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Australia Part 2-Beautiful Brizzy

I continue with our drive up from Sydney to Cairns, which mostly consisted of stunning beaches one after another, and I apologize that I didn’t note down the names of all the beaches. We tried stopping off at a couple of points where locals assured us we would see whales, one of these was Woolgoola Headland, and you could just about see them with binoculars. But this just whetted our appetite – see Whale- watching later on.The one place that we spent a couple of days in and enjoyed immensely was Yamba at the mouth of the Clarence River Estuary. We stayed in the cute Yamba Beach Motel, which had everything that one needs for a comfortable stay and was reasonably priced by Australian standards. We then just wandered around the tiny town (lots of huge hills leading to the lighthouse) and took a book to read on the various beaches( one was called Pippi beach). Highly recommended. WE also had a very nice pint at the Pacific hotel, which has a splendid bar  overlooking the sea, and touts itself as “Australia’s best sited hotel”. Could not argue with them.

One final place I would like to mention that we enjoyed on the Central coast before we reached Brisbane was Dorrigo National Park. 

This lovely place is a short drive from Coffs Harbour and we spent a few happy hours strolling through the forest paths which are clearly signposted and not overly taxing. There is a short boardwalk at the beginning of the park and then a  few circular paths of varying  lengths, with waterfalls and so on. There is also a visitor centre where you can watch a short movie on the flora and fauna in the park. Our only problem was discovering that our car battery was flat when we returned from the walk (and of course it was a Sunday, our phone had no reception, which is common in isolated areas of Australia, and there was no internet reception either.) Fortunately a lovely couple in the car park came to our aid with jump leads and got us started up again.

It is really hard to get a sense of the rainforest from the photos, because the trees tower above and all around, so the photos really don’t capture the vastness of the experience.

On the way back to Coffs Harbour, the motel owner had suggested we stop at a quaint little town called Bellingen which we were passing through anyway. He specifically used the word “quaint”, adding that since I am from the UK I will understand. The town,set in farm land, with lots of horses and cows dotted around, was indeed quaint, with many interesting old buildings, and a museum, which sadly we did not manage to check out.

 

From Yamba we continued up the Pacific Highway to Brisbane. We had expectations of Melbourne and of Sydney, but Brisbane was a city about which we had heard very little. And we were blown away by it. Since we saw that we had plenty of days of our trip to make it up to Cairns, and had decided not to continue driving but to get there by plane, we decided to extend our stay in Brisbane and chill out a bit there, as moving every one or two days gets tiresome. As soon as we walked around in central Brisbane we felt at home. It’s hard to say exactly why. Our air bnb was in a wonderful quiet neighbourhood called Hawthorne, and came with a kitchen, garden, a swimming pool and a dog called Oscar. It was also 5 minutes walk from the Hawthorne Citycat Stop. Citycat is a ferryboat service that plies up and down the Brisbane river and is a far more useful form of transport than the bus.It runs frequently, and up until after midnight 7 days a week. All you need to use it is an electronic  Go Card that you top up with money as you go. It is the same card for buses, trains, ferries and trams. You can just get on it and go all the way up one end of the line and then back again for about $6.

We immediately bought our Go card and started exploring. The first part of the city that we discovered was the central area of the Queen Street Mall which we returned to many times during our stay. It was both relaxed and buzzing, full of life and great for people-watching but not in the way that large cities are. It was always fun to sit on a bench and watch people, and we also took a tour later on with a Brisbane Greeter, (volunteer guide) who introduced us to some less well-known corners of the city.

There are lots of things to see in Brisbane- we particularly enjoyed the Southbank area and the Parklands- a long riverbank promenade that was built after the World Expo of 1988 and consists of a cultural precinct (Museums, art galleries, concert halls, theatres) a Nepali Peace Pagoda, grassy areas and free public swimming pools. There is also an Epicurious garden, where fruit, vegetables, herbs and flowers are grown by volunteers, and distributed free to people. The Southbank was the location from which we watched the fantastic Riverfire firework display at the end of the Riverfire festival which happily coincided with our stay in Brisbane. This display was preceded by air displays by army helicopters and jets. It was a great day, no less impressive in that the crowds dispersed in a quiet and orderly fashion at the end. The festival also included lots of free performances all over the place, which added to our stay. We also enjoyed walking around Roma Street Parklands, another park area near to the second place we stayed Spring Hill Apartments. We wanted to add more days at the Airbnb but it was no longer available, so we took the apartment for a week, which was a bit pricy but also included a washing machine and dryer! The only drawback to this accommodation was that it was indeed at the top of a hill. But there was a free bus that stopped right outside the apartments, and deposited us in the city centre in less than 15 minutes. So as the Ozzies say “No worries”.

Other places we loved in Brisbane were the Botanical Gardens and the old Regent Theatre which is now a tourist office, but part of the interior of the old theatre has been preserved. Just travelling on the ferries up and down the river and looking at the iconic Story Bridge from different angles was great fun. WE were continually amazed that every time we went down town something was going on- one day they were distributing free ice cream in Queen Street; another day there was a farmers’ market next to Victoria Bridge; there were lots of free performances in the Mall area too- one day we saw a display of Aboriginal dancing there. Our stay was also enhanced by meeting up with our friend Steve from Virtual Tourist, and then Gary and Roger from Servas, all of whom came out for dinner with us. WE also made new friends in Vera and Paul, a lovely couple we met on a Saturday morning when we went to the Farmers’ Market at the PowerHouse  and who also met us for dinner another evening. All of these meetings impressed on me that nice as sightseeing may be, the really memorable parts of our travels are always the personal contacts we make with locals. The openness and warmth we received from all the Australians that we met was just phenomenal. So thanks Ozzies!

Then there was one of the highlights of our whole trip- whale watching at Redcliffe. After a lot of humming and ha-ing we decided to go for it. It’s after all one of those “once in a lifetime” things right? It’s expensive but definitely something to remember. I checked out various companies and found that the most highly recommended one was called, strangely enough, Brisbane Whale Watching , and it had tons of recommendations on Tripadvisor. They guaranteed that we would see whales. But I was not prepared for how many! We bought a package which included a pickup from a location near where we were staying, transfer by minibus to the cruise jetty, the hour or so  trip out to the bay near Moreton Island and a buffet lunch. We even had a brief look at Beegees Alley before boarding our boat.

Very soon after reaching the bay we immediately started seeing humpback whales and some even jumped up right near the boat.It was truly amazing, and it was important to stop taking pictures (most of which missed the whales jumping) and just look at these lovely creatures. I still did manage to get a few good shots though! Each time there was a sighting, the crew shouted 11 o’clock, or 3 o’clock, and everyone rushed to the appropriate location of the ship to see the whales. There was even a mum and baby but I didn’t manage to get a picture.

Finally it was time to leave wonderful Brisbane- so I will just leave you with a few more pictures before we head for our last stop in the trip- tropical Cairns, and the Great Barrier Reef.

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Chillis, Chocolate and chapulines- latest trip.

Part 1- The Yucatan Peninsula

This blog post will be the first of several on our latest trip to Mexico. I don’t like to write really long posts, and of course a six week trip through Southern and Central Mexico warrants a bit of space. So bear with me on this. I shall try not to waffle too much.

We flew into Mexico City and immediately on to Cancun to start our Mexican Experience. And when I say “immediately” I mean after a 2 hour wait at passport control and a mad dash for the connecting flight. The passport chaps did not care who was travelling onwards and who had arrived at their destination. After arriving in Cancun we got a bus to Playa Del Carmen, our first port of call. The bus ride to Playa was smooth and comfortable- about one hour on a lovely ADO bus (more of this great company anon). Playa is a lovely seaside place teeming with tourists from all over the world. The beach is great, and lined with great cafes and restaurants. Very little of the “real Mexico” here, but a great place to start our trip. We enjoyed strolling up and down the main pedestrian drag, especially at night when it was full of live musicians- from Mariachis to Led Zeppelin covers. Sitting on the beach with a mojito and watching the sunset was a great start to the trip. And the day trip we made to Tulum was fantastic.

The colour of the Caribbean was a sight to behold. We visited many archeological sites during our Mexican trip, but the setting of the ruins at Tulum was what made it stand out in my mind.

Many people (especially young American students) come to the State of Quintana Roo, where Playa is located, and stay only in this one place, on the beach and never see any more of Mexico. This would be akin to coming to the US and seeing only the beach in Florida. We wished we had seen more of this Caribbean coastline, but wanted to do more than see the beach. So after a couple of days we boarded another ADO bus and headed for Valladolid , which was, we were assured, the REAL Mexico. ADO buses, by the way, are fantastic. They are air-conditioned, have lots of legroom, movies (in Spanish) and toilets. When you buy a ticket you get to choose your seat, and when you hand in your backpack/suitcase you get a little tag for it, like on a plane. The longer in advance you buy your ticket the better the price.

Valladolid  was indeed less touristy than Playa. The town has a sort of rough and ready feel to it, and although tour buses sweep in and out of the main Zocalo (town square), many tourists seem to see it as a day trip and do not stay the night.

The colourful house fronts and the busy street market are interesting, and typically Mexican, and the main Zocalo is closed off for dancing on Sundays. Other than walking around the streets or popping into the nearby cenotes, there is not an awful lot to do in Valladolid. But it does have a certain raw charm.There is, however the amazing little Chocolate Factory. (there is another one in Merida). Here you can learn about the whole process of making chocolate, taste some unusual ones such as Oregano Chocolate and Chilli Chocolate, and of course buy some to take home.

We did one day trip from Valladolid to the pyramids of Ek Balam which we enjoyed immensely.

We visited several archeological sites during this trip, and found each one amazing in its own right. I thought (as someone not very well up in ancient history) that I might get bored, but each place was different and had its own fascination.

One day we were strolling around in Valladolid when we chanced upon a large group of young people in a public square, dressed in traditional clothes, clearly preparing some kind of dance performance. We asked when there would be dancing and singing and they said to come back at 6pm. So we had a quick tea in a nearby place, to escape the rain, and fortunately on the dot of 6 the rain stopped and the chairs near the square filled up with people. We joined them and asked the lady next to us what was going on. She said it was a performance of students of education celebrating the end of the term (if I understood correctly). They performed a number of traditional dances and it was all rather charming. Later, in Merida, we saw a similar thing but it was for tourists. The Valladolid one was “the real McCoy”.

From Valladolid we took another bus, for 3 hours this time to the city of Merida, which, sad to say, was a bit of a disappointment to me.

I had read a lot about Merida, and had expected to love it dearly and wish to spend a long time there. However what conspired against us was, to my surprise, the Merida Carnaval, which took place while we were there, and was the reason that the regular events, street dancing on Sundays downtown and performances of the Mayan game of Pok a Tok ( despite the tourist office assuring us they were still happening) were all cancelled. At least twice we waited in the Zocalo to see something which never happened. Usually we found other tourists, also waiting to see something and eventually we gave up. We thought about going to the Carnaval, but our Airbnb host Maurizio, assured us it would be a bad idea. Once the Carnaval was held in the town centre, but the police could not cope with it, so it was moved to some fairground about 2 hours outside the centre of town, and reached by shuttle buses from all over. Apparently it would be crowded and full of drunks, so we decided to pass. A young couple also staying at our place did go and concurred it had not been a great idea.

We did enjoy walking around Merida’s broad avenues, especially the Paseo de Montejo, and visiting the Anthopology museum there housed in a wonderful old colonial building built in the Porfiriano period of 1909. We even took a horse drawn carriage back down to the Zocalo once, when it was too hot to walk.

Downtown there are a number of interesting buildings to see, and we took a free tour. After about 30 minutes, however, we discovered that what we had joined was not in fact the free tour, but a private tour paid for by another tourist which we had inadvertently gate crashed! A shame because the tour guide was wonderful, spoke great English, and there were only 4 other people. After discovering our mistake we rushed off to find the free tour, for which the guide was incomprehensible, and  which had about 35 other people! It did, however take us round the main sites downtown- the Palacio de Gobierno, Palacio Montejo  and the Modern Art Museum (MACAY)

The one day trip we made from Merida was to Celestun. We didn’t do it by organized tours, as we had for Ek Balam, but simply got a bus from the second class bus station and got off at the bridge before the town (as instructed by the lovely American- Mexican couple we met on the bus). From there you simply walk down to the pier and join with other tourists to share a boat tour. The tour is around 90 minutes and takes you to the place where the thousands of flamingos can be viewed, and you also see “Bird Island” with lots of other seabirds (pelicans etc), and some crocs, and a little peek at the Mangroves. It’s beautiful and serene. We shared a boat with a charming Korean and his two daughters who were taking him on a trip after he had been very ill.

Here ends part one. From Merida we leave the Yucatan so I will continue the trip in the next post.

A very cultural week

*** Warning! Long blow-by-blow post. Please feel free to skip as necessary!

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The gorgeous Belvedere Palace

As I wrote in my last post, the trip to Vienna was booked before we  knew that were going to Sri Lanka. But in any case of course Vienna and Sri Lanka are going to be very different experiences. We had never been to Austria before, partly because of my bias against the German language, but we decided it was worth a try.

So we packed up and flew off to our lovely air bnb care of one Anton Herzl. We got the airport bus to downtown for a cheap 13 Euro return (being careful not to lose the return part of the ticket!)

The flat was very well located, 5 minutes walk from the U-bahn subway station and a leisurely 20 minutes do the city centre along the Danube canal. We mostly walked down and travelled back by subway when we were exhausted. U-bahn has a flat rate of 2.20 Euro and is easy to negotiate, and all the machines are in English as well as German.

The first day we ventured down town and just wandered around to see what we could see. WE saw the Parliament buildings (which are very impressive, but didn’t take the organized tour) the  City hall or Rathaus building, and the huge Museum quarter. Everywhere there are statues, and highly ornate neo-classical, baroque and a few art deco style buildings. IT’s all rather ovewhelming, and it’s hard not to constantly stop and take pictures. We then walked back through the gardens of the Rathaus and around the area of the Imperial Hofburg Palace.

On our second day we first went to find the ticket office to collect our ticket for the Vienna Boys’ Choir, which we would hear the following Sunday in the Mozart Mass at the Imperial Palace Chapel. After this we visited the Albertina Museum for the fantastic Chagall to Malevitch and Monet to Picasso exhibitions. Then we hit the Naschmarkt open food market and partook of our first proper Schnitzel. Actually it was hard to decide where to eat as there were so many lovely looking restaurants, but we finally picked one, and then wandered around a bit (taking more photos of course) There was a nice Asian place where the waiters were all Chinese, so we chatted a bit to them and came back there the next day.

In the evening we attended a meeting of Vienna Couchsurfing at a small bar, and met people from Vienna, Spain, Colombia, Finland and even Syria and Palestine. It was fun but hard to talk to everyone as there were so many people. When we left it was pouring with rain so we took a taxi home, as we were not sure how to negotiate the tram.

The third day was spent entirely at the amazing Imperial Palace the Hofburg, which has several different parts, and it is difficult to see everything if you don’t want to be “castled out”. As rather limited animal fans we passed on the Riding school, but if you are a horsey person you can do that. We saw the Silver collection and the Sissi Apartments, which show a peek into the lives of Franz Josef and his young wife Elizabeth (the Sissi of the movie fame) and it was a very interesting experience and made me want to brush up on my history. Everything was fascinating and beautifully laid out.We then returned to the Naschmarkt for supper to get a bit of Stir fry and practise our Chinese on the waiters.

The next day being Holocaust Day in Israel we identified by visiting both Holocaust Museums in Vienna. We found them rather underwhelming after all the grandeur of the Hapsburg palaces, especially as the museums themselves are not very well laid out or labelled, or even that easy to find. The first one in Judenplatz was particularly uninspiring, and had a temporary exhibition of documents relating to Simon Weisenthal. The second one was better and had a special exhibition on the contribution of Jews to modern music, and this had a very good audio visual commentary accessible by smart phone.In the evening we had tickets to a Mozart concert held in the Sala Terrena, one of the (many) houses occupied by Mozart during his time in Vienna. The concert was lovely but even more impressive were the decorations in the hall itself,which were just gorgeous.

Day 5 was a visit to the incredible Belvedere Palace. It was hard to choose where to go, as there is also the Schonbrun Palace, which we were told is completely different and also amazing, but one can’t see everything,right? Anyway the Belvedere was indeed lovely, and quite easy to get to on foot,by walking through the lovely Stadpark. Fortunately the Stadpark had a food fair going on that day, so we had a great Viennese hot dog on the way as an added bonus. On arrival at the Belvedere, we noticed some workers erecting lots of scaffolding and a small stage, and decorating everything with flowers. There was no seating so it wasn’t a concert. We discovered that the place had been hired by a very rich Indian family for a wedding, to which 1,000 guests had been invited. Apparently this is a “thing” now. There are two palaces, actually the Upper and Lower, and the gardens. Fearing exhaustion we chose only the Upper, where the famous “Kiss” picture by Klimt is housed, and were not disappointed. There are rooms upon rooms of gorgeous artworks and it just goes on and on… Anyway the visit to the Belvedere, with its ornate rooms and galleries was another wonderful day out in Vienna.

Dan wanted to have a glimpse of the Danube proper and not just the Canal, so the next day we walked via the Karmelite market towards the river. The market, in Leopoldstrasse, a Jewish neighbourhood of Vienna, was quite nice but nothing amazing. But on our way to the river we walked through the Prater amusement park which was nothing short of splendid. I am not usually a fan of these things but the big wheel was indeed impressive and the whole place had a sort of yesteryear charm to it which was quite lovely, added to the fact that the sun was shining. We reached the Danube eventually, which was, as I had feared rather disappointing. There were no restaurants or cafes along its banks, as there are along the canal, and frankly nothing at all to do there. SO we decided to head back to the area around the Stefansdom, the iconic church set in the Stefansplatz, and the beating heart of the Innere Stadt. There we went up to the top of the spire in the lift, and enjoyed a view out over the city.

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D on the Danube

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Amusement park at Prater

There were still a few more surprises for us in Vienna. We had tickets for the Vienna Boys’ Choir singing the Mozart Mass in the Imperial Hofburg Chapel. I had not realized this would be a “proper” Mass and not just a concert. This was a rather weird anthropological experience for us good Jews, never having attended Mass before. I was rather worried they would call us up to do whatever it is you do with the host and the wine, but fortunately we didn’t have to do that. The choir was of course outstanding and the accoustics were incredible. The whole experience was very special. Our final musical experience was actually devoid of music. We did a tour of the Opera house, which was very interesting, but didn’t attend a performance, as we couldn’t get tickets, and I didn’t fancy queueing up for 3 hours to stand through something that we didn’t know well, and there were only performances of less well-known operas on, so we decided to pass.

Our last day in Vienna we returned to Stefansplatz a bit( quick glass of white wine and marching band!) and then walked along the canal again to just chill out and try and take in all the sights. We were blessed with gorgeous hot weather, and chanced upon a cafe restaurant, amusingly named Tel Aviv beach, complete with sand, deck chairs, hummus and pita (which we didn’t eat) and a great view of the canal.

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Imperial Box at the Opera House

Thus ended our week and we now have a month to get ready for the next adventure- Sri Lanka! Bring it on…

 

 

A week left and counting..

We came back home to Jerusalem for a month over the semester break and it has been rather weird. Firstly of course it was great to see all our friends and family again,to eat our faviourite Israeli foods that are not available in China, and to sleep in our own (extremely soft) bed. It was great to go to Pilates classes again and tell people we are just here for a break and are living in China.But it was also odd that we very quickly found ourselves missing China, Xiamen and our life there. I miss the students, I miss getting up every day in Xiamen and not knowing who we are going to meet or what is going to happen.I miss the challenge of trying to make myself understood in Chinese.And I miss the surprises every time we order in a restaurant and have no clue what is going to appear on the table.

It was great to be met at the airport by our younger son,to hear what he has been up to,and to spend time with my Dad,and my brothers and see all the family together for my brother’s birthday.But now we feel that we are in the way.The boys have their own lives to lead,and really don’t need us around.My dad is doing fine and is okay with us going back.

Today is Chinese New Year, and although we planned not to be there during that festival I am a little disappointed now I see it all on the TV that we will be missing the festivities.So maybe we will stay put next year and see them for ourselves,wherever we are.

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We did have some fun here.We went to see a couple of movies and we are gong to a concert this week. But we kept checking the prices in the restaurants and shops and comparing to Chinese prices. We spent some time with friends of ours from Xiamen who came to visit, Steve and Viny, who are of the Bahai faith and came to Israel to go on a pilgimage to their temple in Haifa. We showed them around Jerusalem a bit,went with them to Yad Vashem,to Ein Karem,Abu Gosh and the Tayelet to see the views of the Old City.

We also had a coffee with Aliza and Shimon who will be joining us at XMUT next semester.So that was fun too.So roll on next Monday when we get on the plane and go back to Xiamen via Hong Kong,Macau and Shenzhen.

Steve and Viny visit Abu Gosh

Steve and Viny visit Abu Gosh

Gulangyu Island Part 2

We had visited Gulangyu Island when we came to Xiamen last December but it had been a rather rushed visit and had wanted to go back so this weekend when the mercury shot up to 24 C in the daytime we decided the time was right.So we popped onto the BRT right to the end of the route and from then walked to the Pier for the 5 minute crossing to the wonderful island.IT is car-less and bicycle-less,has a mountain in the middle called Sunlight Rock,and 2 museums,one a Piano Museum and one Organ Museum. The island is home to about 25,000 people and has lots of old colonial buildings and some beaches and is a relaxing getaway but to be avoided over national holidays.The best thing to do however is just meander aimlessly around the streets,look at the twee little shops selling knicknacks and relax. IT is a very relaxing place. This time we thought we would climb up Sunlight Rock which we didn’t do last time,but again the visibility was poor despite the sun,so we passed on paying 60RMB each for that and made do with the Piano Museum which was most rewarding.WE then went to the Park surrounding it,and another small museum of Chinese artifacts,and just hung out generally.

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Piano Museum

 

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colonial buildings

The beach is lovely,maybe not world quality but a pleasant place especially because it is not crowded and sweaty.WE will return to Gulangyu again and make it up to Sunlight Rock next time. In the evening we had intended to hear a rock band in the village of Zen cuoAn near to Xiamen University but were a bit tired and since the last BRT home is at 10pm we didn’t fancy returning by taxi so we had dinner at Pizza Hut and caught the bus home.Today we have the long awaited Xmas dinner at the five star Royal Victoria Hotel Xiamen as guests of the University so I guess that will deserve another blog entry. On a side note,Danny’s collection of Chinese sleeping in weird places is coming along nicely!

In another 3 weeks we will be back in Israel so I am not sure how much I will be blogging then,but time will tell.Today,on the teachers’ bus to Metro supermarket we met a couple from Ireland ,Stephen and Lavinia,who are Bahai,and they will be in Israel end of January so of course we will invite them over to have dinner with us in Jerusalem.

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Xiamen from the ferry

A great Day at the museum

Had a really good class today at the museum.The first part was about the use of the written word in Art,(I think it is called Conceptual Art ) and we saw works by people like Barbara Kruger, and we discussed the changes in women’s status since the beginning of the century (Virginia Woolf etc of course!)

Then came the really good bit. We had a talk from a young artist called Ariel Malca who has a new exhibit in the Shrine of the Book.It is a little hard to describe,but uses biblical texts moving over a landscape to convey the idea of the journey made by the Children of Israel on their way to the the land of Israel.That sounds crap but you really have to see what he did.Anyway we ended up talking about the lack of boundaries today between the different disciplines, since he doesn’t have any formal training ,either as an artist or as a techie. It was really cool.

Anyway when I got home I looked up some of the stuff including Barbara Kruger, and found a lot of really great stuff which I ‘d love to use in class. Maybe I will .

The ones that really caught my eye I have saved. Here’s one of them…
Barbara Kruger