Sing out loud!

I don’t miss much about my marriage, but the one thing I really do miss is singing! My ex was a musician. He played guitar and drums. While never achieving any fame and spending way more than he ever earned, it was a very satisfying hobby for him and by default, for me as well. Sitting around the kitchen or on the lounge after work and on weekends he would play his Maton acoustic and sing. Most times I would join in with him. I am no virtuoso, but I could hold a tune and used to really enjoy these times.

I guess if we were singing, we weren’t fighting!

 

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High School Teachers Band! (photo by David Croft)

The repertoire was fairly broad but consisted of mostly “middle of the road” rock and folk music. There was plenty of Paul Kelly, Cold Chisel, Dire Straits as well as Bob Dylan (which incidentally I didn’t join in on).

I especially enjoyed the family singalongs with his brothers and sisters. These were always happy nights that went into the wee hours.

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Once upon a time, I had the guts to get up and sing in front of people!

Since I have been on my own, my opportunity to sing ad hoc has completely vanished, and now when I try and sing along in the car or in my kitchen, my voice is weak and becomes hoarse very quickly. I begin to splutter and cough. I  guess it’s like anything, it takes practise and training.  My “singing” muscles are no longer in good condition. Sadly, I can’t remember the last time I actually sang with other people!

Singing is good for you! It’s a positive, life-affirming thing and when you’re with a group of people making music it’s so much darn fun! This article talks about the benefits of singing for your health and wellbeing   but I  don’t need any convincing!

Singing is something I will have to find a way to bring back into my life. I didn’t include it as one of my 60 for 60 items. That was an oversight and something I will need to remedy.

I am not sure I have the level of commitment needed for a choir while I am still trapped in the day job, so I’ll be on the lookout for a Grannies’ garage band! 😆

I wrote about other aspects of music in my life in a post last year. You can read it here.

Small Bars In Wollongong

Wollongong’s nightlife grows up.

Part 1

Somewhere between me being 45 and nearly 60, Wollongong’s nightlife has been through a metamorphosis. At one time, Wollongong had a reputation for being violent. Rolling brawls spilled out of places like the Glasshouse onto the streets and kept people like me at home.  We didn’t feel comfortable sharing noisy venues with barely-clad chicky babes and young men whose sole goal was to get “maggoted”. My friends and I stayed at home and had civilised dinner parties, sometimes venturing out to the popular Little Prince* only to be disappointed because we couldn’t find a seat.

(*I’ll review the Littel Prince in another post)

More recently and I’m reticent to use the word “suddenly” because I’m sure it has not been sudden, there has been a torrent of small bars setting up shop. These places have style, the music is quieter, the seats more comfortable and the lighting more subdued.

It’s not so much a case of Wollongong changing from an ugly caterpillar into a butterfly, because some those rowdier places are still open for business. Rather, new classier blood has moved into the neighbourhood offering more choice to a broader range of patrons. In fact, we’re spoiled for choice at the moment!

My friends and I are not looking for somewhere to “hook up” or meet a date. We want a place where we can feel comfortable alone or with a group of friends for a chat. We enjoy good food and are fussy in our choice of drinks.  We want background music that stays in the background and excellent amenities in terms of toilets, glassware and seating.

So which small bars are a good match for Old Chooks?

In the interests of research, I decided to hit the streets and review the boutique and small bar scene, systematically and scientifically. Armed with an online survey, I enlisted the help of some dedicated Old Chooks (Diane and Karen) to critically evaluate what was on offer.

So far, we have checked out six small bars over two nights in Febraury and March 2019.  We will bravely venture out again to check out more bars in the coming months. Tough work but someone has to do it!

Methodology

I must say we approached our task with enthusiasm, and frankly, I think we got a little overexcited. It was funny how having a purpose changed the dynamics of a night out, transforming it from a simple social get-together to a serious mission. It also meant we were more observant than we would have been otherwise. The methodology is simple. We each pick a bar, then work out the most efficient walking route between them. Once at the bar, we carefully check the food and drinks menu and the toilets. These are the deal breakers in our view! We try to engage the bar staff in conversation without giving our game away. We order a drink each and some food to share and then after an hour or so move onto the next bar.

Three bars, three drinks, three snacks.

In that hour, we are busy on our phones filling in the survey and discussing the lighting, the ambience, the crowd and the facilities. The survey is comprehensive, and each question is given a score. The scores are then added up to provide an overall rating. There are a few inherent biases in the method. The first bar on the list is reviewed early in the night, and it may not have yet reached its peak ambience. Another factor is that the third bar is considered after 2 drinks. Hopefully, we are not such cheap drunks that our focus is too frayed!

The reviews

Juniper Bar

121 Keira Street, Wollongong

Juniper was our first review, and we started there at about 7:30 PM. There were plenty of available tables. The crowd was made up of three male/female couples and a group of eight 30-40-year-old females. Four men walked in, looked around and walked out. Perhaps it was a bit girly for their taste? The concrete walls were sponged with pastel tones, and there was no other decoration. The wooden tables were garnished with small candles and a bit of greenery in a recycled jar. The concrete floor and walls created a noisy vibe, and the music was too loud for easy conversation. There was a definite need for some soft surfaces to act as noise dampeners. The bar itself had a charming backlit display which was very interesting.

Juniper, as the name suggests, is a gin bar. There was an extensive selection of gin but little else besides. The printed menu was very informative and gave good descriptions of the gin varietals.  They offered gin-based cocktails as well as straight nips and various tonic mixers. The drinks ranged in price from $11 – $19. The food menu was minimal (a choice a three) and there was no vegetarian option.  We chose the drinks plate: a platter of cheese and meats with very crunchy toasted bread ~ $25. The two wait staff were friendly.

BEST:  Excellent subdued lighting. The bar was nicely lit and looked very pretty.

WORST: Noise levels and food choices.

Black Cockatoo.

88 Kembla Street, Wollongong (behind the Creamies gelato shop)

I felt like a secret agent entering the Black Cockatoo with its hidden entry off an ice cream parlour. I wish you needed to give a secret handshake! Once inside the dark interior was reminiscent of an American bar. Booths lined the walls with a few standing tables as well as seats at the bar. It’s a small venue with a capacity for around 30. A large painted mural of a cockatoo and a few band posters were the only decorations.  Still, it had a nice ambience tending to retro. Two 20-something men were serving. They were very casually dressed in long shorts and t-shirts. The food menu was again minimal and this time consisted of packet chips, sausage rolls and cheese and spinach pies. Don’t come here looking for a meal! The drinks menu was small and limited to canned beers, a few imported draft beers and a  small selection of wine. Drink prices were reasonable, ranging from $6 up to $15.

When we arrived at 8:30, we were the only ones there for a few minutes, and the boys were happy to chat while not being obtrusive. With a very late licence, this would be the place for a late night meet-up, not an Old Chooks night out. There was one toilet which had no hand towels although it was tidy in other respects. The music was great, probably meant to be retro but it was all our era!

BEST: The secret agent feel and the music.

WORST: Food. Although, to be honest, if you were here late at night, a sausage roll might be perfect!

Births and Deaths.

2/74 Kembla St, Wollongong

Births and Deaths has had a fair bit of cash thrown at it. The black walls frame the $6000 -worth of Italian tiles that back the bar. There is one long re-manufactured stone table in the middle of the room which would comfortably seat 30 and cafe style seating around outside of the room as well as a few stools at the bar. The bar was half full, with an interesting mix of people. B&D offered table service, a nice touch. We chatted at length to one of the owners, Jared. He explained his philosophy which focused on sustainability. He said they reused as much as possible. The straws were metal, the coasters, washable fabric. The kitchen ran on the concept of minimising waste with the beetroot and pumpkin scraps leftover from the tasting plates used to make syrup for drinks. According to Jared of Births and Deaths, my friends and I are part of the targeted demographic boutique bars in Wollongong are looking for. Cashed up and older.  Young folk, you see “pre-drink” and are stingy about buying food. Old Chooks like us, on the other hand, go out early, buy more expensive drinks and order lots of food. He is also part owner of the Howling Wolf and works in partnership with Cavaeu (a hatted restaurant nearby). He was very accommodating and chatty and talked to us about his plans and the issues of getting a licence and permission to operate.

B&D is also a gin bar but has a broader selection of wine and beers than Juniper. The food was unique, and while not vegetarian, was mostly plant-based. We tried a pumpkin plate which included morsels of pumpkin cooked a few different ways as well as some cheese and tomato toasties.

BEST: The food and the staff.

WORST: The toilet while not unisex, was not very private and it was easy to “disturb” the privacy of other patrons.

Night Parrot

69 Crown St, Wollongong

The Night Parrot was our first stop on the second research night. The technical hitches we had with the online survey (Diane’s phone going flat and Karen using the wrong form)   had been solved, so we were ready to go! A fourth researcher, Tanya, joined us. There were five other groups of people and seating was not a problem. The other patrons were well dressed and included a few couples. The decor was dark and classy with one wall lined with highly varnished wood panels. The remaining walls and ceiling were painted black and gave the place a cave-like feel.  The Night Parrot is a wine bar and features a walk-in wine cabinet which takes up one of the on-street windows. The busy kitchen was visible from the bar and added significantly to the atmosphere with steam wafting up from the stoves. There was seating at the bar as well as open tables and three padded “booths” which seated three comfortably with the fourth at the other side of the table. There was table service, and it took a little longer than expected to give our orders. I had decided to do Feb-Fast and was not drinking alcohol, and while the others were quickly served their wine, I had to ask a second time for my soda water. The volume of the music created a pleasant, unobtrusive feel and allowed for easy conversation. The lighting was on the dark side. This along with the dark walls, gave it a cozy atmosphere. The bar area was brightly lit. The one toilet cubicle was unisex. It was large and spacious with plenty of extra rolls of paper, gentle soap and a blower dryer. The decor was eclectic with a large suspended branch acting as a chandelier.

A small selection of food was on offer. I had the dumplings which were tasty and good value at four pieces for $14.  The wine selection was a mix of local and imported wines and over a wide price range. Both Diane and Tanya ($22) were pleased with their grenaches, one local ($14) one imported ($22).

BEST:  The decor and the wine selection;

WORST:  We thought that with the way the seating was arranged, it would be tough to feel comfortable as a solo visitor.

Moominn

68 Crown St, Wollongong

Moominn is a  quirky, warm, cozy place. It reminded me of someone’s  Grandma’s lounge room. There is a mixture of seating from a few lounge chairs around a fireplace to kitchen tables with old lino chairs. Some seating at the bar is also available. There are all sorts of bits and pieces hanging from the ceiling. Baskets, flowers, light fittings,  bottles, umbrellas etc. The walls are entirely covered with mismatched pictures which scream out OP SHOP find. A large blackboard shows the specials as well as a few witty quotes. They had flavoursome zero alcohol beer, and I would have had another if we were staying longer.

 

The others all had the same red wine and seemed satisfied with their choice. The drinks were served in very simple, practical glasses.  The barkeeper was friendly and offered advice on what beer they had when I asked for no alcohol. The food was OK. I found it a bit oily although the others enjoyed the mix of deep fried mushrooms, cauliflower and cheese bites. A second plate with bread and meatballs was very garlicky. The two dishes were $50 in total. They were small servings, and this seemed expensive to me. The single well-lit toilet is out back through the kitchen.  Quaint sayings are painted on the walls, and the jumbled, over-decorated theme continues here.

The music, while pleasant, was too loud. There was a good crowd of around 20 in attendance, We originally sat at the bar and swooped on a table when it was vacated. The partons were a very mixed group with a good spattering of older people.  It would be easy to visit Mooninn as a solo traveller with the lounge chairs near the fire being cozy and private.

BEST: Quirky fun feel

WORST: Noise levels

The Throsby

2/88 Kembla St, Wollongong

The Throsby is one of the more established small bars in Wollongong and has been open for several years. I had been there before. The waitress seemed to be annoyed when we walked in, and her face showed it.  It looked like we had crashed a private party. It was only 10:10 PM. The first thing she said was the kitchen has closed. Most of the tables were empty, and there were two other groups. A group of four young men at the table nearest the door and a group of six young people at the bar.

The decor is muted and sophisticated. You could describe it as Scandi with blond timber and fine lines. A petite arrangement of flowers/leaves was on each table. The light fittings were chic woven timber. Their glassware was elegant, and I had a tasty pink grapefruit-soda water mix. The music was bland but at a reasonable volume. The one toilet was a bit messy and smelly. It might have been OK  at the beginning of the night but needed a clean at this time.

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Karen and Tanya both commented that the wine was a bit acidic. We could not comment on the food as we did not see a menu. Although the vibe was quite pleasant, we did not interact with the wait staff at all beyond ordering our drinks. We did not score the Throsby well, and we perhaps were over critical because of our less than enthusiastic greeting.

BEST: decor and glassware:

WORST: Reception on arrival. If you’re not open for business, close the door!

And the winner (so far) is…

The graph below shows our overall scores for the six bars visited to date. Births and Deaths has come out as a clear winner for many reasons. Jared was a star. Friendly, knowledgeable and willing to spend time chatting with us telling us about his philosophy. This made all the difference.column graph showing scores for bars in Wollongong

(not great photography sorry!)

Coffee and your waistline.

In modern Australian culture and elsewhere, coffee has reached near god-like status. It’s big business and for some, a life force.

According to many t-shirts, it is imbued with amazing properties.

It keeps some people alive: “I can’t function without my morning coffee.”

It can restore lost speech: “No Coffee – No Talkie.”

It can even prevent murder: Coffee helps me maintain my “never killed anyone streak.”

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A few of the hundreds of coffee themed t-shirts available online

The science of coffee.

To be precise, it’s the caffeine (and other methylxanthines: see the diagram below) present in coffee that does the trick. Caffeine is classed as a heterocyclic nitrogen compound. Its structure is very similar to two of the important building blocks of DNA, adenine and guanine.

Structure of caffeinw
My brother hand drew those diagram!

It is water soluble, a critical property because if it weren’t soluble, you wouldn’t be able to drink it in the first place!  Caffeine has a melting point of 237°C, another important factor because it doesn’t evaporate away under normal processing conditions. It is an alkaline, white powder when in pure form. Chemically, it’s nothing like cocaine or other stimulants except that it also contains a bunch of carbon atoms joined in a complicated ring shape with a few nitrogens and oxygens and double bonds thrown in.

Caffeine and its biological precursors have been reported in over 160 species of plant. It is found in coffee beans, tea leaves, cocoa, cola nuts, guarana, and plants of the Ilex species such as maté.

Because caffeine is water soluble, the way a coffee beverage is prepared has a significant effect on the amount of caffeine in a cup. It’s all about maximising the solubility. Increasing the temperature of the water, increasing the surface area and making the beans more porous will increase the caffeine content in your daily cup. Hence we roast the coffee beans to make them porous (and tasty) then we grind them to massively increase the surface area before we soak them in hot water. Voila!

The caffeine dose can vary from around 50mg up to 150 mg per 250 mL cup.

The pharmacological effects of caffeine

In plants, caffeine is thought to act as an insect deterrent due to its extreme bitterness. Humans found out about its about stimulating effects a long time ago and have harvested and then cultivated caffeine-rich plants for millennia.

Caffeine does indeed have many well researched pharmacological effects, but most cherished is its ability to perk you up. In 1983 I wrote:

“Caffeine is a stimulant and considered the most widely used of self-administered drugs in the form of coffee, tea and cola beverages. Most people have been exposed to the stimulating effect of these substances and the majority of the population consumes pharmacological doses [~100mg] of the drug at regular intervals throughout the day.”

The list of effects is long.

  • Dilation of the blood vessels
  • Increased respiration
  • Increased urine output
  • Increased gastric secretions
  • Relaxation of  smooth muscle tissue
  • Reduced the blood supply to the brain
  • Stimulation of  the central nervous system
  • Increased motor activity and response to sensory stimuli (aka makes you more alert!)
  • Elevation of plasma free fatty acids and glucose. Some research shows that it can assist in weight loss by increasing fat metabolism while exercising.

Caffeine is absorbed rapidly and appears in the blood within 5 minutes of consumption. In most people, it takes about 3.5 hours to clear the blood and be excreted in urine, but in some individuals (like me!) who lack sufficient metabolic enzymes, it can remain active for much longer. Because it is cleared so quickly from the blood, it does not accumulate in the body.

Too much caffeine can lead to headache, tremors, abnormal heart rhythms and irritation of the gut. In addition, we all know about the effect caffeine can have on sleep.  Chronic overconsumption of caffeine results in symptoms that are indistinguishable from anxiety neurosis. It would take about 10 g of pure caffeine to kill you.

Nutritional value of coffee

A cup of Screenshot 2019-04-16 15.08.11black coffee has no nutritional value. It has no fat, no carbohydrates, no protein, no vitamins and only minuscule traces of magnesium. We have to agree the only reason we drink it is because of the caffeine. BUT who drinks coffee black? Not many people! It’s all the stuff we add to coffee that boosts its nutritional status. The data in the table below is taken from Gloria Jean’s website and is fairly typical of the data available.

 

 

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The energy value of a whole milk cappuccino is going to cost you between 484 kJ (116 kcal) – 725 kJ (173 kcal) depending on size. For skim milk, you are looking at about half that. Soy milk is a little higher than skim milk for energy.  The milk is going to provide you with protein, fat, calcium and some lactose. If you add sugar, you can add another 64 kJ (16 kcal) per teaspoon.  A large cappuccino could, therefore, represent a fair proportion of your daily energy intake and must be considered if you are avoiding weight gain.  If you go for something fancy, like a full cream caramel latte, you’re talking around 1000 kJ (220 kcal) or the same amount of energy in 3 eggs!

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So, is coffee good for you?

My thesis is too old to give me good advice in regards to the overall health effects of caffeine and coffee.  So a search of the interwebs turns up some interesting information.

The website Coffee & Health states that:

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) in a review on the Safety of Caffeine concluded that moderate caffeine consumption, of around 400mg caffeine per day (the equivalent of up to 5 cups of coffee), can be enjoyed as part of a healthy balanced diet and an active lifestyle. Pregnant and breastfeeding women are advised to limit their caffeine intake to 200mg per day.

It even goes so far as to say that caffeine consumption is associated with a reduced rate of mortality. Is this from the coffee itself or from the social aspect of coffee? That’s a whole other kettle of fish. Once again however we are talking about caffeine not the coffee beverage of choice. Sure, caffeine might have no ill effects, but if you pile in the sugar and cream, that’s a different story entirely!

In my own case, if I have more than one cappuccino a day, I end up with a belly full of gas. I know from anecdotal experience I am not the only one who suffers this consequence. As stated above, caffeine stimulates the production of gastric juices which speeds up digestion, milk contains lactose which challenges many adults at the best of times and with the relaxation of smooth muscle, which incidentally is the type of muscle in your intestines… well … well, you know how it’s going to end!

I guess you need to consider whether your personal circumstances can cope with the increased energy consumption of milk based coffee beverages. If it can’t, you might want to consider black coffee or even a splash of milk in a cup of International Roast!

Next week: Is coffee sending the world broke?

 

Is your daily coffee habit making you fat, farty, and broke?

A cappuccino in a green cup.

I sat down with the intention of writing a short piece about coffee and the effect it has on our waistlines and wallets. As I started doing some research and looking at various websites on how many calories there are in various coffee beverages, how much coffee is drunk daily in Australia etc.;  it got me thinking.

Where does this coffee come from? How much do we as a nation, spend? What about worldwide? Are there long term health benefits or does it cause health issues? Is it sustainable? All those disposable coffee cups have got to end up somewhere. Can all those corner cafes be supported? Where would you go to meet friends/on a first date if you don’t want to drink coffee and it wasn’t beer o’clock yet? What about tea? Would we solve all/any the issues if we switched to drinking only tea? Is coffee even worth drinking? Now come on, be honest, do you even LIKE the taste of coffee?

My swirling mind became caught in a spiral of ideas worse than being trapped in a Pinterest Vortex! I decided it was way bigger than one post could handle and it needed to be a series of blog posts. This post serves as an introduction and sets the scene. I will follow it up with another 5 posts over the next few months. (It might even grow from that number!)

Part 1 will be about the Waistline Effect: here I will explore the pharmacological, health and dietary effects of caffeine.

Part 2 looks at the economic effects of coffee on a micro (your household budget) and macro (the global economy) scale.

Part 3 investigates the environmental impact: are we burying our cities under a mountain of disposable cups. Are Keep Cups going to save the day? Are we causing rural poverty in those countries that supply our daily fix?

Part 4: What are the cultural differences in coffee drinking. Is Australian the only place you can buy a decent skim cap? I need your help here. Have you ever been able to buy a decent coffee in another country?

Part 5: Tea v Coffee. Does it make a difference? Plus anything else I haven’t been able to fit into the other posts.

I feel like a bit of a coffee expert, not because I drink lots, but because way back in the day when I was completing my undergraduate degree in Food Technology, I wrote my Honours Thesis on “Caffeine and its Derivatives in Australian Foods and Beverages”.

With nothing more than my trusty portable typewriter and correction tape, I banged out one hundred and thirty pages of meta-analysis and lab results about methylxanthines, the chemical group which includes caffeine and other similar compounds. While some of it is outdated, it remains a good starting point.

On a personal note, I’m a tea drinker. I limit the amount of coffee I buy from a cafe to around 1 – 2 cups a week if that. This decision is based on three factors.

  1. Kilojoule intake. I drink skim milk cappucinos. That’s around 120 kcal or nearly 500 kJ which is approximately 8% of my target daily intake.
  2. Lactose intake – I think I must be a little lactose intolerant because milk-based coffee drinks make my belly grumble unpredictably with embarrassing consequences!
  3. I am stingy. $4 a cup every day that’s nearly $1500 a year!

I hope you’ll enjoy these posts and let me know your favourite cafe in the comments below!

Not Millennial but Perennial

As I was looking for articles about older women doing amazing things, I came across this story in the Telegraph. Not exactly what I was searching for, but thought-provoking none-the-less.

The report concentrates on the shift in attitudes of women who, 20 years ago, may have been described as middle-aged. It highlights how older women are generally taking on a more positive approach to aging and being more confident to express a style other than “grandma”.

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This section particularly resonated with me and sent me on the search for more information.

Everywhere we look, highly visible older women are rewriting all the rules. From JK Rowling to Nicole Kidman; Michelle Obama to Anna Wintour, they are at the peak of their power and creativity.

They are engaged, influential and often increasingly political.

There’s even a new term to describe people with this no-age mindset: ‘perennials’

It was coined by US internet entrepreneur Gina Pell, 49, who explains, ‘Perennials are ever-blooming, relevant people of all ages who know what’s happening in the world, stay current with technology and have friends of all ages. We get involved, stay curious, mentor others, and are passionate, compassionate, creative, confident, collaborative, global-minded risk takers.’

Hell yeah! I want to be a perennial!

You can hear more about Gina Pell’s idea of perennials in this Youtube video. Not everything she says had the same point of resonance, but I like where she is coming from. 

 

I  think the Telegraph has misquoted her because Nina refutes the concept of being ever-blooming. My interpretation is that age should not be equivalent to relevancy.

The Sydney Royal Easter Show

The Royal Easter Show is THE biggest event in Australia. Held at Sydney Olympic Stadium over 12 days and with an average of over 850,000 tickets sold, it hums with activity. The show is run by the Royal Agricultural Society of NSW, and the first show was held in 1823. The RAS’ charter is to support the farmers by acting as

“… a not-for-profit organisation, …committed to supporting agricultural development and rural communities in Australia by generating revenue through its businesses which is ploughed back into agriculture.”

Over the years it has changed and, of course, become more commercial. Show bags used to be called sample bags and were free. These days you have to pay a pretty penny for a bag full of plastic junk.

Despite this, the essence has remained the same. “The Royal” is the culmination of local and district agricultural shows which happen at various times throughout the year in country towns around NSW (and Australia). Farmers bring their best chickens, pigs and cattle to show, while others cook and vie for the title of best fruit cake. Old crafts such as knitting, crochet and leather carving are appreciated and kept alive by healthy competition.

In the various arena and pavillions, we city folk can watch tent pegging, show jumping, rodeo, dog and cat shows, and feel connected to those who provide our food.

In sideshow alley kids of all ages can ride on the giant Ferris wheel, the giant slide and the other noisy rides that throw them in the air in an eruption of squeals and shrieks.

I’m not sure how often I have been to the Show, perhaps 10? I remember going with my mum  on Good Fridays because it meant the crowd would be smaller as people observed that public holiday more piously 50 years ago. In those days, it was held at the Showgrounds in Moore Park, and we needed to catch two trains and a bus to get there.

I’ve been to the show three times in the last 6 years. It’s an excellent place for a photo safari and while I don’t look at everything I stick to the less commerical areas but make sure I check out the chickens!

The collages below show some of my shots from this year.

Tent pegging

Junior Judges being judged judging sheep….

Chickens!

A little of sideshow alley

Showjumping

Handicrafts

Tomorrow (23/4/19)  is the last day for the 2019 show. It’s Children’s Day and there are special offers. If you are visiting Sydney in 2020, I’d recommend you add it to the calendar of events. The glorious autumn weather and the feel good vibe, are bound to impress.

Driverless cars. Are they good or bad?

 

I recently attended a talk by futurist Michael McQueen. A fabulously entertaining speaker who has written several books about education, specifically the future of education and the changes that would make learning more relevant to our changing, future world.

His most recent book Teaching for Tomorrow: A blueprint for future-proofing our schools, students and educational system (2019) begins with chapters that outline Michael’s predictions for 10 megatrends. None are crazy out-there ideas but seemingly well thought out responses to a sequence of “if-then” statements. If this happens then, that is a likely result.

Chapter 3 talks about The Demise of Driving with the introduction of the driverless car. He started off with the statement that he doesn’t think his three-year-old son will have a driver’s licence. There will be no need – the bots will drive.

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Car manufacturers already include artificial intelligence into cars. In a regular (but top) model you can have automatic windscreen wipers that sense rain, things that beep at you if you get too close to another car or cross lanes. Cars can already park themselves. It won’t be long till driverless vehicles are the norm rather than the exception. Google and Uber already have driverless cars and have been testing them on our roads. It’s not a matter of if, but when.

According to Michael

“autonomous cars will be commonplace by 2025 and have a near monopoly by 2030”.

He thinks that owning a car will be like having a horse these days. A hobby, but not a primary means of transport.

The disruption caused by driverless cars includes apparent things like loss of jobs in the transport industry to less obvious results like the demise of car insurance and parking lots. We won’t need parking lots because you can tell your driverless car to go home or plug into a recharge station while you are at work. It could even earn you some money by acting as a Uber while you are doing your day job. Michael further challenges the idea of if we will even need to own cars at all. Cars will become mini-versions of public transport that you can hire/rent on demand.

I was really intrigued by this train of ideas and thought I’d discuss them with my Year 7 class. (Year 7 in Australia is the first year of high school, and students are usually 12 – 13 years old.)

As predicted, they came up with the idea that there would be a loss of jobs and the moral dilemmas of whether a driverless car can make the correct decision if faced with a situation of avoiding a human or a telegraph pole.  After some prompting, they agreed that there would probably be fewer cars on the road and therefore less congestion and pollution because we could share cars. They accepted this would be a good thing.

I sent them off to work in groups and come up with a pros and cons list. The final challenge being to write a statement to support their opinion of whether driverless cars were a good thing or a bad thing for society.

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There was a fantastic buzz and hum in the room while they tossed around ideas in their groups and excitedly looked at the pictures of prototypes I had on a projected slide loop. I was patting myself on the back for having such an engaging lesson that was generating some genuine connections and discussion. This is what the classroom should be like every day!

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Then a rogue idea struck the class.

Driverless cars would be a bad thing the class agreed? Why?

What happened if the person before me was a smoker? Or ate tuna in the shared car? Or was smelly and stunk out the car!

And the even bigger problem?

Where would you keep your stuff? You wouldn’t be able to use your car as an extension of your wardrobe? You wouldn’t be able to carry around the dry cleaning for three months in the boot!

Now, these my friends, are the real problems driverless cars will have to overcome before our iGeneration accepts them!

 

THE unwanted wedding dress

I have written about my road to firstly accepting my divorce and finally flourishing after years of wallowing. My final hurdle is the billowing meringue of a 1980’s wedding dress that sits in its box at the top of a wardrobe. The last reminder. The piece I seem not to be able to let go.  The past regrets, the guilt, the hurt and the disbelief have all faded into a not forgotten but a no longer badgering past. But this? This dress…it won’t let go.

I have decluttered that particular cupboard a number of times. It’s not as if it has any use. It is tragically out of fashion with a plunging V-neck, a backless back and layers of frothy white lace and super-puffy sleeves.

My daughter has already married. She doesn’t want it. She quipped “It’s not as if it’s going to bring good luck to anyone!” Ouch!

I could donate it to a charity but I fear it would end up as a fancy dress costume for a 80’s themed cruise or part of a zombie apocalypse parade.

The catch is not so much to do with my failed marriage but more with my Mum’s effort to make it. That and the five bridesmaids’ dresses.

That dress was a labour of my mother’s love. She was a seamstress and wedding dresses were her thing.  We spent many hours designing it. We made visits to bridal stores where I tried on dresses and Mum secretly took notes and made sketches in the dressing room to copy the pattern. She had to make so many alterations because I wanted the front plunging and for it to have no back. Short of using sticky tape to keep it on, this was a major feat in engineering. On top of that, I kept on losing weight – as brides tend to do even though I was already quite thin.

But she did it. My dad cried as he walked past the room as Mum was tying the big wide sash around my tiny waist.

My wedding day was wet. The rain pelted down, the dress got dirty at the hem. I have never tried it on again after that day. Not even for an anniversary. These days I’m 12 kilos heavier than then and a very different shape.

It’s just gotta go….but I can’t make that step. It just needs to vanish without a trace.

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Small group tours

These days I do much of my travel “solo”.  I plan my own itinerary and book my own accommodation and activities.

Whilst I enjoy solo travel, small group tours, that is those with less than 16 people, are also a good vacation option.  I have been on four small group tours, three with Intrepid Travel (Italy (2007), Thailand (2012) and Vietnam (2015)) and one with Peregrine Adventures (Myanmar (2006)).  I have booked a small group walking tour with About Argyll Walking Tours for my upcoming (2019) trip to Scotland.

Intrepid and Peregrine are run by the same parent company and while I have nothing to compare them with (yet) I recommend them both as tour operators. (BTW this post is NOT sponsored by any of the tour companies mentioned.)

Small group tours are not for everyone, but in my opinion, they offer a good balance and as you can see from my pros and cons table, the pros outweigh the cons.

Pros and cons of small group tours

Pros Cons
  • You don’t have to organise anything except getting there.
  • The tour company sorts everything out in regards to local travel and activities.
  • You get to visit the highlights of a particular area efficiently
  • The accommodation has been well researched and is good quality
  • The tour guide has great local knowledge and knows the best restaurants, bars and attractions.
  • Smaller groups means access to more places that you could not visit with a big coachload of people.
  • The tour often includes some sort of social payback to the area you visit such as a visit to an orphanage, school, social enterprise or charity.
  • It’s a safer way to travel in places which may be otherwise a bit risky. This may be especially so for women
  • You meet new and interesting people but you are not overwhelmed by 30 – 40 people on a larger tour.
  • You don’t have to organise anything! As I said in a previous post I LOVE the planning!
  • You mostly stick to the tried and true pathways visiting the same tourists spots everyone else does.
  • You can’t make detours or stay longer in a place that you find interesting.
  • You have to spend a lot of time with the “new and interesting” people you meet and not all of them may be people you want to spend time with.
  • They are probably more expensive than sorting things out by yourself or going on a bigger group tour although it’s likely they get some sort of discounts for repeat bookings.

I think it’s the “new and interesting”  people that puts most people off small group tours. If you are travelling alone and you don’t pay the single supplement, you end up sharing with someone you don’t know. Luckily, this has only happened to me once as most people travel with a friend and I have been the odd one out on all but one of the tours, so I get to listen to my own snoring and not someone else’s! 🙂

I suggest that you make careful choices about the tours you book and the companies you travel with, so that you end up with the “right” sort of people.  The price will dictate the sorts of people you share your time with so don’t expect the jet-set on a budget tour.

Also make sure you pay attention to the ratings the tour company makes in relation to physical activity and the theme of the tour (family, active, foodie etc, Peregrine’s themes are here) . In my albeit limited experience, high levels of physical activity and the active themes puts me with “my tribe” more closely than those with lower levels. It will be different for you.

Burma with Peregrine Adventures

It’s hard to believe my first small group tour experience to  Burma (Myanmar) was more than a decade ago. Back in 2006, the country was only just starting to embrace tourism and things did not go smoothly, even for the tour operators.

A scheduled overnight train trip from Rangoon (Yangon) to Mandalay had to be substituted at the last minute by an internal flight because of some undisclosed problem.

The tour leader was on the phone for hours trying to sort things out. It would have been difficult to manage this as an independent traveller. He also warned us about where we could and couldn’t take photos. His entreaties not to take photos of certain buildings seemed very genuine.

 

Intrepid Travel Walking Tour – Amalfi Coast

I wrote about the interesting dynamic that developed on my trip to Italy in my post about “Footpath to the Gods”. In this case, an international group of eight – comprising three husband-wife couples  from Scotland, America and New Zealand and a single Aussie female and myself, joined up for a walking tour of the Amalfi Coast. Although the trip was rated for very high levels of physical activity, the two Americans were morbidly obese and not regular exercisers. They struggled with the walking  and this caused issues. They clearly did not heed the advice about the activity level. While most of trip was harmonious, tempers flared on the last night, almost resulting in a fist fight.

Tribal Thailand – Intrepid Travel

The Tribal Thailand tour included a 3 day trek through the jungle near Chiang Mai. Slashing vines, clambering over fallen trees and hearing the lonely calls of gibbons made it a truly enjoyable experience. The combination of heat, humidity, the weight of our packs and biting insects made it a physically challenging  experience. Sleeping on wooden floors and eating with local families in their simple kitchens made it a humbling experience. Despite the fact that, on reflection, I am pretty sure we walked around in circles not far from a main road for the three days, I would heartily recommend it! I was the second oldest on the tour (but not the least fit I am pleased to say). I still keep in touch with two younger women from this group via Facebook. We even had a reprise trip the year after, where 6 of the 7 of us did a hiking trip along the Great Ocean Road in Victoria, Australia.

Vietnam – North to South with Intrepid Travel

The trip to Vietnam had six people – two couples and a single, elderly man. It was rated with low levels of physical activity and the people were much older than the Thailand tour. On this trip I was the second youngest and at 52 that’s saying something! It was still fun and I spent most of my time with Debra and Phil from Wales. On this tour, the “interesting person” was a barrister from the UK travelling with his lovely wife. Even though he was probably the wealthiest amongst us, he owed us all money by the end of the trip because he didn’t ever seem to have “the right change” when he needed to pay his share of the taxi/hotel/restaurant bill. It was funny at first but became a bit of a sore point by the end of the 12 day tour. Debra and Phil, by the way, run a pub in Wales. It looks pretty good and one day I’ll visit them!

All these these small group tours have given me great memories and photo books full of images. Overall, they have been very positive. Even the negatives are positive, in that they give you some great dinner party stories.

My advice is to keep an open heart and open mind, know that it’s only for a short period and be friendly and easy going. Don’t sweat the small stuff and if worse comes to worse, treat it as an interesting social experiment. That way  you can sit back and learn about the world both from the country you visit and the people you share the bus with.