Just asking for a friend…
It was reindeer season again in St. Petersburg, FL thanks to Enchant Christmas, a Vancouver-based lighting company that plants holiday fixtures in unlikely places.
The illusion of winter shone brightly inside Tropicana Field (The Trop), with 2.5 million bulbs ablaze.
Normally, home to the American League Tampa Bay Rays during the regular season,
the domed stadium had been transformed into an ice skating trail that curled around the third base line and ran across the infield.
Also included was the “world’s largest light maze,” anchored by a towering golden tree behind second base,
and a Christmas market bolstered by fast-food dining options. This year’s Tampa Bay theme was The Great Search, highlighting the disappearance of Santa’s nine over-sized reindeer–
all of whom were hiding within a 90,000 square foot light maze–waiting to be discovered and tracked through a scratch card.
Leah and I visited The Trop with our family from Albuquerque, and apprehensively outfitted the grandkids with skates for the first time.
There were spills and chills and grip-worn guard rails, but thankfully, no casualties, unlike others who required more immediate medical attention.
After a photo op with Santa…
we were off to explore the maze, helping Santa relocate his missing reindeer,
and stopping along the way…
to admire the fancy shapes…
While the kids had fun finding Santa’s reindeer and scratching their cards, Enchant had lost its enchantment for me after the fourth reindeer.
The canned carols had imprinted on my senses and the warm glow had turned to glare. I had reached the summit of Mount Monotony. That’s when I wished I was home scouting the local reindeer.
Albuquerque’s International Balloon Fiesta celebrates ballooning for nine days in October, continually drawing record crowds and attracting new entries every year.
But for two days–Thursday and Friday– the special shapes take over, and Balloon Fiesta takes flight without ever leaving the ground. Since 1989, the Special Shape Rodeo has grown into Balloon Fiesta’s most popular attraction.
The first-of-its-kind rodeo originally attracted 28 shapes and huge crowds, but today, parking has reached near-capacity, delivering crushing crowds and shrinking field capacity for one-hundred balloons that currently participate during dusk.
Known as the Special Shape Glowdeo™, the special shapes inflate and glow for 2 hours after sunset, followed by a fireworks display sponsored by Canon.
On its surface, this is exactly the kind of event I look forward to: colorful crowds and colorful balloons just waiting to be photographed. But I am not alone. Special Shape Glowdeo™ has become a photography touchstone, and claims to be one of the most photogenic events in the world.
Nearly everyone in the crowd is carrying a camera, or becomes a de facto photographer by virtue of their cell phones and selfie sticks.
And those without cameras are usually pushing strollers, or busy juggling food and babies.
Somehow, all of this works during daylight hours. As more balloons populate the horizon, most people are walking in trances as they look to the heavens, all the while focusing on a particular shape nearby.
It’s hard to calculate all the near-misses, with so many people competing to capture the same image simultaneously, but as long as there is light, accidental collisions are easily forgiven.
But all of that changes when darkness takes over and the only available light eminates from the ephemeral flicker of the balloons across the landscape.
It’s as if the winds have shifted, and all who are present have either been transported to the dark side,
or they now move through space and time as if they are moving through space.
Instantly, carriages and strollers become ankle missiles, and avoiding children on wheels while weaving through the crowd becomes an impossible challenge.
Then there are the Bimbos…
who seeingly run out of gas,
and stop in their tracks without warning,
or those who would sooner walk over me as if I wasn’t there.
It’s enough to make a person scream…
or turn to a higher power for strength–
praying for order to return to the universe.
If only there was another way to get around.
Nevertheless, against all odds, I rally against the lawlessness,
and persevere with a determination worthy of Uncle Sam’s attention.
My mission is to get as close as I can to as many of these nylon giants without getting trampled…
And when my camera battery begins to fade,
I know that it’s time to pack it in,
and reconnect with Leah, who’s been wandering the grounds with family.
“Where are you,” I ask into my cell phone.
“I’m under the elephant,” she answers.
We play Marco Polo by phone for the next 15 minutes.
Waves of pedestrian traffic push against me as I attempt to swim upstream.
It’s not an easy reunion, but it’s as welcoming as the sun on a cool desert evening.
After a time, all the balloons have deflated, except for the sponsor, and our family has settled down on blankets, bracing against the north winds as we dine on pizza ($7 per slice) while enjoying the culminating fireworks display.
And I can’t wait to do it again next year.
While camping alongside the Airstream factory in Jackson Center (see Building Airstreams), Leah and I wondered how we would kill time during our weekend stopover. There wasn’t much to do in town, although we were within walking distance of the Elder Theatre, a one-screen cinema showcasing Dora and the Lost City of Gold and the Heidout Restaurant, serving bar food backed by a roadhouse jukebox.
We took a pass on both, and drove to Bellefontaine, 20 miles east of our location. How fortuitous, because high atop Campbell Hill–overlooking a scenic parking lot, and peaks of grasslands beyond, as far as the eye can see–
sits the Ohio Hi-Point Career Center, a two-year career-technical high school campus that also doubles as the highest point in Ohio, at 1549 feet elevation.
Once upon a Cold War time, this site was home to Bellefontaine Air Force Station, providing radar surveillance to NORAD in the event of a Soviet invasion from the North Pole.
Leah and I were giddy with excitement. It could have been the altitude, but the notion that we were standing at the highest point in Ohio nearly took our breath away.
However, we are seasoned travelers who have Airstreamed through most of America (see Top of the World), and we refused to be intimidated by the height of Campbell Hill.
Admittedly, we were weak-kneed.
We took a deep breath to clear our heads, and took a seat on a strategically placed bench by the geodetic survey marker.
After a snack to raise our blood sugar, we managed to trek to the parking lot a short distance away. As I regained my composure inside the F-150, I realized that we were brought here for a reason. I figured that given our vantage point and strategic positioning, the military may be interested in recommissioning this location as a secure listening post as we approach the 2020 presidential elections.
The Chicago Art Institute is considered one of the highly regarded art museums in the world. Its collection is deep; it is wide; and it’s displayed in 200+ galleries over three floors.
However, with only two days scheduled in Chicago and so much to do, Leah and I had less time to roam the museum than I would have preferred. What to do?
Fortunately, the Art Institute has a solution! The museum provides a guide for locating twelve essential must-sees, and comprehensive floor plans to help find them. It’s their version of a cultural scavenger hunt through time and space.
Leah and I accepted the challenge, walking 3 miles in 2 hours (which also included a visit to the Member’s Lounge to sip some coffee) until we saw all twelve works of art.
Realizing that time is precious, and many people may not have the capacity to travel, I’ve taken the liberty of recording the museum’s highlights and displaying them for all to see without spending the time or walking the distance–although it’s impossible to replace the sensation of seeing these masterpieces up close and personal.
Nevertheless, consider it a public service and a crash course in art appreciation…
We had come to Milwaukee to drink some beer, eat some cheese curds and absorb some culture, and Milwaukee didn’t disappoint us.
Once home to the Big Four: Miller; Pabst; Shlitz and Blatz–Milwaukee was considered the brewing capital of the nation during much of the 20th century. However, after sell-off and consolidation, only MillerCoors remains as Milwaukee’s master brewer.
Nevertheless, there are plenty of reminders of the good ol’ days scattered around town…
For instance, on W. Wisconsin Avenue sits the Pabst Mansion.
In 2015, Pabst returned to the city with a scaled-down version of itself, manufacturing only craft beers, like many of its competitors in the region.
Likewise, the Schlitz Brewery has been converted into an office park.
But a new generation of brewers is doubling down on craft beers, with special attention going to Lakefront Brewery for its laid-back vibe and its innovative spirit, which instilled brothers Russ and Jim Klisch to brew Doors County cherry beer and the nation’s first gluten-free beer.
Leah and I sat in the Beer Hall noshing on fish tacos and award-winning cheese curds while waiting for the brewery’s 4 pm tour.
Eleven bucks buys an 8 oz. plastic cup and four wooden tokens good for four pours from start to finish of the humorous, 45-minute tour–very different from other tours I’ve taken (see Supreme Ruler of Beers and Eco-Beer), where beer sampling follows the tour as a time reward.
At the conclusion of the tour, we gathered around the bottle conveyor,
and we sang…
Additionally, the plastic cup can be exchanged for a free beer glass at the gift shop.
It was our good intention to attend Gallery Night directly after the beer tour…
but drinking beer interfered with our plan, so it would have to wait until Gallery Day.
The following day we drove to the Historic Third Ward, and roamed through six floors of the Marshall Building inspecting a variety of syles and mediums of different artists.
Unfortunately, the clouds rolled in and it rained like there was no tomorrow. We waited out the deluge at a nearby Shake Shack until a break in the weather, and crossed over to Walker’s Point to satisfy our random craving for novelty, humor, and are you kidding me?
As of February 2019, there’s a new museum in town, and it’s head and shoulders above the rest. It’s also a nerdatorium for dads…
and their kids.
The National Bobblehead Hall of Fame and Museum definitely checks the excess box with a collection of 6,500 figurines on display, covering a wide swath of popular culture,
featuring sports and mascots,
The Hall of Fame Bobbleheads line the windowsills.
Shaking my head in disbelief, I asked myself, “Why?”…and patiently waited for a sign to give me guidance!
For the overly curious, the bobblehead production process is explained step by step…
However, the bobblehead timeline gave insightful commentary and instant credibility to museum founders Brad Novak and Phil Sklar.
There’s little doubt that I’ll be raising a glass or two of Lakefront’s Riverwest Stein Amber Lager every January 7 to celebrate.
After searching for an escape from the plethora of water parks and souvenir shops in Wisconsin Dells, we settled on a hike around the quartzite cliffs overlooking Devil’s Lake. With temperatures climbing through the 90s amid an epic upper midwest heat wave, the lake was a winning getaway for hundreds of families cooling off in the water, but not for us. Reports of swimmers itch concerned us, and we scratched it off our list.
We sought hiking guidance from the Visitor’s Center, and learned of a steep trek up the southern end of the east bluff that would lead us to a flat ridge loop. The hike was demanding, stepping up and over a talus field of rock-hewn steps cut from car-sized boulders that crumbled in the wake of a glacier that shaped Wisconsin 30,000 years ago.
Miraculously, the moraine was raked and solidified by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s, and a trail was born.
The heat and humidity was taking its toll on us, and we were feeling our age. It was disconcerting to see millenials ambling up the bluff at twice our pace, but we perservered with patience and caution. Halfway up, our first reward was Balanced Rock…
which offered spendid views of the beach.
Continuing our climb to 500 ft above the lake, we reached a forested plateau with trails running in multiple directions. We carried on toward Devil’s Doorway, the park’s signature rock formation…
forged from Cambrian sandstone as old as 1.6 billion years,
and today, an irresistable climb for teens with mountain goat skills.
It was a mad scramble during the descent, and the perfect place for forgotten walking sticks.
Although the loop was under 2 miles, terra firma never felt better under our weary legs.
When roaming through remote Great Lakes country, media options can be very limited…and often times frustrating. While Leah has her Kindle, and I have my blog, sometimes it’s nice to lounge after dinner and watch television. However, settling in at RV parks with poor TV and WiFi reception has become increasingly routine on this journey. But we will not be deterred.
As with every new campground site setup, we crank up the antennae and run the auto program, if only to prove to ourselves that, once again, there is nothing to watch but God TV–at best, a righteous and self-fulfilling prophecy.
On the occasion that we pulled into our newest destination on the edge of Munising, Wisconsin, we did our due diligence to raise the antennae and run the channels.
“Hey Neal, we got 5 channels coming through on digital air,” Leah exclaimed.
Having left the Apostle Islands, I concluded that it was probably God’s will.
The next voice I heard belonged to Steve Harvey. He was introducing the Garrett family from Conway, Arkansas, and their opponent, the Crosby family from Bonnor Springs, Kansas. Perhaps, it was some kind of omen that we were picking up the digital signal from the local FOX affiliate in Duluth. Or maybe it was my penance.
“Gimme Dante [Garrett] and Mike [Conway], and let’s get this feud started. One hundred people were surveyed and asked, ‘Before a date, name a food a flat-chested woman might stuff in her bra,'” mused Steve.
Dante beat Mike to the buzzer. “Apple,” he asserted, and quickly got blasted with a superimposed “X” over his face.
“What!? Are you kidding me, an apple?” I asked.
Harvey turned to Mike and reiterated, “Before a date, name a food a flat-chested woman might stuff in her bra.”
“Onion,” announced Mike, which also earned him a shiny red X.
Harvey turned to Dante’s wife, Shawnte for an answer. “Pear,” she answered.
Steve crossed over to Jessica Crosby and appealed for a correct answer. “Before a date, name a food a flat-chested woman might stuff in her bra,” he pleaded.
“Watermelon,” she proclaimed with certainty.
It turns out that Melons/Watermelon was the #4 answer. The Crosbys decided to play.
Leah and I laughed uncontrollably.
“Really!? I can’t believe that answer was up there,” said Leah.
Dustin suggested coconut, which got him an X. But Jen thought that biscuits were the best way to fill out a bra.
Surprisingly, so did the judges, as Bread/Buns was revealed as the #2 answer.
Steve Harvey approached Sandy Crosby next. “Peach,” she affirmed, and consequently, accrued a second X.
Steve returned to Mike. “Your family has two strikes against them. One more strike and the Garretts can steal your money. Give me the name of a food that a flat-chested woman might stuff in her bra,” he pitched.
“I think she would pick an orange,” expressed Mike.
Sho’nuff, it was the #1 answer.
Moving down the line, Steve turned to Shawnte again, and repeated the survey question.
“How ’bout a pepper. Y’know, like a bell pepper,” thought Jessica.
“Who are these people!?” I exclaimed.
“I think the whole question is ridiculous,” mused Leah.
“It’s not how I would prepare stuffed peppers,” I scoffed.
Meanwhile, the Garretts were huddling and wildly gesticulating behind their stage props as they considered their options.
Steve Harvey strode across the stage to the Garrett family’s side, and announced that the Garrett family can steal the Crosby’s money, if they can come up with another answer that’s on the board.
Dante Garrett steps out from the huddle and turns to Steve, “We’re gonna go with chicken.”
“That’s right, Steve. Y’know, like chicken…breasts, an’ all?” Shawnte mimed with imaginary breasts.
Leah and I were shaking the Airstream with laughter.
The TV image froze, then sputtered, then randomly pixilated all around the screen before vanishing. My television reception was lost, and the screen went blank.
“That’s how it ends for us!? I shreiked.
“What about their answer? Did the Garretts steal the Crosby’s money or not?
“I guess we’ll never know,” Leah speculated.
“You’re not curious?” I wondered.
“Not really. But I think it’s such an absurd answer–it wouldn’t surprise me if it was up there.”
“I guess we’ll never know,” I shrugged.
The following day, Leah and I hiked over .4 mi. of boardwalk to get a look at Wagner Falls.
Because the forecast was uncertain, with a high probability of rain, we figured on a nearby activity that wouldn’t require much effort or time,
but still gave the impression that we did something active.
Our next stop was the Musining Public Library for its WiFi connection. Because the library shares space with the neighboring high school the librarian personally entered the password…as if that was going to stop me from selling it to coeds, who would use it to stream porn instead of doing school research.
Once Leah finished downloading a series or two or three from Netflix, we were ready to go.
“By the way…I have the answer from Family Feud. I know how it ends.” I teased.
“So tell me,” she coaxed.
“But you said you didn’t care. You said the whole thing was stupid,” I argued. “Tell you what…
I’ll let you know online…”
And that’s why I miss TV from time to time.
Ocuppying nearly four square miles and located between the Upper and Lower Peninsulas of Michigan, Mackinac Island was home to the Odawas, and the epicenter of Great Lakes fur trading before the British established a strategic fort on the island during the American Revolutionary War.
Native Americans referred to Mackinac Island as Mitchimakinak because of its likeness to a “Great Turtle.” The French fur traders preserved the Native American pronunciation, but spelled it as they heard it: Michilimackinac.
However, the British anglicized what they heard, spelling it Mackinaw. Regardless, the pronunciation for Mackinac and Mackinaw are the same, with an emphasis on aw.
Today, most tourists and vacationers take the ferry from Mackinaw City to Mackinac Island from May to November. Leah and I carried our own bikes aboard for an extra $10 a piece.
On the approach, the French colonial architecture was charming.
We recovered our bikes, and headed toward the water, dodging pedestrians and horse poop, but keeping pace with other cyclists and horse-drawn carriages.
It was a step back in time, and a peddler’s paradise.
Closing my eyes, I could focus on the sound of a world without machines, because motorized travel has been outlawed since 1898.
An 8-mile highway loops around the island, hugging the shore,
offering amazing views of Lake Huron’s crystal clarity,
and access to Arch Rock, a popular geologic limestone formation close to downtown.
Equally impressive is Mackinac Island’s Grand Hotel,
opened in 1887,
and still operated by the Musser family through three generations.
The all-wood hotel boasts the longest porch in the world, at 660 ft. (200 m),
and overlooks a picturesque tea garden.
Nearby, the Little Stone Church,
constructed in 1904 with field stone offers local history through its colorful stained glass windows.
After a full afternoon of cycling and sightseeing, Leah and I were aboard Shepler’s ferry, heading back to Mackinaw City.
During the 20-minute return ride, I thought about the variant spelling and linguistics of Mackinac/Mackinaw, and its similarity to immigrants who passed through Ellis Island and emerged with new surnames, courtesy of disinterested immigration officials.
So what are the chances, a real Shlepper immigrated to America and his name was changed to Shepler?
Imagine the public relations coup for his offspring today.
Brussels loves its folklore. And its citizens are unabashed about it. They show it off around town, and celebrate it with a flourish.
Belgians are world renown chocolatiers, and proud of their invention. Case in point–Jean Neuhaus…
…a one-time chemist who realized that a chocolate coating around a pill helps the medicine go down. His pharmacy in Galerie de la Reine…
located in a glass-covered mall of pilasters, arches, and windows…
was converted into a chocolate shop in 1912, when he replaced his pills with praline, giving rise to an international addiction, and no doubt, a tooth decay epidemic.
On this particular day, the theme of chocolate carried over to Brussel’s most famous fountain–a 17th century pisser known as Manneken Pis–who was undergoing a celebrated makeover with yet another costume.
The pomp and circumstance surrounding the event was palpable. A singing society of Manneken Pis enthusiasts had crowded the corner of the Incubator and Oak Street,
just south of Grand Place…
in anticipation of the grand reveal.
Outside the circle of importance, a fringe show delighted the onlookers.
Eventually, the Nation’s colors were pulled away to expose the little exhibitionist dressed as a chocolatier–one of 1000 different costumes he has worn throughout the ages.
But Manneken Pis has some able-bodied company. Located a short distance away, his counterpart, Jeanneke Pis is a fine squating specimen.
It is believed by Belgians that the fountain was built in honor of loyalty. An old custom states that a coin tossed into the basin will bring good luck and is an expression of fidelity.
Of course, what could be more loyal than man’s best friend, symbolized by Zinneke Pis…
…thus completing the pee pee trilogy.
Dogs are a common site and symbol around Brussels, and represented throughout history, whether at the foot of Everard t’Serclaes, a 14th century legend, embodied in thestatue of his reclining corpse–
which is believed by locals to bring luck to all passers-by who rub it.
And then there’s Tintin’s dog, Snowy,
a comic sensation created by Belgian cartoonist Hergé (aka George Remi).
There is a framed beauty and whimsy about the city of Brussels.
While it never takes itself too seriously,
there is just enough richness…
and Old World charm…
…to compete with any of the other great European capitals, while never forgetting its role as de facto capital of the European Union,
and its advocacy for social justice.
Everyday is Halloween at Les Catacombes de Paris. But, it’s not about dressing up in outrageous costumes, or wearing outlandish make-up. It’s about visiting a subterranean ossuary that radiates miles in all directions beyond the 14th Arrondissement of Paris.
Taking 130 steps into the bowels of time…
…and following a long and winding stoney path…
…through weeping ceilings heavy with humidity,
and sobering humility,
one reaches an imposing gateway, warning: STOP! THIS IS THE EMPIRE OF DEATH!
Beyond the entrance exists a daunting surreality that 6 million human remains reside here, integrated into the walls of 8000 year-old limestone tunnels once quarried to build Paris into one of Europe’s brightest beacons–bringing an eerie normalization to the horror and beauty of this place, for the skulls and bones are often arranged in an unnatural state of decoration.
With Parisian cemeteries overflowing their boundaries, Louis XV and Louis XVI crusaded for a ban on future burials within city limits when the insufferable stench of rotting corpses began overwhelming the community. But the Church pushed back, citing that the dominion of God’s holy spirits should never be disturbed.
However, in 1780, a rush of Spring rain caused a wall to collapse between a house cellar and the Holy Innocents Cemetery, causing the unsanitary contents of its burial pit to flood the house.
Thereafter, all Parisian cemeteries were exhumed,
and the bones were transferred into the catacombs–
a practice that continued until 1859.
Yet, it’s the skullpture, first imagined by Hericart de Thury, the inspector of the quarries during 1810 that resonates most among the catacomb’s 300,000 visitors each year.
Although there is a bone to pick: roving security discourages tourists from touching sacred ruins or leaving graffiti behind,
while a final bag check at the conclusion of the one-hour tour prevents tourists from poaching remnants.
But if souvenirs are a must (and who doesn’t enjoy a small memento of their visit), the gift shop at the museum exit does a brisk business–
bringing renewed life to the term “head shop”.
Let’s face it! The Eiffel Tower is one of the most photographed structures in the world. Since celebrating the 130th anniversary of its opening last week, more than 7 million people a year now flock to gawk at it’s imposing presence along the Champ-de-Mars.
I’m certain that it’s been photographed from every imaginable angle, in all sorts of light–day and night–and in all sorts of weather conditions.
But not by me! After arriving in Paris and settling in my hotel in Montparnasse, the first thing I wanted to visit was the Eiffel Tower. To me, it meant that I was in Paris!
There’s security now. Since July 2018, a 3-meter high wall of bullet-proof glass (2.5 inches thick) protects the “Iron Lady” and visitors from vehicle-ramming attacks, while two sentried openings scan personal property. But the inconvenience is minimal compared to the lines that form for stairs and elevators to the top.
Once inside the enclave, the enormity of the tower is that much more imposing, stretching the length of one football field in all directions from the center to its foundation footings.
Examining the intricacy of the lattice can be hypnotizing,
when studying the symmetry of shapes,
or it may seem random and haphazard by a clash of metal girders.
But if abstracting the Eiffel Tower appears upsetting or unsettling, a postcard version of this Parisian landmark can always please the senses…
of those who long for the familiar,
or those who are easily pleased.
I’ve just boarded Thomas Cook Flight #2753 from Orlando to Manchester, UK for a 2-week adventure to conduct ancestry research for a book I’m writing (see Uncertainty) that chronicles my mother’s escape from Essen, Germany following Kristallnacht.
Non-stop flight reservations to Manchester were snapped up from Thomas Cook airline (first I’d heard of them) in February for an unbelievably low, inclusive fare of $129…or so I thought.
Little did I realize that my reservation was TraveLite. I discovered during check-in that the airline was assessing me $120 to check my luggage unless it weighed under 6kg. The suitcase empty probably weighed 1 kg.
After composing myself, I gripped the carry handle tightly and I braced myself against the counter as I listened to a potential work-around by the attendant:
“Why not purchase an upgrade from economy to premium class for $125, which also entitles you to one checked bag…and for the extra five bucks, you can enjoy unlimited alcoholic beverages and snacks, 2 premium meals, a wider seat with extra leg room, and priority boarding and priority luggage retrieval for the extra 5 bucks,” she proposed.
My original seat assignment was 42G, the penultimate row next to the toilets.
“Here’s my credit card,” I quickly offered.
“You will now be in 4D,” she announced.
“A no-brainer,” I surmised.
Somehow, I talked myself into believing that paying double was a great deal; yet I was determined to get my money’s worth. After boarding the plane, I delighted in plying through the travel amenities piled high on seat 4D. In addition to an oversized foam pillow–which added an inch of compressed padding to the existing form-fitted seat–there was also a human-sized microfiber blanket in a sanitary wrap, and a zippered vanity bag with all sorts of goodies:
…none of which I used.
A choice of complimentary champagne or orange juice was served in tiny plastic stemware before take-off (but not mimosas, unless one asked for one of each), and premium dinner arrived 45 minutes into the flight…
…consisting of tired chicken breast glazed with a gooey berry syrup beside a peppery mash and a sprig of tawdry broccoli. MEH! Not to be confused with Cathy Pacific or Singapore Air cuisine.
Four tiny bottles of Smirnoff vodka made The Man from U.N.C.L.E. watchable on my video screen, and should have sufficiently prepared me for a nap, but the millenial seated in front of me chose to repose in full recliner- mode, which felt more restrictive than my knee-high compression socks.
The plane landed in Manchester ahead of scheduled arrival time, despite a 40-minute delay. Baggage claim was quick as advertised, and NOBODY was waiting in line for an immigration stamp.
Alamo outfitted me with a Renault Kadjar at the off-campus car rental building.
which required a small adjustment in dexterity and right-side brain coordination.
Left-side shifting on a right-side drive was initially challenging, but negotiating a busy urban roundabout was downright harrowing.
Taking a 1-hour detour to Liverpool’s dockyards…
and neighboring North Park…
before driving 4 overcast hours to Edinburgh proved to be beneficial in normalizing the weird sensation of driving on the wrong/right side of the road.
BTW, this post marks the 2-year bloggiversary for me.
There’s plenty of travel ahead for the year, and I can’t wait to see what’s in store for the future.
Let the adventure continue!
There’s a wall of potty talk that circles the public restroom in the center of St. Augustine’s Old Town on St. George St. It follows a chronology of lavatory achievements through the ages as a testament to shitty innovations in evacuations.
So before you make a big stink and turn a blind eye to an issue this pressing, just cut the crap and log into a blog that offers a fulfilling means to an end:
Society has made major advances in personal hygiene, to the extent that there are deco palaces devoted to pepsic discomfort…
while also allowing for targeted political commentary.
All’s well that ends well!
Imagine playing recreational golf with one driver, an iron, and a putter. Accessing the game would be so much easier without the expense of all those clubs. And when playing the course, think how much time could be saved between strokes by not having to decide which club to select for each shot.
While it’s not the perfect metaphor, I’ve approached photography with the same minimalist philosophy. I’ve been photographing with a Panasonic Lumix digital bridge camera (fixed zoom lens) for the past few years instead of lugging around equipment that I might use, but most likely never would.
How do I know this? Despite decades of shooting a variety of photography disciplines (landscape, nature, portrait, street scene, architecture, etc.) that required a variety of prime and telephoto lenses neatly arranged in my equipment bag, I’ve noticed that I’m rarely disappointed by the versatility of the LEICA DC VARIO-ELMARIT 24X optical zoom permanently mounted to my Lumix DMC-FZ300, while also freeing myself of a senseless burden that would invariably sink deeper into my shoulder with every step and slow me down.
It’s truly a remarkable lens for nearly all occasions! The range and reach of the camera’s 25 – 600mm zoom has seldom left me needing more lens, or regretting my camera choice in favor of a full-fledged DSLR…until now…since there are times I’m wishing I could gain greater detail by getting closer to my subject.
For instance, walking across a boardwalk over marshland strictly limits my ability to get closer to wildlife. The following photograph is a hand-held shot of a heron that caught my attention at a scenic overlook while hiking along the Guana Loop of Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve (GTM).
At 24X zoom, the image is acceptable, but if I choose to isolate the heron by cropping the bird to full frame, the resolution suffers greatly. Ideally, a tripod could have provided better image clarity, but the digital noise would still remain the same.
However, I discovered another available option that allows me to get a bit closer without relying on the camera’s built-in digital zoom–which I’m inclined to deactivate since I prefer to shoot RAW. Years ago, Lumix created a 1.7X tele conversion lens with adapter, extending the optical zoom to 40.8X, or the equivalent zoom range of 1020mm. But alas, this accessory has been discontinued.
Fortunately there’s a secondary market for almost everything photographic, so after a brief visit to the internet, I found a seller on eBay that offered the requisite 1.7X tele converter, a close-up lens, mount adapter, and tripod mount ring, all for a fraction of the original price of the tele lens.
And I bought it!
Having traveled to the GTM with my new/used acquisition, and having survived the burden of carrying extra gear, I assembled the lens and carefully threaded it onto the existing camera lens. I planted my feet, braced myself and shot the heron again!
A side by side comparison tells the story…
The image on the right is noticeably cleaner, even though the focus appears to be a bit soft, informing me that capturing a crisp, hand-held shot at 40.8X is not my specialty, and probably ill-advised.
Ugh! So now I’m forced to carry a tripod or monopod to make better use of the lens extender. Oh, well. There goes the economy of my photography.
Then again, I could simply stick to the limits of the original lens…
but then again, with an impending trip to photograph big game animals in Africa at the beginning of May, I’m much better off adjusting to three golf clubs instead of one.
You may recall from The Other Side of Cozumel that sometimes vacations don’t always turn out as expected. However, since my first taste of Mexico in 1975, subsequent trips south of the border were much more enjoyable and fulfilling. I returned again and again to celebrate the culture and bask in the balmy weather. I ate my fill of fresh fish, tacos and tamales, and always managed to melt my stress away with the help of good tequila.
My status improved in 1988 when I earned my diver certification at a casual Playa del Carmen resort, and thereafter, got spoiled enjoying the drift dives in Cozumel along Santa Rosa wall, or deep diving Devil’s Throat in Punta Sur, or floating through the aquarium of sea-life that is Palancar Reef.
Past Mexican vacations have been spent exploring neighboring hotspots in the Quintana Roo vicinity:
Holbox to the North …
Chaccoben to the South…
and Tulum in between…
But the one thing I never got around to doing over the past 45 years was explore the eastern shore of Cozumel. Not that I was avoiding the prospect; it’s that the opportunity never presented itself…until lately.
Rather than rent scooters for the day–which Leah would have never agreed to–I rented a modest Nissan sedan, and the two of us made a day of it.
We started out in Centro by the Iglesia de San Miguel, a charming Catholic parish…
that always draws a queue of cruise ship passengers on shore excursion,
to fill out laborious paperwork at a tucked-away Thrifty satelite office across the way, but that was the medicine we were willing to swallow to save nearly 60% from the rental fee quoted by our hotel concessionaire. From there it was a race to escape 1.5 miles of pedestrian madness between the Ferry Pier and the International Pier Cruise Terminal.
As we left city life behind, the jungle returned with thickets of mangroves and saw palmetto. Occasional glimpses of coastline were visible through a string of scattered beach club parking lots that offered access to rows and rows of lounge chairs, palapas, inflatable water slides, and cocktails for all the cruisers fresh from duty-free shopping or the San Miguel Church tour.
We settled on Playa Palancar for its no-fee beach access, tasty tacos and snorkeling activity. Unfortunately, the fish had reservations at a different beach club at the time, so we were forced to relax before moving on to the southern tip of the island, and a stop at the Rasta Bar at Punta Sur…
for views of the ocean,
some old-time religion,
and window shopping…
for Mayan medalians.
Back in the car, we continued around the horn to the backside of the island…
until we reached Playa San Martin, a cozy outpost with a sparse sandy beach…
and a population of lazy iguanas.
The two-lane road continued North to an island mid-point, where we reached the Transversal crossroad that transported us back to the population center, dodging scooters, trucks and taxis all the way to the leeward side hotels…
where high above the rooflines,
I was just in time for the evening floor show.
Security at our new house in St. Augustine has been a concern from the beginning. While we truly enjoy our privacy, we are physically isolated from all of our neighbors–alone in an outlying cul-de-sac that so far has eluded the new home construction spike occurring throughout our community.
However, it’s not as if we are inherently paranoid, or that we have a bucket full of anecdotal evidence to suggest that we have something to fear in our neighborhood. On the contrary, we’ve found our faraway neighbors to be friendly and caring.
But there are times when it would be nice to have some neighbors around to keep a watchful eye on things. Or have them circle the wagons in the event of an ambush.
Which would lead us to conclude that we are pretty much on our own when it comes to protecting our property.
The other day, Leah and I were introduced to a new neighbor for the first time, who asked the all-to-familiar question:
“So which house is yours?”
Which was answered in a patterned response:
“We’re pretty much by ourselves. Just look for the lonesome house with the red truck on the remote cul-de-sac,” I replied.
Our neighbor responded, “I know that house. It’s very pretty and lush by you, but aren’t you scared being all alone? Maybe you should get a dog!”
Well, no! Although we are dog friendly, there’s no plan for a dog in our household. Certainly not while we still intend to travel.
However, we had considered getting an alarm system, which doesn’t require regular walking or a vet. After an exhaustive search on the internet that challenged my inner geek, I opted for the wireless and flexible RING system to best integrate all security components (video doorbell, front door smartlock, cameras, floodlights, sensors, keypad and base station) under one umbrella. And the monitoring system–no contract necessary–was a genuine bargain at only $100 a year, with COSTCO picking up the first year expense.
I hooked everything up over the course of a few days, despite dangling from the top of a 14 foot telescoping extension ladder.
With all devices connected and communicating, I believe Alexa was immediately impressed, but Leah, not so much. She was waiting for a sign that the installation was worth all the accompanying chirps, bells, and whistles of every indoor/outdoor motion or open door–all in the name of stranger danger.
And then we discovered the unintended benefits of exterior motion detection: CRITTER CAM!
In addition to raccoon reconnaissance, we’ve also observed possums, bats, feral cats and cougars, which gave us a better perspective of what was digging up our yard since our move.
But then, I wasn’t prepared for the camera-mugging bluejay who seemingly came out of nowhere to find an unexpected perch…
Realizing that the video capture happened in a blur, I dissected the imagery to secure a better understanding of what I was watching…
Little did I realize–to my surprise–that RING would open up a (w)hole new dimension of peek-a-boo.
On September 5, my grandnephew Ari unwittingly followed Abraham’s footsteps and entered into a covenant with God by sacrificing his foreskin to join the Tribe. He was only eight-days-old at the time, but had he been asked and able to answer, I’m certain he would have opted out.
Leah and I travelled to a Scarsdale, NY temple for the event, where we were greeted by Bubbe Debbie, Tante Ava, and most importantly, Ari, dicked out in Bubbe’s crocheted yarmulke creation. Presently locked in a blissful sleep, Ari had little clue of his near-future fate.
All guests were expected at 11:00 am sharp, but slow arrivals dictated a slower start, which was a good thing for Tante Marilyn–who like cock-work–arrived during the overture, and ran to the restroom with a change of clothes over her arm.
“There’s no time for that,” I called out as she sprinted by.
“Nevermind,” she answered, and she was gone.
Inside the sanctuary, Ava stood steadfast as Ari’s chaperone, cradling him on a pillow that would hopefully cushion the inevitable blow.
Despite outsiders’ cries of trauma and mutilation, the notion of circumcision has stood the test of time for four thousand years, and the ceremony of brit milah, or bris marks the ritual of welcoming the newborn male into a society that connects all Jews through thousands of generations–from Abraham to the great-grandfather…
to the grandfather…
to the father…
to the son.
Ari’s mohel (rhymes with recoil), who was hired for his steady hand (and because he only works for tips), stood resolute and cocksure before the congregation,
as if to reassure Ari’s anxious Mommie,
that he was more than a cut above the rest.
However, after the recitation of several requisite readings,
Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who hast sanctified us with Thy commandments, and hast given us the command concerning circumcision.
Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who hast sanctified us with Thy commandments, and hast commanded us to make our sons enter the covenant of Abraham our father.
I concluded the mohel was a touch long-winded, although I never considered asking him to cut it short.
Finally, it was showtime. The sandek–in this case, Zayde Craig,
the maternal grandfather–was called upon to hold Ari’s legs, while the mohel got a grip of Ari’s equipment.
Once the clamp was affixed and the ceremonial anesthetic (Manischewitz wine) was orally introduced,
a flick of the wrist…
left little doubt…
that Ari was in good hands. The mohel was a consummate professional who handled himself in the long run without getting the sack.
Afterwards, the parents exhaled, although mouth-to-mouth was necessary.
In fact, grandparents, and especially Ari felt the whole affair was sensational–even though he was all petered out and it was clear that he wasn’t all there.
Leah and I were about to step out to take care of an outdoor errand, when a graying sky turned into a routine Florida downpour, putting a damper on our schedule until the storm abated. We were watching the rain from my office window, just as the city sanitation truck arrived, chugging towards our cul de sac for the weekly trash pickup. But this time around, something went terribly wrong.
The driver of the truck entered the cul de sac by driving down the center of the road instead of staying right and following the full curve of the road. Perhaps, the driver thought the truck’s turning radius could negotiate a tight 180° turn out of our dead end from his middle-of-the-road position without jumping the opposite curb…but he was wrong. The vehicle rolled over the curb–its right wheel catching a water supply cover that split under the weight of the cab–which crushed the water valve and sheared the 3-inch supply line underneath.
Suddenly, we were looking at an impropmtu geiser eruption in our front yard, rising 60 feet or more.
It was enough for me to grab my camera and photograph the ensuing drama, as if I was part of a crime scene investigation.
The police were called–filing a report and issuing a summons to the driver–but stuck around for a while to gawk at the local man-made attraction.
Thirty minutes passed before a Water Department maintenance crew eventually arrived on the scene to figure out their next step.
With water being such a precious commodity (see Well Done!), Leah and I wondered how much had been wasted.
“They better not be charging us for that,” she asserted.
“How could they,” I reassured, “It’s not like it was our mistake.”
First order of business…
…inspect the damage…
…then locate the water shut-off…
…and stop the flow…
to enable repairs.
After an hour of tinkering, the damaged fitting was finally replaced…
…with something shiny and new.
I asked the crew chief how much water he thought had been lost.
“Y’know, I have to fill out an EPA report that accounts for missing water,” he explained, “So, if I was to go with a 1000 GPM flow-rate over 45 minutes, I’d be looking at approximately 45000 gallons (or 170,000 liters) lost.”
According to city water rates, that’s equivalent to a $500 water bill, making this accident one very expensive car wash.
Hiking along New Jersey State and County Park trails the day after Thanksgiving made a lot of sense to Leah, who orchestrated our first return to New Jersey since moving to St. Augustine five months ago. She promised a whirlwind week and a-half of personal appointments and commitments packed with a variety of doctors, friends and family members, all laced with an emphasis on over-eating.
And so, during the course of our visit, as advertised, our food-centric itinerary always included a meal punctuated by scintillating table conversation on family history and folklore–touching on recipes, obituaries, and kin outcasts, with politics and religion occasionally creeping into the dialogue.
But mostly, everybody seemed to be preoccupied with their health. And God help the person who would innocently ask, “So, how are you feeling?” Because this question would open the floodgates for respondents to freely reassign their HIPAA proxy on the spot so they could casually discuss their current condition down to the last agonizing ache and pain, notwithstanding the severity surrounding their prognosis and course(s) of treatments, always followed by a couple of random doctor-horror stories.
It seemed like everyone had a health-related story to tell–whether it was about themselves or someone they knew–not unlike my parents and their friends, who would gather at holiday occasions to compare notes about their medication intake. It was uncanny that the of crux of nearly all of our relationships was now firmly rooted in our faded glory and eventual demise.
Any outsider, after eavesdropping on any of our sessions of non-stop kvetching might be surprised to learn that we are still breathing and have more than one day to live.
And so, it was predictably refreshing to carve out some time to clear our ears of prescription patter, and find an activity that combined friendship and calorie burning. Of course, our opportunity to hike was completely weather-dependent, considering the prior Nor’easter and the Arctic chill that had settled on the Atlantic states.
Like many Northern transplants to Florida, Leah and I had become preoccupied with weather-watching, so we might bask in the warm glow of knowing that we had finally escaped the unfriendly winters by relocating to St. Augustine. But now that we were back in Jersey, it was time to face the hard cold facts of winter; Ramapo Valley Reservation (NYNJTC_RamapoValleyCountyReservationMap-2017) was 18°F at the Reservation trailhead, and expecting to peak at 23°F by the afternoon.
MacMillan Reservoir was partially frozen and dreary…
with the exception of distant water reflections.
Trails were camouflaged…
by crispy fallen leaves–densely packed and slippery–despite the assortment of Skittles-colored trail blazes nailed to forest saplings.
Brooks were running fast and high…
making each water-crossing challenging and hazardous.
We continued our four-hour excursion with the winds picking up across Campgaw Mountain.
And it became clear to me that marching through the New Jersey woodlands was not the best birthday present I could have given myself. The cold had already taken its toll on Arlene’s arthritic fingers. Leah, who had recently succumbed to lower back pain and acute Achilles tendonitis was now complaining about her knees.
My knees were also aching from sliding down one too many slippery slopes. Even Doug, the youngest of all of us by at least eleven years had to admit that his right knee was locking up occasionally. The ladies cut their hike short, taking a quick detour to the parking lot, but Doug and I wore our intrepid hats. We continued to the feature waterfall along the Brookside Trail with few delays or complaints…
giving us bragging rights to a 7.5 mile accomplishment,
and leaving me more than ready for my true birthday present to myself: a one-hour Swedish massage at a local day spa, if only to rub my aches and pains away for another day.