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The Big Chill

A cold front pushed through the bay area overnight, and I woke up around 3:00 AM to the soft and mellow droning of multiple fog horns into a mist that covered the city. My parents live close to the coast in Virginia Beach, so I’m accustomed to hearing a fog horn from time to time when I visit them, but never multiple ones echoing over an area. My curiosity piqued, I poked my head outside my window and could barely see the buildings surrounding my hotel. I can’t remember ever seeing such dense a fog that was so all-encompassing before, and I half expected to see a schlocky Wolfman or Dracula jump out. Satisfied that I was safe from B-movie monsters or zombie pirates, I went back to bed and found the fog horns strangely soothing as I fell back asleep.

I spent the night with my window wide open, so by morning, the cold front arrived with a supersized helping of San Francisco’s notoriously chilly and breezy weather. Fighting the overwhelming urge to not leave my blanket-and-comforter-clenching fetal position, I got up and jumped into the shower, then struggled to unlock my tablet, still jacked up from my accidentally dropping it on the floor last night. The concierge gave me the mother of all puppy-tilted-head-confused expressions when I asked him for a paperclip (for pressing the tablet’s internal reset button), but I managed to fumble my way back into accessing it by the time I sat down for breakfast. Not long after sitting down in the hotel restaurant, John and Arnoud arrived and joined me, and then we headed over to Steve’s apartment, previously declared as the rallying point for the day’s plans. Walking into the apartment building’s lobby, the mighty Alex met up with us, looking ready to go despite his staying at the Motel 6 in the Tenderloin. According to Alex, his motel was a little less than an ideal place to stay, both because of the “quality” of the lodging and the previously-mentioned warzone-disguised-as-a-neighborhood location.

Nobb Hill, Chinatown and Beyond

Walking around this city, one can’t help but notice that some of the locals are fearless and/or couldn’t care less about what others think, so the DC area power suits and muted suburban dress codes that I’m used to were replaced by hair in every color in the rainbow (as well as a few not found in nature), and outfits that left me wondering if it really mattered that it was recently Halloween. In fact, a Dr. Cox quote from the TV show Scrubs kept rolling through my mind as I passed people wearing unique and sometimes questionable outfits – “I like the gays. I like their music. I like their sense of style. I especially like what they've done with Halloween.” Whenever Halloween falls in the middle of the week, most places encourage wearing costumes and celebrating on the closest weekend. While it’s clear that most places celebrate Halloween like Christmas, San Francisco is inclined, maybe even obligated, to treating it more like Hanukkah.

In our negotiations at Steve’s apartment about what we all wanted to do, Alex suggested that it was up to Steve since it was his big weekend,(1) and he chose touring up Nob Hill since it leads to several other areas worth visiting. Journeying up to Nob Hill is less of a walk and more of an uphill hike, and Steve’s friend John (not the tiniest of men) proved that he wasn’t shy about crossing into TMI territory by letting us know that he was suffering some chaffing in specific personal regions. Alex, Steve and I elected to keep on walking, but John and Arnould opted for the cable car instead. Also nicknamed “Snob Hill,” the area is the polar opposite of the Tenderloin as much more affluent, with high-end shops lining the cleaner and better kept streets, complete with the famously opulent Fairmont Hotel at the summit. We made good time compared to the others waiting on the cable car, so we wandered into the hotel to sit down while we waited, camping out in a more out-of-the-way corner of the hotel’s luxurious lobby.

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Shortly after sitting down, John and Arnould arrived and we were back on our walking tour (made easier for John as most of it was downhill), taking us right into the heart of Chinatown. We walked through the main drag, checking out some of the touristy junk shops and texting Michael to keep him apprised of where we were.(2) By this time, we were getting hungry and John was looking forward to being off of his feet and sparing his loins, as well as us the accompanying updates about their condition. We ate at the Empress of China Garden restaurant, and woofed down curried chicken, walnut prawns and empress beef. Steve, who was quickly becoming (if not already) a certified foodie like many in this city, said he wasn’t as impressed with the food, but the rest of us didn’t seem to mind. Michael joined us just as we were wrapping up lunch and explored the multi-story restaurant a bit before leaving. We were all pretty amused to discover the celebrity wall, showing off the restaurant’s more famous (yet dated) patrons – various politicians and actors of decades past, some of whom we admired, and others…not so much.

Michael borrowed one of John W.’s cars, so Steve’s friend John took advantage of the wheeled transportation as we hiked down toward Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39. This area is basically a tourist trap with all things touristy to buy and eat, but it’s also a popular hangout for the local sea lions, which you can hear grunting and whooping it up for blocks in every direction.

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Left: Arnoud, Steve, myself, Michael and Alex at Pier 39.
Right: Sea lions doing what they do best...


With late afternoon closing in on us and Steve needing to get back to prepare for the big show that night, we called it a day. Steve and Alex elected to walk back and the rest of piled in the car for a ride back to the hotel.

(1) I forget who originally proposed it, but previous to the trip, Alex, Michael and/or Steve kicked around the idea of go kart racing, but the track Steve found has an expensive reservation fee and there was some doubt about getting commitments from others to join us. In the past, we enjoyed go kart racing as part of the bachelor party festivities for both Alex’s and Michael’s respective weddings and you could say it’s a become bit of a tradition amongst our circle of friends. During Alex’s bachelor party fun, the same amusement park we did go karts at included boat bumper cars, which was a Hell of a lot of fun, even when Alex, Michael and Steve joined forces in a repeatedly and ultimately fruitless attempt to maneuver me into a waterfall. Bastards.

(2) Michael, working the day before, was up late finishing some tasks, so he was running behind this morning due to sleeping in. Later on, he made the amusing and a tad off-color joke “You know, all Chinatowns kind of look alike.” Which I followed up with “And then you want to see another one a few hours later.” Please believe me when I say that my friends and I are not racist. Honest.


You’re Either In or You're Fabulous
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Steve first told me about Project Nunway earlier this year, and based on his contagious enthusiasm and my own piqued curiosity, there was no way I was going to say no to attending. The show is an annual charity event presented by the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence  (a.k.a., “The Sisters”), a West Coast-based charity and activism group that supports the gay community and addresses related social issues. Being a supporter of alternative lifestyles (even though I don’t practice one) and appreciating a little religious satire, it’s hard to resist a charity fashion show full of drag queens, plus, this year’s theme was “Dissident Futures,” so the show was appealing to my geek side, too.

Arriving at the YBCA, the place was livelier than a circus. Cross dressers marched around in their garish best, Halloween-costumed attendees mingled and mixed, and the hopelessly straight and milquetoast (e.g., Michael, Alex and myself) gawked and admired at what amounted to San Francisco’s mixing of Burning Man with Comic-Con. Between the costumes, party ensembles and Sisters marching around the lobby, it was a sure bet that there wasn’t a single pair high heels or platforms to be found in the entire city. It was also the first time in my life that I was having difficulty figuring out if some people were male, female or somewhere in between, but common sense told me to hand out no lines and keep my hands to myself.(1) Truth be told, the artist in me loved the vibrant, colorful, myriad orgy of self-expression filling the convention center, and I didn’t care if it was still a hold-over from Halloween or not. Despite a few rare alternative events, like the High Heel Drag Queen Race held annually in Dupont Circle (a.k.a., the "fruit loop" - and that's a joke I got from a gay friend, so don't flame me for it), the DC area wasn’t really known for these kinds of events, let alone encouraging locals to show up looking like regulars at the Mos Eisley Cantina, so this alone was worth the trip. Everything from neon-colored hair to the creative and the sometimes confounding application of Christmas tree LED lights were a spectacle to behold.(2)

The show was completely sold out and it was standing room only, and as the lights dimmed, the band came out (no pun intended) and the show began, filling the next two hours with a parade of outlandish and creatively perplexing outfits.(3) The show’s theme was reflected in costumes by incorporating recycled materials (a competition requirement), make up, lights and drew from highly conceptual ideas to inspiration from movies.(4) We saw combinations of retro and steampunk, homages to the gods of antiquity, religious satires, alien worlds, robots and cyborgs, utopian and dystopian ensembles, all made of myriad fabrics, lights and materials (including balloons and old wire conduits). One wonders what was more impressive, the costumes themselves or the willpower to put them on and march, strut or sashay out in front of hundreds of cheering onlookers. Like Steve’s uninhibited conversational skills, that kind of bravery to present yourself for admiration without being embarrassed or massively self-conscious (or at least not showing it) is an enviable quality.

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Later, the lobby opened up for the after party and throngs filled the room with the din of excitement and celebration due to the event’s clear success and the crowd’s enjoyment. There were the anxious trying to get pictures taken with all of the Sisters in their Nunway regalia, the social cliques comparing and contrasting their reviews and analyses, and even the occasional couple getting caught up in the sensuality of it all (e.g., one particularly attractive lesbian/bi couple didn’t hesitate to make out next to me). Steve all but disappeared into the mix, and Alex, Michael and I enjoyed our share of people watching.
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Knowing precious few people in the crowd, and combined with Michael’s own exhaustion from working yesterday, Alex, Michael and I made our goodbyes and started walking back. The YBCA is tucked away in the South of Market district, which felt a bit like Times Square, with the buzz of a Saturday nightlife in full swing. Alex and Michael were hungry so we found Sushi Boat on our way back and they jumped at the chance for sushi in San Francisco. The joint was everything you could expect of a good sushi restaurant, especially the moat surrounding the chefs/bar area with bamboo boats floating by with offerings of freshly-made sushi goodness. Alex and Michael dug in, trying a little bit of everything that was literally floating by while I was content with warm tea (I wasn’t hungry). Soon enough, we were back out to the streets, being accosted by a very chatty and enthusiastic man who eventually tried hitting us up for a handout. I’m still not sure if he was homeless or not, but his was definitely a charming act.

(1) With all due respect to the Georgia Satellites.

(2) I was routinely distracted by one attendee who managed to install so many LED lights into the furriest pair of Uggs he could find that you could easily spot him from orbit.

(3) In great testament to their craft, the band’s lead singer was “Lady Mahogany,” who I’d have no clue is actually male if not for seeing the band out of costume at the dress rehearsal.

(4) One leaving-little-to-imagination creation was directly inspired by Feyd-Rautha’s (played by Sting) undies outfit from the movie Dune. For better or for worse is up to you to decide.
Pirates and Scotsmen and Drag Queens…Oh, My!(1)0836228995_01__SCLZZZZZZZ_

In addition to adjusting to a three-hour time difference all weekend, Daylight Savings Time began Saturday night/Sunday morning, and the extra hour of sleep was a welcome treat for recovering from the previous two days. Steve and Joël’s wedding was scheduled for mid-morning, and Alex and Michael showed up a little early, so we grabbed a quick bite at the nearby Mels Drive-In before heading over to Steve and Joël’s apartment building for the ceremony.

The pre-ceremony festivities (i.e., Bloody Maries and Mimosas) were hosted at a top floor apartment where a couple who were friends Steve and Joël lived. A few familiar faces were mingling about (including Steve’s friends John and Arnoud), and Michael was caught up in a conversation with an all too nice man named Marc Smolowitz. Soon enough, the guests were asked to head up to the roof for the ceremony, at which point my cell phone started ringing. Steve was calling me and would only tell me that he had a task for me to perform. Racing down to his apartment on the eighth floor, Steve and Joël were still in the process of getting dressed as Steve dropped his tablet into my hands and asked me to take it up to the roof. He Skyped his Dad who was going to watch the ceremony,(2) but the wifi didn’t reach up to the roof. Recruiting Michael’s help, we tried a few tricks to connect the tablet to a signal, but without success.

The roof of their apartment building offered an beautiful, 360º view of San Francisco. You could see most of the skyline down to the bay, with clear views of the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz…as well as the full complement of guests in their chosen wedding attire. In a previous email, the wedding coordinator encouraged guests to wear non-western clothing (reflecting Joël’s own Asian/South Pacific ethnic background), but Steve added that basically, “anything goes.” The dress code ranged from t-shirts and jeans, to suits and ties, to Sister Roma in her drag queen awesomeness, to a fiery-red-haired Scotsman, a girlfriend-nibbling pirate,(3), John in his authentic Arab thawb and Arnoud in a sarong (who may be in need of a reminder or two about the dangers of not crossing your legs when sitting down).

Soon enough, the wedding party paraded up the stairs to the roof, walking along the improvised aisle, collecting roses from the guests and presenting themselves in front of the altar, overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge on a gloriously clear and sunny morning. The wedding was a brief, Buddhist ceremony, focusing heavily on the sharing of positive energy and love from the guests to Steve and Joël, and their own personal vows, reflecting Joël’s promise to be Steve’s “elephant” (i.e., the dominant, protective half, as well as in keeping with his following of Ganesh) and Steve promising to be Joël’s “bunny” (i.e., the more submissive, nurturing half). Honestly, I didn’t understand the significance of those animals until Steve and I briefly talked about it later, but my lack of comprehension then didn’t take away from the beauty of the ceremony, with Joël crying through almost the whole affair and Steve never looking so happy.

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The reception was on the apartment building’s mezzanine level, so the guests’ options were to take turns waiting for the world’s slowest elevators to truck them down, or march down more than 20 flights of stairs (most of us opting for the stairs). The reception was a casual affair of drinks and brunch-themed finger food (the breakfast burritos and beignets were definitely big hits), and taking turns going back up to the top floor to refresh drinks. When the time came for making toasts, several of the guests gave very heart-felt and touching speeches, including Alex who represented our old high school crowd. In truth, I debated with myself about making a toast, but I’m traditionally one of those people who’d rather attend his own funeral than take on public speaking or be the center of attention in a large group of people. Plus, I don’t think I could top Alex’s toast anyway – it was as beautiful, poignant and eloquent as toasts can be. By mid-afternoon, the pictures were all taken, the guests steadily heading home, and Steve and Joël off for their post-wedding spa/massage session. Alex and Michael said their goodbyes since they were flying back to the East Coast that evening, and I went back to the hotel to relax.

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Left: Joël and Steve during the toasts.
Right: Myself, Alex, Sister Roma, Steve and Michael.


(1) You’re required to read this in George Takei’s voice.

(2) To say that Steve’s parents, who are die hard, Born Again Christians, didn’t react well to his coming out so many years ago is putting things mildly. Steve’s family has more than its own fair share of tensions and issues, the least of which having to do with Steve’s sexuality. That his Dad was even interested in viewing the wedding was a genuine surprise to me.

(3) This is an inside joke between Alex, Michael and myself. Waiting for the ceremony to begin, Michael was caught up in a conversation with a woman who works for BMW, and Michael being a big car guy was chatting it up about her work and how he’d love to work for the company. During their conversation, her pirate-adorned boyfriend stepped in and eventually, flirtingly pretended to nibble gobble chomp on her in what can best be described as a thinly-disguised “QUIT MACKING ON MY GIRLFRIEND” defensive maneuver. It was strangely charming and a little bit douchebag-ish at the same time. The expression on her face was a mix of “Awww, isn’t he cute?” and “Excuse me, adults are talking here…”


One of the Best Meals of My LifeDSC02229

Despite all of the off-and-on years that Steve spent on the West Coast, he didn’t have Joël’s roots, family and community in the area. One of the things that Steve expressed to me in the past, and was important to him for this weekend, was introducing some of his most important and relevant friends to the world and community he currently lives in. This included not just Alex, Michael and I, but his friends John and Arnoud, as well. Not meeting Joël until now, Steve jumped at the opportunity to introduce and familiarize his better half with some of his nearest and dearest friends. Unfortunately, with Alex and Michael flying out, they missed out on the dinner that evening at Alexander’s Steakhouse. The restaurant is a West Coast franchise, with its San Francisco location in a not-so-great part of town. Though Joël pointed out later that despite the area’s condition, there was a steady movement to bring money into the area, mostly by designers and companies making use of the warehouse lofts as workspace.

I didn’t eat much at the wedding reception and sitting down in the sumptuous eatery, smelling grilled beef and who-knows-what goodness reminded me of just how hungry I was. It was hard not to drool over the menu, with all kinds of bistro specialties, including roasted bone marrow that Joël and I agreed would be ordered no matter what we ate. After debating back and forth, and some surgically-placed passive aggressive manipulation on Steve’s part, we all opted for the chef’s tasting menu for dinner, a six-course range of everything highlighted at that restaurant. Over and between courses of Hamachi shots, grilled scallops, bitter salad, gourmet bacon (strangely the low point of the courses), a petite filet mignon that I can still taste, gourmet cotton candy (no, really) and fig pudding, we talked about how we all knew Steve. Joël asked probing questions about each of us, and I quickly picked up that Joël’s is a very analytical, curious and politely imperious nature. I can see why his personality gels with Steve’s, they have an engaging mesh of dom and sub, leader and comforter. He seems a nice fit to Steve, and I could see why he was so successful and driven as an event coordinator and director. It was a chance for Steve to connect his past with his present, and the fact that it was shared over a meal I won’t soon forget was the exclamation point at the end of the weekend.
All Good Things…

Waking while still a little full from last night’s feast, I hopped out of bed and packed. My flight was in the mid-afternoon and hotel checkout wasn’t until noon, so I had some time to kill. Steve texted me about hanging out as his apartment, so after stuffing my bag for the flight home, I wandered over to the apartment. Chit chatting over tea, Steve and Joël looked sufficiently relaxed, even after such a whirlwind weekend. By the time we finished the massive bowls cups of tea, stomachs were growling and Joël suggested walking over to Lower Pacific Heights for some breakfast at the Curbside Café, a little place that serves AMAZING breakfasts (Steve recommended the Eggs Florentine…definitely get it if you go there). Being my usual pre-trip self, I was frequently checking my watch, even with plenty of time (I really need to work on relaxing more before engaging in my travel plans). Steve, Joël and Arnoud made a detour to check out a few shops while I wandered back to check out of the hotel, then met them at the apartment so Steve could give me a lift to SFO.

The Journey Home

Since my flight was after the beginning of the week rush, SFO was relatively calm as Steve dropped me off. In fact, it may have been the easiest and fastest I made it through TSA and airport security ever. Not being the largest airport, SFO is surprisingly easy to find your way around, unlike the unmarked hot mess that’s Los Angeles (LAX), the required train ride from one end of the Dallas-Fort Worth (DWF) megaplex (a.k.a., the 51st state) to the other, or the seemingly endless walkways of Dulles (IAD). According to the boards, everything was running on time and at whatever gates they were supposed to be at… until I arrived at my gate. The gate’s board kept alternating posts about half a dozen other flights, none of which were mine. A quick scan of the gate area told me that there were a lot of confused travelers and the clerk at the gate desk looked a bit more perplexed than most would or should be. I walked up and confirmed that I was in the right place – it was just a “technical difficulty” (something you always want to hear at an airport). A knit-hat-wearing hipster college kid with the mother of all acne attacks sitting near me, and who overheard my entire conversation with the gate clerk, struck up a conversation with me:

Hipster College Kid: Dude, are we in the right place?
Me: Oh yeah, it’s just a problem with the boards.
Hipster College Kid: Cool…dude…are you sure we’re in the right place?

He repeated this conversation a few times, leaving me 1) wondering what he was on, and 2) tempted to lie and convince him to go to another gate at the opposite end of the airport. Luckily, whatever he was on kicked in and I left him at peace to snore it off. Truth be told, I would never really do that to anyone, especially since it would come back to bite me in the ass sooner or later.(1)

Unlike the flight to San Francisco, the flight back East was filled to capacity, and I was trapped in a window seat next to a couple who spent the majority of the flight curled up together and out cold. This wasn’t so bad except that my return flight curse kicked in and the girlfriend sitting next to me was firing off “silent but deadlies” the whole time she was asleep.(2) I was never so grateful for relieving myself before a flight and thank God I didn’t have any checked baggage when we landed. The only real annoyance was the plane’s service and entertainment computer crashed shortly after takeoff, so unless passengers paid with cash, ordering food and anything beyond sodas and water wasn’t possible, and you couldn’t access any of the entertainment features. With a few movies saved on my tablet and enough reading material and crosswords to catch up on, I was fine. I even managed to doze off for a bit (and I rarely can sleep on anything moving). The flight made great time, landing almost 45 minutes earlier than planned, and if it could, my bladder would’ve shaken the pilot’s hand for a job well done. While trying to disembark, the couple in front of me were taking all the time in the world walking off the plane. It turns out, the wife was more focused on her phone than walking, and I accidentally bumped my carry-on into her heels once or twice. Clearly annoyed, she turned to me and said:

Woman in Front of Me: Keep bumping your bag into my leg won't get me to walk any faster.

But before I could utter an apology…

Woman Behind Me: Then put the phone away bitch, because you clearly can't do two things at the same time!

The other passengers laughed and cheered.

Welcome back to the East Coast, Scott. We've missed you.

(1) Well played, karma, well played.

(2) The couple I sat next to on a flight back from Hawaii earlier this year had similar issues, but I figured that was because they were a little drunk and/or just Australian.
Traditionally, early August to late September is what many in my profession refer to as the “feeding frenzy.” It’s a magical time of the year when the zeal of Summer is winding down and the promise of Fall’s cooler weather is just around the corner; parents are giddy with excitement over little Mackenzie-Britney-Hunter-Logan-Tyson-Madison heading back to school; and some ambitious souls desperately try to sneak in a few last beach weekends before it’s too late. But for proposal specialists like me, it’s a time of the year when government contractors do more proposal work in two months than the rest of the rest year combined. It’s an energized period where frantic execs do their best impressions of chickens with their heads cut off, and government agencies desperately earmark their remaining budgets to defend against future budget cuts. The bottom line is contractors are making their last, mad grab for revenue and agencies building their cases for keeping every dime of prospective funding. After that, the fiscal year becomes like the aftermath of so many wild parties – fuzzy hangover memories and not-too-familiar coworkers refusing to make eye contact with you. Someone once said that the two things people don’t want to see made are laws and sausages. A close third is winning government contracts, where the deals between contractors and agencies are pretty much the same ones between Congressmen and working girls on 14th Street (and the pimps in both cases are wearing equally bad outfits).

Understandably, this time of the year is absolutely miserable for anyone involved in proposals. By and large, the proposal business tends to be “feast or famine” work, so the “feeding frenzy” is the apocalyptic time we “proposal pushers” hate with a passion. Developing a proposal has enough pitfalls, surprises and “cat herding” on any given day, but combined with the “feeding frenzy’s” short deadlines and rabid execs flailing about from still-can’t-kill-Keith-Richards levels of caffeine, energy drinks and soul-crushing “make your annual quota” pressure…it’s fair to say that God was too kind for giving us alcohol in all of its many varieties. The added wrinkle for this time of year is people like myself can’t make any big travel plans until October 1, when the Federal government’s fiscal year ends and contractors collapse like under-trained rookie marathon runners. Because of this aspect of my work, I’ve developed the habit of treating myself to a reward for surviving this time of year. Two years ago was a fantastic trip to France, last year didn’t happen due to work commitments (but made up for it with a trip to Hawaii in March 2013), and for this end-of-the-fiscal-year reward, it was white water rafting in West Virginia.

I’ve only been white water rafting once before, and it was along a stretch of the Shenandoah River which isn’t exactly known for its impressive rapids (i.e., “rafting with training wheels on”). I’ve been hoping indulge my passive death wish by repeating the experience on a more challenging river.

Back in July, my friend Caroline included me in a mass email to her friends – a group of outdoor adventurers who go on ski trips, etc. together. Thanks to layoffs and a still struggling job market, Caroline left the Washington, DC area and went into exile back in her hometown near Detroit, and she was anxious to see her friends again. She planned a trip to West Virginia for some really-worth-the-trip rafting through a special deal on Travelzoo, and since it fell on the last weekend of the “feeding frenzy” period of my work, it was perfect timing for me to get out of town. She managed to nail down commitments from about a dozen of her friends and we rented a cabin that most of us crashed in (a few camped out). The deal was through the River Expeditions outfitter group for one day of wild rafting down the Lower Gauley River.

Gauley-River

White Water Rafting in West Virginia – Day 1 (September 27, 2013)

White Water Rafting in West Virginia – Day 2 (September 28, 2013)

White Water Rafting in West Virginia – Day 3 (September 29, 2013)
I opted to take the entire day off since 1) things were settling down at work, and 2) the drive from the Washington, DC metropolitan area to Oak Hill, WV is a very long, five-hour drive (little known fact, Oak Hill’s singular bit of notoriety is Hank Williams’ dead body was found there back in 1953). The days before leaving were spent gearing up with some things I didn’t have on hand – a decent-sized cooler (one person brought the food that we all chipped in on, and the rest of us brought assorted beverages of the alcoholic variety to share), an extra sleeping bag (some were concerned about the sleeping arrangements), and quick-dry outer wear. Naturally, work wasn’t quite done with me and I was coerced into a morning conference call which ended just in time for me to get the Hell out of town by lunchtime. After a few stops to get some last minute items and gas, I was on the road.

Relativity on I-81

Having spent seven years of my life at Virginia Tech,(1) I was all too familiar with I-81. Granted, it falls short of a coast-to-coast road trip, but except for the brief passes by Harrisonburg/James Madison University, the “city” of Roanoke,(2) and the Virginia School for the Deaf and the Blind,(3) there’s absolutely nothing of interest down that particular stretch of tarmac. I have vivid memories of driving home to Northern Virginia or heading back down to school where the long trek between Strasburg, VA and I-64’s west-bound split from I-81 was akin to traveling at lightspeed – where higher speed limits seem to slow time down or grind it to an unnerving halt. Passing farms and fields of grazing cattle, you can almost hear the farmer lazily waving back at you with a bellowing, slow-motion “HEEEEELLLOOOOO…”

I haven’t done this drive in a few years (the previous two were a weekend trip to see one of Virginia Tech’s spring football scrimmages, and the other part of a group motorcycle ride), but the familiar landmarks jogged memories of previous road trips – sitting in bumper-to-bumper holiday traffic as all of the big universities and smaller colleges let out, adventures in overloaded cars with college friends en route to concerts and other events, heading home for the summer or going back to school with most of my earthly possessions. I even remember driving north on the stretch between Virginia Tech and Roanoke and passing by one of my then roommates surveying on top of a median hill for the civil engineering company he used to work for (I’m still not sure if he realized who it was honking at him).

Is it odd to be a sentimental over a boring piece of interstate?

(1) No, smartass, I didn’t get my degree on the “extended” plan. I completed my BA and MA work there back-to-back.

(2) The town formerly called “Big Lick” has the distinction of being home to Ancient Art Tattoo where I got my first tattoo. Roanoke was also home to the now defunct Roanoke Express, a mid-league hockey team so bad that fans would heckle the team in hopes of starting a fight with them since they weren’t fighting the opposing team.

(3) My family lived in Charlottesville, VA for a few years while I was growing up, and the only available special education at the time for my autistic sister was at the former DeJarnette Center in Staunton, VA. For many years, I thought the Virginia School for the Deaf and Blind was that former school, but I was obviously mistaken.


West Virginia – Wild and Wonderful

Heading west on I-64 through southwestern Virginia and then West Virginia is a roller coaster ride of dodging slow trucks up one mountain ridge after another and then racing them on the downside. Since I drive an SUV, I’m not exactly greased lightning, so I played highway tag with a few other drivers zipping in and out of tricky spots. On top of that, this is West Virginia, a mysterious, foreign land where the local hobbies consist of various misdemeanors (with varying levels of nudity), shooting road signs, moonshining, meth use and cops doling out speeding tickets to drivers with out-of-state license plates. So, I made sure not to let my lead foot get out of control too much. As I got closer to my destination, I couldn’t help to notice the numerous road signs for several “gentlemen’s clubs” – so many, in fact, that I was beginning to wonder if the local economy relied on stripping as the second largest form of revenue. The most heavily advertised place was called Southern Xposure,(1) which while tempting to check out, a few of us mused later that it would be tough to find even one girl there who was both attractive and had all of her teeth.(2)1378039_10153326272605447_1938561587_n

I was the first to arrive, so I had the first look at the cabin. The outfitter’s grounds cover a big piece of land, so the cabins and support/operations buildings formed something of a small town. Everything even slightly resembled something out of the old west, complete with dirt/gravel roads begging for a gunfight at high noon. The cabin itself was…interesting. The thing to keep in mind is this is at an outdoor sports mecca, so one doesn’t journey to central West Virginia expecting a stay at the Ritz. However, the description we were given defined the cabin as having accommodations for up to a dozen people with a kitchen and a bathroom. Well, they didn’t lie…if you consider all of the beds situated in one room upstairs as the accommodations and a kitchen empty cabinets, a sink, microwave and coffee maker. The bathroom was decent enough, but the shower stall was one of the more claustrophobic ones I ever had to use.(3) There was a decent-sized grill sitting out on the porch, so cooking was meant to be simple. If you were hoping for soufflés and escargot, then you wandered into the wrong part of the world, my friend. If you’ve spent any time on an outdoor adventure, then you want your meals to be easy to cook anyway because a lack of energy and/or sobriety dictates against anything more complicated than grilled meat on a bun. And frankly, there are few things more simply perfect than that.

I stopped in Beckley, WV on the way in to fill up my cooler with ice, and the two cases of Blue Moon I brought along were ice cold perfection by the time I unloaded and kicked back on the cabin’s picnic table.(4) Shortly afterward, two older women from the neighboring cabin hopped over to chat and were curious about whether our cabin was the same as theirs. Besides the fact that I could smell the booze they were already drinking (admittedly, I was already starting my second Blue Moon of the evening), they asked about taking a peek inside while walking in without stopping. Since I hadn’t unpacked my personal stuff yet, there was nothing inside beyond the furniture, so I let them wander in, yammering away with each other the whole time. We discovered later on that their group was entirely made up of women of a certain age range, so we nicknamed their cabin “Cougartown.” They were nice and our fire pits were next to each other, so there was a lot of shared conversations with them both nights. Some of the guys in our crowd did some flirting with them, but I heard one or two cock blocking declarations like “My husband…” or “My boyfriend…” which I’m assuming killed hopeful prospects for some of our crowd.

A few of our group who opted to camp out showed up a shortly after the cougars wandered back to their cabin and we were chatting it up and drinking while the rest of our merry band steadily arrived. Now, when I say that Caroline is notoriously full of energy, what I really mean is connecting her to a turbine would solve the world energy crisis. Given her move back home to Michigan, she was understandably and pretty damn hyper to see everyone when she arrived. She’s a ball full of spastic energy under normal operating conditions, so you can imagine her bouncing-off-the-walls enthusiasm when she’s excited. By 9:00 PM, everyone was there, many drinks consumed and bratwursts eaten. The cabin also came with a fire pit, so that was blazing away by sundown, which made things cozy in the chilled mountain night air.

Eventually, exhaustion and anticipation for tomorrow’s big river ride got the better of us and we retreated to our respective tents or faux-concrete beds. Fumbling in the dark to get sheets on the bed and collapse was accompanied by my fellow cabin mates’ snoring. Since I’m not exactly unknown to snoring, I can’t be too hard on anyone else who does, but one person suffered from one of the worst cases of sleep apnea I’ve ever heard in my life. At times he would go eerily silent, only to disrupt the night’s peace by gasping for air. Before falling asleep, there were a few moments of that absolute silence where I wondered if needed to shake him. Not only to make sure he was okay, but because I’ve yet to sleep in the same room as a dead body, and I wasn’t ready to scratch that particular item off of my bucket list.

(1) If you have ask yourself “I wonder if this link is SFW?” then you need to get off the internet and never come back.

(2) Then again, you may not want her to have all of her teeth…and you’ll have to get your own brain bleach for that one. You’re welcome.

(3) My hotel room’s shower stall in Bordeaux is still the hands down winner for first place. Given that I’m not a giant in stature, for me to say a space is a bit cramped can only imply far worse for larger and taller people.

(4) I also brought a bottle of Captain Morgan and sodas for mixing, and there was an ongoing competition of some people hiding it in the freezer or leaving it out on the table.
“Breakfast of Champions” and a Wetsuit’s Lesson in Humility

Dawn arrived after a night of light sleeping interrupted by tossing and turning due to unfamiliar surroundings and the self-awareness of sharing a room with people I don’t know.(1) Despite early Autumn’s teasing of cooler weather, we were in that wonderful prime time of warm days and cool nights. I love these precious few weeks where you need a fire at sundown, but by noon you’re stripped down to shorts and t-shirts. As it turns out, a few of us worried that the weekend might be too cool to enjoy being in a mountain river (most decidedly as we cuddled around the fire pit the previous evening), but things were working out with daytime temperatures topping out around the 80°F mark.

Slowly but surely, everyone woke up and were moving around. An attempt at making coffee in the “kitchen” proved a bit futile since the coffee maker was way too small to provide enough for the dozen of us, and someone mentioned that the outfitter’s dining hall offered a complimentary breakfast, so we marched down to enjoy a morning feast. One of the basic rules of travel is unless a hotel has an award-winning restaurant, anything labeled “complimentary” roughly translates from ancient hotel-speak as “sucks balls.” Granted, one or two places might surprise a weary traveler with strangely edible or even tasty food, but otherwise it’s a safe bet that whatever is served will be 1) about as yummy as old cardboard with that “former homeless guy’s bed in an alley” flavor, and 2) worn off less than an hour after eating it. I’ve had my share of undercooked powered eggs and rubber-posing as sausage, so I didn’t have any lofty expectations (and again, this was a river outfitters and camp, it isn’t supposed to be five star). Choices were a tad sparse, so our “feast” amounted to coffee, bananas, English muffins, stale doughnuts and fresh-from-concentrate juices. Sometimes, food is just the stuff you need to get you from Point A to Point B, so we inhaled what we could, then went outside to determine our next steps.

The outfitters reported that the river water temps were somewhere in the “very low 60s,” so the idea of toughing things out in just swim trunks and quick-dri shirt was giving visions of shrinkage dancing in my head. The prospect of potential hypothermia, as well as my testicles climbing so far back up that I’d need to re-experience puberty for them to drop again wasn’t very enticing. The wetsuit rental was next to the assembly area, so a few of us trekked over to find out rental rates and availability. Whether it was God, fate or blind luck, the outfitters weren’t about to run out of wetsuits, so we all put in to rent a pair each with the accompanying jacket. Having collected our gear and given the meeting time for our ride, we marched back to the cabin for what might be the most fear-inducing part of racing down wild rapids – donning a wetsuit.

I remember once watching a Red Skelton skit on TV where he pantomimed trying to work his way into a girdle. It was one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen, and it didn’t dawn on me that karma might get me back for laughing at that silly bit…until now. In general, I hate wearing tight or constrictive clothing – suits and tuxedos are living Hell for me, spandex feels creepy (in more than one way), and a “banana hammock” is out of the question.(2) Thing is, wetsuits are specifically designed to match every curve and nuance of your body, while feeling like it’s trying to slowly smother you to death. Up until now, the tightest thing I ever wore was a pair of biker shorts, and I hated every moment of it. Since I’m like most people, I could stand to lose a few pounds, so slowly pulling on my wetsuit proved yet another reminder that I need to crank up my gym attendance a notch or two. Once inside and sweating to death in my personal neoprene self-cooker, I couldn’t help pondering about how many others did the same thing in my wetsuit…as well as how many people may have kept warm in their wetsuits using a more…practical method.(3) This dawning realization ensured that there wasn’t enough hot water or soap in the entire state to cure my OCD issues tonight.

(1) Admittedly, I’ve always been very self-conscious around new people, and especially my sleeping habits given that 1) as I mentioned earlier, I snore, 2) as a kid, I would go to bed in PJs and wake up nearly naked because even back then I hated feeling too warm, and 3) I’m an introvert, so I generally don’t like being in places where I have no personal space. In fact, when I’m dating someone, my sleeping habits radically alter from being a firing-a-cannon-off-next-to-me-won’t-work-because-I’m-a-dead-to-the-world sleeper to a wakes-up-at-the-drop-of-a-hat light sleeper.

(2) As I said before, you supply your own brain bleach.

(3) Known in NASA social circles as the “Alan Shepard Maneuver.”


A River Guide with Missing Toes

After waddling down to the assembly area in our wetsuits, water jackets and shoes, we received a brief lecture about how the-ink-is-still-wet waivers we just signed ensure that we can’t sue the outfitters upon our deaths, and that the gear we were about to be given was essential to preventing said deaths. Our river guide John called out for us to circle around him for his additional lecture on the day’s itinerary. He seemed like a nice, articulate, mountain man-goateed guy, though I couldn’t help staring at his flip flop-adorned feet and notice that several toes on each foot were missing from various knuckle points. While I know you don’t “need” your feet for river rafting, the question floating around in the back of my mind was “is this something I should be concerned about?”

After a few more pieces of advice from John (e.g., falling out of the raft is bad, drowning is bad, not trying to help rescue yourself is really bad), we loaded up into the buses for the hour drive to the launching point. En route, the river guides rode up front, offering more advice about how to survive the rapids, what to expect at certain points, and as we passed through the towns of Oak Hill and Fayetteville,(1) a review of the local restaurants, including Tudor’s Biscuit World. We all agreed that the name alone justified a visit to before we all went home.(2) Between lack of a good night’s rest, still sweating to death in my wetsuit and sitting in a stuffy bus, the warmth coaxed me into a sleepy state and I tried closing my eyes a few times. However, I was repeatedly shaken out my trance from the many bumpy roads and sharp turns that no former school bus was ever meant to take at high speed.

(1) As luck may have it, I spent three years of my childhood in Fayetteville, NC. The main differences between the two places are that Fayetteville, NC has the Army’s Fort Bragg next door and possibly higher standards for local table dancers.

(2) See Day 3.


Into the Drinkgauley-river-rapids

The launch site was busy with groups rallying around their rafts or taking off into the rolling water, and after a final reminder of things to remember (don’t fall out, don’t drown, help save yourself), we lifted up our raft and dropped it into the river.

And that’s when I remembered the reality about wearing a wetsuit.

The nice thing about wetsuits is when you actually want them to keep you warm. They work well because, in addition to being super insulating, they trap water inside, allowing your own body heat to warm it up. The thing is, that trapped water first needs to actually warm up before it’s really effective (and this is assuming you’re not pulling an “Alan Shepard”). That fact escaped my realization before we clambered into the river. As the raft was ready for launch, we were nearly up to our waists in the water, so when John told us to jump into the raft, our compliance was as instant as it was enthusiastic.

The course we took started near Ender Waves (Class III), and shortly afterward we hit our first set of rapids at Backender (Class IV). Having never been on real rapids before, the dawning realization of risking life and limb suddenly hit me, and one of my raft mates observed that I looked a little “concerned” at the time. I tend to approach new experiences with a little trepidation (e.g., I barely slept the night before I got my first tattoo because I was imagining what it would feel like).(1) When it comes to dangerous activities, I’m obviously not much different – in fact, I still remember the first time I went repelling. It was over a gorge in western Virginia off of an unused train bridge and I must’ve spent a solid 10 minutes staring down, trying to psyche myself into trusting the rope and harness holding me. The fact that I have a mild fear of heights didn’t help. However, once I commit to the activity and feel the adrenaline rush hit me, I’m as giggly as a school boy.(2) As we hit the first real rapids, the rush hit and I was all smiles the rest of the way down the river. There’s that hyper-moment of fear when you see churning white water, or having your raft dump into a “pit” of foaming water at Canyon Doors (Class IV) and then slam into the raging wall of rapids now over your head at Heaven Help You (Class IV), followed up by the sudden enthusiasm for more. After the first few rounds of riding the rapids with moments of wondering if any of us were about to drop into the water, we were whooping it up until lunchtime.

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In the pictures, I’m on the right, second from the front and wearing sunglasses. Caroline is the one wearing a jacket with green sleeves behind me.

We stopped at a covered patio area set up for the lunch break, and we were ready for some food given that our river riding had definitely burnt off our meager breakfast. We ate our fill of sandwiches, potato and pasta salads and nearly drank our body weights in water. However, that’s also when the other reality of wearing a wetsuit hit, and I rushed over to the nearby trail to figure out how to tactfully peel off enough of the wetsuit to relieve my I-drank-too-much-coffee-this-morning bladder. The trail was far enough away from the rafters to get the job done without exposing myself, but I noticed a dozen other men looking for their own spaces in similar fashion. In short order there was a whole group of us sighing in relief while trying not to make eye contact.(3)

With full bellies and anxious to get back into the river, we were off. The rapids along the Gauley River varied mostly between Levels III and V, so there was plenty of exhilaration throughout the afternoon. There were a few rapids where John suggested people hop out and ride through them in the water, so a few raft mates did just that. I’m kind of kicking myself for not having done that since it looked like fun, but had a final chance in the last leg of our trip. Just before passing through either Lower Stairsteps or Roller Coaster (both are Class IV), John suggested that if we were feeling “particularly frisky” to jump out when he yelled “GRENADE!”

Now, like most people, I’ve done a few things or gotten myself into a few situations that are arguably among the stupidest things I’ve ever done. I like to think that the majority of those times were either unforeseen or unavoidable, but the fact is, I’ve done and probably will continue to do some really dumb shit. There are some prime examples – playing adult flashlight tag on a wooden, castle-style playground after a few too many drinks, trying to jump a dirt ditch on my bike as a kid, dating one or two of my less-than-stellar ex-girlfriends, etc. To date, the hands-down, grand prize winner is riding my motorcycle through a tornado cell. I was trying to race an imminent storm front from the dealership back to my home, but time ran out and I ended up in torrential downpours, almost zero visibility, flash flooding, slick roads and winds so strong that I had to lean into them at a 45° angle. It wasn’t until I was home with the news on that I discovered it was a full-on tornado cell terrorizing the area. And this was on top of having to share the road with the DC area’s not-so-cordial drivers who are assholes under the best of circumstances (and even worse if they’re driving a Lexus, Mercedes or Toyota Prius).

So, when John yelled “GRENADE!”, only two of us went for it. I’ve been through rapids while tubing and even in the water during some of those river rides, but nothing like these. With the water moving as fast as it was, I expected to drop in, pop back up and fly through the rapids – quick and easy. However, my first thought after dropping in was “Why am I not coming back up?” And when I finally did, it was just long enough to swallow a mouthful of oh-so-healthy river water.(4) Suddenly realizing that I was no longer in full control of my fate, I took to heart John’s last cardinal rule (help with your own rescue) and began swimming as best I could back to the raft, which from the voices I could hear, my raft mates understood that I was far from being a happy camper at that moment. Somehow I managed to grab the raft, still hold onto my oar (we were told to do so no matter what) and help my raft mates yank me up by my life jacket, which ended up halfway over my head by the time I was back in the raft. The other guy to jump in was having similar issues, so while still gagging and coughing up river water, I leaned in with one or two others to grab him out of the water. I managed to get a solid handhold of his lifejacket’s shoulder strap, but also his sunglasses, as well. As we lugged him back into the raft, I felt the sunglasses snap in my grip, and suddenly, the concern for his life was a distant second as he yelled “MY OAKLEY’S ARE BROKEN! MY OAKLEY’S ARE BROKEN!” He was a nice enough guy, but my impression of him was that he had a bit of a too-serious-for-his-own-good streak, and I wondered if I was going to spend the rest of the trip listening to endless griping while negotiating the reimbursement for his sunglasses. Fortunately, they were designed to snap back together and life was happy again (a few of us discussed later how it was kind of annoying to hear someone bitch about broken sunglasses while helping him not drown).

The last big rapids were Pure Screaming Hell (Class V), which definitely lived up to their namesake, and a final thrill of a trick maneuver where we partially landed the raft on a rock outcrop, then letting the river pull us back in and around for a wildly fun 360° spin. The rest of the trip was a lazy river ride until we reached the end meeting point, and loaded the rafts and gear onto the trailers for the trip back.

(1) If you don’t have one and/or are thinking of getting one, yes, they hurt like Hell. However, this experience introduced me to the fact that I have a high tolerance for pain, too.

(2) However, this isn’t the same thing as the notorious “Giggly Scott” who, as we discovered one New Year’s Eve, loves to come out when I’m both drunk and dead tired.

(3) We were all well-schooled on the unofficial Man Law of no chit chat at the urinals.

(4) It’s a few weeks later and no visit from “Aunt Giardia,” thank God.


There’s No Graceful Way to Take Off a Wetsuit

Once back at the outfitters, it’s fair to say that, like a visiting relative who stays after you’ve cleaned everything and stripped off the guest bed, the wetsuit had outlived its welcome. Fortunately, I was wearing a quick-dry shirt and shorts under the wetsuit, so I could strip it off as soon as we walked over to the rental counter. Any visions one might have of Baywatch type people in sexy poses while stripping off swimwear in slow motion are pretty much torpedoed in the aftermath of a white water rafting ride. Several of us let out a collective sigh of relief as we unceremoniously removed the Velcro shoulder straps and peeled off the top halves of our wetsuits. Though it was late afternoon, the temperature was still in the mid-70s, but the cooler air hitting us felt as refreshing as an arctic blast. Unfortunately, the act of revealing ourselves with less grace than actors auditioning as zombie extras for The Walking Dead also reminded me that I REALLY had to pee. Consequently, the need to get rest of the wetsuit off became a Hell of a lot more compelling than simply avoiding being smothered. Throwing off water shoes over open gravel while bracing myself against a wall with one arm and half hopping out of the rest of the wetsuit proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that I hadn’t missed my calling as either a professional dancer or ninja. As we handed our wetsuits back, a woman next to me asked why they were being thrown in what can best be described as a vat of steaming “wetsuit stew.” The outfitter clerk working the counter answered back by asking me if I had peed in my suit. I answered no and he unceremoniously called me a liar.(1) The woman nervously laughed and quickly shuffled off, no doubt to take the longest, hottest shower of her life.

Freed of our wetsuits and feeling the first chills of pre-Twilight, we scampered back to the cabin and took turns waiting for the one and only shower to become available. This was my first shower since the previous morning, so I was feeling about as uncontaminated as a New York City taxi cab and probably smelled worse. In short order everyone was cleaned up and we went down to the outfitters’ local bar to watch videos of the day’s ride. Most of us went back to the cabin for burgers and hotdogs, but a few, including an intern from Caroline’s office and a very cute girl in our group who were flirting with each other, stayed to enjoy the “nightlife” of the rustic West Virginia bar scene.

Back at the cabin, beers were popped open, rum and cokes mixed, and burgers and hotdogs were grilled. Well fed, buzzed and now craving dessert, we carpooled down to where the others were camping to circle around their fire pit and attempt to make smores, which became more a free-for-all of roasting marshmallows and telling dirty jokes. As the night progressed, exhaustion began picking off one weary soul at a time until a bare few of us remained around the fire. Eventually, Caroline’s intern/coworker and female friend showed up, drunk and/or high and all giggles. Shortly before wrapping things up, the girl wandered over to the next camp to hang out with some people we met earlier on the river. Strangely enough, Caroline’s intern/coworker suddenly stood up and marched off without saying a word. As we packed up to head back to the cabin, the intern/coworker was long gone and we elected to go searching for him en route to the cabin. However, the consumption of alcohol had taken its toll, so we were taking turns relieving ourselves before loading up in the cars. As we were waiting outside, who should show up but the object of our search. For whatever reason, he decided he wanted to go back to the cabin and apparently waiting for us wasn’t an option for him. Satisfied that everyone was where they needed to be, and completely exhausted, everyone crawled into their respective sleeping bags and/or onto their stone-like mattresses for a well-earned night’s rest.

The delicate grunts and snorts of the snoring dead whiling us away to dreamland.

(1) You’ll simply have to live with the mystery of whether I actually did or didn’t.
Packing Up

Given the “comfort” of my bed, I was surprised to wake up somewhat refreshed and before 8:00 AM. Like the previous morning, people were waking up and wandering around at their own pace. Caroline was up shortly after I was and we spent some time on the front porch chatting it up about life, the universe and everything, while waiting for each of us to have our turn in the shower. As we gathered things up and figured out what to do with trash and recyclables,(1) the cabin steadily returned back to its original, sparse arrangement.

At long last, Caroline gathered everyone together to thank them for coming out for the weekend. To say that she’s missed her active social life while living in exile out in suburban Detroit is putting it mildly. Besides being a lot less cosmopolitan and diverse as Washington, DC, the old friends she has in her hometown are married and/or having kids, so the dull life has been slowly taking its toll on her. That being said, she started to get a little choked up during her speech, and hugs quickly followed.

As well as growling stomachs.

(1) A few of us had a collective “Duh!” moment when we finally realized that the box next to the outdoor trashcan was marked “RECYCLE.” We spent most of the weekend tossing bottles and cans into the regular trash. Nothing like ending a wonderful weekend on an outdoor adventure by feeling the shame of your inner environmentalist.

Biscuit WorldBW

A few were planning to hit the road for their long drive home, but the majority of us decided that we wanted to get breakfast before heading back to reality. En route to the launching point yesterday, our river guide John pointed out several local eateries worth checking out, including the “world famous” Tudor’s Biscuit World.

Oh yes, we had a plan, and it was to see this legendary home of biscuits for ourselves.

We quickly pulled together a couple of caravans to blaze a trail to our destination and promptly hit the road. Now, I’m not 100% sure what exactly Caroline inputted into her GPS or whether her GPS was functioning properly, but it took us on a merry chase, forcing us to backtrack twice before figuring out where exactly we needed to go. And as luck would have it, we finally arrived at our destination in downtown Oak Hill…only to find out that it was the wrong location.(1) Back on the road again, we finally arrived at the correct Biscuit World in Fayetteville, and like a drunk sailor on shore leave who wandered into the wrong Bangkok massage parlor, I was starting to think this may not be the happy ending we hoped for. The place was crazy busy with the sounds and sites of a usual Sunday morning crowd – would be church goers getting a quick bite before or after church and the woeful lament of the hungover who wished a church could cure them. It was clear from the moment we entered that the place was a renovated fast food joint,(2) and choices amounted to about 10 meal options.(3)

Given how busy things were and the size of our group, it took a while for all of us to be served, and the food was about what I expected – quick, hot and no real surprises (which was a welcome and pleasant outcome for this establishment). To be honest, I was so hungry at that point that I would’ve eaten anything they put in front of me, whether or not it was what I ordered and/or marketed as the "road kill du jour."

On the Road Again

With food, coffee and orange juice eagerly consumed, the time came to hit the road back to the Washington, DC area. We said our good-byes and clambered into our cars. A quick stop at the local gas station to fuel up and get some bottled water, and I was barreling down I-64 East. Given that it was only about 10:30 in the morning and the I-64/I-81 junction was only a 30 minute drive north of Virginia Tech, I spent most of the I-64 drive pondering the logistics of taking a side trip for a brief visit of my alma mater, but I was more eager to get home and collapse. Though it still leaves me with a deep desire to make a road trip down there soon.

Of course, it wasn’t until I returned home that I realized how much I love my own bed and food that takes more than 10 minutes to prepare.

(1) As evidenced by the other caravan not being there and eventually calling us, wondering where the Hell we were.

(2) I’m torn on what the place used to be – possibly a former McDonald’s, but more likely someplace classy like a Hardee’s.

(3) Insert stereotypical joke about the locals not being able to count higher here…and zing.

Oahu, Hawaii Trip 2013

Man, Do I Need a Vacation…

August through October 2012 was a roller coaster ride of a heavy workload (How busy was it? So busy that I needed to cancel on a California winery trip that I had been looking forward to since Spring of that year…more about that below), the holidays were the holidays, and February heralded itself with a layoff from the company I diligently worked for over the past three years (As in three years to the very day). Fortunately, my line of work (Government proposal coordination and management) is almost always in high demand (Despite these tough times of budget cuts, sequesters and paralyzed politics), so my being laid off was a mere four weeks of down time. I landed on my feet with a new job at small IT government contractor, and the new group let me keep my March travel plans despite hiring me a few weeks previous to them.

In October 2011, Paul Cathcart and his Never Travel Solo group (Through the Virginia Wine Club on Meetup.com) organized the previous Bordeaux, France trip I’ve written about in this blog. As I mentioned above, he organized a California trip in October 2012 that included visits to Napa and Sonoma valleys and San Francisco, but work commitments forced me to cancel my plans for that trip. Like the 2011 France and 2012 California trips, Paul spent a fair share of time and energy planning the Oahu vacation – hotel, venues and activities. I’ve said this before, and it almost goes without saying, but Paul is the unsung hero of these trips – he has a passion for travel and experiencing the world and all of its diversity. He really exemplifies the best of a service industry and complete dedication to his customers. Throughout the week-long stay, he made multiple trips to the airport (Not exactly an easy or short drive from downtown Honolulu), picking up and dropping off travelers and tour buses, ensuring previously-made arrangements were ready, etc. In short, going above and beyond for us, and this was on top of routinely waking up in the wee early morning hours to address other business issues and his own frequent travel plans (Honestly, I get exhausted just hearing about his work ethic and lifestyle)!

Hawaii has been on my travel bucket list for a long time, and when Paul announced the trip in Spring 2012, no one was more excited for it than I was. The wait was definitely worth it and I scratched a whopper of an itch by visiting several places I’ve always wanted to see. If you get the chance to go, then hop on a plane and see the island (Personally, I plan to go back someday to visit the Big Island and Maui). If you need help getting there, or where ever else you’re planning to go, talk to Paul because he’s the best (Tell him Scott W. sent you).

oahu

Oahu, Hawaii Trip 2013 – Day 1 (Saturday, March 23)

Oahu, Hawaii Trip 2013 – Day 2 (Sunday, March 24)

Oahu, Hawaii Trip 2013 – Day 3 (Monday, March 25)

Oahu, Hawaii Trip 2013 – Day 4 (Tuesday, March 26)

Oahu, Hawaii Trip 2013 – Day 5 (Wednesday, March 27)

Oahu, Hawaii Trip 2013 – Day 6 (Thursday, March 28)

Oahu, Hawaii Trip 2013 – Day 7 (Friday, March 29)

Oahu, Hawaii Trip 2013 – Day 8 (Saturday, March 30)
Whoever Said Getting There is Half the Fun Better Have Died in a Plane Crash

I didn't sleep well before the trip.

Truth be told, I never sleep well the night before a big event or trip. I am, like many people, a creature of habit (Some affectionately refer to it as “OCD”), finding solace and comfort in my daily routine. Wake up, go work, eat lunch, work some more, fight traffic, go to the gym, eat dinner, watch The Daily Show, go to bed.* Not that I don’t enjoy the adrenaline-inducing zeal of shaking things up that’s inherent with any adventure (This includes online dating), but the edgy, nerve-tingling excitement regarding the impending unknown, and muted paranoia of the thousand possible things that could go wrong throughout the next day race through my mind as I stared at the ceiling. Will the flights be on time? Who will sit next to me? Will the in-flight movie suck (And/or star Julia Roberts)? Will TSA respect me when I giggle during the pat down?**

My flight from Dulles International Airport (IAD) departed at 7:00 AM, so factoring in the minimum, recommended pre-departure time before the flight, as well as waking up, showering and a last minute check of everything, I did something that’s pretty damn rare for me. If today seemed particularly nice, lucky, in some way blessed, or the mythical snowball actually did have a chance in Hell, then it’s because I was awake at 4:00 AM. Bleary-eyed and without a drop of coffee in my system to stave off my already-present early morning crankiness (My parents, college roommates and ex-girlfriends will confirm this about me…with varying levels of affection or disdain), I arrived at a surprisingly busy Dulles, the victim of a massive invasion of teenagers and college students of D-Day proportions. Why was I in a sea of acne-riddled nose talkers and knit-headed hipster wannabes not looking where they were going because of their staring at cell phones that were all but surgically-attached to their hands? It was a genuine Scooby-Doo mystery for me at 5:00 AM…until I remembered that it was spring break,*** and all the kids were bolting to destinations where local dress codes consisted of little more than never-taken-off-during-the-entire-trip swimwear,**** flip flops and beer bong paraphernalia.

I don’t know if God, the Patron Saint of TSA or blessed Karma took pity on me, but security whisked me through and away from that teenage wasteland and onto a pleasant flight to my connection at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport (DFW). However, whatever grace made my first flight magically delicious quickly forsook me at DFW. In truth, it was my fault. I was the one who miscalculated that instead of a leisurely 90 minute layover, I had less than 50 minutes to race from where I was to my connecting flight. For those virgin travelers who may be reading this, DFW is big, and I mean REALLY ginormously fucking big. I don’t know if it’s big because it’s that important a hub or if Texas made it that big because it compensates for some unknown insecurity by making or claiming everything in it is big. Somewhere, there’s a middle-aged and balding, less-than-well-endowed, Ferrari-driving, supermodel-dating airport designer whose very survival depends on travelers like me never finding out who he is. Nevertheless, DFW is infamous for two things – the first you know already, and the second is for notoriously placing connecting flights on opposite ends of its massive terminal complex.

DFW Joke

Suddenly realizing my timing mistake and how little time I had as my flight landed, I anxiously pounded off the plane, jumped onto the tram, and took what must have been one the longest tram rides of my life (This includes Disneyland) in a patience-testing slow pace while racing the clock to the far side of the airport. Checking my watch every few minutes, slight but noticeable beads of sweat formed on my brow as time ticked within 10 minutes of flight departure and there were still several tram stops to go until my gate. A couple holding the tram up at one stop while struggling to grab their bags and fight their kids forced me to contemplate expediting their departure with a well-meaning but abrupt shove. Finally, the tram dropped me off at my gate, and with five precious minutes to spare, I reached the gate as a hot, sweaty mess with crumpled boarding pass in hand. As I stood there trying to compose myself, the so-perky-they-might-inadvertently-endanger-their-lives-with-the-wrong-customer airline attendants explained to me that the flight was delayed due to a group of kids who were on a late connecting flight. Considering that the alternatives were the uncertain prospect of hopping on an undetermined later flight, or worse, being stuck in Texas, I was understandably happy and grateful for the delay.

Relaxing on the plane, the other passengers and I waited patiently for the remaining kids to board. Now, it isn’t the waiting that was getting on our collective nerves, but the looped track of Hawaiian ukulele music they kept repeating over the speakers. I’ve always said that a little bit of Cajun zydeco music goes A VERY LONG WAY,***** and I now share that feeling about ukulele music. I was never so happy to hear the squealing gaggle of caffeine-crazed pre-teens, heralding the end of the in-any-other-situation-it-might-be-soothing Hawaiian music. The flight from DFW to Honolulu was nearly nine hours, but uneventful and even comfortable. The only downsides were constant cloud cover hiding our approach to the islands, and discovering that my cell phone wouldn’t power back up after landing because I mistakenly left it out of “Airplane Mode” (i.e., lack of cell signal means the phone switches to active search mode, draining the battery in minutes).


* There may be some porn-watching time mixed in here somewhere, but I will neither confirm nor deny it, nor when I watched it…I mean if I watched it. Don’t judge me.

** I don’t think they cared.

*** Paul picked this week specifically so that any teachers could take this trip, and in fact, several of the people in my travel group were teachers.

**** Possible exceptions include stripping for Girls Gone Wild cameras, drunken flings, orgies and impromptu hotel toga parties…all of which can happen at the same time.

***** Don’t believe me? I worked at the Wolftrap Farm Park ticket office one summer in college and had to help with their annual Cajun music “Swamp Romp” festival. I’ve done my time in Purgatory.



Aa – lo – HAAA, BITCHES!

I landed in Honolulu around 3:00 PM local time and Paul said to call him after I was done at baggage claim. Honolulu International Airport (HNL) is an interesting airport, where you alternate from indoors to outdoors several times on the long walk to baggage claim. Waiting for my bag to come around, I found a power outlet and briefly charged my phone a little so I could fire off a couple of text messages telling Paul where I was. Quickly enough, Paul pulled up with another of the recently-arrived group in tow and we were off…until we wondered why we still heard outside traffic so clearly. A glance backward showed us that the van’s back gate hadn’t latched shut and was wide open, but thankfully none of our bags had fallen out, becoming airborne missiles or improvised speed bumps. While Paul was his usual, jovial self, the other passenger was a shy, dour woman with absolutely no sense of humor. Her only other remarkable quality was her proclaiming that she is a vegan without anyone really asking her in the first place.*

The Ohana Waikiki West Hotel is in downtown Honolulu, across Kuhio Avenue from the famed International Marketplace and a few blocks from Waikiki Beach. When we arrived at the hotel, there was yet another reminder that tis’ the season of spring break as the lobby was wall-to-wall with high school bands and sports teams, as well as their blatantly ignored parents and teacher escorts. Ohana Waikiki West is in the middle of one of the most in-demand travel destinations on Earth, so I didn’t think much of that until the front desk explained how there were network cable connections in every room, but the only available wifi signal was in the lobby. My mood darkened at this unfortunate development. For the past few years, I’ve traveled with my trusty Samsung Galaxy tablet, which is a godsend for accessing email/internet, carrying multiple books without the bulk, and/or having games to play without lugging around a laptop or going blind from miniscule smart phone screens. The fact that most hotels and airports have complimentary wifi made that tablet worth every penny I paid for it…until now. Not that I intended to be checking emails that often while in paradise or that I couldn’t access them on my phone, but it meant trucking downstairs 15 floors anytime I needed to use my tablet. Plus, the cherry on top of this particular crap sundae was having to fight for couch space next to squealing teenage girls and no-concept-of-personal-body-space boys** was a damn convincing reason to stay off the tablet.

After a badly-needed shower to wash away 12 hours of travel funk and brief nap, we met down in the lobby for a quickie introduction since not all of us knew each other, a quick review of our itinerary for the week, and then journeyed across the street to the International Market to check out its food court, which reminded me of many of the street food locales Anthony Bourdain frequents on his travel shows.*** After a more than satisfying meal of shrimp and calamari, we made our way back to the hotel where I enjoyed the cool night air with the room’s sliding door open…until the neighbors below me lit up and graciously shared their secondhand pot smoke.**** I didn’t mind too much since the wind blew most of it away and my body, exhausted and confused from crossing far too many time zones in one day, was steadily convincing the rest of me that it was 3:00 AM instead of actually 10:00 PM. Nevertheless, I collapsed into bed without remembering falling asleep.


* Except for our scheduled tours and events, we saw very little of her. So little in fact, that we all speculated that she may have spent a significant amount of her free time in her hotel room. We were on the same floor and I only bumped into her twice, one of which we took the elevator down without her speaking a single word.

** As well as their questionable hygiene or applied amounts of Axe body sprays which should be considered a felony.

*** Coincidentally, my choice of reading for this trip was his book The Nasty Bits, which is a collection of his magazine articles and essays. I recommend it if you love food and/or biting sarcasm.

**** Except for a cigar once in a Blue Moon, I never smoke. In fact, the one or two times I tried cigarettes were the times I was convinced I was going to die from my own curiosity. As for pot, I can safely say that I’ve never tried it and the smell alone makes me gag.



First Impressions

Three things immediately struck me about Honolulu.

First, the vibe of the place reminded me a bit of Miami, but without the emphasis on style and image. At the risk of sounding stereotypical, there’s a definite “hang loose” mentality, and despite it being a bustling city, the locals all seem very relaxed.* Pretty much the only people I saw dressed up were either hotel staff or wedding parties. Second, the city’s layout is an odd mix. Part of it comes from the hilly terrain of the island, so you go from what looks like any city block, urban skyline to suburban-like housing complexes lining the sides of steep hills. The other thing that struck me about this was as the city spreads out into the suburbs, there are tall, narrow apartment and condo buildings reaching up into the sky, surrounded by almost unnoticeable houses next to them. Very few of these skyscraper-esque buildings were grouped together, so they looked strangely out of place compared to their much lower surroundings. Finally, I noticed a definite homeless population. I’m not talking about just a few scraggly-looking bums wandering around, but whole packs of them patrolling the streets while pushing shopping carts littered with their few earthly belongings and creature comforts. Not that I assumed that everything is perfect in “paradise,” but the homeless have a definite, in-your-face presence. One that’s absurdly curious and sadly interesting at the same time.**


* Compared to the Washington, DC stick-up-their-asses atmosphere, this was a bit of a culture shock for me.

** Honolulu’s homeless problem is far more serious than I thought. It’s become a huge concern based on tourist complaints and major headache for the locals given the limited space and resources inherent with island life. A Google search brings up articles like Hawaii Homelessness and For Honolulu’s Homeless, an Eviction Notice that paint eye-opening portraits of Honolulu’s dark side.


Back to Introduction
Went to Bed in Honolulu, Woke up in Seattle

The one, unfortunate piece of bad timing with the trip (Besides the onslaught of spring break teenagers and college co-eds) was that we were visiting Hawaii at the tail end of its “wet season.” It starts in November and typically winds down by March, but this particular season was lasting a little longer than expected. What we witnessed throughout the week (Especially on our catamaran cruise) is while parts of the island were soaked by torrential downpours, other parts might be warm and sunny. However, this morning wasn’t one of them. In fact, the local weather reports claimed that we could expect on and off rain through the following day (The local, TV news weatherman even said "You better bundle up!" because the evenings would be in the low 70s). I recall this as similar to being in Miami (Notorious for brief but heavy afternoon downpours). The storms would roll in, people got up and went inside, waited for the rain to pass, then went back outside again. This particular morning a storm rolled in, but it was taking its sweet time leaving, so the sunny Honolulu I flew into the day before had been replaced by fog and grey mist.

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The first picture is from my balcony, looking northeast. The second is from the elevator lobby, facing south toward Waikiki (Just beyond the buildings – a few blocks from the hotel).

Since our meet time wasn’t until later in the morning, I used the rainy weather as an excuse to tour the International Marketplace and stock up on my chotchkies collection.* Not that the market was all cheesy gifts and knick knacks that you could find anywhere, but there are a few artisan shops and the like, too. I was sorely tempted over a local carpenter’s merchandise (Mostly trunk-sized tiki idols, walking canes, etc.), but they were too big for my bags and shipping would’ve cost an arm and a leg. I managed to find my share of t-shirts, magnets, etc., and yes, I dared the 70s TV gods by buying a cheesy tiki idol.** I quickly discovered (And I wasn’t the only one based on accounts from others in my group) that the market is a maze with little view of the sky or any other outside landmarks to get your bearings. Deciding to head back to the hotel to prepare for the afternoon’s excursion, I ended up going around in the same circles and arriving at the opposite entrance from my hotel multiple times. Sadly, practice didn’t make perfect and other excursions into the market ended the same way nearly every time.***

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On the left, the entrance for the International Marketplace. On the right, I can’t help wondering how many visitors have bought and showed these off to or given to friends as “eccentric” ashtrays.


* I’m the person with a magnet and shot glass from almost everywhere he’s been. The only exception is not having a shot glass from Bordeaux, France. I found one that I badly wanted to buy, but the shop only had one left and one of the women I was traveling with also wanted to buy the same shot glass, too, so I let her get it (I’m a sucker). Fortunately, one of my cousins and his wife just finished a tour of France, including Bordeaux and I asked them to pick up a shot glass for me while they were there.

** If you haven’t seen the Brady Bunch’s Hawaii adventure, then go watch it and don’t remind me about how old I am.

*** The frustration was only matched by my horror of discovering a Cheesecake Factory restaurant across the street from the other entrance (To say nothing of the Chili’s at the corner of my hotel and a Denny’s across the street), ALL WITH WAITING LINES. While there’s something to be said for needing comfort through familiarity, the idea of going out to a chain eatery while traveling is just wrong and to be avoided at all costs. Almost to the point of starvation.



Extreme Measures for a Snorkeling Excursion

The plan for the afternoon was a snorkeling trip to Hanauma Bay, on the southeastern tip of the island. Having bumped into one or two from my travel group throughout the morning, there was a mix of concern and confusion about the day’s plan given the persistent rain. Meeting at our scheduled time, Paul reassured us that snorkeling was still on and determined to get the most out of our plans despite the frustratingly crappy weather.

The tricky part about visiting Hanauma Bay is it’s heavily protected under environmental laws. The bay is a popular tourist spot and overuse was harming the local flora and fauna. Paul explained how the bay trip was in danger of not happening because the laws prevented groups of more than a dozen to visit, and even then, tourist vans weren’t permitted near the bay. We took our van to the bay park’s pick up site, where we had to pile into an official park van for the rest of the trip in. Once there, we waited a little longer and attended a mandatory lecture on the bay, explaining what not to do (Pretty obviously, no touching coral or petting the local sea life) and where not to go. The fact that the lecture was given outside in a slightly chilly rain didn’t brighten our moods. Even with grey clouds and light rain, the bay is pretty impressive and beautiful. Walking down to the beach definitely helps you appreciate its tucked-away appeal and fascination, and wishing we could see it with the sun out.

Jumping in was our first lesson about Hawaiian waters – they aren’t as warm as you’d think, and even less so when it’s overcast. Again, we were a determined bunch, so we dove in and tried to do our best. Sadly, snorkeling is one of those activities best experienced on a sunny day, where the water is easier to see through and the coral and fish colors are much more vibrant. Nevertheless, swimming around, you could see convict fish, jacks, even a few squid and an eel that scared the Hell out of me.* We were there during low tide, so it was pretty much impossible for sea turtles to wander in.


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Although the bay isn’t that large, these pictures make it appear smaller than it actually is.

The original plan was to stay until late afternoon, but the rain was lingering and everyone’s mood was as chilly as the wind making us shiver, so we called it an early day and headed back to the hotel.


* In addition to my not liking eel as a food, they genuinely freak me out a bit. Swim goggles tend to magnify everything, and while the eel was probably a dozen feet away, it looked like it was close enough to chew my face off.


Drinking Our Body Weight in Pineapple Juice

After heading back to the hotel and cleaning up, we decided to go out for an early dinner and find Moose McGillicudddy's – one of a local chain of good Irish bars in Hawaii. A good meal and a few too many Mai Tais later, jet lag was still fighting us and we crashed.

Back to Introduction
The North Shore

The morning announced itself with the very welcome return of the sun and a clear, blue sky. Hawaii finally looked like what I imagined! With a full day ahead of us, we met early, only to find out that three of the people in our group still hadn’t arrived due to some particularly bad weather hitting the East Coast. One late arrival was there, but without her luggage. How she managed to tour that sunny, warm, humid day in jeans and a jean shirt without dying is beyond me.

Fruits and Flowers and Trains, Oh My

First stop was the Dole Plantation (Yes, as in the produce company). Not far from Haleiwa, the plantation isn’t just acres and acres of pineapple plants, but a diverse garden, and yes, a bit of a tourist trap, but a beautiful one. The tour includes a train ride showing all of the different flora they grow, including coffee, mangos, sugar cane, bananas, cocoa, etc. Despite it being a little bit of a poor man’s Disney ride, the train ride offers beautiful views, especially when you find out that Dole owns just about everything for miles surrounding the place. Incidentally, the train ride is called the “Pineapple Express” and there were more than a few obvious pot jokes. Personally, I thought it was kind fun, but its bumpy ride is murder on your kidneys.

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Turtle Watching and Hiking Waimea Valley

We left the plantation and headed up to Waimea Valley, and along the way stopped at Laniakea Beach, which is famous as a preferred beaching site for local sea turtles. Unfortunately we only saw one, which I didn’t even see until I was literally on top of it, but he/she didn’t seem to mind. I think.

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You be the judge.

Next up was a hike up Waimea Valley, a lush forest full of just about everything that could possibly grow in Hawaii,* and ended at a small waterfall with freezing cold water. Well, it felt freezing by comparison. A few of us either weren’t brave enough to jump in or didn’t wear/bring our swim suits, so we had to watch a few of the others yell and gasp as they hopped into the water. I managed to stick my feet in for a while, but pretty much made up my mind not to go all in if I ever wanted to father my own children someday.

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* Interesting fact – much of what we think of as indigenous plants there aren’t native to Hawaii. Okay, maybe you remembered that from high school, but somehow I forgot about it.


Haleiwa

Once we finished walking back from the waterfall, it was early afternoon and we were definitely hungry. We made an extended stop at the town of Haleiwa for lunch at the shrimp trucks and then shaved ice at world famous Matsumoto's (You may have seen it on the Travel Channel), which was definitely worth the stop. The town is pretty rustic, and reminded me a little bit of Ocracoke Island in North Carolina’s Outer Banks. It’s an artsy, laid back town that relishes its popularity with the surfers and is pretty much all locally-owned eateries and shops. We toured several of the art stores and found Bali Moon, a designer’s shop with all kinds of artwork and some furniture I wish I had the money and means to ship back (I ended up buying a few hand-carved wooden sea turtles). Afterward, we stopped at Waimea Bay for some beach time. There’s a beautiful beach there, and any other day would’ve been just what we needed, but the surf was way too intimidating for comfort (And by “intimidating” I mean at least 10 and 15 foot high monsters crashing down). What amazed/impressed/scared us was a line of kids standing in the surf and letting the waves pound over them. The lifeguards said the warnings were out for “swimming at your own risk” and we decided right then and there that it wasn’t the time to challenge Mother Nature.

There’s a Palace on Waikiki

We returned to the hotel with enough daylight left to enjoy some time at Waikiki Beach. Our neck of Honolulu ends right at the beach and even in the early evening, it was pretty crowded. If you’re thinking of a picture-esque, tropical getaway, this really isn’t it. It’s a nice, long beach, but you’re smack in the middle of the city, so it’s an odd scene with an urban jungle ending at the beach line. The sun was starting to set, but the air was warm and the sea felt amazing after a long day. As I mentioned earlier, I definitely noticed the number of homeless people scattered about. It’s a bit of a jarring experience to see beautiful people on the beach just a few feet away from someone who probably hasn’t had a bath, decent meal or roof over his head in a long time. I don’t think it’s too much to add that there’s a social statement made by that kind of symbolism. I would’ve thought that some of the surrounding hotels/resorts or police would chase the homeless away, but they pretty much camped out at any convenient spot on the ground.

Afterward, a few of us cleaned up and checked out the Moana Surfrider Hotel, also known as the “First Lady of Waikiki.” It was the first large hotel on Waikiki, and a palace compared to the other hotels around it. Even the lobby (Which reminded me of a plantation estate) was jaw-dropping gorgeous. One look at their in-house restaurant The Veranda convinced us that we should settle for the bar, and even the bar menu was amazing to eat from. We drank local beer (Kona’s own Fire Rock is an AMAZING pale ale) and ate appetizers until we were stuffed. According to Paul, we seriously didn’t want to know how expensive the rooms were at this hotel, and based on what I saw, I believe him.

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Back to Introduction
Do Working Girls Stay Up Late or Wake Up Early?

As I’ve mentioned previously, I’m not a morning person, so waking up before sunrise is generally a tough, and most times precarious experience for anyone with me or I encounter shortly after waking up in the ungodly wee hours of the morning. However, the big event for today was very early in the morning – a hike to the top of Diamond Head, so we needed to be up early to 1) hike while it was still relatively cool outside, 2) avoid most of the crowds, and 3) see the sunrise from the top of the crater. We were scheduled to meet downstairs at 5:45, so I was up at 5:00 and down and waiting for the for the shuttle bus to the park just as the hazy black of night was melting into twilight’s hues and tints of blue.

The shuttle bus was delayed as it picked up other hikers, so while waiting, a painfully thin but attractive blonde woman in a club outfit (i.e., skin tight, sparkly and a mini skirt resembling a belt so much that she may very well have bought it from the women’s accessories department). I didn’t give her a second thought until I heard the dull clopping of the platform shoes she was either deliberately stomping in or never wore before. She had the slight stagger and stumble of someone who was still buzzed or not down from their high, and all while apparently texting on her phone. She walked by us, turned around, walked by again, and kept making her “orbits” around us until she decided to move on. As she walked away, a big huge mountainous guy in a leather coat* popped out of the woodwork and walked off with her. In short, I think we saw our first prostitute and her pimp. Why she felt a group of mixed company tourists in obvious hiking clothes were good “Johns” to check out is beyond me.**


* Even if it was dark out and just cool enough to justify wearing a long-sleeve t-shirt, but Huggy Bear wearing a leather coat in Hawaii?

** Beyond what I’ve seen on HBO’s “Cathouse” series (Which I don’t assume to be anywhere close to reality), I can’t claim to know that much about the business practices of the world’s oldest profession.



To the Top of Diamond Head

DSC01580The shuttle bus arrived and we were dropped off at the park entrance while the sun was still below the horizon. After our share of pictures at the entrance, we started off on our 0.75 mile uphill trek. Even at 6:30 in the morning, there was a steady stream of other hikers and routine joggers/runners heading up hill. In fact, throughout the hike, I couldn’t help noticing how several runners made multiple passes by us. Apparently, it’s pretty common for dedicated runners to make multiple circuits up and down the crater trail.

On our way up, a few of us were keeping an eye on the oldest member of our travel group. He was a 63-year-old retired teacher from New York City who was bent over in a permanent stoop and sounded EXACTLY like Alan Alda – mannerisms and all.* The two things he constantly reminded everyone about on the entire trip was 1) he’s Jewish and from New York, and 2) he’s retired and “didn’t give a fuck” what you thought about him or his social status. Now, it’s not being fair to him when I say that because he was generally a nice enough man, DSC01598even if he got on our collective nerves a few times because no one’s statement or question EVER went without his unsolicited comment/answer/response (And sometimes at the other person’s expense). He previously told us how he was concerned that the hike would cause him dire back problems, but he was a trooper and made his way up, if trailing the rest of us from time to time.** After the hike, we didn’t see him for the rest of the day because he made a bee-line to the local hospital for an epidermal shot and bed rest to recover.

The hike up to the crater summit isn’t a difficult walk, but there are places of very uneven ground and the infamous “99 steps” near the top, that are disturbingly steep to climb up (Even more intimidating coming back down). Halfway up, the sun was above the crater line and creating long shadows where ever we looked. As we reached the top, the view proved to be worth the effort – 360 degrees overlooking Honolulu and the surrounding area was AMAZING (Admittedly, I was pretty camera happy and took more than my share of pictures at the top). The hike back down was relatively uneventful, but took longer due to the influx of other tour groups who weren’t up as early.

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Sunrise and half way up the hike.

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At the top.

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* One striking thing about this man was when he told us he’s 63 years old. My Dad is a few years older than him and he looks at least 15 to 20 years younger by comparison.

** Oddly enough, he became notorious for zipping off and disappearing in the blink of an eye, which he pulled off at Pearl Harbor, but read about that in the next day’s entry.



Taking it Easy

We arrived back at the hotel by 9:00 AM and everyone split off to do whatever they wanted since the rest of the day was free time. I decided to spend some time in the hotel pool to cool off. My initial plan was some beach time, but the sunburn on the back of my neck from the previous day and the morning’s hike convinced me to stay in the shade.

A few of us spotted a hand-made Raman noodles restaurant called Marukame Udon a block or two from the hotel. What always grabbed our attention about it was the always-present long lines of people waiting to eat there, and most of them were Asian. One of my goals for the trip was to eat only at places that weren’t big chains, and a few of us decided that the travel axiom of “if there’s a line out front, then it must be good” regarding local eateries applied. After waiting in the relatively fast-moving line, we discovered that the other patrons had good reason for waiting – they were some of the best damn noodles I ever ate, and my modestly “small” bowl stuffed me by the time I was done.*

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Seriously, the crowd is justified, and the place is worth waiting for.

After lunch, I went exploring down along the main drag of Waikiki Beach, which consists of high-end, big name, uber-expensive stores and boutiques. By late afternoon, lack of sleep and being active the past few days caught up with me and snuck a nap in before the evening. For dinner, a few of us ate at a place cheesily named The Chart House that overlooked one of Honolulu’s many marinas. Walking in, it looked like any beach area seafood joint trying to look better than the others – dark wood and decor, light up fish tanks, nautical-themed knick knacks hanging everywhere, etc. And while it didn't look that impressive, the food was phenomenal (I had the Chilean Sea Bass and Macadamia Nut Ice Cream – both of which I’m still craving). Afterward, we went back to Waikiki to take some night time photos.

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The statue is of Duke Paoa Kahanamoku, the “father of international surfing.”

A little apprehension shared at the table was that tomorrow was our scheduled trip to Pearl Harbor and some touring around the city, but weather predictions were for a bad storm to hit, so we were hopeful that it wouldn’t ruin the day for us.


* By comparison, Paul is a man of “generous” appetites and his “large” bowl of noodles was big enough that even he couldn’t finish it.

Back to Introduction
Up Early…Again

I was woken up around 2:00 AM because the guests next door were REALLY enjoying each other’s company and wanted everyone to know it. I’m not sure what language they were yelling in, but it sounded like they were having a pretty good time. Regardless, we needed to be up early this morning so we could head over to Pearl Harbor. Thanks to the amorous wakeup call provided by my fellow hotel patrons, I was up early enough to grab some coffee and a scone from the coffee place next door. Heading back to my room, an Australian carrying a cup of something from Starbucks stepped into the elevator with me. He noticed my coffee wasn’t from Starbucks, so the conversation went something like:

Australian: Eh mate, you’re a yank, right?
Me: Yeah, why do you ask?
Australian: I just had my doubts because I have Starbucks and you don’t!
Me: That’s okay, I had my doubts about you being Australian.
Australian: Because of my accent?
Me: Nah, because you aren’t holding a Fosters.

He laughed.

Pearl Harbor

Thanks to the sequester passed by Congress, one of the cut backs it requires is reducing operating fees for some of the national parks and monuments, and Pearl Harbor now ends tour services at 1:00 PM. As a result, we arrived at the monument and museum entrance, which was already mobbed by tour groups and other tourists waiting to buy tickets for ferry rides to the USS Arizona Memorial and the USS Missouri. Despite the fierce competition from other tour guides, Paul was the last one to grab available tickets for the day, but they were the last 8 tickets, which was a problem for our dirty dozen. As it happens, most tour guides know the deal and try to snatch up as many of the tickets as possible, so Paul bartered with a few of them to trade for tickets we could all use. The down side was we had to go to the Arizona Memorial in separate groups, but at least we were all able to go. Unfortunately, we had the predicted on and off rain coming through, but our tickets weren’t until noon, so we hoped that the rain would be gone by then. We killed time by touring the museums, which were pretty impressive in their own right, including unguided tours inside the USS Bowfin, a World War II-era submarine (Where I appreciated the conditions those sailors worked and fought in, and was glad that I wasn’t the tallest man in the world while walking through there).

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The sub is the USS Bowfin, the memorial is for everyone who died during the attack, and the USS Arizona’s anchor.

Before you go out to the USS Arizona Memorial,* the park requires you to watch a short movie that offers some perspective about the history of what happened at Pearl Harbor. The fact is, when you visit the memorial, there are men entombed below you, so there’s an understandably intense need to make sure visitors show respect there. Being a bit of a history buff and a former military brat, I already value what Pearl Harbor represents today, but the reminder and message passed on by the movie really puts you in the right mind set before getting on the ferry. Fortunately, the rainy weather held off just long enough for my group’s ferry ride out to the memorial, but not for long, and on top of that, my digital camera’s battery died, so I had to rely on my not-as-nice camera phone the rest of the day.

Between the movie and the memorial, it’s a somber, moving experience. Seeing parts of the battleship beneath you or sticking up out of the water gives that sinking (no pun intended) feeling about the reality of being where one of the most notorious moments in history happened. The crowd was quiet, and even kids were shushed quickly. The one thing that threw me off about it was strong smell of petroleum in the air. The Arizona’s wreckage is famous for its remaining oil slowly leaking and floating up to the surface, creating what’s known as the “tears of the Arizona.” It augments the somber feel of the place, as well as the Missouri watching over the sunken battleship just down the shoreline. The gesture of having the remains of the Arizona and her crew (Representing the beginning of our involvement in the war) symbolically watched over by the Missouri (Representing our ending the war in the Pacific) wasn’t lost on me.

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On top: The USS Missouri keeping watch over the USS Arizona, and the “tears of the Arizona.”
On the bottom: Arriving at and inside the memorial.



* On a more humorous note, the older gent I mention in the previous day’s outings caused a bit of a panic for us at Pearl Harbor. While he painfully and slowly climbed up Diamond Head, he was buzzing around like a kid on a sugar high all over the museums today and disappeared on us shortly thereafter. Paul corralled as many of us as possible to look for him, but the man was gone. We found out later that he somehow managed to hop on an earlier ferry to the memorial without telling anyone. As the week went by, we all noticed that despite his health issues, this man REALLY moved pretty fast on his feet.


A Temple and a Cemetery

The rain soon returned once we finished up at Pearl Harbor and headed back around toward Honolulu proper. After a not-so-great lunch at a Thai place we found, we visited the Byudo-In Temple in the Valley of the Temples Memorial Park, and possibly one of the most serene places I’ve ever been. The temple is a is a replica of a 900-year-old Buddhist place of worship at Uji in Kyoto, Japan, complete with koi ponds, meditation niches, a huge Buddha and giant peace bell outside (Sadly, we couldn’t ring it because the giant ringer was chained up). It was an apt follow-up to the somber Pearl Harbor, and is definitely one of the more beautiful places of worship I ever visited.

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Our last tour stop for the day was the Punchbowl Pacific National Cemetery, basically the Arlington Cemetery of the Pacific. The entire grounds is inside a volcanic crater (Hence the name “Punchbowl”), which gave the place a bit of a surreal feel with terrain curving up all around you. Almost on cue, the rain stopped when we arrived, the clouds parted and the sun came out. Unfortunately, the clouds didn’t part enough to take decent pictures of the overlook down to Honolulu.

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The waves of rain kept coming in and out the rest of the day, so the consensus was to head back to hotel for some pool time during a break between rain storms. Coming back from dinner that night, an army of scantily-clad Australian teens poured out of the hotel lobby to go clubbing. I think it was the only time I had the lobby and its wifi all to myself.

Back to Introduction
Finally, Sleeping In and Some Real Beach Time!

With today being almost completely unplanned, I relished the opportunity to sleep in without an alarm waking me up, as well as my next door neighbors doing precious little to make sure I didn’t sleep in (Or if they did, I didn’t notice).* Despite all of that, I woke up just after sunrise and peeked outside to see grey clouds everywhere. Not sure if that bode badly for beach time, I went back to bed and woke up later with the sun out and quickly burning off the cloud bank hanging over Honolulu. It was kind of fascinating to glance out from time to time and see how far the clouds had lifted up, eventually rising above the ridge to the northeast that was home to Punchbowl and eventually revealing Diamond Head to the southeast.

By mid-morning, a group of us were planted out on Waikiki beach, which was already nearly over run with sun worshippers and sunburnt tourists so red they’d glow-in-the-dark. Paul worked out renting chairs and umbrellas, and despite some very light and momentary spritz of rain, the sky was clear while lounging on the beach. Diving into the cooler-than-expected water was an interesting experience, but within moments you went from awkwardly protecting your sensitive parts to swimming out to the middle the sandbar area. Swimming in those waters was a little treacherous given the number of snorkelers, paddle boarders and catamarans sailing into or away from the beach. Strangely enough, the paddle boarders were the most polite, yelling “heads up” or “behind you” as they slipped by. The catamarans simply honked an obnoxious air horn without stopping, making them the douchebag Mercedes drivers of the coast. The payoff for swimming out is the sandbar that’s about two tenths of a mile from shore where the water is slightly warmer and waist deep. Swimming back, I found a few pieces of dead and broken off coral, one of which I added to my collection at home. I would’ve taken the other piece because it was larger, but it was a disturbingly grotesque shade of grey and so misshapen that it looked like something a CGI-development-group-in-someone’s-parents’-basement rendered monster would crawl out of in a Syfy Original Movie. Besides, those movies always take place somewhere more exotic/remote or less cosmopolitan, and I didn’t want to be known as the dude who destroyed the earth-toned paradise of Reston, VA (I mean, they just brought the Metro out here…).**

After some perfect beach time, we found out that one of our group who left before the rest of us apparently lost his wallet, though he suspected he may have even been pickpocketed while walking back to the hotel. He spent the rest of the afternoon and following morning dealing with how he’d get on his plane without ID.

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It’s a rough life here, isn’t it?

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A real clash of the “haves” and “have nots” – that sign almost seemed comical (no shopping carts?) until I spotted the home less guy on the right taking refuge in the cabana area.


* In retrospect, I’m hoping that whomever was in that room wasn’t utilizing the services of the hooker we encountered the other morning.

** Along with my habit of collecting small rocks from places I visit (Which include St. Emilion, France; several wineries near Bordeaux, Virginia Tech, a piece of the Berlin Wall, and now the top of Diamond Head), I already have two pieces of coral – one from Grand Cayman and another from Miami’s South Beach. The one from South Beach has sentimental value because I came across it while walking out of the water, tripped over it and face planted into the surf and sand. As I looked down at it, I thought it was just a small piece of coral sticking up, but when I pulled it out of the sand, it turned out to be the size of a melon. TSA must must have scanned my carry on five times in the x-ray machine trying to figure out what the Hell it was.



Come Sail Away with Me

In the early evening, we went on a sunset catamaran cruise. Taking the shuttle bus down to the marina, I couldn’t help noticing the “tent city” across the street full of homeless occupants. It was a miniature city state of tarps and old tents that had seen far better days, rusting grocery carts and makeshift cardboard walls lining the sidewalk. It’s population and mix local occupants dressed in varying quality of clothing, some talking to each other, others glaring at us as if we were responsible for their lot in life. This was a stark contrast to the jaw-dropping yachts moored across the street. We discovered that one of the yachts is owned by Goggle CEO Larry Page and the other by Oracle founder and CEO Larry Ellison. I’m pretty sure both yachts are bigger and more advanced than some countries’ navies, and Page’s had a helicopter pad (Complete with awaiting helicopter) on the back end…no doubt further surpassing other countries’ naval resources.

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The left picture is of Larry Page’s yacht, and Larry Ellison’s is on the right. Both aren’t floating in sea water. It’s actually a giant puddle of drool from all of us gawking at them.

The catamaran excursion took us out and around Honolulu to the other side of Diamond Head, giving us fantastic views of the city and coastline. Several small rain storms were passing through different parts of the city, creating magnificent rainbows (Which Honolulu is known for, and at one point we saw a double rainbow). The added perk was the boat had a full bar serving Mai Tai’s and other rum-laden drinks, so all was right on board.

The ride back offered amazing views of the sun setting, and we drifted a few times to catch fleeting glimpses of passing whales and dolphins. The cruise definitely put me in a Zen frame of mind,* making me a bit more quiet than usual. Maybe it was spending a whole week waking up early every day, all the running around and exploring, or the still lingering jetlag that I couldn’t shake off, but I was in a contemplative, centered place on that boat. The only thing to damage my calm was our 63 year old New Yorker who felt obligated to share not-so-clever quips or unsolicited observations. Being in such a good frame of mind, I suggested he get himself another drink which 1) led to him finding others to pester, and 2) get buzzed enough to quiet down a bit.** Needless to say, the cruise was definitely a highlight of the trip…and justified your hatred of the “two Larries” (Page and Ellison).***

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* This mood may have been influenced by the choice beverages I imbibed.

** He ended up joining a dozen or so men hitting on the cute woman bartender (Who wasn’t giving out any free drinks no matter what they said to her while getting the evil eye from several abandoned wives or girlfriends on board).

*** By the time we made port, the yachts’ running lights were on, making them look like the Starship Enterprise.


Back to Introduction
What Has Been Seen Cannot be Unseen

It was Good Friday, heralded by an overnight wave of rain and soupy humidity, but turned into a beautiful, sunny day. Most of today was also unplanned, so some of the group ran off for their final shopping sprees, one woman in our group went on a swimming with dolphins excursion (Not included on our shared itinerary), and Paul took some of our late arrivals back out to the Dole Plantation since they missed out on it earlier in the week. I looked for a few more odds and ends to bring back with me,* and did a self-guided tour of the Ala Wai Canal since the hotel was just a block or two from the northeast end of it. Walking along the canal was more or less peaceful as other tourists took pictures, runners/joggers passed by, etc. The only thing to ruin the morning was having to pass by an obese man on a bench sunning himself. Not that sunning yourself is offensive, I mean, who am I to dictate who can or cannot have their time in the sun? But he had stripped off his t-shirt and had a far-smaller-than-he-should-be-wearing pair of jean shorts laid across his lap. Thus, he was leaving it up to anyone’s imagination to decide if he was somehow undressed underneath the strategically-strewn jean shorts or if he had the skimpiest of banana hammocks on. Regardless, I was content to move on with my life without an answer to that particular mystery.

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After a worthwhile lunch at an all-you-can-eat sushi bar (A few of us went), I packed and arranged my bags for tomorrow’s departure since I wasn’t sure how late we’d be arrive back from our luau.**


* A friend of mine was kind enough to check in on my place while I was away, so I owed her a few packages of Kona Coffee (Her request), and I went back to the International Market to buy a few prints from one of the stores I spotted earlier in the week.

** Since we arrived back at the hotel just after 10:00 PM and I had a 4:00 AM wake up call, this was a good decision.



Saying Good-Bye to Hawaii

Naturally, what visit to Hawaii is complete without a luau? While it may be true that luaus may rank right up there on the stereotype meter with ukulele music, hula skirts and Mai Tais, but like many things, they’re born from age-old tradition. And if it involves good food, alcohol and scantily-clad beautiful people dancing, who am I to question tradition? Paul managed to book us for what he considers one of the better luau events on Oahu at Paradise Cove. An army of us piled onto a tour bus for the 45 minute ride out to the resort (Which was beautiful in a cruise ship/Disneyland sort of way), and we were entertained by Richie, our bus guide and on-board stand-up comedian. Arriving at the resort’s luau setting, you’re greeted by some of the most beautiful people on Earth – the luau’s dancers (Male and female) – all of whom were magnificent to behold. Before the festivities, there were a number of events and demonstrations to attend and participate in, everything from learning how to make leis, spear throwing, net fishing, and even fake tattoos (I choose a tribal one drawn on my forearm that made me consider getting real tattoo number three). Navigating the crowds and paying attention to the events was a little hard considering the luau dancers were periodically walking by, causing everyone to develop serious neck strain.

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On the Top: A traditional fishing boat and a mesmerizing lesson on properly tying your skirt.
On the Bottom: It was fun having a fake tattoo on my arm, but not sure I’d have the balls to that for real, and we were fascinated by the net fishing class…I’m really not sure why…


Finally, it was time for the start of the luau with the emu ceremony, which mainly involves two men (Who looked like they were sumo wrestlers who decided that juggling sumo wrestlers was more fun) walking out and pulling the roast pig (Emu) out of the underground fire pit. The smell of roasting pork was more than enough to make us run to the food line.

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Dinner was announced and everyone ate their fill of traditional food – roasted pork, chicken and all the trimmings. Also, I finally tried poi, which many have told me is the very definition of a “love or hate” food. Thanks to my willingness to try anything once, I dug in and spooned out an ample helping of poi and it was the first thing I tried when I sat down. Based on some the negative reviews I’ve heard about it, the question I always wanted to ask is can poi be the worst thing I ever eat? I was in Berlin in 1990, just months after the Wall there fell and the then Eastern Block countries were opening up to the west. On my last night there, a group of us ate at a restaurant and were served what must’ve been the most depressing chicken dinner imaginable (And I’m being kind when I call it “chicken”). The “dessert” for that evening was some sort of unidentifiable, flavorless “fruit” encased in a clear, tasteless gel (Think Jell-O only without taste and much, much thicker). To date, it’s one of the few things I dared trying without really knowing what it was and spent the rest of the evening fighting my gag reflex from the disgusting memory of it. The dessert was vile beyond anything I can comprehend or remember to this day. Surprisingly, poi isn’t quite that bad, but I rank it as a not-too-distant second place by comparison.

As dinner wound up, the show began and we were treated to an hour of watching paragons of human physicality hula dance, march and prance on the stage. Men were entranced by gyrating hips in hula skirts and barely-there tops and women swooned over perfectly-conditioned men. The highlight was, of course, the fire knife dance, performed by a man who I want to come back as in my next life.

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With our stomachs full and camera batteries drained, we piled onto the bus for the ride home and said our good byes in the hotel lobby (Most of us were leaving at different times the following day).

And no thanks to the anticipation of tomorrow’s travel itinerary, I didn’t sleep well that night either.

Back to Introduction
Early Rising and Smelly Australians

In keeping with my natural dislike for early mornings, and especially ones that require waking up before sunrise, I set up triple redundancies for making sure I didn’t oversleep, including using my room’s alarm clock, requesting a wakeup call from the front desk and my cell phone’s alarm feature. Needless to say, I was up and ready to go with a few minutes to spare. Paul was waiting downstairs, already having taken one of our group to the airport and I wasn’t the last person he’d be taking out there today. Again, you can’t beat his dedication to service.

I arrived at a surprisingly busy Honolulu International Airport, but made it through security relatively fast. In fact, I found myself with over 90 minutes to kill after passing through security. Compared to my fighting through crowds at Dulles and the mad dash at Dallas/Fort Worth, it was nice to sit down and have some coffee and a bite to eat before boarding the plane. Since we were flying with the wind, the flight time back to the mainland was just over four hours, but they were spent next to an Australian couple who were nice and meant well, but had a certain odor about them. I don’t know if it was just their lack of cleaning up after whatever they did the night before, or the God-awful “silent but deadlies” the girlfriend was tooting next to me the whole time, but it made for a long flight back.

I Don’t Love L.A.

DSC01970aI arrived at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) on time and with a good two hours to spare until my connecting flight. However, it took most of that time to figure where the Hell my connecting flight was. I quickly discovered that the airport could not care less how travelers find their way around. LAX is arranged with 9 terminals, each housing different airlines. In theory, this makes things easy if you’re connecting on flights that are on the same airline. Unfortunately, my connecting flight was on different airline, so once I was off the plane, the information screens only told me what was arriving and departing for that specific airline, and none of the others. After wasting loosing a piece of my youth spending time waiting for a not-so-helpful help desk clerk, she informed me that I needed to leave the terminal and walk down to another one that was – naturally – at the opposite end of the airport. In addition, after trying to figure out LAX’s not-so-helpful guide maps,* interrogating loitering TSA agents and playing 20 questions with bottom-dwelling airport staff passing by, I discovered that the terminals are completely separated from each other. This means I needed to leave the secure zone terminal I was already in and go through security AGAIN to get to my connecting flight’s terminal and gate. As I stood in a very long security line (Both in front of and behind two families with kids who were 1) not happy, and 2) making sure everyone in the airport was aware of this), I reflected on how DFW at least tells you where you need to go, even if it’s on the far side of Texas. I decided right then and there that LAX is my new, favorite airport to hate.


* I’m not exaggerating by any means when I tell you that except for the “You Are Here” marker and where the closest restrooms and gift shops are, LAX’s guide maps offer absolutely no useful information.


Home Again

The flight from LAX to Dulles was uneventful, though a little amusing because I discovered that the man sitting next to me had personal space issues. I took a small amount of humor in watching him either lean more and more into his wife on the other side of him, or curl up into a smaller and smaller ball if my elbow came anywhere close to him on the armrest we shared. Arriving at a quiet Dulles (It was 1:00 AM local time), I navigated an obstacle course of weary, tired travelers to the baggage claim, made trickier by dodging a few kids who were dressed head to toe in Disneyland memorabilia. It was half cute/half frustrating trying to grab my bag as one kid was habitually looking for his, being oblivious to who he tripped or whacked with any number of Mickey Mouse-laden toys and whatnot flapping about.

A short cab ride later I was home early Easter Sunday morning, my home safe, secure and blissfully free of pet stains. I took a quick shower and collapsed into my own bed with visions or hula girls and tiki idols dancing in my head.

Back to Introduction

France Trip 2011

Timing is Everything

I’m in a group on meetup.com called The Virginia Wine Club that checks out many of the Virginia wineries. Up until now, I believe the furthest they’ve gone on an official group trip has been Maryland, so this was their first attempt at an international wine adventure. The trip was organized through the group and the first email announcement about it was sent out at the beginning of the year. One of the organizers is a guy named Paul Cathgart* who runs his own travel agency/business and set up the arrangements for the trip (the head organizer, Allen Liska, has contacts through his wine journal CellarBlog – especially for the wineries we visited on the trip). A few months later in May, the official announcement was released and I made damn sure I RSVP’d yes for it.

* Paul is, without a doubt, the unsung hero of this trip, having spent a huge amount of personal time and expense through his travel business to prepare, set up the arrangements and make all the reservations for the trip. Not to mention his nearly flawless execution of said arrangements (barring a few hiccups and thinking-on-his-feet moments!).

I haven’t been outside of the U.S. in a long time (over 14 years), so this was a golden opportunity to get back on track regarding promises I made to myself to travel more and see a little more of the world (work, money, lack of available time off and relationships being significant obstacles to this end). That and with my interest in wines, who wouldn’t jump on a chance to visit the old country and experience wineries that have been making incredible wines for as long as they have (Admittedly, it’s a bit disheartening from now on to visit VA wineries who might boast about their “long history” of making wines compared to wineries that have been doing it for decades or even centuries longer. In fact, I joked at our first winery visit – “And now, here ends our appreciation of Virginia wines”).

To say that 2011 has been a busy year is putting it far too mildly.

My company’s proposal efforts went from the usual proposal work “feast or famine” ups and downs to a marathon of one project after another, especially over the summer (which is typically a slower period for proposal work). Add to this the wedding I was an usher in, celebrating my Dad’s retirement, and other social events and comings and goings (including a two-month dating relationship), it’s been a busy year. This trip came hot on the heels of a busy work period, so it was a great reward for working my ass off (for which I garnered more than a few kudos from my company’s management – especially for a big project we won due to a “Hail Mary pass” proposal pulled together in just two days the week before the trip).

It’s safe to say that the timing for this trip could not have been any better.

France Trip 2011 – Days 1 and 2 (Sunday and Monday, October 2 and 3) – Washington, DC to Bordeaux
Days 1 and 2 Pictures

France Trip 2011 – Day 3 (Tuesday, October 4) – Bordeaux
Day 3 Pictures

France Trip 2011 – Day 4 (Wednesday, October 5) – Bordeaux
Day 4 Pictures

France Trip 2011 – Day 5 (Thursday, October 6) – Bordeaux
Day 5 Pictures

France Trip 2011 – Day 6 (Friday, October 7) – Bordeaux
Day 6 Pictures

France Trip 2011 – Day 7 (Saturday, October 8) – Bordeaux to Paris
Day 7 Pictures

France Trip 2011 – Days 8 and 9 (Sunday and Monday, October 9 and 10) – Paris
Days 8 and 9 Pictures




They Say It’s the Journey and Not the Destination…

Sunday morning was a frantic race to hit the store for a few last items I needed (travel-size toiletries, Claritan, petty cash, etc.) and radically indulging my OCD by repeatedly making sure I packed all of my stuff (by my count, I only rearranged it all three times) and everything my two friends on housesitting duty needed were squared away. The weather was chilly and rainy and Dulles International Airport was relatively quiet as the first few of us showed up at the Air France ticket desk (it was noon on a Sunday after all). My first conversation with one of my travel mates was with someone I really wish I hadn’t made eye contact with…ever. Not that he struck me as a “bad” guy, just awkward and definitely creepy with his cold, dead-eye gaze/stare. It was kind of look characteristic of someone sizing you up to decide if you’re a valuable asset or to be dismissed as a worthless acquaintance. Waiting in line to check baggage and get boarding passes, he attempted to strike up conversation:

Creepy Guy: Hey.
Me: Hey.
Creepy Guy: I need a beer.
Me: Heh, yeah.
Creepy Guy: (Slight pause while staring at me) I really need a beer. (Another awkward pause of staring at me) Do you need a beer?
Me: No, I’m good. I don’t drink much beer anyway.*
Creepy Guy: (Yet another awkwardly long pause of staring) Seriously?
Me: Yeah, not a big beer drinker here.

* In truth, adrenaline was kicking into high gear thanks to all of the anticipation and excitement, and it took in a glass or two of wine (okay, it was two, plus an after-dinner cognac) on the flight to help settle myself down.

Creepy Guy ended the conversation with a grunt that I’m still guessing passes for acknowledgment of my last comment and he eventually waddled off* to go through security and head to the gate. I discovered later on that he is not a popular member of the wine group, mainly due to his almost nonexistent social skills, semi-rude behavior, and a history of possibly stalking some members. On top of this, he apparently loves guns and is given to ultra-conservative points of view. In any case, he happily disappeared at the airport and I didn’t see him again until we landed in Paris. We passed through security far faster than anticipated, so with a couple hours to kill before the flight, we spent some of it watching football in an airport bar attended by a female bartender who barely spoke English and took forever to refill drinks (and no, the bar was not that busy).

* I’m not joking, he actually waddles. Well, maybe more of a shuffle at other times.

One big perk of the trip was flying to Europe in an Airbus A380. I used to work for Omega World Travel a few years ago, and remember reading when the plane was first put into service. To see one parked at the gate and then go inside it really makes you appreciate its size and surprisingly comfy interior (even for coach). I love how each passenger has their own video screen to view whatever movies, TV shows and/or play video games are in the plane’s database.*

* I treated myself to “Thor” which wasn’t too bad, but could only get through a third of “The Hangover Part II” because honestly, it’s a really disappointing movie.

         
The Airbus A380 - pictures do not convey just how big this plane is!

Unfortunately, I didn’t get a single wink of sleep on the flight due because of two children in the front of my section. I don’t know if they were just brats or having a hard time with the air pressure changes, but they were prone to screaming and wailing every 20 to 30 minutes (the Mom tried to keep them quiet, but it didn’t help much). It made for a very long flight, with or without headphones on.

We arrived at Charles de Gaulle Airport in the wee hours of the morning, walked what felt like forever to get our bags (CDG seems to enjoy putting baggage claim as far away from the gates as possible) and even further to get to the airport’s train station. Like the Airbus, you really don’t appreciate how big CDG is until you’ve walked through it. Europe seems to be a week ahead of the weather on the East Coast, so France was still warm and sunny (it was well into the 80s by noon). Once en route to Bordeaux, we only had so much space to stow luggage on the train, so some of us had to shove bags in other cars, or eventually move them into our section via some superheroic reorganizing.* We had first class seats on the train, and took advantage of this to spread out and relax a little, even finally getting in a few catnaps. The train ride offered plenty of exposure to the Paris suburbs (which seemed to go on forever), and tremendous views of rural, southern France. Cornfields, small villages and vineyards as far as the eye could see zipped past us as we headed south.** When not sleeping or reading, a few of us either couldn’t help it or seemed prone to telling dirty jokes – which seemed to be a good bonding experience.***

* Considering how tired we were, this really was a Hell of an achievement.
** Someone told me you see similar views at the California vineyards – rolling hills of vines that go on forever. I need to see this for myself.
*** The fact that a few opted for some half bottles of wine from the food car may have been a contributing factor. Though the few French passengers sharing the car with us didn’t seem to appreciate it.


Seven hours in a plane plus four more hours on a train after that, we arrived at Bordeaux! After a brief bout of confusion over finding the train station’s information desk and then the tram (above ground light rail) station (which was naturally, directly in front of the train station), we arrived at the hotel, looking like the better part of a tired, hot mess.

Culture Shock and Awe

Beyond travel guide reading, Wikipedia research and Googling on the Internets, I really didn’t know what to expect about Bordeaux. On a map, it doesn’t look very big, and relatively speaking, it isn’t, but its combination of French/Spanish architecture, narrow streets, wide main avenues and open squares made it feel like a magnificent, old world maze. Part of the travel package included a week-long pass on Bordeaux’s tram system that takes you all over the city. The tram system was installed in the early 2000’s and the way the tracks are laid down, people walk across the tracks as long as a train isn’t passing by (this felt strange compared to U.S. metro/subway tracks that are often designed to keep people from crossing them due to their third rail power supplies). The tram took us from the train station in the center of town on the west side (or “left bank”) side of the Garonne River, across the Pont de Pierre to the east side (or “right bank”), near our hotel. The first thing you notice about Bordeaux is how walkable it is, and thanks to the tram system, getting across the river in downtown Bordeaux was little more than a 20 minute walk from our hotel. I seriously doubt you need a car living in the city, and it was actually faster and easier at times to walk to the downtown instead of waiting for the next tram.

We bolted to our rooms at the hotel to take badly needed showers and rest up a bit (One person in our group joked that we were staying in a landlocked cruise ship given how small the showers were).* The hotel is in what’s considered the lower side of town (more like a slightly rundown “main street” area, complete with university housing next door and an old, abandoned industrial train station). This part of town is going through a beautification project, though I didn’t think it looked that bad. Around mid-afternoon, several of us went over the river to get our first look at the downtown/quay area, complete with a good look at the Grand Theatre, the riverside, Place de la Bourse and Esplanade des Quinconces. Walking around the city, a few of us noticed how – on average – the people there were thinner** and to be honest, fairly attractive (as well as mostly being around my height). Also, I noticed how, for being in the middle of a city, it was relatively quiet compared to U.S. metro areas. Not a single car passed with the radio blasting and there were very few honking horns.

* Not being a particularly large or tall person, even I felt a little claustrophobic in the shower, which was a little more than shoulder-width in size. I can only imagine how taller and larger people may have felt in there.
** Given how Europeans eat better diets than the average American, and how much more people walk around Bordeaux, the reason for this isn’t a big stretch of the imagination.


         

         
Clockwise From Top Left: Grand Theatre, Place de la Bourse, Pont de Pierre, and Porte Cailhau.

By early evening, we were all getting pretty hungry, only to discover that most eateries didn’t serve dinner until after 7:00 PM, so we stopped at one place for a snack over a happy hour and went back to the hotel. One saving grace we had at our hotel was a grocery market next door that carries everything from fresh produce, to lawn furniture, to lingerie. The hotel offers a meager breakfast of assorted breads and coffee, so many of us got into the habit of buying more substantial food, bottled water and snacks for breakfast and lunch at the grocery market.

As evening fell, a few of us were ravenous (the walk back from downtown effectively burnt off the happy hour eats), so we opted for the wine bar/bistro/brasserie on the corner across from the hotel. It was a great steak dinner (I didn’t know this until then, but Bordeaux is also in France’s “beef country”), though probably more than we should’ve spent, but it was our first night in Bordeaux, so why not (I’m also not sure if the dinner tasted that good just because we were that hungry)? My only regret is not remembering what wine we drank with dinner, because it was really good.

Finally, with jetlag catching up with us after being awake for over a day and half, we dragged ourselves back to our rooms and I collapsed on a bed mattress that was as soft as a rock. As I drifted away, my last passing thought was that I didn’t recall seeing a single cat or squirrel in town.

That struck me as kind of odd.

Days 1 and 2 Pictures
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Went to Sleep in Bordeaux, Woke Up in San Francisco

Monday’s sunny, warm afternoon gave way to a cool evening and a gloomy, chilly Tuesday morning. Bordeaux is nestled along a bend in the Garonne River, which meets up with the Dordogne River north of the city (both drain into the Atlantic Ocean, not too far from the city). Because one river is usually a different temperature from the other and their junction is generally upwind of the city, the region is prone to foggy, chilly mornings. Almost on cue, the fog and clouds disappear and the sun was out in full force by noon, making us shed jackets and long-sleeve shirts for shorts and t-shirts. In truth, we didn’t see any significant rain until the end of the week, so as far as weather goes, this was a perfect week for the trip.

We weren’t scheduled to leave for the first two wineries until after lunch, so Paul and I wandered into town to see the major sites. Paul managed to get his hands on a tourism map that outlined several planned walks through downtown, and we followed it, taking us past the Grand Theater, Monument aux Girondins, Cathédrale Saint-André de Bordeaux, the Sports Arena, Hotel de Ville, etc. We passed by various stores and shops, leading to the best laugh of the day – Paul’s fascination with what he determined was an electronics store selling “hiffy” products…until he realized that “Hifi” means the same thing in French as it does in English. We also stumbled upon what seems to be Bordeaux’s only “super grocery market” that was a three story grocery store – complete with food court.

         
Left: Place de la Bourse.  Right: Cathédrale Saint-André de Bordeaux.

We arrived back at the hotel to grab a quick lunch from the grocery market and meet the others waiting for the tour bus for our afternoon winery excursion. Paul’s jaw dropped when, instead of the smaller bus to hold all 24 of us, we were met by a full-sized bus capable of holding twice that number. Side note: the interior of the bus was what can only be described as the most fabulous shade of purple.

How Sweet it is

The sunny ride out to the Sauternes region (southwest of Bordeaux along the Garonne) offered a broader, longer look at the huge expanses of vines stretching to the hilly horizon. In addition, this was my first learning experience with France’s First Growth classifications for wines/wineries.

By the time we arrived at Chateau Coutet, the sun was high and it felt like summertime (and further emphasizing my relief for having packed shorts). The winery’s home estate sits atop a hill overlooking the vineyard, where the vine leaves were already starting to turn in the early autumn, the fruit picked just a week or two before our arrival.* The winery’s charm came from the hacienda-style architecture, complete with terra cotta tile roofs (not so unusual given how close we were to Spain), as well as the antique winery tools and equipment displayed throughout. The cellar was impressive since our host claims it’s the longest one in the region (110 meters).

* Paul and Allen’s original hope was to schedule the trip at the region’s harvest time, which is typically earlier than Virginia’s. Sadly, weather conditions and the ripening of the grapes trumped our timing and most of the wineries were past crushing and already transferring juice into stainless steel tanks for initial fermentation.

         

Since Bordeaux is primarily known for its red wines, I was surprised to try whites at our first two wineries, and we were offered a tasting of the chateau’s white blend (75% Sémillon, 23% Sauvignon Blanc and 2% Muscadelle). Not being a fan of sweet wines due to domestic sweet wines’ disturbingly-high/diabetic-coma-inducing residual sugar contents, it was a real treat to taste one that wasn’t sickly sweet, as well as having distinctive, complex features. Heavier than I expected, the fruit flavors (mainly apricot with citrus) were pleasant given the warm day. I don’t know if this might be considered an insult to the winemaker or not,* but the wine reminded me of mead more than any other sweet/dessert wine I’ve had in the past.

* If it is and the winemakers should somehow manage to read this entry, I sincerely apologize. I’m using the only description I can relate to with my limited wine knowledge and amateur pallet.

Next up, Chateau Guίraud, just a short hop down the road.

This picturesque, ivy-covered estate was a big hit with us being as photogenic as it is. Again, it sits on a shallow hill, overlooking vines in every direction. We sampled several of their sweet whites (65% Semillon and 35% Sauvignon Blanc), and personally, I found them lighter than Chateau Coutet, with the same apricot tones, as well as a spice flavor that I appealed to me. With the afternoon fading fast, we piled into the bus and headed back to Bordeaux.

         

Max Vin, S'il Vous Plaît

As we pulled into the city, a few of us perked up as we passed Pont de Pierre, continuing further into downtown. We arrived at one the city’s newest offerings, Max Bordeaux, a wine bar dedicated exclusively to Bordeaux wines. The neutral, modern entrance leads to an open room full of wine tasting selections,* ranging from “everyday drinking” wines (anywhere from 1€ to a few Euros per shot) to the coveted Chateau Latour (at over 700€ a bottle) and Chateau Lafite Rothschild (somewhere north of 1,100€ a bottle). A one-ounce pour of any of these is about 35€, so we seriously indulged ourselves for this unique experience. Personally, the uber-high end wines aren’t my first picks, but they were amazing to try, nevertheless. How many chances do you get to try the Mount Everest of French wines?

* The sculpture hanging from the ceiling was hundreds of wine glasses of varying sizes and shapes. Simple and fun to look at.

     
And even better news, there's a Max Bordeaux opening in New York City!

The Bar, Not the Johnny Depp/Tim Burton Movie Musical

After a dinner of French-influenced Chinese/Thai food, a few of us spent the evening at a popular British pub not far from the Pont de Pierre – Sweeny Todd’s. One of the few bars decked out with primarily English signs, this cramped but cozy bar was one of the best hangouts we found in town. Owned by a Swiss proprietor, it’s tended by a British girl and an American guy bartender (either from New Jersey or South Florida – we’re still not sure which), and some surprisingly good microbrew beers. The best part was after settling our tab, the girl bartender treated us to the house’s own apple crumb vodka, which tastes just like apple crumb pie. Best dessert shot ever.

         
Oddly enough, the picture on the right makes the bar look far larger than it actually is!

Day 3 Pictures
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You Don’t Walk These Streets, You Climb Them

Wednesday morning’s fog was short-lived and we enjoyed a slightly cooler, but still summer-like day. Today was a full day on the road, starting off with a tour of the very old village of Saint-Émilion (almost due East of Bordeaux and across the Dordogne River). The town was the Bordeaux of its age (dating back to Roman times – second century – when vines were first planted in the area). The commune is full of ancient architecture (some of which is still in use), the original church, and cobblestone streets that are more like paved hills to climb up and down. I can only imagine what it must’ve been like trying to get heavily-laden ox carts up some of those streets. Also, it was a little humbling to see one senior citizen-aged tour group slowly work its way down one of these streets after a few of us young ones nearly slipped and fell on it (This didn’t stop me from thinking about “Help! I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!” jokes in a mock French accent).

We took a tour of the church and town square, led by a lovely woman named Camille (more than a few of us took a liking to her).* Sadly, we weren’t allowed to take pictures inside the church or Saint-Émilion’s cave/home. It turns out he was a monk who endeavored to help the poor, and his first miracle was when he tried sneaking bread out of the church. The priest stopped him, asking what was under his robe, to which he lied and said it was wood. When forced to open his robe, the bread turned into wood and then back into bread once he left with it. Another miracle was his meditation chair (in his cave/home) that was known for granting women fertility after sitting on it. We couldn’t help doing to the math about this phenomenon, especially when you consider how local women would go into a lonely, monastic hermit’s cave and then became pregnant shortly afterward. Even our guide Camille mused that there may be more to the story than merely genuflecting on a stone stool.

* Her only flaw is that she smokes.

         

         
Top Right: Me overlooking the town.  Bottom Right: Our tour guide Camile.

Given some time to explore the town on our own, we sat down for lunch at a café in the town square. The square is at a 20 degree angle, so I was constantly scooting my chair back up to the table. We also spotted what I’m pretty sure was the first cat we encountered (possibly the only one) while in France. Again, I don’t know why this was so odd to me.

On the bus heading to the first winery of the day, one person taught a few of us how to play Spades (I don’t think I’ve played it since college), which lasted all of 10 minutes when we arrived at the first winery.

A Great Place for a Nap and Match.com Profile Pictures

Chateau Fonroque, with its red barn doors and shutters and tree-lined road, (the branches forming a tunnel), was peaceful, relaxing and welcoming to us. As we explored the grounds and took pictures, one woman in our group found a set of stairs that everyone also wanted to get their picture at. Another woman started joking about how that was the “Match.com, eHarmony” picture for everyone.* What really charmed me about the winery is the antique equipment they have around for decoration, including an old bottle corker,** and a 90 year old wine press that’s still in use. This also was where we learned about the tradition some wineries have of planting roses at the ends of the vine rows (no real explanation was given for these, just for aesthetics).

* Yes, I did get a picture of myself here, and no, I won’t post it because it came out terrible.
** It reminded me of the modern version of it that I used at Zephaniah Wine Farm when I helped bottle wine.


         
We were invited to taste their 2007 and 2008 vintages (70% Merlot and 30% Cabernet Franc), which are amazing to say the least – rich, deep Bordeaux wines. We were running ahead of schedule, so a few of us sat outside to enjoy the cool, sunny day. It was one of those spots where a nap was almost too tempting.

Moving on, we took advantage of our extra time for another quick follow-up visit at Saint-Émilion, and then our final stop of the day at Chateau Figeac, with a large estate house still in use by the family/owners. While there, we tried their 2006 (35% Cabernet Sauvignon, 35% Cabernet Franc, and 30% Merlot), which I’m still pretty sure is my favorite of all the wines we tasted on the trip.

         

Set a Course for Planet Bordeaux – Engage!

En route back to Bordeaux, Allen and Paul suggested stopping at Planet Bordeaux, a conglomerate of several smaller wineries that produce good, but more affordable/“everyday drinking” wines. Planet Bordeaux is part museum, part tasting room, and unfortunately, we were running late on time, so we breezed through the tour (a multimedia history and agriculture lesson) and straight to a wine tasting. What amused some of us was seeing wines that ranged in price from 15€ to 20€, to 0.50€ per bottle.

That is a Tasty Burger

Once back in town, we ate dinner at a pub just a few blocks from the hotel called The Central Pub. Unfortunately Creepy Guy eventually walked by and decided to join us (we were sitting outside), and I ended up stuck in the middle of a political debate he had with another tour group member.* On happier note, The Central Pub serves a burger with tater tot-like potato patty in it. While this sounds silly, it was as amazingly elegant as it was incredibly delicious, though I have no idea why it comes with fries given the potato patty inside of it.

* This was a rare moment of me keeping my mouth shut, and those who know me will tell you that this was a major feat of self-control on my part.


The Central Pub


Day 4 Pictures
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