Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Thoughts on Rental Cars

Rental cars are a funny thing. They're always unique, but you have them for such a short time that it's relatively hard to develop a decent relationship with them. Woe be to the traveler that ends up with a government gray compact that gets parked in a big lot in an unfamiliar place. I'll admit to walking up and down the lanes pushing on the panic button in hopes of setting off the alarm. I did it one time and seriously shocked a guy getting into his car which he had mistakenly parked next to mine.

This time I'm rolling with a Chevy Equinox. It's not a car, and it's not a truck. The website calls it a "sport utility car" which I guess makes it a "SUC?" Anyway, it's a car in search of an identity. You sit in bucket seats that evoke minivan, except that the back seat is standard and there are no sliding doors. It doesn't ride badly, it's just that it gives you a sense that it's confused.

To its advantage, this particular one is Deep Ruby Red which makes it easy to find in an anonymous parking lot. So far I've found it every time I've gone a-lookin'.

Today though was different. I checked out of the hotel and went down to the lot. My Deep Ruby Red Equinox was right there where I left it. I punched the door opening button and grabbed the back door handle in order to toss my bag onto the seat. It was locked. I punched the button a second time, hearing the locks disengage. Still locked. I looked at the lock pushers in the door - they appeared to be in the "up" position. Tried the button again - still locked even though I was clearly hearing the locks responding.

Pivoting in place, I realized what was going on - someone had parked their Deep Ruby Red Equinox right next to mine. The locks were working fine, they just weren't working on the particular car I was trying to get into. Backing up and assessing the two side by side, it was obvious that the offending car was not quite an Equinox, despite its Deep Ruby Red paint. It was a similar model, but a bit shorter and squatter. Now fully apprised of the unique subtleties of the Chevrolet product line, I tossed my bag into my car and went off in search of breakfast.

Monday, May 05, 2008


Well I was home for a week and I suppose I should thank my lucky stars because someone out there always has it worse than I do. But it still seems like too short a time to get back into the rhythm and flow of regular life. I pulled through my jet lag and I did manage a couple of bike rides – shocked at how sore my “supporting tissues” were after only an hour or two in the saddle. I guess though that it’s to be expected given that the last time I swung my leg over a bike was some time back in the middle of March. Looking at my spreadsheet, April 2008 was the second worst month for mileage during my 10 years of record keeping the worst being October of 2000 when it rained every single weekend for a month, allowing only 47 miles. April of this year was good for 59, and my 640 miles on the year (normally I have that many by the end of February) tells me that I have genuinely sacrificed something I used to enjoy for the sake of my current gig.

Here I am though, back on the road, this time on the short hop to Phoenix for a couple of days. As always, the little things in getting here is what makes traveling so interesting. Like the TSA woman whose line I chose that was processing one person to her peer’s six (yes, I did the throughput study while standing there.) The person before me warranted a UV light examination of his driver’s license. In my case, she pulled out a magnifying glass and checked the borders of the picture on my passport to make sure I had not pasted it in over the true owner’s. A small price to pay for security I guess, or perhaps she was simply exercising the skills she picked up last week at a seminar on forgeries. Moving on to the security check, I helped myself by telling the woman preceding me in the x-ray line not to shove her boarding pass into her purse before sending it down the belt. Having cleared that hurdle, I headed down to the ATM and was surprised to find a fellow using it. I have never waited at that machine in all the times I’ve used it. What was truly surprising was the fact that he was just standing there. Looking over his shoulder, I noticed the screen said “please swipe your card” and just as I was about to mention this, he pulled his card out of his wallet and swiped it. And then we stood there for another 2 or 3 minutes while the screen continued to recommend he swipe his card. Eventually he just walked away, perhaps bored with the fact that the screen never seemed to change.

The line-up at Southwest was a bit less confusing to my fellow travelers today and the only issue was the guy that lined up in my section ½ hour ahead of boarding. Knowing full well I had a lower number than he did, I debated whether I should bully my way ahead of him or whether I should just let it go. This got me fathoming why I would even care, arriving at the conclusion that I am simply competitive by nature and that there really is nothing wrong (more or less) with being that way. In the end, I stood next to him and waited for someone else to cross-examine him on his number and then I was home free, he having admitted he was #22. Not that any of this mattered, the plane was about 1/3 full and I ended up sitting in the 2nd row next to a young woman who insisted on watching a movie on her laptop during take-off.

One hour plane flights are always easy and appreciated. In this case it left me enough time for a chipotle turkey wrap at Paradise Café, it being a better option than the cafeteria at work. Naturally I got in line between the two women who took separate checks and then had to settle their financial differences right there at the cash register while I waited to ring out.

Lunch being done it was down the escalator and out into the furnace to catch the rental car bus whose ride over to the center was as wonderful as ever albeit a bit crowded. But it was quick and in no time I was cruising down I10 in my Chevrolet Equinox watching the outside air temperature climb from 90 to 99 in the matter of 8 or 10 miles.

Really, it was a pretty boring day which sometimes is just what the doctor ordered.

Now I know I can’t regale you with colorful photos of my exotic adventures when I’m sitting at a Marriott Courtyard in Chandler, Arizona but I do like to share the things I encounter. No Dalian Russian Street tonight, just the view off my balcony and the drain in between.


Saturday, May 03, 2008

A word about my equipment

I've been messing around with cameras for almost all of my life. Started with Brownies, went on to Pockets (including many I built for myself while doing summer work repairing them at Kodak) and then on to 35mm film.

My first SLR was a Canon Ftb, bought during one of the summers I was home from school. In those days, you bought locally and spent too much or you hunted in the back of Popular Photography for the mail order place with the best deal on a package - body and a couple of lenses. You made some phone calls, borrowed your parent's credit card and made the order.

I remember waiting days for it to arrive and was a bit disappointed when the body and one lens showed up. "Back ordered" was the story. So I waited some more and one day the remaining lens showed up. I remember being amazed at how light the box was and discovered that it was light for a good reason - someone had stolen the lens in shipment. Of course UPS tried to dodge responsibility - I had opened the box - but finally relented when he agreed that the re-taping job had been done with their tape.

So I was on my way. In those days, Kodak gave free 34mm film to all employees. It was outdated, but it didn't matter - it still took great shots. I used to photograph everything, and when back at school I toyed with the idea of pursuing an MFA and being an "artist." After graduation, the reality of needing a paycheck put an end to my dream. But all during college I shot like crazy. Black and white and slide film, all developed in my apartment bathroom after the sun went down and eventually printed right there too with the enlarger I added to my collection. Prior to that though I would spend many hours and many balmy summer evenings down at Kodak Park in the free darkrooms, learning the tricks of turning out a good print.

Life came along at this point and my photography turned more or less to vacation shots and pictures of the kids. I still lugged around my Ftb along with its flashier cousin, a Canon F1 added during the end of college. Two bodies, two different lenses, lots of photographs of kids with plum baby food dripping down their chins.

Finally, digital came along and I was an "early adopter" purchasing and shooting with the first Sony Mavica. Direct storage to a floppy and really poor resolution, but oh, what a miracle. Now, you could shoot like crazy and just dump the photos on your hard drive. I remember all the discussions with the Luddites about the end of film, and as it turned out, I was right in my prognostication.

Next stop was one of the first fancy digital cameras, a Casio 3000, 3.1 mp with storage on an IBM microdrive. Now that camera was uptown and it lasted for quite a bit.

But small form factor was in my mind and so just prior to a vacation I bought one of the 1st Canon ELPH digicams and had it over-nighted in time for my trip. How far we'd come from the days of researching in the magazines and waiting endless days for the package. The net changed it all.

For me, this camera represented a big turning point. I could carry it in my pocket (well, it was a touch big for that) and take it with me everywhere. I was more or less back to college days, carrying one around and shooting on a whim. That camera served me well until a new smaller model came out (SD450) and I stepped up a notch. And that one did well until a smaller one came out (SD1000) and I stepped up again. ELPHs are wonderful little machines, comfortable in pants or bike jersey pocket and just about as capable as any camera I've ever owned.

But the next step beckoned, and so about 5 years ago I jumped on the digital SLR bandwagon with a Canon EOS 10D. Now I was straight back to my artiste days, framing shots, tweaking exposures, looking for the best angle. I once again learned the lesson about knock-off lenses and invested a bit in Canon products and my prints got better and better.

When I started traveling (and this blog) I began lugging that EOS around with me. Of course, it has to go in my carry-on due to its value and I quickly learned that the modern body designs make for such an odd lump in your case that it make loading a bit ugly. So hunted around again and fell immediately in love with the new Leica M8 - their digital version of their canonical camera, the body that has taken more of the famous photos we know today than any other. From a conformation standpoint, it was perfect - a blocky rectangular prism with no offending nodes to make packing difficult.

However, at $4000 for the body and $3000 for a lens I immediately slunk away, my innate frugality getting the better of me. Searching further I found the Panasonic DMC L1, same body shape and lenses by Leica.And so it was that I went back out with an SLR and took many of the shots you've seen here over the course of the last 3 years.

Weight though continued to plague me, especially on the shorter trips where a fancy panoply of lenses and capabilities seemed like overkill. I've always carried my ELPH as a back-up and found I was using it more of the time than not, especially on work days and when I was doing a lot of roaming on foot.

Back to the research and a discovery that Canon, the company to whom I had shown almost unbroken loyalty for more than 30 years, was reading my mind.

Introducing the G9. Not quite an SLR, but with all the major features - complete automatic and total manual control. A decent zoom and 12.1 megapixels. A host of automated functions as well as support for RAW imaging. And best of all - it can fit in my jacket pocket. Too big for my pants, I will admit, but a fry cry from having to lug a messenger bag around to carry either of my SLRs. It fits snugly in my carry on bag and it even has a couple of snap on lenses that greatly improve its function. I have both a Raynox wide angle and a Canon telephoto that I have carried along on a couple of trips. Being nothing more than a lens at the end of a tube, they weigh far, far less than a true SLR lens and they're so inexpensive that I am willing to pack them in my regular luggage and take a chance on someone taking a liking to them.

It's a wonderful little package, and I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to take a ton of high quality photos with a camera that offers a huge amount of control but doesn't really want to either spend the money or suffer the plight of a pack mule, two facts that accompany the step to SLR. I will always carry the big gun if I am driving or taking the trip of a lifetime, but this little guy fits the bill quite nicely for the kind of traveling I am doing these days - all over the place with interesting things to see but with little time for fun.

Here are a couple of shots of the camera and a couple of pictures taken with the zoom attachment. Many of the photos you've seen here on my blog have been shot with this camera. But it's hard to remember what was done with it and what was done with the ELPH. So I'm including these two as "authenticated demonstation shots." I think you'll agree, you don't lose much in the way of resolution or imaging.