular.  My lamb dish was good but nothing to write home about.  The service was excellent though, and it was fun to watch the crowd.   What was really fun was to talk travel with Polo.  He just returned from an epic summer journey that included going on an African safari, bungee jumping, and staying in hostels with little running water.  Ah, to be young again.  (What am I saying?  I never did that stuff when I was young.)  Polo’s dream is to start an adventure travel company in his hometown of Monterrey, Mexico.  The city is known for its beauty and mountainous terrain but is not yet on the radar of adventure travelers.  Polo hopes to show the city to the world.  We can’t wait to be one of his customers!

It felt good to be back in the groove, dining out and laughing with family and a friend we met up with on the road.  We finished the meal and asked the waiter to take this shot.

It was after 10 PM, and Polo had ANOTHER party to attend.  (Ah, to be young again.)  We bade him goodbye at the corner, and we each got into an Uber and headed out for our next adventures.  Polo was ready for the next party, and we were ready for bed.  We were hoping to get back on track and on our itinerary tomorrow. It would be our last full day in Australia, and we were supposed to tour the zoo and climb the Sydney Harbour Bridge.  We needed our beauty sleep!

Australia 2016 Part 13:  We’re moving again! (Death March to Sydney)

Friday, August 5, 2016

It was a dark and stormy night.  Just kidding.  Bulwer-Lytton aside, last night was pretty bad.  Genene finally stopped throwing up sometime after 10 PM.  She was so thirsty, but each time she tried to take a few sips of water or Gatorade, she threw up again.  Her belly needed a rest, and she finally just collapsed into blessed sleep.  Greg seemed slightly better, having only tossed his cookies twice in the early evening before collapsing into fitful slumber.  I felt like I was in the Monty Python “Bring out your dead!” scene from “Holy Grail.”  I was mopping foreheads, packing bags, and trying to get things situated for this morning.

We were moving again today.  When we first arrived at the resort, I thought I would never want to leave.  Now I just wanted to get us out of here and back to civilization.  None of us wanted any part of breakfast at the resort.  In the morning, Genene was just beginning to hold down some sips of Gatorade, and Greg just wanted to sleep until we had to go.  I didn’t have any appetite, and my tummy felt just a bit off.  I didn’t know whether I was just having sympathetic grumblings or whether something was really wrong.  (When you spend time in a room with two people who are retching the evening away, you begin to think about joining them.)  In any event, I did most of the packing because Greg and Genene still felt pretty low.  I got everything into our bags and prepared to head out.  The lodge wanted us out of our room by 8 AM, but I told them we weren’t leaving until the van was ready to load.  They did not argue.

Just before we left our room (the aptly named Shipwreck Goulbourn), our travel agent phoned to let us know that our flight to Sydney had been canceled.  And I thought the day couldn’t get any worse.  The good news is that they had already booked us on another one.  I was very happy that they had taken care of things for us, but it meant we would have a longer layover in Adelaide.

As we left our room, a couple of the lodge waitstaff rushed up and exclaimed, “You didn’t get any breakfast!  Would you like us to pack anything?”  Ugh.  No.  We said thanks but no thanks.  The massive double doors opened, and the staff all lined up to bid their goodbyes.  Miss Peppermint Tea told me to have a pleasant journey.  I was reminded of the Stepford lifeguard on the Barrier Reef.  What the heck are you thinking of, lady?  We are the walking dead here!

We had discreetly asked the hotel manager if we could ride up front in the van, because I thought that would help us with carsickness.  No one paid attention to our request, and we got shoved into the back of the van.  It was completely loaded, and everyone was quiet on the hourlong ride back to Kingscote except for the little California boy who had spent his time two nights ago chasing kangaroos.  He was in the front seat with the driver yapping about nothing, and I wanted to put a pillow over his head.  I was just hoping that Greg and Genene could keep their act together–so to speak–so we would not have to stop the van.  I had packed an entire roll of toilet paper into the backpack just in case.  Happily we all made it to the airport and got checked in.  There weren’t even any metal detectors at this airport.  I don’t think our bags went through any screening, except for being weighed.  I guess they figure if you flew to the island you must be okay.

As we sat in the small terminal gate area waiting for the plane, we began comparing notes with other people from Southern Ocean Lodge.  Three of the four members of the family from Calgary were ill.  The family from Des Moines had two sick people.  We saw another fellow sitting in the corner with his head hanging low.  Then we found out that one of the van drivers was a substitute because the regular employee was afflicted with illness. This seemed like a lot of sick people for a resort that only has 21 rooms.  Greg and I began to get more annoyed as we thought about it.  When we were sitting in our room all day yesterday, we were only made aware of one other person who had been ill.  It turned out  that a lot more of us were sick.  Was it food poisoning?  Flu?  Virus?  We didn’t know, but we knew there were several of us afflicted.  I was dismayed that we were not offered better onsite medical care or first aid.  With 20/20 hindsight and knowing how many people were affected, I thought that the resort should have brought a doctor to all of us, or at least gone out for a stockpile of medicine and electrolytes.  We watched the incoming plane unload, and the Southern Ocean Lodge people were waiting–all smiles and charm–to greet the newcomers.  I thought about saying something to them, perhaps giving a warning.  In the end, I just sat quietly.  I hope it was the right decision.

Our flight back to Adelaide was 20 minutes.  I felt like we were returning to civilization.   Our airline, REX, was efficient. During the brief flight, they offered a small bottle of water and a single fruity Mentos.  I thought it was a nice touch for the little puddle jumper.    We had stored our large bags with REX in Adelaide while we went to the island, and they were waiting for us in Adelaide on the luggage carousel, just as promised.  At least that part worked right.  We took a moment to unpack the safari duffels and repack everything into our three rolling bags, and we headed into the main terminal.

Greg and Genene felt like eating lunch, and so did I.  That was a good sign.  We didn’t miss those fancy gastronomical experiences one bit.  We found a café, and each of us had a simple croissant with ham and cheese and a big old fully leaded Coke.

Greg fell asleep in the terminal.  He still felt pretty weak.


Our layover in the airport in Adelaide was long, about five hours.  Genene sat quietly and listened to music on her iPhone.  I tried to nap but couldn’t manage it.

I began to feel a little “off”.  I hoped it was just my imagination but alas….

The time to leave finally came.  It took us forever to board the plane, and we were so far in the back that we loaded from the rear door of the aircraft.  Once aboard, I had a small altercation with a rude man who thought he should take up the entire overhead bin with his jacket and briefcase.  When I tried to move it to make room for my camera backpack, he admonished me not to wrinkle his jacket.  I said, “Why don’t you consolidate it then?”  (After all, his jacket and a small briefcase were taking up half the bin.)  He got up to move it and then told me my bag was too large for compartment.  I finally said never mind and went forward a few more rows and found a spot for my bag.  On the way back, I looked at him and said, “Thanks for your help.”  My heart was gladdened a few minutes later when a big burly man put his gear on top of the guy’s jacket.  I’ll bet the Bin Hog didn’t argue with the Muscle Man quite so much.

Just as we got to cruising altitude, I came to the sad but inevitable conclusion that my stomach rumblings were not in my imagination.  I knew I was going to be sick.  Luckily we were only three rows from the back of the plane.  I jumped up quickly, airsick bag in hand, and managed to make it to the galley area in the back of the plane where the jump seats are.  I was out of sight of most everyone, thank goodness, when I tossed up the first load.  The flight attendant was a sweet man.  He was my angel, the Angel of the Qantas.  I couldn’t believe how helpful he was.  He got a cold wet napkin for my face and gave me some Vicks “lollies” (candies) to “get the yucky taste out.”  I felt miserable.  He let me sit in the jump seat for the entire flight with my head hanging low.  The flight was just under two hours, which seemed like an eternity as I sat there watching them unload coffee and snacks from the rear galley.

Of course, just as we were coming down to land, the second bout of sickness struck. This time was the real McCoy.  I filled the sick bag.  It was nasty.  (To bring to mind another Monty Python scene, “just one wafer thin mint.”)  The Angel advised me to just toss the airsick bag into the trash.  The flight was about to land! I managed to squeeze into a bathroom and tried to throw away the sick bag.  I was in a hurry because I knew I had to take my seat for the landing, and I felt like ten kinds of crap.  I tried to shove the bag into the trash, but we all know what the airplane trash cans look like at the end of a flight.  It was so full that the little trap door didn’t want to open.  There I was, rushing to shove that bag in, get rid of the evidence, and hustle back to my seat before the air marshals came for me.  I pushed a little too hard on the trash can lid, and the entire contents of the bag basically exploded onto me, the side wall of the bathroom, the floor, you name it.  It looked like the walls were weeping.  I have never been so mortified in all my life.  I was walking in it.  It was all over me.  I kept apologizing to The Angel.  I tried to clean it up but just made things worse.  The Angel was undoubtedly one of the most gallant men I have ever met.  He acted as if this happened every day and was not a big deal.  (I hope his job isn’t really like that.)  He told me not to worry and said, “The ground crew can clean it up when we arrive. ”

I walked back to my seat in disgrace, tracking the evidence of my shame along behind me.  My clothes were spotted.  I stank.  With each step, I could feel the stickiness beneath my feet.  I can never fly Qantas again without wearing a bag over my head.  When the plane landed, I let every single person get off the plane before I got up, including the three rows behind me.  They deserved to get off first for having to put up with that hideous funk!

Our driver was waiting for us at the baggage carousel, and so were our bags.  I guess when you are the last one off the plane, your bags have time to make it to the claim area.   We warned the driver that I was sick and refrained from the usual handshakes and pleasantries.  He got us to our destination swiftly and without commentary (except for the usual grumbling that experienced drivers do in a big city).

We were returning to Pier One in Sydney, the same hotel where we began our stay in Australia.  I felt distinctly unhip this time.  The glass of champagne they offered us upon arrival was unappetizing (so you know I was really sick!).  We asked them to bring ginger ale to our room,  and we went directly to our suite and called a doctor.  How novel!  They had a doctor on staff and for a price he would make a house call.  While waiting for the doctor, I hosed myself off in the shower and bundled all my clothes into plastic.   In 40 minutes, the doctor arrived, rolling medicine bag in tow, and checked us out.  I didn’t have fever.  The doctor told us that our symptoms were “suggestive of food poisoning” but he couldn’t be sure.  Whatever it was, it was nasty.  He dispensed a fistful of medicines for all of us, and Pier One added his bill to our tab.  We felt pampered by Pier One.  They knew how to take care of a sick person!  They brought cold bottles of water and called to make sure we were okay.

We knew we would be in no condition to tour tomorrow so with sadness we called to cancel our plans.  I was particularly let down, because the one thing I felt had been missing from our tour thus far was real and meaningful interaction with aboriginal people.  Tomorrow’s tour called for a traditional aboriginal welcome in a sacred area in a national park.  It was our last chance to learn more about their culture.  When we phoned our guide to cancel, he tried to convince us to change our minds.  This only made us feel lower because we really wanted to go.  However, none of us could really be persuaded to wake up early after our death march across Australia.  We took our medicines, turned off all the alarms, and went to bed.