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Saturday, October 30, 2010

Race For the Bottom

The midterm election is right around the corner.  We have the weekend to cram for the test on Tuesday.  Who is the “right” choice for each of the positions?  Do we really even have a “right” choice?  Frankly, I feel that my choices in most cases are between Ren or Stimpy.  Who gives a crap?  The people we get as leaders are the product of a broken system.

Studies show that, for the most part, money wins elections.  Money comes from rich people.  Rich people get to control the government. Period.  The rest of us, who may donate an occasional $100 to our favorite candidate, get whatever table scraps the rich decide to leave us.  As I have said in other posts, the solution to this problem is public funding of elections.  We fund roads.  Why not our leaders?  And, since the Supreme Court has ruled that corporations are “people,” all we need to do is put a $1,000 limit on individual donations and corporations would suddenly have no more power than some middle class schmuck who decides to go all in.

Getting good leaders is only the beginning of our problems.  Our new global economic system is on a collision course with bankruptcy.  Technology, one of the biggest drivers of the new economy is quickly putting more and more people out of work.  This means that people who control fixed assets (the technology) will accumulate increasing amounts of wealth, while more and more people struggle to find a means of participating in non-charitable economic activity.

There are only a few likely endings for the current trajectory:

1.  Revolution – people have told me that this is unlikely because Americans don’t have the balls.  To this I say, “who said the revolution has to start in America?”  History shows revolutions can be started by seemingly random events.
2.  Fundamental System Change – what if our leaders actually pull it together and create a new economic system which effectively serves everyone?

I’m rooting for #2 because #1 would be very messy and generally unpleasant.  I guess I must be an optimist or something, but I think we can change.  Yes, it will take widespread suffering – that’s just the nature of our species.

If we managed the planet a bit more scientifically, we could figure out how to allocate resources to ensure EVERYONE on the planet was able to enjoy a modest living free from disease and starvation.  If we turn out to be real cleaver, we could even figure out how to give everyone a turn at enjoying some of the finer things in life like cruising on a yacht or sitting on a beach in Hawaii or smoking a Cuban cigar.

As our technology continues to improve our lives, why not let it improve ALL of our lives?  I know this sounds farfetched for humans.  But, we cannot think of the world as it is now.  “Now,” is fleeting.  The future is coming at us faster and faster (exponentially faster to be specific).  In only a few years time, technology will be solving more problems faster than anyone could have imagined even 10 years ago.

Ultimately, it will be our leaders who will need to guide us into this brave new future.  I don’t like any of the current line-up.  They look and sound like last year’s team – losers, all of them – the best a broken system can produce.  As I’m fond of repeating, “people get the government they deserve.”  Until “we, the people” have the will to force our system to produce bold leaders who are willing to take the political risks necessary to do what needs to be done, we will have to choose between Oopsie or Bozo.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Homeward Bound

On the final day of our journey, we found ourselves back in London.  I had lobbied hard for a visit to central London, but traveling had gotten the best of Susan and she was not doing too well.  Being the trouper she is, she indulged my desire to have one more visit.  We caught a bus from the hotel to the nearest Tube station.  It was in a little town populated almost exclusively by Indians.

In keeping with our preference to balance tourist locations with local “slice of life” experiences – and given Susan’s deteriorating physical state, I suggested we just wander around the area we were in.  It was a short commercial strip in a community near the airport.  I suspect the residents were of modest means.  We had our choice of about a dozen Indian restaurants.  We chose one that specializes in southern Indian cuisine.   It was very good.  I suppose it would need to be to stay open in such an area. 

The street was also lined with little green grocers.  I imagined the locals stopping to pick up the fresh produce for the evening’s meal on their way home from work.  It’s a different lifestyle than the “shop once per week” approach we take in the suburbs.   Such is life in the big city.  We were not locals here.  Our surroundings were soon to change back to the familiar.  However exciting it is to see other lands, it’s always good to be home.

Spain, the Final Frontier

On our final day in Spain, Mike wanted us to see how the other half lives.  We drove along the Mediterranean coast and saw some beautiful mountains and some amazing villas perched on the edge of open vistas with views which most could barely imagine.  Our first stop was a mall resembling that mall in every area, which is designed to attract the rich and famous.  It was clean, expansive, modern and full of expensive merchandise.  The people in it were “the beautiful people.”   We enjoyed a light lunch and had a little look around.

Susan went off to do her own shopping thing and Mike and I wandered around, spending most time in an electronics / book store.   Mike is very intrigued by the new 3D LCD TVs.  I don’t think he’ll buy one.  There are not one, but two things that can go wrong with it (the TV or the glasses).  Why complicate an intentionally simple life?  We spent more time in the book section.  Most new books are published in English.  Only a fraction of them are translated to Spanish.  It is interesting to see which ones make it.

In a way, the selection of books reflected Mike’s own preferences for life.  There were many art books and many biographical references, some popular fiction and some cooking books.  The technical book and business book sections, if they were there, were very small – dwarfed by the children’s book section.  I guess the Spaniards are clear about balancing work and pleasure.  With unemployment approaching 30% in the area, work is something many only dream of.

Next, we were off to Puerto Banüs, a place conceived by one man, which is another “lifestyles of the rich and famous” spot.  We saw big boats and expensive cars.  The shop which intrigued me most was an estate shop.  It had many items from, what we determined were mostly ex-wealthy Arabs’, former possessions.  There were many shiny and elegant looking things of little practical value.  It caused me to reflect on Mike’s choice to live a simple, happy life, uncomplicated by the trappings of wealth.

I believe many of the people served by this community seek happiness in the accumulation of material items.  They do not laugh more as a result.  They do not find contentment behind their next purchase.  They believe each new item will increase their comfort in some way, thereby drawing them closer to inner peace.  For most, it doesn’t.

It is clear to me that limiting ones material wealth leaves space for happiness, contentment and inner peace.  Mike and Ang have mastered this.  They have created a beautiful life amongst simple, beautiful people…people who know how to laugh and savor the moment.  Most of us strive for this life, but we get so wrapped up in the means to get there that we never stop striving, regardless of our means.  That’s why Mike and Ang are some of my greatest heroes. 

Although Ang had already left us, saying goodbye to Mike was like saying goodbye to both of them.  Ang has a quiet, yet fierce presence.  Hanging with Mike is not for the faint of heart.  Ang is not faint of heart or will.  Her inner peace is indomitable.
On our final morning, Mike went through the morning ritual of feeding the cats.  It is quite a sight (see FaceBook for pics).  Although Mike seems to enjoy this ritual, it is clear that this is primarily Angela’s project.  In Ang’s absence, I performed the gate opening and closing ritual, as Mike drove out to take us to the airport, for the last time.  I will miss them both until the next time we meet.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Not So Solid As a Rock

Day three (our second full day) was the day we had to drop Ang at the airport in Gibraltar, since she had to go out of town.  Since we were in Gibraltar already, Mike suggested we visit the country – the whole country.  It only takes a day.  This also gave Mike some time off from hosting, because he left us in the hands of Bobby, an ex-police officer, lifetime resident of Gibraltar and the best damn tour guide in the country.

Bobby gave us a complete history lesson in Gibraltar, which has a very rich history indeed.  As a crossroad between Europe, Africa, the Atlantic ocean and the Mediterranean sea, it has strategic value.  It was originally controlled by the Mores, an Arabic group, but has been fought over an briefly controlled by the French and Spanish until the Brits finally got hold of it permanently.  As a result, Islam, Judaism, and Christianity are all practiced side by side in peace in this small country.

We started the tour with a trip up the rock.  I will never look at a Prudential commercial the same way again.  It turns out the rock, is essentially hollow.  We saw some beautiful natural caves in the rock, which is made of limestone.  Then, we saw the siege tunnels, which were used to defend Gibraltar from a Spanish assault.  There are forty-six miles of tunnels in the rock and only three square miles throughout the remainder of the country.  It’s a miracle that the thing is still standing.

Near the top of the rock, a large band of macaques are living out their lives amongst the tourists.  There are lots of eucalyptus trees up there, but something tells me they eat more than leaves.  If you don’t know, a macaque is a small primate.  They have light colored fur and get about as big as a three year old chimp.  The rule is, you can’t touch them, but they can touch you.  Bobby, being the best and also knowing where the rules can be tweaked, brought a few peanuts.  One of the oldest macaques was waiting for us with Bobby when we emerged from our tour of the cave area.  Bobby gave him a peanut.  He tugged on Bobby’s pants for more, but Bobby gave the “I don’t have any more” gesture.  The macaque wasn’t buying it.  He was right.  Bobby gave me a peanut.  I gave it to the macaque.  He tugged on my pants.  I pointed to Bobby.  He looked at Bobby, who gave me another peanut, telling me he will take it right in his mouth.  He reached for it with his hand, but I pulled it back.  He knew immediately what was expected and took it with his mouth.  Susan had a go, too.  Then, more tugging, more pocket patting and gesturing and our encounter with a primate was over.  It makes you think – why couldn’t I have been born a Gibraltarian macaque?

It was raining a bit that day.  Due to an errant weather forecast by our friend, Mike, we had neither raincoat nor umbrella.  Fortunately the shops are pretty close together, so we didn’t stay in the rain long.  We had a pretty average lunch, especially compared to the great food we had in Spain and looked around at the stores.  After Tangier, the prices seemed awfully high.  We mostly looked.  Besides some very interesting architecture, the shops reminded me of 47th street in New York – camera shops, liquor stores, leather shops, jewelry shops and clothing stores.

After a quick stop at an Internet café to catch up on some email, we made our way across the airport runway back towards Spain to meet Mike.  Gibraltar was not as exciting as Morocco, but it’s definitely a different country.  They speak “Spanglish,” but can switch to straight English when called upon, which we called upon them to do repeatedly.

The Dark Continent

On day two of our visit with Mike and Ang, we decided to go to Africa.  Now, Africa is only 14 miles away, but it is another continent and for me, who has never traveled off the North American continent before this trip, it was an exciting moment.  Mike began the preparations by reminding me of the general dislike of Americans in Morocco.  The general advice was, “keep your mouth shut.”  Those of you who know me understand the challenge placed before me.

Next, we received a small lesson in Arabic.  I managed to learn one phrase, which roughly translates to:  later, by the grace of god.  Apparently, this is how you dismiss persistent street vendors.  Being a Caucasian American, I am rarely exposed to uncomfortable surroundings.  On occasion, I have found myself amongst a group consisting exclusively of African Americans.  I am relatively comfortable with this as I understand how these people live and their basic customs.  Even in Spain, where most people speak Spanish exclusively, I found people to be friendly and forgiving of my minute Spanish vocabulary.

In Tangier, I quickly realized that I was surrounded by people who speak a different language, have very different customs and are intolerant of mine.  Keeping my mouth shut quickly became very easy.  My traveling companions were quite shocked.  Mike has numerous friends in Tangier.  His doctor is there and he has several trading partners.  We met several of these people.  They were very friendly towards us and I am told that they are now my friends too.  One thing seems to hold true around the planet – it’s not what you know, rather who you know which counts.

We stopped for a bite to eat at an outdoor café, where I used a bathroom which was more primitive than Mike’s.  It was essentially a porcelain hole in the floor.  I was unable to find a flushing mechanism or a bucket.

Another stop took us to a spot where we enjoyed Moroccan mint tea.  I am told that if you visit a Moroccan home, you can be expected to be served this beverage early in your stay.  It was very sweet and tasty.

Our final stop took us to the shop of Aziz. Mike and Ang have arranged rock bottom prices on the goods which Aziz sells.  Rock bottom pricing in Tangier makes the outlet mall in the U.S. look like 5th Avenue.  I immediately hatched an idea for a business, which I will be launching shortly.  I’ll let you guess the details, but it does involve Aziz.

The ferry back to Spain was populated largely by Gibraltarians, Spaniards and other assorted tourists.  I’m told I said more in the first five minutes of our journey than the entire stay in Africa.  It is a very exciting place.  I would like to go back.

The Rain In Spain Is Not Always On The Plain

One of the joys of traveling is experiencing the unexpected.  On the last leg of our journey, we traveled to Spain via London.  Our trip from Edinburgh took us to Gatwick airport.  This would be my first experience with this airport and, the airline we flew.  Easyjet is a low budget airline modeled after Southwest.  Well…a U.K. version of Southwest.  Whereas U.S. companies tend to feel a necessity to continually improve, U.K. firms feel a necessity to continue.

As it works out, continuing in the U.K. doesn’t require much.  In the case of easyjet, you don’t need to offer “ANYTHING” for free.  Want an extra carry on (be it a purse or camera bag)?  You must pay.  Two bags? Pay.  Bag of nuts? Pay.  See the pattern?  But, at least they let me bring my umbrella on the plane without charge.

Next morning, after a £12 ride to the airport (go figure), I had an interesting run-in with security.  Seems umbrellas are not allowed.  I called them on this, as I had carried it on every other flight during my journey.  The guards had a moment of indecision, so they called over “the governor.”  The Governor was a stern, matronly looking middle aged woman.  They held up the umbrella to her, to which she replied, “no!”  After she had disappeared, I asked if I could appeal my case directly to The Governor.  I was told she was very busy.  My choices were to abandon it or give it to a friend waiting in the terminal.  As I have no permanent friends at Gatwick, I really didn’t have much choice.  I was upset.

When I got through security, there was The Governor, sitting quietly behind her desk doing absolutely nothing.  I went to her to have a direct appeal.  She explained that I couldn’t take it because it didn’t fit in my bag.  I found myself wondering why umbrellas had to fit in something when other things didn’t have to fit into anything.  For example, a camera bag may not fit in a purse, but that’s okay.  I realized that logic was not going to work here, so I tried an emotional appeal.  I told her it was an expensive new umbrella that I had hauled across Europe and not actually had a chance to use it yet.  She said I could check it, but easyjet makes their money off of charging for things like this.  In the end, I decided to pay the price.  They let me through security.  There was no queue at the counter and easyjet checked it for…free!

On the way back through security, I had no bags and nothing in my pockets.  I tried to bypass the people unloading their possessions on the belt.  “No,” I was told.  I had to wait for them anyway.  Although I had successfully cleared security once with my shoes on, this time, they wanted them off.  I guess they felt if I had to wait with people using the belt, I should use it too.  Whereas Southwest eventually developed a more civil way of boarding, easyjet still uses the “pile on” method – big fun!

At last, we landed in Gibraltar and were met by our friends Mike and Angela (or Ang as Mike calls her).  We had not seen them in over 20 years, but it was just like yesterday.  We were overjoyed to see their smiling faces.  The treatment through customs could not have been more different in Gibraltar and Spain.  Whereas the British have very long queues followed by stern treatment, the Gibraltarians were quick and polite almost to the point of nonchalance.

Gibraltar has more square miles worth of tunnels in their famous rock than they do on the ground.  When you only have three square miles of land in your country, you apparently need to put a road across the only runway at your airport.  I’ve heard of train crossings, boat crossings, but never airplane crossings.  On the way to Mike and Ang’s house, it dawned on me I had neglected to ask a very important question.  As I am allergic to cats, I enquired, “do you have a cat?”

To which, Mike replied, “no, we have 16 cats.  But, don’t worry, only two of them are allowed in the house.”  You can imagine my relief.  On the way to the house, Mike wanted to show us the main reason why he loves Southern Spain so much.  We stopped on a hill near their house.  From there, we saw: the rock of Gibraltar, the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains, La Linea (where they live), the Atlantic ocean, the Mediterranean sea, the straits of Gibraltar and the north African coast of Morocco.  Not a bad view.  We got it.

Here I should provide a bit of background about our friend Mike.  He is an adventurer and risk taker.  He doesn’t go in for extreme sports or anything.  He drives fast is willing to throw himself into any human situation imaginable.  He has traveled the world and has been known to argue with foreign police and has had a gun brandished in his direction more than once.  He speaks several languages fluently and a few more badly and has thus far been able to talk his way out of all the scrapes he been in.  Mike is a businessman and a successful one.  He has marketed a variety products and enjoys an occasional real estate deal, but his real passion is in derivatives trading.  For his efforts, he has amassed considerable weath.

Mike does not value things that complicate his life.  He likes the comfort of knowing he has the financial backing to get out of whatever he gets into.  He prefers to owe nothing.  When he came to Spain, looking down from the very same hill on which we were standing, he pointed to a spot near the ocean and said, “I want to live there.”  He quickly learned that the Spanish are not very transient and the area to which his finger had gone is populated exclusively by Spaniards.  Undaunted, he started enquiring with the neighbors about possible vacancies.  None existed.  He persisted, until one day he heard that a local drug lord had been busted and was going to jail.  The local real estate agent discouraged Mike because the drug lord would want the house back when he was released.  Mike met the man and felt he was reasonable enough, so a deal was struck and Mike had his house.  Fortunately (depending on your point of view), the drug lord died in jail three years later.  Mike felt he would not have taken his home back anyway.  I would not want to negotiate against Mike, even if I was a drug lord.

When we arrived at Mike’s house, Ang jumped out to open the gate
I discovered that he was operating on what is essentially a dial-up Internet connection as he had recently fired his Internet provider for poor customer service.  This would explain the tardiness of this post.  It may also explain the length.  I will break it up for easy reading.

Upon arrival, Mike felt it necessary to go over the ground rules.  When he didn’t have an electric gate, I began to suspect there were going to be some technology issues.  The fullness of my prophetic insight was yet to be realized.  At the front porch, a chicken wire cat barrier had been erected.  The latch system is a simple hook and eye mechanism.  There are hooks running the length of the chicken wire “door,” but one need only catch one or two to secure it.  This device is designed to keep the inside cats in and the outside cats out.  One must remain vigilant when operating this barrier as one slip up usually results in excess inside cats.

Once in the house, we discovered a fully equipped kitchen.  We later learned the oven and dishwasher, though fully functional, are not used.  Dishes are hand washed and air dried and a small glass bowl convection oven is used when baking is required.  The one modern convenience that Mike affords himself is a microwave, of which he makes extensive use.  Susan, however, doesn’t like using the microwave.  There was a bit of a Spanish stand-off there, but Susan ultimately capitulated on several occasions.

There are two bathrooms in the house.  Both have showers with the showerhead on the end of a flexible tube.  This comes in very handy.  Apparently, living so close to the Sahara desert results in occasional light sandstorms.  When this happens, sand gets in the well and ultimately finds its way into the plumbing.  The sand causes the seals in the toilets to leak.  These leaky seals must be cleaned or the toilet leaks.  As a technologist, I immediately came up with a variety of solutions to this problem.  Mike is not a technologist.  As mentioned, he is a financial and people person.  His solution is a bucket.  I know what you’re thinking – where does he take the bucket when it’s full?  No, he doesn’t use it for that.  In order to flush the toilet, one fills the bucket with water using the showerhead.  Then, pours the water down the toilet.  Later, it dawned on me that Mike is probably the richest man in the world who flushes the toilet with a bucket.  One must go outside to the second building to use the better toilet if #2 is involved.  Mike says he may work on fixing the main toilet.  We’ll see.

There may be some heating mechanism in the house, but I suspect this involved extra layers of clothing and blankets.  Fortunately, the weather is very mild in southern Spain.  Mike’s philosophy is, if it’s broke, don’t fix it.  If it works, don’t use it (microwave excluded).

On the other hand, if you want to know how governments and societies work, there is nobody better.  Mike has a picture of him with George Bush Sr., I don’t know the nature of his work as he promised not to say anything about it for 150 years, but suffice to say his advice is valued by more than the neighbors, where he is considered somewhat of a godfather figure.

Friday, October 08, 2010

The Tourism Continues – Scotland Day 4-5

Sometimes you just need to succumb to the reality that you are a tourist.  Cities like Edinburgh and Inverness know why people have come and they go out of their way to provide the expected experience.  Edinburgh is the capital of Scotland.  Scotland is all about castles, kilts, whiskey, golf, clans and bagpipes.  Imagine anything associated with this and put it all in a store.  Now, put many of these stores together near the actual attractions themselves and you’ve got tourist central.

 In Inverness, you can add Loch Ness and “Nessy” the Loch Ness monster.  What the hell -- we bought whiskey, we saw the castles and before we’re done, we’ll visit a distillery or two.  We’ve eaten some really good food in Scotland.  Some of it was from other places.  For example, we had some really good Kurdish food in Edinburgh.  With all the restaurants, we ate there twice.  We’ve had some pretty good northern Indian food.  Naturally, I had to try some Scottish food.  So far, I’ve had haggis, tatties and neeps, black pudding, white pudding, lamb, lamb and more lamb.

Today, we saw the loch and the Urquhart castle, which is right on the Loch Ness.  The castle was originally started in the late 1100’s.  That’s over 900 years ago.  It gives one a bit of prospective on our history.  Back in those days, if you could put together an army, you had a chance of sacking a castle and becoming the lord of the land.  It was too tempting an option for some.  As a result, this castle stands in ruins.  I guess if the next guy can’t have it, nobody can.

Sometimes, I wish you could still get away with the old ways.  After my fill-up of diesel this morning, which cost us about $80 US, I’d like to sack an oil company and assume their assets.  I could promise my army a life of luxury.  About the only thing that isn’t more expensive around here is Scotch whiskey.  I’ll be bringing home a few bottles of that.

Tomorrow night, it’s back to London before we go to Spain.  It has been sunny and warm there every day for the last two weeks.  I guess they couldn’t keep that up forever.  They’re promising several days of rain when we get there.  Such are the risks of traveling in the fall.  On the other hand, we didn’t miss the fall colors, which are always so nice in Michigan.  They’re pretty damn nice in northern Scotland too.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Chopin Down the Cathedral – Day 1 & 2 in Edinburgh

We arrived at our apartment after a short drive from the airport.  It’s a really nice place that only lacks for some sort of carpeting on the floor.  The place is a friggin echo chamber.  Nonetheless, we are very happy with it.  I was able to do my laundry and we were able to make an almost full English breakfast. 

I like Edinburgh.  I like the accent.  I like the architecture.  I like the layout of the city.  I like the countryside around it.  This is a very cool place.

We started out by doing the obvious tourist stuff.  We walked through the city center.  We went to the tourist centre to get a map.  We looked in the “Scotch” stores at the kilts.  We went to Edinburgh Castle.  The place is the epitome of a tourist trap.  Most of the rooms in the place were either exhibits of some sort or gift shops.  We saw about two rooms that were…rooms in a castle. 

Later, we stopped at a whiskey shop.  The guy there was very helpful and knew more about whiskey than anyone I’ve ever met.  He told us how they make it and how to drink it.  We even had a few samples just to make sure we were drinking it right.  We bought one big bottle to take home and four little ones for drinking until we get to our first distillery, which will be on Thursday.

They’ve got some really good food around here.  The day we arrived, we ate dinner at an Indian restaurant that was very good.   Yesterday at lunch, I had a falafel sandwich made Kurdish style.  It was the best dang falafel sandwich I’ve ever had.  The guy that ran the place was an Iraqi Kurd and he was very nice.  I think the Iraqi Kurds like Americans because we rescued them from Saddam.  He was very hard on the Kurds.

This morning we hiked up the hill in the center of town.  It is the first park in Edinburgh and has a Greek style structure at the top along with an observatory and several other monuments.  Beside the cool views, it was a reminder of just how old this town is.  We couldn’t believe our luck because we were having our second good weather day in a row.   So, we just walked. We went into some shops and had a look around.  Susan got a Scottish cookbook.

We passed by a place that had Scottish food.  I figured I had been in town long enough to have my first haggis.  So I had haggis.  It came with tatties, neeps and whiskey sauce.  Yummy!  “Tatties,” as you may have guessed are potatoes.  “Neeps,” are some type of sweet potato type vegetable.   Haggis has some sort of lamb entrails with some sort of grain.  It’s a keeper!

Tonight we went back to a very massive old cathedral which we saw yesterday because they were going to have some sort of Chopin concert there.  Turns out, he was born in 1810, so this is a special year.  The church had a professor and some of his students from the Krakow School of Music come in to perform.  They were amazing.  The prof and his two girls could play the hell out of the piano.  Chopin is no easy material and they tore it up.   There was a quartet with two violins, a viola and a cello to go along with the pianists and they were great too.  The cathedral provided some very interesting acoustics with its stone walls and high rounded ceilings.

On the way home, we stopped at the Black Bull pub (Edinburgh’s #1 rock and roll bar, apparently) and had a whiskey and a pint.  I think we were a bit of a novelty to the locals.  We were supposed to be wearing black leather, but I left my leathers back in MI.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Long Live the Queen! – Scotland Bound

Today went relatively smoothly.  I checked out this morning having had a solid if brief night’s sleep.  I was already to wait for the shuttle to the airport.  I began reflecting on my experiences with public transportation during the previous evening when a taxi driver happened by and offered me a nice private ride in his leather upholstered Mercedes for 15 pounds sterling.  I took it.  He was from Pakistan.  He told me that the Pakistanis got all the female exploitation cultural stuff  from India.  Who knew?

I started waiting, and waiting, and waiting for Susan to emerge from customs.  Fortunately, she did.  We sat down at a restaurant and I enjoyed what is known as a “full English breakfast:”  hash browns, baked beans, grilled tomato, sautéed mushrooms, fried egg, English bacon (looks like ham to me) and a sausage.  Add to that fresh squeezed OJ and…whoo hoo!  I skipped lunch.  Susan just had porridge, beans on hash browns and my tomato.  They had a very soft couch on which I may have fallen asleep momentarily.

Security – more queuing, boarding – more queuing, waiting to take off – more queuing.  I could not wait to get out of England.  When we broke through the clouds in Scotland and I saw that beautiful countryside below, my heart soared.

We took a short taxi ride from the airport to Edinburgh city centre.  What a nice town.  We have a great apartment with all the amenities.  After settling in, we popped round to the local Tesco for some groceries.   We got some McVitie’s Digestives.  I think these are special cookies for dipping in tea.  I’m not waiting for tea.

After dinner at an exceptionally good Indian restaurant, we when round the pub for a “welcome to Edinburgh” scotch.  I chose a 10 year from the Isle of Skye.  It was a bit peaty for my taste, but very smooth for a 10 year.  It has a bright, fruity flavour.   Sorry, just practicing for my distillery tours.

Sunshine Blue Skies – Amsterdam Day 2 and Beyond

Yesterday, I woke up and had breakfast (peanut butter and jam on toast, hardboiled egg white, OJ and tea).  The weather was beautiful, which is apparently unusual this time of year, so I decided to wander around.  Turns out, wandering around is the only thing I really enjoyed about Amsterdam, except talking to people.

I discovered I have a special knack for missing places that are right in front of me.  For example, I walked almost directly to the Ann Frank museum, didn’t see it, and then wandered around for an hour or so until I found it again.  This time, it was easier to spot because there was a line around the block.  I’d had enough queuing in the U.K.

So, I moved on to my next activity – a visit to Vondelpark.  My feet were already starting to bother me from all the walking I’d already done, but I wanted to see how big the park was.  It was big.  How big, I may never know because I never made it across.  I smoked some of my leftover hash from the night before and blew some harmonica for a bit while watching the fountain.  I took a picture of it, which is in my photo album on FB, but then I remembered my phone has a panorama feature, which I’d never used.  It is way cool how it auto fires the shots as you pan and stitches them together perfectly.  I was able to put the shot on my wall, but not in the album for some reason.

I was getting ready to leave the park and I saw an exit that I hadn’t used before.  I came out of the park and started wandering.  After a few blocks, it dawned on me I was “off the map.”  By this, I mean the map they give to all the tourists, which excludes portions of the city that are intended for the locals.  I was back tracking to the park, so I could have some chance of finding my way back to the hotel eventually, when I had a realization.  People in Amsterdam have almost no personal space.  I tested my theory by walking very close to people.  One inch.  That’s how much space they need.

Later, when I was eating a vegetarian dinner at an Indian restaurant (brownie points for me), I asked Jurav, the owners’ son about it and he confirmed my one inch theory.  He said that people don’t get upset if you bump into them when it’s an honest mistake.  Suffice it to say, they all live in close quarters around there.  I had a nice chat with Jurav.  Apparently, the cook wanted to get in on it, seeing as how I was the only guy in the restaurant, so he came out and we chatted too.  He’s from Nepal.  His family is from up in the mountains (Annapurna, I believe).

By the time I finished dinner, it was back to raining in Amsterdam.  I wandered some more.  Stopped at the Bulldog coffeehouse for some…ahem…coffee.  Riiiight!  I got something called “cheese.”  It was pretty good.  I wandered some more until I was getting too wet because I left my umbrella at the hotel.  Fortunately, my rain jacket has a hood, which kept me dry a good 10-15 minutes.  I eventually found a Couple Moroccan drug dealers.  They shared some whiskey with me and I gave them the remainder of my drugs since I couldn’t take them with me.  One of them was a native of Amsterdam.  His parents were “brought in” to do domestic work for the Dutch.  Now, the Dutch don’t want them or their children, but, too bad because Holland is their home.                                                                 

Day 3:  Today, I travelled.  I woke up, packed, checked out and took the train to centeral station.  Next, I took a train to Rotterdam Central and from there to Hoek Van Holland, which is where I caught the ship.  I had a salad and some fresh fruit and took a nap.  When I got up, I decided to have a look around outside.  I met three British chaps from the southern region, who had been on a bicycling trip through Holland.

We started drinking some beer and found out we have similar musical tastes.  John, Richard and Paul all make electronic music.  After a few beers, I busted out the harmonicas and we had a bit of a romp (singing, dancing and banging on things).  Being a minstrel is a great way to make friends.

When we arrived in port, we all said our goodbyes and it was off to central London on the train for me.  The train takes a long time and there are numerous stops.  One was unscheduled as apparently someone had chosen our track, combined with the front end of a preceding train to terminate their existence as we know it.  I guess some concepts are universal.

When I arrived in Liverpool Street Station, I was hungry, so I stopped at the now familiar pasty stand.  I enquired about which Underground train I should get on and then promptly got on the wrong one.  After two stops, it was clear that I had erred.  I got off and stood there with a bewildered look for five minutes, finally changing platforms so I could get on an actual train going somewhere.  A nice young woman of Indian decent (okay, I could have asked a guy, but where’s the fun in that?) helped me figure out the best route to Heathrow near where my hotel was.

Things would have gone famously had it not been “tipping it with rain,” and the London transport system was fully functional.  It was and it isn’t.  I could not carry my pack the whole time and the floor of the trains were soaking wet, so my bag got wet too.  That would have been a minor inconvenience.  Add to this: after I transferred to the Heathrow line, the train went a few stops and…well…stopped.  It continued to stop for some time until the conductor announced that “this is now the end of the line for this train.”  And then he said (I paraphrase here), “get off.”  We did – all of us.  What I learned here is that if a train sits in the station long enough, it will fill.  It was full.  As we waited for the next Heathrow train to show up, more people came.  When the train did show up, I got a chance to experience what it must be like to be a sardine packed in spring water.

We were back on our way.  Several stops later, the conductor informed us that the train we were on was no longer going to Heathrow, rather stopping a few stations up.  Fortunately, we were told, the train on the tracks next to us was going to Heathrow.  This sort of thing must happen all the time because I swear some people switched trains without discontinuing their reading or looking away from their iPhones.

I finally got to Heathrow, thinking my journey was almost over.  Wrong!  More queuing.  The taxi stand had many customers, but was missing one essential ingredient – taxis!  I waited the 15 minutes that the attendant told us it would take.  Then, I waited another 15 minutes.  The taxi driver asked if I was paying cash or credit card.  I said cash and he said something I didn’t understand at first, “cash sterling?”  I’d heard “pounds sterling” before, but not only was I unfamiliar with the term, I couldn’t understand why he was asking the question.  He explained that many Americans try to pay him in dollars.  Geez!  People like that give our whole country a bad name.  Everybody I talked to thinks we’re overly self-centered and then we go and assume that not only is English the universal language (which more or less turns out to be true), but the dollar is the universal currency.

When I got to the hotel, the queue at the registration desk was only two deep, but it was after midnight and I really had had enough of queuing for one day.  The room was very nice, with many amenities.  I used exactly three:  a power outlet to charge my devices, the toilet, and the bed.  I was too tired to care about the rest of it.