Bruce Stainsby's Blog: Muttering from the mo

Street dogs.

February 25th, 2018


In Colonia, Uruguay, they have a unique way of dealing with homeless dogs.

And there are quite a few of them.

The local animal welfare organisation has a list of the dogs and makes sure that they receive annual vaccinations, health checks and are sterilised.

The locals feed them, give them water and make sure they are cared for. Even the restauranteurs leave food out for them, once they have closed for the night.

We were told that the dogs never show aggression, which has helped them to become an accepted part of the community.

The dogs inhabit different areas of the town and are known to the locals and even have names.

There is even one group that follow the tourists, keeping them company while they explore this classic colonial town.

It is a symbiosis between those who needed help and those who could help.

Our tour guide told the story of one dog who was adopted, given a bright red collar and a home. Being separated from his street friends and the life he had grown up with, he became so depressed he would escape and return to the streets.

His owner eventually removed his collar and set him free – he was a much happier dog.

They are now an old group of dogs, and due to the desexing, dying out.

I think the people of Colonia will miss them when they’e gone.

The subway in the sky.

January 30th, 2018

Mi Teleférico (My Cablecar)

La Paz in Bolivia is one of the highest major cities in the world, sitting at 3,640 metres. While the adjacent town of El Alto, which is part of the metropolis of La Paz, sits at 4,150 metres.

The Le Paz CBD is in a canyon that has been carved out, over millions of years, by the Choqueyapu River, while the residential areas cling to the surrounding mountain sides.

This topography presented the government of La Paz with a unique public transport problem.

The only public transport before 2014 was taxis and mini busses which are chaotic and unreliable.

The solution was Mi Teleférico (My Cable Car), an urban, mass transit system that spans the city and the suburbs.

Phase one was opened in 2014 and consisted of the Red, Yellow and Green lines. Phase two opened in 2017 adding a further two lines, Orange and Blue. A further six lines are under construction or planned.

This will make it the longest cable car system in the world, covering nearly 34 kilometres and the only public transport system to use cable cars as the primary mode of transport.

It was relatively easy to construct, as the footprint of the towers is small and less disruptive than building a rail or subway system. It is environmentally friendly as it runs on both solar and hydro electricity – there is also no noise or pollution.

Mi Teleférico is lateral thinking at its best.

The more you travel, the more you have to read.

December 31st, 2017


Researching new destinations is only part of our reading.

The big increase to our daily news consumption comes after we have discovered a new place.

Every time we visit a new country, we naturally take an interest in its people and culture. And every time we see a news article about that country, we feel we need to read it.

It could be about avant-garde art in Uzbekistan, wild fires in California, the Himbus People of Namibia or dissidents in Central China.

If we travel with a guide we usually get to know them.

So our interest gets personal.

In Iran our guide was Rasoul, a delightful young man who we got to know very well. We still communicate with Rasoul on a regular basis.

We even met his family.

We have just been travelling in Ecuador and spent seven days with José, who showed us some of his top spots.

José even took us to his home town of Gulaceo. Here we visited the local market and José introduced us to his favourite meal of Roast Pork with rice and beans.

On a walk around Lake Toreadora in Ecuador we met Yap, a intensive care nurse from Singapore. She was a great companion on the grey and sometimes damp walk, especially for Thea.

The two didn’t stop chatting for the entire two hours.

These experiences give you an affinity with the places you visit and the people you meet along the way.

Now, whenever a news article pops up regarding a place we have been or an experience we have had – we read it.

So far this trip we have visited eight new countries. That’s eight more places we now have to read about.

“You’re welcome”

November 30th, 2017

Tray with receipt and cash

The US tipping phenomenon effects everyone.

In Eastern Europe, especially in the more remote places, if you speak English, you must be American.

Therefore you tip and tip well.

However there is often no service and in many cases a total disdain for actually serving you at all. This reflects their recent Russian heritage.

There has to be a happy compromise.

As I have bleated about before, the service industry in the US is a result of a corrupt capitalist ideology. It believes that it’s the customer’s responsibility to pay staff wages, as well as your food, not the restaurants.

This results in most Americans tipping when overseas at the same ridiculous rate that they do at home.

Something between 18% to 35%.

This ruins it for the rest of us and creates a false expectation within the service industry in these countries.

On the bright side there is little waste, as there is in the States, due to the use of proper washable crockery an cutlery.

When we do get great service, we don’t mind rewarding the staff – with about a 10% gratuity.

Then it’s a real reward not part of their salary.

Don’t follow, lead.

October 29th, 2017
Laisvės-Alėja. The longest walking-street-in-Europe

Laisvės-Alėja, Lithuania. The longest walking-street-in-Europe

Soomaa National Park Peat Bog walk in Estonia

Soomaa National Park Peat Bog walk in Estonia

As a tourist it’s easy to buy a package tour and visit the places that are high on the wish list.

This can have its problems.

The issue is that you are not alone, as there are millions following you.

As mentioned in a previous blog, this was highlighted in a BBC article about tourists flooding popular destinations such as Barcelona, Venice, Florence and some Greek islands.

And more recently Iceland.

It is expected that over 2 million people will have visited this spectacular and sparsely populated country in 2017 – completely overwhelming the local population of just 334,000.

This has been exacerbated by the influx of tourists from China, India and Russia, plus the growth of cruising.

Some of the popular destinations are so overrun with tourists that the locals are moving out during the high season.

This year 70 million tourists will have visited Spain.

Another factor that changes the state of the destination is the accommodation.

The more tourists there are, the more places they need to stay.

In steps Airbnb and other accommodation sharing businesses.

The result is that the locals move out, because their apartments are worth more when they are rented.

Apart from the sites, the other attraction in a destination are the locals.

Increasingly the only people you see in the tourist areas of Berlin, Athens and Santorini are other tourists.

Another casualty of excessive tourism is the loss of local cuisine.

Unless you venture into the backstreets of Geneva, Hamburg or Prague you won’t find much more than pizza and pasta.

The local restaurants all left with the locals and moved into the suburbs, well away from the tourists.

Try finding good Catalan food in the centre of Barcelona.

What is tourism about, if not experiencing the culture, food and people?

On this trip we have been to some big cities like Berlin, Helsinki and Warsaw. There English is always spoken and everything is relatively easy.

But you are not alone, tourists are everywhere.

The prices are higher and you are more likely to get fleeced, as the locals are aware of what the punters will pay.

While in many unexplored countries the prices are very reasonable.

This trip we have been fortunate enough to visit Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and Slovakia. In Banská Štiavnica in Slovakia we seemed to be the only tourists that weren’t from Eastern Europe. Most seem to be from bordering countries, such as Hungary Poland, Austria and the Czech Republic.

The countries we visited offered us an insight into Eastern Europe and the Baltic States. It also gave us a new perspective on the history and culture of these places, both before and after the Second World War.

Both the German occupation and subsequently the seizure by the Soviet Union left its mark. However the history before that was equally as turbulent, as invasion from neighbouring countries seemed to happen on a regular basis.

Travelling to unique places allows you to experience different people, cultures and geography. We discovered the ‘longest walking street in Europe’ in Lithuania and walked in a peat bog in Estonia.

However travelling in uncharted water isn’t without its difficulties.

Language can be an issue as English isn’t widely spoken and communication can be an issue. Especially when it comes to ordering from a menu that’s only in the local tongue.

Tour guides at these tourists sites tend to deliver the narrative in the language that most of the tourists speak and in many cases this wasn’t English.

Failing to find an English speaking guide we turned to the next best thing – maps and and printed information.

Even this had its problems, as on many occasions they weren’t printed in English either.

In large, well patronised, tourist towns you can always find a meal, at any time of the day or night.

When you are in these smaller places you have to eat when the locals eat, which isn’t necessarily when when you’re used to eating.

The benefit here is you are eating and talking with the locals and having a genuine tourist experience.

One of the real pleasures in visiting these off-the-beaten-track destinations is that you are an oddity to the locals and local tourists.

People want to engage you in conversation, just to discover; “Why on earth are you here?”

Democracy is dead.

September 15th, 2017
Cleisthenes, the father of Athenian democracy

Cleisthenes, the father of Athenian democracy

It’s been high jacked by the ‘popularists’

The democratic process was designed so society could move forward, towards a better future, by voting in people with vision, compassion and a willingness to selflessly serve society.

We now have candidates running for office who are more interested in remaining in power than doing anything positive.

No sooner do they win an election than they put all their resources into being re elected and remaining in power.

Their only strategy is to win the next election and their only policy is to pander to their electoral base.

Any media who is against them is considered ‘fake news’, any opposition organisations are regarded as ‘terrorists’ and any inquiries into their behaviour is a ‘witch hunt’.

They try to divide the citizens into good and bad.

This phenomenon isn’t restricted to crackpots and political minions like Pauline Hanson or Jackie Lamby in Australia. It’s playing out on a world stage, at a very high level.

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey, Vladimir Putin in Russia, Beata Maria Szydło in Poland, Viktor Orban in Hungary, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela, Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel, Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, Hun Sen in Cambodia and even, as unlikely as it may seem, Aung San Suu Kyi in Myanmar, who has turned a blind eye to the ethic cleansing of the Rohingya Muslims.

The list goes on.

And let’s not forget, Donald Trump in the USA.

They all claim that they have a mandate and are doing if for the ultimate good of the people.

Foreign policy is even used as tool to promote the local popularist agenda.

The increased US sanctions on Russia, Iran and North Korea will do nothing to solve the issues. They will however pander to Trump’s electoral base.

The same goes for the right wing Polish government’s demonising of Lech Wałęsa, a pivotal figure in the Solidarity movement.

And now, Erdoğan is encouraging the Turks, living in Germany, to vote against Angela Merkel because of her opposition to his draconian measures.

History has also had its fair share of those seeking the popular vote.

Stalin in Russia, Hitler in Germany, Mussolini in Italy, Tito in Yugoslavia, Franco in Spain. And more recently Frank Bainimarama in Fiji.

They are just a few who have come to power with a popularist agenda. Which usually involves marginalising some part of their society.

Then there are the countries that have tried to avoid popularist politics by holding a referendum on divisive issues.

That didn’t all go well for the Conservatives in the U.K.  Now they have Teresa May and Brexit to contend with.

There’s also trouble in the UK, north of the border, with Scotland wondering how they will survive when they are out of the EU.

Closer to home we have Malcom-in-the-Middle wondering what to do with an ex PM who seems to want to grab onto the popularist mantle and do a Lazarus, back to the top spot.

Abbott is also playing a sly hand with branch politics within the Liberal Party – some might even call it ‘branch stacking’.

All this back room politicking is happening in Australia, while housing is becoming unaffordable, infrastructure needs replacing, banks and aged care facilities are screwing their customers, climate change and aboriginal rights are being politicised, and farmers are being sidelined by the supermarket chains.

Now same sex marriage has gone to a postal vote, because the politicians don’t have the guts to have a ‘conscience vote’.

Basically no one is looking to the future.

The collective eyes are most definitely off the ball.

Many Australians seem to share my view about the demise of the current political system.

According to research, commissioned by the Museum of Australian Democracy in 2016, satisfaction with democracy has halved over the last decade.

The same research also found that federal governments, of any persuasion, were incapable of solving current issues.

The Athenians, led by Cleisthenes, established the first democracy in 508 to 507 BC.

Democracy has always been considered as the answer for social justice and equality. A system that allows all members to have equal say and power. (However this form of ancient democracy did exclude women, slaves, men under 20, foreigners and non-land owners.)

The Greek meaning of democracy is ’the rule of the people’

Popularists polarise and try to convince the electorate that only they have the answers.

If you’re not with them, you are the enemy of the people and therefore against everything that they believe is ‘good and just’.

Articulation is the answer, the ability to convince people that there are alternatives.

Not a popularist way but a way forward – one that delivers benefits to all of society.

Not policy on the run at 120 character bursts of incongruity.

There is hope and it comes from North America, Europe and across the ditch in New Zealand.

Emmanuel Macron in France, Justin Trudeau in Canada and Jacinda Ardern in NZ are offering sane, sensible and rational alternatives.

They are seen as a ray of hope, in a world of turmoil.

It will come down to how well these young, new wave, politicians can articulate their vision for the future.

Let’s hope that more politicians can move their countries forward, not just push their own agendas.

This will only happen if they can get society involved in the debate and participate in the decision making.

Then democracy may yet survive.

Will tourists kill tourism?

August 28th, 2017

Dubrovnik, 2012

Tourists, in major tourist sites around the world, are starting to isolate the locals.

This is not a good sign for tourism.

I have recently read articles that describe how cities such as Barcelona, Venice and Florence have become such a draw card for tourists, that the locals are being displaced.

With the expansion of a globalised middle class, more people have the opportunity to travel.

This creates inherent problems.

The more travellers there are, the more places they need to stay and the more places they need to eat.

Last year 17 million tourists visited Barcelona. That’s more than two thirds of Australia’s population.

Airbnb and even the mainstream hotel booking sites like are clamouring for accommodation. This has the effect of forcing up prices, which in turn disadvantages the local rental and buyer market.

Restaurants within the heart of the cities tend to ‘dumb down’ their offering in order to cater for a broader market. As a result restaurants serving up local cuisine are forced to move out of the central city areas.

Try finding authentic Catalan food in the tourist areas of Barcelona or German food in the centre of Berlin or Frankfurt.

You’ll more than likely be offered pizza, pasta or hamburgers.

Another contributing factor to the boom in tourism is expansion of the cruise market.

Mega ships, with the capacity to hold more than 6,000 passengers are descending on the major ports.

When we arrived in Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, we were surprised by the number of tour groups that were wandering around the old city.

We were frustrated by how long it took us to negotiate through the crowds to get to our apartment. This crowd came from just two of the regular size cruise ships that dock at Tallinn, every day over summer.

Just imagine how the locals feel.

The more the locals are disenfranchised by the tourist industry the more tourists will become alienated from the destinations.

Especially if the the locals become aggressive, which has happened in Catalunya and the Basque regions of Spain.

We experienced this anger first hand in 2012, when a tyre on our leased Renault was slashed when we were at traffic lights in Naples.

We were on red French tourist plates.

Tourists behaving badly is another issue that puts them at odds with the sites and the locals.

Just recently a British museum at Prittlewell Priory, in Southend-on-Sea, had an 800 year old stone coffin damaged by tourists.

The happy wanderers thought that it would be a great photo opportunity to place their child in the coffin and take a snap.

The ancient walled city of Dubrovnik is actually considering limiting the number tourists they take.

The city has always been a must see on the tourist hit list, but now that it has a staring role in Game of Thrones, as King’s Landing, it’s become even more popular.

This summer, Dubrovnik will have been invaded by a flotilla of 538 cruse ships, delivering 750,000 of its two million visitors.

Another, and very worrying factor, is the threat of terrorist attacks.

As we have seen recently in Barcelona, tourists, not just locals, have now become the target of the jihadists.

The larger the tourist crowds the more vulnerable they become.

Major cities like London, Paris, Florence, Rome and Barcelona may be put on the ‘no go’ list by the tourists themselves.

Internal politics is yet another factor.

Egypt’s tourist industry has almost been wiped out, as a result of the domestic conflict during the Arab Spring of 2011. People were too afraid of being caught up in the violence to visit one of the world’s premier destinations. They felt that the risk was too great, even to see the Great Pyramid of Giza – they still won’t travel there.

Turkey has its own issues with the rise of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his nationalistic political agenda. The more he isolates Turkey from Europe, the more tourists will become isolated from Turkey. In the worst scenario, this alienation could turn to violence.

Once tourists are specifically attacked then the results for major destinations will be devastating.

One outcome, of this growing antagonism towards large numbers of tourists, is that lesser known destination might become more attractive.

As we have seen on our travels through Eastern Europe and the Baltic States, these places have a lot to offer. Countries like Slovakia, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania might ultimately be the winners.

However I do hope that they don’t get overrun.

The Slovakian and Polish national summer pastime.

July 30th, 2017


We have just spent about three weeks in Slovakia and Poland, travelling to both the big cities and out-of-the-way places.

One thing that struck us was the amount of ice cream that’s consumed in both these countries.

Eating ice cream is gender and age neutral and seems to happen at anytime of the day or night.

Families do it, teenagers do it, older people, office workers and even tradies do it.

Here are some of the people I snapped – doing it.

Whatever happened to service?

June 30th, 2017

This is where the service has gone

Ever since the post Second World War boom in consumerism, the customer has always been placed first in the US.

“The customer is always right”, was the catchphrase

Now, “Put profit first”, takes that mantle.

Auto manufacturers lost the plot in Detroit during the 80s by building cars they wanted, and ignored their customers needs. Now the service industry has done the same.

Service appears top of mind when you are in restaurants and hotels but it’s very far from reality.

Everything is done for the convenience, and profit, of the establishment, not for the benefit of the customer.

If you don’t order enough you’re frowned upon. At the Biltmore Estate we were literally scowled at for not ordering a full meal each. Thea had a side-salad and soft drink and I had a coffee, as I don’t usually eat lunch.

Their issue was the bigger the bill the greater the tip and we therefore didn’t warrant the effort.

In most Brewpubs we visited in the eastern US, you couldn’t carry your bill from the bar to the restaurant. Why? Both the bar staff and the ‘wait staff’ need to have their separate tips.

The same happens at the end of a shift. You are rushed to finish your meal so the staff can close your account and get the tips earned during their shift.

This isn’t about you, but all about the staff making tips and the restauranteur making profit.

The tipping regime is out of control.

Most ‘wait staff’ get the standard rate of $2.13 per hour – this is below the poverty line. They ultimately hope to make about $25 per hour, which comes from tips.

In effect you are paying their wage, not their employer.

Most restaurants include a ‘suggested tip’ on your bill this starts at 18% and goes as high as 35%.

Then taxes are included before the tip is calculated.

Your hotel room won’t get serviced, unless you ask. There are no longer, ‘Please clean my room’ hangers to put on the door.

The excellent concept of not changing sheets and towels every day has been extended to no service at all. Beds aren’t made, floors aren’t vacuumed, even the bathroom isn’t cleaned.

This has nothing to do with the environment, they do this to cut down on staff.

Everything is plastic and disposable.

Most cafés don’t offer anything but disposable cups, plates and cutlery, which you are expected to clear away when you are finished. However the counter staff still expect a tip.

The cost of the disposable crockery and cutlery is offset by not having to employ staff to clear tables and wash dishes, at $2.13 per hour.

Again the customer loses out.

At breakfast, In most hotels and motels, even the milk for your coffee only comes in half pint (236ml) containers.

Most people only use a fraction of the contents, the rest goes in the bin.

In effect service has gone into the trash, along with everything else.

Graduation Day.

May 27th, 2017



“There’s a time a for joy

A time for tears

A time we’ll treasure through the years

We’ll remember always

Graduation day”

‘Graduation Day’ was a hit single for the Four Freshmen in 1956 and then covered by the Beach Boys in 1964.

The version by the Beach Boys is the one I remember best.

We had come to New York for Steph’s graduation and had no idea what to expect.

Graduations aren’t that big a deal in Australia and both Hayden and Even had missed theirs entirely.

Steph had just completed a two years Masters at Columbia University Teachers College (TC).

My vision, probably developed from 1960s US sitcoms, was of students, dressed in black academic gowns, throwing their mortar boards in the air at the conclusion of the ceremony.

There was much more to it than that.

My first big surprise was that the Columbia graduates didn’t wear a black gown, but sky blue.

The celebrations and presentations went on for three days. There were welcome drinks for the International Students and their families and friends on one night. This was followed the next day by the Masters presentation, called the Convocational, at St John the Divine. It was preceded by a light lunch and followed by a dessert of strawberries dunked in chocolate and chocolate chip cookies.

The following day was the ‘big one’.

It was called the ‘Commencement of 2017′ celebrations, however it was really the conclusion of the 2017 academic year.

It was attended by a crowd of over 30,000 guests and students, sitting in the hot sun, with most having no shade, not even a hat. That is apart from those clever people who improvised with headwear made from the Columbia newspaper.

It was huge.

It took close to two hours for everyone to be seated and the academic staff to parade in.

The speeches, awards and confirmation of degrees took another few hours.

Finally, when it was all over, I waited for the mass mortar board toss.

It didn’t really happen.

The biggest surprise to me was the tone of the speakers.

Without every mentioning his name ‘The Donald’ and his administration was put down in every conceivable way.

The President of Columbia, Lee C Bollinger, led the charge by reminding the graduates that they would always remember the graduation of 2017 as a dark year in the history of the US.

Another fascinating part of the event was discovering the history, and culture, of the Teachers College.

The Teachers College was founded in 1887 by Grace Hoadley Dodge. Today it has over 90,000 alumni in 30 countries.

It was the world’s first Teachers College and incorporated the study of educational psychology and educational sociology. It was also mindful of the vast number of immigrants entering the US and tried to incorporate their special needs in the teacher training. The founders insisted that ethics and the nature of ‘good society’ should also be a part of the curriculum.

No wonder both the college and the university are at odds with the Washington administration.