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Well it's been an interesting week.

My left little finger is more crooked than ever. Up in Rockhampton two weeks back - and didn't I wish I was back there a couple of nights ago with the wind and the rain and the cold here in Canberra - I managed to bump my finger awkwardly on the handbrake in my brother's 4WD. I was reaching for the seatbelt catch, I think, and my body didn't realise it wasn't in the familiar shape of the taxi.

Hurt like blazes and I said a word or two I shouldn't have with my nephew sitting beside me. Thought I'd broken it, but Kerri tells me the tendon is partially detached, and if I leave it alone it may heal up.

Think I'd be used to strange cars. I would have driven fifteen or twenty different cars in nine different countries over the past year, some of them very strange indeed, with the stalks on the wrong sides, not to mention the steering wheels, but, here I am, undone by a handbrake.

My laptop is still in being repaired. All the travel has gotten to the Mac Air, skinny thing it is, and the hinges collapsed and eventually the screen flickered and went dark. In the meantime, I'm using Kerri's, and when she's using her computer, I've lashed up another from bits around the house. It's an old Windows XP box, and I hooked it up to my son's old monitor. Then I found a keyboard for it. A wireless keyboard, so I had to find the dongle for it and stick it into one of the two USB slots in front.

Couldn't even log on without a mouse to move the cursor to the button, so I hunted around and found a wireless mouse from my old Vista laptop, nice little bit of junk that was, bluescreening and freezing.

Right. That's two different wireless dongles filling up the two USB slots.

Try to get onto the internet, but it can't access the home network, not having a wireless adaptor, and so I find the wireless dongle from the Air, which you will remember is off being repaired.

Needs a USB slot, and both of them are occupied.

Right. I hunt up an old expansion thingie, which plugs into one of the slots, but gives me four more for a net gain of three. Sweet. I sit that on top with all the other leads and dongles and plug my wireless network dongle in. Now I'm online and all is good.

Just want to charge up the iPhone now, so I get out the cable, plug it into one of the proud array of USB slots, and it tells me I need more power. So I have to hunt out the AC adaptor, in a house where AC adaptors of every size and voltage lurk in the corners, some of them going back well into last century, and find a spare power point to plug that into.

The spare power point is on an expansion powerboard plugged into another one, I need hardly mention.

About this time, with everything humming along nicely and the air so full of wireless and the room so full of cables there's not much af anything left over for an actual person, I notice that the rear of the computer box has four USB slots going to waste.

Powered USB slots, I make no doubt.

Ah well, at least it all works, and we won't mention that I was downloading a new virus protection program when I was juggling everything around and interrupted the download and had to start it again and I now have zero confidence that I'm protected from anything at all, so I'm not keen to turn it on and oh how I wish the computer repair place would ring and tell me that my dear sweet little Mac is fixed and can I come over and take it back off their hands?

There's the buying of the new house going on fine, with the forms to be lodged and the signatures to be witnessed and never a clerk to copy down a name correctly or get the numbers right. There are numbers so big I'm thinking I could never drink all that much beer, not if I enlisted my son and we passed on the job to grandchildren yet unborn.

Between the houses and the mortgages and the insurance and the curtains and the credit cards, we are going to be so filthy rich we'll have to save up for a cup of coffee to share between us, Kerri and I.

The children brag about their paypackets, and I moan about how if one more passenger pays for a $7.50 fare with a fifty dollar note, I'm going to have to pay them out in five cent pieces. I've got a mountain of five cent pieces. They are useless for parking meters and vending machines, the new meter in the cab doesn't even count in five cent increments and there's nothing to do with them but save them up and pad out the milk bill with them, the milk delivery business being conducted entirely by fifteen year old children running down driveways in the dark, thinking that if the little plastic bag is extra heavy this week it's probably got a lot of money in it.

It got to the stage last week where my coin dispenser was empty of everything but five cent pieces and a few tens. I had a ten dollar note that I tried to feed into the change machine at the airport for some two dollar coins to help me out but it wouldn't accept my poor scraggly note. Or - more likely - the machine was out of gold entirely, having been emptied by equally desperate but somewhat speedier cabbies.

Last night some darling old lady, paying a small fare coming home from the club, apologised for having to pay with a handful of coins. I almost leaned over and hugged her, and blessed her so many times as she was getting out of the cab she is going straight to heaven.

OK. I worked out how I can afford a coffee. Eighty five cent pieces will buy me a slender latte at the bakery.


Sep. 4th, 2010 09:50 am
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Andy was the first friendly face in America. Oh, there were people smiling and chatting. Mostly in uniform as I went through immigration in Los Angeles and was chivvied on to my onward flight. But when I finally found the luggage carousel at Dulles, there was Andy, watching my big yellow bag go round, looking to see who would claim it.

I was so glad to see a friend after the longest, most exciting and confusing Friday of my life, I nearly hugged him.

If I saw him now, I wouldn't hold back, and I wouldn't let go.

Andy is everything that makes America great. A lifetime in rescue and public service, a thoughtful disciple of the great fathers of democracy, a warm, caring helper of people in distress, and above all, a family man.

He was the American Dream, and he showed me his suburban kingdom with pride. Beautiful house on a quiet street, two cars, a cat and a dog, a sweet and charming wife, and the real joy of his life, almost lost against the walls covered in their photographs, his two daughters. The pride on his face when he talked of them was like the sun coming up.

Two total darlings, keen to sample the Tim Tam chocolate biscuits of a visiting Aussie, happy to hear tales of a strange land where kangaroos jumped past Parliament House and the stars formed a bright cross in the night sky.

Becky and her older sister had their parents sussed out. Andy would look gruff as he ordered them to finish their homework or take themselves off to bed, but Becky would grin at me - she knew that her father's frown would melt in a moment if she gave him a hug.

I've met Andy and his family several more times since then. Once in Sydney, a couple of times we drove down to Charleston together, and most recently last year when I collected Discoverylover from her rural Girl Scout camp and we drove to Andy's place for a backyard barbecue, the warm twilight fragrant with cooking and surprising little zips of light under the trees.

Becky gently caught something out of the air, and showed it to me on her palm, the first firefly I'd ever seen. It flashed off and on before she released it to join its mates in the dusk.

Next morning, I prepared the rental car to drive to the airport for my next flight. Becky climbed into the boot, saying that she wanted to come back to Australia with me.

A few days ago we heard the news from Washington, devastating in the few choked words Andy posted. Becky had been riding her bike and been struck by a car. She was dead.

My heart went out to Andy, his wife and surviving daughter. I couldn't bear to think of the pain they would be suffering, and would continue to feel as the autumn leaves fell into a cold and empty winter.

Kin, friends, church and community gathered around, a comfort to the family as they went through the necessary rituals. I sent some money to the local BookCrossing group for a basket of fresh fruit - flowers wither, but fruit is a symbol of life continuing - but Andy with a shadow of his usual good humour protested that the house was so full of food gifts already that any more would surely spoil before anyone could touch it.

A flicker of brightness. Becky is in her coffin, but not entirely. She was an organ donor, and three other children have received a precious gift from her.

In the dark and emptiness, I feel the happiness of having known Becky, a joyous soul, her bright eyes and cheery smile forever a spark in my memory.

I looked in the Australian sky, and renamed the brightest star in the Southern Cross after her. I won't forget her spark, not while I have eyes to gaze up to heaven, and a heart to feel the hole Becky has left.

-- Skyring

(Cross-posted from
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I just tried to share a FO post, and it looks like the share buttons become inoperable when there is any level of privacy. Seems like a good move.
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Absolutely Faking ItAbsolutely Faking It by Tiana Templeman

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This travel book is about people as much as places. The travellers and the people they met, in grand hotels or dusty hovels around the world, found that it isn't the uniform or the smelly t-shirt that makes the person, it is the spark of friendship that counts.

Winning the holiday of a lifetime - stays in a dozen of the Leading Hotels of the World - with economy class airfare and enough spending money for a pizza now and then made for an entertaining trip. The holiday of a lifetime was certainly that, but perhaps not in the way originally envisaged!

Torture in Turkey, missed connections, encounters with assault gun-toting soldiers, lost luggage, sudden sickness, rustbucket boats and planes, soakings... This could be the holiday from hell!

But it's also fabulous views from vast suites, exquisite service, meals to die for, unexpected friendships, lazy days lounging around the pool, private tours of incredible sites. And sights.

This is a down-to-earth look at places most of us can only dream of, whether they are the Ritz or the Peninsula, waterfalls that make Niagara look sick or ancient cities stretching across the empty Syrian sands.

I learnt a lot about places and people from this book, and it's a pleasure to have a friendly Aussie guide.

Some readers have moaned a little about the trouble Tiana takes to try to fit in. A backpacker at the Ritz. Embarrassment and uncertainty are big themes in this book, especially at the beginning. But isn't that what this book is all about? If it was some jetsetter jotting down notes on the five star hotels along the way, it wouldn't be worth reading. It would be pretentious. It would be flung out the window.

The charm of the story lies in the unexpected serendipity of it all. The grand prize falling in the laps of two people who have to count every cent along the way.

As an aside, this book came to me quite by chance, at a Canberra meetup of BookCrossers, swapping books. You can always find the BookCrossing table - it's piled high with books, and the people who might have been strangers moments before are chatting about Jane Austen - or Dan Brown - and the adventures of the books rival the narratives.

The book was bought on a flying visit to Australia by New York based Cari. I first met her at a Canberra BookCrossing meetup, and since then I've gasped at her amazing travels. She's seen more of my country than I have myself, and when she showed me around Hiroshima and I was reduced to an emotional wreck, it was her fourth time and she was keener on capturing the pink perfection of the sakura cherry blossoms. Not unmoved, just making the best use of the moment.

It was fun to see her excited over being at the top of the Empire State Building. She pulled out her phone and called her Mom. Even though she was a New Yorker born and bred, it was her first time as much as mine.

And, in a fore-echo of this book, the last time I saw Cari was last July, when she took us out to a Mets ballgame and we showed her around our hotel room. Our room at the Waldorf-Astoria.

We might have checked in clad in cargo pants, our colourful nylon bags humbling us, smuggled in Subways and refrained from ordering room service coffee, but it was still the Waldorf, snapped up in an unbelievable online deal, and we HAD to show it off!

Since finishing this book, somewhere over the Pacific on a day made fuzzy by the dateline, Cari has passed it on to BookCrossers around the world. Netherlands, US, Poland, Japan, back to Australia... Absolutely Faking it

The book's travels mirror those of the author!

Bottom line? It's not great literature, and to tell the truth I find the sort of breathless-Aussie-girl-exploring-the-world style of travel writing a teeny bit irritating, but the story itself is well worth the reading. Why? Because why is that we've all looked at the competitions for these amazing prizes and dreamed of winning it. Well, Tiana won the prize, and she has shared it with us. We could be walking through those golden doors in our sweaty shorts and torn t-shirts, and the way she tells it, we are.

Here are the photographs that go with the book, including the glorious photograph that sealed first prize, taken by the photographer husband of the writing wife: Absolutely Faking It Photographs

And here is Tiana's travel blog. Looks like she has found her niche and loving it! Every Day is a New Adventure

View all my reviews
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I'm not the eager cabbie I used to be.

When I first had my taxi licence, I was working six twelve-hour night shifts a week. I was raking in the money.

Now, it's different. There are about twice as many cabs on Canberra's roads and it's rare to have the sort of peak hour frenzy or Sunday morning cab queue that I cut my taxi teeth on.

I'm also paying a lot more attention to my family.

They warned us about it in cabbie school, and I've seen too many cabbies run into marital difficulties. The long shifts, the fatigue, the stress.

As the old lament of the shearer's wife goes:
Friday night too tired,
Saturday night too drunk,
Sunday too far away.

Over the years of cabbing I've cut back a lot. Most recently, I've given up the lucrative Friday and Saturday night shifts. Nor do I stay out until four in the morning to hand over to the day driver. Sure, I'm missing out on money, but I'm better off for it.

I have a family.

It wasn't fair for my family that they should spend their weekends tip-toeing around the house so that I could get some sleep. And that when I woke up, I'd get into my taxidriver uniform and head out onto the streets, coming home at dawn and falling into bed exhausted.

It wasn't fair on me either. Taxidriving is unhealthy enough without adding constant exhaustion to the long idle hours, the junk food, the supernormal amounts of caffeine.

So now I have a life, and I have fun.

And, to be honest, with about a bazillion cabs on the road, there isn't the financial rewards of staying out after midnight. I often spent a couple of hours sitting on the main cab rank, slowly moving up and then getting a fare that was only a few dollars.

I could do better than that. I could spend that time tucked up in bed.

I've given up my Friday and Saturday night shifts in favour of doing family type things. Shopping, browsing through galleries, having a family dinner with a bottle of wine and candles on the table. My two kids live at home and now that they are grown up, they are a pleasure to be around. Not that they weren't as children, just that nowadays we can have grown-up discussions. Set the world to rights over a good bottle of Shiraz.

There are things in life more important than money, and nowadays I'm happy, my family is happy too, and that's really what it's all about, isn't it?
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Coming back from Queensland I took photographs of my airline meals, as I generally do. In fact I often take photographs of my meals out, if they are at all interesting in place or kind or size, which is where my shockingly neglected blog comes in.

I have an idea for another blog, just as an aside here. I've got the domain registered and I'm playing around with a few ideas.

When I get time. My own computer with the busted hinges finally flickered and lost it on Sunday, so it's in at the repair shop. It's been around the world three and a half times, and spent just about every night of two years knocking around my cab, usually pushed down beside the passenger seat, so it's done well to last this long.

Got home - I all but clung to the flight attendant when the time came to get out and walk across the tarmac in Canberra, begging her to take me back to Queensland - and voted. I was naughty. "You've got my vote!" I said to one of the two major party reps as I walked in.

"I put your guy last!" I told the Green on leaving. I like Bob Brown personally, but the Green policies make no economic sense to me.

In fact I voted Independent in House and Senate, but you've got to put one major party above the other, and I put Liberal ahead of Labor both times. Do my bit to encourage Independents, and make Canberra as marginal as possible.

Besides, I really wanted Julia Gillard to do well, but she has just totally been the party slogan machine. Her vision for Australia seems to exist entirely of getting elected and she will say anything, make any promise, attack any opponent to make it so.

Not that Tony Abbott is hugely inspiring in himself, but I see him as having more character. He ran a very good campaign, looking more and more the Prime Minister every day.

As it turned out, watching the election night coverage, where the experienced commentators refrained from calling the outcome and no concession or victory speeches were made by either major party leader, it was Independents' Day.

The decision on who will form government will rest in the hands of three Independents from regional Australia. I'm hoping that this will lead to a lot more open-ness and honesty in government. At the very least, it's one in the nuts for the big parties.
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Friday: a day of work.

About ten years ago, we bought a cottage in Rockhampton for Mum. She was living south of Brisbane away out in the sticks, a long way from any services, and we persuaded her to move up to Rocky where Brother and Big Sister were living. We found a sweet little house across from the Botanic Gardens in a nice area of town for her.

It had a bit of a garden under a big old poinsettia tree in the back yard, the dog could romp around and be taken for walks, there was a guest bedroom and a converted carport for storage.

The first rains exposed some problems. The carport/laundry/library flooded and the roof leaked.

Not good.

We had the roof replaced and drainage boosted. Later work on the rotting kitchen floor and an airconditioner to defray the fierce tropical summer. Screens to keep out the mozzies.

But with Mum's increasing frailty, it became clear that her days of living alone in a cottage where the task of opening the windows was a serious chore were numbered. Brother found her a place in his house, and my siblings set about moving Mum's furniture and belongings out.

They worked mightily, but there was still a reasonable amount for myself and Little Sister to complete.

First step was to go around and see what had to be done. Little Sister realised, just as we pulled up outside, that she had forgotten the key, but one window was slightly ajar, and lithe nephew squeezed through to open the door for us. He liked that!

Lots of books - old books, mostly - some whitegoods, a couple of cupboards full of sewing and knitting goods, papers, random household items. A bit of cleaning.

Next step was to borrow another vehicle from Brother. He runs a business supporting the mining industry, and has a warehouse crammed full of interesting equipment. Trucks and forklifts and palletlifters to ferry it about. And a line of utes and 4WDs on the empty lot across the road.

He handed me the keys to one - a workhorse with a keyring made from a chunk of crocodile in a very Central Queensland fashion - and we had just enough time for a stop at Dad's retirement home before starting work.

Quite an impressive facility, actually. Sparkling clean, roomy, airy, thoughtfully laid-out and equipped, pleasant gardens. Big Sister sounded like she was on the point of moving in herself.

Then back to Mum's house, to finish off the morning. We made up two carloads - one of things for the dump, and another of items to be saved. I'm king of the clutter merchants myself, and over the years I've dealt with the problem by upsizing each new house. I probably don't need my bank statements from the 1980s, and I know I've got clothing from the same period which long since ceased to fit me.

Mum's much the same. Luckily my sister is a hard-headed woman and could make the decisions I'd evade. Nephew and I were instruments of destruction, flinging old rubbish out onto the municipal tip. It reminded me of my childhood days, where Dad would take a few boxes of rubbish to the dump, and then we'd happily clamber over the mounds of garbage, retrieving anything that looked interesting. A box of old paperbacks, a bag of faded Lego, a rusty pogo-stick, a pristine Doobie Brothers LP. Those were the days before tipshops and their dayglo-vested workers claimed all the good junk for themselves.

Back to Mum's for lunch - pies from the local bakery and fish and chips from the takeaway, appropriately junk food washed down with Sarsaparilla and Passiona - and then back into the fray. We reached the stage where what was left was for a local charity to look over, and we could think of brooming the place out.

Final trip to the rubbish tip. Nephew was deep into his narrative of space battles and robots, I'd found a Country and Western radio station, the afternoon was pleasantly warm, and I had a glow of achievement about me. We returned the ute to Brother, found a pizza shop, ordered up a couple of hot ones, drove back home and fell into bed.

I love Rockhampton in winter. It's a bustling town nowadays, with the mining boom. Plain restaurants selling good food, plenty of beautiful old pubs, parks green and lush, a row of glorious stone buildings from the old colonial days lined up on the bank of the Fitzroy, a pedestrian mall in the middle of town.

I left Queensland for Canberra twenty-five years ago, but my heart remains north of the Tweed. At least in winter.
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Morning on Thursday, and the living was easy. Tea around the table, then I accompanied Mum for a walk around the house out in the sun. She sets a fair pace with two walking sticks twinkling away. Another walk up and down the street with red-head nephew. There's some sort of radio transmitter in a cow paddock, stretching away up skyscraper high, and we decided it was an alien landing beacon with a helicopter landing pad on top.

Nephew is big into Star Wars and Star Trek and has the toy collection to prove it. We walked along the parched street talking about space battles, having a fine time.

Lunch was a birthday treat out at Yeppoon, but first we had to get there via Big Sister's house in Rocky. The car she was driving is all buttons and electronics with a builtin satellite navigation screen and we had to work it out on the fly. I'm still convinced that it was pure chance we ended up at the right place. That's my usual method of navigation in Rockhampton. It's all built on a grid system and you just point yourself in roughly the right direction and knightsmove until you arrive.

We set the GPS for Yeppoon, but it's no chore to follow the highway out, and Middle Sister was leading the way. Brother was batting cleanup in an orange V8 behind us, a rumble on the roads. I got to sit in the back and watch ranga lad fill up an old notebook of mine - from when I was eight years old - with pencil plans of spaceships and aliens and scenes of starcruisers spitting out streams of laser bullets. He's got a talent, that one!

Footlights Theatre Restaurant is an odd sight in sleepy Yeppoon, but it was a good choice for a lazy lunch. The tables line up towards a stage and the walls are covered with posters and old-timey signs. "Gentlemen should Refrain from Cursing" "The Waitresses are Not to be Trifled with" "Larrikins Will be Ejected".

We were eleven at our table for lunch, and a larger group came for afternoon tea. We had our first two courses, then a film short and the show, and then dessert. The other group had the show followed by their tea.

It was quite a long affair, actually, and we chatted and played a silly word game, making sentences out of nouns. My red-headed Middle Sister declared she was feeling a bit off-colour, so I pointed at her, saying, "Ginger ails."

She groaned and pointed at the upright on stage. "Piano stools."

Oh, yuk!

The waitress bustled around serving out the food. Vegetable soup and a roll for starters, and a choice of Chicken Mornay or Roast Pork for the main.

The film was an old Buster Keaton short, funny and foolish and full of sight gags.

Then the show began, our waitress transformed into Ma, from the well-known Snake Gully world of Dad and Dave. For my American readers, think Ma and Pa Kettle, and you won't be too far off. Mabel was a buxom young farmgirl, all double entendres skipping over the head of Ma mixing up the damper. Dave came home, a couple of milk cans in hand, dropping them in surprise at the sight of Mabel chatting up a male audience member.

Don't sit in the front row for a show like this, that's all I'll say!

There were a half-dozen skits, funny songs, and assorted foolishness. Some of the costumes were inventive, such as the diminutive male actor almost completed covered in plaster and bandages. A cast member, to be sure. He was good, nearly toppling off stage as he wobbled on his crutches.

He came out again, white jacket and bow tie, singing a song, and I waited for the comedy to begin, but he sang it serious. Annie's Song, and he was good. I was lost in my thoughts of my lady far away.

And then it was over. Dessert was served. "Apple Crumbles!" I exclaimed to the actress/waitress, but she missed it.

I got a CD of songs and a DVD of the skits for Dad, who had been singled out repeatedly from the stage as a birthday boy. And then away home for a quick tea.

Baby Sister drove me back into Rockhampton for a sibling talk, where we sorted out plans for the future and our next gathering. My suggestion for Paris met with widespread approval, so long as I paid for it.

Dinner was at a Stonegrill restaurant north of the river. This was a new one on me. You order a cut of meat - or fish or some vegetarian concoction - and it comes out served on a sizzling hot holystone sprinkled with salt. You immediately turn the meat over to sear the second side, and then slice off pieces to cook the sides for the half hour or so the stone remains hot. Kind of like a Korean Barbecue, except the stone is on a tray brought out from the kitchen.

And absolutely delicious. I had an eye fillet with was tender and tasty. You order the sauce you want - I had mushroom - and it comes out cold in a little ceramic container which you put on a corner of the stone to heat up for spreading on your meat, or dipping it into. Chips or veges or salad on the side.

Makes for a simple kitchen service, lots of fun, and food cooked exactly as and when you like it.

Then home again to bed.
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Canberra is cold in winter. I know, I've got friends who chuckle at the thought. The rivers don't freeze, the snow melts when it hits the ground, snowploughs aren't parked in squadrons at the council workshop etc.

But for Australia, it's cold.

And that makes the annual trip up to Rockhampton a pleasure in its own right. Sooooo good to wear light clothing and to feel the heat of the sun. Mind you, in summer it's a different matter, and the humidity, let alone the heat, lays waste to we southerners.

Still, I regard Queensland as paradise in winter. Kerri's parents on the Gold Coast, and mine in Rocky, just north of the Tropic of Capricorn, and the living is easy.

Kerri came up with me for my high school reunion last month, and we staid with her father in Southport, so she declined to take three or four days off work for the Rockhampton trip. And when the kids discovered that I wouldn't pay for their airfares, they decided the money was better spent on their joint mortgage. Besides, they are also saving for the April trip, and I'm going to have to count my careful pennies too. So it was just me this time.

Darling Daughter took me to the airport and she hit a wrong turn and we had to go round and round before finding the carpark. Canberra Airport is about 110% temporary roadworks full of potholes and bollards and crash barriers in red and white and confusing signs. I know my way around, because I'm out there several times a day, but every day is a new adventure, and if you haven't been for a year or so you could think it was a different place entirely. We often see old Canberra hands, out to collect Aunt Judy from Perth late at night, and they are driving the wrong way, heads out the window trying to make sense of the confusion, parking where they shouldn't and getting parped at by rude taxidrivers.

The new terminal building - or at least the first stage - will be open next month, so it was probably our last time in the Business Lounge. The view is lousy and the food not much chop, and mid-morning the bar wasn't open, so it was just robot coffee and a bikkie.

I did this trip with carry on only, and the flight in a Boeing 737 up to Brisbane was fine, but the second leg to Rocky was in a Dash-8, and the overhead racks are too mean and small for even my tiny rollaboard, so it had to go under the seat and squeeze my toes. I had enough time in Brisbane for a couple of flutes of sparkling. Pinapple Noir with hints of Pinot, I called the fruity wine, but it hit the spot.

We flew out over Moreton Bay, crossing the coast again somewhere north of Redcliffe. The suburbs dropt away and then it was mouldering mountains covered in trees, farms and forestry. I caught a sight of Skyring Creek south of Gympie, the hills rising away from the highway and a long orange curve of new fourlane construction. I couldn't make out any details, but it looks awfully close to Federal State School, that small and oddly named rural establishment.

Middle Sister and her two kids - who had flown in a half-hour before - waiting for me, and then out to Kabra for a seafood feast. We stopt at a grog shop, where I collected a slab, another bubbly to add to the duty-free in my bag, and I was delighted to see that Rocky had progressed to the stage where pear cider may be had on the shelves. I scooped up an assorted half dozen. Jersey, Sweden and Magner's from Ireland. A grand comfort for the aches and pains and broken toes, to be sure.

Mum and Dad were there, as well as Older Sister and Younger Sister and her ranga lad, and we had a fine time, cracking open the champagne and testing out the cider and crunching up kettle chips. Brother joined us, along with two of his sons, and we got stuck into the tucker - glorious big prawns and sweet chunks of fish in foil on the barbie.

A cake and a song for Dad.

There's not too many times nowadays when the parents and we five children are together. Dad's looking well and we chatted a bit. He's spent decades going to Hong Kong three times a year and I never even knew he had a passport! He would have flown into the old airport, circling in hard against the mountain and then gliding down through the apartment towers, the jet blast flapping the washing drying on the balconies. My own travels began after it closed, and the new place is not nearly as exciting, though it's a very dramatic setting to be sure.

And, O the warmth of the tropic air! Cold old Canberra was a million miles away.
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In the wholesale market of Managua,
Is a shoeseller named Arlen Moraga.
I think, on the whole
It's good for the sole,
To be well-heeled in Nicaragua!

Is Arlen a snappy dresser or what?

Perhaps Guy Lombardo put the case a leetle better than I:

Managua, Nicaragua, what a wonderful spot,
There's coffee and bananas and a temperature hot;
So take a trip and on a ship go sailing away,
Across the agua to Managua, Nicaragua, olé! olé!

Located on the link of land connecting the two Americas, Nicaragua has had several capital cities since gaining independence, and at last, in a compromise between the two rivals of León and Granada, the capital was settled on an indigenous community halfway between, on the pleasant shores of Lake Managua, and the new city is now ten times larger than either of the rivals.

Heading down to the mall to look through Myers or Macys is not really the way they do things throughout the developing world. You want clothing - or a meal or a haircut or a chicken - you look through the market. Here you'll find Arlen, swinging her merchandise direction from clothing to shoes with far more ease and grace than Grace Brothers.

Her Kiva loan requests have been modest, and her bright clothing and anxious smiles have brought her global support. Smile, and the world smiles with you!

Kiva - loans that change lives


Aug. 16th, 2010 01:11 pm
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James May's Toy StoriesJames May's Toy Stories by James May

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Oh boy! Oh boy oh boy oh boy!

This book pretty well summarised my childhood. All those happy days spent building stuff and watching trains and cars go round and getting bits of Lego out from behind the couch are coming back.

James May has way too much fun. He gets to play with the coolest toys around, but here he is going back to his own childhood, looking at the history of slot cars and train sets and things and then doing something utterly mad. Like building a house out of Lego or getting a mention in the Guinness Book of Records for the longest slot car track or building a 1:1 plastic Airfix kit of a Spitfire - complete with authentic cover art.

This blocky book kept me glued to the pages as I raced through the chapters and tracked the history of my favorite kit.

This is a book for the nerd remembering the good old days of boyhood. I know it was wrong of me to send my Tri-Ang locomotive through a cardboard tunnel of fire - especially when it got stuck half way through and poor old Polly melted - but I wasn't alone. James May was shooting down Jap Zeros with a pellet gun and modifying his Scalextric Mini and building rocketships out of Lego.

And ramming bungers up the back ends of old Junkers.

Whatever happened to the squadron of Spitfires I used to have?

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I live in Canberra, so my vote doesn't count.

Well, not much, anyway. John Howard used to say of Canberra, "Funny place. Looks like Killara (a leafy, upper-class suburb in Sydney), votes like Lithgow (an industrial town)."

Canberra is a safe Labor city. Only once has a Liberal member held one of the local seats, and that was when the Australian Labor Party thought so little of the voters that the outgoing member - a minister in the hugely unpopular government of Paul Keating forced to resign over the "sports rorts affair" - referred to the transition as "like handing over my baby". The Labor candidate at the by-election was a lesbian party hack, who failed to resonate with the family voters of Tuggeranong.

This election, both local members are resigning, and once again party hacks have been rewarded with safe seats. The people vote for the party, not the person, you see.

I don't believe in safe seats. The representative takes the voters for granted, the electorate is ignored by both the Government gravy train and the Opposition election promise bandwagon, and the local member is generally someone who wouldn't be able to win a marginal seat, but must be rewarded for his work in the party.

In any case, a representative from either of the two major parties will give his primary loyalty to the party, not the people.

So I'm voting Independent this election. Independents have the devil's own job getting elected, but once in they tend to stick. The voters are delighted to have a representative in Parliament who raises the issues that matter to them, who isn't beholden to party bosses, and doesn't vote the party line.

I'm well aware that no Independent candidate will win more than a handful of votes, but that's fine by me. Firstly, I'd like to encourage them. Secondly, public election funding kicks in at 4%, and having $2.50 of taxpayer money given to one of the major parties on my behalf just because I voted for their hack candidate gets right up my nose. I shouldn't have to pay to vote, even if it's not coming directly out of my pocket, it's still money that could usefully be spent on something positive, like health or education. I'm going to vote for an Independent candidate who isn't going to get 4% of the vote. So long as he or she isn't too obnoxious in their views.

But, Australian voting being of the preferential nature, I have to number all the boxes, and that means I have to put one of the major party candidates ahead of the other. It's unlikely that my vote will ever be counted, as the ALP will probably receive an absolute majority of votes and preferences won't be counted, but just in case, I'd like my vote to count towards making the seat marginal.

Marginal seats tend to attract more government attention and a better class of candidates. The marginal seat of Eden-Monaro, just across the New South Wales border, is a case in point. It is loaded down with Commonwealth-funded projects, and the local members have always worked hard to win or retain their seat. They work for every vote.

And that means I'm going to put Liberal ahead of Labor (and any minor candidates I really detest, such as the mildly-mad Socialist Workers Party or the gibbering idiots of the Democrats).

Of course, my vote will have minimal effect. Through some shonky dealings over the years, the 350 000 residents of Canberra elect just four MPs, compared to Tasmania, where 325 000 voters return seventeen representatives. My vote will count for 0.001% of the total. It's more a matter of making me feel that I've done my tiny best.
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The Girl Who Played With Fire (Millennium, #2)The Girl Who Played With Fire by Stieg Larsson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Following on from The Girl With a Dragon Tattoo, this book increases the pace. By about half way through the book, you might as well give up, cancel everything, find a nook and a jug of strong coffee and finish it. You won't be able to sleep or concentrate on anything else, and you will be of no use at work or to your family.

It helps if you have read the first book in the trilogy, for background and getting to know the characters, but this story stands alone. A few new characters are introduced - some explode onto the page, some are shadows and rumours - but they are all colourful.

It might help to take a piece of paper to keep everyone straight. By the end of the novel there are police officers, doctors, psychiatrists, journalists, lawyers and other villains coming out of the woodwork.

There are twists galore, and the reader is kept guessing for most of the book before it all comes together from several different directions. That's half the fun - reading on until you find out the answer.

The other half is the action, and there's plenty of it. Stieg Larsson is a master at describing what's going on, giving plenty of forensic detail, right down to the pizza boxes in the corner, maintaining the pace, and cunningly concealing his surprises. There's a scene in a warehouse that is beautifully set up and if you are not gasping for breath by the end of it, you need a checkup. Or more coffee.

A map of Sweden would help. Maybe someone has set up a Google Maps template for the action. I'm tempted to go visit Stockholm on my next trip to check out some of the locations. It sounds like a well-ordered, pleasant, comfortable place to live. Apart from the homicidal maniacs wandering around attacking people.

Echoes of Miss Smilla in the odd title character. A pintsize powerhouse, she has extraordinary abilities, and she needs every one of them and more to survive.

There's a scene with a fox towards the end of the book that will stick in your memory for a long time.

I put this book down, drew breath, and reached for the next in the series. It doesn't let up at all.

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Saraya's a Tanzanian mama
Who heads up a team called Obama.
Her guesthouse is the charm
Of Dar Es Salaam
But a drinks bar would give it more glamour.

There's something about Kiva microfinance loans that fills me with optimism. A feeling obviously shared by the members of the team, dressed up for the photograph.

I'm wondering why they called their group Obama. I guess it's the Tanzanian connection with US President Barack Obama. I dare say that the Kiva Team Obama thinks so as well, as they joined me in lending money to Saraya.

The group's fifth loan through Kiva, aimed at improving the guesthouse Sayara runs in Dar Es Salaam. I managed to dig up the loan page for the second loan, and there's another photo of the group:

I channel my taxi tips through Kiva, recycling the repayments into more loans and while it's not much, at $US25 a shot, it's something that makes me feel a useful part of a global team.

And isn't that what it's all about? We're all part of the same planet, the same biosphere, the same human family. Individually, there's not much any single person can do - unless maybe he's the President of the USA - but together, Yes We Can!

Taxi 66

Aug. 8th, 2010 01:18 pm
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They got in on the main city rank, now re-opened at a third the original size. "Can we stop at a bottle-o first?" one asked.

"Right-oh!" I replied. "But where are we going?"

"Formule 1"

"You beauty!" I thought to myself. The Formule 1 motel is one of those cheapo deals out on the highway. $59 a night for a basic room and the dining room is a vending machine.

But it's a nice long fare.

We went through Braddon, stopping at the Bottle-O there. That's the trade name, and it's a good one. Well-stocked grog shop, free parking outside, off-licence to print money, it is.

One of the two young men went inside and I hit the "Pause" button on the meter. It was going to be a good fare and people who stay at cheap motels are reaching into their own pockets to count the pennies. I look after them.

The guy in the back seat, a fairly chunky sort of fella, caught sight of the "Route 66" keyring I have bluetacked to the dashboard. It's one I bought at the Route 66 museum in Chandler, OK last year, and I keep it there for daydreaming purposes. That half day spent exploring the old road between Tulsa and Oklahoma City was a very happy one!

"I'm going to ride Route 66 next year with my father," he said. "We'll pick up the Harleys in Detroit, ride them to LA, and ship them home."

Wow! What a trip! This chap immediately had my attention.

His mate got back in, with a six pack of Jim Beams to help the night ahead go down, and we set off on Canberra's own Mother Road. Northbourne Avenue.

We talked Route 66 and the USA all the way. The food, the cars, the motels, the people. I mentioned that I'm planning my own father-son trip along Route 66 next year. From the other side of the generation gap. Myself, my son and my daughter.

I had lusted after a rental Mustang, but looking at the reviews it sounds like it wouldn't be as much fun for the third person, sitting in the cramped back seat, peering out through a couple of tiny side windows. I'd be doing a lot of the driving, but some of the time it would be me in the back seat, and I wanted to enjoy the experience.

So we'll likely hire something with a bit of size and a bit of style. A Chrysler 300C would be ideal. Lots of room for people and baggage, space for extras, a bunch of buttons to press and an image that is unmistakably All-American.

Not as much fun as a Harley, to be sure, but I'm not a Harley kind of guy. I wished my passengers the best for the trip, put my foot down and whipped off in a cloud of dust for the airport, where I watched the planes climb into the night sky and sent my thoughts with them.

Earlier that day, a package from Amazon had arrived, containing a DVD: Route 66: Producer's Picks.

Not a lot to do with Route 66 as such, but for the feeling of driving through Sixties America in a classy car, there's nothing to beat it. The black and white scenes, the corny live-to-camera adverts, the unforgettable theme music, the guest appearances of later stars, the thought-provoking plots, and above all the lifestyle, it's a pleasure to watch.

I've got a bunch of maps and guidebooks, any number of websites, and all my dreams to keep me going until next year.


Aug. 8th, 2010 05:45 am
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I've often wondered just how people could fall for email scams. The language is mangled beyond repair, the presentation woeful, the offers are unbelievable, and the technical details risible. Frankly, bank managers don't go around offering five million dollars of their clients' money to random people on the internet, not if they want to stay out of prison, nor do they have the English skills of a chimpanzee and a Hotmail address consisting of letters and numbers.

Yet, according to an article in The Weekend Australian, 50 000 Australians a year treat these things as if they are genuine. That's a thousand a week, one every ten minutes. People are gulled into sending thousands of dollars in "transfer fees" or "export duties" before the millions are transferred into their accounts. Or, if they are really stupid, they provide login details and passwords in order to make the process as easy as possible.

The article makes all sorts of recommendations, beginning with this: "Clip this handy guide to recognising scam letters and attach it to your fridge."

Nigeria must be a real haven for greedy bastards aiming to get something for nothing, yeah?

To my mind, the whole "Nigerian scam" phenomenon merely indicates that across the world, people are people. There are clever dicks and there are stupid chumps everywhere.

What it emphasises is that, despite our common humanity, the world's resources are unevenly distributed. A clever Nigerian does not have the career prospects of (say) a clever Australian. A profession, a secure lifestyle, a comfortable house and a healthy family are the prospects of an intelligent, dedicated, industrious child in the Western democracies, but for most of the world's youngsters, these are only dreams. The chances do not exist in the Third World, where nepotism, corruption and injustice have more to do with who gets ahead than do talent and skill.

Small wonder that clever but poor Nigerians will set their sights on rich but gullible Australians. It's a matter of global justice and fair shares - at least to the Nigerian scammer.

Doubtless the Nigerian authorities share these views, perhaps with their own share of the bounty.

In the end, I find it hard to lay the blame for these scams on Nigerian people. If there is cause and effect, the cause of these things lies in the rich nations of the West, content to keep their poorer cousins on the other side of the world that way.

Poor and distant. Why should we condemn our fellow humans so?
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Making Money (Discworld, #36)Making Money by Terry Pratchett

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Terry Pratchett likes jokes. He likes to set them up, he likes to - shazam! - reveal them, he likes to play with words. He writes entertainment, and he writes satire.

He's light entertainment, occupying a peculiar halfway point between satirising the present and the genre of fantasy.

He's also in that position where, after a successful career, he can write anything he wants and it will be bought by the millions. It must be hell being his editor. Hell that editors scramble for.

This book was suspiciously heavy for light entertainment. I'm not sure where it could be cut, though, just saying.

As with most of Pratchett's Discworld stories, this one is an episode in an ongoing saga. Many of the characters and settings are familiar, we meet a few new ones, we chuckle at a few old jokes, we enjoy old ones.

There, that's a quarter of the book done, just setting the stage for the rare new reader. There's not a lot of detailed description - it's all well-crafted - but we still get to learn about the King of the Golden River and the workings of the Patrician's office - the Oblong Office - all over again.

We meet - or rather re-meet - Moist von Lipwig, from "Going Postal". This time he's making some real money and sharing adventures with some of the characters from the previous tale.

Terry Pratchett must have been inspired by the Global Financial Cooling. This book is all about money and banks and trust. In a typical Ankh-Morporkian way. The Royal Mint coins the currency, usually spending more on minting the coins than the coins are worth. Some of the smaller ones are handcrafted at enormous expense. The impressive facade of the Royal Bank conceals a great many dark secrets, not least the source of the glooping sound from the basement.

Von Lipwig takes all in hand, and at the occasional peril of his life and the gold-ish standard, finds a solution. Along the way there are golems, small dogs, small gods, necromancy under a new name, a wizard with round eyeglasses, things stuck in drawers, romance and ripe fingers.

It's all good.

Nothing earthshaking. A few good jokes, a few good lines, a few good scenes.

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I tweeted about my Levenger order -...has succumbed to the charms of Levenger and made another Circa order. Not cheap, but well worth it! #bliss - and found that Levenger CEO Steve Leveen had not only retweeted me, but thanked me and two others for our business: @Skyring @RingAroundRinn @MustOrganize Thank you all for your business at Levenger!

@SteveLeveen (on Twitter)
Steve Leveen's excellent blog: Well-Read Life

Gotta love this man!

And his company. I was a little bit mischievous with my email approving the shipping charges. It takes me a night's work just to earn the money for the shipping from the USA, but well worth it. I added the following line: If it's possible, could you spear a cattledog in with the order?

And they deciphered this, responding, We will be including a catalogue with your order.

I was kind of half-afraid they might be reporting me to the RSPCA!

Instead, I'll get to bliss out with my Levenger supplies and a cattledog full of you-beaut good gear.
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Or blame her.

I mean Bookczuk, of course. Way back in 2005 I was taking my first gleeful steps into the marvellous adventure of international travel, and of course documenting the steps in a series of travel journals.

The Fort Worth convention in 2005, and when i unplugged my laptop from the phone line long enough, Bookczuk was on the line. "Did you get the package?" she asked, before urging me to go off to vote for Charleston as the 2007 host of the convention.

And of course I had gotten the care package she'd sent, care of the hotel. The hotel had been the destination of any number of heavy boxes and urgent packages, it hardly needs saying, and I was the delighted recipient of one from Charleston.

Inside, amongst other cherished gifties, was a Levenger Circa journal. I promptly fell in love with Levenger and Circa. I'm an office supplies nut from way back, and whenever I get an excuse to wander around a stationer's shop, or one of those giant OfficeWorks warehouse outlets, I jump onto it with both hands.

Levenger is pretty much the cream of the cream of these things. Superb design, elegant, sturdy, desirable.

My life doesn't quite revolve around Circa, but it should. My travel journals are Circa, my household records, my jotting journals...

I've even gotten the odd bit of leatherwork to hold the notebooks. It's a complete system, and lugging around a leather case with all manner of specialised paper and plastic pages inside is no chore at all.

My wallet is a Levenger Shirt Pocket Briefcase. The International Bomber Jacket style. I love it on a daily basis.

My passport, loyalty cards, travel documents and boarding passes live in a bright red Levenger Road Scholar zip-up holder. Secure, visible, handy.

And I've always got Circa notebooks and personalised 3x5 cards around.

This morning I succumbed. Every few days Levenger sends another email with a special offer, and every few months I'm charmed enough to order more supplies. The hard part is stopping - the online catalogue is sooooo full of stuff that is soooooo good!

They should pay me a commission. As part of every order, I add in a couple of Levenger starter kits, and as a Pay-It-Forward homage to Bookczuk, I give them out to folk who might be as charmed as I.

Thank you, Dearestczuk, once again. I am way in debt for all the joys and delights you have sent my way.

Levenger is one such addiction, and I indulge myself shamelessly. But if I gave myself into the other addiction, one that involves yummy little sesame wafers, I would be both big and broke.
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 Kerri got to see two movies yesterday. In the afternoon, while I napped, she took the kids to see "Inception". She and DS liked it, DD not so much. Science Fiction movies should involve more spaceships and lasers. Fair point.

And then in the evening Kerri and I went off to see South Solitary.

As you may see from what I hope is the trailer video embedded above, this is a movie about sheep and lighthouses. And the way that eight people on a small, remote island interact.

The movie is set in 1928, before lighthouse keepers (at least in Australia) had radio communication. Telling the world about the various dramas and emergencies was the province of carrier pigeons - unwilling to fly in gales and tasty catches for sea eagles - or signal flags that may or may not be read by passing ships.

The location of the lighthouse is not specified, which is good. "South Solitary" is the name of an island off the New South Wales coast, the story was intended to be about a Tasmanian lighthouse - where the weather is a good deal less clement than subtropical Coffs Harbour - and the movie itself was mostly filmed at Cape Otway in Victoria.

Miranda Otto and costars

Meredith Appleton (played by Miranda Otto) is far too well-dressed for the part. Her clothes are gorgeous, but she's supposed to be a poor relation, and just how well-suited are slinky dresses for tramping around an island anyway? She's a woman with a past, and she has some interesting encounters with the other residents, until it's just she and a shell-shocked WW1 veteran huddling together as a storm shakes the tall stone tower of the lighthouse.

Some funny moments, some tender scenes, but if you are looking for the lighthouse to link two passing ships, you are going to be unsatisfied at film's end.

What I enjoyed most was the photography. Some glorious images of sea and lighthouse, rocks and waves, sky and scrub. A continuing undercurrent of 1920s atmosphere - no electricity (though somehow there's an alarm bell that goes off, usually about three in the morning), hurricane lanterns, mantles, woodstoves, dinner on four legs, and entertainment provided by a meagre rack of tattered hardbacks.

There's also an unhealthy fascination with the thought of Meredith in her bath. Her head-keeper uncle (Barry Otto) is apparently the only character on the island who doesn't have this image running through their mind on a loop. And look what happens to him!

Enjoyable yarn about people in a place.


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