Back in the Barn

Twenty-three hours in an airplane and 12,000 miles in two days is a bit of an ordeal, but we made it back and are now happily ensconced in our Kennedy-Warren apartment. Some of our beloved plants died due to lack of watering by our apartment sitter, who departed 12 days earlier than anticipated without letting anyone know, but otherwise things are fine except for the expected jet lag.

As our plane passed over the Blue Ridge Mountains at sunset on our descent to Dulles Airport, I felt the usual excitement that I feel when returning to the U.S. after a long trip. It is great to be back! I love our country. I love living in Washington. I love our family and friends and so many things about the life I have been given. I love our great president….

Just checking to see if you are awake.

We are returning to a country still dysfunctional with Trump again threatening another shutdown and/or using money earmarked for disaster relief due to “national emergency” so he can build his wall and appease his restless base.

And it appears that Mueller is getting closer and closer to issuing the long awaited report. 

Strange and fragile times, these times. If nothing else there is plenty of grist for the story mill and for  Faux News. 

Stay tuned.

Down Under 10: Perth

As the Indian-Pacific train slogged its way along the desert, stopping every couple of hours to pull aside to allow a freight train to pass on the single track, the flat, vast scenery remained unchanged until a little after one in the afternoon when miraculously trees—as in real trees, not scraggly, overgrown bushes—started to appear. Not long after that we began to see sheep grazing on brown grass in vast, arid pastures and then a paved road, a car, a pick up truck and, voila,a house. Civilization again! We were about a hundred miles from Perth, and small villages started to pop up as we got closer to the city. In an hour we were passing through typical suburbs of modest, ranch style homes and at 3:30 arrived at the small Perth train station where we said our goodbyes to the Indian-Pacific and to our fellow passengers as the train emptied and we went our separate ways.

Our separate way began with a bus tour of the city arranged by Indian-Pacific. We were joined by 20 or so of the departing 400 plus passengers and spent the better part of three hours touring the downtown area and some of the adjoining suburbs. It was another one of those “I had no idea” moments. Somewhere I had gotten the idea that Perth was a rinky-dink, small town on the coast. Hardly. In fact the city is a thriving metropolis with sparkling skyscrapers making it feel more like a Sydney or a Melbourne rather than an Adelaide. With a population of over two million it is pretty much tied with Brisbane as the third biggest city in Australia. What is rather amazing is that Perth is really the only game in all of Western Australia, accounting for more than 80% of the population of an area that includes about a third of the entire country. The balance is—you guessed it—the Outback. By all accounts that I have read, Perth is the most remote and isolated, large city on the entire planet.

What stands out most about Perth , however, is its extraordinary riverfront. The city is not a port. It is located about 10 miles from the Indian Ocean where the neighboring town of Fremantle serves as the  port city. That was the location of the America’s Cup races  in the early 1990s that featured Dennis Connors recapturing the cup from the Aussies, who had pulled off a major upset a couple of years earlier. Perth is located on the Swan River, which is the tidal estuary that flows through Fremantle and into the Indian Ocean. When the river reaches Perth, it opens up into a   bay, which in some places is more than a mile wide. It is the perfect location for small sailboat racing, which was happening all over the place in various spots.

Perth is also different from the East Coast cities in terms of climate. It has a rainy season from March through July, which is responsible for producing about 39 inches of precipitation, about what we get in Washington. The balance of the year is dry with clear skies most of the time and moderate temperatures. The hot day we encountered was something of an anomaly.  

Our bus ride took us past a major university and then to a large park on a steep hill overlooking the river with stunning views of the Perth skyline. We then wound our way through fancy, single family neighborhoods where all the houses were worth millions of dollars—all guides seem to be obsessed with how high housing values are—and then to two beach areas. Since it was Saturday afternoon and unusually hot with 95 degree temperatures, the beeches were packed with sun bathers and surfers. At six the driver started dropping people off at various downtown hotels and went out of his way to deposit us at a bed and breakfast about three miles from the downtown area.

There were two highlights of the Perth experience. The first was spending virtually the entire day, the day after we arrived, at a beautiful beach in Fremantle where we sat on the grass under the shade of a large tree in a manicured park area alongside the public beach. Embry got her swim in the Indian Ocean, and I just chilled out since I still have not completely recovered from the respiratory virus. Truth be told, we were both pretty exhausted by this time.  We  left Washington on December 22 and have traveled God knows how many miles and through eleven time zones, using almost every mode of transportation.  I could not help thinking, time for the cows to head for the barn. 

We did take a brief walk around Fremantle and stopped for a beer at a seaside bar, packed with Millennials. The actual port of Fremantle is pretty small, unsightly, and industrial, but the town is fairly quaint and worth a visit.

The other highlight was the bed and breakfast, a charming cottage nestled under a huge shade tree that resembled a live oak, located in a quiet, suburban community only a five minute walk to the local light rail station, which made it easy for us to get to Fremantle. The owners were retired farmers who had sold their sheep farm located on the coast about 50 miles north of town. They started the bed and breakfast about 15 years ago, permitting them to be near their children and grandchildren, who live in Perth. Two other guests were a German couple (husband a retired engineer and wife a retired nurse of Korean ancestry) spending several weeks touring Australia by car, and a middle-aged physician from Melbourne, who is a regular at the B & B when he visits his son and his family. The doctor from Melbourne pointed out that by missing the north coastal area (Darwin), the northeast rain forest, and the Great Barrier Reef, we could not truly understand the country. We told him those places would be on our agenda next trip to Down Under.

It did not take long for our conversation over breakfast to turn to Trump. As for almost all Australians and others we have chatted with over the past month, our president is a major worry, if not outright frightening. 

But not for all  Australians. I have already described one Trump supporter on the train; and our Uber cab driver, who gave us a ride to the airport this morning, is not only a Trump supporter, he is a conspiracy theorist who has “compelling evidence” that George W. Bush was behind the 9-11 attacks in order to gain popular support for invading Iraq. He is also bitter and angry, unlike almost all the other people we have met on this journey. His major source of news is the Russia Today channel, which he watches every day and maintains is the “only reliable source for news  you can trust.“ His two heroes are Trump and Putin. Chalk up another one for global dislocation and alienation.

So now we are headed home aboard an American Airline flight, which should deposit us in Los Angeles in about 15 hours, then a five hour flight to Dulles. Total flying time from Perth to DC, about 23 hours, not counting the transition time in Sydney and L.A. The total distance is about 12,000 miles. The cows are headed back to the barn. 

Thanks for following us on this journey. Put Australia and New Zealand on your bucket list. Long way to go but worth it.

Down Under 9: The Outback

So the question is why would any sane person under his or her own volition choose to spend two or three days imprisoned in a tiny train compartment, looking out at what has been described as the most isolated, abandoned, desolate, monotonous, god-forsaken and consistently boring landscape on the planet Earth. And the answer to this question is another question: how could you possibly understand the true Australia without experiencing first hand the Outback, which in terms of land area accounts for something like 95 percent of the country. How could you grasp the spiritual dimension of this place, the profound yet real inner force that gives the country and its people their character and raison d’etre, the very soul of Australia? 

So now that we have made this extraordinary journey in search of spiritual truth and profound understanding, do you want to know what we have learned and how this has changed our perception of the true Australia? The answer is this: The Outback is the most isolated, abandoned, desolate, god-forsaken, monotonous, and consistently boring landscape on the planet Earth. Any other questions?

But wait! There is something to this soul of Australia stuff.

When we boarded the train, it was dark and time for bed. We made our way to the lounge car and had a glass of wine while our compartment was being converted to a bedroom and when we awoke the next day got our first peak at the Outback. It is not that the landscape is all that different from what you can find in parts of Arizona, New Mexico, or Nevada, and most of it is beautiful in its own stark and often subtle way, which after a period of time tends to grow on you. In fact a good part of the trip, the landscape was very similar to Sedona with its red dirt and gently rolling hills and olive green and gray, tumbleweed-type cactuses and scrub trees that look a little like giant broccoli plants. Other parts were just endless stretches of flat land with brown sage punctuated by an occasional, scraggly tree. You wonder how it ended up where it did and how it survives. 

What makes the Outback different from these deserts in the U.S. and other places is the lack of any human activity or signs of life and the vastness of it all. It goes on and on and on. You also get the impression that it was just like this some 60,000 years ago when the first humans made their way here. There is literally nothing else quite like it on the planet Earth.

To say that there is no sign of any human activity or life, however, is not exactly right. During our two-day journey we did see two settlements of three or four dust-covered ranch houses with beat up, pickup trucks in front and observed a number of unused, dirt roads leading nowhere, some completely straight, leading as if to infinity, and others meandering through the cactus plants. But where are these roads going? Who uses these roads? Who owns this property and why? How do people living in the two settlements get their food? What do they do all day? These are the profound questions we were asking as our 30-car train made its way along the longest stretch of straight railroad track on the Planet Earth.

And, oh yes, we also saw six cows in a desolate field with no shade and no water and over a thousand miles from human activity. And a highlight of the trip: toward the end of the first day around twilight we got our first and only glimpse of kangaroos in the wild, a whole bunch of them, hopping around just like kangaroos are supposed to do. Another highlight: stopping in the middle of the desert at sunset with everyone piling out of the cars and then treated to a delicious meal of lamb and fresh vegetables served under the stars (and half moon) at picnic tables lined up beside the train. How they pulled this off remains a mystery.

So back  to the question of why people take this trip. First of all, this train had 30 cars, all but four  (the dining cars) were fully occupied by paying customers. I figure that comes to over 400 people. We were not alone. There is, however, only one train from Sydney to Perth  a week, so maybe 400 people is not such a big deal. Also, we were as far as I know the only Americans on board. I asked one of the attendants if Americans ever take this train and he said, “Oh, yes, six or seven months ago we had a couple, I think from Texas or someplace.” 

The vast majority were Australians who I believe were on the train to better understand their country and to have a good time, taking advantage of the free booze, good food and fellowship. Many seemed to be part of groups of four or five or six friends. A few were codgers like us with adult children. Even though school is out for the summer holidays, there were no teenagers or kids. We chatted with many Australians and also several Brits, a group from Japan, a couple from South Africa, another from Canada—except for the Japanese all connected by their Anglo heritage. Everyone was relaxed and friendly and seemed to enjoy each others company, getting to meet new people at meals or in the bar/lounge, and just watching the landscape go by. By the end of the trip I think we were all hooked. I certainly heard no one complaining.

 Bottom line: given the distance of the journey, the cramped quarters, the desolate landscape, there are a lot of other enjoyable things that people can do in Australia over a two or three day holiday. Few, I believe, are making this journey “for fun.” There are, I believe, other reasons, which are not the same for everyone but boil down to a search for understanding.

So should the Outback Indian-Pacific adventure be on your itinerary if you get to this country? Absolutely. Otherwise how else could you begin to understand the soul of Australia?

Down Under 8: Adelaide

Adelaide is Australia’s fifth largest city with 1.3 million people. (Brisbane and  Perth have about  two million each.) The next largest city does not even make it into the 500,000 person category. Over 60% of population of Australia lives in five cities and most of the rest in smallish towns. The population of the national capital, Canberra, is only a tad above 400,000.

Adelaide, the capital of the state of South Australia,  could well be Australia’s best kept secret. While it is very different from the world class cities of Sydney and Melbourne, almost a thousand miles to the east, there is a lot going on here, and it has a quiet vibrancy that in some ways is a welcomed relief from the hectic pace of the two big cities. The 30-minute cab ride from the airport into the center of town was along wide streets with little traffic and lined with  unsightly, light industrial buildings, fast food joints, car dealerships, warehouses, in-your-face billboards, and modest, ranch style homes with tile roofs,  all jammed together on tiny lots. You would be hard pressed to find a building over two-stories high. If you did not know better, you would swear you were in Texas or maybe Arizona.

The center of the city is a one square mile of mainly commercial buildings, few taller than eight or nine stories and no towering giants like you see in Sydney and Melbourne. Downtown Adelaide is completely surrounded by a series of connected parks, earning its description as “the only city in the world built in a park.” Trams connect the downtown with the beaches–supposedly some of Australia’s finest– about 10 miles to the south. A few older sections of 19thCentury buildings remain, giving parts of the city the flavor or an old fashioned, Western U.S. town, or a  Hollywood, cowboy movie set; and at the center of the city is a six or seven block pedestrian mall, jam packed with shoppers.

Our stay here was short and sweet since it was supposed to be the first stop on the Indian Pacific Railroad journey from coast to coast. When we learned that the first leg was cancelled we, booked a Sofitel on line, which turned out to be a five-star, yet surprisingly affordable, gem with large suites, a fabulous restaurant and great service. Since the Australian equivalent of the Tour de France was underway and centered in Adelaide, many of the hotel guests were bikers who had come to the city to watch the event. Most of our free time was spent walking the city in pretty oppressive 95-degree temperatures and visiting the city’s bustling central market.

At five we departed via cab to the train station where we were to start the 1,500 mile, abbreviated journey to Perth. The station was small and modest, resembling a typical U.S. railroad station and as far as I could tell used primarily for this one tourist excursion. The lobby was already filled up with people of varying ages, but a lot about our age, drinking champagne  and chatting, waiting for the sendoff dinner prior to boarding. We spent most of the time talking with a couple about our age from Holland, who had lived for 40 years in Washington as a World Bank family, then boarded a bus which took us through wine country and orchards to a hotel about 50 miles from Adelaide, located on a hillside looking down on the ocean. 

Great meal in the wine cellar with about 50 other travelers on our train, almost all Australians. The lady sitting next to me was a 91-year old widow of a postal worker, traveling with the youngest of her seven children, a guy in his late 50s. I pretty much got her life history, at least as much of it as I could make out over the deafening chatter of 50 people in a wine cellar. She was quite proud of all of her children, her 12 grandchildren and 25 great grandchildren, one of whom is now a student in DC. She was quite sharp and engaged, still living independently.

The middle-aged guy across from me and his wife  had recently returned from a trip to New York City, Las Vegas, and Montreal, and he was very enthusiastic about the U.S. When I apologized for our president, he politely volunteered that he and his wife were enthusiastic Trump supporters, which could and probably should have ended the conversation, which went something like this:

“You know, you are very lucky in the U.S. to have such a great president and a lot of  other Australians feel like I do.”

I grimaced and held my breath, but that did not keep him from continuing in his friendly, non combative manner.

“You know,” he said, “What we really like about him most of all is that he stands up for what he believes and tells the truth as he sees it. He supports the little guy. He fights against the Deep State. He is shaking things up just like he said he would. He is politically incorrect, and he even works without pay. If only we had a great leader like him in Australia. He is changing the world. What is really terrible in the U.S. is how the Fake News keeps giving him such a hard time.”

I decided not to take him on and quickly changed the subject to ask him about Perth, his hometown. 

Before talking about Perth, he added this, still talking with a friendly smile, “And you know what else he is doing? He is standing up against immigrants. Immigrants are trying to take over the world. They have to be stopped. Just look at what is happening here. Look at who walks the streets of Sydney and Melbourne. Trump is fighting the immigrants…”

So that’sit! So there is another side to the Australian experience. There is push back and unrest here, lurking in the shadows waiting to pounce when given the chance. So Australia is not that different after all from us or from Brexit-plagued Great Britain or Hungary or Poland or Germany where the Neo-Nazis are gaining strength or France where the Far Right is growing. Welcome to the Planet Earth in 2019. Globalization and the disruption it is causing are affecting every country. No exceptions. The only question is how we are going to get through this without catastrophic consequences.

We boarded the 30-car train around 10 PM and maneuvered our way into our private compartment with private bathroom and snuggled in for the beginning of our journey through the Outback to Perth.

Down Under 7: Leaving The Green East Coast

I am writing on the afternoon of  Wednesday January 16, which is actually Tuesday, January 15 in Washington. We are supposed to be  on a train passing through the beautiful Blue Mountains en route to Perth, about 2,000 miles to the west. Instead we are sitting in the Sydney Airport, waiting for a flight to Adelaide, delayed by two and a half hours and counting. Brush fires and excessive heat (110 degrees F) in the  Outback forced a cancellation of the train leg between Sydney and Adelaide so we are flying there in hopes of catching the train for the second leg of the trip to Perth.  This provides the opportunity for a few more impressions regarding our introduction to Australia.

Australia and the U.S. are about the same size, yet with 330 million people compared to Australia’s 25 million, we are more than 10 times larger. Imagine the U.S. with only New York, Boston, Miami and Los Angeles and a host of smaller cities under a half million each, all scattered about, mainly along the East Coast and the Gulf of Mexico. No Chicago, Saint Louis, Kansas City, Indianapolis, Dallas or Houston. Also imagine a country that was colonized by the Brits about 200 years after we were and where the Brits encountered a local, hunter-gatherer population which had been living more or less peacefully for at least 40,000 years and maybe as long as 60,000 years. Imagine a  country so remote from European civilization that almost 300 years after Columbus discovered America, it was still unknown by Europeans.

 The prevailing winds are from the east, bringing rain to the East Coast, then rising as they hit the mountains where they dump their remaining moisture, leaving the vast interior parched and dry. In so many ways the country seems so similar to the U.S.  but in other ways so different due to climate, location and history. The Australians escaped our horrible legacy of slavery and pride themselves, correctly or incorrectly, of being free from racism. Until recently—post World War II—except for the indigenous  population, whom they exploited and pushed aside—the country was pretty much lily-white. For the past 25 years, however, the changes have been dramatic.  In the 1980s, Sweden and Australia had populations of about eight million each. Today the population of Sweden is about nine million, Australia about 25 million, due primarily to immigration from all over the globe, producing what is now a multicultural, multi ethnic and multi racial population though Asian immigration far exceeds that from Africa, which has been minimal. In some ways it seems to me that the country represents a kind of new frontier, without all the baggage that we Americans carry. 

What they do with this freedom  from the baggage we Americans carry is a work in progress, though I think, hopeful. Crime is very low. Everyone over 18 votes or pays a $50 fine, and Big Money does not play much of a role in politics as it does in the U.S. People seem generally happy and positive, though admittedly this is hard to really know. They are certainly friendly and welcoming to tourists. A lot of people–especially 20 and 30 somethings– have great tans, great bodies, and walk around with backpacks or surf boards, smiling. Sort of reminds you of Southern California.

 The most pressing issue here concerns housing prices, especially in Melbourne and Sydney, which have skyrocketed since 2010 and have priced a lot of people out of buying a home. It is not clear what is behind this since the income profile of the country is not that much different from ours though median household incomes appear to be a tad higher and there is less disparity, all good things. However, where median home values in the U.S. vary from market to market, affordability for “typical,” middle income families has not been a major issue since the 2008 Meltdown. Almost every guide we had in both New Zealand and Australia talked about the “typical” million dollar home (which would translate to about $750,000 U.S dollars). Million dollar homes are not typical in the U.S. in most market areas. Mortgage debt is still readily available in  Australia and comprises a huge share of the economy. Young families now stretch to buy or rent homes and have diminishing funds available for other items after paying their monthly mortgage bill. Sounds a lot like a housing bubble to me. I suspect that a major factor is a lack of adequate, new housing production given the population increases due to immigration. Whatever the cause, this appears to be one of the top areas of concern with few government policies or programs in place to address the situation.

And finally a word about the opera. We saw Turandot (Puccini) last night, and it was fabulous. It was worth the price of admission just to get into the modern, somewhat stark and understated– but in my view stunning–opera hall. The staging, music and singing were, as expected, “world class.”  Also worth the price of admission was viewing the  attire of the audience. Anything now goes in Australia. Genes, tee-shirts, shorts, flip flops, spiked high heel shoes, smart casual, dumb casual, suits and ties, and a handful of tuxes and evening gowns.  I swear there were some dressed  in what appeared to be swim suits. New frontier, baby.

Down Under 6: Sydney

As the Orion  made its way north up the coast overnight, the fog burned off about 10 AM just as we approached the towering cliffs marking the entrance to Watson’s Bay, leading us  toward Australia’s largest city (5.1 million), Sydney, about five miles away at the western end of the bay. Winds had freshened to about 12 knots, and sailboats and ferries were scooting about in every direction under blue skies. In the background were towering skyscrapers, then the iconic opera house and the famous Sydney Bridge. Behemoth cruising ships dwarfing the Orion were docked along the quay. Yes, I had seen the photos and had an image in my mind of what it looked like, but have to admit, I was awestruck. Taking this one moment, seeing the harbor for the first time, you could say it was worth the price of admission— the cost, the 20-hour ordeal getting down to the Down Under, the jet lag, and the lingering, pesky, respiratory virus. I suppose you could say that this is why we humans—at least some of us—like to travel: to see what beauty the planet Earth has to offer. If you are a sailor like me, it does not get any better than the Sydney harbor.

Now I have already confessed that in typical fashion I had not done much homework in preparing for the Down Under adventure. After three full days in Sydney and saying goodbye to the Orion and our fellow Viking travelers, I found myself saying, “I had no idea.” I had in my mind that the entire country was arid with the coastal areas resembling southern California. Not so. The East Coast is green and lush and gets more rain than we do in DC. The northern coast, which is much closer to Indonesia than the southern coast is to New Zealand, is mostly rain forest. I had no idea of Australia’s beauty and diversity on its East Coast or the dynamism, diversity, and sophistication of its two major cities. I kept repeating, “Hey, these are world class cities, comparable in many ways to a Paris or a London or a Vienna or a St. Petersburg or a Shanghai or even a New York. But, of course, all these cities and other world class cities offer their own unique charms reminding–me, anyway–of the greatness that we humans are capable of and the many challenges we still face. 

My other observation, however, is exactly the opposite. Yes, while each of these world class cities is unique and special, in the era of globalization, cities all over the planet are looking more and more like each other. As I look out our window in the Marriott Hotel in downtown Sydney, I could be almost anywhere. I am not able to see the harbor and am surrounded by towers of glass, steel, and concrete with emblems you see in almost every world city: “Citi,” “HSBC,” “Ing,” “EY,” “ANZ,” “Emirates,” “PWC,” ”Westin,” and that is just what I can see from my window. The stores on the street below are also the ones that are ubiquitous in all major world cites: Louis Vuitton, Sachs, Gucci, H&M, Prada, Tiffanies, Victoria’s Secret, and, of course, McDonnell’s, Subway, Krispy Kreme, and KFC. People now pretty much dress the same way everywhere.  If you were to wake up in the middle of this bustling city and not get wind of  the language spoken or be able to see the harbor, you would be scratching your head, wondering, where am I. 

There have been many special things about our three-day visit here—a four-hour guided bus tour arranged by Viking, ferry rides to Manly Beach (30 minutes) and the extraordinary zoo (15 minutes), and good meals at local restaurants (one thing you really miss on cruises). The highlight of the Sydney stay so far was our lunch today with Richard, one of our son, Andrew’s, Australian friends who used to work for Citi. An internationalist who is married to a Japanese woman,  Richard has lived in South Africa and London, and visited half the major capitals in the world on business. He has resettled in Sydney, between jobs. We spent a leisurely two-hour lunch on the top floor of the historic Customs Building  overlooking the main harbor. There is a big difference between getting the spiel from a tour guide and talking with a local.

Yes, he agreed with my enthusiastic assessment of Australia’s charm, but pointed out that the problems we have in the U.S.  are found all over the world in varying degrees including Australia—growing income disparities, diminishing job opportunities due to immigration and global competition, and the major issues facing the planet like climate change. While we are all in this together, however, it is pretty clear that Australia has us beat on having a higher minimum wage (over $20/hour), better income support, a stronger safety net, free college, and universal health care at  little or no cost to the user. However, the aborigines issue still nags the country, whose record is about as bad as ours. Low income neighborhoods aren’t visible in the major cities (though can be found, he said, in outlying suburbs, small towns and in the Outback), and the cities are clean and efficient with very good public transportation.  There are no utopias on the  planet Earth. Some countries come closer than others, however, and Australia would seem from our limited exposure to be one of them.

Off to the opera tonight, then to Adelaide tomorrow.

Down Under 5: Melbourne

Soon after leaving New Zealand we began to encounter heavy seas and strong winds with lots of rocking and rolling. Moving along inside the ship from point A to point B was a challenge and usually required wall hugging, grabbing for railings when you could spot one, and staggering about like a drunken sailor. Despite this, the dining crew were somehow able to get food on the table without dumping the trays and  fed all who were able to make it—not everyone since plenty of tables remained empty. These conditions prevailed for three days forcing a cancellation of the Tasmanian stopover, which resulted in some grumbling, but given the weather, there was not much choice.

We sailed directly to Melbourne, taking a full three days and arriving a day early since we bypassed Tasmania. By the time the Orion maneuvered along the narrow channel, the winds had diminished to under 10 knots and the skyscrapers in this glorious city sparkled in the early morning sun. The main dining room serving breakfast was packed, and you could tell everyone was antsy to set foot on dry land.

Melbourne did not disappoint. While Viking had managed to pull together some last minute excursions for the unscheduled day ashore, Embry and I decided we would opt for exploring the city on our own. This was a bit of a challenge for me since I still have not quite recovered from the “acute bronchitis” as officially diagnosed by the ship’s doctor. We took the free shuttle to the downtown area and then found our way to the platform serving the free tram which you can pick up every 30 minutes or so. (We learned today that there are more trams in Melbourne than in any other city in the world.) The free tram makes a complete loop around the center city, allowing you to hop on and hop off at will. Our big hop off point was the national museum of history and culture, a stunning, modern building with lots of glass, which was described as the largest museum in the Southern Hemisphere. Lots of fabulous exhibits about rain forests , dinosaurs and the aborigines  people (who have not gotten a better deal from the Aussies than our Indians have from us). After spending a couple of hours in the museum, we decided to walk back through the city to the docks. Pretty stupid idea since I have been borderline disabled for the majority of the trip so far, but I am finally beginning to get my strength back and managed pretty well what turned out to be five miles, though I may still end up paying a price.

Melbourne is a very impressive city. With a population of about five million, it contains more that 20% of the population of the entire country and has the reputation of being the most cosmopolitan and European city in Australia. Towering glass skyscrapers are bunched into the center city area giving the skyline the look of the Emerald City of Oz. The population is much more diverse than what we observed in New Zealand with many more Asians and people with brown skin—not the diversity we have in New York or DC–but still you get the feeling of a very sophisticated, international  city. The few people we chatted with on the tram platform or in the museum were all friendly, helpful and welcoming. I could definitely see how an American could feel right at home here.

When we returned to the ship around five pm, a full fledged regatta was underway with over 50 sailboats of varying sizes—but mainly small—battling 20-knot winds up wind and flying downwind under full spinnakers of red, green, yellow and various other colors. I concluded that this was their version of Wednesday night racing, and what a thrill to see it! I recall a similar thrill in Auckland when we saw two ’95 America’s Cup boats match racing in the Auckland harbor. For a serious sailor, this part of the world is about as good as it gets.

Today, our second here, we took the scheduled tour of the city, which took us again to the busy downtown area making two hour-long stops at beautiful, large city parks that seemed manicured by U.S. standards. Temperatures both days hit the average highs for the season near 70F but the weather here fluctuates wildly. Our guide told us that last week it reached 107F, and two days from now is supposed to climb to near 100 again. Most of the time, however, like New Zealand, this time of year the weather   stays in the Goldilocks Zone. Average annual rainfall is 28 inches, mainly from summer downpours, well below our typical 39 inches in Washington. I chatted today with a fellow traveler who lives in California on the Monterey  Peninsula, who observed that the weather  we were experiencing was identical to what he gets at home.

Just starting this weekend is the Australian Open, the first of the Grand Slams, but we cast off for Sydney after dinner this evening, so we will miss it. 

Bottom line: beautiful city, spectacular modern skyscrapers, fabulous parks, livable neighborhoods, and the feeling of prosperity. Certainly there must be poor neighborhoods somewhere, but our guides did not appear to know where. But all is not lost: plenty of graffiti around, a little reminder that this we are not in the Land of Oz after all.

Down Under 4: The Ocean Cruise Mystique

Cruises are enormously popular today. And why shouldn’t they be? In contrast to our typical,  mundane lives filled with struggles, challenges and disappointments, a cruise ship experience offers a brief respite and a  glimpse of something else: call it the way life should  be. When you pass through inspection and are  awarded your boarding card, it is like entering a magic kingdom of make believe. You are greeted by a smiling, uniformed staff member, usually a gorgeous Asian woman, offered a warm, wet mini-towel  to freshen up with along with a cold, bubbly glass of Champaign. And that is just the beginning. When your room is available, your bags will be waiting for you, and you are ready to embark on a week  or two or three of living in the lap of luxury. 

Delicious, gourmet meals are only a few minutes stroll away in one of many superb dining venues. All free—or more aptly, included in the price of admission. And to quench your thirst? A bar at every turn. To assure you  never get bored, there is always an activity of some sort going on– a lecture, art class, concert, piano bar or a visit to the spa or gym or one of the swimming pools or hot tubs. A puzzle to work on, a game to play, a movie to watch, a great book to read as you lounge on deck and watch the waves to by. 

Miraculously, your room is cleaned every day and at night someone turns down your bed, leaving a wrapped piece of chocolate on your pillow.

Welcome to the Garden of Eden.

And all around you is a vast sea with dazzling blue waters, with cloudless skies and the endless rolling waves that are timeless and eternal. At night if you are  lucky and the sky is clear, you can gawk when seeing the Milky  Way and thousands and thousands of twinkling celestial bodies, all providing a reminder of  how vast and mysterious our universe is.

And what about the people on this vessel? You are not alone in this alternate “ocean cruise universe” where almost everyone is friendly and courteous. If you are lucky like me, you will be with your spouse or significant other; but even if you are not, there are gatherings for singles groups and chances for romance. The people you meet casually tend to be from towns and cities all across the U.S. and beyond, people who have led interesting lives and have been successful—or at least have made enough money to afford the experience. No one talks politics. I do not believe I have heard Trump’s name mentioned once. No one ventures into controversial subjects. Everyone seems mellowed out. Everyone seems happy.

You wonder: why can’t all life be like this? Isn’t this the way life was really supposed to be. You know the story. Everything was fine before Eve ate the apple and then look where we ended up.

Sounds too good to be true? Pollyannaish? Escapist? Self indulgent? Irresponsible?

Yes, to all of the above, but still. There is something going on here that makes an experience like this  special.

Lest you misunderstand me, I do acknowledge that there is another lens to use when trying to understand the cruise mystique. It takes a “village” to make this experience so enjoyable. The “Orion” carries 900 passengers. Over 500 crew do the heavy lifting to make it happen. Most of these people are in their 20s and 30s,  and come from developing countries where there is also great poverty—like  the Philippines, Indonesia, Eastern Europe, Vietnam, South Africa, and even China. It is very hard work and requires being away from family for long periods. They do not make a whole lot of money but are hopeful, upbeat, and optimistic and see this as their ticket to a better life. They are a reminder, however, of the inequities of the real world. Also cruise guests are rich by world standards. It is an experience open only to those with the money to afford it, which is a fairly small percentage of even the U.S. population and a much smaller percentage of all people living on this planet. Furthermore, on this cruise we have seen only a small handful of guests with black or brown skin. We are (sadly) part of an exclusive club. Life is not just.

But let’s take closer look: who really  are the people who take these cruises anyway? In the case of this Viking Cruise, they are people just like Embry and me–old, white codgers, trying to squeeze the last drops out of the lemon. I do not have the actual numbers but am willing to bet that fewer than 10 percent are still working. My guess as to median age would be early 70s. We are a de facto,  retirement community! In short, we old folks have the demographic profile that makes us prime targets for cruise ship marketing. We are among the few who have  both the time and the money. We are the lucky ones.  

At our age most of us, however, also know deep down that there may not be a whole lot of additional cruises beyond this one. Not a lot more water left in this bucket. You look around and see a lot of gray hair but not that many 80-year olds, and no walkers or wheel chairs. Yes, there is a limit as to how long we humans can  keep going.  Do the arithmetic, as they say: average life expectancy less your actual age equals estimate of time left. Not a lot of years left for the average passenger on this vessel. But that is ok. That is life on the  planet Earth. We are still going strong. That is what counts. We are the lucky ones.

Down Under 3: En Route To Tasmania

We are back  aboard the Viking ship, “Orion” and I am in the Explorer’s Lounge, located on deck 7 (out of 9) next to a huge window providing a panorama of the vast South Pacific. The seas have calmed down from raging 30-plus knots to around 10 knots though huge 20-foot swells remain. The sky has turned blue again, turning a gray sea to azure. Samuel Barber’s “Adagio in Strings” is playing in the background. And the crew has started to retrieve the “sea sickness bags” that have been placed in hallways, next to elevators and stairways and almost everywhere you can imagine.

Life is good.

What has not been so good for the past week is my health though I am  pleased to announce that the ship’s doctor has determined that I do not have pneumonia, only a nasty respiratory virus, which he is treating with daily inhalation treatments. Given how the trip began with essentially four straight days of constant vigorous activity,  few opportunities for rest and a 20-hour, six time zone, jet lag,  I suppose a physical meltdown for me was pretty much inevitable. I can almost hear my friend and blog commentator, Dr. Killebrew, remarking, “Duh.”

So what about New Zealand? It now seems a blur. While I did spend several days holed up in our cabin causing me to miss three excursions, I did manage to drag myself along on three and consider the New Zealand leg a success, all things considered. Given its small size (about the same as Colorado) and population of fewer than five million, it surely is in competition for first place for the most beautiful country on Earth if measured on a per square mile basis. The country has it all, rain forests, mountains, volcanoes, meadows and pastures, thriving coastal towns, and thousands of coves and anchorages—the whole package.. New Zealanders are friendly and outgoing,  welcoming of tourists, tolerant and progressive. There is no apparent poverty staring you in the face. Certainly not a utopia but as for life on the planet Earth, well, from the superficial perspective of this tourist, it would appear to be about as good as we can do. (I will post photos when I can figure out how to do it. Hopefully guest blogger, Embry, will weigh in with more insights.)

More to follow on the cruising experience.

Embry’s Blog Post: An Armchair Sociologist’s View of New Zealand

Since the Captain is under the weather, he has asked me to be a “guest blogger” on Faux News.  And since I am a certified “Faux Armchair Sociologist,” I am going to give you a truly Faux Sociological view of New Zealand.  (Actually I am not trying to be “Faux,” but since I have only been here for 5 days so far, my investigations are certainly likely off base to a “Vrais” sociologist.)

What I find most interesting in New Zealand so far, in addition to the spectacular scenery and generally prosperous and relaxed life style, is the relationship between the minority groups and the “Pākehā,” or white people.  The most influential minority group are the Maori people, who were the inhabitants of New Zealand when white people arrived in the 17thcentury. The Maori are Polynesians who had been here since about 1300 (exact date of their settling the previously unoccupied islands is unsure).  They comprise about 15% of the population. The history of Maori interactions with white (mainly English/Scottish) early settlers has many similarities to the interactions between whites in the U.S. and Native Americans.  This includes broken treaties, stolen land, and wars. However, currently (after wars and disease) Native Americans comprise only 2% of the U.S. population, and thus have less political clout than Maori who are more similar to the U.S. proportion of African Americans. 

Beginning in the 1960s, the Maori have used legal means to seek reparations for their stolen land, similar to the movement in the U.S. to bring about restitution for the horrors of slavery or to seek restitution for broken treaties with Native Americans.  However, in the case of the Maoris, they had a single treaty—the Treaty of Waitangi of 1840– to use as a better political tool to negotiate, and have had considerable success.  This treaty with the British Crown was signed by most of the Maori tribal chiefs.  In 1975 New Zealand passed the Treaty of Waitangi Act, whereby any Māori can take a claim to the Tribunal that they have been disadvantaged by any legislation, policy or practice of the Crown since 1840. The Tribunal does not enforce the law, but has the power to make recommendations to the government.  This is somewhat similar to the Peace and Reconciliation process in South Africa, by providing an opportunity to have disputes aired and discussed in an open forum. It has also led to considerable return of tribal lands to the Maoris, as well as returned fishing and logging rights and individual reparations. My impression is that this is leading to a slow process of integration in New Zealand society with reduced disparities (documented by a great increase in income among the Maori  over the past 15 years than for the Pakeha/white people).  New Zealand also has a large immigrant population, an additional 15+%, with most immigrants coming from other Pacific Islands such as Samoa and Fiji. These Pacific Islanders do not have the Waitangi Act reconciliation process to fall back on in their attempts to achieve equality of opportunity.  They seem to be more like the Latino population of the U.S. in terms of socio-economic disparities.

To demonstrate this, here are the median personal incomes of the three New Zealand ethnic groups (from 2013), reflecting continuing disparities in New Zealand society:

  • $30,900:European
  • $22,500:Māori
  • $19,700:Pacific peoples. 

Corresponding personal income data for the U.S. (for 2008):

  • Non-Hispanic Whites: $31,313
  • Blacks: $18,406
  • Hispanics: $15,674.

As a health researcher I was particularly interested in health outcome disparities. I found  that Māori infant mortality (8.1 per 1000 live births) was significantly higher than that of non-Māori infants (5.0 per 1000 live birth)s, but a bit better than our disparities in the U.S., where black babies are still nearly 2.5 times more likely than white babies. Of course many other factors, such as New Zealand’s universal health system, could play into this better outcome.

Thus, our racial/ethnic disparities in the U.S. are greater (although not by a lot).  Your friendly armchair sociologist, concludes that New Zealand seems to be further along in reducing the profound racial/ethnic divide that plagues both our countries.  Has the Waitangi Act process helped?  I think so, but this may be Faux News.  Well, you are used to that from this blog, so take it all with a grain of salt, and as food for thought about what this means for proposals for reparations in the U.S.