Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Gettin' down & dirty

First, get your minds out of the gutter! This is about my boat. No pictures, but you are allowed to laugh as you read (if I am able to make this funny).

About a month ago I took delivery of my sailboat--a Bristol 29.9 sailboat. It had a good survey, meaning it was in good shape, only a few things that really needed to be done, other than "cosmetic". John Wiggins and I had a glorious sail from Galesville to Annapolis, where she will live. Right now, her name is "Carpe Aurum" (seize the gold), but I will be changing it. Rhonda and I tried to go sailing the week after I took delivery but the gale force winds all day long prohibited it. A couple weekends ago, Sid (from whom I am subleasing the slip for now) spent the day with me teaching me how to dock and practicing anchoring. All of this was on the motor--no sailing. She ran perfectly.

This past Saturday, Rhonda and I planned to go sailing. I got to the boat, checked the oil, opened the seacocks so the water would cool the engine as it is supposed to, took the sail cover off in anticipation of getting on the Bay and actually sailing!

Checking the oil on a sailboat is exactly like checking it in a car. Except you are on your knees looking blindly into a darkened engine only able to see the curled end of the dipstick. The reason you can only see the curled end of the dipstick is because there is an engine block in front, a hose directly in front of the dipstick, and a hose directly behind where you are supposed to pull it out. It's not so bad pulling it out, as long as you pull it straight out, because that hose behind it blocks your hand if you don't get it juuuusssst riiigghht. And getting it back in is a lesson in how blind people navigate crowded city streets. By now, of course, my hand has some oil on it just from touching the engine block, it is hot and my hand is sweaty, I can't see the damn place where the dipstick is supposed to go back in, so I try to feel it with my fingers, drop the dipstick, have to feel around for it, push, push, SHIT, it's the wrong spot! Finally, after literally minutes of trying, I get it back in, but have to pull it back out to actually check the level. Go thru steps 1-4 again (or whatever) , and finally. Other than that, just like checking it in your car.

So, Rhonda and I are ready to sail. John Wiggins, whose boat is next to mine, and Jean show up at their boat, and I invite them to come with us. John can't, gotta work on his, but Jean does decide to come. Great! An all girl crew! I am a low-to-moderately experienced sailor, but Rhonda and Jean are a little more experienced, so we will be fine.

Getting the boat out of the slip is a bit of a trick, as there is another pier directly in front of where my boat comes out. There is a bit of wind off the port side so we unloosen the starboard side first and start to go. Unfortunately, I had a bit too much throttle and slam (gently) into one of my pilings--no harm, quick reverse, stabilize, and we're off!

Down the cove, into Martin's Creek, we are doing great! About 15 minutes out, just before we get to the markers and S-turn out, momentum stops. The engine is running, gears seem to be engaging, no movement. Thank goodness for cell phones--we call John, who walks us through some trouble shooting (after telling us to drop anchor; well, I did want to practice that some more! Altho, it was really Rhonda and Jean who were doing that). Now, I know NOTHING about engines. The only thing I know about mine is you can get to the front of it thru the salon by taking off the steps down from the cockpit, and you can only fully get to the engine thru the lazarrette (the area under the cockpit seats).

We have to take everything out of the storage area (the lazarrette) and crawl down in there to examine, oh, propeller shafts and couplings (what the hell is that?!) and other things. Now the space down there is small. Really small. I am almost 6' tall, the length of this area is about 4' (at best); the width is perhaps a butt-cheek of a small person. I'm not a small person, so call it one of my butt-cheeks (maybe). And, then when you are down there, the hull of the boat is curving, so you have to conform to that too. Oh, and you have to take the panels off that separate the engine from the storage space and of course they won;'t fit up thru the opening so they remain down there with me, taking up space. Oh, and when you finally get your full body down there, you then have to work on the engine from the side of your body. So my almost 6' body has my knees up to my boobs, my shoulders trying to fit in this small space, my whole butt trying to fit into a half-butt area, and trying to turn so my hands can actually get to things! My next career will be as a contortionist. Oh, and it was about 95 degrees outside temp, probably over 100 down in that small space.

The highlight of this episode was trying to check the transmission fluid to see if I had just run out and to add more. I took the cap off what I thought was the transmission fluid--big cap, on top of the engine (as it turned out), it was dry. So, we added about 2 quarts of transmission fluid. Turns out, that was the oil fill! Long story short--ended up having to call for a tow.

Back to the slip. John comes on board to help figure this thing out. Down he goes to examine things, but this is my big chance to start learning about my engine--my boat, I'm responsible, gotta learn one day. And, boy did I learn! I spent the rest of the afternoon down that tiny, dark lazarette trying to figure things out with John pointing out parts and telling me what to do.

Because I had put transmission fluid into the oil fill, there was waaay too much fluid and it had spewed out onto the engine and area surrounding. So, no matter where I touched, there was oil. And I was sweating like a longshoreman as well as cursing like one: why the **!#@% does that hose have to be there so I can't get to whatever part. Finally figured out (thank you John) where the real transmission fluid was supposed to go in--that cap that says "Transmission fluid only", except that it is buried in the bowels behind the engine block with 47 hoses or wires or something in front of it. I know now.

AND, you can't just screw off the lid of the transmission fluid dipstick. NO, you need a wrench. Thank goodness I had a crescent wrench. But the space is small and those *&%**!!! hoses and wires are in the way. So, in tiny increments, covered with grease and sweat all of which is sliding down onto the crescent wrench (which never screws the right way for tightening!), I work the dipstick out. Literally, this took about 7-10 minutes, maybe more. At some point, John gets his socket wrench, which I have never used, and, after several minutes of instruction and questions almost figured out. So, we got that off and it appeared to be very low on trans fluid. But, the fluid is so light colored you can hardly see it. Appears low, but we had poured all of the fluid into the oil, so could not refill. Done for the day.

Sunday: I go buy oil (lots) but could not find an oil filter. Since I put trans fluid into the oil, we have to drain the oil twice, put in a new oil filter and re-fill. Actually, draining the oil isn't so bad, because John has an "oil sucker-upper" that goes right into where the dipstick is and sucks it out with a vacuum. But for some reason, I could not get that damn dipstick back in--can't see it, trying to feel for it doesn't seem to work, it just wouldn't go in!! After a while, John came down and got it. But I am in the lazarette most of the day, trying to get that **&##@! trans fluid dipstick out to check again. John had trans fluid so we used that. Got the oil drained, ran the engine a few minutes, drained it again. Now, I can't get the dipstick back in. Now it is raining--hard. I'm still in the lazarette covered with oil, and sweat, and now rain. It's time to take the oil filter out.

John has a "tool" to help take the oil filter out because it is so tight and I am so sweaty and greasy it will not budge. This tool requires 2 hands to get it on the oil filter and tighten it in place. Keep in mind that as I am in the lazarette trying to figure out where to put my legs and butt and arms and shoulder, that my head is to the stern (back) of the boat and the oil filter is somewhere up near where my feet are. So I have to try to stretch over my entire body, over my feet, one of which is splayed forward and the other somewhere to the side between hoses, wires, and other stuff, and reach this damn thing with two hands, and it is off to my side, and try to put some torque on it to move it. Couldn't. I looked at John, up in the cockpit, and said "I'm done". My learning curve just took a dive. Couldn't to it anymore. John was awesome: asked if I wanted him to try to loosen it with the "tool", which he did, then I went back down and actually took it off by hand, spilling oil everywhere, but he gave me a grocery bag to put it in.

So I took Wed off work to finish up. Tuesday night, I woke up in the middle of the night: DAMN! I couldn't get the oil dipstick back in because there is another depression just forward of the oil dipstick spot that FEELS like the oil dipstick spot, but isn't! Sure enough, Wed morning, on the boat--two depressions, one of which is NOT the oil dipstick spot, which is what I had been trying to put the dipstick into. Whew! Hopefully, I have that down pat now.

Wed: go to Bayshore Marine, get the oil filter, some trans fluid, I am ready to rock! Get to the boat, John isn;t there, but that's OK, I know what I am doing now (sort of; at least I know where some important engine parts are, the ones that I need to work with). Down into the lazarette--thank goodness the weather is overcast and 65 degrees. I use that oil filter looosening "tool" like a pro (yeah, right) , get the new oil filter on!! Get my hand-dandy crescent wrench to take the trans fluid dipstick out--no. I work and work at it, that crescent wrench is loosening it a little bit, but it has so many turns and it is such a small space (damn those hoses and wires that it keeps getting tangled in!) that I am 10 mins into it when John shows up and offers the socket wrench. A minute later and it is off! Now I can see the fluid level better (I think because it is overcast the light color just shows up better than in the bright sun we had on Sat and partly on Sun) and it is TOO full. So, I take the handy dandy "oil sucker upper" down in the lazarette with me, contort (I am a master at this by now) myself into an appropriate position and start sucking it out. Finally get it to an appropriate level. Put the rest of the oil in the proper place and we are good to go.

Start the engine, runs like a dream (not that the engine was a problem). Put it in gear--nothing, still no movement, prop shaft still not turning. We're done.

Call the mechanic.

Aaahhh, the joys of boat ownership. But I sure learned about my engine!

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Yee-Haa! Welcome to Texas!

A couple of weeks ago, I went to visit Lauren in Dallas. After a year and a half in Amsterdam, a few months unemployment here in Maryland, she landed back on her feet, in Dallas of all places! Now, I've long had an aversion to Texas--any State that adored #43, just didn't seem like it could be my cup of tea (although I did always like #41 and Barbara). Combined with my stereotype of big blonde (or blue) haired Republicans at their country clubs or gaudy mansions [thinking oil money] (hey,we all have our stereotypes, some of which aren't so attractive) I never had a desire to visit. But, of course, one of the points of travel is to open your eyes, experience a different culture and, just maybe, change your view. This trip did change my view but also, somewhat, enforced it.

Lauren lives in an older neighborhood with lots of trees. She has a cute 2-bedroom cottage, representative of most of the houses on her street. But, in her neighborhood were also a lot of HUGE, and I mean ridiculously HUGE mansions in any style you could imagine. Thinking of a French chateau? Down the street. A Tudor-style mansion--couple blocks over. Something Frank Lloyd Wrightish? Near the Tudor. How about a mansion on a few acres with water slides in front? Yup, that too. Fortunately, because of the abundance of trees, shrubbery (and the gated home or two), even though some of these houses are WAY too big for the lots, for the most part they don;t seem to be on top of each other.

We went to a local restaurant for dinner--Suze, which is apparently owned and run by a couple who appear on Food TV (or one of those foodie shows). That was the place where I first observed LOTS of blondes (and I continued to be struck by the number of blond women throughout my 2 days there) and the elegance and polish of certain patrons that says "monied". But, it was also where I first encountered the friendliest, nicest people you could ever hope to meet.

Friday we went to the arboretum. In the rain. Lots of rain. And, it being spring, they had lots and lots and lots of tulips. It being near Easter, lots of them were pastels, to the point of being cloying sometimes. But who doesn't like tulips and other colorful flowers?
The house of the original owner of the grounds was open for visiting, so we walked thru that. My favorite room was the library which had wall to ceiling shelves (which they had filled with law books because they look elegant). The docent in the library pointed out a couple of hidden rooms in the library, the interesting vents near the bay windows, which direct the air toward the windows to dissipate the condensation. One question to the docent and she was off! She talked and talked and talked. Now, being an east coast, big-city girl for the last 30 years, I am used to asking a question, having it answered, and you're done. This woman talked to us about all sorts of things for easily half an hour, as we continued walking thru the house. She just seemed to love her job and her city so much, combined with what I am going to call Texas charm, that she wanted to share it.

From the arboretum we went to Ft Worth for the stockyards. Ate at a restaurant there that had the best BBQ brisket I think I have ever put in my mouth! We went into a building with animal stalls and encountered a number of longhorns in pens, one of which kept eyeing us and, we thought, was going to try to attack us--we were grateful for the fence separating us from him!

We went into the visitor's center while waiting for the longhorn drive/parade to start and encountered a married couple working the desk. Asked a couple of questions and they were OFF! The man spent probably half an hour talking about the history of Ft Worth, cattle-droves, Indians, you name it; when they found out Lauren had just moved to Dallas, the wife started putting together a package of materials for Lauren to have--all sorts of brochures about Texas, Dallas/Ft. Worth and other areas. Again, that Texas charm, combined with just loving their city so much they wanted to share.

Then, finally, the longhorn parade with real cowboys!

OK, there were only about 10 longhorns, but they were still cool. Next stop in Ft. Worth: a restaurant where Lauren insisted I try the local delicacy: fried pickles. Honest. Sort of like fried zucchini or mushrooms, but with dill pickles. Not bad, especially with a beer:

As it got toward evening, we had to kill a bit of time, because the rodeo didn't start until 8:00, so we just wandered the streets, noting the fashionable people. Fashion (and, I am mostly going to talk about women) requires cowboy boots. And we saw some gorgeous ones in the stores: bright colors, tooled leather, pointy toes. Which is why I won't wear them (if you already have big feet, pointy toes don't help). Most of the young women who were out for the evening and wanting to show off were what I would call "semi-slutty" dresses: really short, clingy, leaving little to the imagination; Daisy-dukes were also popular. Whichever they wore, the cowboy boots were a must. There were fewer cowboy hats on the men than I expected, until we hit the rodeo, and then they all had hats.

The highlight of the rodeo was the calf-chase and sheep-chase. They bring out the little kids, let a calf go and whichever kid gets the calf (or the sheep, for the younger kids) wins. That sheep could really run, too! Who knew?

Afterward, we went to Billy Bob's which bills itself as the largest honky-tonk (100K square feet) in the world. But, I think you have to be small and dark and smoky to be a honky tonk and this wasn't. Still, it was interesting. We started talking to some men who had worked the rodeo that night and learned that (a) you can start learning to ride bulls when you are tiny, tiny, like 5 y.o. (b) that Texas kids are as polite as can be; one of the persons was a 16 y.o. bull-rider who kept saying "Yes, ma'am" (c) Texas men may have several kinds of hats depending on if they are going to the rodeo, church, or just every-day, and they can cost A LOT!; (d) you can take bull-riding lessons at church!

Next day, we hit the farmer's market. This was a true farmer's market, with fresh fruit and vegetables shipped in from west Texas. Many of the vendors were giving samples, so we just ate out way thru: juicy, dripping, sun-warmed tomatoes, crunchy sweet cucumbers, lavender-geranium sorbet, peaches that taste like the real thing. And everything was cheap, dirt cheap: a basket of fresh tomatoes for about $5.

No trip to Dallas would be complete without a visit to that most famous of Dallas places: Southfork! On the TV show, it looked huge! In reality, it's probably a 3500 (maybe less) square foot ranch house. The pool (that JR, Pam and the rest always swam in, seeming to be Olympic sized) is a normal sized backyard pool. They explained all the tricks that were done to make it seem larger, such as the camera lenses, putting the actors in harnesses so they just swam in place, etc.

We drove to downtown Dallas, where there really isn't much (except the JFK museum, which we did not have time to visit), but I managed to make a couple friends there:

We finished our day with dinner on the patio at Lauren's. It was a totally Texas dinner, with all the stuff we had bought at the farmer's market: Texas wine (who'd a thunk! it was pretty good), organic grass-fed Texas steaks, and those lucious tomatoes!

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Snow Place Like Home

It's been a while since I've blogged, so I hope I can remember how to do it!

When I signed up for this job a couple years ago, it was for assignments that would let me travel. So when my boss told me I would be working on a project locally, I said "Geez, when I signed up to travel, I didn't mean to Greenbelt!" (15 miles from home). So, trying to put my best face on it, I figured, why not try to look at Maryland as if I was new to it. And there were some advantages to being home: seeing friends, sleeping in my own bed, having Evan buy my wine at a major discount, enjoying (?) the snowmageddons in December, and the 2 in February.

Each day, I got to commute to lovely Greenbelt: along major travelled highways with lots of traffic:

(BWI Parkway on a light traffic day!)

(Powder Mill Rd @ Edmonston, before I turn left onto Edmonston)

So, while the traffic wasn't so great, there was one compensation. Every day, I got to drive thru the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center, a bucolic swatch of agricultural bliss (including, as the weather got warmer, the smells associated with livestock):

These two photos don't do it justice, but it's hard to take photos from your moving vehicle! Driving thru the area is about 4 miles of serenity: rolling hills, grazing cows, the occasional hawk, deer in the evening. With a little jazz playing on the radio, it was easy to imagine (when necessary) a ride in the countryside.

And then came Snowmageddon I & II: February 5-12. Thinking we were going to get about 15-18 inches of snow that Friday, and we could dig out over the weekend, I invited a friend from work to spend the weekend. Instead of being in her lonely apt in DC, she could spend the weekend in the 'burbs, we'd drink, watch movies, dig a little snow, get her home on Sunday so she could watch the SuperBowl at her local bar. Sure, Friday night worked out that way, but I got up Sat morning and could not open the front door! The snow was drifted up against the door some 8 or 10 inches and I had to work the door open enough to get the shovel thru to push it away to actually open the door! So, we shovelled all day, in turns. Roads impassable, until, finally, Monday I could get her to the train station, but on roads that were still like country roads. On the 2 mile ride to the train station, we actually saw stranded tractor-trailers--too much snow on the roads for them!

And, then on Tuesday night, more snow! Another 18 inches or so on top of the 2 feet we had already got. While it made for pretty pictures, it was a lot of work and took 3-4 weeks for everything to melt. But, enjoy the pictures:

(night photo as Snowmageddon II begins)

(parking lot, Snowmageddon I)

(parking lot, Snowmageddon II, I think)

(back deck as Snowmageddon II begins)

(maybe Snowmageddon II?)

(tunnelled sidewalk after Snowmageddon I)

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Cue the Island Music (Dominican Holidays)

Aaahhhh... the Dominican Republic in the winter: no snow, no ice, warm weather, beaches, rum, sun. I'd been planning this since early summer, so what could possibly go wrong, right? Right! It was perfect (well, my daughter Leslie might disagree since the mosquitoes seemed to love her so, but a dip in the ocean seemed to help alleviate the itch).

I rented a 4 bedroom villa on the north coast near Puerto Plata; it even came with a housekeeper, Paulina (who only speaks Spanish; this proved a great end to my Spanish country travel this year!) Leslie, Evan, and my sister Ellen came for 9 glorious days of hanging out on the beach, lazing in a hammock, reading books, drinking rum, and eating Dominican food. We went on a couple of tours so we didn't get too lazy.

(note hammock on left)

Paulina cooked breakfast for us each morning and dinner each afternoon (which she usually put in the oven so we could heat up). Breakfast consisted of fresh tropical fruit: pineapple, banana (local), papaya, tangerines. Dominican coffee made the Dominican way (not in a Mr. Coffee, made in a pot similar to a camping percolator). Once we made it to the mercado (like a farmer's market only WAAAY smellier), we had fresh squeezed orange juice--at 20 pesos/dozen (exchange rate was 36 pesos/dollar) lots of oranges was irresisti
ble! In addition to the fruit and coffee, Paulina usually made scrambled eggs with cheese or with ham and cheese, and often with vegetables in it. Enough to keep us happy until dinnertime. Dinner would consist of rice & beans (usually red, but once rice w/lentils), fried plaintains, and a meat: chicken, beef, fish or goat (called chivo; figuring that one out took a little imagination. Paulina said it was "Baaah" which I thought at first was lamb). She also made flan a couple of times. Not like your restaurant flan--more coarse and with a subtle vanilla/cinnamon flavor. Yummy! Many afternoons I would come in and smell the aromas wafting thru the kitchen and say "Yummy, yummy!" followed by Paulina smiling and saying "Bueno, bueno!" By the end of the week, I was saying "bueno" and she was saying "yummy!"

I was always the first one up and would go for a 30 minute or so power walk thru the neighborhood, which primarily consisted of villas and condos. The really pricey villas, as well as the nearby resort were guarded by Dominicans with shotguns, some in military-type uniforms. They would smile at me each morning and we would exchange an "Hola!" or "Buenos dias!" (often said by them as something like "buendi"). Once they got used to seeing me, they might mimic exercise particularly as I was huffing up the hill. One time my knee was bothering me and one of the guards, in Spanish, asked me about it. Although I didn;t know the word for "hurt", I did know the word for ill, so was able to say "infirme poco" and the guard nodded knowingly. After my walk and a shower I would lay in the hammock reading a book until everyone got up and Paulina served breakfast. Then, off to the beach:

(Evan enjoying (?) the surf)

There were lots of kids at the beach, especially on New Year's Day, and some wanted their picture taken (Not sure why, it's not like I was gonna e-mail it back to them!):

You could shop at the beach:

And, for us Americans, no trip would be complete without:

(Dear Wal-Mart: While we are appreciative of your efforts to assist economically struggling countries, as well as your efforts to blend architecturally with the community, we were disappointed in the merchandise selection).

We went on a couple of tours, the best of which was the Jeep safari tour. After travelling thru the countryside we came to a little village where they roast coffee and make cigars:

(Evan grooving to the island beat, grinding coffee the old-fashioned way)
(Leslie enjoying a hand-rolled)

Once we had lunch at a Dominican open-air restaurant, we came to a national park with a waterfall experience. We hiked about a mile to a series of 7 waterfalls and then hiked up the falls. Through the coursing water. Up the slippery rock. With my bad knee. Pulled up & assisted by the ridiculously strong Dominican guides. But sliding back down each of the falls was exhilirating! I felt like a kid again. At the end, you have to jump about 10' into a pool. As I am standing at the edge, the guide says "Wait, wait". No way, I'm here, I'm jumping and with a giant scream, over the edge I went! Unfortunately, there are no pictures of this; we had to buy the video.

On my birthday, we went on a catamaran snorkeling tour. Not the best snorkeling, as the bottom was stirred up from storms that had been thru a couple days before. The ocean was stirred up, too, with huge swells; I'm guessing an easy 6-8', maybe more at times. Just ask all the people who were throwing up (none of us; all iron stomachs!). We all enjoyed being on the water:

(Leslie & Evan pre-snorkelling)

(Ellen post-snorkelling; maybe post-rum punch?)

And no trip to the Dominican Republic would be complete without a visit to the rum factory:

(this was pre-free rum samples; note hot Dominican tour guide!)

All in all, a great vacation: nothing went wrong, the weather was warm, we lived in shorts & flip-flops, ate well, and brought back great souvenirs (amber and rum!):

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Tucson Dec 2009

Since mid-September, I have been going to Tucson. As of my last trip, I have probably gone about 5 times. My 18 months or so in San Francisco (Feb 2008-May 2009) spoiled me: the people I worked with always going out, someone to have dinner with, everything walkable, close-by sites for weekends (wine, woods, parks). The first week I was out in Tucson, the people in the office I am in barely said "boo". The woman whose case I was taking over, after the first meeting, never even came over to see how I was getting along. That first week I was walking out to the elevator to go to lunch, I saw her coming back with colleagues from lunch, and her sole interaction was to suggest someplace I could go to lunch (alone). Not one time since I have been out there has anyone, even once, invited me to lunch, much less for a drink. So, it's a good thing I can cope with being by myself!

The first week I was there was in mid-September. I asked for lunch suggestions from the person whose office is next to the borrowed one I was in. He named a couple of places but said they were too far "in this heat". Recognizing one of the landmarks, I commented that it was probably less than a half mile, maybe close to a quarter. Still, he said, it is so hot, you will melt. Well, I guess to them it was hot; the temp was about 95 (based on weather reports), but there is something to be said for no humidity. Because when I went outside, it felt more like the low 80s. I didn't break a sweat walking that less-than-half-a-mile.

The office is right downtown. But the downtown area is really not very busy. The few times I have walked the less-than-half-a-mile to the actual middle, there are few people on the street, less cars, and the restaurants have plenty of space. Even at night, I have ventured to some restaurants in town, and the streets seem to roll up by 6PM, and there are few people in the restaurants.

So, what is the attraction in Tucson? The scenery is jaw-dropping gorgeous!

(view from hotel room: morning)

(view from hotel room: evening)

No matter where you are in Tucson, you can always see mountains. And they change. Depending on the time of day, the amount, and direction of sunlight, they can appear sand colored, indigo, blood red, or colors that defy description> Even calling them sand or indigo is not correct--these are colors that were never in your Crayola box, even if you had the set of 64!

(view from hotel room: different morning)

I never get tired of looking at the mountains, which can be distracting when driving in rush hour traffic! You often hear people use the term "breath-taking" when describing something. I think it could be an apt term for the mountains for this reason: when I look at them I think what it must be like to be at the top, then I think about climbing up the mountain, and I know I would be totally breathless if I could even MAKE it up there!

This last trip, I was in Tucson for 2 weeks. On Saturday, I went hiking, a huge accomplishment for me, since my right knee has not been working properly for over a year. However, it has been a couple months at least since I was in pain from it, so I thought it might be a good time to try hiking (one of my joys!) again. I picked a state park close by, and as I drove to the main trailheads, found a 1 mile hike to pre-historic Indian ruins. It was a nice warm-up hike. Then, down to the main trailheads, a chat with the ranger, and I was off on a 2.5 mile, fairly level hike. It was supposedly a popular hike, but there were times when I was completely alone, there was no noise anywhere, literally. I would stop and hear...nothing--only the fuzziness in my ears from the total silence.

As you can imagine, the place is teeming with wildlife: coyote, snakes, bobcats, javelina (sort of like wild boar, but not). Not that I saw any of it, they sleep during the day for the most part (altho, I was pretty terrified that I might see a snake, because it was kind of cool but sunny). However, I did get this pretty good picture:

Guess that's why they call them the Arizona Cardinals. Who knew?

It gets cold in Tucson. No one bothered to tell me, I found out the hard way and ended up single-handedly boosting the economy of Tucson one Monday night. Well, early evening: everything closes at 530 or 6PM, except restaurants. I'm guessing it has to do with so many retired people all of whom go to bed early. The only problem with that theory is, when you go to restaurants, I don't see signs for "early bird specials" like you do in Florida. In any event, if you want to shop, you gotta do it before 530 or 6.

Tons of people in Tucson drive pick-up trucks; I bet at least 50% of the vehicles are pick-ups. I mean BIG pick-up trucks, the full sized Dodge Ram kind. And then they park where it says "compact cars only". Are they thinking it's a compact compared to a Hummer?! Sure, sure of course they drive pick-ups, it's the West, right. Well, it's not like all these people live on ranches and gotta drive on dirt roads. Rarely do you see the pick-up with dust sprinkled on it, or spatters of mud leading me to believe it's a status thing. Or, they just need someplace for the gun rack, and a gun rack doesn't look so cook in a Toyota Prius. Then they drive the speed limit! If the speed limit is 40, most people drive between 38 and 41 mph. Which can be frustrating, since they even drive that in the left lane!

Whatever quirks there are in Tucson, it is more than made up for with the mountains, mountains, mountains, the clean air, and the big sky. There is a sense of timelessness and serenity from the combination of these elements.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Coast to Coast

What do these photos have in common?

("The Fence")

(A plaza/restaurant area)

(A desert; hope I didn't really have to tell you that!)

(Yes, Spiderman!)

These were all taken during my coast to coast adventures in November!

I started out the month travelling to San Diego (plaza/restaurant) for a conference. I'm still not sure WHY I got sent to the conference, as I wasn't speaking, was not part of the working group, but there was some good networking, which is how I got to "The Fence". I have been to SD a couple of times, most notably a few years ago with a friend on my first trip. We got to SD about 11PM, got our car and started driving to Laguna Beach, where we were staying a my friend Lauren's uncle's house. As we're driving along "the 5" (Interstate 5; I have no idea why in California, all the roads are said with definite articles: the 5, the 1, the whatever), I started getting nervous. It was dark, I couldn;t see that well, but I could definitely, at times, see the ocean. Finally, after about 15 minutes I said to Lauren "Are we going the wrong way?" "Why?" she says. In my infinite wisdom (regretted at times to this day), I say: "The ocean's on the wrong side; it's on the left." Lauren, wiser than I, says "You're on the other coast!" Of course!! Heck I grew up on the East Coast, if you are going north, the ocean is on your right. But it's the opposite in California, and while my head knew that, my instincts just weren't going with it. It took me the best part of 3 or 4 days to finally accept that, on the West Coast, if you are going north, the ocean is on the left!

At the conference, I met someone who could give me a border tour. I have been going to Tucson for a couple of months and thought it might be educational and assist me in my work if I knew what went on at the border. Sure, I've crossed the SW border--one time, on foot, to Tijuana (never again; the poverty is heartbreaking, nothing like you've ever seen in the US). So, when I was in Tucson mid-November, I contacted him and got a border tour. Went to the Port of Nogales, where the Port Director personally gave me a tour, including inspections, secondary inspections (you know, when the border agent waives you over and your heart starts pounding because you put all your vitamins in one container and what if they think they are drugs and you are going to get locked up until the get the chemical analysis back which takes months and in the meantime you are rotting in a cell!), lock-up, outbound inspections (where they inspect the vehicles going to Mexico). Then we went up on "the line", the area where the Border Patrol is posted about every half mile, only a hundred yards or so away from The Fence, awaiting people illegally coming across. Yes, The Fence really exists:

It simply goes on and on and on. If a panoramic were taken here, you would see the Border Patrol vehicles on the right of the photo sitting on hills looking down on the fence. On the other side of those vehicles are canyons with cactus and not much else, except maybe nasty critters.

Driving from Tucson to Nogales is complete desert. It is the most unforgiving, brutal country I have ever seen: dry as a bone, full of cactus (tall cactus, short cactus, tree-like cactus, ground-cover cactus), stunted trees that do not invite shade because they don;t have leaves, only needles. Jagged mountains jut from desert floor. Dirt roads, full of dust, crawl down into the canyons and up into the mountains. You & I wouldn't last 2 hours without proper hiking boots, long pants, and a gallon of water. Yet thousands of immigrants a year cross on foot with little or no protection, sometimes no shoes, no water. How harsh must their lives in their home countries be that they would endure these conditions just for a chance to live in America?

My final stop in November was NYC, where my daughter lives. I went up there for Thanksgiving and, of course, the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. My sister came and we stayed in Times Square, a constant moving mass of people. Except, T'Giving morning, once you got off the parade route. The streets on the parade route, however, are just jammed!

Amazingly, with that many people, everyone is well behaved, talking to each other, making room for the kids to get to the front. Just watching the faces of the children as they see their favortite cartoon character or Nickelodeon personality is priceless! There were many "celebrities" in the parade that we did not recognize. Fortunately, there was a 9 or 10 year old boy near us who filled us in on the Nickelodeon or Disney actors. Of course, when Carly Simon came along he was "Who's that?" (ditto with Gloria Gaynor, Iggy Marley, and Andrea Bocelli). My daughter made a wonderful dinner in her tiny, but cozy, Brooklyn apartment. And, of course, on Black Friday--shopping!

There were bargains to be had, and I had a few. But, the most fun was at the DKNY shop. I tried on a dress and the sales associate had a field day accessorizing me-- a belt, then a "cozy", which is sort of like a sweater and sort of like a shawl that you can wrap different ways. She had 3 of us lined up in the middle of the store showing us different ways to wrap it! My sister, who I don;t think was going to buy anything, ended up buying one, too! I hope Helen, the sales associate, got a good commission for everything she sold us!

Saturday, November 14, 2009

El Salvador--Finally!

It's only taken me 2 months to write about my trip to El Salvador! Guess that's what happens when you travel so much, work at a computer, and somehow just can't get the energy to go to the computer one more time.

We went to El Salvador in mid-September: myself and two colleagues. Although we had the dates set for over a month, and our contacts down there knew we had things we needed to accomplish on Tuesday, Wed, and Thurs (flew on Monday), no one bothered to tell us until we got there that Tuesday was Independence Day in El Salvador and everything would be closed! Great, we thought, the people we needed to contact would be at home. Probably true, but the company would not give us a driver or interpreters for Tuesday, since they would all be off.
But, I get ahead of myself. When 3 people are travelling together, on different "tabs", someone has to make the first reservation and send it to everyone else, so I did that. My colleagues definitely were not happy with the 6AM flight, but, hey, I like to get out early, get to where I'm going early and settle in. It took me a while to even pick a flight, because everything went through Texas. But I finally had to swallow my Bush-induced Texas aversion and make a reservation that went through Houston. One of my colleagues is VERY large (probably 6'5" and 280). I, fortunately, had some airline status and got comfy exit row seats; he got squashed into a back middle row. Once we got to Houston, though, I told him to check at the desk for any exit row seats. Sure enough, I was the only one in the exit row, so both my colleagues got a wider, more comfy seat. Hmmm...why so many exit row seats? Remember, we were going to ElSal; me and my colleagues were probably the only gringos on the plane. To sit in exit row: YOU HAVE TO SPEAK ENGLISH!! (I promise there will be pictures soon!)

Our first order of business once we arrived in San Salvador was to get lunch. The hotel recommended a restaurant that served traditional ElSal food, so we went. The national dish of El Salvador is pupusas. I'd always hear about them (from people I interview) but never had them, so I was game. The restaurant was combined with an art gallery, it was open-air, but behind a wall; lush trees and bushes, quite lovely. So we ordered pupusas (about 75 cents apiece; BTW, did you know the official currency of El Sal is the USD??). I had two of them, for a grand lunch total of $1.50 (plus whatever a bottle of water cost; ALWAYS drink the bottled water in Central America, even for brushing teeth, even if you are in a good hotel). Pupusas are a soft, doughy tortilla stuffed (and I use that word advisedly) with cheese, or beans, or a mixture of both with a little bit of what they say is meat. They are NASTY! Little flavor, not much "filling", but I can see how it would be the national dish of a very poor country--probably doesn't cost much to make and fills the stomach, but not in a necessarily good way for a gringa.

We met that evening with representatives of the company, who advised us that we would be taking our lives in our hands if we left the hotel, especially at night. We were told not to go anywhere at night, to always take a cab that the hotel called, even if we were only going a block. Now, El Sal (and SanSalvador) is a dangerous country, but, geez, just to go a block. We did notice as we walked around a little bit (in the afternoon) that in the very nice neighborhood we were in, all the houses were behind walls, on top of the walls is razor wire, and cemented into the top of the walls is broken beer bottles. So, yeah, I guess they do have a crime problem. I won;t say we "ignored" their advise, but we did walk to a plaza behind the hotel for dinner, and across the street another night for dinner. We also drove, one night, to the house of an El Salvador person (who we knew) who invited us for dinner. But, we were with people who could keep us safe.
Since Tuesday was the national holiday, we thought it would be good to absorb some culture (which, in the long run, would help us in what we were doing), so one of the bellprsons (is that even PC??) hooked us up with a driver to give us a tour. We negotiated from $45/person to $100 total (then ended up tipping the driver about $30) and he took us all over the area: to the stadium where the celebrations were going on, to the national memorial, to El Puerto del Diablo. At the stadium, he got us through the police barricade (probably by telling them the Americans wanted to celebrate), then tried to get us to the front of the line to get into the stadium, but we thought it better not to cause an international incident. The area around the stadium was packed: (celebrants coming out of the stadium)
Everyone was dressed in the El Sal colors for this holiday, and enjoying themselves:

(happy to be photographed by "La Gringa")

There was a bridge near the stadium that we climbed on to view the street and a little bit inside the stadium. That was equally packed. There was a vendor using some sort of scraper to make "snocones" from blocks of ice. There was the usual balloon and other vendors.
From the stadium we went to a park that had a memorial commem
orating the murdered and lost from the civil war (approx 1981-1994). It was very similar to the Vietnam Memorial, but astounding in the number of names on it. The park was full of people enjoying the day, much like a park in the US with people celebrating Fourth of July: picnics, kids playing soccer, dog walkers, a few musical groups. We heard some very lively music, so went to the street above and watched some street performers playing drums.

Our driver next took us up a mountain, and up a mountain, and up a mountain! As we were driving up, we kept seeing these mini-vans with lots of people in them, which turned out to be sort of an informal taxi/bus system. You stand on the side of the road until one comes along, you pay your 50 cents (or whatever) and hop in--assuming you can find a spot. When I say these vans had lots of people, I am talking about a regular mini-van (the kind that holds about 7 people) with about 20 people in them. I mean pa
cked! Notwithstanding that most El Sals are small, they were in there like sardines. The driver wanted to take us to a restaurant that served the best pupusas in all of El Sal. So, of course, we had pupusas again. They were a little better, I think the tortilla must have been fresher corn, or perhaps a different oil, but still... The top of this mountain, tho, overlooked parts of the city:

From here, we went to the VERY top of the mountain (I think it is actually a volcano, there are 14 of them in El Salvador) to El Puerto del Diablo. My colleagues climbed up to the top of it, but, given the state of my knees, the narrowness and steepness of the crevice you climbed up (there were steps), I figured I could get up, but coming down would be ridiculous, if I could even make it down. So you will have to settle for a picture of El Puerto:

The next day, we went in search of the persons we needed to interview. We knew it was in a small town, but "town" is not even close to what this was. It was about 2 hours away, we get to the town it is near, which consisted of single story concrete block buildings, none of which looked like they were stores, businesses, or schools. No one in the steets, just desolate. Got lost, had to ask the one person we found where the place was and he sent us to a dirt/rock-pitted/pot-holed road that we drove down for about a mile and a half, all the while everyone in our van getting quieter and quieter, passing oxen-drawn carts (honestly), people walking down the road with machetes slung over their shoulders, until we finally pulled up to a single story, concrete block "home" that appeared to have no running water, and had an outhouse in the back. I simply cannot convey here the abject poverty we saw, not only there, but in other parts of the country. We went into one hovel that was corrugated tin, connected to another corrugated tin home, connected to another, a whole string of them. It had a dirt floor, hammocks for sleeping, no kitchen facilities (the husband was out back tending a fire) and half-naked children running around. It is, to an American, an unimaginably hard life, scrabbling for your food every day. However, in the dirt floored house, there was a TV (no lightbulbs, but a TV) turned on to, what else--the soccer game.

It must have been harvest time because as we drove along, we would see people with corn kernels spread out on the shoulder of the highway for drying (we felt so bad when, on the second day, a rainstorm came, and they scrabbled to protect the corn). We saw real cowboys on horses herding cattle. We also saw teenage boys "herding" 2 or 3 cattle on their bicycle with their iPod earbduds in. We bought sun-roasted cashews
from a roadside vendor--I have never had such good cashews!

(washing dishes in an outdoor "sink")

Coming back to the city, we stopped at the "bottle" house. This house is literally made out of coke bottles (and other types, maybe Pepsi, Nehi, etc):

She sleeps in a hammock in this house; they cook in the bottle house a couple doors over, and there is a "tin can" house in between:

We went to another city the following day--a real city, but a city that had been viciously fought over during the civil war. The person we talked with told us about living there while there was fighting right outside the door and bombs exploding nearby. But this house, although small, had electricity, running water, a kitchen. The street, however, was dirt and rutted. We were a bit worried about getting stuck in the mire if we had to make a quick exit.

Flying out, I noticed more of the country than I had really paid attention to flying in. There is much to feast your eyes on here: the volcanoes, the lakes, the lush forests. I would have loved to have been able to go to the ocean, as I have heard there are beautiful beaches in El Salvador. Unfortunately, the violence and the poverty, make it unlikely the country can capitalize on its natural treasures. I will leave you with one last photo, of the view from my hotel room of the volcano at the foot of which San Salvador lies: