Tales from the Man who would be King

Rex Jaeschke's Personal Blog

Travel: Memories of Russia

© 1992, 2020 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.

[This diary was written by hand in a spiral notebook during the trip. Now, I've transcribed and edited it.]

For some years, I'd been writing a monthly column for a US-based computer magazine, and my byline included my email address. One fine day in 1991, I got an email from a computer science professor, Vitaly, at a university in St. Petersburg, Russia, who was an avid reader of my articles. He invited me to come to his city and give a series of lectures over a two-week period, provided I could pay my own way there. After some dialog via email, I accepted his offer and decided to combine it with a holiday and to take my wife, Jenny, and son, Scott, the following summer. We'd also spend time in neighboring Finland before and afterwards.

I contacted the Russian embassy in Washington DC to see how to go about getting visas. They said I needed a letter of invitation on letterhead from the sponsoring organization. Less than a week after I conveyed that information to the university by email, I received a letter in the post from New York (where it had been hand-carried by someone on a flight from Russia) written in both Russian and English. [Apparently, they didn't want to rely on the Russian postal service, as it was slow, and things were often stolen!] I went to the embassy with my filled-out application form, photo, and letter. There were quite a few counters, but only one was open, so I got in the long line. When it was my turn, the officer took my papers and told me to sit and wait while the papers were examined. Sometime later, I was informed that everything regarding my application was okay, but where were the invitations for my wife and son? I explained that while I wanted a business visa, my wife and son would be going as tourists, but the officer insisted they still needed invitations. Two weeks later, I returned with said invitations, and was promptly issued three business visas. Yes, my 8-year-old son was apparently going there on business!

Like the then just-passed Soviet days, we were issued loose-leaf visas that were handed in when we left the country, which meant that we have no permanent record of having been there. [I was in-country a day or two when I noticed on the visa, text that said I had to report to my local area authorities to let them know my movements; however, I decided that was just a Soviet-era holdover, and I ignored it.]

When it came time to book the trip, there was one thing of which I was absolutely sure; I was not going to fly over Russian airspace at the mercy of Russian air-traffic controllers, even in a non-Russian airline plane! Instead, we flew to Helsinki, Finland, and took a brand-new Finnish train from there, reversing the process on return.

[Diary] At the Helsinki train station we hauled our luggage to Platform 8 where we boarded Car 35. A young Russian mother and her 1-year-old son sat in our carriage, and I helped her with her luggage. Her English was excellent. The public-address system announced our departure in Finnish, Swedish, English, and Russian. The restaurant car was right next door to ours. Two young German girls joined as we pulled out of the station. The new train was very comfortable.

When we approached the border with Russia, the Russian border guards and customs inspectors boarded to process us. They looked us over but didn't search any luggage. Then they took our passports returning them a while later just before they disembarked. It was a formality, which it would not have been not too long ago. (We were traveling on Australian passports.) As we crossed into Russia, we saw an armed soldier in a guard tower.

We arrived in St. Petersburg on time at 2 pm, where Vitaly met us with a bunch of red roses. All three of us were feeling quite tired, so he drove us to our apartment, where we slept for three hours. (As we were feeling rather low, the roads were full of large potholes, and the apartment building and neighborhood were rather run-down, I decided to delay my "first-hand" impressions until later.)

The apartment was spartan, but adequate. It was clean and comfortable and had all we needed for our stay. It belonged to Sonja (a nickname for Sofia), a mathematics Professor at Vitaly's university. The building primarily housed retired military officers and their families. Vitaly and Sonja's friend Slava was there to meet us. [Sonja vacated the place for us for the two weeks and took her 12-year-old son to stay at her Mother's.]

At 7:30 pm, Vitaly drove us to a circus. It was superb and ran for two hours. The acts included the following: dogs wearing shorts with suspenders, sitting at desks in school; jugglers; a woman twirling hoops; a strong man who lifted weights, laid on nails and broken glass, and walked on fire; some great clowns; several lots of acrobats, some swinging on a trapeze out over the crowd; three elephants; and a man doing tricks with soccer balls. The cost of admission was 13 rubles (about US$1.30).

[Diary] Around 8 am, Scott and I went out to the neighborhood playground. We found some young boys nearby, and joined them. One of them had travelled to East Germany on vacation, and spoke a little German. Using that he and I introduced everyone to each other. They were fascinated with my Swiss Army knife and all its gadgets. Beyond a few pleasantries, my Russian phrase book wasn't much help.

Later, a 13-year-old girl joined us. She'd been learning English for six years, but Scott and I were the first native speakers she had ever met, so she was a bit excited. We talked with her for quite some time, and when I gave her some lifesavers, she responded by giving us some Russian candy. Our first excursion was a success!

At noon, Vitaly arrived in his car, and he and I went shopping. Some staples—sugar, bread, and milk—were only available at government stores, so we went there first. The waiting line wound way out into the street with an hour's wait time, so we went off to a "peasant" market instead where stalls were privately run.

The stalls were inside a large building in which the stall owners had to rent space. (Remember, the free market was well under way in Russia by that time.) Most sold fruit and vegetables, but some had meat and fish. None had refrigeration! However, everything looked clean, and I had no reservations about buying anything. The carrots were "fresh-out-of-the-ground" that morning, and at 20 rubles a bunch, I bought four, for stews and soups, and to eat raw. I also bought a lettuce, some apples, and a small pot of butter they'd bought at the government store and were reselling there, and a can of condensed milk. From a butcher, I bought a kilo of veal-on-bones. Eventually, I found my way down some very dark stairs into an even darker basement, where people were selling potatoes. I bought two kilos; however, my pack was full, and I had nothing in which to put my "spuds"! As I stood there thinking about how I'd carry them home, an elderly lady saw my predicament and offered me a spare, plastic carry-bag with handles. Now in the new free-market economy, everything had value, so I smiled and thanked her saying "Спасибо" (spa-ce-bo) and gave her three rubles in exchange. She smiled, appreciated my generosity, but kept only one ruble. In that little exchange, she and I had done our bit for international diplomacy! Back home, I unpacked my goodies along with the stuff we'd bought from home: salt, pepper, powdered milk, coffee, and tea, and a can of peaches I'd bought in Finland. (Interestingly, the peaches came from Shanghai, China.)

Late afternoon, Slava drove us around the inner city for an orientation along the Neva River. [During preparations for our trip, I remembered reading that foreigners should not drink water from it, as it contained parasites that would make them sick.] We finished up at the Peter and Paul Fortress, where we walked for an hour or so. There were many stalls selling things that were mostly Russian-made. Scott really wanted a set of five hand-painted wooden dolls that were stacked one inside the other, so we bought one. (Some sets contained up to 11 dolls.) I bought a 100% cotton T-shirt that had the Pepsi Cola symbol on the front, and their slogan in Russian (Пепси) on the back. [Pepsi was one of the first western companies to break into the Russian market, and exchanging Pepsi for vodka was one way to balance the trade. Google "pepsico russia deal" to read all about it.] I also bought a bunch of bananas, which came from Panama. All the stalls took US$ cash, and we'd brought plenty!

After all that activity, we went home for a nap. After we rested, we felt better, and the city took on a more positive shape. Given Peter the Great's involvement, the city looked very European and was well planned. Most buildings built before the 1917 Revolution were very solid. The newer ones were rather drab in the typical Soviet style. Everything was quite rundown down to a lack of maintenance. However, with a good steam-clean, most old buildings would look magnificent! There were quite a few orthodox cathedrals and churches, most of which had been, or were in the process of being, restored. As the economy improves, I expect the city's appearance will too. It was by no means dirty, just neglected. There were beautiful parks and tree-lined streets everywhere, and the people were friendly.

[Diary] Vitaly picked me up just be before 9 o'clock. The university was on the main street, Nevsky Prospect, in an old bank building. Given the "new economy," the entrance halls were rented out to private stall owners. I met Natalie, the organizer of my lectures. She was a very pleasant lady who spoke English.

My first lecture began about 10 minutes late with 80–100 people in the hall. Vitaly provided simultaneous translation, so I had to pause after each sentence while he spoke in Russian. I soon got the hang of that, but every so often, he would turn to me and start speaking in Russian, or to the audience in English, as he got himself confused. I used an overhead projector and a chalk board.

During the break, people gathered around me with lots of questions. [As you might imagine, after decades of living in a tightly closed system, with a lot of stolen technology from the West and pirated software, they were eager for information.] Natalie recognized that I needed a break from speaking, so she rescued me and took me into an office to drink hot tea and have a Russian-style chocolate-chip cookie.

During the second half, I got much more technical, and people started to ask more questions as I went, which I prefer. Now under the new system, nothing was free anymore, and attendees had paid 10% of their monthly salaries for the lecture series, so they were certainly taking it very seriously. And knowing that in advance, I even wore a tie, but only on the first day!

For lunch, I invited Vitaly and Natalie to join me for a meal at a nice restaurant near the university. It took only hard currency; that is, well-recognized foreign money (such as German Deutsch Marks, English Pounds, or American Dollars). It was German-run, and the prices were in Deutsch Marks. The menu was written in English, German, and Russian. We each had several glasses of juice and an open-faced sandwich with sausage and mustard. The total cost was US$26, which was 1–2 months' salary for my Russian guests! As you can imagine, they can't afford to eat at such places. On the one hand, it was good to be able to give them a taste of "the good life." However, I didn't want to overdo it as they had to return to their everyday lives afterwards. They were such frugal people, I had to work hard to convince them to order something other than the cheapest dish.

Around 4 pm, we headed out to the world-famous Hermitage Museum, right next to the Great Winter Palace of the Tsars. The museum's interior was unbelievable, even without the art treasures. However, I remember that many things were gilded, and I am not a fan of gold! We got a good orientation during our 90-minutes there. Now the price of admission for foreigners was about 10 times that for Russians, so Vitaly asked us to keep quiet as we approached the cashier, and he claimed we were all locals. There was an extra charge to use a still or video camera (which was not uncommon at major museums).

Across the street by the Neva River were some stalls, and I bought another 100%-cotton T-shirt. Written on its front in Russian was "I was an agent of the KGB." A year or so earlier, it would have been unthinkable to print such a shirt let alone sell and wear it in public.

[Diary] At noon, we left for the nearest Metro (subway) station, 1 km away. It was a beautiful, sunny day, and we walked via a large park where people were out walking, picnicking, and sunbathing. Vitaly had given me a list of the stations we'd have to pass through, and how to change lines along the way. As I couldn't read the Russian letters he'd written, he'd provided a phonetic English spelling as well.

The escalator going down was v-e-r-y long, took at least two minutes to get to the bottom, and was moving quite fast. I thought we were journeying to the center of the earth! The station was very clean and well-organized. The train arrived almost immediately, and we boarded. It was quite crowded, and we had to go four stations before changing. A young man sitting next to me spoke some English and offered to help us get out at the correct stop. At the change, we simply crossed the platform and waited no more than a minute. This time, we sat next to a young woman who smiled a lot and knew a few English words. Five stations later, we get off.

Vitaly took us by car to the town of Pushkin. Afterwards, we headed back to Vitaly's house where, once again, Irina had prepared a meal. The appetizers consisted of salads, cheese, mixed vegetables, and calamari (squid). There was also smoked salmon and bread. Next, came a thin chicken soup with lots of parsley and fennel, and meat-filled pastries. The soup plates were very large and old-fashioned, and held a lot of soup. They reminded me of those my maternal Grandmother used when we visited for Sunday lunch. After that, we had veal rissoles, baked potatoes, more salads, and dilled pickles. Along the way, Vitaly served Hungarian champagne. Finally, sweet pastries and tea were served. When I commented how much I liked the dessert, when we went to leave, Irina gave me some to take home. Now, we figured they really couldn't afford all this food, but we had to be gracious, even though I was full after the first two courses! We tried not to think that we were "eating them out of house and home!"

[Diary] I managed to negotiate the electric trolley bus into town on my own. I left home early, so I'd have plenty of time and, subsequently, I arrived 45 minutes early! Jenny and Scott came with me and sat in the front row to listen to the first 10 minutes of my lecture. Scott particularly wanted to see how the English-to-Russian-to-English translation worked as I spoke. The second lecture went well, and although it was scheduled to end at 12:30, I didn't finish answering questions until 1:15!

Sonja arrived at 5 pm for supper, and we ate vegetable soup and veal stew. She took us to see the ballet Swan Lake, at a theater not far from our apartment. Scott had had a very busy day, and he dropped off to sleep halfway through. I too had 40 winks! The damned swan took so long to die, I thought we were never gonna get out of that place! We took a taxi home.

[Diary] Jenny and Scott slept quite late. Outside, it was cool and overcast, but calm. I walked to several government food stores before going to work. The stores had plenty of goods, and I wanted to buy some things, but that proved challenging. One must first pay at the cashier and then present the receipt at the appropriate counter for service. But as I couldn't speak Russian, I couldn't order to get a receipt! [Don't you just hate that when that happens!] (We'd had the same situation another day buying bread, but as Sonja was with us, she took care of the ordering.)

My third lecture went very well with question time running until 1:30. I then lunched with Vitaly and Natalie in the small, basic cafeteria in the basement. It was my first public Russian-style meal.

Now that business was free market, the university gave me an honorarium for my lecture series. It was 850 rubles (about US$8.50, a sizable amount based on local salaries). I thanked them profusely and donated it back to them; however, Natalie didn't know what to do with it, so I suggested she buy cake or chocolates for the office staff.

At 2:30, Vitaly and I rode the subway to his place of employment where the Director wished to meet me. We arrived late, as we'd gotten on the right train, but in the wrong direction! [Don't you just hate that when that happens!] To my surprise, I found the whole staff of 20 were present, and soon after, I delivered an impromptu 90-minute lecture with question-and-answer session. I then toured the teaching and computer facilities.

[Diary] About our apartment; it's in a 5-story building for retired junior military officers. It's rather rundown from the outside, and stairwells and the entrances are dark, musty, and shabby! However, it was not dirty, just neglected. We have three main rooms—kitchen, dining/lounge/family room, and another room that served as a study. There are no separate bedrooms. Instead, there are three divans in two rooms, that fold down into two single- and one double-bed. There is also a bathroom with a very old and deep tub, and a gas hot-water system that heats on-demand. Its pilot light is like an oxy-acetylene burner, and burns very strongly with the smell of gas ever present. Adjoining that is a small toilet, which, surprise, in Russian is called a WC!

There are lots of cupboards, bedding, books, three TVs, and a radio. A balcony leads off one room, and it has a clothes line. All the paint around the large windows was peeling, and woodwork was in poor shape. The stove was gas and there is hot water in the sink, fed from the gas heater. Overall, it's like a beach shack or mountain cabin; basic, but clean and comfortable.

Vitaly's apartment had a similar configuration, but is in better condition, as it is much newer and has been lived in continuously. By contrast, Slava's apartment has two separate bedrooms, so it is much larger. And as his family has always been well-off, they have a lot of nice furnishings, including a VCR and stereo music system.

By the way, all three apartments are owned outright by their occupants, and have been so for quite some years. This surprised me, as I was under the impression that no-one owned property here. In fact, quite a lot of people own cars and have done so for many years. However, now, gasoline is hard to come by and expensive, but people still manage to get enough. Of course, with public transport being so cheap, people prefer to use that.

[Diary] It was my 4th lecture day. The weather was back to summer with no coat or sweater needed. I browsed in a few shops and saw a Russian edition of the New York Times that was a few days old. The lecture went well, and questions took at extra 90 minutes at the end. Then I had a short meeting with two men who were trying to get a technical paper published along with some software.

I squeezed in time for a cup of tea and a cheese sandwich before being driven to a 3:30-pm appointment. Along the way, the driver picked my brain. He had a small company and apparently was a brilliant mathematician. The meeting was with two men running the brand-new office of Digital Equipment Corporation, the world's second largest computer company. (That company was a client of mine back in the US.) The meeting went well, and we talked about some ideas for joint ventures and seminars, translating my books and columns, and licensing some of my seminar materials. The meeting had only been proposed that morning!

I was dropped off at home about 5:15 pm, and Sonja arrived at 5:30 for dinner. Jenny had cooked pork chops and vegetables, and had made a dessert.

At 6:30, we caught a bus downtown where we had tickets to a classical music concert at 7 pm. The old theater was nicely restored, and until recently, was the headquarters of the Communist Party! The first part of the concert was "modern" classical, and it was absolutely woeful! The second was very enjoyable, and included a piano soloist. The third part was okay. We emerged at 9:15, and as the large canal was nearby, we jumped aboard a tour boat that circled the inner city for an hour. Most of the old residential buildings we saw were quite ornate. Scott spent the whole trip outside on the upper deck.

By 10:30 pm, we were back on dry land, the sun was still beaming, and we all went to a German-run hard-currency restaurant for dessert and coffee. Scott had pizza. By 11:30, our eyes were getting heavy, so we left Sonja at the subway, and we caught a bus home. At 11:45, it was still quite light out as we walked home from the stop. On the way we came across a man beating a large carpet as it hung over a swing in a playground.

[Diary] Mid-afternoon, Vitaly arrived and we headed out into the country to Slava's family dacha (country house). The roads greatly improved as we got further from the city limits. We drove along a narrow country road and passed through a number of small towns during the 80-km trip. There was lots of pine forest with moose and reindeer, and many small lakes. Most of the agriculture involved potatoes. All along the road people had small stalls; some just sat next to a bucket of potatoes. Many also had "country cheese," which we knew as cottage cheese.

On arrival at the dacha, we found Slava, his wife, son, daughter-in-law, grandson, and mother. The cottage was basic, but had all the necessary conveniences plus a color TV with antennae that received Finnish broadcasts. At 11:30 pm, an American show, B.L. Stryker, starring Burt Reynolds, was shown with Finnish subtitles. The dacha was the only house in the village to have running water. The other families got their water from a central well.

We went for a drive through a big pine forest to a large lake where Vitaly and Scott had a swim. A large group of children was camped there, and one girl spoke English and asked us if we were tourists. From all appearances, they could have come from any European country, right down to their T-shirts, hats, and bikinis.

Supper began with the usual fare: tomato, cheese, bread, fresh and dilled cucumbers, parsley, fennel, and spring onions. The main course was braised meat with mashed potato and more salad. That was followed by copious quantities of dessert and tea. We talked until late, finishing off with some Russian port wine. The weather had been calm and very sunny with no humidity to speak of. However, there were plenty of hungry mosquitos. It was still daylight at midnight!

[Diary] I was up around 9 am. It was a beautiful day. For breakfast, we ate some fried meat along with some tomato relish from Estonia that was a good approximation for ketchup. In fact, it tasted better than good! We also had bread, cheese, and tea.

Mid-morning, Slava, Vitaly, and I worked on Vitaly's car door to fix a rattling window. Afterwards, we visited another large lake nearby that was surrounded by tall pine trees. There were several sandy beaches, and the locals were out in force. No-one seemed concerned at how much of their bodies they couldn't fit into their swimsuits. Scott and Vitaly went swimming.

At 3 o'clock, we had a large meal involving salads, rissoles, and mashed potato. We followed that with stewed rhubarb (straight from the rather large garden) and tea. We rested for the afternoon pausing for "high tea" around 5 pm, to have cinnamon rolls and fruit slices. (Despite the generally poor economy, people managed to eat very well!)

Soon after 6 pm, we left for home driving back via a different route. Along the way, we passed a large military installation with numerous armored-personnel carriers parked out front. On the way out and back, we passed through a Police checkpoint, but both times they waved us through. Although officials still follow some of the old security procedures out of habit, things were much more open now. It is hard for people to start thinking for themselves after so many years of not being allowed to! In fact, we understood that many people missed the direction provided under the communist regimes of the past.

I spent some time studying the Russian alphabet, and the Greek alphabet from which it was (indirectly) derived. Having used many Greek letters in math and science back in high school and university, I had a head start, but to be sure I was rusty. However, by day's end, I managed to recognize most of the Russian letters and had a handle on their pronunciation. Now that we're about to leave Russia, I'm beginning to read a bit!

[Diary] I was up at 9:15 am, and made a breakfast of sausage, eggs, mashed potato, and gravy, plus the obligatory tea. The cupboard was getting bare as we were ending our stay. We set about packing and cleaning up the apartment. We'd planned on going into the city to stroll around some shops, but being lazy, we stayed home, sat in the sun, read, and played chess.

Mid-afternoon, we set off for the Metro station, and at our destination we spent an hour roaming around some stalls. We ate ice cream and watched a road construction crew put a new asphalt top on the main road nearby. At 5 o'clock, Vitaly picked us up and we went to his house. After some business discussions, I gave him US$1,000 cash, to buy a personal computer, so he could go into business for himself.

Slava and his wife arrived, and we had our "Last Supper," which included caviar! Of course, there were plenty of desserts including some Australian cookies, a recipe for which Irina had found in a magazine. She gave us a bag to take home. Slava drove us home and we said our "goodbyes." I gave him an envelope containing a farewell letter, for him to open later. Inside was cash enough to enable him to afford that trip to Germany he'd been dreaming about. Lights out at 11 pm, although the sun was still high in the sky. In fact, a workman was busy plastering the wall of a house next door.

[Diary] My 5th and final lecture began at 9:30 am, and was wrapped up by 1 pm. It went well, and the audience seemed pleased. Sonja attended, and we said our goodbyes shortly afterwards. We also gave her a farewell letter and (via an intermediary) some cash to help her through her difficult economic situation.

Jenny and Scott met me at the office, and we had lunch with Vitaly and Natalie at our "usual" German restaurant. The service was very slow, and apparently good supplies were hard to find, and no ham or salami was available for pizzas. We changed our orders several times as we discovered what wasn't available that day! Having the long-regimented history that they do, Russians will take a good while to get used to giving and receiving good service!

We were back at our flat by 2:30 pm, where we closed our luggage. Vitaly drove us to the train station to catch the 3:55-train to Helsinki. Natalie also came to say goodbye and to give Jenny several roses. (The night before, she gave Jenny a nice coffee cup and saucer, and me a book on Russian architecture.)

Our Finnish train pulled out on-time, and we had plenty of room in our carriage. We spoke with a Canadian, and a South African now living in Toronto. We bought two ham and cheese rolls which cost the equivalent of US$6 each, which after the local prices, seemed like a fortune. Pricewise, we definitely were headed back to the real world! The train menu and shopping list was comprehensive containing everything from food and drink to toothpaste and condoms. It had everything for the complete traveler! We played cards and read the time away.

There were a tense few moments at the Russian border when one guard found 150 rubles in my bag when I had declared I wasn't taking any Russian cash out of the country. Although it was only worth about US$1.50, and was for my foreign-money collection, the guard was a little upset. He politely warned me to declare such cash "the next time" and I apologized for the "oversight." Then he let me keep the money anyway!

Back in Finland, we got off at Riihimäki, the final station before Helsinki, where we waited for the 22:17 train that ran to Rovaniemi, at the end of the line, just south of the Arctic Circle. Except for a few short and one long stop, it was straight through, arriving there at 9 am the next morning to begin our vacation in Finland.

Fast-forward 28-years: Vitaly divorced his wife, remarried, and moved to California, but I lost touch with him. Sonja moved to Oslo, Norway, where she married Gunnar, a Norwegian. Jenny and I visited them in September 2003 when we spent a week at their cabin and drove across to Bergen and back with them. I visited them again several times, and Gunnar and I enjoyed playing Backgammon. Unfortunately, he passed away after an illness. I last visited Sonja in November 2016. While there, we visited Gunnar's grave.

Signs of Life: Part 21

© 2020 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.

From time to time during my travels, I come across signs that I find interesting for one reason or another. Sometimes, they contain clever writing, are humorous, or remind me of some place or event. Here are some from a trip around and near the Northern Neck of Virginia, USA.


From Reedville, Virginia. If the truth about someone isn't interesting, then make up some idle gossip!


Not to be outdone, nearby Colonial Beach, Virginia, also provides a place to gossip.

See Tattletale.


I'm all in favor of penalizing litterbugs, but this fine is rather steep!


This nautical-themed sign fixed to a bench at the bank of the Potomac River in Colonial Beach, Virginia.


A clothing place for mothers-to-be.


This in the window of a haberdashery store at Halloween.


This in the window of a liquor store at Halloween.


I completely agree!


While all this may well be true, I got to wondering if Grandpa actually chose the words!


"But Mom, it seemed like a good idea at the time!"


Using a map of the world, a ruler, and a calculator, can you figure out just where this sign is located?

I found it on the grounds of the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia.


Being a BIG fan of biscuits and gravy, this sign is saying a LOT! BTW, in this American context, a biscuit is a savory English scone, and the gravy white, sausage gravy.


In this "Easy Guide to Southern Grammar", we learn some important pronouns.


Of course, this sign raises the question, "What's missing?"


Just which part of "closed" do you not understand?


And, finally, here's a lot of very good advice. Life, be in it!


School Days: Part 1

© 2013, 2020 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.

From February 1959 to December 1969, I attended 12 grades of school in 11 years. In this essay, I'll provide an overview of the education system in my home state, South Australia (SA), during those years, along with my recollections of my time in Primary School (US: Elementary School).

[Thanks very much to Kathy E. for providing input on the state's education system in the 40+ years since I left Australia. Kathy worked in the SA State Education system for 40 years as a high-school teacher, Counsellor, Subject Coordinator, Assistant Principal, and Deputy Principal. Her final school was the alma mater of the then Aussie Prime Minister, Julia Gilliard, who visited occasionally with her entourage. Thanks much also for feedback from Roger M., who taught me in Year-10 in 1967. Roger taught high-school Mathematics and Chemistry, was a State Science Advisor, and a Deputy Principal and Principal. He also served as a Coordinator and Chemistry teacher in the International Baccalaureate (IB) program.]

Education in South Australia in the 1960's

Public education in Australia was, and still is, the responsibility of each state government. In South Australia, this came under the control of the Department of Education. Formal education started at age 5 or 6 and ran from Year 1 through Year 12. (In some years, when there was high unemployment for school leavers, a Year 13 was offered, at least on a temporary basis.) [In the US, while a few states run education at the state level, most do it at the county/city/town level. As such, there are thousands of different school systems, each hiring and firing its own teachers, and each providing a quality of service that often reflects its tax base. Wealthy counties, cities, and towns usually have far more computers and equipment and higher teacher pay than do the less wealthy, which may be struggling to pay for the essentials. There are 13 years of formal education, K–12. (See below for an explanation of K.)]

Although preschool is common now, when I was of that age it was in its early infancy in my region. In any event, it was called Kindergarten, or simply "Kindy." I never attended Kindy; we lived outside of town and there was no way for me to get there. [Preschool is also common in the US. The first official year of school, however, is called Kindergarten (K).]

School was broken into two main year groups: primary (Years 1–7) and secondary/high school (Years 8–12). [In the US we have elementary (usually Years K–6), middle/junior high (often Years 7–8, but sometimes Years 6–8 or 7–9), and high school (usually Years 9–12, but sometimes 10–12).]

I seem to recall that education was compulsory from ages 6–15. [Roger: In 1963, the minimum upper age for compulsory schooling changed from 14 to 15. In 2003, it moved to 16.] Back then, there was no concept of high school graduation. There certainly was no stigma to leaving school before completing Year 12. In fact, the high school in my town did not even offer a Year 12 until around 1960. And one could only attend that year if one were university-bound. It was only some years after I finished high school (in 1969), that Year 12 became an option for students not headed to university. One simply left school whenever! For example, my siblings left school during or at the end of Year 8, 9, or 10. I was the youngest of five siblings and I was the first to complete all 12 grades. My parents both ended their schooling after the 6th grade. [In contrast, in the US, failing to complete Year 12 is generally seen as a big disadvantage, and high school graduation really is a big deal. Separately, since the 1990's, the American high school concept of Senior prom (short for promenade) has become popular in Australia, complete with rented tuxedos and limousines!] [Kathy: The aim now is for every school leaver in the state to obtain a South Australian Certificate of Education (SACE). This credential is overseen by the SACE Board. The reality is that even though the 'certificate' is very flexible not everyone leaves school having attained this. Re the prom, students go to a formal; some schools allow Year 11 and 12 students to attend, so it is not really about graduation.]

In my day, for the first two years of high school, tests to determine progress were prepared by each school as it chose. For the third year and beyond, there were two kinds of tests and corresponding course loads, which I'll call internal and external. The tests for external work were devised by the state's Public Education Board (PEB). (Any student with the aptitude for going to university, teacher's college, or some profession was put in the PEB stream.) There was one big exam at the end of the school year, which counted for 100% of one's grade. No matter how well one did throughout the year, have a bad test day and one could fail and have to repeat the whole year! [This is a lot like the increasingly popular International Baccalaureate (IB) program being offered in many countries around the world, including the US and Australia.] I didn't like that testing model then, and I'm even more certain I don't like it now. It's hardly representative of a student's achievement through the year. Internal testing was done by each school. [Kathy: Final results at Year 12 are no longer totally based on the exam result, but are a combination of what the student has done during the year and a final exam; however not all subjects have final exams.]

The school year ran from early February through mid-December, and was broken into three equal-length terms. We had a week off for the May Holidays and another one off for the September Holidays. Then came the summer holidays. (Years later, the summer break was shortened, and the mid-term breaks were extended to two weeks each.) [In the US, the seasons are opposite. The school year typically runs from late August/early September through June, and is sometimes broken into four nine-week grading periods. Students have a 4-day long weekend in November for Thanksgiving, 7–14 days off over Christmas, and then another week off for Spring Break in March/April. Then comes the (usually 10-week) summer holidays during which time many summer (not necessarily academic) schools operate.] [Kathy: We now have four terms per year.]

Parochial schools (that is, church-run schools) were quite common. Most of the country's population was contained in no more than 10–15 cities, and in those cities, numerous religious denominations had their own schools. However, outside metropolitan areas in my home state, the vast majority of church-run schools were run by the Lutheran or Catholic churches. My hometown had one of each: Loxton Lutheran Day School and St. Albert's Catholic School (known locally as The Convent).

Some private schools that were not affiliated with a church (such as Montessori schools) existed. Historically, private church schools were known as colleges. [In contrast, in the US, the word college usually denotes a 4-year university, although community colleges offer 2-year programs.]

Regarding tertiary (that is, post-secondary) education, the classic British Commonwealth Bachelor's degree was three years, and for the most part one specialized starting on Day 1. [In contrast, the classic US liberal-arts model runs four years and allows for a lot of experimentation before deciding on a major. I absolutely love that model.] Exceptional students were invited to do a fourth year, Honors. Masters' and Doctoral degrees were available, but if I recall correctly, a master's degree was viewed as a Poor-Man's Doctorate. Unlike the US, the demand for higher degrees in Australia was quite low. [Roger: The demand for higher degrees is now quite common, with there also being a demand for double degrees.] As such, if one went beyond a Bachelors', one did a Doctorate, falling back to a Masters' if one didn't complete the thesis or the entire coursework.

At the time, South Australia had two universities: Adelaide and Flinders. Adelaide University was modeled on the British lines with nice architecture and grounds, lots of tradition, including a military regiment. On the other hand, Flinders was quite new and more like a modern American liberal-arts college. Flinders definitely was the state leader in anti-war demonstrations during the Vietnam War. [Australia was one of the main allies of the US in that war, and we had a military draft for men at age 20. In contrast, the draft age in the US was 18, which, by no coincidence corresponds to the age of the average high school graduate.]

The third main tertiary school was the South Australian Institute of Technology (SAIT). [Interestingly, the student newspaper was called SAITUN, although I never did see any pointed ears or tails on the paper's staff.]

My state of one million people had quite a few teachers' colleges, most of which were independent, and after three years of training produced a primary [US: elementary] teacher with a Diploma of Teaching. Students who wanted to teach high school completed instead a 3-year university degree and then afterwards attended an affiliated teachers' college for a year to learn how to teach. It is worth noting that all students attending a teachers' college in my state who were being trained for public education were considered employees of the state's Department of Education. As such, not only didn't they pay tuition fees, they got a paycheck each week, which was enough to live on without having a part-time job. So, by the time they graduated, they already had 3–4 years of service counting towards their long-service leave. [In Australia, my wife attended a 3-year teachers' college. She took the same three subjects each year: History, Education, and Physical Education. However, when she wanted to become certified to teach in Virginia in the US, she first had to take several English courses, a US History course, a Virginia History course, and some other general education courses to complete a Bachelor's degree, and then complete a Master's degree in Education.]

[In 1991, SAIT and most of the teachers' colleges combined to form the University of South Australia, and the teachers' colleges formerly affiliated with the initial two universities merged with those universities.]

In my day, almost all classes in tertiary schools lasted for the whole academic year. However, many have since moved to the 2-semester-per-year model used in the US.

By the way, the more formally organized tertiary student residences are called colleges. These are not part of any university, however, and are not on-campus.

How did one qualify for entrance to a tertiary school? Firstly, one had to be attending a version of Year 12 high school that used PEB exams. [Kathy: In 1970, some Teachers' Colleges allowed students into some courses after Year 11.] During my time, such students had to take five subjects, each for a full year. At the end of the year, they received a grade for each based on the final exam. A score of 1 was best with 4 being the lowest grade pass. Scores of 5 and 6 were failures. To gain admission to a university, one had to pass all five subjects; that is, get a score of 4 or better on each. However, for SAIT and the teachers' colleges, it was a bit more lenient, and a total overall score was needed. For example, two grade 5's could be offset by some grades 1 and/or 2. (This gets back to the lack of a concept of high-school graduation.) By the way, in the US, it is almost a rite-of-passage to attend a university in a state other than one's own. However, in Australia that was extremely rare in my time, especially given that all universities there had similar (and good) academic reputations.

In December 1972, Australia had a major change in Federal Government. Gough Whitlam became the new Prime Minister and he immediately implemented his two big campaign promises: make tertiary education free and get Australia out of the war in Vietnam. The former gave rise to the well-educated middle-class and really set in motion the idea that Aussies need no longer consider themselves second-class citizens. [Since about 1990, as budgets got tighter, tuition fees have been re-introduced and increased. However, they are nowhere near the levels of US colleges, except perhaps for foreign students.]

In the years that I attended primary and secondary school, one day each week a representative from The Savings Bank of South Australia came to school and allowed students to make deposits. The bankbooks were kept by the school or by the bank; I don't know which. In any event, each bank day, I'd head off to school with a one- or two-shilling coin (or, later, its decimal equivalent) tied into the corner of my handkerchief, so I wouldn't lose it.

Regarding apprenticeships and trade schools, if a student wanted to be a hairdresser or motor mechanic, for example, they left school as soon as they reached the minimum age, 15. They then were employed by a corresponding business as participants in a (usually) 3-year apprenticeship, during which time they received on-the-job training. They also attended several weeks per year of formal instruction at a trade school in the state capital. Later, trade schools became more prevalent and a vocational training program was set up in small towns all over the state. [In the US, many school systems have specialty schools that offer hairdressing, auto repair, and catering, among other things. Students attending those schools do so several days each week or every morning or afternoon, and attend their "base school" for all general academic work. That is, they do their apprenticeship as part of the high school system, which is why they are urged to stay in school and to complete Year 12.] [Kathy: Vocational Education still exists, and students can do some schooling and begin some work, which is counted towards their SACE certificate. This is what is described as the 'flexibility of the SACE.']

Historically, nursing was treated like an apprenticeship. Young women (since it was exclusive female back then) left school by about 16, and became attached to a local hospital as trainee nurses. They received on-the-job training as well as some weeks of formal classwork each year before graduating as nursing sisters after three years. Since the 1990's, nursing has been recognized as a profession requiring a 3-year Bachelor-of-Nursing degree.

Each summer, the Department of Education sponsored a state-wide "Learn to Swim" campaign, so that kids could earn certificates of many levels from beginners to lifesaving. Most instructors were schoolteachers, who like their swim students were on their long summer break.

Loxton Lutheran Day School: 1959–1961, age 5–7

Motto: Omnia in Christo (All things in Christ)

In February 1959, at the grand age of 5 years and 2 months, I started Grade 1. By all accounts, I was more than ready. My teacher that year was Miss Alsop. My Grade-2 teacher was Miss Garrett, and in Grade 3, it was Miss Dawn Lienert. (She married a local man and stayed in the area. Over the years, I've caught up with her and her husband at their place in Australia and at my place in the US. In August 2012, our paths crossed when we were on separate vacations to Split, on the Dalmatian Coast of Croatia. In 1961, Dawn was a 19-year-old, newly minted teacher at her first school, having had about two years of teacher training. I think she was a little bit intimidated, but then who wouldn't be with 25 or more little Rex's in their class!) At the end of the first term in 1961, we moved 25 miles and I changed schools.

The Headmaster (US: principal) of the school was a gregarious man, a cricket player, and the son a Lutheran pastor. His name was Theofpholous ("Ophie") Gerhard Daniel Renner. (In 2012, at age 82, Mr. Renner was honored as South Australian Citizen of the Year.) Now I got to know him rather quickly. Before the first week of Grade 1 was over, I'd seen the inside of his office and got the cuts; that is, a hard whack across each hand with his cane. [I am happy to report that more than 60 years later, I am no longer in therapy over that.] The incident for which I was punished involved me riding on a fast-moving, metal playground device called a "chair-o-plane," from which I fell, swearing in the process. Apparently, swearing was not the done thing in Lutheran school! Fortunately, for the young girl in question, I have long since forgotten who "dobbed me in" (US: ratted me out); that is, told on me.

I don't remember much about my 2+ years there, but one thing does stand out. At morning recess, we each got a 1/3-pint (180 ml) bottle of whole milk, as part of a statewide health and nutrition program. [Now, many years later, I'm still a whole milk fan, and every now and then when I buy a gallon here in the US, the taste is such that if I close my eyes, I'm transported back to that shelter shed at Loxton Lutheran!] Oh, and speaking of shelter sheds, they contained taps (US: faucets) for drinking water at deep troughs. Rumor has it that children—almost always boys, I'm sure—who said mildly or really bad things, were taken there to have their mouths washed out with soap. So, how do I know that? Let's just say that, "the Devil made me do it!"

I do recall that we wore a school uniform that had blue and white stripes. This included a regulation jumper (US: sweater) and blazer, and for the boys, a skullcap.

The sandy road that came in from the main road to our house out at Loxton East was about a mile (1.6 kms) long, and it wasn't easy to ride on. From the road gate, it was about another mile (1.6 kms) to the junction where we waited for the school bus. I do know that I got my own bicycle—a spanking new 22" Super Elliott—at the start of Grade 2. I don't recall how I got to and from the bus stop the previous year, but my guess is that the older siblings "donkeyed" me; that is, carried me on the back of one of their bikes.

Our nearest neighbors were the Arnold's, whose farm was only a mile (1.6 kms) from our main gate. Now they had six kids—three boys followed by three girls—and all were in school at that time, with the youngest being my age. So rather than have them all ride bikes to the bus stop, the family had a horse and a large 4-wheeled cart. Each morning, the six kids rode that to the bus stop where the horse was put in a large pen nearby with food and water. Then, each night, they'd drive home again. I recall that on a couple of occasions, I was too tired to ride my bike, so they put it on their cart and let me ride with them to our gate.

When I talked with brother Terry about this period, one of the very few things he could recall was the time we went to the bus stop and he played in some pools of water left from a recent rain. He fell over and got his clothes all muddy. Rather than get on the bus to go to school, he went back home and hid under his bed all day, so Mom wouldn't know. [It's not clear how he avoided her not finding the dirty clothes later.]

Regarding the bus, it was a small one, and the windows were pulled up from inside the body using a leather strap that had holes in it that went on a metal pin to control the size of the opening. Near the place we boarded the bus at the end of each school day, was Mr. Jordan's shop, and there we could buy an "icy pole on a stick;" that is, frozen flavored water (US: popsicle). For some reason, I recall that sticks on which these and ice-creams came were known as "fro-joy" sticks, presumably because they held a frozen joy. Anyway, if one had a pin and used that to put a hole about halfway along such a stick, and then twisted each end half in opposite directions, one could make a pretty good propeller that fairly well raced around when held in one's hand out the bus window.

Each morning, the bus took us to the Loxton Primary School, as that was the hub for many buses. From there, students were transferred to the Lutheran Day school and to the High School. (We dropped off the Catholic School students right near their school on the way into town.) Each afternoon, we did the reverse trip, except that the last kids on in the morning—such as my family—were the last ones off at night.

The total student enrolment at the school was about 160. Being five years younger than my next oldest sibling, I only overlapped school attendance for one year with one brother, and two years with one sister.

One of my school workbooks from that era survived, a writing book from Grade 2. I also have my Grade 1 school photo, in its original frame, on the back of which is a picture I drew.

Nadda Primary School: 1961–1962, age 7–8

At the end of Term 1 of 1961, we moved to Nadda, where I finished Grade 3 in the second and third terms. The 1-teacher school was held in the Nadda Institute, a large stone building with a huge room with open fireplace, a small room attached, and separate boys' and girls' dunnies (US: outhouses). (In South Australia, many small towns had an institute—sometimes called a hall—which served as the place for social events such as dances after football games in winter, annual Strawberry Fetes, end-of-year school plays, and 21st birthday parties.)

One of my school workbooks (arithmetic) from that era survived.

The total student population was no more than 10, and was spread over the seven grades. I recall that one teacher, a divorced woman, boarded with us for a term. I also recall a male teacher who boarded with a neighbor. The school closed in May of 1962—at the end of my first term in Grade 4—when we got down to only three students. [In 2014, when I visited that area, a friend presented me with a colored photo he'd taken on the day the school closed. It's one of only a handful of photos I have of myself during my primary school years.]

To get to school, I rode my bike three miles each way on a dirt road. [Unlike a popular saying in the US, it was not "uphill both ways!"]

One incident I recall involved my taking some empty 180-lb (82 kg) wheat bags to school, and we stitched them together to make a tent in which we played out in the yard. Some bright spark (pun intended) decided to make and light a campfire out front of said tent. However, while we were back in class the fire got out of control, resulting in us being rendered "tent-less."

During this time, I and other boys took up smoking, Aussie-bush style. This involved finding a mallee tree (a form of Eucalyptus tree native to the area), digging up some of its lateral roots, stripping off the bark, lighting up one end, and then sucking hard on the other. I recall it being hard work getting the smoke all the way up a 3-inch mallee root, and the taste wasn't so good either. But, hey, we were cool! We hid our matches along with some store-bought fags (Aussie slang for cigarettes) someone had "borrowed" from their parents, in an old, seldom-used structure across the road in the railway yards. [I note that store-bought is a US term. I recall that back then men referred to cigarettes one bought as tailor-mades, versus those that were hand-rolled with paper and tobacco.]

Calling Nadda a town is being generous. Although a township had been surveyed, when I lived in the area, Nadda consisted of a combination general store and post office with a house attached, some outbuildings, the public Institute, two tennis courts, and a railway siding. [In much earlier times, there was a football oval.]

Although the railway siding was unmanned, a train with freight wagons, one or two passenger carriages, and guard's van (US: caboose), came through several times a week. Machinery and fertilizer were shipped in, and bags of grain were shipped out. A locked box was used to hold the mailbag that the postmistress put there for collection and recovery. Bread also came several times a week with unsliced "sandwich" and "hi-top" loaves roughly sewn into one or more 180-pound wheat bags. At one end of the rail yard stood a locked phone booth that train staff could use.

Taplan Primary School: 1962–1964, age 8–11

After the Nadda School closed, I rode my bike a half mile to the corner near my house and then took a bus eight miles each way to the primary school in Taplan. This was another 1-teacher school with seven grades. Although I'd completed one term of Grade 4 at Nadda, not too long after I arrived at Taplan, the teacher put me in Grade 5 (so I went from being, on-average, six months younger than my classmates to 18 months younger). I completed Grade 6 in 1963, then Grade 7 in 1964. The most students we had at any time was 28. There were four of us in the same grade.

As was standard in South Australia, all Grade-7 students sat for their Progress Certificate (PC) at the end of that year. The results of this determined if one could go on to high school. [I still have that certificate.]

Two male teachers taught there during my time, and each lived in the house provided by the Education Department for married teachers.

Across the road from the school was the main store, which was run by Mrs. Harvey. I don't know if she had ever taught school formally, but on the rare occasion the teacher was absent, she took over.

All seven grades were taught in parallel by the same teacher, a feat I have trouble remembering how it worked, yet it did. We sat two-to-a-desk on one wide seat that tipped back on a hinge. The sloped desktops had holes on the right side of each student for the ceramic pot inkwells. [No lefties catered for, thank you very much!] I seem to recall that being inkwell (or chalkboard) monitor was a reward rather than a punishment.

Taplan had a large railway yard in which stood a number of wooden houses where railway gangers (workers, that is) sometimes lived. At one time, one of them was occupied by an Aboriginal family, a rare thing in my area. And although they had only small children, an older relative came to stay with them for an extended period. She was a big girl and a grade ahead of me, and she sat next to me, taking up a good piece of our shared seat.

The school grounds consisted of a large yard covered in crushed gravel, which was known locally as crusher dust. Most outdoor activities took place there. Down a back hill, we had a large vegetable garden, which we tended in season. At the bottom of that hill was a reasonably flat space for the boys to kick a football during recess and lunch breaks.

Next to the garden was a large patch of bamboo, and from that I carry a large and permanent reminder. From time to time, we'd cut down lengths of bamboo for use in a variety of activities, leaving behind jagged stumps about three inches (7.5cms) out of the ground. The Taplan football club oval (playing field) was nearby, and one Saturday during a game there, some other kids and I went over to the bamboo patch to "mess around." Somehow, I fell over and got one of those sharp, jagged stumps stuck in the front of my right, lower leg, right down to the bone. There was a lot of blood, yet I never did have it stitched.

As one went up the front steps of the school, to the left before the front door, there was a woodwork room. To the right was a large space enclosed on three sides by sheets of corrugated iron. That was where we sat to eat our lunch and played in inclement weather (a rare thing in that area).

At different times, different local people tendered for and won the contract to provide the school bus service that ran the 16 miles, going from Taplan to Nadda on the west road and then from Nadda to Taplan on the east road. One of those was my godfather, Albert Obst, who lived in Taplan and had a General Motors Holden panel van, a sort-of station wagon, but with the back having a higher roof and organized for commercial hauling rather than passengers. One night coming home, I caused some sort of problem, and as punishment, Albert put me off the bus about a mile from my stop, so I had to walk home. A second incident occurred with another driver—whose son I had teased—put me off some two miles from my stop. [Some 40 years later, I met that same man and the first thing he spoke of when he met me was how I'd teased his son. It was clear that he'd failed to "move on" with his life.]

Once a year, we competed in the Brown's Well district inter-school sports day. This involved schools from Taplan, Meribah, Paruna, Alawoona, and Peebinga, among others. We mostly competed in individual events, because with only 28 kids in seven grades, we never had enough of the same age/size to make up a boys or girls' team.

At the end of each year, we put on a school play, which was held on the stage of the Taplan Institute. We did it all: acting, singing, comedy sketches, and operating fund-raising stalls.

Back then, rural schools each had a Welfare Club, the forerunner of today's Parent-Teacher Associations, and they raised money via a number of means. In the case of Taplan, one very popular activity was the weekly Card Night, held at the school during winter. The game played was 500, a bidding game somewhat like Bridge and Euchre. There were four players to a table, and the head table had a bell. When one pair at the head table reached 500 points, they rang the bell and the current hand at the other tables was completed and the leading pair from each table moved to the next, but opposed each other there, while the losing pair stayed behind, but opposed each other. At the end of the night, prizes for the lowest (booby prize) and the highest score for men and woman were awarded, and hot drinks and snacks were consumed. Throughout, a roaring fire heated the cavernous room.

Another student and I were the only kids who attended and played. Now most people came to have some fun, but old Emil Schneck took it very seriously. He was a retired bachelor, and apart from attending St. John's Lutheran church on Sundays, this was his only other big weekly event! So, when I sat at his table, I had to "bid and play properly." Each person's score was recorded and at the end of the season, the top scorer got a folding card table. [In April of 2000, during a trip back to my hometown, I recreated a 500-night just as I'd remembered it from Taplan School. With 12 players, we made up three tables.]

I finished at Taplan School in December 1964. At the end of 1967, Taplan, along with all the small regional schools, closed with the students being bused to the Browns' Well Area School in Paruna, which supported Grades 1–10. [In 2007, 40 years later, that school also closed, with the students being bused to Loxton.]

Before bulk handling of grain and silos were introduced, Taplan had huge wheat stacks where many thousands of 180-lb (82 kg) bags were piled high, ready to be taken away by train. The town had a post office with a small store; a second, larger store; a church; a cemetery; a school; a teacher's house; a football oval; plus 20-odd houses.

In Part 2, I'll cover my time in high school and university.

Travel: Memories of Chile

© 1991, 2020 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.

[Originally, this diary was written by hand in a spiral notebook during the trip; however, now I've transcribed and edited it. The diary cover reads, "Diario de Viaje a Chile y Argentina, Octubre y Noviembre 1991." To get in the spirit of the Spanish language, I wrote each day's name in Spanish, and I added "new Spanish word" lists to various days. I also glued all kinds of things into the paper version: postcards, bus tickets, receipts, and so forth. The Spanish content was not transcribed, and the add-ins have been omitted from this electronic version, as were the food and drink samples I'd spilled on several pages.]

This was my second big adventure trip, and involved two weeks with a group crossing southern Chile and Argentina, billed as a Patagonia Walking trip, preceded by some days on my own in Chile getting in a Spanish-speaking mood.

[Diary] We touched down in the capital, Santiago, at 7:30 am, local time, and my luggage arrived soon after. From there I went to change some money. The Chilean Peso wasn't worth a whole lot, and for US$150, I got 53,250! Coins were in dominations of 1, 5, 10, 50, and 100 pesos, and banknotes of 500, 1,000, 5,000, 10,000, and higher. You certainly can't buy anything for 1 peso!

By 8 am, I had all my gear and was ready to depart. Unfortunately, the tourist office didn't open until 9 am, so I set out for the city anyway. After waiting at the place the signs appeared to indicate, I watched a number of buses pass me by. Finally, one stopped, and we set off on the 26-km run to the capital. The one-way trip cost 350 pesos, a little less than $1. It was a comfortable coach and the price was right. As we approached the city, the smog seemed to increase. While many places looked to be, and were, run-down, things were relatively clean with not much litter, which was a good sign. On the outskirts of town, an Italian circus was setting up its tents.

The main street of the city is called La Avenida de O'Higgins. Now while O'Higgins was a famous local general, his name doesn't sound very Hispanic. However, there are streets, hotels, and even a bank named after him. Traffic was hectic with small buses darting in and out constantly.

My first stop was the hotel from which my adventure tour group would depart several days later. It was quite up-scale with rooms running $100–200/night. There were doormen and staff everywhere. I walked into the foyer dressed in my sweat pants and green parka, carrying a daypack and duffle bag, and wearing hiking boots with bright red laces. They probably thought I was lost or just another of those eccentric, rich foreigners. I certainly got looks from lots of people as I came up the grand staircase to the front desk. I confirmed my reservation for several days later and left my duffle bag in their storage room. I had no desire to stay in such a place at all, and wanted to get the feel of the "real" Chile.

It was a short 6-block walk to the tourist office, or at least to where it used to be. On my arrival, a kindly gentleman informed me it had moved. (Don't you just hate that when that happens!) From what I gathered from his Spanish the new location wasn't too far away, but he suggested I take the subway. I decided to walk anyway, which turned out to be a mistake. It took me an hour and my feet got tired and sore. Along the way I spied an old pickup truck, so I stopped to chat with the proud owner. He informed me it was a 1938 Chevy. By that time, I wished I had waited the extra hour at the airport for that tourist office to open.

At the tourist office, a young woman helped me with maps and information regarding the subway system, so I rode that to the main bus station. The flat fare was 100 pesos. The system was very modern and efficient. At the bus station, I bought a one-way ticket to Valparaiso, the country's main port and second largest city. The fare was 650 pesos. The coach was very nice and had a driver and two staff all dressed in uniforms. On-board one could buy food and drink, and there was a toilet. The service was outstanding; in fact, I would have paid at least 675 pesos! A radio was broadcasting throughout the bus, and Tom Jones used that to serenade us in English en route. Driving time was 1:45 hours. I sat next to somebody's grandma, and we chatted a bit with me asking her lots of questions and she replying so fast I understood about two words per sentence, although when hearing rapid-spoken Spanish, it's hard to tell where one sentence ends and the next one starts. For all I know she may well have telling me about a boil on her butt!

While I was making progress on my Spanish reading and speaking, it was clear I was very deficient in comprehension. My most common responses were "no entiendo" (I don't understand) and "mas despacio" (speak more slowly).

Out the window, I saw green fields full of golden and orange flowers. En route, I ate leftover airline food for lunch. Soon we came to pine forests, which also contained many eucalypts, something that surprised me. (I thought they grew only in Australia; silly me!)

The good news was that there was a tourist office right at the Valparaiso bus station. The bad news was that it closed 30 minutes before I arrived, for a 2-hour lunch break. (I could see a pattern developing here with respect to tourist offices.) However, another office stayed open during lunch if I cared to walk the 15 minutes to get there. I took a while to get my bearings and a young woman from the bus station escorted me to a local bus stop, put me on a bus, and told the driver where to take me. Just as the bus started, I noticed that I'd left my daypack in her office, and I jumped off just in time, but lost my ticket in the process. They were just locking up the station, but I managed to retrieve my bag. Finally, another bus came along and, don't you know, it dropped me right at the street for which she had given me directions. The only problem was that it was in the adjoining town some 3–4 miles away and she had written down the wrong town. Don't you just hate that?

Perhaps it was fate that brought me there, but the town of Viña del Mar (literally, vineyard of the sea) was very much up-market, so much so that I didn't think I'd be able to find cheap accommodation. I got wind of a hostel, but after 45 minutes of walking, I discovered it had closed. After that long walk had tired me out what to do but stop at a supermarket and buy a bag of dried sultanas (US: golden raisins) and sit in the sun and eat them. They didn't help my feet any, but they sure tasted good.

Well, my travel motto is, "Always have a plan B, even for Plan B!" I finally found a place right downtown on Agua Santa. It was your typical hostel with mix-and-match furniture. The share-bathroom had a cold-water basin and shower in a tub. A large gas cylinder sat at the end of the tub, and one just switched on the gas, struck a match, and "let her rip!" The price was $5/night, which was just fine with me.

As it happened, my adventures for the day had not yet ended. Today was the day the staff had chosen to replace some of the furniture and bedding in my very room. So, when I say that I had to make my bed, I mean that I had to make my bed, literally. Being much taller than the guys assembling the double bunk beds, I offered to help them, and we become buddies even though we could barely understand each other. However, there was one bit of good news. One of the bolt holes in the bed was drilled incorrectly, and the bolt wouldn't fit properly. Just that very morning I had been learning some new Spanish verbs, one of which was the verb "to fit," and lo and behold I got a chance to use it in a real-life situation, "it won't fit," or as we'd say in Australian-Spanish, "No bloody fitto, Jose!"

We assembled three bunks and put on new mattresses, sheets, and blankets. My mattress was rock-hard, just as I like it. The old mattresses we replaced sagged almost to the floor. With them, I reckon I could have rocked myself to sleep trying to get out of bed.

My room had two big windows, one at the head of my bed and one on the side, and the cool breeze blew right on in. A rock band started practicing in the house next door, but it wasn't too loud.

At 7:15 pm, I ventured out to find some food. I spied a family bakery with deli, and the staff was just filling the bins with hot rolls as I arrived. I bought some fresh rolls along with liter containers of chocolate milk, orange juice, and apple juice, and ham and Gouda cheese. Hey, I'm a growing boy! In my haste to race home and devour my purchases I had forgotten to buy butter, so my rolls were a bit dry.

I checked out the gas shower and after coaxing the burner gently, I got a good wash. By 8:30, my personal lights were starting to dim. Apparently, I had two roommates, and I hoped they wouldn't be too noisy when they got in. In any event, with all the new furniture, they might think they've come to the wrong room.

So, how was my first full day? I confirmed that relatively speaking, I don't know much Spanish. The day could have been better, and it could have been worse. As I had no big expectations, there were no big disappointments. Besides, if everything had have gone smoothly, I wouldn't have anything interesting to write about. Both heels finished up with sizeable blisters on the bottom, and two toes were a little squashed. I guess they need more toughening before the real hiking starts in a few days.

[Diary] I got up at 11 am, to find that I was sharing a room with two guys from Columbia and one from Chile. As I had long missed breakfast, I made my own from leftover supper and some milk. I did learn one important lesson; if you are 6'4" (195 cms) tall and sleeping on the bottom bunk, don't sit straight up in bed as you'll hit your !@#$ing head!

The weather was nice with temperatures in the high 60s F, and I made my way outside around noon. I headed for the beach nearby where some babes were taking in the sun. Students from several universities nearby were out in force. I stopped in at a small museum dedicated to a well-known local writer and adventurer. It was housed in a small castle-like building built on the rocks overlooking the sea.

There really was no litter and the gardens were blooming. Date palms lined the beach road along with numerous other trees. Viña del Mar is where wealthy people had their summer homes. I came across a rather swank-looking casino. Numerous high-rise apartment buildings lined the beach.

I spent quite some time at a large supermarket comparing prices and trying to figure out what some things were. There was a lot of Chilean wine for about $2/bottle. As the potato chips looked inviting, I bought a packet. I wrote some postcards and discovered empanadas, which involved meat wrapped in pastry. I bought two and the vendor offered to heat them for me. They also contained egg and, to my unpleasant surprise when I bit one, a black olive, which I quickly spat into the gutter.

At 7:15 pm, I was seated in the city's grand theater awaiting a choral performance by a university choir. Although there was no charge, I was hoping to get more than my money's worth. Although I was not able to decipher the program, it seemed to have something to do with the 500th anniversary of Columbus's discovery of the Americas. Some women were wearing furs, and some men had on ties. As for me, I was in my hiking gear and carrying a daypack!

The choir warmed up and there was a lot of humming; perhaps they hadn't yet learned all the words. Patrons filled a number of private boxes on the main level and two upper balconies. The ceiling was a large dome. The program I'd been trying to decipher turned out to be details of the university's plan for education. The public-address system featured Lennon and McCartney songs played on an Andean flute, which was quite conducive to my absorbing some of the local culture. Although the performance started 15 minutes late, three choirs sang for 90 minutes total. At the end, the three groups (80-odd voices) sang together. According to my attempt at translation, the title of the program was "We Sing in Spring."

[Diary] I lay in bed a good while and joined the 10-am-breakfast shift. There I met a young Chilean woman who lived in Stockholm with her Swedish husband, and taught Spanish. To make it interesting her father was German, and her maiden name was Müller. We had a conversation in a mixture of Spanish and English.

I took my last look around my room and noticed that the "quaint" curtain rods really were strands of heavy-gauge wire. The dilapidated clothes closet had a door that wouldn't close, just like the door on the room itself. "Spartan" was probably the most appropriate description. However, at $10 for two nights with a continental breakfast included, it was a good deal.

Around noon, I caught a bus back to Valparaiso, the town in which I had intended to stay originally. That town was bustling, and I sat and watched the goings on in the fruit and vegetable market before finding a large park. The order of the day was to wander about, write postcards, buy some stamps, and find a place to stay. The weather was cloudy but not at all cold. A young university student sat next to me as I fed some sparrows and a pigeon. As he spoke no English, my Spanish was pushed to the limit. I gathered that his name was Louis and that he was studying Chemistry.

I found the main Post Office, bought stamps and more cards, and posted some cards. From there I went to the main square, Plaza Solomayor. And right across the street, I spied the Hotel Reina Victoria (The Queen Victoria), but I doubt she'd have been very proud of it, at least not in its current state. The front desk was up a flight of stairs and it was tended by a kindly grandmother. We got along famously and soon, I was ensconced in my own large private room on the 3rd floor. The room had a washbasin, two face washers, a mirror, and a power outlet. There was a large wardrobe and a bed that sagged quite badly. The bedside stand had a small reading lamp on it along with—yes Ladies and Gentlemen—a chamber pot! A small table, chair, and a rug completed the décor. The two windows opened out over the plaza. To my left was the Chilean Navy Port and to my right was the Naval Headquarters. A window seat was built into the wall, and as I sat, I could see sailors coming and going to/from the Armada de Chile building.

Now, I ask you Ladies and Gentlemen, how much would you expect to pay for such luxury and a view? Well I paid 2,000 pesos per night, a little less than $6. Continental breakfast was included and would be delivered to my room. A share bath was down the hall and ran on a gas-fired apparatus. I even had a view of the plaza from the toilet seat. But wait, there was even more; my room came with a living pot plant!

At 7:30 pm, I asked the woman at the desk to fire up the hot water, to lay out my silk pajamas, and to get some bearers to carry me down to "el tubbo." Well, the water was very hot and plentiful, and I had a good soak under the shower. It was good to be able to stand straight and still fit under the showerhead. I noticed that toilet paper was supplied, and was in strips of 2' laid atop the cistern. (Most cheap places did not supply it.) During my nap, I'd dreamed I was staying in a 5-star villa and when I awoke, viola, there it was! Perhaps it will all be turned back into a pumpkin at midnight.

Back in my room, I rubbed some secret-recipe liniment into my tired and aching calf muscles, after which the place smelled like a men's locker room. I guess they will have to change my sheets this week after all given the smell I'll leave behind. The ceiling was at least 12' high and the light hanging down was so bright I could almost see enough to find the switch on the wall to check if the light was actually on. By the way, the electricity supply was 220V (unlike the US) and with screw-in bulbs (just like the US). The power outlets were 2-pin European-style.

After lying in bed a while, it was clear that I wasn't going to get to sleep with my butt dragging near the floor in the saggy mattress. And my feet were higher than my head. So, I dragged the mattress and bedding onto the floor, which was an improvement. All night, there was traffic outside my window, but as the noise was constant, it was not at all annoying.

[Diary] The tea that I'd ordered for 9 am arrived at 8:30, and it was coffee! Don't you just hate that when that happens! It sure is hard to get good help nowadays! And just as I finished eating, my alarm sounded. Actually, the coffee was not so strong; in fact, the spoon needed some help before it could stand up on its own. The bread was fresh and came with lots of butter, and made a hearty start to the day.

[Diary] Back in the capital, I came across the Residencial Londres hotel next to the main cathedral, and I rented a room. The marble staircase was most impressive, and the place was built like a castle, with solid walls, wood paneling, and plaster moldings. As I glanced at the guest registry, I saw several Finns, a Dutchman, and two Argentines, among others. For 2,600 pesos ($8), I had a double room to myself. The beds looked decent, towels were provided, and there was a writing table and chair, armchair, robe, and a bed lamp that made electrical-short-type sounds when switched on. The window opened out onto the street and I was on the ground floor. There were heavy indoor shutters to make the room dark and quiet. The share-bathroom was next door, and it had hot water all the time, a huge shower alcove—perhaps the guests all shower together—and toilet paper. All room doors were huge and well-made with solid locks, and swung easily. There was a small courtyard with garden.

After resting in my room, around 5:30 pm, I headed out for a stroll. I took in the new movie Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, starring Kevin Costner. It was in English with Spanish subtitles, and was preceded by a Disney cartoon along with a newsreel on Germany. At $2.50, it was good value.

From the theater, I walked down a long mall and ran smack-dead into a large student demonstration coming towards me. I could hear them chanting as I got closer. Then something set them off, and they started running towards me, and I guessed the police were breaking them up. I and numerous other pedestrians turned into a side street. That street had many people selling things on tables and blankets on the ground with small children playing. I tried not to step on anyone with my Seven-League boots. As I moved away from the intersection I turned to see an armored car with a water canon spraying high-pressure water all around. Then I heard a metallic sound as a tear gas canister started rolling towards me. Some smoke grenades exploded nearby.

As I moved further away, the crowd was very orderly, and two blocks further on, the shoppers were oblivious to what was happening behind me. When I reached the main street, the police were out in force in full riot gear, with shields and helmets. I decided that was as close as I wanted to get to a Chilean jail!

Back at the hotel, I told my tale to the front desk clerk, and he said that was a regular occurrence. The students got a permit to march, and they always went further than was permitted, leading to a confrontation with the police, so it was sort-of choreographed. While it was good to know that I wasn't in any real danger, my heart rate did race there for a bit.

[Diary] I sat down for breakfast at 9 o'clock, having apricot jam on bread with tea. I chatted with two American woman working with the Peace Corps in Paraguay, and another American traveling around the continent. While eating, we started to hear singing and speech-making outside, over a public-address system. Frankly, it sounded like a 1930s Nazi rally! It was indeed a political rally, for the Radical Party of Chile, and it was taking place right outside my hotel. We watched it from a balcony. After the previous evening's events, I had visions of a SWAT team landing on the roof and rappelling down the hotel walls to break things up.

The demonstrations were mostly about political prisoners. I found it impossible to relate to the local politics. One cannot hope to appreciate the loss of something until one has lost it. Somehow it always seems to happen to people "in other countries," but here I was in one of those other countries! Sadly, I expect the impact on me will wear off in a few days when I'll be off on another adventure. [See Human rights violations in Pinochet's Chile.]

[Diary] Back at the swank Hotel Carerra, I found that I was sharing a room with Thomas from Brooklyn, New York City, who was in my tour group. He told me we had a 5:30-am wake-up call the next morning. Say what, I'm on vacation!

[Diary] At 6 o'clock, I met the whole group downstairs, and we boarded a small bus for the airport for an 8-am flight to Punta Arenas at the southern tip of the continent, with a stop at Puerto Mott. I sat with Stan, our trip leader. His partner, Kate, was in charge of trip logistics. My other seatmate was a delightful Chilean businessman who owned boats that fished for bass and swordfish. He also had the biggest kelp-harvesting operation in the country. A breakfast omelet with fruit and coffee was served in-flight.

From my brief encounter, there seemed to be an interesting mix of people in my group. Thomas was a retired policeman from NYC, who carved wooden figures in his spare time, and was interested in opera and fine arts. There was a retired couple from Utah (Virgil and Jackie), he a doctor and she a dietician. He'd gotten bored, so went back to work becoming the medical director of the Mormon Missionary program. (During the trip, the four of us became friends.) There were also two women from Montana.

The sky was clear, and we followed the Andes all the way down to their end. Along the way, we saw more than a few volcanos, none of which was spewing ash that day. (There was a significant eruption several months earlier, from which ash was still settling.)

After collecting our baggage, we boarded a mini-bus for the 4-hour drive north to Puerta Natales, a fishing town located on Última Esperanza Sound (Last Hope Sound). Along the way, we were served empanadas for lunch. We saw quite a few rheas, a smaller version of emu/ostrich. The landscape reminded me of Iceland: windswept with rocks and small brush. Although there were lots of trees, none of them was large enough for lumber. All posts, poles, and houses were made of concrete, the houses having corrugated-iron roofs. After we arrived in town, I went for a walk and spoke to two young high school students who knew some English.

At out hotel, The Eberhardt, I sat in an upstairs lounge, and took in the view over the sound with snow-capped mountains straight ahead and all around to the right.

[Diary] We left town around 10:30, and had a long, slow drive over dirt roads. We stopped along the way for a picnic lunch. We saw a lot of large rabbits and several eagles. Later, we came across large numbers of guanacos near the road, and six Andean condors circling overhead. Further on, we saw more guanacos, condors, geese, ibis, and other birds. We stopped off at a magnificent, large waterfall, Salto Grande (Grand Falls). The wind blew something fierce although it wasn't cold. We finally reached our destination, Torres del Paine National Park, and arrived at the park's HQ, some 30 km away from the park entrance, where we had an orientation from a park ranger. The glaciers, snow-covered mountains, and windswept bushes were much like parts of Alaska, Scotland, and Iceland, all rolled together.

We had switched to camp-mode, and the campsite was set up by 7 pm. Each guest pair had to erect their own 2-person tent. They were dome-shaped and quite roomy with a small annex, although not tall enough to stand. I was pleasantly surprised that Nestlé Milo hot/cold-chocolate drink was very popular in Chile, and the camp kitchen had copious quantities. The camp table was set, complete with crockery, with places for 14 diners, which included the two American guides and the Chilean cook and bus driver. The camp fire was roaring, and pots were bubbling.

[Diary] I was awake at 6:30 am, and small birds were chirping outside my tent. Some 20 feet away some geese swam in a river. The crew brought us hot water and we did our ablutions before packing our gear. We broke our luggage into two parts: the main part would stay on the bus while the other would go on pack horses for an overnight hike. My new sleeping bag and self-inflating mattress had worked really well on their maiden outing. Tom went to sleep in 60 seconds and snored a lot. At 8 o'clock, we ate scrambled eggs, which I washed down with some strawberry milk. We'd each been assigned a plastic lunchbox, and into that we packed a lunch, from cheese, salami, chocolate bars, fruit, and trail mix. We loaded the bus, and rode it to the trailhead to start our hike at 10:30.

We met up with three cowboys and their six horses, which would carry our gear and food for two nights away. The first few hours of the hike were over flat, open grassland, between two separate mountain groups. We were surrounded by snow- and ice-covered peaks, glaciers, and very cold rivers with pieces of ice floating in them. There were lots of flowers and birds, and the sun was strong all day. The rivers were grey with glacial flour.

After a while, we started going up and down, and I raised a sweat. As I had a lot of clothes on, I started to shed some outer layers. If one were ever to get excited by a view, then this would a good place to do that. The big mountain lake before us was very blue, and the snow-covered peaks reflected were in it like a jigsaw puzzle picture. Although we saw an occasional tree, none was near the trail, so there was no shade in which to rest. The light wind combined with the sun to burn the skin, and my exposed hands got quite red. As we walked at different speeds, the group spread out, and after six hours, I reached camp with half of the people still behind me. The final hour was the most strenuous. When we arrived at our destination, another group was just departing. A solo hiker headed in the direction we'd come.

Supper was noodle soup, chicken, rice, peas, beans, corn, and mashed potato. Although cooked, the peas, beans, and corn were served cold, as is the Chilean custom. Those of us not accustomed to this, rectified the "problem" by loading them into the hot soup. We finished off with hot tea and pieces of chocolate. For this part of the trip, we had a large dining tent with folding seats.

[Diary] After a breakfast of oatmeal with hot milk, tea, and bread, we packed a picnic lunch, and we hit the trail about 9:15. It was overcast with a threat of rain. As we left, Virgil played his harmonica. The wind was quite fearsome, and come straight at us. Just before lunch, it rained a few drops. Grey Lake is fed by Grey Glacier, and ultimately runs into Grey River. We saw quite a few small ice floes, many of which had been blown to the end of the lake. As we neared the glacier, we saw several large icebergs that had run aground.

The glacier forked into two parts behind a hill, and the front of each head was about 200 yards across. Many bergs were waiting to calve off the heads. Where it was really packed down, the ice reflected only blue light. We sat on a huge rock outcrop from which the glacier had retreated. The boulders in front us were scoured with deep, regular furrows that looked man-made. There was forest around much of the lake, and we could see a number of waterfalls and swift-flowing streams.

[Diary] We packed up our tents and were on the trail around 9:15. After yesterday's "Death March," my big boots took over and propelled me well ahead of the others.

We stopped for lunch, and then after four hours, we arrived "home" before the pack horses. Hot showers were promised later, and I looked forward to that. The aches in my body had evaporated, although I hoped it hadn't gotten too used to exercise! The shower was great, and I celebrated with the rest of my carton of strawberry milk, and bought another at the camp store. With only one shower, it took a good while for the group to get through. Some of us watched a big, brown hawk in a tree nearby, and it was very interested in the garbage bin.

Around 4:15, we departed for Laguna Azul (Blue Lake). The ride was rough and took several hours. One of the cowboys, Jose, rode with us and we dropped him off at his home. Along the way he and I spoke at length. We saw geese, guanacos, rheas, and one condor.

The location of our new campground was fantastic; I immediately decided to move there, permanently! There was a large lake surrounded by mountains, which were more like grass-covered rolling hills. A herd of horses roamed the bottom meadow. There were some very colorful pintos and a young colt. A herd of guanacos grazed near the campground. By the time we erected our tents, it was 9 pm, but it was still quite light with the sun just having dropped below the hills. Some of us collected firewood. After the sun went down, I walked to the lake to see the snow-covered mountains with a ring of grey clouds, reflected in the water.

[Diary] We all did laundry, and the surrounding bushes were decorated with our clothes. The day's hike was optional, and I chose to stay in camp, to read, write, and to go off to watch the guanaco herd. During the morning, Eliacer (the cook), baked a large chocolate cake, and iced it with white and brown frosting. (Like I said earlier, this is not just any old camping trip!)

It was a lazy day, with the sun alternating with light drizzle, and the laundry got dry, mostly. Karen had decided to stay in camp as well, and we went off on an animal-finding expedition, but had no luck except for several hares, and some birds and flowers. The countryside reminded me of Scotland. Eventually, I saw some pink flamingos (now you know where they go south in the northern winter), some swallows, and a flock of parrots. I rigged up a place near the campfire to dry my socks.

For an evening appetizer, we ate Chilean camembert and edam cheese and drank local wine. Supper was lasagna with broccoli. The iced, chocolate cake followed. Then Virgil recited some poems, one of which he wrote. We kept the fire stoked even though it wasn't cold; after all, you can't camp without a fire! Lights out at 10:30.

The next day, we crossed the border into Argentina, where we spent five more days, eventually staying our final night in Buenos Aires.

[Diary] The trip was definitely worth the money. I practiced my Spanish a lot, met some interesting people with whom I planned to stay in touch, sampled some new cultures and food, and most importantly I slept very well most of the time. After having three weeks off following a hectic work schedule, it made me even more determined to work only half-time the following year!

Signs of Life: Part 20

© 2019 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.

From time to time during my travels, I come across signs that I find interesting for one reason or another. Sometimes, they contain clever writing, are humorous, or remind me of some place or event. Here are some from visits to Edinburgh, Scotland; London, England; and Beijing, China; among other places.


Sign outside a preschool.


While shopping for used clothes at the Salvo's thrift shop, you can help someone else.


I've found that it's udderly silly to confuse "other" with "udder".


I guess that's another way of saying "Get your drink and food here".


BBQ pork, anyone? And with haggis as well; hold me back!


While this sign certainly made me smile, the June week I was in Edinburgh was quite nice, with the rain mostly coming at nights.


From their website: "We run a shop of vices filled with fine wines, champagne, craft beers, boutique spirits, as well as luxury tobaccos, pipes, cigars, lighters and men's gifts."


I cannot emphasize enough that everthing in this play really does go wrong! It was absolutely hilarious.

I saw it while in London, and learned of another play, The Comedy About a Bank Robbery, by the same people, and very much enjoyed that too.


This German sign literally means "parking place for dogs," and something like it is often seen outside of shops, where owners can tie up their dogs before going inside. Many such places have a bowl of water.


The name of this shop in Beijing, China, is quite a mouthful, and I wondered if the translation is exact!


Do you suppose the Chinese writing means, "finger-lickin' good!"?

BTW, Colonel Sanders was a Kentucky Colonel.


With me being so tall, as I went up the steps of this place, I felt sure that the Chinese writing on the sign said, "Mind your head!"


I studied this sign in Beijing, China, for quite a few minutes before I decided that it was an error, and really mean to say "Occupied".


Of course, wearing the right spectacles just might cause a public spectacle!

This sign from the town of Brunswick, Maryland, USA.


Need a little pick-me-up with your breakfast porridge?

This from my hotel's breakfast area in Belfast, Northern Ireland.


Perhaps you've heard about "truth in advertising."

This sign from Amsterdam, the Netherlands.



The REALLY BIG Picture

© 2020 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.

[As used in this essay, a billion is a thousand million (1,000,000,000), while a trillion is a million million (1,000,000,000,000).]

Until writing was invented, one's knowledge was limited by one's own experiences and by the stories told by others. Writing allowed information to be handed down directly over generations, and the advent of the printing press revolutionized writing. With each, our world became bigger. Then came the telegraph, automobiles, the telephone, flying machines, television, and, eventually, space travel. Each of those inventions allowed us to broaden our horizons even further. While it took our ancestors months to cross 1,000 miles (1,600 kms) on foot or with a horse and wagon, by today's standards, that is v-e-r-y s-l-o-w. For example, from one of my travel diaries from 2016 regarding a flight from Austria to South Korea, "I had lunch at the airport in Vienna, Austria; supper over Ukraine; breakfast over Mongolia; and lunch over the Yellow Sea between Beijing and Seoul."

Yes, for many of us our world is shrinking. But just how big is our world anyway? For most of us, most of the time our world is our neighborhood or town, and maybe up to 50 miles (80 kms) away. [See my essay series "What is Normal?"] But what about the big picture? Just where does our world fit into The World? Here are some things to ponder:

  • For almost all of us, our world is limited to the places to which we can reasonably travel; that is, planet Earth and up to eight miles (12.8 kms) above it.
  • Earth is but one of a number of planets in our solar system, and while our moon is the only one Earth has, other planets also have one or more moons. [See my essay "A Little Bit of Astronomy: The Moon" from October 2016.]
  • Our sun is a star that is at the heart of our solar system. It is estimated there are 300 billion stars in our galaxy, the Milky Way, some of which have planets and moons.
  • It is estimated there are 100 billion galaxies in the visible universe. Each of those galaxies has stars, some of which likely have planets and moons.

Are you feeling small yet? If not, read some more!

Humans have long tended to believe that they are at the center of the universe. After all, they are much "smarter" than all other known life forms, so why shouldn't they be King of the World? As it happens, it wasn't until the 1600s that the old geocentric model (in which Earth is at the center of the Heavens) was replaced by the heliocentric one (in which the sun is at the center). Of course, as we now know, all that is just in our own little solar system.

How important/significant are you really? Yes, you are probably a key player in your immediate household, and maybe even in your extended family, community, and workplace. And for a few of you, within your industry, profession, or state. But in the big scheme of things, each of you is only one individual out of 7.5 billion. And what do those other 7,499,999,999 people care about you? Frankly, with a small number of exceptions, absolutely nothing! [I'm reminded of the sarcastic take-off of the saying, "He's a legend in his own time" that goes, "He's a legend in his own mind!"]

Recently, I stumbled on the term "Middle World", which Wikipedia describes, as follows: "a term coined by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, is used to describe the realm generally experienced by humans that lies between the microscopic world of quarks and atoms and the cosmic world of stars and galaxies. It also refers to the lack of appreciation humans generally have for the spectrum of time, from picoseconds to billions of years, because people generally refer to time in units of minutes or hours or weeks and live for only a portion of a century. This term is used as an explanation of oddity at both extreme levels of existence. We have a lack of understanding of the quantum and molecular parts of the universe, because the human mind has evolved to understand best that which it routinely encounters."

In this essay, I'll look at the truly macro as well as the micro. In doing so, I recommend Bill Bryson's excellent book, "A Short History of Nearly Everything," ISBN 0-7679-0817-1, 2003. [When I cite from that book, I'll use the notation "BBpp", where pp is a page number.]

Our Comfort Level with Very Big (and Very Small) Numbers

When I was a kid (some 55+ years—indeed, a lifetime—ago), a million of anything was a big number. Not so now, however. Here in Northern Virginia, USA, there are plenty of houses selling for more than a $1 million, and for executives earning $250,000 per year, they'll gross $1 million in only four years. One can go out and buy a private jet or island for less than $10 million. And numerous states here in the US occasionally have lottery jackpots of $100 million or more. Also, if one's heart beats 75 times per minute, that's 19.7 million times per year.

Here in the US (and many other developed countries) being a millionaire really is "small change!" And while being a millionaire suggests that one actually owns a million dollars, I suspect that having control over that amount is the important thing. That is, are you a millionaire if you owe a million dollars? Clearly, being a billionaire is 1,000 times better financially than being a lowly millionaire. As of 2018, Wikipedia reported there were 2,200 US-dollar billionaires in the world, with a combined net worth of US$9.1 trillion.

Then we have national Gross Domestic Products (GDP), defense spending, and national debt. (For the US in 2016, these were $18.46 trillion, $598.5 billion, and $19-odd trillion, respectively.) But to us mere mortals, these numbers don't mean much. [There is a well-known (but often misattributed) quote, "A billion here, a billion there, pretty soon, you're talking real money."]

And as for extremely small time intervals and distances, such as milliseconds (1/1,000 of a second) and nanometers (1/1,000,000,000 of a meter), they all seem unreal.

The dot on the following lowercase letter i is about the size of 500,000,000,000 protons [BB9]. All the visible stuff in our solar system fills less than a trillionth of the available space [BB24]. And the average distance between stars is 20 trillion miles (32 trillion kms) [BB27]. So, space is rather spacious! By the way, the average distance of the earth to the sun is 149,597,870.691 kms [BB56] (92,955,807.28 miles) and an early estimate of the earth's weight was 5,000 trillion tons (4,535,925 trillion kgs) [BB57]. A cubic centimeter of air contains 45 billion billion molecules. A bolt of lightning can heat the air surrounding at to a temperature much hotter than the surface of the sun [BB260], which is around 27 million degrees F (15 million C). A human sheds some 10 billion flakes of skin a day, and the digestive system contains 100 trillion microbes [BB302–303].

Suffice it to say, most of us are really only comfortable with, and relate directly to, measurements of things in our own visible world.

I Feel the Earth Move Under My Feet

Yes, I'm a Carol King fan, but that's not the reason I chose that heading for this section. What's all this about continental drift and all the continents having once been part of a supercontinent, Pangaea? Now it turns out that "continental drift is old speak;" what we now have is plate tectonics, which I should add is referred to as a theory. [When I was a university student in the early 1970s, the field of plate tectonics was quite new, and for a theory, it's holding up pretty well.]

Based on lots of measurements, it appears that continents (which are formed on top of tectonic plates) are moving as much as 1–2 inches (2.5–5 cms) per year. Now while that doesn't sound much, and certainly isn't in our lifetime (remember our own world model?), over a million years that's 15.8–31.6 miles (25.3–50.6 kms), and over a billion years that's 15,800–31,600 miles (25,300–50,600 kms), more than halfway around the earth's equator. So, if you buy into very long-time scales, the possibility of the continents having been arranged in a different way a long time ago, is quite plausible. But, of course, that scale is way outside our world.

Oh, by the way, due to the continued push by the Indian subcontinent on Asia, Mount Everest is growing 0.16 inches (0.4 cms) each year. Over a million years that's 13,330-odd feet (4,000-odd meters). It's currently 29,000 feet (8,700 meters) tall.

For lots of information and discussion on this topic, see BB Chapter 12.

The first time I saw a glacier up-close was Worthington Glacier, Alaska, where the motion of the glacier had pulled soil and rocks onto its top, so much so, that I was standing on top of the glacier without knowing it. [Don't you just hate that when that happens!] On that same trip, our ferry stopped at the very wide mouth of the Columbia Glacier, as it entered Prince William Sound. (Back in 2001, that glacier was discharging icebergs at approximately 1.7 cubic miles [7 cu kms] per year.) Soon after, I visited Portage Glacier. My next such experience was in the Dolomites of Northern Italy. It certainly was a sea of ice, but the most fascinating thing I recall was seeing ice worms living in the ice, burrowing tunnels going from one trapped food source to another. On a trip across the Patagonia of southern Chile and Argentina, I stopped off to look at the glaciers at Torres del Paine National Park and Los Glaciares National Park. There, I got right up to the receding ice wall and could see how it had gouged out huge grooves in the underlying rocks. So, just how fast do glaciers move? According to Wikipedia, "Glacial motion can be fast (up to 30 m/day …) or slow (0.5 m/year on small glaciers or in the center of ice sheets), but is typically around 1 metre/day." Clearly, this is too slow to discern with the naked eye, so we have to trust the scientific measurements.

On several occasions, I've been to Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island of Hawaii. Now I've seen videos of molten lava running across land, but I want to see it for myself! Can rock really melt, or is it just fake video? While lava has been flowing during each visit, there was no safe/sanctioned place one could go to actually see it. Instead, over a number of days I tried to look at the active flow from the air in a helicopter out of Hilo, but each day, the flight was cancelled due to heavy fog and rain, bugger! Once again, I'll have to trust the scientists. And as for islands rising out of the sea, that would be something to witness even though it takes a very long time for the mountain to grow from the sea floor.

A common, slow-moving activity is soil erosion and weathering. With respect to the Grand Canyon—which is 277 miles (446 km) long, up to 18 miles (29 km) wide and attains a depth of over a mile (6,093 feet or 1,857 meters)—according to Wikipedia, "While some aspects about the history of incision of the canyon are debated by geologists, several recent studies support the hypothesis that the Colorado River established its course through the area about 5-to-6 million years ago." Separately, several years ago, I spent time looking at the weathered rock formations in the Arches National Park in Utah. I've also visited Uluru (formerly "Ayers Rock") and Kata Tjuta (formerly "The Olgas") in Central Australia. The latter is a very weathered version of the former, and the contrast shows how much erosion has taken place over the eons.

Just because you can't see something move, doesn't mean it isn't moving!

The Speed of Light

Light moves very fast, at approximately 186,000 miles (300,000 kms) per second. As such, when we look with a naked eye at any object at a distance of "as far as the eye can see," for all practical purposes, the light reaches us from that object instantaneously. OK, but what about moonlight? That takes 1.3 seconds to reach the earth. And sunlight? That takes 8.3 minutes. Of course, once we go outside our own solar system, the distance (and thus the time taken) increases. For example, our nearest neighboring star system is Alpha Centauri. Light from there takes 4.3 years to reach us, as it has to travel some 25.8 trillion miles (40.9 trillion kms)! Now rather than deal with such large numbers, we use the term "light year," which is the distance light travels in one Earth year, some six trillion miles. So, Alpha Centauri is 4.3 light years from Earth, and any image we receive from there right this very instant is 4.3 years old; we are looking at what was there 4.3 years ago! And we have no way to see what is there today. [Note that I said, "one Earth year," which is the time it takes Earth to go around our sun. The length of a Martian or Venusian year, for example, is quite different.]

Going to the extreme, the current state of astronomy tells us that the edge of the visible universe is 15 billion light years away. And given that the age of the earth is estimated to be about 4.5 billion years, that means that light reaching us now from some point on the universe's edge left on its journey to us some 10.5 billion years before Earth existed!

Rising Sea Levels

One of the most often quoted measures used when discussing global warming is how various islands and island nations may well be underwater sometime in the next 100 years. [Regarding the Republic of Maldives, according to Wikipedia, "The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's 2007 report predicted the upper limit of the sea level rises will be 59 centimetres (23 in) by 2100, which means that most of the republic's 200 inhabited islands may need to be abandoned. According to researchers … the Maldives are the third most endangered nation due to flooding from climate change as a percentage of population."]

Until recently, I was skeptical that there was enough water on the planet for this to actually happen. However, I've done some calculations and I'll share some of the numbers here. (Yes, some of them are crudely rounded, but not so much that that has a significant impact on the result.)

According to Wikipedia, the surface area of the world's oceans is 139,434,000 square miles (361,132,000 square kilometers). And the surface area of the continent of Antarctica is 5,405,000 square miles (14-odd million square kms). So, the oceans combined are no bigger than 26 times the size of Antarctica! Given that some 98% of Antarctica is covered by ice that averages 1.9 km (1.2 miles; 6,200 ft) in thickness, we're talking about a lot of ice. So, if 1" (2.5cms) of ice melts from over the whole continent, the ocean level would rise 1/26th of that, a paltry amount. But if 100 feet melts, the ocean level would rise 3.85 feet (1.15 meters). A 500-foot melt results in a rise of 19.25 feet (5.75 meters), and we'd still have 5,700 feet (1.73 km) of ice still frozen! Yes, as sea level rises, the water would spread inland, so it would take more water. And the density of ice and water are different. But the rough estimates are in the ballpark. If Antarctic ice continues to melt, sea levels will rise!

Just because you can't see the sea level rise, doesn't mean it isn't rising!


I spent three full years studying chemistry (and physics) at high school, and six more at university while working fulltime in the field of chemistry, so I know a little about atoms and their structure. Each atom has a nucleus that contains one or more protons and one or more neutrons, "which make up 99.94% of an atom's mass." Electrons race around the nucleus at very high speed, and back in the late 1960s when I first studied this topic, electrons were thought to circle in discreet layers. However, 50 years later, as best as I can tell by current atomic theory, electrons are everywhere and nowhere at the same time!

One source states, "… for a typical human of 70 kg [154 lbs], there are almost 7x1027 atoms (that's a 7 followed by 27 zeros!) Another way of saying this is "seven billion billion billion."" Now as each of those atoms in my body has one or more electrons, and they are racing around, how come I don't feel anything? And, I just can't get my head around the idea of electrons racing around inside the atoms of solid material, such as steel and stone.

Oh, by the way, according to Wikipedia, "Atoms are extremely small; typical sizes are around 100 picometers (a ten-billionth of a meter …)." Knowing that, it is hard to imagine building a device that can actually manipulate things at the atomic level, but that's just what nanotechnology is all about.

The Earth's Water System

One of the things most of us in the developed world take for granted is the ready availability of clean water. We switch on a tap in our house, and, voila, out comes drinkable water. However, the lifecycle of any water we directly or indirectly use is quite complex. What distinguishes the Earth from other known planets is its abundance of water. There are vast quantities in oceans and seas; in fresh-water lakes, rivers, and streams; trapped underground; and in the lower atmosphere. It's a closed system; that is, what we have is all we're ever going to have.

I was raised in a semi-dessert area of rural South Australia where the average rainfall 40+ years ago was around 10 inches (25 cms). And there were one or two droughts every five years. Now that area seems to be getting around half that precipitation. Along the main river nearby, there is irrigation for fruit growing, but by and large, the 4,000–6,000-acre wheat and sheep farms do not use irrigation. Most properties are serviced with water from the river for domestic uses, and those that are not, have windmills or electric pumps to get water from underground. Interestingly, 25+ years ago, housewives became less interested in buying potatoes grown in the rich, black soil of the high-rainfall Adelaide Hills, so some enterprising growers decided to move their operations to the semidesert areas where land was cheap and artesian water was plentiful and free. Soon, one found 90-acre irrigation pivots "out in the bush" where the sandy soil produced—and still produces—nice, clean potatoes. However, while it has taken millions of years for the artesian basin to fill, with few controls on the amount of underground water pumped out, it will take a lot less time to use it up.

At the local level, people see a local resource, and they see no problem exploiting it. In Australia, there is one major river system flowing through the most-populous states. When there is plenty of water, no-one complains, but when river levels fall precipitously, the states downstream get very vocal about up-stream states using "more than their fair share." [The introduction of nut farming in the past 40-odd years has caused concern as that requires more water than the traditional citrus and grape plantings.] The same problem occurs with the Colorado River in the US, with Mexico being the loser. For all the flood control and irrigation that's been made possible by dams, there has been a downside. [I once worked on a computer system that monitored and controlled river levels between hydroelectric dams. A major concern was providing the correct environment for fish and water sports activities.] The damming of the Nile has resulted in similar concerns. Other major water-related problem areas include the Caspian Sea and the Dead Sea.

The Big Picture as far as earth's water is concerned is the ocean currents conveyor-belt-like system and its associated thermohaline circulation.

Some 38 years ago, I was sitting in the famous "lost" Mayan city of Machu Picchu in the Andes of Peru. Thousands of feet below me in a deep valley filled with clouds roared the Urubamba River, a major tributary of the Amazon River. I considered the following: How long would it take for a droplet of water below me to reach the mouth of the Amazon at the Atlantic Ocean? I figured that it would take at least 30 days. In any event, it put into perspective that one river system.

Fossils and Such

According to Wikipedia, "A fossil is any preserved remains, impression, or trace of any once-living thing from a past geological age. Specimens are usually considered to be fossils if they are over 10,000 years old. The oldest fossils are around 3.48 billion years old to 4.1 billion years old."

In the past 30-odd years, dinosaurs have become very popular, being portrayed in movies and cartoons, and sold by the millions as toys. Current thinking is that they went extinct some 60+ million years ago, long before man showed up on the scene (which makes it interesting to see old science fiction movies with both species together). The big extinction event supposedly came when a comet or asteroid hit the earth. Now according to Wikipedia, with respect to an asteroid a few kilometers across colliding with the Earth, "Such an impact can release the equivalent energy of several million nuclear weapons detonating simultaneously." So, one can only guess at what would happen if a much larger body hit the Earth, such as the 10–15 km-wide one from that extinction event.

Although I've seen more than a few lots of fossils and bones in museums around the world, my "closest encounter" was at the Mammoth Site of Hot Springs, South Dakota. A man was excavating a home site when he uncovered some old bones, which turned out to be "the greatest concentration of mammoth remains in the world." The site is now a working museum built over the top of a prehistoric sinkhole, and it was impressive to see the mammoth skeletons in-situ; that is, sitting or lying right where the animals died when they fell into the sinkhole.

I've also seen some very old petrified wood, the most recent being at the Ginkgo Petrified Forest State Park in Washington State, USA. Interestingly, a few days earlier, a huge fire had raged through the park, but as the trees are now stone and not wood, they couldn't be burned!

Here Comes the Sun!

Recently, I watched a video on the terrestrial planets: Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars. As a star—such as our sun—ages, it burns more brightly and gets hotter. It is estimated than in a few billion years, life as we know it on Earth will no longer be possible, because things will be so hot that all the water will have evaporated into the atmosphere. Now that is some serious global warming!

As a consequence, the temperature will increase for the outer planets, and more importantly for their moons, such as the Galilean moons orbiting Jupiter. As some of these moons have a lot of water ice, the temperature increase there might be enough to melt the ice and to create an environment suitable for life to exist. So, as life on one planet goes extinct, it may well begin on another planet or moon. As the French say, "C'est la vie!"


Regarding one's seeming insignificance, if you've made it this far, then you haven't given up in despair and thrown yourself into a prickle bush (the worst-possible fate a young student once imagined). Of course, one can easily feel insignificant. [This happened to me in the summer of 2016 as I was touring Zagreb, Croatia, where I was but one out of 800,000 people in town. Then it occurred to me: it was very likely that I was the only one there wearing a Beans-in-the-Belfry T-shirt and an Adelaide Crows Aussie Rules Football cap. As such, I really was special!]

Try as I might, I cannot find the source of the following quote, which goes something like this: "For all we know, the universe as we know it might be contained entirely in a foam beer cooler in some alien's garage!" Now if that sounds familiar to you, you might have seen the first Men in Black movie, in which "the galaxy is on Orion's belt." You might also enjoy the Riverworld books by Philip José Farmer.

The Geologic time scale (GTS) is "a system of chronological dating that relates geological strata to time" that shows the really big picture with respect to a timeline for the Earth.

By the way, something to think about tonight when you go to bed, your mattress is home to two million mites, and your pillow may have around 40,000 [BB365].

Recently, during the northern winter, I spent time in Tahiti in the South Pacific. It was 9 o'clock at night and very dark, and I was floating on my back in a swimming pool. I looked up to the clear southern sky to see the very distinctive Saucepan (as it is known to Aussies and Kiwis), part of the constellation of Orion. As I lay there contemplating the "Big Picture of the Universe," I wondered if at that very same time an alien floating in its pool on a planet on one of the solar systems surrounding those stars could see my sun, and if so, was it wondering the same about me. (Never mind that the stars in Orion are between 243 and 1,360 light years from Earth, so what I was looking at was what Orion looked like 243–1,360 years ago.)

Here's my final word on the magic of big numbers: There's an old story that goes like this: The inventor of chess so impressed his King that the King asked the inventor what reward he'd like. The request was to be given one grain of wheat for the first square, two for the second square, four for the third square, eight for the fourth square, and so on doubling, for all 64 squares. The King thought that was an absurdly small request until his treasurer pointed out that it amounted to 18,446,744,073,709,551,615 grains, which far exceeded the Kingdom's stores. [In fact, according to Wikipedia, "This is about 1,645 times the global production of wheat in 2014."]

Travel: Memories of the US Desert Southwest

© 2011 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.

[Diary] Each November, I attend a plenary for an international computer standards committee. It has a number of subcommittees, one of which I chair. Late in 2011, the US hosted, in San Diego, California, which is not far from the Mexican border. Mario, a colleague and friend from the German delegation, and I had been talking about doing something together afterwards. As he had never been to the desert southwest, I offered to take him on a road trip through the southern California desert, up the Colorado River in Arizona, to Las Vegas, Nevada. And he accepted.

The plenary ran 5½ days and, for the most part, the weather was fair-to-nice. The social event was a dinner cruise around the harbor. [San Diego is a major US Navy port, so there were plenty of naval vessels around including some large carriers.] Friday afternoon (Memorial Day), I skipped out of my conference, and took my Finnish colleague and friend, Juha, for a drive. Our first stop was Cabrillo Point, the overlook on the end of the peninsular from which one can see the Coronado Peninsular and downtown. No sooner had we arrived, right before our very eyes, Air Force One approached and landed at the Naval Air Station down in front of us. Two Air Force Fighter jets flew as escorts. President Obama (an avid basketball fan and player) was in town to witness the basketball game between two college teams that took place in the evening on the deck of an aircraft carrier moored in the harbor.

[Diary] After breakfast, I headed out to the local supermarket to lay in supplies for our trip, including some ice. By 9:30 am, I was back at the conference keeping one ear on the proceedings while I handled email. We wrapped up around 1:15 pm, at which time we said our goodbyes to the other delegates who then literally headed off to the four corners of the globe (as in South Africa, Russia, Australia, and Korea).

By 2 pm, we were on the highway in our trusty Dodge Avenger rental car, in steady rain. As we climbed into the mountains, we encountered some fog, but visibility wasn't too bad. However, the road was narrow and winding. Around 3 pm, we pulled over in a parking lot in a small town and ate a late picnic lunch in the car as it was still raining.

The initial plan had been to get to the visitor's center at the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park before it closed at 5 pm, but by the time we got to the town of Borrego Springs, it was getting dark and it was still raining. The first hotel we tried was full due to a vintage car club having an outing, but the next place, Hacienda del Sol (Spanish for "house of the sun"), had room for us. The friendly desk clerk got us checked in, and we each had a room with two queen-size beds. A DVD player was included, and the office had a large selection of videos at no charge. I settled on Cold Mountain, which was a bit grim. We walked to a Mexican restaurant nearby for supper where we ate and talked for a couple of hours.

[Diary] The rain stopped during the night and the sun was streaming down when I stuck my head outside around 7 am. All was right in this part of the world. The few guests had been very quiet. I decided I was in no mood for a meal, so I snacked a bit. Mario walked around to the restaurant, but once he saw the food, he too decided he really didn't need anything yet for a few hours.

A wifi signal was floating around the yard, so I hooked up my computer and got an email fix. Then I started on this diary. We arrived at the park visitor's center at 8:45. It is built underground. At 9 o'clock, a ranger opened the doors and we had a look at the exhibits, which included mounted birds and animals from the park. A stuffed mountain lion was lying atop a rock formation ready to jump on us as we rounded one corner. We watched a video that covered all four seasons in the park, and then another that featured an Australian man and his Ukrainian wife who lived out in the desert for 20+ years. They were self-sufficient and raised three kids there.

We drove out of the park through the badlands, a long stretch of rugged hills with deep gorges cut by water over the millennia. Along the way, we say a red hawk sitting on a power pole. We came across quite a few camps of motor homes with trailers full of off-road motorcycles and 4-wheel all-terrain vehicles. Eventually, we came out to the Salton Sea, a large saltwater inland lake formed 100 years ago. We found a picnic table at a yacht club where we had a picnic lunch among the palm trees while watching the pelicans and ducks. There was a lot of agriculture in the area: date palms, oranges, artichokes, carrots, and other fruits and vegetables. From there, we went east on Interstate Highway 10 for 25 miles, at which point we went north on a narrow road.

We stopped off at the ranger station for Joshua Tree National Park. Because it was the Memorial Day long weekend, park admission was free. We had an interesting chat with a ranger who had colorful tattoos on both arms. She was a member of the Shoshone Indian tribe and the artwork had some tribal significance. We stopped off at various places to take photos and shoot video, especially where a recent storm had washed out large areas near the road. At one point, a rabbit ran across the road and, 10 seconds later, a coyote followed in pursuit. We stopped to walk through a large cholla cactus garden; boy were those spines long and sharp! We also stopped at a desert campground in which the sites were mingled in and around huge boulders.

By the time we exited the park, the sun was behind the mountains, and it was getting cold as well as dark. So, we drove the few miles into the town of Twentynine Palms. It has a large US Marine Base nearby. We quickly found a decent hotel for only $50/room/night complete with king-size bed, microwave oven, fridge, and wifi connection. We'd been salivating over the idea of a pizza, so at 5:45, we headed out to Pizza Hut to satisfy our desire. 90 minutes later, we'd devoured almost all of a large, meat-lover's pizza with stuffed cheese crust, and plenty of anchovies. Yes! We waddled to the car and were back in our rooms by 7:30 after a hard day of playing tourist.

[Diary] We were up and ready to eat by 7 am. On the way into town the night before, we'd spied a Denny's restaurant (one of my favorites), so we went there. I asked the waitress for a booth in the VIP section, and she laughed and led us to a regular one by the window. There were way too many choices, but we showed great restraint by ordering smallish meals, which we finished off with coffee.

Around 9 o'clock, we headed out east on the main highway and drove through desert country for several hours, listing to country music stations along the way. We stopped at a few places to take some photos of the mountains and rock formations. Eventually, we crossed over the Colorado River into the state of Arizona, losing an hour in the process as we moved from Pacific Time to Mountain Time. We drove north along the river stopping occasionally to take photos and video.

In Lake Havasu City, we bought a few groceries and then went to see the old London Bridge. It was decommissioned around 1971 in London. A wealthy American bought it in 1968 for the princely sum of about $2.5 million, and then spent another $4.5 million to ship it to the desert of Arizona and rebuild it. It now spans water in Lake Havasu from the mainland to an island in the lake. "Build it and they will come" is a quote that came to my mind, although in all truth, one must ask "Why?" Mario certainly did!

We drove further north looking for a picnic table, but couldn't find any, so we finally settled on a small patch of grass at a gas station. It was a warm day and very pleasant out. From there, we got on Interstate Highway 40 and drove 45 minutes to Kingman. We made our way to a nice property on the famous American road, Route 66, where for $50 each, we each got a nice room with large bed, high-speed internet connection, microwave and fridge, and an entertaining desk clerk. Once we settled in, we went on-line and booked a rather special tour for a few days later, but more about that later.

At 7 pm, we drove to a wild west-style steakhouse nearby where we had pork ribs and steak with beans and salad. The food and service were great, but I took half mine away for lunch the next day.

[Diary] There was a busy train track running beyond the hill on which our hotel stood, with trains coming and going many times during the night. The hotel provided breakfast after which we climbed up the hill behind for a look around the general area. After that, we gassed up the car and headed northwest.

We arrived at Hoover Dam around 11 am, where we joined a tour group that went down inside the dam in an elevator to the power station on the Nevada side. The wall is 720 feet tall and about that thick at the base. Built in the 1930s during the Great Depression, it was completed under budget and two years ahead of schedule. It certainly is a sight to behold. We drove across the top of the dam and parked on the Arizona side where we had a picnic lunch. Afterwards, we parked near the new bridge that now spans the canyon and walked out along the bridge taking photos and video.

Early afternoon, on the Nevada side, we headed east along the Colorado River to the Valley of Fire State Park, a series of hills and rock formations that are bright orange. We caught them just at the right time with the afternoon sun streaming down. While we were there, a wedding party arrived in a limo to have their photos taken.

By the time we got to Las Vegas it was dark, so we drove along a long section of Las Vegas Boulevard (The Strip) so Mario could take photos of all the dazzling light displays on the casinos and shops. We checked in at our hotel, Circus Circus. We each had a room with a king-size bed in a tower on the sprawling premises. After resort fees and taxes, it cost $48/night, which is pretty darned good for a nice room in this town. And parking was free!

After we unpacked and freshened up a bit, we walked along The Strip where we had dinner at a family restaurant. At 8:30, we stopped by the Treasure Island casino to watch the free show that is performed out front several times each night. A pirate ship meets a ship of shapely sirens who woo them onto the rocks, and the pirate ship sinks. Prior to that, cannon shots were exchanged and there were various explosions and fires. In the end, the pirates swim to the sirens' ship and, as they say in Fantasyland, "They all lived happily ever after!" Afterwards, the sunken ship (which was a pretty good size), was raised up from the bottom of the small lake on a series of hydraulics and was "sailed" back into position for the next show.

On the way home, we stopped off at a very up-scale McDonalds for coffee. After a hard day of playing tourist, we had an early night.

[Diary] My 6:45 am wake-up call came a minute after I woke up. An hour later, we were sitting in the sun out front of our hotel waiting for a shuttle bus to take us on our tour. It came soon after and then proceeded to pick up others at various hotels before driving 30 minutes to Boulder City to the south. At that city's airport, we checked in and got our safety instructions for a flight.

It was close to 10 o'clock when Emily, our pilot, herded us out to her helicopter, a sleek machine for which her company paid $2.5 million new. She sat in the left front with two passengers on her right. Four other passengers sat across the back. It was a typically sunny and warm morning and soon we were circling Hoover Dam. From there, we headed out across the desert and mountains to the western end of the 270-mile-long Grand Canyon, at about 4,500 feet. Once we were inside the canyon, we circled around and put down at a spot up a small hill at an altitude of about 1,400 feet, which overlooked the brown Colorado River. There we were served a picnic lunch with champagne, and we shot film and video of the surrounding canyon walls. A number of ground squirrels came begging for food. We flew back along a more southerly route and saw the river below Hoover Dam. At the airport, the shuttle bus took us back to the tour company's depot in Las Vegas, where we were informed that we'd be taken back to our hotel in a stretched limousine. So, we climbed into the back of that sleek, black monster for the short ride. By the time we got back to our hotel, some five hours had passed; however, it was worth it.

At 6:30 pm, we headed out along The Strip stopping to take the occasional photo. It took us more than an hour to get down to the MGM Grand Hotel, where we went to the box office to pick up tickets we'd reserved online. Nearby, we found a Chinese fast-food place where we enjoyed a feast and a drink. Soon after 9 pm, we walked back to the MGM Grand, and by 9:15 we were seated front and center, three rows back in a very large and tall, custom-built theater. Promptly at 9:30, the KÀ Cirque du Soleil show began. And what a spectacular it was! Cirque du Soleil is a French-Canadian company that has performed daring acrobatics for years, and their traveling groups tour the world. Currently, they have seven different troupes in "permanent" theaters in Las Vegas. It really is impossible to describe their aerial acrobatics; you simply just have to see it for yourself.

After 90 minutes of non-stop action, we walked to a McDonald's nearby for coffee and hot chocolate, and to rest. I was tired out just watching! We caught a taxi back to our hotel. Lights out around 12:30 am.

[Diary] We were packed, loaded, and checked-out of our hotel by 9:30 am, and at a supermarket stocking up for the next stage of our road trip. By 10 o'clock, we were on the road to Death Valley, the lowest place in the US (282 feet below sea level). We stopped off at various places and got to the visitor's center well after 1 pm. We had a picnic lunch and a rest there for a while before driving out the western side into the mountains.

By 5 o'clock, it was quite dark, but we decided to push on a bit further. We forewent a couple of small motels in pokey towns, and then couldn't find a place to stay when we needed one. We finished up driving some distance off the main highway until we found just the right place. I stayed in for the evening and snacked a bit while Mario went to the pizza place next door for supper.

[Diary] It was another clear, warm morning in the desert, but the wind was picking up and dust was blowing from the north. The hotel provided a decent selection of light breakfast foods, and I got talking to a retired couple that was passing through the area. By the time we packed up and checked out, it was 9:30 am. We drove south on the main highway for 90 minutes by which time we were out of the desert. However, there was a great cloud over us that looked a lot like pollution from Los Angeles, which was not far away. Once we got on the interstate highway, the speed limit went up to 70 mph, so we really covered some distance. Along the way, we stopped for coffee and some bread. As there were no roadside stops, we finally took an exit into a town and looked for a place to eat lunch. With no parks or picnic tables in sight, we improvised up a back road.

After four hours, we arrived in Escondido, a town in the mountains some 30 miles from San Diego. There, we found a hotel and booked in for two nights. It was adequate, but nothing special. It did have a great family restaurant next door. At 7 pm we went there and had a nice, but quite large, meal. Our waitress was a bubbly young woman from Serbia. Back in my room, I listened to some music while playing games on my computer.

[Diary] I was awake early, so started reading a novel in bed, after which I snacked on some leftover food. At 8:30 am, I filled the cooler with ice and prepared our picnic lunch. Mario slept late and grabbed a coffee. Just before 10 o'clock, in very light rain we arrived at the San Diego Zoo's Wild Animal Safari Park, several thousand acres of natural habitat for a large selection of animals from around the world. Although I'd visited it a number of times, the last time was more than 10 years ago, and things had changed, some for the better and some for the worse, but I guess that's called "progress." We rode the tram around half of the park taking in many animals from Africa. Then we walked the trails to look at numerous other habitats and to take in a bird show. We had our picnic lunch outside the park and went back in for more walking and looking. It's definitely an impressive place and helps preserve and reintroduce species back into the wild. The rain held off all day until we drove out the park.

By mid-afternoon, we were back at our hotel resting up. Being a tourist sure can be hard work!

At 7 pm, we went to the restaurant next door for supper. As they served breakfast all day, I decided that was what I wanted, so I ordered a chicken-fried steak with eggs and sausage gravy. Mario had a salad followed by a combo-dinner of steak, chicken, and shrimp. He thought he might like desert, so he ordered a slice of apple pie with a scoop of ice cream. However, when it arrived, it was a huge serving, so reluctantly I forced myself to help him devour it. Afterwards, we waddled across to our rooms.

[Diary] We were up by 8 am and light rain was falling. By the time we packed, grabbed hot drinks, and checked out, it was around 9 o'clock. We took the interstate highway right into downtown San Diego, and the weather was clear, but with a cool wind blowing. A leg of the America's Cup yacht race was taking place at the waterfront, so police were out in force redirecting traffic. Being a Sunday, we parked for free right at the water's edge.

Right next door was the aircraft carrier USS Midway, commissioned in 1945, and decommissioned in 1992. It had been turned into a floating museum. We spent more than five hours onboard taking in all the exhibits, listening to the details from the audio tour, and watching videos. The crew consisted of 4,500 men (women were not permitted as crew members back then). Each day, 13,500 meals were served, which included 3,000 potatoes, 1,000 loaves of bread, 4,500 lbs. of beef, and 500 pies. Of the crew, 600 worked in engineering, 225 were cooks, 40 were corpsmen, five were physicians, and three were dentists. We toured the bridge as well as the Captain and Executive Officer's quarters. During Operation Desert Storm, the initial air attack on Bagdad, Iraq, was coordinated by an Admiral on the Midway, managing that and three other carriers. When it was built, it was the biggest ship in the world, and it held that title for 10 years.

By 4:30, we were at our hotel. By then, the rain was coming down hard. We watched some news on TV for a couple of hours, after which I drove Mario to the airport for his flight home to Hamburg, Germany. On the way back to my hotel, I stopped off at a supermarket to buy some emergency rations. There was flooding in the streets as the rain pelted down. It was a good night to stay indoors.

[Diary] The rain had stopped, and the sun was out in force. I spent the whole day in my room snacking on all my leftover food, drinking hot tea, and working. Yes, as in working for money! After six hours at the laptop keyboard, I'd completed a major editing effort.

I spent the evening writing some essays for my blog, reading a newspaper, and listening to music. Then I finished my novel.

[Diary] I was wide-awake before 6 am; don't you just hate that when that happens? I lay in bed for a while and started a new novel. Then I finished up the last of my food, packed my gear, and watched some news programs. Despite the number of channels available, there was a dearth of content actually worth watching. [I've been without cable TV now for more than a year, and I don't miss it one bit.]

Once I checked out of my hotel, I gassed up the rental car, and coasted some five miles to the airport. The sun was shining and was quite warm. The courtesy bus dropped me at Terminal 1, and I was checked in immediately. Security was quick, and soon after I was sitting in United Airline's business lounge updating this diary. There were some mechanical difficulties with the in-bound plane, and I was switched to a flight that required me to change planes in Chicago. Once that was done, my original flight was restored, and I was changed back again. However, I was upgraded to First Class and my luggage survived the swaps. On the smooth flight home, I was served a nice lunch and I slept for a couple of hours. As I got in the taxi for the ride home from IAD, the Heavens opened, and very heavy rain fell all the way home. That coupled with low-lying fog made for low visibility.

Once home, I proceeded to unpack and take care of numerous things before going to bed around midnight. However, after a couple of sleepless hours, I got up, and cooked and ate a meal. It rained throughout the night and I listened to it through an open window as the temperature outside was quite reasonable.

Signs of Life: Part 19

© 2019 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.

From time to time during my travels, I come across signs that I find interesting for one reason or another. Sometimes, they contain clever writing, are humorous, or remind me of some place or event. Here are some from a trip to Edinburgh, Scotland.


A bridal shop.


The lamp on the table made this an interesting sign for an interior decorator.


So, when you have the very best burgers in town, how do you distinguish yourself from those other "pretend" burger joints?


And these are just a few of the side effects experienced by women who eat Marmite!

And just in case you were wondering, PCOS is short for "Polycystic ovary syndrome".


Hmm, this looks like a place an Aussie might invent, or at least patronize.

In any event, Innis & Gunn is a brewing company based in Edinburgh. Its beer kitchens serve craft beer and food.

One of its brews is "Frank & Sense Golden Ale", a golden ale infused with gold, frankincense and myrrh. Presumably, it's drunk by wise men everywhere!


A UK coffee company.


Now I'm a chocolate lover from way back, but knowing that haggis "is a savoury pudding containing sheep's pluck (heart, liver, and lungs); minced with onion, oatmeal, suet, spices, and salt, mixed with stock, and cooked while traditionally encased in the animal's stomach," I declined to buy a block.


Apparently, this hotel is "The In-Place to Stay!"

Of course, just as I took the photo, some Aussie tourist walked by; don't you just hate that when that happens!


Just the place for a man and a woman to get some fresh apple pie! What could possibly go wrong?


Yeah, like I want a haircut just like Larry, Curly, or Moe!


What was interesting here, was that the top two signs were either side of the bottom one. However, I don't think the establishment was currently run by the Salvos.


The sign on the restaurant awning says "The Crazy Bull" in Spanish, while the one in the window tells you the deal on offer.


Grassmarket is a major shopping street and area in Edinburgh, and apparently these two sheep found the grazing there quite good!


The name of this tea and coffee house is an interesting play on the name of the ship Cutty Sark, one of the last of the tea clippers.


I was in Edinburgh for its world-famous Fringe Festival, where outragious was the norm. In this poster, this "woman"—suposedly called Cally—was performing.

Her show was quite supercalifragilisticexpialidocious!


Anyone for a Caribbean cocktail?



Football, Aussie Style

© 2019 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.

The word football means different things to different people. To an American, it's American football (of which Canadian football is a relative); to most Europeans, Asians, Africans, and now many Aussies, it often means soccer; to Aussies from the right side of the tracks, it's Australian Rules Football (Aussie Rules); to some other Aussies, Kiwis, Fijians, Samoans, Japanese, and Frenchmen, it's rugby league; the Irish play Gaelic Football; and then there's rugby union, among other football codes.

Call me biased, but having been raised on Aussie Rules "since I was knee-high to a grasshopper," I have never been able to get remotely interested in any other code of football. I ask you, what sort of games allow time-outs; require that you break your nose at least once per season; have players who look and often behave like professional wrestlers; penalize you for getting ahead of the opposition; dress you like a gladiator; have specialty players who get only a few minutes of on-field time each game; or after two hours of play end in a nil-nil draw?

In this essay, with very few further insults, I'll provide a gentle introduction to the one true code of football, as perfected Down Under but first, let's define a few terms. When I say "professional football," I'm referring to the Australian Football League (AFL) national competition, whose players' jobs are to play football. "Semi-pro(fessional)" refers to the top league in each Aussie state or Territory, in which almost all players have full-time jobs outside of football, and who play football on the weekends in season. Many of these players get some financial compensation for playing. "Local" refers to all other leagues, in which some players of some teams might get paid at least something to play depending on the level of the league and the local economics.

The Basics

In Australia, the game of Aussie Rules is played from March through September; that is, in late autumn, winter, and early spring. The regular season—called the minor round—runs around 22 games and is followed by a series of finals. The AFL has a pre-season competition, and at that time, many leagues play trial games between teams in the same or different leagues as practice matches.

A game is played over four 25+-minute quarters. During the quarter- and three-quarter-time breaks, the coach addresses the players on the field, while at half-time, the players leave the field and rest in their dressing room.

The game is played on an oval, a field whose shape is, well, oval. The object of the game is to kick the ball between the goalposts at each end of the oval; high score wins (more on that later). Games can be drawn, and under certain circumstances, a draw can result in extended time. In all finals, if scores are tied at the end of official time, two five-minute periods are played. If the scores are still tied after this extra time, play continues until the next score.

When I played, each team had 20 players suited up, 18 on the field and two reserves on the bench. A reserve could only take the field if a teammate left the field; no interchange was permitted. Later, interchanging of players was added, so players could be rested, and less-debilitating injuries could be treated. Later still, in some leagues (including the AFL), the number of reserves was increased to four for a team total of 22 players.

Of the 18 on the field for each team, 15 start in fixed positions and 3 as "roaming" players, arranged with 6 in each of two zones within 50 meters of the goals and six across the center. Of these 6 in the center, 4 are within a 45-meter central square. A team's offensive and defensive players are on the field at the same time. After play commences any player can run/play anywhere on the oval. Each of a team's 15 fixed-position players has a direct opponent, who they are said to stand. Each quarter, the teams change ends.

Once a player has possession of the ball, there are two ways of disposing of it: kicking it with either leg or holding it still in one hand while punching it with the other fist (called a handball). Throwing the ball is not permitted! A player cannot carry the ball beyond 15 meters without kicking it, handballing it, or bouncing or touching it on the ground.

If the ball has been kicked a minimum of 15 meters without being touched by anyone, a player can catch the ball. This is called marking the ball, and the player took a mark. Unless the marking player plays on (that is, runs on with the ball), play stops, no tackling is allowed, and that player chooses to restart play either by kicking or handballing. Marks can often be quite spectacular with players leaping 1–1.5 meters (3–5 feet) off the ground.

The AFL has 18 teams in one national league, with 10 of them in one metro area, Melbourne, a city of around 5 million people. My own state capital, Adelaide, a city of around a million, has two teams (which play each other twice a season in what is called a "Cross-Town Showdown".) Adelaide's semi-pro league (SANFL) has 10 teams.

The Playing Field

At each of the two narrow ends of the oval there are four posts. The inner two are taller and are the goal posts. The outer two are the behind posts. The boundary of the oval is marked with a thick, white chalk line.

There is no fixed size for an oval, and they vary from 135–185 meters (145–200 yards) long, goal-to-goal, and 110–155 meters (120–165 yards) wide. [The Marvel stadium in Melbourne is covered by a retractable roof.]

Markings on the ground include 50-meter arcs (from the center of the goal line) at each end of the ground, and a 5-meter diameter circle in the center of the ground surrounded by a 45-meter square.

Many ovals have at least some light towers to allow training in the dark (remember, it's wintertime). Some ovals have major lighting systems allowing for games to be played at night. [The oval at my semi-pro club, Norwood, was well lit, as it also hosted semi-pro baseball games at night.]

While ovals host football games in winter, many also host cricket games in summer. Cricket uses a rectangular pitch some 20 meters (22 yards) long and several meters (yards) wide, located at the oval's center. Better pitches are made of turf and are rolled hard. The worst are made of concrete, which can hardly be hidden by several inches of dirt during football season! Even so, heavy rain on the sandy soil of a turf pitch in winter can make for a mud patch! The refurbished Adelaide Oval (capacity 55,000) actually has a very large machine that can lift-out the whole cricket pitch at once and replace it with different soil and turf for the football season.

The hallowed ground of Aussie Rules is the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG), which has 100,000 seats.


There are two kinds of scores: a goal (worth six points) and a behind (worth one point). The team with the most points at the end wins. For example, a total score of 10 goals 20 behinds (10x6+20=80 points) beats one of 12 goals 5 behinds (12x6+5=77 points).

A goal is scored if an attacking player kicks the ball without it being touched by any player, and it goes between the two goal posts without touching either. If the ball is touched (even by an attacking player's teammate), or it scrapes the inside of a goalpost, one point is scored. Kicks going between a goal post and its adjacent behind post, result in a behind. When a goal is kicked, the ball is taken back to the center circle where play is restarted. When a behind is scored, the key defender [the role I mostly played] kicks the ball back into play from the goal square, an area in front of the goal posts.

At the end of a season, the leading goalkicker for each club and each league receives an award. A hundred goals are a lot for any one player to kick in a minor-round season.

The Umpires

The game is refereed by a group of umpires. Back in my time, there was one central umpire who ran over the whole oval, blowing his whistle and calling out play status, for things like marks and penalties, and when players play on without stopping. Given the pace of the modern, streamlined game, and that play can go from one end of the oval to the other in a few seconds, and that some players can kick the ball 70 meters (75 yards), and on occasions, much further if there is a tail wind—it can be hard to keep up. That led to semi-pro and pro leagues having two central umpires, and now three. The AFL is trialing four. That gives more sets of eyes on the game, especially for violations committed away from the play. [Most local leagues use two central umpires. Semi-pro leagues use three.]

At each end of the oval, a goal umpire stands on the goal line between the goal posts, and determines if a score is a goal or a behind. Each of the two boundary halves is patrolled by two boundary umpires, whose job it is to throw the ball back into play if it goes out-of-bounds (except that if the ball is kicked out on the full or kicked out deliberately, a penalty is awarded).

At the end of the game, the central umpires agree as to the three best players of the match, but that information is kept secret until after the minor round ends, at which time, the "Best and Fairest player" in the league for that season is announced.

In recent years, women have begun officiating as umpires.

The Ball

The ball is a 3-dimensional oval, but not as pointed as an American football. It is designed to be kicked, handballed, and bounced.

At the start of each quarter and after each goal, the central umpire bounces the ball in the center circle of the oval with the ball rising straight up some three meters (3+ yards), and two competing players try to hit it to a teammate. However, if weather or oval conditions are such that the ball cannot be reliably bounced, it is thrown up, much like a jump-ball in basketball. The ball is also thrown up when play stalemates in a scrimmage.

A player can bounce the ball while running at full speed, which is sometimes necessary, as it is not permitted to otherwise run with the ball beyond 15 meters.

Nowadays, there are two kinds of kick. A drop punt involves holding the ball in a vertical orientation and dropping it on the front-center of the boot. The ball turns end-over-end. A torpedo punt involves holding the ball at an angle and dropping it on the outside of the boot. The ball screws much like a thrown American football. Back in my time, drop kicks were allowed. This involved bouncing the ball on the ground and kicking it as it rose.

Player Equipment

Each player wears a pair of shorts in approved club colors, with a jockstrap (athletic supporter) underneath. They also wear a sweater-like jumper—sometimes called a guernsey—which must also be in approved club colors. [AFL teams have home/away sets to distinguish against rival colors; they also have special-event sets.] Each player has a distinct number, which is on the back of the jumper. The AFL allows a small commercial sponsorship logo; the player's name is not included.

Long or short socks are worn; these too must be in approved club colors.

Boots are much like numerous other sports. The soles have cleats (sometimes called studs; in my time, sprigs). Fifty years ago, the cleats were made from layers of leather and were held in place by several nails, which with wear-and-tear could lead to sharp metal edges. As a result, prior to the start of each game, the central umpire had to run his hand on the underside of both boots of each player to make sure there was no obvious danger. Later, rubber cleats molded around metal screws were used. Eventually, the sole had the cleats molded right into it.

Although some players might wear shin guards in their socks, players do not wear helmets or body padding.

Tackling Rules

The rules are very strict/limiting with regards to permitted body contact between players. For example, the following are not permitted: tripping, pushing in the back, grabbing around the neck/head, or punching. In fact, a player cannot interfere with an opponent unless the opponent is in possession of the ball or within 5 meters of it.

That said, it is common for a player to use his body to push aside or to get in front of his opponent when competing for the ball.

The Coaches

At the top level, the game is way too fast and complex now for a coach to also be a player at the same time, although playing coaches still exist in local league clubs.

At the pro and semi-pro levels, a coach has assistant coaches who specialize in some aspect of the game.

The coach usually sits high up in the stadium and communicates with his assistants and reserve players by radio/phone. He also has a runner who is permitted out on the oval after a goal is scored to deliver messages to/from players, and to move players to different positions.

The Finals Series

For leagues with a small number of teams, there might be a final-four team group that competes for the championship. Some leagues have a final-five. The AFL has a final-eight. In all cases, eventually all but two teams are eliminated, and those go on to play in the Grand Final.

Infringements and Violations

Most infringements result in play being stopped and a free kick being awarded to a player. If the recipient of the free is injured or otherwise unable to take the kick, a teammate can do so.

Disobeying a central umpire's ruling can result in a 50-meter (55 yards) penalty, and multiple such penalties can be awarded, which can sometimes allow the recipient to move right up to the goal square.

Other offences—including off-field behavior—can result in fines. Very serious offenses result in a player or official being reported by one or more of the umpires. Reports can also be made after the game by video review. Reported players attend a hearing/tribunal several days later, at which time, they are exonerated, fined, or suspended for one or more games. [Intentionally hitting an umpire can get you a very long, if not lifetime, suspension.] In my time, being found guilty meant disqualification from the league's "Best Player" award, but that now depends on the severity of the charge.

In AFL and semi-pro leagues, a player is not sent off for serious infringements, but most local leagues have their own regulations to allow for "send-off" or "sin-bin" for a limited time.

Common Injuries

The classic injury is torn cartilage and/or ligaments in knees. [I suffered both.] Certainly, players can get concussed. Twisted ankles can easily occur. Hamstring and groin muscle injuries are common. Players who have suffered some sort of head injury in the past, might wear a soft, leather, head protector.

While some injuries can end a career [as was my case], they are generally not too debilitating. That said, in the 1970's one semi-pro player had his neck broken leaving him a quadriplegic.

Some American Influence

The US has long had professional leagues for its football, basketball, baseball, and ice hockey, among other sports. And it treats such sports as business. As such, it is not surprising that leagues in other countries adopt or adapt rules and operating procedures from US sports. Examples in the AFL include the following: drafting new players, trading existing players, blood rule, team salary cap, fines (for both on and off-field conduct), specialty coaches, sponsor logos on oval turf and players' jumpers, and characterization and recording of statistics such as goal assists.

For local and semi-pro leagues, games are still mostly played on Saturday afternoons. However, the nine AFL games played each week might be staggered over Thursday and Fri nights, Saturday afternoon or night, Sunday afternoon, and on holiday Mondays. As such, they can get people to pay to attend multiple games in the same week. Afterall, each pro club is a business!

My Own "Footy" Background

As a young kid, I started as a boundary umpire. I first played competition in an Under-14 team in my hometown. I then moved to the Under-16 team in which my right leg was broken in the dying moments of a Grand Final (which my team won). During that time, I was recruited by one of the oldest and most prestigious clubs in the South Australian state semi-pro league, Norwood. However, I deferred joining them until I finished high school. [Over the years, more than a few players from my hometown have made it to the state semi-pro league, with a few going on to play pro. The most notable from my time was Russel Ebert, who won the South Australian Magary Medal a record four times.]

At age 16, I moved to the state capital and played a mediocre season for Norwood's Under-17 team. Then I played two very good seasons with their Under-19 team, both times winning the state competition. For certain, the highlight was playing both finals series on the league's premier field, Adelaide Oval, in front of a large crowd.

The following year, I played in several pre-season trial games trying out for a spot on the top-level team. Although I was doing well, during the third game, I had the first of a series of knee injuries that eventually forced me from the game. C'est la vie!

Of the 30-odd teammates I had in Norwood's junior teams, at least a dozen went on to play at the top level. One, Michael Taylor, was club champion many times, represented the state, and was assistant coach in the pro league. Another, Neil Craig, was a star player, and a semi-pro and pro coach.

The club coach and captain at Norwood when I played there, was Robert Oatey, who went on to receive the Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) in 2008, for his "service to Australian Rules football as a coach and as a contributor to the development of younger players." [Some 40 years after I started at Norwood, I reconnected with Robert, and spent quality time with him during several visits to Adelaide.]

In 1967, my Year-10 high school home-room teacher was Roger Magor. [He also taught me mathematics and chemistry.] Due to injuries, he retired from playing and became an umpire at the local level. He eventually worked his way up to become a semi-pro league umpire, and finally Chairman of the Board that managed umpiring for the state of South Australia and was responsible for appointing umpires to officiate at games.

In 2015, during a visit to Adelaide, my good friend John took me to a Cross-Town Showdown at Adelaide Oval. While I was there, it occurred to me that it was the first time I'd been at that oval since I played there in an Under-19 Grand Final in 1972. It was a rather nostalgic moment!


There are some similarities between Aussie Rules and Gaelic football, which led to some Irish players being recruited by AFL (and other) teams. Also, at the end of the AFL and Irish seasons, Australia plays an International Rules Series against Ireland.

Over the years, a number of semi-pro and pro Aussie Rules players have played in the US National Football League, selected for their ability in kicking field goals and kick-offs. Click here for more information.

The AFL actively promotes Aussie Rules outside Australia, and each season, a few games are played in other countries (e.g., China and New Zealand) to showcase the sport. International fans can also subscribe to live/replay broadcast videos.

In the past 10 years, there has been growing interest by women in playing Aussie Rules. In 2017, the AFL started a women's competition. Semi-pro and local leagues have followed.

Historically, Australian aborigines have shown a significant aptitude for various kinds of sports, including Aussie Rules. The AFL encourages the participation of indigenous players, and currently, they make up some 10% of the AFL player's list (which is a much higher ratio than their 3.3% in the general population).

Unlike the US college (university) sports system, which is a major pathway to playing professional American football (among other sports), Australia does not have any such system. Nor does it have any big, organized high school sports league systems. Players come to the semi-pro and pro ranks straight from high school or from local leagues.

Barring injuries, a good player might play 300+ games over 18 seasons, from age 18 to 35.

Unlike US pro teams, Aussie Rules teams are not owned by individuals or corporations; rather, a club owns itself! As such, teams are not bought and sold, renamed, or relocated to other cities.

For the rules of the game, click here.

If you've made it this far, and want to see how real football is played, search this website for game videos.

[Thanks very much to Roger M. for greatly improving my initial draft by incorporating all the changes during the game's evolution in the 40+ years since I left Australia. Thanks also to Kathy and John—rabid Port Power and Crows fans, respectively, for their input.]

Travel: Memories of Yorkshire

© 2015 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.

It was June and time to get back on the road again, this time to London, England. After some business meetings there, I planned two weeks' vacation in Yorkshire. For something different, I decided to take along a traveling companion, a very bright, stuffed toy caterpillar (whom I christened Mr. C), and to use him to meet people and to take photos-with-a-difference; that is, with him in each of them. Yes, I'm still a kid at heart, and maybe I really have lost the plot!

[Diary] At 11 am, the Virgin Train express to Edinburgh departed with my stop, York, being the first. I sat facing backwards, and my seatmate was a 22-year-old woman, Evia, from Latvia. Ethnically Russian, she learned Latvian in school, along with English and basic French. She was a delight to be with.

At the York railway station, I met a small boy who had two stuffed animals, so I stopped and introduced him to Mr. C. His father smiled as we "played." I also chatted with a policeman, and got train information. As I walked into the city, I spoke with a Ukrainian woman who lived in San Francisco. My objective was the tourist office, where I got great service and a chat. Back at the station, I looked at tourist information while waiting for a local train to Poppleton, a village on the edge of town. The train there ran every hour at 11 minutes past. During the 6-minute ride, I chatted with a very elegant woman (around 80, I'd guess) from Lancashire, who'd recently returned from a 3-week river cruise all the way from Amsterdam to the Black sea. Next, she was headed on a tour to Athens and the Greek islands. She certainly was living life to the fullest.

Host John had sent me walking directions from the train station. He, black Labrador Sam, and two cats were there to welcome me to their home. He showed me my room upstairs after which we drank tea. I outlined my plan for my time in York and John helped me fine-tune a few things. Then I talked about "what next" and he gave me maps and brochures to help. As a result, I changed my plan for the next destination. I also exchanged a novel for one of his. The place was a Bed-and-Breakfast (B&B). I had a very nice, big room with a large bed and plenty of natural light, complete with tea/coffee facilities. There was a shared bathroom down the hall. A retired Aussie couple from rural Victoria were also guests. For supper, we all bought fish and chips, and mushy peas, which John fetched from a shop, and we ate, drank, and talked the night away. It was a good beginning to my holiday. Lights out at 10 pm.

[Diary] As I got to the end of my street, several hundred yards from my bus stop, my bus went racing passed; bugger! Oh well, another would be along in 30 minutes. I walked into the village where I met an elderly man waiting at that stop. He owned a restored fire truck, and was going to pick it up to take it to an exhibition. He asked where I was traveling and highly recommended I visit the northeast coast of the county.

Very light rain fell as I waited and while we drove into and through York, and out the other side. Once we cleared the built-up areas, we came across fields of wheat surrounded by hedgerows, and a large horse farm with new-season foals racing about. The end of the line was the village of Stamford Bridge, the place where King Harold defeated the Vikings in 1066, just before he had to march his army south to face William the Conqueror at Hastings.

The exact location of the battle is unknown, so I looked at the memorial plaque before asking some locals for information. I headed to the bridge over the River Derwent to a public path that meandered along the river. The path was a narrow swath cut through 4-foot-high grass and stinging nettles with many wildflowers. Although the grass was wet, it hadn't been raining long or heavy, so my shoes and clothes didn't get very wet.

I made my way to the viaduct and walked on that over the river stopping to chat with a group of villagers who were working on a public garden at the old train station. Along the way, I stopped to pat some very friendly dogs and to chat with their masters. I walked around the village stopping occasionally to take a photo. I went inside the village church and wandered around the graveyard, which included markers for several local WWI soldiers. As I'd seen pretty much all there was to see, I waited for the next bus. As the friendly driver had sold me a day pass for the price of one return trip, I decided to go back to York and get off there.

[Diary] Back home, I set up my laptop on the breakfast table where I named the photos I'd taken, and brought this diary up to date after several days of neglect. Email arrived from friends Kathy and John with an update and photos of their time in Dubrovnik, Croatia, a city I have plans to revisit for an extended period. Fellow guests, Peter and Jan, returned from their trip into York, and we worked side-by-side sampling, repeatedly, the Cadbury's hazelnut chocolate I'd bought. Our hosts came home, and tempted us with fresh-made scones with jam and cream. I resisted eating there and then but took one for 'Ron (as in 'later on').

I researched the North Yorkshire Moors area and went online and booked a room for three nights, and checked out the transportation situation. For supper, I made a cup of cream-of-chicken soup, which I ate with potato chips, followed by a dessert of scones with a glass of milk. Lights out at 10, asleep at 10:01.

[Diary] I had a very nice breakfast of bacon, sausage, fried tomato on toast, and juice. I ate half and packed the rest for 'Ron. I walked into the village where I caught the mid-morning bus to York. A few drops of rain fell along the way. I got off at the train station where I bought my ticket for the following day. Then I boarded a city tour bus for a 1-hour tour, and I sat right up front, upstairs in the double-decker bus. After that orientation, I walked through some nice gardens, atop one section of the old city wall, around the York Minster (cathedral), and along narrow streets of shops including the famous one, The Shambles. I stopped to listen to on older man playing well-known ballads on a guitar and harmonica, then to two young women singing while a young man played guitar. As I approached, they were singing my new, favorite song, Hallelujah, by Leonard Cohen, and that's what caught my attention. After four songs and lots of encouragement, Mr. C put one penny in their guitar case, and I put in £1. I figured they were high school students.

It was a mostly nice and sunny day with a cool, strong breeze blowing. Feeling tired, I walked back to the train station for a pint of cold milk and a Cornish pasty filled with Madras curry beef.

[Diary] I was up at 8 o'clock and packed soon after. At 8:30, John served me fried tomato on toast with bacon and sausage, and juice. It was all veddy civilized. I wrote in the guest book before settling in to a few more chapters of Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything, which I'd found on a shelf in my room. I left the house at 10:45 and walked to the main village bus stop where I chatted with an elderly couple. It was overcast with a cool breeze. I rode the bus to the York train station where I met two delightful Japanese ladies who were heading back to London and Tokyo. I also chatted with a young backpacker from New Zealand.

The 12:15 train to Middlesbrough arrived. The good news was I had a reserved seat; however, the bad news was that the train's printer wasn't working, so the staff couldn't print and put out the reserved-seat signs. That said, there was plenty of room and I staked out a table with four seats all to myself. As we raced north, I pored over maps and brochures getting a better idea of where I was headed. Once I happened to look out the right window where I saw the Kilburn White Horse, a very large horse made with limestone chips on the side of a hill in 1857. Soon after, the skies darkened, and it started to rain. At Middlesbrough, I had a 45-minute layover. On the 1:15-hour ride to Whitby, I chatted with an Englishwomen who'd long lived in Toronto, Canada. She too was headed for Whitby, and we exchanged information.

It was raining heavily as I came out of the railway station and crossed the street to the tourist office. There I got lots of good information and brochures. I also got an answer to my question, "I have come away without my woolen hat. Can you please direct me to a thrift shop where I might buy a used one?" Nearby was an Oxfam shop, and they had just the thing; a gaudy knitted hat suitable for a circus clown and that doubled as a tea cosy. It was perfect, and cost only £2!

Armed with my town map, I walked up some steep steps in the rain and soon found my new home, a 4-storey townhouse that had been very nicely renovated. Host Helen was there to meet me and to explain the house rules. The first was to remove street shoes. And as I travel with slippers anyway, I was happy to do that. She boiled water, but instead of tea, I made a cup of minestrone soup from my emergency rations. We chatted of many things before I went up to the attic bedroom that had a window looking out over the river and the east side of town. High on the hill the Abbey ruin was visible through light fog and rain.

I did a load of laundry and hung that all around my room to give the place some ambiance. I worked on my laptop and then spent quite some time going through all the tourist information I'd accumulated. By the time I was done, I'd decided that three nights wasn't long enough, so I extended my stay by another night.

Although I was yawning, I decided to go out into the night air for a brisk walk. I rugged up and went out around 8 pm. Thankfully, the rain had long since stopped. I toured a large supermarket and picked up some juice, sweets, cheese, and small deserts of vanilla custard and rice pudding. I walked all along the waterfront on the east side stopping to look in all the shop windows. Most fast-food places were closed or just about to when I came upon a fish-and-chip shop from which I rescued a large sausage that was battered and fried. It was served with a large cup of curry sauce into which I dipped said sausage. It was wonderful! I ate half and then walked out to the end of the East Pier right into the teeth of a strong and cold wind right off the North Sea. At the end of the pier, I found a sheltered spot behind a stone wall where I finished off my late-night snack. Back in my room, it was lights out at 9:30.

[Diary] When I woke, I felt sure it was only 6 am, but it was nearly 9:30 and I'd had 12 solid hours of sleep. YES! I went downstairs to the kitchen where I made coffee and toast, which I smothered in raspberry jam and cheese, together. It was a Breakfast of Champions. I was very happy to take a break from a cooked English breakfast.

Although the rain had ended, it was cold and windy out, so I rugged up before stepping outside around 11 o'clock. There, lo and behold, in the front garden next door were some 10 toilet bowls filled with soil and many colorful flowers. My host had lent me two town walking guidebooks, and my plan was to follow those. I started with the west side of town crossing the so-called swinging bridge. I stopped off at the Captain Cook Museum where young James lived during his seaman's apprenticeship. Then it was along the River Esk to the East Pier and breakwater. After that, it was up the 199 steps to the cemetery at St. Mary's church. According to my guidebook, "The broad landings and seats were designed 'for the easement of bearers of coffins where they rested their burden on the long climb to the clifftop graveyard'." Nearby was the Abbey Ruin that inspired the story of Dracula. Back at the river I dropped by a fish-and-chip shop to sample a serving of fried onion rings.

Back across the river, I started the walking tour of the west side of town. That took me to an overlook having an archway made of whalebones near a statue of Captain Cook that had plaques from Australia, New Zealand, and Canada, all marking his exploits in their lands. By the time I got back to my starting point the sun was out and it was decidedly warmer.

I was back at my B&B after 4½ hours, and my legs were complaining about all the steep steps and paths. I settled in at the dining table to handle email, name photos, and to work on this diary. Co-host Phil, who was a professional musician, and I chatted a bit before he headed out to conduct a small local orchestra. I continued listening to an album by Enya and stopped along the way for a cup of minestrone soup and some leftover food. A young German-speaking couple from Switzerland arrived and I gave them a brief orientation to the house and town. They were staying two nights in a room in the basement.

After more than four hours of travel administration, I was ready for a stretch, so I dressed to go out before retiring for the night. I walked around for an hour, and the sun was still high in the sky at 8 pm. I stopped off at a large public garden around a museum center and large playground. Then it was back into the old town along back streets and alleyways. Lights out at 10 o'clock.

[Diary] I readied my daypack and was out the door by 9:15. The weather was decent, cool with lots of clouds and no wind. I walked through the old town and on up the 199 steps to the Abbey ruin parking lot. There at 9:40 I started the 6½-mile hike on the Cleveland Way along the clifftops. I soon found that I had on too many layers of clothing, so perspired quite a bit. The path went way up and way down, repeatedly, and I sure was happy to get to Robin Hood's Bay after 2½ hours. The village had an upper part (where I arrived) and a lower part down by the water. I quickly decided that I had no desire—let alone energy—to go down and back up one more hill, so I stayed in the upper section sitting on the grass having my lunch and a pint of milk.

After a 40-minute break, I turned around and went back up the hill to the Cinder Trail, the bed of a former railway track that was removed many years ago. Although it wasn't steep, it had a steady incline up for the first four miles of the return trip. It ran inland following the hill contour and was several hundred feet higher than the coastal trail. I took just over two hours to get back to Whitby. By that time my feet were very sore with several small blisters developing. After a hot shower and a large drink of juice, I lay on the bed wondering how I could have done such a punishing thing. To revive, I had a cup of boiling tea with extra sugar.

I stayed in for the evening, as I didn't want to put my walking shoes back on. After a cup of soup and a snack, I worked on various bits of administration including researching the next area to visit and the next place to stay. My first choice for a host had the gall to turn me down as she already had a couple and didn't want to have to make them share a bathroom with me. Well, I farted in her general direction and went on to Plan B. Very soon after, I found the perfect place, in a town, some distance away, and that host was delighted to have me. She'd be out when I arrived, but she'd leave a key hidden and I was to have a cup of tea on arrival and generally make myself at home. Lights out at 10, tossed and turned until 11, read some more, and finally put out the light by midnight. Although I was happy to have done the hike, I knew for certain that I don't work that hard for money!

[Diary] I slept rather fitfully with my legs and knees aching off and on after the previous day's walk. I finally got up around 9 o'clock and went down for a light breakfast. I headed out into a nice day around 11 am and started by buying a train ticket to my next destination, a village near Harrogate. Then I rescued an ice-cold can of Pepsi from a shop and enjoyed the caffeine boost. After the hard walk the day before, I abandoned my idea of going to the North York Moors National Park to walk around. Instead, I decided to go to Sandsend, a small village some four miles up the coast. However, the bus there was very late, so I didn't arrive until noon. Families were playing down on the beach, ducks swam in the small river that came down from the hills, and people sat outside several restaurants and cafes eating lunch and drinking coffee. At times, the sun was nice and warm, and with little wind, it was very pleasant.

I walked to the end of the village and found a second river going back up into a valley with stone cottages each side and walking paths and seats by grassed areas down near the water. At the end was the village church. In the entrance, I stopped to look at the cost of various ceremonies one could have conducted by the Church of England: Marriage service £413; Baptisms were free, but a certificate cost £13; and Funeral with burial in the churchyard preceding or following a service in the church £310. I sat on a bench near the seawall and read my novel for some time before an elderly woman joined me and we chatted at length. She was on a day outing with a teenage granddaughter.

Mid-afternoon, I rode the bus back and bought a nice tuna salad, potato chips, and milk, and settled on a bench to eat while a school band performed in the public plaza. Although the weather was still decent, dark clouds crept closer. I was back in my room at 4 o'clock listening to music and handling emails. Some light rain fell. In the evening, I went out for a walk to the end of the pier. The sea was quite calm, in contrast to when I'd arrived Monday evening. Along the way, I dropped into several snack places to have a battered sausage, a scoop of ice cream, and a pint of milk. Back home, I finished off my novel. Lights out at 11 o'clock.

[Diary] Travel Day! I woke just before 9 am, and after a long, hot shower, I packed my gear and vacated my room just as the cleaning ladies arrived to service the house. I spent the morning sitting at the dining table working on various tasks. Although some rain fell, things brightened up as the morning wore on. At 11:30, I departed my place and headed for a narrow street purported to have a bakery with the best sausage rolls in town! I wanted two, but for an extra 10 pence, I could get four. That was not a tough decision by any means, and even though they didn't have any packets of ketchup, the young assistant put a sufficient quantity of that nectar in a paper cup for me to take away. I made my way to the train station as a few drops of rain fell. There I chatted with a couple from Nottingham. When I asked about the health of their sheriff, they replied that he was well.

I boarded the 12:18, 2-carriage train to Middlesbrough, and took a table with four seats all to myself, and I sat facing forward. Across the way was an older couple with a very well-behaved dog who got constant attention from me during the 90-minute trip. It was slow going as we had 15 stops. The whole trip was through valleys in amongst rolling hills, with small rivers with heron, hedgerows, stone walls, and green fields all with yellow and white flowers. There were newly shorn sheep, dairy cattle, geese waddling home from a pond, horses, and pheasants. It was a wonderful trip. Although it was overcast, there was a nice breeze coming in through the window.

After a 45-minute wait in Middlesbrough, I caught the 14:27 train for Manchester Airport getting off at York, where I had another 45-minute wait. As I waited for my 16:10 train, I struck up a conversation with a young woman who was an art student whose medium was photography. She'd worked after high school before going to university, and was 23 years old. She was the youngest of four daughters and had spent her formative years in France, so was fluent in French. We hit it off immediately, she invited me to her mother's clothing store for tea, and I accepted. From the station in Knaresborough, it was a short walk to the middle of town and soon we were in her mother's shop, Giraffe, where I met her mother, Elizabeth. We chatted over tea after which Elizabeth invited me to a musical concert later that evening, and I accepted. Interestingly, the young woman's first name was Boadecea, an alternative spelling for the famous warrior queen, with whom I was somewhat familiar. Like her namesake, she was a very independent woman, and meeting her was most fortuitous. [As I say repeatedly about travel, you can have a good or bad time anywhere in the world; it largely depends on your attitude and the people you meet. And traveling with a colorful, toy caterpillar sticking out of your coat pocket makes meeting interesting people much easier!]

I walked out into the rain and after 10 minutes found my new home, a private house with a large yard in a nice neighborhood. My host, Corrina, was out, but she's left me a key under a large flowerpot, so I let myself in and settled into my nice upstairs room. As it had been a bit humid out, I showered and then dressed for an evening of music. At 6:45, I headed out for St. John's Church where I chatted with a woman while we waited for the doors to be opened. I bought a ticket for £6 getting senior's concession. I reserved seats in the very first pew and soon after, Elizabeth and her friend Stephen, who I'd also met earlier, joined me. At 7:30, Christian Forshaw and the Sanctuary Ensemble began their concert. According to the program, his music explores the ecclesiastical sound world. He played saxophone, while two other men played percussion and an electric organ, and a woman sang. I wasn't sure what to expect from that style of music featuring a sax, but it was most enjoyable and very well arranged. The event took two hours, and included an intermission during which we went to the church hall for refreshments. While others drank wine, I had a glass of apple with elderflower drink while chatting with a man who was taking an opera-appreciation course.

When we adjourned, the weather out was very nice, and I walked home humming all the way. There I met my host before retiring to my room to read. [Host Corinna was a single mom with three young kids who lived half each week with her and half with their father. Before kids, she travelled a great deal and was an outgoing person who just happened to rent out her spare room.] The afternoon and evening had left an excellent first impression of my new town.

[Diary] I went downstairs around 8 o'clock and had some fruit, juice, and milk while I worked on a plan for activities for the next few days. Corinna joined me at 9 am and we chatted. Then she worked on her computer at her end of the dining table while I did likewise at mine. I extended my 3-day stay with her by two days then after an hour of research, I'd booked an upscale B&B right in the heart of the Dales for my last two nights in Yorkshire, and I'd made a plan for how to spend my time.

I stepped outside at 11 o'clock into a magnificent day that was almost hot. I walked into town taking photos and keeping an eye out for a bakery. I found one in the main square and I bought a cheese and onion roll for a light snack, and a bacon roll for 'Ron. I dropped by Elizabeth's shop to say "Hello." From there I wound around the streets to the castle and adjacent museum where I took a tour. The attendant was ever so obliging when I asked her to take a photo of me in the stocks. Nearby were very nice gardens, on the steep slope going down to the river. I walked along the riverbank for quite some distance and watched people working on expanding further their already generous waistlines. I tried to rent a rowboat at two different places, but they required at least two passengers, one to row, facing backwards, the other to steer using a rudder, facing forwards. Frankly, in all my years around rowboats I'd never seen one with a rudder. I walked back into the shopping area and sat in the sun on the steps of a monument where I chatted at length with a woman who was camping in the area.

[Diary] I headed out at 11 am. The local bus stop was a few yards from my front door and I had a 10-minute wait during which an elderly man talked to me of many things. The bus took me to Harrogate's main bus station where I checked the timetables for the return trip as well as other trips later in the week. Next door, was the train station, so I went there to buy my ticket to London for later in the week. The friendly agent found me a very good fare, which, oddly enough was in First Class, so I locked that in.

Harrogate is an upscale place full of nice (expensive, that is) shops and eating establishments. One of its most famous places is Bettys Café Tea Rooms, so I dropped by to look at the patrons through the window. From there it was down a steep hill through a very upscale area. It was Armed Forces Day, and a special activity was being held at a garden complex nearby. The grounds were in bloom and many people—young and old—were dressed in civilian and military clothing from WWII. The live entertainment featured singers and bands playing tunes from that era, and booths sold food and drink. A number of WWII vehicles were on display, and the Yorkshire Regiment had a booth, as did the Royal Air Force Reserves. Mid-afternoon, a Spitfire fighter flew over several times to great applause. It rained a few drops a couple of times then a bit stronger once, but only for a few minutes. Afterwards, we all got back on the grass. I chatted with a young family who'd moved from London and were enjoying the city.

[Diary] I was awake well before my 6:30-am alarm. After a small snack, Corinna and I drove through the countryside to Skipton, to pick up her three children who'd been at their dad's place. We drove through rolling hills of green grass, stone walls, and sheep. It was very scenic. At 7:45, she dropped me right in the middle of town. The main street was busy as people were setting up booths for the day's market. After a short walk around to orient myself, I settled in at a table at Walker's Tea Room where a very pleasant woman served me a bacon roll and a tall glass of steaming hot chocolate. I grabbed a local magazine from a shelf and did some puzzles, and then read an interesting article about the re-launching of a 50-year-old set of TV puppets, The Clangers. The new venture starred Michael Palin (of Monty Python fame) as the narrator.

I walked along a canal path and stopped to look at some barges on which people lived. When I came to a barge rental place, I went onboard one to see how it was equipped, and to find out the price for a week's rental. [For some years, renting a canal barge has been on my "possibles" trip list.] By the time I got back to the market, booths were open, and I stopped to buy cheap pairs of socks "for very tall men". At the tourist office, I got a map and some brochures, and I watched a great 35-minute video of Yorkshire. The main attraction of the town is its well-preserved castle, so I toured that. While there, I learned about the large Castle Woods behind it, so I decided to hike there. It was a mile up along a small, cascading river, then a mile west to the edge of the woods, all under a heavy canopy. My two favorite plants were everywhere: moss and ferns. Once out of the wood, I climbed a stile over a fence and walked another mile back to town through a farmer's field. As I climbed a large stone stile at the top of a hill, I met a woman walking a dog. We talked for a bit and admired the view of the valley and town. The path entered town right by Walker's Tea Rooms, which I took as an omen. So, I dropped in for another glass of hot chocolate, which I drank with my leftover breakfast. I sat outside under an awning watching the world go by. I walked back along the canal and hopped on a tour barge for a 30-minute tour along one section of the canal below the castle, feeding the ducks with a packet of food I bought onboard. Having had an early start, I'd done all I wanted to do in that town, so I headed for the railway station.

There were no direct busses or trains to Harrogate, so I caught a train to Leeds. We went through rolling hills of green grass, stone walls, and sheep. In Leeds, I walked around the city center for an hour. It was mostly modern high-rise with upscale shops and eating-places with a few old buildings in-between. I bought an ice cream and kept in the shade, as it was quite warm. Back at the station, I paid a visit to the men's toilets, and there, right next to me standing having a whizz, was a young guy playing with his mobile phone. It brought a completely new meaning to the term "streaming video!" After a 30-minute wait, I boarded a train to Knaresborough via Harrogate, and—you guessed it—we went through rolling hills of green grass, stone walls, and sheep! I walked into town and bought emergency rations at a supermarket before heading home. Not only were Corinna's three kids there, but so too were five of their friends, and all were active and noisy, just like a group of kids should be. And it was great to see that not one of them was using an electronic gadget. I kept out of their way by laying on my bed reading my novel, venturing out once all the guests had gone home. I heated up some leftover food and had a light supper before getting back to my novel. Lights out at 10 pm after a great day.

[Diary] It was Travel Day! I packed my gear and was waiting at the bus stop out front by 9:45, and the bus pulled up several minutes later. We had a leisurely ride into Harrogate where I had a 20-minute wait until my next bus. The Number 24 to Pateley Bridge arrived, we boarded, and it left, right on time at 10:30. The 50-minute ride cost £6. A young mother with a small child in a stroller sat up front next to me, and we chatted until she got off. I looked out the windows on both sides as we drove through the countryside. You guessed it; there were green fields, stone walls, and sheep. However, there were also hedgerows and cattle. All buildings were made of stone and had slate roofs. I was now well and truly in the Yorkshire Dales. It was quite hot out and rather humid.

In Pateley Bridge, I went to the tourist office where I got a map of the village and some information about things to see and do. I also bought a walking map that described a series of short hikes in the area. Next up was my B&B, Roslyn House, where I planned to drop my gear before going walking. Even though I arrived four hours before check-in time, my room was ready, and the hostess, Judith, showed me to my room.

I chose a 6-mile walk that would take me up to the top of the highest hills in the area, from which I could look out over the river valley. The first couple of miles were quite steep, starting on paved roads and then soon becoming public paths across farmers' fields. As I got near the top, I collapsed on the cool, damp grass and put my heart back in my chest. "It could be worse," thought I. "I could be doing this in winter, through a snow drift, on my way to deliver twin lambs on a remote farm, just like veterinarian James Herriot!"

At the top of the ridge, I crossed a section of moorland. However, when I came to a fork on the path, my guidebook provided no help. I went back and forth several times trying to find out which option to choose. By that time, the skies were getting dark and thunder and lightning were just across the valley. Light rain fell right about the time I realized I was no longer where I was supposed to be. Then the Mother-of-all-Thunder-Claps sounded directly above me. The Gods seemed to be quite angry. But was that at me, specifically, or at mankind, in general? I was no longer on a path, so I waded through the tall grass, climbed a stone wall, and crawled under a high gate, generally heading for the valley below where I knew the river and a path to be. Somewhere along the way, my sun hat fell from my waistband and was lost. I was in no mood to go back and look for it. The weather held off, but just as I got to the river, light rain fell again. However, from that point on, I was under a thick canopy of trees. I was back home after 3:30 hours, and I figure I'd done 1–2 miles more than I'd planned. C'est la vie! Back in my room, I had a shower and lay on the bed, too tired to sleep or to do anything useful. It was hot with no breeze.

At 6 o'clock, I ventured out to look for a place to eat, and I soon found a small restaurant tucked away on a back alley. I was the only customer until a couple arrived a bit later. I ordered the sausages, mashed potato, and gravy, which came with a very large plate of cooked vegetables. I sipped an ice-cold Coke while I waited. It was a lot of food, but I took my time and worked on some puzzles. Afterwards, I walked around the village stopping to buy a pint of whole milk. Back in my room, I started a new novel I'd gotten from the lounge room where I swapped over the two books I'd finished.

Lights out at 10:30 and I was asleep right away. I slept soundly until 11:55 when it sounded like the sky was falling, which it was! A hailstorm came and went in about four minutes, and from the sound of the ice chunks landing, some of them were big. I heard the sounds of glass and other things breaking. The burglar alarm on one car was activated, and kept on with lights flashing for some time. It rained very hard for no more than 10 minutes, and the water rushed down the side street out my window. The rain stopped altogether soon after and all I could hear was the sound of bleating sheep. Certainly, some hailstones would have been big enough to kill or maim a small animal.

[Diary] Soon after 8 o'clock, I was down in the dining room. Judith played waiter while her husband was in charge of the kitchen. I had a glass of orange juice while studying the menu. There was a wide range of choices. I settled on some toast, a fried egg, bacon, fried tomatoes, and black pudding, saving the bacon for 'Ron. I took my time and worked on some puzzles while sipping juice, and it was 9:15 by the time I was done. The storm had certainly cooled things off and cleared the air of humidity, and except for all the small dents in the cars from the hail and a broken window in the B&B's dining room, there was no evidence a storm had occurred.

I set out on a 2-mile walk/hike around my village. I took no jacket or pack, as it was only a 2-mile walk! However, not long into it I found that the distinct lack of signposts for the paths and the lack of information in my guidebook made it as challenging as the day before and pretty soon I was off the network and climbing fences. It occurred to me that the map might have been left over from WWII when misinformation was deliberately circulated to confuse any invading enemy. After an extra mile or more, I made it back home, but not before it'd gotten quite cool with thunder and lightning in the distance. I certainly had perspired a lot and my shirt was soaking wet. What to do but sit right down and boil the kettle for a hot cup of tea. That was matched nicely with some fruitcake and a cookie. The downside of the local walking experiences was that I abandoned all interest in doing another in the afternoon.

[Diary] As I stepped out of my B&B, a Royal Air Force fighter jet flew directly overhead at a very low altitude with its noise shattering the rural silence. At 11:15, I was at the bus stop and soon after, the 11:30 departed for Harrogate. On the way, we had the obligatory green fields, stone walls, and sheep! At Harrogate, I made the short walk to the train station where I settled into a coffee shop for a large latte and a blueberry muffin that was "to die for."

I arrived at London's Kings Cross station around 5:15, and fought my way through all the people to the Hammersmith and Circle Tube line. It was very humid, especially underground and on the train with little air circulation. I checked into my hotel at Paddington, dumped my gear, and headed back out again, into the city. A new theater guide had been issued the day before, so I grabbed a copy at my hotel to read on the Tube to Leicester Square. There was only one new play that I really wanted to see, but I thought that might be too new to be on sale yet. To my pleasant surprise, tickets were available and at a decent price, so I made my way to the Vaudeville Theatre on The Strand where I took up a seat in the stalls with a great view of the stage. At 7:30, the lights went down and the curtain went up on Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, starring David Suchet and Michelle Dotrice. Suchet played a woman, Lady Bracknell, and he did it superbly. The three acts plus intermissions ran 2½ hours, and the play was extremely well received, with a standing ovation and two curtain calls. It had been a long time since I'd enjoyed a play that much. It was my second time seeing Suchet on stage in London, and he's well and truly broken the Poirot stereotype with those performances.

[Diary] July 4th, American Independence Day! Oh, say can you see …

At Paddington Station, I boarded the Heathrow Express train and, at 8:10, it departed for the 15-minute ride to LHR. My carriage was quite full for a Saturday morning, especially considering that trains depart every 15 minutes. I got off at the first stop and made the long walk to Terminal 2 where check-in took place way up on the 5th floor. I said goodbye to my luggage and passed through the priority security check where Mr. C survived the X-ray machine. The estimated walk to my gate was 15 minutes! Of course, with my Seven-League boots, I managed that in half the time, but it was quite a hike. Near my gate was a United Airlines Business Lounge, where I set up camp in a comfortable seat to work on this diary. Although I'd be served lunch onboard, I looked at the food on offer there and rescued a couple of tasty Lincolnshire sausages and some fried potato. That was accompanied by a glass of peach nectar.

At 11 o'clock, I got up to look at the departure screen, and was just in time to see the staff setting up lunch. Being July 4th, they had shredded pork with BBQ sauce, coleslaw, and beans. It looked so good that I figured it would be better than the lunch I'd get in-flight, so I helped myself to a portion.

Back home, I unpacked my gear and went through three weeks of mail, and had an unnecessary snack and drink. It was good to be home with my own kitchen and bed. As jetlag kicked in, I wandered off to bed at 7:30, local time (12:30 am, London time).