Thursday, January 31, 2019

Sydney: 17,000 steps, a visit to Google, and the Opera House

We are in Sydney, and our hotel is very conveniently located. From our hotel to the Sydney Opera house is just over one mile, to the Google offices is just a bit more, and there's a lot of stuff in between. It was a beautiful day. Hot, but beautiful, so we did a lot of walking and were proud to see we'd racked up 17,000 steps for the day.

Especially nice was the pedestrian bridge over the Darling Harbour. How pleasant to walk across the water, taking in the sights and not worrying about cars.

Why did we go to the Google offices? I'm glad you asked! Some Googlers (that's what you call Google employees) who work on Blogger (that's what I use to make this blog) work out of that office. I met Fontaine in Mountain View, CA last fall when I was at the Google Product Experts Summit.  When I learned she worked in the Sydney office, I asked if we could somehow visit when we were  in Sydney. Not only did she say yes, but she arranged for us to have lunch with a few other members of the Blogger team as well. Google is renowned for the great, free, food in their employee cafeterias - and Sydney is no exception. There is a rule of no photography inside the office building, but Fontaine had someone take a photo with with her phone so I have a memento to post here:
Fontaine, Michael, us, Ste, and Jaime got together to talk about Blogger ...and scuba diving!

I've used Blogger for this website since 2003 (check the archives) and we've taught a seminar called "Every Traveler Needs a Blog!" dozens, maybe hundreds, of times over the years. On our website we have 2 learning guides for Members, and many more short videos. 
I'm a real fan of and it was stimulating to chat with some of the people who build the product and hear their enthusiasm. Keep up the good work guys! And ... thanks for lunch.

Maritime Museum

Google offices were just down the street from the Sydney Maritime Museum, so off we went. 

There was an exhibit on sharks, a presentation on "Our Blue Planet" and a very special presentation on James Cameron. I know him primarily as the producer/director of Avatar, but he's so much more. His passion is in the depths of the ocean and, in Sydney, he built the submersible that would take him to the deepest part of the ocean. What an extraordinary man.

The Sydney Opera House

Few sights in the world are recognized as easily as the Sydney Opera house. Part of traveling, for us, is to experience a place that we know so well in photos. Such was our excitement for seeing the Sydney Opera House.
We wanted to be there at sunset time and hoped to see the "sails" of the opera house do a light-show after dark. We had a little bit of time to take a rest-break at our hotel, then head out about 7pm for the 8pm sunset. OMG - in the couple of hours in between, the weather got cool and very windy. It felt like a thunderstorm was brewing, but our weather apps did not call for rain - so we headed out walking. The apps were right - it didn't rain, but it sure was blustery and cold!
The first sight of the Opera house was thrilling.

We walked around and looked at it from all sides, then found a table at the outdoor bar/restaurant where you can continue to admire the view while paying $13 for a glass of wine. :-)

Unfortunately, the light show that displays on the sails did not happen this night. Check out this YouTube video for a glimpse of what we had hoped to see.

Remember to check out our photo album for even more photos. If you "join" the album, you'll get notifications when be post more photos. You can also comment on photos. G'night.

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Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Boat Mom and Boat Dad on the Great Barrier Reef

Our arrival to Cairns coincided with the end of our good weather. It was raining fiercely and all the locals chatted about how it had been raining for days. We had listened nervously a few days earlier when someone mentioned a cyclone in the coral sea, in the vicinity of where we planned a boat trip to dive the Great Barrier Reef. We learned that the cyclone went away, but the bad weather was very real.
Hey we're going diving, we're going to get wet anyway. No big deal. We piled in the van and headed to the boat.

But it was a big deal. The seas were rough and the boat pitched and rolled in ways I've never experienced. The boat had dispensers for "barf bags" and several people needed to use them. If you needed to move, you took your life in your hands. If you were on your feet, you were a toy for the boat to throw against one wall and then another. Walking was impossible. Even once we reached the dive site (3 hours later) and the boat was tied up and secured to buoys, we were still rocking and rolling and being tossed around. It was pouring rain and both the sea and the sky we're gray.
Nasty weather, but we're going diving anyway.
We're wet anyway, let's go diving. Ugh, you couldn't see your hand in front of your face. We were diving in the legendary Great Barrier Reef and we couldn't see a thing. When we got back to the boat and were talking to other divers, one asked me how the dive was. She was a new diver and was thoroughly enjoying herself. I didn't want to say anything bad but I couldn't help myself and blurted out, "That was one of the worst dives I've ever had."

Most of the dive was even worse visibility than this!

The Kids

We survived, and we all gathered in the main salon for briefings. Surprisingly all the passengers except us were young kids- 20 to 34. We're accustomed to liveaboards having mostly retirees on board. We are usually in the middle of the age group. Not this time, we were the oldest by at least 30 years. Jim offered parental advice for anyone missing their family, and we were dubbed Boat Mom and Dad 😀.

We managed one more dive in zero visibility, and I said I'm done for the day. Olga, a 21 year old from Sweden, didn't have a buddy for the next dive because Anouk, from Holland, was seasick. Since Jim was a free agent at this point, he volunteered to be her buddy and told me this new dive site actually had pretty good visibility.

During the night we were treated to light shows with thunder, rain, and lightning, but the next morning brought improved conditions. We thought of the song, The Land Down Under by Men at Work
Have you come from the land down under, where women glow and men plunder. 

   Can't you hear, can't you hear the thunder?

You better run, you better take cover

After a while the sun even came out. We had wonderful food, great conversations with young people from all over the world and even a good dive or two.  We would love to keep in touch with some of these kids - many of them are on their "Gap Year" of travel before settling into college. They're off to Thailand, VietNam, New Zealand, and many more places. Some of them are on their way back home to England, Sweden, Denmark, Netherlands, Brazil, New Zealand and even a couple of Aussies. We set up Facebook friendships with a couple of them, but Instagram was clearly the social media of choice for most, so we got their usernames and started following.

The afternoon dive looked like it was going to be pretty good so I decided to go and started suiting up. Olga's buddy, Anouk was feeling better so Jim could just buddy with me, but Olga asked if she and Anouk could tag along with us. They were both new divers and would feel more comfortable diving with boat Mom and Dad!

The last dive was great

On the third day there were 3 dives crammed into the morning. Jim and I actually got up and did the 6:30am. Then we figured on one more, the 9am dive.
YES! this dive was the stuff that dive dreams are made of. Some people think that the scary and stressful parts of diving are seeing things like sharks and barracuda. No, not at all. Seeing sharks, barracuda, and other creatures of the deep are the reason you go diving. The scary and stressful parts come from other things.
  1. Fear of losing your buddy because you went in different directions and there's not enough visibility to see where he went. 
  2. Fear of losing the boat because you just can't tell where you are when you're underwater, or know which way to get back
  3. Fear of malfunctioning equipment
We had none of that on this last dive. Everyone had their own buddies, so Jim and I were diving together and there was no group leader so we were on our own. Jim and I have had several hundred dives together, I think we have a force field that keeps us together with no effort on our part. We had no fear of losing the boat because this was a wall dive. A wall is what we call an underwater cliff. So, instead of just wandering around coral heads and getting lost, you just follow the wall. When you start your dive you head one way on the wall - wall to your right, open water to your left. Half way thru (about 25 minutes) you turn around. Easy peasy, no stress. All our equipment, except our masks, were rented from ProDive Cairns, and took some getting used to. The gauges were all in metric, so instead of watching your air so that you come up with no less than 500psi, we were looking at no less than 50 bars. Our safety stop is set to 5 meters instead of 15 feet. This was our 6th or 7th dive with the same equipment and we were fully comfortable.
The water temperature was wonderful at 28-29 Celsius (82-84 Fahrenheit.) Did we see amazing stuff? No. But, it was a wonderful dive nonetheless. I simply love the sensual experience of diving, zen-like relaxation, being weightless and feeling like you're flying. Then just looking around. There were some nice corals - especially the plate coral that we don't have in the Atlantic. As soon as we jumped in, we saw anemone fish, aka clown fish - another Pacific-only sight. It's funny how they are now called "Nemo's" because of the movie. We were also told we might see some Dory's (Blue Tang / Surgeonfish) also from the movie Finding Nemo.

Here's the video that Jim put together of the whole dive trip.

It was depressing how much of the coral reef was dead. The crew did tell us that the weather limited their choices of dive sites and others are in better shape, but still - the corals are not at all what they should be. There were lots of tropical fish, just not much of any size.
All in all it was a good trip. The chef - Luke - was amazing. How he managed to cook in that rocking boat is a miracle, and the food was really good. Lots of grilled vegies. One night was chicken curry and I don't even like curry, but this was so tasty!
But, I think the best part was getting to know the others on board, both crew and passengers. What an international group. These young people give me hope for our world!

Saturday, January 26, 2019

Toastmasters in Brisbane

One of the reasons we put Brisbane on our itinerary is the fact that our friend, Graham, lives there. We call him a friend, and we've known him for about 3 years, but we've never met. You see, we are members of an online toastmasters club called Online Presenters. Toastmasters is not just about learning public speaking, it's about getting to know your fellow members thru their speeches, and Graham's speeches are wonderful. So when we realized we would have the opportunity to meet in person, we made it happen.
What an online Toastmasters meeting looks like. That's Graham in the top left square, Jim is 2 squares to the right of him, and Chris is 2 squares below him.

Graham also invited us to attend his local Toastmasters meeting and participate.
It was a lunchtime meeting. Graham came by our hotel a few hours before the meeting and took us on a walking tour of his hometown.
We didn't even realize that there were beautiful gardens just across the street from our hotel.

Graham has been a journalist and radio presenter for over 20 years so he was a wealth of information. Did you know that the song, Waltzing Matilda, is not about dancing? It's not about anything remotely romantic. It's about a sheep thief who commits suicide rather than be captured by police!
How about the fact that General Douglas MacArthur was based in Brisbane during WWII and American troops outnumbered the Aussies in town during those years, causing significant stresses on the local resources and social scene. Tensions boiled over into a riot which became known as the Battle of  Brisbane. 
We also learned that much of the art in Brisbane was a result of hosting a world expo in 1988. Lots of these bronze statues are scattered all over. I like that this picture makes it look like the three of them are in conversation.

Visiting toastmasters

Toastmasters is an international organization with thousands of club around the world. Visiting Toastmasters are always welcome. It's a great way to meet some local people and, since you get to hear speeches, you learn some personal tidbits. I love to travel, but I prefer not being just a tourist. Someday we're going to live in a foreign country, not just visit. Meanwhile, visiting a toastmasters meeting is an easy way to get some flavor of daily life. We even got to participate. I evaluated a speech and Jim presented a table topic.

I was struck by the international feeling of the group. Although everyone spoke English, it was not the first language of several members. The speech was by Ricardo, a native of Peru, he now lives in Australia. His speech was about helping to start two other toastmasters clubs, one in Vietnam and the other in China. Wow, just wow. 
After the meeting we had lunch of fish and chips and walked back to the hotel. On the way back we asked Graham if he could find a place with a sign that said Brisbane. We wanted to take a picture holding a toastmasters magazine (it's a thing) and be recognizable as being in Brisbane. We asked, he delivered!

Thanks for a great day Graham!

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Brisbane, Koalas and Kangaroos

To get the most out of these big trips, we enjoy the help of our travel agent, Dolphin Travel. She helps us navigate the maze of choices with airline travel, visas etc. With her help we get where we want to go, when we want to get there and have necessary accommodations and tours pre-booked so we don't waste any time.
First stop, Brisbane - the capital of Queensland Australia. On the first day we had an all day tour booked. A tourbus took us around the city, then dropped us at a boat for a ride on the Brisbane river. The bus picked us up again and took us outside of town to the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary.

Brisbane is an impressive city. We especially like the combination of beautiful Botanical Gardens and rainforest parks along the banks of the river and the glass and steel high rises in the background.

The highlight of the day was definitely the Koala Sanctuary.

The kangaroos had a wide open free range areas where you could get up close and personal. Our tour guide had recommended that we give them a scratch on their chest. I did and the guy in this video seemed to like it. The sounds you hear in the background is the Lauging Kookaburra. Love it!

You could sign up to hold a Koala, but we contented ourselves with taking picture of these oh-so-cute critters.

Would you believe there was Wi-Fi throughout the park? We decided to give it a go and did a Facebook Live from the kangaroo area.

We are adjusting to the time difference, but still were exhausted and sound asleep by 7pm! (that would be 3am in Florida)
What a day!
Today we're just staying at the hotel and relaxing, catching up with email, photo albums and blog posts! Tomorrow we'll be getting together with Graham Cairns, a friend of ours from our online Toastmasters club. We've known him for a few years but have never met! We will be attending his Toastmasters meeting with him here in Brisbane.

For more photos and videos see our Google Photos album 2019 Australia/New Zealand

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Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Off to Australia, chasing the sun for 18 hours.

Our flight to Houston was scheduled to leave from Miami at 4:30 pm on Sunday. We were packed and ready to go when we went to bed Saturday night so we got a pretty early start. After a leisurely cup of coffee and tidying up the house, we asked Jimmy to drop us off at the Tri-rail station on his way out of town.We have found that taking the Tri-rail commuter train is a good way to get to Miami airport. It takes a $5 ticket and about one hour of travel. Tri trail ends right at the Miami airport - easy-peasy.

We got there about 1 PM. I like being early to the airport, especially right now when there's a government shut down and stories of TSA agents not coming to work. We expected long lines and chaos but got none! We already had our boarding passes and we only had carry on luggage, so we went straight to our gate a full 2.5 hours ahead of time.

We arrived in Houston just after sunset. We wouldn't see the sun rise again for nearly 22 hours. We really found our gate for the non stop United flight from Houston to Sydney. 17 hours in the air.

Yes, that was a long time, but they had dozens of movies available for free in the seat back video screen, they served food and complementary wine. We brought some Tylenol PM to help us sleep, and these cool TURTL neck-wrapped head rests.

 I think we actually slept for a total of maybe 5 hours, not bad. But that still left 12 hours to kill. I watched 4 full length movies ("Searching" was really good.) That took up 8 hours. Still 4 more hours to sit and squirm. We were really lucky to have only quiet kids, no crying babies, and no coughing people. The worst part was that there was a lot of turbulence, so you could not get up and go to the bathroom. One time I simply ignored the flight attendant who told me to go back to my seat, I think she was ok with that.
After flying West, following the sun, for 16 hours, the sun did rise again behind us just before reaching Sydney and we caught a glimpse of the special blood full moon and I think we even saw a tiny bit of the lunar eclipse that happened that night. It looked like there was a little bite out of the Moon.  (Jim says I imagined that :-(

It was now Tuesday morning - we missed Monday altogether.
We had just a short layover in Sydney before catching a domestic flight to Brisbane. Sleep deprived and thoroughly discombubbled, we zipped thru customs, but had a tough time finding our gate. Finally we were directed to a shuttle bus that took us to the other side of the airport where domestic Qantas flights had their gates. 
We were just in time, I got settled into a window seat and when we took off I was rewarded with a fantastic view of Sydney harbor and, wait .. could it be? Yes it is! There's the Sydney opera house, that iconic view that I've seen in hundreds of photos but never for real - it's right below me with no clouds in the way so my phone can get a pretty good picture.

Chris Guld

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Accosted by a Goliath Grouper! by Jim

My old dive buddy is visiting and we've been out diving. Today was a memorable dive. It was a two-tank trip on the Scubatyme, a charter boat out of Pompano Beach. We like to hunt for Florida Lobster, the tasty crustacean found in these waters.
 Here's a screenshot of the Inlet webcam. That's our boat going out the Hillsboro Inlet.

Jimmy Lyon and I have been liquidating lobsters since 1974. That's when I became a certified SCUBA diver. Back then we dove in the cold waters off the South Jersey shore. We were both younger then.

Now we dive the warm waters of South Florida. He visits nearly every winter. It's like a tradition.
Jimmy still lives and works on Long Beach Island, NJ. We've visited him there many times in our travels.

The first dive was a fairly routine reef drift. We caught a few spiny lobsters, saw a nice nurse shark and some big moray eels. A nice dive. We returned to surface and the boat for a snack and surface interval.

Only a minute or two into the second dive, I spotted a couple of lobster and snared one. I had just removed the snare and was holding the lobster in my left hand. I turned my head to alert Jimmy to the other lobster in the hole when I felt a sharp tug on my arm. I turned to see my hand and forearm in the gaping mouth of a 300 lb. Goliath Grouper! I pulled my arm out and found I was holding only the tail of the lobster. The grouper inquired into the availability of the tail and I obliged his request.
Now I had a friend for the rest of the dive. He was quite insistent that both Jimmy and I provide more treats, a fish that big can get a little pushy. He would not leave us alone to catch more lobster. Finally, after a half hour of this huge fish's company, we called the dive and surfaced.

We were hysterical bobbing on the surface waiting for the boat to pick us up. We've both had some weird experiences diving over the years but this was really remarkably funny that the fish would just not leave us alone.
If only we had our cameras with us for the dive.

Here's a short video I took on a wreck dive last week.

Thanks for all the great memories, Jimmy!

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