Friday, November 13, 2009

Through Asia to America Tour

Saturday 20 November, 1999

Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia

We arrived in at about 11:30 p.m. Australian time last night. The flight from Melbourne to Malaysia was smooth, but did get a little uncomfortable towards the end. Though I did get and walk around, it got hard to sit for seven and a half-hours.

No sooner had I got to the airport and checked my luggage in, I had to go to the departure lounge to wait for my flight. There wasn't much time to say goodbye to Mum, Narelle, Ross, Uncle Graham and Auntie Joan who had all come to see me off.

As I sat in the departure lounge, I started to chat with a guy from Oregon in the United States. He had spent the past twelve months studying with Youth with a Mission.

We talked, and had a good laugh about the way that Americans and Australians perceive each other. He found it amusing that some Australians think Americans always have a lot to say for themselves, and aren’t afraid to express their opinions.

Smiling, I explained to him that these ideas come from our exposure to talk shows like Oprah Winfrey and Ricki Lake. He laughed, and mentioned the Jerry Springer program, where the guests often end up having fistfights with each other. He pointed out that not all Americans are so up front about their personal lives, and the gritty details that go with them.

I mentioned that whenever celebrities from the US visit Australia, reporters ask what they think of Australia, and they always answer, "Oh, this is such a beautiful country. The people are so friendly."

Again, he laughed, but said that he had found Australians to be very friendly.

He asked what else I knew about life in America. I explained that I knew America had a problem with violent crime, since handguns are so freely available there. On the other hand, I said that when I got to the US, I did not expect that it would be as dangerous as it is made out o be on the news. He nodded, and explained that while some places are dangerous, Oregon, where he lived, was a safe place.

During the flight from Melbourne to Kuala Lumpur, the plane flew near Ayers Rock (Uluru), but I couldn't see the rock from my seat. I amused myself playing some Super Nintendo games on the in flight entertainment system. I was out of practice playing Zelda 3 and Super Mario Brothers.

I watched some films. First was Notting Hill, starring Hugh Grant, Julia Roberts and another actress who I recognized from The Vicar of Dibley. The other I watched was Wild Wild West, with Kevin Kline and Will Smith.

I felt very tired after such a long flight. I was amazed at just how modern Kuala Lumpur International Airport is. A lot of money was spent modernizing the airport when Malaysia hosted the Commonwealth Games.

After collecting our luggage, we rode on a monorail train to catch our connecting flight to Penang. This flight lasted only forty minutes.

By the time we arrived in Penang, it was about 1:30 a.m. Australian time. The time change must have done something to my body clock, because I was not as tired as I thought I would be.

I met Bill Foster, our tour leader, in the foyer of our hotel. He's originally from Michigan, but lives in Adelaide. He founded Club Solo, a holiday club for Christian singles, with his wife, Daphne. He seemed like a friendly man.

Today was spent exploring Penang. It seems like a nice place. The climate is tropical, since Penang is so close to the equator, Today was slightly humid, with a cool breeze.

Bill made me feel welcome, so although I don't know anyone in the tour group yet, I feel as if I have settled well into it. The others in the tour group are from Brisbane and Adelaide, apart from the four Victorians, including myself.

On first impressions, Penang has a blend of old and new. We passed many small houses on the way from the airport to the hotel. These were constructed close together, and seemed to be in poorer areas of town. There are also many high rise apartments and hotels, and more are being constructed.

Seeing this contrast made me think. The equivalent of the standard Australian brick veneer house on a quarter acre block may be out of reach for many people in t his part of the world. Yet the locals we have met so far have been so warm and hospitable.

The crime rate in Malaysia is also low, but I don't know whether this is due to the strict laws here, or that people have more respect for each other. It is an interesting question to ponder.

Although the high living standards have surprised me, I did see some poverty. Some of the homes we drove past were in slum areas. I walked past some beggars. These seemed to be blind people, and amputees on crutches.

From here, our exploration of Penang took us near a beach. Children there were flying kites, which I have never seen many Australian children do.

We went to the Penang Butterfly Farm, then visited several Buddhist Temples. One was the Kek Lok Si Pagoda, which is the largest building of its kind in Southeast Asia. The Kek Lok Si Pagoda was in the hills overlooking the city, and the water. From there, I could see many hills, and forests.

We drove through many side street markets, full of stalls selling many different things. We visited a tin/ pewter workshop, and a batik factory. It was interesting to see how these items are made.

For lunch, we had chicken rice, which is a popular dish in Malaysia.

Seeing how densely populated Penang is, did make me appreciate Australia, but I can't really complain about our accommodation. Our hotel, The Evergreen Laurel, is very luxurious.

Sunday 21 November, 1999

Langkawi, Malaysia

Last night, we visited the Pinang Cultural Centre. This was a great night's entertainment. We arrived there at about six o' clock. As we arrived, one of the staff taught us to say 'Oha', a Buginese word for saying hello and goodbye to people. The Bugis are a people group native to Malaysia.

To begin with, we were taken around to look at various displays around the Centre. These consisted of Batik prints and hand crafts such as pipe making.

We went inside a traditional Malaysian Long House. Long Houses are timber homes, constructed on stilts. The guides told us that Long Houses could have as many as 200 rooms. They can accommodate two families.

Married couples will live in them. As their children grow up and marry, they will remain within the home. The houses are decorated with woodcarvings and straw mats on the floors.

One of the things we were shown was a blow dart demonstration. The man who showed us this was a good shot, so he obviously had a lot of practice. He inserted a dart in a long bamboo pipe, held it up to aim at his target, a tin pot, then blew.

We heard the ping as the dart hit its target.

Some of the others had a try. David Beaton, one of the others in our tour group, had several attempts. He either missed his targets, or the darts did not go far enough. We laughed with David, not at him.

An American man had more success, and managed to hit one of the wooden masks on the back wall. I guess shooting a blow dart successfully comes down to lungpower. Anyway, I thought holding up the pipe looked difficult enough.

For our dinner, we were served a dish consisting of rice with vegetables and fish, seasoned and topped with a cheese sauce. With this, I had a drink of guava juice. What I ate of this meal was delicious.

The performance tonight began with a band made up of men dressed in traditional costumes. They played drums and various stringed instruments.

The dancers themselves were very beautiful. The costumes they wore were colourful, and decorated with elaborate batik designs.

Malaysian dancing, from what I saw of it, uses arm and hand movements, and twirling while standing on the spot.

The routines done by the male dancers were more physical. They performed acrobatics, such as balancing on the end of a think bamboo pole, with a padded end around the abdominal area. It certainly looked hard, and must take a lot of training and discipline to master.

My favourite part of the night was a dance involving eight men, sitting four each side, who held long bamboo sticks that they clapped together in time with the music. The dancers had to jump and turn to avoid getting their feet caught between the sticks. Some of our group, including Bill Foster, had a try of this dance. It was funny to watch. You certainly had to be quick on your feet.

The night finished with a dance to the Village People hit, YMCA. I had no idea that this song had been a hit in Southeast Asia. Still, it was funny, if just for the comedy value and the memories it brought back of dancing to this song at school camps back in the eighties. The actions were exactly the same.

At the end of the night, the cast smiled and thanked us for coming. As we left, I wrote a note in the visitor's book," Thanks for giving me an appreciation of your beautiful culture. I had a great night."

We are now on the island of Langkawi, about 30 minutes flight from Penang. Our accommodation, the Langkawi Holiday Villa, is situated right near the ocean. Our room is on the second floor, and overlooks the pool.

The exchange rate of the Australian dollar against the Malaysian ringgit is very favourable. Accommodation of this standard would be quite expensive in Australia.

Other than this, the scenery here is very nice. Lots of little islands can be seen out in the ocean.

I have certainly gained an appreciation of Malay culture over the past few days. I'm sure that when I get home, my ideas about Malaysia will be much different. Everywhere we have been, the Malaysian people have been so friendly, and welcoming to us.

Langkawi seems much like Penang. I noticed night markets and stalls operating in the streets that we drove through, but the traffic was not too bad.

There were many scooters and motorcycles here. The riders, wearing no helmets or protective clothing, made me nervous by weaving in and out between cars. It seems a lot of young people here ride scooters, motorcycles, or bicycles. Perhaps they are an inexpensive transport option instead of a used car.

Tonight we had our tea at a small restaurant across the road from our hotel. All the doors and windows were open, probably because of the humidity in this part of the world.

Monday 22 November, 1999

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

I am writing this entry from a hotel room in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur.

Today was an easy day, not too strenuous.

At 10.00 this morning, we went on an island hopping tour. We set out from the beach next to our hotel in motorized canoes, driven by some local guides. We explored several islands off the Langkawi coast.

First, we were taken to an island called Pulau Dayang Bunting. This island has a geothermal freshwater lake called the Lake of the Pregnant Maiden. Legend has it that any woman who swims in this lake will become pregnant!

It took me about fifteen minutes to hike up the hill to get to the lake, but this was worth it because the views at the top were very nice. Some of the others in our group went for a swim. I paddled my feet. The water temperature felt as warm as a swimming pool.

During the walk up to the lake, we saw a group of wild monkeys. They seemed curious at the sight of us.

At the next island, there was a small beach. Before we returned to our hotel, we stopped here for a lunch of rice with chicken and anchovies. When we got back, we showered and rested before our flight to Kuala Lumpur.

I went to the hotel restaurant with one of the others in our group, Greg Forbes, who is from Lara, a town near Geelong. We sat and chatted over drinks of fruit juice. Greg was easy to have a conversation with. This is good, because I was unsure how I would fit in travelling with a bunch of people older than I am.

Here we are in Kuala Lumpur or KL for short. KL is a busy, modern city. I could see many skyscrapers in the distance on the bus ride from the airport into the city.

Among the passengers, there were several nationalities, not just Australians. From the accents, I guessed that there were Europeans, Chinese and Japanese people.

Tomorrow will be our last day in Malaysia before we fly out to the United States. I hope that we will have the chance to see the Hard Rock Café and the Petronas Tower before we leave.

Tuesday 23 November, 1999

San Francisco, California

As I write this, I am sitting in a hotel room in San Francisco, California. We have had a very long day, and though I am tired, I wanted to write this entry before going to bed.

During the night in KL, I heard some singing across the city. Mosques use PA systems to cal Muslims to their scheduled prayer times. This was done in Penang and Langkawi, too.

This morning we had some time for looking around Kuala Lumpur before heading to the airport. I went with Bill Foster to see the tallest building in the world; the Petronas Towers. This was impressive. We stood at street level and looked up at the building.

From here, our wandering took us to a local shopping centre. On holidays, you like to do things that you would not normally do at home, but going to the shops was interesting.

The inside was much like any other shopping centre that I had visited. There was the usual department and clothing stores, shops selling toys, and a small food court.

A few days ago, I did not expect to see that Malaysia was so modern, and to a certain extent, so westernized. This surprised Bill a lot, too, as I found as I discussed this with him over morning tea.

Last night during the ride from the airport, I heard some Malaysian radio, featuring 'Love songs and dedications'. Apart from being in English, the presentation sounded identical to similar radio shows in Australia.

I chatted to another member of our group, Alison Gough, from Port Macquarie in New South Wales. We talked about our impressions of Malaysia.

Alison has had an interesting life. Years ago, she had worked as a nurse in a mission in Papua New Guinea. Alison said that the landscape in Malaysia is similar.

When I told Alison where I am from, she mentioned that she had worked in the Judge Book Village nursing home in Eltham. I described how Eltham would have changed compared to how she remembered it.

Back at the hotel, I took a picture of the Kuala Lumpur Hard Rock Café, as it was on the ground floor of our hotel.

The flight from Malaysia to the US was seventeen hours long. The plane went from Kuala Lumpur to a short stopover in Taipei in Taiwan, off the coast of China. From here, the flight went to Los Angeles for a connecting flight to San Francisco.

During the flight, the attendants came and served us lots of drinks and snacks between meals. The snacks included pretzels and peanuts. Apparently, the body loses a lot of salt during long flights, causing dehydration. The meals were tasty, despite what is said about airline food. After the main meal, the attendants came and gave us ice creams.

We were given hot hand towels to wash our faces with.

I had to visit the toilet constantly. Maybe the exotic foods I had been eating during the past few days had been affecting my digestion.

During the rest of the flight, I napped, watched some films, and played some video games. I kept track of the plane on my screen. This had graphics showing our position, the distance we had travelled, and how far we had to go.

As we approached Los Angeles, I could make out the city under a thin, brown layer of smog. I thought to myself, "Gee, what a hole." I was glad that LA wasn't a part of our tour. I did not want to spend days coughing and wheezing because of the pollution.

When we landed at the LA airport, we had to clear immigration. The airport was extremely busy. This was because many people were travelling around to get home in time for Thanksgiving Day. Many people travel home to spend this day with their relatives. Still, the staff at immigration and around the airport was helpful to novice international travellers like me.

It was dark by the time we got to San Francisco, so it was hard to see much of the city from the air. Looking from my window, I recognized the illuminated structure of the Golden Gate Bridge, and saw the waterfront area. The city looked a lot larger than what I expected.

As this point, I feel I have to mention some of the unexpected parts of this trip. I knew that when I was coming to San Francisco, that the city is very cosmopolitan, and is know for its homosexual community.

When we got to our hotel, the van pulled up outside and we all unloaded our luggage. As we did this, two men walked up the street. One of them was wearing a wedding dress. He companion shouted out to us and said, "How do you like my bride?"

Maybe both of them had been drinking too much, I thought. This neither surprised, nor shocked me. Reality hit me, and I realised that these men were most likely a couple.

Perhaps the three years that I had spent at university had made me blasé about things like this. Still, I hoped that we would have no more experiences like this in San Francisco.

Tomorrow we will be going on a tour around the city, and will visit Alcatraz, where the famous prison is located.

Wednesday 24 November, 1999

San Francisco, California

San Francisco is a city that impressed me with its diversity. The coach tour we took this morning showed us around many different places.

There were many Edwardian and Victorian style homes. These had been used in location shots for many different films and television shows, like Full House and Mrs. Doubtfire.

We crossed the Golden Gate Bridge, and visited Twin Peaks, an area in the hills where it is possible to view the entire city.

At the Golden Gate Park, some of us visited the Japanese tea garden there. I was happy just to wander around. I was surprised to see that many eucalyptus trees had been planted around Golden Gate Park. This made me start to feel homesick.

I think that some people who had come for the California Gold Rush, had been in the Victorian Gold Fields, and had brought saplings with them when coming to California.

The coach driver mentioned that these trees had been planted because they don't need much water.

The driver pointed out Lombard Street, famous for being the most crooked street in the world. The street zigzags up the hill that it is on.

At the end of the tour, we were dropped off at a street down on the waterfront; The Embarcadero. Here is Fisherman's Wharf, a tourist precinct with shops, cafes, restaurants and amusements including the famous Pier 39.

Because of the trolley cars going past, it reminded me of the St. Kilda Esplanade in Melbourne. This place seemed a lot more upmarket.

For lunch, I ate a hot dog, and had a drink of root beer (a soft drink, which is what Australians know as sarsparilla).

We then caught the ferry across the bay to the infamous Alcatraz prison. There was a walk up a steep hill before we arrived at the prison complex. Inside, we watched a short film about the history of Alcatraz.

Next, was a self-guided audio tour. We were given headsets, which had a pre-recorded audio commentary. This told the history of the prison, and accounts of life inside the prison as told by former inmates.

Hearing these stories from the prisoners just made the tour seem more real. One of the anecdotes I heard told of how inmates were always given hot water for their showers. This was so that they would never become acclimatized to cold water, and attempt to escape by swimming across the bay.

It sounded like Alcatraz was a harsh place, even for a jail.

The prison cells reminded me of the film, The Shawshank Redemption. Stepping inside one of the solitary confinement cells for a few minutes gave me a feel for what it must have been for the inmates. Perhaps even for the most hardened criminal types, like Al Capone, who was a prisoner here, Alcatraz could have been a very dehumanizing place.

I haven't had the chance to talk to any locals yet, but from what I have seen today, Americans don't seem that much different from Australians. At least in this city, people seem friendly, helpful and easygoing. Perhaps my preconceptions about Americans being loud, extroverted and obnoxious have been wrong, but this is what happens when you get most of your impressions of what Americans are like from negative stories told by other people who have been to the US.

Hopefully, I will get to learn more about American culture in the next few weeks.

Tomorrow, we visit the Yosemite National Park, which I expect will be very different from National Parks I have been to at home. We are leaving at 6:30 in the morning, so I had better get an early night.

Thursday 25 November, 1999

San Francisco, California

Today is American Thanksgiving Day. There was not much traffic on the roads, so we had a good run out to the Yosemite (say Yo-sem-it-ee) National Park.

The coach driver kept us amused during the four hour long drive with lots of stories about the places that we drove through. Amongst other things, he informed us that though San Francisco had a major earthquake back in 1989, the city experiences many small tremors every day.

This made me feel nervous, but the driver assured us that we had nothing to worry about. Buildings around the city have been 'retrofitted' to prevent them falling down should a major earthquake strike.

We stopped for breakfast at a Burger King store. I had some waffles with golden syrup, and a drink of orange juice.

It was tiring to have to get up so early, but seeing Yosemite made the inconvenience worth it.

We saw the Hetchy Hetchy Reservoir. The most impressive parts of the park were the valleys, mountains and rock formations. The Yosemite Valley was amazing to look at. I loved the way that the sunlight shone upon it. A mountain called El Capitan was just as magnificent.

Maybe it was because I was feeling over tired, but I found the sight of these things quite overwhelming. As I stood there, admiring the scenery, I just thought of God, and felt emotional. I'm glad I took a few photos of these places.

We all had lunch at the park cafeteria. Because of Thanksgiving Day, turkey sandwiches with cranberry sauce were being served.

On the way back out of the park, it was starting to get cold and dark. Some snow had even fallen, and the coach drivers stopped so we could get out and look at it. This was only the second time I had seen snow, so it was exciting for me.

I didn't get to see any wild animals such as coyotes and mountain lions, but the magnificence of Yosemite National Park more than made up for that. I will certainly remember just how beautiful it was, and the sense of awe I felt whilst I was there.

Tomorrow we fly out to Florida.

Sunday 27 November, 1999

Orlando, Florida

This entry is a day late, as most of yesterday was spent flying from California on the West Coast to Florida on the East Coast.

Yesterday, we had some time for some last minute sightseeing before leaving. Some of us took the opportunity to take a ride on one of San Francisco's famous trolley cars. Trolley cars are like the old cable trams that ran on the streets of Melbourne before they were replaced by electric ones.

I have heard that the City of Melbourne had donated some of their old cable trams to San Francisco, but I did not see any of them this morning.

The ride was slower and jerkier than trams I am used to. Cables beneath the road pull along the trolley cars. Some people even rode by hanging onto the outside of the trolley car, but I suppose that this was safe.

The flight to Florida was smooth. We were given another meal, and more drinks during the journey. I read the latest issue of Time, then tried to catch up on some sleep. Like the attendants on Tuesday, the attendants on United Airlines did not seem as friendly as on Malaysia Airlines.

Because of the time difference between the West and East coasts, it was late at night when we arrived in Florida. After picking up our luggage, waiting for Bill to arrange our rental cars, then driving from the airport to our accommodation and having tea, I did not get to bed until 3 a.m.

It has taken me this entire first week to unwind, and now I feel as if I can relax. The cars we have rented are Chrysler convertibles. On a warm night, it was fun to drive down the freeway with the top down for a while.

The freeway had tollgates, where tolls are paid to collectors sitting in booths as you pass through each section.

Tea was at a Waffle House, which was one of the only places still open by the time we had arrived in Orlando. On the way back, we stopped at a supermarket. We bought some breakfast food for us to share during the week we will be here.

Today was a day to do as we pleased. I slept in until ten o' clock.

After breakfast, some of us went to the local Wal-Mart to do some shopping. I was hoping to buy some souvenirs, but did not see anything there that I liked.

I bought some sunscreen, and some groceries. It was hard to find the same types of food that I would buy at home. Fresh food seemed expensive. It cost me $1.50 US for three Granny Smith apples, but they were not as good quality as those I eat at home.

The weather in Florida today was humid. The climate is similar to Queensland, so it was good for T-shirts and shorts.

We left the shops late in the afternoon to head back to our accommodation.

Bill's wife, Daphne, had arrived today. She is joining us for a while during our trip.

Tonight, we all went out to tea at Sizzler. Sizzler is still operating in the US although they closed in Australia a few years ago. The menu was just as I remembered it. I ordered the salad bar.

There are a few migrants in Florida, many of them being former refugees from Cuba. The waitress who served us tonight was Cuban. She was friendly, laughing at Bill Day and David Beaton's jokes, and treated us all well.

Tomorrow, we are visiting Disney World. I have been told that the American theme parks make the Australian ones look tame in comparison, so it will be interesting to see if this is true.

Sunday 28 November, 1999

Orlando, Florida

The day began with a rush. We all hurriedly got ready to be out of the door by 8:45 for the short drive to the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World. I had been thinking that the Magic Kingdom would just be a place for kids, but what I saw and experienced today certainly exceeded my expectations.

There were a lot of attractions to choose from, and whoever it was who said that they certainly don't do things by halves at American tourist attractions was not wrong.

When we arrived, paid and went through the entrance, the attendant asked me from where I was visiting? I told her I was from Melbourne, Australia. She replied, "Oh, we have a Melbourne here in Florida, too." She seemed friendly.

The first ride I went on was Space Mountain at Tomorrow Land. This is a futuristic roller coaster, with computer graphics, flashing lights and thrilling science fiction style sound effects.

I confess that I screamed a few times during the ride. During some sections, the lights turned off so the track in front could not be seen. When the coaster suddenly went down a slope, there was no way of telling how far down we had to go.

The other ride in Tomorrow Land was Buzz Lightyear's Space Spin, based on the character from Toy Story. This was like a live action arcade game where you sat in a rotating cockpit, shooting targets with a red laser pointer to score points as the ride travelled along the track.

In Adventureland, was the Pirates of the Caribbean ride featuring lots of animatronic figures, along with pyrotechnics and special effects that simulated things like cannon balls being fired and landing near the boat that we were sitting in.

At Liberty Square, I rode on a riverboat called the Liberty Bell, and visited the Hall of Presidents. This gave me a good history lesson. I did find the patriotism and constant mentions of 'the American dream' a little overbearing. I guess Australians can't really appreciate the sacrifices that were made to create the American nation.

After this, I visited a shop called The Yankee Trader, and bought Mum an embroidered, checked Mickey Mouse tea towel. She can add this to her collection when I give it to her on Christmas Day.

All the streets around the Magic Kingdom were decorated for Christmas. Christmas songs were being played over the PA system. I laughed to myself when I heard songs like Winter Wonderland, because songs about snow seemed out of place in sunny Florida. The decorations looked great, though.

I could not help but notice the looks of excitement on the faces of the children I saw around the park today. We talked about this at the end of the day. Bill Day and Claire Briers said that the kids they saw looked so happy. They said, "This is what this place (Disney World) is all about."

Claire did laugh when she talked about the rides she had been on. There was a ride featuring a boat that went through a series of rooms with cute, animatronic puppets. They were singing the song, It's a Small World, After All.

She said that the song, heard over and over, started to drive her mad. The other adults found it just as irritating, though I'm sure that small kids would have enjoyed this ride a lot.

I love the Disney film, The Lion King, so my favourite thing at the Magic Kingdom apart from Space Mountain was a live show called The Legend of the Lion King, in the Fantasyland area of the park. This used a combination of footage from the film, animatronics, costume characters and puppets to retell the story of The Lion King.

This show was very well done. I found that it drew the same emotions from me that the film does every time I watch it. I chatted about this with Bill Foster tonight, and he was just as impressed.

I had a great day. Disney World is one of the legs of this trip that I had been most looking forward to. Judging by the standard of what I saw today, EPCOT Centre and Disney/MGM Studios should be just as impressive.

Tonight I made a phone call to Canada, and spoke to my cousin, Darren, who has been working in Toronto for the past two years. Janice, Darren's Canadian fiancée, answered the phone. She was surprised to hear from me, but she sounded like a friendly person. It was good just to speak to Darren again. We talked about the day I had at Disney World. I hope to meet up with Darren this weekend when we go to Buffalo, New York, to see Niagara Falls.

Monday 28 November, 1999

Orlando, Florida

Today was spent at the EPCOT, or Environmental Prototype, Community of Tomorrow Centre at Walt Disney World.

Thinking back on the day, EPCOT seemed a lot like those school excursions I used to go on, except I had no essays to write afterwards. The emphasis in the EPCOT Centre seems to be education combined with entertainment. This is not to sound negative, because I still had a great day there.

The first port of call was the Spaceship Earth, inside the famous sphere that is shown in all the tourist brochures. Spaceship Earth explored the history of communications.

As I don't believe in the theory of evolution, I found a lot of this hard to swallow. The presentation showed the journey from cave paintings done supposedly done by prehistoric 'ape men', to the first forms of writing and the development of spoken languages.

The information about the history of printing, to telecommunications and the history of the Internet was interesting, though.

From here, I looked at Innoventions, an exhibition showing how science and technology are improving our lives. Private companies sponsor a lot of the exhibitions here at EPCOT, but thankfully, the exhibitions aren't just disguised advertising for their products.

There was a stand promoting Sega's new Dreamcast video game system. I tried out the new Sonic the Hedgehog game.

The Wonders of Life exhibit, included an entertaining puppet show combined with a video film exploring how the emotional and logic centres of the human brain function. Some of this did make me feel a little squeamish, as medical terms were mentioned.

I wanted to go on the Test Track ride, which had futuristic racecars driven around a track, but the waiting times were too long. It would have been fun to go on.

Honey, I Shrunk the Audience, based on the popular movies, had good 3-D effects. Some were so convincing, I found myself flinching in my seat. The effects included a giant 3-D snake and dog. When the dog sneezed, a little water nozzle hidden in the back of the seat in front of me sprayed me in the face.

I spent the rest of the afternoon wandering around the World Showcase. This has pavilions representing different countries from around the world. There are cultural displays and items from these countries for sale. Natives from each country also staff the pavilions.

The Canadian Pavilion had a film shown on a 360-degree screen in a round room. The audience sits in the centre, Each screen had a different section of scenery or action projected upon it, creating the illusion that the viewer is right in the middle. This ranged from a procession of a piper band, or a helicopter flying over a river and the Rocky Mountains.

Canada certainly has some spectacular landscapes and countryside. I could see why my cousin Darren likes it so much there.

I didn't really have time for much else, so I just wandered quickly from one section of the World Showcase to the next. I was impressed by how well the architecture of each country had been reproduced. I walked down a recreated English street. I saw a recreated Aztec Pyramid, and replicas of buildings associated with China and Japan. There was a cultural display in the Japanese pavilion featuring some drummers.

On the way back to where we had to meet, the Tapestry of Nations street parade began.

The costumes for this were very well done. The parade was made up of marchers on stilts, with marionette puppets attached to them. The marchers mimed to a world music song that was played over the PA system. Following them were floats, with large, vertical rotating disks covered in drums. The rhythm made by the pounding of these drums was interesting to listen to.

That was my day at the EPCOT Centre. Tomorrow we visit the Cape Canaveral Space Centre. I keenly followed the Space Program when I was a kid, so it will be interesting to see some of its workings.

Tuesday 30 November, 1999

Orlando, Florida

Back when I was in primary school, I had a keen interest in the US Space Program. The whole subject fascinated me. The idea of people journeying into space seemed fantastic. Mum and Dad would call me into the kitchen to watch the news whenever there was a story about a Space Shuttle mission.

At the Cape Canaveral Space Centre, we saw many displays, and the pieces of equipment that have been used in the various space missions that have been carried out since space exploration began.

The centre is located on reclaimed swampland. Although the centre operates all the time, there are many wild animals around. I saw the head of an alligator peering at the traffic from water at the side of the road, and an eagle flying in the sky during the ride over.

The tour of the complex had many different things to see. From a distance, we saw the launch bay where the next Space Shuttle mission is being readied. I managed to get a photo of this, and the large tanks that carry the booster rockets that send the shuttle into orbit. To be frank, the size of these amazed me.

In a hangar, we saw the Saturn V rocket, used in the Apollo missions to the moon. The rocket is the largest man made object ever constructed. It staggered me to think of just how many people it must have taken to assemble the rocket.

We watched two IMAX films. One of them was in 3-D. Sure, I had seen enough 3-D films during the previous two days at Disney World, but the films were well done.

During our lunch at the cafeteria, Daphne bought some freeze-dried space ice cream for us to try. This is the same as what astronauts eat in space. It comes in pellets. Once the ice cream started to melt in my mouth, I could taste the vanilla flavour.

Today, it was great to learn about how technology from the space program has been used to improve our lives, from computers to advances in medicine. This made me appreciate the benefits that our exploration of space has had.

Wednesday 1 December, 1999

Orlando, Florida

Today was a quiet day spent at the resort.

Apart from writing this diary and doing my Bible reading, I spent most of the day watching television. There were many cable channels to choose from, so finding something worth watching was a little difficult.

There were home shopping programs, shows featuring television evangelists like Benny Hinn, talk shows and cartoons. There is even the Weather Channel that broadcasts non-stop weather forecasts. In the end, I watched an episode of the eighties action series, Knight Rider, which starred David Hasselhoff.

I didn't realize just how cheesy this show was until later in the day when I watched the new Batman animated series, Batman of the Future. Even for a cartoon, this had a much better script and plot.

The day was not all relaxation. I wrote a few postcards that I mailed home, and did some laundry. I went and had my tea at the resort's café.

In all, today was uneventful.

Tomorrow we will all visit the Disney/MGM Studios, which should be exciting. I hope to go on the Star Tours ride.

Thursday 2 December, 1999

Orlando, Florida

The day I spent at the Disney/MGM Studios gave me the chance to have fun revisiting some of the films and characters that I grew up with.

Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark are among my favourite films. I used to watch The Wonderful World of Disney every Sunday night as a kid, so I have some affection for Mickey Mouse and the other Disney characters.

I enjoyed the Disney/MGM Studios a lot. EPCOT Centre was great, too, though at times I felt as if I was on a school excursion.

We arrived at 9:15, and as soon as we passed through the front gates, I headed straight to the Star Tours ride.

This ride was similar to the Batman Adventure ride at Movie World on the Gold Coast. We sat in seats whilst battles with space ships from the Star Wars films were projected onto the screen in front of us. The seats and the platform beneath the seats rocked and moved in time with the action.

Maybe I would have found the ride more thrilling if I had not been on something similar before. Still, I did feel as if I was in the middle of a space battle.

After this, I saw a 3-D film starring the Muppets, called Muppet Vision 3-D. This starred characters such as Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear and Rizzo the Rat. Again, the 3-D effects were well done.

This time, I did not flinch or duck whenever objects appeared to be flying at me. The film was funny, too. It had lots of jokes pitched at adults, just like the best episodes of The Muppet Show.

The Indiana Jones Stunt Spectacular recreated sequences from the Indiana Jones films. The first was a recreation of the opening sequence from Raiders of the Lost Ark,, where Indy takes a gold idol from a temple in the jungle, then has to dodge a giant boulder and jump a chasm to escape.

The stunt people demonstrated how fight scenes are done in films. The show concluded with some pyrotechnics, machine guns firing, and lots of explosions all over the set. The show reminded me of what I like about the Indiana Jones films, and why they are so entertaining to watch.

Next, was the studio backlot tour. This showed how movies are put together. We shown things about filming, animation, special effects and sound effects editing.

Our tour then went to a street with the facades of houses used in television shows like The Golden Girls, produced by Touchstone Television, a company owned by Disney.

We then came to Catastrophe Canyon. As the tour tram drove through, the canyon began to flood with water. Luckily, I did not get wet as I was sitting in the opposite side to the water.

I looked at some exhibitions. The American Film Institute Creatures of Distinction showed different fantasy characters. I saw Kermit the Frog from the Muppets, and the Terminator from the Terminator films, Miniature characters used in the stop motion animation effects in The Nightmare before Christmas and Jason and the Argonauts were on display.

Last was The Great Movie Ride, a trolley ride that went around a series of recreated sets, and used a montage of clips from Hollywood's 'Golden Age'. I recognized clips from one of my favourite movies; It's a Wonderful Life, which starred James Stewart.

During the ride, we came to a section that looked like a back alley. Some men dressed as gangsters ran in, and started shooting pistols at each other. The survivor boarded our trolley car, and came to the front, where I was sitting. He spoke to me.

"Don't worry about me", I said, playing along.

"I'm just a tourist!"

I have had a restful week here in Florida, and now I feel ready for the hectic pace of the rest of this trip.

We head to Buffalo, New York tomorrow. This weekend, we have a day trip to Niagara Falls. Darren and his fiancée, Janice, are planning to come down from Toronto to meet with me there. It will be good to see Darren again, and meet Janice for the first time. I sure hope we can find each other at the falls.

We will all have to dress warmly to face the chilly temperatures of the Northern United States. The thermal underwear I bought a few months ago will come in very handy.

Friday 3 December, 1999

Buffalo, New York State

We have been here in Buffalo, in the north of the state of New York, since 3.30pm. I would have liked to spend more time in Florida, but time is limited, and there is a lot more to see in the US.

The flight from Florida to Buffalo took five hours. This included a transfer at Houston, where we changed planes. We flew from Houston to Buffalo in a small, twin propeller plane called a Fokker Friendship. I felt a little nervous getting on, I thought, "I sure hope that this thing is safe".

The ride got bumpy at times, but this was nothing to worry about. The flight was soon over, and we landed in Buffalo.

Some people from the Hamburg Wesleyan Church in Buffalo met and picked us up at the airport. Members of this church have opened their homes for us to stay in over the weekend. The church has a large ministry to single adults.

I am staying with a nice lady named Kathy Bucierka. With me, are Bill Day from Adelaide, David Beaton from Bayswater in Melbourne and Greg Forbes from Lara, near Geelong.

Our entire tour group stayed at Kathy's to have tea and others from Hamburg Wesleyan Church joined us.

During and after our meal, we talked about life in Australia. We explained about the geography of our continent. They were interested to learn that most Australians live in suburbs of cities, where the land is green rather than desert.

To illustrate this, Bill Foster got me to draw a rough, freehand map of Australia. Each of us pencilled in the places we are from.

We explained that most homes are constructed of bricks. The members of Hamburg Wesleyan Church were surprised to hear this, since land in Buffalo is quite expensive.

On the drive from the airport, we saw that none of the backyards in the suburbs of Buffalo had fences. No one bothers with fences in Buffalo, we were told. There were no clotheslines, either. Many Americans keep their washing machines in their basements, and dry their clothes there instead of outside.

As we talked, I found that this people actually knew a lot about Australia. Some of them knew about Australia's history, the economy and political system.

Bill Foster, Greg and David talked about Australian Football. This gave Bill Foster and Bill Day (who are both from Adelaide) a chance to boast about the Adelaide Crows, having won two Grand Finals in 1997 and 1998. Nobody here has ever sat down to watch a game, even though Australian Rules is shown on cable television in Buffalo.

We spent the rest of the night playing board games, which was a good way for us to get to know each other better. It seemed to me that Americans are very similar to Australians. Tonight showed me just how alike we seem to be in attitude and temperament. After some time playing Jenga, and Taboo, we started laughing with each other like people who had known each other for years.

During our game of Taboo, I think half the fun came from the Americans having to listen to understand our Australian accents and lingo. We had to stop the game to explain Australian words. This made some of the Americans laugh even more.

Maybe us all having the bond of being Christians helped, too. It did us good to have a laugh with each other, and everyone we have met so far has been very welcoming. Kathy has really made us feel at home. How much of this could also be due to our 'Aussie charm', in that Americans seem to find Australians so fascinating, I have no idea.

I am excited about tomorrow, as we're visiting one of the Wonders of the Natural World; Niagara Falls. We are crossing over the border into Canada, and with luck, I will be meeting Darren and Janice there. He reassured me tonight that he would find me. It would be a shame to come all this way and miss seeing him. I'll just have to wait and see what happens tomorrow.

Saturday 4 December, 1999

Buffalo, New York State

What a great day today turned out to be. All of us had a sleep in. I guess we had all earned it, given the late nights and early starts we had each day in Florida.

Kathy made us feel right at home. When I came downstairs for breakfast, she just told me to help myself. I wanted something simple. I had a bowl of Raisin Bran cereal, juice, a cup of herbal tea, and toast spread with honey butter (butter blended with honey and cinnamon. I had never tasted this before, so it was a bit of a treat.

The rest of the morning was relaxed. We spent time chatting with Kathy about our lives in Australia.

Later, we all dressed in warm clothes, and set out for the Hamburg Wesleyan Church to meet up with the others who were coming to see Niagara Falls.

On the drive over, I got a good look at West Seneca, the suburb where Kathy lives. Most of the houses are two storeys tall, and covered with weatherboard.

We drove down beside a river, and saw some larger homes, owned by wealthier people. There are a few tall buildings in Buffalo; mainly apartments and office blocks, but Buffalo is primarily an industrial city. Last night, we drove by one of the large steel mills in Buffalo.

We soon arrived at the US/ Canadian border. Us Australians had to hand over our passports to some immigration officials, and completed some documents. This did not take long, and we were soon at Niagara Falls. We headed down to the Visitor's Centre. The air outside was cold, but not as cold as I expected. We were told that in Buffalo, snow normally falls in early December.

After a snack, we headed outside to look around. I noticed that the viewing area was not that large. Right away, I heard someone call out to me, "Scott", and two people walked towards me. It was my cousin, Darren, and Janice, Darren's Canadian fiancée, who I met for the first time today.

Well, to see Darren again after two years was exciting. We were happy to see each other again. We spoke as if it had not been that long at all. Janice too was friendly, and easy to talk to. She said "Hi", and then gave me a hug. I got along very well with her for the entire day.

I went to introduce them both to Bill Foster, and then to Kathy.

I took a few pictures of Niagara Falls, which are very impressive. On the viewing area, you can hear the roar of the water as it cascades over and falls into the river below. You get sprayed in the face.

There is a boat that goes underneath Niagara Falls, The Maid of the Mist, but this wasn't operating today because of the cold weather.

After this, we all headed off to the Niagara Falls Hard Rock Café for tea. I wanted to spend some time with Darren and Janice, so I went with them back to their car.

On the way back, we walked up the hill to an area called Clifton Hill. Here, there are a lot of restaurants, shops selling souvenirs ranging from the tasteful to the tacky, sideshows and amusement arcades

Darren remarked to me that he found it hard to believe that Niagara Falls is the world's honeymoon capital! I agreed. Though Niagara Falls are impressive, Clifton Hill reminded me of Surfer's Paradise.

When we got to the Hard Rock Café, Darren, Janice and I went to the bar for some drinks. I had Cherry Coke, and he had Diet Coke. Darren reminded me of how two years ago, Mum jokingly said to Darren not to meet any girls while he was in Canada, or we might not see him again. It's funny how things worked out.

For our meal, I started with Buffalo Wings, chicken wings seasoned with spices, that Darren insisted that I try. Thankfully, they weren't too spicy. Since I discovered my allergy to MSG, I have been careful not to eat anything too exotic.

After this, I had a chicken burger. Just like the Hard Rock Café at home, the servings here were large, with food piled on the plate.

Darren bought me a Christmas gift to give to the family, a little Christmas pin with the Hard Rock Café logo on it. I bought myself a long sleeve T-shirt.

All of us then went to look at the Festival of Lights, which is an annual Christmas festival put on in Niagara. The park in the centre of town was decorated with lots of Christmas lights. There were winter activities going on inside the park. Inside an atrium, a singing group made up of some local high school students sang some Christmas carols. They sang well, and had good harmony.

Back outside, there were some animals on display. Just to be silly, I fed an alpaca. I had my picture taken with some people dressed as a gingerbread man and snowman.

The park had an outdoor skating rink. Darren had tried ice skating a few times, but confessed to me that he hasn't mastered it yet. Janice has been ice skating since she was four, so she is much better at it

Soon, it was time to say goodbye. I was happy to see Darren after coming all this way. I'm glad I took the trouble to organize something.

I don't know if I'll be able to make it to Darren and Janice's wedding next year, but if I can't, today will have made up for it.

Janice is a nice person, and I hope I can see her again in the future.

On the ride back to Kathy's, we stopped and looked at some houses around suburban Buffalo that had been decorated for Christmas. Most looked great, and the owners had gone into a lot of effort with their decorations. Bill Day and I agreed that our experience of a cold, wintry Christmas had been fun.

Still, Christmas in Australia has its advantages, too. Kathy asked us about what Christmas in summer is like. I told her that Australians decorated their homes, about Carols by Candlelight and that some people head down to the beach on Christmas Day.

Kathy commented that she thought doing these things for Christmas sounded fun.

Before I went to bed, I gave Kathy a thank you present, a tea towel with a picture of a kangaroo, wearing a bushman's hat (the kind with corks hanging from it to keep flies away, and a card with a photo of Flinders Street train station.

Kathy told me that she would love to come to Australia one day, and would definitely visit Melbourne.

Niagara Falls were amazing to look at. I found them incredible. Just like Yosemite National Park, Niagara Falls made me think of God, and I felt awed standing there, experiencing them. I sure hope that the photos I took today turn out.

Sunday 5 December, 1999

Buffalo, New York State

First today, we went to Hamburg Wesleyan Church. I did not know what to expect. I thought that this would be a traditional and old-fashioned service. The band had drums, guitar, a brass section and several singers. They played a lot of contemporary music, but I only knew a few of the songs.

After the service, our group went to one of the Adult Sunday school classes that the church has. This was from Chuck Colson's book, How then should we live?, and was about postmodernism.

Considering how welcome we had all been made to feel, I felt comfortable there joining in the discussion.

The church building is large. There were many rooms used for studies, and a nursery room for small children. I heard that there is even a basketball court, used for outreach to the community. The church youth group has a basketball team.

Like my church at home, Hamburg Wesleyan has a large foyer, and the chapel (called the sanctuary) was just as big.

After church, we went to a luncheon at the home of one of the families from Hamburg Wesleyan Church. The same group who had come with us to Niagara Falls was there, along with some new people who had come along to get the chance to meet us.

They had a lot of things that they wanted to know. We had more of a laugh as we tried to teach the Americans how to pronounce Australian slang words like 'G'day.' It's funny how whenever Americans try to speak with an Australian accent, they end up sounding like cockneys.

We talked about the same things we had on Friday night. One lady asked us about Mark 'Jacko' Jackson, who had become well known in the US for appearing in commercials for Energizer batteries. She laughed when we told her that Jacko had become a spokesperson for Jenny Craig Weight Loss Centres.

I mentioned Australian rhyming slang, such as the nickname for Sydney, 'steak and kidney', which made her laugh even more.

Someone asked about historic buildings in Australia. Bill Foster told them about the National Trust, an organisation that preserves old buildings. I mentioned the area of Sydney called The Rocks, which has buildings the oldest buildings on the mainland, dating back to convict times.

I had a conversation with one man, who is a Geography Teacher. He teaches a unit on Australia in his class. He assured me that Americans knew more about Australia than they used to, though the stereotypes still exist.

Some explained to us that news outside North America doesn't receive much coverage, except on CNN.

A few kids were here today, too. I could tell that they found having us there exciting. Bill Day and Greg took them into the backyard to teach them how to play cricket.

The people at Hamburg Wesleyan Church were great to us all weekend. I will remember how welcome they made us all feel. A lot of them came to see us off at the airport this afternoon. I exchanged e-mail and postal addresses with Kathy, too, because she wants to keep in touch with me.

Now we are Washington DC, the Capital of the United States. Tomorrow we are going to tour around the city. There are many landmarks and historical sites to see. I noticed some as our plane came in to land.

I could recognize the Capital Building, and the illuminated structure of the Washington Monument. On the drive from the airport to our hotel, I could feel the history of this city. We passed a few landmarks and even drove past the Watergate Hotel.

Monday 6 December, 1999

Washington DC

Washington DC is a city of great buildings and many historic monuments. Our exploration of the city began when we took a short walk down the street from our hotel, The Carlisle Suites on New Hampshire Avenue, to the Dupont Circle subway station.

Bill Foster and I had a chat as we walked. To start, Bill called me 'Scottmeister', as he had been doing every morning since this tour started back in Malaysia.

Bill asked me what I knew about Washington DC? For a joke, he reminded me that Washington DC is known as the murder capital of North America. This made me feel a little more concerned about my safety during our stay here.

'Thanks, Bill," I replied, jokingly. "That makes me feel so much better about being here!"

We both laughed.

On the subway system, it is possible to travel to most of the main landmarks around the city.

First, we headed to the headquarters of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. We toured the building, and our guide showed us a video explaining how agents are recruited and trained. The video outlined the history of the FBI, and its investigations of crime. It looked like working for the FBI would be a demanding job, even for a staff member who managed paperwork in an office.

Most of work done by the FBI centres on terrorism, tax and insurance fraud, and investigations of child exploitation/pornography.

No mention was made of television shows like The X- Files. The closest that the work at the FBI comes to the adventures of Agents Mulder and Scully was the forensics laboratory we were shown. I have to remember that The X- Files, exciting as it is, is only fiction.

After lunch at McDonald's, we travelled on another subway train to look at the US Capital Building, where the US Congress sits. The building itself is certainly an impressive piece of architecture.

Maybe it was the jingoistic patriotism of the Hall of Presidents at Disney World rubbing off on me, but I did think of what I had learned about the struggles that the American nation had gone through as we walked around and looked at the rooms.

Last, we visited Ford's Theatre, where John Wilkes Booth assassinated the US President, Abraham Lincoln. The theatre is now a National Park, and the balcony where Lincoln sat the night of his assassination is marked out.

I know it is wrong to deify historical figures. Lincoln was just a man, prone to all the same shortcomings as the rest of us. This didn't stop me from feeling sad as I sat there in the theatre. A film we watched contended that Lincoln's murder changed America forever, in that it set the precedent for the assassinations to follow.

Thursday 7 December, 1999

Washington DC

Today, we visited the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial and the Smithsonian Institution.

We caught a subway train to each of these places. I was surprised to see how clean and free of graffiti the stations are.

The Washington Monument is being renovated, so it had a scaffold surrounding the exterior. Beside the monument, are some walls bearing the names of all Americans that died in the Vietnam War.

Bill Day was with me. During this tour, I've known him as someone who enjoys a joke. I mentioned the old joke about the Washington Monument looking like a toothpick for King Kong. Bill laughed. He hadn't heard that joke before.

From the Washington Monument, we went over to the Lincoln Memorial. This is a huge statue. Until seeing it for myself, I had no idea how big this statue was.

The Lincoln Memorial is a statue of Abraham Lincoln, looking very fatherly, sitting in a chair. It looked very lifelike. On the walls beside the statue, was the text of Lincoln's inauguration speech, and the Gettysburg Address, 'Four score and seven years ago," carved into the walls, and embossed with gold leaf.

From the steps of the memorial, I could see the dome of the Capital Building in the distance. It was a clear day, so the view was great.

At the Smithsonian Institution, there are so many museums and exhibits to see. It would have been unrealistic to try to look at everything. Bill Foster and I decided to be sensible and see only the things that we really wanted to.

The first museum we visited had an exhibition of African American photography from the 1930s to the 1970s.

Next was the US Postal Museum. It was interesting to discover the history of the US Postal Service. In the early days, there was the Pony Express, where men rode across the country on horseback to deliver mail. Later, once railroads were constructed, delivery times improved a lot. Sacks of mail would be hanging on hooks by the side of the railway track, to be snagged by hooks on the sides of train carriages.

Once planes were invented, sacks of mail were left on hooks in the centre of airfields. I tried to picture one of those early biplanes swooping down, and the co pilot reaching out to grab the mail.

The Museum of American History had a display about the history of immigration. America's experience has much in common with Australia, as many people were encouraged to come to the US in immigration programs to help build the economy.

This museum had a statue of George Washington, which made him look like a Roman god, with a muscular physique.

I remarked to Bill, that I didn't know much about American history, but I was sure that George Washington did not have a body like that. I guess that the artist commissioned to do the sculpture did not want to detract from the legend surrounding George Washington, the first President of the United States, and credited as the father of the American nation.

On the way from the Smithsonian to the subway train back to our hotel, I met a woman dressed in heavy winter clothing, that is, a scarf with a hat, and a long, thick coat. We had been told to be wary of beggars on the streets of Washington DC. Because some people had already approached me and asked me for money, I thought this woman would, too.

Instead, she said 'hello', and then asked me if I had heard about Jesus?

I replied, 'Yes, I've been a Christian for ten years. I got baptized just before I turned fifteen." She smiled, and then told me to have a good day.

I left thinking that it was good to know that even with the problems that Washington DC has, there were people there who wanted to make a difference for Jesus.

Wednesday 8 December, 1999

Washington DC

This morning we took a tour to the nearby state of Virginia, just outside of the District of Columbia. There, we visited Mount Vernon, the plantation where George Washington lived and worked.

On the way, we had a brief stop at the town of Alexandria. This was to look at Christ Church, an Episcopalian Church where George Washington regularly worshipped. President Bill Clinton and other American Presidents had attended services there, too. I have liked seeing these old churches during this trip.

Mount Vernon is a National Park. The staff who work there were dressed in period costumes from the late 18th century. Many of them acted as if they are still in that time. They pretended to be amazed at our electronic cameras and modern clothing.

I was surprised to learn that apart from being a statesman, George Washington was a farmer.

The guide took us for a look around the mansion. Everything in the home had been restored. We were told that even the paint on the walls had been matched to be the same as colours that were used in the late eighteenth century.

Outside, my favourite part of the visit was the view near the wharf on the property, which looks out onto the Potomac River. I loved the view so much, that I bought a postcard of the scene. The sight of the waters, with the green hills behind them, reminded me of those Ken Duncan photographs.

All I had time to do before we left was have some free cider and ginger biscuits.

When we got back to Washington DC, we headed to the Union Square Station shopping centre, and had lunch in the food court. John went with Kathy. Claire, Allison, and I had the rest of the afternoon to ourselves. The three of us had got along well during the tour.

After lunch, we decided what to do with the rest of the day. We decided to try and meet with Bill and Daphne, as they and Emily (a 17 year-old girl from Bill's home church in Adelaide) were going to see the Presidential Christmas Tree lighting ceremony.

We got to the White House at 3.30 p.m. The ceremony was across the road. It started to get chilly. As none of us had dressed for a wintry evening, we decided to go back to our hotel.

We watched the ceremony on television in our hotel rooms. It looked like a cold night outside. Although it would have been a good experience to be at the ceremony, and catch a glimpse of Bill Clinton, I'm glad we decided not to stay. I'm only getting over the cold I came down with in San Francisco.

Tomorrow is our last day in Washington DC before we fly out to New York City. I am looking forward to seeing and experiencing this city.

Tonight we had tea in the restaurant here at the hotel. The concierge was also our waiter. He was not much younger than me, but friendly.

I made a phone call home tonight. Mum was glad to hear from me, because this had been the first call home I had made in two and half weeks. In the background, I heard my dog, Monty barking in the backyard. This made me miss him a little.

We will be visiting the White House tomorrow before we leave.

Thursday 10 December, 1999

Brooklyn, New York City

Unfortunately, our visit to the White House was a non-event. Just as we were queuing to go inside, visits had been stopped. The only explanation that the Secret Service staff gave for this was 'security reasons.'

Anyway, we walked around Pennsylvania Avenue where the White House is, back to Union Square Station for some lunch and last minute shopping. I bought a souvenir spoon for Narelle. At the Discovery Channel store, I bought a packet of freeze dried ice cream (the same as I had tried back at NASA) for Ross.

While we were there, an African American youth choir was performing.

We are now in Brooklyn, just outside of New York City. We are all staying with Michael, minister of East New York Wesleyan Church, his wife Phyllis, and Hillary, a friend of theirs. Michael is a friend of Bill Foster. He had invited us to stay with him.

After they picked us up at the airport in Newark, New Jersey, we were taken in a route around the city rather than right through it. This, we were told, was the best way to get to Brooklyn. We rode over the Brooklyn Bridge.

David Spargo, a friend from church, told me that New York City would be overwhelming. Even sitting in a passenger in a van, as I looked at the window, I couldn't get over the amount of traffic I saw on the roads.

I had better get some sleep. Tomorrow we are visiting the Statue of Liberty. We have to get up early to meet Bill and Daphne. Daphne's sister, Cassie, is meeting up with us and will show us around.

I hope that I can get some sleep, as all of us men are sharing the one room. Bill Day, Greg, David and John have proven to be a rowdy bunch at times, I joked to them that their behavior made me feel like I was back on a school camp. Oh well.

Friday 10 December, 1999

Brooklyn, New York

This entry is being written on Saturday. We were out all day yesterday, and we did not get back until late last night.

I was amazed at just how busy New York City is. The streets were crammed with traffic for the whole day.

In the parts of the city we visited, people were everywhere. Traffic was banked up on every street, going in all directions. Driving here must be a real test of patience. Police were around to direct the traffic. Bill Foster went to a police officer to get directions. He was helpful and I heard him speak in a Brooklyn accent.

We caught a ferry to the Statue of Liberty. Maybe it is because I am an Australian, but as good as it was to see the statue for myself, I found it hard to be impressed by it.

Some from our group climbed up inside the statue to the head. I was just content to stand at 'Miss Liberty's' feet, and look out across at the city. I could see the World Trade Centre and Empire State Building quite clearly. I imagined that the pollution would be a lot worse.

At the gift shop, I bought a souvenir, a small teddy bear dressed as the Statue of Liberty. The ferry back to the city passed Staten Island, and then dropped us off at the South Street Sea Port. There, we had our lunch before heading back into town.

Back in the city, it was a cold, wet and windy day. This made walking difficult, but I didn't want to take too long crossing roads in case I got separated from the rest of the group, or have some impatient drivers honk their horns at me.

Walking through town, we passed the famous Radio City Music Hall.

We ended up at Fifth Avenue, where many shops are located. We looked around there for a few hours. I visited Saks Fifth Avenue, the Trump Tower, and the FAO Schwartz toy store.

After tea this evening, we went to some ambient jazz concert, called 'The Winter Solstice Celebration'.' I admit, that by the end of the day, I was feeling tired and cranky. I found this concert boring, and sometimes quite bizarre.

At one point during the concert, the bandleader invited the audience to join him in a howl at the moon. I had no idea what he was trying to achieve with that. Maybe it could have been some pagan ritual, as the Winter Solstice was a pagan festival observed in ancient times before it was replaced by Christmas. We ended up leaving early. We caught some taxis back to the train station, and got the train to Brooklyn.

Saturday 11 December, 1999

Brooklyn, New York

Thankfully, New York was not nearly as busy today as it was yesterday.

This morning, we headed straight to the World Trade Centre. There is an observation deck on the top floor, but we weren't able to visit this. We did wander around the courtyard at the front of the towers, and the foyer area inside.

From here, we went to the Empire State Building. The plan for today was to meet Bill, Daphne and Cassie there, then queue up to go to the observation deck on the top floor. The queues were too long. As our time was short, we decided to come back later in the day when there might not be so long to wait.

At lunchtime, we ended up at a New York style delicatessen. These are more like cafes with buffet sections where lots of different food can be purchased. All sorts of people were inside. I did see a group of Jewish Rabbis come in as we left.

Today, we caught a shuttle bus around New York. From the bus, we saw a few more landmarks, including Central Park, Times Square and the Broadway theatre district.

By the time we got back to the Empire State Building later in the afternoon, the queues of people waiting to go to the Observation Deck were still long. This was disappointing, but we had another engagement to go to this evening.

We attended a Christmas Dinner organized by the East New York Wesleyan Church, a congregation made up of African American and Caribbean people. This church is located in Queens.

We are worshipping there tomorrow morning, which should be an interesting experience for all of us.

Tomorrow is our last day in the United States before we head home. Going overseas for the first time has been a good experience that has really taught me a lot about the world that exists outside of Australia. I have got to do some fun things, and see things that I would not have at home. Yet, there have been times when I asked myself, "What the heck am I doing in this country?"

The US has surprised me. Like Australia, America is incredibly diverse in its geography, and the people who live there. I have really only sampled a little of it during this trip. I would like to come back in a few years time. I'm sure I will have some good memories of this trip when I get back to Melbourne.

Bill and Daphne Foster have been good company. I have enjoyed getting to know Bill Day, Greg, Allison and Claire, too. I think that having such friendly people has helped stop me getting too homesick. Still, I am looking forward to going home.

Sunday 12 December, 1999

Brooklyn, New York

Our last day in the USA began with a visit to the East New York Wesleyan Church.

Because I was feeling tired, my mind was more on sleep than worshipping God. The service was an interesting experience. The music and singing of the congregation, and the way that church was done, showed me that there are other ways of doing church than what I am used to.

After the service, It was time to say goodbye to Bill and Daphne Foster. They are remaining in the US for the next twelve months to travel around and speak at different churches about ministry to single adults.

Emily is staying in the US for a few months, and she will go home in March when she starts university. Claire is flying to London to spend Christmas with friends. David Beaton is spending some more time in Florida. As for the rest of us, we all go home tomorrow.

A few people from the church came and wished us a safe journey back home.

It was mid afternoon by the time we got back to Michael and Phyllis' home. It began to get dark by half past three, and a few more hours before the sun set completely. We spent the rest of the evening having tea, and talking about Australia. Michael and Phyllis had visited Australia, but we still had much to tell them.

Each of us gave Michael and Phyllis some Australian things as presents, which they enjoyed.

By the end of the day, I was very tired, so I went off to bed early.

Monday 13 December, 1999

In transit….

We all had to be up at 4:30 a.m. this morning to go to the Newark Airport to catch our flight to Los Angeles, for a connecting flight to Kuala Lumpur.

Thankfully, the traffic was not as heavy as it had been on Thursday night. We had a good run out to the airport. Once we arrived, we said goodbye to Michael and Hillary.

Once on the plane, I tried to get some rest since we had a long day ahead. After breakfast, I watched some television; episodes of Seinfeld and I Dream of Jeannie. Then, I watched a movie; Inspector Gadget.

I had been wondering what had been happening in Australia during our time away. Greg told me that some parts of northern Australia had been hit by a cyclone that had been the worst since Cyclone Tracey.

Once on the connecting flight, I tried to get some more sleep. This was difficult because of the engine noise. The next time I take a holiday like this, I will try to remember to bring some earplugs.

Twelve hours into the flight, we had a one-hour stopover at Tokyo Airport in Japan. It was good to be off the plane, and stretch my legs for a while.

I didn't see much of the airport, except for some shops near the departure lounge. These were selling Ultraman merchandise. Ultraman is a popular Japanese comic and film superhero.

The rest of the flight took six hours, but this didn't seem long by the time we had got off the plane in Malaysia and collected our luggage. Maybe I had become used to long flights.

The hotel that we stayed in was only ten minutes away from the airport, which was good. By the time we got to our rooms, it was 3.00 a.m. and all we wanted to do was go to bed.

Wednesday 15 December, 1999

Kuala Lumpur

We all had a long sleep in this morning. After a late breakfast in the hotel's restaurant, I went for a walk on the street outside. Here, there was a strip of shops selling clothes, trinkets and electronic goods such as Sony Playstation games.

The hotel was at the bottom of some hills covered in palm forests, but I was feeling too tired to bother admiring the scenery. I just went back to our room to catch up on some sleep.

After another four hours sleep, I felt much better. I went back downstairs for some lunch. This was a buffet with a selection of fresh fruit, noodles and rice dishes. Because of my experiences a few weeks ago, I didn't feel like anything too exotic. I just ate food I knew would be safe.

At 4:30 this afternoon, we went back to the airport to check in our luggage and go through immigration. We said goodbye to Cathy Cannon, who was flying to Brisbane. Bill Day, Greg, John, Allison and I came to the airport together. I said goodbye to Allison and gave her a hug. Her flight was to Sydney, so she wasn't coming with the rest of us. She wants to keep in touch with me, though.

Before I boarded the plane, I had a chance to look around the KL International Airport. The shops were much like the ones in Melbourne, like Tie Rack, and the generic looking clothing and electronics shops.

I ate a meal in the food court. I betrayed my political convictions by having a McDonald's meal. It tasted the same as any others I had eaten. I'm sure it did nothing for my health, but at least I knew what I was getting. Eight ringgits and fifty cents (roughly $4.50 Australian) bought a value meal of a burger and medium fries, a medium drink and a dessert.

Soon, it was time for us to board the plane. "At last", I thought. "Seven more hours, and I'll be home."

Because of the cyclone activity in the north of Australia, the flight had to divert slightly to the west. This added another half-hour to the flight. I didn't really care, because all I wanted to do was get home safely.

For entertainment, I watched some more films, then played video games.

I was seated next to an Asian woman from Melbourne who was returning from holiday in Malaysia. I told her all about the tour I had been on. She agreed that Malaysia is a nice country to visit.

She noticed the WWJD (What would Jesus Do) bracelet I was wearing. It turned out that she was a Christian, and attends a Chinese church in Melbourne's eastern suburbs.

I have run into Christians where I have least expected to on this trip. Which reminds me, on Friday morning when we caught the train from Brooklyn to Manhattan, a woman stood up and addressed all the passengers in the carriage.

She spoke about God, read some Bible passages, and stressed how important it was for everyone to know Jesus. I was stunned. I thought, "Considering this is New York City, this woman is pretty brave to get up and speak like that."

Australians would find this sort of thing very confronting if it happened on a train.

It was hard to try and sleep. I think this was due to the time changes, and because I had spent most of the day sleeping. I was excited about getting home and seeing my family again. It did not really matter, because I could catch up on lost sleep when I got home in the morning.

Thursday 16 December, 1999

Arriving back in Australia

I kept a check on the flight's progress on my personal view screen. Computer graphics showed the plane's position between Malaysia and Australia, and how long the plane had to travel.

As the sun rose I could see that we were flying over Australia, I had a warm feeling inside me. It felt good to look through my window down on the countryside over the northwest and towards Victoria. Over Victoria, I made out some paddocks and gum trees on the ground below.

Soon, we landed at Melbourne Airport, and the flight was over. I left the flight to collect my luggage and go through customs. Before I did, though, I said goodbye to Bill Day, who was flying to Adelaide. I shook his hand and said it was good to get to know him.

I don't know where John disappeared to, but I met Greg as I went to collect my luggage. I shook his hand, and wished him a good Christmas, and a safe journey back to Geelong.

It seemed strange at first to hear Australian voices everywhere after being out of the country for four weeks.

Unfortunately, Customs had to confiscate the freeze-dried ice cream I had bought Ross. I should have realized that dairy-based items would have been unable to be brought into the country.

I left customs, and walked across to the arrival area. When I walked through the doors, I saw Mum and Uncle Graham waiting for me. It was good to be home again.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Man charged over Lockerbie Bombing released from jailB aBac

On Wednesday 21 December, 1988, Pan Am Flight 103 crashed in Scotland en route from London, killing all on board, along with eleven people from the border towns of Lockerbie, Dumfries and Galloway.

It was soon found that this crash was not an accident, because a bomb had been planted on the plane.

Eventually, after evidence was gathered, it was found that the culprits were terrorists from Libya, Abdel Baset Ali, and Mohamed Al Megrahi.

The two were arrested, and charged, but after a trial, only Al Megrahi was found guilty, and Baset Ali was found not guilty due to insufficient evidence.

Al Megrahi had been serving a prison sentence in a Scottish jail for some years, until he was released recently due to terminal illness.

Under the technicalites of Scottish law, those charged with crimes can only be found guilty if the evidence is sufficient beyond a reasonable doubt. Though, now it is clear that Al Megrahi did not act alone in planning and carrying out the bombing of Flight 103. There is intelligence that nationals from other countries apart from Libya were involved.

According to an article that appeared in this month's Scottish Banner, the Scottish prison system exists to rehabilitate prisoners for their eventual return to society. Prisoners who are dying of terminal illnesses can also be released so that they can spend their last days with their families.

The release of Al Megrahi has prompted outrage across the world, on web forums, and in the press in both the United Kingdom and the United States. Many Scots are disgusted.

There is talk that as the decision to release Al Megrahi was made by the devolved Scottish Parliament, run by the Scottish National Party (a minority party) this may destroy it.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Road rage becoming more common?

I am not surprised by the findings in the survey done by insurer AAMI, that indicate road rage is becoming more common.

My own experiences of road rage include; often being tailgated while at the speed limit on freeways, in suburban streets with 50 km/h speed limits, being cut off when entering roundabouts or roads with slip lanes, as well as being the recipient of various rude gestures from other drivers when in shopping centre car parks.

Looking for answers as to why road rage is increasing, it could be that road courtesy is disappearing as driver impatience grows.

Without wanting to sound too self righteous, it seems that this is a trend across society as a whole, since it is clear that aggressive behaviours and language are not confined only to driving.

One suspects many in our community are finding life stressful at the moment, and that some are choosing to vent their feelings of frustration while they are in their cars.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Choking on a red meat message

Thanks for Jill Singer's critique of the latest Meat and Livestock Association advertisement, starring actor Sam Neill.

I have yet to see the new commercials, but I remember the previous Meat and Livestock Association, campaign in which Neill spouted some science linking consumption of red meat to human evolution.

He stood in some library, next to some 'ascent of man' poster, charting the evolution of man from apes to today, found in school text books, as if to say, "Hey, trust me on what I'm saying to you, I played a scientist in Jurassic Park", as he spoke in a tone of voice that reminded me of a university lecturer.

I do eat meat regularly. Yet, this article reminded me of how important it is to be an ethical consumer for the sake of the future of the planet, and my responsibility to check carefully the messages that advertisers convey to us.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

The Lion Hotel

Last night, my brother and I met up with a long time schoolfriend for a meal and a chat.

This was at The Lion Hotel, an English style pub located in the Melbourne Central shopping complex in the heart of the City of Melbourne.

It's always good to catch up with people I grew up with.

The night was pleasant enough, but for the presence of a bunch of men, who judging from their amount of alcohol they consumed, their behavior and language, I'm sure were members of a sports team.

Some of the people seated near us changed tables, but we just stayed where we were.

One of them kept looking over in our direction, and started to call me McLovin (after a character in the teen comedy, Superbad.)

I think next time I meet with old school friends, we are going to choose a more family friendly venue.