Category ►►► GlobeLoping
September 5, 2009
Virginia-DC Travelogue 1
Sachi has been stuck in Virginia for several weeks now taking a class, one which (we hope!) will lead to a promotion for her. But of course, neither of us is happy with all the traveling she has to do and time apart; so we arranged that I should fly out to stay with her for ten days, then return home to keep the wildfires burning.
We do this often; it's not much of a holiday, since Sachi has to work (or in this case, learn); but we get evenings and week-ends together. And it's relatively inexpensive, since the government is already paying for her hotel room, her rental car, per-diem, and of course for her plane tickets. All we need pay is my own transport plus whatever extra I eat (and any touristy things we do).
I flew out to Virginia Thursday; for some unfathomable reason, SuperShuttle insisted upon getting me to the airport three hours before my thoroughly domestic flight... meaning I had to awaken at six in the morning. I'm a night owl (vampire might be more accurate), and I cannot generally get to sleep before 3:00 am under the best of circs; so that gave me three hours sleep.
The flight wasn't long (less than five hours) and unusually smooth. (Hint: The least bouncy place to sit in a jumbo jet is directly over the wing; even in turbulence, you barely feel it. The worst place is in the back, just forward of the empenage... even in relatively smooth air, you'll feel like you're in an hours-long earthquake that the heirs of Charles Francis Richter would rate a 9.0). Arrived, picked up at Dulles by S., returned to hotel in wee, sleepy little hamlet halfway between D.C. and Richmond, hight Fredericksburg.
The weather was more cooperative than I expected for early September; it's warm during the day, but not killer hot; and it cools off at night. It's a bit humid, especially coming from Southern California, but not muggy.
It being evening -- and the village where we're staying rolling up its sidewalks before we usually even have dinner -- there wasn't much to do... but I did fulfill a longstanding dream of mine...
Growing up in California, barbecue was always synonymous with grilling to me. Even looking up the word in the dictionary usually elicits that false definition: "To roast, broil, or grill (meat or seafood) over live coals or an open fire, often basting with a seasoned sauce;" "A method of cooking by which meat, poultry or fish (either whole or in pieces) or other food is covered and slowly cooked in a pit or on a spit, using hot coals or hardwood as a heat source. The food is basted, usually with a highly seasoned sauce, to keep it moist."
This may have been true once, and it's still true (as a purely descriptive definition of how that word is used) in many parts of the country; but epicures of barbecue in the South and Midwest have decred the definition that barbecuing consists in smoke cooking... that is, cooking the food using smoke heated above 150°F, with the heat source indirect. (If the smoke is cooler than 150°F, it's called "smoking" rather than "barbecuing.")
At least, so sayeth the various barbecue mavins I've read. I first encountered this more refined definition, distinguishing barbecuing from grilling, a number of years ago while watching the Food Channel; since then, I never miss a show on barbecuing, few though they are.
Mind, I've nothing against grilling; I love to grill and eat grill -- steaks, ribs, chicken, cob corn, asparagus, and many other yummies. But I have long longed to try real, honest to Bog BBQ.
The problem is that I cannot find any restaurant in my normal stomping ground that serves it; SoCal is definitely not the haven of hickory or the Mecca of mesquite! Barbecue joints (or more commonly, BBQ) litter the ground like cigarette butts outside a gentleman's club; but inspection of the physical premises invariable discloses a gas grill and cans of liquid smoke flavoring... not a large metal cooking chamber with an external firebox.
I could buy a barbecue, of course; there are even places in California that sell the real thing; or I could buy online, as I increasingly do with many staples, from electronics to books to Bugs Bunny chewable vitamins. But we live in a condo... where on Earth would I put it or use it? We have a tiny balcony, where we have and use our grill -- much to the consternation and annoyance of our condo neighbors, who get nervous when they see a cloud of smoke erupt like Vesuvius from our terrace. But a real barbecue tends either to be much too large... or else so tiny, it wouldn't even hold enough ribs to feed four, as when we entertain.
But back to Virginia; this post is all about Virginia (and Washington D.C.)... remember?
By the time we got back to Fredericksburg, the collection of mud and wattle huts where Sachi's hotel lurks, all the good restaurants were closed. We tried to get to a place called Virginia Barbecue, but we didn't find it -- which may be related to the fact that we turned the wrong way on Highway 1 and set off south when we should have been headed north (all you Rebels out there, cover your eyes!) In any event, when we called them to get straightened out, we discovered they had already closed before we even set out, so it was a bad job all 'round.
We slunk back towards the hotel and our eventual dinner: leftover chicken from the bag of goodies I brought on the plane, so I wouldn't have to eat airline food... worse, nowadays you must pay for the privilege of eating nuked frozen glop only marginally better than Deadly Dennys. But halfway back, a miracle happened, or at least a bit of good fortune: We discovered a restaurant still open for dinner, despite the fact that the sun had set.
Amazingly, it was a barbecue restaurant -- real barbecue! I'm sure it wasn't the greatest exemplar; anyplace called "Dave's Barbecue" can't be all good. But at least we got to taste real barbecue for the first time.
Sachi got the ribs and I the chopped pork; but that was just a formality, as we shared, of course. The smokiness permeated the meat like nothing I'd ever tasted before. I don't normally like what it pleases Southern Californian restaurants and grocers to misleadingly call "smoked turkey," "smoked cheese," and so forth. I love smoked salmon (lox), but it doesn't taste particularly smoky to me; and in any event, that kind of smoking is at the lower temperature (below 150°F).
But there is something about barbecuing that impregnates the smoke flavor all the way to the bone; I now know viscerally (literally) what I only knew intellectually day before yesterday: That I had never before tasted actual barbecue. We plan on buying a house soon, to take advantage of the collapse in real-estate prices and the low interest rates; and when we do, the very fourth thing I do will be to buy a bona-fide barbecue, probably the kind made from a split 55-gallon drum.
(The first three things will be to replace the flooring with hardwood, replace all the plumbing fixtures, and install a water filtration system at the main -- Aqua Systems, Culligan, something like that. After the barbecue, the next thing will be a professional quality oven-stove.)
The meat was barbecued with just a spice rub; they added some kind of moisturizing baste right at the end. They also had several kinds of sweet, homemade dipping sauces, all of which I tried. The one I liked best was called "Devil's Spit," but its hotitude was disappointingly mild. I think I prefer salty sauce better anyway, though I've only tried Stubbs. That's another reason to look forward to my own barbecue: I can really start experimenting with rubs, bastes, and sauces.
Next day (Friday), while Sachi was at class, I drove around and located Virginia BBQ (which I think is probably just on a par with Dave's), as well as Allman's, which I found out via interrogation and waterboarding is the place where all the locals go. But we didn't have time to sample, as Sachi wanted to leave for Washington as soon as she got back from class, to avoid the traffic.
Actually, as I predicted, it wasn't too bad; Laborious Day week-end does not generally produce a massive influx into the city; it's the exodus outbound that is of Biblical proportions. In fact, traffic exiting D.C. was at a virtual standstill for mile after mile, while the only time we had to slow down headed north into the District was when an accident caused a brief (less than one mile) ball-up.
We arrived at our D.C. hotel in good time -- Courtyard by Marriott Embassy Row; it's a nice hotel, especially as it's free: Sachi stays in so many Marriott hotels during the year that she has accumulated enough frequent sleeper miles that we were able to "pay" for the entire stay with otherwise worthless units of unmoney... which may shortly be an equally apt description of U.S. Federal Reserve notes, if Barack H. Obama has anything to say about it.
Washington is rather muggier than Fredericksburg, but still not dreadful. The traffic is light, because everyone has already fled (supra). We have a car and several maps, but we're going to walk as much as possible (and use the Metro for longer trips), because the hotel parks and retrieves all cars via varlet parking, requiring twenty minutes notice... just like in Perry Mason, in which the Beldar of the days of yore is always telling Della Street to "call for my car!"
Paul Mirengoff, the "Ringo Starr" of Power Line, who works in D.C. during the day (I think he camps on the street during the hours of darkness), recommended a restaurant called Grillfish, where we ate last night -- Sachi and I, not Paul; he and his brood wisely skipped town, ostensibly because it was a holiday week-end, but possibly also so as not to be harrangued for hours on end by the Lizards on obscure and wearying political topics.
Paul recommended wisely: We got the mixed seafood grill for two, with Sachi getting the side pasta and I the house salad. The food was excellent; I thought the balsamic vinigrette on my salad especially enticing, much superior to what's usually passed off as restaurant house dressing. The grill comprised shrimp, scallops, salmon, seabass, and some other fish I neither recognized nor remember from the menu description.
The grill marks were nicely colored, but I found out some time ago that "grill" in this sense generally means a couple of minutes on a real grill to "mark" the food, followed by oven cooking; 100% grilling tends to take so long that the food dries out. Regardless, it tasted very good: The fish was firm but not chewy, the shrimps crispy, the scallops -- well, not quite buttery, but certainly a long cry from the deep-fried wads of mullosk-flavored batter that you get at Red Mobster or Outhouse Steakhouse -- we won't even mention Chizzler in polite company. (Alas, there are no good American seafood places within easy driving distance of our home in California; there is an excellent Chinese seafood restaurant in Monterey Park, though that's about a half-hour away.)
As you might guess from the foregoing, when Sachi and I travel, food is a primary object: We especially love eating dishes we've never before sampled... which means that so far, the holiday is going swimmingly... and we haven't even hit the National Mall, the National Gallery (which is on the N.M.), or Mount Vernon yet!
Must finish this off now, as we're headed off to do those very things. Until next installment, adieu, adios, and arrivederci.
May 16, 2009
Our Big Fat Greek Wedding Party, part β
We got home before sunset (just barely, about 8:30), and we decided to eat some more of last night's fried fish. For some reason, I was totally drained; despite my firmly announced intent to stay awake until 10:30 at least, I fell into bed about an hour before that. But Sachi was disturbed by a raucus celebration next door. When someone opened the gate of our villa and parked his car directly in front of ours, she decided to march out and find out what was going on.
She returned excited, urging me up and into outdoor clothing: "It's Tadis... his son is getting married, and they're having the wedding party right now! -- and they've invited us!"
Grumbling, I scaled the side of the bed, dressed, and headed after Sachi, who was tugging me forward like an anxious Akita at the end of a leash (what will she say, I wonder, when she discovers I analogized her to a dog?) But it turned out to be the highlight of the trip so far.
It was an honest to Artemis big, fat Greek wedding feast. All the women had gathered in Tadis' house and cooked up a number of dishes; prominent among them, though not exhaustive:
- Wild goat stew;
- Roasted rooster (I hoped it was the damned thing that had awakened us every morning at 4:00 since arriving);
- Rice cooked in the fat of (surprise) goat and rooster;
- Spinach pie;
- Broadbeans and steamed sprouts;
- Home-baked Greek bread (pretty similar to Italian bread);
- Figs in heavy syrup (seems to be a staple);
- Some sweet pastry I can't identify;
- Lots and lots of home-fermented wine, one bot of which had been aged since the birth of the lucky son, thirty-eight years ago.
Bizarrly enough, the talk in our section of the table swiftly turned to a discussion of Greek contributions to philosophy three thousand years ago and a comparison of sixties rock to seventies progressive rock (I held out for the primacy of the latter, to general derision).
One point that struck me is hinted above: The groom, Manos, is 38 years old, and he's just getting married now. The marriage and children culture of Greece, in fact all of Europe, has changed so radically, it's virtually unrecognizable. The wedding feast comprised two types of guest: the very young, from childhood until early twenties; and the old, sixty and more. I don't recall seeing a single "middle-aged" person in his thirties or forties (Manos himself was off with his new bride).
I believe this points out the tragedy of Europe: It is dying. More precisely, it's committing suicide by demography. Mere replacement fertility rate is about 2.1 live births per female, but Greece has 1.36, just over half; thus, each new generation is about half the preceding... a cultural death-spiral if ever we saw one. If they don't reverse this trend very quickly and begin breeding at least as fast as the Moslem immigrants in that country, Greece, cradle of Western civilization, will become a Moslem nation in 20-30 years.
I hate the America Alone imagery of the Mark Steyn book, but it's tough to argue with the facts. My only caveat is that I believe the West will awaken before the terminal phase, while Steyn believes the last throes are already upon them.
In any event, we ended our day happier and more wistful, full and yet drained. Just as we were drifting off to the Land of Nod, the real celebrating began: The guests and host began firing rounds into the sky to celebrate renewal of life... a custom that long predates the Moslem invasion of Greece. The only thing we have done today (Sachi had to work in the evening) is lounge around the beach and swim in the Med; though we did have a miraculous lunch of Cretan rabbit stew, a porkchop the size of Delaware, more stuffed grape leaves, and a dish that neither of us had ever imagined before: boiled cucumbers and steamed spinach in olive oil and lemon juice.
Tomorrow, it's ho! for Iraklion/Heraklion, the city of Herakles (Hercules to the Roman upstarts), and the adjoining major Minoan archeological site of Knosos, capital of Minoan Crete and legendary site of the palace of King Minos -- and the labyrinth below it which contained the Minotaur. The Crete chronicles shall continue...
Our Big Fat Greek Wedding Party, part α
Crete is a sympony of thundering dogs, tumpeting roosters, yowling stray cats, baying fishmongers, and loadcasting Greeks gathering with friends to discuss the day's triumphs and defeats over homemade Greek salad, heavy bread, and handrolled cigarettes. At this season it's chilly in the dawn, steamy in the sultry afters, noisy and cool at night.
There is no morning; or if there is, nobody observes it. The day begins at noon, as the restaurants open and the stores flip their signs. Even the shade is bright, caroming off the cushion of brightly painted buildings (primary colors) to sink in the eye pocket. Greece is a typical Southern European country with lusty men who yet produce few children, hot-tempered men and women who yet don't fight: It may be too hot, or else it's too humid, or then again it may be too cold.
Picking up where we left off in Chania, after leaving the internet cafe, we set off for the inner harbor -- past the Mosque of the Janissaries (with its hideous concrete dome, it looked less like a house of worship than a kiosk dispensing travel insurance), hooking east towards the restored arsenals. I was hot to see a promised carefully reconstructed Minoan galley (ca. 1500 B.C.); but we had to wait... for a reason never clearly explained, the museum opened at 10:00, closed at 3:00, then reopened at 6:00 and closed again at 9:00. As we were still in the window of darkness, we decided to eat dinner first.
Taking the advice of the Rough Guide to Crete, we dined at Apostolis 2 (just three doors down from the original, Apostolis 1). There we split a fried-fish platter and the omnipresent Greek salad (tomatoes, cukes, and a feta cheese much looser than I'm used to having). Everything was excellent; and as with the lunch restaurant, they served free and unexpected dessert. This time it comprised two items (mixing and matching was in order): figs preserved in heavy syrup, and yogurt accompanied by a different syrup, this one made of rose petals. Each was more delicious than the last. Raki -- brandy-like wine fermented from the skins and stems left over from grape pressings -- was also freely handed out (as at nearly every Cretan restaurant, taverna, and cafe).
Every meal we've had in Crete so far has been accompanied by fried potatoes (we would say "steak fries"). The waiter at Apostolis asked Sachi if she wanted fries; always wanting to know her options, Sachi asked what the choices were besides fries. "Fries or no fries," explained the waiter succinctly.
We had plenty of fish left over, so we had it for breakfast next day. I should take a moment to describe it more fully (if it seems I'm dwelling on the food, that's only because it's one of the facets of travel I love best). The basket contained a mix of shrimp, squid, red snapper, sardines (sardella), and a slightly larger fish than the last, with an orangish tint. There was also octopus, but that alone was grilled instead of fried. The snapper had bones that required surgical extraction; but for the rest, one simply pops the entire beast into one's mouth -- head, tail, gills, suckers, tentacles and all -- and grinds away with one's molars.
In the morn, we decided to do some local exploring. We had noticed a sign in the village from which the mountains of villas sprout; "Ancient Aptera 2 km" it read. Since a major reason to visit Crete is to ponder the Ozymandian collapse of ages past, we decided to see what Ancient Aptera entailed.
Driving through scenic, rolling hills of scrub and some greenish-purple, heather-like plant, past the modern Aptera (relatively speaking), we eventually found the archeological site in question. What astonished me was the aeonic range of architecture. The oldest ruins were from the 8th century B.C., before the Hellenic period of Greece; but there was also a monastery dating from more than a millennium later at the same site! Shortly thereafter, Ancient Aptera was destroyed by an ancient earthquake... else I'm sure it would still be there, its taverns asking customers whether they wanted fries or fries with their mousaka.
The site includes Greek burial chambers; a Byzantine fortress; a Persian fortress; Roman sisterns; Christian churches dating from when Arthur War Duke still reigned over parts of England; Venetian and Florentine coins; Ottoman cannon emplacements; and Nazi pillboxes. It was well worth our expedition (we could even have walked from Villas Manos), but our presence was required in Chania once more.
For lunch, we returned to the scene of the crime, Apostolis, with a couple of Sachi's accomplices and had temera -- I think -- which is a porridge of yogurt, fish roe, and olive oil, along with souvlaki -- shish kabob, more or less. After some more sight-seeing (while I was at the internet cafe again), it was time to drive back to the villas.
Driving in Crete is a true adventure, particularly in the cities. First off, in Greece generally, speed limits are what separate locals from tourists, and the center line is only a suggestion. One drives at the right edge of the lane; when a car inevitably races up behind, one pulls further over until the right wheels are actually in the emergency lane. I think the reasoning is that the impatient chap is going to pass you anyway... so you might as well make it quick and painless, with a minimum of driving on the wrong side of the road, by giving as much room as you can.
In general, Cretans seem to be good (or at least skilled) drivers; but today, en route to the small town of Kalive, the cops went roaring past us on the National Road; a kilometer further along, we saw a car flipped upside down in a ditch along the right side, with police trying to extract the driver -- or at least ascertain whether it was a rescue or a recovery. So it goes. Sachi was nervous behind the wheel for the rest of the day.
It appears impossible to obtain a proper street map of any Cretan city, likely because the streets change names every couple of blocks (like in Ireland). But it would be useless, since next to none of the streets have visible steet signs anyway. Those few that do are sometimes labeled in both Greek letters and Roman script; but the most important always seem to be the former only. While I can usually sound out Greek words in peace and comfort, I require less pressure than while trying to navigate through a city of back alleys and narrow closes at breakneck speed, and more time than is available in the fleeting flash I get as we roar past.
The only way to get to any "there" from one's current "here" is to look at the larger map, note the general direction of travel -- Chania is northwest from the Souda Bay/Chania exit off the National Road, for example -- and then combine ingenuity, a compass, and brazen ruthlessness to stick to that course (ignoring do-not-enter signs as required). Eventually, one should reach a part of the city one recognizes.
To be continued...
May 13, 2009
Cretans to the Left of Me, Cretans to the Right...
Yeesh, it's just like in the U.S.! (Oh, wait -- the domestic variety would be cretins, a whole 'nother thing entirely.)
We set out at about 3:45 am Monday morn (or as Sachi calls it, "zero dark thirty"). Got to the airport in plenty of time and whisked through security; but even so, the gate agent was unable to change our seats to something other than "stuffed in the back like excess sardines."
When we got the reservations, we naturally arranged for seats: right ahead of the wing, a window and the one next to it. But at some point, the carrier -- whose name I will not mention anywhere in this post -- decided to change "equipment" (that is, the airplane) from a Boeing 757 to a Boeing 757 (don't ask, becuase I can't tell; I don't get it either!)
When they did, they simply dumped all the previous seat assignments and arbitrarily changed our seats to the empenage (look it up)... and of course they didn't tell us, despite having our e-mail address. In any event, even when I found out, they refused to let me change over the phone or internet; "Just tell the gate agent when you get there, and he or she will take care of it. None of the seats are assigned, so you should have no problem."
On a completely unrelated note, a pure non-sequitur, remind me never to fly Delta Airlines again.
So we bounced and rattled all the way to New York City (first leg of the trip). The same thing happened there, of course, and we were stuck clinging to the rudder again for the trip from NYC to Athens, Greece (not Georgia), second leg; this time, it was about eight and a half hours of Shake 'n' Bake. No sleep.
In Athens, we had a three-hour layover... so we tortured ourselves with some airport food -- which is every bit as savory and delicious as its American counterparts. I had a ham and cheese sandwich. It was crumby... literally, the bread was falling apart.
But at last we rode the final leg across a little snippet of the Mediterranean to Chania (or Hania) airport on the island of Crete.
I must admit, it was a dreadful flight (and I'm very much not looking forward to the return trip in a week, all alone this time... Sachi must stay here for business reasons for a few more weeks). But what's past is prolix, especially when I write it. And once here in Crete, things began to look up rather decidedly.
We're staying at a villa (actually a duplex, with a different person related to Sachi's work in the other side of the villa)... it's achingly beautiful, with a polished stone floor and hardwood ceilings, a swimming pool (too cold to swim in), and an amazing view of Souda Bay. The opalescent water here is Magritte blue; I don't know how Disney does it!
Today (Wednesday), our first full day here, we drove into the city of Hania -- second largest city in Crete, after Heraklion/Iraklion -- and we're now wandering around the Old City... a maze of twisty passages, all alike: tiny alleys (you can stand in the middle, stretch out your arms, and nearly brush the walls on each side). We saw a collection of Byzantine art, ate at a wonderful taverna (see below), and we're now at the Notos internet cafe on the waterfront of the outer harbor, directly opposite an ancient stone lighthouse.
Lunch was spectacular; we started with three appetizers:
- Tzatziki, which is yogurt with cucumbers, olive oil, and garlic;
- Stuffed grape leaves with sour cream, the best I ever tasted;
- And a mixture of melted cheese, red peppers, and the ubiquitous olive oil, blended into a mixture the consistency of thick oatmeal... wonderful!
The main course (we shared one order) was lamb cooked in a savory mushroom and gouda cheese (why not feta? oh well, can't have it all). It was ambrosia to me, to stick with the Greek motif, since I love lamb.
Speaking of food, last night, in the village just below the villa, we ate grilled rabbit, some kind of sausages, and moussaka. I tried ouzo, but one taste persuaded me that I will avoid it from now on; it tastes very strongly of licorice, a flavor I just dislike for whatever reason. But the rest of the meal excelled.
We also tried raki, a snapps-like drink; according to Answers.com, raki is "A brandy of Turkey and the Balkans, distilled from grapes or plums and flavored with anise." Anise also tastes a little like licorice, but it's much milder a flavoring. We got some again to wash down today's luscious lunch.
The prices are very reasonable... and you just can't beat the atmosphere. Today's lunch was in an open-air agora-like space with tarps covering it, hung all about with Greek and Turkish thingamabobs. Sure, it was touristy; but what the heck, we're tourists.
Later today, we're going to the archeological museum, and then we'll see a reconstruction of an ancient Minoan ship. The Minoans were a sea empire that predate the Hellenistic Greeks by some 1,200 years. It's possible that a great catastrophe -- perhaps the eruption of the volcano Thíra, a.k.a. Santorini -- destroyed the Minoan civilization; although Thíra was not heavily populated, it's only 70 miles north of Crete, the center of the Minoan empire... and the eruption was so staggeringly huge that it could have created a devastating tsunami that wiped out the cities and palaces on Crete. In any event, shortly thereafter, the Greeks took over the island... and a few hundred years later, they propagated the legend of Atlantis, which could be a folkloric memory of that explosion and destruction.
That's as much as is practicable or desirable in the way of travelogue; a good host always knows to leave when they still want you to stay (rather than the other way 'round)... so adios until the next time we can find internet access here.
May 11, 2009
In Just a Few Short Hours...
In just a few short hours, Sachi and I will be winging our way to Crete, the largest of the Greek Islands and once home base to the Minoan sea empire.
(Actually, the hours will be regulation, 60-minute intervals. I don't know what came over me.)
Neither of us has ever been to Southern Europe before, so we can carve another notch on our intercontinental travails.
According to my calculations, we should be able to maintain connection to the blogosphere via a nearby internet cafe... so we hope to bring you a couple of travelogue posts, along with at least some of our usual astute (or destitute, or ill repute) political analyses. I'll be back in a few days to pick up the shards and pieces of our shattered dextrospherical dream.
July 18, 2008
If you're wondering why the posting schedule has been so flakey (as opposed to the posting subject matter, which is just naturally flakey, nutty, fruity, and in general, like a box of libertarian-conservative granola), it's that we're currently on holiday in the Great White North.
(We once went on holiday in the great white whale, but it was too damp.)
At the moment, we're in Calgary, just back from the last two days of the Calgary Stampede. The Stampede calls itself in the "greatest outdoor show on earth," hoping this will be sufficiently different from another slogan that Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey won't sue. Unquestionably, however, it's the largest and most famous rodeo in the world; and I've wanted to see it for decades.
We finally seized the lariat this year, and a stint for the final week-end occupies the first part of our holiday. The second part, which takes place at the very moment you're reading this (unless you're a very slow reader), comprises a six-day horsepack trip through the Canadian Rockies, of which the kindest thing to say is that they look remarkably like the Colorado Rockies, except whiter and somewhat more socialist.
Last night, we watched the finals of the chuckwagon races, which were followed by a massive show that was a bizarre interbreeding between a rowdy nightclub act, a show at Disneyland, a 4th of July fireworks display in a smallish town in Ohio, the Circue du Soleil, a junior-high glee club, and a 1970s performance by Up With People.
(Today we saw the finals of the rodeo competitions: the rope and tie, bareback bucking bronco riding, steer wrestling, saddled bucking bronco riding, and "bucking" Brahma bull riding -- how come nobody ever says bucking anent bulls? -- but I'll talk about that in a day or two.)
The chuckwagon races were a new experience to me; I've watched rodeos on TV and even a couple of small ones around where we live; but I've never seen hot-rod chuckwagons before.
For those of you who have never watched Wagontrain or Bonanza or Gunsmoke, or indeed any Hollywood western made between the 1960s and the days of Tom Mix and Cheyenne Harry, a "chuckwagon" is the transport vehicle that followed along behind the drovers and the cattle on cattle drives, carrying the food, the cookpots and implements, and the cooks. Linguists believe this gave rise to a common expression for something that typically happened after the chuckwagons did their magic; but what do linguists know? They also claim, the cads, that the line "out, damned Spot" from the Scottish play refers to Lady MacBeth's pet leopard.
I suppose in days of yore, chuckwagon races used real chuckwagons; but nowadays they race specially designed wagons with little mini canvas coverings, all painted and bedecked in the logos of the traditional corporate sponsors of the wild west era -- Tellus Long-Distance Phone Service, the First National Bank of Canada, Canada Dry, and the Liberal Party.
In a very Canadian touch, the wagons all begin facing the opposite direction from where they're headed; at the sound of the horn, the first thing they do is turn around, attempting to smush various barrels dotted strategically around the start-finish area. They're usually unsuccessful, leaving many of them standing.
The wagons tear off down the course, each trailed by three hysterical cowpokes on laconic cowburros whose job, apparently, is to race after their wagonmaster with items and stuff he forgot; the sight of the red-faced, whip-wielding pokes spewing violent profanity as they try to move their lazy asses brought tears of joy to the audience's eyes.
There appears to be some rule that the pursuers of the winning wagon must stay within 150 feet of the chuckwagon itself -- that is, close enough that with a titanic heave, they can hurl the forgotten goods ("Those Left Behind") onto the chuckwagon's tailgate. Judging from the triumphal parade after each race, these goods include each wagon's "backup driver," or else the driver's wife (who would be the backseat driver)... or so I surmise, since the wagons only have one driver during the race; but when they come round again, he has a somewhat flustered and rumpled wife or perplexed partner seated next to him.
I forget who won. I doesn't make any difference anyway, because the chuckwagons don't have any food in them.
Speaking of food, we did remarkably well at the Stampede: We only ate a single bison rib each, and then we split a barbecued beefwich... spending a mere $70 Canadian. Oh, I forgot to mention: Sachi had a lemonade, whilst I drank a cup of peach juice; this accounts nicely for the money spent.
The chuckwagon races began at 8:00 pm sharp and finished at 10:30 dull; how many times can you watch little horsedrawn wagons fling themselves around a track at breakleg speed, with cookery and crockery strewing out behind like Toyota engine parts after you go over a speedbump, before your mind begins to wander?
So we were rather pleased when the rilly big shoe started about 11:00; it ran until midnight; then some more until about 1:00; then they decided they had a few more acts that hadn't had their chance yet -- did I mention the motorcycle stunt jumping on stage? -- so they continued on till about 2:00. By 3:00 am, we decided we had had enough, even if they hadn't... so we firmly turned our backs on the Bavarian yodeling society, the Chinese acrobats, the full-scale reenactment of Noah and his ark (the unicorns didn't make it aboard; so now we know), three guys named Pete who were having a beer-drinking and rump-kicking contest, a piper named Johnny Bagpipe who played Van Halen on the pipes, and an international chess championship -- all performing simultaneously with the Greek chrous, to general befuddlement -- and we wended our way to bed.
One of those is a real act from the show. I won't tell you which, but it turns out I actually knew him from 27 years ago, when I marched behind him in greatkilt and pike while he played a medley of "Scotland the Brave," "the One-Shoed Policeman's Jig," "the Flagellating Lepers' Reel," and "Star Wars."
This being Calgary in the summer, the sun was just setting as we staggered out the gates and into the waiting arms of a "courtesy bus" to downtown; due to traffic, we arrived only a little later than if we had walked. But all in all, a wonderful time was had by all, especially the Bavarian yodelers, who got the Chinese acrobats to bounce over the heads of the guys named Pete and beernap their kegs.
In the distant future of Sunday or Monday, I'll tell you about the strange scoring system of Canadian rodeos, in which everyone gets the same number of points, no matter what. I hope this little chat has been informative, and that you don't ever do it again or you'll be grounded, young man.
January 7, 2006
Upcoming on Big Lizards
We just put up our first movie review in the Movies section of the website; but regular readers of Big Lizards have already seen it.
It's my review of the Peter Jackson remake of King Kong, appropriately titled King Kong Died For Your Sins. I also added a new drop table on all of the pages in the Movies section to take you to the Dragon's Eye Movie Reviews page or Der Krapp, and a drop table under the Dragon's Eye to take you directly to various reviews as they're ready. (Naturally, it only takes you to Kong right now; "patience the way of the Jedi is.")
Our co-author, Brad Linaweaver, has just become the publisher of a magazine called (I think he said) Cult Monsters, which I imagine must have sprouted from Cult Movies -- though I'm really not sure. He is currently in the process of negotiating the electronic rights to his several decades of political and other nonfiction writings that have appeared in the National Review, the Atlanta Journal Constitution, Chronicles, and many other publications. As he gets permission to do so, we will be adding these articles to the Big Lizards website as part of the Memorial Brad Linaweaver Historical Preservation Project.
And this weekend, we'll be adding Sachi's "Underway" travelogue to the English-language travelogue pages under the Sachi-Land section of the website. I will be flogging the poor girl until she gets busy translating her wonderful Grand Canyon travelogue, hitherto only available in Japanese, to English for the rest of us. I'm dying to read it myself... I want to know what happened to us!
In the meanwhile, we just came back from the pseudo-Danish village of Solvang (right next to Buellton, home of Anderson's Split-Pea Soup), where we spent a very pleasant couple of days and took lots of pix, testing out our new Nikon D50 SLR digital camera (for which we just got a 2 GB memory chip). We ate at A.J. Spurs, where they served me the best steak I've ever eaten.
We took a memorable horseback ride for a few hours through the hills and forest about thirty miles south of Solvang; it included too much trotting for Sachi, but she might write a post about it this weekend anyway. Here is a visual sample to whet your appetite:
Sachi ready for the roundup at the Triple R
Busy times here at Lizard Central!
November 21, 2005
Underway: This Ship Rocks!
"Secure all your items. We are expecting rough seas." The Project Engineer, a no-nonsense former Navy chief, warned us repeatedly before this voyage about how bad it could get where we were going. But this was my fourth underway (hey, I'm an expert!), and I had never experienced anything worse than little bit of wave action. None of my equipment had ever so much as shifted. He's being a little overcautious, I thought.
Then, on the fourth day of our voyage, bang, it happened: the ship began doing some sort of acrobatic manuevering. It rolled violently, and unsecured stuff started to cascade to the deck, crashing and smashing and bouncing around the room where I was monitoring some equipment.
A huge ring binder full of paper, weighing two or three pounds, tumbled from above me. It would have crashed directly onto my head -- except that the "unsecured" lawn chair I was sitting on started to slide across the floor with me in it. The binder thumped to the deck exactly where I had just been sitting.
I was sliding so fast, I was afraid of slamming into the bulkhead, which had a number of pointy things sticking out. I grabbed hold of the handle of a piece of equipment and jerked myself to a stop. That was close.
On previous ships, I've seen a chief ream a sailor out for having an open liquid container inside the computer room (or a loose item anywhere). The chiefs always seemed unreasonably anal about this... until that fourth day. But I want to make one thing clear: the unsecured items that fell in my workstation were not mine. My stuff was totally secure... except for my lawn chair and myself, that is!
(I have to bring my own lawn chair, because all the chairs in the room are bolted down, and none is bolted down next to where I put my equipment, of course. So unless I want to stand for hours at a time, I have to bring along one of our fold-up lawn chairs that we use when we go horse camping.)
My work on the ship is not especially physically demanding; I don't have to haul heavy equipment across the ship or bend steel with my bare hands. But just walking around inside a vessel underway requres you to be reasonably fit.
Counting from my work station, the bridge is five decks above us. The stairways connecting these floors are steep, almost like ladders. At the top of the each stairway, there is a hole called the scuttle, about the size of a manhole. Every single time I went up the stairs, I banged my knee on the edge of the scuttle.
Sometimes, the scuttle is closed, and the stairs are not accessible; you have to use actual ladderways. If you thought the staris were steep, the ladder is, well, vertical. Before exiting, you have to spin a wheel or move a latch to heave open the very heavy hatch above your head. Throughout the course of a day, I go up and down these stairs and/or ladderways many times. Since I have weak knees, I have to watch out.
Travelogue detour: Once, I was hiking in the Grand Canyon, along the South Kaibab Trail from the south rim down to the Colorado River (about 4000 feet of vertical descent over seven miles). I was wearing a pack that was way too heavy. Steps had been carved in the trail, but not for us humans; the steps were there to make it easier on the mules that also used this path. They were mule-sized steps, which means very much too large for people.
Not knowing any better, I went down the steps. Worse, I stepped down with my right foot every time, instead of alternating. Dafydd was walking around the mule steps, but he didn't think to warn me and I didn't think to ask him why he was doing that. After a few miles, my right knee started to ache so bad, I could hardly walk. So naturally, I started thumping down with my left foot each time!
You can guess what happened: by the time we reached Bright Angel campground (just near Phantom Ranch), both my knees were in total agony! They didn't stop hurting for days. When it finally came time to hike out back to the rim, I said "thank God we're going uphill for a change." Everybody thought I was very strange, but my problem wasn't lack of strength or running out of breath; it was my knees, and especially banging down on them while descending. Going up just didn't hurt so bad.
So the moral is, when you come to mule steps, just walk around them. But let's get back to the ship.
The passageway is very narrow. Two people cannot walk side by side; therefore, when someone approaches going the opposite direction, one of you has to flatten himself to the bulkhead. But you have to be careful where you do this, because pointy things are usually poking out from the wall. If you're not carefu,l you can stab yourself in the back. Since my berthing, where the ladies' head (bathroom) was, was far from my work station, I had to negotiate this narrow passageway back and forth a lot.
I kind of enjoyed this little bit of exercise. When you're stuck in the bottom of the ship, it's good to get out and walk around sometimes.
But it does get a little tricky when the ship starts to roll. Walking on a rolling, pitching ship gives you a strange sensation: as your foot comes down, you expect it to hit the deck at the certain time. However if the ship is pitching up, your foot smacks the floor sooner than you expect, and it feels like you're climbing a hill (and you are). When the ship tilts downward, you step out, but suddenly there is no deck! Untill you get used to the rythm, you stagger around like a drunken sailor.
Taking a shower in rough seas is also interesting. There is a handle inside the shower stall; I often clung to this bar and braced myself against the back wall.
I've heard that Japanese ships of this type have huge Japanese-style bathtubs. I don't see how they can use that; wouldn't the water slosh out with every roll and pitch? The waves would be worse inside the tub than out on the ocean! But since all Japanese military ships ban women anyway, I'll never find out.
November 19, 2005
Underway: Living Quarters
When I ride on a co-ed ship, I sleep in the same room with enlisted girls. In quarters the size of a typical living room (they call it "berthing"), about thirty girls sleep. There are ten three-decker beds, two tables, one TV, two toilets, and a shower.
The beds are narrow and only six feet long (if you are a tall guy, you have to sleep folded up). The ceiling is so low that you cannot sit up without splitting your skull. You literaly have to crawl into and out of the bed. They don't call these racks "coffin beds" for nothing!
Most sailors don't want to sleep on the top bed. Therefore, when a civilian like me comes aboard, that's where she is most likely to be assigned. This was actually fine with me. Although climbing a ladder up and down while half asleep is not a easiest thing in the world, the top bed has much higher ceiling. For a claustrophobe like me, it is actually better. (Besides, I don't have to worry about somebody above me getting seasick in the middle of the night, if you know what I mean.)
When that many people live in such a small room, you notice a lot of things: smell, sound, lack of privacy. Even though the berthing is cleaned every day, the odor of thirty people can get overwhelming, especially as I have a very acute sense of smell. There are cans of air freshener everywhere, and the girls use it obsessively; but it only masks the smell and makes it even worse! Also, everyone uses her own flavor of perfume and deodorant, so that the room is always filled with some sort of weird, sweet odor, like rotting flowers. A dog would go crazy in there!
The ship is always noisy. Different pieces of equipment are making all kinds of noise all the time. Our berthing was right next to the engine room, so we heard the lullaby of the ship's engines clanking and grinding all night long. Also the berthing was same level as the ocean surface, so I heard the waves lapping at the hull, which was actually rather soothing.
None of these sounds bothered me. After a while, I forgot they were even there. I sleep very soundly anyway (Dafydd sleeps with one eye open, and he's never totally asleep, it seems).
The only thing that really bothered me were the gazillion alarm clocks. Sailors have many different shifts: some get up at midnight, some at 3:00 a.m., and so forth, and everyone sets his alarm accordingly. From midnight through six a.m., I was awakened every hour, on the hour, by somebody's stupid alarm clock. And of course, since each person's clock is slightly off from all the others, a bunch of alarms go off within few minutes, creating a bell curve of sleep deprivation.
Some people don't wake up right away, and their alarms keep ringing or buzzing for seemingly minutes. For god's sake, get up already! I thought to myself. It was impossible to sleep through the night even for me. And of course at 0600, the good old reveille sounds!
I never set my alarm. What's the use? With all those bells and beepers going off, I couldn't tell which one was mine anyway. So everytime I woke up, I checked the time and just got up when necessary. I was never late.
For some people, the lack of privacy is really an issue; but it turned out for me it wasn't. When ten people try to take a shower, go to the bathroom, and wash their faces, all at the same time, you cannot be embarrased about anything. Girls burp and fart in front of everyone and don't care. (I did try to avoid eating anything that could produce gas.)
Some people just put on headphones and zoned out, hiding in their racks with the curtain drawn... did I tell you each coffin bed has a curtain? Me, I just sat at the table and read. I finished three or four books, so the underway wasn't entirely wasted!
I work for the United States Navy as a civilian engineer. What I do requires me to be on ships a lot, but most of the time, I simply visit the ship at a port or shipyard. In fact, in four years of my Navy career, I never had to go underway untill this fiscal year started, and I joined a new project team.
When I thought of riding a ship, the first thing that worried me was seasickness. I am prone to some types of motion sickenss: I get car sick, air sick, and even a Disneyland ride can make me sick. I heard horror stories from my co-workers, some of whom said they carried around "barf bags" everywhere they went. Some guys were sick even before the ship left the harbor, and one guy was actually helpless with seasickness while the ship was still tied to the pier!
One of my co-workers got so dehydrated, he had to be treated with an IV drip. Needless to say, this job is not particularly popular amongst many of the engineers... and I think some of them use their weakness as a weapon: since they get seasick, they don't have to go underway for weeks at a time, without even being able to call home, like I have to.
The problem with getting sick on a Navy ship is that, for obvious reasons, you can't get off the boat. If the ship is not too far from land, they can helo you out; but otherwise, you're just stuck. And the on-board medical personnel cannot do much for a civilian; they're not authorized to give you anything much more than aspirin, unless it's a medical emergency.
The first time I went underway, I was really worried about being seasick. I brought enough Bonine pills to last for two weeks and took them religiously for the first week. Although Bonine is not supposed to make you drowsy, I felt like I was half asleep all the time. Every time I sat down, with the combination of the Bonine and the rocking motion of the ship, I was out like a light... and the Navy takes a dark view of people falling asleep on watch, military or civilian.
I finally had to give up and stop taking the pills -- and then it turend out that I don't get seasick at all! Even in a rough ocean, when some of the sailors themselves were down on the floor holding their heads, I was perfectly fine. At one meeting, a young officer was giving a presentation. Suddenly he stopped in the middle and fled to the bathroom. (What do you do if you find out you're prone to seasickness after you enlist in the Navy?)
Dafydd tells me ginger pills work well, according to Adam and Jamie on the show Mythbusters: they were the only non-pharmaceutical cure that actually worked for Adam Savage, who has a terrible problem with seasickness. I should recommend that to my coworkers. That way, they will have no more excuses for not going underway, and I won't have to go so often.
November 13, 2005
Hawaii Blogging 3: Kayaking in Kaneohe Bay
On the last weekend before I had to sail away again (I'm still working, you know), we decided to do something adventurous: we would kayak on Kaneohe Bay and visit an island a ways offshore. I made a picnic lunch, and we started off.
Dafydd always talks me into these "adventure" things. I would be happy just lying on Waikiki beach for a week! There was the time we collapsed from heat exhaustion on the North Kaibab Plateau in the Grand Canyon, in 120+ degrees in the shade (no shade, of course). Or the time we were riding over the crest of the Fernandez trail in the Ansel Adams Wilderness, and it was so steep that as we descended, my head was actually hitting the horse's butt. That was the same trip where a bear prowled around our campsite during the night; I woke up Dafydd and told him there was a bear outside, and all he said was "let it get its own tent." He thought that was hilarious. Our nature trips are always... interesting.
We drove to a Kayak rental place called Go Bananas on Kapahulu Avenue. The store clark briefly (very briefly) showed us how to securely lash the kayak on top of the car. Then he gave us life jackets, seats, paddles, and a "dry bag," which was supposed to keep stuff inside it totally dry. He made us sign all sorts of legal notices and agreements. I foolishly read through them and started to get a little bit nervous: Kayaking can be dangerous, kayaking can be physically challenging, you can't sue us no matter what we do. etc. I asked Dafydd, "what if we capsize -- then what?" He assured me the bay was perfectly calm; besides it is so shallow, we can practically walk. We are wearing lifejackets; if we capsize, we just get wet. No big deal.
I wasn't totally reassured, but the boat was already attached to the car, so what could we do?
We found the Kaneohe Bay without incident, but hauling the kayak from where we parked the car to the pier was quite a challenge. Dafydd told me that the rental guy said the boat only weighed 70 pounds. I have had a quite bit of weight training, and have no problem carrying 35 lbs. I tell you after struggling with that thing that it ain't no measly 70 lbs!
After bitching and moaning for a while (just to get in the mood), I grabbed the lanyard at the front and helped Dafydd carry the kayak a long, long, long, long, long way to the boat-launch... only to find out we carried to the wrong place! We were supposed to launch at the "canoe beach;" but of course, we had no way to know that. I looked at the long pier and said, "since we're already here, let's just use the boat-launch. It's more convenient." My real motivation was that I was not about to carry that thing across the parking lot again. We launched and paddled furiously, hoping to avoid being run over by huge power boats. Our goal was to reach Kapapa Island about 2 .25 miles frome there.
At first, we were going pretty slow. But after a while, we found our rhythm and paddled fairly well. Dafydd told me that there was a sunken island on the way. I didn't know what he meant until I saw it: the color of the ocean changed, becoming much lighter there; and the water, which had been too deep to see bottom, was suddenly very shallow. Below us, I saw sandy beaches, coral, and some little fishes. It was like we were floating over a regular, dry-land island.
Dafydd wanted to walk around on the sunken island a bit, so he jumped out of the kayak. Big mistake! When I turned around to see what he was doing, I lost my balance, and boom, hit the water. Now we were both in the ocean.
Dafydd might have thought the water was much shallower than it actually was. It was about four feet deep. Four feet of water does not seem like anything. But when you're wearing a life jacket in the ocean with some wind, you don't have much control over your body. We bobbed around like couple of corks, and our parka, water bottles, my T-shirt, and whatever other gear wasn't lashed down went floating away from us.
We caught up with the parka we'd taken in case it rained, my shirt, and one water bottle; the other drifted off, never to be seen again. But we were still in the ocean and not in the kayak.
Getting back aboard was not as easy as we thought. First, I tried to get in it by holding on and putting one of my legs over the side. But all this managed to do was capsize the kayak. On the second attempt, Dafydd held the other side of the kakyak to keep it from capsizing while I climbed on top of it.
After a major struggle, I managed to get back into the kayak. Now it was Dafydd's turn. He told me to lean over the left (port) side when he climbed over the starboard. But when he told me to lean, I leaned too much and fell into the water again. Oh, I was so mad! We were right back where we started.
Then we thought it might be more feasible for Dafydd to climb back on board first, then pull me over. He got back in, he pulled me up... then somehow, the kayak flipped the other way, dumping us both in the drink again.
I started to get really scared. We were more than a mile out; what would happen if we couldn't get back into the boat? On the third time around, I struggled in safely (we had gone back to the mode of Sachi clamboring up first). Then Dayfdd got back in and slowly inched into position. I kept striaght up and didn't throw my weight around, and "Finally!" Then the kayak started rocking, I panicked and leaned too much to the side.....again, we were in the water.
Dafydd said to me in exasperation, "OK, Sachi. You climb back in first. When I climb in, no matter what, don't move! Stay stil." I was almost panicking at this point. I don't remember what exactly we did, but we mananged to get back in the kayak safely this time around. Amazingly, my sunglass which were not tied to anything, stayed on my face this entire time. The only thing we lost was an unsecured water bottle.
By that time, I had lost interest in going to the island. I was so scared that we were going to capsize again, that I just wanted to go back to the shore. But Dafydd would have none of that. "After all that trouble, you just want to go back? That's ridiculous. Besides," he added, "you'll be mad at yourself if you yield to your fear, just because we capsized a few times." Then Dafydd made the killer argument: we were more than half way to the island. That meant it was quicker heading to the island that going back to the shore -- and that made up my mind for me. Well, after few more minutes of coaxing and getting me out of panic mode. We headed toward the island.
It's hard to believe, but the most of the way to the island, the water is only a three or four feet deep. However, when we got closer to the island, we got caught in a wave "crossfire": the waves from the open ocean would hit this tiny island and wrap around, making a kill-zone of breakers from both left and right as we approached.
The guidebook had warned about this, but it's one thing to read about it and another to be in the middle of it. The waves made it really hard to steer; but at least the water was shallow, there was no danger of falling out of the boat. In fact, in another few paddle strokes, the water got so shallow we just climbed out of the kayak and pulled it to the island beach.
What had looked like nice, soft sand from the water turned out to be smashed up coral; I slipped on the slippery stuff and fell and cut my wrist. But I was happy to be on the ground again!
On the island, a young man with some sort of british accent* helped us carry the kayak out of the water, because I was too exhausted. He said he and his kayaking club members were camping on the island. When we talked about how calm the ocean was on the outbound trip, he warned us that the weather could change very quickly. Unless we were going to stay overnight on the island, we should not linger. So we quickly ate our sandwiches, took some pictures (our camera had nicely survived the repeated dunkings, being sealed inside the "dry bag;" I got some nice pix of a baby bird nesting inside a hollowed out rock), got the British guy to take a couple of pictures of the two of us, and then loaded up and pushed out into the water again.
Coming back from the island was much easier, since the current and wind pushed us towards the shore. Every so often, a wave would sneak up behind us, and we would find ourselves unexpectedly surfing! The only trouble we encountered was running aground over the very shallow part of the sunken island. Some parts were only a foot deep; I saw many tourists walking around only ankle deep in the middle of the ocean.
There is only about a half mile between the sunken island and the shore where the water is deep enough for power boats. On the one hand, this was good, because we did not have to worry about capsizing anymore. But on the other hand, the water eventually got so shallow that we could hardly move. (I think the tide had gone out since we paddled over this stretch going outbound.) This got worse and worse as we got closer to the shore.
After about four hours of constant rowing, interrupted only by the brief rest on Kapapa Island, we finally came back to the pier. We had to struggle to get the kayak up on the car roof. I especialy had a difficult time, and again, some total stranger lifted my end of the boat for me. We managed to secure the kayak (we thought), even though we didn't quite remember everything the store manager had said, and off we went. However, once on the H1 freeway, we noticed the kayak was defenitely shifting to the left. Dafydd told me to pull over, and just then, we heard a loud scrape as the kayak shifted hard left. It turned out we forgot to run the tie-in straps through one side of the kayak! After all this trouble, if we had lost the kayak on the freeway, we would have had to cough up at least $500.
After restrapping the boat right there on the freeway, we got back in the car. By mutual assent, we agreed not to tell the rental-shop manager about our screwup. "But you can blog about it if you want," Dafydd said -- and so I did.
When we got to Go Bananas again, it was 5:30, seven and a half hours after we rented the kayak. The store clerk who examined the kayak found some trivial "damage" on the rudder and immediately began talking about how we might have to replace it -- for $250! Dafydd looked at it and said it didn't look all that damaged to him. It was nothing a quick bend with a wrench wouldn't fix, he said. Dafydd and the clark argued for a while, then the clerk got the store manager, who had to make the final decision. After looking at the rudder, he went inside a shed... and came out with a crescent wrench and bent the bar back into place. No charge.
One last point: just for our future reference, we asked the manager how to get back aboard a kayak when you've capsized. It turned out we were doing it all wrong. It was amazing that we actually managed to pull ourselves aboard the way we did.
When we got back to the hotel, we both noticed that we were covered with scratchs and bruises, abrasions and bites. We were too pumped to notice them before. My muscles got so stiff and painful, it was difficult to walk to a restaurant for dinner.
But it was an adventure... and after it was over, it was really fun in retrospect!
* Dafydd says the guy was South African.
November 12, 2005
Hawaii Blogging 2: Manoa Falls
Before the this Hawaii trip began, we were planning on hiking almost everyday. However, one week is too short to explore all of Oahu. Not to mention that I had to show up at work every morning, only to be told there was nothing for me to do that day. Well, finally we had a chance to hike, although it was a short one.
Only four and half miles away from Waikiki Beach, toward the mountain (or hill) where Manoa Road ends, there is a rain forest. It was aptly named: as soon as the road turned upward toward the moutain, rain started to pour, startling us... the Ala Wai canal area we just left a mile back was totally sunny. We wondered if we should actually hike today; but it had been raining off and on like this every day since we got here. If we didn't hike today, we never would.
After driving a couple miles on the winding Manoa Road (Dafydd insisted on calling it "Manure Road"), we got to a dirt parking lot. There was a man sitting under a big unbrella attending the lot. The skinny Japanese parking attendant said the weather has been like this all week and would not likely change. "After all, this is a rain forest," he explained with a smile and a shrug. So we sprayed ouselves with insect repellant, and off we sloshed.
The entire trail is only two miles round trip. From the same trailhead, there is the much longer and more strenuous Aihualama Trail. But that one was closed due to the weather. Since it was a little too late in the day to start a long hike anyway (we spent longer at the U.S.S. Missouri than we expected), we were OK with the shorter.
The vegetation of this forest is like nothing I have ever seen. We felt like we were in Tarzan's forest, and at any moment, he would come swinging by on a vine. According to the guide book, the large trees are kukui, African tulip tree, guava, and mountain apple; Dafydd thought he saw mangrove, too. I cannot tell you which tree was which; but I did recognize palm grass and ferns, and vines hanging like giant Spanish moss from the trees. This really is a jungle. We are so used to a desert mountain hike, this was quite a difference!
The muddy trail follows a babbling stream on the right which makes a soothing sound. We wondered whether there were fish in the stream, but the stream was too muddy to see anything anyway. The temparature was a perfect 80 degrees, but the rain persisted and even got worse. When I saw a large palm that looked like a giant lotus leaf, I suggested we should use that as an unberella, just like the Japanese Anime monster Totoro did in My Neighbor Totoro. After a while, we could not tell if the water dripping into our eyes was sweat or rain.
The moderate slope is not a challenge for serious hikers. But the trail was wet and very slipperly. The reward for this slidey hike is at the end: the Manoa Falls. It's tall and skinny like Yosemite falls, making a perfect splash 150 feet down a sheer cliff to the pool below. We sat down on a bench by the pool and opened our lunch. At that precise moment, the heavens opened with a deluge. Dafydd covered his sandwich with his hand to avoid soggy salami, while I quickly shoveled the entirety of my own into my mouth, almost choking on it.
We wolfed down the food and decided to head back immediately. The trip back was worse than the trip out, even though it was all downhill. Especially because it was all downhill! Muddy tracks that were passable by fast lunging on the way up became a Winter Olympics slalom course heading back down. Our shoes were quickly caked with mud, and we lost what feeble traction we had. We should have worn water skis!
"We should just jump in the river and swim back," I said; "maybe it would dry us off."
The rain was heavy enough that we couldn't really even see the forest for the streams of water in our eyes. We slogged down and down, somehow staying on our feet. And finally, we reached the gravel part of the trail, then the wood planks, then gravel again... and then before we realized it, we were back at the parking lot. The Japanese man had turned into a Hawaiian girl, but she huddled under her drooping umbrella and didn't say anything to us. It was just as well. I don't think I could take another "alooooooooooooo-HA!"
Just as we got to the car, Dafydd said "oh good -- it stopped raining!" I looked up; he was right. I hadn't even noticed, because the water was still streaming from my hair across my eyes.
Everything we were wearing was soaked. We looked like big stacks of rumpled wetwash. We washed our hands with the bottled water we hadn't drunk and slid into the car, dripping all the way back through the sunshine to Waikiki. It was the best day of the vacation so far!
Tomorrow, we're going kayaking in Kaneohe Bay and the Kahana River. I bet it'll be drier.
November 8, 2005
Hawaii Blogging 1: the Polynesian Cultural Center
We are in the Island of Oahu, Hawaii. My work brought me here for a week. (I declined the opportunity to go to Norfolk Virginia and picked Hawaii instead. That was a hard decision.) Since I am already here and have a hotel room and a rental car, Dafydd decided to join me.
Today, we drove to the northern part of the island to visit the Polynesian Cultural Center. The main reason for the visit was to eat Luau and see a show. But on the way, we stopped to see a famous Buddhist temple called "Byodo-In."
This is a scaled-down replica of a Japanese temple found in Uji, much smaller than the original. The serene scenery was emphasized by the prosaic, almost hypnotic buzz of a gasoline-powered hedge trimmer.
The temple itself is not particularly interesting, but I was very impressed by the jagged mountain behind it, shrouded with greenery. It looked like the giant Roc from the Sindbad stories had clawed the side of the mountain! The fog over the spearhead crags reminded me of old Chinese brush paintings. The temple also has the world's largest carved Buddha not from ancient times; it was carved in the 1960s, laquered in gold, and then covered with gold leaf.
A pond curled around the front of the building like half a moat. But instead of sharks or crocodiles, it was filled with koi (big Japanese goldfish; actually, they're a kind of carp), some of them humongous. I guess tourists have been feeding them like crazy; when we stood still and looked at them from a bridge, a huge mass of them noticed us and crowded around, their mouths wide open. I imagined them saying "feed me!" like the plant in the musical version of Little Shop of Horrors.
A black swan was also in the pond, pecking at something invisible on the bank. It was floating oddly higher than the waterline, and it suddenly occurred to us that it wasn't floating at all: it was standing on the backs of some koi, like they were floatation devices. The fish didn't seem to care.
We took a few pictures and moved on.
The Polynesian Cultural Center is kind of like Florida's Epcot center, separated into several different Polynesian pavillions, each corresponding to a different island: Fiji, Samoa, Aotearoa (Maori New Zealand), Tahiti, Hawaii, the Marquesas, and Tonga. We rode a small canoe on a canal that runs between all the "island" pavillions. Then we started visiting the different cultures... which seemed very similar, except they had different styles of thatched hut.
In Islands of Marquesas, we saw a couple of women, one old, the other new, teaching a gaggle of tourists how to weave long grass into some shape: it consisted of two big loops, with the ends of the foot-long blades shuttling inside and out in some complicated pattern. We moved on to Tahiti... and came across a pair of women teaching a clutch of tourists how to weave long grass into some shape: closer inspection revealed it was exactly the same as the previous "island."
We found the same teachable moment in Tonga; this time, it was two old women. Crossing over the bridge to Fiji, we saw the same pattern, but the loops and ends pointed the opposite direction. Then we saw the old Fijian woman writing something and realized she was left-handed.
This must have been basket-weaving day in Polynesia, because the next pavillion (Samoa) had an old woman and a young one teaching the exact, same patter of grass weaving (right way round this time; anybody want to bet the head woman was right-handed?) The last pavillion we visited, just before we got to the Luau, was Hawaii -- and there were no women and no basket-weaving gawkers; if they were there, they had already left. We did, however, find a single blade of long grass on the ground; it had split down the middle. We deduced that at least one tourist hadn't listened to his old woman.
Hawaii is not exactly known for great food. Oh, sure, it's better than our backpacking trip through the Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite, where we hiked for five days on nothing but dried pieces of buffalo, squid jerky, and oatmeal. But you don't go to Hawaii for the fine cuisine.
The one exception to this rule is the luau. We honeymooned in Hawaii some time ago, and the luau is the only meal we can really remember. (Dafydd says he remembers every lobster from our trip to Maine a couple of years ago.) We're pleased to report that the luau at the Polynesian Cultural Center is just as good as or better than the one we had on Maui last time.
If you played a word-association game and someone said "Hawaiian luau," I'll bet the first word that would pop into hyour mind would not be "Mormons," but that's who runs the Polynesian Cultural Center: Brigham Young University. In practice, this only means that you can't drink alcohol on the premises... so if the highlight of any luau for you is a gigantic Mai-Tai, you have to go somewhere else. But the food at the Center's luau is excellent.
The highlight of any luau is the kuala pig, steamed underground in a hole that acts like an oven: they line it with heated rocks, drop the dead pig on it, toss on herbs and vegetables and other food, then bury it under cocoanut husks. Then they drape wet burlap over it, so it steams instead of burns. And then they leave it alone for about twenty-four hours.
By that time, it's done. In fact, it falls off the bone; so they serve it the only way they can: shredded, as part of a huge buffet. I didn't like the pig that much, but Dafydd said it was really good. I liked all the vegetables, even the poi (made from pounded taro root). At the end, the cocoanut cake was excellent, but I could only eat a bite. I thought I was going to explode like the anaconda that tried to digest an alligator!
The last thing we saw at the Center was the traditional dancing and singing show. It's called "Horizons;" but even with such an insipid name, it's a terrific show. The second half was a lot better than the first, with actual hula dancing (which seems to have come to Hawaii from Tahiti) and the fire dancing. The fast movement of the hips is incredible. I could never figure out how anyone can move a hip that fast without moving anything either above or below it.
The acrobatic dance using fire was from Samoa. Three guys litereary sat on fire to put it out. They were walking over the fire and torching their grass skirts on purpose.
The star of the last half was a Samoan who we watched at the Samoa show a few hours earlier. He was very funny... he knew a few words in a lot of different languages (French, Chinese, Korean, Japanese), and he knew how to make fun of people's languages without getting them angry at him. At one point, he had a stick that was burning at both ends, and he threw it high up on the stage to another guy. The guy on the upper stage caught it and started spinning like a baton. Later, he threw the torched stick back to the guy on the lower stage. I don't see how they can do all that without burning themselves!
The drive home was uneventful. We decided we had been eating too much of food that wasn't all that great to begin with; so we stopped off at a supermarket and bought fixings to make sandwiches instead, for lunch and dinner.
Yeah, right. We'll see how long we stick to that budgeting plan!
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