Thursday, April 30, 2015

green is my writer's valley

A couple of days ago, I foolishly asserted I could not generate stories from encounters with my fellow passengers.  What was I thinking?  Some unwitting creature always manage to wander past the bead of my elephant gun.

Take today.  We decided to get away from the big cities with a trip to Mt. Fuji and its surrounding Hakone national park.  I had no idea that Japan had wisely chosen to reserve its wild spaces.

Well, someone on our bus did.  In fact, he seemed to know everything about everything.  Remember The Pedantic Man in Midnight in Paris?  This guy would have put him to shame.

We learned that America dropped three atomic bombs on Japan.  That there are more Brazilians in Massachusetts than in Brazil.  That the United States made a huge mistake by not allying with Germany and Japan in the Second World War.  That Bowe Bergdahl should be executed along with the five released terrorists.

I was hoping he was from some English-speaking country other than The States.  I was wrong.  He is exactly the kind of guy who can give an entire nation a bad name during a single bus ride.

You might think I am being a bit churlish -- to now rip some poor guy with whom I had a conversation.  But I didn't say one word to him.  I was sitting across the bus in a row forward.  And I could not block out any of his unsolicited opinions or "factoids."  What I could not hear was our Japanese guide who was telling us what we were viewing.

I chose this particular bus excursion because I wanted to see Mount Fuji.  And this is as good as the view got.

You can barely make out its outline through the clouds.  But that was good enough for me to mark it off of the list I do not keep.

The mountain was simply too modest to show her shape.  That is, until the afternoon when the light was wrong.

That was a bit disappointing.  But the rest of the trip made up for it.

Our bus drove us up the Hakone crater -- a collapsed volcano -- to the Great Boiling Valley.  It is an aptly-named site.  The whole area is filled with sulphur vents and hot springs.  These places always look as if they could figure in a Bosch painting.

After an hour of breathing sulfuric air, we boarded a gondola for a cable trip from the summit to Lake Ashi in the crater's basin where we boarded a boat for a circuit around the lake.  That is it at the top of the essay.

Not just any boat.  It was a pirate ship.  Or, at least, a Japanese version.  Remember what I said about the Japanese ability to assimilate other cultures -- and to do it with style?  Well, imagine Captain Jack Sparrow, Versailles, and Hello Kitty all rolled into one kitschy package.

And do you know what?  It was the very essence of fun.  You might think that after a few days of cruising, the last place I would want to spend my free time was on the water.  You would be wrong.

It was a beautiful lake.  And, other than dodging our newly-acquired Pedantic Man, it was exactly what it advertised itself as being -- unadulterated fun.

Even though it took an hour and a half to get to the park, we drove through some enchanting landscape.  Such as, these fields of green tea.  And tangerine groves.

And the day was not over.  When we returned to the ship, a troupe of young Japanese drummers assembled to drum us out of town.

They were quite talented.  I shot a three-minute video that I wanted to post here.  But the internet speed is simply too slow to share it with you.  Instead, I offer up this photograph.  You can imagine the drumming.

Perhaps, I will be able to upload it when I return home to Mexico.

That is, after I figure out why the American government has spent 50 years covering up that pesky third atomic weapon we used against Japan.

Traveling is so broadening.

30 april -- shimizu, japan

This stop will give me an opportunity to see Mt. Fuji.  Well, as much of Mt. Fuji as I can see with eight hours in port.

One of the advantages of cruises is the ability to see a lot of different places in a short time.  One of the disadvantages is having only a short time to see a lot of different places.  Life is made up of compromises.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

welcome to japan

Nippon: the Floating Kingdom.
There was a time when foreigners were not welcome here.
But that was long ago. A hundred and twenty years.
Welcome to Japan.
With those words the curtain comes down on Pacific Overtures.  And it is true.  In part.

The island empire that was closed to foreigners for centuries now holds its arms open (half-way) to visitors.  Getting through Japanese quarantine, immigration, and customs was a stylized reminder that I will always be a gaijin (outsider) to this insular nation.

I try to avoid clich
és in my writing.  But Japan looks like a designer country.  Take a look at that bridge.  It could have come out of an Oscar de la Renta studio.  But it didn't stop there.

Today, on its surface, Japan is almost as western as Essex.  And that is not an accident.

When the Emperor Meiji overthrew the Shogun-dominated samurai society in 1867, he declared Japan would adopt western technology to become a world power.  And it did.  Including the arts.  The American bombing in World War Two helped Japan (unwillingly) in that process.

We visited Kobe and Kyoto today.  Even though they are both ancient cities, they are almost entirely modern -- with designer clothes stores, streets filled with cars, and that ever-present symbol of western civilization: McDonald's.

Kyoto was one of the ancient capitals of Japan.  First ruled by the emperor.  Then the shoguns.  With a reprise by the emperor -- Meiji, in this case, who moved the imperial capital from Kyoto to Tokyo.  (Please note the anagram.)

Today's trip was through the time tunnel.  Kyoto is a city of temples.  While American B-29s were leveling the rest of Japan in the Second World War, Kyoto was spared due to its cultural heritage.  And that heritage is proof that style is an ancient Japanese characteristic.

Part of that heritage is its temples.  We visited three of them.

The Golden Pavilion is one of those rare architectural anomalies that is both instructional and beautiful.  The building displays three separate functions and historical periods.

The first level was built as a pavilion for the emperor.  During the shogun era, the second level was added as a palace.  The last shogun of that era decided to become a Buddhist monk.  He added a third level and turned the pavilion into a temple.

What we see now is a restoration.  American bombers may have spared it.  But the ravages of time, earthquakes, and fire did not.  The building is a reconstruction,  What looks like yellow paint is actually gold leaf.

Our next stop was the Heian shrine -- a Shinto compound.

Shinto is the ancestral religion of Japan.  It is simultaneously monotheistic and pantheistic -- recognizing numerous natural phenomenon as having souls that can be persuaded to change their course.  The wind.  The sun.  Donald Trump.

Buddhism came to Japan from China around 552 AD, at a time when Shintoism was in a moral slump, and survived concurrently with the ancient sect.  To this  day.  Both disciplines have now merged into the lives of the Japanese as a single faith.

Shinto is relied upon for births, weddings, and festivals.  The joyous occasions of this life.  Buddhism comes into play for funerals and matters of the afterlife.

It sounds a bit as if that came out of Atheism for Dummies.  But that was our guide's take on contemporary religious thought in Japan.

Our last stop was a Buddhist temple (Kiyomizu-dera) perched on a hill above modern Kyoto.

Japan may have been modernizing for a century and a half, but its people honor the old ways, as well.  When young Japanese visit Kyoto, they often rent ancient fancy dress. 

Imagine visiting Plymouth Rock and donning a pilgrim outfit.  Or getting all duded up for a rodeo.  And you will get something like this in Kyoto.

And they really get into their roles.  With modernity swirling about them, they shuffle along as if they are living in the 15th century and are on their way to offer up a prayer in the great hall.

But style was not limited to bridges, temples, and kimonos.  The shop windows were filled stylish dresses.

Even the tea shop windows with its cake and candy displayed simple and elegant style.

We may have been seen as foreign barbarians, but it is nice to feel welcome to Japan.

Of course, none of that explains how a country steeped in style could produce something as kitschy as Hello Kitty.

29 april -- kobe, japan

Back on land, and time to visit edible land creatures.  Kobe, of course, is noted from heart-stopping beef.  Heart-stopping, not necessarily because of health reasons, but for its price.

But, when in Kobe -- you can fill in the rest.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

monty hall time

Let's make a deal.

This cruise has a lot of sea days scattered over the next two weeks.  Today was one of them.  And sea days do not lend themselves to very interesting essays.  Well, at least, thematic essays.

I can think of two major options for my writing dilemma.  I could dig back into my writer's trunk for cruise material that did not make it into a previous blog.  Or I could fall back on the grist of editors -- political observations that may be of interest to no one (but that are always guaranteed to increase internet hits).

The apparent dilemma is not really a dilemma.  It is a Hobson's choice.  Ergo, stuff from the trunk it will be.

And today that is not a problem.  Before I left Mexico, fellow blogger Don Cuevas over at My Mexico Kitchen sent me several culinary tips.  We had exchanged correspondence on our mutual love for Cantonese dim sum restaurants.

But Shanghai is not Canton.  The good Don came to the rescue.  Shanghai is well-known for its own version of steamed buns, or Baozi.

And it is a reputation well-earned.  Roy and I discovered that at a Chinese banquet hall near our hotel.  Bite of China. 

Yeah.  Yeah.  I know.  It sounds like the name of a Chinese restaurant somewhere in Puerto Vallarta.

It turns out Juliet was correct, though.  There is often not much in a name.  Especially that one.

Upon being seated, we were presented with a menu of at least forty pages with plenty of offerings in Chinese.  Fortunately, each entry included a photograph and a sometimes-eccentrically-translated English name.

We ate there twice -- each time with great results.  My last dinner was a rather unusual combination -- pork braised in a soy reduction with quail eggs.

But the best choices were in the back of the menu.  One of the recommended Baozi on Don Cueva's list was Xiaolongbao.  It was undoubtedly our favorite.

The dough was very thin compared to the other buns.  We knew we were going to get pork and crab as a filling.  What was surprising is that each dumpling was filled with a savory beef broth along with the expected filling. 

Both of us could have made a full meal out of them.  But we wanted to try others: shrimp, vegetable, chives.  They were all good.  But the dough on those buns was far thicker than the light covering on the Xiaolonbao.

Don Cueva had it right.  In China, buns it is.

28 april -- at sea

That "at sea" title is going to show up a lot on this cruise.

After all, it is a Transpacific cruse.  With plenty of sea days.  I will talk about them a bit more.

But this particular sea day is just between two different ports.  It will give me an opportunity to get to know as many of my fellow passengers as I can.

For we gregarious sorts, cruises are a great opportunity.  Our quarry have little place to hide.

Monday, April 27, 2015

orange you glad you came?

Here's the dilemma.

You are visiting a country for the first time -- and you have about seven hours to see as much as you can.  What do you do?

That is the problem with each new port stop on a cruise.  My usual answer is to choose one activity that sums up the port city, and then focus intensely on a small piece of the culture. 

Visiting the Matisse Museum in Nice last year is a perfect example.  But I had a problem with that method on this trip.  I had conducted no prior research on any of our stops.

The other answer is to sign up for one of the ship's bus tours.  That is what Roy and I did when we stopped at Jeju Island in Korea today.  It turned out to be a more strenuous tour than we had expected: nice portions of tour stops, but too much bus.

Cruise ship excursions all share one rather annoying characteristic.  They are like a Whitman's Sampler.  Lots of choices, and not all of them are chocolate-covered caramels.

I knew of Jeju island only from its reputation of housing political prisoners during the South Korea dictatorship days.  Otherwise, it was a mystery to me.

It turns out that the island has been a major player in Korea's history.  When the Mongols invaded Korea, it acted as a launch pad for two Mongol invasions of Japan.  Both of which collapsed when typhoons saved the land of the rising sun from the Khans.  But the Mongols did leave ponies behind -- some of whom end up on Korean restaurant platters these days.

No rice is grown here due to the island's shallow soil.  But it has long been a tangerine and orange producer.  The fruits were once so expensive that a small orchard could finance a child's university education.

The island is now a tourist destination -- with 300 daily flights in the summer months.  And most of the foreign visitors (about 70%) are from China.  Our guide made a small joke that the waves of Chinese visitors are far more pleasant than the ones that came from the north in the early 1950s.

Our small tourist invasion had three major stops -- a botanical garden, some coastal rock formations, and a temple.

The Yeomiji Botanical Garden was the high point of the tour for both Roy and me.  The curators have created a building with five greenhouses covering five distinctive types of plants and gardens.  Everything about it was aesthetically pleasing.  Including the structure itself that could have been built by Gustave Eiffel.

My favorite collection was the tropical fruit tree greenhouse.  I knew that the macadamia tree originally came from Australia.  But I had never seen the green husks that surround the nut's shell. 

The Jusang Jeollidae is a series of volcanic columns formed quickly when the magma from the volcano, that formed the island, interacted with the cool sea water.  They reminded me of the basalt columns in Northern Ireland and Cornwall.

We then visited the Yakchumsa Temple -- a very impressive complex of Buddhist buildings.  The size of the complex, with its intricate woodwork, was well worth the visit.

You can identify the temple as Korean by its roof line.  Japanese temple roof lines are flat; Chinese temples have upswept roofs; the Korean temples take an intermediate architectural road.  That is your comparative architectural lesson for the week.

The place looks ancient.  It isn't.  Construction started in 1988 (yes, 1988, that is not a typo) and was completed in 1996.  The place looks so clean and shiny, it could have been a exhibit at Disney World.  Even this painting inside the temple had a cartoonish look -- though no more so than some of the saint paintings I have seen in Mexican Catholic churches.

But even the cathedral at Chartres was once new.

By the time we left the temple, we were hungry.  Conveniently, we were bused to an incredibly fancy resort hotel for dinner.  And here it is.  The dinner, that is.

Actually, the main course is not there.  It was a beef dish highly flavored with garlic -- a perfect complement to one of my favorite Korean foods: kimchi (fermented spiced cabbage) that is there.

Was it the best Korean meal I have had?  No.  After all, it was hotel food.  But it was more than adequate to hold us for the hour-drive back to the ship.

The big question is: Would I return to Korea based on this experience?  Of course, I would.  This short visit has not satisfied my desire to know more of this ancient country.

But that will have to wait.  We are now on our way to Kobe, Japan.  After a bit of sea time.

27 april -- jeju island, korea

This will be the first stop of the cruise.

I have never been to Jeju.  In fact, I have never been a tourist in Korea.  I hope to have some interesting observations to share.  Maybe I already have.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

time will run

People who know Titanic are familiar with its clock -- an important symbol in that waterlogged piece of melodrama.

Well, our ship has a clock, too.  Several of them.  But I doubt Kate Winslet will be waiting underneath it.  Any of them.

So, what's my point?  Simple.  Today was one of those transitional travel days.  That also means that not much happened.

Our hotel is about an hour's drive from the port where we would meet up with the Celebrity Millennium.  And, since we did not need to be there early in the day, we decided to take a leisurely morning at breakfast -- and an even more luxurious drive in a Mercedes.  No teeming buses for us.

It turned out to be a great deal.  We arrived rested -- without the usual frazzle of cruise bus transfers (three words that can cause a traveler's blood pressure to peak).

Shanghai has one of the best cruise terminals I have visited.  It is beautiful -- and it appears to be quite efficient.  But, efficient it isn't.

After checking in, all of the passenger were forced to wait for an additional hour and 45 minutes for the Chinese authorities to open the security equipment and the immigration desks.  We looked like refugees -- the ones who are about to be sent back to their home countries.

Having recovered from that setback, the Chinese authorities kicked into high gear and turned us over to the good folks at Celebrity, who did a passable job of getting us into our cabins.

That gave Roy and me an opportunity to watch the boat traffic on the Yangtze.  If you wanted to make a film about the thousand boats launched by Helen's beauty.  You could not do better than shoot this water ballet.

One of the least favorite events of most passengers is the muster drill, where we learn what to do if our cruise ship starts going down.  Today's was no better or worse than the others I have witnessed.  However, I have noted that the cruise ship sinkings in Italy and Antarctica have ratcheted up the attention level.

Freshly reminded of how we should react in an emergency, we were off to what I could classify a rather mediocre dinner of French onion soup and roast pork.  Like the cruise port facilities, Celebrity's food seems to be mainly form without much substance.

But that was just one night.  No performance should be finally judged on one evening's offering.

The central staircase of the ship is a fitting symbol of how I view cruises.  Don't draw conclusions on the first step.  You can get the full view only after you have experienced it all.

We are now on our way to South Korea.  That will be my first tourist visit to this part of Korea.

I usually perform a lot of research before I come on these trips.  Not this one.  I thought a bit of spontaneity would spice up the series of essays coming your way.

We will find out together.

26 april -- on board

So long to Shanghai.  We should now be on the Celebrity Millennium on our way to our first port.

The only reason I bothered to post this -- and the following posts -- is to let you know where we are, in the very unlikely event that I cannot get online on the ship.  I started to say "get a speedy online connection," but I have been on enough ships to know that speed will not be the highest characteristic of available connections.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

not what it seems

He appeared to be nothing but a beggar.

Sitting in the shade with his requisite begging bowl and a walking stick to support his aging bones.  But Roy and I were convinced it was just a disguise.

He was undoubtedly really a wizard or a kung fu master -- just waiting for evil to cross his path before he threw aside his disguise and grabbed his wizard staff to battle those who do not deserve happy endings.

I could have used his services several times today.  After crowing that I had successfully stymied the forces of communist censorship, the empire struck back. 

My VPN simply refused to connect.  And without it, I was a naked liberty warrior just waiting to be picked off.

Then, a miracle occurred.  This evening, everything fell in place once again.  Then out of place.  And back in place.

So, here is a quick rundown of our day -- before everything shuts down again.

If yesterday was a day on the bus, today was a day on the water.  On a river cruise.

The Huangpu runs through the center of Shanghai creating the same relationship that New York City has with the Hudson, or New Orleans has with the Mississippi.  It defines the very heart of the city.

The river divides two quite distinct parts of the city: its colonial heritage represented by the European buildings of the Bund -- and its thriving financial center with its fantastical architecture on the other.

Roy and I took a cruise on the river this afternoon.  From that vantage, it is easy to see what Shanghai was, and what it is and what it is becoming.

China's odd economic system is out in the open in Shanghai.  The city hosts one of the Orient's largest stock exchanges.  The very essence of a capitalist system.  A fact that noticeably irritates some of my friends who would like to see China as the model of pure communism.

Of course, communism (or the Chinese Communist Party) now exists solely to monopolize political power -- broadly defined.  Economically the country is a bizarre mix of state control and the appearance of free market mechanisms.

When I was in college, we would refer to a system with those elements as being fascist.  But, as some of you recurringly remind me, I am prone to name-calling.  So, we will skip this one.  However, if a bird steps like a goose --.

As lovely as the city is during the day, it comes alive at night.  Roy and I went up to the roof of our hotel to witness one last night of how amazing this city is in the dark.

Admittedly, it is rather tacky -- in a Times Square sort of way.  It makes me wonder how Mao would react to such brashness.  I suspect his reconstructed body is spinning in that glass coffin in Beijing.

I will gladly return to Shanghai soon.  But not on this trip.

Tomorrow, we are boarding our ship where I can stop worry about wizards coming to my internet rescue.

We will talk to you next from there.

25 april -- shanghai

This will be our last full day in Shanghai.

Tomorrow morning, we will check out early in the morning to make our way to the dock to board the Celebrity Millennium.  And the second part of this trip will be under way.

Friday, April 24, 2015

the wheels on the bus

They are not the only things that go round and round.  So does my cursor icon when I try to breach the Great Chinese Firewall.

I am reading a new biography of George Washington by Robert Middlekauff.  It reminded me of how the American Revolution was a close run thing.  In fact, at the start, it looked like a lost cause.

My little venture in the cause of liberty here in China is turning out to be a mixed bag.  At times, I can pierce the wall -- as you can see from my recent comments.  But, just as often, the government forces win the battle, and I cannot get through to either to my email or these pages.

If this gets posted, rack up one point for Bunker Hill.

Today was a bus day.  It turns out that Shanghai has a hop-on, hop-off bus -- as do a bushel of other cities.  They are a great innovation. 

The driver chauffeurs you all over the city while an English commentary fills in the knowledge gaps.  And you can get off where you like, and resume the trip whenever you choose.

It is a great way to get a broad overview of a city.

That is what Roy and I did today -- for the full day.  We were both here two years ago.  It was great to get re-acquainted with what is turning out to be one of my favorite cities in the world.

My friend Lou Moodie has connections with China.  When he drove me to the airport, he asked me what my impression was of China based on my last visit. 

The answer was easy.  I was surprised how modern and wealthy the place was.  I didn't really expect to run into the Inn of the Sixth Happiness, but I was completely unprepared for how sleek both Beijing and Shanghai were.

Shanghai, of course, is the largest city in the world.  It has been a big place since the 1800s.  But its development into a world financial center in the 1990s created the city we see today.

Its wealth gives it a way to deal with its growing population.  Like a number of large cities, it has decided to grow upwards.  Its office towers are some of the tallest in the world -- and there are more to come.  Within a decade, Shanghai intends to double its office space.

And because people need places to live, the city is building an almost numbing number of apartment buildings.  Some of them quite luxurious for what the local commentators, in perfect Marxist-tongue-in-cheek style, refer to as "workers in the financial sector."

For the rest of the people, the digs are not quite as stunning.  But there are lots of them.

The down side of all this growth, as you would expect, is world class air pollution.  Shanghai's skyline is already exotic, but when the translucent air is added for effect, the place could easily be a set for Blade Runner.  (That is why today's batch of photographs look as if they had been processed through a bowl of split pea soup.  It is air that you sensually experience, not just see.)

We are staying in the old town section of Shanghai.  But there is not much old town left.  The area around the hotel has been leveled.  Looking as if World War Two had taken another pass through the city.

But some of the old feel is still there.  For instance, there are plenty of street vendors selling breakfast and lunch.

Old men still bring their caged birds to the park each morning -- a Huamei (a spectacled thrush), in this case.  And the birds can sing -- and do.  Their owners look on in pride as their birds perform.

And there are parks.  Lots of them.  The largest was created from Shanghai's infamous racetrack.  A smaller park near the hotel appears to be a hangout for Andrew Lloyd Webber hopefuls.

The hotel is near a tourist market -- Yu Park.  Most of it looks like a strip mall tarted up for an Indiana Jones film.  (The second in the series was partially shot in Shanghai.)  But there are also a handful of traditional merchants selling their wares.  And those wares are not too different from the snazzier shops.

And, of course, there are beautiful women. 

It seems as if all Chinese women in Shanghai take great pride in their appearance.  But this young women went even further.  You cannot see it, but she is wearing a white dress with hand-stiched embroidery.  Everything about her was a class act.

So, there you have it.  Steve and Roy's excellent adventure.  Day one.

If possible, more will follow.

24 april -- shanghai

Still in Shanghai.

Have you heard from me?  If not, I guess my little ruse did not work.

I'll bet I am having a good time, though.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

23 april -- shanghai

Even though, I have crossed the international dateline (a device that makes sense, as opposed to the not-so-useful daylight saving time), you will have already caught up with my day by the time you read this.  I will have made my way from the Shanghai International Airport (having joined up there with Roy) and have been comfortably ensconced in our digs at the Renaissance Shanghai Yu Garden.

I have no idea if my scheme to break through the Chinese anti-blog wall will work.  If it doesn't, this is all you will hear from me for three days.

Because China is still a totalitarian dictatorship, its people are not allowed access to blogs -- or other social media.  And neither am I.

If I break through the wall, we'll chat.  If not.  Well, this will be it.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

laughing in the peanut gallery

I love flying.

I think I took my first commercial flight in 1966 -- from Portland to Oklahoma City to look over a newly-opened university.  I chose not to attend.

But I did start a love affair with flying.  Even though I was 17, I remember wearing my best Sunday school suit with some sort of cutting edge tie.

The food was what airline food once was.  Nothing to write home about.  Unlike today where there is literally nothing to write home about.

What I did take home were tales of the thrill of takeoffs and landings, beautiful stewardesses, and the feeling of freedom to be soaring that high in the sky.  That flight and subsequent ones (along with the rush of the Army aviators in Tora, Tora, Tora fighting off the invading Zeroes) was enough to send me into the Air Force and flight training at Laredo in 1971.  And that gave birth to my affair with Mexico.

I thought about all of that today on my flights to Mexico City and Dallas.  Both were on Aeromexico.  If you have not flown on a Mexican airline recently, you are in for a great surprise.

The equipment is modern.  The interiors are kept spotless.  The flight attendants could moonlight in telenovelas.  And we were served the same type of box lunches you receive on first class Mexican buses.  (Not really very good.  But just like old-fashioned airline food.)  It is almost like joining James Darren in The Time Tunnel.

There was an added bonus.  The economy class seats were in a two and two configuration.  And, as luck would have it, this is who sat next to me.

No one.  It was like winning the travel lottery.  I could stretch out or use the empty seat as a desk.  I did both.

What jolted me into this reverie is pictured at the top of this essay.  The flight attendant handed me a bag of peanuts.  Peanuts.  And no one became hysterical that someone three flights later might touch a tray table, get dizzy, and sue the airline into bankruptcy.

Because we are in Mexico.  People actually take responsibility for their own well-being -- and very few people are searching for the next permutation of victimhood.  That is only one reason I love it there.

I say "there" because I am now in Dallas on an overnight lay-over for an early morning flight to Shanghai.  Rather than stay downtown, I decided to conserve my travel time in the morning by booking into the Hyatt at the airport.  The sound of flights coming and going will be my white noise.

Here is my room.

Not much character.  I could just as easily be in a business hotel in Kenya -- or Singapore.

But the hotel knows its customer service.  While signing in, the clerk handed me a bottle of cold water.  Just what I needed after the brief trek to the hotel.

And the bed?  Perfect.  I usually do not sleep well until I have slept in the same bed for at least three days.  I suspect tonight (because I am writing this just before I go to bed) will be one of those exceptions.

With a sixteen hour flight in front of me, I can use the rest.

My next essay should come from Shanghai.  We will see if Steve's freedom machine works -- or if the leaders of the police state manage to keep me from talking with you liberty-loving folk.

If nothing else, you should hear from me when I board the ship on Sunday.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

nor any drop to drink

Coleridge may have had it correct.  There is water everywhere, but not a drop to drink.

At least, that is the impression I left with my multiple essays on water at my house.  You heard about well water.  Water filters.  A missing water tank.  And a fussy solar water heater.

But nowhere did I mention my most important water.  The stuff I use for drinking and for cooking.

It does not come piped in from the city or sucked up from my well.  Like almost all of my neighbors, my drinking water either arrives by truck -- or I pick it up at the store.

The Mexican government claims that over 80% of the water in Mexico is potable, and that most people are wasting money by buying bottled water.  I am willing to bet that the government spokesman who said that has a water dispenser at home (and behind his desk) not dissimilar to the one in my kitchen.

That is it posing at the top of this essay.  At the moment, it appears to be queuing up for open auditions for The Wizard of Oz.

I live in a hot climate.  When I am around the place full time, I usually empty one or two of these five-gallon (approximately) garrafons in a week.

One thing that has changed is the price of bottled water.  When I arrived (almost exactly six years ago), a bottle off the truck was 10 pesos.  Within a couple of months, it had climbed to 12 pesos.

I now buy my water at one of the local convenience markets (only because I never seem to be at the house when the water truck drives by).  Today's price was 23 pesos (about $1.50 (US)).  Not bad.  But it has been a steady increase in price.

My neighbors often mention how food prices have climbed over the past few years.  Other than the water, I must confess I have not really noticed.  But I hear northern tourists making the same comments.

And the politicians are talking up that point in this year's elections here.  It seems to be only secondary to universal calls for the elimination of corruption -- something every Mexican politician promises, but is rather lax in implementing.

Well, I cannot vote.  And there is little I can do about water prices -- other than pay the ante.

Overall, I think I prefer paying what I do here for food than paying what my family in Bend pays.  But that will soon be changing for them.

Note -- If all has gone well, I will be on my way to Dallas by the time you read this.  Thanks to all of you have have wished me a good trip.

Monday, April 20, 2015

assuming the exit position

Last night, I pulled out my suitcases to start sorting out what I want to take on my trip across the Pacific.  There is plenty of time for that.  My flight does not leave until Tuesday morning.

But I thought you might like to see where I will be for the next few weeks.  This is the cruise itinerary.

26 Apr -- Shanghai, China
27 Apr -- Jeju Island, Korea
28 Apr -- at sea
29 Apr -- Kobe, Japan
30 Apr -- Shizmizu, Japan
1 May -- Yokohama, Japan
2 May -- at sea
3 May -- at sea
4 May -- at sea
5 May -- Petropavlovsk, Russia
6 May -- at sea
7 May -- at sea
8 May -- at sea
9 May -- at sea
10 May -- at sea
11 May -- at sea
12 May -- Vancouver, Canada

If you think those are a lot of "at sea" days, don't worry about me.  They are my favorite days on a cruise ship.

But, before the cruise, we will have three days in Shanghai.  I want to thank all of you who have been sending suggestions (especially, food suggestions).  Shanghai has turned out to be one of my favorite cities.

Having said that, there is still one more day of getting the house in order before I leave.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

slipping across the border

Today was a big anniversary -- and it almost slipped my mind.

On 15 April 2009, a recent-retired Steve climbed into what would become known as the Shiftless Escape -- along with his brother Darrel and his faithful sidekick Professor Jiggs.  It was a small cast, but this road trip situation comedy was long on storyline.

Four days later, they crossed into Mexico at Lukeville (high dawn in yuma) and the show has now run for six years -- just slipping into its seventh season.

It has been a great run.  One without regrets.  Because regrets get you nowhere.  What has happened has happened. 

And that is one thing Mexico has taught me.  The only moment over which we have any influence is the one we are living right now.  The trick is to choose wisely.

Six years ago, I did.

Happy anniversary, Steve and Mexico.

donning my holy garments

Yeah.  Yeah.  I know.

I forgot a letter in that third word.  Let's just call it a vowel movement.

The hole in question now resides in the front of one of my favorite cotton shirts.  And, in that, lies a tale.  Not much of one, though.

In August of 2013, I was in Miami for two weeks.  Amongst other purchases, I bought a Sony camera and some clothes.

The clothes purchase was every bit as important as the new camera.  Finding quality shirts in my size in Mexico has turned out to be something of a problem.  And that has surprised me.  My Mexican neighbors seem to find appropriate shirts for daily wear.

And I am not very fussy with what I choose to wear.  Anyone who has ever met me will affidavit that assertion.

All I need are cotton shirts that button up the front and are light enough to wear in the beach heat.  A rather simple list of requirements.

Almost all of the shirts in the local stores are either polyester or a poly-cotton mix -- and too thick for comfort.

I thought Miami would offer plenty of stores with light cotton shirts.  There were some.  But not many.

My friend Nancy, Roy's wife, found a Perry Ellis short-sleeve plaid shirt at Neiman Marcus -- I think.  I complemented it with another plaid shirt from a fishing store.  With my two acquisitions, I was on my way back to Mexico.

The fishing shirt is still doing yeoman duty.  But the Perry Ellis is about to sleep with the fishes.  And that is too bad.  It served me well through two summers here.

Unfortunately, its light weight is what did it in.  A couple of months ago, I noticed the cloth was getting thin around the arm holes.  My friend Wynn patched and re-enforced it.

Then, yesterday morning, while buttoning it, I stuck a finger right through the cloth.  You can see why.  As Gertrude Stein might have said (and did): "There is no there there."  The cloth is somewhere between translucent and transparent.

I know the reason.  My laundress is rather rough on my clothes.  Of course, getting one wear out of a shirt before it needs laundering does tend to shorten its life.  I suspect the dead shirt was washed in excess of 100 times.

So, on my trip through China, Korea (the free one), Japan, and Russia, I will keep my eyes open for a replacement.  Too bad Hong Kong is not on the docket.  I could easily resurrect the shirt in several copies.


This is really a separate topic, but I wanted to share it with you.

While floating in the pool continuing my slog through Jorge Castañeda's Utopia Unarmed: The Latin American Left After the Cold War, I heard some commotion from the communication tower in the lot next door.

This is what I saw.  Well, it is what I saw through the viewfinder of my camera.

Four workers performing maintenance on the Eiffel Tower.  In this case, it appears they are adjusting one of the cellular antennas.
Because this type of work fascinates me, they provided me with a full afternoon of entertainment -- whenever my mind wandered from Castañeda's prose.  (Don't get me wrong.  The book is valuable, in that Castañeda provides a robust framework for analyzing the Latin American left in the 1990s.  It is just a bit turgid.)

I mention the camera only to note the guys are zoomed in to let you see them.  This is actually the view from the pool.

I so want to climb up there.