Friday, December 22, 2006

Contrasts

Vacations are supposed to contrast your real life against your imaginary life and thus make you appreciate how lucky you are to get "away from it all." Sometimes the contrast is staggering, like our trip home.

Our last night on the beach was wonderful. We finally had a passable sunset, the weather was still pleasant (albeit cooling off) and the Christmas hordes had not yet arrived. We capped it with a nice dinner at our favorite place (Blackie's) and steeled ourselves for the long return to civilization.

Not much to say about the packing and the trip through Mexico. The sky became cloudy as we traveled into northern Sonora, agreeing with our understanding of the weather that was coming - a storm from the Pacific that was supposed to haunt us as we headed north. No weather along the road though, and no impediments either. Including a lucky avoidance of the 5 mile traffic jam at the Hermosillo military checkpoint that we had witnessed on the trip down.

The border was the border - a 1 hour wait made interesting by people trying to sell us stuff. One young man came up to the window and stood there yelling at us for a minute or so. Not sure what he wanted. We picked a line of cars as the traffic split and we were doing well compared to the other lines until a car 3 up from us had some sort of papers problems. Just when it seemed we were so close.

Taking our place at the interrogation, we were told to pull over. We had "mistakingly" been selected to be searched. So we pulled into the spot, opened all the doors and hood and stood there in the breezy cold while the Customs boys worked over the vehicle. We were told to go once it had been verified with Washington that blueberries were not on the recently (as in that day) updated contraband list.

Our overnight in Tucson was wonderful as always and we were surprised to see a light rain shower - more portents of the day to come.

Next morrning we were out the door and on the road with stops for green corn tamales and gasoline. The traffic leaving Tucson was obnoxious as always but we cleared it and rode on until we took a short break in Texas Canyon, where it started to snow. A bit.

But the weather held until we left I-10 at Deming and headed across the short cut to Hatch. Here it began to rain in earnest as the sky adopted a most foreboding look. Still nothing serious though. Leaving NM26 much to the gratification of my GPS which was still trying to tell me it was a mistake to leave I-10 forty-six miles ago, we turned the car into the wind and north towards home. The sky was now a leaden gray and it was obvious that various forms of precipitation had been moving through earlier.

As we moved on, the desert became dusted with snow. And then the fog started, no doubt due to the conflict between the moisture on the ground and the sinking temperature. Really dense, 10 yard visibility fog that would thin out only as we passed through dips in the road. The only entertainment in this gray world was a Bosque Farms policeman in his car, far from home, alternating leads of the traffic line with a young woman in a Saab who couldn't quite decide if it was okay to pass a police car. The fog would go thick, they would slow down. The fog would go thin, they would speed up. Apparently fog demands +/- 5 MPH.

The closer we came to home, the snowier it became. The road was pretty clear up until the last 80 or so miles when the slush began. A gray minivan that had been trying to pass me for 15 miles by going 1 MPH faster lost his nerve the minute the road got slick and disappeared into my murky rear view mirror.

By now it was clear we were headed for a monstrous traffic mess as rush hour Albuquerque always is when there is weather involved. We tried to decide whether to stick with the interstate or risk the back roads and finally decided to commit to the former. As we approached the city, traffic in the opposite direction suggested we were headed for a mess.

But no, the traffic gods were smiling upon us that night. Seems the snow had started earlier here and everyone had bailed out early so the highways were empty and we sailed right home to 6 inches of the white stuff and a wiggling dog turning himself inside out with glee.

Once again, there's no place like home.




















.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Reflections on the Nature of Vacation

It’s amazing how little can happen when you genuinely vacate your regular life in a place like this. The days simply blend together in a never ending filmstrip of sleep, carne machaca, birds, sleep, chitchat, sun, surf, dead squid, sunsets, breezes, bossy cats and sleep.

Yesterday we visited Guelaquetza our favorite little curio shop here in town. In the olden days it was a great place to find those colorful Oaxacan carvings of whimsical animals and we slowly built a decent collection based on their stock. They’re still there, but the prices have gone through the roof. I’m glad we have the ones we have, because starting a collection now would indeed be a costly undertaking. Using my best Spanish I told the proprietress how the rear view mirror in my car still sports a small carved jaguar’s head that I had bought in her store more than 10 years ago. She was pleased and responded in a most grave and sincere tone that I was entitled to a 10% discount on everything in the store. I tried to explain how it was my good luck charm for travel, failing to mention how poorly it worked considering the battery troubles we had down here last October.

This late in the game, we’ve managed to find most of the birds we were looking for and last night decided to cap the count with an attempt to get some owls. Out by the old Club Med there is a decent stand of Barrel Cactus that I thought might produce an Elf Owl. So we drove out. The Arctic Eagle was still sitting in the back harbor, brightly lit with strings of white lights. An acquaintance here told us that she’d heard that it was purchased and renovated by “someone” and that it had been sitting here for more than three months doing “something.” In addition to the motor yacht and runabout mentioned in the last blog entry, it also holds a jeep on its decks. Where the owners are currently, no one knows.

Continuing down the road, we came across a couple of Lesser Nighthawks working over the bugs under a tall streetlight in the middle of the median near the Algodones dunes. At Club Med there were no Elf Owls, but there were two pickup trucks that refused my entreaty to go in front of me as I idled in the traffic circle. One even went so far as to shoot around the back of the circle to come out behind me lest I had some nefarious intent in being courteous.

Driving on, we found a half dozen more Nighthawks flitting around the bright signs for the bars at Club Med. Pulling off to watch them, we were passed by a couple of people on dirt bikes and two in a stripped down dune buggy. Considering the dark and the isolation, it evoked a scene out of “Road Warrior” to be sure. A trip through the Ranchitos section of town also failed to produce an owl but we did see a tiny Siamese kitten playing in the ditch along the road at the base of a wall. In the headlights it looked like a ghost cat but judging from its good condition, it must have belonged to one of the wintering retirees. It almost came home with us.


Tomorrow it’s time to pack the car and head to town for our final vacation machaca breakfast and my grand opportunity to use my Spanish to order “cuatro ciento pesos” worth of gasoline at the local Pemex station. From there, back up the road we came down and across the border. Vacations are funny things, alternating between too short and too long. Today, this one feels too short.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Of Birds and Cats

There are two things we always do when visiting at Christmas – count birds and feed cats.

The cats here at Pilar are the remnants of vast herds of them that once roamed the desert in this vicinity. For a time, Pilar was the local dumping ground for unwanted kittens and there were dozens of them, both tame and completely feral. Over time, the flock thinned and the remaining cats were treated and neutered by a local vet. These days were down to about 5 cats, and all of them are hanging out on our patio waiting for a soft touch to provide them with dinner. Judging from the amount of fat they’re carrying around their backbones, they seem to be able to consistently judge which condos are occupied by suckers and to park themselves there, looking desperate. We always bring a couple of cans of the cheap food with us and I try to feed them once a day. This reliable meal results in cats hanging about languidly dripping over the edges of our camp chairs and regaling us with a chorus of “feed me, feed me” each and every time we enter or exit our place. This year we’re host to two calicos, two all blacks, one very athletic tortoise shell and a second tortoise shell with a white visage that we call “puffy face.”

Last night on our regular walk the entire troop must have decided that we were on the move, because the decided to walk with us. The sight of the shadows cast by the condo lights of two people and four cats – three following and one leading – tight roping down the seawall was one for the scrap books. They didn’t make it the entire way, as the sprinklers were running and I imagine they thought wet fur was not worth the risk of letting us slip away. This morning when I pulled back the drapes, they were there once again.

Yesterday we began to count birds in earnest with low tide visits to the local sewage ponds, Tular and Empalme. The former is here in town, the middle just over the hill and the latter is the tail end of a bay, extending back into some marshes.

Most people would not find a visit to the local sewage ponds high on their list of vacation goals, but for us it’s a special stop. The one place locally where we can almost be guaranteed the sight of the elusive Least Grebe. They were there this year along with eight or ten cows that could not decide whether to run or to attack. Moving on to Tular, hundreds of gulls and herons were present as would be expected as well as an uncommon Gray Hawk, a species normally found in riparian areas along the Santa Cruz river in Arizona. The gulls were all tucked in for a late afternoon nap arrayed across the mudflats like so many gray and white pillows. From there on to Empalme and many, many thousands of herons, pelicans and shorebirds.

I remember when I first located Empalme on the map and found the name so evocative – beaches, swaying trees, sun and palapas. Imagine my surprise when I discovered it meant “train repair yard” and the image at once changed to greasy engines belching steam in the morning haze. Today, the area where for so many years we have sidled up to a stinking polluted mudflat in hopes of finding some oddball bird is a busy intersection with an army checkpoint and groups of men selling cooked shrimp by the railroad crossing. Birding here used to be punctuated by a small band of feral dogs led by a dowager we called “Blackie.” Today, it’s traffic and noise.

Birding today started on the early side in a canyon that we had discovered on our first Christmas Count twelve or more years ago. The Count here in San Carlos had been done once before by some New Jersey tourists back in the early 1980s. Because birding is not foremost on the minds of most Mexicans, it had laid dormant for about 10 years when I decided to pick it up. We’ve been far more reliable - missing only two since we started it. The original counters spelled out their locations and one was listed as a “palm-lined barranca.” Sea birding is easy down here, good land birding is less so, so we hunted high and low until we found this place and have visited it many times since, always with quirky changes and events. The first year we were busy counting when along came a friendly load of policemen in a pickup truck who proceeded to park at the end and open fire on a group of wild dogs. Gunfire and birding generally don’t mix so we departed in haste. The middle years were notable only for the fact that we always managed to pull some good birds out of there. Two years ago, fetid water had somehow rolled back into the canyon and the result was the overpowering smell of sewage. That year we stuck to birding the road. This year, it was construction debris. San Carlos has been undergoing quite a building boom and now we know where the detritus is being dumped. The birds loved it – myriad places to hide out and perch. To us, it was just another case of third world trying to be first world as fast as can be. Take what could be a beautiful spot for a park or picnics or hiking and turn it into the town dump. Of course, the tourists trying to find a more permanent attachment to this place don’t see it, and probably don’t care as long as they can find a little casita to roll their home equity money into. As usual, the birds were great if the scenery was sadly diminished. We stayed there until the sun crested the canyon walls and the birds headed into the shade.

In the back of the harbor this morning was a large pale blue converted trawler by the name of the Arctic Eagle. According to the stern, it hails from Sitka, Alaska. Aside from the color, what caught my eye was the large motor yacht sitting on its deck and a four person runabout sitting on that. Sort of a maritime marushka doll. According to Google, it may be a crab vessel although it looks like it's now better suited to research or touring. Guess we'll never know.

As the day winds down, we're here again at the Marina enjoying a quesadilla(this time with chicken) and an evening's margarita. From here it's out to see if we can find some owls and then home to yet another 2005 NYT Sunday Crossword Puzzle. Our never ending challenge to work off a year's backlog.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

What a difference two months makes

Well here we are again, happy hour at the Marina Cantina in sunny San Carlos. This time we're not skulking in the parking lot stealing the wireless signal, rather sitting in a booth enjoying a couple of margaritas and some appetizers - a quesadilla and a hollowed out loaf of french bread filled with artichoke dip. My Lovely Wife is scanning the joint and I am relating to you.

The trip down just gets easier and easier. Five minutes tops at the visa station and then the long haul across the desert. We made it in before sunset, unpacked and surveyed the place. And this is where the title comment comes in - recall last time and the hordes of Americans enjoying the Columbus Day break. This time - 4 condos with 10 or so people and nearly complete isolation. The perfect vacation conditions. Enjoying the 70 something air, the sea breeze and the QUIET, we headed out to our traditional dinner at Rosa's. Our friend Martin was there behind the counter and we had a nice chat in broken Spanish about the place, our kids (he said we must have had them young), carne machaca and life in brief. We ended the evening with our traditional walk around Pilar (in honor of Ted) and a sit on the seawall. I'd had this feeling that I was seeing things in the sky and it dawned on me that we might be in the middle of a meteor shower. So we switched positions and looked to the east and no sooner had we done so than we were treated to a big, bright, yellow trail that broke up into many smaller pieces as it entered the atmosphere. What better omen for a splendid time on the beach?

The surf was pretty rough which is unusual for this particular strand. What was unique about the breakers was the angle at which they were hitting the beach. Coming in obliquely, they would break at the closest point and then rocket along the shore. For lack of a better metaphor, they reminded me of the effect you get when you snap a long hose and the wave pattern starts at your hand and travels to the end.

Today was pretty much vacation standard. Breakfast of bolillos, some time sitting on the seawall looking at Loons, a nap and a walk down the beach, which has changed quite a bit from our last visit. Now the point has moved to the north and the channel to the west, quite a different conformation than October. Makes me wish I had been taking a picture of the same spot for the last 14 years. Birds all over the place which bodes well for our annual count.

Tomorrow we start in earnest - exploring the place, riding my bike, looking for birds and generally trying to get into the relaxed groove. Which is never too hard given what this place presents - balmy breezes and a low key vibe.

More later, and maybe some pictures

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Picture Post

Well the trip home was only memorable for its lack of memorableness. The connections were made, the flights were on time and once again there's no place like home.

Thought I'd close this adventure with some pictures from my last day in the park. Hope you enjoy them.





























.

Back across the broad Pacific

Thursday was kind of an average day, nothing very exciting happened but there were lots of little things worth mentioning.

Lunch was Papa John’s pizza, worth mentioning just for the fact that it exists here. The pies were precisely what you would expect from PJ’s – not extraordinary but tasty. We had some time so we headed out for a walk around the big block. Found a bakery by the name of Croissant le France that was loaded with very attractive breads and pastries. Saw a bicyclist politely arguing with a motorist who had apparently hit them with their car. The driver was complaining that the bike had scratched his bumper and the rider was bemoaning the facts that his wheel was bent and that his foot hurt. An argument in the middle of a busy intersection that you would never see anywhere but here.

After a non-descript afternoon and a short stop at Starbucks we went out to the Hong Mei Leisure Pedestrian Street for dinner. It’s basically a narrow thoroughfare connecting two boulevards that has been given over to foot traffic and pedestrians. We stopped in the Little Bamboo Bar for a pre-dinner libation – they had one of those multi-page menus of drinks varying in degree of potential intoxication bearing names like “Cyclone” and “Tornado” and “Three-Mile Island.” I went simple, a Gimlet made only of lime juice and vodka. When it came to getting our orders concocted, we were surprised to discover that none of five bartenders knew how to make any of the drinks on the menu. This came to our attention as our waitress kept coming back to me for instructions on how to put the two ingredient drink together. Someone, sometime must have been traveling and taken with the notion of a fancy drink menu but never bothered to put the talent in place to actually pull it off. Another case of cultural transference that lost a little something in the translation.

Dinner was at Simply Thai where we shared some spring rolls and a variety of curry dishes varying in color from red to yellow to green. All outstanding.

Given it was only a mile to the hotel and that the night was pleasant, we decided to hoof it back. We witnessed the closest call between a car and a sidewalk riding cyclist that I’ve ever seen, the biker literally putting the bike in an off-camber angle as he passed the driver pulling out of a driveway in order to avoid landing on the hood. We also walked through a very dingy section of street – little alleys and warrens and shops under ugly yellow lights teeming with people. I was surprised, as this is a pretty nice part of town and despite several walks up and down the other side of the street, I’d never noticed this little patch. Turns out the whole little neighborhood was blocked from view by some big panels attached to the overhead road. Sort of a Chinese Potemkin village.

This morning dawned damp and misty for our daily hike and we headed down Ya’an Xilu to the last park on our agenda for this trip. As it turned out, it was the best one so far. Many little paths made from polished pebbles set on their sides in concrete wound their way up and down little hills through evergreen and philodendron forests. It was loaded with the normal horde of exercising people (as always) and singing birds. Of the latter, nothing new beyond the ubiquitous Eurasian Blackbirds and White-cheeked Bulbuls although I did see a dove that merits checking later. In the case of the former, I added a couple of new characters - tree bumpers and face scrubbers to my ever-growing list of oddball exercise practitioners. The tree bumpers were two women who stood opposite each other on either side of a tree and bumped it repeatedly with their shoulders. Again, don’t ask me why. The face scrubber was a man standing in the woods roughly rubbing his hands over and over his face while making a gape-mouthed grimace. We went around the place and took a lot of photos, none of which are prepared at the moment since I am writing this in the airport and cannot upload them.

While Badminton is popular in all the parks, this one held some serious ringers with hard serves and harder routines. One couple was playing with two racquets each, their purpose unclear to me until grandpa drove a liner into grandma’s forehead and she used the two like a pair of pliers to pick up the errant shuttlecock.

Coming around a corner, I met a couple of elderly people feeding a big calico cat. I observed “yi zhi mao” which elicited a chuckle from the woman. Apparently the park is the home of 100s of feral cats that the people come and feed every morning. Judging from the size and condition of the cats, it’s an arrangement that works. We saw several more instances of cats coming out of the bushes and eating from grocery bags.

Leaving the new park, we headed back and decided to take a quick spin through Tianshan Park before heading back to the hotel. On our visit here two days ago, we had heard dance music wafting through the trees and drawing closer, we’d come upon a dozen or so couples ballroom dancing off to the side on an old dance floor. At that time, they were doing the Russell One Step to Polka music. This time it was a waltz and it was just wonderful to see all these seniors gliding over the floor in the early morning light.

After the walk and the dinner it was time to pack up and head to the airport. Not much here to report aside from the nasty yellow haze hanging over the city which didn’t abate has I headed out to the ocean and the airport. Another opportunity to habla with a cab driver which was fun and I was standing in line at the gate.

Frequent flyer plans have their advantages as I made it through the Premier line very quickly, leaving behind the teeming hordes in the realm of the proletariat. Security was an easy pass although I did have to stand on the little pedestal to have my ankles squeezed. Then it just boiled down to waiting and people watching.

Shanghai airport is a little weird in that many of the gates are on a different level than the waiting area. You sort of stand around trying to decide if you want to go down below, or if you’re even allowed to. The 1st and Business class lounges are down there, but there really is nowhere to wait. Today, despite being in the Elite loading group I waited and wondered why so many people were heading down so far in advance of the loading call. Well, they were down there forming a line, of which I ended up at the end of when I finally went down the escalator. Stupid me, always following the rules. There was a second security check at the bottom which consisted of a young agent clearly in training that made me open my bag so that she could press down on my clothing. The only thing she appeared capable of saying in English was “any more bottles in there” and despite my answer of “no” she looked to her trainer for direction before sending me on.

Took a long bit to load the plane and finally when they closed the doors there were but two people in my four people row – me and the guy two seats away. No single travel related thing is better than to be granted that extra space on a haul like this. A woman two aisles up pitched a major fit when the attendant told her she was sitting in D when she should have been sitting in G. She copped an interesting attitude considering it was her reading skills that were clearly lacking. People are funny.

We got off on time and soon it was ready for meals. Once again the uncooked chicken entrée was offered up and once again refused by picky customers. Mine was fine and plenty hot.

Sat for a while and did a couple of crosswords and watch “Pirates of the Caribbean” with the sound off. Now it’s “My Super Ex-girlfriend” which I think I might just watch.

The rest of the flight rated a yawn. My favorite noodle bowl showed up sometime in the wee hours, the movie was dull, the next movie “Little Miss Sunshine” was interesting with the sound off and the intervening hours were filled with nodding and classical guitar music. The last meal of the trip was a spicy Shanghai noodle dish which always picks me up for the for the haul into the airport. Music switched over to something with a stronger bass beat and I’m ready to get off the plane and brave customs, security and finding my next gate.

We must have landed somewhere Oakland because the walk into the customs hall was long, long, long. Having no bag to claim and being one of the long strides, I made it through that routine quick and painlessly. Security was another matter, because like most airports the infrastructure has not kept up with the drill. It’s plainly not easy to juggle two pieces of luggage, a coat, shoes and my little personal baggie in a manner that reflects even the slightest degree of control. But I did it and getting sent back through the metal detector due to my belt didn’t set me back too badly. Unlike their Chinese counterparts, American security agents have no interest in squeezing my ankles. Outta there and off to the concourse where I now sit and wait for my flight to appear on the departure board. Such is the nature of 4 hour layovers. Hopefully it won’t be more than that.


This blog by the way is brought to you via a T-Mobile hot spot on the SFO concourse. Really pretty cool when you think of it - being able to sit and share your thoughts any time, any place. Years ago it was all journals tucked away for review in the twilight years. Now it's real time. Not sure something isn't lost in all this but perhaps the gains transcend. I certainly know it sure is fun.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Lunch

Went out to lunch with the other IT guys – both local residents – yesterday and had quite a nice experience. Among other things, it was my first time driving with a resident in their personal car – all my other rides have been with personal drivers or taxis.

We started by heading to Pizza Hut. This chain and KFC are very popular among the Shanghaiese because they love chicken and both restaurants are chicken specialists. I found this to be pretty interesting, because while Americans frequent both chains, I wouldn’t say that they patronize them because of a reputation for doing any type of cuisine well. For us it’s more about speed and uniformity.

We had a short discussion and decided instead to have Shanghai food so we went around the Pizza Hut building and down a long driveway to a Chinese restaurant tucked into the back corner. The first thing that struck me was the plethora of cardboard Santa faces on every pane of glass.

The host brought us into the back room which was very modern and fancy. No neighborhood joint this. We were seated by a window (with Santa overlooking). They brought us wrapped towels to allow us to wash our hands and faces - a common practice in most restaurant – and they draped big cloth napkins over the tops of our coats which were hung on the back of our chairs. Green tea was served, and re-served with every waitress in the room coming over to fill my cup the minute it went down an inch or more. The young ladies were dressed in traditional Chinese suits with high collars and white gloves.

Three dishes were brought out for the first course, a soy curd that was very tasty despite being the consistency of a sponge, some slices of sweet, barbequed pork and potato salad. Yes, potato salad prepared in the Shanghai style which was no different than American style and just as tasty as any I have ever had.

I watched the way my two companions ate, very different than how we would approach shared meals in a Chinese restaurant at home. First, we ate off the serving plates communally and second, the pace was very slow. They would eat one bite and then rest their chopsticks on the blocks. Lots of conversation and no division of the spoils. I managed to get into that groove and enjoy it, despite my western urge to shovel it in. Another dish was brought out - cubes of pork served in a thick, sweet brown soy sauce, “Shanghai style.” It was very delicious and the flavor trumped the fact that it was steaming hot. So hot that the layer of fat in each cube instantly dissolved into a sticky coating on the inside of my mouth, burning off a couple of layers of skin. The pork was followed by a soup served in a paper filter sitting above a candle in a wire frame. Sort of a simple chafing dish. This was a hairy crab soup with soy and again quite tasty.

A dish of what appeared to be stir fried meat appeared next and Ling informed me it was “fish that looks like snake”. In other words, eel. The eels were very small – about the length and diameter of a blade of grass – and again very delicious. This was followed by a clear soup comprised of carrots and lamb shanks, the latter presenting a real challenge in being finessed by chop sticks. The final dish was the most amazing of all, a big casserole of egg custard (read flan) loaded with cherrystone clams, in the shell, poking out of the surface. Clams in the shell are very difficult to consume with chopsticks and those big Chinese soup spoons. Fingers are demanded.

As we slowly stuffed ourselves, we had some great conversation about Chinese culture, living in Shanghai, food, genology and most interestingly the Chinese love affair with western holidays. The chit-chat was kind of interesting because two of us spoke pretty good English, two of us spoke pretty good Chinese and the individuals with the weaker language skills were different in both cases. I asked for the Chinese name for Santa Claus and Ling explained that it was Shengdanlaoren 圣诞老人, literally Holy Birthday Old Man. Seems appropriate. I asked about other holidays and was informed that Valentine’s Day is quite popular for obvious reasons and that Thanksgiving is also catching on, a fact that I find quite amusing. Turkeys are hard to find in China and their pumpkins are long and tubular instead of round, but those trivialities are not stopping anyone. We went on like this until I could muster the vocabulary to utter “hen bao”, very full, and so lunch drew to a close.

This little episode reminded me well of my Chongming Island visit – it’s fun and enlightening to break out of the norm and do something different from time to time. Would’ve been far easier to just hang with my pals from the US and get whatever was easy for lunch. Instead, I was able to try some new foods and learn a lot about these emerging cultural changes. A couple of hours well spent.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Another walk in the park

Went out just after dawn this morning to explore another park up the street from the hotel. Each time I’ve been to this hotel, I have expanded the radius of my morning walks to the point now where the out and back distance is beginning to challenge the amount of time I have to spend on them. But with each expansion, has come another park to visit and each one has been more interesting and beautiful than the last.

In this part of the city some land seems to be set aside at every major intersection. Sometimes it’s just a small amount with a few trees and perhaps a sculpture. Others are far more elaborate. This morning’s desitination – Tianshan Park - was certainly in the latter case. Not only braided with paths, it had many types of tree “gardens” a big lake and a lot of buildings. As the city has developed, these little oases have become hemmed in with tall buildings, creating sort of an artificial canyon amid towering spires.

Like all the others, this park was full of people doing all the regular park things – tai chi, backwards walking, head patting, fan dancing and badminton. Lots of badminton in fact. I did not hear any of the yelling people, perhaps this park has a noice ordinance, but I doubt it, perhaps the yellers simply prefer the more open spaces of New Century Park up the road.

This one had a much stronger Asian aesthetic than the others with more tailored gardens, arched bridges across the narrow parts of the lake, small pagodas tucked away in copses and a scuttled WWII vintage PT boat grounded in a small cove. People were everywhere and yet the place retained that sort of late fall serenity you’d expect from a place desgined to convey it. The paths were slippery depending on what they were made of, bricks being slick, pavement being walkable. Lots of birds here albeit of a small variety, the same Bulbuls, Eurasian Blackbirds and House Sparrows that populate the other groves around town.

We did a couple of circuits and took the pictures you see below. Most noteworthy is a shot of that rarest of avian species, a Least Chinese City Chicken that wandered out of one of the big apartment complexes and onto the sidewalk. Roaming the streets here you often hear roosters which is an odd sound considering the urbanization. But if you look closely through the fences that surround these places you find small rooms crammed with people lying in stark contrast to the modern nature of the buildings. I suspect that many come in from the countryside and live with friends and relatives in an apartment that is designed for only one family. With them comes some of the aspects of home – chickens for example, and so urban life is slightly modified by strongly held customs.































.

Typical Workday

Not really too much to say about today, it was spent working. Started the day out right with a grande Hot Chocolate from Starbucks (the world being flat and all) and had the normal commute in the normal morning traffic. Perhaps the highlight was an opportunity to tell the taxi driver to turn left when he wasn't sure which way to go. My response came naturally, perhaps a decent indicator that I'm making some progress with my language.

Had lunch on a nice little side street blocked to cars and dedicated to restaurants. Our place had a Santa Fe club sandwich on the menu, an interesting name considering there wasn't much Santa Fe about it. I had a spicy Thai beef wrap which was all those things.

Dinner once again at the 1221 restaurant, a western style chinese food establishment that is quite popular with expats and known for its excellent food. They even called a cab for us which we managed to walk past when we left. Didn't matter because we ended up sitting in it for 5 minutes being blinded by the headlights of a minivan trying to jam its 15 foot size into a 12 foot space.

Thought I share a few pictures of the Christmas spirit, such an odd presence in a country thought to be religionless. I guess the emerging capitalism trumps all as the spirit here is even more commercial than it is back on the other side. But it's still fun and I can't imagine anything more bizarre than standing in the taxi queue over here listening to Bing Crosby singing "White Christmas" through a giant amped boombox.


The first shot is the world's largest Advent Calendar, every night they draw a business card and some lucky guest wins the price behind the dated door. T'm told that there once was a larger one here in town. Apparently Siemens turned the front of their office building into one a couple of years ago and every day they would throw gifts out of the appropriately marked window. Doesn't seem like getting hit in the head with a DVD player tossed out of the 4th floor would feel particularly seasonal. In the case of our calendar, Silvio the manager told me that they can't leave the prizes behind the little doors because because some one was stealing them. This is why all the doors are closed despite the date, and therefore in strict violation of the entire raison d' etre for Advent Calendars. One of our party won tonight's round - a free massage in the spa.

The sax playing Santa is trapped in an alcove in the giant rotating entry door. He travels around and around backwards all day long plaintively playing Christmas songs for chain smoking hotel guests. At least he has some snow in there to keep him cool.

The other two shots are just a sampling of our cheery decorations.































.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Tis the Season To Be Jolly - in Shanghai?

I’m not sure how to feel about my impressions from this latest trip across the sea. It’s now closing on 6 weeks spent in China over the course of the year and oddly it’s starting to feel like just any old trip. Like going to Phoenix. This struck me last night as I was waiting for my friends out in front of the Renaissance, maybe it was the cold air or the giant Christmas tree or maybe the twinkle lights in the potted plants or Santa’s sled and reindeer. I don’t know, it just didn’t feel special any more. I remember that first morning back in February when I bravely headed out to wander through New Century Park across Ya’an Xilu. It was like I was walking out on another planet. Now it’s just another home base.

This trip over was about as routine as one could possibly imagine. On the Albuquerque to San Francisco leg the most exciting thing was the guy who plopped down into the window seat next to me only to discover he should have been one row up. How you can get confused in the first 4 rows of a 10 row plane, I can only guess. But at least it broke up the monotony of loading. The only other moment came when someone in the back rang their flight attendant bell and the resulting sound was so loud that everyone on the plane jumped a foot out of their seats. We went into SFO without any further incident, not even any fog this time. Bought some books at a well stocked traveler bookstore and sat to people watch for a bit. I love people watching. Decided to take the shuttle across to the international terminal to avoid a second trip through security (although my Albuquerque search was easy, my bottle of hand sanitizer was gleefully approved by the TSA agent and there were no tractor parts salesmen or itinerant tinkers in line ahead of me. Everyone even had the correct sized baggie.)

The shuttle is good for a chuckle. You board it, drive 10 yards and get out. An easy walk, but since it’s below the jet way the powers that be must have decided that they don’t want to run the risk of having a grandma on a world tour getting sucked into a 747 engine. This time though they took us on a different route – more like 50 yards and unloaded us at the elevators. A 4 foot tall south Asian man with hennaed hair had the role of cramming us into the sole elevator for the 3 floor ride up to the concourse. “Please move forward, many more space up here. Many more room for passengers.” The elevator is one of those big, stainless steel lined freight jobbies and it is slow. Probably holds about a dozen people with their roll-arounds. We were pretty much relegated to the second group and standing there when some American woman in the back of the surge piped up and asked, “Aren’t there any stairs we can use?” She was ignored. The doors opened and the helpers pushed us into the cage using big poles wrapped in mattresses. Well, not really but it’s not the worst of ideas.

We headed for our favorite Japanese restaurant and a bowl of mouth-scalding Udon noodle soup. Next down the escalator to the boarding lounge where I ran into an old friend of mine, also heading to Shanghai. Odd that these days we run into friends in international boarding terminals the way our forbears ran into their friends at the General Store.

One advantage of traveling a lot is the upgraded status you get with the miles you accumulate. I used to be last on the plane, now I’m first. Had my favorite seat on this leg, an aisle in the center rank that butts up against the galley wall. You pay a bit of a price because the seat does not recline as far as it should, but you gain a bunch of undersea storage because there is no one behind you. This frees the area for your feet completely.

It takes a long time to board a 747 so I stood around and waited until my row filled up. Luckily I had a tiny man next to me so there was no chance of tween-seat overflow. Dodging this most dreaded product of our ever expanding society has become even more important than having on time departures.

The rest of the trip was de rigueur. Lunch after an hour or so was noteworthy only for the number of people around me complaining to the attendants that their chicken entrée was not cooked completely. Probably not the best idea, serving undercooked chicken dinners on a 13 hour flight.

We went out on time and headed up the coast – the board showing the plane’s progress (both heartening and depressing at the same time, depending on when you look at it) showed us slowly climbing the arc around the rim. We passed Juneau and headed towards the Aleutians.

The movies were mind-sucking as usual – Talladega Nights, some Robin Williams vehicle I’d not heard of along with an Ian McClellan piece of the same ilk. “The Lady in the Water”, a movie I’d had some interest in when it was in the theaters failed to engage me even as a captive audience. I focused instead on doing crosswords, reading the William Langeweische book (The Outlaw Sea) I’d picked up in SF and listening to the Stones. Nodded off for a while listening to Bach Lute Suites, the best possible music for zoning on long flights. The guy next to me sat there watching South Park on his iPod and laughing out loud.

Next up on the food regimen is the famous noodle bowl, the one part of the trip I always look forward to not only because of the pleasure of eating salty re-constituted meat but due to the delicious risk of the hot water being poured into your lap. I’ve now mastered the proper way to prepare them – leave the lid down on the bowl for at least 5 minutes to avoid eating crunchy noodles. And if you’re planning to eat them with chopsticks, it’s best to drink the broth first. Beats having to wipe off your MP3 player multiple times.

Read some more, drank some more, walked around and stopped to talk to my traveling companion, Matt some more. The bathrooms by now had developed especially sticky floors which made me wonder about the strategy of walking in there with bare or stockinged feet that most of my fellow passengers were employing. The hand towels ran out, as did the back up supply of Kleenex which meant you were now reduced to throwing the bolt and opening the latch with your cuff. Note to self - plan to put that shirt in the hotel laundry upon arrival.

The external battery I bought to drive my video iPod worked beyond expectations. I was able to watch 18 episodes of The Office while only consuming one light of four on the meter. We might not need to discuss why I chose to watch 18 consecutive episodes, let’s just leave it that the battery worked well. So well that it merrily re-charged its symbiotic friend while I was off visiting. Nice when gizmos work better than expected. Which also applied to my new 8 GB Nano – 10 or more hours of music played on it with a barely detectable decrease in overall battery reserve.

We slogged on, now making the left turn for the haul down the Pacific coast. This time we crossed the Kamchatka Peninsula to stunning views of rugged, snow clad peaks. Living in Albuquerque, every flight out takes you over the big empty, but you rarely see expanses of land without some identifiable presence of man – dirt tracks, the occasional ranch building, etc. This place was a raw as anything I had ever seen, and the view was greatly enhanced by the low angle illumination of a sinking sun. Although I was looking at it across the aisle and three intervening seats, it was about as beautiful a stretch of scenery as I have ever encountered from the air.

We crossed Japan and headed in for the landing which was very abrupt and rough and not fully expected because the monitor on the movie screen suggested that we were still 1000 feet in the air.

Off the plane and through customs without incident. I helped the 1st-timer woman in line ahead of me navigate the ATM and informed another fellow that the exchange rate was not 50 to 1 as he expected (it’s 7.7.) I educated her that here in China many of the ATMs require you to log off, lest you leave the machine available to the next person in line who in turn can help themselves to the contents of your account.

Waited a long time for our bags, generating that semi-nauseating feeling that yours isn’t coming out. Grabbed them and headed to the taxi queue which held about 1000 people. Deciding to take the Maglev train instead, we slogged back up the stairs and over to the station. Bought VIP tickets and ran our bags through the x-ray machines. Being simultaneously tired and dense, we entered passed through the entry gate before we realized that the bags exit the x-ray machine on the outside of the fenced area. A nice policeman came over and kindly tossed our bags across the fence.

We were the only two VIP travelers among 100 other riders so we had a personal escort to the VIP car. The young train lady told us to go down to the end and we dragged out bags through car after car. Finally we just sat down in an empty car of cheap seats figuring they were good enough. The train lady came up and told us “no”, the VIP section was further down the way so we headed off again. The nighttime speed on the train is “only” 300 kph so it took us a couple of extra seconds to reach the terminus in Pudong.

Construction at the station got us turned around but we found a cab and off we went. Little traffic on a Sunday night meant a quick trip across the Nangpu Bridge and out into Hongqiao and up to our hotel, festooned in the brightest holiday manner.

We unloaded, met in the penthouse and headed out to the local Italian restaurant where I had a nice dish of shells with thyme sauce – Profumata al Timo. It tasted precisely like the tomatoes and capacola dish my Mom used to make for me when I was but a lad and was loaded with small tomatoes, chunks of chicken and pancetta. Perfect remedy to the cold and blustery walk back to the hotel.

Collapsed in my room with 28 hours awake and 7000 miles under my belt, looking forward to another day in Shanghai.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

The journey home

We decided to head out on the early side to avoid the crunch at the border, early for us being on the 10 AM side given all the packing we had to do. Finished off the last of the 3 gallon can of cat food on the one condo cat that came around. Years ago, the place was overrun with abandoned kitties and their offspring. One day a resident (friend of ours) enlisted the help of a local vet and together they came out and neutered the whole tribe of them. Each cat received a notched ear to mark its transition into being a useful animal.

These days there are perhaps 10 or so and we always bring a couple of casks of wet food with us to feed them. This results in us having 4 or 5 friends for our time there, and so it's a nice tradition.

Amazingly the car started right up so I backed over and loaded all our supplies. Fun in the 90 degree heat. Finished up, showered and got ready to go. Dead car. Of course I now had the option of installing the Mexican Autozone Battery which I did. So much for my clean clothes and shower. Doesn't that figure?

Paying up, we took off for Rosa's and our final plate of Machaca. As always the best.

The drive back was uneventful. The old stomach ache checkpoint near Hermisillo is now a good opportunity to chat in Spanish with the boys in uniform, the current fall fashion being a smart gray-based desert cammy.

Arriving at the border we felt good about the length of the line, that is until it took us 65 minutes to make it to the gate. The vendors were hawking glow in the dark Jesuses (Jesusi?) on a long plastic bead necklace. Also foam maps of the US, retablos with the Virgin on the front and baroque angels on the back and my all time favorite - ukeleles in every color in the rainbow.

We made it up to La Migra and spilled out guts on the goods in the cold box. Yellow-tagged we limped over to the place where they take your car apart. A nice Border Patrol agent came out and seized my 5 Australian Tangerines and just for good measure, took my Mexican eggs as well. He told us to back up and head around the guy in front of us because his friends were in the process of dismantling the poor fellow's 70s Chevrolet van. In the words of my agent, "he's going to be here for a while."

For the second time, the car started right up. On our way, back in the USA and heading north for dinner with the family.

My attempt to start the car a couple of hours later in order to pull it into the driveway was met with, guess what - a couple of clicks and a dead engine. Hmmm, guess it wasn't the battery after all.

Next morning I repeated the ritual of loading up the car, showered, put on clean clothes and proceded to jump the car from Barbara's van. Ah, a new twist - it won't start at all now. Visions of hours waiting for someone to come from AAA led me to get creative. Knowing that my trusty Diehard, currently sitting in a bag in the back of the rig, had ever so much more cranking power, I thought "why not" and dragged it out. Reinstalled it, jumped it and miracles of miracles - it turned over. Another changed battery post shower and clean clothes, you'd think I'd learn.

Now on our way back home, secure in the knowledge that we could never, under any circumstances turn the car off, we settled in for 6 hours of southwestern landscape bathed in October light and carrying a comfortable outside temperature of 65 degrees. A far cry from the previous week.

Home at last, an old dog turning himself in corkscrews of happiness, some hungry horses and dinner at Pei Wei, another adventure winds to a close.

Picture Post

Here are the pictures you would've been seeing had the wifi pipe in the Marina Cantina been big enough to upload them. Enjoy!























.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Car trouble and a day salvaged

Woke up this morning at 7 to test the car. There was enough juice to light the interior lights, but not enough to start it. So begins our next big adventure.

We waited until the office opened and talked to our friend who tried the GMC dealer in Guaymas. Not open. We decided to come back after 9 and try again. Rumor was that they will send people out with parts to fix your car in situ.

At 9 the dealer was open but they had no mechanics for loan and the soonest they could come was “maybe mañana” so we decided to drive in and get one ourselves. Problem was, no Americans in sight for a jump. So we asked if they could use the condo van to get us started. ” Well, it doesn’t have a battery.” “Well, we don’t do that.” After persisting, she finally relented and called the head maintenance guy who offered his battery charger. Off course that would’ve meant sitting around for hours so I insisted and he got the keys to the VW minibus and backed up to our car (previously parked nose out for just such a circumstance.) Interestingly, the negative terminal on the bus had a red cable and the positive, black. Hooked it up, fired up our car and then let it idle while we changed for the drive to the dealer.

We decided to take the scenic route into town, currently known as the San Carlos a Guaymas Carreterra Escenica just for grins. Went past the new Dolphin Encounter place they’ve been constructing for the last 3 years. Although the signs say “promesa complida”, there aren’t many dolphins encounters going on in that big dry pool.

Tular Lagoon showed the effects of a really high tide – no birds, although the Renault parked by a fisherman’s shack on a small island raised some questions.

Leaving the area, I chose the wrong exit and ended up on MX15 heading away from the dealer. No big deal, easily solved by a u-turn. As I was scoping for an opportunity, My Lovely Wife spotted an Autozone. Who’d a thunk? A quick discussion led to the conclusion that it was worth a try so in we went. A nice young man showed great respect for my butchered Spanish and helped us out. He asked for our phone number for the computer which we found very amusing. But I gave it and lo and behold the name and address of My Lovely Wife popped up. “Que milagro” I exclaimed. We got the goods and headed back thinking how a great combination of choices, wrong turns and keen eyesight turned a mundane errand into a grand success. That point was driven fully home when we drove past the dealer and saw the long line of cars waiting for repairs.

Being down to one more day we decided to take our last kayak trip and headed down the coast to the entry of the estuary. It’s a completely different place at high tide (read yesterday’s blog about hiking the shoals) and the paddling was easy. The birds, being unable to stand in the deeper water were perched in mangroves on all sides as we went in. I got nice shots of an Osprey before a mythical creature hove into view – a Roseate Spoonbill. I have to say, there isn’t much in the avian world I’d rather look at than a 4 foot tall salmon pink wader with a serving spoon for a bill. It let me squeeze off a couple of shots before it took wing. While that little experience would’ve lasted me months, the appearance of a second one 2 minutes later cemented the moment as a blog-worthy memory. More pictures before he too departed.

We paddled along, taking leisurely breaks and just soaking up the views and the silence. No Mexican rap music today. After photographing and chasing off a half-dozen more birds, we headed out. As we rounded a corner and emerged from behind a small mangrove copse, serendipity presented itself again – both Spoonbills were perched high above the waterway in a dead snag. We gave a couple of paddles and allowed the boat to drift with the current. They didn’t leave and I just started snapping away. We spooked a Snowy Egret out of a tangle near the boat and he flew up joining his pink friends. Now we had the added benefit of contrast, showing their wonderful salmon plumage. Fifty or sixty pictures later, we continued to drift by, the birds sitting there and regarding us with passivity mixed with curiosity. Yet another life moment for us and them.

Taking control of the boat we headed out the inlet and fought the wind and the rollers back to the condo. Boat ashore, a cooling-off dip in the sea and now it’s time for………..Carne Machaca!

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Out on the ocean

Did a bit of kayaking again today. We have two boats, both Folbots. One is a double and the other a single. Folbots are an interesting option for those of us who do not live near enough to water to warrant a boat that’s available 100% of the time. They’re also great for people who lack storage, because they fold up into one or two duffel bags, depending on their size.

They’re designed on the basic concept of an Inuit boat. Instead of whale bone stays and a walrus skin, these boats use aluminum ribs and canvas for the covering. They’re very easy to put together, study and not terribly heavy. Well, the two person boat can be a killer to drag to the sea, but the one person boat can be carried by a tough guy like me.

We decided to go out on the bay in front of the condos this morning to take some pictures of the monstrosity condo development that is being built contiguous to our place. Pilar has been here unmolested since the 1970s, but now a bigger version is being constructed hard on the northern boundary. We thought some panoramas of the whole shebang would suffice to depress everyone back home. I’ll spare all my kind readers, not out of the kindness of my heart but rather because for some reason the wireless connection I’m using here in town times out while loading photos. So no pictures for you.

While loading up we saw the local dive shop tourist boat chasing the porpoises out on the water. Sheesh. We mounted our trusty bark and shoved off into the briny. Making a few passes and getting some reasonable shots we were headed back in when a pod of six porpoises passed between us and the shore. We did a quick u-turn and took a few photos and tried to keep up but they had the advantage of being in their element and they quickly disappeared.

The rest of the morning was spent in a quandary when we discovered that the battery in our car was dead. Now I hate car problems, and I really hate car problems here so once we got it jumped going we headed out to town with the notion that we would upload yesterday’s blog from the car idling in the Marina Cantina parking lot.

Arriving, I threw caution to the wind and turned the thing off, figuring we’d find someone in the restaurant to jump us if need be. Turns out, no problem. It started right up.

Spent the early afternoon lying around catching up on 2005 New York Times Sunday crossword puzzles and eating Valhrona orange milk chocolate.

Around 4, I decided to take the one man boat out into the estuary for an easy paddle. We carried it around the back and launched it. It was really wonderful. A couple of Great Blue Herons tolerated my approach until I entered their exclusion zone and then left their mangrove perch and flew off squawking. A Reddish Egret was not so touchy and continued its drunken man dance trying to scare up lunch from the bottom. Around the bend I came upon a mixed dozen of Great and Snowy Egrets feeding in the back bay. Like the Sirens, they beckoned me on to my doom because the water was about 4 inches deep and I quickly ran aground. Ever resourceful, I simply got out and walked, boat and all.

Off in the distance, pair of SUVs were parked on the shore blasting Mexican rap music, leading me to wonder how Mr. Stanley felt listening to the drums of the natives as he paddled up the Congo in search of his Mr. Livingstone and ultimately into his own Heart of Darkness. It wasn’t an ideal soundtrack to a magical moment, but at least it was real.

Heading back I found a little mangrove cove and slowly eased the boat in. That was a bit of a challenge because turning an 18’ boat around in a 20’ circle isn’t all that easy. I parked for a moment and did the old birdwatching “pish” and immediately was greeted by a couple of Mangrove Warblers angrily scolding me for ruining their afternoon. Two sleeping Black-crowned Night Herons blew out of the trees, their daytime slumber having been ended by the chattering warblers.

Pulling out and fighting my way across a strongly outgoing tide, I parked and pulled the boat out of the water.

Just before dusk we headed out to the sea wall to see if we’d get a beautiful sunset tonight. The cloud bank was making big promises. Joined by 100 or so of our closest friends, we waited and waited but alas, it was not to be. The clouds were too thick and all we got was some decent pinks just before dark.

Dinner was leftover chicken served up in those wonderful lardy tortillas that are unique to Sonora. We decided to go check the car, it worked and now we’re sitting in the Marina Cantina parking lot borrowing their wifi signal for your benefit.

The perfect end to the perfect day. Dead batteries not withstand
ing.

Una mas dia en paradiso

Another day in paradise.

Went on a pretty long kayak ride this morning, out to the island that lies about 2 miles off shore. The water was smooth and the ride in was aided by some gentle rollers. It was pretty hot though on the return trip, what little wind there was being straight at our stern. We saw a couple of sea lions alternately cresting and diving. No sign of the dolphin pod that is sometimes found here in the bay.

Spent the afternoon cruising around San Carlos after a midday repast of Carne Machaca. Had a nice visit with our friend Martin who works days at Rosa’s. We bring him pictures of the horses and he loves to hear their individual stories.

Driving around, it’s become pretty apparent that there is an ongoing influx of cash to this little locale. Lots and lots of vacation homes are sprouting up. Not sure if this isn’t the southern manifestation of our real estate boom with people mining their home equity for a place in the sun. Saddest of all are the two roads that are being cut up and around Tetas de Cabra, that mountainous beacon that has drawn the family to this place for more than half a century. Starting in the 1950’s when it served notice as the spot in the desert where one turned off for a drive across the track to the camps on the beach and more recently when it became one of the annual family outings during our Christmas visits. I’ve always managed to avoid those treks, making sure that I either didn’t have the correct shoes or that I was out counting birds when the team was assembled. I had nothing to prove, having made my bones walking up Long’s Peak in 1981 and no amount of bushwhacking through Catclaw was going to get me out on the trail. It looks like my intransigence is finally being rewarded, because pretty soon the climb is going to be crossing the back yards of Mediterranean-style starter castles. On the one hand it’s nice that I won’t have to make excuses, on the other it’s sad because this is truly the end of a tradition. A dangerous, injury plagued tradition, but a tradition nonetheless. And despite the post hike first aid requirements, there are plenty of great memories and stories associated with those climbs.

A bit about Boobies. The local cliffs serve as breeding grounds for Blue-footed and Brown Boobies. The birds survive by crashing out of the sky into small schools of fish, their aerial prowess being truly impressive. We’ve seen them by the thousands, diving into kettles of fish being driven forward by dozens of porpoise.

Lately, their numbers have declined along with their food supply. Not so many any longer here in Bahia San Francisco. A few still dive around us while we’re bobbing in the water, but nothing like the squadrons that used to own the sky.

I’ve had a few interesting experiences with them, up close and personal. A couple of years ago while out kayaking, I came upon one that was drowning in a fisherman’s net that was stretched across the entrance to the bay. Being a bird-guy, I decided to save it and paddled over, blunt-tipped riverman’s knife in hand. As I worked to set him free, he concluded that I presented more of a threat than his imminent voyage to Poseidon’s Court so he commenced to bite me. One lucky snap took off the side of my finger, and being that I was out on the sea, there was no end to the blood flow. I was cutting, he was biting and I was exsanguinating. Finally, I got tired of the incessant “clack clack clack” of his seven inch bill, so I grabbed his feet and lifted him out of the water, edge of net and all. He became completely passive at that point figuring his end was near. I finally extricated him and set him back in the water whereupon he took flight, circling the boat 3 or 4 times before sailing off. Less an avian “thank you” than him calculating whether he could get another snippet of Homo sapiens sapiens to supplement his daily fish dinner. This left me with the problem of by wound, still bleeding like a stuck pig. That was solved with a generous application of Duct Tape. My bright yellow flotation device still bears the reminders.

Today we found a bird that appeared to be close to death. It had been hanging around the beach in front of the place looking lethargic and spending most of its time sleeping. Tonight it was curled up by my kayaks when an ill-bred 5 year old boy felt compelled to yell and kick sand on it. I decided to take action. Yelling at the kid had a limited effect so I grabbed a shirt and my beach towel and went after the flagging bird. I covered him up and we decided to walk the ½ mile down to the end of the sand spit and deposit him there. At least allowing him some respite from the annoying children. Once covered, he was calm, but several times on the walk down, he freed his bill and went at me with the same “clack clack clack” that still haunts my dreams. In the end, we set him free up on a dune near the water, figuring he could at least spend his remaining hours in peace.

Dinner in tonight, My Lovely Wife cooking up another chicken based miracle in a pan. We talked at length about another trip to the Marina Cantina and decided that perhaps two “dates” in two days might be more than we could bear.

Brushing all that silliness aside, we headed out into the night. Pulling into the Cantina’s parking lot though we quickly came to the conclusion that our quest was in vain – no lights, no bar. So went spent a few more minutes driving around town looking for an opportunity to pirate a signal. But nothing appeared that didn’t require a password. That’s it, lights out until tomorrow.

Monday, October 09, 2006

The Tides

One of the things we like to do here is monitor the tides. Not only is an awareness of them useful when it comes to birding, but it's nice to be in touch with the natural cycle of things.

Currently, the Sun and the Moon and the Earth are in this weird straight alignment. And any time you get something weird celestially, you get weird tides. Today, there are four vs. the normal two. Tomorrow, the high occurs earlier than it did today. Very odd. Tides are fun, and someday I hope to actually understand them.

A bit about our locale. Tonight we're coming to you from a bar, bar visitation being something that we don't normally do. We've got smoke, we've got margaritas, we've got chips/salsa and we've got Monday Night Football. It's an interesting place this Marina Cantina - lots of Jimmy Buffett clones talking really loudly. I hope I don't get in a fight, because My Lovely Wife, being taller than every other man in the place is going to have to defend me.

The wireless connection is good, but not good enough to upload pictures so you're just going to have to live with what you're getting. My rapier-like wit, finely honed by a bit of tequila observing the wharf rats living their lives.

Getting into vacation mode

Getting connected back to the world is always a challenge when you’re out and about. On the plus side, my XM radio is working like a charm. On the medium side, my Blackberry seems to be able to get mail, but only when wafts of the local network ply their way through our concrete block apartmento. This being a mitigated upside because My Lovely Wife continues to remind me that I am not here to stay connected. The down side – calling out on a cell phone. Now I’ve just come back from the other side of the world, and calling home from China was no big challenge. Turn on the phone and dial. Here, not so. There is a magic code and last night we didn’t have it. Each attempt was met with three frustrating beeps and an admonition that “este numero no existan.” Hmm.

The morning rolled around and we went out separate ways. She to go and discover the magic phone code, me to ride my mountain bike around the estuary. The code turned to be 00, the ride turned out to be a death trip. Well, I didn’t actually die, but I wanted to.

A couple of years ago, some enterprising person decided to cut a road that greatly shortened the trip from San Carlos to Guaymas. They pretty much paved the traditional route the family used to take on their annual trek from Pilar (our condominios) to Miramar, little beach place around the point. Used to be a 4 hour haul across sand and rocks. Now it’s a 15 minute drive. What used to be desert is almost certainly about to become houses.

On the plus side, it’s created a nice ride for me, a 15 mile round trip with some decent hills and nice vistas. Nice if you like riding in 90 degree heat and 95% humidity. Always one for a personal challenge, I went off.

The first thing that happened as I headed out of the place and down the main road was a close encounter with a full beer can thrown by some guys in the back of a pick-up truck. This was a surprise, because Mexicans have always impressed me as being courteous towards cyclists. I guess though that workers drinking beer at 8 o’clock in the morning are the same the world over. Oh well.

The ride itself was pretty average; I passed a young man collecting aluminum cans along the road who turned out to be an Anglo. That was a bit of a surprise, and it set my mind in motion as to whether he would try and kill me on the return trip. Something about his lack of a shirt and the fact that he was pulling off his shoes and throwing them on the ground didn’t set well with me. No more beer cans, just big hills, the final one almost causing me to cough up my lungs before I realized I was riding in the big ring and a really hard gear. I’ve been riding single speed so much this summer that I forgot the bike I was on had gears. Duh!

Crested the final hill and coasted down into Bacochibampo Bay. Tular lagoon was devoid of birds, we being in the middle of a period of very high tides. My Chongming Island birdless vibe seemed to be continuing.

Heading back I offered an “hola” to some young men working along the road who mumbled something like “dimwit”, by translation skills not being that good at 10 MPH. Climbed the killer hill, this time using gears and saving my lungs, although the bolillo with peanut butter I had for breakfast was threatening a return trip. I unzipped my jersey in hope that I could catch a bit of cooling, but the humidity said “no way.”

Cruising along, I passed the shirtless Anglo and did the calculations necessary to avoid being captured should he make a move on me. He just waved and I did the same. Stopped by the old road to the mountain bike track, the sign now peeling paint but now festooned with a “Livestrong” sticker. Heading home I passed a local rider and we exchanged waves.

I got back, walked straight to the ocean and dove in, minus my shoes but still in full cycling togs. The only person on the beach so adorned. The cigar smokers sat and stared, inscrutably.

We headed out to find some wireless connectivity to check in with home (connections being okay, when She wants to.) There are several in town and we decided to try to cute coffee shop. We ordered a cold coffee drink and sat down only to discover that my laptop would not connect to their network. So we decided to use their computers (30 pesos for ½ hour) which sadly turned out to be Macs. Once I figured out how to actually use it, we played with gmail and read about those pesky North Koreans and their sub-kiloton explosion. I guess nothing has changed during our short absence.

The Crossing

Ah Mexico!

This year makes 13 that I’ve been making the long haul down MX15 to our little place in the sun. In the early days, I used to mark the trip with stomach aches. Stomach aches driven by the various judicial challenges to my forward progress. My Lovely Wife used to tell me that those challenges were opportunities to practice my 4 years of high school Spanish, and to in turn make Mr. (or should I say Señor) Thorsen proud. After all, Señor Thorsen had to endure me drawing pictures of turkeys in my Spanish book with little arrows pointing at him as he moved around the classroom.

The first stomach ache used to come when we crossed the border at Nogales and headed into the dark unknown. This was the point where the visions of bonfires in the road manned by banditos armed with pitch forks first started to dance in my head. The second stomach ache came with passing through the hulking tile covered Customs House and the place where you had to stop for either a red or green light, the former presenting an “opportunity” to habla with the bored Federales, the latter a chance to dodge remedial Spanish and keep on moving.

Next came the Aduana and the stop for visas and car stickers (holograficos.) Here in the early days we bought the 6 month sticker with no intention of turning it back in on the way out. This despite the stories of poor Canadians in VW minibuses getting nailed with thousand dollar fines for not turning in their sticker. We were brave, muy macho and we thumbed our noses at convention, knowing full well that somewhere in some dank warehouse was a carbon-copy record of our indiscretion. How many times did our car enter, never to exit, the puzzled clerk was wondering. Again a game of chance with the red and green lights, again freedom or Spanish study hall. Our worst experience here being the good cop/bad cop routine many Christmases ago when the bad officer told us to unload the car while the good officer sat in the back seat asking us how much all of our stuff was worth. He was looking for a $20 “donation”, we played dumb and he departed, shaking his head.

The worst and final stomach ache generally came with the Federale check just north of Hermosillo. In this case it was originally a husky officiale sitting in a lawn chair with an attached umbrella. Just what was he thinking behind those Ray Ban aviators as we pulled up and waited for him to say “pase.” I’m sure he was wondering why the blond gringa was driving while her companion huddled shaking beneath a blue polar fleece blanket. The flip side of this stop on the northbound journey was manned by peach-fuzzed soldiers, redolent of marijuana packing HK Armalite rifles. The trick here was to pull your car over the grease pit enabling someone to inspect your exhaust system.

But these days, all of this is just a fuzzy, water-colored memory (you know the song.) Now I drive, laughing in the face of adversity. No more holograficos, now a visa suffices. No more red lights, our karma has shifted. Now the biggest problem with the trip is whether or not some kid tries to wash our windshield at the stop light as you enter Hermosillo.

Our trip started with a cross over the border around noon. Clear sailing down to the customs stop, a visa taking 5 minutes and then onward. Absolutely nothing of interest happened on the trip. Thankfully.

First night into town with thoughts of Carne Machaca having dominated our consciousness since our previous visit (October 2005) and we discover that our favorite restaurant is closed. Back-up plan – shrimp and fish al mojo de ajo and two bathtub sized Margaritas to wash away the road grime. A visit to our favorite store, La Fruitaria for Jumex, bolillos and limes. Back to the place and a well-deserved, tequila-enhanced night’s rest. Our once per year visit with the God of Agave.

Dawn brought a painful realization – it’s Columbus Day weekend. Several years ago we made the mistake of being here during this time and swore we’d never do it again. Too many people and too much noise. Oh, how those oaths get washed away by commitments and time. Last week I was in Arizona, next week, she’s getting ready for Worlds. So this was the week, and we were going. But, I wonder if our resolve might’ve been girded had we been warned with visions of large, sunburned Americans drinking beers and smoking cigars on the sea-wall at 9 o’clock in the morning. If that hadn’t done it, the wall to wall tents and sit-upon kayaks certainly would have put us over the top. Alas, here we were and our resolve morphed into a steely desire to just put up with it. Besides, this was people watching at its best and we’d have plenty to talk about.

Our attempt at breakfast at Rosa’s was stifled by the line of tourists out the door. Another sign that this week was cursed. So back to the condo for eggs and bolillos and Jumex and a nice long nap.

Following a little afternoon bob in the ocean, we went back on the Machaca hunt and headed into town for dinner. This time, no line, no tourists and two big plates of that special Comida de Sonora that keeps drawing us down here. Hot tortillas, tasty beef and a cold Negro Modelo. Life can be so good at its simplest. Not much else to say about the dinner or the day, but I do have to mention the 20-something young many who sat opposite us spreading butter on tortillas followed by a liberal dumping of sugar from the shaker on the table. He seemed to really be enjoying them. I don’t know why.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Phoenix and it's assorted splendors

Okay, so up until now this blog has been limited to international travel, well, international travel to China. And I have another blog for domestic stuff but even I haven’t spent much time there, waxing eloquent. All that changes today, since I just can’t contain myself any longer.

This trip is a short one – over to Phoenix for a couple of days. But since my last trip to the airport, things have changed. Notably a reduction in the security measures associated with blowing up aircraft with deodorant. The measures had been reduced to a pretty simple set – containers containing less than 3 ounces stowed in quart sized ziplock bags. Personally I welcomed this as I couldn’t imagine checking a bag for a two day trip even if the price was admitting in public that I was a Mitchum Man with a fixation for Purel Hand Sanitizer.

Off I went to the airport trusting that my fellow passengers had taken the time to fully understand the expectations. Of course I was aware of my own naïveté, having just completed an article in the NY Times in which people proudly touted their approach of heading to the airport and figuring out what to do once they got there.

The security in Albuquerque is now divided into 3 parts. First, an agent to separate the travelers into those with baggies and those without. Second, the traditional check of the boarding pass and identification. And third, the agent to draw a little orange squiggly on said boarding pass. The last one must have to do with union rules surrounding minimum hiring expecations.

I entered the baggie line behind two people. The first guy had a giant 32 ounce tube of toothpaste approximately 90% expended (although uniformly squeezed from the bottom, not doubly delighting persnickety life-partners the world over) shoved in a 2 gallon ziplock with a tiny bottle of hand cream. I guess he was one of the proud few, winging it. The agent immediately recognized the infractions. The man was offered the option of heading back to the gift shop to purchase the appropriate bag, this being solely for the purpose of saving the hand cream because that tube of toothpaste wasn’t traveling today. In the trash went the tube, followed by the hand cream. The man asked if he could travel with the two gallon bag and permission was granted, no doubt allowing him to attempt the same perfidy on his return leg.

The woman in front of me, next up, was tearfully admitting that she had failed to encase her bottle of Visine in the appropriate vessel. The Visine itself was Barbie-sized, holding not even enough liquid to blow up a drink cart, much less a plane. Again the offer was tendered to go buy a bag, again refused. Had I been the agent, I would have suggested these people go buy a clue.

Not much else to report other than the guy in front of me in the body check line that insisted on counting all 93 cents worth of the change that he had placed in a bucket for a quick x-ray. I guess he figured those underpaid TSA agents were coveting that Rhode Island quarter. I told him to move out of my way. Interestingly, the same agent was working the line and still wearing the same world weary look he had back when I saw him on September 5th as he guided the magician and tractor salesman through the same line.

Not much to say about Phoenix, it’s big, hot and bland. I did find the pontoon boats lined up behind the Santa Barbara houses in the golf course waterway to be an amusing sight. Funny to think about the snow pack west of Trail Ridge Road on it’s long journey to the sea instead ending up enabling a bunch of desert dwellers to motor up and down a 200 yard waterway bounding a bunch of suburban backyards. Only in America and only in The New West.

One last little anecdote for this entry.

Last night four of us decided to have dinner and we took the advice of one of our local colleagues on a good Thai place. It was close to the hotel and highly recommended. Map in hand we headed out for the 1 mile drive.

The intersection is a busy one with four large plazas on each corner. Our map had some room for interpretation, it being drawn sort of upside down relative to reality. Didn’t occur to any of us to turn it over because we would’ve had to read the street names upside down and we were pretty sure we had a grasp on where the joint might be. So we headed into the first strip mall. Circling it – no restaurant. Undaunted, we decided to drive across the street and try the next one and here we had immediate hope - the name of the restaurant was “Thai Pots” and the entry to this plaza was lined with giant clay planters sporting half-dead ocotillos. Alas, no restaurant. Given that there were still two to go and that we were armed with a working strategy, we hit them as well. No restaurant. Okay, so three guys in a car with one woman and can’t find the restaurant – what’s the solution? Ask for directions – right. We assigned her the AR to call the Holiday Inn to ask them how to get there which is okay with us boys because none of us have to cross our gender values and ask for directions ourselves.

We only had the 1-800 number but figuring it was good enough to get us the local version, we placed the call.

Listening to Rae-Ann’s conversation was just as amusing as it usually is when you’re listening to someone try to explain the obvious to another someone with a unique ability to not grasp that same obvious.

I’ll ad-lib the Customer Service person’s side of the conversation for the sake of thematic continuity:

Rae-Ann: Hello, I’m staying at the Holiday Inn in Ocotillo Arizona and I wonder if you could give me their phone number.

Customer Service: Where?

Rae-Ann: Octotillo, Arizona.

Customer Service: We don’t have a hotel there.

Rae-Ann (now trying for clarity): Oh Koh Tee Yo, Arizona

Customer Service: Sorry, I don’t show a unit there.

Rae-Ann (snapping to the problem): Oh Koh Tee Yo looks like Oh Koh Till Oh

Customer Service: Ah yes, here you go.

So much for Spanish transcending English here in the United States.

Number in hand we called the front desk and were assured that the restaurant did exist and that it was in fact located in the plaza we assumed. We headed back, increasing our scrutiny in the area between Taco Bell and the sports bar. No restaurant. Someone suggested a complete circle of the satellite strip mall and finally Thai Pots hove into view.

It was closed.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Home Sweet Home

There really is no place like home. Sure, that sentiment is trite. But truer words were never spoken.

Getting there though is probably what makes one feel that way.

Since all my pals had spent the time throwing gasoline on the fire that is the Chinese economy, there was no way we were going to fit in one cab for the trip to the airport. So we arranged for the hotel van to take us there at the rate of about $100 for 5 of us. Sounds like lot, but it certainly doesn't compare to a US airport shuttle ride. And in China there is no tipping!

Checking out was a breeze, which surprised me since it seemed like I'd been there for months. As we waited for the van, I had to intercede on the behalf of my suitcases when one of the doormen insisted on loading them in a lower-caste "taxi van" that some of my other co-workers had commissioned. They were not going the full way, electing to finish up the final 20k on the Maglev which we had already ridden once on this trip.

The Buick arrived and the concierge immediately decided it was too diminuitive for our needs. So he sent for the "big" van which turned out to be a giant Mercedes beast with more than enough room for all of us. Off we went.

Driving across Shanghai is the same pretty much any time of the day except for that early morning jaunt I described last week. Traffic, that doesn't end until you cross the Huangpu and get into Pudong. So we sat and looked at the ever present laundry hanging from the high ride balconies. The driver was silent as always and the immitation faux burlwood trim on the console was wishing it was part of a Benz on the Autobahn instead of a van on the A20.

We made it to the airport with plenty of time to spare. Naturally the driver dropped us at Row A of the international departure zone not knowing we were checking in at Row P. Another slog across the marble plains, this time gratefully devoid of skimming bats.

Check in was a breeze and my dead weight suitcase did not trip the scales. On the bulletin board was a notice telling all those flying to the US that the must go through security between zones 19 and 22, which incidentally happened to be back at Row A. Another slog, still no bats.

The gel and lotion ban was extended to all flights heading into our air space so they made it clear that we needed to not have those things in hand. All but one of us made it through, Big Ham being nabbed for a prescription ointment (we won't go into those details) that had scrip with it that had his shortened name, not his given version. When he pulled out his American Express card I immediately wondered if this was a pathetic attempt at a bribe, but it turned out the card held his shortened name and that the guards were willing to accept it as identification.

Off to gate 19 for departure, back again in parallel to Row P. We'd now transversed the Pudong Airport completely 3 times, and still no bats.

Waiting for the departure, it became obvious that the Asiana Air 747 at our gate (destination Inchon) was not in a hurry to leave. Even though we were 15 minutes from the purported beginning of boarding. Just for grins I went looking for a monitor, which interestingly are far less common than the plasma screens on every surface that run a tape loop of some European version of Candid Camera. I found one, gate change, nice of them to tell us.

Back to Gate 17, about the equivalent of Row F. And a delay. Chinese airport officials are kind of funny - they talk fast and softly. First in Chinese and then in some sort of version of Traveler's English. Which is to say unless you hold your breath, you miss the messages. The delay was unexplained, but short and I did manage to collect the message that our carry on bags would be searched again. I wondered how that was going to be carried out in a narrow hallway leading up to a jetway at the bottom of the escalator.

They finally called for steerage and down we went. Ten guys were checking bags. My turn arrived and I was called over and asked to place mine on a backwards chair. The official asked me to open the lid, I did, he patted the bag twice, apparently blessing it and sent me on. Hmmm.

The plane was hot as the air conditioning was not working. The pilot apologized and promised she'd fix it personally as soon as we were airborne. I slid into my seat and immediately realized I was once again the victim of genetics - my femur length provided an nice bridge between the back of my seat and the back of the one in front. Realizing that that wasn't going to work for 11 hours, I unloaded all the magazines and catalogues from the seat back and put them in the overhead. I bought myself another 3/4", or enough to prevent sub-patellal blood clots from forming.

We got off once some deal with the paperwork for the fuel was resolved (they wouldn't accept the pilot's Master Card?) and we were on our way.

Not much to tell about the flight, it was long, The Poseidon Adventure is perhaps a bad choice in disaster films for a trans-Pacific flight, the food was routine, including the ritual pouring-of-the-hot-water-into-the-Ramen-sitting-on-your-lap, the other movies were okay although I'm guessing that Over the Hedge was an odd one for the 75% Asian crowd, and I think I mentioned it was long.

My rowmates were kind enough to time their bathroom visits to coincide with me standing up. A refreshing change. The young woman sitting directly next to me couldn't figure out how to let the air out of her neck pillow, compound valves not being her field of expertise. She also had the strange habit of peeling the grapes that came with our meals. And all this time I thought that old Mae West line was a double entendre - "Beulah, peel me a grape." She was little bother until she started throwing up while we were taxiing into the gate at SFO. Luckily she used the bag, unluckily (for the cleaners) she rolled it up and shoved it in the seat back.

We got off the plane, cleared customs and waited for the bags, ours being once again the last ones off the plane. This time though - no rush. Re-checked, went back through security and on to our gate. This time 79 out of ..... 79.

Being back in a US airport, we get treated to all those glorious traveler's outfits that make you wonder what the heck people are thinking. I won't say too much about the giant pregnant woman in the turquoise two-piece outfit consisting of a frilly halter top and hip-hugging parachute pants except to say I wondered if jet lag induced hallucinations were kicking in.

Our flight was there are ready to go once we figured out yet another gate change. Oddly, they boarded us and a second flight through the same doorway and jetway, a United agent down the ramp directing traffic depending on destination. Even with the coaching, two people heading for Denver managed to get on our plane, realizing their mistake just before take off.

The final indignity - a non-reclining seat for the final 2 hour trip. Perhaps better than the inverse angle seat I had on the way over, all those weeks ago.

Pulled in on time and found my lovely wife waiting for me just outside the sterile zone. I was early and out of context so she
didn't recognize me as I approached. Surprised, she stood up and as I went to offer my biggest Shanghai hug, I knocked her newly purchased Starbucks Vanilla Steamer out of her hand, spraying it all over the floor. Retrieving the cup and the lid, we bolted out of there, making it clear we knew nothing of the high temperature lactic disaster that now greeted visitors to the last gift shop at the end of the line.


It was good to be home.

In closing this trip, let me say "thanks" to all my loyal readers. I get a lot of feedback and it's always positive so it's nice to know that my rantings are appreciated. I have a lot of fun writing these updates and I hope they're fun for you too.

Some final words - the big learning for me on this expedition had to do with being open to new things. I'm not an intrepid guy and it wasn't that long ago that I hid my head beneath a blanket for the whole 5 hours of my first drive into Mexico. Here, 12 years later I'm bombing down muddy irrigation ditch roads in a mini-van with no shocks with a guy I've never met who doesn't speak English. Perhaps a tame adventure for many, but a true departure for me.



This last picture - one of a dozen funny translations you encounter on the other sides of the world that are always worthy of a chuckle. And being open to a chuckle is perhaps the most profound message traveling can give you. Because if you can do that, the doors open and the world appears.

Next stop - San Carlos, Sonora. Please stop by again!