Do Not Flush Whilst Seated

Warning sign in our cabin telling us that the kettle worked

Warning sign in our cabin telling us that the kettle worked

This boat is, apparently, a very dangerous place. Everywhere one turns there are warnings of the mortal peril we face every day. Here is a sample of the dangers we are warned about. Each warning is written in six languages, so it requires dedication to find where on the sign is the warning for you.

  • On a free-standing placard on the little table in my cabin: Warning: the water in the kettle may be very hot. (I would perhaps have written the sign, “Good news! The water in the kettle may be very hot!” or perhaps “Warning: kettle works properly.”)
  • Above every toilet on the boat: Do not flush whilst seated. (The lids and flush buttons are set up to make it practically impossible to flush whilst seated as well.)
  • At the top and bottom of every stairway: Mind the step. (That small blue sign with writing in six languages is much easier to spot than the entire damn staircase after all. But what if someone falls on the next step? Shouldn’t there be a warning on each step on the staircase?)
  • On the side of the boat while docked at Kagoshima (but not in other ports): KEEP CLEAR OF PROPELLERS (English only)
  • In the shower: Caution: Test the temperature of the water before using the shower.
  • Part of a safety warning in every issue of the daily the bulletin delivered to our cabin: “… multiple plugs are not permitted in the cabins…” (Our cabin came equipped with a multi-plug power strip plugged into the only outlet.)

Of the above, the warning that is the least silly is actually the one about flushing (except it’s also posted above urinals). The toilets use some sort of vacuum system to flush, and if one were to form a seal between nethers and seat, who knows what might happen? Thus the heads onboard have been built with a design that would require a gifted contortionist to flush whilst seated.

Around the ship there are plenty of other warnings and safety instructions as well, a different sort of warning, given pictorially rather than in six different languages — things like “go this way if the ship is sinking.” Some of those admonitions actually seem reasonable, or even (dare I say?) helpful.

Oddly, there are no signs warning guests to not fall over the rail and into the ocean. I guess it’s OK to do that.

Happy 50th, Mom and Dad

I am here on this cruise because my parents thought this would be a great way to celebrate their fifty years of wedded bliss. Last night we had the big celebration at dinner, with all of us as dressed up as we could reasonably get. We got a group portrait taken and we were served a special cake at dinner (after the regular dessert). Good times.

Fifty years they’ve been married. That takes some doing. Earlier in the day I had to smile as we walked down a market street in Kobe; my parents were holding hands.

Congratulations, guys. Here’s to many more years of hand-holding in exotic locations.

Follow the Carp

It took a little longer to shake off the cobwebs this morning, a combination of getting used to the time zone and (more significantly) staying up too late last night. I didn’t have all morning to lie about, however, I needed to be fed and ready at 8:15, when the family was gathering to get our instructions for the trip to Kyoto. Thirty minutes later I had a number 16 affixed to my chest and we were on our way.

Our guide, with carp, near a big tree

Our guide, with carp, near a big tree

The trip started with a coach ride from the port of Kobe to Kyoto. The guide of coach 16 was a friendly fellow with lots of interesting stories about the little things that give a city its character. I didn’t hear all the stories; I was seated in the back, next to Obnoxious Italian Guy. The coach was full, and Obnoxious Italian Guy and his girlfriend simply needed more space than the seat provided. Not because they were big, but because he in particular was animated. He sat semi-sideways in the seat, using my shoulder as a back rest, and laughed and joked and waved his arms in a culturally-correct manner, and generally annoyed me. If I had said something he probably would have been quite all right with that; my quiet annoyance was probably just as culturally abrasive to him as his space-invading histrionics were to me.

In any case, we got to Kyoto. Our first stop was a Buddhist temple, built by a powerful Shogun and cousin of the Emperor. Before we got off the bus our guide showed the baton he would carry. At the end were two mini carp kites. “Follow the carp,” he said. He reminded us again when we were mustering after getting off the bus, where another tour guide was giving the same advice to her group, holding up an almost identical carp-festooned baton.

The Golden Pavillion, built by some shogun guy in Kyoto Japan

The Golden Pavillion, built by some shogun guy in Kyoto Japan

The place was was, as you might expect, beautiful. The most striking building was the golden Pavillion, a three-story structure. The upper two stories were covered in gilt which reflected in a still pond, while the ground floor was dark wood. “It is best when it is raining,” our guide said. He moved his hands to indicate a downpour. “When it is raining very hard. Then the upper part seems to be floating in the air. Very beautiful.” It was hot and humid; I hoped for rain, but no such luck.

We toured the grounds, pausing to hear stories of carp transforming into dragons and so forth. Almost right away my camera battery gave out. That was OK, I was surrounded by photographers. I concentrated on looking around.

All too soon we were done with the place, and I felt for the first time the downside of a group tour. We were in a place of quiet contemplation, a place designed explicitly to be a good place to sit and think (or not think). But, I was with forty other people and we had places to go. A tour can hardly schedule time for forty antsy tourists to stop for a moment, breathe, and feel the harmony of the surroundings permeate their own souls. We got back on the bus.

A small shrine in a Zen garden, Kyoto

A small shrine in a Zen garden, Kyoto

We drove past the Emperor’s Palace grounds, over the river where once thrived kabuki and brothels, to our next stop, a Shinto temple. We were instructed in the proper cleaning ritual, a symbolic preparation to enter the place and in itself a sort of prayer. I tried to get myself in the proper frame of mind as I washed left hand, right hand, mouth (cover your mouth when you spit the cleansing water back out – do not show God your teeth), then finally the handle of the water scoop, to make it ready for the next person.

Thus cleansed and in the proper frame of mind we entered the temple grounds. The buildings were massive and brightly painted. The place was a half-sized replica of the Emperor’s palace, which was burned down a century or four ago. Our group crunched over the white gravel of the grounds and approached the main shrine, which houses the spirits of not one but two great Emperors. We bowed respectfully, clapped, and made our wishes. (I did not wish for anything as base as a cooling rainstorm.) One can also purchase fortunes at the temple, not all of which are good. There are trees white with the fortune slips, as people who are not happy with their fortune will tie it to a branch and get a new one.

Get your coin in the bowl and go to heaven!

Get your coin in the bowl and go to heaven!

Back on the bus half an hour later and on to the next stop, a famous market street bursting with fresh seafood, intriguing snacks, enticing aromas, and the vibrant energy that any good market has. (Remind me to look up the name of this street.) Then it was back on the bus once again for a trip to a fancy hotel for a buffet lunch with dozens of dishes, from the familiar to the mysterious. I ate too much, trying to balance exotic and mundane. The afternoon included a visit to another, particularly cool temple perched on the hills overlooking the city, and time to shop in the streets that lead up to the temple.

I was feeling a powerful thirst, so I paused and drank a beverage called Pocasi Sweat (or something like that – “sweat” was in the name). It is what Gatorade used to be before it got sweet — a not-very-tasty-but-effective thirst quencher that replaces electrolytes. It was indeed refreshing.

Finally, we went to the train station and boarded the Shikansen (rhymes with ‘bullet train’) back from Kyoto to Kobe. According to fuego’s GPS-phone, we reached speeds of almost 280 km/h, the maximum the train is allowed to go in urban parts of the country. The trains don’t stop often and when they do it is not for long; we were warned by our guide that while the train would stop for almost two minutes in Kyoto, in Kobe we would have only a minute to get off. I think our huge group delayed departure a few seconds. Hopefully they were able to make up the time on the next leg.

Back in Kobe we boarded a different bus and were shuttled back to the boat, tired, pleased, and just a bit frazzled, considering all the places of peace and tranquility we had stampeded through. Better to stampede, though, than to not see it at all.

The Big Day

The eclipse is past, it was a success, and the folks on board are ready to party. Fortunately it’s still practically deserted here in the aft lounge on deck 9, tucked away behind the casino. The pianist has been joined by a trumpet player who is quite obviously not on the payroll but what he lacks in prowess he makes up for with a sweet tone and a good attitude. Everyone seems jolly this evening. We saw a total solar eclipse together today.

I woke up early, but not as early as I had planned. Outside our porthole the sun shone brightly over calm seas. By gum, it looked like it would be a good eclipse-watching day.

Many paused for a moment of reflection, and veterans told their stories.

Astronomy buffs prepare for the upcoming eclipse as the boat passes Iwo Jima

My plan called for breakfast first, a big meal in case the excitement later took precedence over meals. When I got up on deck, I changed my plans. Pictures first. On the port side was Iwo Jima, about as close as tourists can get to it these days. It is hallowed ground, dedicated to the memory of the blood shed over a few square miles of rock in the middle of the ocean. I thought about the marines who had looked over the waves at the same island so long ago, knowing that soon they would step ashore there. I took a couple of pictures in cooperation with Stereoptic Pete, who I have not mentioned yet in these chronicles, but I’ll get to that another day.

The island behind us, we set course for the center of the path the eclipse would take, balancing the longest possible totality with the occasional banks of clouds. “We’re good for Plan A,” the organizer said over the ship’s PA system. I went for breakfast and to make sure that I was as ready as possible for the main event. memory chip cleared, battery (and backup) fully charged, no funky settings on the camera. I went over in my head what I would do for the six and a half minutes of totality. 1) Look at eclipse 2) take pictures of eclipse. I reminded myself to get the priorities right. There would be plenty of pictures to share among the family, but there won’t be another eclipse as long as this one for more than a century.

Also, before I took my position on the sunny deck, I needed better sun protection. My hopes of finding a decent sun hat were thwarted, but the gift shop on board had baseball caps, and one of those would be better than nothing. I sprang for the hat, slathered on the sunscreen, and headed topside.

Sun goggles on! Sunscreen on! Hat on (for now)!

Sun goggles on! Sunscreen on! Hat on (for now)!

I took up a position on the patio at the stern of deck 10. It was less crowded (most of the patio is covered by an awning) and it was close to the beer. It also had the benefit of having a good view to the rear, and I hoped to see the cone of the shadow overtake us as second contact approached.

It wasn’t long before first contact – the moment when the disk of the moon first impinges on the sun. I pulled out my sun-looking-at shades and watched. Near me was a German couple and their cute-as-a-button daughter. The eclipse was going a bit slowly for a girl her age, so I took the daily newsletter, unfolded it, and punched a pattern of holes into it with my pen, creating the largest array of cameras on the boat. We had a good time looking at the dozens of crescent shapes projected onto the table top, projecting them on each other, and generally goofing around.

The day grew dimmer, and cooler. The ship adjusted course to run right down the center of the track, prolonging the totality by a fraction of a second. (“Because we can,” the director explained.) Unfortunately, due to poor math on my part, I had positioned myself directly under the ship’s exhaust on our new heading. As the deck became crowded with the ship’s crew, I crossed over to the other side of the boat, pausing to get a beer on the way. I found a spot on the rail, introduced myself to my new neighbors, and made another check of the camera. I was shooting with a big ol’ zoom lens and it seemed like about halfway zoomed would give the best results. I checked ISO, focus, shutter speed, and aperture. I was ready. The plan was to not spend too much time thinking, but just step through a whole bunch of settings, assuming at least one would give good results.

Second contact, the photo shaken as I grabbed in futility for my runaway hat.

Second contact, the photo shaken as I grabbed in futility for my runaway hat.

The cone of darkness appeared behind us as the world dimmed. The temperature, cooling steadily for the last hour, dropped abruptly further. The light took on an odd twilight aspect. I looked up, and saw the last flare of the sun vanish behind the rugged lunar terrain. Second contact, they call that moment in the biz. I raised my camera, almost vertical, and lined up my first shot. Shoonk went the slider for the zoom, pulling me back from the image. Fwip went my brand-new hat as it tumbled off my head, over the rail, and into the sea far below. I took the picture.

You’ve seen eclipse pictures before, better ones than these. Probably you’re read descriptions of the time spent in the shadow of the moon. Twilight in the middle of the day. Sunset-pink clouds on the entire horizon, 360 degrees. All I can add is “spooky”. Venus appeared, then elusive Mercury and some of the brighter stars. The whispy streamers of the corona cast an eery glow over the sea, and the sky was a color I’d never seen before.

I raised my beer to sun and moon and corona and speedy little Mercury and I silently toasted the spectacle.

The inner corona of the sun, with streamers and stuff

The inner corona of the sun, with streamers and stuff

I took some more pictures, pausing now and then to take it all in, not thinking about anything but the thing itself. Well over six minutes passed that way, then came the first peek of the sun through a valley on the lunar surface, a flash known as the diamond ring that means that we have reached third contact and the magic is coming to an end. I quickly made an adjustment to the camera and fired up at the emerging brightness. And waited as my camera beeped off ten agonizing seconds before taking the picture. It turns out I had adjusted two things. Maybe I was lucky, however; the picture came out right nice.

I hadn’t taken any shots of the crescent sun before totality, but afterwards I found a piece of solar filter blowing across the deck and held it over the lens with one hand while shooting with the other.

The "diamond ring" as the sun peeks through a valley on the moon, while the corona is still visible.

The "diamond ring" as the sun peeks through a valley on the moon, while the corona is still visible.

Eventually it was time to abandon my post and find the rest of my group, in the more crowded areas forward of my position. “Did you get good pictures?” people asked as I moved around. “I don’t know,” I said. I hadn’t gone back to look at them. It didn’t even occur to me until later. I was pretty sure that I was moving the camera too much anyway.

Before fourth contact, while the moon was still slinking back into obscurity, the moon geeks began to break down their fancy telescopes and clever moon-watching devices and the party atmosphere began. The ship hoisted the official ‘successful eclipse’ flag and cheering ensued. Our boat shared horn blasts with other boats that had come to the ideal viewing spot. My cousin sweet-talked the head of bartenders on the boat to slide me a free Eclipse Cocktail.

The central lounge on the boat was packed this afternoon, filled with clusters of people (like us) reliving the experience, checking photos, and partitipating in the traditional cruise activities for the first time in days.

As the eclipse geeks below begin to celebrate, the moon slowly moves along.

As the eclipse geeks below begin to celebrate, the moon slowly moves along.

Tonight after dinner (celebrating fuego’s mother-in-law’s birthday) I followed my nephew out to the foredeck, kept dark for this cruise only, to allow people a place to see the stars. There was the Milky Way and a buttload of stars, along with the fiery trail of the occasional meteor. I stayed out there for quite a while in the dark and quiet, listening to the low conversations around me and thinking about how big it all is, this universe measured in time, and how tiny was the little island we had passed that morning.

Sun and Moon collide
bound by ancient formulae
meteors are free

1

Sunset off the Stern

Sunset Panorama

Sunset Panorama

Last night I ditched a family dinner to sit on the fantail of the boat and watch the sun set, to ponder life and all the little moving parts that are required to sustain it, and to take a few pictures. This is built from a series of fourteen still photos, and came together pretty well. You can click to see a less-shrunk version. The sunset got a lot redder after a while, but I didn’t go back and take another set for a panorama.

Sunset off the stern of the boat

Sunset off the stern of the boat

Lost at Sea

I’m sitting at the stern of the boat right now, looking back at our wake stretching behind us over calm seas to the horizon. The sun is setting behind us, giving the clouds lined up on the horizon a glow around the edges. It’s nice. As the sun slips below the horizon I will be here to document the event. It’s only fair.

We are far from land now, just a small town with a motor sliding over the briny blue (which is noticeably bluer today). Dinner will be soon but I’m not really hungry and certainly not interested in being in a loud and crowded restaurant. The food’s nice but right now I just want peace and quiet. I’ll grab something later if I feel like it.

There was a group of us a while ago, and while the conversation was interesting, I didn’t feel like saying much. I enjoyed the company, but wasn’t inclined to mix in. We were discussing subjects that others knew a lot more about than I did (things like 3D imaging), and so I did my best to increase the listen/talk ratio of the group, and to keep track of the sun and make sure it set correctly. So far so good. The sun is partially obscured by a high layer of cloud, while below fluffy clouds line up below, raising occasional pillars as sentinels, their towering shapes gilt-edged by the rays of the sun.

A little bit of color is starting to manifest now, hints of salmon in the gap between the most distant clouds and the horizon. The sun is easing behind a cloud, allowing the fainter tones to shine forth. The colors are interrupted in one spot by what appears to be a squall. At other points the horizon has bumps – presumably the tops of yet-more-distant clouds.

I’m pausing to take pictures now and then, using my wide-angle lens because it’s already on the camera and I can be reasonably confident that somewhere in the shot will be a picture. On the tiny little video screen, the pinks don’t seem to be coming out the way my eyes register them. I’ve had that problem before; not sure what to tweak to fix that. I’ll deal with it later. Like everything else.

I like being at sea, but I don’t think it makes me very good company. There are days for thinking and they seem more common out on the water. I crave solitude; I want the chance to explore the melancholy I’m feeling, the wistful longing that can lead to good fiction. Unfortunately it’s really hard to be alone here for any stretch of time; in this small town it’s impossible to go anywhere without running into an acquaintance or someone who shares a common interest and would like to discuss it. Then there’s family. I thought that dinner time might be a chance for me to sneak off if I skipped the meal, but it was not to be.

The sun is now long set, and the boat chugs on for our historic leap and hop through the moon shadow. I’m tired, still not alone, and I want to get some work done before bed. Despite the fact I’m lousy company right now, I’m still not alone.

A Public Health Reminder

When you were a kid I’m sure your mother told you to be careful on cloudy days because while you may not be motivated to do anything to protect yourself, you can still get sunburned.

I just wanted to let you all know that this fact is absolutely true, and applies in foreign countries like, say, South Korea as well. If you were to go out without a hat and without adequate sunscreen you could really fry your face, turning your forehead bright red. If you happen to have your hair pulled back because of the wind, the sunburn can get way up on your scalp. Nobody wants that.

There’s no particular reason I’m telling you this now; it’s just something that occurred to me yesterday afternoon.

On the Boat!

I’ve never been on a big ol’ cruise ship like this one, and so far I must say that I’m having a fine time. Getting onto the ship was a bit of a hassle, however. We started with a 3-hour bus ride from our (very nice) hotel near the Beijing airport to Tianjin harbor. It was a pleasant ride, if a bit crowded, and the guy next to me was an experienced eclipsist — this will be his twenty-somethingth eclipse. He gave me a sticker from the 1991 wing-ding. I’m debating whether I should glue it to Ol’ Pokey, my faithful if battered laptop.

Organization deteriorated at the ship terminal. We clustered outside under the eaves to stay out of the gentle rain while a trickle of passengers passed their bags through the x-ray machine. Finally it was my turn and I plunked my bags down on the conveyor and entered the large, noisy, already-crowded building. No one was looking at the screen of the x-ray machine; all hands were busily handling — or increasing — the mild chaos inside. Eventually I made it up to the second floor where cruise check-in was. It was a long, slow line and fortunately I had some pleasant people around me to converse with. We talked about eclipses, mostly.

It took a long time to check in, and then the waiting really started. To get on the boat we had to first pass through Chinese immigration, which was back downstairs. Only thing was, they weren’t open yet. More busloads of passengers streamed in, and the downstairs area of the terminal was getting crowded. Our group stayed upstairs relaxing and watching the cauldron of humanity below. Upstairs and downstairs were connected by long escalators and at one point there was a logjam at the bottom of the downward escalator as people who got there simply had nowhere to go, as the heedless mechanical stairs carried more and more people down on top of them. Fortunately no one was hurt.

Still, people clustered downstairs, because it was closer to the final destination. As if that mattered. Finally employees of the cruise line and white-gloved policemen stood at the escalators discouraging people from adding to the confusion below. More busses arrived, carrying more passengers.

It turns out the boat had been late arriving in the harbor, and wasn’t ready to take passengers. We bought a couple of warm beers at the duty-free shop to help time pass, and then the ship’s galley delivered sandwiches (after a mild sandwich disaster on the up-escalator). Those downstairs milled about in their seething masses while the more patient upstairsers snacked. Time passed, and eventually the boat was ready to receive her next wave of passengers.

Finally, onto the boat. We had been informed that we would be searched again, and that we were not allowed to bring our own beverages aboard, thwarting my plans to dodge shipboard prices. Curses!

It was still a few hours before we were under way. We slid out of the harbor with a four-tugboat escort. My nephew Gerald, fuego, and I watched the lights of Tianjin slide by, and took piles of pictures. I think Gerald’s came out the best, as he had a tripod and generally knows what he’s doing with a camera. fuego scored a couple of good ones as well, and I think I got a couple of keepers. Overall, it was a pleasant evening.

Now it’s morning, and I’m ditching a talk on eclipse photography to get a little quiet time to work. Maybe I’d better get to it.

Another Pre-Travel All-Nighter

So it’s coming up on midnight, and the shuttle is arriving to carry me away by the dawn’s early light. My suitcase is still in the closet, but I have created a pile of electronic gear in the middle of the office floor. I now own socks that are a color other than white and I have added another tie to the collection. Honestlly, there’s not much more to do until 5:45 in the morning.

Visitors to these pages please be aware that for the next two weeks I aim to collect a bunch of stories, but I don’t know when I’ll be able to share them with you. I’ll be on a boat most of the time, and when I’m exploring the back alleys of Bejing I’ll not be bringing my laptop with me. I hope to b able to update occasionally, but there’s no guarantee.

Meanwhile, I have a story idea (almost) literally fizzing in my head (hold out for NaNoWriMo… hold out for NaNoWriMo…) and a blog episode about advertising on the verge of exploding out of my ears. The creative juices are flowing, boys and girls!

Manwhile, stay tuned, and talk among yourselves. You guys really don’t need me anyway. Maybe you can all coordinate holiday plans or something. MuddlePallooza 2009!

The Moon is Waning

Less than three days from now I will find myself at the airport, documents in hand, ready to go chase the new moon. Some moons, you see, are newer than others, and the upcoming one is going to get smack-dab between the Earth and the Sun. It will also be a particularly close new moon, so it will cast an unusually large shadow. My goal, and the goal of a brotherhood of geeks that my parents belong to, is to be in that shadow.

The best place for viewing this eclipse will be at sea, and happily there are enough moon geeks to encourage a cruise ship or two to make a special trip out to the middle of nowhere so people can spend a few hours risking eye damage. Our boat will be aiming for optimum totality time, modified by where clouds are at the critical moment. We eclipsists don’t like clouds so much. The boys steering the boat will have all sorts of gizmos to tell them about the weather (sailors have always been funny that way) and will try to put us in the ideal spot.

When the moment comes, we will be able to look almost straight up and see the moon eat the sun.

With only a couple days’ prep time left, I really should think about packing. I even went out and bought a pair of long pants just for the trip. Actually, most of the credit for that goes to my sweetie; left on my own I would have procrastinated on the slack-buying mission (slack slacking? Am I a slack slacker?) until just about now, then rushed about in a panic trying to find some. Apparently onboard and around and about in Asia, “semi-formal” doesn’t include cargo shorts and aloha shirts. What the heck?

Which brings me to the item that now I have to rush around in a panic to find. A suit jacket of some sort. Not only are we out there to ogle astronomical phenomena, we will be celebrating my parents’ fifty years of wedded bliss. There will be a dinner celebration on the boat, and it will be a fancy (on the Seeger scale) affair. I’m pretty sure I have a tie around here somewhere, and I have button-up shirts without flowers or martini glasses printed on them, but the coat is going to be tricky. Anyone have a spare they can loan me? Something in a meduimish size? I can roll up the sleeves if they’re too long.

Other than that, I’ll be packing a camera, lenses, laptop (but which one? the one that can edit photos or the one with a working battery?), a smaller camera, battery chargers (what plugs do they use over there and on the boat?), shampoo, and a toothbrush. Ooo, and a swimsuit. Snorkel and corrective diving mask? Probably not. Oh, and shoes. They’ll probably come in handy for that formal dinner thing.

What’s with all the moon stuff?

I have added a couple of widgets over in the sidebar that show the phase of the moon. Why? Because when the moon gets back to new, I’ll be somewhere in the ocean around Iwo Jima, staring straight up and burning my eyeballs as the moon passes between them and the sun. Total Eclipse of the Sun, baby, and I’ll be there!

I added two different moon phase thingies because one was more aesthetically pleasing, while the other held more cultural interest. If you hold the mouse over the Japanese characters, you will be given important information about how to carry out your day. If you can figure out what it means.

I’ll be writing more about this adventure as I gear up for the cruise. A boat full of astronomy geeks! Woo hoo!

Across the Desert

I’m not used to traveling in convoy. It was a pleasant change to roll across the western third of the United States with my brother in the rear-view; good to have conversation at rest stops and meals, and to split a pitcher of Bass Ale at Mad Dog’s Dog House in Kingman, Arizona. There is a downside, however — time I normally spend over a laptop musing about the journey and its larger meaning is spent instead discussing plans to take over the world.

The most notable aspect of this trip, however, was the wind. There was a lot of it, and it was directly in our faces. On day one we stopped at Speedy’s, just across the border in Arizona, where I remembered a decent little trucker cafe. When we walked in I realized I had guided us to the wrong place, but we stayed. We sat by a window and watched the as the wind whipped rain and dust around simultaneously.

The wind roared around the building, a taller-than-necessary steel skeleton with thick-looking walls and a gently-sloping roof. fuego leaned his back against the outer wall and felt the building flex with the gusts. “The employees don’t seem to be worried,” he said, “so I guess this happens all the time.” A particularly strong gust made the roof groan and I made a comment about it blowing off.

Our food came – quite good food, as it turned out; I had mutton stew and fuego had a green chile grilled cheese sandwich. We ate and continued to marvel at the spectacle outside. I was not looking forward to pumping gas out there.

The waitress was bussing a table near ours when a loud POP reverberated through the building. After a bit of confusion we all started looking up at the ceiling. Another pop followed, not as loud as the first. Now, the employees were nervous as well. I began to plan a swift exit strategy should things get worse.

We finished our meal (neither of us that hungry due to good snack supplies) and there were only a couple more pops from above before we effected our escape. [A brief Google check that night uncovered no mention of the roof blowing off after we left.]

The other effect of the wind was on gas mileage. Normally going from the border to Kingman on a tank of gas would be routine, but as we passed Seligman (and the last gas stations for a long, long way), I was surprised at how low I was on gas. I still appeared to have seventy miles’ worth, though, so on we went. The gauge continued its nose-dive toward E, however, and the last few tense miles fuego took the lead to give me a windbreak. We made it to a station, I filled up, and the last few miles into Kingman were routine.

We ate, slept, and Sunday we split up at Barstow, both turning toward our designated blights of urban sprawl. I arrived, scratched my arm on a fire extinguisher box, was met by That Girl with a big hug and the next phase of my journey through life began.

Leaving Prague

I’m not a big fan of packing, and cleaning, and all the other tasks associated with moving. As a result, I tend to procrastinate when confronted with them. Add to that a big complicated task like making a short movie — a task that will absorb as much time as I allow it to — and the desire to keep my normal tasks of writing and maintaining software (the latter a dismal failure lately), and you end up with night falling less than twelve hours before departure, suitcases empty, house a jumble, and the clock ticking away.

Add on top of that an editor anxiously waiting for the data from the last day of shooting and the master audio, a task that ended up sucking down a couple of hours of my time, and it’s fair to say that my exit in the morning was not the cleanest one on record. I stopped downstairs to tell the landlord that the big pile of clothes was for charity (Angelo will be picking it up), and that Soup Boy would be in touch. I forgot to mention that the garment bag was hers for the taking, that the hair trimmer set was Soup Boy’s if he wanted it, and that the bag at the top of the stairs was trash that would not fit in the can outside.

I was in Atlanta when I realized that I had left my leather jacket in the kitchen. Bummer. I really like that jacket. Apparently That Girl does also. I was wearing it when she first saw me.

But time waits for no panicked, exhausted, scrambling packer, and it didn’t wait for me, either. Goodbyes were brief and then the car arrived to whisk fuego and me to the airport. “Whisk” in this case meant stop-and-go traffic; it was like Prague was giving us one last reminder of what California would be like, one last bid to have us stay. Sorry, lovely city, but it’s time to move on.

Airports are airports, and while Prague’s is less of a hassle than some, it’s not different enough to warrant much comment. My bags were a bit over the limit but thanks to the traffic jam the agent didn’t have time to make me pay extra. So that worked out.

On the plane, over the water. In the seat behind me was a 14-month-old baby, and I cringed when I sat down. Still, I’ve had some experience with that demographic lately, so I resolved to be tolerant. fortunately, the kid did really well, with a minimum of fussing and only the occasional seat-kicking. It was the five-year-old in the seat in front of me who was the problem. Lots of energy, nowhere to go, piercing scream. Lovely.

Atlanta was routine; a period of standing in line to be screened by various agents of the government, then a wait until the plane was ready. From there to Albuquerque, and a hotel. It was a long day, eight hours longer than most days, but fuego and I managed to stay up long enough to have dinner at a diner that served green chile. The plan was to meet with family members in the morning, to recover my car and go up to Los Alamos for the evening.

Only, with all the communication and plan-making flying around, apparently none of the messages sent to my sister and brother-in-law, the keepers of my car, included the date of our arrival. They were out of town. Hm. A bit of a wrinkle, that. Fortunately the parents had an extra key for the house where the car was. Unfortunately, it was 100 miles away. We went up to the ol’ homestead and fuego and I prepared for our road trip, and I got to see my beer slave.

It all worked out in the end, obviously; Saturday morning found fuego and me in a convoy heading out into the desert. I’ll tell you about it soon.

The Waiting is the Hardest Part

Last Friday I finally got someone in the banking world to take up my cause. I really wish I’d got her name, because she was the kind of get-it-done person you want when you are hungry and all your money is tantalizingly beyond your reach. Hours later the call came from Visa: your replacement card is on the way!

Hooray!

She told me it would be delivered the next business day, Monday. I woke up this morning with the sun on my face (solved with a pillow), but then Real Life started to weasel into my thoughts and suddenly I sat up with a jerk and lunged for the computer. What day is it?

The answer: Monday (rhymes with today). I’m getting an express delivery today. I don’t know when.

I live in what is called around here a ‘villa’. It’s a big house built to have a family on each floor. My place is an afterthought; at some point someone realized that the attic was just a lost opportunity for rent. It takes me three keys to get in: There’s the iron gate by the street, then there’s the door to the building, then there’s my own door at the top of the steps. The catch is that someone on the street has no way to signal me to come down. As I type this, the delivery guy could be down there cursing my name.

So I sit now, windows cracked open despite the chill rain outside, waiting to hear the UPS guy. I am hopeful — when I talked to the final Visa operator I mentioned that the driver should have my phone number. “It will be in the information,” she said, “But we can’t guarantee that the driver will have a telephone.” That was the first funny thing that came out of this whole trauma. A czech without a phone. Ho!

But now I sit, my apartment getting colder (a little complicated – my only windows with ears to the street are in the bathroom, where my heater also lives. The heater pump is failing, and makes a racket. If I have the bathroom door open to hear sounds from the street, I can’t have the heater hammering away.)

So now, I wait. And hope. If the weather was nice I’d just take a book and a chair down to the front lawn. Alas, the weather is not nice. So I’m up here, afraid to do anything that makes the slightest sound lest I miss the critical delivery. Today promises to be big fun.

Travelers Tip: Don’t Use Raffeisen Bank

I am still struggling to recover from having my bank card eaten by an ATM at the bank closest to my house. In fact, this is the second time it’s eaten my card, but the first time I had a backup. As my tale of woe spreads, I’ve learned that several of my friends have had their cards eaten by the hungry bankomat machines of Raffeisen.

My theory on the matter is that Raffeisen is more sensitive to fraud than other banks, so if the slightest thing goes wrong on the transaction (say there’s a glitch in transatlantic communication, or, as is the case with my bank, one of the card-processing networks that serves them goes down), that’s it – card eaten. For locals this is an inconovenience, for travelers it is a major pain in the butt.

So, while before I thought it was bad luck that my first card got eaten, now I know that there is a difference in banks, and I will never use a Raffeisen bankomat again. I encourage you to do the same.

Meanwhile the emergency delivery of a replacement card has been far less than swift. First told I could even have a card the next day, now it’s been a week and I’ve been riding a ridiculous merry-go-round between San Diego County Credit Union and Visa Emergency Services. My nerves got a bit frayed on the phone last night, as the credit union seemed to have gotten confused somewhere along the way about a check card I never activated and in fact don’t have. Sure wish I did. Or that I’d applied for a Paypal card. Or anything.

“I’m getting hungry,” I tell them over the phone. (Thank the gods of telecommunication for Skype.) Now I’m waiting while (once more) Visa Emergency Services seeks permission from my bank to issue a new card.

So, lessons learned: First, don’t use Raffeisen Bank. Never. Second, don’t don’t count on two organizations to work well together. Hound them relentlessly until things are fixed. Third, don’t tell your landlord you’ll have the money on a certain day. I never thought I’d be the one tip-toeing past the landlord’s door. That’s out of a sit-com, right? Except that was me today. And just like in a sit-com, I got to the bottom of he stairs, realized I’d forgotten something, and tip-toed back up and down again. High comedy.