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Arizona Astronomy in February 2017

Garry's observatory with 20" and 25" telescopes

Garry’s observatory with 20″ and 25″ telescopes

An astronomy buddy of mine who has a home in the rural desert grasslands in southern Arizona invited a few of us from the local astronomy group to come down for a week of observing under dark skies in February 2017. I quickly took him up on his generous offer, since not only does his place have very dark skies, it is also located in a high elevation area in southeastern Arizona. We also get to make use of his very well-equipped observatory at a site that typically has 330 clear days (and nights) per year.

Instead of flying to Phoenix or Tucson, I decided to take the Victoria Clipper catamaran from Victoria to Seattle, overnight in Seattle, and then take the Amtrak train all the way to Tucson. I have never taken an overnight trip on a train before – this trip will take two days with a change of trains in Los Angeles. I’m really looking forward to the experience of slower and gentler travel. I will have a Roomette both ways, so I will be treated like a VIP, having my own bed, small private room, and meals included.

Amtrak’s Coast Starlight from Seattle to Los Angeles has a reputation of being one of the more interesting and scenic train routes in the USA, especially when it travels along the coast north of LA during daylight hours. The Sunset Limited takes me from LA to Tucson and back, but this is mainly during the night, so not much scenery will be visible on this route, just sleeping!

Amtrack route from Seattle to Tucson via LA

Amtrack route from Seattle to Tucson via LA

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Penang, Malaysia

Feb 18, 2016 – Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia

I was waitlisted on two shore excursions for today, but neither came up, so I’m on my own. I walk out of the cruise ship terminal, running the gauntlet of taxi drivers trying to get me to hire them. Instead, they piss me off, so I put my head down and keep walking past them all, intent on getting out onto the street and freedom. I encounter one last driver, parked by himself about a block away on one of the nearby streets. Cheah offers me a four hour tour for a bit less than the Holland America excursions I was considering. Initially I walk by him, but noting how hot and humid it is this morning (33°C and 85%), I realize that touring in an air conditioned car makes a lot of sense, so I agree to hire him for a customized tour. I’m glad to see the money go directly to the operator; I see the sights I’m interested in; and I can stay longer at a site or leave more quickly, as I wish.

Despite it being completely unplanned, I enjoy my day ashore. It works out wonderfully!

My customized tour of Penang

  • Map showing the location of my photos taken in Georgetown

    Map showing the location of my photos taken in Georgetown

    St. George’s Church – is a beautiful church, and it is apparently the oldest Anglican church in SE Asia.

  • Eastern & Oriental Hotel – this is a sister property to the famous Raffles hotel in Singapore, and is the classic old hotel from SE Asia’s colonial past. Cheah stops outside just long enough for me to pop inside and check out the lobby area. It is beautifully appointed.
  • Local street art – paintings and sculpture on outside walls along Lebuh Armenian street
  • Clan Jetties – a fascinating look at an old, established Chinese community where people still live today.
  • Kek Lok Si Temple – I must confess I didn’t walk up all of the 200 steps in this temple, preferring to take the small funicular train to the top (cost is 6 Ringets up and down, CD$2.25). There are still plenty of steps for me to tackle in the hot and humid weather! The huge bronze statue at the top is very impressive, and the Seven Tiered Pagoda is beautifully sited on the hillside. On the way down, there is an old Buddhist monk being helped to the main worship room, which contains a big golden buddha statue. The temples and courtyards are all decorated with Chinese lanterns for the Lunar New Year, which is being celebrated right now.
  • Penang Hill – Cheah drops me off at the bottom of the funicular tram, where I get in line to purchase a ticket. The line for the regular tickets (30 Ringets) seems to go on forever, so I decide to pay 60 Ringets (CD$22) to get an Advanced Boarding pass. With this pass, I get to bypass the huge lines (saving about an hour), have a quiet area to wait and have priority boarding on the trains, so I am seated before the throngs push and shove their way onto the train. Penang Hill is 2,750 feet above sea level, and has temples, restaurants, a museum, some residences, and even a police station located on top. Since the weather is clear, the views of the city of Georgetown and Malacca Strait are spectacular.
Map showing the photos I took in Penang

Map showing the photos I took in Penang


My driver: Cheah TH
+6011-3688 0532
+6010-389-6933
cheahth6296@gmail.com


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Open Air Museum in Arnhem

September 2, 2014 – Tuesday – Haarlem, Netherlands to Bacharach, Germany

We are delayed departing this morning because a couple are leaving the tour to return home because of a medical condition. We are now down to 24 in the group, since two people didn’t show up to start with. We finally get away from the hotel at 9AM. Sylvain is our driver. Our bus is huge, so anyone who wants his or her own pair of seats can have them. I end up taking 4 seats, so I can slide from side to side to stay on the shady side and take photos of whatever goes by! The bus has a restroom, however we are encouraged to use the facilities at rest stops whenever possible. The bus also is stocked with soft drinks, beer and wine in two fridges – we use a tally sheet on the honour system for our purchases at only €1.50 for each bottle. This is often cheaper than what is available at our rest stops, depending on the country we are in.

We cruise down the Autobahn, stopping once at a typical rest stop you would find along any expressway/freeway anywhere in the world. We pass Dutch farms with traditional barns and houses, and Utrecht, a modern city. It is fascinating to watch the countryside fly by us as we travel eastward.

We make a midday stop at the Open Air Museum at Arnhem, which reminds me very much of the Fort William historic site in Ontario, Canada (photos). We have a couple of hours to wander around this historic park, which showcases the cultural history of the Netherlands, complete with windmills, recreated old towns with historic displays of life in the Netherlands in the old days. We have an authentic Pannenkoeken (pancake) lunch, which is delicious but filling. Three types of Pannenkoeken are served: a multi-cheese pancake, a savoury onion and egg pancake, and an apple dessert pancake. A not-too-sweet apple syrup is available to garnish the dessert pancake, but the first two are normally eaten without further garnish.

I catch up on my journal and annotating photos while we travel along the excellent Autobahns in the Netherlands and Germany. As we travel down the Rhine Valley to our stop in Bacharach, the road narrows into a good two or four lane highway. There are lots of tunnels, and the views of the valley, vineyards on the steep slopes, and little towns along the way all fulfill my expectations of the “Rhineland” area of Germany.

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Amsterdam

September 1, 2014 – Monday – Amsterdam, Netherlands

Anne Frank statue

Anne Frank statue

We are out the door by 8:50AM for a full day of touring Amsterdam. We take the inter-city train from Haarlem to Amsterdam Centraal train station (takes about 10 minutes). Across the street from the train station, we catch a tram to the Anne Frank House and walk in ahead of the long line already forming. It is surprisingly emotional to actually see the hidden rooms where the two Jewish families hid from the Nazis during WWII. The rooms are devoid of furniture and there are no photos permitted inside, as per Otto Frank’s wishes. The stairways are narrow, and the rooms feel so small. As Anne wrote in her diary, having the windows shuttered was depressing, and it must have been a huge challenge to keep still during the day in order to make no noise that might be heard by the businesses operating below the hidden rooms.

Jennifer then takes us on a walking tour of Amsterdam. First stop is the Pink Triangle granite Homomonument in the canal, celebrating homosexual civil rights and freedoms. The Netherlands was one of the first countries to recognize gay and lesbian rights. Spinning around the main Dam square in the city, we see: the massive Neo-Gothic retail store Magna PlazaMadame Tussauds Wax Museum, the Nieuwe Kerk (leading art venue in the city), and the Royal Palace. Unfortunately, we don’t have time to explore Dam Square.

After a stop for a late lunch, we find our way back to the Rijks Museum for an escorted tour. I must endorse taking an escorted tour through this museum, since there is so much art history to appreciate. The guides are wonderful! The museum doesn’t just feature paintings by Rembrandt, Vermeer, and other Dutch masters; there is furniture, applied and Asian art, sculpture, fashion, ship models, weapons, and all sorts of artifacts illustrating Dutch history. Just to cap it off, I bump into friends from home in one of the galleries – what a surprise!

Two old canal houses fully restored

Two old canal houses fully restored

By the time we leave the museum some of us need some respite from all the walking and standing, so we stop for a mid-afternoon beer and wine break in one of the local bars across the street from the Heineken factory. Afterward, we see some fascinating glimpses of Amsterdam by taking a one hour canal boat cruise.

Our final walk of the day takes us to Amsterdam’s Red Light District for a quick glimpse at the girls displaying their wares. As a contrast, we also see the outside of the Oude Kerk (Old Church) located in the same district, before finally taking the inter-city train back to Haarlem and our hotel.

It has been a long day!

Amsterdam is obviously a prosperous city, since it has huge retail, government, and cultural sectors, and they all appear to be thriving. By all accounts, housing is exceedingly expensive in the city. Many people who work in the city must live elsewhere and commute by train. One thing is certain, most of them ride bicycles…there are huge bicycle parkades in the city, and they are everywhere you look.

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Haarlem

2014.08.31 – Sunday – Haarlem, The Netherlands

Fall colours along a canal with car, boat and bicycle parking in Haarlem

Fall colours along a canal with car, boat and bicycle parking in Haarlem

At breakfast this morning, I meet some of the tour group. I sleep on and off during the day (dealing with jet lag), and walk the city, exploring and photographing as I go. It is a beautiful autumn day, and this old city has some lovely trees showing their colours and old buildings both lining the canals. Since it is Sunday, there are services being held in the Grot Kerk church across the street from our hotel. Once the service is finished, I go inside and listen to the magnificent pipe organ being played, and take in the impressive stained glass windows and huge arched wooden ceiling inside the main sanctuary.

Café Colette next door to the hotel serves great cappuccino, so I sit outside and catch up on my travel journal and photos while sipping my coffee. The tour group meets at 4PM in the hotel, where our guide Jennifer describes the tour details and Rick Steves’ tour philosophy.

We then go as a group to the nearby De Lachende Javaan Indonesian restaurant for a traditional Indonesian ‘rijsttafel’ dinner. The food is wonderful and there are so many dishes, but the food is not as spicy as I remember how Indonesian food normally tastes. This is a good opportunity to meet some of the people on the tour, and start learning names.

From Wikipedia: The Indonesian rijsttafel (Dutch), a Dutch word that literally translates to “rice table”, is an elaborate meal adapted by the Dutch following the hidang presentation of Nasi Padang from the Padang region of West Sumatra. It consists of many (forty is not an unusual number) side dishes served in small portions, accompanied by rice prepared in several different ways.

Afterward, we go on a walking tour of Haarlem with local tour guide Yodi. She points out the plaques on many of the old buildings, which give clues to the business interests of the original owners, and highlights the history of this area. She talks about the tolerance for the Marijuana ‘coffee’ shops, and points out The Hiding Place – where the Ten Boom family hide Jews and others the Nazis wanted in their home.

September 1, 2014 – Monday – Haarlem & Amsterdam, Netherlands

We are out the door by 8:50AM this morning for a full day of touring Amsterdam. We take the inter-city train to Amsterdam and back again to Haarlem in the late evening (about 15 minutes each way). We return to our Haarlem hotel after 7PM, so after quickly cleaning up a bit, I join two couples for dinner at Café Colette restaurant next door to the hotel. I have a very nicely done rib eye steak, and the others also enjoy their meals. It is time to pack for our bus departure tomorrow for Germany.

When I travel, I often ask myself the question “Would you live here?” I have to say that living in the Netherlands would be very easy, especially in a small city such as Haarlem. The people are very friendly, virtually everyone speaks English, the country is prosperous and stable, and it is part of the European Union. The only downside to living here is that it is very expensive, and it rains a lot (average 133 days per year).

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Puerto Caldera, Costa Rica

Monday, December 12, 2011 – Day 22 – Puerto Caldera, Costa Rica

I take a tour this morning, which takes us over the new highway to San Jose, but we turn off early and go to the upper reaches of the Taracoles River for a mangrove swamp boat trip. We see nesting Scarlett Macaws (from a distance), Crocodiles, a Jesus Christ Lizard, and some birds. The boat trip really doesn’t live up to my expectations, since it is so rushed, and we really don’t cover much of the river. The mangrove boat trips I took on previous visits to La Ensenada Lodge and Tamarindo were so much better!

The bus then takes us to nearby Orotina for a train ride back down to the coast near where Rotterdam is docked. The train trip is interesting, especially when the middle passenger car derails! The train crew uses a diverter to manoeuvre the car’s wheels back on the rails in short order. We see lots of interesting things along the way, including fields of cantaloupe and watermelon, the backyards of many Tico houses, some cute kids waving at us as we pass by, a long tunnel, and we cross over a river and see ever changing vegetation as we descend to the Pacific Coast. The bus is waiting for us at the station at Mata de Limon to take us back to the ship, which is only five minutes away.

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Machu Picchu

Monday, December 05, 2011 – Day 15 – Machu Picchu, Peru

Today promises to be the highlight of the whole trip. Rocio and Felix arrive at 5:50AM to transfer us to the Poroy train station, a few kilometers outside the city. Cusco has a train station dedicated to Machu Picchu, but the residents in the area had it closed down because of noise problems from the train running up a series of switchbacks to climb out of Cusco. I can sympathize with their concerns. Of course the city now fills up with all the tourist buses and taxis heading to Poroy station, but at least they are quieter than the train, although they cause much more pollution.

JoeTourist: Machu Picchu &emdash; Train running through the valley belowThe PeruRail Vistadome train leaves Poroy station at 6:40AM, traveling through the agricultural valley of the Rio Cachimayo through several small towns. Once it passes through the town of Huarocondo, it starts to descend down the steep valley carved by the Rio Huarocondo. We are served a very nice continental breakfast snack, including good Peruvian coffee or soft drinks. At the half way mark down this valley, the train carefully negotiates a switchback built on the steep sides of the valley before traveling down to the junction of the Rio Huarocondo and the Rio Urubamba. We are now in the Sacred Valley of the Incas, and the train soon arrives at Ollantaytambo station, where it makes its only stop for five minutes.

JoeTourist: Machu Picchu &emdash; Peruvians pose for usWe arrive at Aguas Calientes on time at 10AM. This small community is jammed in a narrow valley where the only road is to Machu Picchu. Our guide Grimaldo meets us in the train station, and we then take a transfer bus to Machu Picchu. The bus climbs to the top of the hill on a gravel road with many switchbacks, some 800 metres above the valley below. We soon catch our first glimpses of Machu Picchu – it’s hard to describe using words or photos. It is a wonderful feat of engineering if you consider it has survived virtually intact for centuries through countless tropical rainstorms; hot sun, fierce winds, and yes…the onslaught of tourists.

We spend two hours walking the site, learning all the fascinating concepts, which Grimaldo so skilfully conveys to us. I would not want to see Machu Picchu without a guide, at least for a first visit. I can see where it would be wonderful to just go up there to sit and soak up the ambience of this sacred place on my next visit, which would require staying in a hotel in Aguas Calientes for several nights. We see the Temple of the Sun and the Room of the Three Windows in the Sacred District. We also see a sundial, which still has perfect alignment with the cardinal directions.

There is a single hotel right at the entrance to Machu Picchu, where we had a nice buffet lunch after our walking tour of the site. I expect the rates to stay there would be very high. There are several hotel and hostels in Aguas Calientes, which no doubt offer less expensive options. We take the bus to the bottom then board the Vistadome train from Aguas Calientes back to Poroy Station near Cusco. As the train makes its way back, the crew put on a fashion show and dragon dance. Of course they then come down the isle and sell the alpaca clothing they modeled.

Our trusty driver Felix and tour coordinator Rocio are waiting to transfer us back to Cusco and the hotel. By then it is 8PM, so we decide to skip dinner and go to bed since it was such a full day.