December 12, 2010

A Moment of What Wasn't - Stockholm 2010

(NY Daily News Photo)
This week, a car exploded in downtown Stockholm. The location is near the hotel where I stayed last August.

It's quite strange to hear news like this. Makes me wonder about fate and destiny and near misses ... Today, I was planning to write a post about my first step into Palestine. Or more accurately, my first attempt to enter Palestine from Israel.

However, with this news, I think I'll put that off for a bit.

In the end, violence of this sort, which strikes a nerve as easily as it strikes a location I once walked, reminds me of 2 truths.

1. I've roamed many places where conflict seemed to follow me around. I once thought that was a unique aspect of my life. But over the past 10 years, I realize that anyone who travels comes in contact with a "ground zero", in one way or another.

2. There will always be someone who thinks death is the only option to be heard. Unfortunately, that death is not their suicide but the murder of someone else.

From what I've read, only one person died in Stockholm due to the explosion. What does that say about us, when this news is greeted with relief, not sorrow.

November 27, 2010

Peace Corps Moment – 8-Legged Wonder (Part 5 – The Long Kiss Goodbye) – Sri Lanka 1997

I could easy write another dozen small incidents which occur over the next month and a half, while sharing my bathroom with the creature. Sudden appearances, creepy hairy legs sticking out from behind the sink, noisy scurries across the floor behind my back, etc. But why bother? I have long ago given up any retaliation. The splashes of water or the classic broom jab only make the situation worse as once again I witness the incredible speed of The Spider. I realize that an unspoken détente is easier and safer. There reaches a point where you simply have to shrug and accept him for what he is: a large, poisonous predator that would kill and eat me, if only he was the size of a Chihuahua.

So, in that light, I’ll move to the end.

I'm beginning my shave, when I see him on the opposite wall, near the ceiling, legs spread out and motionless. Nothing new. He is a good 10 feet away and I barely even think about it. However, this morning, what is unusual about my bathroom is the large number of cockroaches crawling on the walls. Normally by sunrise, the cockroaches have fled to darker, moister places. Yet, for some reason, the air is especially chilly and there are 6 to 10 of these insects moping around the walls and corners.

(the internet has a picture of everything)
Now, these are Asian cockroaches: about 3-4 inches in length, brittle brown wings forming a back shield, large clicky legs, and two thin long antennas. Unlike the American/European cousin, these are large, unafraid, outdoorsy insects that are more like small armored tanks than speedy racecars. And yes, they do fly. [One day, I’ll tell you some of my cockroach stories.]

So, I’m not concerned about the cockroaches at all, even as one lumbers down the wall towards the sink. No doubt, it's attracted by the incandescent light and warmth.

As I continue to shave, I see in the mirror, over my shoulder, that Spidey has suddenly moved. He’s tenser. More erect and scurries about a foot and then freezes. What’s up with that, I think.

The cockroach continues to move, slowly, towards downward at an angle. Spidey rushes a few more feet, and then freezes again. Repeat.

Wait a minute, I think. That monster can distinguish a cockroach from over 10 feet away? That’s 20 times its body length. That’s not … but there it is unfolding before me. I step back and watch as The Spider stalks his victim by circling the room, sneaking in from the rear of the cockroach. By the time the poor insect is near the sink, Spidey has crept along the perimeter of the room and is a mere 2 feet away.

On the shelf by the sink are a line of old empty spray paint cans. Why are they there? Oh, that would require a dissertation on the pack rat habits of Sri Lankans. Just trust me when I say that the dozen or so spray cans are there (and are probably still there to this day, 14 years later). The cockroach seems to be heading for that space between the cans and the wall. It squeezes its body into the gap, and at the same time The Spider makes the last dash, zooming in for the kill.

They both end up behind the spray cans at the same time. The metal cylinders rattle and bump and tussle violently, but I can’t see a bit of what’s happening. Then, as quickly as it begins, it stops. So goes the cycle of life, I say to myself.

Then, as calmly as if nothing happened at all, the cockroach crawls out from behind the cans, slowly moving up the wall. I stand and watch, waiting, but nothing follows. Though I live in the house for another month, I never see the creature of the bathroom again.

November 26, 2010

Peace Corps Moment – 8-Legged Wonder (Part 4 – Honey, I’m Home!) – Sri Lanka 1997

I walk into the bathroom and immediately say hello to my little friend on the wall above the toilet. Fine. I can wait to pee until the monster’s gone. Yet, I pause for a second, because it looks a little different. Smaller? Thinner? A lighter color?

I step closer – yes, I’m thinking this is a trap, too – and then I see something that catches me by surprise. Is that a dust ball? No. Maybe a wad of cotton? No… ah, now I see. It’s a large white, silk-enwrapped egg sac nestled under its short mandibles. Babies! Well, soon-to-be baby spiders. I’m amazed and horrified at the same time; the cavalry is coming, but it ain’t for me.

Then, from the upper ledge comes a movement. Oh, I see. It’s all clear now.

(thank you internet for another
perfect image of my past life)
The original monster of the bathroom appears in “his” regular size and weight and color. It’s his wifey I was staring at, taking care of the young’uns. It’s now a family affair.

November 24, 2010

Peace Corps Moment – 8-Legged Wonder (Part 3 – Almost) – Sri Lanka 1997

In Sri Lanka during the first month, I have to urinate frequently. Part of the problem is the huge amount of water I’m drinking because of the heat. Another part is the daily stress and nervousness of being suddenly thrust into a foreign situation with only a rudimentary understanding of the customs and language. Often, the sudden need to pee wakes me up in the middle of the night.

Now, in the usual sense, this is not a big deal. But in Sri Lanka, even the simplest things can be complicated. To get to my bathroom, I must weave my way through the pitch black house. My first attempt ends in a stubbed toe, locked doors, and the whole family awake and shooting questions at me at 3 a.m. But I’m a quick learner; with a flashlight and my route memorized I’m able to skirt through the living and dining room with a problem. Then, into the courtyard, past Lenny wrapped in his burlap blanket, and then to my bathroom.

After a few of these trips, it is second nature. This night, as usual, I reach into the darkness to turn on the light switch and … wait for it … suddenly I stop. I’ve done this motion almost every night for the past 3 weeks, but for some reason I withdraw my hand. I turn my flashlight towards the switch and, yes!, there is The Spider, directly on top of the light switch, waiting so patiently in ambush after days of observation. Only the last second tingling of my spidey-sense saves me from grabbing the hairy, large, fanged body of this creature in the pitch black darkness of my bathroom.

(yes again, because it deserves another look)

November 23, 2010

Peace Corps Moment – 8-Legged Wonder (Part 2 – I’ve Got My Eyes On You) – Sri Lanka 1997

I’m showering away with watering spraying everywhere from the overhead nozzle. It’s a dual-purpose activity: I wash myself and the inside walls of the bathroom at the same time. Very eco-friendly. My mind is drifting through last week’s activities of language learning, exploring my neighborhood, and getting to know my family and their staff.
Soap suds cover my arms and shoulders. I’m scrubbing away. And, of course, have now completely forgotten I’m the target of an 8-legged vendetta – which is exactly what it wants.

I happen to look straight up into the oncoming water. No reason in particular. It's not something I normally do. But for that moment, my head tilts back and I open my eyes. Directly above maybe 3 feet away, The Spider clings to the rafter, upside down. That large body. Those long legs. Those soulless black orbs. In that split second, I let out a yelp of pure terror and leap to the side.

But it’s too late.

No, it doesn’t drop. No it isn’t latched onto my face sinking inch-long fangs into my eye – it’s large enough that its legs would wrap from cheek to cheek. Nope, nothing like that happens at all … it is still on the rafter, watching.

Then I realize that this is the whole purpose behind the sneak attack. It wants me to know that it could’ve had at me unmercifully. With one swoop, cold revenge would have been served. Yet, this is not how it works. This isn’t a war to be won in a swift decisive move. It is a feud ... and needs to play out in a long, slow, torturous series.

November 22, 2010

Peace Corps Moment – 8-Legged Wonder (Part 1 – First Encounter) – Sri Lanka 1997

My Sri Lankan host family is well off, in relative terms. Their house is recently constructed and has ample room for my host mother, sister, and older brother and his young daughter. My room is smallish but good enough for me, with privacy and a comfortable bed – you won’t find me complaining.


(generic photo of a much better
squat toilet than the one i had)

Except for the bathroom. I’m shown my “private” bathroom, which is a cinderblock booth isolated behind the house. Inside is a squat toilet (and the plastic bucket used to flush), a deep rusty steel sink, and a small shower head in the middle of the ceiling. I will admit I’m a bit taken aback when I first see it. My host mother, who speaks no English at all, is rattling on in Sinhalese and nodding and smiling and what can I do but smile back and say thank you in my only two-word phrase I’ve learned so far.

In that first impression, there's one structural oddity I don’t quite see: the walls don’t meet the ceiling. They stop short about 6 inches and then the roof rafters angle downwards supported by bricks, leaving a nice gap so the heat escapes and air flows across freely … and anything can crawl to come visit. Among the numerous cockroaches and mosquitoes and the occasional rat, the most shocking guest made a nondescript entrance.

My first morning on the squat toilet (which by the way really is great for the natural flow of things to exit your butt) and off in the corner I see this gray, hairy predator staring at me with big black eyes (and a small group of small black eyes). I’m teetering over the toilet, naked from the waist down (Pantless? Well, yeah, if you’ve ever used a squat toilet, then you’d understand. For those who haven’t, well some things have to be discovered on your own.) staring at the biggest spider I've ever seen and not quite believing. It’s 1950s Sci-Fi Movie size. To give a real graphic description, hold your hand outwards and spread the fingers like a claw. That approximates the size of the thing; certainly large enough that I can see the fangs hanging downwards.

(yeah, like this ... only bigger)
Then it moves, in that slow motion creepy style, along the wall in my direction. I can’t really get myself up and out just yet -- mainly because I’m fascinated by the sheer terror the spider inspires. It glides over the concrete and inch by inch comes closer. Stops. Sizes me up and thinks “If I pull this off, I’ll eat like a king.” [Sorry, that line isn't original.]


Far Side:"If we pull this off, we'll eat like kings"

Well, I can’t just squat there and do nothing, so I grab the small roll of toilet paper and give it a toss. Nothing exceptionally malevolent. More like a shot across its bow as a warning. Whoops, that was a huge mistake for 2 reasons.

First, the spider reacts by running up the wall towards the ceiling and then through the gap with an incredible speed. I mean, I’m expecting the slow methodical one leg at a time movement, but nope. This monster covers over 6 feet in a split second, which makes sense if you consider it does have 8 legs scampering together. The speed! The agility. The pure ability! I admit, I let out a small yelp. And now with it out of sight, it’s only worse. The wall-ceiling gap is around the entire room. This speedy spider could appear anywhere at any moment. Ooooooookay. Enough for me. I’m up, throwing on my pants on and outta of there.

Oh wait, you say. I said it was a mistake for 2 reasons, didn’t I? Well, the second reason is that little toilet roll toss is a declaration of war. A war I’m not nearly ready for. And I don’t even realize it.

November 21, 2010

Peace Corps Moment – Movie Time – Poland 1998

(at the bottom of the stairs,
go left for the cinema.
go right for the train station,
straight ahead for Zabrze's PO)
There’s not much to do in downtown Zabrze, even though the population tops out at over 250,000. This subset of Katowice in southern Poland is more like a small country town than city. There’s a MacDonald’s. A few small stores. The bus stop. The Post Office. My school. And the movie theater.

Not just any movie theater, but a remnant of those years gone by when the screen is so wide you have to turn your head a little to see the edges. The building has maybe 500 seats, with an overhanging balcony that sits another 100. And, being Poland, there’s no need for all that extraneous safety nonsense; when the lights go down the room is pitch black until the film begins. The exit doors on either wall have thick chains wrapped around the release bars, padlocked shut. You may risk death to see this film, but you do so in grand style.

When I first start showing up, the staff are a bit taken aback. On a Saturday afternoon, I expect a line, but I’m the only one there. The clerk is unsure whether to sell me a ticket or not. But she does. Slowly, as the weeks turn into months, they get to know me. On days when they would turn anyone else away, I’m allowed in. Oh, I still pay my 12 zloty (about $2.50), but that’s fine. And, even more amazing, like all other European theaters the seating is assigned. Every time – for the entire 2+ years I live there – I’m required to choose my seat. 600 empty slots but I still have to make that decision.

Sure, on occasion, a more well known film has a handful of other viewers, but the majority of the time I’m by myself, sitting in the aisle seat of the third row, in the darkness of this cavernous room, eating popcorn and feeling a bit of a mogul. My own private screening of the latest release. Over the months, I go to everything that’s shown – sometimes out of desire, but mostly out of boredom. Makes no difference to me who or what is playing … I rarely know before I arrive. The posters go up every Friday afternoon, but it’s all a bunch of titles to me. I have no TV. No newspaper. No internet. So often I enter a movie without any of the hype.

Seeing a movie in this way is liberating.

Matrix is a complete shocker to me, with no idea of what I am about to see. Phantom Menace is also a surprise, but on the opposite end of the spectrum. I see Disney’s Tarzan and marvel at the animation while trying to decipher the Polish dubbing. Well, at least Disney puts some real care and expertise into it, where the characters on screen closely match the type and tone of voice. My Favorite Martian? Yeah, not so much; it is subjected to the usual Polish dubbing of a single, male baritone reciting each portion of the dialogue in the same unending, unemotional drone; the somewhat audible English plays underneath. Yet, that in itself is sort of funny, lousy movie or not.

It becomes an adventure to guess what a movie is about. Payback with Mel Gibson hints it’s a typical action flick, but turns out to be something funnier and darker. Fight Club drops on me like an atomic bomb and I love it. The Sixth Sense is amazing, because no chance of a spoiler. And yes, without all the buzz, I think The Blair Witch Project is an actual documentary, and it scares the shit outta me.

Nowadays, I’m so connected and updated about what’s coming out and who likes it and who doesn’t and plot twists. I’ve got internet and TV and movie magazines and friends and a constant stream of what’s happening nonstop. I’ve lost that exploratory wonder from those days in Poland. Movies are still good, but they’re not mysteries anymore waiting to unfold in the dark. I miss that.

November 20, 2010

At Sea – Egypt 2002

It’s the end of our second dive of the day and as I climb aboard the small yacht, I’m bored. How many small streaks of silver or grayish rock or parrot fish do I have to stare at before I finally admit to myself that only about 1 in 100 dives is worth the time. Each submersion is a lottery; I’m so tired of smiling and pretending that even those mundane moments are such amazing life experiences that I’ll write home and remember for the rest of my life. Please. Dozens of dives and I can no longer remember one washed out coral reef from another.

(don't we look so happy?)
 
Yes, my mood is borderline sour and it doesn’t help that I’m there with TT. A lull has settled over us; a span of time when I can no longer be devastated by this epic fail of a relationship. Neutrality is my goal, and rarely do I achieve it, but at least on this bright sunny day floating in the Red Sea, she looks so damn good in her bikini. I vaguely recall those feelings of lust and joy … more like remembering a movie I saw rather than what used to be us. Lately, her beauty only makes me more distant. More angry.

Yet, like always, I’m still smiling and talking about that great school of whatever that swam just near enough to still be indistinguishable. A couple of other divers talk about an octopus they saw and the rest of the small crowd gasps and oohs while we stow our tanks and pry ourselves out of the wet suits. Another dive. Another missed opportunity.

I move away from them to the rear of the boat. The surrounding water and sun is interesting, in its massive endless way. I watch the unchanging scene for a few minutes, ignoring the continual chatter of the others. I should be happy, I think. Even with TT and all that shit, somehow I should be having the time of my life.

In the distance, just breaking the waves, I see them at the exact same time someone else on the upper deck sounds the alert. Dorsal fins cut the surface and go under. Then reappear in a gentle arc and go under again. Dolphins. They are moving towards us. For a moment I’m terrified that they’ll see the boat and move away. That doesn’t happen. The fins continue to break the water, disappear, and reappear. They are headed to exactly where I’m standing.

This location is called Dolphin House, but we assumed that was the bait (and switch) for us paying divers. Just like other spots: Deep Blue (mostly gray-green), Coral Heaven (boringly mundane), The Hole (filled with nothing). So, even though I’m seeing the dolphins with my own eyes, I still don’t quite believe. But there they are.

Within a couple of minutes, three dolphins – two adults and child – are within 10 meters of the boat. No time to worry about air tanks or wet suits, we clumsily force our flippers on, grab our goggles and snorkels, and jump in. Rather than hesitate or shy away, the mammals (yeah, I can’t call them fish) approach us with ease; the three of them and maybe ten of us meet. The water is crystal clear and warm at the surface. I can see them so clearly: mouths open showing long lines of sharp little teeth, blue splotches covering their skin, and a certain active glint in their eyes. Their ease of movement is astonishing. While we humans flap our flippered feet and skinny arms, they swish around seemingly without moving a muscle. Tantalizingly close … an adult passes just outside my outstretched arm. I can hear the clicking under the water. The other adult approaches from the opposite side, keeping an eye on me as she/he slowly cruises by.

Suddenly TT is by my side and the two adult dolphins decide to whirlpool around us. We are the hub of this undivided attention. We gaze at them, bubbling with laughter … literally, as air escapes our puckered lips around the snorkel mouthpieces. They study us, bobbing their air hole to the surface to take a quick breath. My hand reaches out and TT takes hold, lacing our fingers together. Then from directly below, cruising out of the darker blue, the younger dolphin corkscrews upwards right under our feet. At the last moment, he/she arcs away, just avoiding the touch of our outstretched legs.

(not actual picture ... stolen from web)
Of course, the moment feels like eternity. These dolphins live in the Red Sea, free, untamed. They choose to be at this spot – they are not fed nor lured with any devices. They simply happen to be curious about the white awkward creatures that come here to jump in the water. Of the hundreds of square miles these three could be, they are here with me. And TT.

My god, for that one moment, holding her hand, and watching such magnificent animals, I love her again. I deeply, completely love her like once upon a time. Yes, intellectually I know it’s the immediacy of the shared experience, but I don’t care. She looks over at me and I see the same in her eyes, too.

The dolphins curve away to visit other swimmers, return to us for a minute or so, and then weave around our group some more. I lose all track of time, but I guess we’re together for almost an hour. Maybe less. The dolphins eventually have their fill and move farther out. We humans reluctantly climb back on board, pruned fingers, but at peace.

No one speaks much. Each of us has to process what has just happened. TT sits by me, in the sun, and without a word leans into my body. It’s such a comfortable fit.

October 15, 2010

Peace Corps Moment – Hotel Karma – Sri Lanka 1997

The clues are there all along. The way she's totally oblivious in casually interrupting others or stepping in front of the line. The tone of her voice when she wants to be snide or sarcastic. It’s all alarms from the very beginning.

Most of the Peace Corps Sri Lankan group of ’97 are youngish. Mid-20s is the average age and then a huge jump to the next group of the over-50s. I’m stuck in the middle; young enough to hang out with the kids and old enough to get the Hogan Heroes references. (If you don’t know who Hogan is, then this proves my point.) She happens to be a year younger than me, slim, athletic, funny, and thus it’s a mutual attraction, which simply screams: “Run away!”

There are only 25 of us, all whiteys in a country of very curious Sri Lankans. We stick out like rice on chocolate and after a couple of months, it gets to you. Being anonymous is not an option. Everywhere we turn, we’re the magnet to the almost-English-Speakers, and the helpfuls, and the kids. Constant staring. Whispers behind our backs. Yells from across the street.


 The lack of privacy makes our clique cling to each other. Of course, the escalating suicide bombing helps a bit, too. A small public bus explodes in a clutzy suicide bombing mistake; we huddle together and someone pulls out a joint. A trip downtown for a little shopping results in being mobbed by strangers; we hurry back to our little group house to let off steam. Everything is so strange; we are bored out of our minds. Jokes are funnier than they should be. Drinking is more urgent than needed. And everybody is aching for sex. Welcome to the Peace Corps.

So, she and I are the expected match. We hang out. We talk. We flirt. We do all those normal things, but in a quicken pace and desperate aura.

Okay, this is no excuse. I see the signs. I know the horrible ending before we even begin. But she leans into me and I let her. I don’t want to be in a relationship, having just escaped a terrible one in Seattle. I enjoy my new friends and spontaneity and not having to coordinate with anyone else if I want to hop a bus and swim in the Indian Ocean.

Yet, here I am in her hotel room, 11 o’clock at night, in bed but fully clothed, making out like teenagers. Gawd, I’m an idiot.

During all this, the reasonable voice in my head is tsk-tsking and saying “Get up. Get out. Walk away.” I know. I know. And believe it or not, I do exactly that.

Yes, in a moment of clarity and chapped lips, I say that I should go back to my hotel. She’s stunned. I laugh it off as not wanting to move too fast or something or other. I’m out the door – yes! I am out of her bed and walking along the open balcony on my way to the stairs. Soon I’ll be out the building and stumbling my way to the my little room across town.

Except the travel gods aren’t quite finished. Bad relationships are the crux of their mischief. The door to the stairs is locked. This is Sri Lanka, everyone, and a tinge of fear totally overrides any thought of safety. The miniscule chance of someone sneaking up to the third floor means nothing to the fact that in a fire, we’re all dead. The balcony is completely grated with iron lattice. No exit.

I stand in the darkness, weighing my options. I could pound on the door until the sleeping manager eventually drags himself up here. Meanwhile, every window curtain will part and the eyes will stare. Or …

I’m back in her room, shrugging. Laughing. And we’re kissing again. The travel gods are chuckling to themselves and the soap opera begins.

October 2, 2010

Tequila Scrabble – Palestine 2004

Arab-American University in Jenin is not really in the city of Jenin. It’s actually about 20km outside the city, next to the small town of Zababda, which is not really as much of a town as a street and handful of buildings. The University is surrounded by open, fallow fields and a few rocky hills. In Palestine, a mere 20km might as well be 200 — between the maze of crisscrossed unmarked dirt roads and the inevitable Israeli checkpoints, the trip to Jenin takes about 2 hours or more. On some days, you’ll never get there.

So the name doesn’t really do justice to its location. At night, looking out the window from the teachers’ dorm, the blackness surrounding the campus is only broken by a few yellowish lights from Zababda. Frequently, when even those lights aren’t on, the countryside loses all dimensions and flattens out like a Goth Monet.

So, what else would four English teachers do, but play Scrabble.

Obviously, from this post’s title, it’s no ordinary Scrabble game. The subtlety of our competitiveness (we never outright say we want to win, but you can see it in our eyes) is given a sharper edge with the copious amounts of tequila we drink. As the weekend night lingers on, the game becomes slower, a bit rowdier, and eventually interrupted by long, loud bouts of laughter.

The four of us are a good mix. We blend well together, bringing quite different backgrounds, opinions, barbs, and comfort. C&B are married and have this way of talking to each other like half the words are missing, but none of the meaning. Mich is the “sane” one of the group, which only means those lapses into the nonsensical are even funnier. And then there’s me. I bring the tequila.


We enjoy months of this: the four of us feeling happy and free and included. It’s our way of forming a protective bubble. As isolated as we are in the countryside of this country, we still need a little more insulation. We still need each other as examples of why we’re here. The uncontrolled laughter helps.

In the end, what makes these nights so memorable is that I really don’t remember much at all. Oh, of course, I have bits and pieces of images … pouring double shots into our collection of mugs and glasses, C being so tired (or drunk?) that she simply leans sideways to collapse onto B, B’s tendency for sudden impromptu guitar playing, Mich insisting that we allow “British” spelling or to just fuck off. But all these memories are so fleeting and unreal. I mean, they exist. I know they happened. But I cannot tell you when or how or in what order. Oh, except for one repeated event that remains crystal clear. At the end of every session, usually around 1a.m., I stagger back to my flat from C&B’s; this trek includes climbing the stone wall to enter the campus because I don’t want to wake the guard at the gate. Then, comes the slow lead-footed trudge uphill to my building, all the while looking at the blackness engulfing me and the stars above.

Yeah, I'm Back Posting ... Whatever.

The start of the semester had me scrambling. But now things are back to the usual lazy mode.

I'll be posting once or twice a week as the mood hits me.

September 8, 2010

The Canoe Trip, Part 3 – Boy Scouts of America – 1972

As usual with all 11-yr-old boys, the next day I bounce back to a semi-normal state of mind. At this age, you learn to get over those little things like total humiliation.

It also helps that the day’s plan was especially busy for me. As you may (or may not) know, one aspect of the BSA is merit badges. Those are little round fabric medallions which are collected when you accomplish certain tasks. There are all sorts of categories, mainly having to do with outdoor proficiency. One of these badges is hiking, or something like that.


To earn the badge, the scout hikes 5 miles on his own, using only a compass, to arrive at a predetermined location. Once there, the scout is required to set up camp using only the possessions he’s carried in his backpack. After a night, he’s to pack everything up and hike another 5 miles to yet another location. Accomplish all this, and you get a merit badge. Hooray.

So, 2 other scouts and I decide to give this a try and the morning is spent packing everything we think we need. This is much harder than it sounds; it’s 1972. Forget the modern tents of today. No polyethylene collapsible 3-man 1/2-pound tent for us. We have the thick canvas, metal poled, 2-man-only tent which weighs about 30 pounds. Since there’s 3 of us, we need to take 2; this is on top of all the other junk that little boys think they need when camping, like a complete set of pots and pans, manuals, enough food for a week, etc. After packing, one of the other boys couldn’t even lift his backpack. Not a great start.

That is until one of the other scouts offers a great solution. Instead of those bulky canvas tents, he suggests the orange “plastic tube tent.” The name sort of gives away the design, don’t you think? The idea is to thread a thick rope through this 5-ft diameter plastic tube and then string the rope between 2 trees. Instant bivouac. We shed the canvas tents and off we go.

[The internet is a wonderful, mysterious place. Look, I found a pictures!]



Taken to the mainland (once again using those wonderful canoes), we hustle into a car and are driven away. We stop some 5 miles away and the driver leads us into the woods. He gives us a rough compass direction and then leaves. Yes, he leaves 3 adolescent kids in the middle of the woods at 1pm in the afternoon. Bristling hot. Incredible humidity. No map. No supervision. No cell phones.

Sometimes I yearn for those carefree days when kids were disposable.

So, we take out our compasses, argue for a couple of minutes, wind our way to the road and simply follow it back the way we came…reality always overcomes the Boy Scout ideal.

It only takes us 3 hours to return to shore (remembering to pull our compasses out and emerge from the trees) and then by canoe to the campground. We’re greeted by a chorus of cheers, obviously somewhat sarcastic and somewhat surprised that we don’t require an emergency search party. The plastic tube tent (neato!) is quickly erected, the fire is rapidly started (matches!) and we cook up some hamburger. Eat a partly baked potato. And finish the dinner with lots of chocolate. Bedtime under the stars.

I wake up, oh around 4am. But it’s not the torrential downpour slamming the plastic tube tent (a miracle!) that rouses me. It’s the gurgling sound when I breathe, because half my face is immersed in water. In our haphazard camp, we position our plastic tube tent (hooray!) in a perfect angle downhill. The rushing rainwater is channeled by the plastic into a wonderful, 2-inch deep river. Our sleeping bags are drenched. Our clothes – no longer in the backpack but piled around us – are drenched. We are half-drowned.

Lightning. High wind. Our plastic tube tent (whoopee!) is distorted from the normal A-shape into something more amoeba-ish. In the dark, we hastily pile our clothes at the uphill opening of the plastic tube tent (phfth!) to guide the water around us. That works for a few minutes until the clothes become so waterlogged that the rain simply pours through them. In an attempt to get out of the waves, all 3 of us move to the higher end of our plastic tube tent (blah!). At least this keeps our heads above water.

Have you ever tried to sleep and swim at the same time? It’s harder than you think.

Our morning is not so great, as the fire is out and we’re exhausted. In the tried and true Boy Scout tradition, the smell of scrambled eggs and bacon drift over from the large campfire maintained for the rest of the troop – forbidden territory. One of us shrugs, shifts through his stuff and pulls out an unwashed plate. Off he goes in the obvious direction. Whoops, there goes his merit badge. The other one looks at me and joins him.

I take a moment. I’m surrounded by mud. Everything I need is soaked and caked in dirt. My fingers are white and wrinkly. Lastly, I have to pack everything and march another 5 miles? Alone?

And I really, really need to poop.

September 7, 2010

The Canoe Trip, Part 2 – Boy Scouts of America – 1972

With the whitewater near-death experience behind us, the calm cove we enter is the beginning of a larger lake, which has numerous small islands scattered throughout. My troop stops on the shore and has a quick cold lunch (except for the adults, who have brought hot soup in a large thermos) (okay, I’m making up the hot soup part, but it could’ve happened). After an hour of talking up the great adventure, and watching the 4 drenched scouts dry out in the overhead sun, we load ourselves into the canoes to head to the largest island. This is our camping ground for the first night.

Now, as we’re stepping into our canoes, another older scout approaches me and says, “Can you hold my glasses for me? I’m afraid they’ll fall out of my pocket with all the loading and unloading of the boats.”

I say yes.

Looking back, I wonder why. Why couldn’t he hold his own glasses? Why after a full morning of canoeing was he suddenly afraid that this short trip across the lake would be the downfall of his personal glasses protection plan? Why did he choose me, a boy 6 years younger than he?

All good questions without any real answers. Of course, it’s obvious where this is heading. Three hours later when the canoes are unloaded and the camp is in the midst of being set up and the sun is setting behind the trees to the west and the campfires are started because everyone is starving, he comes to me. By this time, I have already searched my pockets. I search them again. I have walked up and down the narrow dirt path from the shore to our camp. I’ve searched all the canoes. The light is fading, so I have a flashlight in my hand as I scour the bushes and mud and piles of leaves. Yup. I’ve lost his glasses.

He’s furious. I mean red faced, screaming, fists all balled up and waving in the air, yelling obscenities at me furious. The entire camp gathers around – how could they not?

I’m doing my best to apologize over and over, trying to explain how I’ve looked for his glasses for the past hour and can’t find them. Other scouts grab flashlights and walk the path and check the shore. His glasses have entered one of the notorious travelers’ black holes where things go to be mysterious never seen again – at 11, I don’t know about such things. I actually think there’s a chance that his glasses will suddenly appear. Oh, poor little naïve me.

Through all this, he continues to snipe at me with sharp words and sarcasm. There are moments of pure rage with a string of curses. There are other moments of muttering and sideways glances and threats. All the while I’m praying to the travel gods to help me out here. Just this once.

After 30 minutes of his wrath, his father steps forward. It’s the same father of the shoeless canoe mate; he has 3 sons in this troop and they all seem to carry a similar gene that curses their possessions. The father walks up to me and I think, “Now comes the really bad part.” But the man looks at me in silence and then turns to his son.

“Shut up!” he says loudly. His son’s mouth, half open with more threats against me, stays that way, but with nothing coming out now. “Whose fault do you think this is? John’s?” He motions to me, but is still facing his son. “He’s a little kid. Who in their right mind would give something so vital to a little kid for safe keeping?” He pauses. Everyone is quiet in the darkness. “No really? I’m asking you a question. Who?”

“I don’t know,” his son answers.

“Perfect answer,” comes the father’s reply. “Your glasses are lost and it’s your fault. No one else. Just you.” Seems the travel gods don’t completely abandoned me.

No one has anything to add to this. The crowd disperses back to camp, with fires to attend and meals to cook. I don’t join them. Through all of this turmoil, I stay in control. In front of all these people, I fight to maintain my composure. As everyone leaves, I head to the shore, sit on a log, face the lake, and then let loose. I bawl as only an 11 year old can.


Fifteen minutes later, the father finds me and sits down. He has a couple of hot dogs and chips on a plate, which he hands to me. “Eat up,” he says. “The world hasn't ended just yet.”

September 6, 2010

The Canoe Trip, Part 1 – Boy Scouts of America – 1972

Of all my camping trips, the 3-day canoe sojourn is the most memorable. Not for the scenic beauty of the woods – mostly I remember brownish, shallow water and lots of nondescript trees – but for the adventure that follows my troop around like a swarm of fleas.

Way back in the 70s, canoes were huge, hulking, steel containers– they’re constructed from steel and are about 10 ft long and weigh a ton. Okay, maybe not really 2,000 lbs, but to the scrawny arms of 11-year-olds, they might as well have been. I found a picture on the net that gives you a good idea what I’m talking about.

Now anyone planning a trip with 20 wild kids and 3 adult supervisors might plan ahead to make things easier. You know, like find a rental place so that the canoes wouldn’t be an issue. Maybe it’s just me, but I sort of find tying the canoes to the roofs of station wagons, unloading them at the campground, carrying/dragging them 200 yards through the woods to the nearest stream, and then mucking around in the mud trying to get aboard not exactly in the spirit of a fun. But then, I’m not troop commander.

So, groggy from lack of sleep and a 4-hr car ride to the wilderness, we are ordered to transport the canoes, our backpacks, extra food supplies (for the adults, not for us), and other misc crap through these wooded hills. The adults? Well, they have to drive the cars a few miles downstream, so that in 3-days time we have a way to get the hell outta here. The troop leader and his lackeys return coincidentally just when everything has finally been lugged to our destination.

Our destination? A narrow, slow moving stream. Sounds wonderful, you think? Yeah. Sure.

We load up the canoes and off we go, sometimes 4 boys to a single carrier. The stream is lazy enough and it’s sort fun at first, if you don’t mind the heat, humidity, and mosquitoes. After an hour, the banter between boats has stopped. After another hour, the boredom is intolerable. I’m not paddling; I’m laying atop the mound of backpacks and other junk in the center of our canoe, just watching the brown water. Occasionally the monotony is broken by one of the canoes getting too close to shore and tangling in overhanging branches. Yet, that distraction is only momentary.

Noon hits and still nothing. I can’t sleep because it’s so damn hot; plus, I don’t trust my canoe mates enough to close my eyes – the level of practical jokes is rampant in this troop. It pays to always be on guard. The boy at the rear of the canoe takes his shoes off, complaining that his feet are too hot. He comes up with this brilliant idea to dip them in the water, and then slip them back on. Except – and you see this coming a million miles away, don’t you? – he doesn’t quite make it to that end step. The first shoe is no problem. The second slips from his hand. Plop. Sink. Gone. The 3 of us sit, stunned. “Wait. Wait.” he yells. But you can’t really stop a canoe. The stream is deep enough and muddy enough that even after a second none of us are sure where his show fell in and where it could have settled. The boy calls out to his father, who happens to be one of the additional supervisors.

“Well I guess that’s tough shit,” he father says. “It was a dumb ass thing to do, wasn’t it?” Ah, another lesson, courtesy of the BSA. Oddly, I don’t remember how that boy coped the rest of the trip. I imagine he remained shoeless, cause it’s not like anyone carries an extra pair they’d have to backpack around.

The shoe disaster causes a brief respite from the boredom. The line of canoes are all atwitter as the story winds its way up and down the line of our armada. Everybody is laughing ... until we hear the roar.

The stream has widened a bit since dawn and now moving slightly faster. “Whitewater ahead,” the troop commander yells. And by whitewater, he means a series of rapid, frothing, crashing currents which include large jagged rocks popping up all over, fallen trees partially blocking the stream, and a 4-foot waterfall. I’m not making this up. It’s real.

“Just keep paddling,” the commander calls out. That, ladies and gentlemen, is the total extent of our paddling lessons for this trip. So the boy in front and the shoeless boy in the rear do just that. I lay there. And off we go.

I have only two distinct memories about the violent turmoil we find ourselves.

First, the front end of our canoe catches on a protruding rock, the back end swings around, and we continue down the watery rollercoaster backwards. Yes, including over the waterfall. I admit, we’re laughing the entire way. No helmets. A single life jacket buried beneath the cushy mound beneath me. But when you have no idea what you’re doing, it’s easy to just assume everything will be okay. After what seems like 30 minutes, but in actuality is probably 30 seconds, we cruise into a small cove where the water is almost perfectly quiet. Still facing backwards, I see one of the canoes get stuck on that very familiar rock, but instead of simply swinging around, it somehow wedges across the gap, like a steel canoe dam. The canoe behind it can’t stop, of course. Crash. The sideways canoe is broadsided and flipped. Four scouts pour into the water. The ramming canoe crunches over the obstacle and continues on its way, the riders laughing and screaming.

It takes 15 minutes to finally fish out the scouts and all their gear. The commander's furious and screaming at them. Why? Is it because they weren't wearing their life jackets? Nope. Is it because he was worried sick that they might drown? C'mon, you should know this blog better by now!

His reason for being so angry: half the steaks for tonight’s dinner are ruined.

September 5, 2010

You Do What in the Woods? – Boy Scouts of America – 1972

What I remember best of the BSA were the once-a-month weekend-long camping trips we make. Meeting up at some ungodly hour like 3:30 a.m. on a Saturday morning, and then cramming 20 or so kids into 4 station wagons (20 years before the birth of the SUVs), we drive a few hours to some out of the way camping ground for 2 days of outdoor fun. And by fun, I mean torture.

Let’s start out by saying that I’m not suited for the outdoor life. It’s not that I’m prissy. Well, for an 11 year old, I’m a bit sensitive. One of the impacts of these weekend trips is that I refuse to … um … how can I put this? I guess the best way is to be blunt: Unlike a bear or the Pope, I can’t shit in the woods. Maybe can’t isn’t the right term. I just don’t. Oh, I can piss without hesitation – thank the camping gods for the ability to stand and aim. It’s the other (separate yet equal) action of squatting behind some trees, trying to hold my pants out of harm’s way, and nervously looking over my shoulder for either an actually bear who might be doing likewise or, worse, my fellow boy scouts who are prone to practical jokes which is terrifying. Even in those rare occasions when we have a latrine – meaning a plank of wood over a feces-filled hole – I can’t stand the smell. And the spiders/rats/wasps crawling all over the seat aren’t too inviting either.

What this means is that I hold it in for the entire 40+ hours of hiking, camping, eating, scratching, etc. Oh, the first day is okay. And the long Sunday morning urination in the dawn mist does provide a certain relief. It’s usually after the big Sunday breakfast/brunch that my intestines begin to knot – plus the fact that our food isn’t quite e. coli free, because we’re required to cook for ourselves. Ah, many a seared finger and burnt shirt sleeve accompany our meal. Once, after a long day that has me starving, when I go to transfer my charred hamburger from frying pan to plate, it slips and falls. Not the pan. Only the hamburger. Mud. Sticks. Leaves. There’s no extra food. We eat what we bring in the true traditional Boy Scout “I got mine and you got yours” motto. So, I pick it up. Pluck off the debris. Plop it on my bread and eat away. Mmmmm. Crunchy.

This is one example of some of the truly disgusting food I scarfed down out of starvation during these weekends. Of course, this only “helps” my No Dumping Allowed policy. I distinctly remember times when I thought I might accidentally burst straight into my pants – yet for some reason, this terror wasn’t enough for me to head to the woods. So for the 2 years of camping, let’s say maybe 20 weekends, I forcefully stop myself from partaking in the normal digestive process.

Wow, seeing all this written down makes me feel more like I survived “Lord of the Flies” than a simple camping trip. And I have to scratch my head and wonder why. Why did I eat that filthy hamburger? Why didn’t I ask for help? Why didn’t anyone offer? And why couldn’t I simply suck it up and unload in the pine needles? I only remember that every Sunday evening as I return home, I sprint into the house and up the stairs to the bathroom, desperately hoping that I can make it the final few steps.




No one can really decipher the logic of an 11-year-old boy. Not even in perfect hindsight.

September 4, 2010

Boy Scouts of America – 1972

This week (Sept 4-11) is dedicated to the wondrous 2 years I spent as a boy scout traveling around to see the great outdoors. And by wondrous, I mean bizarrely frighteningly surreal.

First, for those who are younger than dust, the BSA of 1972 is not exactly the wholesome Americana you may assume. Well, at least it’s not in Memphis, TN, in a run-down old gym with a bunch of bullies, psychopaths, good old southern boys, and a small handful of confused young boys. My Troop 184 (Yes, I still remember that!) is all-white, all male, and all about the interaction that a highly testosterone environment brings to impressionable blank slates. At least, that’s what I remember in the haze of an emotionally scarred, spotty, Alzheimer’s, sort of way.





To highlight exactly what the BSA is about during this time, here’s a small example.

One meeting, forty of us huddle on the gym floor as a Marine sergeant gives a lecture. He's a Viet Nam veteran, but his topic is not about discipline or honor or even a pitch to enlist that small handful of misfits who have stuck around this troop at the ripe age of 17. Nope, his purpose is to show us guns: sniper rifles, M16s, shotguns, tripod-mounted heavy machine guns, etc.

As we all lean closer with rapt attention, he tells us the secret to the perfect shot. In his gravelly voice, he says, “When you shot a gook, don’t aim for his chest or head.” Yes, in my imperfect memory I explicitly remember him saying “gook.” And you all thought that's a stereotype from the movies! Then he continues, “What you want to do is shoot him in the shoulder or leg. Put him out of commission, but don’t kill him.”

Now before our young minds can possibly find a kernel of humanitarianism in this gesture, the Marine sergeant clarifies the real purpose: “See, then all his gook friends will come out to rescue this poor sucker as he lays there screaming. So as they pop out of the jungle, you have the opportunity to kill more.”

Yup. This is what we’re listening to at 11 years old. How to wound the enemy so we can kill anyone who tries to help him. That's the Boy Scout way.

August 28, 2010

Faces of Mine - Summer 2010

Money Saving Tip on Traveling ... and Still Impress Your Friends and Family - Summer 2010

Here's a helpful tip I use. It saves a ton of money and you can still have all the traveling photos you want.

Step 1:
Download a generic picture of any location you want your friends/family to think you're visiting.


Step 2:
Take a close-up of your head/shoulders by holding the camera an arm's length away.


Step 3:
Photoshop it!


Go anyplace. See everything. And never have to leave the privacy of your own home! Think of the money you'll save.

Note: It's wise not to answer the door when they think you're out of the country.

August 26, 2010

Best City – Summer 2010

BEST CITY
OF
SUMMER 2010






And the winner ... oh, c'mon. It's obvious, isn't it? Barcelona easily wins this category.


While the other cities have certain great qualities, Barcelona offers so much more. It’s really that good.



Best Meal – Summer 2010

BEST MEAL
OF
SUMMER 2010





And the winner ... has to be ... er ... what? This is difficult only because of the lack of real quality entries (or should I say entrees?). If I take away the location or the view or the price or anything else extraneous, I am left with the food. And this, unfortunately, does not leave me a lot of options.

Well, the winner is something nondescript but delicious. A simple salad and potato wedges from “Giraffe,” a small restaurant in London. Two things make this meal better than all the others: 1) I’m starving. 2) I don’t expect much and am surprised by how tasty it is. Yeah, it’s not really much of a recommendation, but this meal is enough to peek out ahead of everything else.

Best Walk – Summer 2010

BEST WALK
OF
SUMMER 2010





And the winner ... has to be Montjuic in Barcelona.


My determination to walk the entire way up the mountainside is rewarded by this view of Barcelona. Only faint bird calls, the hum of the wind, and the sun.


Best Nirvana – Summer 2010

BEST NIRVANA
OF
SUMMER 2010





And the winner ... has to be the award-winning video of the aquarium in Barcelona.


Though this is only a few seconds long, I sit in the darkness and watch the pattern of fish for half an hour. At least. It’s time to think of nothing. No cares. No worries.

Best Thrill – Summer 2010

BEST THRILL
OF
SUMMER 2010





And the winner ... has to be the rollercoaster ride in Stockholm.

Not much of a contest.

I've already posted this video 2 other times, but so what? It deserves another look.

August 24, 2010

Best Veggie Burger – Summer 2010

BEST VEGGIE BURGER
OF
SUMMER 2010





And the winner ... is not what you expect.

Of all the places I eat, and of all the veggie shacks I track down, the best vegetarian burger is found in the same restaurant in every city throughout the world: Hard Rock Café.

Surprise, surprise.

I’m not a big fan of the décor. I don’t particularly like the clientele, who seem more interested in buying the t-shirts than actually eating decent food. But the veggie burger is damn near perfect. It has the right texture, which is much harder than you might imagine. It's perfectly cooked. The spicy salsa is an extra bonus. And the fries are dee-lish.

Top 5 Videos - Summer 2010

[Top 10? That’s easy. Narrowing it down to 5? That’s the stuff of continuous debate.]

Some tough choices here, but I finally come up with my Top 5. See if you agree.



ET Modern Art – Barcelona


This video sums up everything I expect and want from modern art.



Peace at Aquarium – Barcelona


All I want is this video on a continuous loop, playing inside my head.



Something for the Ladies – Barcelona


Right time. Right place.



Rollercoaster – Stockholm


The kinetic energy of this video and the fact that I can’t seem to hold the camera in the proper direction is wonderful. Simply watching makes me want to ride again.



Godzilla vs. God – Rome


I find this funny every time, over and over. I’m in the Vatican, making freaking Godzilla noise. Is there a special place in hell for that? Nah. You can’t have Godzilla with God.


-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------
Bonus video, because I can’t seem to cut this list down to 5. Yeah, I cheated.

Birds – Dublin


Uneventful video until the scream at the end. I love the scream.

Things I Learned From My Trip – Planning – Summer 2010

  • Think ahead
My summer trip was a little haphazard. My only plan was 1) go to city 2) check out what to do and 3) do it. Fine, I suppose. But my next big city-tour (which is only 11 months away!) will be more mapped out. Instead of relying on the city to be interesting, I need to research a little more. For example, I’m thinking of planning my next summer tour around concerts; check out the schedules of singers/bands I want to see, and then plan my trip to that city. Or for a different aspect, maybe next summer I’ll do an “adventure tour”, planning around different stuff like bungee jumping, white water rafting, parachuting, etc. I think if I go someplace with a specific agenda, then I’ll get a bit more out of my trip, and I’ll still have time to walk around and soak in the local atmosphere.

Lesson Learned: If I had simply checked the calendar, I could’ve seen that concert!


  • Longer is not necessarily better
I visit 6 cities in 6 weeks. It’s fun. It’s crazy busy. It’s exhausting. Maybe it’s too much. I admit that I took time off while in Stockholm and probably don’t appreciate the city as much as I could. And yes, my week in Dublin is more of unwinding than adventuring. I’m not a youngster no more. I don’t have the energy to stay up until midnight to hit the clubs (By the way, since when is clubbing such a mandatory all-nighter? Back in my day, the dancing started at 9pm!) So, all this considered, my next trip might be shortened a week or two. Or I might deliberately book a week off to simply do nothing before moving on. This removes the guilt of gluing my lazy butt on the bed for a full morning and doing crossword puzzles.

Lesson Learned: Maybe I should change my “veggie-a-go-go” to “veggie-a-go-and-then-rest-a-little”?

Top 5 Photos - Summer 2010

[Top 10? That’s easy. Narrowing it down to 5? That’s the stuff of continuous debate.]

This is difficult. I have a great list of 8 photos, but finally pare it down to 5.

Moment of Serenity – Barcelona


I’m sorry this photo does not do justice to this little park, outside the mainstream tourist routes. The trees. The wind. The sunlight. It is one of those irreplaceable moments.

Polka Dots and Stripes – Stockholm


Many of you familiar with this site would have chosen my “Skinheads vs. Art” photo. I understand, as I went back and forth on this. However, I find the juxtaposition of the artist’s and viewer’s patterns to be cosmically coincidental.


Dome in the Pantheon – Rome


Look, I’m an angel here on Earth.


JC on My Back – Rome


Another of those moments when the stars align. The reality of the modern day priest with the surrealism of religion is perfect.


Me Psychedelic – London


I have at least 5 of these type of photos to choose from – me being somewhat surrounded by weird stuff. I find this one to be a great example of the moments I encounter.

Things I Learned From My Trip – Moneywise – Summer 2010

  • You get what you pay for
The most obvious example is my hotel room. Without really thinking it through, I book “single” rooms throughout my travels. Bad idea. Especially in Europe, single rooms are basically slightly bigger than a closet. You always hear someone say “I don’t plan to spend much time in my hotel anyway, so it doesn’t matter.” Well, unless your plans include sleeping in other people’s beds, then this is not true. The reality is that in a small, cramped, claustrophobic room, even a couple of hours can put a damper on your mood. Add to this the fact the even the slightest quirk is suddenly amplied 10-fold because there's no room to escape.

 
Lesson Learned: Spend the little more and book a double room. It’s only around $20/night extra, but that cash spent can make a huge difference.

 
  • Time is always worth something
Yeah, I’m talking about my flights from city to city. As I write about here, I come up with this brilliant idea to save cash: I book all my flights through Heathrow. On the face of it, this works out well for the wallet. Since Heathrow is a major hub, flights in/out are heavily competitive and cheap. I save close to $700 by doing this. However, what I do in reality is to exchange a reasonable 3-hour travel day (direct from city-to-city) for a 12 to 15-hour travel day, including layovers and connections and getting through passport control, etc. Every Sunday of my trip becomes worse and worse, and I head into the weekend with dread with the fear of a delayed flight throwing off the entire schedule, the fear of lost luggage, having to make 3 flights instead of just one, the fear of not having enough time to check-in again for the next flight. Ugh.

 
Lesson Learned: The simplest, most direct path is the best, regardless of the money.
 
  • Leave room in my luggage
This is actually something I did right. (I know! Can you believe it?) I use this summer trip as an opportunity to buy a few things in Europe that I can’t get in Kuwait. Or at least, I can’t get them cheaply. Not so much clothes, as Kuwait is filled with cheap outlets for shirts/pants. But other stuff like Xbox games, cds, books, etc. Some things are simply impossible to find here and this trip allows me to stock up on these items cheaply.

 
Lesson Learned: Do like everyone else does here when they travel, buy buy buy.

August 21, 2010

Loose Ends - Dublin 2010

Not much else to add to my handful of other posts about this city.

I don't take a lot of photos this week. I don't do a lot of seeking out adventure. I simply walk and observe. And relax.

So, I'll end with a couple of photos that mimic all my other "Loose Ends" posts from this summer.

The first is sunset on the river.



The second is gratuitous picture of myself for your collection.

Positive/Negative – Dublin 2010

Time to rate Dublin, based on my week here.

Overall Opinion: Sigh. I wish I had some great things to say about this city. It’s not bad. Friendly. Accessible. But nothing really jumps up and grabs me.

Maybe it’s just the end of my travels and I’m slowing down, a bit exhausted, burnt out, emotionally tapped.

Or maybe this city is good enough to walk about, eat at a couple of decent restaurants, and simply relax. That should be enough … it’s not. I find some peace in the beautiful park, but as for the city itself? Nice, but not memorable.
 
Positives
  • Calm – nothing here really makes your heart beat faster. This is a good thing, when you need it. I find the peaceful quality very soothing for a while. Might not be an everyday lure, but for now it’s enough.
  • Green – much of the city is natural, open parkland. This infusion of green is welcoming after years of living in borderline desert. Often, I take advantage of the opportunity to soak up all the cool refreshing greenness.
 
Negatives
  • Crazy Drunks – it doesn’t take long before I encounter the crazy drunk stereotype. Morning of my first day, waiting for the tram, I observe a rambling, staggering young man talking at lightning speed about everything and nothing. He talks to me. He talks to others. He gets on the tram and talks to himself. Out loud. Excited. Happy. But certainly confused. Every city has its problems, but Dublin has more daytime drunken encounters than any place I’ve ever been. Not really threatening. Sometimes a little begging for some loose change. But a definite craziness, like I’m never really sure if they’ll walk away or suddenly start twirling around with their arms outstretched. All you can do is wait and watch.
  • Crumbling – Dublin went through a really good economic period a few years ago. It lead Europe in job growth and production and money. Then … crash. The higher you go, the farther you have to fall. You can tell the damage done by numerous “To Let” signs all over. You can also tell by the boarded up stores and buildings. This city will rebound, but for now it’s taken a beating and the bruises show.
 
disclaimer

Now … Then – Dublin 2010/1990

Way back in 1990, RDe and I land in Dublin for 7 days. It’s the 2nd leg of our first overseas trip – a trip taken for considerable payment. London has us buzzing from the previous week, and Dublin greets us with a party.

Funny how little I remember of that time. I vaguely recall staying at a B&B, but could not tell you where it was. In fact, I recall little of what we do with our time. I’m left after these 2 decades with mental snapshots: Me in Stephen’s Green, posing for the camera, reading “The Dubliners” by Joyce, like this shows how I'm connected with the location. I believe it at the time. Another image I can remember is walking down Grafton Street. I’m amazed at the open walkway and stores and people. Yeah, never have seen anything like it.

Here I am in Trinity College 20 years ago:



I'm actually much happier than I appear in that photo - it's my serious, gazing into the camera look.

Now back to the present. I’m doing basically the same things. I go to Stephen’s Green (but no Joyce and photo shoot of myself). I weave my way through the throng of Grafton Street, now with typical chain stores passing on each side.

Here I am at Trinity College in 2010:



My emotions are not the same. Of course, not. What I mean is the difference is more pronounced than I expect. I’m not thrilled. I’m barely amused. Twenty years ago I'm all wide-eyed and bouncing off the walls. That past me is taking dozens of photos, and this is in the days of film. Remember that, boys and girls? Your camera clicks and you have no idea what’s coming out. The present day me is content and interested, but barely bother to take out my digital camera.

Dublin seems smaller, but not because this is my second visit. I go to London a lot, and I obvious adore that city. My mood shift is something else. Dublin has changed, but I have changed more. I’ve seen so much more. I’m not so easily impressed.

Is this a good thing or bad?

Self Portrait - Dublin 2010

Last city and I might as well keep up this theme.

The Slow Wind Down Continues – Dublin 2010

Next day, I head over to Phoenix Park for a picnic – I have the hummus, the bread, the chips, the Coke. The weather is rainy, cold, windy; I’m not really dressed properly for this. The picnic is good enough, but with the shivers and an urgent need for a bathroom, I leave after 30 minutes.

No big deal, I tell myself. It’s only a park.

Two days later, while looking at the Dublin map, I realize my foray into the Phoenix had barely nicked the corner. This park is huge; bigger than all of London’s parks combined, twice as big as Central Park in NYC. So, the sun is out, the day is open, and I decide to give it a go.

But this time, I do it the right way:



My foot somehow gets stuck between the pedal and the frame. By “stuck,” I mean wedged in so tight I can’t move my leg. So, as the video shows near the end, I’m whizzing about 50kph, camera in one hand, required to ride down the wrong side of the road, and traffic oncoming … I’m filming my own tragic accident for YouTube!

Ah, too bad. I survive. My internet fame will have to wait.



Actually, my problem is filming while being a klutz riding a bike.

Eventually, I ride my way to the center of the park and camp out in the middle of a huge field. In the distance are the park’s residents:





Something really peaceful about watching animals grazing. Then, after whiling away the morning, another bike ride:



Yes, for those of you wondering, bumpy ride + rock hard seat = sore butt.

I stop here because, of all things, this area reminds me of this



Nature’s Basilica, I suppose.

Overall, this park is gorgeous. It’s size is impressive, but there’s more than that, of course. It’s such a rare joy for me to simply feel part of nature again. To feel the grass between my toes and nothing but wind and bird calls in my ears – I’m a big city type of guy. I’ve always lived in large metropolitans. I always travel to population centers. I abhor camping [oh, the posts you’ll see about that in the future!].

So, this day of lazing around and watching the wind blow is perfect. A calm slow wind down of a crazy month and a half.



The Slow Wind Down – Dublin 2010

My first trip to a park here is Stephen’s Green. Small, beautiful, cozy, crowded. Peaceful.



And then cold, windy, wetish, and uncomfortable. But I do manage to get this video …



That scream at the very end is brilliant.

My Irish Friend - Dublin 2010

August 20, 2010

Can I Get Something to Eat Around Here? – Dublin 2010

Well, yes, I can! Here you get a 3 for 1 blog post on my veggie adventures in Dublin!

In the course of the week, I end up visiting 3 veggie restaurants while here. Actually, more like 2 ½. My first excursion, to a place called “Nude,” labels itself as vegetarian, but what it really means is we have a couple of veg dishes. I have the “Jumping Bean Burrito” and it's average at best. No pics, cause the meal just isn't that interesting and I only take pics of stuff that deserves to be seen.

Next day, for an early dinner, is this place:


Finally, I find a sit-down, “Let me take your order” veggie restaurant. The atmosphere is definitely upscale: fresh flowers on the table, candles, music that is sorta jazzy, sort of funk. I order … um … gosh, I can't actually remember right now. I think I start with spring rolls and then, er, … gee, I really have no idea.

Aha! This is the real thrust of the review. With all their effort at cool ambiance and fusion food and hip music, “Juice” ends up being so run-of-the-mill. Nothing really special. The restaurant certainly looks nice, but doesn't really stand out as different than any other small establishment. The food is certainly eatable, but not outstanding. Hell, I really have blanked out on my main dish (and I don't have my camera with me, so no visual reminders). This forgetfulness is either a sign of my oncoming Alzheimer's or tells you everything you need to know about the impact of this dinner. You can decide which.

Oh, except for one last thing. I order Tofutti non-dairy ice cream for dessert, that I remember. It's one of my favorite treats and tastes so much better than regular ice cream. I remember this because Tofutti is so delicious. By delicious, I mean, I remember it being delicious years ago, because after waiting 15 minutes at “Juice”, the dessert never arrives. It does show up on my bill. How nice.


The last restaurant I try is “Govinda's”.


Another buffet scenario, with an all-you-can-eat policy and huge plates. It's very Hare Krishna, with Indian paintings, happy clanging chanting music, and a staff who looks a bit transposed from a 60's commune. (Sorry, don't mean to stereotype, but really, how else can you describe the tie-dye shirts, the flowery pants that billow out above shoeless feet, and the beaded braided hair?)

For the low price of 8.50 euros, I load up on a ton of food.



It's really good. I'm not a fan of buffet – once again, the reason I go out is so someone delivers food to me, not so I can serve myself. Yet, I have to admit this place cooks some tasty offerings. The rice is superb. The veggie lasagna was dee-lish. Sure, as usual, when serving the masses from the same table, the cooks tend to downplay any wild spices. This makes the whole meal healthy but bland, which seems a common complaint by me.

However, bland as it may be, a couple of days later when I'm starving and in the area, I go back. It's easy. The staff is friendly (in that Hare Krishna the world's beautiful sort of way). And the food is filling and good. At times, that's all you need.

My ratings

Nude: ◊◊

Juice: ◊◊

Govinda: ◊◊◊