Travel Thursday Encore: Chilly Spain, Part 3

The Patio de los Leones–Patio of the Lions–is the most photographed place in the palace, therefore the first likely to pop up on a Google search. If you haven’t seen it, describing it is kinda hard: an arcade of horseshoe arches and white marble columns along the borders, while at the middle is a fountain supported by twelve marble lions tinkles. The fountain leads off in thin canals, and because the arches take the place of real walls, there’s no real inside.
I almost wasn’t in the mood to appreciate it, because like the previous patio the entrance was weirdly angled and I almost broke my nose again. One book said the architects wanted to woo the visitor with lush and mysterious effects, but I stopped being wooed a long time ago.
Taking a deep breath–the loud “whoosh!” immediately afterward a dead giveaway–I opened my eyes to take in the vista with a new perspective. . . mental perspective, that is, not with the camera, at least not yet. It didn’t take a genius to see why this place was named after lions, though the dozen statues supporting the fountain barely looked like cats. They appeared to be kinda snarling as they spit out the water, but I think the sculptor had only heard of this animal, never seen one, and even then it was just a rough description based on the tiny pet version.
Straddling one of the small channels that flowed symbolically to the four corners of the earth, and more literally to the surrounding apartments, feeding the small fountains inside–if you could call it an inside–I felt like something was missing, though I couldn’t tell what it was. Since I’d be here for three weeks, I figured it would come to me on its own, but it never did.

Nina Murdoch (“puritanical Australian”)

Sure sounds puritanical, doesn’t she? And according to history, this patio usta be a garden, which probably complimented the architecture better than what it looks like now. With flowers, trees, and plants, I can imagine it looking crowded, but right now, with pebbles that make it look like a Japanese garden, it seemed eerily desolate, despite all the tourists. Did I say Japanese garden? How ‘bout a kitty-litter box? For these goofy lions.
Staying in that same part of the world, it occurred to me that these dozens of skinny columns and thin archways, with their honeycombed decorations, reminded me of Thailand, some multi-roof Nepali pagoda style of architecture that spread to East Asia. {I’ll spare you my research on the erotic art on the roof struts, especially since there weren’t any here.}
But then I finally stepped on the pebbles, and found myself looking down in surprise: the softness, the way the pebbles allowed the weight of the body to sink in, was cushioning my feet, actually relaxing them. Energy flowed into my body, right through the material under the soles of my boots. New-agey awesome.
I went inside, so to speak, and when I turned around to gaze at the patio and the fountain of lions, it finally looked awesome. The columns brought shadows in, making it seem like a forest as I stood next to the small fountain inside. With the sun toward me and hitting me in the face, it was very difficult to see the fountain, let alone photograph it, as it was in full shadow. The smaller fountain next to me was fed by a channel that came from the lion waterway, so I followed it with my eyes and finally made out the big fountain in the strong shade.

Here’s a quote I really liked:
They missed the chessboard on the floor, but I forgave them.


Travel Thursday: Confessions of a Picky Eater

From 2007: To everyone’s amazement, including my own, I wrote a blog about food to kick off my South America trip. Me, the anti-gourmet!

So I’m having dinner with a friend in a new place, going-away party type o’ thing, and I can’t find anything I like on the menu, so I skip straight to dessert, much to her chagrin. I tell her I would rather not eat than eat something I don’t like, which I would have done, had I not found the cinnamon orange stuff. At this point she can’t keep herself from saying, “I don’t see how you manage to travel and not starve! And don’t say McDonald’s!”
Okay, I won’t. Instead I’ll use two magic words: corn and potatoes.
There’s only been one place in the world I haven’t found corn and potatoes, and that was last year in the Western Chinese desert. In a couple of weeks I’ll be in Machu Picchu, where corn is a sacred crop, and by that time I figure I’ll be hungry enough to save some farmers’ jobs. Or keep them from turning to cocaine as a cash crop.

How much do I love corn? I keep rankings on where I’ve had the best. Here’s the top three:
3) Jimmy’s Diner in Berlin (although that might be because I hadn’t had any in so long at that point) {Update: place is no longer there. . .}
2) A corn festival in. . . I’m thinking Wisconsin, but not completely sure. Some place Midwest. And I can assure you the redhead selling the corn did not influence that ranking (side note: I tried counting all her freckles, but gave up on her lower back at around 1500. . . and she wouldn’t let me mark where I left off with a Sharpie!)
1) Rotorua, New Zealand–they cook it in a geyser!

Some people have gotten on me for a slightly different reason, claiming that part of the lure of traveling is experiencing different foods alongside different cultures. To which the easy answer is “Bullshit!” One does not spend thousands of dollars and travel those same number of miles just to sample the cuisine. Besides, in Los Angeles, where I live, there are restaurants from every country for you to try before heading off for said country; I ran across a Bulgarian place near Fairfax the other day, and there’s an Uzbek restaurant right on Sunset. {Update: not anymore.} C’mon, there are Chinese restaurants in Mississippi! And just because I don’t like eating chocolate covered ants in Mexico doesn’t mean I don’t indulge in the occasional Schnitzel and potato pancakes at the local beerhaus, even if I don’t drink the beer.
Mmmm, Schnitzel. The word alone is magical. . .
Then some true idiots will say–channeling everyone’s mom–how do you know you don’t like it until you try it? (Did you hear her voice? Ugh. . .) Do I look five years old? Why would you assume I haven’t tried it? Maybe I’m so ugly because of all the disgusted faces food has forced me to make in my life!
And what about markets? And I don’t mean the Sunday markets, like the one in Hollywood, where the local indigenous people sell trinkets. I mean places you can buy a packaged loaf of bread and some crackers, or even cans of corn. It’s amazing how people on vacation always have to go to restaurants, like it’s mandatory. Don’t believe the old saying, man can survive on bread and water. . . provided the water’s bottled.
So here’s a story to prove just how far I’ll go when it comes to not eating food I don’t like. Imagine me back in high school, looking unfortunately pretty much the same, except for being thinner with soccer legs (you know what I mean, the kind of muscles that make everything else in the area look small in comparison. . . yep, TMI.). School trip up to San Francisco, group reservations at a seafood restaurant. In addition to being a proud picky eater, I also have a powerful nose, to the point where I can not only tell apart the smells of potatoes and eggs–a lot of people can’t–but can also tell you what type of potatoes are cookin’: fries, tater tots, mojos, baked, boiled, even chips in a bag. In case you didn’t know, fish stink even when not spoiled, almost as much as penguins (oh, wait, fish are why penguins stink). And we were scheduled in that place for two hours, and the chaperones would not let me explore the area for another eatery.
Trying not to feel immensely sorry for myself, but failing pretty miserably, and seeing no one was using the bowl of sour cream before me, I casually scooped it up and somehow managed to keep from scarfing it all in ten seconds; I don’t remember, but I hope I didn’t lick the bowl.
Still casual, I asked the table behind me if they were using the sour cream. The bowl was passed over and another dairy product bit the dust.
Ten bowls later, I was satisfied.
So just to get off on the right track when I arrive in Buenos Aires tomorrow night, I’m going to have a huge steak while watching some tango, juicy meat of another kind. . .
See ya on the other side!

2010 update
That corn at the Warner Park event was so good it has jumped into third place, behind only the New Zealand geyser and the likely Wisconsin state/county fair thing. This drops Jimmy’s Diner in Berlin out of the medals.
I still pine for those awesome tater tots at that mall in Victoria, British Columbia though. . .

2019 update
Rankings have not changed. I wanna go back to New Zealand just for the corn. . .


Seattle, Husky Stadium, botanical gardens, reeds, U Dub, University of Washington

Travel Thursday Encore–How to mix pleasure with business–Seattle 05, Day 3, Part 3

Back on the ground, thankfully, I crossed the street to wait for the bus, the surroundings making me feel like I was standing at the edge of some rural town, waiting to go to the next little village. Yet another place in Seattle with a small town feel. On the ride we passed many of my old haunts, like the Washington Park Arboretum, where I took my famous shot of Husky Stadium through the reeds, and the Museum of History and Industry, where I bought a four-way chess set that I think I’ve still never used. Still had plenty of time, so I stayed on the bus till I got to the Ave on the west side and then walked through campus, always a lovely stroll, though not as awesome as the leaf-turning walk during football, or in my case, volleyball and soccer season.

Seattle, Space Needle, lake

Seattle, lake, boat

Seattle, Husky Stadium, botanical gardens, reeds, U Dub, University of Washington

Seattle, mountain, fountain, U Dub, University of Washington

I started coming to Seattle as a kid, and the first time someone mentioned “U Dub” to me, I had no idea what they were talking about. I guess in context to the rest of the sentence it’s easy to see they were referring to the university, but I still wondered why it was called that, until it finally came to me that it must be short for UW–as in “U DoubleU.” Which officially makes everyone here lazier than me, if they can’t pronounce a full letter. Did you know “The Wave” was invented here at Husky Stadium? Almost as good as the tidbit about some local PR guy inventing the “happy face” icon in the 60s.
Finally I had only Montlake to cross, and there was that bridge where I’ve had many a conversation–not exactly the Ponte Vecchio or the Rialto, but fun anyways. Going between the football and basketball–or volleyball–stadiums, I was finally at Husky Softball Stadium, hungry and anticipating a good game.
Which I didn’t get. Not only was getting any food I liked an issue, not only did the Bruins stink up the entire state, but it was more than 80 degrees of hard sunshine and there I was in a heavy jacket, with a hoodie underneath! Had one bright spot where the UCLA team spotted my jacket and waved, but other than that. . .
I always thought UCLA’s softball stadium was beautifully located, surrounded by trees in the middle of El Lay, but U Dub’s has it beat for that amazing view of Lake Washington beyond left field. There aren’t many places where you can catch a game and watch the sailboats between innings.
I understand that most of you aren’t going to be baseball/softball fans, but this game was so putrid I just need to vent. Case in point: the opposing pitcher gives up FIVE walks in a row–the only two runs UCLA scored–and up comes the best hitter, who not only swings at the first pitch but strikes out on an offering outside IN THE DIRT.
There was only one other Bruin fan in the stands, and he was wearing the exact same jacket, which should be no surprise, considering it was given to me by the father of the shortstop, who has an incredibly extended family, and the other guy was one of her numerous cousins. But to their credit the U Dub fans were a happy bunch and didn’t seem to take things too seriously; I certainly didn’t have to dodge any beer bottles. . . this time.
On to my other complaint: the nachos are only served with spiced cheese! Or whatever that yellow cheese-like substance is called. It took a while for me to get over my incredulousness, even went back to my seat to eat my peanuts–gotta have peanuts at the softball game. Finally, hungry as I was, I went back and asked if I could have the nachos without any cheese, more than willing to pay full price. Perhaps they were so happy to finally get rid of me that they took off fifty cents anyway; people in the Pacific Northwest may be closet Canadians.

Seattle, UCLA Softball, softball, U Dub, University of Washington

Seattle, UCLA Softball, softball, U Dub, University of Washington

Seattle, softball, U Dub, University of Washington

Seattle, UCLA Softball, softball, U Dub, University of Washington

Not wanting to walk all the way back up to the Ave after the game, I asked around to see if anyone knew which bus that came along Montlake could get me back downtown. No one seemed to know, so I walked south, hoping the bus signs would help me, lugging all my camera gear as well as the heavy jacket I couldn’t put up with anymore.
At this point I ran into a beautiful green-eyed blonde dwarf, whom of course I asked for directions. She was very nice, and extremely happy, perhaps that someone was talking to her and treating her like an equal, just another person. Unfortunately she couldn’t help me out either, but as you can see, I shall never forget her. . .
Once I got to the southeastern edge of campus, and there’s that fountain I shot so famously above, I decided to screw it and limped my way up the Burke-Gilman trail, converted from an abandoned railway. At least this was a gradual uphill, but I’ve been on it many times I didn’t expect to see any sights, especially without the aforementioned fall foliage.
And then I came across one of the world’s rarest and most elusive natural wonders: a beautiful redhead in a Catholic schoolgirl’s uniform! Excuse me, I have a sudden need to lie down and “remember” that vision again. . .
Okay, I’m back. And no, it wasn’t what you think. . .
Ended up climbing on the same bus I came on–same driver–except now it was rush hour, so I had plenty of time to take in my surroundings and recharge from all the walking. Landed downtown with still about a half hour to spare before my business meeting/dinner, which was far too boring to discuss here.
After that, still in explorer mode, I went down to the waterfront, wandering without destination or purpose, not expecting to find anything new from my previous jaunts through this area. I certainly wasn’t in any mood to see any more animals in the Aquarium, not after yesterday. As it turned out, apart from the cooling breeze, remembering previous jaunts was the best part of the walk, most of them involving a 6’2 babe who shall remain nameless {poor girl, going through life without a name. . . or at least not a pronounceable one, but again, that’s another story}. We walked along these same docks, then rode the merry-go-round, where her legs still reached the floor even when seated on that lucky wooden horsie. Then we ate some ice cream in forty degree weather, watched Mt. St. Helens explode in the Omnidome {since closed}, and played air hockey until we got kicked out for not letting others play. After that incredibly tiring exercise–I could barely lift my arms–we relaxed by taking the harbor cruise, sitting in the biting wind and snuggling while regaling each other with stories of air hockey games past. Doing more walking later, I asked her for a rest, and she laughed, “I don’t need to rest.” to which I of course replied, “Well, I do. Stop being so selfish.” She gasped and left, and I never saw her again. . .
There’s something about Seattle that always surprises visitors: it’s as filled with hills as San Francisco, and that’s after some leveling. Walking down to the bay it doesn’t enter your mind, but coming back up you realize just how steep these hills are. And just as you get to the top of one, you find yourself at the bottom of another.
Back to hotel to vegetate. . . I mean, cogitate on next morning’s meeting, and found my hotel room door apparently closed, but not locked! Careless maids are one thing, but this still shocks me to this day. . .


Travel Thursday Encores: Around the World in 24 Days

Couldn’t sleep last night, so I watched Spinal Tap; I wonder what made me think that was a good idea. . .

This time on Travel Thursday, I go on a trip I would never take in another million years for a billion dollars. Someday I’ll know how to get out of my own way. . .
As usual, before I left I got a lot of advice about the places I was going, most of it by people who not only had never been there, but were repeating what I had told them!
Like in Japan: Don’t open the taxi door. The driver loses face if you don’t wait for him to perform the little miracle of modern engineering that is the automatic door. Of course I never took a taxi. . .

In Japan there’s this twist on gift-giving where you give a friend a gift and it raises your standing in the community, so to speak. If you’re in someone’s home and you say how lovely that painting is, they’ll try to give it to you. The downside of this is that the receiver of the gift is then expected to return the favor, and even top it. This can have severe consequences if you’re poor like me. . . or, in a very extreme case, if you’re drowning, they won’t save your life because they don’t want to burden you with returning such a huge gift.
The only good thing about this is that, as a gaijin (the polite translation for foreigner, don’t ask for more than that), I was exempt from this tradition. I wasn’t even expected to know about it, which suited me just fine.
And what was this giant gift I would have been unable to return? A night with a geisha!
Okay now, a geisha is not a prostitute. She had to remove her kimono when we got into the hot tub–or whatever it’s called–to finish the massage, but I was the gentleman I always was. . . I mean, am.
Check this out: she played both piano and violin! She knew all my violin requests, and then it turned out she was one of those memory players: she only had to hear a song once and could play it on her keyboard. She did Kat Parsons’ “Miss Me,” Adrina Thorpe’s “Did You Think,” Libbie Schrader’s “Come When I Call,” Killarney Star’s “Signature,” Marina V’s “Underneath Your Sky,” Arden Kaywin’s “Over You,” Tiff Jimber’s “Doin’ Fine,” and most impressively Riddle the Sphinx’s “Lullaby.” That was almost more fun than the massage. . .

Nothing much to see, unless you’re into war history (did that rhyme? Poet, and didn’t. . . realize it). Some incredibly beautiful women, though, which is really all I need to make my job worthwhile.

China: Xi’an
Imagine, if you will, row after row of terracotta warrior statues, over 6000 of them, with many more still in the ground. Even more impressive, they were made two millennia ago. And the most impressive: each of them has a different face, both in features and expression, no mass production here. Plus 200 or so archers and longbow guys. Horsies too. Some have called it “the major archaeological discovery of the 20th century.” Take that, King Tut.

China: desert
Three separate cave complexes called “Temple of a Thousand Buddhas.” None of them came close to having that many–not that I was counting–but then, according to legend, they were stolen by German and French archaeologists 100 years ago. Oh well.
One place had an absolutely Giant Buddha carved into the mountainside, three stories high. It was easy to tell, because there were stairs next to it.
On the third day in the desert the jeep I was on got a flat tire. So while the guys were fixing it, I got out and looked around. Since it’s October, it was only 100 degrees instead of the usual 120. The hills in the distance are called the “Mountains of Fire.” Why there isn’t a resort out here, I’ll never know.
No photos here, because this was boring landscape, not like the huge 100-foot-tall dunes we saw earlier, the ones that looked like they had an orange bulb inside. So I find a boulder big enough to provide some shade and flop down, after checking for scorpions and such, of course.
A little background: after the first time I heard Libbie Schrader in concert, I wrote her an e-mail about it, and besides all the wonderful things I said about her and her music, I mentioned how weird her “eagle” lyric was. Of course she wrote a “thank you” back, but also mentioned she had no idea what I was talking about, there being no eagles in her lyrics. I think the term she used was “baffled.”
So there I am under the boulder listening to this Libbie song so I could finally solve the mystery. Instead of “someone’s eagle is being fed,” the line is “someone’s EGO is being fed.” Which, admittedly, makes a lot more sense, but at the same time, try to imagine what a wonderful love song it would be with my version. Almost as good as when a friend mistook Arden Kaywin’s lyric of “where dying dreams go” as “where diet drinks go.”
Anyway, when we got to the next town–the one that had internet but no French fries–I triumphantly reported my findings to Libbie, who promised to tell the story the next time she played the song in concert. Hope she’s already done that, but I have the sinking feeling she’s waiting for me to be in the audience so yet another musician can embarrass me live.
The last stop before leaving China was a town that had a site called the “Temple of the Fragrant Concubine.” I asked the guide if I should really go in, because I’m allergic to perfumes, and got a stony glare in return. Didn’t know humor was outlawed here.

Only stopped in Almaty, a huge, dusty kinda town, but a beacon of civilization after the desert. Hey, any town that has an “American embassy” (as a bus driver in New Zealand calls McDonald’s) can’t be all bad. As some of you may remember, I was in potato withdrawal at the time.

Ever stand next to a redwood, walk around it, look all the way up, feel really small? Now pretend it’s covered with blue and white tiles, and it’s the same thing with some of the ruins in Uzbekistan. HUGE! Forget Alexander the Great or Genghis Kahn; Tamerlane’s your guy for pyramid-size monuments to himself.
Finally saw Lt. Kije, which has to be the silliest plot ever, but at least it was a comedy. Good thing I knew the story, because it was done in Russian. Where’s Marina V when you need her?

What a friggin’ beautiful place, once you get outside the cities. Took a long drive alongside this huge lake that reminded me of Balaton in Hungary (ok, ok, I realize the comparison doesn’t mean all that much to you, but just go with it). Parts of the landscape reminded me of Tahoe, others of Switzerland. In some places the pines were still green, in others they were covered with snow. And other parts would give New England a run for fall foliage. Remember that poem you read as a kid, about how you’ll never see something as lovely as a tree?  Then there’s the sequel by Ogden Nash:
I think that I shall never see
A billboard lovely as a tree
Indeed, unless the billboards fall
I’ll never see a tree at all.
Spent the night in a yurt, which is a round hut with a hole in the middle of the roof to let the smoke out, but the thing was warm enough not to need a fire. Had the thing all to myself, which inspired me to think that any place in the world can be romantic. . . well, not alone, obviously, but you don’t need a giant erector set in Paris or even a huge beautiful mausoleum in India to feel romantic.
Or maybe I’m just fuckin’ lonely. . .

Almost ended up going through Iran, but found a last-minute seat past it. Love the archaeological sites, and the people are lovely, but the Tehran government scares the shit out of me. And I’m a Liberal. . .
A few interesting little mountain places in Armenia, all visited in a day, and some cultural stuff in Yerevan. This was the most American-like of the places I went to, because a lot of American Armenians had returned to the homeland, probably thinking they would strike it rich somehow. You already know what happened, musically, from the last blog, which started out when I mentioned one of my faves, Adrina Thorpe, is of Armenian descent. This got the DJ really excited and he promised to play her stuff. I wonder if Adrina is going to get CD orders from there and have to figure out just how much postage it’s gonna be. . .

Because I spent extra time in Central Asia, I ended up going from Armenia straight to London, when the original plan was to go to Istanbul and then meander on back to England through Vienna and so on. I have two London musicians amongst my friends, but neither had a concert those days, so the time I wasn’t involved in photo shoots I spent trying to avoid future jet lag by sleeping during the day and trawling the internet by night. Already rather nippy here (damn, I said “rather” again).

So there’s some of the highlights, and if you think I’m going to write down the lowlights in a place where other people can read them, HA!
So, another round-the-world trip, and all I learned was I’m too old for this shit. . .
This year (2005) I’ve been to, in chronological order, Italy (Venice, Tuscany, and Cinqueterre), London (3 times), Seattle, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Norway, Iceland, Japan, Vietnam, China, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrghyztan, a couple of hours in Turkmenistan (narrowly avoiding Iran and Azerbaijan), and Armenia. Last year it was Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Peru, Venezuela, Canada, Seattle again, London again, Italy (Rome this time), 3 weeks in Greece, 5 places in India, Sri Lanka, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, Bora Boring, and Hawaii. The year before that featured places like Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Mauritania, Mali, Egypt, Tanzania, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Botswana, South Africa, Namibia, Madagascar, Israel, and the ubiquitous London. And I haven’t been to San Diego, Frisco, or Vegas in years.
I’m taking next year off. . .

{In case you were “baffled” by all the mention of French fries in China, here’s the e-mail}
Oct 14, 2005 4:10P
Help me, I’m starvin’!


Travel Thursday Encore: Rusty from Scotland and Ireland, Part 1

Because I’ve been to Scotland and Ireland so many times, I didn’t notice much new, so I don’t have much of a travelogue, in that sense. This is mostly gonna be, like the Chicago one minus a president, snippets of conversations and musings on why humans are still the stupidest species on the planet, except for all the other ones.
{By the way, this blog was written under the spirit of Silverberg’s Law of Conservation of Research: Once you’ve done your research, never publish one book on the subject when you can publish more than one. . .}
We start with a headache in the security line at the airport. I’ve often banged my head against the wall of bureaucratic stupidity as regards to airport profiling, especially in the misguided belief that people who pay cash for one-way tickets are more likely to be terrorists.
Since 9/11, all hijackers are considered to be suicide terrorists; none of this “take me to Cuba” stuff is believed anymore. So if a terrorist is willing to sacrifice his life to bring down a plane, why would he bother paying for one-way? Who would save money when you’re about to kill yourself? Same with paying cash; for someone in such deep cover in the United States or Europe, they had to have a false identity, and with it comes credit cards. Again, why bother saving a false identity if you were about to die?
Okay, at least the flight itself was no big deal, and I actually slept a little. But like the last few times, things happened at Heathrow. Not like the time I had to scramble to catch a plane in Amsterdam because of a terrorist scare, but. . .
Normally it’s an 8 hour difference to Great Britain, but because we just had daylight saving time change, it’s only 7, which I didn’t realize until I barely caught my connecting from London to Edinburgh. Urgh!
Although I do have to say I was entertained by a “starlet”-type chick waiting for the same flight. Ever try this on a blonde? Especially one with an intelligence level somewhere between lawyer and coffeepot?
“Can you grab me a water bottle?”
“Sure. Diet or regular?”
“Uh. . .”
After that she went into a rant about how prudish her rich boyfriend was. “I like to run around half naked. Is that wrong?”
“Depends on which half.”
That one flew right over her head too, and the rant continued to how her boyfriend never listens to what she says. . . kinda what she was doing to me, of course. {I know I shouldn’t have teased the animals, but I had to entertain myself somehow. . .}
“If he loved you, he’d listen to you.”
“He loves me!”
“If he respected you, he’d listen to you.”
She tried to rebuff that one as well, but her brain wouldn’t move. After that she got a bit quiet, like she knew I was having fun at her expense {that self-awareness was shocking in itself}, until she said, “You think I’m stupid because I have big boobs.”
“No, I think you’re stupid because you wear so much makeup when you know guys only look at your big boobs.”
Hey, not like I was gonna see her later on, so why not be honest? And I’m really mad at the first asshole who called her beautiful. . . that would be a version of the truth called a lie. . .

You know, I think I understand the Scottish accent BETTER with a fever. There’s something surreal about wandering around in Edinburgh taking photos and wondering if what you just shot is what you think you just shot. . .
Not that I got much help medically from the locals, especially the guy who said infections weren’t a big deal. “After all, what did cavemen do when they got an infection?”
Uh, they DIED.
Never imagined getting into a religious/philosophical argument with a fundamental Muslim in Scotland, but it happened. He was going on and on about how horrible it was that women weren’t completely clothed, then he tried to say there were parallels in the Western world, because there were parts women had to cover here as well.
“The parts of the body covered in the Western world are the ones where men and women are different. But when you insist on covering shoulders, arms, legs, and others parts that men and women both have. . .”
Seems like a simple thing, but he didn’t bother arguing; guess he didn’t figure anyone would call him on it. Oh well. . .
One of my all-time fave musicians, Beverley Craven, has a new CD out, as I saw in a local store, and she describes part of her band thusly: “Gary, who is without doubt the best-looking keyboard player. . . in the band.” Sounds like something Genevieve would say. . .
Someone a long time ago said the song “Stairway to Heaven” is like an orgasm: starts of slow and easy, builds up little by little before that big explosive final climax. But as I was listening to it, walking along a big street with cars zooming by. . . after enjoying the guitar solo as always, going through the climax, getting to the end. . . I realized there was no cuddling. It just ends with a final wail about the stairway. Not even fun in the shower. . . definitely no pizza. sigh.
And speaking of showers, of course it rained most of my time here, which is one thing when it’s 50 degrees in El Lay, but quite another when it’s 30. One girl who walked into the hotel at the same time I did was all giddy and “wheee!” about being all wet–no umbrella, no raincoat–and smiled at me. “Isn’t this SO much fun?”
“This is NOT fun. I’ve had fun before. This is not it.”
Someday I might learn to go along with things and. . . well, who knows what might happen? My relationship with this girl ended right then and there, on a not-happy note from her side.
Whereas the next night, a woman I’d met–at least I thought she was a woman when I first met her, as compared to GIRL–did something so incredibly stupid that I can’t even tell you what it was. It was so bad I actually couldn’t make fun of her. . . not much, anyway. Even she deadpanned it by saying, “What a shitty day.”
“Hey, you’re still alive.”
“Is that infamous bright side?”
“More like things can always get worse. . . or, you know, usually.”
“Gee, thanks for that!”
“Hey, I for one am glad you did it. Makes all the stupid things I’ve ever done or ever will do seem logical in comparison.”
Once again, if I learn to stay quiet. . .
But on the more fun side, the next morning as I was going for my walk I passed by a cop mounted on a horse. The horse’s legs were white, so somebody had painted red and gold rings to make them look like athletic tube socks. Awesome.
That was also the day I got taken to some expensive grill, where the guy in the white hat–NOT a good guy–wouldn’t listen when I told him I didn’t want any sauce on the steak. I don’t care how rich I get: I want a cook, not a chef! Though I did manage to poke some fun at the stuffed shirt paying for the whole thing. I don’t know why he bothered, but he tried to convince us he wasn’t all about money by saying, as if he’d thought of the quote all by himself, “I would not exchange my leisure hours for all the wealth in the world!”
Giving me such an easy opening. . . “I would exchange a quarter of my leisure hours for a quarter of the wealth in the world.”
From there came a big argument, as if to prove the Scottish mindset when it comes to money is true after all, about how a human’s most primal drive is to own things. If he was trying to put himself in the same circles as Freud and Maslow and Adler and such, not that that’s heady company to begin with, he was in for a big surprise. After all, human’s primary drive is basically food and shelter, some kind of security. Then you get Freud saying it’s sex–or that’s just men–and the others talking about Will to Power and such, but it quickly got boring, with my only contribution being, “There’s no such thing as ownership, just control. Ownership is a temporary illusion.”
They didn’t like that.
The next day found me walking along Loch Ness. This time I decided NOT to look for Nessie, and therefore might see her/him/it, but that didn’t happen either; the monster saw through my fiendish ploy. Still, it was a much-needed relief from the urban landscape. In a lot of ways, especially noisewise, Edinburgh is a lot like El Lay, and therefore the trail to Inverness can feel like Big Bear or Arrowhead. Walking along the lake, on the side that doesn’t have the highway, the silence is deafening. But not just that: the visual noise is drowned out as well, mostly because there’s no billboards. It’s hard to explain if you haven’t experienced it yourself. Kinda like the difference between spreading whipped cream on a girl’s boobs and explaining how to spread whipped cream on a girl’s boobs. . .
Yeah, like a fart in a hurricane {And if you don’t get that one, don’t bother to ask}.
Don’t remember exactly what made me think of this–and I hesitate trying to figure it out now–but back in college I gave a porn tape to a friend on his eighteenth birthday. The guy had been so enthused he went straight home to play it, only to call me immediately after. “Dude, you gave me the wrong tape! This is ‘The Little Mermaid!’”
“That’s the right one.” Click.
Missed seeing one of my fave bands, Wolfstone, in concert by a couple of weeks. Haven’t seen them since that time at the Portland Zoo. . . but that’s another story. . . they’re so incredibly high energy, even the elephants were dancing. . .


Travel Thursday Encore: New Zealand, part 2

The concluding piece of the wrongly-named trilogy, this time all about South Island.

What can you really say about floating down a river in the middle of town? It’s relaxing, nothing more.
With a name like Christchurch, sure as hell–sorry–sounds like a religious place, but then you notice the locals abbreviate it to Chch, and suddenly you feel much better. But there’s a damn good reason they call it “The most English city outside England.” Personally, I’ve seen plenty of cities in England more EnZee than this!
The aforementioned river flows right through downtown, forming a nice park with its bends. According to the story, it was named Avon to commemorate the Scottish Avon; I’m guessing they call it that so people won’t think it’s Shakespeare’s version. In one of the river’s loops is the Botanic Gardens, a must-see because everyone in this town is garden-happy; they even hand out awards. Even the big industrial factories compete.
I’m just reporting this–certainly didn’t taste anything special to me–but everyone made a big deal about the town having one of the highest-quality water supplies in the world, purest and cleanest on the planet. They went on to talk about aquifers and pumping stations all the way from the foothills of the Southern Alps that provide natural filtering and such. . . I got this huge speech just for asking where I could buy some bottled water!
Christchurch has a history of involvement in Antarctic Exploration–told ya I’d get back to those dudes–and this time they have a statue of Robert Falcon Scott, sculpted by his widow. That must be pretty cool, having your spouse do an art work of you that’ll stand for possibly centuries. On the other hand, you’re dead, so who cares, but you know what I mean. I thought about going to the International Antarctic Center (Centre, whatever)–their website is the very cool, ha!–but then I remembered my two hours in that Viking version of Hell down south and decided those explorer pioneers of the past centuries weren’t going to be pissed if I didn’t pay my respects. And speaking of pissed, do you ever wonder how they went potty in places like Antarctica? Brrrr!
As you might expect from me–since most people think I’m a pagan, and yeah, I hate the name of the town–I was anxious to finally catch the Wizard of Christchurch–recently elevated to Wizard of all of New Zealand. I was hopeful he was still alive–he is–but then got the news he only did his Cathedral Square rants in the summer. . . summer down under of course, not right now in winter. Dang. After all, how often do you meet a guy who brought 42 assistant wizards–I think he must be a Douglas Adams fan–and came down the hill {in a gondola} with tablets bearing. . . his website. Utter genius.
The Town Hall is no great shakes to look at–but go ahead and take its photo, especially with the river and that weird dandelion-type fountain in the foreground–but if you’re into music or acoustics, you must go inside to the two auditoriums, which they claim has the best acoustics in the world! Unfortunately there were no violinists nearby to show us, so we had to make do with some pathetic opera trilling–I passed–which wasn’t satisfying at all. So next time I’m here I’ll have to bring Felicia Day along. . . (private joke; I mean Hilary Hahn). {Updated to include Lindsey Stirling.}
One of the many places I’d wanted to check out on this trip but didn’t get to is called Oakland Gardens. When I first heard about it, I wasn’t told it was a cemetery. Since I have nothing but disgust for people and businesses that make money off of death, I demurred at first, until they explained it was no ordinary Forest Lawn. First thing, everyone’s cremated. Okaaaaay. . . so why waste a perfectly good lawn? Then they tell ya that each person’s ashes is used to plant a rose tree; you’d think you were in a nursery, except for the plates with the names and birth/deathdates. Okay, I get it now. Not a bad idea. . . but didn’t get to see it, don’t even know if it’s still there. Next time. . .

Mt. Cook
Was supposed to take the Trans-Alpine Express–on their website the call it TranZ-Alpine, like they from da hood–but that got cancelled, which is fine, I’m no longer a train traveler, certainly not for more than a couple of hours. Where’s the airport? Oh, it’s a float plane? Okay, where’s the dock?
When I looked at the map I saw that Mt. Cook was almost directly west of Christchurch, which I thought was weird, until I noticed how the South Island diagonals its way further south. . . yes, I’m a map geek, that’s what my degree is in, after all. But because I was merely flying over it–way too cold for the likes of me right now–I didn’t have to worry about programming the GPS or navigating from the passenger seat. But isn’t it weird how I get all freaked out on towers but I’m okay with little float planes? Also very weird, at least to me, was how high this mountain looks–maybe all the snow made it seem that way, and it does kinda tower over all the others–but it really isn’t any higher than the “hills” surrounding the LA basin, even those on fire. Probably the most fun shot I took from the plane was of a glacier slicing its way through the very green bush, like a huge white tongue. I loved that imagery so much that I. . . okay, I need some further inspiration there, but something will come to me!
By the way, the local name for Mt. Cook is “Cloud Piercer”–so much more poetical than simple English. I did get to spend a few hours at Hermitage Village, which has some amazing hikes from which to shoot the mountain and some wildlife, but soon enough it was time to get back on the plane and head off to the west coast, actually flying due north to get to the starting point of the long drive along the coast.

West Coast
So sparsely settled you’d think you were in the Australian outback, except green instead of brown and red. Tiny villages, rain forests–right now the whole country’s a rain forest!–glaciers, the Southern Alps at your back as you’re looking at the brilliant, tumbling, almost breathing–sometimes seething–waters of the Tasman Sea. The area between the mountains and the sea is 300 miles long but only 30 miles wide, and it reminded me of the coastal roads through Oregon and Washington, minus the snow.
Unfortunately I didn’t get the names of a lot of little villages and scenic lookouts we drove through or by, since at this point I’d given myself over to full enjoyment of the spectacular drive. . . though I imagine it’s better heading north, simply because they drive on the left and I had to shoot through the driver’s window to catch the ocean. On the other hand, I was close to the gigantic ferns that grow alongside the road, mixed with other forms of plant life that I had no chance of identifying even if they were popular all over the world; yes, I got a D in botany, are you surprised? Even though there was hardly any traffic, we were forced to go slow because of the constant twists in the road, and of course the frequent one-way bridges. It tempered the enjoyment a little, the great vistas of the sea not quite able to override my increasing fear of all the curves! It particularly reminded me of the road from Durango to Mazatlan in the Western Sierra of Mexico, an eight-hour ride in what is only about 100 miles as that darn crow flies.
Hokitika is a lovely little town with a river running through it, and of course a beautiful coastline, but its best time-waster is the jade factory! Though factory was too fanciful a word; I was expecting some behemoth building with assembly lines of beautiful green translucent rock, when it was a studio and gift shop. . . ok, it was bigger than that too, but that was all I saw. Still, for someone who enjoys photographing glass-blowing, this was pretty fun. The town even has a glow worm dell, but didn’t get to check it out.
Got into Franz Josef just as it started to rain, got some awesome pictures from the porch of the motel, but that was probably the photographic highlight of this part of the trip. I’m now thinking the previous photographer broke his leg on purpose so he wouldn’t have to deal with these conditions. . .
For a while I’ve been really anxious to get into a glacier cave–you know, the kind that let light in and make the ice translucent–and had a chance to do that on the Franz Josef glacier, or the Fox glacier, but I still haven’t found gloves that’ll keep my fingers warm while thin enough to allow me to flick and push buttons on the camera. At least with the temp this low, I wouldn’t have to worry about any water dripping on the camera, but c’mon now! It can wait. For that same reason I skipped over Westland World Heritage Park. I’ll be back some warmer day, and I got more than enough aerial shots–and from the car–to please the bosses.
Glad I wasn’t driving, the roads were icy! But if you want to get away from it all, this is the place to do it. Still, if the weather’s nice and you got plenty of time, definitely take route 6 down the coast, should be just as much fun as PCH north of El Lay.
At first I thought I wanted to know who named Mount Aspiring, but in the end decided it was none of my business. Another national park for another time. . . can I go back to the Bay of Islands? Preeety please. . .?

Fiordland National Park
“Some areas have never had a human being set foot.” I loved this brochure line so much I’m bringing it home and framing it. Another quote says that a formerly thought-to-be-extinct bird was found here, so now people look for moas and maybe even albatrosses. Pterodactyls, anyone? The bird that was found, if you’re interested in that kind of thing, is called the Takahe, and like all the others here can’t fly. There’s also a flightless parrot, called the Kakapo, which I have to think would make the perfect pet that doesn’t have to be kept in a cage! Well, at least you know it wouldn’t fly away, although birdy litter issues are something else. Can’t have ‘em anyway, they’re endangered, and don’t you go looking for trouble with the smugglers! One bird that could and did fly was the infamous Haast’s Eagle, which weighed 40 pounds and killed humans! Kinda not sorry to see that one extinct. And what I promise is the last avian note: the simple answer as to why birds around here didn’t fly was because they weren’t scuured some other animal was gonna eat them. See, most college courses would make a whole lecture on that, but now you can skip that day and go study at the library. . . yeah, right.
There was some cool stuff about a river with black water–fresh water on top, sea water beneath–but didn’t go there and neglected to get the name. I’ve got quite an itinerary for my next trip, in warmer times.
Of course Milford Sound is by far the most famous part of this place. The brochures call it “the world’s top travel destination,” which doesn’t sound likely, just usual travel hyperbole, but it sure looks like it could be. Don’t try to drive here, or take the bus, in the winter, and definitely do not walk the 33-mile Milford track in this weather. Gotta fly. . .
I can finally admit–to myself–that I have, at least photographically speaking, a waterfall fetish. The funny thing is it’s officially the wettest place in En Zee–although I guess you need all that rain for the waterfalls–but this is practically the only place on the whole trip where moisture did not wet my hair. . . or hat, you know what I mean. The trip here isn’t complete without a boat tour, which I took last time, but you gotta see it from the air too. Try to do both on the same trip, unlike me.

Don’t know how they got me a rez during full-on ski season, though going from 100 degrees in El Lay to snow is a special kind of hell (Firefly shoutout). Glad I did though, cuz my room had a huge satellite hookup and I got to see Wozniacki take out Kuznetsova at the US Open. Didn’t I tell ya that Danish beauty would go far? {Wow, this is old.}
Okay, I don’t know if they grow these gorgeous girls locally or are brought in by the tourism department, but every single female worker at the airport, from the airlines to car rental to food services to money changers to gift shops. . . no, go ahead, you take the next taxi, I can wait. . .
Wakatipu is one of the coolest lakes in the world, and I mean that metaphorically, although I wouldn’t want to dunk myself in it either, especially after the Rotorua hot springs. Glaciers scooped it out of the bedrock millions of years ago into the shape of a backwards Z, 1000s of feet deep in some places, but the really cool part is that it can change several inches in depth in just a few minutes. No one knows why, though there are plenty of theories, my fave being the Maori one that says there’s a demon breathing under the surface. Another Nessie? Awesome. But no matter what you’re doing in town, the lake inevitably draws you in. Go down to the shoreline, find a bench or sit on the beach, and simply let yourself enjoy the beauty. You hear about beautiful-looking water in the tropics, lighter shades, but here the lake is so intensely blue; the reflection of the Remarkables is majestic. . . until that damned steamer chugs by! I kept coming back to my bench the whole time, occasionally wondering what it would be like to live here. Less concerts and sporting events, for one, but I’m sure that’s not what I meant. By the by, have you ever seen tame fish outside of a room aquarium? It was so weird going down to the wharves, where fat trout follow you around like ducks, waiting for you to toss bread at them. You’re not allowed to fish, and I think they know it. . . if fish could be described as arrogant. . .
Hint–don’t take the steamer after going on a jetboat. You’ll feel stuck in slo-mo.
And I want to know what early pioneer named these mountains the Remarkables.
Like most towns, including El Lay and NY, they have a double-decker London-style sightseeing bus here. Yippee. . . ever have sex on one of those things, especially up top? No, that was rhetorical. . . {but be careful if you’re in an area with skyscrapers!}.
Shooting like a maniac from the gondola, partly because it’s so beautiful but mostly so I wouldn’t have to remember my fear of heights. Like in Wellington, the Skyline cable car–more like European gondolas–take you right from city/suburb streets almost straight up 1500 feet to the peak. . . Bob’s Peak, if you can believe that moniker. Thankfully I was alone in a gondola for four, there not being much call for it at that time of day, so I could do my little shuddering freakouts at the ever-increasing distance between me and the ground without anyone noticing. But hey, it should be worth it, if I ever see the photos, especially the ones at twilight; both the town and the lake glittered, kinda like a Swiss ski town at Christmas, but the water and reflections added so much to it. Should make for an even better shot without clouds, of course. It also helped, in this cold weather, to have the chalet just a few steps from where you get off the gondola, though it’s carpeted–watch out for the electric shocks. There’s a restaurant and theater up there, but nothing beats the view. And since we’re speaking of restaurants now, something I rarely do, beware of the Lone Star: you’ll go deaf, both from the loudness and the country music itself. . . no food is worth this, certainly not the “Redneck Ribs” {okay, “Shanks for the Memories” was funny} and the tribute to Elvis. After all, there’s a McDonald’s here now. . . heh heh heh, that was evil, but I couldn’t help it. There’s a Subway and KFC as well, but just for the name alone you might want to try the Beefeater! That just sounds more inviting than the Cow Restaurant, don’t ya think? Unless you’re into eating grass. . .
Walked by a girl who really smelled like a good time. . . havta think this is party central in EnZee. . .
Next to the gondolas, on the ground floor that is, there’s a bird park–more boring kiwis, but plenty of other birds if you’re into that. There’s also the Queenstown Tourist Gardens, though I don’t recommend visiting in the winter. . . well, except for the ice-skating rink, but don’t expect to see the roses. And they don’t grow from grandma’s ashes either. . .
From the plane you can see just how gigantic the Z of the lake is, although conversely the mountains look smaller. Queenstown does too, but then it is small. What’s really funny was those tiny white spots on the grass that had to be about 1000 sheep. But they don’t look nearly as dramatic as horses or gazelles when they run with the plane. . . Out of Africa, anybody? Opening credits of Firefly? No? you people need to stay in more. . .

Didja know September 6 was Father’s Day in New Zealand (and Australia)? So this entry is officially a shoutout to Sean Kinney, who’s so Celtic he named his new daughter Ireland. Gawd, I hope she’s a redhead. . . {Update: she’s around 7 or 8 now, and there’s definitely some chestnut on her head, though nothing like her mother’s.)
So it’s kinda-close-almost appropriate that I spent the day in the Edinburgh of the South, as Dunedin is called {Dunedin is actually Gaelic for Edinburgh, so they got that part of the similarity right}. Having been to the original earlier this year. . . I don’t get it. But I’ll try to squeeze some fun out of it, which won’t be that easy, if the people here are anything like the Presbyterian Scots who emigrated to Northern Ireland and then the American Colonies. I had no idea that “clever” and “original” and “innovative” were bad words here! That explains why Flight of the Conchords is a hit everywhere BUT their native land.
I find it hilarious that the California Gold Rush was started in a distinguished-sounding place, or at least serious–Sutter’s Mill–but here the place where gold was discovered was named Gabriel’s Gully. The alliteration helps.
Dontcha love the name of the main zocalo-type plaza? The Octogon! Somewhere between a military building and a fight cage. . . I wonder what the statue of Robbie Burns thinks of that.
As much as it may shock you, I did not take the Cadbury tour; I like being the only person in the world not into chocolate. But there is something to be said for a town where the most awesome-looking building is the train station. . . I don’t know what it says, but it definitely says something. Either way, this is not the most exciting town. . . in the world, in the southern hemisphere, in Oceania, in New Zealand, on the South Island. . . you get the point.
But, as explained before, I’m into all things Logan. Here there’s a Lake Logan, along with Logan Park, the place to catch soccer, rugby, artificial hockey(?), lawn bowling, and tennis, even futsal (beach soccer) because three universities are close to it. There’s even a cricket stadium, and by that I mean purposefully-confusing baseball British style, not a place where crickets fight each other for money (believe it or not, in some parts of the world they do that, for all you inveterate gamblers). There’s a Logan’s Point Quarry too, and let’s not forget the one and only Logan Park High School, home of the. . . couldn’t find the mascot, don’t even know if they have those things here, although the local basketball league has Pistons and Nuggets and such. They did tell me most EnZee rockers went to this school, though I’d never heard of any of them; no Conchords down here. And did you know there’s a New Zealand Idol? Imagine the long lines for those auditions!
The Otago Peninsula is the most fun part of the area, as you might expect, and the ultimate most-fun has to be Larnach Castle, not just for the sight but for the story. I’m shocked no one has yet made an opera of this guy’s life: rich chap builds this huge place for his wife, only to have her die. Another wife did too, and then the third one ran off with his son. Ouch. Then came the money worries, which of course was a lot worse than the piddling problem of spouses. Not only did he shoot himself, so did the son. . . which made me really curious as to what the gal they shared looked like. But damn is it a beautiful castle, especially for being the only one in the country, if you don’t count the crumbled Cargill’s Castle (shoutout to Christiane, the redheaded mom above).
I was a little leery of the penguin tour–at the appropriately called Penguin Place–because as I’ve stated before, the only animal smellier than the elephants are the penguins. Luckily you don’t get too close to them. It’s much like the place I saw years ago on Phillip Island near Melbourne, where you sit on stands and watch the penguies come up on the beach and drop into their holes in the sand.
As for Glenfalloch Gardens–love the name–when it’s raining, the chalet is more impressive than the garden. That’s all I gots.

Passed a sign that basically said that way–and how many km–to “Gummie’s Bush.” When asked, was told the town once belonged to an old Maori who was toothless. Yes, I like short stories.
Invercargill is no big deal, pleasant enough but nothing much to see. There’s a nice but tiny museum, simply called Southland Museum and Art Gallery; doesn’t take even close to an hour. This is really just the place where you go if you want to hop on to Stewart Island.

Stewart Island
Known as the “Third” island, Stewart is pretty big, though you never really get to feel how big it is unless you’re in a plane way high up. It’s kinda shocking to find there are 500 people who live on the island, most of them in one town, but then I didn’t see all 700 square miles. Mountains and forests, so hiking and camping more than socializing. In fact, there’s hardly anything to do but hike. Most people who don’t get seasick might like a boat tour, but I wouldn’t know about that. The sightseeing flight, however, was totally worth it.
Fright Cove is near the southernmost tip of Stewart Island, and of New Zealand, if you read the previous parts correctly. How’d it get its name? This one is too good not to quote directly: “At dinnertime one of those absent on duty was solacing himself with a pipe among the bushes, not dreaming anything that lives or breathes intruded itself between him and his messmates. But a huge seal had previously emerged from the waters and gone ashore to take this siesta beneath the shelter of this very spot. Annoyed doubtless by the unwanted odor of the weed, it elevated its bulldog visage right vis-à-vis to the smoker. {This is the best part!} Their astonishment was mutual.”
Just try to picture that and not laugh!

Well, that was fun! Two and a half weeks of no TV—except for that tennis match—hardly any computer–though one night I did get bored and watch the whole season 2 of The Guild. And I don’t consider my cameras as technology, just extensions of my eye and memory. . . shut up, let me have this one, okay? I reiterate, the original photographer broke his leg on purpose because he didn’t want to deal with all this rain! I loved it for about a week, then had to go back to the hotel and, after drying off, getting wet again–this time with hot water–and bouncing on the bed a few times, I turned on the TV and saw the 100 degree temps and wildfires back home, and decided I could take rain for another day after all.

Appendix (non-inflamed)
New words I learned:
Afters: Dessert. This was extremely good to know! Also, they sometimes say “beautiful” when they mean “delicious.” Which fits, but when a guy says that about his pudding, it makes me look up to see who passed by. . .
Box of birds: feeling healthy (like “Fit as a fiddle”) Did not even ask.
Bent: crazy. I didn’t need to know this, but it was fun. Also “scatty.” For some reason they wanted me to know all of these.
Browned off: angry, disgusted. Don’t even wanna think about this one. . .
Chilly Bin: portable cooler. This one is just plain cool! Use it at the next football game.
Ear-bashing: yes, it hurts your ear, but it’s from too much talking.
Cornies: corn flakes, though I can think of better. . .
Wahine: I only include this because I already knew this was the word for “woman” in Hawaiian. Never did get to find out if the local hunnies liked being called that.


Book Reviews: Road trip to the Moon

RoadTrip America Arizona & New Mexico: 25 Scenic Side Trips
As the title tells ya, here’s side trips off what can be boring landscapes along the main throughways, in a vehicle the author named the Dirty Queen. Sounds like an oxymoron, but okay.
The first part features side trips off Interstate 10, which is a great idea, as long stretches of this road can lull you to sleep, especially when driving.
Some highlights:
Carlsbad Caverns is an oldie but goodie.
For Roswell there’s a green alien dressed as a mariachi playing a trumpet. That’s an image I’ll never get out of my head, thanks a lot.
I feel an urge to go see the world’s largest pistachio. . . right now!
The thing about the spelling of “chile” and Texas was hilarious.
Spaceport is cool, but not for four hours, as I recall. I’d rather spend that time at the cliff dwellings.
The Coronado Scenic Trail byway looks like just the thing to make me throw up, but if you like roller coasters, this one’s free.
Given a choice between photographing hoodoos and the Shootout at the OK Corral. . . well, I think the choice is obvious. I do find it hilarious that the Tombstone newspaper is called “The Epitaph.”
I need to go see Oak Creek Canyon NOW!
I’ve traveled extensively through both states, and this book told me about places I haven’t seen, and now want to visit. For that alone this book is worth the money.

Rocket Men: The Daring Odyssey of Apollo 8 and the Astronauts Who Made Man’s First Journey to the Moon
There are some really long bios on the astronauts, which start interesting but drag far too long. Makes it feel like a standard bio, but I suppose the title should have warned me. Everything that happened to bring the astronauts’ lives to the launch is important, but it’s still at about the halfway point of the book, when the massive rocket actually takes them into space, that things really get interesting. . . just like in real life, I suppose.
I do like that there’s so much here about the wives in the time up to and including the launch, even more so than the astronauts themselves, with their macho “I’m not scared” attitude.
At this point it turns from biography to something more akin to a very technical science fiction novel.
In the middle of the flight the author pauses for a chapter on how the year 1968 had gone, musically as well as politically and socially. I guess it resonated with me because it’s the year I was born, though of course I don’t remember it. RFK was assassinated only a month before my birth, not far from where my parents lived, and as someone who enjoys counterfactuals—what ifs—it’s easy to speculate what might have happened: no Nixon presidency. On the other hand, there’s no way to gauge how far civil rights would have gone if MLK hadn’t been shot. The chapter mentions the Beatles and Stones, but at the end there’s Jimi Hendrix’s version of All Along The Watchtower, and put in this perspective, the lyrics hit home like never before.
It’s a tough road, but if you make it through the first half there’s plenty of reward. Definitely think said first half could have been shorter.
Such a poignant way to end it. . .

Eric Stanton & the History of the Bizarre Underground
I enjoy finding out about new artists, and here’s one I had no idea existed.
Right off I can say there’s lots of bondage drawings and comic strips amongst biographic text. Bettie Page shows up, as kinda expected. Exactly halfway through Spiderman gets makes an appearance.
To be honest, it feels like this artist is being celebrated more for longevity than any special artistry. This book is kinda fringe, good for the people interested in the subject. I wasn’t as much as I thought I would be, so I didn’t find it that entertaining in the end.

The Life and Times of Sherlock Holmes: Essays on Victorian England, Volume Two
This book basically takes one small item from a Holmes story and makes a small lecture out of it, but doesn’t really have anything to do with Sherlock. Each small entry feels like something out of the Sherlock Holmes Encyclopedia (which I proudly own) or wiki; in fact, according to the notes at the end of each chapter, some of the information down here is indeed gathered from Wikipedia.
Three of the first five essays cover sports.
While not putting down the research work that went into making each article, much more info could be found by a simple internet search. One can imagine the author never running out of topics in which to write these very short treatises, as only a mention in a Holmes story is required for inclusion.

National Parks of the USA
This book is geared for kids, but has plenty of info for the adult as well, starting with a brief history of how the park system came about.
After a map showing the locations in the east, each park gets a few pages, the first a stylized poster-like painting, followed by stats and facts. The same scenario is then played out with the central, southwest, Rocky Mountains, and West, although the Virgin Islands seems to be misplaced. At the end is an A-Z of animals and an index, as well as a plea to help protect the parks.
It’s pretty to look at, and the information is nicely presented. I’m not happy with the font, which looks kinda like italics but tougher to read, but everything else was well done.


Book Reviews: As Graphic as You Wanna Be

Algeria Is Beautiful Like America
A French lady of Algerian descent wants to visit the old homeland, see where her parents and grandparents grew up. Everyone’s telling her not to go, mostly because it’s a dangerous country, but as it turns out there’s a more embarrassing reason as well.
There’s a lot of background about her family before she goes; she doesn’t get to Algeria till part two. The best of that is a cute moment when she does the bunny ears on her mom in a family photo.
Things change once she gets to Algeria, with intriguing drawings of her being touristy, like the one with the chipmunk-like mascot. I haven’t been to Algiers in years, but something should have looked familiar, especially since like her I go to all kinds of museums.
The guy driving her from Algiers is such a downer, but I guess the character is necessary for the story. It’s interesting that’s this is trying to teach a history no one outside of France and Algeria—and probably most people there—knows about, and for the most part wouldn’t care. But especially on the long drive—well, early on in the flashbacks too—it’s presented kinda boring.
But there’s still plenty of great moments. The cowboy scene was funny, and I love the photo of her posing with the city sign. I did notice the guy was sitting on an ancient column, so yay me. My fave character was the woman at the end, in the old family apartment.
Unusual for a graphic novel, there were lots of footnotes, though most written too small to read.
Most of the artwork is basic pencil, black and white, though at times it’s starkly beautiful. Some panels are in color, the photos she takes; they even have the camera info on them, which is cute. The images on the computer did not get the same treatment, sadly. The best drawings were of the main character swimming, at the end. Then the header for the next chapter shows her face with wet hair.
In the end, despite some tired passages, it was pretty enjoyable. But except for the part about the cowboy, I don’t understand the title, what America has to do with it. . .

Humanity is fighting aliens and losing badly. One of the few survivors of a battle is a prisoner who prevents the crew from self-destructing when boarded, which leads them to be taken to a prison colony.
Felt like it could have taken place in the Starship Troopers universe—especially with the big monster, the base, and the rallying cry (won’t even mention the Dizzy character)—with a little bit of Battlestar Galactica and V thrown in. One of the aliens is affectionately nicknamed Mengele, and for good reason.
The first “surprise twist” wasn’t much of a surprise, but the second one was. More to the point, the story gets too confusing. Would have liked it more streamlined. Ends in a cliffhanger, of course. And for once in my life I wish an author could have resisted putting some “alien sex” in there.
I can’t think of anything special to say about the artwork. As far as the rest of the presentation, at times the prose was too small to read. At the end there’s a short story about one of the characters, with only the occasional artwork, mostly words.

Eleanor & the Egret
A painting is stolen, a feather the only evidence. The detective has a cat as an assistant. The tiny dog in the sweater only says “Arf.” There’s a touch of steampunk, but in a world where animals talk, it hardly matters.
Early on there’s a hint that the reason for the plot is bigger than just stealing paintings, and while I’m glad for that, wish there’d been more to it, not left so far along. The second theft was ingenious, done in a way that could never otherwise be accomplished without a bird accomplice. . . especially a big bird. I wish said bird was smarter, though. Her disguises are cute, but don’t really hide her.
There’s a bird-shaped dialog bubble, but there’s also small bubbles of information about obvious things; it’s annoying, especially “Kiss.” The only ones I didn’t mind were the hearts, because otherwise I wouldn’t have known about that particular plot point. The only other thing that annoyed me was the shots of the victims toward the end, showing both “songwriter” and “musician.” Are you saying songwriters can’t be musicians, silly?
Cutesy tale, but in the end not much more than that.
There’s a cover gallery, the best of which features Eleanor painting amid a field of poppies.

James Bond: Casino Royale
I’ve been hesitant to try any more Bond graphic novels, as except for the one on Leiter they’ve all been so bad I didn’t come close to finishing them. But I figured since this story was already written it couldn’t be screwed up too badly. In fact it wasn’t screwed up at all, bringing back good memories of reading it for the first time, but not the movies, thankfully.
What’s most impressive is how condensed the text is while still telling the story. There’s a famous line that’s kept in, with Bond driving the car “with almost sensual pleasure.” I must be the only guy who doesn’t get that, but it’s cool to see it in there. It’s more surprising that also included is the long talk on good and evil toward the end. There’s even little factoids running through his brain—and on the page—right out of Sherlock.
“You ought to be tortured every day.” I love Mathis.
A thought I’ve had before: I wonder if any editor ever told Fleming to “cut all the stuff with the girl” at the end.
The illustrations are in an artsy 60s style. The text is in italics, making it difficult to read, but in the end it’s worth it.

Magnus: Between Two Worlds TP
An AI kills its owners, then hides in a VR world, thinking no human can catch him there. The plot is nothing new, but the world where it takes place is—unless you count the unimatrix place where some Borg go in Star Trek: Voyager—which is what makes it so intriguing. The other good part is the protagonist, a virtual reality blade runner/AI psychologist who’s a very likeable character.
Not surprised about the dog, or the cat for that matter. . . okay, later on I’m surprised about the dog. There’s a really funny elevator scene that for me was the highlight. Her backstory is told as she tries to keep someone alive in the AI world, which is cleverly done.
Good use of the now-overdone phrase “The end of the beginning.” Ends with a set-up for a sequel.
Though the artwork left a lot to be desired, especially in brightness, the story was good, as was the dialogue.

Dead Weight: Murder at Camp Bloom
As the title suggests, a murder takes place at a fat camp for kids.
As always, the first part is taken up with character introductions, though some of them aren’t all that well done. I thought Gwen would be my early favorite, despite the fact I usually don’t like nurses, but she turned out to be a disappointment for a number of reasons, especially the smoking. And she’s not very smart either, considering she’s always doing things she shouldn’t right where the kids can see her. Hello? You’ve got forest all around you! In the end I liked the outdoorsy girl most of all, but wow, that was a gory murder scene, especially for a graphic aimed at kids.
This is actually well plotted, and well done, more logical than most police procedurals. If I had been able to tell all the camp counselors apart—too many of them to keep track—I might have solved the murder myself. In retrospect, the clues were there, which is more than you can say for most mystery novels nowadays. On the other hand, “talking villain syndrome” strikes hard.
“Trying to get back to my birth weight.” Okay, that was funny.
There’s plenty of extras. I particularly enjoyed the story of how it all came about. Knew one of the writers had to be a mystery fan, and thankfully she read the right ones, considering what she said about plot. Also well done is the description of the final coloring process, explaining the lighting coming from the fire.
“Well done, yearbook staff.” Even the creator bios are fun.


Book Reviews: Lawyers, Profilers, Assassins, and Diplomats

This is a small prequel to a novel I’ve already read, in which a “chosen one” teen had to fight dark forces to save the world. . . stop me if you’ve heard this before. This story tells about the first meeting between the probably doomed lovers, events that were mentioned in the previous book. Syl has a huge crush on violin-playing Rouen, going to her concert and then heavily involved in the train crash that brings them together and separates Syl from her friends.
Gotta admit, it feels kinda weird reading this after the main event. What I most liked about the main book was the humor, and that’s as evident here. It does explain why the dark fae can’t sense her, but I would have liked more on Glamma. More than anything, I wasn’t able to really picture the train crash and its aftermath, which made it difficult to follow.

Second book in a series about a former hacker/now-ethical lawyer who keeps finding herself in huge conspiracies but can never back down. This one is different in that she’s no longer with a huge law firm, now doing the attorney version of the down-on-her-luck private investigator. In this story she realizes her late grandmother’s watch has been stolen, and tracking it down leads to much bigger crimes that threaten her life and those of her friends.
I love how this author, in both books, takes a small detail and turns it into an entire plot. That takes skill and imagination. But unlike the first one, this time it felt a little more convoluted than it needed to be. I didn’t like it as much as the first, especially in the beginning, but since it was on nursing homes and that’s important to me right now, I kept reading. Thankfully in the end that didn’t turn out to be an issue. There were some intriguing new characters and everything wrapped up in the end.

Profiling Nathan
Cold female FBI agent falls for tattoo artist to whom she’s delivering a message. Not very likely, but that’s what makes these stories fun, right?
Right off the bat she says, “I was recruited during my last year of college and started training at Quantico right after graduation. That was sixteen years ago.” By I quickly forgot that, because she reads younger. As for him, he’s got quite a past, including some fantasy elements that tie in to the rest of the series, which I have not read, but that only comes into play here once.
Throughout the entire story it was hard to pinpoint if this was a procedural or a romance; turned out to be the latter, as there are many scenes that were strictly getting to know each other and didn’t advance the plot at all. This is especially true of the entire nudist colony setting. After finishing the romance part, it sets up for the next sequel.
I really like that this isn’t a 300-page epic like most in the genre, filled with thoughts of “I want to, but I can’t!” The romance, plus the murder mystery/serial killer plot that I figured out by chapter four—writer made it a little too obvious—took about 120 pages.

Twisted Threads
An abstract intro with rhyming couplets does nothing but prove that this author is quirky.
A Japanese mafia assassin—female and reluctant—gets one last assignment before she can be free. All she has to do is figure out which one of the passengers on a cruise ship killed a family member of the boss. Who would have guessed that an assassination mission would somehow turn into a star-crossed romance?
Unfortunately there were far too many characters introduced when the story gets to the ship. With all the setting and introductions I was completely bored. Halfway through a mysterious figure is introduced, as if there weren’t enough characters already. The last part got confusing and ever so complicated, too convoluted. Still not sure what happened or who did what. Not at all surprised at who showed up on the plane at the end.
On the other hand, the writing was pretty good. There’s one point where the main character is “eating” a tear. That’s awesome. I did like the main characters, her more than him. Snippets about her past were confusing, but that’s probably because this is part of a series that I haven’t read.
All in all, a shorter, tighter book would have been better.

Undiplomatic Episodes
A career diplomat for Great Britain discusses some of his adventures and accomplishments in a surprisingly conversational and occasionally humorous manner.
I started this book in August; I finished it in December. Part of that is attributed to its awfully slow start. Until the end it’s a chronological autobiography (the last section is on epic parties) and the dullest parts are at the beginning, especially his school years. His time in Iran, for example, was a thousand times more interesting.
Here’s a nice example of his writing style: “This was at a time when the Cold War was still going strong and the Russian bear was still very much growling.”
But there were some moments that didn’t ring true. . . not that I thought they were lies, but I can’t believe he was that cheery during certain mishaps. Only in retrospect can it feel like a great adventure.
Bats, roaches, giant toads, claustrophobia=least favorite parts.
There’s a much needed break in the middle, photos and drawings and a couple of maps.
I’m not trying to make light of it, but as someone unfamiliar with the whole thing, it seems like it doesn’t take much to get knighted.
All in all it was mostly fun and well told, although it was sometimes tough getting through the lists of food served at parties, what the royals were wearing, or what birds were spotted. I particularly enjoyed the travel descriptions, especially when he talked about places I’ve been and loved, like Dubrovnik, Finland, and Australia. Never got to see much of Iran outside the archaeological sites, so learning about that was fun too.
But I will forever question his sanity, because of that bat cave expedition. . .

Little Book of Lagom: How 2 Balance Your Life the Swedish Way
There are a lot more uses for Goldilocks now than there used to be, even astronomically speaking, and this could be one of them, as it is a philosophy of “not too much, not too little, just right.” Having visited Sweden often, I can attest that a lot of people really do think this way. . . which is one of the reasons I visit so often.
There’s tips to make your home more energy-efficient. There’s a crafts article on how to turn an old t-shirt into a tote bag, as well as other clothes that can be reincarnated as draft stoppers or rugs. The part about storing your clothes vertically in the drawers was a revelation, as was the advice to eat before shopping for groceries. On the other hand, the recipes meant nothing to me, as almost every one has ingredients I’m allergic to or can’t stand. Same with the garden.
Like many advice books, there’s a lot of what’s usually called common sense, even if it isn’t. . . common. It really doesn’t feel much different than other similar books, simply using the Swedish connection as a way to supposedly differentiate.