Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Border Patrol Blues

“Ladies and gentlemen,” the captain started. This can’t be good. We were at least an hour and a half from touchdown in Sydney and the engines had not throttled back, the standard indicator of thank-God-this-is-almost-over. There was no normal reason for him to get chatty this soon.

“Sydney’s airport is closed due to thunderstorms over the field so we are being instructed to divert to Brisbane.” Nice! Others around the cabin moaned and groaned over the inconvenience but I was on the start of a ten-day vacation; I had all the time in the world and I’d never been to the capital of Queensland.

The smiles of anticipation ended pretty much as soon as we landed. We were the 5th international diversion to Brisbane which understandably wasn’t staffed for the sudden uptick in business at immigrations. The authorities were surprisingly efficient in moving the multitudes through the system until they got to me, however, when things slowed down considerably.

Horror stories regarding tightened security at immigrations are on the rise. Everything from mistaken identity to a simple lack of employment are turning away innocent tourists and their much needed money across the planet. My issue at Brisbane wasn’t my employment status but the state of my passport. The immigrations officer scribbled on my immigration card which flagged me for extra questioning. At least they were trying to be discrete instead of dragging the 6’3” American out of the queue.

I absorbed the full broadside of questions in an interview even a hardened criminal might fail. My eight-year old passport featured the old-style picture laminated to the page instead of the laser imprint kind. It was old, beaten up, water-logged and had ink running from under the picture itself, a “clear indicator” of a possible forgery in the eyes of the Brisbane officials.

Right. Multiple stamps, include repeats, from around the world and even inserted pages did nothing to tell them this was just a seasoned tourist on holiday. An “Interpol” link wouldn’t have found anything more threatening about me than a speeding ticket. I was eventually allowed to enter Australia but couldn’t help feeling like that British grandmother at Miami being called an “undesirable.”

Unemployment is not a crime. Neither is simply wanting to see the world but in this or any economy take no chances when it comes to entering a foreign country. Have a passport, period. Then read up on the entry requirements for each country, specifically if visas are also required. Make photocopies in case the original is lost or stolen.

Credit or debit cards usually suffice to show you can support yourself and finally, be ready and able to produce a print-out of your itinerary showing onward or return travel in this day of e-tickets. Even if you are unemployed and want to see the world, let them see when they can expect to see you heading in the other direction.

Gotta go!

Monday, September 28, 2009

Tourist! Clothing and Culture

Americans have the honor of being known as the worst dressed tourists in the world. I truly find that perception to be either mythical or fascinatingly frustrating. Then I looked a little deeper and discovered that there is more to it than mere outward appearance. It appears to be a simple case of tourists behaving, or in this case, dressing normally.

In the United States the line has largely blurred between indoor and outdoor attire; tourist money is still green even if your legs and arms have no business being seen. Conversely, Europeans bend to decorum when it comes to what can be worn and where. Here there are few places outside of the White House where shorts are not perfectly acceptable attire during the high summer. Throughout much of Europe the norm is not to wear them in just about any building over 100 years old, which takes care of nearly every museum, cathedral, art gallery and government building that is open to the public.

The “ugly” American kicks in over the personal desire, nay God-given right to be comfortable at all times versus sacrificing even a smidgen for the sake of protocol. Rather than having a humorous story to tell the folks back home about having to wear long pants in 100-degree heat but the museum was worth it, we leave behind hurt feelings and bad impressions on both sides in the wake of a pointless scene over shorts or going sleeveless.

Friends and I were touring Jerusalem and wanted to enter the spiritual sanctuary atop Mt. Olive. I had tried to warn our female companion that her fashionable choice of sleeveless top and mid-thigh shorts were not acceptable. She first accused me of being chauvinist then pitched a high holy fit at the gates when the attendants denied her entry to the site. We went inside while she cooled her heels, fuming about the male dominated culture of the Middle East. Uh…if she had at least read the guide book….

Fashion is a relative term. American and European senses of fashion have long clashed but Americans are probably the ones that treat vacations as a high fashion opportunity, putting clothes shopping way up on the list of things to do before boarding the plane. Here we come dressed to the nines in our studied, designer-label, layered “casual” look, when we’re not strutting around in scoop-necked tees and madras shorts, that is. Did madras shorts catch on anywhere other than the U.S? TOURIST!

“Over dressed, over-sexed and over here!” goes the saying. Save money by taking what’s already in the closet – no one will know or care that it was last year’s. Wear what the locals are wearing, which anywhere in France pretty much means black leather and jeans. And if the entire day is outside, strolling the neighborhoods, enjoying the parks and eating from street vendors, shorts are fine. Otherwise, long pants and long sleeves are appreciated the moment you enter any building other than a 7-11.

Gotta go!

Friday, September 25, 2009

Music and Me

My first relocation was from Kansas to Germany when I was only 18 months old. I didn’t that from then until now I would average a change of address every 18 months of my life, from as long as 9 years to as little as 10 months. Music helps me remember.

Like many others I’ve come to associate certain songs with specific places, either for a specific memory or due to a general feeling. I don’t have a song for every city or country I’ve visited or lived in but here is a sample list and the reasons why:

Indianapolis – “These Eyes” by The Guess Who. They and Three Dog Night were all over the radio in the late ‘60s and early 70s when my family lived here. I liked “These Eyes” better than “Joy to the World” or “Domino” by Van Morrison.

Dallas – “In the House of Stone and Light” by Martin Page. It was 1994 and I was about to move from Dallas to Los Angeles. It anchored me to Dallas while setting the stage for life in L.A, echoing in a way the journey of the man in the song.

Atlanta – “Boogie on Reggae Woman” by Stevie Wonder. You couldn’t find a bigger artist in 1974 when my family lived here for just under a year.

New York – “Piano in the Dark” by Brenda Russell. It caught me as I was walking along 43rd heading for the office. The lilting jazz simply said this is how New York must feel.

Los Angeles – “Tinseltown” by Ronnie Jordan. Funky jazz instrumental that made the year I lived in L.A. quite positive. This was a “go-to” when things weren’t going well.

Heidelberg – “Strawberry Letter 23” by the Brothers Johnson. It was my first “grown-up” funk album and, along with “This Will Be,” “Best of My Love,” “Get Down Tonight,” “Getaway” and “Jive Talking” made 1975 a very upbeat year along the Neckar.

Boston – “Giving You the Best That I’ve Got” by Anita Baker. This was a rough year for me but Anita got me through. It was warm and smooth in a rough, cold place.

London - “White Ladder” by David Gray. I was in London on business when “Babylon” first caught the ear of the world. I liked this one better and felt it my own personal link to the city.

Paris – “Another Day in Paradise” by Phil Collins. I was staying with a friend for a few days here while this tune was all over the radio. Collins wrote a perfect paradox about the hardships of the disenfranchised versus the everyday lives of others.

I can’t wait to find out what song will connect me with Rome or Moscow!

Gotta go!

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Sox in the Box

Yesterday as part of my pre-vacation planning I went shopping for socks. I used to fly a lot of international trips on company business and oh how those were nice! Such luxuries are severely reduced even in the upper classes these days and bare minimum if that in coach. Rather than lament the fact I simply decided to create my own amenity kit, starting with socks that will fit my Size 14s.

Let’s eliminate any old pair of socks just lying around, the key word being “old.” Comfy favorites for padding around the house is one thing but wearing dingy looking things that might even, gasp, have holes in them on an airplane? No, and ditto with dress socks, gym socks, etc., which are too thinly padded except for the toe and heel. Boot socks are thick enough but just as much to protect the foot from the inside of the boot as anything else.

Getting picky, am I?

That’s why I’m shopping! There is more to this than just circulation and swelling – the floor of an airplane itself is a strange thing. It’s a series of joined metal plates covered with carpet sections that are typically held in place by double-sided industrial tape and best described as thin but durable pile. Read: hard.

Regulated by the FAA for fire resistance, airplane carpeting also has to stand up to foot traffic, service cart traffic and small children with animal crackers over long stretches of time while still being relatively easy to vacuum or at least “Hoky” in between flights and overnight shampoo treatments which don’t always happen on schedule. It’s basically there to prevent people from walking on bare metal and to protect that metal from corrosion caused by any number of spilled beverages and food while not torching the entire length of the cabin in an emergency. Being truly comfortable or attractive to the eye, well….

The socks I’ve seen advertised by companies like Magellan seem to be intended primarily for circulation while seated, which is certainly a good thing. I appreciate healthy circulation and not having swollen feet but their products seem to have stopped short of being comfortable enough to pad around a plane in without having to put my shoes back on.

This upcoming South Pacific vacation totals roughly 36 hours of pure flying and brother, that’s a whole lot o’ cotton! These socks must be thickly padded from toe to heel including the instep for comfort while walking up and down the hard aisle carpet, insulated sufficiently against cold air and also protect against dirt and mild bumps. The weave has to be loose enough to let the foot breathe but tight enough to prevent rapid absorption of spills straight through to the skin. Finally, of course, they have to machine wash easily without developing piles or breaking down too quickly.

Is that asking too much?

Gotta go!

Monday, September 21, 2009

Dollars to Dallas

I just joined Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards program. Big deal, you say. Big deal indeed, says I. My home is barely five minutes from the south entrance to DFW Airport, home base to American Airlines, a company I once proudly worked for and therefore have a natural bias towards. Now that I am a "civilian" it remains logical to choose American simply because I live close to nearly 800 flights a day to all points on the compass.

Back in the day there was nothing but competitive scorn for the likes of Southwest. They stayed pretty much true to their name through the late 80s, flying mainly in the southwest part of the country. We never felt they were a "whole" airline: they didn't have First Class, offer pre-reserved seating, meals or fly anywhere outside of the continental US, the "D48" we called it. Things change.

I had to book a business trip to Los Angeles only three days before departure for what was initially a mid-week trip. Now again, back in the day, any airline flying would simply take you out back and have their way with you for the kind of fares you paid. Strangely, American's available choices seemed to indicate some lecherous gang just waiting for me as if nothing had changed. Their price: $800 round trip, out Sunday morning and back Wednesday evening.

For a last minute trip in the face of ever tightening travel budgets I knew my employer would scotch the whole trip before paying that kind of money. "Try Southwest" my manager said, which I admit to being loathe to do. Love Field is half an hour from the house and my AAdvantage account was crying out for another fix of air miles. I looked up Southwest and after a bit of digging uncovered the incredible. Their price: $281 for the same itinerary.

I'm heading to Los Angeles, glad to be able to manage my business effectively but perplexed that American would dare to charge such fares in this environment. With something like 15 flights a day and the economy still tanked could they possibly have filled every flight on a non-holiday Sunday?

Nope. A little sleuthing revealed one flight in particular had over 100 available seats and right when I wanted to fly. Did the corporate travel pricing engine miss this pauper of a flight absolutely begging for business? Also nope. The lowest option on American's own website was $703 while Southwest raised their fare from the $124 each way that I paid to a whopping $132. The cheapest thing on Travelocity was Frontier through Denver for $341.

Either the analyst at American who watches California is asleep at the wheel or gutsy beyond reason. Don't know, don't care. They might actually get those fares from someone but not me. I've argued with friends at American 'til I'm blue in the face that no one similar to me who lives literally under DFW airport will voluntarily drive all the way to Love Field so long as the price was right. I was right.

Gotta go!

Friday, September 18, 2009

The Optimist Bucket List - Item 3

On a recent cruise vacation some relatives returned from a two-week sailing in the Mediterranean an extra $6000 lighter after the cost of the cruise itself. That covered the drinks, shopping on board, cabin tips and the biggest drainer of them all, the shore excursions.
While definitely an experience to remember, the expense of the trip will certainly prompt some of those memories for a while to come!

Cruise lines are out to make money and I have no qualms with that but I wondered exactly what I would get out of such an experience. “Oh, you can always go back later” every travel agent chirps. Norwegian Cruise Lines offers a Western Med cruise that includes a day at Cannes or Nice. Nice! Problem is, the sailing is 5PM and everyone knows nothing really gets going until long after dark. The cruise lines know this and probably so do the hoi polloi. Besides, why blow a wad in Monte Carlo when customers could be losing big in the casinos on board!

For my eight hour “day” on the Riviera my options include paying my respects to Princess Grace, touring the Grand Prix course, knocking back a cocktail at CafĂ© de Paris in Monaco, drooling over the mega-yachts in the marina, prowling the film festival pavilion at Cannes and then up to the top of Mont Boron at Villefranche-sur-Mer for that magnificent view of the Cote d’Azur.

That, my friends, is a short list for one port-of-call with Barcelona, Malta, Naples, Rome and Livorno (choose Florence or Pisa for the shore excursion) on the same itinerary.

My ideal cruise, however, does not include over-priced, time sensitive shore excursions that tease me with the “flavor” of a destination to which I may never return in this lifetime. Give me instead a weeklong ocean voyage across the Atlantic or between Honolulu and Australia. I and my money stay on board ship to gamble, shop, hit the spa and dine at the premium restaurants, letting the cruise lines ka-ching all the way across. They make money and I’m well rested into the bargain.

British Airways and Cunard once offered a sail and fly package for those with truncated vacation time, allowing the customer to sail the Atlantic in one direction and fly back in the other. Short of adding on time at either end the journey was the vacation and on the QE-II it was in grand style even in the lower cabins.

I’d love to see a regular schedule of pure ocean sailings with no other purpose than simply being at sea and away from the world. Stop in the Azores, maybe, or Tahiti just so we can feel dry land and maybe a shore excursion but other than that just time away at sea with a good book, a deck and plenty of food. When we make port in Southampton, Barcelona or Sydney just kick me off with only the jet lag missing!

Gotta go!

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Where Did the Glamour Go?

An article was posted in CNN.Com that spoke about the unglamorous life of flight attendants compared to the exciting times of 50 or so years ago. I was struck by the almost fatalistic tone which asked the inferred question of why anyone in their right mind would aspire to the profession much less stay in the business?

The article concentrated on the extreme hopscotch lifestyle of domestic flying which can include four to six flights each day, different hotels each night and up to four or five days away from home. Add in to that those crews who, by their choice, live in one city yet are based out of another and it adds up: packed flights, crew shortages, short trips and tempers. Is that the full picture? Not entirely.

Every airline employs its fair share of airborne Mother Theresas, both in age and saintliness. We know this. On the flipside every airline is equally embarrassed at the number of disgruntled dragons in the air as well. Still, I can't help feeling that, like all things, the good ol' days of the article are often viewed with rose colored glasses.

Glamour seems to have existed mainly in the long-haul flights of the era, like those Pan Am Clippers that had literally all day to get from California to Hawaii. Plenty of time to turn out a crown roast on a 24 hour flight wouldn't ya think? Or the Lockheed Connies to Paris, maybe. At maybe 350 miles an hour, that's a good, solid 10-12 hours to New York, again all day long to whip up cracked lobster and a seat-side carving of tenderloin with all the trimmings, all the while wearing white gloves, pillbox hats, pearls and heels.

That type of high style existed in one place: First Class, which the rich and famous paid for. And remember this: the entire plane was First Class! If the whole plane was First Class, who could upgrade? Steerage travel meant staying with the bus, train and shipping trade.
Want proof? To save money Lucy and Ricky drove to California and then took the train home to New York. They sailed to England for free in exchange for Ricky's band playing every night and no one watching the show giving it a second thought. They didn't FLY anywhere until that cheese-eatin' trip on Pan Am back to New York!

That, I believe, is where the glamour is, exactly where it's always been: in First Class on extra long flights, both 50 years ago and today. Up front on a 15-hour haul to Hong Kong or Australia there is plenty of time to really lay on a full spread and let the bubbly flow. Not every airline today carves a roast anymore but some probably do.

Domestic flight attendants in coach often work under conditions most bus conductors wouldn't accept. I believe this to largely be true. The ones in the premium cabins, though, especially on long-hauls across the country and overseas, however, do have the time, the seniority and the wherewithall to make themselves and their employing airlines shine. Some still do.

And for that special treat maybe it wouldn't hurt if we the passengers dressed it up a little bit again, too.

Gotta go!

Monday, September 14, 2009

A Bad Way to Learn Geography

It was 7:30am and the alarm clock radio went off, nothing new. Like many I lay in bed waiting for a decent song to come on and help me kick start another day at the office working at United Airlines “World Headquarters” in suburban Chicago.

September 11, 2001 wasn’t supposed to be anything special beyond a typical Tuesday. I used to always say Tuesdays were the one day of the week that I could do without. There was nothing special about Tuesdays. Monday started the week, Wednesday was Hump Day, Thursday started the anticipation for the weekend and the eagle flew on Friday. Tuesdays were just…there.

By 8AM I was telling myself the first crash in to the World Trade Center in New York was either an unfortunate heart attack on approach to Newark or some student pilot with particularly bad luck. By 8:03AM I knew two heart attacks on the same day in the same place was not likely. Racing to work, the scene at the office was all the five stages of the Kubler-Ross grief model in full force and then some: anger, denial, depression, bargaining, acceptance, confusion, crying and crowded conference rooms, every TV and monitor tuned to any news source worth watching. And this was the Cargo Division.

My mother reminded me of having called her and asking if she had turned on the television yet. She hadn't but quickly spread the word around the family to tune in. Just in time to see the 2nd plane fly in to the South Tower.

"What the hell is going on here?!" I have shouted to myself, fear and anger rising in equal measure as news of the Pentagon attack began filtering in. I viscerally felt that either they had missed the Capitol building or the White House or that one of them was next in line. Shanksville, Pennsylvania got that one instead, after the passengers fought the hijackers on the fourth and final flight that day.

Stories of sheer chaos and panic in the streets began to fly. The tallest office towers in the smallest cities from Wausau to Wichita were evacuated. Cell signals and rental cars were virtually non-existent. Across the land the sight and sound of arriving and departing aircraft was replaced with the kind of stillness only the early settlers themselves may have once heard.

Flights inbound from Europe and Asia were stopped short in Canada or turned back. Those of us in the business old enough to remember Gander, Newfoundland as a regular stop along the way mentally knew where some of the planes were but even the hard-nosed veterans were stumped with some of the places stranded flights were calling in from.

“What? A 747? You're where? Where the heck is Yellowknife?!”
“Do we even fly there?”
“Does ANYBODY fly there?”
"How did he get in there?"
“How are we going to get the damned thing out?”

Think of a 5lb. bag of rice exploding all over the counter and you have to account for and recover each multi-million dollar grain in that bag. Airline operations centers around the world launched “disaster recovery plans” as they wrestled with how to reset the system from a “not-in-a-million-years” catastrophe featuring thousands of planes grounded at the first available foreign or domestic runway long enough to handle them.

None of it seemed to matter when the first tower fell.

I remember being in New York not two years earlier taking a visiting friend from New Zealand on a tour of the city. We had stopped directly under the South Tower where I explained the first attack in 1993.

“Try to imagine something that big coming down.” The impact on my New Zealand friend was, to say the least, profound. Then the other tower fell.

At the time United Airlines was the premier US carrier, highly ranked and respected around the world for its service, savvy and strength. In less than an hour this major corporation was reduced to a catatonic, nonsense-gibbering, pupil-dilated shell of itself from which it and so many individual lives still have yet to fully recover.

“Where are you?” is the typical opener to any conversation between airline employees and their loved ones. Through work or simply “just because,” someone is on a plane, out of town or out of the country. Those of us that could went home early to find out.

Who could work? Moreover, what was the point? Every project, plan, profit and price was suddenly, instantly way off target. No one said anything if anyone, and most of us did, were to leave by early afternoon. In the airline game especially there was literally nothing to do except go home and light up the phones.

Following the attack articles would appear about high-flying, six-figure executives accepting $9/hour jobs at the butcher’s counter of the local grocer to try and keep food on the table and a roof over their heads. Other stories emerged of people rediscovering the true meaning of life away from the rat race by opening their own small businesses, serving humanitarian causes and remembering the reason why they started families in the first place by deciding at least one parent should stay home with their suddenly much older but still young enough children.

I was a young manager finally on the up, high profile projects, far flung appointments, international contacts and a sense of place and purpose. For seven years after the furlough I drifted, trying my hand at substitute teacher, a disastrous turn at retail, even all the way back to airport baggage handler in Baltimore where I’d moved to be around family and sift through the ashes.

I never use the phrase “My life was over” regarding September 11th because I am still here to reflect upon it and mourn those souls who did live their last that horrible morning. All the same I am only now just starting to feel that I am nearly back to the life I had eight years ago. I will always carry a torch for that day, that life and those lives, however, so long as I live.

May they all rest in peace.

Gotta go.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Football and Flying

One of the perks I received while working in San Francisco was the opportunity to fly on a team charter with the San Francisco 49ers. This was rarified air indeed and despite being a Dallas Cowboys fan I wasn't about to pass a chance like this up!

On this particular occasion the Niners were scheduled to play the Carolina Panthers in Charlotte at the then new Ericsson Stadium. The team owners did it in style in those days, insisting on flying out on Fridays for games instead of the standard day before. This, they felt, along with the DC-10 United Airlines was contracted to provide, made the difference in the team’s performance on Sundays given the distances a west coast team has to travel.

Fine with me! In the two-cabin widebody the front office and coaching staff would be seated in First Class, the media and guests on the all-male charter – the only “distractions” allowed were the hand-picked flight attendants – sat in the middle of the plane in the first coach section while the players themselves all sat in the back, curtained off from the rest of the plane. Each coach passenger had two assigned seats to themselves and I reveled in my window and aisle set just in front of the wing.

Among the other charter rules besides no contact with the players was that they were off-loaded first in to the lead two of five buses for immediate departure to the team hotel. Guests were not allowed on their floor and no begging for photos or autographs unless they were in the lobby where, if they so chose, they were fair game. Team events and even the game itself were optional but miss the charter and you’re on your own. Oh, and no rooting for other teams!

Sports rivalries aside, we might as well have been a diplomatic delegation on a state visit. Charters like this pull out all the stops with First Class dining throughout, private motor coaches and even a police escort to our hotel that evening. This was going to be a great weekend!

Steve Young, above, was gracious enough to stop for fans the Saturday before the game in the lobby after team meetings. At the game itself on a gorgeous Sunday afternoon, seats for charter guests are not what you would call premium. Visiting teams receive tickets for family, friends and guests who are expected to simply enjoy being at the game and not necessarily to have a luxury suite or sideline passes. In most stadiums you can always tell where the charter guests are, usually clumped together in the upper stands, a huge patch of opposing colors all seated together and hoping for the best.

They got pasted, 23-7. In their early years the Panthers had the Niners' number, giving them a beating on nearly every occasion. They dialed up another one that Sunday afternoon, packing us off to the airport for a long, six hour flight back to where we came from.

I learned a final lesson on that flight as the plane droned on in to the westbound night sky: One of the inflight games they like to play after a win is "Apple Ball," where apples are rolled along the floor to see which one travels the farthest before getting lodged under a seat. After three hours of unimaginable physical exertion, when the team loses they don't have much of an appetite for apples or food of any other kind.

What an adventure! I tried to hide the smile on my face which was not because they lost. I ate in silence, alone in my thoughts. Despite the loss these charters are special - routine business for the team, maybe, but clearly once in a lifetime for civilians like me.

This was not a Learjet, Paris or even the playoffs, much less the Superbowl. In fact, the entire event barely registered in American sports history as anything more than another day at the office but for an airplane geek and a diehard football fan this package was a behind-the-scenes peek in to life on the road with backstage passes.

It was only the wrong team short of the Holy Grail!

Gotta go!

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Hello, I Have a Reservation!

“Bonjour, monsieur.” I said to the counter man at Gare du Nord in Paris. “Deux billets, s’il vous plez, a sens, a Bruxelles.”

My traveling companion marveled at my “command” of French. I explained that I only knew enough key phrases to be polite and earn a smile of thanks instead of the well-practiced dirty look reserved for the “Ugly American.” Our two one-way tickets from Paris to Brussels in hand, we hopped the TGV and shot out of the French capital like a bullet for our 90-minute ride to the capital of the European Union.

When it comes to communicating in a different language, visitors are often mortified at the sound of a foreign tongue, losing all sense of place in trying to decipher the well-meaning "gibberish" flying their way.

Relax. After the welcome by the hotel desk clerk one of two simple questions will follow: do you have a reservation and/or how do you spell your last name. They might seek an opinion about the weather or the flight over if they sense you are conversant but otherwise nothing more than that. Tourists seem more comfortable and are sometimes treated better when they start the conversation instead of having it pulled from them – yes, we have a reservation and the last name is Johnson.

Locals and tourists alike do not expect to hold a conversation on global warming or to exchange views on the last election. At the same time a simple request for a last name at the front desk might as well be a request to quote the Pythagorean Theorem.

Still intimidated? Write it on a piece of paper and pass it across the counter with the credit card and a smile. They’ll get the hint, hand over the keys and point to the elevators. Next.

Nothing is ever fool proof. At a Kentucky Fried Chicken in Japan it took forever for me to figure out the extremely polite counter girl was simply asking me if I wanted my meal to go or dine in!
Any fast food worker in the world will ask this no-brainer but it temporarily threw me for a loop. That little question was not listed on the pictograms showing the various menu choices designed for the gaikokujin (foreigners) that even the Japanese have grown to use and love.

My own advice kicked in after the third time she’d asked the question and we both laughed over the big “D’ohhh!” Pointing at the floor, the universal sign for “here” I took my hard-earned meal upstairs to an empty table overlooking the street and enjoyed a very good chicken dinner in Japan.

Every cab driver, waiter and retail clerk in town will know exactly where your pigeon French, Mandarin, Afrikaans or Arabic came from - the back of a guide book. They will love and thank you just the same for going at least that far in - wait for it - helping them to do their jobs and keep each of you on your respective way. In the time it takes an overseas flight to make the crossing at least one flight attendant on board can help you practice getting and understanding directions to the Kremlin.

That’s what you’re going to Moscow for anyway, right?

Gotta go!

Monday, September 7, 2009

Pupu Off the Beaten Path

Not that kind of pupu, sorry!

Let me first say that I am not an extreme tourist. It is not necessary for me to “feel alive” by breaking bread with the native tribes of Papua New Guinea, backpacking barefoot across the sand dunes of the Namib Desert or climbing K2 wearing only cleated sandals and a thermal thong. Not yet, anyway. Still, I am good for stopping along the road to somewhere else just to smell the roses or explore some otherwise overlooked landmark simply because I happen to be in the neighborhood with little chance of being in the vicinity again anytime soon.

Rhys and I were exploring the Golden Bay region of New Zealand at the northwestern tip of the South Island. He doesn’t like scheduling every moment of a vacation, preferring instead to simply follow the undiscovered road until nightfall. This very nearly caused an overnight stay on the beach as we failed to account for traveling at the height of the Summer season and had booked no advance accommodation that morning.

On our drive at 11:30 that evening back to Paton's Rock Beach we spotted a vacancy sign at the very comfortable and well appointed Garden Retreat Bed & Breakfast. We screeched a “U-ie” in the road and woke up the proprietress, Diane McIntosh, who informed us there was indeed one room left. A last minute full house for them and a bed for us – good for all creatures, great and small!

The next morning at communal breakfast we discussed our tour of the island and onward plans to make Picton. From there we would take the Interislander across to Wellington for the night as our next stop.

“You have to stop at Pupu Springs and then Wainui Falls” the owner’s daughter sang out. “They're both a bit out of the way and somewhat of a walk into the bush but well worth it if you do.”

To visit a natural spring we’d never heard of in some isolated part of an out of the way corner of an island only the locals knew about and all the while eating up time we needed to catch a sailing? Done. There were other sailings and hotels in Picton if we didn’t make it to “Welly” that night. We hoped.

Te Waikoropupu,” or “Pupu Springs” for short, is simply gorgeous. The waters are extremely sacred to the native Maori people, which holds this spring as the home of Huriawa, one of the three primary water spirits of their culture and a legend that is not at all difficult to understand. They sit in a grove of natural forest edged by rushes that provides contrast to the completely colorless water. Thanks to light refraction the 12-foot depth seemed more like 12 inches.

Diving so one can view the “Dancing Sands” above the bottom vents where new waters enter the pools is allowed but strictly controlled. Casual wading or even throwing stones, though, might easily get you tossed from the country. Science, of course, has debunked the myth of the waters’ origin but at Pupu Springs the spirit of the place easily commands respect for its natural beauty which is completely, hypnotically in the eye of the beholder.

Wainui Falls next time.

Gotta go!

Friday, September 4, 2009

"Kopi Luwak" and other Cultural Cuisines

Up to $600 a pound for cat crap coffee??

When it comes to international foods it seems to me one of two extremes is about the only thing ever covered in the media, the most unusual or the most expensive. Sometimes they can be one and the same, like truffles or “Kopi Luwak,” the world’s most expensive coffee that gets its unique characteristics only after the undigested beans pass through the system of the cat-sized Asian Palm Civet. Uh…all the way through for which the “privileged” patron pays up to $100 per cup. Espresso sized, too, I wager.

I don’t drink coffee and certainly nobody should ever feel that obligated when it comes to trying local foods while traveling. The other end of the extreme, however, is nearly as heinous as the price of Kopi Luwak and that is not being willing to try anything.

It had been nearly 20 years between my first visit to Paris at age 9 and my next visit as an adult on my own. On that first trip my family was part of a tour that kept everything anti-septic down to the restaurants chosen specifically for foods we the tourists would eat. Traveling by myself and having made it down to the Champs Elysees on my own I was hungry. To my rescue off to the side was a Burger King and I hot-footed it in to the familiar, comfortable clutches of home cooked fast food.

Then and there, with a belly full of grease, I made a pact with myself. If ever I am in a country for the first time and fresh off the “inflight breakfast” served before landing, one and only one comfort meal is allowed just to get me going. If I do not have the means to prepare my own meals in the same manner as the locals then I am free to try a new restaurant every night but absolutely no fast food of any nationality or American branded chains in general.

Let me say now that I don’t eat calves brains, chitlins or beef tongue served up right here in the United States so ix-nay on kidney pie, tartare, honey-cone tripe or menudo overseas, either.

Some of the foods non-adventurous tourists do turn their noses up, however, have literally been in the family for years, sustaining the people of the host nation almost since time began. Japan is the largest consumer of seafood in the world with a large percentage of it eaten raw. I ask myself, if 120 million people enjoy sushi on a daily basis then either they're collectively immune to mercury - unlikely - or it must not be all bad.

I try to go beyond just experimenting with foreign foods by learning how to cook them once I get home. I’ve learned to make staples like feijoada (Brazilian stew), paella (Spanish casserole), aloo gobi (Indian potatoes), Thai Satay and New Zealand lamb well enough to be almost boring.

Beef is not always beef but my general rule of thumb when I leave the country is quite simple – if the only thing different about it is the sauce over the top, I’ll try it. Upset stomach or Montezuma's? At least I'll have a great story for parties!

Gotta go!

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Facebook and Old Friends

“If I didn’t like yo’ a** in the 10th grade then what makes you think I want to be your friend now?”

Wanda Sykes had the crowd in stitches this past July evening I went to see her in Dallas as a birthday present to myself. In talking about social networking sites her general theme was they were essentially a huge consumption if not total waste of time. I couldn’t have agreed more, until I found Andy.

The two of us plus Kenny and Todd were Junior High friends in the late 70s growing up in what was then West Germany. As happens in the military when the active duty parent is called to another assignment the entire family packs up life and luggage to the next station on a tour of the world. I learned to develop fast friendships along the way as well as coping skills for their inevitable end. A lifetime of farewells later the memories linger with the standard questions: where are they, what are they doing now, are they well or even alive?

Fast forward to 2009 and I harbored no real interest in Facebook beyond the possibilities it offered in helping to get the word out about this website. I start with the usual searches, co-workers, ex-co-workers, family and friends from high school and college, in short, the current home address book. The farther back in my life that I went I began to wonder about friends from my youth, buddies I haven’t seen in over 30 years. I wondered about Andy.

Bingo! Found him on the first try and, in that other most wrenching twist of fate, living maybe 50 miles from where I had just moved away from. But it is a different day technology-wise. Thanks to Facebook in less than two weeks the Fantastic Four were back in mutual contact, not quite but almost together again for the first time since 1978 and all alive and well. I’ve been laughing and crying ever since.

“When were you ever a crossing guard?” my mother asked when she saw the picture that I, myself had not seen since the year it was taken. I was quite proud of that brown satin shirt with gold, blue and red striping across the chest, having saved it especially for the occasion. Hey, this was the 70s!

The party that summer celebrated the end of the school year and the last hurrah for all of us. Each of us moved with our families, fanning out across the four corners of the country by the end of that year. We would likely never be in the same room at the same time again but, armed with our faith in the future and each other, we believed it wouldn’t matter. Today, three decades later, we begin again, tempered somewhat by age maybe but as excited about the improbability of it all as the day we celebrated a future that until now we have been unable to share. I’ve already started planning the reunion!

Gotta go!