Monday, January 31, 2011

The Lost and Winding Road

Mine was one of the last high school graduating classes in the State of Maryland to take Driver’s Education in the school system. I cringe at the memory of actually liking the Chrysler LeBaron we used for class and wanting to actually own one but that’s another story. I took my driving test in my Dad’s El Dorado which barely fit in the parallel parking slot used for the test but I did pass the first go round and proceeded to dream of wandering roads and other long journeys into the horizon with my newfound freedom. Maryland at the time was blessed with its share of highways and major boulevards but also had a fair measure of winding two-lane country roads. Those were the ones I loved the most!

I felt that I literally and figuratively got up to speed in terms of getting to know the handling characteristics of the family car but also the driving patterns and habits of other drivers around me. What I chose as my personal training platform were the kinds of country roads that most other people avoid even in good weather. What better way to really get to know how a car handles and how I respond to the existing conditions than on roads that twist, wind and cut back with frequent, sudden and unexpected regularity. Call it a very suburban version of running the Grand Prix if you will but I found experiences like that to be educational as well as exciting.

One of my favorites was Maryland #450 leading in to the state capitol of Annapolis. Parts of it traveled along a small river but the more challenging stretches ran up hill and down dale through woods and past colonial farm houses and churches right at the edge of the asphalt. Another was Maryland #32 that my mother expressly forbade me to drive on by myself until she felt I had gained more experience. Trees that probably witnessed the march of Washington grew tall and thick just inches past the yellow safety line. Car killers these trees were and surely each one had stories to tell. Like any headstrong teenager with keys to the car I drove it anyway and, thankfully, never had to explain any damage to me or the car for being over there.

Both of these roads have been significantly “straightened” now thanks to urban development and possibly one too many needless accidents. The new #32 is now a four-lane divided highway powering through Howard and Anne Arundel Counties, carrying commuters back and forth between Columbia, Ft. Meade and Annapolis but the old one still runs right beside it, an old favorite for some locals and traffic relief when the new highway gets locked up with rush hour commuters.

I still look for roads like this every now and then to “keep my skills fresh” but feel they are all ultimately going the way of the dinosaur. In a way this is a good thing as tragedies on roads like these are most often of the avoidable kind. My graduating class lost 8 classmates in one night on a local country road near Odenton, Maryland. The driver of their pick-up was drunk, he allegedly swerved to miss an oncoming car and slammed straight in to a car killer, ejecting many of the kids riding in back on to the road and into the branches, impaling one and embedding the watch of another into the tree trunk.

That was over 30 years ago. I think of that group of kids every time I return to the area. The back roads I used to love are slowly being straightened and they take too much time to remember, find and drive during brief visits with the family. Still, there is one left that works for my family and I. It’s not so bad but time is not on its side for much longer. The McMansions carving up the horse country beside it are seeing to that.

Gotta go.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Made It To Maine

I have had many conversations with fellow Americans who feel quite strongly that they want to visit all 50 states before venturing to foreign shores. My family was first stationed in Germany when I was only 18 months old so that pretty much nipped any such plans for me right out of the gate. In the time since I’ve been blessed to visit over 30 foreign countries and 42 states leading up to Thanksgiving of last year. It was over that holiday period that I upped that number to 43 – I finally made it to Maine.

My hosts live in New Hampshire, another state I had not previously visited and taking the count up to 44 of the 50 states but that is another story. After Turkey Day they decided I should explore the small but picturesque coastline of their state and also include time in the great state of Maine. Like I was going to say no? Off down Highway #4 from the Concord area we went towards Portsmouth for brunch and then across the Piscataqua River estuary in to Maine. The feeling is not like a huge monkey off the back necessarily but there was a joyous sigh heaving from my chest and heart at finally making it to this fabled corner of the country.

We were still several hours from Canada being only at the southernmost tip of the state but I still felt a sense of being in a whole other world when we crossed over. It was only a day-trip across the border so I don’t begin to pretend to a comprehensive understanding or wealth of knowledge about the state in general. We toured the small town of York, first founded in 1624 but even here were not particularly targeting the local history so much as the sea-side summer resort area around Cape Neddick. Of the three things Maine is possibly most famous for, lobster, impossibly complex place names and lighthouses our target was the lighthouse at the cape guarding the entrance to York River and harbor.

Known as the “Nubble” Light, the Cape Neddick lighthouse is a classic lighthouse for this part of the country. It sits on an island that is not open for public access but is nonetheless one of the most popular coastal attractions in the state. The first version was lit on this rocky island in 1879 and was the scene of a U-Boat sinking in 1943. The “Summer People” that flock to the area each season bring the bulk of the traffic to visit this state landmark.

Consider that Boston is less than two hours south on Interstate 95. All along Long Beach Boulevard are cottage inns, bed and breakfasts, condos, homes and time shares catering to the tourists only slightly less well-heeled than the Kennebunkport crowd maybe an hour up the coast. I couldn’t help imagining the scene from “Jaws” with the car ferries disgorging the sun seekers on the shores of Amity for their summer holidays. I learned, though, that the caretaker’s home on the island has not been inhabited in quite some time despite much interest due to plumbing issues.

The lighthouse is beautiful. As a gateway to the rest of the state it serves not only to protect the surrounding waters but also to welcome one and all to the wonders of Maine. It only causes me to wonder what lies deeper in to the unexplored wilds of this historic state and to look forward to returning soon.

Gotta go!

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Agent and the Airline

Probably the oldest fight in the travel industry is the love/hate relationship between vendor and supplier, or the airlines and the travel agencies in particular. How much commission is the service of a travel agent worth is at the core of one of the longest running disputes in business. It has flared up again in a big way between American Airlines and three travel management companies, Orbitz, Expedia and Sabre. Why?

I honestly don't care about the reasons or particulars. The gist is whether or not American is trying to either save money or create an unfair advantage through its Direct Connect reservations link which cuts out the online agencies and therefore cuts them out of their commissions. Well, here's my dirty little secret:


The agencies deserve compensation for their services this is true but guess what? If the fare is the same on the airline's website as it is on the agency website, I'll buy it directly from the airline. This double take is exactly what is also at the core of the argument. The agencies state this extra step of going directly to the airline website is laborious and not inclusive of the fares offered on the other airlines. Both arguments are true again: it is an extra step and no domestic airline is going to display a competitor's products and prices. Hidden behind this, however, is also the fact that going directly to the airline skips or "by-passes" the agencies who therefore do not collect commissions on tickets booked directly with the carrier.

None of these arguments are the reason I go directly to the airlines. Let's say I'm shopping for fares between home in Dallas and friends in Chicago, a route American serves like no other. I'll take a look at one of the online agencies to see the spread of air fares across all carriers between the two cities. United and American are the only nonstops but Delta and Air Tran might offer a better price if I fly through Atlanta or Memphis. I live near DFW and my friends are near O'Hare so that cuts Southwest out right from the start - they don't serve either airport. Whichever airline offers the best deal after factoring in schedule, convenience and price, I'll go directly to their website and see if the same fare is available directly with them.

The agencies don't want this extra step which takes me all of a few extra minutes to perform. Commissions or no, what it is more important to me is the service level I will get at the airport, plain and simple. Again, why? If the airline is paid directly and then there is an unforeseen travel disruption that changes my itinerary I will receive immediate service from the airline. Too often I have seen instances of travelers with tickets in hand being refused service by the carriers after a disruption of some kind because they didn't write the ticket therefore they don't have the money so they don't have to serve you.

Imagine standing at the airport, boarding pass in hand and being told there is no seat and nothing they can do! The customer is forced to contact their travel agent for alternate arrangements sometimes during the worst of circumstances - the very day of travel! God help you if your travel agent is closed. Even better, try standing in line at Customer Service only to be told to contact your travel agency. Most have hotlines and most are open 24/7 but still.... THEY don't want you to book direct but YOU shouldn't have to go back to them to solve a problem when you're already at the airport face to face with the airline!

Airlines will say this does not happen often and this is true, it does not. The vast majority of agency issued tickets go through with no problems at all even if problems arise in the middle of travel. It DOES happen, however, and typically after there has been a schedule change that forces a rebooking or some other operational change that is "unfortunate or unavoidable" but still leaves the ticket holder high and dry, sometimes far away from home. Since the airline has not receive payment from the agency they are not obligated to provide alternatives. The snottier of the airport staff are quick to point this out as well, saying something like "if you had bought directly with us we'd be able to help you."

Lesson learned and point taken. It's never happened to me and I've always bought directly from the airlines for exactly that reason. They DO have my money and they'd BETTER take care of me.

Gotta go.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Making Soft Water

My very first digital camera is a Canon product in what they call the "hybrid" range, meaning it is essentially a point-and-shoot but comes with many of the adjustable functions of a standard SLR. I felt it was a good compromise from the film-based camera I decided it was time to replace. It was certainly easier on the wallet than the rig I really wanted which would have set me back better than $1400 or more. I no longer work in the travel industry and therefore could not justify that expense when weekend getaways to the ends of the earth had ended some time ago. A casual, every now and then digital camera to at least get started with seemed the ticket.

Heck, the thing came with a manual large enough to convince me that it was just as flexible as my old camera, it simply had the one built-in lens. And that owner's manual prompted me to not only get accustomed to the basics of taking a decent picture but to really discover what the camera was capable of and moreover what I had been missing out on all this time. One of the biggest goals I set was to learn how to take "soft water" pictures.

The obvious thing about the technique is an extended exposure time and either a very steady hand which I do not have or a tripod and stable platform somewhere near the subject. The trick is not to over-expose the shot and wash everything out. The goal, however, is worth the effort in trying to recreate the kind of pictures seen here that also grace the glossiest travel magazines and vacation brochures.

Where most visitors thing largely of Split or Dubrovnik, The Plitvice Lakes of central Croatia are comparatively overlooked yet among the most beautiful in the world. They are a series of 16 lakes connected by hundreds of waterfalls as shown here, a few hours drive south of the capital of Zagreb. Not only do I want to go there one day but I'd love to take some captivating pictures of the lakes and using the "soft water" technique for the falls but only after much, much practice. It would help as well if I had a helicopter fee in the budget to get this same angle but that's another worry for another day. Until then this second shot is within my reach after some good practice.

Living in North Central Texas there are not the kinds of waterfalls that can compare with those in Plitvice much less Niagara Falls or the Iguacu Falls in Brazil. I did have one option, the Fort Worth Water Gardens. Made famous as the setting for the finale of the 1976 film "Logan's Run" I knew the location well and knew it to be dramatic enough in its own manmade way. I live in the area, access to the park is free and I had all day long on a Saturday to try and get it right.

This is the best I was able to come up with on the first try. It shows some promise but clearly a long way to go from the example above mine! I didn't have a tripod but didn't need one given the several concrete risers all around the park. I have a tripod now and as soon as the spring flowers make their appearance I'll be back to give it another try!

Gotta go!

Friday, January 21, 2011

The New Southeast

It was time to go and visit the family again in the Washington/Baltimore part of the country. I had pledged that I would try and return home more frequently outside of the Christmas holidays as my niece and nephews were growing rapidly. Being from a large family there is rarely time to visit everyone I'd like while in the area but there is also the desire to be a simple tourist while in the nation's capital as well. Even for those who have lived in the area and moved away such as myself it is always good to stroll along the Mall or find some new part of town to discover, particularly if recent redevelopment has altered the area from what it once was.

Southeast DC is synonymous with the most dangerous quadrant of the city and a well earned reputation it was until now. Long associated with such no-go areas as Anacostia and Minnesota Avenue, everyone in Washington will tell you that the south end of the Green Line is for locals only. At the same time, The Southeast was infamous for having some of the best warehouse dance clubs in town including such venues as Nation and Tracks where it was all about the party and not always so much about the gender! The yuppies looking for a thrill, the gay underground and the urban all came together at one of these two haunts and usually one and all came away alive and in one piece.

All of that is gone now in the area along South Capitol Street. Though Anacostia is still just across the river along with the five other stations at the end of the Green Line the gentrification of Southeast DC has definitely begun. Washingtonians are quite accustomed to taking the Metro to the stadium to root for their favorite team only now instead of the Redskins at RFK it is the Nationals baseball team at Nationals Park, served by the Navy Yard Metro Station. Where once there were clubs even lower on the scale than Nation and Tracks there is a shining temple to America's favorite pastime. Where there were decaying factories, slums, taxi garages and rib shacks there are gleaming condominium towers and new shops along M Street SE and even a Five Guys outlet hardly a block from the new Department of Transportation facility.

The ballpark is not quite on the water in similar fashion to AT&T Park in San Francisco but there is a marina not too far away for those so inclined. With professional employers like the DOT in the area the Southeast is certainly being provided with every opportunity to improve beyond the facelift of a sports stadium and a few overpriced condos. It has every chance of coming, finally, in to its own if not necessarily rivaling Georgetown for cache and appeal. I truly enjoyed my couple of hours in the area.

Yes, only a couple of hours. There was a game on that afternoon but I didn't have tickets and I needed to get back north to my family in the Maryland suburbs. Plus, the Southeast is still a work in progress; like any other inner urban area there remain pockets where the lost are not often found again. The city is off to a good start but where the area once was no-go unless you're brave it has at least transformed in to an area where you and your family can travel safely but go with a purpose and leave with the rest of the crowd.

Gotta go.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Drive Thru The Desert

So there I was in California on business for the last time in 2010 that also included a weeklong visit to Phoenix, Arizona. This after having already been on the golden coast for a week and all within days of the Christmas holidays. I prayed to every god known to man that this trip would end quickly because I was due on the East Coast for the family festivities!

The issue with this trip was how to get between our offices in Los Angeles and the ones in Phoenix. Where most of you are automatically saying "fly, silly!" I chose to drive the 400 miles instead. My rationale seemed fairly straightforward at the time, starting with the rental car. I typically use Hertz and saw that the one-way rental between my pick-up in California and the drop-off in Arizona was not that much more than renting a car for a week at each location. The other consideration was in saving the airfare for myself and the co-worker I was traveling with even after filling the topping off the tank before leaving and filling it once again after we'd arrived.

Further, having previously written about the backwardness of checking in two hours ahead of a one hour flight I figured I'd be at the outskirts of Phoenix at roughly the same time any scheduled flight would have arrived from Los Angeles. Here's how I saw the flying option playing out:

a. Leave for the airport at 12 Noon for a 3PM flight out of either LAX or Burbank to Phoenix from our offices in the Valley. ALWAYS plan an hour to get to LAX from anywhere in LA, minimum.

We left the offices at exactly 12 Noon to begin our drive down The 215 towards Pasadena.

b. Arrive at the car rental agency at 1PM, turn in the car and take the shuttle to the terminal.

c. Arrive at the check-in counter at 1:30PM and check-in, including one large suitcase for two weeks worth of clothing. My computer case and camera bag are my two carry-ons.

We'd driven 80 miles to merge with The 10 for the haul through the desert to Phoenix.

d. After making it through security there is roughly an hour before the flight with boarding to begin 30 minutes prior to departure. In this day and age of carry-on space, there is a reason to be there as early as possible. Oh, and though I'm a premium customer on American, they don't fly the route. It would have been either Southwest or USAirways, neither of whom hardly know I exist.

e. IF the departure is on time at 3PM, we arrive in Phoenix at about 5PM after the time change, maybe 5:15 after some generous schedule padding by the airlines.

Roaring down the road past Indio and Blythe we crossed in to Arizona along the lines of 6ish.

f. Collecting luggage again takes until at least 5:30 or 5:45 after the flight has landed followed by the shuttle bus to the car rental counter just outside the west end of the runways.

g. The car is picked up and the hotel maybe 20 minutes away in Tempe, even in the thick of Phoenix afternoon rush hour. If we had flown we'd be checked in at the hotel by 6:30 at the latest.

As it happened we pulled in to the Arizona capital about an hour after that and went straight to dinner. Relaxed, comfortable from the smooth ride and the generous front seats of our Toyota Camry as compared to the convenience of an hour and fifteen minutes in coach.

No bags to check and possibly lose, no long lines at security to deal with and possibly be strip-searched in to the bargain, no cramped seats, lack of carry-on space, delayed flights or overworked and possibly surly crews. We got there when we got there with all of our stuff in the trunk where we put it.

I'd do it again in a minute, even to Tucson!

Gotta go.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Bad Old Memories

The six years immediately following September 11, 2001 were not exactly the happiest time of my life. Like so many of us around the country I was taking stock of the blessings I had left after that singularly tragic day. I was alive, I had my health and a rented apartment I could get out of very quickly as I pushed "Reset" to start my life over again.

Like so many of us I looked for and took what work there was to be had, going deep in to survival mode and eschewing all previous "necessities" for the mere sake of food and shelter. I moved halfway across the country back to where family was at for moral support and rented an apartment in Central Baltimore where I would begin again making $9/hour on the graveyard shift and be happy to have that much. Cable television and Starbucks nothing; this exercise would test the definition of an "austerity program" as I learned to survive the winter largely without heat or air conditioning except on the most extreme days.

Three years after the last day I left town I'm thankfully loving life again in Texas and solidly on the road to economic and personal recovery. Yet what I find interesting is the desire to revisit some of the old places where times weren't so good, money wasn't what it could or should have been and the emotions were thin to the point of breaking. When I lived in California most of the time there was among the toughest I'd ever had to endure. A gracious landlord and cooperative creditors kept me afloat while phone calls from home and a particularly timely visit from family kept me going.

Still, many were the times standing in line at the discount grocer trying to make five dollars pay for dinner and maybe a small treat that I would see families ahead of me in line paying for their essentials with food stamps. I wondered to myself what I would do if they unknowingly dropped some of that government aid on the floor. It took some years for me to return to the Bay Area and not shudder at the thought of being there or cringe from the old feelings at seeing my former home.

Few have the opportunity to live in several different parts of the country; most tend to stay within 100 miles of where they were born and raised I would imagine. For them going to visit the old stomping grounds might be little more than going from the front to the back yard or down the street to the kid's playground. Certainly for those less fortunate it can seem that moving away from bad times and vibes is like riding the tail of a comet, fleeting and unlikely to ever happen.

I'm no psychologist yet I wonder if there is something in everyone that compels us to take stock of our lives against the places we have lived. Certainly it is quite understandable to go back to where good memories are overflowing and pouring through the floorboards but what is the macabre urge to go back and see where sadness reigned supreme?

It is perhaps not as easy as it sounds but I can say at least that for better or worse I've survived. I'm not in that place anymore.

Gotta go.

Friday, January 14, 2011

What Did He Say?

I'm old enough to remember when the Godzilla movies were first run in the theaters. Not the first one, mind you, but the later versions that got gleefully campier with each new edition to the franchise. The special effects even then were cheesy beyond reason but at the ripe old age of eight it was all great fun. I may have mentioned previously that I never could figure out how they managed to rebuild Tokyo so quickly after one of the big guy's walks through the center of town.

What made it more palatable to my young ears and certainly to larger audiences of the time was the fact that all of the dialogue was dubbed in English. At the time we kids were too young to care that the words didn't match the movement of the mouth supposedly uttering the dialogue. Nor did we concern ourselves too much with the fact that the American accents were no match for how the language WOULD sound if the Japanese actors had in fact been speaking English in the first place. None of that was the point. Godzilla was the point! Or whatever other foreign film, French, German, Italian, Brazilian, whatever was being watched by whoever was watching it.

I'm older now. And I've traveled a bit. Few things delight me so much as the sound of a language complete different from my own. It matters not that I understand precious little if any of the sounds I am hearing, I simply enjoy the rhythm and cadence of the language in its natural form. The rapid fire, almost hurried staccato delivery of Japanese or the smooth as silk but equally fast sound of French in full voice is part of the fun of being overseas. Why shouldn't it be THE only soundtrack available in a foreign film?

On business recently in Los Angeles I flipped through the channels until I found the NHK Network, the Japanese channel that broadcasts much of its programming in that language. Couldn't understand a word of it but I used to also travel to Japan for business and, now that I live in Texas, rarely if ever hear the language in these here parts! I didn't need or want sub-titles, I just wanted to hear the language. In a foreign film I get distracted if I hear some disconnected language and accent that has nothing to do with the setting of the story. I prefer subtitles!

Don't get me wrong...I enjoy foreign films quite a lot but admit that I need to be in the mood to devote up to two hours in the dark to reading while rapidly shifting my eyes to the action on the screen so I can put the two together. I felt, however, that the experience was richer to watch "Y Tu Mama Tambien" in the original Spanish or "Central Station" in Brazilian Portuguese than waste time wondering if the voice-over talent hailed from the accent neutral environs of Nebraska! Hearing the language simply makes me want to know more about the language, the culture and the country, to go there one day if I haven't already gone and long to go back.

"Das Boot" in German? It flat out would not have had the same impact in its initial release if the U-Boat crews were speaking the Queen's English, I'm sorry.

So, having seen films in Japanese, Mandarin, German, Xhosa, Portuguese and Spanish, are there any good films in Russian or Arabic out there that I should know about?

Gotta go.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Not-So-Much Savings

We were trying to save money for the upcoming trip back to the Washington DC area for Christmas. American was asking some ridiculous price, again, for nonstop service – can you tell I’m starting to get just slightly annoyed at their pricing approach to the service advantage they have out of DFW? – and wound up buying tickets on AirTran. AirTran used to have nonstop service to Baltimore but pulled out of that market and now ship just about everything through Atlanta just like Delta. Oh well. The savings was worth it was the mindset at the beginning of our journey.

I rarely fly AirTran. The last time was a one-way pick-up flight between Rochester, New York and Tampa, Florida on a direct service that stopped in Baltimore. I wasn’t impressed with the $69 upgrade to “Business Class” since it did not include anything in the way of a full meal, just a wider seat, upgraded soft drinks and free booze but not much else. Between Christmas Eve and New Year's, however, Air Tran would see my bountiful backside on no less than six flights between Texas, Maryland and Massachusetts and back. For the first journey our flights were scheduled to leave Dallas at 1:15PM and arrive in Baltimore after the change in Atlanta at about 6:45 in the evening, about a 4.5 hour journey compared to three hours nonstop on American. Again, we felt the savings would be worth it.

After parking remote and taking the shuttle to the terminal at DFW we checked in for AirTran’s first flight nearly an hour before departure. At the gate we were informed the flight would be about 25 minutes late this Christmas Eve afternoon. Not unusual for one of the busiest travel days of the year but we only had about 45 minutes in Atlanta to make our connecting flight so already the journey of nerves was well underway. Would we make the flight? Would we have to overnight in Atlanta? Who would pay for it? Not the airline, that’s for sure, if the delay was in any way weather related. At least our flights were scheduled to operate from the same terminal for we both knew that if this had been Delta we might have had to transit any one of five different terminals to get to our flight.

We land and park smoothly enough but with only about 25 minutes to catch our flight which, sure enough, had been changed to Terminal C instead of Terminal D where we had arrived. They made an announcement on board our flight as the door was first opened that any passengers going to Baltimore had about 10 minutes to get to the gate as they were holding the flight for us. By “holding” that meant we were in danger of being left behind for the sake of an on time departure to BWI and we’d be stuck out of luck. Not without a fight on Christmas Eve, of course, but stuck just the same.

We made it and the flight pushed out on time only to make it to the runway before the pilot discovered and subsequently shared with us the fact that he could not get the #2 engine started! Back to the gate we go, off the plane to cool our heels for about an hour while maintenance worked to fix the problem or find another airplane. They fixed ours and off we went to Baltimore, landing nearly three hours late at about 9:30PM.

Mom was there to meet us and the hotel still had our room waiting so we hadn’t missed Christmas. The flights back ran exactly according to schedule and this time the upgrade to Business Class was certainly worth the add-on fee. We checked bags of clothes for free so we could carry on the Christmas presents, the extra room was worth it and being served whole cans of soda and bottles of water as opposed to service by the glass in coach was very much appreciated. All for the sake of the savings.

Not too sure I’d do it again, though.

Gotta go.

Monday, January 10, 2011

The Concord Coach

What fool invented early morning flights and for what reason other than torture, eh? This from a man who spent over 20 years working in the airline industry and knowing full well the value of oh-dark-hundred departures for the sake of early arrivals down line; the better to have the rest of the day ahead of you, right? But OMG, I mean, getting up at least three hours before the flight to be at the airport two hours before the flight to then endure the flight itself just to get to the destination?

Planes, trains and automobiles completely describes the scenario I was faced with the Sunday after Christmas with the substitution being a bus for the train. On this occasion I was traveling to New Hampshire to meet the newest nephew in the family who had arrived barely a month ago just after Thanksgiving. Southwest Airlines flies nonstop between Baltimore and Manchester, New Hampshire but were asking an insane price for the privilege so Boston got the business for $100 less on the airfare. What I didn’t factor in other than the total transit time was the $40 roundtrip that would be required for the bus service between Boston’s Logan International Airport and my final destination of Concord, the state capitol. In hindsight convenient little Manchester might start to see a lot of me but that is for another story.

Boston is a massive transportation center for all of New England, featuring commuter airline service throughout the region, a large network of trains and buses to just about every point with a zip code through Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Maine. The popular sit-com “Wings” featured the antics of a Cape Cod airline flying to Boston and back, validated today by departure boards featuring Cape Air services to Nantucket, Martha’s Vineyard and Provincetown alongside flights on the big boys to Hong Kong, Chicago, Dallas, London and Puerto Rico.

Manchester is THE airport for New Hampshire, to include the capitol region around Concord maybe 25 miles to the north. Concord is one of those state capitols that has no commercial air service at all, like Carson City, Nevada or Salem, Oregon. Other cities in New Hampshire have service but Concord is connected by Manchester’s airport or bus service from the city or nearby Londonderry. As for me, I wasn’t quite sure how the bus would make it from Boston to Concord in just over an hour and a half but it turned out to be nonstop from South Station direct to the bus terminal a few blocks from the state capitol.

Concord Coach was my chariot after hopping up to Boston from Baltimore on AirTran. There was a 9:25AM service direct to the New Hampshire capitol for only $20 after a stop at Boston’s South Station, the major bus depot just above the rail station serving the city. My flight had landed at 7:30AM so I had two bleary-eyed hours to kill until the bus left, by which time I would have been up and at ‘em since 4:30 in the bleedin’ morning!

The bus was clean and comfortable and there was minimal traffic on the roads going north the day after Christmas although Logan was running flat out trying to get those who had to work the next day back home on time. Few people actually head north on purpose in to the teeth of a pending Nor’Easter that would later play havoc with travel all across the Northeastern part of the United States but Concord Coach was unperturbed and did much to help me realize my holiday plans coming and going.

For someone who hasn’t taken a scheduled bus in I can’t remember when, I was perfectly fine with Concord Coach. They’re a highly professional service providing a much needed and appreciated lifeline to points north in New Hampshire. Especially given traffic in and out of Boston, I’ll be using them again.

Gotta go.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Touring the Taj Mahal

India is 12 time zones ahead of the United States at a minimum. That guarantees at least 16 hours of travel either on one of the handful of nonstops from the New York and Chicago or using a tried and true connection through Europe, most typically London. In my case it was an add-on following a stop in Hong Kong as part of a business trip to Asia. I knew this would most likely be my one and only time ever to go to India whether on mine or the company's dime so I was surely not about to waste the opportunity. This trip, once my business was taken care of, was all about the Taj Mahal, two hours by train south of Delhi along the river near the city of Agra.

After dealing with the train and working past the abject poverty of the surrounding streets a shockingly reasonable admission ticket provided access to the walled grounds of "the Taj." At the far end of the compound which allows for slack-jawed admirers of all ages and through the ages to stand and gawk at the pearl white features of the main building and the four minarets guarding each corner. Hyperboles have tried and failed to describe the stunning beauty of the creamy structure bathed in blue skies and surrounded by the greens and reds of the land and ground around it. I had the immediate feeling that to take the eye away from one view in favor of another was still to shortchange the whole as literally any vantage point and viewing angle was just as good as the next.

Amateur and professional photographers jockeyed for position to capture that full-front, high gloss National Geographic cover image or to find some rarely shown angle on a nearly 400 year old building. Others on a day tour like me walked lazily around or charged full tilt through the place trying to grab as much of the experience as possible before being called back to the organized tour bus. Being a day tripper on my own my driver-guide gave me as much time as I wanted to explore, find my own angles, use some of his suggestions and explore the more delicate features of the main building.

It's a mausoleum. A graveyard for initially only one person and a personal tribute to one of the greatest love stories of all time. Emperor Shah Jahan commissioned the entire complex in 1632 as a burial site for his third wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died giving birth to a daughter, the 14th and last child of the Shah. He was later buried there himself, throwing off the symmetry he fought so hard to maintain but since their crypt is in the basement of the main building, that nitpicky little detail isn't noticed above ground and outdoors. Theirs was the love that sustained an empire; the Taj Mahal is said to be second in beauty only to hers.

Balance was the key. Of the two facing mosques only one has a completed interior and serves as a house of worship. The second was built literally and simply to balance the first. It has no other purpose. The reflecting pool allows a mirror image of the whole from the main garden. Inlaid semi-precious stonework and carved reliefs cover much of the exterior surfaces along with a few disturbingly large beehives. While Muslim tradition forbids elaborate decoration of graves it apparently says little about how grand the building above the grave can be.

For a trip to the Taj Mahal, the insurmountable distance, the high heat, sweltering humidity and shocking poverty are worth enduring for the building itself, thankfully, has endured. Security is tight and environmental controls around the complex limit its exposure to pollution which had begun to turn the pure white marble a dull yellow. I was only there for a day trip but would have enjoyed one of the night viewings offered during and around the full moon of every month. Now that would have surely made the cover of National Geographic?!

If you want a better idea of how something this wonderful is possible, view this treat on YouTube and experience "Deliverance," written and performed by Yanni across the Yamuna River with the Taj Mahal in the background in tribute to India's 50th anniversary of independence. It is a personal favorite piece of music while the magnificent setting speaks for itself.

Gotta go.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Birthdays Abroad

Today is a member of the family's 45th birthday. Nothing unusual there, true, but it reminds me, as it should, of the place in time where the blessed event occurred, Stuttgart, Germany. For Americans born overseas most are usually like mine in being part of the United States Armed Forces. Otherwise unassuming and ordinary citizens like my family member always get a double-take when the starter topic of where one was born comes up. Unexpected answers like Korea, Turkey, England and Germany come up followed by the innocent question of "What was it like?" right behind it.

Of course the person being born has zero collection of the event or the conditions of time and place but a small sample of things at the time would include a divided Germany only just recently rebuilt from the Second World War, an escalating Cold War between the NATO powers and the Soviet-backed Warsaw Pact and a Black-American family stationed in a foreign country at the height of the Civil Rights Movement back home in a branch of the service that was integrated only 12 years before.

At one extreme one might say ours was just one family not welcome at home in America, grudgingly tolerated by the service, targeted for elimination by the Soviet opposition and bitterly resented by the citizens of occupied West Germany. It wasn't that bad in truth though the Soviet threat was as real as the confusion back home across the Atlantic. Though it took some time, once the order was given the service, to its credit, followed the orders of integration to the letter and beyond. Civil unrest in the United States military was not tolerated as all families got along well enough to understand we were the only support each other had while overseas, regardless of whatever was going on back home.

The Germans were supportive and friendly as well, appreciating the civilian jobs that came with keeping a multi-national foreign defense force running smoothly and taking every opportunity to share language and cultural exchanges. Getting on and off the military bases around the country generally required a military ID or escort but those checks were very perfunctory, nothing close to the car and body searches required post-9/11. It was generally understood that, welcome or not, military bases, especially American ones, were off-limits as far as demonstrations or terrorist activities.

So now, 45 years later, we are left with the memories of the birth of my family member and certainly do wish them all the best and many happy returns. What we are unable to do these days is actually visit the location where the blessed event occurred. Not only is it in the heart of Southern Germany and a long distance away but the actual facility is no longer a part of the US Military system of hospitals. Access to the housing area we used to live in is also behind high walls with barbed wire and restricted access only.

Sometimes it is exactly the same here in the United States. I was born on a military base here which is now also restricted access only. I've never seen it with my own eyes but from the pictures my parents saved of that place oh so long ago it has most definitely changed from the dusty backwater it once was.

Maybe one day but for now, Happy Birthday, and many happy returns!

Gotta go.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Banned Reading and Wandering

Reading and traveling go hand in hand back to the days of horse-drawn carriages and beyond. What better way to while away the hours than with stimulating light reading, thought provoking prose or some scandal sheet rattling off juicy tidbits no more grounded in truth than water running uphill? For those less traveled it is more often than not the written word along with a few choice photographs that carry us back in time, to distant shores or both.

How sad it is to continue to see such things as lists of banned literature. Age appropriate guidelines I can live with but to have books out and out banned from public consumption, particularly in the school systems is to me the height of the very oppression so many of these concerned and learned factions claim to abhor. Am I more enlightened than any other living soul? Hardly, yet I am certainly no less sensitive to insensitive thought, conjecture or statement. How, then, have I been able to read some of these banned titles where children today are not permitted the same level of diverse reading?

In high school in the late 70s and early 80s I was required to read “The Scarlet Letter,” “To Kill A Mockingbird,” “As I Lay Dying,” “Animal Farm” and “Madame Bovary” among some 50 titles banned in certain parts of the United States . Other titles from that list which I later read of my own volition include “Gone With the Wind,” “Jaws,” “Catch-22” and “Of Mice and Men.” I’m re-reading the “Harry Potter” series from start to finish, all of which are also on the list.

I found “The Scarlet Letter” to be boring and much ado about nothing and I couldn’t understand why pigs were chosen as the overlords of society in “Animal Farm” as opposed to bulls, roosters or any other strutting and preening animal in the barnyard. I enjoyed Bovary’s tale of illicit love while I will always remember my mother and I agreeing to each read 50 pages a piece to each other so we could get through the difficult narrative of “Mockingbird.” Much of the story and symbolism from all of these are long gone and forgotten, honestly, so either they had no impact upon my impressionable mind at the time or they hold no sway over my view of the world today despite any subliminal messages from the writing that might have taken hold.

Then there is “Huckleberry Finn.” Saw the movie, read the book and simply accepted at a young age that such language was part of life at the time it was written. The satire caught with me but the dialogue itself has no bearing on my relationships with others today. Most importantly, at a very young age I saw through all of that to the beauty of the friendship between two fish out of water looking for nothing so complicated as love and acceptance.

I wondered what river boating would be like just as vividly as I raced through the streets of Paris trying to imagine the ultimate fulfillment of unrequited longing or the bittersweet taste of justice served after a needless crime was committed. Then I wonder, like so many others around the world, why in seven installments there was never one mention of an American, Asian or African school of witchcraft and wizardry!

As if there was never that kind of voodoo anywhere outside of Europe ?!

Gotta go.