Wednesday, February 19, 2014

We go totally off-script

We decided to start our last day out the best way possible, with a bowl of Tortilla Soup from Rosa’s. But first I stopped for gas and tipped the guy 20 pesos for debugging the windshield quite effectively. The soup was great and we finally ran into the owner Martín. It’s always fun to try and carry on conversation with him in Spanish, he very kindly speaks slowly.  I had him and one of the waitresses frozen in cocked head expectation as I tried to tell him that the restaurant had to be open when we return in October.

After stopping for one last Magnum ice cream bar (I went with white chocolate raspberry, MLW with dark chocolate vanilla) we bid adieu to San Carlos and got on MX15 heading north. A bit more traffic than normal as we’d once again managed to plan our departure on a US school district holiday (President’s Day) which meant that a lot of families were doing the same thing we were doing. I figured it meant fun at the border; with “fun” being defined as a two hour wait.
An exploded truck tire provided some undercarriage entertainment for the first quarter mile, bouncing off the bottom of the truck and making all kinds of noise. I began to wonder though in the second quarter mile when it didn’t stop. In fact it didn’t stop for the first 5 miles until I found the culprit – a Mexican dump truck loaded to the gills with hot asphalt that was spilling over the top. Once past him, it stopped.

We were cruising along merrily, trying to figure out the kilometer scheme when the car started to feel a bit mushy. Not like there was something wrong necessarily but just soft in how it was reacting to the bumps and dips. Not an uncommon feeling on Mexican roads as they are often paved in a way that makes the car get into weird bouncing harmonics. Just when I was beginning to think about it, a noise rose up, similar I imagine to a jet plane landing on our roof. MLW looked out the window and reported smoke – the right rear tire and failed and was in the process of shredding itself. I slowed down and looked for a way off the road, something that is often tough along this stretch where the “shoulder” is a one foot drop off into the desert. Luckily though a turn-around came up in the center median and I pulled in. 

I realize now that I should have taken a photo because it was a sight – burning shredded rubber and wires. I went in the back and opened the jack compartment and had to wade through 10 years of bungee cords and tie downs that I’d shoved in there. Retrieving the jack and tool box I set to work, first loosening the lug nuts that were thankfully not too tight. The jack was another story – it wouldn’t budge in either direction. Scissor jacks are often a pain in the neck, but this one had a serious attitude. I had MLW stand on it so I could get it started but it wouldn’t move. I finally sat down on the spare and tried to get it going, achieving only a bit of movement. Finally it started to go, and the worm gear came right out in my hand. The difficulty wasn’t due to it being stuck per se, it was because I was shearing off the little metal crimps designed to keep the worm gear in place - wonderful, the middle of nowhere in the Sonoran Desert with a flat tire and no jack.
Just as I was about to sink into catatonic despair, a car pulled up from the opposite direction – Federales. Now there was a time in the past when this might not have been the best thing to happen. I probably would have preferred to have one of the “Green Angels,” Mexico’s roving band of car repairmen. But this is what we had so we make the best of it. 

After explaining the broken jack in my even more broken Spanish (you never really learn the vocabulary for things like this in Spanish class) one of the officers retrieved an hydraulic jack from the trunk of his cruiser. There ensued a long debate about where to place it and as it turned out the edge of the frame where he put it was precisely the wrong place. The car got about a foot off the ground when it slipped. I thought his jack was broken too but it was okay.

We finally settled on a spot under the differential and crawled under and placed it. He didn’t like it so he got down on the ground over my protestations about his clean uniform and put it where he wanted it. We got the car up in the air, the bad tire off and I was once again asked to get out of the way when it came time to place the new one. It’s not like I don’t know how to change a tire, but I clearly didn’t know how to do it to his standards. We got that one on, lowered the car and I set about tightening the bolts only again to receive a lesson in the proper technique. As he finished them he asked me what my job was. I said, “Electronics Engineer” and he replied, “That explains it.”
After cleaning up with police provided baby wipes they asked for my license and phone number and explained that someone might call to ask about their help. The officer that had done most of the work then proceeded to deliver a most earnest lecture about continuing to Hermosillo and buying a new tire and jack. We thanked them both and went on our way pondering whether it made sense to do what he said or to just try and make it back to the US. They had told us about a tire store on the periferico, the bypass route so we went that way against our original plan, decided that if we found it, we’d stop. 

Of course there was no obvious tire store where they’d told us it would be, but we passed a couple on the way there and decided it would be worth it to explore our options a bit more. Heading back into town we passed a Toyo store and I slammed on the brakes and made a hard right turn. After writing down the tire information I went inside and said I need one of these and can it be fast. The guy was very glad to see us, checked the computer, produced the tire and sent his guy out right then to work on it.

I had a nice conversation with the clerk about speaking Spanish and Chinese and how we’d been rescued by the Federales. We talked about the weather and San Carlos and he suggested that we try Bahia Kino, the closer retort town to Hermosillo. And then Bank of America refused my attempt to use my credit card which he explained. Gladly, my other bank didn’t feel the same way. Our transaction complete, he handed me a receipt and I turned around to a long line of men, smiling from listening to our fascinating conversation. We went outside waited a couple of minutes while the mechanic finished up, even taking the time to put the spare back in properly and to return the tools their box. I told him it was unnecessary to put the cover back on the spare and handed him a 20 for his attention. Checking the clock, I calculated the whole process had taken 20 minutes.
By now we were so far off plan that I decided to go 2 blocks back to Autozone where we picked up a jack for $90. Fully restocked we got back on the road about 2 hours behind our original plan – 1.5 hours out in the desert and 30 minutes cleaning up the mess in town.
We decided to try a new route I’d found on Google Earth that turned out to be ½ traffic disaster and ½ wide open brand new empty highway. It wasn’t worth it. The rest of the day was spent congratulating ourselves on our handling of the cool adventure. There was one last thing to do though, return our visas.

We’ve never done it before and only found out about it following a lecture back in December when an agent trainee found my old one in my passport. The lecture I’d received that day was not earnest like that of the Federale. It was officious and severe and when we left we laughed and said “right, like we’re ever going to do that!” But on this day, one in which we had done everything in some way other than intended, we decided to stop. And we did, parking across the highway from the Immigration Office and dodging 4 lanes of cars to cross.

An agent was standing at the door texting and I showed him what I had and asked in Spanish if they had to be returned. He said “yes” and held the door for us. I walked up to the agent sitting behind the computer, a young attractive woman, and repeated my question. She took them from me and looked at them like she’d never seen one before. In an irony of ironies, the guy who had lectured us came out from the back and asked her something. She said “seis” which I assume to mean we were in country for 6 days and he nodded and took the forms. She said, “That’s all.” No receipt, no stamp, no nothing, exactly as we’d expected - another unenforceable Mexican immigration policy based solely on whether the participants want to participate. As we walked out the door, I watched the guy take them to the back room half expecting him to throw them in the trash
All that was left was the border and entering the long approach road I was not encouraged. You can usually judge how bad it will be by the number of cars that are with you. And there were a lot. We came around the corner and found about the usual scrum – a mild surprise. I lined us up in one of the middle lanes, preparing to berate myself for making the wrong choice but we kept crawling forward. It took us exactly 15 minutes, about the second best time ever. A small gift for an otherwise off the wall day.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Return to the Island in the Sea

I decided that I had to go back to the island. My little landfall on the tiny beach at the base of the cliffs was satisfying enough two days ago, but not enough to allow me to abandon my dream of walking on the top surface. I knew the approach would be from the far side -  the steep rocky beach that I'd come close to before but couldn't fathom a way to land the boat. I decided I'd paddle out there, brave the submerged reefs and figure it out when I had to. No point in planning it, I simply lacked enough data to do anything but worry needlessly.

The plot on Google Earth said it would be close to 2 miles. I packed a bottle of water, being recently informed of its necessity by watching Robert Redford's recent movie All is Lost on the way back from Paris. He survived by building a makeshift condenser, I didn't have the materials or the time so better to plan than have to improvise. I took the time to install and inflate the sponsons, two triangular air bags, one fore and one aft that use their air volume to displace any water that gets in the boat. If I did tear a hole in my hull, the boat would be swamped but would not sink. In this case I thought a bit of prevention was worth 10 minutes of being hyperventilated from filling them up.

Gear ready, sunscreen applied, I started out.

The water was not that friendly, there was a stiff onshore breeze and the surface was that oily kind of chop that makes you think you're paddling in mercury instead of water. Two or three crabbers were out tending their traps, and sea birds were bobbing and diving on both sides of me. 

Paddling on the open sea is an interesting mind game. You set a point on the horizon and paddle away, correcting as necessary. Even something as big as an island seems to remain the same size despite your effort and the time that's passing. Your best indication that you're closing in to a guano island though is the smell. Which is pretty unpleasant, like the rankest public latrine in a Beijing hutong on a hot August afternoon. The breeze helps a bit, but that acrid smell settles in the back of your throat and stays there for the duration of your approach.

Getting in close, I could see hundreds of Double-crested Cormorants roosting on the lee side. Years ago this island used to be covered from end to end every night by birds coming in to their nighttime roost. For a long time though it was empty, and only in the last few years have they returned. It was nice to see, Nature clawing its way back just a bit. 

I decided to approach the island in a counter-clockwise direction, and had to pick between rounding a small sea stack or going between it and the island itself. I chose the former, figuring it was the safer route and consistent with why I was taking the longer way around - I knew from experience that the clockwise route meant dodging a lot of submerged rocks.
Coming around I watched an Osprey sitting on the cliff edge staring into the water below, hoping something edible would swim by. Having made the corner unscathed I had time to plan my approach. Unlike the front side beach, this one was all agates and tiered in a couple of different levels. I considered my options and steered towards what seemed to be the least steep section, away from some jagged rocks. I came in slow and inside of plowing straight ahead I turned slightly to the right and let the surf bring the side of the boat up against the lowest level. And miraculously I stopped without getting pitched out. It wasn't easy to push myself up and straddle the boat while it was bobbing in the surf but I got my legs out and thankfully the water was shallow enough to allow me to stand. Agate beaches are hard to walk on and it was a bit of a struggle to haul the boat up a plane of moving stones, but I got it up and out of the water and stowed the paddle. I was there!

The smell wasn't as bad as I expected, probably because of the breeze. The place was desolate, covered with dead vegetation (no doubt due to the nitrogen levels in the soil) and every single rock was white - covered in dry sandy guano. A rough path climbed up to the summit from the beach so took off on the brief climb. At the top there was a white cross, similar to the descansos you see along the highways, commemorating someone's death on the road. Someone had left a bouquet of fake pink flowers. The color was shocking in this almost monochrome place. The view though was spectacular, back to the Condominios in one direction, Tetakawi in the other. Yellow-footed Gulls wheeled overhead, clearly unhappy at my visit. I reached the top and spooked the Cormorants, the whole flock waddled down the slope and took flight off across the bay. I felt bad, I'd hoped to avoid putting them up. But you could see that look of terror in their faces at finding an interloper coming up behind them. I took a few photos and enjoyed the vista. Heading back down the hill I stopped and build a small cairn, a non-destructive record of my short visit.

Small as it is, it didn't really offer much of an opportunity for extended exploration so I walked to the far side and then returned to the boat. Getting it back in the ocean was actually easier than getting it out and I was underway almost instantly. Before leaving though I reached down and grabbed on shiny rock to bring back as a memento. I took few more photos from the boat and spent way too much time fiddling with my gloves before getting serious about avoiding the rocks. I gave the sea stack a wide berth and headed back the way I'd come.

About halfway back I spotted a couple of kayaks approaching. I said "Good morning" as the close one came across my path and he responded in Spanish. I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised being in Mexico but I was. We exchanged formalities and he said something I couldn't quite hear so I told him I only speak a little. He smiled and gave me a funny look so I went on, passing his friend in the next few yards. When he closed in, I nodded at him and while he stared, he didn't respond which I found odd. Until it dawned on me - pirates! Now that conclusion might have come from the other movie I watched on my last plane trip, Captain Philips, but the vibe in the air was weird enough that I thought I might be about to be mugged. How that could happen on the open sea was beyond me, but having decided I was pretty far from shore I metaphorically put the pedal down and decided to be an Olympic kayak contestant, at least for as long as I could hold it up. 

I set a track and applied my shoulder muscles and got up a good head of steam. Lacking a rearview mirror, I couldn't be sure if they were closing in or not. My halfway glances suggested that something was there at my 6 o'clock but I didn't want to let up on my speed to check. When I got within a safer distance of the shore I slowed down and took a look back - no one there, I'd probably been seeing the island in my peripheral vision. I took the rest of the trip easy, stopping to talk with a fellow about the benefits of folding kayaks and enjoying the pod of Dolphins that he had been chasing with some friends.

All in all a big day for me. I've stared at that island for more 20 years and vowed time and time again that one day I would land on it. I've come close on 3 or 4 occasions, only to be turned back by the seas or being in the wrong boat. Today the conditions lined up and one more thing is now checked off my "to do" list.

Friday, February 14, 2014

I decided to merge my Tumblr with my Blog for one day only.

I’m not the most aggressive “street photographer,” I sort of firmly believe in leaving people alone to their lives. But once in a while a circumstance presents itself and I muster the courage to walk up to someone and tell them I want to make them my Picture of the Day. 

Today was one of those days. I was loading up my kayak for trip out on the ocean and I saw this guy standing down the beach in his flannel jammy pants playing a sax. Well not really playing because all he was doing was blowing the same note for as long as his breath held. Taking his picture was going to inconvenience me because it meant going back inside and getting my camera and walking over and speaking. But I felt it was worth it so I went and got it and trudged down the beach. 

I stood and waited while he played out his breath and when opened his eyes, he jumped a bit, not expecting someone to be standing so close. I explained my project and told him I wanted him to be the shot for today and smiled and graciously assented. I offered that he would be in good company, like a Chinese restaurant worked I once shot holding a flounder. I lined him up and took the shot, only later noting the incredulous retiree in the background. 

I thanked him and without missing a beat, he winked as I walked away. I went out in my boat and came back around in an estuary perhaps a half kilometer behind where I’d left him. I could here him still blowing that one note and maybe, I might have heard an actual riff as I drifted with the current.

Some thoughts on Jet Lag and the next step in This Month's Journey

Back when I was an International Businessman of Mystery, turning a couple of quick trips was not nearly as devastating as it seems to me today. In the beginning of my overseas adventures, I thought nothing of a week in the US, a week or two in Europe and a few more in China, only to turn around and come home. I used to be a bit out of it, but it was easy enough to get back on my regular schedule. As my gig was winding down though I began to find it harder and harder to come back home after 6-8 weeks over there. I’d just feel so bad for so many days that I began to wonder if it was even worth it for a week’s break. But I soldiered through and then it was over. The relative ease of traveling west and the incredible effect of traveling east were pretty much forgotten.

Then we started our regular trip to Spain and those memories came back. In part though, not as bad as what I remembered. Part of it I suspect is the shorter hop, 8 hours for US to Madrid vs. 14 or 15 coming from China. Because of how we traveled to Spain though, we did all the right things right. We arrived, we caught a train, we exposed ourselves to many hours of sunshine and then we got where we were going in time for a nice walk and an early dinner. It never seemed like Spain was all that hard.

Which brings me to Paris. Something about that last trip never clicked into place. I’m not sure what it was, maybe the head cold or maybe the fact that the sun didn’t come up until 8 AM or maybe the fact that on most days the sun didn’t come up at all. Whatever it was, in spite of being there for 9 days I still felt like going back to bed at 10:30 AM on every day I was there. Which I suppose made my transition back to Home Time all that much easier, because as it turned out, it was.

However, I was still waking up in the middle of the night wondering where I was when after being home for 4 days we threw a wrench into it and got in the car and drove to Mexico. One benefit – another long day’s exposure driving straight into the sun as we crossed the southern side of New Mexico and crossed into Arizona. Even though I’d once again wake up wondering where I was, at least I was now on the proper time zone.

We always spend the night in Tucson to visit our Auntie Jean and to indulge ourselves in one of Barbara’s classic dinners before heading further south the next day. On this morning I realized that there was something wrong with the car though, that telltale high speed “tick tick tick” of a turn signal that’s trying to tell you that one of the bulbs has died. Thinking that it might be best to not head into Mexico with an excuse to be stopped, I was glad to find an auto parts store at the exit where we regularly stop for groceries. Before shopping I thought I’d pull out the bulb so we could stop and buy a new one once we were provisioned for the trip.

The car’s manual couldn’t be bothered to explain how to access the rear lights. Front lights – sure. Rear lights – here are the part numbers, figure it out on your own. So I crawled around and made a few tentative pries with my screwdriver and then I spotted the two screws hiding inside of two little holes in a second sheet of steel in front, more or less, of where the back light covers were mounted. One of the things I am often grateful for is the time I spent during college summers repairing cameras. What I learned there was how to think like a design engineer. In other words where can I hide the attachment hardware from the consumer in a way that presents a pretty product but pretty much makes it impossible to access the inner workings of the device. Even if it’s reasonably acceptable for the consumer to access those guts. In this case, I was grateful for the mildly magnetized screwdriver because I knew that the basic construction here was a 100% guarantee to the two screws falling and becoming lodged in an inaccessible space. And of course that’s just how it worked out for one of them, the other, more compliant and needy for affirmation, got only partially lodged. But, we were good and so once we were loaded up I went across the street and removed a bulb, shattering it in doing so, and bought 3 new replacements, patting myself on the back for being so wise.

Using the auto parts store parking lot as a mobile combat hospital, I took everything apart, this time avoiding losing the screws, popped in a new bulb, checked that it was indeed working and put the whole thing back together, only to discover that it had failed. Okay, I still have two bulbs, let’s do it again. Still not working. Third bulb – ditto. That was pretty much it for my attitude for the day so I put it all back together and decided to check the fuse block because why not? Well, the fuses looked good and everything was peachy until I dropped the fuse extraction tool, we around the door, stood up and cracked by head on the exterior mirror. Summary at this point – headache, broken car, no hope. I got in after exhausting my entire vocabulary of vile invective and drove on to the border.

The rest of the day was a breeze by comparison. We had a nice visit with the Immigration Officer who wanted to speak English while we were practicing our Spanish. I failed to bring my camera into the Immigration Bathroom and regretted it immediately when an ideal “photo of the day” presented itself, a full sized plastic kitchen garbage can shoved into a toilet as either a warning not to use it or a dare to fill it up. The drive went on, I made cheery conversation with the toll collectors, we looked up strange road sign words in our dictionary and generally just passed the miles. We arrived well before sunset, unloaded the car and shifted into vacation mode almost immediately.

Next morning, My Lovely Wife was off to start work on her homeowner’s association election committee business. I filled my time putting together my kayak and taking to the sea. It was a beautiful morning and for a change I headed out to the ocean instead of portaging my boat around back to the estuary. The sea was not smooth, but I was traveling across the wave line in a way that made it not too terribly bad. I’d first planned to head up the coast a bit and then turn back to the shore and do a loop around the neighborhood mangrove forest. Looming on the horizon though was Isla Blanca, the island I had never set foot on. Knowing I was free for most of the morning, I turned into the wind and paddled out to sea. Blue-footed Boobies were diving on both sides of me and I’d pass the occasional flock of Grebes bobbing in the swells. A crabber was collecting pots and pulling them into his panga no doubt destined for some tourist dinner that very night.

Isla Blanca is a big flat chunk of volcanic rock sitting at the outside edge of Bahia San Francisco. Covered in guano, it wears a few reminders of what must have been a former fertilized mining operation – a twisted derrick and some concrete pylons. I’ve been out to the island a few times but never landed because it’s surrounded with submerged rocks that would take great pleasure in ripping a hole in my boat. There is a small beach on the landward side but it sits under cliffs and so doesn’t offer the opportunity to get up on the core of the island. There is another rocky beach on the seaward side but it’s steep and the approach is through a maze of those nasty rocks. So I’ve never made an attempt at landing, reasoning that if I can’t climb up on the island (landward approach,) why bother and if I stand a risk to sinking (seaward approach,) don’t bother. Well, today was different and I decided to take the safe but limited access route thinking that some landing was better than none. I steered in and built up speed and rode up on the shore. I was there.

Surprisingly, there was another kayak parked off to the side in a little cove. Kind of beat up, I wondered if it had drifted in and beached itself. No one was around. I combed the shoreline, much to the distress of a pair of Yellow-footed Gulls, picking up a couple of rocks and shells as reminders. There wasn’t much real estate and so not much opportunity for exploring so I walked back to my boat and made ready to depart when I saw some flippers and big black body lolling in the surf. Sea Lion! But then I saw a snorkel and realized it was a person in a wet suit. The owner of the kayak, a local guy out collecting crabs and lobsters. I’d met him a couple of times in the past on an island down the coast. I mounted up and headed back in towards land.

Being out on the sea can be an interesting education in how wind works. Paddling out I had a bit of struggle and fought a lot of rollers, particularly after I’d passed the end of the land on my left, exposing me to the wind blowing seaward out of Bacochibampo Bay. It was tough going, paddling in and out of big expanses of smooth blue water into choppy green but at least it was cool, the heat being kept in check by the breeze. Heading back, the paddling was easy but it was hot. Real hot, like tropical hot. But I was grateful for the ease, in spite of roasting in my long-sleeved kayaking shirt.

Phase two of the trip was now at hand, surfing the boat in through the opening to the estuary. The sands here shift regularly and you have to carefully read the ocean surface to determine the right approach, otherwise you end up grounded. Some black thing was bobbing in the water in front of me, Sea Lion!, but it dove and swam straight under my bow. Cormorant I imagine, judging from the size. I made into the opening, surfing a few breaking waves and took a turn to the right planning on a circuit of the central island. A couple of Snowy Egrets were standing stock still, waiting for lunch to swim by. A Belted Kingfisher paced me along the shore, diving every once in a while for a minnow and giving its raspy rattle call. I turned the corner and saw a big flock of Red-breasted Mergansers playing in the shallows. Off to my side were two little pods of ducks, tightly gathered into two knots and bobbing in the wind, in unison.

I didn’t have binoculars and I wanted to know what they were, because it’s pretty unusual for ducks to be so tightly packed. Further confounding the scene was the fact that they looked like Mallards, an unusual sighting for here. I paddled slowly, gliding when possible. They seemed very wary yet surprisingly calm. I thought I saw a couple of hens turn to look my way. Oddly, their feathers didn’t seem to be moving in what was turning into a pretty stiff wind. They made no sign that they were about to explode into flight. I crept closer – sure enough, Mallards. Drakes and hens, still tolerating my presence. I continued to close the gap and still they didn’t mover. But now I heard the oddest gentle knocking noise, as though they were bumping into each other and letting off little puffy sighs. A bit closer and then it dawned on me – decoys. Two rafts of Mallard decoys tied to a buoy. No wonder they didn’t fly away.

Mystery solved, I completed my island traverse and headed back out to the sea which now had turned from big rollers into an ugly green-blue chop. The trip back home was memorable, mainly for how hard it is to steer into waves at a 45 degree angle. It took longer than it should have, much longer than I would have preferred and it was good to line up with the condominium stairs and power the boat up onto the shore. Overall a pretty nice day.

Saturday, February 08, 2014

Paris Postscript

We decided to avoid another taxi rip-off and hired a car through the agency that rented us the apartment. The driver was on time, spoke English, had classic jazz on the radio and sneezed and coughed all the way to the airport. I suppose in a sense we were lucky that we were already sick, otherwise we would have been set up for a nice bout of disease once we were back home.

I always find it interesting how uninspiring the outskirts of major European cities are. Between industrial parks, chemical plants and blocks of dismal apartments, you tend to forget just how attractive the old city centers are. It's almost as though you've visited two completely different places, which in a sense I suppose you have. The place where everyone lives versus the one supported by tourism and government offices. We rolled on marveling at the traffic heading into town.

I can't say a lot of good things about Charles de Gaulle Airport. It seems to have been designed more with architecture in mind than facility. You check in and then you catch this weird rubber-floored people mover up a level, a relatively hard thing to negotiate since the floor has some give to it and the lack of stairs (an escalator would have been so much better) means you're fighting gravity to remain upright. Once you're on the boarding level  you get to do it all again out to the pods where the planes dock. We decided to avoid the mover and walk, a fateful decision because we found ourselves at the base of a tall flight of stairs - not visible from the beginning of the trek - and now unavoidable. I lugged the suitcases up cursing myself for falling into that trap.

Every pod has its own security so if you're timely, there are no crowds. We got through that last test and parked ourselves in the waiting area, pleasantly cool for an airport. I did a French tourism survey offered by a pleasant matron as we waited. A group of Americans moved the cordons aside and lined up by the door to the jetway only to be chased away by the gate agent. I wondered what they were thinking with that move.

We lined up and passed through the gate. I went first and MLW called me back, telling me that the agent wanted to talk to me. I went back and she told me I was not on the flight. I told her I found this interesting as I was standing there with a valid boarding pass in hand. It took them about 45 seconds to straighten it out and no explanation was offered. We boarded, settled in and left on time.

I spent most of my time watching movies - The Counselor, Captain Philips, All is Lost - and eating. I took a few photos of the coast of Scotland, recognized in the island of Islay, home to all those wonderful peaty Scotch Whiskies. We flew on chasing the sun, crossing below Iceland and Greenland and making land somewhere on the coast of Labrador. 

One one of my work trips to Ireland, I took a return flight through LA and that route took me across the frozen north. I remember sitting in awe of the giant white expanse, picking out Hudson and James Bays and just marveling at the tundra. I was so rapt at the sight that I never bothered to take photographs, leaving me with just my mental images. Well, I had a second chance today and I capitalized on it, the weather was clear and the vista the same. I took a few photos and was grateful for the second chance.

We landed on time and cleared customs almost instantly. Finding our way to the lounge, I took the time to verify my status on the next flight, having just been called aside in Paris. "No problem" was the reply, "Party of two checked all the way through to Albuquerque."
We settled in, had some ice water and shortbread cookies and people watched until it was time to head to the gate.

We waited for the first three boarding groups to pass through and moved up to the counter. I handed the agent my ticket and an alarm went off. She took mine and handed me a new one and we headed down the jetway. For grins I took at a look at it and it had me seated in 27F, interesting since I'd paid a premium to sit next to MLW in row 10. Leaving my bags I went back and challenged the agent. 

"Someone changed your ticket, I can't do anything about it."
"Well, I paid for a premium seat so you're either going to refund me the charges or you're going to put me back where I was." 
"Oh, I can change that now, please wait." 

And so it was, I was back where I was supposed to be and left pondering how something this irritatingly dumb could come to pass. 

One of the downsides of traveling back from Europe is that awful second flight home. It used to kill me when heading back to China, the last thing you want to do is fly for hours and hours and then sit around an airport and then board and go and get on another plane when you're pushing 24 hours of being awake. There is no way that last flight could be good and this one wasn't. Uncomfortable and interminable come to mind. But 4 hours later we were climbing in the car and heading home. A nice dinner at our favorite place - rosemary chicken and couscous risotto made the long day of travel a slightly better memory. And then home sweet home to start the week it takes to get back on the right time zone.