Thursday, January 31, 2008

Comin' into Los Angeles, bringin' in a coupla keys

Well, not really. But Arlo Guthrie's words still have a ring to them after all these years.

Technically I completed my around the world trip some time this afternoon over Nevada when my inbound path crossed the trail I blazed almost 3 weeks ago. For the sake of argument, let's say it was over Las Vegas which appeared out my window around 2 PM. That city, sitting there in the sun blasted rock desert was a complete contrast to all the sights that came before as I wound my way home.

We got off a bit late because the fuel truck ran out while it was filling us up. Only 30 minutes and not worth getting steamed about because it's kind of funny when you think about it.

The plane was about 1/2 full and so I ended up with an entire window row to myself. What a treat, to be able to stretch out and enjoy the view without being trapped in the window seat.

Taking off from Dublin always illustrates why Ireland is called the Emerald Isle. Bright green patchwork fields and meadows stretched as far as I could see. It was quite beautiful, and as it faded into the clouds, I was sad to be leaving a place I have really come to love.

I busied myself with crosswords, music and a movie and was dozing off when the pilot came on the air. Normally I ignore the public service announcements but this time I listened - Iceland was out the left side of the plane. Reykjavik was visible, something the pilot said was rare indeed. What a wondrous, snow clad place, white in all directions, that monotony broken only by beaded rivers leading down to the sea. Quite amazing.

About this time I was beginning to notice an odor problem that I figured was emanating from the nearby lav. Except that it had a consistency that did not track with people using the facilities. Seems either the gent behind or the lady ahead was having a bit of a gas problem. I took it for as long as I could before I gathered my gear and moved to an empty row on the other side of the plane, wondering how a person could in any way think that was acceptable behavior.

By now, the sky had cleared and we were flying over the frozen expanse of the great boreal forest. Labrador or northern Ontario was my guess, but I sketched a few of the myriad lakes for future refrence. It all became moot in a second, because I instantly knew where we were when Hudson Bay came into view. What an incredibly, desolate place. Nothing but snow and ice all the way out to the curve of the Earth. The streets of a small town were scratched out on the tundra, perhaps Churchill, Manitoba? I'll have to check. Unlike out great west which appears quite desolate from the air, this great area was unbroken by even the most rudimentary road or track.
It clouded up again and so my sightseeing was at an end until the skies cleared again over the great basin and familiar territory was once again on hand.

We started to descend into LAX and the first thing I thought of was how radicallly different this was from what I had seen only mere hours ago. Vast untouched tracks versus a place where every square meter was consumed. Frozen wastes and the balmy desert. From this position, I could see the Pacific, and realized I had seen both oceans in the span of a single day. We landed, I cleared Customs and made my way to terminal 1 for my Southwest connection. And here I was faced with the gritty reality of air travel in the US. I started my day facing a bank of several dozen Aer Lingus check-in kiosks, all hoping to be the one I would pick. No queues, no "out of service" messages. At Southwest, of the 20 available, 2 were working and an agent was having to fight with one of those. The queue was 40 people long and not moving. When I finally got up there, the agent have me some lip because I had not requested a baggage tag. This having been called "sir" by the crew on my previous flight for 11 straight hours.

Once inside - 1 rest room for the entire concourse, the second one being closed with hazard tape. And a 25 minute delay for reasons unknown.

I flew 5 different airlines over the course of this little junket and the results were interesting to me. The US carriers, far below the comparative standards. Singapore, the legendary favorite, not significantly better. Lufthansa, great. Aer Lingus, exceptional in all ways and especially in the area of friendliness and legroom. My new favorite by a longshot.

And so here we are, almost done but not quite. Just another 2 hours, if we can only get off the ground.

Back to phone blogging

Here I am on the last leg of the trip. In true "Terry Fashion" I left plenty of time to make the 50 kilometer drive in. It was a tough night's sleep having to wake up at 1 AM to book a reasonable seat on my upcoming Southwest flight, doing no better than 35. Normally I'm in the 20s. The wind was howling for the rest of the wee hours and so I headed out into the gloom at 6 AM for the indeterminate drive in to the airport. Most of the advice I'd received suggested at least a full hour to allow for the nature of the inbound Dublin rush hour, the traffic moved though and I made the airport exit after 35 minutes of driving. I could see though that beyond my departure point that the commute ground to a complete standstill. Lucky me.

I turned in the car in the still howling wind, made my way towards the terminal, up a very strange ramp escalator that had no stairs and then went looking for the check-in lines. Aer Lingus provides a vast bank of automated kiosks, even for international departures , so I thought "what the heck" and went for it. It was a breeze, plug in your passport, enter some contact information and voila, a boarding pass. From there, you stand in line for a short spell to check your bag and you're done. The whole process took less than 10 minutes, contrasting sharply with the drudge of checking in at Delta.

Security was a snap and looking at my watch as I gathered my goods I realized it had taken me exactly 1 hour from signing my bill at the hotel to clearing the pre-travel process. Only 3 hours and 45 minutes to departure.

I made my regular beeline for a mobbed Butler's Irish Chocolate Cafe with a smoothie and chocolate muffin in mind. After fighting my way through the throng, I had my foodstuffs in hand and headed down the B concourse ply to run smack a satellite Butler's with no customers and all the same goods. Such is the story of my time management today.

At Dublin airport all of the US flights that don't stop in Shannon depart from a secure pod of gates that once entered, cannot be departed as US customs is down at the bottom of a slippery set of stairs. In general, you don't go down there if you have any intention of doing anything except sitting around. But when I arrived at the gate, the line was very long and so I queued up.

When I arrived at the agent, she asked me if I really wanted to go down and I said yes.

Waited a bit for customs and I managed to draw the crabby guy who told me not to lean on his podium. He was very interested in why I had been to China on this trip and why I had been gone for so long. I told him "Intel" and he stamped my passport and sent me on my way.

And there you have it, sitting here waiting and hoping for an ontime departure. More later as the trip evolves, next stop, LA.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Spanning the cultural divide

I've dealt with a few languages on this recent adventure, a bit of Korean, a lot of Chinese, some German and a smattering of Gaelic. It's been a bit of a challenge at times to keep straight where I was and with whom I was speaking, not unlike the beer I tried to order in Mexico over the Christmas holiday by asking for "yi ge cerveza" in my best Mandamexicanglish.

Tonight Tom and I went out for Chinese food at Miss Wong's in Leixlip. Feeling frisky and falling back into the food ordering routine of just 5 days ago, I decided to toss a bit of my Mandarin into the conversation with the three waitresses who were taking care of us. I started with a simple "xie xie" and moved up to a more agressive "kuazi" asking her to leave my chopsticks. I told her I spoke a little and she laughed and told me that my accent was really good. The next one came over and I chit-chatted with her a bit and she told my my Chinese was excellent. Following the cultural imperative of understating compliments, I said "nali, nali" which is what you say to deflect praise. She broke out in a big giggle and went over to the other girls and the bartender and told them that I had said "nali, nali" which put them all into a fit of laughter. Now we were speaking across the room and everyone was having a blast. Tom told me that if I had come in alone, I'd have had 3 dates for the evening. As we finished up, one of them came over and asked me how I had learned and why. I told her that Tom and I would be moving to China in one year's time for work, and that I had taught myself using a computer program. She was very impressed and told me that I was doing well. She asked if I had learned just Mandarin or Cantonese too, and I explained Mandarin only as we would be moving to Liaoning province in the north. Then we talked about the snow up there and how China was getting hammered this week by the weather. She was interested to know that it had snowed on me during my week in Dalian and again while I was in Shanghai. I asked for the bill by using "maidan" and they all started laughing again and repeated what I had said over and over. We finished up to a round of "zaijian!" from everyone and I honestly don't think the mood could have been better.

I think everyone's day was made by that little hour of fun. The restaurant in the tiny Irish town was empty on a cold January night when in walks a foreigner who blithers along in choppy Chinese much to the amazement of the workers. He laughs, they laugh, everyone's day is made a bit brighter. We can all work harder to make it a smaller world than it is, and how much gain from such little effort. For a moment, we were all of us Chinese, Irish and American simultaneously. What could be better than that on an average day when no one expects anything more than what happened the day before. Nothing I think.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Achtung! Achtung! Drive on the left side of the road!

Tonight I was almost hit by a bus and it was a stupid, rookie mistake.

I came out of a restaurant, talking to someone and I just stepped off the curb. I felt a breeze, ruffling what little hair I have and I looked up and there was a giant blue bus, number 66x to be precise, blowing by me at a prodigious clip. Now I wasn't really in the act of crossing - I had just stepped off and was in the process of stepping back on when the bus went by. But it was close, and it really rattled me and got me to thinking about this whole driving on the left side of the street thing. I had been planning to write about it earlier, but the bus really drove the point home

The title of tonight's blog comes from these yellow signs you see off and on around here. The very first sign you see when you pull out of the rental car lot at the airport warns you to drive on the left. Crosswalks all have "look left/look right" painted on the ground in front of you. Even the car has a warning label on the dashboard.

I imagine it's quite a problem around here given the ease of travel within the EU - short distances, low fares and no passport restrictions. I wonder how many people blow in from Bilboa and end up driving merrily down the wrong side of the road.

It's not that's it's bad, it's just different and doing it makes you realize how much your brain takes for granted in simply things. Like stepping off the curb. I don't consciously think "look both ways" when I'm crossing the street, my brain just does that work subliminally. And while I don't think "it's okay to cross", I know it unconsciously. Tonight my brain said there was nothing coming at me, from my left, and so it was okay for me to accidentally step off. Except that wasn't because there was a giant blue object attempting to occupy the same space that I was. And given its mass, it wasn't taking "no" for an answer.

Driving around, you have to remember constantly to look in the correct directions. I solve that problem by just over checking every lane change and turn I make. But then once in a while I go to pull out and realize that the black Jaguar bearing down on me is a whole lost closer than I might have thought it was had I even thought to look that way in the first place.

It takes some getting used to, and I think I'm getting there. But reality can come home in an instant, and it doesn't hurt to remember that.

Besides the whole safety thing, there are other little nits that get you too. Like the throbbing pain in one of the muscles on the left side of my neck that comes from shifting with my left hand. I've been right hand shifting standard tranmissions ever since Maurie Katz told me to drive his big delivery truck back in the summer of 1971. Now, I'm doing it left handed with muscles that are arguing that I'm making some sort of mistake. I grab the seatbelt from the wrong side every time I get in the car and tonight when I jumped in the passenger side of my friend's car, I went to for the wheel and it wasn't there. Getting beyond that, I had to sit on my right hand for the entire ride just to prevent it from reaching up and adjusting the rear view mirror.

I guess the message is simple, we get trained and we do so many things without even thinking about them. They just happen and if they didn't, it would take double the amount of time to do the most simple things. I suppose it's not a bad thing to have your simple tasks shaken up a bit from time to time, at least those that don't involve big blue buses.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Wicklow and the East

I know that his will come as a complete shock to many of you, but I have some travel phobias.
The first one is buying gasoline outside the US. At home, fueling the car has become a completely solitary, private event. You pop the credit card in the pump, enter your zip code and fill away. You no longer have to interact with anyone. Even when the pump tells you that “clerk has your receipt” you can elect to just get in the car and drive away, imagining all those little slips of paper being saved for you inside. Over here though, you have to go inside and talk to a real person. You never know if they want the credit card first, or if you can just fill the car and then pay. Or when they’re going to release the pump for your use. It’s daunting.

And then there’s the gym at the hotel. I have finally become comfortable with putting on my gear and going into the little, stinky exercise rooms at US hotels. In China and at the hotels I use in Ireland, the facilities are more like health clubs and so different behavior is called for. Like no riding up and down the elevators in your workout clothes.

The last thing that gets me is eating alone in a restaurant. I don’t have any problem doing this in the lounge that I eat in at the hotels in Dalian and Shanghai or even here, but that’s a tiny bit different. No money changes hands, no orders are taken, people do not sit there staring at you and murmuring and you’re a bit less conspicuous as it’s more of a traveler’s feed station than an actual restaurant.

On this day, I decided to test each of these in a veritable orgy of self-punishment.

After a great breakfast (alone) down in the Atrium, I packed up and made a plan for today. Last night I was churning about where to go, having pretty much exhausted my interest in driving by knocking off 479 kilometers. There were places out there in the west that I’d missed, but the thought of 150K just to get to them was off-putting. I also was tired of bull-riding my car up and down those crazy roads, so I was at a bit of a loss. So I got out my map and my trusty copy of “Ireland’s Best Loved Driving Tours” and plotted my day.

The ocean again beckoned, so I took at look at the routes to the east coast and found that I could pretty much design an outing that was heavy on motorways and light on little roads. Between the south coast and the north coast, it came down to familiarity – I’d been close to the north, so the south it was.

I grabbed my gear and dropped it in the car so I would not have to lug it while I did a little birding. Same things as yesterday plus a Hawfinch made it a worthwhile 15 minutes. Before leaving, I made a detailed inspection of the car in order to locate the position of the gas cap (didn’t want to have to do a u-turn during the terror of gas buying), whether or not it was internally controlled (it was) and if so where the release button was. This last item proved dchallenging – it was in none of the traditional spots. After working myself into a light sweat, I finally found it – in the center of the side of the driver’s side armrest. Glad I didn’t leave that to the last minute!

On the road and through the first toll where the woman taking payments made goo-goo eyes at me. I imagine it was due to my obvious air of distracted American.

I plowed along through the “major road works” that the M50 has been offering for at least the last year, keeping a watchful eye on my ever dwindling petrol supply. Of course, given that I had steeled my will and made a plan to hit the first place I saw, no places appeared. When one finally did, I jammed on the brakes and did a power turn into the lot.

Of course, there was no pump available that lined up with the correct side of my car. So I had to do a u-turn after all which was made difficult by the lorry that was about half blocking the small space between the building and the pumps. I got halfway around it only to be blocked by some guy in an SUV who was not about to let be go unscathed so I backed up and let him by. He didn’t even wave.

I finally positioned the car at the pump and climbed out. Three options and two of them were diesel. In the US, diesel is universally marked green, over here, unleaded is marked green and that took my brain a few seconds to get used to. Once past that, I pulled the pump and looked for the means to turn it on. There was none. I stared at the set-up for a few seconds, played with things that in a more perfect universe would have turned it on and finally gave up and went inside.

I asked the guy, who happened to be Chinese and with the name Colin if he wanted my credit card as insurance. He said no, just go ahead and pump. So I asked him how the pump worked and he laughed and said he would turn it on from there.

The tank filled up without incident and once done, I went inside to pay. I grabbed a couple Diet Cokes and handed them with my card to Colin. As he was about to hit the total key, I told him to hang on and I added a bag of potato chips to the pile. With a bit of a smirk he asked me, “Got everything now?” and I told him “Yes” and he handed me the slip. By now, it was clear he thought I was some sort of half-wit, an impression I could not let go so I figured I would even the score. I thanked him for the receipt, turned to leave, paused exactly 3 seconds and turned back, looked him straight in the eye and in my best Beijingese accent and said, “Zaijian”, “goodbye” in Chinese.

He looked like he had been hit across the face with a shovel. The sheer absurdity of the moment was too much for him to absorb and so he smiled a dazed smile and said “Yea, seen you again.” I’m sure I made his day, a dimwitted, indecisive, gas pump technology challenged American stumbles into his gas station located on the side of the M50 motorway outside Dublin, Ireland and says “goodbye” to him in his native tongue. Take that, I got to shock the heck out of someone while putting a bullet into Phobia Number One.

My plan from here was to take the M50 to where it ended by the town of Bray and to pick up the E1 for a cruise some reasonable distance down the coast. That would have been great except the E1 is now the M11 which in turn becomes the N11, contrary to what the map I just recently bought was telling me. Not to bother, I was headed in the correct direction.

The day was clearing and as I topped a big rise, off to the left I could see the rising sun glinting across the surface of the Irish Sea. It was quite beautiful and it immediately brought to mind the fact that I had really not seen more than a few minutes of sun since I left home, almost 2 weeks ago. Dalian was overcast every day, and Shanghai offered nothing more than an hour or so on two mornings. The rest of the time was gray as well and my first day here was also almost entirely overcast, the sun trying but failing to completely break though the west coast overcast.

Here it was though and it was grand. A line of 7 or 8 wind turbines presented themselves off shore and the green of the fields to my right was tremendously enhanced by the angular light.

Judging from the number of one and two horse trailers I passed, This area appears to be extensively used for horseback riding. It was really nice to see a couple of horses fencing in the back of their trailer, blankets still on for the cold. No big Featherlights or Sooners here, Brenderup is the trailer of choice in these parts, I imagine due to size and maneuverability.

One thing that was really different were the hills – big ones, wearing a patchwork of woodlots and fields that brought to mind the drive out on Route 26 from Hillsboro to Tillamook in Oregon. Everywhere else I've been in Ireland has been flat or rolling. Here, the hills gave a distinctly different geography.

My plan at this point was to exit at the town of Arklow, head down to the water and catch little road 750 and follow it along the water back up to the town of Wicklow. I did get down into town, dead-ended along a waterway and turned around and headed back the way I came. There were no markers for 750 to be seen, so I simply kept taking right turns in the direction of the ocean until at last I ended up on something that was heading in the correct direction and was close to the coastline.

It would have been nice to stay in Arklow a bit longer – it appears worthy of exploration – but I was on a deadline to hit the beach so out I went past neat little rows of brightly painted houses houses and the occasional person starting their Sunday.

I wound my way along past farms and vacation homes and came at last to a beach access car park. I pulled in, climbed out and went for a stroll on the strand. It was a really wonderful spot, called Enereilly Beach, its sign claimed to offer fishing for Codling, Bass, Whiting, Flounder and Dogfish. Sure enough, a father and son had set up poles and were busy surf fishing.

I headed down the way stopping to take pictures here and there. The beach was composed of sand and gravel and more Oyster shells than I have ever seen in any one place. The rocks were similar to the agates you find on Oregon beaches and the place reminded me strongly of our own northwest coast.

Big dunes covered with swirls of brown and green beach grasses held their own against the tides. A bit down the way I found a small beached shark, splotchy red in color lying its back. I turned it over to take a photo and it showed life so I picked it up by the tail and pitch it back into the surf. Not sure if it made it or not, but it didn’t wash up again while I was there.

A wrack of black granite stuck up out of the sand breaking the waves a bit further on. One lone red fishing boat was working the sea just off shore and the view of the wind generators was even better than up on the road.

The combination of rocks and flotsam and shells made for some interesting pictures down on the ground. A few couples out for a morning walk greeted me and went on there way. I could have spent hours there wandering about but I had more on my agenda so after taking many photographs I headed back to the car.

The road continued winding along on its way, hugging the coast on the top of the bluff. Here and there I stopped at access points and took a few more shots but none of these places was as nice as the first. I pulled over to capture a flock of sheep lolling about in a big green field that fell down towards the sea. I passed many small groups of road bikes out for a Sunday ride. The road was perfect for it - not well-traveled, a nice combination of flats, curves and climbs and it made me very envious to see them togged up and riding along in such a beautiful place and on such a gorgeous morning.

Eventually I made my way into Wicklow as planned. Watching the signs, I took a turn in the correct direction and headed back to the motorway, my next stop on the other side of it, up in the hills.

I learned a lesson on this segment of the trip, road signs don’t always give you the precise scoop here. Instead, they offer you only some of the information necessary to make a decision. In this case, I took a turn marked by a sign that said “Wexford.” Now since I was looking for the N11, one might expect a sign for it, but it’s never that simple. Instead of a sign for the N11, I was provided with a sign for a town that’s at one end of the N11, 80 kilometers away. So using your best inductive logic, you decide that the town mentioned is associated with the highway you want and therefore following that sign might actually take you to that highway. Occasionally it works that way, and in this case it did.

Back on the N11, it was my plan to head now to the town of Glendalough, the site of a well preserved cemetery tower according to the Beloved Tours book.

For some reason, the road signs on this side of the motorway were numerous and apparently accurate; I was actually able to follow them. Back to the frenzy of high speed small roads this time with the addition of steep climbs up the side of hills. No longer Oregon, it seemed like I was now in central Massachusetts. The deciduous woods gave way to stands of pine and where the pines were absent, the hills were covered with Bracken. I really felt at home in this landscape.

I passed many more cyclists and was passed by many boys on motorcycles pretending to be in a world cup grand prix. The road took a very steep turn upward, so bad that I had to drop into 1st gear to stop the engine from lugging. About halfway up that hill I was sorry to see a family trying to go down it with a horse trailer.

Eventually the road leveled off and ran parallel to the hills instead of climbing them. I crossed a river where a group of men stood by the road getting into their wet suits and helmets for a bout of whitewater kayaking. Around the bend, into a small village and there I was in Glendalough. It was a busy place, apparently it’s a popular thing to go trekking in these hills on Sunday. I immediately found the historical site and the last space in a big car park. More than just a well preserved tower, this turned out to be a the remains of a complete Monastery.

Located in a valley between two tall hills, the light gave the impression that it was late afternoon even though it was just past noon; the sun could not clear the ridge to the south, so everything was cast in deep shadows. I wandered around the grounds for a good spell – there was a lot to look at. In addition to the tower, there were the ruins of a cathedral, a small house and a complete tiny church all dating from around 1200 AD. Some areas on the site date back to St. Kevin who arrived here to live as a hermit around the year 600. His plan to escape the distractions of the modern world eventually came to an end as the monastery he founded became one of the most popular and hence busiest in Ireland. All of this amidst a cemetery with stones spanning the time from the 1700s to the present. Best of all was a cross carved in a block of stone just to the side of the dual arch entry gates. It was mentioned on a plaque explaining the site, and it was a bit hard to find. But once located, it was obvious, and amazing to think that it was carved by a monk in this very location more than 1000 years ago. It was a great place to spend the afternoon.

It was getting busier by the moment so I decided to head back so I left and easily found my way back to the motorway. For once, the signs worked and I was able to use them.

Back at the hotel, it was time for the second personal challenge – going to the gym. I grabbed my exercise kit and headed down to the spa where I received a towel, went into the changing room, put on my kit and tried to lock the locker. The key would neither turn nor pull out of the lock. I tried another, no such luck. Finally I broke down and asked a teenaged boy what the story was. He pointed out that I need to put a 1 Euro coin inside the lock in order to free the key. Sort of a key deposit system. One might think it foolish of me to head to the gym without a 1 Euro coin in hand, but honestly, I don’t. So I had to pull my clothes back on grab my towels and march back up the stairs and down the hall to my room where I grabbed a 1 Euro coin and retracing my steps for what was now the 3rd time returned to the gym, dumped my street clothes and went off to exercise. The rest of the story is boring so I won’t bother telling it.

By now it was 6 PM and thus time for my last personal challenge – sitting and eating alone in a restaurant. I decided to bring along my Sony eBook so that I would have something to read and arriving downstairs I chose the hotel pub instead of the main dining room, figuring I would be more comfortable in there. I went in, chose an inconspicuous table, sat down and read the menu, waiting for the server to arrive. She came, I ordered, I sat reading and nursing my pint until the food came at which point I put catsup on the fries and dug in. Once done, I signed the tab, read for a bit more and then got the heck out of there. Forty-five minutes in all, I don’t think I saw anyone staring or murmuring.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

One last blog before I sleep - Chinese Toothpaste

I ran out of toothpaste on Thursday in Shanghai, those little tubes are simply not enough for 10+ days. So I went shopping for a replacement at the Parkson across the street from my hotel. Parksons is a combination upscale cosmetics, home electronics, clothes and grocery store.

There were many choices, I settled on Colgate because they were the one firm that stated they did not allow ethylene glycol in their products, a scandal that erupted early last year. Crest and the others were ambiguous in their statements.

I don't read Chinese all that well, so I chose "green" as my flavor and tonight I cracked it open. It is the most hideous shade of green, completely clear and loaded with little white squares. The flavor - best described as mentholated green tea.

I'm sure I'll get used to it. Luckily it's a big enough tube such that I will have plenty to bring home.

Galway and the West

I rolled out of bed this morning at the very civilized hour of 8, had the breakfast buffet and loaded up for a day on the road. My goal was generally the west coast of Ireland and the areas around Galway in particular.

Before leaving I took a stroll around the grounds, the calls of the birds being just too irresistible to ignore. In just a short walk I saw some type of Wren, Coal Tit, Great Tit, Thrush, Wood Pigeon , Rook, Jackdaw and Eurasian Blackbird. My inability to refine a few of the species reminded me that I really need to bring a field guide with me on these trip. The hotel is built around an old manor house, and the grounds are quite nice.

I managed to pull out of the car park (using the correct local term) without running into anything. I've been doing pretty well this trip, having only scraped the curb twice leaving the airport last night. In fact, last night I successfully navigated the Airport to M1 to M50 to N4 to M4 to Enfield and into the hotel lot maze without driving off the road or hitting anything which is saying something considering I had just flown 6000 miles, been up for 24 hours and was 8 time zones out of sync. I didn't even miss a shift!

A toll booth blocked the entrance to the highway but I miraculously had correct change in hand - the leftovers from my $10 Coke on the plane last night. Tolls are expensive here, on the order of $4+ so or. I paid and entered the divided carriageway (again using the correct local term.)

One way in which my driving does come up short is my tendency to drift too far to the right. I am constantly running over the rumble strip which annoys me to no end. But driving on the right side, it's hard to see that left corner of the hood. I rumble and I correct, a theme that is pervasive through the next 5 hours of exploration.

The divided road lasted for a long time but finally reduced to a regular 60 mph two lane road that wove through the countryside and all the towns along the way. It's beautiful country - green fields divided by stone walls creating pens for draft horses and big, fat white sheep. A lot of farm vehicles share the road, sometimes blocking the way and others properly using the shoulder which is extra wide and marked as a slow lane.

RTE Lyric on the radio set the mood. I love this station, it's an eclectic mishmash with wonderful sounding DJs and little advertising. The day is divided up into 2 or 3 hour programs, blocks of music punctuated by the news. Over the course of my drive, they offered programs on Broadway show tunes, movie themes, a great classical segment, a focus on a certain Czech composer whose name escapes me but whose Czech language rendition of a certain folk song that sounded like the 60s hit "Guantanamera" was something to behold, and a special program of music that ran from 1st century BC Chinese drinking songs played on a 7 string zither to Mississippi bluesman Robert "Son" House. The first thing I do when I land here is dial in this station.

The countryside rolled by and I began to plot my course off the motorway and down towards the peninsula which is the home of the Cliffs of Moher, one of Ireland's most famous landmarks. I missed a couple of shortcuts and ended up going a bit out of my way in order to take a better marked route. The tiny roads are tough here - they're not well marked, they change, they're often not where they're supposed to be and while being 10 feet wide, they're all marked at 100KPH.

I found my way onto the road I wanted and began to curve around the bottom of Galway Bay. The land changed a bit - no more trees - and the fields became greener and greener. Here the hill and bay sides are all divided up by neat little stone walls. By now, I was in The Burren, a big surprise to be as I had no idea what that was despite all my pre-trip map scouring. Turns out The Burren is a classic example of Karst geology, limestone and other bedrock scoured and cleaved by glaciers. The result is big stony hills with nothing more than a few patches of heath breaking the gray rocky monotony. In essence they look like giant hills of gravel. Their effect on the local man-made landscape was obvious - the materials from the rock walls and the stone houses all came from these rocky hills.

It's hard to capture the grandeur of the bigs hills in a photograph. For some reason, the camera just doesn't portray how big and stark they are.

Here I've included a shot of one of those tiny little roads. Imagine for a moment driving your backwards car down this at 60 MPH. And you thought I was exaggerating, didn't you?

I rounded a corner and found a castle overlooking an inlet to the bay. Too good an opportunity so I bundled up and got out of the car. It was low tide, and the rocks and shore of the bay were exposed. A Grey Heron stood on the far side of the inlet. A small group of Eurasian Widgeon were huddled on the rocks, hunkered down out of the wind, which was blowing at gale force. A single (Eurasian) Green-winged Teal bobbed in a shallow pool and what appeared to be some sort of Godwit was picking through the exposed sea weed.

The castle is called Dunguaire and was built in 1520 by the Hynes clan. It is said to be the most photographed castle in all of Ireland.

From there I intended to take a coastal road but somehow I missed that turn and ended up spending the next hour or so winding my way through The Burren's farmlands on the tiniest 100KPH road I had yet encountered. The scenery was stunning, albeit not what I had intended. Finally I came to a crossroads that was decorated with the remains of an abbey of indeterminate age as well as signs pointing to some towns I recognized. Thus corrected, I headed back towards the coast.

Finally, the ocean came into view and I was on the road to the Cliffs. Off to the side I saw an interesting castle tower and some beautiful shoreline but I missed the turn so I decided to turn around and head back. Which brings us to the other problem with these tiny roads - there are so few pull-offs and driveways that often you need to drive miles before finding a way to turn around. Forget a u-turn - the road is too narrow. Forget a k-turn - in the time it took you to execute, you'd get creamed. So you drive and you wait and you get angry when you see how the local homeowners put big boulders in their front yards when they got tired of people turning around in them.

I did find a place and after over-revving the engine and grinding the transmission trying to get it into 1st gear I went back and down the steepest, tiniest road to date. I was glad no one was coming up.

It was worth it. The ocean was crashing on rocks in the surf. The Cliffs of Moher could be seen off to the south and the Isles of Aran clung to the horizon to the west. I parked and hiked down the coast across a very strange granite landscape of big square and rectangular blocks with gaps worn smooth by the pounding of the waves. A couple of big enclosed fields held some cows grazing and a farmer was there in his Wellingtons checking on them. The wind was howling and the spray was flying - it was a great moment.

From there, back up that tiny little road and on my way to Moher. Arriving, I was
sort of disappointed to discover it was like every other major natural wonder in the civilized world - crowded with people who had partaken of the paid parking to put their cars in between the tour buses. On of which was blocking the entrance to the lot as the driver could not figure out how to pay. Traffic was backing up in both directions and I decided that it was not worth the 8 Euro fee so I pulled out of the queue (continuing my local terminology) and went on my way.

Coming down the grade I stopped to take a couple of pictures of the beaches and an old stone abbey standing vigil over a cemetery. Interestingly, all the new grave stones were stark, angular black granite. Quite a contrast to the weathered gray headstones so common in these burial grounds.

A couple of women came down the lane walking their dogs, one of whom did not like me at all until we talked and he backed down. Speaking of dogs, this part of the country is overrun with Border Collies, all black and white and the big, robust kind you do not typically see in the US.

It was getting late and I was about done looking at things so I decided to head back. I took a shortcut to avoid the town of Ennis and somehow missed a turn and ended up looping right back onto the road I had left. I had a bit of a challenge navigating Ennis (which is why I was trying to avoid it in the first place) but finally I found the N18 and headed back towards home.

I passed by one last interesting site, Castle Cloghan. It was a derelict site until purchased by its present owner and restored. Originally a Norman keep, built around 1239, it is now a rental unit used for parties and weddings.

It was really a great day overall. I drove around 400 kilometers, saw all kinds of wondrous natural things and some good ruins too. I passed through horse country and even found the Ireland Museum of the Horse, a stop for the future. In the field near the turn, there is a great bronze of a horse standing and grazing while his master, also in bronze, crashes to the ground behind him. Today the pair was surrounded by a flock of sheep, enjoying the same grass.

Tomorrow I head for the east coast, although the places I missed today beckon. We'll see.

Friday, January 25, 2008


The trip across Asia was pretty easy and went quickly, belying the fact that it was a bit over 11 hours. Lufthansa is a pretty impressive airline, and the more foreign based carriers I fly, the more I am coming to realize what a cheap job the big US outfits do. The contrast is stark.

After leaving Shanghai and doing a weird zigzag over central China due to some traffic restrictions, we took a westerly course over Mongolia. We were chasing the dusk line, traveling a bit slower than the sun, so I was able to see a shocking red sunset over the frozen expanse of Siberia. Tall snow capped peaks glittered on the arc of the earth. Ulan Bator, Novosibirsk, Ekaterinberg - names from the deep history of the Silk Road and Russia.
From there it was a glide down into Europe crossing Moscow, Minsk, Warsaw and Berlin.
Before deplaning, the showed a nice little instructional video about how to do your transfer in the terminal, including video showing all the routes and counters. This was nice for me, as it put my anxiety to rest.

Too bad the reality was nothing like the movie.

I got off the plane and started to make my way into the terminal, missing a couple of turns before finding the correct escalator. I arrived at the transfer station only to be told I was in the wrong terminal. A kind agent sent me down the hall. I had 60 minutes on the clock.

A couple of turns and another missed escalator and I arrived at the Skyline, sort of a small, slow speed version of the train I started the day on. A short crossing of the space between the buildings and I was in Terminal 2.

The board listed the flight but not the gate and there were multiple entries to the gates. Through security. With no boarding pass. I asked an officer what to do and he told me that this was the practice here. Still having no gate, I walked the whole length of the E concourse before the gate finally showed up on the board. 40 minutes left. Went through security and made my way to the gate - no agent. I saw some guys screwing around down the way so I asked about a boarding pass. I was told "I can only be in 1 place at a time." Nice.

But he did walk down and check me in. Last row on the plane. 20 minutes left.

Sat around for a second or two and decided to hit the rest room while I had time. One of the automated urinals was shooting water across the room, it being in a state of perpetual flush,

They called us to board and since we were leaving via bus out to the plane, we had to go down 2 flights of stairs. The escalators were broken. On the bus, out to the plane and up the stairs. Being in the last row there was no overhead storage so I had to swim upstream a bit. We took off and beverage service came along. I asked for a coke and she asked for 2 euro. I have 10 USD and she gave me a handful of coins, thus so low has our dollar sunk. A rough landing due to winds, a friendly immigration agent and here I stand waiting to see if my bag has made it, and trying to make sense of the day.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

A tale of two lounges

Following the train trip, I made my way to the check in gate and got in the special treatment line. Not as special as First Class but more special than the proletariat line.

A small problem with my final destination ensued when the agent insisted that I should go only to Frankfurt. I held my ground, "Dublin" I claimed. After producing my itinerary, he relented and checked my bag all the way through. I on the other hand will have to check myself again upon arrival.

Matt received an invitation to the business lounge while I did not. So I marched back to the check in line and waited until a First Class agent waved me over. I explained that I did not receive an invitation and she asked me what program I am a member of. I told her and she told me that I need Gold status to use the lounge. I replied that that was odd, because I always get a lounge card. Rather than argue, she just have me the card, checking the box for the lower class lounge. Not easily dissuaded, I just checked the other box and went to the fancier version.

After hanging out there among the throngs I decided to go out and walk around a bit as I'm about to be sitting around for the next 14 hours or so. Problem is, once you're down here on the gate level, there are no restrooms or even a place to sit. So I went back up top, went down to another level for the bathroom then back up to find a gate that was not in use where I could sneak back down again. They say a French firm designed this place and left it to the Chinese to finish. If you just followed my short trip, I think you'll agree that the hand off was not smooth.

Riding the Shanghai Magnetism Aerotrain.

What better way to explore the magic of direct Blackberry to Blog technology than to do it from the Maglev bullet train.

The next few entries will be from my phone, so please excuse any obvious errors. Typing a lengthy piece from a phone with two letters per key is challenging for someone with my thumbs. I thought though that real time blogging the next phase of the trip would be a worthwhile experiment, so here we are.

Currently passing 400 kph one our way to 430. The scenery flies by outside, changing from industrial to rural, the being the fringes of Pudong on the Yangtze Delta. The train on the opposite tracks passes with a poof in about 1 seconds time.

A look out the window tells us we made the right call - the road in to the airport is jammed due to a wreck.

And then it's over, 6 minutes and we arrive at the airport.

More later!

A final spin around town for this trip

We made a quick trip back to the pearl market to pick up yesterday's order followed by a trip across the street into Yu Gardens for a look at the tourists and the Starbucks. New Years goods were on sale everywhere, making the scene red wherever you turned. We stopped for a moment in the center square to talk about a dumpling shop that was pronounced "best in the world' on one segment of Anthony Bourdain's show, "No Reservations." The line extended out the door and around the building and while remarking on that a gentleman standing near us chimed in using perfect English that it was in fact the best. He asked about our business there on that day, laughed at the fact that we worked for Intel, telling us our financial situation was not ideal. He went on to tell about his brother whom had lived in Provo, Utah for the last 25 years, becoming a Mormon while there. He laughed and said "that's the only reason anyone would want to live there."

Sometimes you meet the best people just standing around.

After the walk around Yu Gardens and a stroll through the neighborhoods in the Old City, we went looking for the Bird Market, one of my favorite little holes in the wall. I didn't have my map with me and so I had to go from memory and while it took a long walk down Zhonghua Road and up Tibet Road and across to Dongping Road where I reached the depths of despair at my inability to find it, I finally persevered and went back to Tibet Road and found it. It's an interesting place, flowers out front and a warren of stalls inside an old building with a glass roof. One line of puppy stalls including one that had a tiny pug sadly ensconced in a cage with five tiny kittens. You could see the embarrassment on his little wrinkled face. Next line is fish and tables of aquarium supplies. Then comes tables of crickets and katydids, clicking away in tiny plastic cages. Finally rows upon rows of songbirds, moved back into the building due to the cold out front. A few chickens scratch around between the tables and a big cat walked the roof line over the tops of the stalls. Hundreds of singing Thrushes, Finches and Parrots in banks of cages illuminated by heat lamps. Saddest of all though were what appeared to be some sort of Lark, clearly just taken from the steppes, bobbing around in the bottom of a bird cage, wondering by what ill fortune they had ended up there.

Perhaps the neatest thing about the Bird Market though is the fact that the vendors simply ignore westerners like me - it's clear we're not there to buy anything. Out of respect for the people, I don't openly take pictures in this place.

From there, across the street to the antiquities market where one can find all sorts of oddball antiques, both old and brand new. It's a couple of blocks of small streets lined with booths. Some specialize in Buddhist art, others in old fans and telephones. A real hodgepodge and pretty low key in terms of low pressure salesmanship. Most have no English aside from the odd gaggle of little school girls who delight in walking by with their grandmother escort and yelling a giggly "hello" at us.

This last picture is a shot of the touch screen entertainment/advertising screen in the taxi that brought us back to the hotel tonight. It was a neat little piece of advertising for Disneyland, complete with the middle class family - mom, dad, son, daughter, grandparents - having a dinner. Dad pulls out the travel plans and tells the kids, "we're going to Disneyland." A talking Mickey Mouse doll pops up and gets the whole family rev'd up. Next thing you know, they're on Main Street USA, wearing mouse ears.

What's interesting about it is that they have managed to weave Minny and Mickey into the upcoming Chinese New Year, this being the Year of the Rat. A pretty slick bit of cultural appeal.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Some pearls, some people and a few more rats.

I mentioned the pearl market in yesterday's blog and since we were heading back there today, decided to include a couple of pictures.

Anna is the Purveyor of Fine Pearls to Intel. Matt found out about her from a businessman here at the Renaissance on a trip back in 2006. Since then, every person who has been over here on the project at one time or another has visited Anna. She knows most of us by name and always has a big grin when we come up the escalator. The pictures below are of some of the product in her stall and of the third floor in general where the pearl dealing is done. Although the shops are separate, it's almost certainly some sort of cartel because she will hand off the task of stringing and tying on the clasps while she is taking other orders. The market is located in a big building on the edge of the Old City and the Yu Gardens tourist shopping district. The first floor is engagement rings, the second, gold and jade artworks and the third, pearls.

While my companions were shopping jewelry, I went down the stairs to the gold floor to look at the statues and got into a great conversation in Chinese with the two girls in the shot below. I was looking at an extravagant statue of a horse, down in gold filigree and told them how we have 5 horse, 3 big (hen da) and 2 little (hen xiao). They found the story and my language very amusing. I took their picture standing in front of their shop.

From the pearl market we took sort of a big spin around the city, across the Bund, up Nanjing Lu, under the river to the center of Pudong to take some pictures of the skyscrapers and then back down on the subway to a little art street called Taikang Lu. It's a former tenement block converted into trendy, chic little shops and cafes. One could spend a day in there wandering through the warren bobbing in and out of boutiques and galleries. We did have one cool moment on the Bund, when a family asked if they could take our picture with them. It's not uncommon for Chinese to make this request, although with the number of westerners one sees around, I guess I am surprised at the novelty. I decided to turn the table and ask for the same thing in reverse. Here's that shot.

We ended the day once again at the Face Bar, this time for Indian instead of Thai. Hazara is the name of the restaurant and the food is sublime. Unfortunately, we sat in the no-smoking section which is located on sort of a glassed in porch, with no heat. They rolled a small space heater under our table which promptly kicked off the minute we needed it. The dinner though was fine - butter chicken, Kasmiri rice and saffron nan. I wrapped my dinner up with a piece of Mango Cheesecake. Aside from freezing, it was a great time.

In closing, here are a few more rats. One with sort of a Christmas spirit, one that looks like a Valentine and a last one that looks like I'm not sure what. Perhaps tomorrow will bring another batch.