If anyone who reads my blog was feeling sorry for me because USC lost last night, thanks, but there's no need. I'm having lunch at an incredible seafood restaurant on the wharf. The view is spectacular and the sounds of the seals and seagulls are very relaxing. Oh, and the judge approved a great big cash settlement this morning in my biggest case ever. My family is enjoying a weekend away, for the first time ever with our son. Life is still all good.
I've enjoyed this vantage point ever since the first time I saw it on Disneyland's Circlevision presentation of American Journeys. This morning, I sat on the steps for the second time ever. It's one of those cool little moments that I wish everyone could experience with me. This is just a cell phone photo. I took a couple of really cool photos with the good camera. One of those will be a Tuesday travel photo soon.
Before the football game, a little sightseeing was in order. We began with a tour of the U.S. Capitol. Tours are free, but you have to wait in line to get tickets. We arrived at 6:30 a.m. at Dulles, got our rental car (a glorified golf cart) then made our way toward Washington. By about 8:15 a.m., we were in D.C., parked, and in line for tour tickets. They start handing them out at 9:00 a.m., then groups start touring every ten minutes. We got tickets for the 9:20 tour. It was a great entertainment value. I loved the Rotunda and the original SCOTUS chambers. Afterwards, it was a quick tour of the National Air and Space Museum and the Old Post Office tower, then out to Charlottesville for the season opener.
I was all set to spend the entire week in deposition up in Oakland, but the case settled today, so I get to come home. I love flying home, and I especially love that first moment when I can see O.C. again.
We just got back from a little more than a week in the Caribbean, starting and finishing in Puerto Rico. Our last night was spent at El Convento in Old San Juan, which was exquisite. They are building like mad in San Juan right now, and Condado Beach and Isla Verde Beach are starting to resemble Miami Beach.
But looming on the horizon could be a return of Cuba to the American market. Raul Castro's government just took some big steps toward an openness of Cuba, starting with its own people first, that could eventually lead to normalization of relations with the U.S. That would be great for people like me, who would love to visit Havana, but in Puerto Rico, they are not excited about the prospect. Almost everyone we talked to there says they hope Cuba remains communist and closed for another generation. While I enjoyed my time in Puerto Rico and wish the locals well, I do not share their passion for the Cuban embargo. I'd like to be able to buy Cuban cigars and bring them home with me, without worrying that I'll get popped for a $1,000 fine, per cigar.
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I curse my useless appendix. If intelligent design theory was correct, I'd be on an airplane to Maui right now, instead of stretching out on my couch in pain. Sigh. There was some nonrefundable money paid, too.
You know how sometimes you get off the airplane after a long flight and all you want to do is take a shower? Yeah, well, next time you travel through LAX, you might get your wish, like these people, but it won't be the refreshing kind of shower you had in mind.
I've booked a flight to Seattle later this summer, from where I will depart by cruise ship for Alaska. I'm excited about the Alaskan cruise, but even more excited about the weekend in Seattle. For some reason, Seattle is a mecca for my friends who want to leave Orange County. Among the missing: Jeff, who I tried to form a band with way back in the day. He is now playing in his second Seattle band. I wrote one of the songs they recently recorded. If they ever get signed, I will enjoy it almost as much as if I was in the band. Also, Robert, who was in our wedding, now lives in Oak Harbor, but is stationed in Bremerton, across the water from Seattle. Right now, however, he is in the Arabian Sea at some undisclosed location onboard the U.S.S. Stennis. He and his crew got a visit from the Vice President earlier this month. I just talked to him for the first time in many months and found out he is unlikely to be in town when I arrive. Perhaps if I add a road trip to see the USC - Washington game in September, we can hang out for a weekend, but even that is uncertain. Worse, that game comes just two weeks after my trip to Nebraska. That might be more away football than the family can handle. Finally, Chris, my former associate who quit to move to Seattle and marry his girlfriend of 15 years. I haven't spoken to Chris since he left. Maybe I was too mean of a boss.
On Friday, one of my buddies was telling us how his wife is going to take an Alaskan cruise this summer, and he isn't going. He explained why he is too busy to take the time off, doesn't want to leave the dogs alone, and some other reasons, then revealed the real reason. He doesn't like the idea of cruising. He fears that the ship will sink and everyone will get eaten in shark infested waters. I tried to talk him into going, arguing that the odds of the ship sinking and him getting eaten by a shark were much more remote than, say, his wife going without him and hooking up with a lumberjack when she goes ashore. So then today the news breaks a story of an Alaskan cruise ship running aground and the passengers all needing rescue. I can't wait for our next conversation.
The Tioga and Glacier Point roads opened yesterday at noon. There is now complete access to Yosemite Valley from all directions (Tioga Pass is the route into Yosemite from the east), and visitors can see the valley from the scenie Glacier Point overlook. The last two years, these roads did not open until late June, but this year, with the lower than average snowpack, both roads are open well before Memorial Day.
There is a very cool free blogging site at realtravel.com. I registered an account there, and I'm almost done with my Irish travel blog. Once I have it done, I'll post a link somewhere, for all you Irish relatives who would like to read and see about our big trip.
We saw a list online of the Top 10 Overrated Attractions and Tourist Traps in Ireland. The ten were:
1) Whiskey Distilleries 2) The Blarney Stone (Blarney Castle) 3) Fungi the Dolphin (Dingle Bay) 4) The Bram Stoker Dracula Experience (Dublin) 5) O'Brien's Tower (Cliffs of Moher) 6) The Liffey Voyage (Dublin) 7) The Majority of Irish Seaside Resorts 8) Temple Bar (Dublin) 9) Medieval Banquets 10) Souvenir Shops
Here's how I would rate them:
1) The Ring of Kerry. Supposedly, this is one of the top attractions in all of Ireland. A long ring that runs along a huge scenic peninsula. What do people like about it? Spectacular coastal scenery, breathtaking mountain landscapes, colorful towns, ancient monuments and Killarney's lakes, castles and houses. Why did we think it sucked? Let us count the ways: the coastal scenery was great, but somewhat less scenic than on the smaller drive around the Dingle Peninsula, less than an hour's drive away. The stops were not compelling. As we came to each place and read what the guidebook had to say, we found ourselves pulling right back onto the road. The trip is long. It took us several hours without really stopping to enjoy anything because, well, nothing seemed as interesting as our destination. The colorful towns are like all of the other colorful towns along the road. There were a bazillion tour buses on the road too. Next time, we skip it. If we had it to do over, we'd have skipped it the first time, too,
2) The Blarney Stone. The castle grounds are pleasing and can occupy a relaxing hour or two. But the stone itself is lame. I went up and sort of brushed my mustache against it. You have to climb up more than 100 steps in an uninteresting castle, to be dangled over the edge of the battlements, upside down, to kiss a stone that looks like a polished block of dry soldering paste. Remember, too, that about 20 million lips with God only knows what on them have snogged this rock just in the past ten years. Besides, I talk too much already. I can say I did it, but I won't go back.
3) Souvenir Shops. The same cheezy junk was in every shop. Want a good quality bodhran? Good luck finding one. Want a good blackthorn walking stick or shillelagh? Too bad. But there are lots of green clovers on junk, and lephrechauns. And "lucky" stones. Most of the rosaries we saw for sale said "made in Italy" on them. Most of the other crap was made in China. Since I haven't been to China, I didn't buy much of it. The most important part: if you want something really cool, it's probably available online even when you get home. Why drag it around Ireland and through an airport. Just order it when you get home.
4) Whiskey Distilleries. The whiskey-making tours and tasting spots were generally not at working distilleries. Combine that with the fact that I am a rum drinker, plus I was driving a stick shift on the left side of the road and you can see why I wasn't sufficiently impressed to stop for a taste and a tour. My kids would have been bored stiff, and my wife doesn't drink, so what was the point? Maybe, just maybe, if we go back, we'll visit the one at Bushmills, where the tour is at a real working distillery.
5) Fungi the Dolphin at Dingle Bay. We live a short drive from Sea World. Sometimes, we even see dolphins swimming past the beach house. So there was nothing compelling to us about seeing a dolphin in the bay. To the contrary, if you decide to enjoy a 45-90 minute harbor cruise at Dingle Bay, if you do not see the dolphin, the cruise is free. I'd rather have a free harbor cruise. Supposedly, they've never had to pay out.
6) The Liffey Voyage. It looked interesting online, but then we saw it in person and lost interest. We saw this very flat red tourist boat offering river cruises up and down the Liffey. You are low on the river, and the vantage lines look poor. From across the quay, you can't see the boats. That means the people on the boats can't see across the quays. Enough said, yeah?
6) O'Brien's Tower at the Cliffs of Moher. It was closed when we got there, but apparently, at times, you can pay a few extra euro to go up to the top and get pretty much the same view of the cliffs that you can get from the ground. And not nearly as good a view as you can get by walking past the sign that says "Do not go past this sign." Everyone ignores that sign.
7) Dublinia. For about $20, a family can go here and see exhibits about the Viking history in Dublin. I've already seen the Viking exhibits at Norway in Epcot. This looked to add little more.
8) The Viking Splash. This is the amphibious car/boat tour of Dublin. Ride it and you look like a moron. If you must get a guided tour around town, go with the red hop-on bus.
9) Medieval Banquets. Word on the street was that they are no better than what you get in Orlando or Buena Park. So we hit Medieval Times a week before we left and presto! The kids no longer were dying to stop at Bunratty Castle, where the feast that was not sold out would have left us arriving at Doolin around midnight during that part of our journey. And we'd have missed going to see traditional Irish music at its best in Doolin's pubs.
10) The Guinness Storehouse. I went there, but the line was 45 minutes to get inside. You can get the perfect pint of Guinness almost anywhere in Dublin. The tour would have bored my kids to death, and the pint of Guinness and view at the top was just not worth a two hour detour. Besides, I like to drink beer (though I'm actually not a big Guinness fan), but I don't care all that much about how it is made. Maybe if we had four more days in Dublin.
This is one of my favorite web finds of the year. GoogleMaps will tell you how to get from New York to Dublin. Step #23: Swim Across the Atlantic Ocean. Check it out: New York to Dublin. Of course, it's not the best way to get there. Any Irishman with half a brain knows that the fastest way to swim there would be to go straight to Galway Bay.
This list and set of photos of 25 strange statues from around the world is amusing enough. I've seen two of them: the Ernst & Young building one in Los Angeles and the white pregnant headless blog in Trafalgar Square. If I was making such a list, I would have included this one from Puerto Vallarta. A close up of the creepy face on the ladder climbers can be seen here:
We just got back from 10 days in Orlando. We could not believe how much fun it was. Everything cool that one could expect to happen, happened to us. If the Brady Bunch ever went to Disney World, it would have gone like our trip went. We met lots of friendly Disney cast members; attended a luau (sans cursed tiki idols); our youngest daughter was chosen to be "Princess of the Day" at Cinderella's Castle, which included a free tiara; we went on Expedition Everest with my brother and his family, who just took the Disney cruise; we talked to a cast member who knew Walt Disney; we got lost one night and practically drove into the back of Space Mountain; we met another cast member who spent most of his afternoon and evening showing us around the Magic Kingdom (for free) with a super FastPass that got us to the front of every line; and we closed the park on our last night, getting a neat photo of Cinderella's Castle from the middle of Main Street, with not a soul between us and the castle.
The only downer: our filthy room at the Disney resort we checked into. We stayed at a timeshare from Sunday to Sunday, but we arrived early to spend a couple of nights at one of the luxury Disney resorts. After pulling an all-nighter to get away from the office, we arrived at our room and found dirty unmade beds, garbage in every can, chapstick and other personal items on the dressers and counters. We called down and asked them to send someone up with either a cleaning crew or a key to a clean room. "No," they said, "you have to truck on back across the resort, with your bags, to the front desk, where you'll get new room keys to some other room." I was expecting better service than that for $400 a night, and politely said so when we got to the front desk. For our trouble, we were rewarded with one-day ultimate park hoppers for everyone. All in all, a very good trade-off for a 30 minute inconvenience.
Even the return flight was smooth. We got to the airport pretty early, having heard about all the liquid explosives plotting and the new restrictions and supposed 3 hour waits at the airports. At Orlando's MCO airport, despite very thorough inspections, we got through security in less than 20 minutes. Our trip was apparently the same week that Mensa had its big 60th meeting in Orlando. We saw one of the featured speakers, actor Alan Rachins (L.A. Law) on the flight home to Los Angeles. I always confuse him with the bald dude from Arrested Development, so I didn't say hello, lest I embarrass myself with a mistaken identity.
P.S. I'm going to stop doing video links on Mondays. Between MNF coming back in a couple of weeks and the improved comedy lineup on CBS, Monday night TV no longer sucks. Wednesday night TV, however, reeks. So I'll start posting video links on Wednesdays from now on.
Cool. I just found out that Disney World raised its prices effective Sunday. I bought my tickets on Saturday. To save some ducats, I bought extra days, the ones that never expire. My buddy joked that I must have never heard about the concept of float. I responded, with a chuckle, that I thought the admission prices would advance ahead of the inflation rate. They went up four bucks the day after I bought them. As my daughter would say: "lol lol lol lol."
My brother and his family took a cruise this week and they are ending their vacation with a weekend in Orlando, so we decided to join them for the weekend. I'm at Disney World, pleased to have not experienced a hurricane up close and personal.
Well, we just got back from Yellowstone and the Tetons. It was a most outstanding weekend. The kids crossed four states off their list: Utah, Wyoming, Idaho and Montana. We loved the Old Faithful, Yellowstone Lake and Canyon areas. We were less fond of the Norris, Madison, Mammoth Hot Springs, Grant Village/West Thumb and Roosevelt/Tower Falls areas. We stayed at Grant Village, which was pretty weak, but we spent little time there, so it didn't bother us. Next time, we will book well in advance and stay at the Old Faithful Inn or the Lake Yellowstone Hotel.
The first bison we saw was a source of great excitement. The second, almost as much. The third, less so. The 300th was downright uneventful. We never did see a black bear, and the grizzly I saw could have been any dark speck of anything for all I could tell with the naked eye.
We flew in and out of Jackson Hole, through Salt Lake City. The Tetons in the background make Jackson Hole the most beautiful airport in the world, and hands down, it has the most scenic airport bar in the world. In a nutshell, that's my take on Yellowstone. Lots of Tuesday travel photos shall follow.
That butt flashing party sounds like it was fun, but we spent Saturday at Disneyland's Grand Californian Resort & Spa. As guests of the resort, we got early entrance into the park, and by 10:00 a.m., we had already done Space Mountain, the Matterhorn, Big Thunder Mountain, Splash Mountain, the new Pirates of the Caribbean, and we had spent an hour in Toontown while it was closed to everyone except hotel guests. After lunch, we hung out at the pool all day, throwing molasses-based fermented beverages and sliding down the grownup slide.
We learned a really neat trick, too, to finance most, if not all of the trip. It involved getting these VMK cards that people are paying absurd amounts of money to get. With the proceeds of our sale of the cards, we might book another weekend.
Last weekend, we celebrated my wife's birthday and, for me and my father, we celebrated Father's Day. It was also the end of the school year for the kids. In short, it was a weekend worthy of celebration. So we decided to get away, but not so far away that my dad couldn't come meet us on Sunday. That left relatively few options. So on Thursday night, we decided to see if there were any rooms available at Disneyland.
We went to their online booking site and found no vacancies. Unwilling to take "no" for an answer immediately, I called their 800 number and asked if there were any cancellations in the Grand Californian. There were none. But, lucky us, there was an opening at the Disneyland Hotel. We took it. So on Friday afternoon, we packed up one suitcase for the four of us and traveled north on the 5 freeway for about 15 minutes, and arrived at our destination. It was well amusing. We've never played the role of tourist within our home county before, and it was fun.
For the kids, this might as well have been Florida or Hawaii, because it was hot and sunny and they got to swim in a strange new swimming pool. For us, it might as well have been a long way from home, because we could eat, sleep and entertain ourselves without seeing the car for more than 48 hours. Plus, I could throw back a few glasses of wine or some Captain Morgan's spiced rum without worrying about how soon it would be safe to drive home.
It was quite surreal for a local annual passholder to experience Disneyland as a resort guest: parking in a different place; using the pool; flashing our room cards to get priority boarding on the monorail and a bunch of other little things that were just noticeably different. And with gas getting up well over 30¢ a mile when we drive the Yukon, we figured that the first $240 of the cost of the room was paid for just on gas savings alone, since our typical weekend away is a drive to Yosemite or San Francisco. All in all, I'd highly recommend it.
Happy Cinco de Mayo. And since I'm temporarily burned out on Mexican culture, other than the comedy of Carlos Mencia, I think today I'd like to talk about Paris!
We arrived in Paris the night before Easter. Everything was closed. All the bistros. All the stores. Pretty much everything but the McDonald's. So I did what any Pulp Fiction fan would do under the circumstances. I stopped in and got a Royal Cheese. They made me wait for about 10 minutes and then gave me a Mex something or other, which is a tiny little spicy burger. In my best French, I opened the thing up and asked if this was really a Royal Cheese (at least I think that's what I asked), and the lady said no and replaced it with the proper burger, then looked down at that Mex burger and offered it to me as a free apology. I accepted it, but it was gross and I didn't finish.
I was having trouble with our electrical converter, and was considering buying a new one, so I asked the front desk what stores nearby might be open. He told me it would be Tuesday before any electronics stores in the area opened. "They are closed for the night. Tomorrow is Easter and Monday is the after Easter holiday." Rats. My Paris guide book said the Louvre was closed on Tuesdays and on holidays. We were leaving on Tuesday. So I thought that meant the museum would be closed all three days we were in Paris.
Other than speaking a different language, the first thing I noticed about the French was that their computer keyboards are different than ours. They don't have qwerty keyboards. They have azerty boards. It was annoying enough that when I checked my emails once a day, I was able to resist the temptation to goof off on the Internet. The full board ran like this:
AZERTYUIOP¨£ QSDFGHJKLM%µ >WXCVBN?./§
On Easter Sunday, we went to Mass at Notre Dame. It was amazing. The place is huge, and there were literally thousands of people there. They weren't all there to worship, and people kept copming and going during the services. They sent out about 15 priests to distribute communion. And it was a multimedia event. They had a choir, and an organ, and mounted flat screens displaying the services for people who had obstructed views. We went to the 11 a.m. Mass. It hadn't been over for even five minutes before the next Mass began. So people were constantly coming and going. It was wild. And because the priests spoke only French, I felt like a good, old-fashioned Catholic attending mass in Latin and not having a clue what anyone was saying.
After Notre Dame, we walked around the Latin Quarter and St. Germain. We got the sense that this would be a great place to just hang out all day, if only everything was open. We passed Les Doux Magot, which was kind of dead, and headed over to St. Sulpice, made famous later this month in the Da Vinci Code, for its astronomical gnomon, and the brass line. One of its towers was covered by scaffolding, so I didn't get very good pictures.
After St. Sulpice, we took the Metro to the Louvre Metro station, to see, if nothing else, the replicas of artwork in the Metro station. It was a very cool Metro station. But more importantly, it was a busy one. Busy with people going to the Louvre. We went above ground and saw that it was open.
We spent three hours in the Louvre. We made a list of about 10 things we wanted to see, and we went for them. The lines were short, and everything was easily accessed, even the Mona Lisa and Venus de Milo. But the place is hunormous. It was four levels, and spanned three large buildings. After three hours there, our feet hurt. We found out that you can take no photos whatsoever (with armed guards all over, and signed warning about substantial criminal fines if you take a picture) inside the room with the Mona Lisa. Actually, the same applied to most painting rooms and to the room with the crown jewels (just like at the Tower of London). We managed to see all the stuff we wanted to see, and we avoided The Origin of the World, the full-frontal crotch shot painted by Courbet. Then we went to the Eiffel Tower before calling it a night.
The day after Easter, we took the RER train out of Paris and into Disneyland. We bought park-hopper passes for everyone (so that, after our first trip to Asia, we'll be able to say we've been to every Disney park) and went to Walt Disney Studios first. Walt Disney Studios was probably great for European people. However, I grew up in Southern California. I hung out in Hollywood when I was in college. And I've been to Universal Studios and the MGM in Orlando. Hence, the place was mostly boring. We were content that we'd seen all we wanted to see within an hour. We hit Rock 'n' Roller Coaster and the Flying Carpet ride and bailed.
Disneyland Paris itself was cool. So much of it was like Anaheim or Orlando, but they had different touches. For example:
Pirates of the Caribbean and Swiss Family Robinson Treehouse were cool because they were like the old Disneyland attractions. The order of events in Pirates was opposite of the one in Disneyland (you did the battle scene and prison dog scenes before the treasure and skeleton parts) but it was most cool because they haven't made all those politically correct changes yet. The pirates still chase hot wenches, and the fat wench still chases the skinny dude. No one is carrying food.
Some of the fast rides were different and, in my opinion, superior to their counterparts in America. These included Big Thunder Mountain and the Haunted Manor. I would include Space Mountain as well, but it was actually kind of rough and it beat my head a few times, so I'd favor the look, but not the feel, as compared to the ones in Anaheim or Orlando.
Several attractions were unique to Paris, including Indiana Jones coaster, Nemo's, Alice Curious Labyrinth, the castle dungeon and dragon, and walk-throughs at Sleeping Beauty's Castle and Aladdin.
Our best meal in Paris, believe it or not, was at the Blue Lagoon, which is located inside the Pirates ride, like the Blue Bayou in California. The food was awesome, and for about four euros, I got a very full glass of outstanding French wine. And another.
More quick observations about Paris:
Like London, I think Paris has more McDonald's and Burger Kings than Orange County.
If you stand on teh brass medallion in front of Notre Dame and make a wish, it is supposed to come true. I wished that we would continue to avoid rain during our trip, and never need our umbrellas. Amazingly, the brass medallion trick worked.
The only rude people I saw in Paris were the asshats who push forward in line at Disneyland. And the morons who used flash photography in the middle of Easter Mass.
St. Sulpice does nothing to promote its connection to the Da Vinci Code.
Paris has more street and Metro musicians than anywhere else I've seen.
Eating crepes from a street corner creperie is very satisfying.
You can climb on a lot of things in Paris, and you can every climb stairs to the top of the Eiffel Tower. But you have to stay the hell off the base of the structure, or machine gun toting red berets will come threaten to riddle you with holes.
I saw the place where they lopped off Marie Antoinette's head.
I did not see the place where Princess Diana was killed.
Paris has a monument of some sort or other on damn near every intersection.
You can't take a picture in front of the Mona Lisa, but you can take a picture in front of the sign pointing to the Mona Lisa, which itself displays a picture of the Mona Lisa.
When they turn on the lights at the Eiffel Tower, and you videotape it from below, it looks like the tower actually emitting sparks of light.
Like in Los Angeles, it seemed that all the street vendors trying to sell junky stuff (like shirts and little Eiffel Towers) to tourists were black guys.
Hearing a black guy speaking French was a little different.
At the Sacre Coeur, there were tons of those guys carrying little colored strings. They tried to get you to stop for a second, and then they tie them onto your finger, like a little ring. And when they are done, they demand two euros. We were tipped off to this in advance, and we ignored them.
The Metro stations are crawling with people trying to sell you "extra" Metro tickets. I didn't trust any of them. As long as you avoid those people, the Metro is cheap and easy to use. And the trains go to within short walking distance of just about anything you want to see in Paris.
The Champs Elysees left me underwhelmed. It was very crowded, commercial and rushed. And all the stores were chains that I can visit here in Southern California.
The view from the top of the Arc de Triumphe is awesome. To avoid the steps, you can take their elevator, but only if you are old, crippled or you have a stroller. Or, like us, you are tired, and your feet hurt, and you tell them that you are crippled.
Not all hotels in Paris have elevators. Or showers. Many have just stairs and bathtubs.
I really struggled with my French, and found myself wanting to speak Spanish a lot. I'm not sure why. It was pretty amusing, however, when I responded to a street vendor with an instinctive "Gracias, no." And he then followed me for a few yards, offering me all kinds of stuff, in Spanish.
The one place I didn't see, and regret not seeing, is Jim Morrison's grave.
If you buy French cheese, leave it in your bag and forget to refrigerate it, by the end of the next day, your entire hotel room will smell like a dead animal.
First of all, the cars are built backwards. The drivers sit on the right, in, you know, the passenger seat. In all, I rented a car for three days in England, and at no time did I get accustomed to this. Single person cars freaked me out the most, as I would look over to my right and see what clearly looked like a driverless vehicle, careening out of control, towards a certain demise, while the passenger sits there, perfectly calm, as if nothing at all was wrong. Seeing the steering wheel in front of the passenger wasn't enough to prevent the brief moment of panic I felt each time I witnessed this.
Secondly, they drive on the wrong side of the road. Driving on the left is not easy to get used to. I was never able to just put my brain on autopilot while driving. I had to actively think about my driving at all times. It's not just being on the wrong side of the road. It includes remembering that the rear view mirror is to your left. It includes remembering that, being on the right side of the car, you need to center yourself in the lane so that you, in the driver's seat, are way to the right of the lane. I never quite got this, and swerved to the left of my lane at least 100 times. It also entails passing on the right, always, because the right lane is the "fast lane". I always tend to be a little faster driver than most, and as such, I've become used to passing and driving in the left lane. In England, the left lane is the slow lane, and people like me who pass people while using that lane are called "undercutters." Apparently the English do not like undercutters, and think them to be jerks. Which reminds me, the English use the same finger we do to express displeasure at a person's driving.
Thirdly, the English intersections are insane. Most are roundabouts (circuses) and they are marked by signs that are incompehensible to most American drivers. As a result, I made numerous wrong turns that invariably led me into the city of London, on a Thursday before a three-day weekend, when my destination 200 miles north of London was in the same direction that several million Londoners seemed to be headed. When you are on the main freeways, which they call "motorways," it is slightly easier to keep track of the correct side of the road, because you just follow the massive line of cars. Off the motorways, it was nervewracking, because many of the roads are too narrow to comfortably fit two-way traffic, and then, to boot, people park on the side of the road. So as you pass, you have to worry about what to do when opposing traffic comes along, and every time that happens, it looks and feels like you are going the wrong way on a one-way street, especially since Londoners will park on either side of the street, facing whichever direction they came from. It is not uncommon to see two cars parked on the side of the road, facing each other with their hoods two feet apart. Back home, you don't do that unless you are using jumper cables.
Fourthly, the center of London has a sort of toll imposed, at a rate of 8 pounds per day. That's roughly 14 bucks. But they don't quite tell you about it. They just have all these signs saying you are entering the congestion zone, and if you don't know what that means, you end up paying extra. You see, they take pictures of every car that enters the "congestion zone." If that license plate doesn't register a payment, usually with text messaging or something, by the end of the day, the rate goes up. Luckily, I narrowly missed the congestion zone on day one, and day two was a bank holiday, so there was no charge. On my last full day in London, however, we rented a car for a single day, and the rental place was about half a block inside the zone. So we had to pay.
Finally, English driving sucks because they have photo speed enforcement, which mean they have cameras posted everywhere that take your picture and record your speed, and if you are going too fast, they mail you a ticket. I learned this about 200 miles into my travels, so I'm a little nervous about whether the rental place will be charging my Visa for a bunch of speeding tickets.
Oh, and those travel books that tell you to get an international driver's license before renting a car in England are full of crap. If you are only going to drive in the U.K., your American driver's licenses is all you need.
I'm finally back to the normal routine, caught up with my in box and unpacked from the trip to Europe. We did and saw a lot of interesting things there, and here's what sticks in my mind. First and foremost, I saw three of the 100 Must-See Destinations, according to my Heaven on Earth book from Time Life. The three were London, Paris and Stonehenge. I also crossed several things off my list of things to do before I die.
From the original list that dates back to 8th grade, I removed only "Watch the Changing of the Guards in London." But from the most recent list of 100 (to which I add another item each time I cross one off), I got to: set foot on the continent of Europe, visit a real medieval castle, hear Big Ben bong, go up the Eiffel Tower, visit a world famous holy place, walk all the way around Stonehenge, and gaze upon the Mona Lisa. In 11 days, I crossed more things off the list than in any previous year.
We also wanted to experience as many things that were, as Samantha Brown would say, quintessentially English, or and French as possible. We didn't quite hit them all, but we saw many of the famous icons of the United Kingdom, including, Big Ben, cups of tea, The Origin Of Species (by visiting Darwin's tomb), The Pub, the Queen's Head Stamp, Stonehenge and the Sutton Hoo Helmet.
Our trip was sliced into three parts. The first part was visiting North Central England, where my daughters' pen pals live. To do this, we had to fly into London and rent hire a car. Hiring a car in London is crazy. Maybe I'll elaborate in another post tomorrow. But we rented a car and drove from London to Saddleworth, which is about 20 miles from Manchester. It was about a 200 miles drive. Our flight landed at Heathrow around 3:30 p.m. We didn't get to Saddleworth until almost midnight. As a result, our first impression of the English countryside was that it was extremely dark, with few features other than blackness.
The next morning, we went downstairs and were served a breakfast fit for a king. They say English cuisine is mediocre, but their breakfasts are as hearty as they come. After we helped ourselves to fruit, cereal and juice, the waitress came by and took our orders, recommending a "full English." The full English includes toast, eggs, sausage, bacon (which was more like a lean slice of thin ham steak), beans, tomatoes and potatoes. And probably about six more things I can't remember. I put marmite on my toast. It had a strange and powerful taste. They say you either love it or hate it. I thought it was so-so.
After breakfast, we all piled into a van with the pen pals and their family, and drove together to Scarborough. It being a bank holiday and all, the roads were pretty busy, and Scarborough was pretty busy, too. We saw the castle and the waterfront, which I kept calling a boardwalk, even though it had no boards. Apparently, it is a popular destination for motorcyclists who wear colorful leather riding outfits from head to toe. Even straight guys. At Scarborough, I had my first meal of fish and chips. It was not bad.
We took a one hour cruise up the coast of the North Sea and were treated to a brief military operation, as the Royal Air Force boarded our craft by lowering two seamen down from a helicopter onto our ship. The two guys then walked from the back of the ship to the front, and the helicopter lowered the rope again and hoisted them up. The kids all agreed that this was the coolest part of the boat ride. Afterward, we toured the ruins of the castle, where I think I annoyed everyone by taking about 100 photographs. After a busy day in Scarborough, we drove to a very good pub called the Royal Oak, near a place called "Holme Upon Spaulding More." The English sure know how to pick a name.
The next morning, we headed back toward London, where our train to Paris was awaiting us. Along the way, we finally saw all that scenic countryside we had missed out on during the ride north. We had hoped to stop in Stratford Upon Avon to visit the Shakespeare stuff, or Oxford, to see the Harry Potter dining hall, the Alice in Wonderland stuff and the various colleges, but we feared we would be late for the train, so we drove on through.
We got to London three hours before our train was to leave Waterloo Station (or, as my kids called it "Water Buffalo Station), but a straight shot through the heart of London, past Harrod's and Buckingham Palace and Big Ben and Westminster Abbey delayed us enough that a wrong turn almost made us late for the train.
By the way, if you work for Avis and you are reading this, your directions to the dropoff location suck. Leake Street has no visible signs unless you are coming from the north. From the south, the sign says some market street or other. Oh, and a big "Car Rental Return" sign would have been a nice touch.
After we returned from Easter weekend in Paris, we stayed in the heart of London, at a Holiday Inn in the St. James's / Mayfair part of town. We were a short walk from the Green Park tube station, the Ritz, Berkeley Square, Buckingham Palace (where we walked literally every night), the original Hard Rock Cafe and the Japanese Embassy. Oh, and the Saudi Arabian Embassy, which sends a guy out to yell at you if you take pictures.
The 24 hour passes for the Big Red Bus tours are great. You can get on or off as many times as you like, and they have narrators. One of our narrators told the stories of the Great Plague and the Great Fire. She explained how the song "Ring Around the Rosy" comes from the London Plague outbreak of 1665, explaining each line in accordance with an urban legend that has been credibly debunked:
Ring around the rosy Pocket full of posies, A tissue, a tissue, We all fall down.
My kids were like "what's this 'tissue tissue' stuff?"
The bus tour includes free walking tour, of which we tried one -- the Royal Tour that included watching the changing of the guards at St. James's Palace and Buckingham Palace. It also included one free river cruise, one way, up or down the Thames. But they never took our ticket, so we could have done it over and over again.
The bus guides were pretty good, but don't take there word about anything that can relate to selling you a tour. When I asked about Stonehenge, the guide warned me not to dare try to rent a car and go there myself. "You'll get lost. The signs are terrible and the locals won't help with directions. I tried it myself once and got lost several times. You really need to go with a tour if you want to see Stonehenge." Later that day, I paid a pound to use an internet kiosk and check the Stonehenge sites out myself, concluding that renting a car would be fine. So I did. The road to Stonehenge is simple. Once out of London, you take major roads out toward the site, past Windsor Castle, and about 90 minutes from central London. As you approach each of the two or three forks in the motorway, there are great big signs telling you which road goes to Stonehenge. The stones are actually located a hundred or two hundred yards from the main road, and you can literally see them from a mile away. I'm really glad I didn't plunk down £220 for the family to take that tour.
The Tower of London was incredible. I saw the places where all those executions I saw on "Elizabeth I" took place. Our local parish is named for St. Thomas More, so the kids were intrigued to see the spot where he was martyred. I enjoyed checking out the British Crown Jewels. Oddly, they let film crews in there, but ordinary blokes like me cannot take photos of the crown jewels. I asked once of the Beefeaters why, and he said "You don't go around your local bank vault expecting to take pictures of their money, do ya?"
I guess that's true, but my bank doesn't charge me 15 quid to go into the vault to look around, either. If they did, I might well feel entitled to break out the camera once or twice. This anti-camera rule meant that I only got a few pictures of the crown jewels. Sadly, this one was the best.
I didn't know it at the time, but one of my closest friends was in London while we were at the Tower of London. Bobby, who was one of our wedding party, spent the 19th in the United Airlines lounge all day, waiting for a connecting flight to take him home from a tour of duty in Pakistan. Wish we had known then.
More quick observations:
London has more McDonald's and Burger Kings than Orange County.
The electricalal plugs are totally different, and the converters we brought only worked sometimes.
There is always something under construction. We couldn't, for example, see Nelson's column or the big bronze lions at Trafalgar Square.
Most of the museums in London are totally free.
The Queen's 80th birthday was a very big deal in London.
Her guards, the guys in the funny bearskin hats, get a police and military vehicle escort while they change shifts. You don't see the military cars on the postcards, though.
Big Ben isn't the clock. It's the bell.
The bridge that looks like it should be called the London Bridge is actually the "Tower Bridge." London Bridge is boring little overpass.
Damn they have a lot of chimneys.
Officially, Westminster Abbey and Harrod's don't let you take pictures inside. Unofficially, they only care if they see you do it.
If you stay near Piccadilly Circus, check out the Beedles patrolling at Burlington Arcade. We didn't, and we wish we had.
The "circus" in Piccadilly Circus just means "circle," as in traffic circle. There are no clowns or animals there. In fact, there isn't even a circle there any more. It should rightly just be called Piccadilly Cross or something like that.
At the original Hard Rock in London, you can take your picture in front of Clapton's guitar.
It is unlawful to play a musical instrument in any of the royal parks, including Green Park, near where we stayed.
Some of the English semi-trucks are really freaking tall. Too tall to pass under American bridges and overpasses.
English public restrooms often have dispensers that sell something called the "chewable toothbrush," which looks like a wadded up bit of minty paper that you chew and throw away. Now I understand why Austin Powers has funny teeth.
I haven't been anywhere but Southern California since my November class action lawyer seminar in San Francisco. I am itching to travel. Here are my potential travel plans for 2006:
Yellowstone: it's on the list of things to do before I die, and I've booked it -- a Thursday to Sunday deal. Can't wait. I hope to see grizzly bears eating caribou in a lovely green meadow filled with yellow flowers. And I hope to film the whole thing without getting eating like that Grizzly Man dude.
London and Paris: this one will cross about five things off the "before I die" list, including a couple from the original list of 100. I've booked the airfare. Lodging and train tickets are soon to follow. The cheaper trip I was hoping for got nixed by a ballet recital (oh, the sacrifices we make as parents), so I'm paying through the nose. Maybe I can even things out by staying in a cardboard box and hitchhiking across the EU.
The Grand Canyon: not booked. I've been there just once, for just a day, with my wife when we were just dating for about a half a year. The kids have not seen it. I'm thinking about making a long weekend out of it.
Yosemite: I go there every year if I can, and I have a mediation up north this month that might translate well into a side trip to Yosemite.
Orlando: this one is booked: two days at the Polynesian and a week at the timeshare. We are a family of Disney geeks, and this is the most eagerly awaited trip of the year for the kids.
Arizona and/or Stanford: this, of course, will involve football.
Arkansas: I have taken very few trips out of California on business. One of the few was a deposition in Little Rock. I went alone. I like to later take the family to such places (e.g., Galveston, Texas), and this is no exception, even though it holds some dark memories because the law firm I worked for dissolved while I was there. I found out from the office manager via cell phone on Sunday night, just before going to bed in the Excelsior Hotel (where Bill Clinton used to get all those hummers from government workers) the The conversation went something like this:
Office manager: There is a mandatory meeting tomorrow (Monday morning) at 8:00 a.m. Lex: I'm not going to make it. I'm in Little Rock. Office manager: Oh, um, well, okay, I'll fill you in after the meeting. Lex: Is the firm dissolving? [Awkward pause of 15-20 seconds.] Office manager: Why do you ask? Lex: Don't give me that "why do you ask" shit. Just answer the question. I have headhunters calling me in freaking Arkansas telling me that I'm looking for a job and they want to sign me up. They said the firm's partners had their resumes on the street within a half hour after Friday's annual meeting ended. So is the firm dissolving or not? Office manager: Don't tell anybody, but, yes. The firm is dissolving. Lex: Do I still have to do this deposition?
Anyway, USC opens the football season in Fayetteville, Arkansas. I'm thinking about it.
I'm going to type out a bit more detail tomorrow about the South Bemd adventure. For now, the Cliff Notes version is this:
What a great game! Indiana traffic sucks. And if I promised you a shirt from the game, you are going to be disappointed.
Today was our day to explore Chicago. We discovered that Chicago is a great city. We played at Navy Pier, looked out over the entire planet from the observatory at the Hancock Building, rode a horse-drawn carriage around town and explored the city on foot and, at times, by trolley, feeling completely safe the whole time.
Then we ate some of the greatest pizza ever to emerge from an oven as we watched the locals go berserk when their beloved White Sox knocked my Angels out of the postseason by sweeping three games in Anaheim that I sold to finance the trip to Chicago and South Bend.
There may be some irony or bad karma in that storyline, but I couldn't care less, because I was in Notre Dame Stadium to witness one of the greatest USC games ever.
As you may already have heard in media reports, Northwest Airlines® has voluntarily filed for bankruptcy protection under Chapter 11 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code. The bankruptcy process will enable Northwest to continue its transformation into a new-era carrier in keeping with the permanent changes that have affected the airline industry, such as rising labor costs and a doubling of fuel prices over the past two years.
Because we value your business and proven loyalty, I am writing to assure you that there will be no impact on the WorldPerks® program as a result of the filing. Frequent flyer mileage accrual, redemption, and Elite benefits will remain unchanged. Members will continue to earn and redeem miles according to the current WorldPerks program guidelines.
The bankruptcy filing will not impact Northwest’s day-to-day business operations. We remain committed to serving customers, honoring tickets, flying a competitive schedule safely and reliably, maintaining our WorldClubs® lounge program, and all other programs and services.
All bookings will be honored, and ticketing policies remain unchanged. Our existing marketing relationships with other airlines remain in place.
The decision to file for bankruptcy protection is not related to the current strike by members of the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association (AMFA). Our operation continues to run well and we have experienced no adverse impact on our operational performance as a result of the work stoppage.
Customers can continue to book travel on Northwest Airlines with confidence. Although bankruptcy is never a first choice option, it does provide the most prudent means for a restructuring that will ensure the transformation of Northwest into a new-era carrier that is able to compete in the near term and well into the future.
Thank you for your continued support of Northwest Airlines. For more information about Northwest’s transformation, please visit nwa.com®.
We look forward to continuing to earn your business by providing the outstanding service you deserve.
So now that I know my 109,000 miles are still usable, I don't much care what happens in that Northwest Airlines bankruptcy. I have 31,000 miles to go before my next trip to Hawaii is free. At the rate my mileage credit card is getting loaded, I think I'll be there before Spring Break.
I spent the weekend in Waikiki at a place called the Aston Waikiki Beach Hotel or the ResortQuest Beach Hotel, or whatever its shareholders are calling it this week. And my family and I participated in Hula on the Beach, an attempt to set a world record for the longest hula line in the world. We needed 1801 registered dancers. Registration continued right up to the event, and once it was done, we had no idea whether the line was long enough. So as I sit right now, I might be a world record holder, and I might not. And I don't even know where to go to find out.
It's just as well. It was stupid. We couldn't hear a damn thing, and we all danced like crap. We might as well have been doing the macarena.
Luckily, that five minutes was about the worst thing that happened on our four day weekend. Oh, that and when I drove like a maniac to get to the Pali lookout to watch the sun set on Friday, only to get there and find that the Pali cliffs face northeast.
In contrast, on my Disney cruise last month, I smashed my Palm Pilot; dropped the shower handle and got drenched while wearing a suit right before the formal night dinner; took a taxi to the Puerto Vallarta lighthouse to be dropped off and left about ten feet from the point where the "Open in Four More Hours" sign became visible; watched my daughter break one of her high heels off coming down steps (we only packed the one pair); and, to top it off, we left Puerto Vallarta early to go back on the boat for the rest of the day so that our daughter could crack her head on the water slide and look like she was trying to grow a horn.
You know the expression "My worst day fishing is better than my best day working?" It's wrong. That Disney cruise entertained my kids something fierce, but there were times when all I could think of what how much the tickets cost, how much work I was missing, and how many more little things could go wrong before a really big thing unleased its terrible destiny upon us.
Contrast that with my first day back from Hawaii. Awaiting me at the office was an appellate writ petition by the MOAIC, seeking to have his $4,734 in sanctions (payable to me) reversed, and seeking an immediate ruling because the money was due Monday. It was full of personal attacks on me and my client, and between the ad hominen attacks, it was loaded with grandiose verbiage that could just as easily been said with four words: "the judge hates me." It was thick -- several inches. So I had only lightly perused part of the petition when the mail arrived.
One item in the mail was from the Court of Appeal. And inside was a one page denial of the MOAIC's petition. The sanction money is now due, and there is nothing the MOAIC can do to avoid paying it short of appealing to the Supreme Court. And, as always, sanction money is twice as sweet as settlement money. It's at least as sweet as breaking stuff and watching your kids getting hurt on vacation. Maybe a lot sweeter.
So I go up to the purser's desk and ask about the onboard internet plans. And the little fellow behind the counter tells me that I can just walk up and log in, using my first initial and last name, followed by my cabin number. My password will be my birth date xx-xx-xx. He looks down a moment, then looks back up and smiles. "And tomorrow you have margarita tasting at 2, and beer tasting on Monday at 2."
I only asked about the computers, not a public confirmation of my drinking habits. Slightly embarrassed, and feeling like I'm getting dirty looks from the Friends of Bill W behind me in line, I look back up with a too-straight face, and ask, "How'd you know that? Are you stalking me or something?"
He blushes with apparent panic, stutters for a moment, and says "Er, uh, no, sir. I'm sorry. I got it from the computer screen. See? It's right here when we put in your cabin number."
You are on vacation, and you have bought, packed or maybe snuck past security a couple of bottles of your favorite wine. But the man at the metal detector confiscated your corkscrew, because everyone knows that corkscrews can be used to easily hijack an airplane, train, cruise ship or bus.
So now what do you do? Well, if you are near the right kind of store, you're fine. Just pop over and lay out four bucks for a crappy bottle opener, and you're set.
But what if you are on a ship in the middle of the ocean? What if it's late, and the store is closed? What if it's early, and the store isn't open yet? Now what do you do?
Forget about pushing the cork into the bottle. It's a pain to pour; you can't recork it; and you'll be straining bits of cork through your teeth as you drink. Forget about jamming a knife into the cork. You'll probably cut yourself, but even if you don't, it'll probably just get pushed into the bottle, with even more cork bits than if you'd pushed the cork in to begin with.
What you need is a butterknife, a fork and a screw. If you are on land, you can find screws almost anywhere. If you are on a cruise ship, use the knife to unscrew something in your room or in some remote area of the ship.
Give yourself a little start by placing the screw atop the bottle and hitting it with a heel or a rock, or by banging it once against the wall or the door.
Next, with the knife (if you have a screwdriver, that's even better, but in a pinch, the knife will do), twist the screw into the cork three or four times. Now the screw is in far enough to pull. That's where the fork comes in.
Use the fork to grip the screw, pressing the screw as far back between the prongs as it will go. Now grip and pull.
It takes a firm, steady pull, but you don't need the strength of a bull to do it.
In fact, it's easier than some of the corkscrews they sell at the store. Unless, of course, you are working on your fourth cork of the evening.
Royal Caribbean is going to be launching a new ship in 2006 to run its Western Caribbean cruise itinerary. The new ship will be called the Freedom of the Seas, and it looks like a floating amusement park. Just looking at that website makes me want to set sail on it immediately.
We decided today that one of our two summer trips is going to be New York City. I've been to New York City twice -- once on the way to Cooperstown from Virginia Beach, and once on the way to Virginia Beach from Cooperstown. On the way up, I drove through lower Manhattan just before sunrise after gambling all night in Atlantic City and saw the sun rise over the skyline. On the way back, I went across a couple of bridges and didn't stop because my buddy and I wanted to get back to Atlantic City before the weekend was over. That was back in the day, when there were still more gas stations than Indian casinos, and blowing $200 on loose blackjack play was a special treat.
This time, I'm going with the family, and we're going to be there for about five or six days before cutting it short to come home for my brother-in-law's wedding. Aside from the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building, we haven't decided what is worth seeing and what is worth skipping. Any suggestions?
I mentioned this store before, but you have to see it to appreciate it.
Here is the wider angle, showing the whole storefront. Can you see it?
Okay, here is a closer shot of the window to the left of the front door. Are you the kind of person who would wear a shirt that says "f*ck you you f*cking f*ck?" If so, this is the store for you.
Or maybe you aren't a f*cking f*ck shirt wearer at all. Maybe you are in town to buy statues of Jesus and the Virgin Mary. If so, you are in luck. This is the store for you. Just look in the window to the right of the front door.
If you are somewhere in between, maybe you can grab a football player statue or a Betty Boop cutout, or some fireworks. I'm telling you, this place is like the Wal-Mart Plus of Ensenada.
First, you need a non-obvious vessel. A bottle of water will not do, because they may confiscate unsealed water bottles. You need something that the cruise line would expect people to pack without buying a new one for the trip. I would recommend mouthwash. Cepacol is a good one.
Next, you need to rid yourself of the mouthwash. After all, you're not a hobo. You don't drink mouthwash.
Rinse the bottle out, of course, or your screwdriver or rum and coke will taste like mouthwash. And, as we mentioned above, you are not a hobo, so you aren't used to getting drunk off personal hygiene products.
Next, pour clear liquor into the mouthwash bottle. I opted, in this case, for Bacardi Rum. It was a good fit. Any clear liquor will work, though. Gin, vodka, everclear; it's all good.
Now you will need to make your liquor look like Cepacol. Yellow food coloring will do the trick.
Eight drops and some mild shaking later, you have a yellow bottle of Cepacol-looking Bacardi.
Slip it into the checked luggage with the "other" toiletries. In cruise ship dollars, that's about $150 worth of drinks. Your cost? About $15, including the price of the mouthwash that you can use later to kill the germs that can cause bad breath.
I'm on the Pacific Ocean right now, enjoying a day at sea on the weekend Ensenada cruise. I'm having an extremely good time, although I'm wishing I had booked three weeks earlier while the Royal Caribbean ship still had cabins available.
Carnival is a pretty good cruise line, but it suffers by comparison to RCCI. The food is not quite as good. The shops sell slightly lower quality garbage. The comedian is slightly less funny. The activities are slightly less interesting. The service is slightly less swift. The midnight buffet is slightly less fancy. (I mean, what is a midnight buffet without shrimp?)
But it is festive, due in large part to the massive numbers of passengers who spend most of their travel dollars on liquor. This place is crawling with drunks and scantily clad folks (many of whom should not ever be scantily clad except in the privacy of their own showers). And drunken, half-nekked people know how to have a good time. It's about 11:00 a.m. on a Sunday morning as I type this, and there are already a bunch of people walking around wasted.
My ten-year-old is semi-famous on the boat. She sang a bunch of April Lavigne and Hilary Duff songs at karaoke the past two nights, and everyone remembers her by name. I wish I was so famous. But I did have some people stop me on the elevator and ask me if my little girl would be singing karaoke tonight, and that was kind of cool. No one asked me, however, if I would be singing Birdhouse in Your Soul, It's the End of the World As We Know It, or Pretty in Pink again....
[Update: She won 2nd Place in the adult karaoke contest.]
We went into Mexico yesterday and took an excursion to La Bufadora, which is a blowhole that spouts incoming waves dozens of feet into the air every few seconds. It's pretty cool. I hadn't seen it in about 15 years, and I wanted my kids to see it, so we decided to book an excursion there on the ship. Luckily, we barely got to the ship before it departed, and that left our first evening too short to do things like plan out our day in Mexico. So the next morning, when we disembarked, we found a line of taxi vans waiting to take us straight there, and then wait for us while we explored the place, for less than half of what the ship would have charged to load us on a huge bus with 50 other people, leaving and returning at times decided by the ship, not by us.
Ensenada is still as poor as I remembered. We saw a dead mouse sitting on the curb right outside the ship. Most of the roads outside of town, other than the major north-south route, were dirt. The nicer ones, however, were lines with palm trees. I kid you not -- dirt roads lines with palm trees. Many shopping centers had dirt parking lots. (Would you shop there in the rain?) And we saw a bunch of local highway workers making road repairs that consisted of shoveling dirt from high spots and dropping it into low spots. There was abandoned construction everywhere. And there were beach houses along the coast that some American homeless people wouldn't touch. The scenery is so beautiful at times, I wonder why this region is not doing well. In fact, the resources are so good that they should be affluent. Instead, it's filthy poor.
The blowhole is the same as I remembered, but the path from the parking lot to the observation spot has changed. It is now a long gauntlet of vendors, each selling the same crap that I don't need and don't want. They are in-your-face marketers, and they cannot be ignored or disregarded, or they just get louder. We eventually started telling them that we already spent all our money. That shut them up.
The funniest part of the experience was the churro salesmen. There were at least ten churro stands, and every single one offered you about two inches of sample churro as you passed by. By the time you went up and back, you could have eaten about three churros worth of samples. Who needs to buy a churro after that?
We took only a little time in town, since the best thing to do there is drink and wear wet t-shirts to try to win money, and my little girls are not doing either of those things, and my wife and I would only do the former. One of the shops had a really nice sign welcoming Holiday and Viking Serenade passengers. The Holiday and the Viking Serenade haven't been doing the Ensenada run for about ten years, but I guess they can't see fit to wasting the dozens of dollars they spent on the sign, so they never changed it.
I figured out one of the scams. Those street vendors -- the ones that just stand there on the sidewalk and block your path -- are actually working for the shops. I went into one shop that had a sign that said something like: "yes, this is the same quality bracelet that street vendors are selling for $5, but here, they are $2.95, or 2 for $5." As I was chuckling over the "same quality" line, one of the street rats came in, handed the owner a box full of money, and was handed a box of those bracelets, which he went out into the street to sell for $5.
My favorite shop: the one with window displays that included t-shirts that read "F*ck you you f*cking f*ck" and a bunch of statues of Jesus and the Virgin Mary. It had a little something for everyone. They even had Pulp Fiction style gimp masks.
The one thing I absolutely do not understand is the "your name on a grain of rice" stands. Why do people buy those? What in the hell are you going to do with a grain of rice that has your name on it? Does it impress people? I wouldn't be impressed. Show me a grain of rice with the entire Old Testament on it and I'll be impressed. But your name? Big whoop.
One thing I like about Mexico: they stick these huge Mexican flags -- the size of a building -- on giant poles at the center of every decent-sized town. Why don't we do that in the U.S.?
Tomorrow I'll post pictures showing how I smuggled a bottle of rum on board.
So, this one time, we were on vacation in Cancun. And we were taking an excursion from our resort into the jungle to see the pyramid and other ruins at Chichen Itza. We were taking a large bus, and it was going to be stopping at all five or six of the Palace Resorts in Cancun before heading inland.
Our youngest daughter was not yet three years old at the time, and she was still very prone to car sickness. After the first stop, we were sure that the ride would make her sick. And, to our bitter disappointment, we realized that we had left the chewable Dramamine back at the hotel.
The stops at each resort lasted about three or four minutes each. At the second-to-last stop, I got out and ran, full speed, to the hotel gift shop to pick up some Dramamine. The boxes were printed in Spanish, but the word "Dramamine" translates, in Spanish, pretty clearly to "Dramamine," so I had no trouble picking out the right box.
I paid quickly, told the clerk to keep the change, and ran, full speed, in the heat and humidity, back to the bus stop. And the damn thing was gone. And my wife and kids were gone with it. I was sweating, and huffing and puffing, and suddenly I had a rush of adrenaline sweep over that almost make me barf.
After a few seconds, some hotel worker walked over and asked if I was the guy who went to the store. I told him I was. "De bus has to go up and tune around, so dey can peek us up across de street, amigo," he told me.
So we went across the street and waited for the bus to finish turning around and come back south. A minute later, it pulled over to pick us up. As I boarded the bus, I saw that one of my girls was crying, and my wife was ready to strangle me. But I had the Dramamine, and all's well that ends well, right?
My wife got a juice bottle, opened the box of Dramamine and reached inside to get the little one's pill, and pulled out ... a suppository. She held it up for me to see. "She won't go for it," my wife said, with a very matter-of-fact tone and a completely straight face. For several seconds, we looked at each other and stayed perfectly still. And then we laughed so hard for about five minutes that we almost passed out. Then we got a barf bag ready and prepared ourselves for the inevitable.
Amazingly, the little one made it all the way to Chichen Itza and back without barfing.
I have a convention this week, which takes me to Monterey so I can continue with my ongoing legal education. So far, I've learned the following:
1. Tailgating a big rig is about the dumbest thing you can do in a small car with a soft hood.
2. The average consumer of gasoline is stupid. At one stop, there were two gas stations. One offered unleaded gas, 87 octane, for $2.37 per gallon. The other one, right across the street, was pricing the same fuel for $2.60 per gallon. Both had roughly the same number of customers. Both were nationally known chains. Unless the $2.60 a gallon price included a woman who would love you long time, there was no reason in the world to spend the extra four bucks to fill up. Yet, half of the motorists paid the extra money.
3. My kids want to know the name for those little red lights at the top of radio towers, and all I know to call them is "the little red light."
4. A trip to Monterey is a great anniversary present, but less so if you disappear for six hours a day to go to a convention.
5. There are remarkably few attorneys who see the irony in leaving a mandatory legal ethics class early.
We're getting closer to the day that we leave for Florida. As usual, it looks like we are going to arrive right after a major storm. In 2001, we arrived in Cancun three hours after tropical storm Chantal had battered the coast just south of there. In 2002, we arrived in Galveston just one day after a storm dropped 11.46 inches of rain (an all-time record). This year:
Both are good candidates to become hurricanes, Charley slightly more of one. So go on, Florida, get it out of your system. I'm looking for clear skies the following weeks.
Charley is now a hurricane, and Bonnie is getting ready to make landfall in the morning near Panama City, still with the potential to strengthen into a hurricane. Their paths will cross, but Charley will be a full day behind, say the weather experts.
After being acquitted of groping a 13-year-old girl, the former Disney World employee is getting his old job back. Unfortunately, Michael C. Chartrand says he's not going to be donning the Tigger suit any time soon. That means that almost any of those characters could have Chartrand inside. I'm going to be watching for that little perv the whole time we're there. If I can't see the face of the person playing the character, I'm watching those paws very carefully.